Cinema of France


Stavisky… (1974, Alain Resnais)


Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

A for American Cinema

Perhaps more than any of his Nouvelle Vague comrades, Moullet retained a fascination with classical American cinema all through his writing and filmmaking life. Some count with numbers, some others with John Ford’s filmography.

B for Backpacking

Moullet has stated more than once that his real profession is trekking (which explains his love for movies with people on the move). That cinema is just a hobby. A hobbyist’s cinema then, free of the need to make statements or find a purpose.

C for Cinephilia

A great fidelity towards cinema over other arts. There’s are a few literary references, hardly any to painting and almost none to music or theatre in Moullet’s work—quite unlike his New Wave peers. The Cahiers du cinéma is the abiding literary material on screen.

D for Doors

Probably as many as in the Dardennes. There are four or five door-related events in the very first short film, including an appearance by Moullet himself. There’s a whole film about the different ways of bypassing the Paris metro turnstiles.

E for Economics

A perennial obsession with finances, both from a macroscopic, economic point of view and in the transactional, everyday sense. A shopkeeper recounts her dealing with a serial killer. Moullet: “Did he settle his account?”

F for Fake

Master of false histories and forged statistics, Moullet was a devoted explorer of the mockumentary. His short films, in particular, dwell in the slippage between the documentary form and the fictional nature of things being said.

G for Geography

Mountains, plateaus, marshes, rivers, grasslands, slag heaps are the central characters of Moullet’s cinema. It is what he paid the most attention to in his writing as well. Many of his works are virtually excuses to film certain landscapes.

H for Housework

No helping hand to lend, no shopping to do, no firewood to pick up, or dishes to wipe. Everyone is condemned to the anti-dialecticism of intellectualism. Write, write, write forever. I think, therefore I am… but no, I think therefore I don’t wipe, for there’s nothing to wipe.” Not in his films though.

I for Irony

The Moullet persona is a product of contradictory impulses, his great delusions of grandeur undone by the pettiness of his concerns. A neurotic, self-deprecatory figure somewhere between Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen, with a touch of the silent greats.

J for Joke

The Moullet screenplay is an occasion for chaining together quips and visual gags. The joke is often a radical simplification of a situation (Moullet stealing newspapers from a vending machine) or a radical elaboration (a two-minute sequence of a man noting down something from a newspaper).

K for Kitchen

Food, of course, is at the centre of Genesis of a Meal, but has a tangential presence all through. Hunger grounds the intellectual being, the act of cooking, preparing the table and consuming all serve a purpose of reverse-transubstantiation.

L for Lists

“I have 72 ideas for key scenes, I arrange them to have a logical order”. Enumeration is the chief manner by which Moullet builds his films and texts, which overflow with lists of all kinds, often rattled off by the characters themselves.

M for Maps

The capital of French cinema, he wrote, is a rhombus in the Centre region of the French hexagon. The capital of madness, we are told, is a pentagon between the Alpes-Provence regions. A body of work suffused with cartographic imagination.

N for Nowhere

The cinema’s poet laureate of boondocks and bleds paumés, Moullet takes particular pleasure in discovering and deriding the most disconnected and isolated settlements in the country. Mean? Perhaps, what comedy isn’t?

O for Omnidirectional

A Moullet film is a collection of unicellular entities with no central nervous system or sense of time and space. It wants to go nowhere and everywhere at once. The longer the film is, the more apparent its atomization.

P for Province

For a filmmaker born and working in Paris, Moullet gives the city of lights awfully little representation. His cinema doggedly heads for the provinces, militating for a relocation of French capital to the town of Imphy, population 4000.

Q for Quantity

Moullet, who determined that 3.5m² was enough for a new parliament, is nothing if not metrically rigorous: “I had to buy half a dozen cutlets, a half-hour worth of wine, 100 metres of noodles, a litre of fresh eggs, 4 francs of olives, and a pound of cake.”

R for Resourcefulness

Shots, soundbites, narrative threads from one film, one piece of film criticism will be reused in other. Repetitions abound, and not just for the sake of humour. The Moullet cinematic universe—and one could speak of a veritable universe here—is finite and ever-shrinking.

