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.

The Death of Stalin

Stalin jokes place the listener in a moral double bind. If there’s beauty in the capacity of humour to sublimate unspeakable horror and make life bearable, the idea of laughing at these jokes strikes us as ghastly precisely because it trivializes terror of the purges and the gulags. There’s no such dilemma about Hitler jokes, possibly because the kind of evil he stood for lives among us to date, whereas we are allowed to assimilate Stalin into history’s endless roster of multi-coloured dictators. Who, though, has the right to make Stalin jokes? The common people who lived under his rule, surely. But can today’s Russian citizens? Or the descendants of those who disappeared? Armando Iannucci, the writer-director of The Death of Stalin, certainly doesn’t think that’s a quandary, and chooses to treat Stalin as a collective civilizational inheritance like Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s TV producer declares that comedy is tragedy plus time. It may be either too soon or too late to make a comedy on Stalin’s death. Iannucci, however, has decided that it’s just about time.

The film opens with its finest sequence, a brilliant, concentrated set-piece that blurs the boundary between comedy and horror, beauty and savagery, and terror and absurdity—just like the Stalin jokes. It’s 1953, a couple of hours before Stalin’s death, and Radio Moscow is having a live performance of a Mozart symphony. The Soviet premier calls the director of the station and asks him to ring back in seventeen minutes. The terrified director calls the premier back exactly in seventeen minutes just as the studio audience explodes in applause. Only then does he (and do we) realize that Stalin has timed the call to the end of the symphony. Stalin gives curt orders for the recording of the performance to be sent to him right away. The only problem: the concert wasn’t recorded. In panic, the director rushes to the orchestra, asking them to take their positions and replay the entire programme. To replace the part of the audience that left, the guards at the radio station go pick up random peasants from streets at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the police of the interior ministry, NKVD, is busy rounding up people on Stalin’s execution list. The film intercuts both these commotions, not making it clear which set of people are being picked up for what—an uncertainty reflective of the detainees’ own experience.

While the shell-shocked director prepares for the call, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) adds new names to his execution list, with Mozart playing on the radio. He hands over the list to Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whom he joins for a dinner alongside Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Molotov (Michael Palin) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). The men make bawdy jokes, force themselves to laugh at Stalin’s dumb repartees and sit through his movie screenings unwillingly. They will later note down the jokes that worked and the ones that didn’t so that they can improve their performance the next time around. It’s not the contrast between a decadent elite and a country in fear, but the necessity for maintaining an appearance at all levels of Russian social life that is suggested here. The symphony and the dinner are simulacra, like Stalin’s funeral pageantry later in the film, intended to hide less cheerful realities (The fear of punishment, Molotov’s imminent arrest, the internal hatred for Stalin). The remarkable set-piece lasts all of fifteen minutes and its astute plot-driven comedy is fleshed out by Iannucci’s customary, razor-sharp dialogue (“—He’s a great man with a great ear.” “—Two great ears.”), which is likely the film’s primary reason to exist.

The stellar opening sequence sets the rest of the film for a failure, which is understandably more mechanical and less inventive and funny. Divided into arbitrary chapters based on ridiculous protocol to be followed upon the premier’s demise (appropriately presented in an equally ridiculous Copperplate Gothic-like typeface), the plot follows the power struggle between Beria and Khrushchev, both of whom want to reshape the republic’s future per their own less-violent conceptions. Their real ideological differences are ignored by the film; this fight over non-existent differences is perhaps the point, just as its implication that Beria could have been any fall man, that Khrushchev could’ve just as well lost the war for history. The content of the Soviet politburo’s policies is of no concern to the film, it’s the form it has ideas on: Iannucci presents the politburo as a man-eat-man battleground for power, its meetings as verbal minefields where one wrong word could change the course of history. Upon Stalin’s death, something similar to democracy emerges within the chief committee, with all the contradictions of that system in place: in order to take control, Beria and Khrushchev find themselves having to influence the other members of the politburo by whatever means necessary, psychological or tactical. In outlining the surprisingly short roads between democracy and groupthink, the film boomerangs halfway back at its Western audience, whose own political climate of “saying the right thing” its satire resonates with.

