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

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

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

Unpublished, 2009.

            On the level of quality, Hollywood has declined quite a bit, but its place has been brilliantly taken over by American literature.

That’s why, as a fan of the USA, I’ve decided not to talk about its films anymore, but only about its books.

James Ellroy’s first eight novels still respect many of the conventions of the American detective novel. Ellroy, however, distinguishes himself with the size of his books (about a hundred pages more than the standard crime novel), their excessively gory and sleazy quality, the abundance and rapid succession of their actions. These books don’t respect the good old principle of describing a single criminal affair. There is also the desire to limit himself to the LAPD, the Los Angeles Police Department, and to the personality of his investigators (who are more important than the crimes to be solved). A haunting microcosm that equals those, richer in landscapes, of great writers, Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha, Giono and his Haute-Provence, Hardy’s Wessex, Mary Webb’s Shropshire, and Caldwell’s Georgia. We hardly leave Los Angeles with Ellroy. The reader is confined to this limited, airless zone that ends up overwhelming him. He’d like to get out of it, but he can never escape.

A small evolution: after Brown’s Requiem (1981) and Clandestine (1982), Ellroy abandons first-person narrative for an objective point of view. A superficial change since this objectivity is expressed in a very personal way. It’s merely a façade, intended to make the odd, the horrible and the repulsive more believable.

It’s still classical narration that predominates from Blood on the Moon (1985) to The Big Nowhere (1988).

But then, from L.A. Confidential onwards, there is a revolution, a rupture which will be even more drastically reaffirmed in White Jazz (1992) and especially in American Tabloid (1995) and The Cold Six Thousand (2001).

How to describe this change, pre-1989 and post-1989? There are several obvious characteristics.

 

Length of the texts

Ellroy moves from 300 or 400 pages, more or less normal for the thriller genre, to 600 pages or more. Unusual size for a detective novel, which is generally designed to entertain you during a journey (“an airport novel”, it’s called) and shouldn’t be too bulky. This expanse of the books is amplified, as we will see, by the extreme condensation of actions. It makes the reader’s head spin.

 

Accelerated succession of actions and words used

There are provocative ellipses in Ellroy’s work:

Burglars, confessors–physical stats/MO/priors–I took notes. The Wino Will-o-the-Wisp–shit, still at large. Names, names, names– candidates for a psycho framee. Scribbling notes–distracted–flirty carhops, new money. Nagging me: a frame meant no payoff–no way to match Lucille and the burglar to WHY?

(White Jazz, chapter 8)

One would think it’s the first thriller by James Joyce…

The reader understands a large part of this information, probably not everything. He must make an “effort to participate” to grasp the terms or expressions whose meaning remains obscure. If he cannot, he will have the proof of the superiority of the author (and of the “reality” depicted) over him. Similarly, in The Cold Six Thousand, he will have some serious work to do if he wants to know the kind of character hiding behind each name. And there are more than sixty protagonists! In order to get a hold on things—I think that it’s the first time I’ve had to do that—I had to write down the dramatis personae on a card, like at the start of a play, with the name, profession and purpose of each actor in the drama: another aspect which makes the reader a participant in an interactive work, whereas a crime novel fan is most often a passive being.

If the quality of a book is to be measured against the reader’s pleasure, we can affirm that Ellroy has delivered here a production of very high quality, since I had infinite pleasure in dodging Ellroy’s traps and understanding everything (well, I’m boasting: understanding almost everything).

 

Intrusion of lapidary terms

I mean by that press cuttings, police reports, telegrams, taped telephone conversations, confidential notes etc.

Like in Dos Passos, who seems to have influenced Ellroy, and Tom Wolfe and the practitioners of the journalistic novel, these documents end up constituting a good part of the book, a quarter or even a third of it. It’s a device somewhat comparable to the succession of letters in our literature of the 18th century, with the difference being that the nature of these “documents” varies enormously.

 

Starkness

Traditional description of places, faces and bodies so dear to the good old novel and even to the first master of the genre, Dashiell Hammett, is practically eliminated. We rarely know the colour of the hair, the height or the build of the protagonists.

In The Big Nowhere, we could still find some awkward and almost parodic descriptions:

Sodden confetti hung out of windows and littered the sidewalk, and the sun that was looming above the eastern basin had the feel of heat, steam and bad hangovers.

There won’t be any more descriptions.

 

The brevity of sentences

That night, Lesnick left the apartment to get medicine at County General, thinking Coleman’s Upshaw fixation would break him down on his homosexuality, stymie and stalemate him.

It’s Ellroy’s last big sentence, we find it nine pages before the end of The Big Nowhere.

This example clearly shows that Ellroy has never been at ease with these convoluted, winding, very clever sentences where the reader is somewhat lost. The detective novel, on the other hand, has always been written such that people have a good grasp on the proceedings.

But, all through L.A. Confidential and in the novels thereafter, we will largely find brief, very simple, brutal, elliptic and concise sentences.

In American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy proceeds at a frantic rhythm of more than seventy sentences per page. There can be three on a single line. The only exceptions are in the dialogue, or in extracts from the press or copied messages, which seem—wrongly of course—to be not Ellroy’s. This enhances the impression of reality.

We find a good example, among thousands, in L.A. Confidential:

Pops doused his head in the sink, charged with his face scorched black.

A roundhouse to the knees–Papa went down glued to that cleaver. Bud stepped on his hand, cracked the fingers–Papa let go screaming. Bud dragged him to the oven, kicked the pallet loose. Yank the trapdoor, drag the old man downstairs.

Fumes: opium, steam. Bud kicked Papa-san quiet. Through the fumes: dope suckers on mattresses.

(Chapter 66)

This realism is undercut by remarks or comments by real personalities, such as Frank Sinatra or John Kennedy, that are clearly imaginary. We’ll come back to the importance of contradiction and dialectic in Ellroy’s work.

