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Nocturna Artificialia (1979)


Main image of Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
16mm, colour, 21 mins
DirectorsBrothers Quay
Production CompanyBritish Film Institute Production Board
ScriptBrothers Quay
PhotographyCraigie Horsfield, Brothers Quay
MusicStefan Cichonski

A dreamer is seduced by the mystery of the city at night. He leaves his room and goes into the street, where a tram-car carries him away.

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As with much of their later work, it's impossible to provide a coherent synopsis of the earliest surviving film by the Brothers Quay, as Nocturna Artificialia defies attempts at verbal encapsulation at every turn. The Quays themselves acknowledged this when they said "as for what is called the scenario, at most we have only a limited musical sense of its trajectory, and we tend to be permanently open to vast uncertainties, mistakes, disorientations, as though lying in wait to trap the slightest fugitive 'encounter'."

It consists of impressions of a man, a tram and an unidentified city at night (the opening titles identify a specific Brussels street, but the ambience seems East European). Much of it seems to be the man's dream, deriving from a fixation with specific objects relating to the tram (notably its pantograph) and a more general evocation of the streets at night, but even when he appears to awaken at the end after experiencing a some kind of revelation, he finds tramlines running through the middle of his room.

Everything is glimpsed or half-heard: light and shade seem as tangible as the more solidified reality (a spellbinding sequence sees his arm caressed by passing shadows, a brief Bartókian musical motif sounding as they touch). Tension is created not through narrative but through movement (by tram and camera, in parallel or in opposition), shifting focus, shadows moving across inanimate objects to bring them briefly into eerie life.

There's occasional recourse to religious imagery: at one point the tram passes through the interior of a cathedral, and then down a street named after the Crucifixion, but these elements seem as half-awake and half-remembered as everything else. Despite being presented in multiple languages, the eight intertitles are calculatedly cryptic ("Through gradually tightening avenues, I felt the ecstasy of something nameless"). It's a Surrealist film in the term's original sense - in that its imaginary landscape is equally populated by conscious and unconscious elements and little distinction is drawn between them.

Shot on 16mm and funded by the British Film Institute's Production Board, Nocturna Artificialia is a remarkably confident piece of work, the Quays surmounting obvious technical and budgetary limitations to create a private universe entirely out of their own recurring obsessions. Their later films may be more assured, but their roots are clearly visible here.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1.The tram (1:53)
2. Tangible light (1:01)
3. The cathedral (2:53)
4. The metal vertebrae (1:25)
Complete film (20:27)
Production stills
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Quay, Brothers (1947-)
The BFI and Animation
They Started Here