CICIM Munich no. 22-23; June 1988.

Le Pont du Nord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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]

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]

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]

Cahiers du cinéma no. 484; October 1994.

French Regions (old) and filmmakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Think, You Fool

Unpublished

Robert Bresson

To go with his response to Cahiers du cinéma published in the 67th issue, Bresson, at the magazine’s request, had sent across his photo: a very old snap that made him look twenty years younger… Later, in the 72nd issue, we can read his objection to the fact that Cahiers attributed to him, between 1933 and 1939, the servile jobs of assistant and scriptwriter, however verified through credits and the most reliable sources. And, for a major part of his career, Bresson had us believe that he was born in 1907 while the real date is 1901.

There is then, in Bresson, a “trauma of youth” which translates to a “fixation” in his body of work. His principal characters, except those played by Sylvie and Paul Bernard in his first two films, are always young, especially towards the end of his career, with multiple protagonists of about twenty years of age (Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably) depicted by a nearly-octogenarian filmmaker. One notices the same trajectory with Rohmer, who, like Bresson, is a man of amazing vigour and a late-blooming filmmaker. The opposite of Hawks, Ford, and Visconti, who preferred filming their contemporaries as they aged.

It appears that there’s a nostalgia here for a youth lost in unsatisfactory work, the desire to erase all past and, at the same time, experience it again in an imaginary form. The filmmaker’s delayed arrival to cinema can also be explained by his initial engagement with painting (like with Pialat, the other great Auvergnese).

From the looks of it, Bresson’s youth hints at a series of wanderings: publicist, painter, scriptwriter, assistant etc. His first attempt at filmmaking, Public Affairs, is a tribute to The Last Billionaire by René Clair – a filmmaker whom he will assist and distance himself from through this work (even though there’s the same habit of filming people through windows).

Bresson really starts making films at an age when his contemporary Eisenstein completes his last. There is a certain logic to that. Eisenstein’s is first and foremost an art of silent cinema. But Bresson could barely come up with a film during his youth, simply because it was then the silent era and because his art is based primarily on sound and speech. Not entirely (his “guillotine framing” is also very important). But what distinguishes him clearly from other filmmakers is his use of speech. Look at a copy of The Trial of Joan of Arc or The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, and cut out the sound; it’s stupid, sure, but you will have a proof of Bresson’s singularity seriously fading away. Once the sound comes back, there’s no doubt about the paternity of the film.

Everyone knows this blank monotone, which was once deemed “false” insofar as it was totally foreign to contemporary cinematic acting. I sense it rather as the expression of reality since most people generally speak in a flat manner, without vocal effects. But everything’s not so simple. Bressonian speech is identified by the absence of tonic accent and even by a lowering of voice at the end of sentences or words. In short, the opposite of the norm in France. And it’s not all: there is the great speed of diction, the absence of hesitation, dead time, and awkwardness even during a long speech. This is understandable when they are beings driven by divine speech (Joan of Arc) or those who reproduce texts they have studied at the seminary in one go (the country priest). But it’s much more surprising when it comes to the criminals of L’argent, the humble peasants of Mouchette or the miser of Au hasard Balthazar: how can this utterly repulsive being defend such a cynical and stunted philosophy while his way of professing his faith, flawlessly defined in one go and with such a dignity of expression, seems to indicate a superior intelligence in him? Whatever his beliefs, the Bressonian hero is very sure of himself and knows his personal goal very well. An affirmation distinctive of each character (somewhat contradicted by the extension of the blank vocal tone to everyone). By making them speak this way, Bresson endows each creature – even the most vile-seeming – with considerable aura and weight, a conception that’s perhaps not faithful to reality but which reveals a very optimistic vision of human beings. I’m thinking of Vecchiali, who constantly imparts a grandeur to his whores, his pimps, his gangsters, his boxers and his mechanics.

Realism and its opposite at the same time. We have the proof of that in these words of the pickpocket Michel addressed to Jeanne: “Think, you fool.” This line provokes laughter, firstly because the word “fool” doesn’t entirely belong to the vocabulary of the 20th century in which the film is set. We’d hear it in Molière rather. Today, we’d rather say: “Think, you idiot”. But that’s not the essential reason for our laughter or surprise. The problem is that, against all expectations, the small pause, the small change of tone between “think” and “you fool” that naturalism requires is missing. The text is “rolled over”. Since they shot about sixty takes of this shot (as revealed by the actress Marika Green, visibly traumatized by these two words and the shooting of the brief shot containing them), it’s impossible that this particularity is the result of negligence. Only two other hypotheses remain: either that Michel is a kind of superior human being, who has everything he wants to say sorted in his head before opening the mouth, and his remark far from spontaneous, or that Bresson wanted to break realist convention of having a pause between words and, in some way, provoke the viewer by rendering a very familiar turn of phrase in a very dry manner.

A Bressonian motif tempts me: very often, Bresson duplicates the words of his text. A Bresson film is full of “no no”, “yes yes”, “go go”, “Marie Marie”, “go alone go alone”, “take me there take me there”, “remember remember”. The repeated words are always lumped together tightly. Their abrupt doubling undoes their spontaneity. We realize then that – more important than diction – it’s the choice of text that’s the pivot of Bresson’s specificity. Sometimes, a typically-refined phrase is destroyed by a trivial delivery: a long speech on universal happiness finally describes it as “boring as hell” (L’argent). We realize then that Bresson, far from the ascetic locked up with his bare essentials he’s caricatured to be1, in fact piles up contradictions of style and tonality, creating an infinite dialectic. It’s the rule of heterogeneity, Bresson’s unity residing paradoxically in his sustained heterogeneity.

If we look a little beyond speech, we realize that this alliance of opposites exists everywhere: Bresson’s films juxtapose patently modern elements (scooters, mopeds, 2CVs, horse races at Auteuil, credit card frauds in L’argent) and elements from a distant past (in the same film, laundry is done at the washing place and Bresson’s modern rural films evoke a countryside belonging to the filmmaker’s youth – always “youth” – or to the end of the 19th century, with all its clichés: bottles at the edge of the table about to shatter, axe murders, lack of electricity etc.). It’s truly the follow-up to the meeting of Diderot and the windscreen wiper that Bazin pointed out in The Ladies (Cahiers no. 3).