S for Statistics

I’d gather technical information—number and duration of shots and shooting, budget, box office of the film etc.—which made subjective positions sound objective.” “Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

T for Transport

Four people depart from Paris for the provinces. One leaves in train, one on a motorbike, another on a bicycle and the last one takes a car. The time to their destination is in inverse proportion to the speed of their modes of transport.

U for Unemployment

Moullet might be the filmmaker most concerned with unemployment, of all of France as much as his own. The sight of waste heaps strewn across Nord-Pas-de-Calais is for him as much an opportunity for job creation as it is aesthetic real estate.

V for Vélo/Love

“Here I had a satisfying relationship that could last hours. One I could dominate, one which involved no problems. I tried to ride in a straight line. The more circuitous things got to be, the more I liked straight lines. I wish my life were a straight line.”

W for Whip pans

The camera oscillates between two points of interest, expressing indecisiveness, or an act of comparison. This dishonoured device finds shelter in Moullet’s cinema, a veritable refuge for such kind.

X for Xerophilia

Fear of water is the main subject of Ma première brasse, but water bodies (or lack thereof) are permanent fixtures. Moullet stays away from the coasts and is attracted to the driest of regions in France. The one film he made in the US was set in Des Moines, Iowa.

Y for Youth

A perennial boyishness, self-styled petulance and a lifelong refusal to grow up and “be serious”. A film on mortality he made at seventy is shot through with an adolescent flippancy towards death.

Z for Zsygmondy

Like the eccentric accommodation scheme of the eponymous refuge, Moullet’s writing and films are often demonstrations of analytical frameworks that are in part or wholly arbitrary. Just like the setup of a good joke.

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s tribute to Jean Douchet that appears in the January issue of Cahiers du cinéma. I’m grateful to Andy for sending the piece to me.]

I met Jean Douchet when he came to Cahiers du cinéma some months after me at the end of 1957. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and others, more and more taken up with preparing for and directing their first films, hardly had time—or the desire, at times—anymore to continue to write criticism. I and Douchet were delegated to take over, as much at Cahiers as at the Arts magazine. We were hence partners, accomplices and at the same time competitors (without overtly expressing this internal struggle). Douchet spent a large part of his time at his seat at Cahiers or at the Cinémathèque, making contacts with young viewers whom he encouraged to write for Cahiers, and with small parallel groups at Cahiers, such as the one that had formed around the Mac-Mahon theatre. He had a real entourage, in contrast to Rohmer, who often refused external contacts. More affable, and exhibiting great civility, he had an advantage over me, who was more preoccupied with making my first short films. But at the Arts magazine, he barely stayed longer than me, following the media backlash against the Nouvelle Vague at the end of 1960. Douchet’s activity at Cahiers was marked by initiatives such as the creation of a Prix de la Nouvelle Critique (which awarded, to his great anger, the prize for the most overestimated film to Psycho) and by strong critical stances for or against certain directors. Douchet violently opposed Buñuel, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kubrick, Peter Brook, Autant-Lara (against whom he lost a lawsuit). This sectarian quality, his somewhat esoteric way of speaking, suited him well: he was highly inspired by spiritualism and the secret societies he haunted. Thereafter, in the spring of 1963, following the eviction of Éric Rohmer from Cahiers, he slowly left the magazine.

            After this, he was mostly involved in public speaking, moderating debates at the end of film screenings, or on television in programmes on cinema, or as a teacher. His writing activity, at times destructive, hence made way for an oral activity, for a dialogue with the viewer, for a more convivial, more measured attitude. For more than half a century, he spoke with a certain serenity, seemingly beyond petty fights, beyond all famous filmmakers (except Antonioni, whom he could never stand). At the end of the day, a richer, more indulgent, more mediatory attitude—a real ombudsman—than during his time at Cahiers. Studying films in minute detail, and thanks to video cassettes, he discovered hidden meanings in certain sequences of Fritz Lang, notably in Fury and While the City Sleeps, that no one before him had noticed. Over the years, he had acquired a Santa Claus-like status. His majestic portliness won him all kinds of good wishes, and numerous filmmakers, from 1958 till his last years, happily gave him cameos, small roles in which he excelled, harnessing his inimitable appearance and voice. Among his very rare forays into filmmaking, one must note two unexpected accomplishments: a short comedy, Et Crac ! (1969), in which Bulle Ogier and Claude Chabrol engage in delicious fantasies, and La Servante aimante (1995), where he successfully integrated the backstage and the hidden face of theatre with Goldoni’s play.

