Blurring the boundaries of both fiction and form, the three directors of the filmic experiment “A Woman Escapes” — Sofia Bohdanowicz, Burak Çevik and Blake Williams — have crafted an utterly captivating portrait of grief and isolation. Each filmmaker takes charge of 16mm celluloid, 4K digital and stereoscopic 3D respectively (with some overlap), exchanging footage and even cameras over a month in the early days of COVID-19. The result is a distinctly modern epistolary that seeks to comment on the ways we see the world, and the technology through which we see it, pulling from a vast cross section of artistic influences to create a wholly original piece.

Few modern movies demand viewing in a theatrical context to the degree that this one does. It features, in its closing minutes, a moment so thrillingly meta-textual that finding a cinematic comparison is difficult, given the degree to which this experiment reaches beyond its own boundaries, forcing its audience to interact with the storytelling medium itself. 

The closest mainstream parallels all seem frivolous. Black Mirror’s episode“Bandersnatch,” which you could click through with your remote or keyboard, was a prominent entry in a long line of interactive, choose-your-own-adventure films that harkened back to children’s CD ROMs. Robert Rodriguez’s kiddie adventure “Spy Kids 4-D” was distributed with scratch-and-sniff cards that emitted specific scents and odors. 

The result is a distinctly modern epistolary that seeks to comment on the ways we see the world, and the technology through which we see it, pulling from a vast cross section of artistic influences to create a wholly original piece.

However, the conceit in either case involved additional tools whose purpose was interactive to begin with; rather than breaking the fiction, they re-enforced it. In “A Woman Escapes,” an hour of immersive, hypnotic storytelling is followed by a scene that jolts its unsuspecting audience into a state of Brechtian hyper-awareness, forcing them to interact not only with the screen, but with their 3D glasses — the very technology through which its story is told — and with each other, thanks to an apparent glitch where it seems like their glasses may have malfunctioned, leading viewers to either look around or check in with their seatmates to figure out if they’re alone in what they’re seeing.

Finding a remotely comparable analogue to this moment might require searching beyond the cinematic medium, and looking to an unexpected source: Hideo Kojima’s seminal 1998 video game “Metal Gear Solid” — not for its politics or violent tone, but for the fourth-wall-shattering nature of its final level, in which the player is unable to best the game until they step outside its physical bounds by switching their controllers to a different port. But even so, Kojima’s transformation of the game from passive to active — while it certainly brings the storytelling into the real world — remains individualistic. In “A Woman Escapes,” all of a sudden what might otherwise be an isolated experience becomes unequivocally shared, an idea the film builds towards via its portraits of people in mourning in the early days of COVID-19.

The film’s story is deeply personal, drawing from Bohdanowicz’s own experiences and previous films. Çevik and Williams also appear, often as disembodied voices, but Bohdanowicz employs the talents of actress and filmmaker Deragh Campbell, who has played her semi-fictitious avatar Audrey in numerous projects. The first thing we hear is Audrey’s voice mournfully repeating the name “Juliane,” as if in desperate prayer, as images of an older woman materialize like 16mm memories. This is the astrologer Juliane Sellam, Bohdanowicz’s real-life friend and the subject of her Montmartre-set documentary “Maison du Bonheur” ( “House of Happiness”). Through its episodic vignettes, that film observed Juliane’s daily rituals in order to capture the vibrancy of both her inner life as well as her immediate surroundings. 

When “A Woman Escapes” begins, Juliane has recently passed away, leaving those surroundings devoid of the warmth and rhythmic movement she once brought to them. Audrey compares Juliane’s death to that of her own grandmother — one of the earliest forms of loss human beings tend to experience, often as children, resulting in the creation of inextinguishable core memories, like an early form of image-making. 

From Juliane’s balcony, Audrey stares at life unfolding at a distance below. Her Parisian neighborhood changes in minor but noticeable ways in the wake of COVID-19. Fewer people fill the streets; those that do venture out have no choice but to distance themselves from most human interactions; and Audrey can only observe these phenomena from the safe but isolating comfort of Juliane’s balcony, high above.  This is not unlike the core premise of Mati Diop’s thoughtful 2020 pandemic self-portrait “In My Room,” also set in Paris, in which Diop similarly likens the death of a grandparent to the feeling of life lived at a distance from oneself.

Credit: Blue Magenta Films

It’s in the aftermath of Juliane’s death that “A Woman Escapes” unfolds, with Audrey clearing out her empty Parisian apartment while corresponding with Williams in Toronto and Çevik in Istanbul, who are each experiencing personal losses of their own (Çevik, for instance, has just gone through a breakup). The broad context is societal loss as death runs rampant in the early days of coronavirus lockdown, an all-encompassing trauma. Each of the filmmakers’ vignettes, accompanied by voiceover, sees the three exploring their respective surroundings as they relay dreams and scattered thoughts to one another, along with a handheld 3D camera passed between them. This hand-off comes with instructions of what clips each is to film, effectively forcing them to see the world through the others’ eyes.