 

The use of nominal sentences (without verbs)

The notion of a sentence is rather vague since the only objective identification of a sentence is the full stop, which we either put or don’t. In the famous sentence from Ulysses (50 pages), there are no separating periods, but we nevertheless notice a multitude of virtual sentences undone by a tendentious punctuation, which helps to stretch matters.

We find excellent examples of nominal sentences in The Cold Six Thousand:

Bob stood up. Bob aimed his pump. Bob shot low. A beehive blew–darts blew–darts on fire.

The spread cohered. The spread hit. The spread severed legs.1

We see that these nominal sentences arrive at the end of a series of short sentences with verbs. They convey the final acceleration of the action.

It’s obvious that Ellroy could’ve combined several of these actions into a single sentence, but that would’ve destroyed the rhythm and the musicality of the piece, all the more powerful because its poetic impact derives from actions that are antithetical to traditional poetry.

Ellroy had already tried out these nominal sentences before, but only on rare occasions. So, in Suicide Hill (1986), we have: “Dimly, he knew his kick-out date was coming and the bulls were leaving him alone because they were afraid of him. But Vandy …” This line is on page 659 of the Hopkins trilogy.

This “But Vandy” corresponds to an idea of a sentence, suggested, undescribed or scratched out while proofreading. It could mean: “But he thought of Vandy” or something else altogether.

These elliptic flourishes certainly gave the necessary impetus to Ellroy’s subsequent career.

 

In White Jazz (chapter 29), Ellroy will go even further:

A white screen.

Cut to:

Johnny Duhamel naked.

Cut to:

Dave Klein swinging a sword.

Zooming in–the sword grip: SSGT D.D. Klein USMC Saipan 7/24/43.

Cut to:

We can clearly see the source of inspiration for this scene as for many others: cinematic découpage like in Eisenstein or Scorsese. It’s possible to suppose that Ellroy wrote his book this way because he had a potential film adaptation in mind. I don’t think so. He didn’t really need that, his books selling very well already. And the film adaptation of L.A. Confidential had to employ a classical decoupage that’s vastly from Ellroy’s. But the interest here is in the odd intrusion of specifically cinematic language in literature, just like how we noted the incongruity of poetic language in the description of crime novel massacres.

 

The importance of numbers

Numbers have a bad reputation in literary culture owing to the old opposition between noble literature and vulgar arithmetic (money + anti-poetic objectivity): to such a degree that, in all novels and in literary or film criticism, as much as possible, numbers are spelt out even if it’s longer (it’s, by the way, more interesting when the author is paid by the word) .

The challenge then for Ellroy is to pack in the most amount of numbers, dates, times, flight numbers, car models, police ID numbers, bullet counts, the sum of money on a body, code and telephone numbers etc.

Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade…

(L.A. Confidential, prologue)

The precision in these numbers is of no interest in itself, but imparts a particular and uncommon rhythm. This documentary aspect enhances the realism of the novel, which, because of its material—several murders and very gory fights—is as unrealistic as possible. And through their repetition, the numbers create a new and unexpected form of poetry.

 

The importance of acronyms

The creative process here is the same as the one with numbers. The acronyms can be of official administrative organizations (LAPD, CIA etc.) or of commercial firms. In the same vein, we find initials of first names, often followed by those of last names (JFK).

 

Punctuation

We notice the frequent alternation of words in lower case and those in upper case (newspaper headlines, especially), as well as words in italics.

The forward slash is the most characteristic symbol in Ellroy’s work: “Chairs/shelves/table” (White Jazz, end of chapter 48). It conveys an enumeration based on options and alternatives.

 

The art of enumeration

This is at the heart of Ellroy’s art.

Ever since book II of the Iliad, we know that literature relies on the extent and quality of enumerations.

Hence, in White Jazz (chapter 27):

11/3/58, 11/3/58, 11/4/58, 11/4/58–Ad Vice.

11/5/58, 11/5/58, 11/6/58–GR 1-4790–John Duhamel, 10477

Just to clarify, this pertains to a list of telephone calls.

 

Repetition of the subject

Wayne aimed. Wayne popped four shots off. Fido’s teeth shattered. Fido’s neck blew.

Wayne heard yells. Wayne saw three VC.

They charged. They aimed carbines. They got kadre klose. Pete stood up. Chuck stood up. Mesplède waved _come on_.

(The Cold Six Thousand, chapter 62)

The name of the character performing actions is repeated for each of his actions, which creates an incantatory, hallucinatory poetic rhythm.

You will notice here that Ellroy resolves through the absurd—and without annoying the reader one bit—literature’s chief problem, unsolved even today: we don’t ever know who’s speaking or acting, the author being afraid of repeating “A said” or “B said”.

 

The one-liner

Common in cinema and especially television, this literary device consists of making each character utter a short sentence, to be translated into a single subtitle. For example, at the end of chapter 19 of American Tabloid, there are forty-five lines of dialogue made just of one-liners.

 

Interrupted sentences

We don’t know how a particular dialogue will end. All we have are the three trailing dots. This allows for the acceleration of the action. Sometimes, the speaker is hit by a bullet.

This could create the impression of realism, as though the speech written by the author was cut short by a reality larger than him.

This effect is sometimes related to the “surprise development”.

For example, characters speak of random, ordinary things. And, in the course of a sentence, the conversation turns into drama, but narrated in the same, trivial tone. At the end of chapter 95 of American Tabloid, we have this exchange:

Kemper said, “Did you really do that?”

“As sure as I’m standing here basking in your light, Boss. As sure as niggers—”

Kemper shot him in the mouth. A full clip took his head off.

 

Alliterations

“BOOZEBLITZED AND BESOAKED BASTION BOOGIE-WOOGIES!” This extract from American Tabloid (chapter 67) reveals an excess of virtuosity that we can find gratuitous, but which is so difficult to imagine that the reader hardly understands anything. Which adds to the chaotic nature of the work and the world described.

