“All I would have to do is keep insisting inside myself, and things would happen the way I willed,” intones the cognitively unkempt protagonist of You Are Not I. She’s a not-quite-instantly recognizable indie figure, a beak-nosed quasi-crone named Ethel (Suzanne Fletcher) who, if we break it down quite mechanically, escapes from a mental institution and then seeks refuge in the house of her sister, who’s in turn straight-jacketed via an oblique identity-shuffling finale. No Wave priestess and frequent Jim Jarmusch collaborator Sara Driver’s oleaginously condensed debut sludges an adaptive path through the eerily obviative, albeit technically first-person, text of Paul Bowles by the same name, achieving a poetic fragmentation through numinously content-driven, rather than formal, devices. (When Ethel passes, or believes she’s passing, an automotive accident en route to her sororal sanctuary, she experiences the wreck in progressive, isolated images: firemen squirting water into a cloudy void; bodies arranged ceremoniously about untroubled trees, their mouths hungry for the stones in Ethel’s hands; and then a young Luc Sante, in sunglasses, leading her away from the embroilment with the insidiously humble walk of a car salesman.)
The movie’s hulking, photographic indolence—committed by Jarmusch, playing camera operator and inspired, probably, by fringe-noir like The Honeymoon Killers—trips the frame into intriguing vantage points where it can better observe the magnificently creepy cast members, each of them aura’d by the extremist black-and-white format like hanging, macabre baubles. This tension, however, between deliberate shadow and extemporaneous mise-en-scène, uncannily mirrors the manner in which Bowles’s narrator imagines herself as not only superior to her environment but the progenitor of it. (When she reaches her sister’s home, there’s a humorous ego-trip of a moment where she observes the futile interior decorating that’s taken place since her previous sojourn there, noting with superciliousness that all her sibling can manage is to rearrange the same home furnishings into symmetrical configurations; as the two talk, a kitschy Jesus lithograph hanging on the wall negotiates the space between them.) The result is a kind of off-the-cuff manifesto, one that Driver and her buddies crafted with enough naïve subtlety to be (mis-)interpreted as a furious vindication of either directorial or female agency, even as the moments slopping by us on the screen seem to cannibalize whatever authorship is trailing them. Given this, and the fact that there’s an effective moment at the climax where Bowles’s words are read icily over a black screen, it’s not difficult to understand why the writer preserved his copy, the only copy, of You Are Not I for posterity—albeit appropriately without much fanfare.