These internal clashes between eras – just like the ellipses and guillotine effects – serve to agitate the viewer, dumbfounded before this unexpected pile up of contradictions, and to make him look beyond naturalism through the very confrontation of different norms of naturalism. Except in Mouchette, which is too often limited solely to a pastoral realism and which is, because of that, perhaps the worst Bresson film.

I think this bi-temporality came about naturally, almost accidentally, in The Ladies and it was deliberately and systematically harnessed after that, without the “alibi” of Diderot and a classical text: Balthazar, a modern and original subject, contains no logical justification for its archaic elements.

Finally, what Intolerance, The Road to Yesterday, François Ier and Les Visiteurs seek through their editing and their very crude juxtapositions, Bresson achieves it more insidiously, and even within a shot.

Bresson is a somewhat straitlaced man, old France, very discreet, who opposed the sexual liberation of post-1968 cinema. Giving his thugs, his frauds, his hippies a pre-1914 language was perhaps the only way for him to endow them with dignity and depth. This contempt for the contemporary, this moral motivation was perhaps the unwitting springboard for a new and astounding dichotomy.

1 All these purists, Bresson as much as Hanoun, Straub as much as Godard, are at the same time rigorous and mischievous, fanciful, even affected, if only because their rigour is a gibe at the system.

 

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

Otras Inquisiciones (The Exterminating Angel)

Cahiers du cinéma no. 145; July 1963.

The Exterminating Angel

I remember this sally of Rohmer’s: “Moullet, I know why you love Buñuel. It’s because both of you are slackers.” The greatest compliment of my life.

The title was Rivette’s idea. He told me that it was the title of a publication by a certain Borges. So, I read Borges afterwards.

This film, among the strangest and most audacious in the history of cinema, could’ve been made only on the momentum imparted by Viridiana, grand prize at Cannes in 1961, and, it seems, Last Year in Marienbad, grand prize at Acapulco in December 1961, awarded just before the shooting of this film in February-March 1962. Not that Resnais influenced Buñuel in any way. But the commercial success of Marienbad, combined with the similarity of characters, setting, the related mystery and the apparent incomprehensibility, allowed Buñuel to imagine a commercial future for his old project The Castaways of Providence Street.

The accidental resemblance to Marienbad stops at this superficial level since the two films are as different as they can be: one is extra-temporal and extra-social; the other is a testimony to our times and our society. One describes the psychological world; the other describes the real world and, if the subjective has a prominent role to play in it, we cannot appreciate the work without resorting to certain fundamental, objective and unquestionable interpretations. Finally, if Marienbad is a point of departure, The Exterminating Angel is a point of arrival in cinema history as well as in the career of its creator.

Even so, it’s important that the viewer is thrown into the film without any warning. The work seeks to be like the life that man encounters at birth without any reference whatsoever. And any warning, even an evasive one, places the meaning of the work in a particular territory that can’t be confirmed as its own before the end of the film. Is the film a materially-explicable prank played by the Nobiles? We can suppose so when the lady of the house tells her servant not to let the bear into the living room as planned because one of the guests doesn’t like jokes. Or when the valet appears to deliberately spill the stew. Is it a prank played by Buñuel? We could think so. Many people think so too and believe, not without reason, that it discredits the film. But that’s to forget that a prank can have deeper meaning. The greatest artists, including the most modest and the most personal, like to conceal the depth and the personal quality of their work under the guise of a prank. But, here, the fundamental explanation isn’t a prank; it’s one of the secondary explanations. Is it an intimate reverie like Marienbad, a symbolic, parabolic or a metaphoric film? And which symbols, which parable and which metaphor are we talking about?

The viewer’s uncertainty and hesitation produce in him the anxiety that haunts him every day and from which the discovery of the Fundamental Secret in the very last shots delivers him. The film’s structure hence models itself on the developmental structure of the human mind, from childhood to maturity. Maturity is an individual conquest. No doubt that, to arrive there, one must make a personal effort of breaking through to the Secret that the film’s apparent incomprehensibility and its prankish appearance weakly guard.

The Exterminating Angel is hence a detective film, the greatest of detective films, since its object is not the discovery of the culprit – although, here too, at the end we discover a culprit the nature of whose identity is crucial – but the discovery of the nature of our human and social condition and its motivations. Through the secret of the enigma and the ascent to knowledge, we discover the secret to happiness.

This need for a protective prank explains Buñuel’s attitude: “The best explanation of The Exterminating Angel is that, reasonably, there is none.” There is none, reasonably, but there are some, unreasonably: the film being cosmic and synthetic, it contains the rational and the irrational at once, one inside the other. Reasonable explanations that we are right in giving apply to a world alien to reason. Like the ending of El and Nazarin, even L’âge d’or and Archibald, the whole of The Exterminating Angel can be explained by a mix of reason and affectivity, demonstration and poetry, which allows Buñuel to declare that there’s no conscious intention here. In his works, reason is linked to instinct, and that’s why his film is the first truly abstract film and why it remains lively at the same time. The Exterminating Angel is the first screen adaptation of The Spirit of the Laws (or of Discourse on the Method, or Ethics, or Principia, as you wish), but it’s The Spirit of the Laws by way of Henry Miller.

The Exterminating Angel indeed has all the trappings of a theorem, but it’s not one, it doesn’t aspire to be one, as Buñuel mentions. It’s that there’s no logical continuity in the meaning of its actions, no dramatic scaffolding at the level of characters and their relationships or their oppositions. The work is made of straight lines – essential elements, relatively reasonable and explicable – interspersed with several broken line segments – hard to explain, secondary elements – that seem to contradict the former on a purely logical level, but reinforce them on a superior level, firstly because their meaning is similar and secondly because their lack of a superficial relationship to a theorem eliminates all impression of didacticism.

These straight lines can be defined with the help of two keys, which are also the only keys to the film and which offer an unquestionable and objective character foreign to the rest of the film.

The first is that the impossibility of leaving (or entering, which amounts to the same) is to be explained not by a physical reason, but by the absence of will in a human being living in a particular milieu, a definite society, who can never follow a personal line of conduct, nor stray away from beaten paths.

The second has to do with a metaphor based on the rule of cross-multiplication: just as they are subjected to a slow and complete degradation of themselves when they can’t leave the Nobiles’ residence, the guests will be victims of a similar degradation when they can’t leave the church. In other words, what takes place at the Nobile residence, in fact, takes place at the church. The fear of censorship seems to have necessitated this metaphor, avoided in L’âge d’or, which was a more biased but less disguised adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom.

