We are greeted with the close up shot of Paul reading poetry aloud. He is cut off by the bell of the opening door. The next shot has flipped a hundred and eighty degrees to reveal a wide shot view of the café, where Paul sits and Madeline is revealed for the first time, closing the door behind her. She could have appeared as an innocuous costumer in the scene if the camera wasn’t framed around the seat she takes and Paul is nearly pushed out of frame. They strike up a conversation across their respective tables about a friend of a friend and Paul’s search for work.
He mentions his military career but replaces his recollection of any past experiences with a manifesto. There is a medium shot of his head switching back and forth between looking at Madeline and his papers on the table; apparently giving an unprompted recitation. He doesn’t mention violence, death, or horror, the subject of his contempt for the military is submission. He says that modern life mirrors the military where there is no longer freedom.
Shouts are heard and the camera cuts a hundred and eighty degrees around again to witness a couple with a child fighting at another table. The wall of Madeline’s booth obscures her reaction, but Paul’s expression is in clear view in the mid-ground and he turns his head, completely distracted by the outburst. The woman attempts to take the child with her as she leaves, moving past Paul into the foreground, but the man takes the child from her and leads the child out the door.
“The door!” Paul shouts in a similar way that he had reminded another person to close the door moments earlier. The woman runs back to get her bag at the table and then rushes back out the door, it is visible that she is holding a gun just as Paul shouts again “The door!” and the camera moves to the window to see the woman shoot the man dead.
This scene is emblematic of a pattern in the film of random acts of violence abruptly and loudly announcing itself, like the snapping gunshot over the title cards, abducting attention and, in this case, literally upstaging the first encounter between our romantic leads.
Moments such as these in the film dramatically highlight the indifference of the characters to such violence. Perhaps death is mundane to them now, Paul states that modern life and war are no different, as if life were a dull battlefront itself. It may be that after the man was shot by his lover, that Paul processed what had just happened, realized that his priorities of keeping the draft out were ridiculous, but the camera never allows us to see that. The scene ends with the woman getting one final hit in on the corpse.
But the main characters of the film show their indifference to death in less sensational parts of the film as well, such as when in scene nine Paul, Elizabeth, and Madeline meet for lunch and overhear two conversations. The first is between the previously mentioned woman who shot the man; a fact that is recognized by our young trio but they only seem casually interested in the fact that she became a prostitute. When the conversation between the woman and her client turns to the holocaust and who is responsible, the young trio ponders how many clients she services a day. The second conversation we overhear is between Bridget Bardot and a gentleman discussing a scene where a man has just been killed by a car and he explains how Bardot should evoke her disbelief.
These conversations and others like them, seem preoccupied with reconciling with death, with dealing with the aftermath of death. This is a preoccupation that the main characters do not seem to have whatsoever. It isn’t that death is not a reality for them but their concerns are always set on the future: the future of politics, the outcome of their relationships. The scenes are spread out in such a way that we are never given time to process the effects of their choices through reflective exposition. Whenever there is a death in the film, as if the murder or suicide were punctuation, there is a considerable jump in time and we aren’t allowed to see how the characters process it.
Perhaps their generation’s goal as they come into adulthood is to reject the issues of the past, to move foreword. It gives the characters an air of denial but also presents an inexplicit connection between the way they ignore death and pursue sex. Sex and death are often presented side by side within the progression of a scene. Scene five is a single shot that embodies the extreme dichotomies of sex and death that frame Paul’s hopeless pursuit of Madeline’s love.
Madeline is in a hurry to get to work but Paul asks for just five minutes at a nearby restaurant, during that time the camera and Madeline follow Paul around the restaurant looking for the right place to sit, though he may actually being looking for the right words instead. When they sit down for the second time, the camera drifts to two men reading smutty literature aloud, when the camera follows them to their third seat, the camera again drifts to a man professing how he must move on from a woman’s death. Madeline says she has to go and quickly moves to the door, her music abruptly playing non-diegetically, perhaps in her head, can’t you see that we’re just friends? Paul blurts out that he wanted to propose and she reactively says that they will discuss it later, followed by an awkward handshake.
When Madeline and Paul had surveyed each other in the bathroom, she had asked him what the center of his world was and he replied that love was. Paul’s listlessness in scene five reflects how he is trying to place Madeline at the center of his world and she won’t reciprocate. This same tension between death, sex, and Madeline plays out again in the following scene, again in a single take, at the soda fountain outside the dance club. The stakes however are raised, this time Madeline makes her exit early with Elizabeth and rather than overhearing about sex and death Paul is directly confronted by them. A prostitute takes Paul to a photo booth and he denies her on the excuse that he doesn’t have enough money. He then makes a recording in the neighboring booth professing his feelings and concludes that he is a control tower trying to contact her. As Paul wonders into the arcade, Madeline’s song returns. You know darn well my address, but never a letter did I see. His listless wondering in this scene reflects his turmoil in trying to contact her and be heard.
A man pulls a knife on Paul, as the camera follows them out of the arcade, the man suddenly stabs himself and falls into Paul’s arms. This death goes unaddressed as well. We are privy to the immediate reaction of one death, when Paul and Catherine witness a man set himself on fire. Paul only talks about death in the abstract, stating that killing millions makes you a god. Catherine replies that she doesn’t believe in god and then asks if Paul really loves Madeline and their reflection is over. Even then they don’t seem concerned with this horror and move on as quickly as possible; never lingering in the past.
The final death in the film is, of course, Paul’s. This death is skipped entirely and instead we are left with Catherine relaying how he may have died. Madeline’s concern is once again set on the future. She is pregnant, a fear her friends kept reminding Paul of, and now she is faced with the decision to have an abortion or not. Now, like Paul, Madeline is caught between death and sex but in far more literal manifestation and she is caught within that tension. The last line of the film exhibits as much:
“I don’t know” Madeline says in a close up of her emotionally torn face and the film cuts to the concluding title card.