Readings — From the November 2019 issue

Reappearing Act

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From 97,196 Words, a collection of the author’s non-fiction writing, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This story was written as a statement of intent for a film that was never completed. It was first published in 2010 in Les Moments littéraires. Translated from the French by John Lambert.

The boy is eight years old. He’s on vacation. His cousins, a little older than he is, tell him mysteriously that they’ve found a way to become invisible. You have to drink a potion; it’s not very good. They pass him the glass and dare him to drink. The boy’s a bit afraid, he hesitates, then drinks it to the last drop. It’s true, it doesn’t taste good. In fact it’s soapy water, but they’ll only tell him that later. In the meantime, it works: he’s become invisible. His cousins call his name, they look for him, stretch out their arms in what they think is his direction, only he’s changed places. He moves around the room, walks between them, brushes up against them as if they were playing blindman’s buff and their eyes were blindfolded, but their eyes aren’t blindfolded; it’s just that they no longer see him. He can stand right in front of his cousin, within his reach, make faces: his cousin looks right through him. It’s frightening, and exhilarating.

Intoxicated by his power, the boy goes out onto the terrace where the parents are just finishing lunch. He shouts, “I’m invisible!” Everyone turns and smiles sweetly, the way you smile at a boy who’s playing. The parents weren’t in on the secret, and the cousins who followed him onto the terrace burst out laughing, delighted with their joke.

Because it was a joke. The boy was terribly disappointed, and terribly hurt. Still, for five minutes he’d felt what it was like to be invisible.

I want to make a film to explore this sensation, and to stretch these five minutes of ecstasy and torment over an entire life. I want to imagine what the life of a man who had this power would be like.

This power. This talent. This gift. The man who inherits all of this, without reason or justice, is a king, but also a rat. He is chosen, but also excluded. This above all is what I want to deal with: how a gift can enhance but also devastate a life.

I imagine this film narrated in voice-over by the protagonist.

To a woman.

To her he will explain what this power that is now leaving him has done to his life.

It’s not like in the movies, or the way his cousins imagined it. There’s no need for a potion, it’s a lot simpler than that: all he has to do—or had to do—was want to disappear, and he would vanish from people’s vision—and minds—at the drop of a hat. No need to get naked, either, to avoid having people see a suit topped by a hat and preceded by a pipe with smoke trailing from it. Adaptations of H. G. Wells’s foundational novel have popularized such arresting images. When you talk about the “invisible man” in the movies, that’s generally what comes to mind. But the man doesn’t have such logistical problems, he can disappear together with his belongings. Whenever he wants, people can look in his direction and see nothing. It’s as if he weren’t there.

He’s not bodiless, however. He’s not a draft of air you can walk through. The people he brushes up against can feel him. He can touch and be touched. If he decides to get into a two-door car with a couple he’s followed along the street, for example, it takes a good deal of ingenuity—and dexterity—for him to slide into the back seat without their suspecting anything. He’s not altogether beyond reach.

What did he do with this fabulous power? And what about us, what would we do with it? Would we linger in rooms when everyone thought we’d left, to hear what our friends say about us? Would we try to right wrongs, punish the wicked, rescue hostages in Iraq? Would we side with the profiteers or with the selfless? Would we involve ourselves in the affairs of the world or stick to our own?

What interests the man in the film isn’t influencing the world, but possessing it in secret; that is, by watching what other people do when they don’t know they’re being watched. When they believe they’re alone. He’s obsessed by people’s privacy, and in particular by the privacy of women.

I imagine a scene near the start of the film (near the end should be another that functions along similar lines, but with a different outcome). The man in the film is interested in a woman. It’s someone he knows, but not intimately. Maybe she’s a colleague, if he works in an office, and in that case they might have lunch together from time to time. Maybe she tells him about her love life. It’s child’s play for him to fish her keys out of her purse and have them duplicated; he doesn’t even need to be invisible for that. He has plenty of time to check out her flat and get to know the tight spots. When she gets home, he’s waiting for her and precedes or follows her in. He stays close to her; ever since that summer day when his cousins made him drink the glass of soapy water, he’s never tired of this heady game that consists of getting as close as you can to the other person without touching them or being touched. Some people close the bathroom door when they’re inside, even when they’re at home alone. As these rooms are often quite cramped, it’s an art to get inside at the right time. When she’s taking her bath, he crouches by the side of the tub. Later, he watches her sleep.