 

Onomatopoeias

They often express a sonic reality. Hence the ‘bump’ repeated seven times in a row in L.A Confidential (chapter 73). There are also the nine Gs (White Jazz), each occupying a new line, which seem to announce the arrival of the GLUTTON2. Their purpose can be guessed more than understood through a logical analysis.

These various devices—and there are many more—betray an art founded on artifice. But this constant and unpredictable shift from one device to another produces a strong impression of variety, richness and imagination.

 

Local slang

Vulgar vocabulary, sexual as well as violent, is harnessed to the fullest. This is unusual for an avant-garde work, which often favours a loftier terminology.

 

Evolution towards the macrocosm

Until L.A. Confidential, we only find simple stories about individuals.

Until White Jazz, we remain focused on Los Angeles and the LAPD.

But little by little, the horizon widens.

For one thing, The Big Nowhere is an indirect story of witch hunts.

Ellroy then leaves Hollywood for Dallas and all the states of America to portray the Kennedy years and the Cuban crisis (American Tabloid).

He then goes around the entire world, all the way to Vietnam to depict the post-Kennedy era, the Dallas investigation and the years between 1963-68 (The Cold Six Thousand).

Those who have followed every step of James Ellroy’s so far, book by book, will be very surprised by this sudden, unmeasured opening up towards the macrocosm. An opening up that comes as a considerable shock to the reader, as though Jane Austen started to travel all over the world. A widening that we could object on these grounds: the notion of a microcosm is closer to the essence of the detective novel. The respect for Aristotelian unities, the endearing modesty of the work that shunned “big subjects” made for its power. Aren’t James Ellroy’s super-detective novels comparable to the flashiness of sumptuous and empty super-westerns? On the contrary, what force, what freshness, what radiance!

Ellroy’s conquest of a new identity, following his first eight novels, clearly proves that Ellroy’s style, as we have admired in the past few years, has nothing innate, immanent or essential about it, in contrast to that of Céline, who has always written the same way. What we see is an evolution, a rather slow progression, a tactic even. Which takes nothing away from the power and originality of the works.

This state of affairs is reaffirmed by Ellroy’s other recent stories such as Tijuana, Mon Amour (1999) or certain short stories—Dial Axminster 6-400, The Tooth of Crime, Bad Boys in Tinseltown, My Life as a Creep—or even My Dark Places (1996). These are more conventional or sober (My Dark Places) works—witnesses perhaps to a flagging of inspiration—sometimes written with the left hand, rehashing previously used ideas. But the literary devices are rarely piled up. There are, to be sure, alliterations in Tijuana and terse sentences in most of the short stories. But these somewhat abridged writings don’t have the same sort of power, the same breath in the sum of their effects. Length has become indispensable in order to assert the force of accumulation.

In the first novels, I was quite aware of the character traits and the deeper themes these thrillers had to offer: artistic creation and woman as savoir, the difficult relationship with the father, guilt and redemption…

All these are present in the recent works too, but we don’t really notice them. The frenzy created by the various devices we have studied doesn’t give the reader the time to analyse character psychology, busy as he is trying to decipher the identity of the protagonist underlying each proper noun, the action underlying each sentence. What remains is only the impression of chaos, generalized corruption and nonsense. A pessimistic vision that is erased, so to speak, by our nascent pleasure before the divine fury of writing.

This bird’s eye view of the characters, and the more human meaning of the work, far from reducing the novel’s value, takes it to new heights: the Ellroy of today has nothing to envy Proust, Camus or Thomas Mann.

Could psychology, certainly present here though invisible, simply be a crude springboard for artistic creation? That’s what happens sometimes in cinema and almost always in music, in opera: the libretto must surely exist, but it’s only a subordinate element. Everything is style. The writing produces a new being in Ellroy’s work, regardless of its contents (les valeurs contenutistes).

 

1 [Translator’s Note] The excerpt in French contains more nominal sentences than the original, which has only one.

2 [Translator’s Note] This is a literal translation of Moullet’s line. I glanced through White Jazz and did not find such a passage. Perhaps Moullet is misattributing (as he sometimes does in this essay) to White Jazz what might be present in some other novel by Ellroy or someone else.

 

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

The Goldsmith of Porto Alegre

Cahiers du cinéma no. 608; January 2006.

We thought he was a flash in the pan. Indeed, nothing, or nearly nothing, from Jorge Furtado reached us after Isle of Flowers (1989), which was increasingly becoming his only and indispensable film, screened more and more frequently: a cult short film, in brief, located midway between Night and Fog and Land without Bread, between La Jetée and Zero for Conduct.

Everything changed in 2005. Indeed, the Year of Brazil in France was responsible for many screenings of unknown, revelatory and very enjoyable Brazilian films, including five short and three feature films by Furtado.

There is a certain ostracism towards Furtado. It stems first of all from the isolation of the auteur of Isle of Flowers: he’s the filmmaker from Rio Grande do Sul, and hardly leaves the region. But it has no real negative consequence: Porto Alegre is a microcosm. I’d even say that this particularity helps Furtado. He talks about what he knows, like Thomas Hardy, Giono and Faulkner, who never left their hole so to speak, like Godard or Guiraudie, constantly shooting around Lake Geneva or in Obitania. The second reason for this ostracization is the choice of comedy, displaying external signs of telenovela (small familial conflicts of the average Brazilian, the investigating kid in My Uncle Killed a Guy, 2005) while Furtado manipulates the telenovela form in an amusing way, dynamiting it. Let’s make no mistake, Furtado’s cinema teaches us a lot about Brazil: the fear of the rich of being robbed and the problems produced by an over-the-top security system (Angelo is Missing, 1997), the anxiety of visitors at the entrance of favelas and the critical attitude of Blacks towards Whites (My Uncle Killed a Guy), the polarization around football (Barbosa, 1988), the love of cosmetics and perfumes (Isle of Flowers).

