Cinema of France


The Cellular Tree (Saint-Jacques… La Mecque)

Cut no. 19; March 2007

Foreigners often have a more clear-sighted perspective of French cinema than us.

That’s why America was the first to recognize one of our best filmmakers in Marcel Hanoun. It’s in Italy that the only book on Paul Vecchiali appeared. It’s in England (which rescued Casque d’or from oblivion) that the first monograph on Coline Serreau, written by Brigitte Rollet, has been published while her last work Saint-JacquesLa Mecque released here to general critical indifference and a disappointing commercial performance (720,000 viewers), considering the sizeable financial investment involved. On the other hand, there were 10 million tickets sold for Trois hommes et un couffin, a film made on a small budget.

To be sure, we could criticize this new film for its commonplaces:

  • The will with odd clauses, an old scriptwriting trick;
  • The three children, representing the most opposed classes of society;
  • The excessive stereotyping (the drunk, womanizing loser with a heart of gold, the naïve Beur, the stressed-out CEO);
  • The assimilation of Islamists with the Catholics, just like that of Arabs with the Jews in Oury’s films.

But commonplaces, which point to a theatrical aesthetic, can be very productive when they are presented as such by the filmmaker, voluntarily and not unwittingly. They reassure, they make us laugh, they situate the action in time immemorial since, by definition, they belong to the past. They prepare the ground for the shock of the new that is to follow. A healthy and new dialectic of the conventional and the contemporary, of cliché and Café de la Gare, of cinéma verité and Cabiria: Serreau’s genius is based on a violent clash between the two extremes of these dialectics.

These dialectics place the modern within the classical in a roundabout way that kindles the audience’s interest.

And there’s quite a bit of the modern, the contemporary in the film:

  • The lampooning of Catholics, racists, the lazy, the cunning. The cherry on the cake: none of the nine who undertake the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is Christian. There are even three Beurs. And Serreau, while using their spectacle, mocks sumptuous, empty rites (the giant incensory, the echo of the most profane words in the church): pilgrimage as alibi, springboard, McGuffin;
  • The complexes of cancer patients;
  • The quirky character of the chubby teacher, atheist, jaded, but addicted to her profession all the same;
  • The comparative analysis of the methods of literacy;
  • The work of postmen summarized in one minute and fifty shots based on transitions through brief, expert pan shots;
  • The sending up of the sportive, posh, compulsively-lying, perfect little postman;
  • The irony towards the invading, consumerist foreign hordes (the Dutch here, like the Americans of Dix-huit ans apres, a little too caricatural);
  • The cult of cellular phones (with its new, unusual choruses—lot of chorus effects in this film: I’m thinking particularly of the admirable long shot of the to-and-fro of the callers who take over the frame from each other, all the more striking in the middle of an over-edited film, à la Eisenstein, with close to two thousand shots).

The old trick of a bizarre will is set in contrast with these digressions in which fictional characters summarize, in long, over-the-top, exhaustive and unbelievable speeches—with jump cuts as in television interviews, giving the illusion of live telecast— their general view of the world and of the problem at hand, like Lapin at the beginning of Serreau’s doubly eponymous play: “Now I’m going to deliver a monologue.”

Also commonplace is the principle of the microcosmic small group—an old Fordian motif—with Serreau’s nine (together in the frame whenever possible) resembling the nine of Stagecoach, the Seven Women, the thirteen of the lost patrol, and in the no-less-Fordian principle of nine silhouettes on the horizon, backlit and on top of the frame. Many clichéd images too (sunsets with lens flare), but all of it is swept away, swallowed, absorbed, magnified by a machine-gun-like editing, two seconds where Kurosawa, Jarman, Boorman, Malick and other resident impostors show off while the public has had time to study the art of framing. I will always remember the shot of the mother who has just hanged herself from a tree in Chaos. Her body is very far from the tree as from the ground. It’s absolutely impossible that she could kill herself in the conditions shown. The unbelievability introduces a certain humour which makes this drama go down better within the framework of a comedy. The shot strikes us with its beauty, its neatness, its abstraction and especially its brevity, which imparts it a nobility and a coherence. It gives the impression of the filmmaker’s superiority over the viewer. We are frustrated, we resent that it wasn’t longer. What would be bad over thirty seconds becomes brilliant over thirty images. We are carried away by the lyrical blow of the editing that allows for all excesses, erases their profound illegitimacy. Serreau squanders and splashes on us her lightning-quick effects that unfold faster than our perception. Certain brilliant dialogues go unnoticed…

Serreau summons Hopper and Kitano, King Hu and Henri Rousseau, Magritte and Godard. She works on colours a great deal. A genuine painter’s film, by a possessed demiurge, à la Fritz Lang, constructed with colours leaning towards the florescent, towards lively tones—notably the trash, the medicines and the creams with in-your-face packaging, as shocking amidst nature as the hodgepodge of relics on the supposedly Catholic, Nepalese-style altar (here Christ = Mohammed = Buddha).

As it often happens, cinema is worthy because it loathes—the modern gloss here, the speed of the CEO’s psychotic action (like the hero’s in Chaos), matched nevertheless by the brilliant, delirious speed of editing—like religion in Buñuel, violence in Fuller, extremes in Vidor, the industrial world in Antonioni.

Serreau’s palette favours a single, dominant, invasive tint in every shot, the light red of Castilian Meseta, the green or awesome yellow of the high plateaux with one or many human silhouettes, a magnificent, lone, “cellular phone” ash tree (probably planted there). We appreciate the funny blend of golden sunset, close to the Biarritz sea, and the soon-to-dominate yellow of the post-box. A Serreau film is first and foremost a symphony in yellow, with its entire range of shades, from the apartments of Trois hommes et un couffin and Chaos to the natural amber of this new work.

Let’s commend here a work that knows how to give grandeur to a landscape almost unknown to French cinema (except V. Gaudissart’s Céleste and Un roi sans divertissement by Badal, Letterier and Giono), that of the hills that Serreau loves, that of inner France of Massif Central, the knolls of Cévennes, Aubrac, Margeride, Velay, while our filmmakers lazily settle for the Côte d’Azur, Étretat and the Alps. Serreau has become our Dovzhenko, our Sjöström.

This recent orientation towards landscape was already evident, after a first period set entirely in apartments, with the Drômois mountain of La Crise and the Australian desert of La Belle Verte. It coincides with a return to the family, the couple, the mother and especially the grandmother as a foundation, replacing triangular and quadrangular relationships of the first period.

Serreau’s work as a creator of forms, always doped with the dazzling rhythm of an inspired editing, becomes all the more evident in the dream sequences. If she borrows landscapes from Les Camisards, she reprises the principle of another René Allio film, Rude journée pour la reine, based rather unconvincingly on the description of the imaginary of the average Frenchman, of popular art, and so of pop art.

Luxurious dreams, in the line of Metropolis, suffused with a kitschy or surrealist vein, reflect the fantasies of the nine contrasting heroes and demonstrate an astounding creative power relying on special effects and animation (Serreau’s Quisaitout et Grobêta was itself a play full of effects, like Molière’s and Corneille’s Psyché). Animation intervenes frequently in recent French fiction as well (cf. the films of Lvovsky, Canet etc.). We can’t forget the long, dark, Murnau-like cloud that invades the top of the image, looming over the characters, and the infinite theory of shaven heads, evoking chemo, Holocaust and Falconetti at once.

