About half way through the BBC's 1962 production of No Exit, I started rewriting it in my head. The reason? I got tired of watching the same four white-washed walls, the same three benches, and the same half-dozen paintings which make up the film's only set. Yes, I know, it's based on a play, but I wanted something more cinematic. I imagined the same three characters from Sartre's play, but they wouldn't be in Hell; they'd be in an office, forced to work all night to meet a deadline. This way, the film's setting could at least have two or three rooms instead of just one. And they obviously wouldn't be dead, so the monologues that detail what the characters are seeing of "life" would have to go. But... then I realized it wasn't possible to change much about the story without changing the theme. The character-arcs require the characters to have no exit - Garcon's attempt to isolate himself would actually be successful if he could take bathroom breaks; Estelle wouldn't be so needy if she could find a mirror, etc. So I gave up trying to make this play more "filmic."
Let's face it, if you are going to review a filmed version of No Exit, you might just as well review the play, written or performed, because the story is based in words, a lot of words, and very little action. Any attempt to discuss this film's themes or language would be identical to a review of the play, of which there are probably thousands. So, what am I doing here? What's the point in analyzing the film's philosophy when you can find dozens of essays about the very same thing (or just listen to the podcast)? With material like this, all I can really do is discuss whether there is any value to this film for its filmic qualities; i.e., are there any reasons to watch this production instead of just reading the text?
Well, for one thing, and as I implied, it's essentially a filmed version of the play, and because the play isn't always available to watch as a play, it's nice to have a recorded rendition that interprets the material visually, something you can't get from just reading the text or listening to an audio adpation. Sure, the actual philosophy of the play might be better extracted from the text, but the emotional impact of witnessing three people simultaneously have nervous breakdowns is, in my opinion, better experienced with trained actors, all of whom do a good job with this relatively difficult material. You get to see the anguish, despair, forlornness, all the best existential conditions, on their faces. I compliment the performances when I say that the characters are unpleasant and obnoxious, which is how they should be. After all, they were condemned to Hell.
Like the performances, the cinematography and editing give the viewer something the text cannot. Actually, they give the viewer something even the performed play cannot: a deeper sense of immersion into the space of the characters. This version of No Exit was shot from many different angles and points of view, and the characters' many different psychological changes are therefore seen in many different ways; this allowed me to both feel sorry for them but also condemn them for their actions. For instance, there is a close up of Garcon as he begs Estelle to see him as a hero. I felt pity for him, for a second, but then the film cuts to Ines's POV as she watches Garcon wallow in his grief, and I felt my perception of him change: now I simply felt annoyed with his weakness. This is the power of film - whereas the play would be seen objectively by the audience from one perspective, like a fly on the wall, the film lets me see what the characters are seeing and feel what they are feeling (the latter is also possible in the play).
There are some awkward bits of photography though. For one thing, whoever shot this production was a huge fan of extreme low-angle shots, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that he often cuts off an actor's entire body, giving the audience only the character's head. I don't know what effect he was going for, but it made several of the shots seem like mistakes that weren't fixed. I also could have done without the abstract statue in the middle of the room. The characters don't really interact with it, and it partially obscures the action in a few shots; in one case, it covers a character's face during an emotionally charged bit of dialogue.
In sum: if you've always wanted to see No Exit but have never had the opportunity, this is the next best thing. It's not perfect, but I think it captures the spirit of the play. However, if you've read the play or have had enough of Sarte and "bad faith" and all that, stay clear of this film. You won't learn anything new. Maybe watch that episode of Seinfeld where they get stuck in the parking lot or something. That's kind of Sartrean.
- Noah Dunn.
Check out the reading of No Exit by Mark, Wes, Lucy Lawless and Jaime Murray.