2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

[The following is a translation I did with Andy Rector of the 14-page interview with Jean-Luc Godard that appears in the October issue of Cahiers du Cinéma]

That is what is beautiful about The Image Book. The whole life piles up. You keep everything with you.

I debuted in the second Revue de cinéma when it was with Gallimard and it was with the help of Doniol-Valcroze that I entered Cahiers little by little. Doniol-Valcroze was the son of a friend of my mother’s at the Victor-Duruy high school. I thought he received me because of that. I learnt later that he was demobilized and took refuge in Switzerland. It was my mother who got him to France, to Thonon, on a little speedboat called “the hyphen” and with which we often went vacationing in my grandfather’s property. I discovered that after Doniol-Valcroze’s death. I wasn’t against the Cahiers management at that time. He was the editor-in-chief along with Bazin. He was a “gentle man” in the literal sense of the term. I didn’t know Bazin like Truffaut did at all. I knew Bazin as the head of a communist organization, Work and Culture, just opposite the Beaux-Arts. There was a small library opposite run by a friend of Rivette’s from Rouen. It’s a story that I attached myself to little by little, not from the beginning, but there are all these stories I want to keep to myself. I was prudent like the Delacroix character. I stole some money from one of my uncles to finance Rivette’s first short film, Le Quadrille.

Whom did you feel closest to?

Rivette. Then Truffaut, but before he made Les Mistons. I don’t know if he was already married to Madeleine Morgenstern, whom I liked a lot. He’d become rich by this point. Madeleine Morgenstern’s father was the head of a distribution company called Cocinor in the Nord region and in Paris. But when he wrote “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”, I hung out with him a lot. I wasn’t so much with Rivette. We could go see films at 2pm and leave at midnight because it was a single-admission cinema. I’d give up after an hour or two. Rivette stayed until the end. Rohmer had a different life. He was a professor and lived in a small hotel opposite the Sorbonne. His name was Schérer and he started signing “Rohmer” so that his mother didn’t know he led a dissolute life in cinema. These were three different friends. It was real camaraderie with Schérer—I still call him Schérer—Rivette and Truffaut. Schérer was one of the few who knew which woman I was in love with, and I was the only one to know that he was in love with the wife of an old head—a communist—of the CNC. Rohmer was ten years older and he was the counterbalance to Bazin and Pierre Kast. In The Image Book, I have a shot of the Liberation of Paris. We see an FFI member from behind, with a gun on his back, speaking to a woman on her knees. To my mind, this man was always Pierre Kast. I hope it’s true.

We get the feeling that you didn’t have political discussions at Cahiers at that time.

Very little. It was the cinema. Even girls were a secret. I remember a moment during the Algeria war. I was at the Place de l’Alma with Rivette. A car sped by with the “nee-naw” of the OAS siren. I saw that as a shot by Douglas Sirk. And Rivette chided me. I couldn’t see things politically at that time. The one who could easily do that was Straub, because he was there from the beginning.

 

Seven Years in May (Affonso Uchoa)

Brazilian helmer Affonso Uchoa’s forty-minute Seven Years in May contains only four scenes. In the first, a man walks long on the road at night. In the following scene, a group of young men chance upon a box with police uniforms and weapons. They change into these clothes and go out on a raid. They pick up a young man, who we learn is Rafael dos Santos Rocha (playing himself). They rough him up and ask him to reveal where a particular stock of drugs is in his house. Rafael denies that he has any, which prompts the young men to drag the man along with them into the dark. The third and the longest scene of the film is predominantly a monologue. Rafael sits by the fire, recounting the night the police brutalized him in search of drugs. He describes his life thereafter: going on the run, substance abuse, getting cheated, wandering the streets, going to a village to sell drugs, a second double-crossing and finally a return home. It’s clear from the vividness of the description that the trauma is fresh in his mind even though it happened seven years ago. He won’t forget their faces, he says; if he did, what they did to him will be complete. A cut reveals a listener—also a non-white man—who says that every story he hears seems to reflect his own. He declares that, though he believes in an eye for an eye, it’s better “for us and for everyone” to move on.