The first dream, presented as though it were that of the ghastly, alienated CEO, turns out to be that of the illiterate Beur1. Either that Serreau felt during editing that the Maghrebi’s dream was more striking than the businessman’s to inaugurate the series of dreams, to better characterize them as such, to better emphasize the shock of extremes (and the audience is not upset by this inversion), or that—a less evident hypothesis—she wanted to collectivize the dream, given that the utopia finally attained in the film is based on perfect mutual understanding within this heterogenous group. And then, the truth: all these naïve dreams are Serreau’s own…

It’s one of the rare comedies founded on the Great Form, on a heavy, significant formal organization, along with The Ladies Man (Lewis), Mon Oncle, The Wild Cat (Lubitsch), All These Women (Bergman), while the masters of comedy generally rely on actors, gags, situation, dialogue and often forget about colour and composition, except when they bring about a gag.

Serreau also borrows from musical art. Like in Bitsch’s L’Homme des couloirs, the brilliant Hugues Le Bars surprises us with his audacities and especially the soft, singsong voice of an unknown origin which, among other things, underlines the large Claire’s impulsive reactions whenever someone uses the word “big”2.

This chronicle of modern life owes a lot to the odd premise that enables it, the pilgrimage, which is quite an unusual device these days. There’s just Buñuel’s La Voie lactée and David Lodge’s book Therapy (not to mention the blueprint, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress) on the Santiago de Compostela side of things and, on the Mecca side, Ferroukhi’s magnificent Le Grand Voyage, Wajda’s Gates to Paradise and Jasny’s Pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary. We expect pious kitsch, or settling of scores with religion, and we find ourselves with a cross-section view of contemporary society smuggled into this road movie.

Like Serreau’s previous films (the nice cops of Pourquoi pas? and Trois hommes et un couffin, the passive extras of Qu’est-ce qu’on attend pour être heureux! who suddenly turn rebellious, the CEO Romuald who marries the black maid from a large family, the mute lady-killer Grobêta, the old woman of La Crise in perfect love, the Arab woman of Chaos driven to the streets, turned femme fatale, turned stock market speculator), Saint Jacques plays on the bizarre metamorphosis of the CEO linked to the System, who plunges abruptly into solidarity and ecology, recalling the Edward Arnold of You Can’t Take It With You, and regains familial sentiment after taking various ritualistic steps in discontinuous straight lines. Transgression, inversion, distortion, and at times cross-dressing, with the permutation of sexes (Lapin Lapin). Besides, in L’École des femmes, she plays Arnolphe herself.

There is here a gesture towards utopia, which must not be taken literally. It’s there to provoke the viewer, to present reality to him in a new, roundabout and arresting way. The utopia has to do with the bird’s eye view of things embodied by the naïve Beur as by the heroine of La Belle Verte (uneven movie, too dependent on its premise that misfires: the surprises of a Martian on Earth), and which keeps the Voltaire-like, Montesquieu-like 18th century tale alive3.

Therein lies one of the film’s most important narrative devices. For Serreau’s art is an art of narrative forms, varying from one film to another. In Mais qu’est ce qu’elles veules? it was the interview form, in Chaos a photo-novel, a comic pasted over money matters. La Crise was about its amazing, Hawksian rapidity of dialogue (reprised here at times), the inversion of Romuald.

Clear advantage over other great filmmakers like Jancso, Syberberg or Angelopoulous whose narrative form hasn’t changed a bit in thirty years.

 

1 In fact, there’s a brief shot of a sleeping person in between, but we don’t know who it is.

2 With the marvellous gag: we also hear the soft voice underlining Claire’s reaction when a character talks about “big responsibility” without referring to Claire.

3It’s amazing to see the same influence at work in another master of contemporary cinema, Jorge Furtado. In this regard, I quote Brigitte Rollet who, in her study on Serreau (p. 90), refers to Lapin Lapin (“I see everything that happens with the eyes of a foreigner”), compares La Crise with Montesquieu’s Les Lettres persanes and advances that “it’s tempting to define another link between these two texts: Serreau made her film at the end of another political reign (Mitterrand’s) which was seen by many as being reminiscent of that of the Sun King.”

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

That Which Does Not Kill (Alexe Poukine)

That Which Does Not Kill does not label itself beforehand, nor does it reveal its modus operandi right away. What it does offer is a series of talking heads, men and women, young and old, black and white, straight and queer, in intimate, homely décor, captured in simple, shallow-focus camera setups. In the first interview, a very soft-spoken girl of about twenty describes her memory of an assault: a man forces himself on her, yet she goes back to his house and they sleep together, and again a third time. The girl is soon revealed to be an actor and her testimony, a text given to her by the filmmaker for preparation. This text serves as a foundation for the rest of the film and the interviewees, all of them actors, narrate details from it as though from personal experience. The women interviewees speak from the perspective of the girl while the two men in the film stand in the shoes of the aggressor. We never know what part of their testimonies comes verbatim from the text, what is imagined and what is a direct expression of the actors’ own experience. Some of them evoke very specific memories, like particular colours or sounds, and some others break down. They step out of character at times to talk to the filmmaker behind the camera, but even so the boundaries are blurred. We aren’t quite sure where the text ends and personal memories of trauma begins.

At the heart of the text is the conundrum of why the girl responded positively to the man’s advances, why she went back to his house after the assault, and why she slept with him a third time. The question baffles the actors at first too, but getting into their role and approaching it through the prism of their personal experience, they understand her actions as a way of returning to a primal scene in order to set a derailed life straight. They characterize this as a shift from feeling shame (of being a victim) to identifying guilt (on the part of the aggressor). The testimonial text, consequently, moves from being a site of mistrust to a space for trust and solidarity. In doing so, the film probes the limits of empathy, conceiving it as a quality that’s not innate, but learned through performance and an active task of interpretation and imagination. An unmistakably post-MeToo film, That Which Does Not Kill problematizes the sureties surrounding sexual violence and trauma. It invokes involuntary excitation, proposes voluntary bondage as a reversal of powerlessness and acknowledges the inevitable contradictions in the memory of trauma, while also asserting the impossibility of forgetting such a corporeal experience. These are issues already part of the discourse, and perhaps the film breaks no new ground there, but it deserves credit for the way it frames the question of public response to survivor testimonies.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain (Sebastian Brameshuber)

Cliff (Clifford Agu) has an eye for old cars. He lives and works alone in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of a mining town somewhere in Austria. Like a hunter disembowelling his prey, he dismantles turn of the century models in his warehouse, selling refurbished units for cut rate to local customers or shipping spare parts to Nigeria. Sebastian Brameshuber follows Cliff’s life over several months, observing him working at length, cooking, fetching water, washing clothes, bargaining with customers, chatting with a Nigerian friend of his and driving into town to spot old cars to place his visiting card in. Cliff’s customers are invariably immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania. Neither Cliff or his clientele speaks proper German, and communication happens through a mixture of broken German, English and sign language. While Cliff’s warehouse lies in the penumbra of modern European Union, the shipment of spare parts from Germany to Africa traces a reverse movement of goods in globalized economy. Cliff’s is a life on the margins of capital, in the shadow of the wealth inequality that enables a thriving automobile black market. Even so, he says to his friend that things aren’t as good as they were ten years ago when he moved to this country, and reflects on the possibility of returning to Nigeria to ply taxies.

            Movements of a Nearby Mountain recalls Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in the disengaged manner in which it describes a life in solitude. Like Wang’s modern caveman, Cliff leads a very functional life revolving around business and sustenance. His only social life is in the conversations, perhaps imagined, he has with his Nigerian friend, with whom he observes the paintball arena opposite his warehouse. But unlike the man with no name, he seems to be free of aesthetic or sexual needs, outside of a comment about a pretty girl here or a song hummed there. He feeds a cat in the facility and shaves, but that’s all the outward-oriented gesture we see. More than Wang’s, it’s Flaherty’s Nanook that serves as a reference point here. Brameshuber, however, is confident that Cliff’s situation is self-explanatory and needs no description or context. Though there’s no interaction of the subject with the camera, his film is clearly collaborative and fictionalized, as is evidenced by the decoupage in which Cliff walks into spaces in which the camera is already setup. Besides, the filmmaker has Cliff narrate a legend about the region in which a water sprite promises the inhabitants an endless supply of iron ore in the surrounding mountains. Whether or not the promise was true, Cliff’s dwindling prospects seem to suggest a glass ceiling on the ladder to prosperity.

