The Near Room
Katrina Black explores themes of grief in Sophie Cundale's The Near Room.
“Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that it is done with a sense of urgency which belongs uniquely to life.” – John Berger
There is a short story, or a parable, John Berger once told, about a young man granted immortality. Later wishing to return to the scenes of his past—one last glimpse before eternal life commences—he is caught out at last by Death, who has worn out a cart of shoes chasing him. Berger tells this, in part, to trace global shifts in attitude to “the enigma of time”, later making the observation that “death and time were always in alliance.” The clarity with which this is articulated is beautiful, though it is also worth remembering that he never assumes this alliance to be either stable or harmonious. Nor does he claim it encompass those left in the realm of the living who are struck by the sudden arrival of grief; instead he is referring here to the way “the body ages. The body is preparing to die.” For those caught by the absence of their loved ones, however, both time and comprehension have the tendency to become obsolete.
In Sophie Cundale’s The Near Room (2020), two worlds are entwined in perpetuity, even as they play out across hundreds of years. In one a boxer attempts to comprehend his removal from the industry after surviving a near-fatal concussion; in the other a Queen sinks into grieving his death. These worlds are merging with one another, it seems, because loss has undone their inhabitants—along with calendrical time, material boundaries, and any sense whatsoever of control over outcome. Cundale doesn’t aim to resolve these narratives but nor does she advance a sense of absolute nihilism either, knowing that a flight from meaning is not a state everyone would aspire to, least of all when a life (be it their own or a loved one’s) has collapsed. With this in mind, the film develops through a warp of Greek tragedy and melodrama, shaped by the alternating escalation and breakdown of relationships – The Near Room illuminates the spaces connecting individual psyche and collective experience, not only to show how these spaces hold form within emotional chaos, but to trace their painful intermittent disappearances.
These alternating flashes of connection and incomprehension are enduring. As with many of Sophie’s films no character is ever quite central—this time a host of caricatured, ancient, almost allegorical types huddle together, multiply and refract around a core group of relatives. They're also refracted through time, and through the institutions they appear to seek belonging with and move between: a court, a convent, the Boxing Board of Control, and an obscure medical system. How all these structures came to interlink remains unclear. As a genre, melodrama shifts between scales, whereby both infrastructure and the course of action are at the whim of emotional urgency—but The Near Room's performances are much too subtracted to ever read as sincere—too prone to undercutting someone else’s delivery with an eye roll, or a sing-song response. Despite experiencing states of extremity that would otherwise call new aspects of the self into form—such as through the precision and endurance of boxing training, or more straightforwardly perhaps through the vertiginous terror of grief—the characters remain almost absurdly underplayed.
Though reviled by other characters as contagious and excessive (and subsequently as grounds to legitimise her incarceration), the Queen’s condition of Cotard Delusion, in which patients believe they have died, or that they simply no longer exist, is characterised not by emotional overspill but by the advance of its conspicuous absences. Described in 1880 by physician Jules Cotard as ‘a delirium of negation’, Cotard Delusion arises from a lack of affective reasoning—the depersonalisation and numbness to the external world (either emotional or physical) that can develop as a result of a brain injury—or from the conditions of grief, psychosis, or chronic depression. The delusion runs on a continuum from death to complete non-existence, in which the subject experiences the world as an ‘innate cosmos’, whose mechanisms, including the decomposition of their own body, can only be coolly observed. Symptoms advance through three stages: the first is ‘germination’, a kind of advanced hypochondria; the second ‘blooming’, whereby the delusion finds its form and takes hold; and the third ‘chronic’, in which the patient reports not changes in themselves, but changes in the states of the universe—one component of which is their body, now thought of as another inert physical substance at first decomposing, and then finally disappearing altogether. “She conceives of herself as nothing more than a locus, not of experience – because, due to the complete suppression of feeling her perceptions and cognitions are not annexed to her body – but of the registration of the passage of events” one medical report explains of Cotard’s first patient, ‘Mademoiselle X’. “She has effectively effaced herself from the universe: nothing which occurs is of any significance to her.
