These are the last few minutes in the movie ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ directed by Baillie Walsh and featuring Daniel Craig. With a small degree of self-referentiality, Craig plays Joe, a washed up, alcoholic and drug addicted Hollywood actor who is nearing a mental breakdown. A prolonged flashback brings him back to his youth, 25 years earlier, when he was sixteen years old growing up in a British seaside town. There, as Joe remembers, he meets Ruth, a quirky and eccentric girl, who shares his passion for music. They hang out in Ruth’s parents lavishly decorated living room and listen to Bryan Ferry’s song ‘If There Is Something’. In a memorable and visually extremely stimulating mise-en-scène, Ruth mimics the lyrics of the song, and flirts with a phantom audience to the back of the room, while she has delegated Joe to perform the background vocals. Filmed in slow-motion, the scene first appears in the middle of the movie, as Joe is starting to fall in love with Ruth. The re-appearance of the scene at the end underlines the central trope of the movie: while Joe has a flashback of his youth, the viewer, equally, has a flashback of a scene already encountered earlier. Also, in the song ‘If There Is Something’, the central theme is remembering: the first part of the song is about wondering about love as a youth, the second part is about passion experienced as an adult and the third part depicts someone thinking about their past love. The visual flashback for the viewer and Joe alike is thus underlined by the message evoked by the song.
But what makes this scene so powerful? No doubt that the song has a large part to play in this. Bryan Ferry’s voice, almost breaking up from the intensity of his emotion, periodically reminds the viewer ‘when you were young’. As Ruth can be seen pointing towards the phantom audience in the back of the room, she is metaphorically pointing at the viewer to remind him or her of this time ‘when you were young’. Ferry’s strained voice is reminiscent of a teenage boy growing into an adult, and coupled with the song’s lyrics, the emotional response is that of teenage memories. It is me dancing with Ruth. I am becoming Joe. The scene brings back feeling of nostalgia – to a more innocent and carefree time. As the slow-motion cinematography suggests, to a time when you were floating. The scene is therefore so effective because it evokes memories that transcend the specificities of Joe’s flashback itself. It communicates to everyone.
Although they are the same age, Ruth appears far more mature than Joe, guiding him in his actions, and at the same time, taking the lead. Just as the she begins to mimic the lyrics, Ruth says ‘I will be Bryan’ while she instructs Joe to dance in the background. Joe meanwhile, is clearly taken by Ruth’s maturity and looks at here in awe. The scene thus incorporates an intriguing level of performed gender identity: while Ruth assumes the male role of Bryan Ferry, she is also wearing a tie, tucked into her trousers. Joe meanwhile assumes the role of a background singer, and wearing eye make up, evoking a time when the very definition of gender wasn’t as clear cut. By placing such emphasis on this scene, and indeed, by filming it with such visual appeal, the filmmaker and cinematographer point out that this very moment in Joe’s life is one that he will always remember and form him for the rest of his life. The brief performance alongside Ruth in her parent’s living room would eventually bring him to perform as an actor in Hollywood. The uncanny reference to Daniel Craig’s own experience as a British actor in Hollywood just underlines the filmmaker’s attempt to evoke an emotional response that transcends the fictitiousness of the film itself.
But the scene, despite all its beauty and appeal, is ultimately also about pain. Pain in the realization that these moments will remain memories and they will never happen again. As the word nostalgia already suggests, the metaphorical ‘returning home’ (nostos) via the memory is also filled with ‘pain’ (algos). It is maybe for that reason that the last moments in ‘Flashbacks of a Fool’ evoke such an emotional response from the viewer: the dawning realization that ‘when you were young’ is a moment you cannot return back to … except in your memory.