Falconetti Drinks the Water of Anguish

Garrett Saleen


In December 1946, Renée Falconetti takes a white limousine along the Viceroy Vertiz to the Retiro station after booking a seat on a train to Rio de Janeiro. After a misunderstanding regarding the carfare, she throws open the door a few blocks early and makes her way down the hanging gardens of Plaza San Martin. She's been ill for over a week, has drunk very little and eaten less; instead, she's decided to speak only French for the remainder of her time in South America. She crosses the red dirt of Plaza Britanica, through the shadow of the English tower brushing over the sand like a colossal sundial. The summer sun blunts itself against the Retiro dome, but once she is deep inside the station the façade lifts like a veil of French linen, and she finds herself shivering in the cavernous belly of pitched steel and smoke, waiting for the train.

The stink of festering marshland fills the first-class train car. Falconetti drapes her wool men's coat across herself as the train rumbles across the Tigre Delta. She plots her return to the stage in France, whatever is left of it. She has composed letters at once announcing her triumphant return and begging friends to come and fetch her from this godforsaken country, but never sends them, never writes them. She wakes up and finds the same low-lying greenness passing with the obscenity of a carousel, her eyes passing over it, the landscape passing through them. The chairs around her are empty of everything but their threadbare covers. Toward the front of the car are a few scattered backs of heads chattering in Italian and sipping coffee, and she notes the top halves of their newspapers never seem to turn over. The strumming of the rails underfoot becomes the sound of the voices and the sound of the clinking cups and saucers, until it seems like the saddest sound in the world, and she wishes the voices would emerge from between the rails and from beneath the empty seats to sit with her. She is very much alone. Clutching a cup of tea. A bowl of vegetable soup in white china. She darkens the tea with a spoonful of broth. Sips the tea and looks out the window at the mud-colored water snaking alongside, and then off again toward a copse, or a copse come apart into a flock of long-necked birds. She asks for the soup to be taken away, calls the steward back and hands him the darkened tea. She's developed a twitch in her right eye, little dashes and dots. I know you, says the man seated across from her. He speaks French. I saw you perform La Marseillaise on Liberation Day, he says. Please tell me you're still performing? I'm a comedian, says Falconetti, on my way to Paris.

In the Recoleta she performed modest revues with a ragtag company of French expatriates in a small café with a checkered floor. Two accountants, a wine merchant, a horse trainer, a poet, and Renée Jeanne Falconetti. She trained them in elocution as one might train an animal to play the harp, if that person truly believed that the animal could learn the techniques. In twelve months, Hélène, she told her daughter, I'll march them into Teatro Colón like a liberating army and hang the French flag from the president's box. After two rehearsals the poet stopped showing up, and a replacement never materialized. Mainly they drank the merchant's wine. They performed patriotic pieces, scenes of everything they'd left behind, Vaudeville, simple melodramas—A loves B, C loves A, C kills B, and then Falconetti sings a song. Some women play bridge when they hit fifty, said Hélène to her mother, you play theatre. 10.000 francs a show not ten years ago, now what's left? Le théâtre insignifiant. Pass the hat. Amateurs for amateurs.

The ticket collector first notices Falconetti's eyes, which he calls zarpados, a word that comes to stand for the woman herself by the time he finishes telling the brakeman the story. They were the eyes of a mystic, he says, eyes that seemed to be slowly consuming her. Even though her ticket was for coach, I couldn't bring myself to kick the old lady out of first class because, in truth, she looked terrible. And I had this horrible vision of pulling the wool coat away from her and finding nothing underneath it, a white void, her head floating above a white void. I called ahead for the hospital in Santa Fe to send someone to the meet the train because I was fairly certain she was suffering from starvation.

Falconetti gathers herself in her coat and steps off the train onto a tall platform on the outskirts of a rural town just south of Santa Fe. The town is laid out on a perfect grid of dirt roads, surrounded by soybean fields running flat in every direction, netted as far as she could see by latticed knots of silted water. At a crossroads a mile south of town, she comes to a Bavarian-style inn and rents three of the four available rooms from an Austrian veteran of the Great War who made the twelve-week journey to Argentina after he had a vision of Saint Michael collapsing a Hellmouth with a single zeitzünder hand grenade. Do you know what Saint Michael asked me, he asks her, do you? She is silent and stares out the window, her eyes following nothing back and forth across the glass. She steadies herself on the table and asks to be helped up the stairs. The Austrian sends for his son, who at fifteen is a head taller than Falconetti. The pair moves slowly, and the Austrian listens for their steps across the second floor before returning to his radio. In the guestbook, she's signed her name with an X.

