You Are Not I

You Are Not I


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"You are not I. No one but me could possibly be. I know that and I know where I have been and what I have done ever since yesterday." The voiceover opening lines in Sara Driver's exquisite long-lost film You Are Not I, based on a Paul Bowles story, portend the journey of the film's rediscovery in Tangier, Morocco. After having her only negative destroyed by water damage in a storage facility in New Jersey, and no usable print to screen for years, it took the chance discovery of the two 16mm reels by Francis Poole, a film librarian at the University of Delaware which houses many of Bowles papers for its screening at the New York Film Festival to occur.

The film begins with a woman walking through the chaos of a car crash site, a pile up with many victims (photographer Nan Goldin plays a lovely accident victim). Ethel (Suzanne Fletcher) takes a dead person's shoes and puts them on, then picks up a coat from another. We get the sense of a female Don Draper, this time a mad woman preparing for her identity switch.

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In close up, she holds stones in her hands that look like a nest of eggs. One stunning image replaces another - a line of corpses are uncovered and revealed by Ethel one by one as she places a stone in each dead body's mouth. She is taken away by those who believe that she had been in the fatal accident and driven to the house of her sister (played by Melody Schneider), past a long row of New Jersey gas stations. Ethel, it turns out, escaped from a mental hospital with the help of the unknowing do-gooders, and is taking advantage of the confusion of the accident. Her sister asks them "Are you sure she's all right?"

"Life inside was like life outside. There is always somebody stopping people from what they want to do," Ethel reminds us. In a voiceover, she claims her sister had switched the stairs with the fireplace as Ethel calmly sits in a chair watching her sister panicking and getting help from two neighbors. She resembles Dreyer's Joan of Arc shifting towards Virginia Woolf's profile at times, while she watches the fear in the faces of the three women and contemplates the ugliness of the house in comparison to her own "excellent taste in decoration."

The screen turns to black for a few seconds and the world turns upside down in a move that may have influenced David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997). Identity may be something entirely different.

At the New York Film Festival press conference with Sara Driver and Francis Poole earlier, we learned just how miraculous the adventure surrounding You Are Not I was for all concerned. Sara had sent the two reels to Paul Bowles in 1982 hoping for his approval of her adaptation. When Poole was contacted by Bowles' heir Abdelouahed Boulaich about artifacts and additional papers while he was attending a conference in Tangier in 2008, the Bowles scholar described what he found as follows: "I noticed an old battered film container near the bottom shelf of a bookcase. Sitting on the shelf above were the typewriters belonging to Paul and Jane Bowles. Like everything else in the room the film case had been dusted with a white powder." It turned out to be insecticide and Poole and Sara speculated that it might be why the reels were still in good condition.

During the press conference, I asked Sara if the first person narrative of the voiceover was taken verbatim from Bowles' short story. She explained that his story is seven pages long and the screenplay, co-written by Jim Jarmusch, who was also her cinematographer, was 12 pages, mostly taken from Bowles' text. My second question to the filmmaker concerned Bowles' reaction to her film. Bowles liked it, she said, but thought that one of the neighbours, Mrs Schultz overacted a bit. Bowles' literary agent at William Morris said that it was a good thing Sara Driver had already made the film before contacting them, because he wouldn't have given her the rights had she asked beforehand, as an unknown 24-year-old with a very limited budget.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2011
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The director's long-lost debut, described by Cahiers du Cinéma as one of the best made movies of the 1980s.
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Director: Sara Driver

Writer: Sara Driver, Jim Jarmusch, based on the story by Paul Bowles

Starring: Suzanne Fletcher, Evelyn Smith, Luc Sante

Year: 1981

Runtime: 48 minutes

Country: United States of America

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