La Fleur du Mal - Claude Chabrol 2004
“Time doesn’t exist, my dear: there is only the perpetual present." Aunt Line La Fleur du Mal
It's unusual for a thriller, even the perverse psychological thrillers of Chabrol, to reach its emotional climax in the utterance of an observation as perspicacious Aunt Line's. To encount eloquence in such a context and feel it resonate in a way that makes the actual misdeed--the genre’s center of gravity--pale by comparison, is a dream come true for literary types. Even rarer in a contemporary film that a senescent woman should utter words so pregnant with a lifetime’s reflection. Chabrol, as we ought to know by now, is one of the great directors of female characters, without therewith being a director of “women’s films” in the traditional sense. His women are the deeper vessels compared to men; registering the vibrations of the moral and emotional cosmos with seismographic sensitivity. Even the murderers among them are innocents. For all his cynicism, Chabrol--like Flaubert and Wagner--reserved his profoundest utterances for female personages.
We pause to ponder, savoring the implications of time's illusoriness. The at first imperious denial of time’s passage--the affirmation of life’s timelessness--catches us off-guard. It’s a statement one would expect to encounter in a philosophical seminar, not at the moment in a crime-thriller when hiding the corpse should be the top priority. Yet the context gives the observation, delivered with deliberate tenderness as exhortation and painful-liberating conclusion across generations, its force. Conveyed in close-up by the earnestly imploring Aunt Line (Suzanne Flon 1918-2005)--whose murder of a Nazi-abetting father cast a pall over her own life--the denial of time's apparent discontinuity testifies to the fact that guilt does not have a season. It transcends the declension of time into past, future, and present.
The bifurcation the future tense, as carrier and channel of possibility, forces on us, also makes possible the spectrum of valuation that discriminates the momentous from the incidental. In the most general sense it facilitates the hierarchization of priorities. Aunt Line, in negating the relativization of time, therewith restores the priority of conscience over history. Her statement can be read as asserting that there is no statute of limitations on taking another’s life; justice, like Plato’s Form of the Good, is beyond being. To assert that only the present exists is to reinstate the rule of eternity, and therewith its claims. It is to transcend the nihilistic implications of history and the ontological rate of decay of human deeds and meanings.
The search (demand) for justice outlives all crimes, even undetected ones. It is in relation to the moral dimension, that court of judgment holding sway in all who are beholden to the human good, to the virtual community internalized as conscience, that we seek to atone and ‘come clean.’ Time by itself cannot wash away the residue of the misdeed--only the assumption of responsibility expiates the violation. By becoming guilty again through the vicarious assumption of guilt (blame) Aunt Line, the voluntary scape-goat loading herself with her niece's present-day sin, can reclaim both her humility and something like righteousness.
Two murders separated by an interval of sixty odd years elide in the present crisis. By assuming Michèle’s (Mélanie Doutey) guilt for her murder in self-defense, the arc of time comes full circle. In a moment of solidarity, Aunt Line offers to assume the guilt for the death of her son-in-law. In so doing she will atone for her own undetected crime, even as she never regretted committing it. In her eyes it will be an expiation, though the idea that one death (or murder) is interchangeable with another--that it makes sense to assume the responsibility for the someone else’s misdeed as a way of atoning for one that went unpunished--must remain problematical.
The ‘virtual community’ of voices that is conscience is not the arbitrary product of our imagination, but embodied in real institutions. Aunt Line is sacrificing herself to their execution of justice. Whatever her conscience tells her, it's the willingness to deliver herself over to the executors of justice in the real world that will exonerate her in her own eyes. She is willing to accept punishment for the taking of a life she disdained, but only because, despite her final dissimulation, she will accept its judgement as her own. Absent deference to the standard of the just community atonement is null and void.
The past is the future. And always will be. That is the confession of the moral consciousness. The past is the future because we are the accrual of all our experiences, the harvesters of history. There is no expiration date for the prosecution of undetected transgressions. To realize this is to understand the necessity of God (of some agency transcending history). And to realize the disposibility of God once the intuition and institution of the suprahistorical (in that sense "eternal") has been accomplished. This step--the establishment and institutionalization of the conceptual as that which out-lives [de]generation--is itself, of course, a process within history. But the attainment of the trans- and supra-historical may nonetheless be understood as inaugurating a post-historical era (Hegel's end of history). An era that, paradoxically, first sets up the parameters for something like 'human history.'
Time is the great mystery. The all-nourishing abyss; the no-thing that contains all forms in their temporary existence. Every being is a “condensed emptiness” that succumbs to the entropic derangement of time’s passage. Egyptian kingdoms, Auschwitz, cherry blossoms. Entire species. In the dimension of time the real and the virtual are interchangeable. The non-existence of time suggests its passing doesn't devour all things without remainder. We peer through the fog of the past and its lingering traces as through a veil--into the present. All things return. And nothing ever changes. The never-before is an illusion, even if it is warranted by our only-once, our single 'turn.'
Whatever may be true of the universe, the limit as thing-in-itself, human being cannot transcend the skein of dimensions as which it temporalizes space. Always ahead of ourselves, we are ever behind pasts lingering into future. We live towards the future as towards a reprisal.
Our search for justice denies the dissolution of order; the slipping away of the responsible and culpable. For the search for order has always been the search for that which can be counted on and allows itself to be made accountable. The desire for justice is unappeasable and rejects the partitioning of tenses. The love of justice institutes eternity as the present containing all pasts. God as judge exists by virtue of the unpunishability of undetected crimes and because we are incapable of pronouncing just sentence without an absolute measure.