Cinema of France


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.

Journal de la SRF no. 7; February 1982.

Sauve qui peut la vie

The best films in France today have, for the most part, what is called a “reduced” audience: between 15,000 and 1,000 viewers for Femmes femmes, J’ai voulu rire comme les autres, Passe-Montagne, Le Berceau de Cristal, Courts-circuits, Guns, Rue du Pied-de-Grue, Dora, Daguerréotypes, Vincent mit l’ane…, In girum imus nocte…,Sérail, L’Automne, Agatha, Out One, Dehors dedans, Paradiso, Le Jardinier…

The responsibility for these “failures” is often attributed to a non-conformity to the standardization imposed by the Big Villain, the three-headed oligopoly. But that’s to forget that the situation is similar, or worse, in our neighbouring countries without an oligopoly (Benelux, Switzerland) and that, in most of these cases, the Big Three have done what they could… That’s to say very little. For the problem is more serious: there is a refusal by the majority of the viewers to leave their house to go to the movies.

Hence the importance of television, our staple medium, over which our attachment to the past often prefers theatrical screenings. Let’s recall Gilson’s La Brigade: 3,000 theatrical admissions, 9 million television viewers.

It’s viewers who push the oligopoly (which sometimes prefers the nice role of the patron of the arts) towards standardization through trends, genres, and guaranteed names so that their precious time away from home and the money they spend are a sure investment while the quality of the films could only be the product of copyists.

Over eighty years, this demand for standardized products, reinforced by the capitalists of silent cinema, has continued to a point where, for a lot of viewers, the notion of quality has become one with the notion of standard. Especially in France, the cradle of an old, tired civilization, much less open to difference than the American and the African ones. For proof, you just have to look at all the customers who walked out of the aforementioned films midway.

It’s difficult to overwhelm the viewer when we, the filmmakers, ask retailers for the same cigarettes, the same aprons, beefsteaks, rump steaks, the same brand of shirts through the years.

And how could a viewer appreciate Rivette, De Gregario or Kast if he doesn’t know South-American literature (which too has a readership in France of less than 15,000), an indispensable stage in the thought process of these filmmakers? Can he appreciate Grandperret’s sense of ellipse if he has never tried his hand at editing and if he hasn’t been exasperated like us by the humdrum of the dominant narrative? If he watches ten films a year, isn’t it normal that, like the non-filmmaker creators in Cannes juries, he finds originality in the standardized product that we, after two hundred viewings a year, hate?

From Matisse to Schoenberg, from Joyce to Calder, from Beckett to Straub, contemporary art tends to be an art for the initiated. Is it possible to appreciate modern painting without having followed every step of its evolution over the last hundred years? Can we like a book without learning the language? Renoir, who passes for a popular filmmaker, said that, of the five thousand customers at Gaumont-Palace, only five really saw the film. By this measure, are the viewers of “hits” like Providence or Sauve qui peut really more in number than those of Duras or Hanoun?

That’s why the chief problem of French cinema will not be resolved by economic planning, but by the compulsory teaching of cinema at school, the analysis of films and the study of the evolution of cinema on television channels.

Teaching literature at school can be questioned. But it’s thanks to it that we don’t praise Ponson du Terrail to the detriment of Stendhal, Delly or Des Cars instead of Bernanos or Proust. On the other hand, they tell you: L’Arche perdue, les Baskets and the Disney factory over Duras, Garrel and Rivette.

The public must be changed.

Another major problem: earlier, the spectator used to make his choice based on the theatre, the genre and the star. Today, he also tends to choose according to the auteur of the film. To such a point that very few great filmmakers succeed in concealing themselves behind the genre or the actor. They are automatically assimilated into “auteur cinema”. In the olden days, before being a film by X or Y, Monsieur Lange passed for a crime movie by Jules Berry, La Petite Lise and La Vénus aveugle for serial melodramas. Les Dames du bois de Boulogne for a worldly drama by Paul Bernard. La Ronde for a bawdy film. These at least had their share of guaranteed earnings as genre films or star films – something which would be impossible today.

The tragedy is that the public which demands auteurs, unless it spends its entire life at the movies, can only “absorb” a limited number of these auteurs, those which constitute a must, in general one per country, Bergman, Saura, Wajda, Tarkovsky, S. Ray. In France, there are Truffaut and Resnais, and, in the standing room, Rohmer, Godard, and then Lelouch-Sautet-Tavernier-Blier (even if their status as auteurs is questioned). The others are in the anteroom.

Now, in France there are a hundred auteurs, another hundred pretending to be, and another thousand waiting for the chance to prove that they are auteurs. The “politique des auteurs” has thus created a gigantic garbage. Solution? Make double-billing compulsory to include an ‘arthouse’ film, encourage increase in production methods and video distribution. Create the idea of a regional auteur through a quota for regional films, eating a little into international auteurs. Promote a larger number of French auteurs at the expense of fake auteurs (Schlöndorff, Ken Russell, Scola).

 

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

[I wrote this long review of Textes Critiques, the complete collection of Jacques Rivette’s film criticism issued by Post-Éditions, earlier this year.]

Textes Critiques

Jean-Luc Godard quipped that his criticism represented a kind of cinematic terrorism. Serge Daney said his writing taught him not to be afraid to see. The Parisian publishing house Post-Éditions has made available a long overdue collection of his articles in French to decide for ourselves. Jacques Rivette became a filmmaker even before he became a critic. When he came to Paris from Rouen in 1950, he had already completed a short film, unlike Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer or Chabrol, his colleagues-to-be at Cahiers du cinéma and later fellow New Wave directors. By his own admission, he never wanted to be a film critic, not in the traditional sense of the term. But, considering his own dictum that “a true critique of a film can only be another film,” he never ceased to be one.

Textes Critiques as an object has the appearance of a cinephilic totem: half-a foot in size, portable, with a French flap cover in black and white featuring only an evocative photo of the author taken by Truffaut in 1950. The minimal outer design flows into the volume, a collection of Rivette’s writings devoid of photographs, film stills or images of any other kind‑an austere presentation that reflects the solemn quality of Rivette’s texts. Apart from an insightful introduction by co-editor Luc Chessel, there’s no extra fat to go with the articles: no biographical sketches, testimonies or commentaries. In other words, you don’t get any information about Rivette’s early years, his gravitation towards cinema, his activity during the months he didn’t publish reviews, the momentous “putsch” of 1963 at Cahiers or the (in)famous December ’63 special on American cinema running over 250 pages that appeared under his editorship, partly responsible for driving the magazine to the verge of bankruptcy.

Collected in the first of the five sections of the book are all of Rivette’s writing between 1950 and 1965: about 75 pieces, most of them published in Gazette du cinémaCahiers du cinéma and Arts. The second chapter is a re-publication of an extended discussion between Rivette, Jean Narboni, and Sylvie Pierre from 1969 on the topic of montage. The third, short section is a collection of tributes to André Bazin, Truffaut, and Henri Langlois, while the fourth brings together nine unpublished articles. Among the latter is a valuable collection of entries from a diary Rivette maintained between 1955 and 1961—a series of short, Bresson-like maxims, theoretical pilots and notes-to-self. The book ends with an insightful interview between Rivette and Hélène Frappat on the question of what makes an object of art worth critical consideration. No explanation is offered as to why the discussion on montage (published without the accompanying photograms or its original four-column format) merited selection over any of Rivette’s other roundtables at Cahiers or why the Hélène Frappat interview is more befitting a concluding chapter than any other interview with the cineaste. Ce qui est, est.

The mode of address is clearly different between the pieces from Cahiers and those from Arts. While the former’s specialized audience and acknowledged partisanship gives Rivette—and his young colleagues—license to passionate excesses, emphatic declarations and mystical aphorisms, the wide readership of Arts imparts discipline and argumentative clarity to the articles. Yet Rivette’s prose remains complex, constructed with long sentences and hefty theoretical arguments. Like the American critic Manny Farber, he feels no obligation to even summarily describe the plot, the cast or the circumstances of a film’s production. The focus is squarely on setting up the polemic or deriving general precepts about the seventh art.

