A Cinema of Forking Paths: A Borges Inspired Film Season

A new season of films inspired by the work of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges screen in part at Curzon Bloomsbury. Programmer Steven Ryder tells us why Borges has had such a powerful influence on cinema.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote about labyrinths, paradoxes, dreams, and fantasies, often treating human beings as a puzzle to solve. Considered one of Argentina’s greatest cultural exports, he released his most famous book of short stories, Ficciones, in 1961 and has since been treated as a “philosophical” author, a highfalutin and sometimes impenetrable presence in literary history.

Yet this perception is somewhat unjust. Borges was an intellectual and did concern himself with some of life’s big questions but his fictional output was more playful and mischievous than people give him credit for. Fake reviews of fictional encyclopaedias and a stroll through an endless, universal library are treated with wry smiles rather than consternation.

Borges influence on cinema, therefore, extends beyond strained seriousness and has, in fact, seeped into the mainstream. Look no further than Christopher Nolan, arguably modern cinema’s most successful auteur, who cites Borges as the biggest example on his 2010 film, Inception, a film which takes the Borgesian notion of controlling somebody’s dreamscape and gives it a physicality. Nolan states “..the truth is, he took these incredibly bizarre philosophical concepts and made them into very digestible short stories. I think his writing naturally lends itself to a cinematic interpretation because it is all about efficiency and precision, the bare bones of an idea.”

Inception  (2010)

Inception (2010)

The two films playing at Curzon Bloomsbury this weekend are perfect examples of Borges’ stylistic and narrative contributions to the world of art and art cinema. Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), from a screenplay written by one of Borges’ esteemed contemporaries, Alain Robbe-Grillet, contains some of the great hallmarks of Borges most famous works – the baroque location, looming over its characters; the perpetually confused protagonist; the perpetually bewildered audience; eloquent yet haunted first person narration and, potentially most important, a direct questioning of reality. With an organ score and frenetic camera movements way ahead of their time, Marienbad is unfiltered cinema in the same way Borges’ stories existed on their own plain of materiality.

Last Year at Marienbad  (1961)

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Extraordinary Stories (2008), meanwhile, speaks more to Borges’ playful side. Directed by fellow Argentine, Mariano Llinas, who also made the 15 hour La Flor, which screened at the London Film Festival this past October, the film is (comparatively) a mere 4 hours long. Yet, it barrels forward at a breakneck speed, following three separate but equally compelling narratives that may or may not have something in common. Utilising a shifting meta-narrative and consistently breaking the fourth wall through its clever and humorous third-person voiceover, Llinas’ film diverges into multiple, emotionally explosive tangents. A far cry from the slow cinema that these kind of running times usually breed, the screening this weekend is a rare chance to see this South American masterpiece on the big screen.

Extraordinary Stories  (2008)

Extraordinary Stories (2008)

Borges was a fan of cinema and wrote extensively about Citizen Kane, another fictionalised biography, this time of a man who never existed. His famous quote of “We accept reality so readily, perhaps because we sense that nothing is real” speaks a lot to the power of cinema and how we, as cinemagoers, give ourselves over to its alternate and fantastical realities. It is my hope that this duo of films can direct you down a splendid, but unknowable, path of your own.

[Words by Steven Ryder, programmer of Forking Paths and Curzon Podcast regular]

Last Year at Marienbad and Extraordinary Stories will be screening at Curzon Bloomsbury on the weekend of 8-9 December.