No Data Plan

No Data Plan (Miko Revereza)

Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan opens with the shot of a train pulling in to a station. The large crowd waiting for this trans-American Amtrak train is mostly coloured. Texts, written from the filmmaker’s perspective, appear on screen. We are told that Revereza’s mother has two phone lines, one without a data plan, in order to steer clear of immigration authorities. We learn that Revereza has been living in the US without papers and is bound to be shipped back to the Philippines if arrested. The entirety of No Data Plan consists of Revereza’s journey on this train over the next two days, even though we never know why he’s undertaking it. The “narrative” unfolds on two fronts. The images are resolutely anti-picturesque, anti-expository. Revereza focuses on the textures of the train: used trays, ketchup sachets, candy bars, sweaters, sunshine and shadows, promotional posters, seat covers, the space under the dining table, assorted luggage, dirty windows and the logos on them. He gets down at every station, filming passing trains or people waiting to receive visitors. There are bits of ambient dialogue captured, and Revereza makes a couple of phone calls and talks for a bit, but there’s no interaction with any of the other passengers. The focus is not on the bounty of the American landscape or the cross-section of the American population on the train, but on the banality of the transit, on Revereza’s disaffected drifting across states in anxiety about the border patrol showing up for an ID check.

The on-screen text, on the other hand, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother: her past as an immigrant housewife with no life outside home, her affair with a taxi driver, her eloping with him to Nebraska with Revereza’s knowledge, and her current life on the road. The text and the images work dialectically, producing a portrait of (paperless) immigrant life. Like Revereza’s noteworthy short film, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan is a film about losing one’s roots, and Revereza’s seemingly purposeless transit scans as the fallout of a disintegrating family. Other obvious points of departure are J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry and Albert Maysles’ In Transit. But the thrust of Revereza’s less sensual, less sociological film—a low-key elegy for a paradise lost—is existential. There’s always the risk of exhibitionism when a filmmaker plants himself so firmly at the centre of his work as Revereza does here. This looming authorial presence in No Data Plan, however, is closer to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film than, say, Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang. Revereza’s decision to document his life as an illegal alien, to upload it onto social media and make films out of it is a choice that serves to assert a selfhood that official documents deny.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal)

When Searching Eva opens, we hear ASMR-like reading of chatroom messages about sex, abuse and guilt: some of them grateful and appreciative, some others judgmental. The voice is that of the addressee, Eva. She looks twenty-something, but that’s about everything we can determine about her, for Eva defies definition: she is nothing fixed. Eva has a widely followed online presence, which serves as a rallying point for people feeling alienated from social, sexual norms. On the voiceover—presumably addressed to her followers—Eva recounts events from her life: modelling at the age of 13, her neglectful parents, her sexual exploitation by boys and old men alike, her part time sex work, her desires and diary entries. These chat sessions, seen on screen from time to time, alternate with intimate vignettes from her life: Eva in the shower or in bed with men or women, running free on the subway, moving houses, drifting from one European city to another, going to parties or taking drugs. The generally affectionate images are in contrast with the sordid details of her life. Eva spends time back in Italy with her mother, who takes pictures for her Instagram. She has a warm dinner with her father and his new family. The contradiction makes us wonder whether what we hear in the voiceover is the truth.

The answer is immaterial since, for Eva, identity is malleable, self-determined and entirely arbitrary; a prison to be escaped. Throughout Searching Eva is a suspension of the distinction between performing and being. Eva believes that you are what you pretend to be. She hails from a working-class background, but rejects the idea of fixed work or career, choosing to engage in an activity that will help her survive as long as possible without worrying about money, namely sex work. This sex work is just another facet of what she is, not something that defines her. Looking for apartments, she casually tells one of the current occupants that she’s a sex worker, to her interlocutor’s total disbelief. She services men as part of her work, but sleeps with women “in real life”. In her thorough rejection of biologically, socially determined identities, she inspires her followers (in remote European towns) who feel trapped and suffocated by their body, their sexuality, their past, their environment, their work. The film too never quite fits into the traditional documentary mould. Though leading a transparent, publicized life, Eva is continuously aware of the camera’s presence and sends our voyeuristic gaze back to us. But despite its stark self-reflexivity and multi-mode exposition, Searching Eva doesn’t forestall the feeling that it takes some self-congratulatory pleasure about its own open-mindedness, that if Tumblr had a movie version, this would be it.

Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais)

To lead a more affordable life, filmmaker Frank Beauvais moved away from Paris and settled down in a remote village in the Alsace region with his then partner. In the seven years that followed, he lost his father, who had lived with him during his final days, broke up and went into a period of intense isolation and anxiety, watching over 400 films between April and October 2016. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is a record of these seven months constructed solely through images from these 400 films strung together with Beauvais fast-paced voiceover. With detachment, but not without stretches of indulgent melancholia, Beauvais talks about this life of poverty, his relation to his mother living in the region, his panic attacks, his political indecisiveness caught between a feeling for revolution and a renunciation of all action. It’s an agonising life, the straightforward dramatization of which would’ve resulted in a significantly lesser film. The stasis and claustrophobia of the existence described is given a vital momentum by the lively images, rife with movement and action, and the snappy narration. The relation between word and image is linear literal times, and only intuitive at others. But the surfeit of images sweeps you along, not just in its volume but also in the striking detail Beauvais picks out: predominantly close up of actions, almost no faces and a generous amount of violence and decay.

In this, Just Don’t Think is the preeminent film about cinephilia, the life in films that Truffaut called a disease and which Beauvais christens “cinéfolie”. Early on, he tells us that films are not a window to the world but mirrors, that is to say a way of life that encourages self-absorption and isolation from others, which the filmmaker is happy to do, surrounded as he is by the village’s infuriating conservatism and national pride. Hearing about the attack in Nice, he unfeelingly goes back to sleep with a cynical reasoning. Like all cinephiles—in fact, like all monomanes—Beauvais absolves this unhealthy cultural consumption by turning it into a talking point, a means to a so-called higher end. He is fully aware of this self-deception and he calls out his “Machiavellian construction” to justify this “bulimia”. He muses about the vanity of a narrative in first person, the potential collapsing of a distance from the subject that the project needs. (He can’t, of course, entirely get rid of the disingenuousness of the undertaking because, for all the talk about the malaise of cinephilia, it’s clear that he’s been using it to plan this film along the way.) Despite its contradictions and predetermined construction, Just Don’t Think is an accomplishment in the way it transforms a subject of low artistic value—one man’s emergence from a rut—into a lively, fruitful meditation on a subculture.

Fourteen (Dan Sallitt)

Fourteen traces the friendship between two young women, Mara and Jo, living in New York. They seem to naturally complement each other. The round-faced Mara (Tallie Medel) is petite, introspective and stands cross-legged. In a long shot midway, we see that she is among the last people exiting a train station upstate. Jo (Norma Kuhling) is lanky, slack-armed, constantly eating or smoking, and doesn’t think twice before correcting her friend on a turn of phrase. Jo calls Mara every time she’s in panic mode, Mara cancels her plans only to find Jo indifferent to her arrival. It’s clearly a parasitic relationship, but Mara feels compelled to fend for Jo for a reason that harks back to when they were fourteen. Both Mara and Jo hold temporary jobs and write on the side. Most of their interaction is about work; Mara fills application forms for the social worker Jo, while her own search for a permanent teaching position is a struggle. Fourteen contains some of the most realistic shop talk I’ve seen in films. It makes interesting what sounds unbearable in real life. The dialogue, in line with the Mumblecore tradition, seems improvised, which makes for some refreshing expressions (“stressball”, “cutting”, “eyeteeth”).