In “Critic Going Everywhere,” Donald Phelps characterized Farber’s film criticism as multi-directional, gnawing away at the peripheries of what a film has to offer and “getting as far away as possible from any point, any centripetal force.” Rivette’s writing reaches outward too, frequently spiraling away from the film at hand to arrive at a provisional theory of all cinema—a theory that is always in the making, redefined and refined with every new encounter with the screen. Thus, a commentary on Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) serves as a launchpad for a meditation of the tension between reality and cinema. An evaluation of Alexandre Astruc’s Les mauvaises rencontres (1955) becomes a demonstration of the possible ways of talking about a debut work. A review of Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957) provides an occasion for revaluating all post-war American cinema.

Yet, Rivette’s is far from an academic approach that takes films as mere evidence for substantiating a theory. These centrifugal reflections emanating from a single film are nevertheless rooted in it, enabled by it. When he concludes, in a review of Angel Face (1953), “What is cinema but the play of the actor and the actress, of the hero and the décor, of the word and the face, of the hand and the object?”, Rivette is offering as much an appreciation of the specific pleasures of Preminger’s new film as a general manner of looking at the cinema. Despite the constant evolution of Rivette’s critical position, several concerns have a permanent presence in his writing, almost all of them rooted, incredibly enough, in the sparkling, lucid first essay he published at the age of 22, “Nous ne sommes plus innocents” (1950), in the Bulletin of the Latin Quarter Cine-club run by Maurice Schérer.

Le cinéma et l’argent, Nathan, 1999.

Publication edited by Laurent Creton.

Paris set for Les Amants du Pont Neuf

An unusual event took place in the autumn of 1991. A film came out, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and everyone knew that it was one of the most expensive films, if not the most expensive, in the history of French cinema: 130 million francs! But the extraordinary thing wasn’t that. The most troubling element about Léos Carax’s film was that the major part of the money spent couldn’t be seen on screen. A series of unfortunate coincidences, reshoots in new sets and a somewhat careless management had contributed to raise the budget to over 100 million francs for a film that, on screen, appears to have cost 30, after having initially been planned for an artisanal shoot in 16mm. Everyone, the industry and the audience, was aware of this incongruity. But it was what was to attract the attention of viewers and help the film have a brilliant run, which would’ve been very satisfactory had it cost 30 million, but was catastrophic for a work of 130. An astounding number of articles were dedicated to events surrounding the film before its release. A striking contrast with the reviews of the film themselves, which didn’t exceed standard length and even suffered from the exclusivity granted to the analysis of the shoot. Everyone was dying to see the film. And I remember very well that I went to the first show of the film burning with impatience.

For most people, the interest wasn’t as much in going to see a good film as in finding out how one could spend so much money, where it all went, and in gazing at the monster. You went to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf like you read the delectable annual report of the accounting office that denounces various kinds of waste in the administration’s spending. Most viewers were aware that their desire to know that couldn’t be fulfilled since the money wasn’t to be seen in the result.

The colossal publicity for made for these Amants—there was even a film about the film—cost nothing: journalists thronged to get more information, so there was no need for a flashy campaign or scores of advertising billboards. The promotion cost for a film that enjoyed two hundred and sixty thousand admission in Paris region was rather small: it was as small as the shooting budget was extravagant. You could even wonder if the entire affair wasn’t a brilliant bluff, if the budget wasn’t disproportionately blown up just in order to get all this free publicity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. There’ve been such cases before: every evening of the shoot of Foolish Wives (Stroheim, 1921), Universal put up fictional numbers purporting to show the ongoing cost of the film’s production at Times Square; or the wily Russell Birdwell, PR agent for Alamo made by John Wayne in 1959, who publicised a highly exaggerated total cost in order to garner the sympathy of exhibitors, who extended the film’s run in their theatres, and in order to increase the interest of voters in the Oscar race.

A pure concept

We can cite two examples which come close to Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, but producers are careful not to acknowledge that the money can’t be seen in the result, even if the observer wonders where it could all have gone. The trick lies in making sure that no one has the idea or the cheek to raise the question of wastage. The difference arises from the fact that, in Les Amants, the wastage took place during the shoot, involuntarily, while, in the films we are about to study, it was in some ways anticipated even before the first day of shoot.

Jean de Florette (Berri, 1984) was produced in a budget of 59 million francs (of which 13 were above-the-line costs for star actors and auteurs, which is not excessive). So 46 million was spent on the rest, whereas we “see” 15 or 20 at most on screen: only five shooting locations – Jean de Florette’s house, that of Papet, the two villages, the scrubland – in natural settings within a radius of 500 kilometres, five principal actors, some secondary roles, some extras, no chase, no stunt, no short edits, no special effects (except one, a successful one at that), no sumptuous period costumes. The impression of poverty the film gives goes hand in hand with the material poverty of the protagonists. We really get the impression that if so much money was spent (although we can’t totally rule out a bluff, but I think it’s improbable) it was for the filmmakers to convince themselves that they haven’t left out anything, to say that they have spent a lot of money to impress the gallery, coproducers, distributors, exhibitors and the public.

More ambiguous is the case of Le Garçu (1995), which declares a budget of 67 million (of which 15 above-the-line for big names in the credits), even more expensive than the big spectacle of Captain Conan or Ridicule. I must say I almost died of laughter looking at the cost estimate of Garçu, since in no way does the result allow us to imagine a total cost of 50 million. I’m all the more comfortable saying that because the film is, in my opinion, a real masterpiece. It’s an intimate chronicle revolving around a few characters, featuring only one really popular actor at the box-office. Considering the fact that Pialat shoots a lot of takes and sometimes reshoots a part of his film afterwards, we could estimate the visible cost of Garçu at a maximum of 15 million. We can doubt the veracity of the declared budget here: the astounding figure of 7 million for copyright (music and royalties, while the script and dialogues were mostly improvised), or the equivalent of the total cost of two or three Rohmers!

We can notice a similarity with Jean de Florette: both films feature Gérard Depardieu, who appears in the cost estimate against an amount that’s modest for his reputation. Does this mean that Depardieu only accepts to participate in films with a very high budget, official or real? Or that, as soon as Depardieu comes on board, producers manage to increase costs so as to implicate all economic collaborators a little more, to have fun or to even inflate their contribution to the virtual general expenses? Perhaps it was also, in this particular case, a way to prepare for the overspending that Pialat was accustomed to. Difficult to say.

These three different cases illustrate the phenomenon of stated and not-apparent money. Observers take the classification of expensive films at face value without questioning it. Money is a purely abstract concept and nothing else.

This principle can also be applied in reverse: films that cost very less, but seem luxurious. This is how, thanks to its lighting and constant innovation, The Blind Owl (Raoul Ruiz, 1987), which must’ve cost about 5 million francs, appears infinitely richer than Jean de Florette, despite its budget of 59 million. A costume drama like Let Joy Reign Supreme (Bertrand Tavernier) could be completed in 1975 for 4 million: a miracle that we are hard put to explain. The five hours of Jacques Rivette’s Jeanne d’Arc (1993), for little more than 20 million… movies made in developing countries could boast of an absolutely phenomenal quality-price ratio (Farewell My Concubine, Antonio Das Mortes, The Holy Mountain, Oliveira’s No).

Or, simply, the set decorator’s shrewdness enables some incredible savings: we know that, for Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949), the brilliant Cameron Menzies had come up with a prism system that could multiply the number of extras seen on screen manifold.

We’re dealing here with an international phenomenon in both ways, in profligacy as well as in parsimony: we know, for instance, that many American productions for major companies have their budgets blown up by their distributors/financiers, thanks to the inclusion of imaginary or useless general expenses. On the other hand, the scenarios we are about to examine below seem to be typically or exclusively French.

Bluffs

When we have the means to turn over the cards of this strange game, it appears that the official budget of French films, as they figure in the Centre du Cinéma magazine (CNC info) differ markedly from reality, at least as far as modestly-budgeted films are concerned. A precise report written by a student of Paris III estimates, after an interview with the director, the cost price of Inner City (Richet, 1994) at 430,000 francs. The number quoted by CNC info is 2,010,000 francs, 469% of the real cost. Two years after the answer print of one of my films, my producer gave me a final summary of expenses: 36,000 francs. However, the CNC quotation reached 250,000 francs, 694% of the real cost. And yet, I can’t boast of having set a record.