If one didn’t look at the credits or press notes, it’s hard to guess that Uchoa is mixing fictional and documentary modes here. Rafael, portraying himself, is presumably drawing from his own life for his monologue, which is much more polished and articulate than a spontaneous rendition would be. The second scene, then, is a reconstruction of Rafael’s real-life experiences, which raises the ethical question: why put Rafael through the harrowing situation again? Whether this recreation of violence is itself a form of violence or a therapeutic remedy is possibly only for Rafael to know. What is clear is that Uchoa is building a scaffolding in which power dynamics are presented as a product of role playing. The proposition that a bunch of possibly disenfranchised youth become aggressors by just donning police uniform finds its response in the fourth scene of the film: a white man in police uniform commands a group of about hundred non-white men and women. He utters one of two words—‘alive’ or ‘dead’—to which the men and women must respond by standing up or squatting. Those that react wrongly are ‘out’ of the game. The last man standing turns out to be Rafael, and he refuses to ‘die’ even when the instructor repeatedly commands him to. As a political statement, it’s laughably schematic, but as an instance of curative theatre, it’s at home in the film. Seven Years in May is an odd film that appears to be constantly shifting its axes of operation. Familiarity with the filmmaker’s earlier work would perhaps throw more light.

Farewell to the Night (André Téchiné)

Muriel (Catherine Deneuve) runs a horse ranch in the southwest of France near the Spanish border. When her grandson, Alex (Kacey Mottet-Klein) arrives for a long-pending visit, she discovers that he has converted to Islam and has been radicalized by one of the farmhands, Lila (Oulaya Amamra). We learn this before Muriel does. When Alex meets Lila for the first time, they go out to the lake. She wears a burkini to get into the water, he remains on shore. They embrace, but never kiss. Their interaction and their attitude towards others follow the halal code. He refuses to greet-kiss another man, she refuses to serve men in the old age home she works at. He turns down alcohol and cigarettes, she refuses to uncover her sleeve at work. In collusion with another young radical, the pair plan to fly to Syria to ‘the front’, but are faced with money problems. They decide to steal money from ‘the kuffar’ Muriel, an act Lila justifies as ‘not haram’. Like any liberal-minded film worth its salt, Farewell to the Night ‘explains’ Islamic radicalism to us. The film unfolds over the first five days of spring in 2015. Local elections are underway and, we are told, the National Front is on the ascendant. It’s a soundbite intended to both hint at the other side of the divide and ‘explain’ increasing radicalism.

Lila rails about the rotten society that consigns old people to retirement homes, and she is genuinely compassionate towards the people she serves. On the other hand, the Caucasian Alex, still affectionate towards his grandmother, is sure neither about his sexuality nor about his new mission. Téchiné’s film psychoanalyses the radicals and professes its good faith by throwing in two “good Muslims”, including a Daesh renegade who tries to dissuade Alex in vain. As a portrayal of racial and religious divides in France, Farewell to the Night is a rather unexceptional. But the seventy-five-year-old filmmaker seems to be making a distinction between generational and cultural shifts rather than racial or religious. The world Muriel represents, in harmony with nature and with people of all stripes, is far removed from the polarized present. She is surrounded by children learning riding, and the first thing she does when she realizes she has lost Alex for good is to stop by a highway to watch boys and girls play football. Lila stays with a lonely old man who longs for company, while the foyer is a veritable refuge of those fading away. At one point, Téchiné cuts between the meeting of the stern radicals and a celebration at Muriel’s with wine and dance to indicate two different conceptions of community and culture. His ever-moving camera captures the landscape, vegetation and infrastructure of the region with an aim to please. Deneuve huffs and puffs her way through the ranch, but is all surface. Her purported devastation over her grandson’s fate and her guilt over her ultimate decisions don’t really register. There is, however, a great shot of her taking a swig.

