How appropriate it is that Claire Simon’s complementary pair of pictures, the narrative Gare du Nord and the documentary Human Geography, should take place at the train station that lends the former its name. Railways have occupied a pride of place in cinema since its birth: We all know, of course, the famous (if apocryphal) tale of the brothers Lumiere causing audiences to leap from their seats when The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat was screened. Ever since those days, the distinction between the Lumieres’ “actualities” and the trick films of their contemporary Georges Melies has remained engrained in audiences’ view of cinema. Documentary and narrative, many would seem to believe, are mutually exclusive modes.
Here exactly is what’s so interesting about Simon’s diptych: Gare du Nord and Human Geography would seem a direct invocation of this distinction, their shared creator and setting nominally the only similarities between the two. The stories they tell reflect the respective strengths of each form of cinema: Human Geography searches the station for interesting passengers whose destinations might illuminate the cross-section of humanity this location represents; Gare du Nord, meanwhile, directly presents that sense of convergence in its construction of interlaced subplots centered on one unlikely romance.
“A global market square” is how Ismael, one of Gare du Nord‘s leads, describes the station. He’s right, though it takes the discoveries of Human Geography to fully illuminate just how. It’s interesting that the movies are presented so separately: here at Locarno, they appear in different strands of the program with no indication beyond the director’s name that they bear any relation to one another. Yet to see both is to see how inseparable they truly are, how much each depends on the other to bulk its meaning and broaden its scope. While neither film forcibly depends on having seen, or even heard of, the other, it’s a classic case of a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
The diversity of nationality and class which Human Geography excavates feeds directly into the sense of disconnect on which Gare du Nord builds. Co-writer Olivier Lorelle scripted London River; where that film was predicated on the prevalent sense of inter-racial unease in the wake of the 2005 London bombings, Gare du Nord has no such politically pertinent ground in which to root itself. It needs the exploration — the exposition, perhaps — of Human Geography. It thrives on the foundation of socio-political context the documentary offers; tt stands on the shoulders of its sister film and through it manages to extend its view all the further.
Human Geography, at the same time, depends on Gare du Nord for an idealistic interpretation of the life snapshots it takes. In her fiction, Simon is given a blank canvas on which to expand upon the isolated fragments of existence the documentary glimpses. That the movie is scripted is an abstraction, of course, yet it’s with the brush strokes of basic human drama that Simon works. These characters may be fictional constructions, but the material from which they’re made could hardly be any truer to life, as the prominence of the very same emotional arcs in the documentary eagerly attests.
The subjects of Human Geography, for that matter, are no less characters in their own right than those of Gare du Nord. What person can stand before a camera and behave truly as themselves? It would be short-sighted to claim performance as exclusive to the fiction film; from the confident teen who raps excitedly into Simon’s camera to the right-leaning man who scales back his views when they sound too extreme, each of the people presented to us in the documentary has been carefully “written,” posing the question of just how worthy this is of the non-fiction label.
And that’s precisely the point: Just as Simon’s fiction is predicated on a bedrock of basic emotional and humanistic fact, her non-fiction is slave to the whims and whiles of a creative mind and the structural abstractions it brings to bear. The unique allure of Gare du Nord and Human Geography lies not in the distinctions they clarify between the disparate modes of fiction and documentary, but in the lengths they between them go to showing the fallacy of maintaining any such distinctions. Documentary and narrative cinema, says Simon, are not incomparable antitheses, just different means of storytelling. The points of departure may not be the same, but Simon’s new works are movies that cross tracks time and time again.