Furtado makes us clearly see that, in this capitalist jungle, everything is based on plan B: how to print fake bank notes using a photocopier (The Man Who Copied, his first feature film, made in 2002), how a girl makes a living faking pregnancies (Two Summers, 2002), how to assume responsibility for a murder committed by your lover, how to prove an act of betrayal, how to escape the clutches of the police (My Uncle Killed a Guy).

One of the central locations of his cinema is an unusual place, along which his camera and characters wander: the corridor, as important in Furtado as in Fuller, Resnais or Jacquot.

Another peculiarity: while most filmmakers avoid numbers (old opposition: civilization of words against the inhumanity of numbers), Furtado looks for them, infests his films with them. A poetry of numbers. He loves lists: having lost the last two digits of his girlfriend’s telephone number, the hero of Two Summers dials the ninety-nine possible combinations one after the other, with the face of the interlocutor shown each time: a sumptuous microcosm, a cross-section view of the whole society. Furtado’s films offer a perspective on adolescence, an age where you should do everything: slaving away to realize all your emotional and professional desires. A milieu from which Furtado hardly comes out of. His point of view is elegiac, almost romantic, based on trivial or slightly scabrous details. We can’t forget the description of an orgasm in Two Summers anytime soon; roughly: “It’s very curious, I remain whole while having the impression of being disintegrated.”

Furtado’s art is based on an emphasis on situations, on changes in attitude, on options of possible behaviours, through an intensive use of video montage techniques, each shot, each special effect within a shot corresponding to a moment in the thought process of the filmmaker or of the characters. Starting from Isle of Flowers—eighteen months of work for thirteen minutes of runtime—we can appreciate the virtuosity of the goldsmith of Porto Alegre, capable of evoking three levels of meaning from three shots or special effects within the span of a second. Furtado constantly plays with the persistence of vision and the acuity of the ear. Only Godard, with The Power of Speech, will go as far.

Isle of Flowers played with an 18th century effect—Persian Letters and Zadig combined—that consisted of pretending to adopt the point of view of a foreigner, while we are very familiar with the reality depicted, and which allowed for a neutral, objective, cheerful and, in any case, an “other” perspective. Furtado pretends to observe completely unusual and secondary subjects—man’s opposable thumb, his highly developed telencephalon—only to secretly evoke essential questions through indirect means: new, shocking and iconoclastic marriage of the comic and the tragic, the latter invading an apparently playful universe rather brutally. The films attain an absurdist, very corrosive humour, close to Queneau, to Perec (whom Furtado will adapt), to Vian and to Oulio, one of whose ardent fans he proves himself to be.

Furtado’s feature films continue this principle of intensive montage by adapting it to fictional narration and justifying it in the narrative itself, by directly relating them to the arsenal of new technologies depicted (photocopiers, computers, automatic photos). We even see a cursor on the image when Furtado and his researcher want to attract our attention to a particular track.

With these recent films, the wizard of Porto Alegre has conquered the highest realms in the cinema of Latin America and maybe even of the American continent.

 

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

Tit for Tarn

Cahiers du cinéma no. 553; January 2001.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Real Winner of the Tours Festival, Isn’t Among the Awardees

Arts no. 754; 23 December 1959.

Baldi told me later that I’d described his films exactly like the way he conceived them. He offered to produce a short film for me. It was Capito? (1962).

My first three films were produced at the initiative of filmmakers I had lauded. Do not see any craftiness on my part there.

Three films dominated the fifth international short film festival of Tours: Il Pianto delle zitelle (1958), La Vigilia di mezza estate (1958) and Via dei Cessati Spiriti (1959) are all the works of Gian Vittorio Baldi. A pilgrimage to Abruzzo at an altitude of thousand and eight hundred meters, the celebration of St. John’s Eve in a small village, prostitution in a specialized street in Rome—this diversity clearly shows that Baldi isn’t involved any more in religious propaganda than communist propaganda. He is a documentarian first and foremost, doesn’t exactly belong to any neorealist group and has more affinities with the Rossellini of India than with Zavattini-De Sica.

Critics at Tours sneered before the processions filmed by Baldi, who had a bone to pick with the censors for his film on prostitution. Unfortunately, it seems that very few people understand what a really documentary, objective and impartial cinema is. Baldi films reality and Il Pianto is a pitiless report on mystic madness as well as a hymn to God. […] Baldi shows what he sees: some sequences in his films are shot on the spot, with almost no preparation, as though they were news items. One can’t help but improvise while filming a real procession. But if we French are sensitive to the documentary value of Baldi’s work, the Italian Rouch, we are nevertheless less sensitive to its remarkable formal beauty, perhaps because some typically-Italian details go over our head.

 

Rediscovered simplicity

Baldi’s crew must’ve done an extraordinary work on colour—Baldi only shoots in colour. Normally so mediocre, Ferraniacolor produces stunning effects thanks to an expert colour matching. Even when there’s improvisation, it almost always gives the impression of an extremely rigorous and concerted composition. It’s Visconti, say some. But Baldi denies all influence. The blacks and the reds of Pianto are as beautiful as those of Minnelli’s Some Came Running; the yellows and the greens of La Vigilia, whose admirable final shot evokes Mizoguchi and Anthony Mann at once, are nearly as beautiful as those of Chabrol’s À double tour.

In the first shot of Via, we think we are dealing with black and white. Some seconds later, we think it’s a sepia or colour print. At the end of a minute, we realize, as we do during the river sequence of La Vigilia, that these are colours of the night, which slowly converge to an admirable pale green when a candle is lit. After the ceremony of the procession, we have the ceremony of the whore, who calmly takes out the tools of her trade one by one. Upon reflection, these gestures of an artisanal intelligence seem unbelievable in a prostitute, but the composition is remarkably balanced by the simplicity of improvisation. No matter, since the gestures, the gait of the girl have a beauty we will find only among the whores of Mizoguchi.