Anglo-normative (“Beria-r”) without feeling the need to justify it, The Death of Stalin makes no pretence to realism or accuracy—a fact that attenuates its arguably offensive intentions. In fact, the film works off the incongruence of language and setting, treating Soviet Russia as mere costume and décor in a mostly-British sitcom (tea and buns for Stalin’s daughter) where Buscemi and Olga Kurylenko are guest performers with native accents. While the film goes through the motions in its second half, the jokes keep coming (—Malenkov after his inaugural speech: “Yes, ‘bread and peace’. I knew it would work. It was between ‘peace’ and ‘sausages’.” —Khrushchev: “Both good things, but you know where you are with a sausage.”). And it’s surprisingly inventive on the visual front. The tortures at Beria’s NKVD facility are relegated to the edge of the frame, making them perversely register with greater force and humour. A shot of Stalin’s son fighting with a guard over a pistol is milked for all its absurdity by contrasting it with the dignified pose of others in the shot. And I think the film might be unique in that it makes shots of people standing in a circle or a line talking (as in a bad TV drama) carry an ideological weight. Sophisticated, dialogue-driven comedy is a kind you don’t expect in English-language films anymore (it’s in the purview of television), so The Death of Stalin is a rarity. Your mileage may, however, vary.

Loveless

In The Student, Kirill Serebrennikov’s film from three years ago, a young man becomes a religious zealot and polices his classmates using quotes from the Bible. This shocks his progressive Jewish teacher, but the management shrugs its collective shoulder, considering him merely misunderstood. This return of suppressed superstition into current day Russian life is very much present as an undercurrent in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, Loveless, but it’s only touched upon, not hammered down like in The Student. The director’s fifth feature, Loveless revolves around a husband and a wife who hate each other to the depths of their being. They are in the process of a divorce and neither wants to take custody of their taciturn twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Matvei Novikov), on whom their hatred spills over. Aloysha is not like the Antoine Doinel of The 400 Blows, who could just escape the domestic orbit into a premature adulthood. He is crushed by this everyday hell. There’s a heart-breaking shot of him hiding behind the bathroom door crying when he learns that his parents plan to pack him off to a boarding school.

The year is 2012 and speculations about the end of the world are in the air. The ‘family’ lives in the outskirts of Moscow in a high-rise apartment that they are selling off. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) the husband has a desk job and is worried that his boss, an orthodox Christian, would sack him were he to learnt of his divorce. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) the wife works at a salon. Both of them are having an affair. Following their first, incredibly sordid fight, the film pursues their everyday routines separately: Boris at the office and later with his pregnant lover, Zhenya at the salon and then with her rich businessman lover. As the film loses sight of Aloysha, so does the couple; the boy vanishes from the house without a trace. Zhenya informs the police, but they wash their hands off, deeming the complaint too trivial and pointing her to a civil organization involved in such cases of lost children. Marshalling scores of volunteers, this group sets out to look for Aloysha with a concern and rigour that’s the only silver lining in this utterly despondent film.

Boris and Zhenya aren’t just horrible parents, but hideous people worried about Aloysha’s disappearance only because of its potential impact on them. Zhenya is presented as a shallow woman who spends her time instagramming, waxing herself and sleeping with her lover. Boris comes across only a notch better, but is just as despicable in his selfishness and cowardice. Thoroughly compromised early in the film, their declarations of genuine love and good faith to their lovers doesn’t fly at all. In a discomfiting scene that can find its home in a screwball comedy, Boris and Zhenya are forced to drive together to her mother’s house to look for Aloysha. She wants to smoke, he warns her not to. She asks him to raise the windows, he turns up the volume of the metal music. She screams at the top of her voice. Such unbound mutual hate calls for an act of violence to resolve it, but it never comes. It’s instead deflected onto Aloysha’s unknown fate. The question at the core of Loveless seems to be this: what does it mean for two completely broken, empty people incapable of giving love (outside of compensatory proclamations) to be responsible for a child?

I don’t think Andrey Z’s interest is solely personal here and Loveless, like his earlier works, is obliquely political. In one of the first shots of the film, the camera is planted at the entrance of a building. Children storm out after a day’s school and walk past the camera. After a while, the camera follows a boy who happens to be Aloysha, but it could’ve been any of the other kids. Loveless presents his parents as merely a symptom of an extremely self-absorbed consumer society. The authority figures in the film—Boris and Zhenya, her paranoid mother, but also the police—just don’t care. The state having failed its subjects, it’s up to the civic bodies to fend for the people. The institution of loveless parents produces the machinery of lovelessness that is the volunteer group looking for Aloysha. They search for the boy high and low and end up in an abandoned facility in the woods—a dilapidated hotel with peeling walls, dripping roof and rotting furniture which combines with the winter landscape outside to produce a post-apocalyptic picture echoing Chernobyl. It may not take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a village to look for one. At the end of the film, Boris and Zhenya aren’t happy even with their lovers. He dumps his new toddler into a cradle to go watch the news on the Russian intervention in Ukraine. She walks away from her new husband watching the news to go exercise on a treadmill. Wearing the Russian Olympic jersey, she’s running but going nowhere—a blunt symbol to end a blunt film.