This rule of cross-multiplication is made clear by the impression the viewer has of both sections of the film and their mutual relationship. The two sections, by construction, are placed on the same level, with the difference that the first is all about length and precision while the second is about the allusive and imprecise force of its brevity, the evocative mystery proper to its elliptical nature. If we indicate the living-room section by L and the church section by C, we obtain the following relation, whose numbered quality doesn’t seem to take away from artistic reality too much:

Since L = C, we have,

L (Degradation x 84’) = C [(21 x Degradation) x 4’]

The elliptical brutality of the last section and the speed with which we arrive at the renewal of the phenomenon of avolition gives us the impression that it’s going to return with ten or twenty times the force.

Is the relationship between the two sections located on the level of a superior and meaningful reality that one Cahiers writer called Brechtian or on the level of concrete reality, of psychological evolution? Is there an evolution to be traced in the alienated characters who liberate themselves only to find themselves in another, more serious alienation? Here, we are reduced to interpretation. The two possibilities seem to be well-founded in their own way. The first section of the film tells us that man has no escape if he locks himself up in society’s rules, opposed to the imperative rules of nature, which can manifest themselves within society’s rules only in a barbaric and secret form in direct contradiction with the spirit of these social rules.

The second part reveals the profound cause of these social rules: religion; this time, the exterminating angel of the Bible has turned against the faithful. The only way to escape this grip is to take a step back, by a kind of conjuration, to erase the past through the purification of passions Aristotle spoke about. It’s necessary to pull out evil by its roots so that purification can happen, not at the branch level, namely social reforms which are necessarily ineffective, but at the level of religious reformation, without which the degradation of man will persist, just as social troubles will persist outside, as the last shot clearly indicates.

This message isn’t wholly new as an idea. It’s simple, unsophisticated. It might seem extraneous to us who believe ourselves to be free of religion’s stranglehold. But the messages of Griffith, Welles – whose Rosebud is very similar – are of the same simplicity and they are also biased. What counts, in fact, is not the meaning or the intrinsic and discernible value of the message, but the force with which the filmmaker expresses it and his success in making us accept it as he expresses it on screen.

Now, the presentation of the film in the form of a rebus, justified by the mysterious character of concrete reality, compels the viewer, through the same process by which he has recognized the meaning of the film, to “accept” it as the product of an intimate collaboration with the filmmaker. Had the facts been presented more crudely, without any ellipse, we wouldn’t have bought into it since our participation wouldn’t have been required. So much so that the rigour of “instinctive reasoning” here is admirable and flawless: in eighty minutes, all the various forms of man’s alienation and degradation are envisaged, to the point of making us completely forget that they could be biased. We get the impression of a synthetic and cosmic study, too perfect to be false or even incomplete, even less susceptible to be replaced.

The broken line segments pose a problem: isn’t the outside world, represented by the servants, the people, and the police, also alienated since it suffers from an inverse but nevertheless comparable avolition? Aren’t there other parallel, or opposed, forms of alienation taking shape under the influence of these social rules?

The filmmaker’s dark humour manifests itself in many dissimilar forms. It’s either expressed by the characters or it is expressed by the filmmaker at the expense of his characters, whether they are masters or servants, when they claim to make us laugh.

Is it the raft of the Medusa or the ark of Noah, whose sheep were also destined for consumption, in the last shot, or do they evoke the herd of the faithful to be hoodwinked? Triple ambiguity.

Even when they contradict each other, these elements have a half-logical, half-affective meaning that has nothing symbolic about it.

The Exterminating Angel is the only film where there can be no symbols: a symbol is the sign of something abstract located in a concrete reality. Now, everything here is located on a meaningful reality which claims to take the appearance of concrete reality only to satisfy a dramatic necessity – the viewer must make the effort himself to return the film back to the level of reality it’s located in – and to respond to the demands of a modesty which is one of the dominant qualities of the work.

In contrast to Les Abysses, where Papatakis endlessly repeats the same shocking images to the point that they don’t shock anyone anymore, in The Exterminating Angel, Buñuel softens all the diverse actions which, on reflection, turn out to be of monstrous oddity. He arrives there respecting the hard times specific to all life, hard times that are not dead times because they are nonetheless bestowed with meaning. He arrives there eliminating all dramatization and often resorting to a suggestive and less inhumane ellipse.

It’s that there is no misanthropy in Buñuel. Even men alienated by clerical society aren’t contemptible and their efforts, either to liberate themselves or to save their dignity within these social rules, are evoked here with an attention, a respect devoid of any contempt, with an almost-Christian humility.

It is indeed remarkable that the most anti-religious of filmmakers (The Exterminating Angel, in view of its various mocking titles, its construction right from the credits on, and its meaning, is an essentially religious film, but also the most powerful work ever created against religion) – the most anti-religious in “content”, let’s make it clear – is one of the most Christian in “form”. Following Nazarin (1958) and Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel is the third part of the triptych based on the principle of the Christian parable which, under the guise of a contemplative chronicle, justifies this perpetual, distant and inquisitive aerial survey of the camera and places the film on a superior level, that of facts and characters, which sometimes surprises the viewer, accustomed as he is to the actor, to the point of getting bored or falling asleep, with good reason or otherwise, before these chronicles.

The acting style and the simple, monotonic diction so dear to Buñuel seem to coincide perfectly with the principle of the parable film and the principle of repetition particular to a subject exempt almost in its entirely from any progression. The convergent accumulations produce an unseen poetry of reiteration without a particular shot ever being redundantly used. Taken to its conclusion, this poetry attains the level of fascination1.

Buñuel’s power thus lies in producing emotion and in ending up with the greatest efficiency through unusual means that are apparently at loggerheads with the film’s goal: a classical cinema based on acting and aesthetics gives way to a modern cinema based, as I see it, on the Idea and its multiple poetic possibilities, whose success, rare amidst many failed attempts, is of an incomparable degree and proportional to the originality and the difficulty of the undertaking.

For those who blindly consider this new art as the sign of an impossibility of expressing oneself through means more common to the “essence of cinema”, let’s remember that this definitive film, third part of Buñuel’s triptych of parables and third part of his dark humour triptych following El (1952) and The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz (1956), also reprises certain para-surrealist themes and reveals in the dream sequences a visionary power and an imagination comparable to those of Murnau’s Faust and applied to an entirely new material in the rest of the film. That’s why, better than Faust, The Exterminating Angel constitutes one of the most sublime creations of human genius.