Falconetti always carries a second set of bandages in her interior coat pocket. She sits in the dark middle bedroom and removes her trousers and slowly unravels one bandage from around her left knee and then the other from her right. After three days of summer the bandages have begun to stink. The pain feels distant, as though it's running toward her out of the night. Both knees appear to her mangled and broken. She rubs them with the last of the benzocaine, dresses them tightly, walks to the sink to run warm water over the old bandages and then strops them with a bar of soap, squeezing them out between her index finger and thumb before rinsing and squeezing again. She drapes the bandages over the bed of the eastern bedroom and locks them in behind her. All this by rote, all this in the dark.

One morning, the troupe found her sitting on the dirty windowsill in the gray attic above the wine merchant's shop. They hadn't seen her for a week, her hair was cut short, her makeup smeared and dried in runs. She had met with some theater managers about renting a stage near the Correintes, and had agreed to perform The Passion of Joan of Arc as an audition. That the troupe was not consulted surprised no one. They rehearsed only seven intense hours for what would be their final show. She turned fifty-one during the performance, wearing a long gray tunic and a crown of thorns. She did not kneel. She sat shivering on a footstool. Naked feet perched over the checkered floor. Bruised legs. Varicose veins. But in the crowd of less than thirty faces, the theater managers never appeared, and so the new theater never materialized out of the darkness beyond the floodlights. Through the smoke of the final scene, the world became unrecognizable to her and she could feel her senses shrinking away as though she'd been plunged deep underwater. After the curtain dropped, she was cut from the stake and revived by the hands of those she no longer knew, by those who would never see her again. They waited for her by the front exit, and she left out the side, bathed in the street's white light and gone forever. For an hour there was theatre beyond anything else in the world, said the Teatro de Oscuro in a tiny write-up, claiming first that if not for her unparalleled talent, she would certainly be considered too old to play the part convincingly. During a visit some months later, Hélène caught her mother reading the much-folded newspaper page after dinner. Falconetti agreed aloud, with no one in particular, that she needed to take better care of herself, and then she told Héléne she had decided to grow her hair long for her return to Paris.

Renée Falconetti sleeps in the middle room overlooking the crossroads. She hasn't slept through the night in six years without getting up to empty her bladder, which seems to have aged faster than the rest of her. While sitting on the toilet, her mouth feels strange and she extracts a blackened eyetooth with her thumb and forefinger. She looks at it in the blue light, and stifles herself from crying out. She flushes it. She heaves over the sink, opens the small window, and hopes no one hears. Walking to her room down the dark hallway, she is gripped by a strong urge to crawl on her hands and knees like a dog up to the roof and throw herself off. She has finally reached the end of the world, the outer limits of creation, and she knows she has strayed too far, she will never see Paris. The full moon runs along the road's center like a white ribbon and bleaches the mesquite trees alongside it where she now projects the olive trees of Corsica bursting with visions of childhood summers. She begins a letter to Hélène, to tell her everything, but folds it after a few lines, tears it in half. A small platter is set down on her bedside table. The Austrian boy is in her room. Outside, bird screams fill the midmorning. Breakfast, as requested, he says, and goes to leave the room stopping at the wool coat hung on a peg, Why do you wear a heavy coat? Don't you? she says. Not in summer, says the boy as he exits. She takes a teaspoon of sugar out of the server and mixes it into the glass of water, squeezes the lemon slices into the drink and sips it by the window. She sits in bed and separates the flesh from the rinds with a fork and knife, and cuts up the rinds, and eats them off the fork in small bites.

Around three in the afternoon, Falconetti and the Austrian cross the Coronda River into the eastern marshlands in a red Ford truck carrying a flatbed full of garbage. She feels unwell; memories wander through her like ghosts, and she cannot remember agreeing to accompany him. The landscape passes like a dream—everything is wet and swollen and seething, the air is sick with the smell of garbage and swamp, and in every direction the marshes slowly swallow the jungle and soon there will be only green water and blue sky. The truck labors across the flatlands until it stops before an enormous hole in the ground. The hole is at least one hundred meters across and is totally black, as if the bottom of the earth had crumbled away into the night sky. Is it always this dark? she asks. I have never seen the bottom, even in direct light. Maybe there is no bottom. When I throw things in, there is never a sound, he says, but this was my vision of the archangel in the trenches, and I was told to close it up, to seal it. The natives call it La agua de la angustia: the water of anguish, a gateway to hell.