The House (Mali Arun)

In an unnamed part of France, presumably in Occitanie, lies a massive spa retreat: a 22-room renaissance structure from the 17th century once visited by the likes of Voltaire and Casanova. Mali Arun’s film doesn’t give any more detail and simply calls the building ‘La Maison’. The House opens with a fade in from the structure’s original plan to its current decrepit state. Arun’s camera surveys the decaying façade and decrepit interiors of the house, a seeming repository of the debris of European culture: portraits, musical instruments and other objets d’art amassed carelessly in unused rooms and workshops. The attention soon shifts to the residents of this modern “ark”, as the filmmaker calls it: a constantly changing commune of white men, women and children galvanized around the permanent figure of a certain sexagenarian called Jacques. Arun’s voiceover tells us that the spring running through the site was exploited by Nestlé till the seventies, and that when the company left, they filled the water source with concrete to maintain their monopoly. Jacques and co. make plans of renovating the house as per the original plan. They draft monthly goals for their reconstruction project. They call a water diviner to retrace and restore the stream. However, the group, and Jacques in particular, seems to spend most of its time doing everything else.

Arun’s film is interested less in the history of the building or the personalities of the residents, who get to do little more than pose for closeups. It’s more concerned with the building as a space of memory and experience than as a physical presence. Arun’s emphasis is on the way of life of the inhabitants. We see them cutting trees, making music, cooking, discussing and debating, calling relatives on phone, playing with water, moving pianos, rehearing plays, raising bees and, if time permits, working a bit on the house. Despite Jacques’ central status, there’s no hierarchy within the commune, nor is there any binding faith or vice defining them. At best, they exhibit a faint decadence in their epicurean life of wine and music. For the most part, we see them in the all-purpose workshop-turned-piano room, fine-tuning the instruments, practicing pieces and preparing for recitals. There’s a bit of talk about administration, maintenance and financial problems, but nothing that disrupts the character of the place. As the description above suggests, The House is very loosely organized to give a sense of an ambiance. Even though Arun divides the film into seasons of the year in what seems like a last-minute effort, this lack of a structuring element collapses the distance between the filmmaker—who is part of the commune and is pregnant during the making of the film—and her subject. The outcome is a sentimental work, no doubt successful in certain aspects, that asks us to accept it without furnishing a justification as to why we must.

Slits (Carlos Segundo)

Carlos Segundo’s explosive horror-sci-fi hybrid is a high-concept work that draws ideas from quantum mechanics to explore themes of loss, grief and memory. Catarina (Roberta Rangel) is a physicist studying the quantum properties of light. She’s European, but works as a visiting scientist in the city of Natal in Eastern Brazil. In her supplementary research, she makes ‘sound-photos’ to analyse the “displacement of light caused by sound of matter”. For that, she first captures wide shots of ordinary scenes in Natal—digital footage with direct sound. She then ‘dives’ into a particular point on the image—zoom-ins of several thousand orders that abstracts the image—and listens to the ‘noise’ emanating from it. These dives enable her, like the sound engineer of Blow Out, to see with her ears, enter another space-time and listen to stories from another place and period: a kind of synaesthesia that breaks down the barriers between light and sound, visible and invisible, past and present. Shot in crisp, high-definition digital video, Slits is a bracing meditation on the nature of the medium. It finds an expression in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle of the contradictions inherent in the digital image: the tug of war between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise. Like the zoom of Michael Snow’s Wavelength, Catarina’s dives reveal stories to her, accounts that belie the banality of the image.

The same uncertainly becomes an expression of Catarina’s existence as well. Through the course of the film, we learn that Catarina has had a stable, privileged life with too many options and no crises whatsoever. She is apolitical, doesn’t know the troubled history of the region and doesn’t even participate in the university strike. Her only student, a fisherman, speaks of the need to initiate movements instead of expecting predictable results. Catarina has come to Natal, historically a region of passage, at a moment when natives are trying to leave the place. We also learn that she has become estranged from her husband in France following the loss of their baby daughter. In a sense, Catarina is fleeing Europe, her past and her reality for another dimension. Like the protagonist of The Invention of Morel, she finds refuge in a world of abstract images and sounds. And like Scotty of Vertigo (referenced here) and Laura of Don’t Look Now, she seeks to make sense of her tragedy through a process of reconstruction and interpretation. Her closest cinematic relative is, however, the gamer of Chris Marker’s Level Five, who too loses grip on the present in a quest to reconstruct the past. In the last shot of Marker’s film, the gamer zooms into a video image of herself to a point of obscurity, enacting the same instabilities besieging Catarina: observing reality from too close, she loses sight of it, just like how the extreme telephoto of the painted portrait at her home becomes one with the image of the sea. Catarina’s observations are coloured by her own subject position, and starting off from scientific premises, she ends up with results that can only be unscientific, unobservable and unrepeatable. As she tells her husband who urges her to move on from her mourning, time for some is chronological, for others its chronic.