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.

The SquareRuben Östlund’s The Square realizes that satirising contemporary art world is the easiest thing to do. So it makes up for it with a paralysing nuance that comes across as taking two steps forward and one backward. Östlund’s ambivalence towards his subject is apparent from the first scene. An uninitiated American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) asks the director of a contemporary art museum, Christian (Claes Bang), to explain a piece of curatorial text written in artspeak. He mumbles something about the context of exhibition, which the journalist accepts without question. The scene is supposed to be a sendup of the inscrutability of modern art, but the text the journalist reads out sounds legitimate, as does Christian’s response. This scene is followed by shots of the demolition of an old, imposing sculpture at the museum’s entrance whose place a modern work called The Square will take. This destruction is supposed to be read by us as sacrilege. But later in the film, Christian explains the meaning of The Square to his kids through family anecdote in a way that makes an authentic case for the work.

The artwork in question, The Square, I believe, is a genuinely interesting installation, and belongs to the family of contemporary sculptures that converts the hallowed halls of the art museum into a public space of confrontation. A four metre by four metre square of LED lights, it carries the following motto: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Östlund follows up this on-screen statement with shots of the homeless in Stockholm. The blunt juxtaposition brings out the real problem with The Square and its utopian intentions: access to the museum itself is a question of social status and the mutual trust the work seeks to foster is in effect upper-class solidarity. On the other hand, Östlund refuses to see the museum or the art world as a monolith. The young marketing executives who come up with an awful, exploitative ad campaign for The Square are lampooned directly, but Christian is a well-rounded character shown to be capable of empathy and change.

Christian, though, is embedded in a power structure that he consciously makes use of. When a subordinate of his refuses to run a personal errand for him, he threatens the young man by turning it into a question of professional trust. He sleeps with the journalist well aware of the equations at play. He has preconceived notions about those living in low-income housing and doesn’t realize the implications of accusing everyone in an impoverished, immigrant-dominated apartment complex in order to zero in on one person who’s stolen his wallet and phone. At the same time, he comes out of his cocoon to own up to his mistakes and to trust others. When he loses his daughters at the mall, he entrusts his shopping bags to a homeless person. In a video-taped apology to an immigrant boy grounded at home because of his accusation, Christian displaces personal culpability into sociological abstractions, but finally takes his two daughters with him to meet the boy in person.

It would be more fruitful to see The Square not as a satire but a set of qualified observations about contemporary art and its institutions. The film understands museums as cultural establishments run like corporates needing to balance their role as proponents of progressive values and purveyors of artistic expression. When Christian is forced to give a press conference about the offensive promotional video, he’s taken apart by both socially-minded liberals and “defenders of free speech”. Christian’s existence is so sophisticated, so wrapped up in layers of irony and simulation that he becomes unable to tell the real from the artificial. He prepares his impromptu speeches in advance, even their improvisational bits. The gets taken for a ride by a con job at a public square, but is unfazed by the real violence taking place during a performance act. The Square’s single most important insight might be this: interpersonal trust in public spaces, all but killed by increased social inequality, can only resurface as parody in art museums for those with no need for it.

The most evident syndrome of this malady afflicting modern art establishments appears in a grand dinner scene in which a male performance artist (Terry Notary) wanders naked in imitation of a primate amidst tuxedoed patrons of the museum. At first amusing, his doubly-performative act turns out to be an escalation of hostilities culminating in a real attack on a woman. In this return of the repressed, the implicit social-behavioural contract of the museum space breaks down and the patrons are hard put to find an appropriate response to the aggression—a crisis paralleling the emotional violence the museum inflicts on the world around through its publicity campaign and the impossibility of the outside world to proportionally react to it.

The film’s cinematography is reminiscent of Lanthimos’ work in its unstable, dynamic compositions employing the architectural elements of the museum. Östlund’s chops as an entertaining filmmaker is apparent in the dinner scene and the thrilling sequence where Christian delivers the letters as his subordinate tries to protect their car from curious street hawks, passages pregnant with impending violence. But the film is also full of open threads and pointless sequences seemingly left loose for the purpose of ambiguity. The film maintains an air of mystery only because it constantly contradicts itself, afraid to look like a newspaper cartoon about modern art.