At several points, Fourteen jumps forward in time without warning and these blunt ellipses register the harsh blows of passing time even more strongly. The women change jobs, apartments and boyfriends. Mara’s fortunes improve, but Jo seems to be stagnant. Jealousy, resentment and guilt are hinted at but kept in check by the admirable performances. After a tense night of confrontation—the only tense passage in a film that’s otherwise entirely on a soft scale—the friendship gives in. Sallitt’s film is clear-eyed about the bounded nature of friendships and there’s only so much space individuals can dedicate for non-romantic relationships. It understands the way friendships wither and ossify irrevocably into a distant admiration. The understated quality of this almost Ozuvian look at non-blood ties is perhaps the reason I found the multi-tonal final sequence superfluous, ties as it does the difficult loose ends that all finished friendships invariably leave behind. Sallitt employs an unusual grammar to compose his scenes. Conversations don’t always unfold in shot-reverse shot patterns and the camera lingers long on faces, while voices emanate from off-screen. Like Bresson, Sallitt begins a shot before characters enter the field and cuts away after they’ve left. The film contains hardly any outdoor shots in its first half and opens up as it proceeds, the passage from claustrophobic NYC interiors to more open spaces paralleling the relationship between the women.

Wilcox (Denis Côté)

Denis Côté’s Wilcox begins and ends with a brief summary of individuals who moved away from civilization into the wilderness, sometimes undertaking odyssey-like journeys across vast and unforgiving landscapes: Everett Ruess, Carl McCunn, Dae Aabye, Christopher McCandless, Christopher Knight, Lilian Alling. Never mind that the lives of these figures only have a tenuous connection with each other, they nevertheless form a mythical backdrop to Côté’s film, which depicts the journey of Wilcox (Guillaume Tremblay) across the Canadian countryside. When we first see him, Wilcox is literally at the margins of a community paddling event. Lugging his large backpack, he wanders from one unnamed small town to another, taking shelter in deserted houses or buses, but never staying for more than one night anywhere. He meets and spends time with various old men living alone, but never forges friendships. He helps stuck dirt bikers, gives water to a dying mouse and survives on packaged supermarket food heated over a portable flame. The world seems welcoming and wholly accessible to him: he picks vegetables from fields, rides away on a borrowed bicycle and sleeps in the cellar of some unlocked house. There’s also a scene of an old man making potato wedges and tea.

Wilcox charts the same trajectory as Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, from the protagonist’s episodic encounters with people on his way out from civilization to his final spiritual revelation. But Côté abstracts out the McCandless story and empties it of its philosophical and emotional content. Most of the film has no real sound, which is replaced by a muffled, drone-heavy sound palette resembling a high-altitude ear block. We don’t know why Wilcox is on this quest, or why he attracts the hospitality and affection of the people he meets. The film assumes this is understood. Like in Ghost Town Anthology, Côté’s other film this year, there’s no sense of progress to the narrative, which could theoretically go on forever. As a result, Wilcox’s journey—distilled into a metanarrative of all those who leave society behind—becomes a means for the filmmaker to describe specific areas of Canadian landscape and culture. So we have generous views of the wooden strip houses so characteristic of Côté’s films, Wilcox pensively posing in and moving through springtime woods. Several passages are shot through a prism, making the periphery of the frame fuzzy. Equally mystifying is the choice to insert archival clips from the early part of last century—a surgeon trying prosthetic parts for WWI soldiers who have been disfigured and a series of shots of animals and birds forced together as though for a kiss—which are probably oblique references to the problems of modernity.

Monsters. (Marius Olteanu)

The most assured debut feature of the year, Romania’s Monsters is a three-part examination of a marriage in crisis. In the first section, Dana (Judith State), a thirty-something HR employee, skips her work trip and hires a taxi for the entire night. The taxi driver, whom she insistently picked, has had a terrible day, but he recognizes that the moody Dana suspects her husband of having an affair. In the second section, we see her husband Andrei (Cristian Popa) lying lonely and desolate in his swanky apartment, reaching out to Dana over phone. While Dana forges a fleeting emotional connection with the taxi driver, Andrei has a tryst ‘upwards’, unsatisfactorily hooking up with an upper-class businessman. The third part of the film presents them as a couple interacting with various members of their social circle. Monsters offers no easy answers: Andrei is gay, but is emotionally dependent on Dana, who can’t find intimacy outside their necessarily unsatisfactory marriage either. They playact happy coupledom for the world, but are also putting up a front to each other. Olteanu’s film forces us to constantly rework our perception of the characters, of them second-guessing each other and behaving the way they think the other would like them to behave, only to cause more misery.

Monsters models itself loosely after Godard’s Contempt, in its languid camera movement connecting people in different rooms, in its blue-red colour scheme, in its longueurs and in the centrality of jealousy in a relationship. At the backdrop of the marriage is a portrait of contemporary Romanian mores, its cultural conservatism, the nosiness of acquaintances, the hatred of the elites for their country, the pan-social anti-Roma prejudice, income inequality and housing problem. The success of the film is that these varied ideas only enrich the central story without ever overwhelming it. Olteanu demonstrates an ability to craft evocative atmosphere. Several passages unfold in real time and offscreen, the rhythm is consistently measured and the emotional beats genuine. The long scene of Andrei’s hook-up mixes the banal and the unusual to great effect. A large part of the film is in 1:1 ratio, which opens up to widescreen when the couple comes together in the third section, before closing in again. Despite being an unsubtle, theoretical choice, the device doesn’t come across as all that brash. The box produces exquisite closeups, helps Olteanu separate characters across shots and registers the cramped nature of the relationship. Monsters is a complex portrait of a marriage that can’t hold not just because of societal pressures, but because of the fundamental incompleteness of individuals.

Missing the Small Picture

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 458; 20 October 1958.

Carné has often been criticized for being only a director and not an auteur of films. Doesn’t matter, Carné is taking revenge on his critics today by tackling one of the most endearing problems of our time, that of unbalanced youth. Here, it’s rich or idle Parisian students who party all day and profess a pseudo-philosophy of anarchism, which in truth is only an exact negation of bourgeois philosophy. They cheat in this: their system constrains them to reject all emotion and all sincerity. Unavowed and unavowable, a love ends in suicide.

A very interesting subject, but whose handling seems as questionable sociologically as morally. To be sure, the milieu described really exists—although it belongs to the world of five or ten years ago—but the film needs to be a lot more organized or coherent. Even though it’s about intellectuals, it can’t be said, like Carné does, that their thought precedes and justifies their action. It’s perhaps true for some, but they constitute a minority within another minority. Their presence is out of place in a movie that claims to paint of picture of modern student mores, as the diversity of typical characters proves: a bourgeois boy and a daddy’s girl, a bohemian couple, a blackmailer, a cinematheque rat, a homosexual etc. This particularization reveals an outlook quite common to middle-aged people such as Carné: the young generation is, if not lost, at least astray because it has only known a disordered world since the war of 1939. It’s not surprising that the only lucid character in the story, played by R. Lesaffre, the director’s mouthpiece in some ways, is ten years older than his sister, the heroine of the film. Tradition of pessimism so dear to Carné, where man’s happiness is at loggerheads with the laws of the milieu he lives in (see the film’s terrible, tacked-on ending), that’s refuted by reality.

Contrary to the oldest generation, which condemns the excesses of these young ones irrevocably, Carné explains and excuses them: they are victims of events; one of them was abandoned by his mother at the age of five. How convenient is the determinism to which our cinema sacrifices so much! We don’t worry about present-day action anymore, but about the past that justifies it. And the film becomes a series of filmed dialogues. Written by a Jacques Sigurd jealous of Michel Audiard’s laurels, these dialogues are rich in facile effects and prefer a vulgarity completely foreign to the story’s hero over truth.