Tit for Tarn

Cahiers du cinéma no. 553; January 2001.

There is a break in Alain Guiraudie’s body of work, a radical change of direction, between his first short films, Les héros sont immortels (1990), Tout droit jusqu’au matin (1994), and his later films, the short La Force des choses (1997) and the medium-length Du soleil pour les gueux (1999).

In the first period, it’s a static art centred around a single location in a town, a large doorway (Héros) or a street (Tout droit), and based on a perpetual volubility that analysed provincial ennui, the limitations of the horizons of life in Blagnac or Rignac and the paltry efforts to (not) get out of the place. The abundance of text, off-putting at first, intrigues and stuns us with its permanence, its rapidity and its complete, frontally-exposed account of existence: Guiraudie’s characters answer each other without a second’s respite, giving tit for tat, tit for Tarn rather, since all of it takes place in the Tarn department of France or its surroundings—Guiraudie always films within a hundred kilometres of Gaillac, where he currently lives after having left his native Rouergue and taken up all kinds of jobs, including that of a location manager. It’s this speed of response—more than the rapidity, the permanence and the acuity of speech—that produces the emotion.

Today, it’s the contrary. Guiraudie has forgotten the city and headed to the countryside: forests (La Force des choses), Causses (Du soleil pour les gueux). These are films where we see hardly see a house, whereas we saw nothing but houses before. And Guiraudie substitutes for the painstaking description of everyday life in the province an imaginary world where characters have unpronounceable names: Djemagalone, Chaouchmaline—sorry, “mister Chaouchmaline”—Poulixanosasdai, Astanojovira, Erixolovodon, where the city-bred heroine sets out to the Causse du Larzac in search of men she doesn’t know but is a fervent groupie of: the ounaye shepherds. The ounaye is an animal we’ll never see, and which we’ll hear only in the last shot of the film. It’s something like the dahu or the unicorn of Larzac. From the world of Eustache, of Guédiguian and even of Flaubert, we go straight into that of Swift, of Butler or of Jarry. The turn towards pure fantasy is all the more provocative given that we are in Larzac, a place charged with socio-political implications. We jump from José Bové to Lewis Carroll.

An evident rupture, indeed, but there are also underground links. Firstly, the films are still set in a single location, outdoors instead of indoors, a forest or a Causse instead of a doorway or a street, and shortly a factory in Ce vieux rêve qui bouge (2000), which is convenient when you don’t have a lot of money, but which is also an aesthetic choice: you can shoot in multiple locations when broke too, it doesn’t take too much money. And it’s a good idea to harness one setting in depth over one hour if needed rather than jump from one setting to another.

Other links: Guiraudie’s volubility carries on even further. And the natural setting particularly embodies the elsewhere, the other side for those marked by provincial ennui1. Nathalie Sanchez, the ounaye fan, tells us that she works at a hairstyling salon where she makes 5,500 francs a month. The characters discuss ounayes, only to get back to the thirty-nine-hour workweek.

This sudden burst of realism into unrealism, naturalism into the artificial, is perhaps what makes for the essential power of Du soleil pour les gueux, which was THE big moment of the Pantin Festival and in which Guiraudie, at thirty-five, finally attains complete mastery of his art: the surge of dream-like, absurd, fantastical, hyper-fictive elements is constantly contradicted, revived and reinforced—a marvellous and enjoyable dialectic—by peaks where the naturalness, spontaneity and cheekiness—in the very speech, in the tone and in the manner—of Isabelle Girardet, who plays Nathalie Sanchez, shows through, alternating the familiar, “come on, hurry up”, “Oh là là”, “So that’s what an ounaye is!” (she’s then rather disappointed), and the straitlaced, “so be it”, or “the issue will be heard shortly”. There are even rhymes: “tenu, inaperçu, prévenu”. She’s brilliantly complemented by the extravagant and incompetent bounty hunter, who introduces himself as a “chase warrior” and who claims that he’s worn out by the jet lag on his return from Siberia.