Western

In Western, Valeska Grisebach poses a series of interlocking power relations between characters and their communities that sets in conflict their individual selves and their group identities. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is part of a German crew trying to setup a power plant in the woods of Bulgaria near the Greek frontier. The raw material for construction hasn’t arrived yet arrived at the site, so the crew spends its time lazing around on the river bank, knocking down beers, hitting on women of the nearby village, plucking fruit from private compounds and generally driving around at night. The men even plant a German flag to mark out their territory. Meinhard, in contrast, goes into village to get to know the residents. Over time, he makes friends even though he doesn’t speak Bulgarian. He helps them out with building wells in the village and, in turn, Adrian, one of the villagers, lets him use his horse and even has his nephew teach Meinhard to ride.

Supposedly an ex-legionnaire, Meinhard is a wanderer with no family or home. His reaching out to the villagers is an attempt at belonging to a place and a people. But what Western demonstrates is that, connect though he might with the residents, Meinhard will never be able to escape the larger identities circumscribing his individual, personal behaviour. The villagers refer to him as the German. They bond with him through positive clichés about Germans. One of them breaks ice with him using German military anecdotes. Meinhard, in turn, doesn’t realize that his symbolic gestures of belonging—giving his pocket knife to Adrian’s nephew, taking part in gambling, threatening a local lynchpin when he roughs up Adrian—align him along certain fault lines within the community. As an outsider, he can only see the village as a monolith to assimilate into, but doesn’t realize that his status as a higher-paid, well-travelled, working-class man from a developed country situates him in a complicated dynamic with the village residents; that the welcome the villagers extend him is precisely predicated on him being an outsider.

Meinhard’s relation with the crew, meanwhile, deteriorates just as he develops a rapport with the villagers. His German colleagues don’t like him hanging out late in town, pursuing women they’re after, or preventing them from using the village’s scanty water source. Like with the soldiers from Herzog’s Signs of Life—a work that Western alludes to—their worst instincts come out when they’re subject to boredom and lack of purpose in a foreign country. One of them justifies the flag-hoisting and points out that they’re the ones helping Bulgaria develop. After an untoward, selfish incident, Meinhard warns his crew chief Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) that he’d kill him if such things happen again. Meinhard’s severity alienates him from his own kind, but his self-effacing liberalism doesn’t exactly allow him to become one with the villagers. He’s left stranded at the end, dancing alone at a country festivity in a parody of communal participation, like many a tragic hero of arthouse cinema.

Grisebach constructs her film as a series of convivial scenes of groups of people conversing over drinks and food—this applies both to the Germans and the Bulgarians in the film, united in spirit in their desire to belong to a community. The passages of the film where Meinhard spends time with the villagers are tender in their imagination of the possibility of language not being a barrier in human relations. A film unfolding at a particular place and time, Western nevertheless functions as an encapsulation of larger political drifts (and, in this, it recalls the other recent, incisive film about the crisis of the EU, Toni Erdmann): the dubious promises of mobility offered by the European Union, the transition of Bulgaria from communism to a neoliberal order, the westward migration of its citizens for better prospects, and the living echoes of German-Bulgarian wartime relationship. The focus, as with many German films, is the weight of national history on individual consciousness.

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]

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Or maybe Tarantino decided that the best way to pay a tribute to the upheavals of new Hollywood was to make a film that’s as amoral and provocative as Bonnie and Clyde; and that provocation today means to go against the liberal pieties of his industry. For all their shocks, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained were on “the right side of history”, somewhat softening the enfant terrible image Tarantino had cultivated till that point. Hateful Eight can be seen, in this light, as a statement of non-alignment, the image of a woman (whose character Tarantino equated with a Mansonite) strung up by a black man and a white man encapsulating the film’s ideology. In this new film, he has managed to stir up the dominant, liberal side of film culture by taking a political U-turn. For taboo-breaking in our time starts with the thought that everything’s too PC these days.”

[Full article at Silverscreen India]

Up

The ninth edition of the monumental Up series of documentaries aired in Britain and Australia this June. Produced by Granada television for the Britain’s ITV, the first edition of the series was telecast in 1964. The original producers set out with a quote from Ignatius Loyola as their hypothesis: “Give me the child until seven and I will show you the man.” Politically committed, they wanted to demonstrate in particular that the socioeconomic prospects of British citizens are foreordained at childhood. To this end, they selected fourteen seven-year-olds, of which four girls, from various income backgrounds from across Britain, and posed them questions related to money, school, romance and future plans. The producers and director Michael Apted, have visited the same set of participants every seven years since the first episode to see whether their original theory was indeed correct, whether the master key to the adult was still the seven-year-old.

