I first came across Carl Jung’s term “synchronicity”
at first year university in Melbourne. It refers to patterns of chance
that appear to have meaningful significance, suggesting the existence
of an unknown logic connecting otherwise unrelated elements. Most people
experience examples of it from time to time: someone mentions an obscure
writer you’ve never heard of, and the next book you pick up falls
open at a page where he is mentioned again. We usually call these events
coincidences, but some coincidences are so persistent or so unlikely
one can suspect something else is at work.
When Gilda Bessé, Charlize Theron’s character in Head
in the Clouds, experiences synchronicities, they reinforce her
suspicion that life is pre-ordained. All her instincts rebel against
this, her nature is to live life as freely and spontaneously as possible
but events always conspire to renew that nagging doubt.
I once observed a palm reading, which in some respects resembled the
one Gilda experiences early in the film. In the midst of a student party,
a girl grabbed the hand of a friend of mine–we were both about
nineteen–and insisted on reading his palm. Half drunk, and thoroughly
sceptical, he gave her maybe half a minute while I looked on. She only
came up with one comment. At age thirty, he would face a life-threatening
illness. Nice party trick. But as it turned out, she was right, exactly
to the year. Thankfully, after eight months of intense treatment, he
recovered. Chance? Coincidence? A lucky guess?
In one of the drafts of Head in the Clouds,
I wrote a scene set in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris, where Gilda
and Stuart Townsend’s character, Guy, are talking about fate.
There has been a light fall of snow, and before they cross the grass
Gilda refers to the footprints they are about to make, suggesting they
are already there, as it were, “lying in wait.” In the final
screenplay, because we were filming in summer, I transferred the substance
of this scene to a walk on the banks of the Seine, and Gilda uses the
same phrase later on in a letter.
It’s amazing how many people casually profess their belief in
fatalism. “If it happens, it was meant to happen.” “It
was meant to be.” “It was in the stars.” As if we
are all basically the unwitting playthings of fate. Personally, I believe
strongly in free will; it seems a pretty essential ingredient to any
viable notion of morality, for one thing. But there are still times
when things happen in my life that cause the same doubts Gilda experiences
During filming, we encountered our usual share of seemingly inconsequential
coincidences. One was during a location survey in Sussex in the south
of England. In the early part of the film, there is a party at a very
grand country house. In the screenplay I called it “Amberleigh”–I
thought a good generic name for such a place. In the survey, we had
been to several potential houses, and as we neared the last on the list,
we passed a sign to the adjacent village. It was called Amberleigh.
Perhaps inevitably, the house was the best we’d seen, and the
one we used. A happy coincidence, that one, and we enjoyed a very pleasant
pint in the Amberleigh pub after we had surveyed the mansion. Coincidentally
a horse called Amberleigh House won the biggest horse race in England
this year, the Grand National, maybe that’s a good sign too, but
that one is pure coincidence, surely?