Train of Shadows

English Title: Train of Shadows

Original Title: Tren de sombras: El espectro de Le Thuit

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Films 59, Grupo Cine Arte, Institut del Cinema Català (ICC).

Director: José Luis Guerín

Producer(s): Joan Antoni González, Héctor Fáver, Rubén Guillem, Pere Portabella

Cinematographer: Tomàs Pladevall

Editor: Manel Almiñana

Runtime: 88 minutes

Genre: Experimental Documentary

Language: Spanish

Year: 1997

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

Train of Shadows surprises the viewer with a ‘revisiting’ of (found) footage of a silent home movie shot in the upper Normandy region of France in the 1930s. Guerín immerses the viewers in a nostalgic black-and-white (silent) world only to suddenly throw them into colour and staged recreations. Train of Shadows presents a palimpsest that inspires us to contemplate the fragile nature of the cinematic image (even as we later learn that the supposedly found footage has been painstakingly designed by the director himself). This complex film is at once rigorous, poetic, opaque, audacious, and thought-provoking.

The frame story of Train of Shadows can be mentioned in passing although it is far from the most important part of this remarkable film. Apparently, a Parisian attorney, Gérard Fleury, died seventy years earlier, leaving several reels of a home movie, shot during the summer of 1930, which were found later. We are informed that what we will view is the restored and re-edited footage by this amateur film-maker.
Despite the specificities of an earlier historical period and class distinctions, there is something oddly familiar about what we see unfolding before our eyes in the ‘found footage’ that shows kids splashing in a makeshift pool and adults mugging for the camera. Train of Shadows is also full of playful citations: from the very early Lumière film L'arroseur arrosé/The Gardener Gets Watered (1895); Truffaut’s Les mistons/The Brats (1957) (the girl on a bicycle, the tennis match); Renoir’s Partie de campagne/A Day in the Country (1937) (the girl on a swing); Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953) (the girl’s hand in the mouth of the gorgon); Hitchcocks’s Vertigo (the large tree trunks like sequoiahs); the films of Ozu (laundry hanging); the films of Mizoguchi (the low rowboat on the lake); and perhaps early Antonioni (the street sweeper). And one could even imagine Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) (car lights racing towards us) and Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) (shooting up toward the light through the leaves).
Just as we have adjusted to the silence of the black/white film, suddenly we are thrown into the present, in colour and with radios blaring and the sound of cars passing by – a vague tapestry of sounds. A clock ticks in a poignant montage of empty rooms – rooms we had earlier seen full of life. Train of Shadows offers a rich repast of silences which are full of the promise of voices. In fact, if we were to watch the film and try to recall it a week later, we might even remember that we had heard many voices throughout!  Through his use of freeze frames, detailed close-ups, slow motion, textured images, and reframing, Guerín reminds us of the fleeting, and yet resilient, nature of the moving image. In his own writing, the director refers to this as ‘dialogue with History.’
Another experimental, nonlinear technique Guerín uses in Train of Shadows is the juxtaposition of two different filmstrips to create a new mix of relationships, with characters looking at or past each other. To underline the overlap of the past and the present, Guerín shows us the family in the car waving goodbye over and over. A later split-screen effect shows the young girl and the older woman, offering us a glimpse into the future. In fact, at this point, an actual story seems to be happening: a love triangle involving jealousy and spying from behind trees. In these ways, Guerín’s film (which comes at the centenary of the birth of the cinema) nods towards the genres that have made up the first hundred years of that art form (melodrama, the detective film, Hitchcock’s poetic horror mode, and so on). It invites us to contemplate the traces the moving image has left on society over the past century.
Train of Shadows ends with a long take of the same present-day street we had seen before but now we realize that, at its far end, a river is flowing constantly. We suddenly realize that what we have experienced over the past 80+ minutes are characters without recorded voices, yet personages whose inner worlds are revealed through posture, spontaneous gestures, inward gazing, and the pace of their strides.  Moving images, photographs, silence (and sometimes sound), landscapes, pensive thoughts, destruction, and restoration all interact, but no one layer ever takes precedence for long.

Author of this review: Linda Ehrlich