The Up series is not unique in this respect, having itself inspired several remakes around the world. There have been many other instances in cinema where the same set of on-screen participants have been brought together after long periods of time by the same filmmaking outfit. Truffaut’s group of films on the Antoine Doinel character featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud is also a documentary on the actor aging from the reticent teenager of The 400 Blows (1959) to the mature thirty-five-year-old of Love on the Run (1979). James Benning made a shot-for-shot remake of his film, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), twenty-seven years later with the same people and locations. Long-running franchises such as the Harry Potter films (2001-11) double as records of their actors’ physical and emotional maturation. A more recent example, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) was periodically shot over 14 years with the same group of actors who portray a family in the film. Not to mention numerous movie sequels and spinoffs where performers reprise their original roles.

The special force of the Up series, on the other hand, derives from its social, historical and human value. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”, wrote Kierkegaard. The participants of the Up films are real people living out their lives, figuring things out as they go along. As they approach the twilight of their existence, the films accrue more and more meaning, narrativizing their lives for themselves and us. In their own way, these films chart the changing political landscape of Britain – from the orthodox conservatism of the early-sixties, through the international cultural tumult of the seventies and the economic upheavals of the Thatcher era, to the promises of the European Union and, now, a post-Brexit period. When it started out, the series wanted to illustrate the thesis that class position in Britain was predetermined by one’s birth and that social mobility was well-nigh impossible. However, as the series unfolded, reality turned out to be more complex: Tony, the East End taxi driver, rose up to middle-class while Neil, with his middle-class upbringing, fell way down the ladder.

Throughout the Up films is this dialectic between theory and reality. There are questions that the first telecast raised that every subsequent episode keeps coming back to: the participant’s financial situation, their relationship with the opposite sex, their schooling system, their perception of other social classes and their impression of the series itself. In the initial episodes, Apted (only fifteen years older than his interviewees) seems to have the answers preconceived in his mind. In the second and third editions (1970, 1977), he handpicks passages from the interviews that seem to suggest that Tony will likely get mixed-up in a betting racket while the private school boys, John, Andrew and Charles, will cruise through their check-listed lives. It didn’t exactly turn out to be so. The social-minded Bruce is now settled into a middle-class life while the Oxford-alumnus John is involved in philanthropical work. These strange turns of reality soften the filmmaker’s convictions and the later Up films open up to the nuances of human existence. The progression of the series, then, coincides with Apted’s own intellectual and sentimental development.

With the series gaining popularity, the participants, too, cease to be isolated, passive subjects of study, their lives now touched by the exposure the films give them. The great learning of documentary filmmaking in the 20th century is also that of 20th century physics: that the observer impacts the observed through the very act of observation. Thanks to his appearance in the series, Tony, an amateur actor, gets bit parts in films as a cabbie. When Neil’s down and out, letters of support pour in. Peter, a lad from Liverpool, was subject to tabloid humiliation for his criticism of the Thatcher government. He dropped out of the series for four episodes, but came back in 56 Up (2012) to promote his band. John used the series to raise awareness about his charities. The interviewees become more vocal about the series as it progresses: in 56 Up, Lynn, one of the London girls, shreds Apted for being blind to the women’s lib movement and for trying to box her into a housewife type in 21 Up (1977); John objects to Apted’s original portrayal of his him as traditionally upper-class and Tony, to his depiction as a potential felon.

As the years go by, the mist of mortality that hangs over the series becomes thicker. French film critic André Bazin likened filmmaking to Egyptian mummification in that it preserves a slice of a person’s existence for eternity. Conversely, every photographic portrait carries with it a mark of death. A future viewer of the Up films – their ideal viewer – will inevitably be burdened by a tragic consciousness. Watching these films end-to-end is to be aware of the fate of these participants, the hope and wonderment in the children’s eyes slowly giving way to the weary wisdom of their adult selves. Like the director, the viewer will then have recognized herself in these lives, in the transience of these lives. Therein lies the ultimate lesson of the Up series, an unfinished work that will end when the last of its interviewees passes away: though shaped by forces larger than itself, every life is irreducibly unique, worthy of attention in itself; but every life can only be understood in generalities, through frameworks larger than itself.