Comparing it to the great mediocrity of other films, I’m perhaps overestimating Baldi’s work. It’s nevertheless a cinema that I’m personally inclined to hate, a cinema based—regardless of Baldi’s intentions—on the notion of perfection foreign to the purest of arts, that of a Griffith, Fuller, Renoir. But perhaps the search for perfection is justified in the documentary, which shouldn’t rely on the vagaries of actors’ performance and should only strive to overcome technical difficulties of colour.

 

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

Unstill Life

Arts no. 709; 11 February 1959.

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Cellular Tree (Saint-Jacques… La Mecque)

Cut no. 19; March 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

A Serene Nihilism

Le Nouvel Adam no. 11; June 1967.

Antonioni bores me to death. But when a mediocre or overrated filmmaker makes a good film (or the opposite), I say so frankly. I practice fair-play, even when it comes to tennis.

Hence this article on Blow-Up, which, in my opinion, is one of the rare defensible Antonionis, along with The Red Desert and Identification of a Woman.

The reason for this amazing miracle: this filmmaker is really at ease only in colour film.

Blow-Up, Antonioni’s second English film after his sketch for I Vinti (1952) and his second great colour film, is a series of images, of moments, where a number of important things sometimes happen, but which don’t seem to have been chosen. We get the impression that they could’ve been different, that it could all take place as much in Buenos Aires or Paris as in London—like in Julio Cortázar’s Les Fils de la vierge, the original novella the film is based on—without much change. Blow-Up stretches the last ten minutes of Eclipse (1961), which came at the end of a story and forgot all about it, to over two hours.

What’s the connection? It’s a famous photographer from London—photography is a means of combatting nothingness, wrote Cortázar. Antonioni seems to have chanced upon his hero at the beginning of the film, but he accompanies him until the end. Then begins a semblance of a plot, first presented like one of the film’s many moments quickly abandoned for others, so as to not make us wary: he photographs a pair of lovers in a park. The woman tries to get the negatives from him by any means, without clearly-defined reasons. He makes blow-ups after blow-ups, observes them, seems to discover the traces of an attempted murder, comes back, finds a corpse, returns to the place, finds nothing. Every episode remains very chaotic, every blow-up a little fuzzier, every meaning is destroyed by the following one right away. Dream or reality? The answer seems—there are only semblances in this universe—to be of no importance. Visually, the film is bright, but its logical meaning slips irreversibly into obscurity. Every time a character does something, tries to love another, loves another, there is no rhyme or reason.

It’s the death blow to psychology, the perfect vegetative film. There is no certainty, not even that the previous certainty has been undone. It’s really a supreme disdain for meaning, quite like in Cortázar. Antonioni has borrowed only two ideas from him, the couple caught by surprise and the blow-up, but he takes his nihilist spirit along. The importance given to physical love could stir discussions about materialism. But materialism itself is a form of affirmation. It’s chance rather than desire that seems to drive relationships here. And dream and reality are always on the same footing, except at the end, which is more clearly unreal: masked characters play tennis without a ball while pretending to have one. The photographer agrees to play along, go collect the ball fallen outside the court and throw it back.

Nothing exists, but we must act as though something exists. At the end of this sequence that concludes and summarizes the film, this gesture, a little too meaningful, diminishes the general impression of absence. It short-changes the viewer and especially the critic too easily. Blow-up is a film that shouldn’t have ended and it was necessary for it to give the impression that it will not. But the film as a whole, following Borges and Cortázar, belongs to what I’d call the “Midi fantastique” as opposed to “Minuit fantastique”, a fantasy based on light and not on darkness, on the mundane and not on old tricks of the trade.

The difference from Antonioni’s previous films, from L’Avventura or The Red Desert, is the serenity. The characters in the earlier films were tormented and constantly spoke about being tormented. The hero of Blow-up is silent. He is overworked, he isn’t tormented by anything profound, and the filmmaker even less so. This is what distinguishes him from Godard, whose approach Blow-up evokes to an extent. Everything takes place calmly here.

The film is relaxing, pleasant to watch. Perhaps it’s an ablation of conscience or alienation, but if it’s alienation, it’s not so bad. What surprises us is that the hero and the filmmaker can remain indifferent and calm before so many oddities and enigmas, so much rage. The rhythm, the colours, the atmosphere contribute to give the impression of acceptance and appeasement. Antonioni makes us hear the wind in the forest like we never have. He brings out the multiple tints and settings of the most technical of modern lives through the photographer’s studio and apartment. These tints are so new to the screen that, under the shock, we aren’t able to decide whether Blow-Up is a beautiful film. It’s a film that’s evidently very rich on a plastic level and it’s this aspect, I think, that accounts for its enormous commercial success in the United States, with its picturesque, stereotypical images of contemporary England. London life in summarized in clichés worthy of a vulgar tourist.

But Antonioni seems to have wanted to say, most of all, that there’s nothing beneath it all, and to not crank up the commercial aspect of the film, in which the public can get caught even though they are not harnessed. Blow-Up’s visual style holds another pitfall: it’s likely to keep from those who admire it the most difficult and most important aspect of the film, contained in its approach and its meaninglessness. It would be a serious misinterpretation, a serious “mis-non-interpretation” rather, to believe that the film is an exercise in style.

 

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

Nothing About My Mother

Unpublished

I am well-regarded by publications interested in cinema.

Even so, this article was rejected everywhere.

I already had a hard time getting my revaluations of Powell and Deleuze through.

There was a time Leenhardt could yell:

“Down with Ford!”

Truffaut took down Clouzot and the “tradition of quality”. Rivette insulted Pontecorvo. Positif dragged Hitchcock and Bazin through the mud.

And nonetheless, this frankness—well-founded or not—paved the way for a healthy dialectical reflection.

