It’s a commonplace that the cinema struggles to translate the scope and nuances of great literature. Conversely, fiction often fails to capture the joys and texture of the film experience. There are exceptions to both rules, of course, and Beatrice Hitchman’s Paris-set debut aspires to the latter form of bilinguality; to commute the strange pleasures of early cinema to the printed page.
The simplest but least effective way to go about this involves a lot of research and an evangelist’s joy in sharing knowledge. These pages are littered with Max Linder postcards, asides on the intricacy of in-camera editing and the (re)invention of the Latham Loop – but there’s more to Petite Mort than that. The geek in me delighted in this scene-setting, notably the flies swarming around the studio, but Petite Mort is most cinematic when it dispenses with the history lessons.
Hitchman’s classy prose reveals not just a film lover’s appreciation for the pictorial, but a photographic appreciation for the texture of light: “slanted light”, or “light that moves like treacle”. Naturally enough, Hitchman’s silences are also tangible. In one scene, a painful pause between two lovers transmutes a cinematic trope of romance into something far more disturbing: “The silence runs down from their joined hands and over them and spreads out over the carpet, blending with the sunset, which is unexpectedly fiery and distinct. They sit like statuary of a king and a queen, saying nothing to each other. Eventually the silence fills the whole house.”
Petite Mort takes place in two distinct golden ages of French cinema. And these reels are clipped, cut up and spliced together in a way that immediately betrays the author’s experience as a film editor. In 1967 a journalist called Juliette investigates the rediscovery of a film from 1913; while in the earlier part of the century, country girl Adèle moves to Paris, finds work at Pathé and becomes romantically and fatally involved with a rich married couple. Juliette’s curiosity is aroused by the fact that the rediscovered print is still missing a section – a trick “doppelgänger” shot that made the film, Petite Mort, famous and may, she intuits, contain the secret of the murder trial that made its star, Adèle, notorious.
And Adèle has a doppelgänger of her own, her sister Camille, introduced as “a bright-eyed, sly duplicate of myself”. Doubles and duplicity abounds – from the multiple plotlines to that bold double entendre of a title and Adèle’s bisexual affairs. While Petite Mort builds to a whodunnit revelation, it’s these flashy patterns that catch the eye – just as that complicated ‘doppelgänger’ special effect is advertised as the highlight of the lost film. This diversionary tactic is perfectly in keeping with the novel’s cinematic contexts – both of them. Early film has been characterised by Tom Gunning as a transition between the “cinema of attractions” (trick films such as those by Méliès, or the absinthe fairies and ghosts conjured by Adèle’s lover André) and the “cinema of narrative integration” (bluntly, Griffith’s developments in storytelling across the Atlantic). However, as Vicki Callahan argued in Sight & Sound last year, the epic serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas and Les Vampires) from this era blur the distinctions between the two modes, following a “principle of uncertainty … a use of cinema that questions our understanding of the real”. Those early serials and their knotted narratives are evoked by Petite Mort in the two-timing, amateur-sleuthing plot, but also in the slippery, fused identities of our heroines. Callahan traces this tricksy approach to narrative cinema to the French New Wave and beyond (citing Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Assayas’ Les Vampires remix Irma Vep (1996)).
That Petite Mort incorporates a history of French film audacity into its sexy plot is a trick shot of its own. It’s an elegantly written, richly satisfyingly novel, and in its own distinctive way, utterly cinematic too.
Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman is published by Serpent’s Tail, RRP £12.99 as a hardback or ebook. Find out more.