 

[An edited version published in The Hindu]

An investigation by inspector Juross

Cahiers du cinéma no. 161-162; January 1965.

Pathé-Journal

I’d written too many articles for issues 161-162 of Cahiers, and so I had to resort to a nickname for some of them, that of my brother, the lead actor in Godard’s Carabiniers.

For long-time Parisians, going to cinema is no big deal. But for provincials and foreigners who come to Paris – sometimes with this sole intention – it’s an even more difficult problem than ours when we go, whether for this purpose or not, to Brussels, Lyon, London, New York or Tokyo. And we set down this guide with the hope that Script, Premier Plan, Movie and Motion will return the courtesy.

Let’s assume the problems of travel, stay, time and money are taken care of.

Choice of season

As a general rule, in Paris, there are a few more good films from September to November; it’s rather difficult to know all the programmes from July to September; festival holidays (Easter and especially Christmas) are to be avoided: cinema halls play the same children’s movies. Except in the suburbs, cinemas are sufficiently warm in winter, but most of them don’t have sufficient ventilation in summer. It’s hence preferable to see hit films in winter – more people, so more exhalation, so greater warmth – and flops in summer when, paradoxically, we’re sure to not feel too warm for the same reason.

One exception: at the Cinematheque, flops have a great success; it’s then preferable in summer to go there scantily clad.

Since, in general, you don’t go to Paris to see hit films that play everywhere, but flops with small audiences, the warm season – normally richer in flops – is the best for the real cinephile. For the reader of Films in Review, on the other hand, it’s the cold season, richer in hit films1.

Choice of programme

Cinema programmes are published every Wednesday and are valid for one week. Anywhere on Wednesday (and at 100, rue de Richelieu on the other days), you must buy Wednesday’s L’Aurore (30F) which gives, from the 10th of September to the 10th of July, the programmes of five-hundred-and-three commercial and non-commercial cinemas. This publicity is all the more gratuitous because I only have the sincerest contempt for this tendentious political rag that extols turkeys and whose nine-tenths I throw away right after purchase. L’Aurore will be usefully complemented by Leconte’s Guide indicateur des rues de Paris and Télérama (100F), which you can find at 24 rue du Colisée (Champs-Élysées) and 3 rue du Pot-de-Fer (Latin Quarter) on Wednesdays, from 11 a.m. onwards, and in all good churches on Thursday evenings, and which has the added advantage of containing the names of the directors of all films playing in Paris. In case of contradictions, L’Aurore always trumps Télérama. If you can’t find these two publications, buy Cinémonde.

The FFCC – 6 rue Ordener – contains programmes of cine-clubs.

Choice of film

You must always give preference to the cursed film: a number of Parisian critics who forgot this rule couldn’t see Olmi’s masterpiece, Time Stood Still, which disappeared after eight days. If an interesting film is playing only in French-dubbed version, you must absolutely go see it unless it’s an ambitious non-Italian novelty, in which case it’ll soon play in original version.

Films of purportedly great aesthetic value, even though they are hardly talkative, should be seen in original version, which benefits from an original print rather than an export print.

Choice of cinema hall

As we know, Cahiers 146 (page 36) and 147 (page 40) assess the projection quality in the fifty cinema halls most frequented by cinephiles in 1963; we can refer to that.

We notice the considerable difference in prices – 155F to 800F – from one hall to another for the same film the same week. In no way does it mean that the projection quality is better in the second than the first.

Warning: unaccompanied women and very young cinephiles who go to cinemas with the sole intention of watching films must be careful in the following halls in central Paris (a non-exhaustive list): Atomic, Bikini, Bosphore, Far-West, Méry, Midi-Minuit, Nord-Actua, Paris-Ciné. Whatever your age and sex, you are always better of sitting in the first row of these halls, two of which play in 16mm format 35mm films that only exist in 16mm without the original colour. They are worth a visit for the sake of information.

Cinema halls far from the centre, known as neighbourhood halls, often have the appearance of a badly transformed theatre, something which deserves a look.

Exclusive cinema halls, which change their look every two or three years, amuse us with their supposedly aesthetic, cultural or pleasant innovative extravagance. Invisible glass is widespread here to the detriment of sensitive foreheads.