The Queen's condition doesn’t quite suggest the denial of her lover’s death, so much as a refusal of death’s finality—it’s a neat reframing, a denial that his death would necessarily entail their separation: “Dead Prince. Dead Queen” she remarks, as though declaring their equivalence would be enough to make it so—before swerving to check who’s still caught in the realm of the living: “Is our son still alive?” Not only has she been excused from her duties as a mother and a Queen under the guise of enabling her recovery; her capacity to enact them has been permanently debarred. Defying the solemnity of death via numbness might be a byproduct of her grief, but it’s also quite likely her last remaining avenue of choice: calmly undercutting reverence with obscenity she kicks her doctor to the floor, splashing her face with her urine, then slashes the throat of her courtly advisor Denia when he attempts to manipulate her. “No-one can gut me. I have no guts” she retorts to his threats that ‘the plague’ outside her window could unravel them (a plague Denia has in fact choreographed, to bait fear and maintain her enclosure). Later her wishes are read aloud during a kind of amateur legal trial, staged to make sense of how to stem her resistance: “I will exist eternally if not burned. Fire is the only solution for me.” It’s clear she’s exceeded what those around her are willing to tolerate—but as it’s impossible to fathom a proportionate response to grief, and as they appear to know this too, her ‘treatment’ can only really be a form of vigilant constraint or redirection. Meanwhile the Boxer—who is similarly aerial to the course of his own experiences but negotiates a very different form of self-abstraction—is suddenly ushered into the twilight of his career. Both are keenly attuned to where the care flooding in for their condition may have tipped into a form of control, but for the Boxer this constraint is reversed; his trainer's pleas for cooperation only demonstrate the breakdown of their bond. Their intimacy is conditioned by the trainer’s ability to connect two now-distinct entities—the Boxer and the industry within which he was absorbed—and this role means both discerning what to salvage from within a flash of crisis, and accepting when to close things down altogether. A trainer once described this type of closure to Cundale as a ‘caring abandon’—sometimes they have to enforce separation, however mutually enlivening their dynamic may have been, because they have to keep things moving—one person’s unstable health is soon known as a danger to everyone, and the whole infrastructure is poised to reassemble once a boxer has stepped down. The evident strain of the Boxer’s condition on those surrounding him and their growing anticipation of his departure only corroborates his now spiralling isolation: “It’s not really the fight that you lose but yourself,” the two-time world heavyweight champion George Foreman described of the way this loss unpredictably radiates. “One day people are walking by you afraid to even ask you a question, the next day they are patting you on the back with pity.” It’s an expulsion made all the more disorienting for the lack of personal accountability, as it is too by the sudden awareness of how unstable or prone to dissolution one's sense of self might have been all along.
Writing on melodrama has often felt for its parameters as a ‘serious’ form; as a cousin, or maybe offspring, of Greek tragedy, it too deals with morality and downfall, but of course it's also messier, tethered to interiors, and known by its confusions of scale. It would be extremely difficult for characters to ‘overcome’ anything in a territory as shifting and atemporal as the The Near Room. Though dense with religious iconography and ritual, there’s no hovering promise of divine revelation, no hope of absolution in view. While Greek tragedy might frame individuals torn between forces or grappling in the hope of redirecting their fate, characters caught in the world of melodrama are denied stable knowledge or transcendent awareness—in this sense it's often more concerned with the habits of a consciousness than it is with weighing or assessing the supposed central truth of a character. The Near Room borrows much from both forms, but describes a differently nuanced understanding of legacy, relation and dependancy—characters are crammed into closer, weirder quarters, where the consequences of an action often outrun its causes, flowing into new scenarios only loosely connected to their origin. Intricate conspiracies and violent clashes amass but always seem to miss out on their own completion; when Sisters Fuori and Agony’s treasure haul is interrupted by discovering Denia’s mutilated body inside the trunk, for example—or the fact that he somehow lives on, despite the slash across his throat. Familial disputes escalate into a courtroom trial, the Boxer’s hospital bed becomes a negotiation table—conflict isn’t so much wrought within anguished individuals, hoping to escape their flaws and limitations, as much as it is thrashed out through the squabbles that arise between them. As with melodrama proper, the film resists the endless mining of interiority, and moves instead through a mesh of relations—individuals arise only through their relation to others—while resisting the mystification of the oppressive material forces that might control or delimit a life, preferring instead to render them surreal. Rather than elevating them through sacred abstraction or outsourcing them to the occult, they’re redrawn as villainous parodies.