A Jean Rouch film produced by Pierre Braunberger around 1962 is said to have crossed the sound barrier, with more than 1000%. One only needs to add a zero… In general, we see differences that are less stupefying. Let’s say that, on an average, you must divide the stated cost by two to get the real cost. I will cite some personal examples: 210,000 in place of 410,000, or 110,000 in place of 310,000, or 2,200,000 substituting 4,400,000, or 450,000 in place of 1,191,000. And my case is not at all particular. A recent Italian co-production, The Second Time, is declared at 21 million, while, upon viewing, we’d peg it rather at 8 million. The 11 million of The Phantom Heart (Garrel, 1995) are to be reduced probably to 5. These overestimations are sometimes compensated by underestimations that afflict the most expensive films.

These subterfuges aren’t of the same order at all as those evoked at the beginning of this chapter, where the differences between stated numbers and visible spending were voluntary on the part of the producer, no matter that the film was too ostentatious or this ostentation was simulated. In this new category, the differences are neither desired nor taken upon by the producer. They are imposed on him by the Administration. In France, the production of a film is indeed dependent on authorization, the CNC giving its approval only if the film seems expensive enough to be seen through to completion, that is to say more expensive than the real cost of the film, even if the gap has tended to narrow since the middle of the 1990s.

Why this perpetual hiatus? Between 1947 and 1959, the CNC was used to expensive studio productions. It could never accept the drop in expenses enabled by successful films of the Nouvelle Vague from 1958 on and which was made possible by, among other things, location shooting, decrease in number of technicians and the potential reduction of their salaries1. The technicians’ union, which oversees the committee in charge of dispensing production authorizations, tended to oppose films in which salaries were lower than the minimum professional wage fixed by it and whose number, in its view, was grossly reduced (minimum salary which, let it be said, wasn’t obligatory at all for non-unionized technicians and producers).

In conclusion, filmmakers were better off lying and declaring bloated salary numbers and sufficiently high fees before shooting. Failing to comply, a producer saw his file adjourned or rejected. The shoot, for which everything was carefully prepared, found itself pushed, with concomitant postponement fees (already-signed contracts and engagements) and logistical problems (rescheduling of a shoot that had to take place in a particular season to the following year). Subterfuge was a good tactic: it solved all problems and saved time in the dealings with the Administration.

This taste for overspending, rather pronounced among administrative personnel, stems not only from a nostalgia for the studio era. Government officers, just like politicians who are supposed to head them and for whom they are mistaken, love to see investments increasing. For them, anything that increases is good, anything that reduces is distressing. A director of production at the CNC, noticing that I had made my first feature film for very little money, 50,000 francs, told me: “Okay, I’ll let it pass this time, but I hope that you’ll make a more ambitious film next time…” “More ambitious” meant “more expensive”. I tactically refrained from contradicting him, but I said to myself: “What a moron!” For him, ambition meant spending more, whereas my film, which questioned the inanity of university teaching before May 1968, was one of the most ambitious of the year (and too ambitious, in my opinion). For these officers, victims of a bad education, the best of the best meant always more, spending more, earning more. A very dangerous principle of perpetual ascent that evokes the Tyrolian game picked up by game shows, and which leads straight to a breaking point, to the Tarpeian Rock, to Tex Avery’s King-Size Canary, where the canary becomes bigger than the earth.

At first, I naively proposed authentic cost estimates to the CNC, but the personnel at the Centre seemed alarmed by it. The best officer this organization ever had begged me to make an effort to blow up the estimate a little: “My higher-ups will laugh at my face if I hand them such a poor budget.” Seeing him distraught, I told him after some hesitation that I accepted his proposition. He then started wiping the sweat off his forehead, and I think he was grateful to me for my cooperation. This incident proves that his sense of reality was very diminished. He was the best officer and yet he lived in the clouds. His more strait-laced colleagues lived on the moon. Later, when I asked this good man what minimum estimate I should quote to the CNC for a feature-length project (“800,000 maybe?”), he agreed to accept a budget of 1 million, throwing his hands in the air: “I wonder how you can make a film that is to be shot in three continents under 1 million.” Well, the final cost of the film was 298,000 francs…

To be sure, almost all cinema professionals know well that cost estimates are fudged. A little internal machination that bothers no one… The problem is that a lot of them don’t know to what degree. Cinema officers are in fact the children of Mao, since communist China was reputed for its false statistics…The negative consequence of this system is that very official people, observers, international publications and five-year plans gulp down all the number-backed fabrications of the system without batting an eyelid and build castles in the sky with them2. The paradox is that the falser the numbers are, the more their disclosure swells. The officials fudge these misleading numbers a little more and firmly defend them since truth would cause trouble. Contrary to expectations, certain statistics are even more subjective than critical opinion.

There are other factors that make bluffing inevitable: outside of rare exceptions, the CNC doesn’t give its approval for shooting if the advance granted reaches 50% of the cost estimate, or if the share of a French television exceeds this percentage (it will then be a telefilm), or if the producer’s contribution is less than 15% of the total (a legal obligation that was recently removed). Now, a rather in-vogue producer told me recently that no producer (except Seydoux, Berri and Fechner) invested money in a film outside of sometimes fictional general expenses and overhead risks; that shows how illusory this 15% is. Ultimately, even if the real estimate turns out to be acceptable by itself for the CNC, you must compulsorily “inflate” the expenses in accordance to the abovementioned percentages and especially – this is the greatest disadvantage of the system – “justify” a fictional investment.

The other disadvantage of the system is that, to increase the apparent cost of his film, the producer’s first (and easiest) approach consists of considerably increasing the royalty cost which, filed in public register, will initiate a drive on behalf of the Artists’ Welfare Office, eager to collect subscriptions based on this fictional amount.

This cover-up isn’t without its advantages for the producer (even if, in general, bluffing is not justified by money-mindedness at all). If the producer’s percentage on the revenue was to be limited according to his real investment, it would hardly reach the 7% that is the current norm for general expenses. The producer’s motivation to get good distribution for his film would then be very limited and would hence incite him into passivity, while with bluffing and his own fictional investments, he can get percentages going from 30% to 100% (considering that certain collaborators are not paid from the first franc of the revenue onwards).

This constant, playful inflation of investments is at once an exterior sign of health and a good reason for asking for aid and funds from the State and from everybody: these sums are so disproportionate that poor producers are hard put to make ends meet and more subsidies, more tax reliefs must be offered for cinema. Paradoxically, we could come to consider that the more statistics are fudged, the better films are (and vice versa). The forced inflation means that they are financed in unorthodox ways, which implies an originality lacking in most films.

Contrary to popular belief, these financial subterfuges aren’t just limited to production numbers. To a lesser degree, differences exist at the exhibition stage. This is how, in Film français, my Brigitte and Brigitte was declared as having had 22,155 admissions during its limited release in Paris. The data processed by the CNC, more exact, gives a figure of 19,357 admissions. It’s my distributor who inflated the numbers communicated to the press in order to help the film, to make provincial exhibitors believe in its money-making potential, and especially to cross the symbolic threshold of twenty thousand admissions. A good film like Muriel – ninety thousand admissions in Film français – probably had less than 50,000. It seems that this cover-up job isn’t possible anymore today, everyone having the right now to verify the reality of these numbers, but I hardly believe that: who’d have the time and the interest to verify this? The only difference is that overestimation is disallowed for champions of the box office, where the bluff would be too obvious.

There is always the possibility – rarely harnessed today, but once common among producers and distributors – to buy tickets to their own films upon their release. Film français won’t lie about the numbers, it’s the numbers themselves that will lie. I remember, for example, that the producer of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped had bought dozens of tickets in 1956 so that the film crosses the threshold contractually necessary for getting a third-week run3.

We can also mention the fraudulent practices in theatres (and which generally works the other way around, towards an underestimation of revenue, but not always), with double sale of the same ticket, the attribution (in multiplexes) of a theatre to a film that doesn’t belong there when the multiplex manager wants to favour a programme in which he gets a better percentage4.

It’s frequently said that the share of the producer/distributor represents about 40% of the revenue, and can’t legally cross 50%, but that’s to forget that distributors are paid minimum guarantees: this is how my The Comedy of Work made 63 francs as revenue for Auchel, and the distributor received 1,000 francs, 1,547% of the revenue. Am I finally going to make it to the Guinness records?