Functional cinema halls of good taste are rare: each one has its own ridiculous feature. Extremes meet in rococo (deep red common to all of them – cf. Freud) and the oddities. Special mention to the Pagode, the Ranelagh, the Templia, which are frank about what they are, to the Féerie des Eaux du Rex, to the seats of the Bretagne, to the metro-tremors of the Publicis, to the Atonic and to the Nord-Actua, which we must scale, to the pocket cinema Champollion, to the singers and variety shows of various neighbourhoods.

With a little luck (?), you will be entitled to screenings of reckless piss, ejaculation, exhibitionism, fights, homo and hetero soliciting, noticed by our editors notably at the Bikini, the Méry, the Sébastopol, but also in most of Parisian toilets.

Not to be missed: the arrival of hobos with snacks and wine bottles at the Pathé-Journal at noon. They sleep there in the warm until evening. Contrary to their reputation, the three cinema halls specializing in Muslim films are flawless. What’s more, the noise of peanuts here pleasantly masks the humming of the projectors.

Choice of timing

Avoid cinema halls on Saturday evenings, holidays and at the beginning of all-night screenings of hit films: there’s a queue at the entrance and you’ll not know where to go.

Moreover, in the neighbourhood halls, films are generally cut short on Sundays.

Avoid normal halls playing films for the young on Thursday afternoons: we only hear their screams. Some halls have a reduced price before 1:30 p.m.

In general, permanent halls have screenings at 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. The film starts at 2:30 p.m if it runs for 90 minutes, or at 2:40 p.m if it runs for eighty etc. Normal halls have a screening every evening (except Tuesdays) at 9 p.m., on Thursdays, and even Saturdays, at 3 p.m., and on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. The programme runs for about a hundred-and-forty minutes; so, it’s easy to find the exact starting time of a big film if we know its runtime. But there are exceptions. Better to telephone in advance if you want to avoid the first part of the film, which – having only one negative point – isn’t the least instructive for the non-Parisian. In the suburbs, the telephone call is indispensable; the cashier will tell you how to get there from Paris.

The entrance

Like everything in France, the best seats (front orchestra) are the cheapest, except in rare, exclusive halls with balcony (Napoléon, Paramount, Wepler). But, in neighbourhood halls, you’ll need to coax the cashiers a lot before getting these seats, which are to be sold at reduced tariffs imposed by the Centre du Cinéma against exhibitors’ wishes. The cashiers will tell you that you’ll have a hard time seeing the film, that you’ll ruin your eyesight, that it’s not healthy, that you must swear on your honour not to ask for a change of seats during the film. And that if you become blind, it won’t be for the lack of warning. They can hold you up for four minutes. And then, say the magic word: “I’m going to report this to the Centre.” But if, by chance, you don’t have exact change, you’ll never have your ticket. Or, they’ll go for the issued-ticket trick: “I thought you wanted a reserved seat; I’ve already issued the ticket: it’s going to go waste…”2

In exclusive cinema halls, a doorman will snip your ticket which the usherette will snip again. Absolutely useless, he’s there to look good, to make you believe you’re entering a theatre or an Opera.

Another useless thing: the usherette, already vanished in England and Italy to the benefit of a discreet lighting on the floor and whom you can even do without by closing an eye fifty to ten seconds before entering the hall. Each person must give her a tip of at least ten francs (twenty in exclusive halls). You can also tell her: “I’ll open the door myself”, but, if you do that, she’s likely to tell you off, disrupt your viewing, or prevent you from stretching out. Although it’s immoral to give ten untaxed francs to this useless thing while giving twenty-seven taxed francs to the producer, it’s better to give her the coin right away.

Warning: don’t ever hand her your ticket in a hall where you enter from the front (or from anywhere else for that matter) for she’ll run fifty metres away to seat you in the back. Some usherettes satisfy their obsession for logic by meticulously filling the hall row by row, left to right or vice versa, and admiring their fine fencing in of paying sheep. In short, annoying and expensive. At the Cinematheque (where you are better off taking your seats at 6 p.m. in view of the previews or hits of the evening), always carry a franc and ask for a ticket starting with AH, AG, AF etc. or say that you prefer a folding seat in the orchestra.

Inside

You can’t smoke inside (except at the Rex, the Féerie des Eaux eliminating all fire hazard, and at the Rotonde) because General De Gaulle agreed to continue the prohibition imposed by his colleague, the Marshall Pétain.

If you are taller than five feet, you are better off sitting on an aisle seat so you can stretch your legs comfortably without having to put up with the narrowness of French seating rows. It also allows you to leave the hall without disturbing anyone if the film is bad (the Godard variation: sit right in the middle to disturb as many people as possible to emphasize your discontent).

