London

Orla Barry

Camden Arts Centre

According to the catalogue accompanying the show (now at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin), Orla Barry’s Portable Stones, 2005, indicates “the limits that apply to putting any flow of ideas into words. The impossibility of language and communication plays an important part in the film. Language as an obstacle that creates distance and can result in loneliness.” The inherent contradiction in such assertions of language’s inadequacy is that they are themselves made with language. Language can’t accomplish its own disappearance, but it can eloquently gesture toward the inner wordlessness—the numbing loss of interior dialogue—that characterizes despair. Portable Stones achieves this, at times with piercing effectiveness.

The film loosely interweaves several elliptical narratives. Its opening sequences show a young woman leaving her urban apartment and traveling to a semiderelict, concrete gray cemetery at the nameless city’s edge. Here she sets up a tent, cycles round the necropolitan “streets,” explores graves by flashlight, and prepares for sleep. Intercutting this is a fable that might or might not be her fantasy: A male first-person voice-over and accompanying images tell of a man living in solitude on an island, estranged from his two grimly silent brothers and the parent who has schooled them in muteness. “My mother told me words created trouble and lies. . . . Never let words express your deepest thoughts, she said, it wouldn’t be fair on your brothers. Never show off with your tongue, and never make words with your mouth,” he says. The brothers are shown traveling to the exile’s shack, carrying dead animals as gifts—chopping, stewing, and eating rabbit flesh. The three men’s subsistence diet parallels their language-less state. They feed rather than eat, exist rather than live. Earlier, their fierce expressions are studied in close-up as they fling stones at plastic bottles. Their arms flick briefly across their faces: The tight framing of the gesture lends it a startlingly aggressive yet mechanical quality.

In another story-within-a-story, the islander is revealed to have either encountered or invented a companion, a woman who has emerged from the sea. However, his isolation cannot be penetrated; repelled by his inexpressive nature she flees back into the water. Formally speaking, this character is the graveyard girl’s inverse complement, in that she is invisible, existing only via a female voice-over and the islander’s description. Devices such as this support the film’s supple, deceptively spontaneous-sounding script with a network of interlocking formal details. The sound track strategically develops the theme of closeness and distance: While the performers occupy a beautiful and seemingly unreal visual domain, the film’s sound effects (an egg being peeled, meat being eaten, etc.) have been close-miked to sound extremely, even invasively intimate. Barry’s key performers have intense telegenic presence. The brothers seem able to “project” muteness the way stage actors project their voices. An optimistic figure, the graveyard girl has unusual mole-sprinkled skin that makes her seem the bearer of a visible but indecipherable code, a language existing for the sake of semiotic beauty alone.

Midway through the film, a toddler performs a monologue whose sense is discernibly too sophisticated for someone her age. “I am so lucky . . . / not to understand everything / I am still trying / to grasp meaning,” she pronounces, sharing her vocal experiment as a good thing in itself. Language does much more than “convey thoughts,” and the idea of “language’s failure to represent inner states” is a misleading cliché. Portable Stones’s silent brothers indicate the absence of language in its multifariousness. Lacking language, they are altogether dispossessed of “inner states”: disturbing ciphers in a piece that plumbs bleak depths.

Rachel Withers