The rather repulsively paternalistic and bourgeois tone of Young Sinners is the same one we find in reports published by mainstream dailies and magazines on the subject, piles of commonplaces of no interest. Carné resolves a problem as delicate as youth according to his gentlemanly logic. When do we see a film by Carné resolving problems of the atomic bomb or of devaluation, topics evoked here in passing? What we needed was the testimony of a young person, a specialist or a friend of youth. Rebel Without a Cause, Rendezvous in July and Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres—even the laconic Une vie, dealing with a more burning reality than Young Sinners—were able to bring out the positive aspects of this apparently immoral way of life. Is there really a particular problem here? Isn’t it rather an eternal question, coined here in a new way in order to pull the wool over our eyes? Sad, emotional smooth-talking is a new theme.

Honest mise en scène, but not at all commensurate with the ambitions. Effects are fortunately fewer than in Carné’s previous film. Those that remain (close-ups and dramatic crescendos, a night-time chase constructed through editing) are totally ineffective. But it’s only the best of Clouzot here. The performances are disappointing: only Pascale Petit, the only seasoned actress of the film, discovered by Astruc, comes out unscathed; Laurent Terzieff, in particular, struggles to convincingly play the impossible character of the evil genius-philosopher, a new incarnation of Fate once personified by Le Vigan, Vilar, Lesaffre.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

Cahiers du cinéma no. 483; September 1994

The telecast of Jean de Florette has helped draw attention to an original treatment of colour, whose seeds were already to be found in A Special Day, made in 1977 by Ettore Scola.

The novelty of this film stemmed from a colour very close to black and white, whose justification was given to us by the director’s statements. He wanted to capture the style of postcards of the era in which the story is set (the Mussolini years) and their reduced colour range propping up ultra-conformist subjects and attitudes. There was, for him, an amalgam between this antiquated two-colour palette and fascist moral rigidity. So it was fun, per Scola, to use this particular format in service of an ideology completely opposed to the one it usually emphasized and, more precisely, to tell, among other things, a short love story between a brave, prototypical Roman matron, wife of a militant fascist, and a homosexual facing deportation (a hardly credible story for Italy in the 1930s, stemming from a very anachronistic soixante-huitard liberalism, but the problem isn’t that). A little like porno on stained-glass windows or machinations of hooligans on Bach.

The hiccup is that the washing-out machine of Scola and his cameraman Santis can only work after reading these statements. Non-Italians are unaware of these old, transalpine postcards, just like Italians under forty who haven’t lived under fascism—an ignorance that will only increase in the years following the film’s release and which thus will affect a large majority of viewers. And I’m not sure if, without the help of this footnote that is the director’s interview, even older Italians can appreciate Scola’s tortured intellectualism and discover his ironic intentions. Even with the help of this key, appreciation for the film remained theoretical since it could correspond only very rarely to visual memory.

Unjustified for nearly everybody, this format contributed nonetheless to the film’s success as the reflection of a totally gratuitous fantasy, originality and mannerism. What interests a good number of cameramen is above all a chromatic and stylistic unity, a distinctive look, a personal stamp. You get the impression that, before shooting, they try to prepare their Kodak ad. I’m referring to those articles written by image masters, promoted by the monopoly in question since many years, that highlight the particularities of their art and their plastic orientation in pompous and esoteric terms.

To be sure, this very specific definition of their activity allows cameramen to recognize themselves through their work, but we are within our right to wonder if it really serves the films.

Consider Jean de Florette. The plot revolves around Jean, the poor man who will be completely ruined, and his house whose ambiance is characterized by washed-out, reduced colours, notably a rather dirty, obscure and soft yellow of the ‘dead leaves’ variety. So be it. But it’s the same for scenes set at the residence of Papet, the villain who destroys Jean, and which should be differentiated aesthetically from the house of the poor man. Perhaps this is a gesture of supreme daring: Papet is a rich Scrooge who lives in the same mediocrity as the man he ruins. Oppressors and oppressed reduced to the same condition, vanitas vanitatum… But we must disabuse ourselves: we realize that the houses in the village are also marked by an identical tone, whereas they should look wealthier and emphasize their contrast with the physical and moral poverty and isolation of the one or two principal houses.

This yellow jaundice1 has spread its wings. All villagers from the 1920s—rich, oppressed, clustered, isolated—are put in the same basket of a rather reprehensible colour. To be sure, we can appreciate the value of the yellow better when we consider that all papers from thirty or more years ago—newspapers and wall decorations—have become of this colour. What we are witnessing is an aesthetic logic based on print and thus already biased. Not everything that’s old is yellow: I’m thinking of faces, furniture, objects and stones2. And, of course, papers in 1920 or 1940 weren’t already of this colour. It’s moreover impossible today to film a real newspaper from the past, Pour vous or L’intransigeant, since we’ll immediately see from its colour that it cannot be a newspaper read by an actor in a period movie, but an antique copy that has survived generations. So you have to use expert photocopies. In a film about the past, yellowness can be justified only by an intrusion of the present, by a subjective and powerful contemporary gaze—the Carlos Saura principle—or by the sudden appearance of an abandoned house, in High Aragon for example, that has remained as it is over several decades, which is not at all the case in Claude Berri’s simplistic and unitemporal narrative.

With time, the viewer has completely assimilated this very convenient and absurd convention: when we press the yellow button, comrade Pavlov, it means we are at the beginning of the century and maybe in the countryside3. Apart from this flattening of differences, yellowness produces two other negative effects. First: the filmmaker could’ve gotten a very pretty visual effect, like the haricots of The East of Eden, or conveyed the tragedy of man without showing its face, when the little field withers due to a water shortage brought about by Papet’s Machiavellianism. But here, on the contrary, we don’t get the impression of a drought since everything was already yellow to begin with. We understand the disaster and the filmmakers’ intention through the context rather than the image. We strain to see the field as more decayed than it actually is and convince ourselves that we saw it radiant before.

Second limitation: the obscure yellow hardly allows us to see the hero’s face, which is all the more unusual since these are top-paid superstars (Depardieu, Montand). We can credit the film with this provocative, almost Godardian daring, but we clearly see that it has no place in a film of this kind based on a classical narrative and that it upsets the whole with no real benefit.

We could broadly state that the mistake lies in the sacralization of formal unity. This norm harks back to an academicism at least three centuries old. To be sure, this can be easily defended in a film with a single setting such as a prison. But unity of style doesn’t function as well when it’s not linked to a unity of place and time. It’s not just with Jean de Florette that we lament this excessive extension of a plastic universe linked to a single setting to all the settings of the film. It’s a recurrent feature today. Cameramen in comedies struggle to find their famous look since colour often comes in way of laughter. How does the grain and the sharp contrast of the remarkable Nobody Loves Me help the performance of the actors, which is the strength of the film? In Three Men and a Cradle (which I love), the central apartment is rather retro, not far from yellowness. We find it hard to see how this setting serves this comedy. Perhaps the director had an apartment like this. But we come to terms with it. What we accept less is the echo of this basic tone in most other locations of the film.

Yellowness, which we find so often today, even in Madame Butterfly, succeeds the booming fad for black in 1976-80—how far can we descend into darkness? (cf. the admirable opening sequence of Mais ou et donc Ornicar?)—and the more dubious fad for dirty, Fuji-Polar blue around 1982-85 (of the So Long, Stooge variety). In their own way, all these fashions witness a reaction against Technicolor fireworks. Aren’t they more the work of cameramen than directors? There doesn’t seem to be a real conflict in this regard. It’s hard to imagine a cameraman working against the director all through a film. But a number of filmmakers remain somewhat weak in this subject and are satisfied when a man of image proposes something. They don’t think of all the consequences of their plastic choices.