Snowball effect

A fundamental principle of cinema is the snowball that ends up causing avalanches. It’s for this reason that there’s an interest in inflating the revenue numbers of the first run. Some provincial exhibitors reject a film if it hasn’t crossed a certain threshold in Paris. Even I went to see Diva and In girum imus nocte et consumimir igni because their limited release lasted long (at the producer’s cost); this permanence intrigued me.

Distributors and producers seem to be sensitive to the logic of rivalry. They’re all the more interested in a film when they notice that a competitor is interested in it. One day, at a film festival, a distributor told me that he liked my film a lot, but he couldn’t unfortunately take it since he had no more theatres at his disposition. Six months later, I paid for a private screening of the film at a theatre which turned out to have been controlled by this distributor. At this screening was another distributor who enthusiastically made me a hard proposition. Some hours later, the first distributor called me, outraged: “What? You invited a competitor into my theatre, and she wants to buy your film, while it was I who made the first offer?!” I retorted that he’d told me he didn’t have any more theatres and that he’d refused the film. He answered that all of Paris new that he had three theatres and that he’d offer me a sum greater than the one proposed by the competitor, with the promise of distributing another one of my undistributed films.

Thanks to this experience, I realized that in order to get offers from an economic operator and make it go through the roofs, you absolutely had to sustain the interest of a (real or fictional) competitor, to make yourself seen by him, even at the risk of paying this competitor for his temporary service. This is the principle of the “accomplice” to hawkers. “It always rains where it’s wet”, my peer Jean-Danier Simon used to rightly say.

When my first film, Brigette and Brigette, was presented at the Cannes Festival, in a small private theatre, a distributor called me to the smoking room at the end of three minutes: he had noticed that some of his peers were laughing out loud in the hall, and he wanted to be the first to make me an offer, which was soon finalized. He saw the film only six months later, during its release, and he was much less impressed… On the economic front, the problem is to get the first mark of interest, to engage someone in the film’s cycle. The financier gives his money only to someone who already has, or is suspected to soon have, such a person.

When he started out, Claude Lelouch found it very hard to sell his films. He recounts how he had successfully convinced a German client to buy Une fille et des fusils (perhaps his best film) not because of its highlights but because the distributor had seen him driving around in Mercedes… I also remember that a Venezuelan client had asked me, as a precondition to buy my film, some data about the film’s performance in other countries. I made a very precise list of completely imaginary positive reception in faraway cities, where any verification was impossible: Seoul, Oslo, Nairobi etc. And my film was sold this way to Venezuela.

Similarly, when a foreign client enters a production house with posh offices, he won’t dare proposing a lower price for the purchase of a film. We can cite an amusing experiment in this regard: for his client meetings, a wily fellow had the idea of renting producers, magnificently-equipped offices on Champs-Élysées with secretaries and even a name plate on the door for one hour. And it worked…

In the same order of ideas, we’ve often wondered why American films have had such a clear edge in France in recent years. There are several reasons including this one: earlier, in France, a high-profile film was issued at 50 prints at most. Today, 600 prints are needed given that the film should be shown in as many theatres as possible on the first day. A release today involves a lot more issuing cost than before. As a result, sure-shot products are favoured, those that have already proven themselves and made a lot of money (so mostly American films), which are more reliable in principle than resorting to successful French stars (there’s no guarantee that their next appearance will be popular). As a consequence, grand launches, which are partly responsible for record revenues, will lean towards American bestsellers and professionals will do their best to forge a convergence, even a similarity, of tastes between the two continents. The phenomenon is relatively new, if we consider that the champion of American box-office in 1959, Auntie Mame, wasn’t even dubbed and ran for only three weeks in just one theatre in Paris.

Another variant: to be well distributed, you must engage the most amount of people holding economic powers, distributors, investors and exhibitors, such that they seek to recover their investment by all means. If you make them run the risk of losing money, owing to the extent of their investment, you are sure to get a good distribution. If, on the other hand, you make a film all alone, without involving anyone, you are necessarily at a disadvantage compared to those who have compromised their clients who, in turn, will seek to recover their principal sum most of all. A suicidal reflex at times: the film where a lot has been invested could turn out to be less commercial than one made without a single penny.

As a corollary, it seems that it’s beneficial to intimidate economic operators (without necessarily asking them to invest) by making them believe that, if your film doesn’t work, it’s the entirety of French cinema that’ll be in crisis. They then find themselves invested in a mission. By agreeing to take over from the weak-hearted producer of Les Amants du Pont Neuf, Christian Fechner knew well that he was going to lose money. But he became the film’s saviour, the saviour of the most expensive film in French cinema history. It’s better to spend the most possible amount of money (or pretend to) and appeal to public aid, something the producer of a film made for 3 million francs can’t do.

We can lose sight of an essential principle: what counts the most in a publicly-traded company is the dividend on the stock, and not the turnover. It’s the opposite in cinema. Three million admissions for The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), which cost 350 million francs, a loss in fact. The Horseman on the Roof had two million five hundred thousand admissions and cost 170 million, which comes to 68 francs per viewer. In comparison, The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque, with a cost of one million, had a hundred and eighty thousand admissions, 6 francs per viewer. The return on Rohmer’s film is hence eleven times higher than that of The Horseman and eighteen times higher than that of Joan of Arc. Even so, it’s The Horseman or Joan of Arc which is a model “showcase film”, in total contravention with the “laws” of the economy.

We notice that French film economy clearly follows the American model, but with a lag of several years. Earlier, owing to prudishness, the French economic system concealed everything related to money: before 1947, it was impossible to know film budgets and revenues. Mentioning these amounted to an infringement of business secrets. Only some rare, favourable numbers (true or false) made it to La Cinématographie française before 1949. Now, in the footsteps of puritanical America where everyone has his cards on the table, unashamed to reveal how much he made every year, all these more or less true numbers appear in the press, at the exhibition stage (since 1949) as well as the production stage (since 1978). Like the Americans of yesteryear, we boast today about spending or making the most amount of money possible.

This phenomenon takes place in France at the very moment when America starts to evolve: today, thanks notably to the low level of social security and the return to black and white, the Anglo-Saxons are proud to reveal that their masterpieces – Go Fish, Henry, Clerks, She’s Gotta Have It, Unbelievable Truth, The Blair Witch Project – were made at prices that defy all competition (between 80,000 and 400,000 dollars), unthinkable in France. I’m even tempted to say that they’re underquoting to create interest and buzz in the media. In France, the honest declaration of small budgets continues to give the impression of a lack of seriousness (even though it’s more difficult to make a film with little money than with a lot) and turns against the films. France’s eternal lag over America…

 

1In this regard, refer to the analysis by Michel Marie in La Nouvelle Vague: une école artistique, Paris, Nathan, collection “128”, 1998

2When the technicians’ union protested in 1973 against the insufficient portion reserved for its members in budgets, the CNC encouraged producers to increase this portion in their agreements: from 1973 to 1974, this went, on paper, from 12 to 21% without a real consequence. We could also mention that these statistics on French cinema include a James Bond movie such as Moonraker, films never started such as Moi, je or L’ailleurs immédiat while excluding Éric Rohmer’s The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque or Robert Guédiguian’s Marius and Jeanette.

3Today, there are friends of distributors who, with their UGC card, continuously punch in at various cinemas to “increase” the number of viewers.

4Exhibitors often base their forecasts about a film’s run on the commercial performance of the director’s and the star’s preceding film. That why, for example, Jacques Doillon found it very hard to make a well-performing film, The Crying Woman, continue its run in a theatre. This success, unexpected with respect to Jacques Doillon’s and Dominique Laffin’s previous performances, was likely to delay the arrival of bestsellers, already contracted for a particular date and their minimum guarantee already paid. The exhibitor at a multiplex moved heaven and earth in order to discourage Doillon’s viewers (reducing the number of posters, hiding stills, turning off the neon lights etc.)

 

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

Climax

So Love was a one-off misfire where Gaspar Noé’s singular style came undone under the banality of the material. That’s partly because tracing the journey of a romantic relationship from inception to breakup requires an engagement with character psychology over a longer period of narrative time—something at odds with Noé’s cinematic temperament, primarily geared to short-term subjective phenomena. With Climax, flamboyant and stylish to the hilt, the filmmaker comes back to a narrative of a limited timeframe, in which character development and emotional maturity play little part. Unfolding almost in real time, the film centres on a dance troupe’s final rehearsal the evening before they leave on a US tour and the pre-departure party that follows.