He pulls three canvas garbage bags off the flatbed and drops them into the darkness. Falconetti opens the door and rushes to the edge to listen for any sound at all. There is none. Another bag vanishes. She shouts down into the opening, once, twice with no echo. She laughs and claps, wants to sing, and the Austrian says Pardon me, so she moves aside. Falconetti pulls one of the few remaining bags off the bed. It is too heavy to carry, so she drags it towards the massive hole, wondering for a moment if their combined weight will cave the edge further and send her plummeting.

The Austrian calls to her, Hold on, hold on, the bag's split open. There's a thick trail of garbage between them, papers and rinds and pencil shavings and stained clothes and tin cans and discarded bits of chicken all coated in coffee and slime. He kneels down and picks up a broken strand of costume jewelry, red stone flowers linked by a gold-plated chain, which Falconetti walks over and snatches from him. Where did you get this? she hisses, clenching the necklace to her chest and walking back toward the edge. What's the matter with you? he says. Where did you get this? she asks again. It's for a girl my son has been seeing in town, I made him get rid of it, he says, looking away. You're lying, how'd you get this? Who gave this to you? He looks up at her, What do you want me to say? Falconetti takes another step backward, Did you take me here just to show me this? Just to mock me? After the final show in the Recoleta, when Hélène told Falconetti that she was tired of being the poor daughter of an actress no one knew, when she threatened to book passage on an ocean liner that would take her away, her mother only asked about her necklace she'd never seen before. It was a gold chain hung with a triangular red stone that shone with the white light of the side street. Where did you get that? Have you met someone? Falconetti said. Hélène grabbed Falconetti by the arms, I said I want to leave, are you listening? Let's go, let's get out of here, tomorrow, back to France. I've had enough of this place. Can't you even look at me? Hélène takes the broken necklace from Falconetti and throws it down into the void as if it was something to be stomped on. Falconetti watches it fall as long as she can, the rest of the garbage toppling off the edge, falling or fluttering, the abyss contracting around them.

The room is pink, nearly everything is pink, but Dreyer says on film it will be gray. They shoot the film in chronological order so Falconetti progresses slowly through a kind of incoherent maze. Rouen Tower's stairway leads instead to a crenelated battlement overlooking sections of a church and courtyard, and farther along sits the exterior of Rouen Tower, where her cell gazes out its top-floor window from up in the shadows. Falconetti stares at a white glint blinking off the camera lens. Between takes, she tries to blink in time with it. She's been kneeling on rounded stones for seven hours, and every few takes she alternates between moving slightly left and slightly right to flatter stones until the director notices. He steps out from behind the camera in a wool coat and dusty collar, someone runs out from behind a wall and hands him a jawless skull as he approaches. The crew seems to consist entirely of men with crossed arms and men running out from behind walls. Maria, Dreyer sighs, I swear we'll be here all night if that's what it takes. I thought maybe if I explain it differently. Please. You show pain here—he places a finger on her cheek, here—on her mouth, and here—her brow. He holds up the skull resting in the palm of his large hand. Joan shows pain here—he spreads his fingers out over the skull, it's not pain that should be shown in the flesh, but in the soul, Maria, Joan's pain of the flesh is only an echo, a very distant echo, of the anguish of the soul. Feel the pain, here—his fingers dig into the skull, making it tremble. She gets it on the next take. Dreyer then films her legs walking in chains; she supports herself with her arms resting on a beam held on either end by Antonin Artaud and a lighting technician. The viewing gallery comes apart in two pieces and the spiked Catherine wheel is lowered through the opening, and Dreyer films it gnashing in hypnotic close-up, quietly incanting to the operator, Faster, faster. Dreyer films Falconetti from below, against a white sky of isolation. Ours will be the most dramatic whiteness ever captured on film, he tells her. On the third take of Joan fainting in the torture chamber, Falconetti goes limp and bashes her head on the stones, knocking a tooth loose. She sits up, dazed, and spits some blood. A big commotion. Dreyer puts his wool coat around her and helps her up, kissing her on the head he tells her, That's it, Maria, that's good.