This perpetual back and forth was already seen in La Force des choses, when the young heiress, who wanders the woods in a bright-red, very nineteenth century evening dress, rebels against her kidnappers: “Are you nuts?!”, and complains about the ordeals she was put through: “Especially with my scoliosis…”, but La Force des choses, a rough draft and prelude to Du Soleil pour les gueux, doesn’t have the power of the latter. Firstly because the female character that Guiraudie’s dialectic is based on and who grounds the viewer faced with a spate of the irrational only appears halfway into the film, while she is present right from the start in Du soleil. And finally and especially because the forest is an infinitely more banal and more familiar setting than the Causse, which is rather ignored by French cinema (with the exception of Pollet’s Sang).

The Causse, a flat and vast place that evokes the puszta so dear to Mikos Jancso, brings an emotion-producing aesthetic value, in conjunction with the sky and the clouds that necessarily complement it, the camera often capturing more sky than earth in the frame. The theatrical discourse—of a rare quality, à la Blier—is magnified, intensified and authenticated by the presence of nature and the evident formal splendour: it’s a theatre of vast spaces, a theatre without limits (the Causse is the place in France where we can see the farthest), a theatre of immensity, an infinite stage. Cinema, like in the latest Godard, is first and foremost a choice of sky and of clouds (cf. also the sea of clouds over the valley in La Force des choses).

There is, among other things, a magnificent shot where the head and the torso of a character in motion appear alone, deep in the frame, over the line of tall grass in the Causse.

But the Causse doesn’t just have an aesthetic value: within the Larzac, even when we move around—and the hero doesn’t stop moving in the film—we get the impression of being at the same spot. In addition to the formal value and the intense recreational value, we have a realist value obtained through a metaphor. Even when we go Elsewhere, we go around ourselves, exactly like we do Here, in the everyday world we flee. The criminal on the run wants to leave the Causse for the city, but he’ll never get the courage to do it. Immensity becomes inseparable from the Speck. It’s reduced to Void.

It’s in this that Guiraudie finds himself in the avant-garde of Aquitanian cinema, which (after Eustache, Breillat, Téchiné, Kané, Nolot…) is increasingly turning out to be the driving force of our cinema. The Garonne, and not the Seine, is the true lifeblood of French cinematic art. The tragic melancholy of Aquitanian petty bourgeoisie is at once erased and reinforced by the landscape. An integral regionalism—as opposed to the more limited, solely script-driven regionalism of a Denis, a Vautier or a Guédiguian—far from the usual agro-metallurgic grumblings.

Faced with this haunting locale, seen continuously for almost an hour, a shot of four seconds of the valley below produces an intense emotion. The Causse is defined as an “elsewhere”, but it has its own “elsewhere”, whose brief glimpse seems to betray its illusory character.

The film must not be reduced to a fixed aesthetic pattern: it’s constantly renewed—and made more discreet—by movements that are as incessant and contradictory as they are paltry and apparently useless.

This is how Guiraudie unwittingly arrives at the principle behind the “Indian chase” (forgotten by the Hollywood Western), which, among the Sioux or the Navajos, consisted of tracking the enemy over many days without approaching him or seeking to capture him: this obsessive and apparently perpetual pursuit always ended with the pursued man voluntarily surrendering without a combat. Du Soleil pour les gueux (what a terrible title for such a beautiful film!) reverses the principle: it’s the pursued man who lets the bounty hunter come close to him, but not too close. He even taunts his pursuer by going back near him and compels him to give up, since the hunter knows well that he’ll never get his hands on his prey. New version of Achilles and the tortoise.

A play of directions—all paths criss-crossing—but also of steps, now slow, now lively or opposed in the same shot: the shepherd walks normally on the tall grass, but behind him, Nathalie Sanchez keeps jumping over each group of plants, losing a lot of time in the process. She is then forced to systematically alter her tempo to keep up with him.