Impossible today: everyone sticks together.

Today, everyone’s so nice and kind. The result is that every filmmaker is face-lifted to the same level: the oblivion of the crowd… Impossible to discern who will be the great filmmakers of tomorrow, or even today!

Spain suffers from a handicap: it’s not cut out for cinematic mise en scène. It’s a handicap that it makes up for largely with the richness of its pictorial expression. Similarly, the Germanics are strong in the realm of music while they remain impermeable to comedy and humour.

This Hispanic deficiency is all the more manifest because its little neighbour, Portugal, demonstrates an exceptional cinematic verve.

A cruel paradox: a Spanish filmmaker is really interesting only when he moves out the country (Buñuel, Arrieta, Coixet), which recalls the case of Hitchcock and England. I know well that there was Franco, but it’s a lame excuse: he’s been dead for more than thirty years.

The problem is that in most countries with a production that’s limited or of reduced interest, there is always ONE flagbearer filmmaker, Bergman, Dreyer and then Von Trier, Moretti, Kaurismaki, Wajda, Jancso and then Tarr, Pintilie, Kusturica, Angelopoulos, Van Der Keuken, Oliveira, Ben Barka, Lakhdar-Hamina, Boughedir, Hondo, Sembène, Ouédraogo, Cissé, Cronenberg, Alea, Sanjines, Ripstein, Solanas, Gitai, Omirbaev, Kiarostami, Chahine, Satyajit Ray, Weerasethakul, Brocka etc. It’s very convenient: the bulk of state funds goes to a single film rather than twenty. Neat savings… National representation at festivals is always assured, the selectors needn’t waste time searching. And the cultivated viewer believes he’s seen everything a country has to offer when he savours the work of the Chosen One. A particularly questionable, elitist system, especially when the filmmaker in question heads the local Centre for Cinema himself—frequently the case in Africa—and doesn’t give a damn about others or the future.

It’s all fine when the lucky laureate is called Ingmar Bergman. But it borders on tragedy in Spain. This country has found nothing better than choosing its champions among the creators of a pretentious and empty body of work, earlier Bardem, then Saura, today Almodóvar1, to whom our Cinematheque has dared to dedicate a retrospective…

His roaring, blustering, warrior-like surname sounded good to my ears: the strangeness, the strong ending, like in Guadalquivir. I’d have wanted to like Almodóvar so much. Names matter. I’m convinced that it’s primarily because of his name that Apichatpong Weerasethakul became a hit.

My first contact with Almodóvar was thanks to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I was quite amused by the application of the laws of Hollywood screwball comedy to a modern, hip Madrid milieu, which was a first. The Screenplay Award at Venice seemed justified to me. But it didn’t go any further than a Blake Edwards comedy.

Then I started watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Even tied, I couldn’t have remained on my seat: an Almodóvar film is foremost a tedious litany of vaguely lewd lines, à la Michel Audiard, haphazardly assembled. It’s a catalogue of somewhat perverse sexual fantasies, spoken about more than shown. A catalogue of no great interest. It’s true that it’s funny for five minutes… It’s Russ Meyer lite, or more exactly a poor man’s John Waters. Waters’ superiority over Almodóvar is that he knows to remain within his natural limits, that of pure fun and play, while Almodóvar reaches vainly towards much loftier horizons.

Live Flesh is constructed mostly on oblique and unusual framing, pretty but gratuitous. We are midway between Vadim and Albicocco.

I then began understanding why the first six Almodóvars were systematically rejected by festivals. Nothing has changed since then in his films, if not for the birth of a certain snobbism. It’s the same with Guédiguian: first limited to a restricted circulation and then sought after by everyone, even though he hasn’t changed his refrain one bit, the difference being that the filmmaker from Marseille is on a much superior level than the man from La Mancha.

I systematically avoided Almodóvar’s productions after that. Out of curiosity, I went back to him when good things were being said about his two new films.

All About My Mother ostensibly quotes Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, while Almodóvar’s practice, as we will see later, is diametrically opposed to the psychological analysis so dear to Mankiewicz. It’s as dishonest for him to call his film that as for me to start naming my films The Genius Line or New Sunrise. There is a pile of gratuitous film references in Almodóvar (Night of the Hunter, Gena Rowlands, Fellini, Pasolini, Bergman etc.) that are present to attract the complicity of critics and cinephiles. Anyway, let’s forget the title. It’s enough that All About My Mother be named Manuel and Esteban for my criticisms to fall flat.

All About My Mother grabs our attention, as does the subsequent work, Talk to Her, through various colour choices within the image: a colour on the left, another on the right, a third one at the centre. But it remains purely decorative.

Special attention is devoted in this film, and in Talk to Her, to the ill and the handicapped, to the hospital setting, which Almodóvar’s friends—victims of AIDS, which he’s perhaps afraid of—must’ve gone through. Let’s note the film’s best moment (along with the nice verbal digression on the cost of plastic surgery). I mean the camera movement that runs along the tube of the drip. Still life in Almodóvar’s films is always more interesting than the characters (cf. the windmills of Volver). It’s true that it appears at the very beginning of the film. There are numerous filmmakers with a short-lived inspiration who put in some effort into the first shot of the film (such as the windswept graveyard with its choir of cleaning women in Volver), but are likely to disappoint in the next five hundred…

We can certainly give some credit to this film which seeks, through a stream of dialogue more mundane than usual, to bring to life and humanize characters of strange comportments, to say the least: there is a desire here to turn homosexuality—gay or lesbian—and bisexuality, often marked by transvestism, into majoritarian, universal and indispensable values. But this effort is contradicted by the caricatural, fantastic aspect of the paradox, more capable of being expressed in comedy—which allows for all fantasies—than in the drama presented here: two or three deaths.

The realist treatment of the film doesn’t make for a good choice.