She prefers to sleep on the stone floor of the set, but keeps three suites on the top floor at Le Pavillon Henri IV: one to sleep in, one to bathe and dress in, and one to dine in, should she feel the need to use them. She refuses all medical attention, but agrees with Dreyer to return by car service to her rooms for a good night's rest. She asks for a box of cigars to be sent to her room, and the box arrives escorted by three bottles of champagne. She enjoys some of both on the terrace overlooking the villages flickering on across the Seine valley. Paris feels small to her now, and France feels even smaller. She will tour as Joan, but hasn't planned anything, hasn't told anyone. She envisions herself playing London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, California, Tokyo—to go west until she runs out of world. Dreyer will never go with her, so she'll find another, and another, or go alone. She tries to call her daughter on the telephone. No answer. She goes to get changed, and remembers she is still without makeup and wearing Dreyer's coat, which makes her laugh, and she decides to wear it to dinner. Give them something to talk about. She slips two cigars in the coat pocket and pours another glass to help her to the elevator.

She passes through to the hotel bar, walled off from the restaurant with paneled windows, passes the coat-check, and sits in an armchair that opens up across from the marble fireplace. A waiter holds the menu for her, but she's too exhausted. She pulls a cigar from her coat pocket and taps the menu in two places. The waiter nods and scurries away as Falconetti nips the end of her cigar. A well-dressed man with his hair parted down the middle sits next to her and holds out a lit match. Falconetti pulls back quickly and the match is shaken out, What do you want? The man leans toward her, I knew I recognized you. Her brow raises, Really? The man, definitely American judging by his poor French, continues, You're Renée Falconetti, and I have a nice little table reserved in the window where it'd be a privilege to buy you a drink and a steak dinner. His eyes have flicked up to her short hair three times. I'm fine here for now, thank you. The man looks down at his feet, showing them a canned smile. He tries again. I saw you five or six years ago you were brilliant, beyond anything. The papers called you the greatest actress in France, how're things for you these days? Well. These days, Falconetti meets his eyes, I am the greatest actor in the world, and I'm portraying the Savior in a new film, but tell me, what do you do? The American laughs loudly, but before he can respond the waiter appears carrying an ivory-handled telephone. Excuse me, Madame, there was a telephone call for you in the lobby, but they told the gentleman to call back here on the lounge line. He places the telephone on the side table. Falconetti stares through the American, trying to picture Dreyer calling to check on her from some chain-smoked phone booth in a cramped hotel. I said, is everything fine here, Madame, the waiter asks. Yes, this man was just looking for someone to show him to his table in the window, Falconetti says, that's what you were saying wasn't it? The American searches the room but finds nothing to say, the waiter touches his elbow with a white glove, This way, sir, we'll find your reservation, and after a moment's reluctance, they turn away from her, one after the other, and pass together under the glowing chandeliers into crowded anonymity.

Falconetti shows her teeth as her tongue wobbles the loose molar. Next to the telephone sits a glass of sparkling water, though she doesn't remember the waiter setting it down. She drinks. Outside, night runs against the windows and beyond, the lights of Paris seem as though they've all gone missing. In the restaurant there isn't an empty chair, hardly any empty space at all, and the noise builds and bulges as the band begins to play something slow. Falconetti pulls a flint lighter from her trousers and sparks a flame, and cigar smoke billows past her eyes and around her head as she imagines letting the phone ring and ring louder until it drowns out the band, until all the diners put down their forks in silence and wait on her to take her call, and suddenly she feels very alone. The cigar dwindles in the ashtray as she looks out a nearby window but sees nothing but the vast night and a muted reflection of herself partaking in it. She waits another five full minutes but the phone remains silent. She looks for the waiter to see if the caller left a return number, but she can't recall the man's face, or even how he spoke. But the call must have been from Dreyer. The room is filling with smoke and the light becomes ashy and suffocated. Perhaps she is dreaming after all. Falconetti places her hand on the telephone, and she desires just to hear his voice call her to set again, longs to hear it out of the night as though she has not heard it for a thousand years. She has to believe that somewhere out in all that darkness, he is there, his finger rotating the dial to call her away from this place, to tell her to open her eyes and raise herself out of the void.