Speaking of systematism, we must make note of the film’s audacious cladding principle (principe de placage), made of long and wide shots (like Ce vieux rêve qui bouge), constructed around the unexpected arrival of inappropriate and unusual music. There are also, in a long shot with two characters, these annoying blades of grass in the foreground (that another filmmaker would have cut out: aesthetic provocation, or ecological concern, or both?). There are especially these long texts, off-screen but nonetheless synchronized with the image, where we hear the characters speak from up close and on the same sound level while walking at a hundred meters from the camera. This cladding principle, so repulsive in television and elsewhere, is fruitful here because its excess (perhaps deriving from a modesty of means) stylizes the film in a way that’s provocative, clearly desired by the filmmaker and ultimately very impressive.

Here’s a work which is like nothing else in French cinema today. We could establish links to Beckett or Pasolini (Ninetto Davoli’s movements in wide shots, the landscapes of Oedipus Rex or of Pigsty). But the difference of place and characters ensures that these are only distant parallels. More relevant seems to be the influence of Godard: the period costume and the familiar tone of Sandra Casellini in the forest of La Force des choses recalls the Emily Bronte of Weekend played by Anne Wiazemsky. And more generally, the constant juxtaposition of the unreal and the spontaneous brings to mind the work of Juliet Berto and that of Laurence Côte in The Power of Speech. But here too, we are dealing with a principle (too) rare in cinema: we’d be better of speaking of homage rather than plagiarism.

The most unquestionable aspect of Guiraudie’s work resides in the way he continuously jumps from one shot to the next, and even within a shot from one register, one point of interest to another: formal splendour, spontaneous acting, total fun, down-to-earth naturalism, avant-garde cladding, ennui, play of costumes, private jokes (the script seen in front of the camera, the oral credits of Héros). Guiraudie avoids redundancy with all this. A superior grace comes out of the whole, a twirling suppleness. What we witness is a very elaborate, almost Mozartian musical structure.

 

1Homosexuality in a working-class milieu—Ce vieux rêve qui bouge—is a utopia comparable to that of the ounayes.

 

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

Unstill Life

Arts no. 709; 11 February 1959.

The majority of documentaries seem artificial in comparison to numerous works of fiction. Boredom takes over when no human emotion is able to blend in with a landscape, even if it’s endowed with the greatest beauty. “Nature is a good director”, a text here full of easy literature tells us, which we have a hard time agreeing with: how dull are the many reportages on and under oceans and on the most backward regions of the globe!

But with The Devil’s Blast, it’s necessary for us to acknowledge the basis for this postulate for once. Haroun Tazieff, a passionate volcanologist, gives us a report of his descent into the eight or ten most remarkable craters chosen across five continents. Now, of all manifestations of nature, volcanos and their eruption are the ones that contain the most life. The fall of rain, the movement of snow, wind and oceans, by their routine, confine us to immobility. On the other hand, volcanoes rumble, spit, destroy and transform themselves with the only constant being improvisation, which governs the domain of the artist as well. Their hybrid form of a hollow mountain concealing another world underneath the real world has long fascinated, obsessed a Romantic like Richard Wilson, the painter of course, not the filmmaker. And in Stromboli, and even more so in Journey to Italy, Rossellini could even discover the essential foundations of an entire life through seismic manifestations.

Let’s not try to renounce, on the vain pretext that man hasn’t yet laid his hands on them, our admiration or, better, our emotion before the spectacle of lapilli or of the miniature craters of Pompeii, before these still-moving rock deserts and these enormous lava streams.

Isn’t that minimizing Tazieff’s contribution? I don’t think so, and one could even criticize him for not effacing himself before his subject. Looking for dramatic interest above all, he hasn’t been able to decide between an amateur filmmaker’s reportage and a professional’s essay. To be sure, the lens is damaged at one point by the eruptions and the colours are not of Technicolour surety; but why then these sociological angles, these reconstructions of the crew’s exploits, which makes the documentary lose some of the truth that an artificial clumsiness—that of an Alain Bombard, for example—could’ve shown with more eloquence?

 

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

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.

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