Alter Egos: On “A Woman Escapes”

Alter Egos: On A Woman Escapes 

By Josh Cabrita

The first thing one is liable to notice while watching A Woman Escapes, a feature-length collaboration between Sofia Bohdanowicz, Burak Çevik, and Blake Williams, is that the film comprises three image formats: 16mm, 3D, and 4K. The second is that each format roughly corresponds to the contribution of one of the co-directors. In her shorts and features, Bohdanowicz utilizes a handmade style that has come to be associated with 16mm formats; Toronto-based experimental filmmaker (and contributor to this very magazine) Williams is, next to Ken Jacobs, arguably the foremost proponent of 3D in an experimental film context; and Çevik, the Turkish director of Belonging (2019), here assumes responsibility for the 4K. 

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to three main characters, Blake, Burak and Audrey (the latter played by Deragh Campbell, Bohdanowicz’s frequent performative surrogate), through a series of video correspondences that the co-director’s onscreen alter egos exchange with each other. All of these figures appear (or are heard) in the space of images we would associate with the respective practices of Williams, Çevik, and Bohdanowicz. Consequently, there seems to be an intrinsic bond between the form of a given contributor and the appearance of a particular format or figure. In these early stages, it is easy enough to cut across all of these levels when attempting to attribute entire sequences to one co-director or another. 

Had Bohdanowicz, Çevik, and Williams continued to use the traditional markers of their style to clearly delineate their separate contributions, there would be little distinguishing A Woman Escapes from an average omnibus, in which the linkages between sections are mostly arbitrary and the contributions of different directors function as standalone works. Thankfully, there’s more to A Woman Escapes than that. As the film progresses, the transitions between the co-directors’ contributions take on significance, and the question arises as to how all three styles can coexist within a shared space of interaction. 

One potential answer is to have a single representational mode “frame” the others. Bohdanowicz’s style, which is by far the most concrete of the three, seems like the obvious candidate to play the mediating role. If we treat Williams’ and Çevik’s contributions as contained inside Bohdanowicz’s stylistic framework, A Woman Escapes could be said to tell the story of Audrey, a thirty-something Canadian who comes to stay in Paris for a month after the death of her friend Julianne (the main subject in Bohdanowicz’s Maison du bonheur [2017]). While living in Julianne’s old apartment, Audrey exchanges video messages with two filmmaker friends, Blake and Burak, but is unable to conjure much creativity herself. Instead of producing original work, Audrey lifts verbal citations from Robert Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956) and manipulates the videos that her friends have already sent to her. Eventually, Blake confronts her about this practice and accuses her of “stealing other people’s words.”

It might seem obvious that Blake rebukes Audrey for not citing her sources. But Blake does this very thing throughout A Woman Escapes (as when he recreates Anthony McCall’s Light Describing a Cone [1973]), and so does Burak. So the problem is not just that Audrey takes other people’s words and images and passes them off as her own. Thatsort of appropriation still demands to be understood within the dramatic context established by the “Audrey” frame, whereas Blake’s remark addresses the organizational structure of A Woman Escapes as a whole. If Audrey (or the mode she stands in for) is a thief from Blake’s perspective, then, it’s because she continually reifies both his and Burak’s images to a continuum that she alone imposes. Whatever power Williams’ phantasmagoric montage and Çevik’s disjunctive plays with image and sound usually have to disrupt our ordinary sense of space-time, these ruptures are made relative to the month-long timeline of the Audrey narrative—a timeline that is itself made unequivocal by the recurring use of title cards.  

Festival reviewers who labelled A Woman Escapes an “Audrey movie”—that is, a continuation of the autobiographical series that Bohdanowicz has explored across four other works—have read the film almost entirely in this way, assuming that its narrative-driven sections provide the overarching relational structure that makes its other individual passages intelligible. But suppose we stop giving primacy to the “Audrey” frame and grant equal credence to the other two paradigms. The trouble then becomes to coherently unify stylistic modes that otherwise exclude each other. What could link these three representational systems together if adopting the parameters of one prevents the possibility of using devices endemic to another? Is there a way out of this bind without having recourse to the arbitrariness of the omnibus or the flattening-out of the framing device? Can there be an organizational pattern that allows all the modes to exist in the confines of a single work while still encouraging genuine experimentation between them? 