Screening conditions are often difficult: the format of the screen rarely corresponds to the format of the film (the superior technical commission of cinema or CST mandates several more or less necessary norms, but doesn’t ensure their effective implementation). At the Napoléon or the Ermitage, which open up from the front, every film is a parade of viewers (go there only after 10 p.m.) that we can tolerate better when sitting in the front at the right. You can’t see the entire screen from some seats at the Atlas or the Saint-Germain. At the Studio de l’Étoile, you can see shadows of viewers in the balcony where the rebellious usherette has seated you, claiming that the orchestra section is closed: pay her and go downstairs. The lighting at the Midi-Minuit reflects doubly on the screen. In front of many screens, a useless curtain crying “theatre” opens well before the film begins and closes well after it ends. Some cinema halls – Paris-Ciné (property of the ex-president of the federation of film exhibitors, Adolphe Trichet), Studio Obrigado – introduce in colour poor copies of black and white films; in such cases, get yourself reimbursed, you have the right to, and say the magic word if needed.

Since 1955, screening quality in France has enormously degraded and the theatre operators, flustered by the increasing complexity of new technology and devoid of references, have laid down their weapons. Lack of sound, fuzzy image, bad framing and darkness abound. Don’t waste a second, cry out right away: “Sound!… Focus!… Framing!… Image!” or simply “Projection!” if you are worried about scaring the public with these technical terms. Never whistle: they’ll think you are whistling at the film or the cameraman.

The screening, alas, is never continued from the point of failure but only much later, in violation of the decree of 18 January 1961 (article 13). Sad state of affairs, chief responsibility for which lies with the indifferent CST, which has just made a fool of itself by defending the intolerable screening conditions at the last Cannes Festival, otherwise irreproachable but compromised by this shortcoming.

Problem and solution

We must understand the passivity of projectionists: their minimum union tariff is 13,400 francs a week, three times lesser than the smallest technician in production, six times lesser than the first assistant camera, twelve times lesser than the director of photography. This is a scandal that must be called out. We can understand a first assistant or an usherette getting paid at the minimum wage, these are optional and often useless jobs not needing precise competence and not entailing serious consequences in case of mistakes. That would be a normal thing despite the massive revenues made by the film industry because, for example, producers pay their couriers at the same tariff as an artisan. But it’s not normal to pay all the collaborators of creation well and pay all the collaborators of exhibition badly (which is what happens in the music industry as well). Collaborators of exhibition must be well paid. We must pay important collaborators in every sector well and pay secondary collaborators less well. Bardot making 5,000 times the minimum wage is normal, but the assistant getting ten times the minimum wage is excessive, and the 1.7 times the minimum wage of the projectionist is ridiculously low.

A projectionist is an artist: he can ruin the work of a technical crew, he can even improve it slightly by his perfection and it’s fair that he be paid in proportion to the enormous responsibility and competence required of him, as a percentage of the gross receipts, or at least more than the assistant and almost as much as the director of photography. There should also be an exchange between the two professions – which will open up new avenues for cameramen who are often unemployed and complement their training – a number of projectionists turning to more lucrative professions. It could be said that screening deficiencies today stem one-fourth from lack of funds (old projectors etc.) and three-fourths from the projectionist and from the theatre owner, who can cobble together his facility and his hall himself, for no cost, instead of waiting for viewers, daydreaming.

In any case, the film industry should not be surprised if our filmmakers prefer artisanship over itself: industrial production is justified only on the basis of its technical and aesthetic quality, which is almost forbidden in artisanship and which comes to pass in only fifty cinema halls out of five thousand (I’m being kind). It’d be stupid to make billion-franc films that can be appreciated only in the Club Publicis…

Instead of needlessly forcing production to increase its costs on the basis of regulatory decisions, we must facilitate a reduction in budgets by the wholehearted introduction of better, ultra-sensitive film stock and lighter material to the detriment of certain other sectors (the CST does the opposite), we must increase the cut to the exhibitor by five percent or give him financial aid to buy new equipment. We must financially encourage the management of cinema halls by projectionists, if they can’t be paid in proportion to the gross receipts, which would be the ideal. The entire industry is capable of evolving. We must transfer capital from one branch to another according to needs, like in America. Our status quo attitude to projection is driving it to ruin and is immorally adding bureaucratic profit to commercial ones. It’s double without quits.

 

1Gibe at this old magazine which praised turkeys and snubbed geniuses.

2All this is in my film Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989)

 

[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.