Climax opens with a tracking shot of a woman crawling in the snow. The camera is drone-mounted and photographs the woman from overhead, producing a flat visual field. It circles the woman as she crawls and cries, circle being the chief visual motif of the film. The end credits roll, making it the second film at the 2018 Cannes festival to force the viewer to sit through the générique de fin. There’s an expectation that the story will unfurl backwards from this point as in Irreversible. Instead, Noé cuts to a series of talking heads taped on VHS. It’s a recording of the film’s actors talking about dance, drugs and sex. The footage plays on a CRT television surrounded by movie DVDs and books on cinema, art and philosophy. We aren’t sure who the viewer is, just as we aren’t sure whether there’s an orchestrating hand behind the spiking of the sangria at the party. Climax doesn’t have a single reverse shot; its participants are like fish in a tank observed by an omniscient eye, itself invisible. The filmmaker plays god, introducing an element of chaos into this world and studying its repercussions.

The dance sequence that follows the interviews—part of a longer, unbroken, 12-minute shot—is brilliant in the way individual performances find their place in the larger piece. Outside of a few coordinated passages, they are all freestyle, drawing from different genres, the only commonality between them being the audio beat. The performers react to the music instinctively and improvise, demonstrating that dancing is writing with the body just as filmmaking is writing with the camera. The number is choreographed for the camera which shifts axes as the piece proceeds. The rehearsal ends five minutes in, but Noé’s camera keeps going, following specific characters as they move around the floor to talk to others. This continuously shifting perspective parallels the dance number we’ve just seen and sets up the notion of Climax as one long dance sequence.

Throughout, the film emphasizes the similarity between dance choreography and filmmaking. The viewer of TV interviews in the beginning could be either the choreographer of Noé himself. Like choreography, filmmaking is collective writing that involves the manipulation of performer’s bodies in space according to a set of ideas. Noé’s film unfolds as a chain of pronounced gestures essentially without any meaning. Like the dance, it’s an instance of abstract writing that only intermittently has a signifying function. The dancers’ various moves, though referring to sexual and violent acts at times, are purely automatic, subconscious interventions that are performed, filmed and assembled together on instinct. The film is heavily improvised, made up as it proceeds (it was shot in sequence), and is one long tapestry of gestural work only symbolically liked to real-world phenomena.

The dance floor is a space where desire is fluid and, while participants have personal preferences, there’s a sense that any person in this twenty-odd group of young men, women and non-binary people could end up with anyone else. Noé chains together several bits of conversations—all filmed in two-shots—where characters talk about those off-screen. These dialogues enter increasingly sticky territory, until we discover that the sangria was laced with LSD. The dancers go unhinged after this point, as does the camera, and we follow their self-destruction in a virtuoso, 42-minute-long shot. It’s an impressive piece of conceptual art, with an impeccable sense of space delineation, whose force derives from the tension between the unseen, internal struggle of the characters and its external manifestation. That said, this is not In Vanda’s Room and Noé is moreover not interested in documentary. His camera choreography imitates the loss of direction the actors might be experiencing and unwittingly turns Climax into a cautionary film about drugs.

But the more crucial idea Noé seems to be working towards is the importance of discipline to artmaking. When the dancers go off the rails under the influence, and their worst instincts surface, we are surprised that it’s the same people who created the beautiful opening dance sequence of the film. The rehearsal’s rigour, singular determination and sense of communion with others gives way to survivalist violence and rapaciousness. Instinct gives birth to art, but when left undisciplined by craft and intellect, it enables the most repulsive human tendencies to flourish. Climax is Noé’s stab at the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic. It’s also him assuring the viewer he’s not simply screwing around.

Jeanette

There are several contradictions in the TV version of Jeanette, Bruno Dumont’s reimagining of Charles Peguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc as a neorealist musical. Firstly, there’s the protagonist herself: Jeanette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) is only eight years old—not yet Jean d’Arc—but is torn apart by the poverty and suffering of the peasants around her. She sees that their souls are damned, and is disappointed by their apathy towards the English siege of France. She sings out her torment, addressing them to God, who sends forth the saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret to inform her of her mission. She keeps this annunciation from everyone else and it’s only three years later, when the English have besieged Orléans, that she assumes the responsibility. With the help of her uncle, she leaves home to meet the Dauphin of France and convince him about taking on the English.

The incongruence created by a child uttering Peguy’s complex, incantatory verse as though in a school recitation is amplified by Dumont’s stylistic choices. Jeanette is broadly naturalist in that it is made with amateur actors, real locations and direct sound. The story is mostly Jeanette conversing with her friend Hauviette (Lucile Gauthier) and madame Gervaise (one character played by two actors, Aline and Élise Charles, à la Buñuel). Like Pasolini before him, Dumont clothes his actors in plain outfits, there’s very little psychology in line delivery of his amateur actors and the landscape is elemental. The compositions are simple, even rudimentary, and veer on the painterly when the actors are filmed against the sky. As much as Straub, Pasolini or Oliveira, Jeanette recalls the theatre with its single perspective, single décor, improvised performances, and marked-out character entries and exits.

This visual asceticism, however, is tipped over by Dumont’s use of heavy metal music to which his actors sing, not always in pitch, beat or meter. The filmmaker has stated that this lack of finesse is the point, music and dance manifesting in bodies unprepared for them being the essence of Jeanette’s preordination. Characters bang their heads to bass guitar riffs, leap around to perform flips and splits. Dumont finds an intersection between the highs offered by metal music and Jeanette’s religious transports; cutting off the score, it would appear that her ecstasy is authentic. There is also a magical excursion in the appearance of the levitating saints, and absurd turns such as Hauviette walking bent over like a crab. Jeanette’s speech is all about the damnation of the soul, but Dumont’s camera is firmly fixed on Jeanette’s physicality: the way she clutches her garb, her bare feet hopping in sand and her unruly hair. Her perennial doubt and turmoil are in contrast with the constant sun illuminating the countryside—Dumont transposes Jean’s historical birth region of Lorraine onto his own native Nord and the film is shot at a point from which England is visible.

Jeanette provides specific pleasures through its many aesthetic tensions. Peguy’s text, even when presented as a rock musical, can be challenging to penetrate. The film’s sincere intention and anachronistic method situate it somewhere between satire and solemn drama, and I’m not so sure that Dumont really succeeds on either front. The result is merely quaint. Devoid of the socially-conscious edge of Lil’ Quinquin and Slack Bay, Jeanette feels frozen as a concept. Dumont’s intention is perhaps to rescue Joan of Arc from the National Front’s appropriation of the figure. His film teases out the human aspect of Jeanette. Her lies to her friends and parents in the quest for her personal truth register like but one instance of an eternal teenage condition. But neither making her a universal icon nor asserting her Christian piety is going to override the fact that she’s associated with the French national identity – a topic that I hope Dumont tackles in the second part.

Staying Vertical

With Staying Vertical, Alain Guiraudie sustains his standing as the maker of enigmatic, beguiling films. The mystery here doesn’t stem from concealed character motivations or narrative convolutions, but by the creation of a world where familiar social rules don’t apply. The film opens with shots from the dashboard of a car moving through the countryside. The driver is Leo (Damien Bonnard, a potentially-great comedian) and, given it’s a Guiraudie film, he’s likely cruising. He solicits a young man with an instantly-suspicious body language and is turned down. The boy is Yoan (Basile Meilleurat) and lives with old man Marcel (Christian Bouillette) whose waking time is accompanied by booming metal music. Though in rase campagne, neither of them is scandalised by Leo’s solicitation – a behavioural detail symptomatic of the universe Guiraudie constructs here.