Given that this all plays out on the ground, one of the questions Sophie's work returns is how we make our emotional lives available to one another; and in this instance, how the elusive, disquieting qualities of grief can persistently attempt, but also frequently and spectacularly fail to communicate. These attempts have the potential to be mortifying—they often seem to reach out of their own accord—and they’re also prone to devolving into contradictory gestures, as they do when the Boxer and the Queen deny both assistance of any kind, and the collapse of their respective statures. The Near Room makes use of the painful incidents and memories that can pool together inside a life, but it also strikes a careful balance between unveiling the raw materials of those complicated experiences, and habilitating them for its bawdy, soap-opera narratives. Key to this balancing is an almost ludic dismissal of any self-serving earnestness in film, or of fumbles for the comfort of a move towards resolution. I think the aim isn’t so much to exorcise or even somehow conquer grief—whatever that would look like—but for absurdity to point to where her characters are snagged or inhibited. I can also feel it as a call to experiment; if humour and grief end up laced throughout everything (in this particular fiction or in life) then they might be used less for emotional ballast, or to authenticate the ‘rawness’ of personal experience, than for testing which parts of experience might be shareable.
This approach—which runs counter to sentiment and assumed commonality, but is something like keen attention to the weirdness of being alive—is also apparent in Sophie’s unraveling of the differences between detached, narcissistic performances of the self, and the kind of peculiarly subtracted demeanour that might arise as a result of such grief, or any long-term exposure to emotional pain. Some of this plays out within Denia, who appears in one world as a courtly advisor and in the other as a boxing promoter, but is essentially a frustrated messenger—a megalomaniac confined to the role of intermediary. It’s clear he can skillfully redirect action (as he does when he silences the work of the diligent and brilliant doctor, or coerces the Prince into claiming the throne), but he relies on the people he controls—which might also be why his lines sound like a blend of threat and embarrassing catchphrase: “Men die. Women grieve.”Aphorisms have a special capacity to trash any hope of sincerity, and in times of emotional extremity they can be worse than meaningless; in The Near Room they’re almost comically inadequate in their application as a remedy for chaos. “Born alone…we die alone…” Denia intones in response to the Queen’s complaint of loneliness, halfway through boarding up the window of her chamber. While later pressing to conclude her ‘wishes’ for annihilation, his exasperation with the pace of things borders on farce—it begins to look as though his deceptions are a way to pass the time. Either way it would do nothing to lessen their creepiness; there is “something terrible in this kind of randomness,” as poet Anne Carson once observed, in “the idea that at the very bottom of its calculations, depravity has no master plan of any kind, it’s just a dreamy whim that slides out of people when they are trapped or bored or too lazy to analyse their own mania.”
This absence of connection finds its culmination in the final scene, during the trial and the subsequent ceremony, by which time dialogue has devolved out of any kind of reciprocity whatsoever and turned instead into layered and abstracted formal speech. Here the bewilderment of loss is folded into ritual, with characters caught between the worlds of the living and the dead, and in the grim and heady blend of unease and catharsis born of moving from one into the other. This doesn’t always mean that release from the paradox would be a welcome reassurance. There is a certain kind of dragging horror, a deeper pain in the possibility, as the poet Denise Riley has suggested, that “we can only stay in the company of our dead for as long as we don’t notice them as really separate from us, caught in their different realm.” A call for consciousness and attention to the conditions of one’s enclosure – the strength to endure things as they are on the ground, however dimly lit, alienating or surreal they might be – might therefore be the closest the film comes to articulating hope for resolution. Light floods through one final interior as the Boxer walks out of the frame, and we are left to decide whether this is an image of his release or his return. If reading the work for heroism or redemption feels a little overblown then, or at least lifted out of reach, The Near Room suggests we might consider instead the slow work of endurance and incremental repair, as another form of hope altogether.
Katrina Black is a researcher, writer and programme curator based in London, where she is also part of Jupiter Woods.
This text was written in response to Sophie Cundale's The Near Room (2020), commissioned and produced by Film and Video Umbrella (Producer Laura Shacham) with support from Arts Council England, South London Gallery, Bonington Gallery, Curator Space and The Gane Trust.