It’s impossible to believe in it, to surrender to emotion, since none of the particular sexual attitudes repeated endlessly through the film, none of the considerable behavioural changes (why does Lola shuttle constantly between heterosexuality and transvestism? Why does the young woman sleep with “him”?) is deepened, harnessed or justified. All things considered, Nothing About My Mother would have been a more appropriate title for the film. What remains is the provocative and gratuitous bizarreness of the sexual acts.

Helped by a rather endearing Boccaccian flavour, Talk to Her marks a slight progress into an interesting trajectory. But it remains too long for a story that shouldn’t have moved beyond the short film stage. A male nurse in love with a comatose patient makes her pregnant. Besides the fact that we realize what’s happening much before Almodóvar explains it to us in great detail, Talk to Her disappoints us with its touristy, “Spain in ninety minutes” aspect, with bullfighting—a female matador, just to be fashionable—and a ballet show thrown in for free. Matarazzo (Il Tenente Giorgio), Kleist and Rohmer (The Marquise of O) were much more inspired on the subject of blind or lethargic coitus than this mediocre codicil.

Bad Education turns out to be even worse. It keeps ramming down our throats the idea that, under Franco, all priests were faggots. Which, made in 2004, seems to us to be appallingly banal, especially given that it’s drawn out to feature length. I couldn’t hold on till the end here too.

Besides, there is a contradiction between the systematic criticism of this paedophilia—a very universal attitude today and thus rather opportunistic—and the tolerance and sympathy that Almodóvar demonstrates towards all forms of homosexuality.

When all is said and done, it seems that Spanish cinema has held on only thanks to Francoism, by trying to undermine it from within until the death of Caudillo, or by denouncing it very explicitly later. Which, thirty years later, seriously limits our view of Spanish cinema, as though French cinema still revolved around Resistance or anti-Gaullism.

The beginning of Volver nicely surprised me. There is here a charming chronicle based on the observation of places and mores in La Mancha, which borders on caricature but remains pleasant.

Alas, returning to Madrid, Almodóvar lets himself be run over by the mechanics of a plot that’s at once banal and very complex, too farfetched to be able to bring out the pathos of the characters and their emotions. The choral aspect of the film breaks the emotion sustained by the melodrama, which generally relies on the viewer’s identification with the central character and thus on a not-too-unbelievable context. Note the enjoyable ease with which the protagonists move in an unusual, hardly believable universe. But that’s not enough to reverse the trend. Despite some good gags (the sounds of kissing, the winds of the mother from under the bed), the mechanical parade of plot twists leaves little place for humour, which would’ve been really valuable in such a storyline. The film is always midway between an umpteenth TV sitcom and its parody. Almodóvar juggles with all facets of a scene and loses every time in this little game. He is always caught between two stools and lands on his ass. It’s not good, especially in cinema, to begin on a high note and go downhill from there. The opposite would’ve been better. Almodóvar’s problem ultimately is that his films are badly conceived, badly organized, off-centre, unbalanced and half-assed.

All said, what’s positive about him is that he unwittingly enabled—thanks to the similarities of their surnames—the growth of Amenábar, a filmmaker more worthy of interest and who constitutes, with Coixet, Alvarez, Rocha, Serra, Rosales, Alvares2 and especially Victor Erice (from whom Almodóvar stole the title of Spain’s best), the true Hispanic cinema of today, much more certainly than the bon mots and Banderillas of the windbag from La Mancha3.

 

1Earlier, a comparable snobbism glorified Ken Russell, Jean Delannoy, Serge Bourguignon, Rex Ingram, all of very ephemeral value…

2These names prove that Iberian film art (cf. Buñuel, Arrieta, the Portuguese) necessarily involves the experimental.

3On the other hand, the success of our filmmaker has, alas, forced the majority of Spanish filmmakers to do Almodóvar.

 

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

La Lettre du cinéma no. 31; Winter 2005.

La Lettre du cinéma shut shop after this piece.

What a strange case Michael Powell’s is!

He is attributed the exclusive paternity to his films, even though they are co-signed, for the most part, by Emeric Pressburger under the banner of their company, The Archers, or by Tim Whelan, William Cameron Menzies, Ludwig Berger (The Thief of Bagdad, 1940), Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrien Brunel (The Lion Has Wings) and sometimes directed by others. I’m thinking of the ballet in The Red Shoes (1948), the only portion of the film which can have its defenders and which is the work of Leopold Massine. It’s obvious that The Thief of Bagdad is more in the line of Korda (producer of The Jungle Book and The Four Feathers) than in the supposed line of Powell. The work on colour, in his major films, seems to owe predominantly to Jack Cardiff (I’ll come back to this); Kevin Brownlow cited editor David Lean as one of the strongest elements of 49th Parallel. Is Powell the “thief of London”? I think it is posterity that’s responsible for this aggressive exploitation (it’s like lauding Paolo Taviani while ignoring Vittorio). So is alphabetical order. If his name were “Towell” (which would suit him better) instead of “Powell”, he would’ve featured after “Pressburger” in the credits, and the latter perhaps would’ve won all the plaudits. We also know that it’s better to put a disyllabic name in front instead of a trisyllabic one. It sounds better, especially when the first sounds very national and the second very foreign. Powell’s gift of the gab matters too.

What also counts is the fact that, before the beginning of their collaboration, Powell had directed twenty-nine films whereas Pressburger was happy writing scripts. Finally, the existence of a fashionable—and, as it happens, highly overrated—film, Peeping Tom (1959), signed by him alone.

Powell could at best be one link in the production chain, and perhaps a useful one at that. It’s an image that fits well within the British tradition of collective or two-author films—Launder and Gilliat, the Boulting brothers, Lean and Coward, Laurence Olivier and Stuart Burge, Reisz and Richardson—and marks the limits of this cinema: an operation by an industrial group rather than a truly personal cinema, a little like the terrible Russian cinema of the years 1955-65 and its numerous couples.