After the admirable India Song and before Jean de Florette, Nuytten was responsible for the magnificent, original photography of Zoo Zéro, which seems to come out of nothing, or from another world, and remains internally coherent contrary to Fleisher’s film, which seems to want to go somewhere but doesn’t get anywhere. Nuytten’s earnest initiatives seem to have driven him, logically enough, to become a director.

 

1[Translator’s note] Moullet plays on the word jaunisse (referring to jaundice but also evoking yellowness). The word has been translated either way depending on context.

2Without slipping into gaudy Technicolour or the then-recent neon lights, people nevertheless liked colours in the 1920s.

3Another related reflex has to do with the status of black and white: since the reality of the years roughly between 1914 and 1950 is known essentially through monochrome films, we tend to identify, rather excessively, this era and its neighbouring periods with black and white (often made necessary by the lack of newsreel footage in colour, especially for war movies). To make use of black and white in one of my films, I was compelled by the producer to dedicate my film to a comic filmmaker of the silent era, since silent cinema necessarily means absence of colour…  The funniest part is that colour is an absolute must for epics, films on the Renaissance or the Belle Époque. Typically, everything should be in colour before or after this gap of thirty-five or forty years.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

Ismael's Ghosts

“I have to reinvent myself”, says the filmmaker Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), begging his wife Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg) not to leave him. It’s hard to disagree with, considering Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts is yet another autobiographical work tossing at us the same names, themes and hang-ups that characterize his work with hardly anything to speak for it. All through cinema history, middle-aged male filmmakers, generally in their fifties, seem to have had this compulsion to fictionalize themselves on screen, warts and all, regularly mistaking self-exhibition for personal art. Their urge to either exaggerate or downplay their perceived faults more often than not comes across as self-approved absolution, non-apologies by way of apology, and barely-veiled exercises in narcissism and self-therapy. Even the classics of this “genre” (The Quiet Man, 8½, All that Jazz, Deconstructing Harry) are clouded by an over-proximity to the subject. These mid-career works are, it must be noted, different from personal projects filmmakers begin their career with: while the latter spring from a necessity to express, the films in question are invariably symptoms of a creative exhaustion if not an existential crisis. Ismael’s Ghosts provides little justification as to why the personal story of a womanizing filmmaker getting into an artistic block should interest the viewer.

The film begins as a zappy espionage thriller about a diplomat-turned-traitor Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel). We don’t see Ivan, but a legend is built around him by the other diplomats at Quai d’Orsay. This sequence, it turns out, is a film by Ismael—a deliberately-dumb provincial fantasy of exciting life—based on his estranged brother, now posted in Egypt (and actually based on Desplechin’s own diplomat brother Fabrice). Ismael claims to be a widower, his wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) having disappeared twenty-one years ago. He has a tender filial relationship with Carlotta’s filmmaker father Henri Bloom (László Szabó), also prone to nightmares and panic attacks like him. In a flashback presented through her perspective, Ismael solicits Sylvia in a sticky but authentic manner whose presumptuousness is tempered by the formal language of courtship. In a humorously creepy scene, he insists on entering Sylvia’s apartment against her objections, only to inspect its mise en scène and get out in a jiffy. For Ismael, the apartment space is an index to Sylvia’s personality, a manifestation of the id that reveals everything one needs to know about a person. He should know: his own ancestral home in Roubaix, where he hides after fleeing a shoot, is a storehouse of supressed memories and unregulated drives.

Psychoanalysis and its language are, of course, permanent fixtures in Desplechin, whose previous two features were called Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, Three Memories of My Youth. The repressed phantom of Ismael’s Ghosts is Carlotta, who walks back into Ismael’s life as though spat back by the sea. What ensues is an unwinding of Ismael’s personal and creative life, as Sylvia leaves in heartbreak and jealousy. After sleeping with Carlotta, a hurting Ismael abandons his ongoing film to go hole up in Roubaix (Desplechin’s own hometown), where he hallucinates and goes into a downward spiral like Scottie Ferguson. When his producer comes home to take him back to Paris to finish the film, he claims he’s grieving his brother who died years ago. The producer discovers that his brother, the real Ivan, is well alive and furious at Ismael’s attempt to use his life as movie fodder. Ismael, it would seem, “kills” people off in order to both suck up the sympathy of people willing to love him and feed his own creation. When the producer confronts him again, he narrates the rest of his film: an increasingly crazy tale of international espionage that finds Ivan mistaking a Jackson Pollock scholar for a Russian spy. In this frenzy, Ismael shoots his producer in the arm. Just because.

Ismael’s Ghosts is pieced together through the perspectives of several characters. The scenes become progressively shorter as the film proceeds, sometimes reduced to a couple of shots. This perspectival dispersal isn’t dissimilar to Pollock’s “all over” paintings which, the Russian scholar claims, are actually figurative and compress Pollock’s personal relations onto the canvas. But it’s Ismael’s perspective that the film privileges. “My job (as a filmmaker) is to disappear” he claims to an actress he sleeps with (and who portrays Ivan’s girlfriend in the film within the film, perversely enough). And the action movie Ismael is making, which we see vast stretches of, is Desplechin’s way of disappearing in a film that’s otherwise too full of him. In genre terms, Ismael’s Ghosts is a schizophrenic oscillation between comedy, horror, action, melodrama (containing a couple of scenes with genuine affect) and Bergmanesque art film. It’s a highly film-aware work, employing both silent cinema tropes (irises, superpositions and back-projection) and a baroque aesthetic of accentuated colour, flamboyant camera movements, a florid string score and disjunctive edits. The actors place themselves on the neurotic scale, their caffeinated body language and expressions registering as parapraxes. There’s a lot of dressing and undressing in the film, which I suppose is also symbolic in some way. All this hyperactivity and intertextuality, however, masks a void at the heart of the film, a lack of faith in itself. Desplechin’s cinema needs a reboot.

The Double Lover

When, in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel and Carrière had their characters wake up from a nightmare only to find themselves in another, they were mocking the practice of bourgeois cinema to neatly pack middle-class fears into exciting but essentially harmless narrative excursions. The tendency allows the characters and the audience to get a taste of the life on the “other side” but also maintain distance by waking up/returning home when things get too hot. Freud demonstrated that dreams aren’t arbitrary images but rigorously-structured emanations of the subconscious. The Freudian invasion of cinema, however, has meant that anything put in a dreamlike narrative is expected to be meaningfully assimilated into the film’s structure. In François Ozon’s psychosexual drama The Double Lover, an apparent reworking of a Joyce Carol Oates novel, pretty much anything goes. The protagonist Chloé (Marine Vacth) may or may not be lying, may or may not be hallucinating, may or may not know the people around her. Either way, it is of little consequence. To her shrink, she says lines like “I want to remain weak” and “I exist when you see me like that”. The Double Lover would’ve functioned as a camp spoof of European art movies had it not been so serious about itself.

There is a story, though. Chloé, an ex-model, has pain in her stomach, but her doctor tells her there’s nothing physically wrong with her (first of the several false flags the film plants). She is sent to a psychiatrist, Paul (Jérémie Renier), who falls in love and moves in with her to a new apartment. Chloé discovers the existence of a lookalike of Paul called Louis, also a psychiatrist, from whom Paul is apparently estranged. Wanting to know everything about her dodgy but loving boyfriend, Chloé takes sessions with Louis, who turns out to be professionally and temperamentally the opposite of his brother. He humiliates Chloé, becomes increasingly punitive and finally rapes her, which Chloé, of course, likes—this domination cures her of her frigidity though not her pains. Paul proposes marriage, forcing Chloé to put an end to her trysts with Louis, who reveals a dark secret from the brothers’ past.