I’d like to film these scenes using a simple rule, but one that runs counter to other films that deal with the subject, or at least to the films I know. In them you don’t see the invisible man, just the visible results of his actions. The cushion on the armchair squishes under his weight, the curtains part on their own, the cigarette burns and moves around in thin air. By contrast, I’d like him to be visible to the spectator, but invisible to the other characters. Rather than using special effects, I’d like to film a ballet performed by two or more bodies in space: with one person seeing the other—or others—and them not seeing him. For these scenes, rather than working with a special effects artist, it would be good to get the help of a choreographer.

He hasn’t always been this rambling man, this Peeping Tom. Women other than the women he gazes at in silence were in his life. Women with whom he had love relationships as a visible person. But they didn’t work—there’s no way they could. Each time one such relation started, he swore he wouldn’t use his power, and then finally he’d wind up ceding to temptation. A woman who’s been watched when she thought she was alone can’t put words to this experience, but somehow or other she knows. Something alerts her in the look, no matter how tender, of the man who lies in her bed and holds her in his arms. Sooner or later she winds up telling him that she doesn’t know why, but she finds him strange, that while she can pin nothing precise on him, he makes her uneasy, she feels she can’t trust him. One of these women, perhaps, guessed the truth. In any case, he’s alone.

The person with such a remarkable talent is alone.

But is he the only one with such a talent? Not necessarily. There are other invisibles. They dare one another to do things, playful or cruel. Being invisible is a childhood dream, and the invisible play children’s games—but those of children who aren’t like others, children who are often cruel.

They live their condition in different ways. For a while the man in the film was fascinated by a friend with a rational, cynical, absolutely uninhibited way of using his power: a financial genius, he engaged in insider trading and carried out fast-paced, targeted raids. He was rich and famous, universally admired. And no one except for the man in the film ever knew the truth about him. Other, more timid, less talented people had to renounce their gift to live normal lives, letting it atrophy for lack of use, or stifling it by force. Still others have almost completely gone over to the other side: they’re almost never visible, perhaps they’re no longer even able to be visible.

Some seek contact with those like them, others shun it.

For me, the man in the film is between the two. For a moment he’s attracted by this parallel society, then he distances himself from it. He had that flamboyant friend; he loved an invisible woman. Together they shared their secret, relishing the glory and the shame, reveling in their superiority over normal people, playing tricks on them, taking risks. Little by little the perpetual one-upmanship became like a drug; he understood that with her he, too, would go over to the other side and cease to be visible forever, and he didn’t want that.

Sometimes he runs into her. No one sees her but him. She dares him to join her in her ghostly world. He lowers his eyes.

An invisible doesn’t need to work. Money and goods circulate; all he has to do is help himself. But he didn’t go over to the world of those who are never seen again, and since he still has a social existence, he still has to work. For now I don’t know what job he’ll have. What’s certain is that there’s no prestige in it, and unlike his trader friend he has no desire to make a career of it. He’s considered the failure of his family. If he wanted, he could also use his gift to scam his way into fame and fortune, but that doesn’t interest him. What really interests him is the magic realm where he can see without being seen.

He’s an anonymous sort of guy, with no particular sparkle to him. A man of the crowd who waits on the subway platform dressed in old sweatpants and a secondhand coat, the frame of his glasses mended with duct tape. Who pushes his cart in the supermarket and fills it with frozen food for a depressive bachelor. Who watches his clothes spin behind the bubble window at the laundromat.

He’s a king, but a secret one.

He alone knows it.

When the film starts, he’s losing his gift.

No doubt this takes place progressively, unpredictably. Things start going wrong. What he once did without effort, the way you breathe, becomes problematic. One day he wants to become invisible and can’t. Another, he wants to become visible again and he’s unable to. Or he becomes visible at the wrong moment, with all the embarrassment one can imagine.

It’s like getting old: there are things you could once do, things you liked to do, that you now have a hard time doing, and you sense that soon you won’t be able to do them at all.

It’s trite, it’s terrible.

It’s even more terrible when it’s not things but a single thing, and that single thing abandons you.

The invisible man in the film has nothing but his invisibility.

Those who have a gift, a talent, often have only that.

Often that’s all they are: a secret realm, and the immense misery that accompanies it. And this misery is what they cling to above all: it’s their neurosis.

If he’s no longer invisible, he’s nothing.

And if he’s nothing, he can finally become visible for the woman to whom he tells his story.

He can stand before her, deposed, wrung dry, and she can say, “You’re here.”

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