A Woman Escapes navigates these problems in a genuinely ingenious way. Rather than trying to find a structure that could unite all the modes together under one banner, the co-directors allow their contributions to open directly onto each other. For this aesthetic strategy to work, the transitions between the film’s discrete sections cannot belong to one mode or another (since that would create another frame) but must instead be irreducible to the images they divide and separate. A particularly striking use of these interstices appears throughout a sequence that alternates between a shot of Audrey waiting for her laundry and an image of a seaside vista in Turkey. Initially, these transitions are given explicit motivation through Audrey’s laptop, which appears cropped at the bottom of the screen, but as the scene wears on, and the contrapuntal rhythm between the images becomes more intense, the interval detaches itself from either mode and begins to stand for itself.

What this means, in other words, is that no single stylistic dimension can be taken as “framing” the film as a whole. No one mode is responsible for the film’s structuring cuts. In practical terms, this means that Bohdanowicz, Çevik, and Williams are all obliged to work with techniques and materials associated with another collaborator while still retaining the fundamental integrity of their respective practices. The primary pleasure offered by A Woman Escapes is seeing how these exchanges push each co-director (or, rather, the style we would associate with them) out of their comfort zone, compelling them to respond, adapt, and eventually evolve in ways that would have been difficult to imagine without the benefit of this experiment.

One of the film’s more memorable instances of a stylistic mode adopting a trait of another comes courtesy of Çevik, whose Belonging relied upon a disjunction between highly charged narration and empty, subdued imagery. In that earlier film, Çevik wouldn’t do anything to produce a visual jolt, since that would risk giving his metaphorical presentation a dramatic context. And yet here, in an entirely wordless sequence, he has a tube television come crashing down from an apartment overhead, its screen smashing into tiny shards. Why does he do this? Because the best way he knows to recreate the affective punch of Williams’ televisual abstractions is to literally send one of those devices overboard.

A slightly less aggressive stylistic adaptation involves Bohdanowicz’s integration of 3D and Williams’ use of voiceover narration, a device that would have been pretty well unimaginable in his short films and solo feature PROTOTYPE (2017). The problem Williams faces in assimilating the sort of narration found in Bohdanowicz’s work is almost the opposite confronted by Bohdanowicz in appropriating Williams’ imagery. For Williams, words pose a challenge because they have a tendency to reify to the person speaking them; whereas for Bohdanowicz, Williams’ images are problematic because they tend to operate below the level of consciousness and resist being attached to any subjectivity. In two particular instances, while working with each others’ materials, Williams and Bohdanowicz (or what I’m associating with their modes) devise different techniques to retain the basic parameters of their own working methods—he by putting his narration into the “future unreal” tense, which describes imaginary events that haven’t happened yet; and she by asserting “I never appear, but all I see is me there,” which reframes Williams’ image as one of Audrey’s personal memories.

All of the reverberations that pass between the modes in A Woman Escapes are ultimately what hold the whole project together. They don’t function like the transitions in an omnibus, because they bring the co-directors’ contributions into a shared space of interaction, forcing each of them to adapt their style to that of another collaborator. Yet they also don’t work like the “frame,” because they unify the work without privileging a single kind of structure. If the three styles did not each have their own individual (and reciprocally incompatible) means of achieving similar effects, but were instead capable of representing the same things in precisely the same ways, then there would be no lines of experimentation between them. The fact that Bohdanowicz, Çevik, and Williams’ formal frameworks do not synthesize into a higher one does not suggest a failure of their imaginations; it is, rather, the very condition of their creativity.