Chloé works at the Palais de Tokyo as a museum guard and the gallery’s white walls and empty exhibition spaces register as her psychological landscapes: the visceral photographs and tortured sculptures we see are, in fact, derived from images from The Double Lover. The film develops wholly from Chloé’s broken perspective, which justifies distortions of narrative information, but renders the reality of other characters irrelevant. The film, in fact, elides one crucial information in order to wrap up the plot. A creepy-seeming, horror-movie neighbour is thrown in for easy chills, and to provide a relief from the sight of the same two actors. Ozon uses a soundtrack full of false cues, always implying terror where none exists. His film recalls a host of predecessors: Hitchcock most of all, but also Cronenberg of Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method, Polanski of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, De Palma of Body Double and Passion, and even Aronofsky. In fact, The Double Lover in on such a familiar narrative and aesthetic beat that it seems machine-generated from these films: the same use of old American pop songs, the same circular-spiral camera and architectural descriptions, the same mirror motifs that are by now self-parodical arthouse shibboleths.

Ozon’s film equates psychoanalysis with fucking, both forms of the same action of penetrating a person. The idea is, of course, rather old and rests on the dual implication of the verb “to know”. The three characters take turns exercising phallic violence on each other, reflecting the changing power equation between them. Ozon’s camera constantly zooms in and out in an imitation of the sexual act. At one point, when Chloé orgasms, the camera penetrates her mouth and reaches her vocal cord. In one of the film’s first images, a shot of her vagina dissolves to a shot of her Marion Crane eye. Given it’s a film about parasitic twins, even a brash rape fantasy is furnished as character psychology. True to theme, Ozon uses several cloven compositions—split screens, but also CGI sequences of characters physically bifurcating. There’s a music-video like passage of twin boys wrestling with each other as Vacth and Renier stare directly at the camera. The glimpse of post-winter Paris and Ozon’s colour-coded mise en scène aren’t enough to relieve us from the airlessness of this by-the-numbers thriller.

CICIM Munich no. 22-23; June 1988.

Le Pont du Nord

French cinema of the last few years is based, above all, on the personality of its directors. To trace great trends in it runs the risk of giving a false impression since they are often foreign or contrary to the personality of the leading filmmakers, who run the risk of being sidestepped by our desire for generalization.

We then run the risk of forgetting unclassifiable auteurs or ones in constant evolution such as Demy, Varda, Biette, Gainsbourg, Serreau or Depardon. We run the risk of forgetting a very important stylistic principle such as Robert Bresson’s Partitivism: in his framing, the director of Lancelot du lac indeed tends to isolate one part of the body, to exclude the head, to favour an object or a series of objects, the moment the interest of the image seems hinged on this body part.

But if one had to absolutely put a label on current French cinema, I’d say that it’s a school of hazard. If the preceding decades had produced an art very much planned out in advance, one which attained its limits because of the permanent repetition of this premeditation, contemporary filmmakers, on the other hand, set out on in search of hazard, which alone seems to be capable of bringing something new. We have here Rozier, Rivette, Pialat, who, in the course of the film (Maine Océan, Le Pont du Nord, À nos amours), veer off into a fascinating, unplanned direction. Even a super-classical filmmaker like Rohmer adopted this practice in Le Rayon vert. This is also the working principle of the magnificent Petite suite vénetienne made by Pascal Kané and of Godard’s films. We even find a premeditated hazard in Bergala (Faux-Fuyants, Où que tu sois), whose scripts set off in directions which (wrongly) seem the products of chance. More simply, such hazard can be discovered by the actor’s improvisation (in Doillon, in Téchiné).

That brings us to a cinema of actors, hinged on the expression of emotions binding two or more characters together. A cinema that replaces social tapestry with bourgeois individualism so criticized by the Marxists. That’s normal for a country like France which, in the past forty years, hasn’t really know great crises: neither famine, nor revolution or dictatorship or war.  This is the cinema of Rohmer, who strikes us with his exacerbated minimalism, of Doillon, whose psychoanalytic sense is in struggle with a taste for improvisation and in whose work love comes about through the artificial creation of a conflict, a breakup, of Pialat, of Breillat (Tapage nocturne) and often of Truffaut (La Femme d’à côté).

There is also a cinema founded on the grandeur of the image which, except in Garrel, seems independent of the principle above. Contrary to what one might suppose, this essentially visual cinema, full of light and shadow effects (Garrel, Bard, Azimi, Duras) is often a broke cinema with a precarious existence. A new variant is the music-video-movie (Beineix and, on a more elaborate level, Carax): every shot wants to be a masterpiece and is built on a strong conception of lighting. But this is often at the expense of the story, if by misfortune, there is a story.

Another characteristic is the dissociation of image and sound, which we find in Hanoun, Duras, Straub, Godard, Ruiz, a new variation on counterpoint as defined by the Russians in 1930. The most famous example is the noise of seagulls over Parisian metro in Godard’s films – a way of glorifying both elements through their contrast, where an audiovisual coincidence usually tends to put the viewer to sleep.

Counterpoint doesn’t stop there in Godard. It is systematized, extended to other elements every time it can be, notably to the relation between different parts of the image. Ruiz, on the other hand, narrates a fantastic story on trivial images (Brise-glace, L’Hypothèse du tableau vole).

In France, there is a family of dark humourists (Mocky, Blier, Marboeuf, Grand-Jouan, Sentier). There is also a whole new art born of the economic necessity of shooting quickly (one to three weeks for Vecchiali, Duras, Biette). We also notice writer-filmmakers moving from one mode of expression to another with the greatest of ease. Among the golden quartet of current literature (Weyergans, Duras, Breillat, Cavanna), three of the four have made films. Rohmer alternates between theatre and cinema. Pierre Kast has been able write a novel, Le Bonheur ou le Pouvoir, the same year he made a film, Le Soleil en face, which are both of high quality. End of specialization…

We also find classical filmmakers of quality (Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut), who – the first two at least – are faithful to a traditional structure in the same genre. More generally in the past few years, we notice a return to narrativity, to a more classical presentation, the structuralist and poetic audacities of post-1968 tending to disappear perhaps under the influence of commercial censorship or self-censorship. It’s difficult today to imagine non-narrative films like those of Bard or Silvina Boissonas, even of Garrel. On the other hand, there is a public and critical consensus towards narrative forms like those of Chabrol and Rohmer, quite identical from one film to another, which allows for a certain perfection but also carries the risk of fossilization. French cinema, like the Italian one, tends to become a cinema of the old. At Venice in 1984, French cinema was represented – brilliantly for that matter – by the four great Rs: Rouch, Rohmer, Resnais, Rivette, with an average age of sixty-two. In contrast, the fifties generation has brought us no revelation whatsoever till date.

Experimentation seems to be reserved for certain senior filmmakers who can have their way thanks to their reputation: Resnais, whose every new film constitutes a challenge, a wager, Duras, who approaches her themes through successive recurrence of undulatory movements, Godard.

Ever since Jack Lang became the Minister of Culture (1981-1986), France is also the host country for foreigners like Hollywood once was: South-Americans (Ruiz, Jodorowsky, Santiago, Solanas), North-Americans (Kramer, Berry), Algerians (Allouache), Japanese (Oshima), Italians (Monicelli, Ferreri), Egyptians (Chahine), Polish (Zulawski, Polanski, Wajda, Borowczyk), Greek (Papatakis), Belgians (Akerman), Portuguese (Oliveira), Dutch (Ivens), which makes the notion of nationality often outdated.

Another surprising aspect is the pre-eminence of meteors, exceptional films overlooking an uneven or disappointing body of work (Blier’s Tenue de soirée, Deville’s Dossier 51) or other unique or near-unique works (Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Koleva’s L’État de bonheur permenante, Dubroux’s Les Amants terribles, Breillat’s Tapage nocturne, Rouqier’s Biquefarre, Devers’ Noir et Blanc). Isolated bodies of work like those of Lampedusa, Clarin, Chamisso, Lautréamont, Lowry. This unsettles a number of people in the country where the politique des auteurs was born.