 

1Contrary to its reputation, The Exterminating Angel is not difficult to understand, it’s difficult to like: our admiration is a product of the perfection of a “dramaturgy of de-dramatization” as original as it is discreet in its effectiveness. In this hardly-treaded domain, the construction is of an invisible rigour and audacity comparable to that of The Young One in the classical domain. In the American pure cinema, we were frequently aware of the ideas behind shot changes; here, a similar invention takes place with the change of shots, which are in fact dictated by ideas of succession of ideas, by ideas of succession of subjects.

 

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

Ugetsu

Cahiers du cinéma no. 95; May 1959.

Ugetsu

In 1959-1960, I wrote several long articles (including this one) at Cahiers du cinéma which won me a certain prestige. Why this sudden effervescence? Because the big names of Cahiers had just moved onto filmmaking. And I was occupying empty chairs.

The most faithful review would perhaps consist of multiplying exclamations, superlatives and metaphors, of speaking of the clarity of crystals and the purity of water. But, at the risk of introducing a tonal rupture between the work and its criticism, we must go further. The very intention of criticism – which, unless it needs to fit in half a page, must put up with the treacheries of analytical convention – is not to go after the work’s essence. While there is such a thing as cinematic evidence, it’s impossible to speak of evidence when it comes to criticism. Gratuitousness and complete relativity alone can be the judges of our seriousness and competence. Yes, there’s no other approach to genius than to miss the forest for the trees.

In addition to platitudes and poetic references, I confess being the victim of another temptation: to take Ugetsu for a Japanese film by Mizoguchi when, in fact, it’s a film by Mizoguchi, comma, Japanese. It’s the nature of masterpieces to surpass the boundaries of collective civilizations – if I can be excused for this barbaric and paradoxical association of words that considers as fact that which can only be virtual – from which they nevertheless emanate. One must be aware of the origins, but also accept finally that they explain nothing. One mustn’t say that only the Japanese could have reached this high – a good joke: with Ugetsu, they have for once equalled the greatest works of the West. Confident about our quantitative superiority when it comes to quality, we tend to push our goodwill too far – perhaps due to snobbism, but especially because it costs us so little, applies as it does to exceptional and unquestionable works. And, through different means, we arrive at almost comparable results. I don’t think I’m getting too far from the subject at hand when I cite the Ray of On Dangerous Ground, the Murnau of Tabu for the shot and scene structure, the Preminger of Bonjour Tristesse for the direction of actors rather than Hiroshige and Hokusai, Kinoshita and Kurosawa, Noh and Kabuki, who are evoked without discrimination – rightly or wrongly, knowingly or not – when it comes to anything Japanese. At the most, we could say – something I wouldn’t take the responsibility for – that it’s a Noh view of Kabuki in the first part, and a Kabuki view of Noh in the second.

What we westerners don’t understand – native symbolism, that is – has no importance whatsoever. What a phrase book can decipher is of no artistic interest and that’s why it’s excellent to see a Mizoguchi without subtitles from time to time – it’s as fascinating as the most fascinating show in the world, that of rushes.

The most important thing is not to understand, but to understand that there’s something to understand and that we don’t understand: the means is the end here, since the ending will always turn out to be banal; it wouldn’t get you too far to understand that beans symbolize death, or anything of that kind. In fact, what’s more serious is that certain subtle connections, deriving from the mutual confrontation of symbols or the confrontation of symbols with what we understand, elude us. I propose a question: can the Japanese understand better than us the amazing scene of Miyagi’s death, which we believe to be based, just like our modern cinema, on action and not on ideas? Is it a westerner who could boast of having better understood the meaning of Man of the West, Ordet, Elena than that of Ugetsu?

Ugetsu greater than Mizoguchi

Come to think of it, is Ugetsu really this clear crystal, this pure gem that I just evoked, dazed by my first contact with the film? It’s possible to think so of The Crucified Lovers, Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, monotonous and more literally-Japanese monogataris. Ugetsu is not a film of pure sensitivity like them, made without apparent effort within an artisanal framework. It’s a work of labour and research. My thesis would be that Ugetsu is greater than Mizoguchi. It’s the most complex film in the world and the simplest at the same time, since Mizoguchi considers the complexity of what he shows with a constantly even distance and objectivity. It’s at once the most accomplished art and a withdrawal from this art. The perfection of imperfection and the imperfection of perfection. The perfect balance, in short. The sublimity of Ugetsu stems from the fact that it contests other films on equal terms and that it reigns over them immediately nonetheless. The frames brim with effects, but it’s up to the viewer to go look for them, and not up to the director to bring them to us on a platter through some expressionist solicitation.

Ugetsu, I repeat, is a film entirely on the margin of the eight-five other films that make up Mizoguchi’s filmography, which goes around in circles to end somewhere near Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. And this is perhaps thanks to the transcendence of chance and constraint. Like all works of old age worthy of that name, Ugetsu is a synthetic work. We know that, with age on his side, the creator ponders the vanity of an endless accumulation of invention, and sets out to seek his calling elsewhere. But beware, it isn’t in the Kamchatka or the halos that he’ll discover this elsewhere: the film would then run the risk of being the product of a pure idea, with no other connection to the physical world than through the channel of a retrospective. I prefer Ugetsu to the second part of Ivan the Terrible, more complete than the first, because the force of a juvenile cinema goes hand in hand there with the nobility of an adult cinema.

If it’s difficult to speak about Ugetsu, it’s because it’s a film, not a book, and a film that could never have been a book. The meaning of Ugetsu is resolutely cinematic, hence monist, as opposed to the fallacious atomism of literary creation. What is the film actually about? The unity of all things, their continuity, their confusion. The point of view of Ugetsu is located on the level of imagination, in the literal sense of the word, and that’s why idea and perception in it are closely related. The present and the past, life and death, real beings and ghosts, failure and success, what difference does it make at the end of the day? None, although we know that only the present has a physical reality, that ghosts don’t exist. The fact remains that we imagine them and that it’s true that we imagine all that we imagine; that only what we imagine is true and sovereign, by the very fact we imagine them: unless, with scientific progress, we discover another form of knowledge overnight. And we don’t have the right to cherry-pick aspects of this fact, since rejecting even one part of it is to admit that we can deny the physical world, that we can reject everything, since there is no priority, whether its source is direct or indirect, in everything that can make up an image1. And it’s this monism in which intelligence can see only contradictions that constitutes the entire being of the film, since we are less able in this film than any other to distinguish form or content.

