Many years ago, when I fell in love with my partner, Andrew, he took me to see Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice.
It was one of our first dates; he was in his final year at film school, and I was starting to write. I had much more of a thirst for narrative than him, and at that stage of my life I wouldn’t have gone to see a silent film from the 1930s – one that chronicled a day in a seaside resort, exposing the dark underneath the frivolous and gay, the poverty propping up the apparent prosperity. But I wanted to like what he liked, because that’s what you do when you fall in love. I went without complaint, open to the experience, and I ended up being totally absorbed.
Over the years, neither of us had forgotten that film. We couldn’t recall its title, or the name of the director, but we each remembered scenes. Most vivid for me was the waiters burdened down by armloads of white umbrellas, carrying them out to shade the cafe tables. I also loved the quick cutaway, blink and you’ll miss it, of an ostrich, moments after a woman strolls the boardwalk resplendent in her feather boa.
But these recollections of individual scenes were never enough to compel me to seek it out and watch it in its entirety again – until now.
It was after the Easter break that I became curious enough to find it on YouTube, wanting to know why it had stayed with me. We had just come back from three days at Pittwater, to the north of Sydney. A friend of my mother’s had offered us her house, right on the water. A place with no cars and no shops, a place where we could walk off the grass, onto the sand and sink into the milky calm of the harbour.
Since I was diagnosed with a brain tumour last November, I have been in constant treatment. Surgery, radiotherapy, chemo and then chemo again. After six months, I feel completely depleted. My bones ache, each one. My limbs feel like chalk with lead in them. But I am also jittery: electric shocks that make it hard to rely on my body. I have little social energy left. By afternoon I have to shut down, incapable of being with people, absolutely emptied.
I wanted to get away, but I was nervous about the logistics of packing, taking enough food – the only way in was by boat – and also wary about the grief that often accompanies me on holidays since my diagnosis.
We drove up through the northern beaches, the country of my childhood. Little had changed. The giant strelitzias, banana trees, frangipanis and the incessant sound of lawnmowers were all still there. The Palm Beach ferry stop was just as I remembered it.
I can barely recall carrying on our bags. I wondered whether the journey was too much for me and whether I would be able to make it from the wharf to the house. I looked out at the wake behind the boat, and then at the two primary schoolgirls opposite me, both with straw blonde hair, sandy eyelashes and golden skin. They were so beautiful and alive.
When we arrived, we were helped by a local. He loaded our luggage into a wheelbarrow, manoeuvring it across the sand, me trailing some distance behind.
I have no memory of us taking the bags up the stairs or unpacking.
I went to bed early that night, waking to see the spill of moonlight across the water, hearing nothing but the wash of the sea onto the beach, and I stood by the window. The great bulk of the Barrenjoey headland was opposite. The air was still.
We were there for only three days, but I soon became familiar with the rhythm of the place, the locals and holidaymakers, all of us sharing the Easter break together.
Each morning I meditated, did my stretches and then walked. The managing of self that comes with cancer takes an inordinate amount of time – even between treatments. During the day, I settled into reading on the deck, and in the evening Andrew and I took another walk.
There weren’t many options to the daily strolls – clockwise or anticlockwise, or as we would ask each other: beach first or gully first? We liked the house two doors down from us with dragon blood trees, and clusters of frangipanis in the front garden. We remarked on the grace of that garden each morning and each afternoon. “There’s the favourite house,” one of us would say, and the other would agree.
We stopped to admire the golden bamboo, creaking as it swayed; we peeked into the local hoarder’s front yard, littered with building equipment, tools, “useful stuff”; we read the community noticeboard, even though nothing ever changed, and we browsed the same old books discarded by holidaymakers in a makeshift library at the end of the jetty.
In the mornings we watched the families setting up for a day on the beach. Buckets, spades, snacks from cavernous bags to placate a grumpy child, toys as distractions. In the afternoon it was quieter, the strip of sand almost deserted, except for the same glamorous couple, staying on the point. They took a dip at 4 o’clock in front of our house and then, with a glorious flap of their towels, reclined and read without saying a word to each other.
Since I have been diagnosed with cancer, I have felt I am outside, watching the world from another place, through a window. The feeling doesn’t go away. But on that holiday I felt at peace with it. Perhaps most of us have a sense of being outside, observing, when we vacation.
“All this frivolous activity,” I remarked to Andrew.
Boats coming in, going out; people walking to the jetty, picnicking on the beach, playing Frisbee; toddlers unsteady on their legs, tumbling into the shallow water, to be scooped up by their mothers; dogs yapping; old men fishing and occasionally hitching up their shorts to hide their plumber’s cracks, or coin slots as a friend of mine recently termed it.
On the second day, a barge crossed Pittwater, red, yellow and blue bins, stacked side by side. A dog, beautifully balanced, dashed across each of them, excited at the prospect of reaching his destination. As the boat slowed and the driver tossed a coiled rope onto the mooring, the dog was poised. Leaping off onto the wharf, he ran up and down the beach while the garbos swapped full bins for empty ones, ready to be filled up again.
The propping up of all this useless human activity – it was then that I recalled that film about Nice.
“What was it?” I asked Andrew.
This time he remembered. “À propos de Nice,” he replied.
A few days later, I found it on YouTube. A jarring soundtrack had been added – I couldn’t remember what we had originally heard in the cinema – and it wasn’t quite the same as I had thought.
More didactic, I realised: the gap between rich and poor more laboured. And more surreal: the wonderful scene where a woman appears in lavish frock after lavish frock, only to be revealed as nude; or the shoe polisher who polishes all day, the blur of shoes becoming a bare foot that he shines vigorously.
But then, as the carnival scenes towards the end of the film became more frenetic, the cutaways symbolising death became more frequent and the shots were held for longer each time. Marble statues in cemeteries that I had no recollection of; the slow sway of a cypress; the constant tide washing it all away.
Twenty years later, watching À propos de Nice, I am middle aged and midway through treatment for a brain tumour. I realised it was not just about frivolous human activity and all that props it up; it was a film about mortality. The rich, the poor, the people in each of the scenes – we all come to the same thing in the end.
Strange but not so strange, how you recast art according to who you are at that moment. I had no memory of those last few images, even though I had seen them all those years ago in a cinema with Andrew.
The Unwelcome Guest is a monthly column about Georgia Blain’s life with cancer.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2016 as "À propos de Pittwater".
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