Leo continues and arrives in the prairies in the south of France, where he hooks up with Marie (India Hair), a shepherdess living with her farmer father Jean-Louis (Raphaël Thiéry) and two sons. Leo frequently escapes to the city: he’s a screenwriter short-changing his producer with a non-existent script. In an abrupt time-leap, we see Marie giving birth to Leo’s baby. Depressed and anxious about Leo’s regular absences, Marie departs for the city with her two sons, leaving Leo and her father with the newborn. Leo wanders with the baby, sometimes consulting a therapist living in the woods, always keeping an eye on Yoan and Marcel. Jean-Louis discovers him, takes him to Marie by force and, given Marie doesn’t want to return from the city, keeps Leo with him. Leo escapes the farm after Jean-Louis makes sexual advances and uses his baby as bait for wolf-hunting. At the end of another series of encounters with all these characters, Leo ends up with the lonely, suffering Marcel. He helps the old man alleviate his pain by screwing him to death. He’s arrested and his baby handed over to Marie by the child services.

Staying Vertical spans the entire breath of France, but we don’t really get a sense of the scale of geography the characters traverse—perhaps a product of the film’s piecewise funding. Guiraudie’s film is a series of a journeys into and out of the heartland of the country: young people like Leo, Marie and Yoan are able to get out and return at will to the backwoods, but old men like Jean-Louis and especially Marcel have to resign themselves to this life of isolation. So, in a way, Guiraudie is mapping out the tragedy of queer aging onto the landscape, the city offering more chances of at least passing connections than the endless prairies. Leo loses his car, becomes penniless and makes it on foot across the country dodging the police. The film contains several wide-angle shots of him walking across a seemingly infinite geography. This isn’t an existential image as in Ceylan’s films, but a metaphor for gay loneliness that Staying Vertical is about.

Guiraudie’s film develops what might be called a non-normative—or even homonormative—world. Characters recognize desire in each other’s eyes instantly, their changing sexual affinities being a surprise to no one within this world. Guiraudie cycles through various permutations of his five central characters, just as he cycles through the same spaces and same framing of these spaces, to create several fleeting family-like units. Leo’s desire to retain his baby parallels Marcel’s wish to hold Yoan and Jean-Louis’ to keep Leo with him. Within these two-member units, characters are bound to each other by traditional, heterosexual familial relations as well as by their own romantic coupling. The nature of relationships between people in this world oscillates constantly between sexual and platonic. Guiraudie refuses to make a distinction since, for these gay men of vastly different ages, the same relationships must fulfil multiple needs.

Staying Vertical does have elements of melodrama in that it follows the romantic quest, fulfilment and disillusionment of a sympathetic central character. When Leo returns to the same locations, he’s always worse-off than before: all his objects of interest vanish from his ambit, he and his baby are held hostages by Jean-Louis, he loses his car, goes broke, is attacked by a group of clochards, gets implicated in assisted suicide, loses his son to child services. Without his baby by his side, he sleeps in Jean-Louis’s barn maternally clutching a lamb. This appropriation of ingredients from the woman’s weepie for queer ends finds its summit in the symbolism of the prairie wolves. Threats to the sheep and general life in the region, the wolves reside in the outer margins of the grasslands and come to represent the external world in face of which Leo must stand tall and fearless. It’s a blunt symbol that’s somewhat softened by Guiraudie’s matter-of-fact treatment.

Wonderstruck

Is Todd Haynes an auteur? Sure, he exclusively makes period films that deal with the question of personal identity within a society in flux. But Haynes’ works are so different from each other in terms of subject matter and style that they seem to be a product of many subjectivities and no subjectivity at once. If there’s any doubt as to whether this is intentional, look no further than his masterpiece I’m Not There (a title that should be read as “there is no such thing as I”). Bob Dylan stopped singing protest songs as a protest against an establishment that was expecting protest songs from him, just as Haynes frustrated the expectation from him to keep up the melodramatic high of Far from Heaven. Todd Haynes is an auteur whose preoccupation is a denial of that label. He’s done the flip again with Wonderstruck, following up a heartbreaking film about the assertion of queer identity in a conservative milieu with an equally-felt straight up children’s picture on the value of traditions.

Adapted from Brian Selznick graphic novel of the same name, Wonderstruck weaves together two stories set fifty years apart. The first unfolds in New Jersey in 1927 and follows a deaf-mute girl Rose (Millicent Simmonds) who runs away from her authoritarian father to her mother, a famous silent film star (Julianne Moore) in Hollywood. The premise and the timeframe allow Haynes to realize this section like a silent film—soon to make way for the talkies—without necessarily imitating its aesthetics. He pays tribute to Gish, Chaplin, Griffith, Murnau, and Vidor, but also shoots in widescreen monochrome, with a modern camera choreography and a conventional-sounding musical score by Carter Burwell. Information is revealed visually through texts that Rose writes and shows to others, producing plot surprises that wouldn’t have been possible with sound.

The second story takes place in 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Having recently lost his mother, Ben (Oakes Fegley) also loses his hearing in a lightning strike. Ben is a curator of sorts, he collects various models in his house, one of which is an old illustrated book published by the American Museum of Natural History. He sets out to New York city in search of his father, the only trace of whom is a scrap of letter addressed to his mother tucked in the book. As expected, the two stories come together in the third act in a predictable but meaningful way. But Haynes intercuts them right from the beginning in a thematic manner that allows each story to take turns in anticipating each other. This editing pattern, perhaps a little too neat, underscores the living weight of history and helps each narrative thread furnish information missing in the other. There are also a handful of psychedelic montage sequences recalling Guy Maddin where the past is evoked in the present.

Haynes’ film is most of all a tribute to museums as institutionalized memory creating and outlasting personal memories. The plot revolves around two people who manage to find their roots in a particular room of the American Museum of Natural History. The film’s key moments involve the act of touching—a proscribed yet instinctive gesture for first-time museum visitors the film understands well. Rose and Ben connect to each other in their coming in physical contact with the meteorite at the museum. The shooting stars they see in the sky, themselves, are emissaries from the past. The two stories come together in a voiceover that is cut to a miniature NYC panorama at the Queens museum, a double metaphor of museums as living histories that provide narratives and whittle down time and place to human scale. Haynes’ film is a kind of museum too, depicting the changing face of New York over a long period. Like those institutions, it aims to connect people across ages through a shared geography.

Wonderstruck is untainted in its innocence. To be sure, there are several failed parental figures and Ben has all his money stolen in the city, but the children in the film aren’t subjected to any real loss of innocence. Rose and Ben leave for New York on pure faith—a faith that is returned by its residents and institutions. In doing so, I think Haynes divests himself of his camp, ironic sensibility and pays a more profound, close-grained tribute to the silent movies. Julianne Moore is incredible, but it’s the sublime Millicent Simmonds, deaf-mute in real life, who is the very face of the film. With her cropped hair and deep, sparkling eyes, she recalls the great waifs of silent cinema. I hope we see more of her. The wolves are symbols.

Cahiers du cinéma no. 484; October 1994.

French Regions (old) and filmmakers

In the realm of classical music, it’s commonplace to point to Germanic supremacy and English failure. Similarly, the mediocrity of Spanish cinema strikes us in comparison to the abundance of Italian or even Portuguese cinema.

These differences are even more present at the regional level. National identity remains a somewhat hollow idea, a little too recent (under Louis-Philippe, it took three weeks to go from one end of France to another), while regional identity has always existed. Its application to artistic realm is thus valid. In the United States, its creation was a moment dominated by the Midwest (Hawks, Welles, Ray, Losey) and the South (Griffith and Vidor, and also Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, Penn Warren, even Styron and Tennessee Williams), the hurt of the defeat calling for a compensatory expression. Brazillian cinema is centred around the Northeast. Transalpine cinema is, in fact, an Emilian cinema (Bertolucci, Cottafavi, Fellini, Zurlini, Baldi, Pasolini, Antonioni, etc.), opposed to the mediocrity of Tuscan cinema, which has gone down for good, and transmitted by brilliant satellites scattered in the north and the centre of the peninsula.

The regionalization of filmic space in France is less evident since film directors have to live almost compulsorily in Paris in order to work, whereas filmmakers in the neighbouring countries are spread over many metropolises and our painters, sculptors and writers can spare themselves the race to the capital. But we often notice that residential or natal Parisianism is a form of misleading disguise. Compared to the regions, moreover, Paris today has little to offer as original material for inspiration.

