Non-places and their place in the movies

Why do movies set important scenes in places we’d never look for them? Lana Crowe explains how using ‘non-places’ bring life’s margins to the forefront. 

The ‘non-place’, a term coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé, is a commercial space in which people remain anonymous, a space that lacks meaningful social interaction, and is overlooked as a significant arena of action. Movies, however, thrive on unconventional spaces, capitalising on our expectations and transgressing from routine interaction: important scenes often occur in realer-than-real manifestations of the places that make up the marginalia of our lives. The protagonist of Fight Club (1999) capitalises on the anonymity of support groups, until he’s called out and identified by a fellow support group surfer. In the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally (1989), the protagonists’ initial interactions always happen where least expected – on the road to New York, on a flight, in a bookshop – in order to enhance their serendipity. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) subverts the intimate, romantic space of the Parisian apartment by creating a anonymised space within it, where Paul and Jeanne are purposefully isolated from their worldly identities. Augé’s term is an interesting starting point for thinking about the narrative effect of anonymised spaces. The motel, the public toilet and the train station are all examples that are regularly used in the movies; the unusual use of them in Lift to the Scaffold, Trainspotting and Brief Encounter respectively are thought-provoking in their self-referential use of insignificant settings.

The motel or roadside diner is a go-to film noir setting. They are the perfect places for people to disappear, vanishing in the transience of having left A and never making it to B. By the motorway, we find the breeding ground for Norman Bates’ undiscovered transgression in Psycho (1960), and the fertile soil for Cora’s marital resentment in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). In Louis Malle’s New Wave noir Lift to the Scaffold (1958), the motel is the site of the film’s second (and unexpected) murder: the location enables the real perpetrator to take on the identity of Julien Tavernier, who remains stuck in an office elevator after murdering his lover’s husband at work. The use of the motel is both subverted and archetypal: it draws attention to how the film straddles the boundary between its farcical narrative (Tavernier in the lift accused of the wrong crime) and dark noir iconography (the murdered cuckold, the guilty lovers, the final revelation). The film is packed full of non-places and thrives on the potential for anonymity in urban environments: whilst Tavernier is stuck in the eponymous non-place, Florence Carala paces the streets and frequents disreputable bars without any fear of discovery. It is only once the police realise the significance of the overlooked spaces that the film able to conclude.

The Worst Toilet in Scotland from Trainspotting (1996) is more of a crime scene than a conventional movie bathroom, where characters splash their faces with water in silent contemplation of ‘what next’. You can forget any hopes of three-ply and Baylis & Harding: the space is a volcanic eruption of tod, bubbling detritus seeping from every nook, portrayed through eye-wateringly visceral visuals. The eschewal of convention is emphasised by Renton’s surreal adventure, in which he is swallowed up into the opaque toilet water and emerges in a serene underwater sequence reminiscent of the album cover for Nirvana’s Nevermind. If watching the start of the scene is as pleasant as sliding down a banister made of razor blades, Renton’s emergence into the ethereal ocean of illusion is the balm that soothes your mistreated behind. The scene is microcosmic in that it allegorises the battle at the heart of the movie: for Renton, Sickboy, Spud and the rest, life is the Worst Toilet in Scotland, and heroin the faeces-covered gateway into the underwater bliss.

The 1945 British romantic drama Brief Encounter is a particularly significant example of the train station being used as a dramatic platform (no pun intended). Laura Jesson is discontented with the family life that consumes her waking hours; after a chance encounter with the charming doctor Alec in the tearoom of a local train station, they conduct an emotional affair which culminates with an anticlimactic interrupted sexual encounter. As a character on the sidelines of her own life, it is apt that the action should occur in a space that often houses little emotional significance. The train, like our heroine, is a means to an end: the former, the passage to the weekly foray out of domestic life to shop in Milford, the latter the vessel for a family and upstanding middle-class English life. The film concludes with a melancholy acquiescence to the overwhelming strength of social decorum: Laura and Alec return to their families and their lives, leaving their affair isolated in the anonymity of their non-place. It is crushing to witness their last familiar moments be invaded by the insipid Dolly Messiter, an unwelcome dose of normality.

Anonymised spaces are both useful narrative devices and interesting stages for drama. They simulataneously make the world of cinema more relatable and more bizzarre: we may recognise them, but they remain surreal manifestations of what we know. The paratext is brought to the forefront, and the interesting aspects of the spaces we so often ignore burst into our attention in moments of Sartre-esque un-canniness. Seeing them on screen should encourage us to think more about the places we usually fail to regard – particularly considering that the cinema as a space can often fall into that category.

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