Akinari is betrayed

Well, let’s talk about it, the content. The film is based on two stories from the collection Ugetsu Monogatari (1776) by Akinari Ueda (1734-1809), the Japanese Mérimée. In fact, compared to Thomas Kurihara’s old, expressionizing film, whose remake it is, Ugetsu doesn’t owe much to Ueda. See for yourself:

In “The House in the Thicket”, a peasant leaves his wife home alone to go sell cloth in the city. War follows; on his way back, he gets robbed, falls sick, wanders away, returns home after seven years and finds his wife there; but he realizes the next day that it was the ghost of his dead wife that received him the previous evening in order to encourage him to persist with his task.

In “The Lust of the White Serpent”, a young intellectual is tempted by a serpent that has assumed a female form. He brings back a precious sword from the enchantress’s solitary house and is interrogated by his family about the matter: he is arrested for theft of the Treasure of God since, obviously, no one knows the enchantress or her house. He is sent to prison only for a few months, having proved that he was victim of a demonic possession. But the Thing redoubles its rage, takes the form of our hero’s wife, kills her, before returning to its ophidian form and being put in a cage.

Mizoguchi has dropped all this melodrama and added a lot of material of his own: faced with the threat of the Shibata army plundering villages and recruiting farmers, Genjuro, a peasant attracted by the profits of pottery, and his brother-in-law Tobei, who dreams of becoming a samurai, leave town with their respective wives, Miyagi and Ohama, to sell pots, vases and tablecloth at the city market. En route, Miyagi and her son turn back to avoid rapist pirates; but she is killed on the way. Finishing his sales, Tobei becomes a samurai and finds Ohama, whom he had abandoned, in a brothel; they start all over again. For his part, Genjuro, suddenly rich, becomes the lover of princess Wakasa, who is simply the ghost of a young girl who couldn’t find love during her life. A bonze reveals the mortal danger he runs and immunizes him against the spirit, with whom he brutally breaks up. Completely impoverished, he comes back home to find Miyagi. But, the following day, he wakes up to the unpleasant surprise that it was Miyagi’s ghost that had received him the day before in order to encourage him to accept his fate, to continue with his task and to raise his son with the help of his sister and his brother-in-law. There are hence important differences between the film and Akinari’s text. Genjuro’s son, his profession as a potter, Wakasa’s human (and no more animal) nature, the secondary couple Tobei-Ohama: these are what Mizoguchi added after having expunged quite a lot.

Wakasa and Miyagi hold hands

Ugetsu shouldn’t be seen, based on its conclusion, as an apology for resignation and for specifically bourgeois values. Mizoguchi never proposes anything: his art is to show us the beauty of a world of extreme simplicity, but this beauty must be renounced in order for it to be grasped; without which we wouldn’t even see it. Just as how God would only be a myth if evil didn’t exist, everyday life would lose all meaning without Wakasa. Man must abandon the humdrum of existence – and this is Mizoguchi’s original sin – which he often does at the price of his life, in order to experience the beauties and dangers of the glory that seduces him, and only then will he be able to truly appreciate the simple life given to him. This is how the curve becomes a straight line. Beauty always has a moral significance, either in its consequences or in itself. Ugetsu is, if I’m allowed this gibe, a successful Run of the Arrow, it’s the onward and the return trip, the addition plus the subtraction. This turn of phrase determines the construction of the film, which narrates the story of two couples; one survives, not without the cruellest wounds; the other perishes (in fact, in the original script, Tobei and Ohama were to kill themselves); the superimposed happy ending upsets the balance of the film, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; we know since long that Mizoguchi’s universe is one of indifference, and the cruel fate of Tobei and his wife establishes a link with his other films.

Every scene in the film is matched with another one, similar in subject but different in manner: two lance murders; two ghost appearances; two trips to the city; Genjuro turns his mould two times etc. Every movement is responded to by another one in the opposite direction, as in the introduction and the epilogue, the arrival at the market. Every gesture, every movement that the creator puts in place is the formulation of a prejudice, an exercised prerogative about the existence of the universe. The first reflex is to cross arms and do nothing. On the contrary, Mizoguchi goes one step ahead of error and erases it on his way back. By this onward and return movement, he substitutes for a void something that we can consider at least as the presence of a void.

The movement of the artist

Like all synthetic works, Ugetsu is a work marked by domination, the filmmaker’s domination of his material and of himself (hence the abundance of long shots in the depiction of psychology). That is, by self-justification. The works of great men generally champion a way of life which is that of common mortals, while their own is exceptional. Well, Ugetsu establishes a link between the artist and his work. It insists on the humility and the necessity of creation. Genjuro is an artist: his profession as a potter is perhaps the one that resembles that of a filmmaker the most. I don’t think this is an interpretive hallucination: the aesthetic conversation between Genjuro and Wakasa on the secret of beauty have everything a message needs; no doubt that they must be applied to the work of our auteur. Creation, the artist’s as of the peasant, is portrayed as a temptation, but also as the only redeeming temptation in this world where everything is but temptation, since it’s the only noble one. At the outset, every artist is a rebel, a dissenter; but the very fact that he is an artist leads him to discover beauty and his thirst for wealth and fame, which can only be satisfied through a spiritual progress sanctioned by success, turns slowly into a search for beauty and morality. In his essence, the artist is an impure being who, beyond theory and principle, temptations fulfilled and rendered vain, if only thanks to intelligence which is his domain, becomes the purest of all. While everyone, in The Crucified Lovers as much as in Portrait of Madame Yuki, was a prey to the irremediable, in Ugetsu, which is Mizoguchi’s Under Capricorn in a way, an exception among eighty-six films cut from the same cloth, Prospero, pardon me, Genjuro triumphs over the irremediable by accepting it. And, through his evolution, we perceive Mizoguchi’s evolution. We often forget that filmmakers are filmmakers and that the most important problem for them is not racial or social, for the good reason that they have no reason to fear racism at the moment and that almost everyone is guaranteed to anyway find a job that allows them to not die of starvation. The most important problem is that of their existence and their role in society: are they pariahs or beings like others? Is there a chasm between the characters they depict, most often men in the crowd, and themselves? No, the answer is simple, it’s enough to be a maker of objects. But very few films give us this answer, and it’s even rarer that the artist’s life is closely associated with the details that have made this answer possible. After several apprenticeships with the sublime through the conventional, here’s a lightning strike.