Moreover, it’s impossible to define Powell’s themes, except for a predilection for ballet films (The Tales of Hoffmann, Oh… Rosalinda!!, Honeymoon) deriving from the commercial success of The Red Shoes, love in Scotland (The Edge of the World, I Know Where I’m Going, The Spy in Black), death achieved during artistic work (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom), the red attires of fox-hunters (Black Narcissus, Gone to Earth).

We could suppose that Pressburger was the positive element of the couple, given that he was a scriptwriter by profession and that it’s the basic plot idea that gives the films of P&P their interest. The idea behind Colonel Blimp (the long saga of a disgruntled veteran) is solid, but the direction remains rather lacklustre. It’s the idea behind I Know Where I’m Going (1945)—a girl who knows where she wants to go and wanders around, just like the film—that makes the work charming, but this wandering soon becomes very boring. The same could be said of Peeping Tom. I rushed to the film on the first day at dawn, enticed by an unusual plotline: an amateur filmmaker who summons his acquaintances one by one, only to kill them with the pointed end of his tripod while filming them. Unfortunately, this solid idea, repeated endlessly through the film, only causes weariness. It would’ve been better had the exact cause of the crimes not been revealed right away. It wasn’t until the remarkable M-88 (Jacques Bral, 1972) that the idea finally materialized. A cinema of departures and no arrivals. Powell the director scuttles the possibilities of a basic idea. A weak-willed cinema. Powell is a misdirector (démetteur en scène).

The most surprising thing is that this spinelessness has found support among thematically-strong directors like Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier, twin filmmakers whose work uses the possibilities of film grammar to the maximum, while P. P. wander perpetually in their ill-dressed pictures. The support is understandable in the case of Tavernier, always in the Truffauldian search for forgotten genius (but it would’ve been better to laud—to stick with Albion—Jack Gold, Guy Green or Launder and Gilliat), but it’s less so with Scorsese, unless we make reference to American bad taste, which The Red Shoes gets close to.

P. P. are not actors’ directors: in Gone to Earth, Jennifer Jones plays a savage girl, like in Vidor’s Ruby Gentry and Duel in the Sun. But with Powell, her acting remains conventional, whereas she sets the screen on fire with Vidor. The comparison is overwhelming for P. P. We understand Selznick’s anger at the bad treatment meted out to his wife by the two Britishers.

The big question that arises about Powell is this: whodunit? Who is guilty? Who made Powell pass for a filmmaker? It’s probably the Portuguese who are responsible for this canard: in a publication collecting various lists of hundred best European films, Powell has as many votes as Hitchcock and Eisenstein and outclasses Gance, Becker, Barnet, Fassbinder, Cottafavi, Ferreri etc. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyone guilty. It’s like in Murder on the Orient Express: each one makes his little stab.

It’s incredible that someone whose first twenty-three and last ten films (except Peeping Tom, which has its fans) are universally deemed unworthy of interest could be taken seriously. P. P. could be classified among parenthetical filmmakers, an ambitious parenthesis that spans from 1940 to 1951 and which calls to mind the case of Yves Allégret and Vittorio De Sica.

What remains at the end of the day? The Edge of the World (1937) is a series of “arty” shots. The Spy in Black is highly banal. A Canterbury Tale (1944) has little going for it except the audacious darkness of the first reel (maybe it was a bad print). The collective film The Thief of Bagdad contains some ravishing special effects thanks to Menzies, 49th Parallel remains a decent action film based on a small, isolated group. But there’s nothing there that rises above the level of a Hathaway, an Andrew Stone or a Terence Young in form.

The Red Shoes pushes the myth of the egocentric and dictatorial artist to a repetitious and excessive degree, and offers, like The Tales of Hoffmann, an obvious, overstuffed, shape-shifting, gaudy pictorial composition without unity.

Black Narcissus (1947) presents an almost unique case. On the level of characters and plot, it’s one of the most idiotic films in the history of cinema and it’s a masterpiece of colour composition: the principle here is to look for a colour that’s always in movement, always changing. But the film is also a conventional and ridiculous melodrama in which P. P. seem to believe, though they are the only ones. The film can’t resort to irony as defence, as can Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People or Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. There is such a disparity between the film and its photography that we are tempted to attribute the good parts and the bad parts of the film to different people, the latter to P. P and the former to Jack Cardiff, the magnificent cameraman of Boulting’s The Magic Box. Only Almendros’ and Malick’s Days of Heaven and Nutten’s and Fleisher’s Zoo Zero contain a comparable dichotomy. In all, the Archers always miss their target: if they were to film William Tell, his son would surely be dead…

Finally, the only P. P. which holds up is A Matter of Life and Death (1946). I’m all the more objective when I say that because it’s not at all my cup of tea, and because I hate the dainty brand of art so common to certain Britishers (Jarman, Ken Russell, Greenaway, Branagh, Lindsay Anderson or the Boorman of Excalibur) who think they are the shit, in contrast to the constipated British vein (Lean & Reed).

A Matter of Life and Death is as erratic as the other films of P. P. The central character is, in fact, a pretext, a sidekick, the real star being the setting, the limbo with the large staircase. But we can also appreciate its mockery of national idiosyncrasies and its cosmic introduction. The film really finds its feet only in the final trial, whose viewers are like puppets in a parade.

A film without a centre. But the centred films of P. P are often based on a very disappointing central character (Peeping Tom, Gone to Earth, Colonel Blimp), with P. P not being interested in humans, but only in the settings and the colour. Their films are better off without a centre (A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going).

Why criticize P. P. when I’m defending A Matter of Life and Death? You are likely to hold this contradiction against me. It’s simply that, when you turn out fifty films in your life, it’d be goddamn surprising if you don’t make at least one good one. Look at Schlöndorff and The Tin Drum, Cavani and The Skin, Cayatte and The Crossing of the Rhine.

 

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