I have written at length about why directing is the most stressful of jobs. I have just spent the first, and almost certainly the last, two days of my life in that role and I have never felt more stressed or more angry as we drive down the French Alps towards Geneva. At the wheel, her face ugly with hatred, Filipa Cesar is in a similar state. The theory was that Filipa would act as cinematographer to my novice director/producer. The practice was two directors and no producer: psychic carnage. In the weeks to come over texts, e-mails, and unbelievably heated telephone calls we will declare a peace. For the moment, however, I know that if we talk then we will crash. And I retain as some consolation to my fury that Filipa has captured some wonderful footage of John Berger and Tilda Swinton in the two days we have just spent filming.
As I can’t talk I look at Mont Blanc as we round the bend and head towards Geneva. I remember Godard, the first time I met him gesturing towards the mountains in reply to my question as to why he was living there. “Of course”, I said for it was these same mountains that had greeted me when I came to my Uncle Niall’s house to learn French on the first stage of my year between St Benedict’s Ealing and Trinity College, Cambridge. And yet now it is as if I see them for the first time. One of the many pleasures of age is how acute one’s sense of beauty becomes. And suddenly Geneva is behind us and we pass the exit to Nyon and my dead uncle’s house is a mere 500 metres off the slip road. The first time I lived away from home, the first time I fell in love, the first time I read The Waves. It moved me deeply at eighteen but when I re-read Woolf’s greatest novel for my modernism course last year, I found it greater yet. I also wondered how an eighteen year old with as little sense of Bloomsbury and modernism as I had could have read it at all. But I did and as I remember the novel, my own waves begin to crash. We pass Rolle and I feel again the emotions on the first film set I visited. Godard had invited me to come and see him at work on Sauve qui peut and those two days changed the direction of my life. But before I can really inhabit that memory we have run out of road and we pull into Lausanne station. Filipa and I snarl our goodbyes and she sets off back down the autoroute to Geneva airport.
I’m early and for ten to fifteen minutes I just stand outside the station letting the tension flow off me in waves. This is the first moment I have stopped since the build up to the first London conference in July and I have never enjoyed such a sense of acute physical relief. And then the train is pulling through the Valais on one of the most beautiful days that I have ever seen, mountain sun and sky combining into the most beautiful of images which ‘fresh images beget”. “ The unpurged images of day recede” and I am plunged further back into memory. At Crans sur Sierre I remember skiing with Isabelle Clerc 43 years earlier , my uncle wisely leaving me to a weekend which I still remember as, for the first time, I felt vaguely able to keep up with Isabelle’s wild flights down the mountain. Suddenly I remember the joy of mobile phones and phone her in Paris but can only leave a nostalgic message on her answering machine in her Montmartre sanctuary which has harboured me so often.
Now we are at Domodossola and changing onto an Italian train. Breakfast with the French, lunch with the Swiss and now the Italians. Three peoples who share these mountains, and two of them a language, and yet three completely different peoples. I phone my children and make a few calls to wish Happy Christmas. All the time the relief becomes more intense. I always used to say that I had never worked harder than the first two years I lectured at Cambridge but this last six months beats even that. Or possibly I just can’t get so much done any more.
It looks as though I will get into Florence in time to catch the 7 o’clock for Siena and then at the last moment the train is held up for ten minutes. I have been in constant telephone touch with Flavia since Lausanne and she offers to drive in but I tell her that I’ll wait for the last train that goes at 8. Siena became a backwater at the end of the middle ages when the marshes that blocked the direct route to Rome were drained. It is still served by the worst road of any major city that I know and its train station really is the end of the line. It is not my citta natale but since 1973 it is where I feel most at home in Europe. By the time we pull in I am the last person on the train and I am suddenly struck by the thought that for the first time I am returning from work to the house in which we both hope that we shall die. And then Flavia is there, her beauty illuminated by the station lights and less able than she was in her youth to hide her pleasure at seeing me. I’ve already given her the headline story of the shooting from Lausanne but I really want a sympathetic listener. Thirty seconds into my litany of complaints about my cinematographer, she says, bringing the conversation to a definitive end “ Well you obviously didn’t give Filipa enough support”.