What follows is a return to the norm: after such a peak, Mizoguchi will continue to make films like he did before, in a style that isn’t “new style”. And what he sings of here is this perpetual movement of the artist that justifies his vain and relentless labour. Ugetsu is Ugetsu and the critique of Ugetsu. Genius and humility are united once and for all in a perpetual oscillation.

At full speed

Of all Japanese films, of simply all films, Ugetsu is unquestionably the quickest, the most brutally quickest. Just ninety-three minutes for a script so rich that anyone else, Japanese or not, would’ve extended over three hours. In each scene, which is often a single shot, the action is presented at top speed, with strictly minimum editing. The Americans – and God knows how much they’ve tried – could never attain such concision. And Mizoguchi, before as much as after Ugetsu, drew much of his power from an extremely slow tempo. Why this change? Because Masaichi Nagata, in response to the increasing commercial success of his films in Europe and to the reservations that got the too-slow Oharu only a simple Silver Lion at Venice as opposed to a Golden Lion for Kurosawa, decided so. If Ugetsu is a masterpiece, it’s largely due to western influences and not the noblest ones at that. For my part, I don’t see anything wrong with that; and I will not follow these purists who are satisfied only when they can’t understand anything by dint of total esoterism. If we Europeans seek to renew ourselves through contact with the Orient, why shouldn’t the Japanese draw from curious Latin and Anglo-Saxon exoticisms? It’s surely not the first time that a masterpiece has sprung from the meeting of two most dissimilar civilizations. The seeds of this constrained evolution – but voluntary this time around – were already present in the previous Mizoguchis, animated by the same rhythm, no matter that it was slow or fast, which didn’t allow for the superfluity of well-mannered transitions and edits.

It would be ridiculous to think of this constraint as a disadvantage, especially as Mizoguchi, who isn’t mad and, as an aside, whose name we pronounce “Mizogutchi”, has completely annihilated the principle by pushing it to its extreme and extending it to all aspects of the mise en scène. But he couldn’t have thought of it all by himself.

Is it a question of telling us that we are at the countryside? And wham! A shot of the fields, interrupted right away by another insert of a lake, and lake in Japanese means Lake Biwa. A single shot, slightly mobile, shows us the hero and all the potentials of the drama. Thirty seconds after the credits, we know everything, thanks to an expertly concise and elliptical dialogue, which makes characters address each other as “my wife”, “my brother” etc. and describe the character traits of each one in an adjective. And Mizoguchi never stops rushing towards his final goal. A speed that would upset the Japanese as much as the European. All great films purport to show us God’s point of view; we already know that, I invent nothing, but what I didn’t know until now, and which Ugetsu just taught me, is that they are made for an ideal viewer who is more than “in the image” of God, who is God. It feels ten times faster for us, and we need ten viewings to be on equal footing with the film since, alas, the rushes must’ve already been pulped. The effects are conceived to enrapture the artist, or someone in his place, and not the viewer.

 

1I made fun of myself in Up and Down, where I utter this line while getting on the bicycle: a slope of 6 degrees.

[Translator’s Note] Moullet has fun typing out the full title of the film in French, Les Contes de la lune vague après la pluie (“Tales of the hazy moon after rain”), every time he refers to it – a running joke lost in translation. Clearly, he was paid by the word.

 

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

Cahiers du cinéma no. 304; October 1979.

Cahiers (300th edition)

            I’d said that my film Origins of a Meal was equivalent to a cow’s neutral gaze. But not everyone had the same opinion about this gaze.

Dear Cahiers,

I feel, perhaps mistakenly, called into question by Godard in your 300th issue. He presents “three photos of cows: it seems evident to me that they all have a different expression.” “The gaze of these animals is anything but neutral. It’s a truly critical gaze.” The third photo shows a cow with a bell, the second one without a bell and the first cow without a bell doesn’t appear to be the same as the second. These are three different cows, as Godard confesses when he speaks about “three photos of cows”.

Moreover, the face of the first bovid is a three-quarter profile, while we only see the left part of the face of the other two cows.

These differences in identity, lighting, angles bring about a slight difference in gaze (not of the first two anyway) and attitude. In the same technical conditions, Godard could well have taken, as a tribute to Hitch, three photos of Giancarlo Giannini, current-day Delon and Robert De Niro and claimed that it pertained to a critical gaze. Godard simply proves is, in fact, that the attitude and the gaze of one cow is not identical to those of another, especially when the technical conditions are different. But what if they were comparable?

To be fair, what was needed was three photos of the same cow in similar technical conditions. Then, I think, we’d have arrived at the same neutrality over time, just like with the three aforementioned “artists”. After reading Cahiers, I went to various pastures (Alps, Pyrenees, Massif Central) where I got a confirmation of this famous neutrality. This sameness of gaze, from birth to death, is even the opposite of a critical gaze, which is clearly not the same when faced with the trivial and when faced with facts conducive to criticism.

I can’t help but raise my voice against this undertaking of Godard’s, who seeks to rob cows of their unique privilege which men have access to only very rarely.

 

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

Seesaws and connections

Cahiers du cinéma no. 410; July-August 1988.

Francois Truffaut

Thematics

When we examine Truffaut’s work, we run the great risk of getting caught up in thematic and psychological constants, of enumerating them and continuously looking for them.

It’s that everything invites this approach. Truffaut was the first critic to systematically list the commonalities across various films of a filmmaker he defended. That was needed in the years 1954-57 in order to prove that directors like Hitchcock, Aldrich, Ophuls or Nicholas Ray were also auteurs of films, something that a lot of people denied. And, more than any other approach, this catalogue furnished irrefutable proofs. It’s normal, then, that to speak of Truffaut the filmmaker, we adopt an old principle conceived by Truffaut the critic. But it’s somewhat of a tautology: how could one suppose for a moment that the champion of the politique des auteurs wasn’t himself an auteur? A tautology and an anachronism: discovering auteurs through Hollywood standards of the forties and the fifties constituted an unusual and justified quest. Looking for auteurs among independent French films of the sixties and the seventies is a little like looking for Blacks among Africans…

On top of that, the choice of Truffaut encourages this approach: five of his films reuse the same central character (and the same actor): a continuity that we don’t find in any other filmmaker, except of course the comics. And, with some indulgence, we could even extend this consistency to The Wild Child or Small Change – the Doinel from before The 400 Blows – or to Day for Night or Two English Girls, thanks to Léaud.

