In the latest installment of Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales, writer-director Mati Diop takes a Hopper-esque approach to the camera in her newest short film, where living spaces become stages and windows become portals⸺ or peepholes, depending on your perspective⸺ into the lives of city folk under quarantine. A fitting ode to life as we now know it, In My Room presents a story that is both difficult to swallow and ignore, pivoting on a series of recordings of Diop’s deceased grandmother that consumes with creeping, haunting, mortal hunger.
But before that: 1942. A painting, oil on canvas, enters the American consciousness, soon to be heralded as one of the ‘most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic images of American loneliness’. Edward Hopper’s seminal Nighthawks bears no evident exit. We’ve all heard that before. There is no way out of that diner. But why do we care in the first place? What does it mean to have no exit?
Diop’s grandmother, Maji, is sensitive and spirited. She speaks of life with the kind of coolness that comes with time, and music with a palpable tremor, something rattling in her throat at the mere mention of the Opera. When she appears on screen through pictures, her hair is clipped short or blown out, and she’s smoking a cigarette. The film progresses. She becomes erratic and spiteful. There’s a reason for this: Maji is losing her memory. She begins to suffer the death of the mind before the death of the body, of which there is no cure. “It’s hard to die alone,” she confesses. It is not the kind of thing that goes down easy. Her caretaker reminds her of all the ways she is not alone, how life surrounds her in every breath, but this is no case of hyperbole, rather, it’s one of semantics.
In her book The Lonely City, author Olivia Laing states, “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.” Years after her grandmother’s recordings, in her own Paris studio, Diop performs the humdrum of life, takes selfies, and lip-syncs La Traviata in Miu Miu. In the buildings outside her window, tenants do more or less the same. The dichotomy between alone and solitary becomes ever more apparent: the former is avoided while the latter is preferred. One befallen and the other bestowed. Regardless of the causal and circumstantial differences, cities exacerbate loneliness by teasing a closeness between bodies that may not exist between souls and minds. It’s no wonder that Maji felt the way she did, or that others feel the way they do now.
In perspective drawing, a vanishing point describes the place at which parallel lines disappear at the site of their convergence, distinctiveness scrubbed away like a camera gone out of focus. Here, everything blurs into everything else, maintaining only a vague semblance of what is. Look up the word vanish and in doing so, you’ve unearthed its connection to death, that etymologically it comes from the Latin evanescere, meaning “die away.” In aviation, the Point of No Return signifies an aircraft’s inability to go back to its starting point due to a lack of fuel. In Hopper’s Nighthawks, there is no way out of the diner.
A capitalist, consumerist society like ours requires constant movement, whether to keep the farce of its functionality intact or to attain the currency essential to survive within it. For some of us, work creates a distraction from the internal, a practice that mimics a flight response, or, in other words, an exit. Though the call to be present has gotten increasingly louder as of late, this exercise in particular demands the participant be open to the possibility of Nighthawkism⸺ that there may be no way out or around a difficult situation. So what does it really mean to have no exit? Like most things, it’s a matter of perspective: are you truly as trapped as you seem?
Hopper refuted the idea that his painting epitomized loneliness’ abiding nature, instead likening his work to the possibility of predators. What of the individuals inside the diner then? Are they safe from the danger of vanishing, or does it lurk amongst them? Who is the predator and who is the prey? Even with an exit, these questions linger, though the terrain expands into the wider world itself: as the predator is free to come and go as they choose, there will be (an)other site(s) of violence. Ergo, the presence of doorways presents a promise or promising illusion of choice of which outcomes may or may never arise. If Maji had spent more of her life enjoying the finer things, would there have been any note of anguish tucked in the cadence of her voice in the twilight of her time? Or would the fulfillment of these desires make it harder to accept their ephemerality? Questions such as these aren’t intended to stoke nihilism (and if it does, may it never be the frightful kind) but provoke mystery and nuance. Some things are more engaging in shades of grey, others better left not knowing their colours at all.
A minor consolation: vanishing is not so immediate as it seems. We ceaselessly unearth the past in an attempt at making sense of the present; spin gold for the future out of the very filth that accumulates between histories. Hopper’s ghost is still being invoked after all these years since his passing. And Maji’s spirit lives on⸺ in memory, in cinema and La Traviata. Art is long, after all.
In My Room is available now on Mubi.