Monday, April 06, 2009

risponditemi natasha

Some time in the last week or so, the Globe and Mail created a strange but moving hybrid video of both the audio of the 911 calls surrounding Natasha's injury, with the photographs of her funeral. This paper seems to have ridden a particular wave of journalistic success on this story, which they are proud to tell you. An editor missed the obvious error of two hospitals both being exactly 88 km from the place of origin. (Mont Tremblant to Sainte-Agathe is actually only 40 km). Watching this odd narrative "film" made out of a newsmedia story took me to a new place of consideration in my obsession (which alas continues unabated).

I found myself suddenly thinking of the Montreal omnibus film, Montreal vu par...., six meditations on Montreal by Canadian filmmakers. One of these is called Risponditemi, by Lea Pool. This hauntingly beautiful short film takes place in an ambulance as a woman is transported from a car crash site to a hospital. During the ride, in her semi-conscious state, she relives her own life in flashes and pieces. Simultaneously we see the skyline of Montreal in a blue-black early dawnish light running over her head, as if the roof of the ambulance had been removed and this was the woman's point of view.

In that film, sound and image recount small bits of emotionally saturated memory, being drawn from a body and soul in crisis, as it tumbles into death or tries to knit itself back into recovery. The voices of the perimedics, working in both English and French, run in the background of the images, and overtop the ambulance footage itself.


Natasha Richardson spoke fluent French. She attended the Lycee Francais in London as a young woman. In The Parent Trap, there is a scene in which she is on the phone speaking with a Parisian client in French that is not only flawless, but which is a brilliant imitation of the sound of Parisian women. I have no doubt in my mind that Natasha was speaking French wherever she could in Mont Tremblant. But did she understand the French she heard? The 911 tapes are filled with Quebecois accents not easy for an unseasoned ear, even a fluent one. In the ride from Mont Tremblant to the first hospital in Sainte Agathe, the medic tells the hospital that she is "verbal", responding to questions, but unable to answer them. I find myself stuck on this. Was she unable to respond because she did not know? or because she was trying to say it in French? (Even semi-conscious, the mind makes strange choices.) They likely spoke to her in English, but there would have been strong accents. Is there a difference between 'verbal' but disoriented, and 'unable' to say something? If she could speak at all, what might she have said, or wanted to say? Her vital signs at that point were still strongly within life's grasp. It was her brain that was slipping.


In Rispondetemi, the noise of the inside of the ambulance is contrasted with the eery quiet and calm of the passing city. There are no faces there, no signs of life, only buidings and light and silence. The injured woman appears to "hear" that silence, even from deep within her own unconsciousness, her own reverie. The ghosts of memory are invested in their own time and space, listless and in limbo, impossible to sever from the experience, even while the body is in deep crisis. Is this the moment when the soul and a body are parted? Through the dreams? Through memory?


An hour and a half after Natasha arrived at Sainte-Agathe, she was back in an ambulance en route to Sacre-Coeur in Montreal. Let's be blunt. From 5:55 pm to 6:38 pm on Monday, March 16, she was submitting to the loss of her brain life. Sirens were on, lights were flashing. The ambulance reached 138 km per hour. (Not particularly fast for an emergency vehicle when you stop and think about it.) A race was on that had already been lost. The rest of the story, its timing, its truths, is known only to the family, which is as it should be.


Lea Pool is one of Canada's very best filmmakers. Her intuitive and emotionally poetic lens is one of the finest personal visual styles I have ever seen or known in the cinema. In the same sextet of short films with Risponditemi, there was another film, by Atom Egoyan. Atom, much better known to film audiences, is also an exceptional Canadian filmmaker. He was making his film Chloe, starring Liam Neeson, when Natasha fell. I don't know where Liam joined Natasha's journey, whether he made it to Sainte-Agathe or was only at Sacre-Coeur. Perhaps he was in the ambulance from 5:55 to 6:38. Most certainly he spent most of the next day in the Montreal hospital, before flying his wife to New York city. That day was St. Patrick's day, by the way, not a small day for an Irishman in normal times.

It is strange when the obsession of one's psyche crosses paths with the imaginative world of one's own private cinematic cache. I have taught Risponditemi. I have given it to students and clients and colleagues. It is for me a brilliant short film, which captures with very little spoken word an emotional truthfulness of what it means to be a body and soul on the edge of life, on the edge of death. At the end of Pool's film, the ambulance arrives at the Montreal hospital and a medic is heard to say, in French, "she's going to be okay". 'Risponditemi' is Italian. it means "reply to me". Reply. Be more than verbal. Be alive.
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