Even if it takes the easy way out, I’m not against such an approach. It’s perhaps indispensable. But there are so many similarities that lend you a helping hand… So, we stop there and forget the rest, the essential. After all, if Truffaut titled his first article on Hitchcock “A bunch of false keys”, it’s because he knew very well that with so many commonalities one could also end up at the wrong place. “Auteur perhaps, but of what?”  said Bazin. A quip that must be used for the films of Zeffirelli, Cavani, Robbe-Grillet, David Hamilton, Vadim, Petri, Ken Russell, Magni, Albicocco, Moguy to name a few.

An example: the literature on Truffaut often evokes the theme of the double, the presence of mirrors. I confess that I didn’t notice them during my viewing. On reflection, it seems quite evident to me. But it doesn’t take us far. If I didn’t notice them when I saw the films, it’s because these constants don’t work very well, too derived as they are from outside influences, that is to say from the masters Hitchcock, Ophuls or Sirk. Perhaps because there’s no moral resonance in the Hitchcockian sense: the innocent double of the culprit belongs to an ideology different from Truffaut’s, where no one’s either innocent or guilty, good or bad. Perhaps because the mirror has no plastic existence in the work of this filmmaker who tends to give plastic values a miss.

High points

Every film of Truffaut’s contains one or many moments (varying according to the viewer’s sensitivity) that leaves a precise memory, striking and indelible even after twenty or twenty-five years. Perhaps the only exceptions to this law are Two English Girls1, one of its kind, a meteor in Truffaut’s work, and Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. It’s not a coincidence that these are consecutive films: should one see here a fleeting influence of post-68 modernity? Whatever it was, after the relative lack of success of these two films, Truffaut was to definitely return to the practice of high points.

This presence of a high point is an increasingly rare characteristic today (except among the comics, and Truffaut makes you laugh).

It’s difficult to find them in Duras, Bene, Rocha, Rivette, Jancso, Fassbinder, Oliveira, Straub, Bertolucci, Satyajit Ray. It’s a general impression that emerges from their works, the whole and not the part. This is another feature that links Truffaut to olden filmmakers and draws him away from the modern ones. Today, films of which we recall a single sequence are failed or low-calibre works. Interesting films tend to be difficult to grasp, to slip away like an eel from any effort to analyse them.

It could be a line of dialogue or a short series of words, the child invoking the death of his mother to justify coming late to class (The 400 Blows), the “yes, sir” addressed by the employee to his boss, who understandably takes it for a declaration of love, or Antoine’s repetition of his name thirty times in front of the mirror (Stolen Kisses).

There is a commonality here with dialogue-based French cinema of 1930-50, but in Truffaut, the author’s remark doesn’t have a descriptive, accessory or gratuitous character like the too-famous “bizarre, bizarre” of Jouvet or the “atmosphere, atmosphere” of Arletty. It’s rather a rapid, unusual, paradoxical and provocative explosion that often changes the course of the story being narrated.

The intermittent and literary aspect of these high points partly explains the success of his films among viewers and critics: this shows an evident proof of talent that’s easy to communicate to others…

We could also add to the list the opening tirade in The Green Room, where Truffaut the actor walks around a coffin and expresses his indignation about the Church easily assuring the superiority of the other world. Here, the high point is in the text, in the performance and in the situation all at once.

For the high point is often based on the situation, the idea of a scene: The Man Who Loved Women is killed by a double “accident at work”: run over by a car while getting to a pretty woman across the road, he snaps the tube of his drip trying to caress the nurse. The murderer in Confidentially Yours gives himself away when he lights a second cigarette while already having one in the mouth. There is the actress who agrees to shoot only if she is served a block of butter at breakfast, which the manager hypocritically obtains by mixing many packets, Valentina Cortese’s opening of the wrong door (Day for Night).

At times, it’s an odd story picked up from a minor news item: Nelly Benedetti sets out to kill her husband with a huge rifle in a contemporary restaurant (The Soft Skin).

Romantic high points are frequent: Fanny Ardant meets Depardieu, now married like her to another person, after many years in a very eighties, banal and adulterous context (an underground parking), but when he kisses her, she faints in the purest romantic style (The Woman Next Door). If the ten-year-old boy keeps going to his friend’s place, it’s not to meet the friend, but his mother, whom he is in love with (Small Change). Pisier (Love at Twenty) slowly turns Leo’s love into a sibling relation while she openly flirts elsewhere, an ambiguous situation unknown in cinema where one had to either love or break up. The woman discourages and terrifies the seducer on the street by bluntly expounding the reality of sexual facts (The Soft Skin). Nathalie Baye says yes to Menez’s allusive courtship right away, challenging the man to proceed further, turning the tables once again (Day for Night). And I easily have twenty more examples in reserve.

The high point, especially when it’s anecdotal, draws its power from its genuine quality. It’s so odd and absurd that it couldn’t have been invented. It’s necessarily true. It’s hence very much at home in Day for Night, where the viewer tends to take the story of the shoot for an unquestionable reality because it distinguishes itself very clearly from the film being shot, Pamela, a very obvious fiction. A new form of an accentuated impression of reality, even though it’s totally refuted upon reflection.

The high point is almost always comical, except when the situation is too dramatic: that’s the case with the two funerary urns (Jules and Jim), the paltry remains of the two heroes, with the presence of a single person at the funeral. In the olden days, when cinema filmed the burial of its protagonists, it made sure it showed a large and heavy coffin and, if possible, a large crowd. Another high point in opposition to cinematic tradition.

There are rarely more than three or four high points in a single film. It loses its effectiveness beyond that. It’s omnipresent in Shoot the Piano Player (Aznavour’s hand going over the body of Marie Dubois, over that of Michèle Mercier, Lapointe’s song, the dying grandmother, Nicole Berger’s suicide etc.) and this is thanks to the heterogeneity of facts. This permanence creates an obstacle, a refusal to accept the reality shown and, secondly, a dangerous and reductive addiction. After Piano Player, high points will be more integrated, better distributed across a smooth narration, appearing after we’ve had the time to warm up to the film, to accept it.

