Villa Empain – Katharina Kastner

In Katharina Kastner’s 2019 film Villa Empain, time becomes inseparable from place. This 25-minute short constructs a living portrait of the eponymous villa, as Kastner explores its many rooms through time. We share her impressionistic journey as sunlight shifts between the house’s stained glass and its swimming pool, as rainwater slicks the atrium and evening crickets sing to the darkness of the parlour. Time passes from days to decades, and the house remains, but changed.

Villa Empain was constructed in 1934 by architect Michel Polak, following a commission from Louis Empain. Finding himself unable to live inside a work of art, Louis donated his home to the Belgian state 3 years later, for use as a museum. As the Second World War broke out, this did not come to pass.

Details of the house’s exact history are hazy for most of the film, as feelings (both sensory and emotional) take precedence over facts and dates. Kastner’s sequences confuse chronology, as though layers of the house’s history are occurring simultaneously, each overlaying the last. 

In this time, the villa is a gallery. Warhol’s pillowy Silver Clouds drift in an immaculate lobby; Chun Kwang Young’s hulking ‘Aggregations’ sculpture inhabits the parlour. In another time, it is a soviet embassy. In another, it houses Radio-Télévision-Luxembourg. Whirrings and clicks of this 1980s film studio haunt shots of mosaiced passageways decades later, whilst artist Tamar Kasparian creates imprints on the villa’s porch, attempting to transform her present moment into something tactile. 

In another genre, the villa would be a haunted house. It is a dwelling for ghosts, and what are ghosts but memories that refuse to be forgotten? Each of the house’s inhabitants has left a mark on its history; they have scratched the marble, torn out a bathroom, restored what once was. In Villa Empain the house’s history is blended with that of its commissioner, as Kastner introduces shots of the coastline of Étretat, where Louis played as a child, alongside uncovered footage and photographs from his youth. Both his history and the villa’s are entwined within a film for which then and now are equally present. As the sea shapes the coastline of Étretat, time shapes the villa.

Hegel observes that the truth of space is time, and the house is indeed defined by its past; time has gifted character, and many lives. This idea gives the villa a strangely untouchable quality, as Kastner explains that her ‘entire film is the attempt to find out about something that we cannot put our fingers on’. To this end the camera captures things we can almost touch. Through shots of oak and marble, sun-dappled leaves, plush carpets and chinking beaded curtains, we feel the textures of the villa and hear its tiny sounds, as the film constructs our experience of the house from a poetic mosaic of close-ups. The film’s emphasis on tactility expresses an irony: that the history of the house is beyond reach. It is something we cannot touch.

Kastner’s choice to shoot on 16mm film is a gesture of loyalty ‘to the villa’s character and aesthetics’. It also levels the filmic past and present, folding the layers of time into one. This mode of analogue documentation alludes to the tension between degradation and preservation throughout the film. Tamar’s rubbings on the porch, Louis’ pressed flowers and Villa Empain’s painstaking restoration reflect a desire to stop time and preserve history. Shots of Étretat’s eroding white cliffs however, dwarf these efforts to fix time into place. Perhaps one day Villa Empain will cease to be a gallery once again. Perhaps this house has many more lives to lead. 

Villa Empain is now showing on MUBI

IMAGE CREDIT: KATHARINA KASTNER

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