We have recently witnessed the burgeoning of Aquitanian cinema, with Eustache, then Téchiné, Breillat and Kané1, with at least four constants:

Childhood. It’s very apparent in Mes petites amoureuses (Eustache), even Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus if we also include adolescence. Kané remains the French filmmaker in whose work the hero is always a child (Dora, Liberty Bell, Un jeu d’enfant). A comparable frequency in the works of Breillat (Une vraie jeune fille, 36 Fillette), and of even Téchiné (J’embrasse pas, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages).

Native land, in which the filmmaker rediscovers the child he was, and not just that: we find here the commune of Pessac and its two Rosière films, Mes petites amoureuses which goes from Pessac to Narbonne to meet Le Père Noël, Biarritz (Hôtel des Amériques, 36 Fillette), the Landes (Une vraie jeune fille), the Pyrénées (J’embrasse pas), Arcachon (Un jeu d’enfant) and Téchiné’s Agenais (Souvenirs d’en France, La Matiouette, Le Lieu du crime, Les Roseaux sauvages), Téchiné being the one filmmaker who emphasizes the light and the customs of the place.

Sexuality, broached upon with a candour bordering on scandal (Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain and Une sale histoire, all of Breillat of course, J’embrasse pas, Kané nevertheless maintaining his distance, perhaps because his native Angoulême is decentred with respect to Aquitania and to the other three musketeers).

Individualism. All four prefer characters estranged from their environment, their family and the society, and produce their work at the margins, close to autobiography, in occasionally difficult solitude2. Even on the margins of the other three, despite their commonalities: there is no school whatsoever to speak of.

One must perhaps find here the focal point of a regional reorientation that has been so cruelly lacking in France and which we could envy Brazil, India, Italy or the USA for.

It should, however, be noted that there has always been a point of convergence in France. Our real National Centre of Cinematography is, quite simply, the Centre, the Limagne, the Auvergne. French cinema is, above all, a rhombus with its north vertex at Commentry and its contour passing through Vichy, going till Cunlhat, Sardent and maybe Dun-le-Palestel. This rhombus thus encompasses Gance, Pialat, Bressonn, Chabrol and also filmmakers with Auvergnese affinities like Astruc and Truffaut. In contrast to Aquitanian filmmakers, the Auvergnese tend to obscure their origins (with some exceptions: Le Beau Serge and Les Noces rouges for Chabrol, L’Enfant sauvage and L’argent de poche for Truffaut and, for Pialat, La Gueule ouverte). These directors don’t like labels, which reduce their work to a place, a message, a subject or a trend.

Outside of their exceptional qualities, the Auvergnese hardly have commonalities. Except two:

An initial attraction towards more classical arts: Bresson and Pialat were first painters (and Jean Renoir is the son of Auguste, a native of Limoges). Gance started out as a poet. Astruc – like Renoir – wrote novels. Pialat and Chabrol authored one. Chabrol read every crime novel. Not to mention the importance of writing in Truffaut.

A discordant mix of media seduction and polemical virulence (Truffaut’s and Chabrol’s incisive critiques, Astruc’s camera-stylo, Bresson’s actor-models, Pialat’s raised fist at Cannes). The two are perhaps not so contradictory: iron hand and velvet gloves.

I sometimes wonder if Auvergne’s success – Pialat extols the positive influence of lava on his work – isn’t due to the social skills of children from the Centre. To make good films, you must first be able to shoot, know to manage things, solve monetary problems, beat your competition, gather support. This Auvergnese tide can be related to the “republic of the Bougnats” that France was after De Gaulle, and sometimes even before him.

We must note the inevitable character of conflict when an Auvergnese genius tries to work with an Aquitanian one (Breillat and Pialat on Police): these are two completely different worlds, just like Brittany and Auvergne (cf: the failure of Chabrol’s Cheval d’orgeuil).

Chabrol remains the most-advantaged French filmmaker: not only does he belong to the “golden rhombus”, but he is also the son of a pharmacist, like Resnais, Rivette, Nuytten, Juliet Berto and John Wayne. It helps to have a pharmacist father in cinema because it’s a middling socio-professional category, open to all walks of life, or because direction is a sort of alchemy.

Clermont-Ferrand is thus the true capital of French cinema, more than Paris. But Paris is not deprived either: there is, in fact, an Auvergne-Île-de-France axis, founded on round trips between the two regions, on “transfers” (Truffaut, Renoir etc.).

The express train between the two cities, the Bourbonnais, is the best symbol for French cinema. There are also pure Parisians, such as Autant-Lara, Becker or Doillon. But this species tends to be rare.

The distribution across other regions turns out quite even: in general, one or two great auteurs in each one: Pagnol and Allio (Provence), Feuillade and Leenhardt (Languedoc), Straub and Rohmer (the austere Lorraine), Depardon (Lyon), Stévenin (Jura), Grémillion and Rivette (Normandy) and, for Brittany, Resnais and Demy (who will recreate a little of his Nantes in all other regions).

We see that France splits into two: the Germanophone France of the two Lorrainers (Die Marquise von O, Nicht Versöhnt and the follow-up) and the Anglicist France of men from the West (Providence, Model Shop and the quartet Shakespeare/James/Tourneur/Bronte in Rivette). On the other hand, Auvergne and Aquitaine reject anything foreign (see the failure of Chabrol’s Sang des autres, and Truffaut’s problems with the English language).

Certain Frenchmen exhibit a contempt towards their native region, preferring their region of adoption instead: the Norman Rivette is the one who has shown Paris the best. But I’m overwhelmed with emotion when, in Mon oncle d’Amérique, after thirty-five years of self-denial, Resnais finally shows us “his” island near Vannes. There is a little of that in the Straubs’ Lothringen! too.

That brings me to the black holes: Alsace (unless we accept the dull Wyler as the flag-bearer), the Pyrenees (but it’s sparsely populated), the eight departments of Pays de Loire, from Angers to Nevers, and especially Nord.

This region nevertheless has a number of ambitious filmmakers (Daquin, Duvivier especially), but they seem to be tempted by academicism. And the difficult social reality of the region has oriented them towards a lazy naturalism. I can hardly believe Gilson and Pollet to have avoided this pitfall (the latter with a contrasting country of adoption: Greece and the Mediterranean, just like how the Nordist Malle made his best fiction, Lacombe Lucien, in Aquitania), but these are, alas, interrupted bodies of work, the Nordists not possessing the media genius of the Auvergnese. The supreme insult to the Nordist filmmakers, however is that the best local films were made by an Auvergnese, Pialat moving from the volcanoes to the slagheaps with L’Enfance nue, Passe ton bac d’abord, and getting closer in La Maison des bois. Perhaps Xavier Beauvois will reverse the trend3.

The periphery occupies an increasingly large space: not just recent immigrants (Iosseliani, Ruiz – currently perhaps the two best French filmmakers – Kramer, Bral, Fuller, Santiago, Polanski, late Buñuel, Ivens, Losey and the Ophüls), but also and especially a periphery closer to home: Swiss Romandy (Godard), Corsica (Vecchiali), erstwhile French Indochina (Duras) and, on the other hand, the purest Frenchmen associated, by way of reportage, with faraway lands (Marker, Rouch and Africa). The most surprising case remains Camille de Casabianca, who has made three films, one in Asia, the second in Africa and the latest in America.

Province-Paris, foreign country-France, is French film art founded on the pleasures and pains of transfers?

 

1 Today we can add Nolot, the Larrieu siblings, Guiraudie.

2 Besides, of the three great filmmakers to have committed suicide, two are from the Bordeaux region: Eustache and Max Linder.

3 This was written before the arrival of Dumont and Desplechin.

 

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

A Wild Pear Tree

“Simple minds like to reduce a work to a central idea”, says Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) in a conversation with a local celebrity author. It’s a gibe at the critics of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, a polyvalent, multi-thematic portrait of life in the director’s native region of Çanakkale in the western extreme of Turkey. Sinan has just graduated and returned to his hometown of Çan for his teacher’s exam preparations. Çan is chiefly known to the world as the site of the Trojan war and for its war cemetery. Sinan hates the city, whose natural beauties have been overridden by industrial and domestic garbage. All his childhood friends have left the city for better prospects elsewhere. But he’s nevertheless written a personal book on Çan and its people. Through the film’s three-hour runtime, Sinan tries to secure funds for the publication of his book, talking unsuccessfully to the mayor and then a businessman who patronizes the arts because the corporation gives him contracts. The film is told entirely through his perspective; he is present in every scene of the film, and his subjectivity merges with the events depicted.

