Manon de Boer: Resonating Surfaces—A Trilogy, part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Live Cinema series, presents videos in which imperfect memories form the basis for three idiosyncratic biographies. The Brussels-based, India-born de Boer digs deep by going wide: Pairing sweeping urban panoramas with intimate voiceovers, she reconfigures the typical relationship between subject, language and image, challenging the conventions of documentary filmmaking while crafting highly poetic portraits of three creative women.
Sylvia Kristel-Paris (2003) features the Dutch star of the 1974 softcore French cult classic, Emmanuelle. As Kristel reminisces about her acting career, her various romances and her two marriages, we hear only her voice. The camera pointedly avoids her well-known body. Instead, de Boer films the surfaces of Paris. As if aware of the camera’s superficial sweep, Kristel reflects: “My stories always seem to lack depth ... from one guy to another, from film to film.”
Although set in Sao Paulo, Resonating Surfaces (2005) also situates Paris as the site of a sexual and intellectual awakening. The video revolves around the memories of Suely Rolnik, a radical dissident who fled to Paris, where she fell in love with philosopher Gilles Deleuze. He was breaking new ground in post-structural theory; she was struggling to address the trauma she’d experienced in Brazil. Deleuze suggested she research the death cries of female characters in two Austrian operas as a way of working indirectly through her own pain. The film opens with these soaring arias, and by the end, the timbre of Rolnik’s narrating voice has effectively replaced them.
If the first two films form a pair, then Think About Wood, Think About Metal (2011), starring avant-garde percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, is a bit of an interloper. It’s in English, while the other two are in French; it features tight, interior shots, whereas the other two favor vast cityscapes, and Schulkowsky’s bright American voice keeps her love affairs to herself.
And yet, the intimacy achieved through the confessional tone of Sylvia Kristel and Resonating Surfaces is transmuted here through Schulkowsky’s body. De Boer gives us a close-up of Schulkowsky’s fingers drumming a piece of metal. We see every quiver and caress as she coaxes unlikely objects to sing through a flurry of feathery taps. Like sign language to the uninitiated, it’s a dazzling physical feat, pregnant with secret meaning.
Indeed, just as both Kristel’s and Rolnik’s French is laced with the slightest hint of a foreign accent, Schulkowsky’s English is rendered strange by the alien staccato of her homemade instruments. In this way, the trilogy explores not only the surface of things, but also how things surface—how languages, landscapes and noises not native to us may nevertheless become indivisible from who we are, and how once they’ve taken root, each continues to keen in its own particular pitch.
Through May 5. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Ben Franklin Pkwy. 215.763.8100. philamuseum.org; Conversation with Manon de Boer, Fri., Feb. 8, 6:30pm, Van Pelt Auditorium; Performance by Robyn Schulkowsky, Sat., Feb. 9, 2pm, Skylit Atrium, Perelman Building.