We can also list negative commonalities: predominance of crime movies, highly stylized photography working against the film, moral anachronisms (soixante-huitard behaviour in films set in the past), virtuoso verbalism of the characters for the dialogue writer to showboat with, leftist boyscoutism, where we find nothing more than in the day’s edition of Libération, overload of plot twists to avoid slow passages, lack of first-hand information about the milieux described, endless repetition of characters’ chief trait etc.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Nocturama

Jean-Luc Godard’s self-styled student revolutionaries were nothing if not talkative. They crippled themselves into inaction debating over praxis and theory. For them, as for many other Godard’s radicals, the time for action was long over, it was now time for contemplation. Not yet for the youth we accompany in Bertrand Bonello’s enigmatic, double-faced Nocturama. We first see them in action, walking, boarding and getting off the subway, always moving and doing something. There’s barely a word in the first quarter hour, which proceeds by an intense accumulation of shots of characters traversing the length and breadth of Paris in great hurry. The transfers they make in the subway mirror the way the filmmaker cuts between them. This mosaic of perspectives, combined with the precise time ticker, makes a vague promise that the characters will all be eventually connected. Their surreptitious behaviour reveals that they’re involved in a conspiracy, an idea dear to Nouvelle Vague filmmakers. It wouldn’t be some time until we learn that they’re carrying out a series of assassinations and bombings in the heart of Paris, a city we see from a bird’s eye view in the first shot.

As the threads converge, we are presented with brief flashes into the characters’ past: some of them are preparing for Sciences Po and ENA, others are interviewing for dead-end jobs. They are from different racial and social backgrounds, but we’re not given any information as to how they meet each other, leave alone how they agree on a terrorist plot. This narrative gap is characteristic of Bonello’s film, which doesn’t bother spelling out the reasons for the bombings or the gang’s intentions. From the bits of information we do get, we understand that they are a faintly anarchist bunch working against what they take to be the current world order. The real France is present, muted in the background—global capital, dwindling job market, National Front, surveillance state, legalization of marijuana—but it’s only accessory to the film. What Bonello is interested in in this first part of the film is instead the mechanics of the bombing plot, the perceptual calculus involved and the sense of people invested in an abstract mission. The filmmaker dispels any echo of contemporary Islamic terrorism, and focusing on this improbable terror outfit is his way of stating his goals.

After the bombings and killings have been carried out, and as a curfew is declared in Paris, the gang takes refuge in a large, evacuated shopping mall in the middle of the city. The film makes a reverse movement from this point, tracing the dissolution of the group that was so far united on a quest. Amazingly enough, the characters believe they could get back to normal life if only they lay low in the mall for a day. They spend this time indulging themselves, wearing the mass-market clothes on display, playing with the toys, drinking up the champagne, and playing pop music on the gadgets in the electronics section. In short, they become the consumer society they despise. This portion of the film is a picture of decadence worthy of Fassbinder or Visconti, as a group once full of conviction and meaning devolves into hedonistic aestheticism. There’s even a lip-synched song one of the boys sings under a garish make up. The film turns melancholy as the inevitable end approaches, and the random violence the gang inflicts on the city finds its response in equally senseless, faceless violence of the state.

In an early flashback, one of the gang members discusses the ideal structure for a political thesis for a university examination: introduction of the problematic, dialectical presentation of arguments, a personal point of view and a conclusion—a very French, Cartesian approach to exposition that Nocturama deliberately eschews. There is no indication that the bombings were the consequence of something specific, except a global sentiment that “it had to happen”. Nor does the filmmaker take a moral stance towards their actions or their end. In fact, Bonello forestalls any sympathy for his characters through his cubist superposition of perspectives, which swaps a dramatic event with a slightly different version of the same over and over. These perspectives are not intended to be seamless, but go back and forth in time in a slightly redundant and absurd manner in a parody of closed-circuit footage omnipresent in the film.

Somewhere in Nocturama is probably a jibe at the compromised idealism of the soixante-huitards, but Bonello’s preoccupations are more philosophical than political. He’s interested in how actions are shaped by personal and symbolic meaning and how the lack of meaning can conversely produce a mechanical society. The two sections of the film converge towards different truths, one political and contingent, the other existential and eternal. After the gang has assembled in the mall, one of the boys feels estranged from the mission and slips out of the building to wander the deserted city. He’s out there to precipitate the gang’s downfall but also to make some sense of its actions. The time for action is over, the time for reflection begins.

Non-Fiction

Going by his last three features, Olivier Assayas’s films are two seemingly unrelated works welded at the hip, bound together only by an abstract idea. Clouds of Sils Maria was about the tragedy of an actor’s aging, but also about the over-visibility of star culture. Personal Shopper was at once a ghost story, a peek into the unseen side of celebrity life, and a horror tale about digital media. His new film, Non-Fiction, deals with the crisis of the publishing industry in face of the digital revolution and the ethical problems of fiction that is too personal, but it’s also a comedy about adultery among middle-aged, middle-class cultural types. These films present themselves as puzzles that promise to fit together were the viewer to supply the connecting piece.

Guillaume Canet plays Alain, the chief editor of a publishing house that’s in the process of figuring out its strategy in a fast-changing literary climate. Laure (Christa Théret), the young expert in charge of charting the firm’s digital roadmap and with whom Alain is having an affair, believes that the only way to stay relevant is to be radical, to treat tweets and texts as legitimate publishing material. Alain has just turned down the latest manuscript of Léonard’s (Vincent Macaigne), which his wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a television actress, finds to be his best work. Léonard is in a relationship with Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), who is assistant to a rising politician of the left and who cannot humour her partner’s bouts of self-doubt and self-deluding resentment.

Like in a traditional French comedy, Assayas creates a chain of romantic affairs between the characters, but his focus is not on the entanglements they create. He treats them like hypotheses in a theory. The characters are all in the grip of professional and cultural upheavals: Alain has to react quickly and suitably to newer forms of literary consumption, Selena has to come to terms with the idea of television franchises, the monk-like Léonard must rethink the moral quandary involved in narrating the personal life of others, Valérie must understand the role perception plays in the political arena. In a way, all these issues stem from the extreme visibility, access and availability new media offers its consumers, forcing producers to constantly reinvent themselves or become obsolete. In this, Non-Fiction is of a piece with the director’s previous two films.

But what does it all have to do with adultery? I think the missing piece of this puzzle relates to the notion of double lives, which happens to be the film’s French title. Connected to their phones and tablets, the characters of the film are always elsewhere than where they are physically present. The face they present to others takes priority over their everyday relation to the people they live with, which is what adultery is at heart. Léonard insists that his novels are veiled in a smoke screen of fiction such that readers won’t suspect their autobiographical links. This self-image he creates is suppose to absolve him of the emotional violence he wreaks on the people he writes about. In positing this, Non-Fiction demonstrates a continuity between older, pre-internet forms of social behaviour and current ones, just as how Personal Shopper imagined chatting over internet as a form of spiritual séance.

Assayas’s film is also, however, a progression of tiresome, talky vignettes of people discussing the implications of internet, the devaluation of information, the narcissism involved in rejecting narcissism, the resurgence of physical books, the drawbacks of democracy and the relevance of criticism in the age of artificial intelligence. Even when actors perform them as casual dialogues over aperitif, the exchanges are overwhelming in the amount of reflection they pack. And I don’t think it’s particularly rewarding to dwell on them, function as they do as a form of smoke screen themselves to hide the film’s simple, more direct themes. Save for the final sequence filmed at a beautiful coastal location, the film is also visually exhausting with its endless supply of over-the-shoulder compositions shot in warm, indoor lighting.

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