One of the primary notions Ceylan’s film examines that of inheritance and legacy. On his return, Sinan connects with his two grandfathers, one a farmer living up in the hills and the other a retired Imam, still solicited by his younger colleagues for weddings and the like. Sinan’s father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is a school teacher and spends his weekends digging a well in the mountains close to his father’s house. Idris is of scientific temperament and believes that the villagers, including his father, are wrong about the village being barren. Sinan, in turn, rebels against Idris, whom he takes to be a gambling addict. It is said that Idris, once a white hope of the town, got mixed up in horse races and lost his house in it. But we never see him gambling and Sinan’s conviction that his father is a ne’er-do-well remains unsubstantiated.

A self-styled misanthropic, Sinan rejects this lineage, considering himself above all this. His disgruntlement with his forefathers is as much artistic as it is familial. In the conversation with the local writer, Sinan grows increasingly confrontational, provoking his interlocutor in typically-upstart fashion. He belittles the author for participating in literary conferences, insinuates that he’d not understand the kind of novel Sinan’s writing. When he manages to publish his book, he signs a copy for his mother and basks in self-satisfaction of having arrived (or rather left this region in an intellectual sense), and having been better than his father. His parricidal tendency, Ceylan seems to be hinting, is a form of wanting to be accepted and the trajectory of the character ends in his owning up to his own provenance. Ceylan’s return to his hometown to make this film is also a kind of owning up, a return to roots for a filmmaker whose calling is now international.

The loosely-autobiographical nature of The Wild Pear Tree is also suggested by the specific memories it offers. The film unfolds leisurely through a series of conversations Sinan has at home and outside. In the first of these, he speaks with a woman he knew as a high-schooler, perhaps a flame, who is now engaged to a rich man against her wishes. They kiss under a tree as the wind ruffles its leaves. In another conversation on literature, the businessman scorns Sinan’s suggestion that anything is to be learnt from the cheerfulness of the town’s old fruit-seller. Sinan’s subjective novel, of which we know next to nothing, is a defence of art as personal expression against the utilitarian approaches of the people he speaks with, who’d rather he writes about the town’s tourist attractions.

There’s a constant friction between the abstractions Sinan deals with and the rooted, pragmatism of his surroundings. In an arresting conversation with two clerics, the non-believing Sinan teases out the head Imam’s hypocrisies. A newer Imam talks about the necessary distinction between the popular Islamic scholars and the important ones, just like Sinan did with the writer. The whole exchange takes place as they walk from an apple tree in the hills down to a tea joint as the sun sinks. As is his wont, Ceylan films them as tiny beings in the landscape, the abstract contours of their theological debate set against concrete physical phenomena like the fading sunlight, smoke from chimneys, moos of cows and noise of motorbikes. The speciality of this dialectical presentation, already evident in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is that it can be interpreted differently by the Imams and Sinan, as per their proclivities.

There are references to the current situation in the country. The entire scenario is predicated on money problems and the issue of unemployment is a constant threat facing Sinan, who’s always looking for things to sell – an obsession he is oblivious to while he scorns his father for gambling. One of Sinan’s friends is now a member of the government-sponsored paramilitary (or military) mobilized to bash up dissenters. But Ceylan is not a political filmmaker – if anything he’s likely the state’s cherished cultural ambassador of cinema like Jia Zhang-ke now is. His sensibility, like Asghar Farhadi’s, is closer to the 19th century Russian novelists than anything modern, and The Wild Pear Tree stretches out like a long parable minus the moral clarity. A shot of Sinan, his father and his grandfather together pulling up a boulder from a pit only to drop it back is a cogent summation of the film’s existential thrust.

Mektoub My Love

There’s a shot some fourteen hours into Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno in which a baby goat stares right at the camera. It’s not planned but it’s the first time we are reminded of the director’s presence in a film that’s all fly-on-the-wall. Kechiche’s always-mobile camera registers the smallest wrinkle of human interaction; his film is a veritable encyclopaedia of modern French greetings, gestures and social rituals. It’s rigorous, it’s exacting, but it’s also incurably obsessed with the heroine’s body, especially its rear end. One thing is sure: Kechiche really puts the cul in culture. It’s not anything new for the maker of Black Venus, an incisive study of the objectification and progressive breakdown of the black, female body. But here, as in Blue is the Warmest Colour, the viewer’s gaze of the film’s subject isn’t questioned. The film opens with a sex scene, but the camera is squarely on the woman, an all-too-easy site of male identification that’s already pervasive in visual culture.

The ostensible point of view of this opening scene is the voyeur-protagonist at the window, Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), who is taken aback that this woman is sleeping with his cousin Tony while engaged to another man. Amin interrupts the session, prompting his cousin to flee and the woman, Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), to scamper for her clothes. The dialogue between Amin and Ophélie that follows is awkward as expected, but tensely humorous in its mixture of empty cordiality and latent expectation of sexual violence. Nothing untoward happens though, and Amin turns out to be not just the film’s most charming character, but a downright gent. The year is 1994, Amin is reluctantly studying medicine in Paris and has come home to Sète on the Azure Coast for vacation. Like the protagonist in The Wild Pear Tree, he is an artist at heart: he writes film scripts and photographs. And just like Sinan, Amin is present in every scene of the film.

Life in Sète revolves around his extended family, which manages a popular restaurant in the city together. It’s summer and Amin’s relatives, all uniformly good-looking, spend their days at the beach and evenings at restaurants and pubs. Mektoub is an endless series of beach and party scenes, and presents a dreamy idea of fun with boys and girls frolicking in groups – a 20th century version of fête champêtre paintings. The mood is invariably, suffocatingly upbeat, with one girl’s heartbreak providing a welcome, sombre counterpoint to the primary-colour emotions of the scenes. Kechiche’s film opens, funnily enough, with quotes from the Bible and the Koran about light, and the film is a showcase of beautiful sun-kissed bodies shot in immersive intimacy. After sundown, they are seen in the artificial lights of disco and bars. The men and women dance with and seduce each other in varying permutations and, given their vague relationships, the invitation to dance scan as competitive mating rituals. Kechiche films their dynamic like an ethnographer, observing the minutiae of the process of la drague, the progress of flirtatious conversations from everyday exchange to something more.

The film is narrated through Amin’s perspective, but the point of view is fluid within each sequence, with Kechiche’s camera moving around the restaurant to construct mini-scenes involving different characters, something like a Renoir tableau. One impressive aspect of Kechiche’s film is that, despite being coupled to Amin, it breathes freely. So we get a subtle, superbly-detailed conversation between women of the family trying to passive-aggressively break up Ophélie’s affair. Likewise, a moment with Ophélie and Tony trying to steal a kiss, fretting about the crowd in the pub, in a work full of explicit, very physical exchanges. Kechiche’s film brims crushingly-banal small talk and they would be of high documentary value if they weren’t so repeated and generalized. There are conversations between Ophélie and Amin about his relatives that are tediously long and go nowhere in particular. The fatigue is deliberately induced for what Kechiche wants to contrast it with later.

Amin remains an observer and a reticent participant in all this. While his cousins are busy picking up girls, he isn’t interested even when girls proposition him. On the contrary, his conversations with prospective partners builds up from shop talk to end in awkward silence, whose tension remains unresolved. He prefers spending his morning taking photos or watching Pudovkin. There’s no suggestion he is indifferent to girls, especially Ophélie, whom he stares at whenever she’s intimate with someone else. But there’s no sense that he wants to sleep with her either. As a favour from Ophélie in exchange for keeping silent about her affair with his cousin, Amin asks her if she can pose nude for his photos. His emotional peak comes in a sequence at a goat shed – a calculated break from the headiness of the other scenes – where he photographs a goat giving birth. Scored to operatic vocals, it’s a moving scene, and Kechiche pitches it at as an experience more rarefied than what transpires in the rest of the film. Amin, like Kechiche, is presented as the artist figure, trying to preserve his integrity in a world full of distractions and shapely bottoms. The point is that you can either make art or have fun. It’s Kechiche exculpating himself: he’s not having fun filming these undulating bums and naked torsos, he’s making Art.

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