The 3D camera, which is mostly used to capture establishing shots of landscapes rather than people, ends up being a vital narrative lynchpin. 3D has been a part of the cinematic experience in some form since the early 20th century, before its commercial explosions in the 1950s and again in the 2010s, courtesy of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” However, few filmmakers have pushed its technological limits. Martin Scorsese deployed it to claustrophobic use in a handful of scenes in “Hugo.” Jeff Tremaine’s shlock stunt-acular “Jackass 3D”used it to both satirize the format’s return to prominence, and to mangle the human body with wince-inducing clarity. And cinematic maestro Jean-Luc Godard, in his 2014 narrative experiment “Goodbye to Language,” embarked on a head-spinning journey through the way human beings perceive narrative through sight and sound, destabilizing that relationship while going as far as to decouple the very perception of one’s left and right eyes. 

“A Woman Escapes” is very much in the spirit of Godard’s visual deconstruction, though it expands on his inside-out formal analysis by not only bending the images on screen, but by creating the illusion that the screen itself may be spinning or shifting, swapping background for foreground like warped priorities, as Williams describes to Audrey the phantasmagorical physical logic of a disturbing dream he once had:

The dream evolved, and time slowed down. Everything I saw was backward. Inside out. You commented that the sky looked like a road. I told you to stop stealing people’s words.

The 80-minute movie began its film festival rollout last year, followed by a one-week New York theatrical run this past June. While it may likely become available for home viewing in some form, it’s worth keeping your ear to the ground for 3D screenings that might appear from time to time — these are usually updated on Williams’ website — because the format is integral to the experience. Whereas 3D is so often used to simulate (or re-create) reality, its un-reality in “A Woman Escapes” gives rise to new ways to think about the form. 

It helps film and conceptualize the otherwise unfilmable, whether the feeling of stepping inside a lighting display by artist Anthony McCall, or the sheer overwhelming and enveloping nature of grief and its confounding aftermath. The film’s dueling technologies each comment on various aspects of this experience. 

The 3D footage often results in a loss of perspective. The hues of Bohdanowicz’s mostly 16mm footage are gorgeous to behold, but the visual noise of the film stock’s fabric often renders its magnified close-ups hazy — a fitting aesthetic embodiment of the daze in which Audrey finds herself, as time either skips past her without notice, or collapses in on her. Çevik’s 4K footage, while significantly clearer, is also sanitized, lacking the lived-in dimensions of physical film; it’s fitting that the first time Çevik appears, he’s sanding a wooden table down, arguably robbing it of its character.

Everything that each bit of technology gains leads to a loss on some front, thus imbuing each character with a sense of incompletion. Their respective footage, which portrays seemingly mundane experiences, becomes entirely representative of their introspections during a tumultuous time, but each of these aesthetic externalizations seems to portray an internal world out of balance. Visual sharpness and physical texture become mutual exclusives, like emotional clarity and depth of character. However, when Williams’ 3D footage appears, it usually creates a spark of intrigue, providing novel ways to look at not only at one’s surroundings, but at oneself. His voiceover segments are more intellectual than emotional, as if to provide alternate neural pathways to simply staying afloat in the modern world, with its modern grievances. It isn’t so much a call to stoicism as it is to self-reflection through a technological lens. 

It’s as if the three filmmakers were sharing each other’s thoughts and feelings in the most profoundly personal ways. 

His stream-of-consciousness musings betray an awareness of the film’s avant-garde sensibilities and its inaccessible (to general audiences) nature. He even quotes an academic paper on “the aesthetics of boredom” while re-creating the cathode-ray-tube visual experiments of the paper’s subject, renowned 20th-century video artist Nam June Paik, with narrow, jittery bands of light flickering across the screen, like passing jolts of life and inspiration in the darkness. The 3D also comes in handy here, bending both the light and the screen in ways that Paik would’ve likely found amusing, even thrilling. 

Each minor aesthetic flourish is an embodiment of specific time and place. Sarah Davachi’s synth-heavy score is a constant background hum, enhancing our perception of the characters’ numbed states as the grueling repetitiveness of lockdown sets in. Meanwhile, Campbell herself has handwritten the frequent title cards intercut between scenes, noting the passage of time like diary entries, rote and bareboned. There’s a dueling sense of intimacy and listlessness to the scenes and recollections. This is made all the more eerie by the fact that the “plot” — a scant one by design — concerns the filmmakers translating and re-recording each other’s confessional voiceovers to create remixed art, thus portraying a sense of emotional and psychic transference within an artistic framework. It’s as if the three filmmakers were sharing each other’s thoughts and feelings in the most profoundly personal ways. 

The film is as much a lament for old friends as it is for old mediums and technologies, laying them lovingly to rest, but it also embodies the steady absorption of the human psyche into the cinematic. “ A Woman Escapes” is, in essence, a post-pandemic eulogy for everything we thought we knew, from the primary modes of human interaction — an entire generation began its schooling over Zoom, a tech known to cause body dysmorphia — to a broad status quo wherein mass casualties that once would’ve been met with outrage are now quietly accepted. It looks toward a strange, surreal and uncertain future, in which the ways people relate to screens and to the world around them are in constant, evolutionary flux. The lines between daily interactions and visual storytelling grow increasingly blurred, with cameras pointed at oneself both for basic communication, and for the online dissemination of one’s identity.  Using its oscillation between filmic mediums, “A Woman Escapes” captures the shifting nature of how we see in the first place. 

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