The paradox

As we have seen, it often characterizes the high point. One of the rare commonalities with Godard. It’s the woman who takes the initiative. Or it’s Léaud who calls Delphine Seyrig “sir” (adding to this is the flamboyant paradox of the Léaud-Seyrig couple). It’s Antoine’s arrest, not when he steals a typewriter – as any writer would have had it – but when he returns it (The 400 Blows). Through an insane investigation, the man who loved women succeeds in finding out the address of the pretty girl he once glimpsed. On the telephone, she doesn’t sound unresponsive to the man’s approach, and we expect a typical seduction lesson during the scene of their meeting. Bang, the man learns that there’s been a mistake and leaves with an apology, while the woman’s attitude makes us think that it could all have worked out very well. Truffaut manages to surprise us every time. He defuses the scene, avoids the commonplace the viewer expects, all the while retaining the potentials of the situation, harnessed to the maximum. A praiseworthy approach for an age in which the viewer is often way ahead of the story.

The absence of surprise is also the reason for the failure that, in my view, constitutes Fahrenheit 451. We’d read the book, or knew that it was a variant of 1984. It’s the same principle, certainly original, but repeated from start to finish, with good guys and bad guys. And, on top of that, the publication of the shooting diary eliminated the few unknowns that remained for a certain number of viewers. A disappointment that’s customary with long-matured or late-blossoming films (The Big Red One, The Demise of Father Mouret etc.)

This taste for paradox, this desire to do the opposite of what others are doing, must be seen against a work and a life in contradiction with itself, in constant oscillation. It’s this game of seesaw that makes the work so “alive”, so unexpected, and gives it its force, far removed from all sectarianism. Truffaut reacts every time against what others are doing, and against what he himself did the moment before. The contradictions are numerous…

This classic filmmaker, who’s always taken pains to establish a protective distance between his work and himself, between the public and the private, who has always eliminated the “I” from his films, suddenly starts playing lead characters in The Wild Child and The Green Room. This maniacal perfectionist, who rewrites his scripts ten times, who spends six months on his editing which he sometimes modifies five or six times after the film’s release, makes his films with the least malleable material that exists: children.

As a critic, he champions, with the rage of a fanatic, films that were the total opposite (except those of Gance and Welles): masterpieces of a modest appearance, founded on rigour, moderation and discretion, primarily The Golden Coach, all Resnais, all Hawks, Journey to Italy and even – in a certain sense – Hitchcock, hidden behind his labels (detective movie-humour). Whence a non-paradox, there where people often see one: it’s not surprising that, like his masters, he too made films of a modest and conformist appearance.

As a critic, he champions films by atheist intelligentsia and celebrates an art inherited from the past, based on a traditional aesthetic and on Christianity. As a director, the denounces common sense morality against that of conventions, in a spirit agnostic and respectful of human insignificance (Jules and Jim) and rises against the mirage of the Christian hereafter (The Green Room) with a vigour much more energetic than that of Jean Aurenche whom he once decried so much.

What is this discontinuity between the detractor of post-war “progressive-humanist” cinema and the signatory of the “Manifesto of the 121” that many leftists didn’t dare to even sign, between the pro-Langlois, anti-Cannes militant of May 1968, the seller of La Cause du peuple and the one who had Bernard Granger slapped, guilty as he was of deserting the theatre for the Resistance (The Last Metro) or the one who associates the only true villains of his entire filmography (Richard Daxiat in The Last Metro and Lonsdale in The Bride) with political engagement.

Was the image that Truffaut gave of himself a false image intended to forge a legend, or was there an evolution – as we can rightly say in the case of Godard or Chabrol – or is there a natural dichotomy between the critic, sensitive to what had been done, and the creator, understandably driven to do something different from what the masters had done? I admit to hesitating between the second and third options. I am tempted to say that, in Truffaut, we must make reference to an instinctive logic based on the precise moment of action, which we will discuss later.

Connections

The existence of high points is the most evident characteristic in Truffaut. Is it the most brilliant sign of his art? It’s better to qualify our statement here.

There are high points in Small Change (romantic: the kid loves his friend’s mother; anecdotal: the baby falls from the sixth floor and is unhurt; verbal: “thank you for the frugal meal”). But the film doesn’t work. It’s a series of gems without any connection between them, a collection of interesting scenes that Truffaut couldn’t put in his previous films. It doesn’t work because Truffaut didn’t deploy his master weapon, narration. No principal story, no connecting thread. Like all failures, Small Change is negatively more revelatory of its auteur’s art than his perfect successes.

On the other hand, let’s consider a film essentially built on narrative talent, but without high points, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. It holds together magnificently. It’s a series of dizzying dramatic turn of events, sudden impulses of characters, absolutely unbelievable – but we don’t have the time to realize that – and without any concern for psychology. Characteristics that provoked the distain of French critics. Like in Piano Player, Confidentially Yours or the beginning of Stolen Kisses, it’s the little world of fantasy, very Left Bank à la Queneau-Vian-Audiberti, superposed on the more structured world of the American crime novel by Goodis, Farrel or Williams. Another game of seesaw. The film works marvellously on pace and narration, but it’s a tightrope act since it rests on nothing. I realized that well the day I saw a scene from the movie on television isolated from its context. It seemed to me to be totally gratuitous, morbid, voyeuristic, abject. Evidently, it’s the connection between the elements that makes for Truffaut’s art and not the elements themselves.

We can say the same thing about Confidentially Yours, where an element essential to a work supposedly so respectful of its characters is surprisingly lacking: we don’t understand why the secretary falls in love with her boss. We could suppose that she has a maternal side, a protective side for the man in danger.

We could suppose that, but the film doesn’t give us any clue to say so. There is surely an explanation for this blatant miss: Trintignant, small, timid, awkward, evidently stands for Truffaut. And a description of Fanny Ardant’s motivations towards Trintignant-Truffaut would’ve constituted an indecent intrusion into Truffaut’s private life, which would’ve disturbed his modesty.

We realize that this apparently conformist and narrative filmmaker works against psychology or without bothering about it, whereas we frequently group narration, psychology, classicism and realism together.

Why did the man who loved women love women so much? Sure, there is a brief reference to the mother. But it has more visual and comic value than explanatory value.  It’s only after having seen Blake Edwards’ remake that I realized that Truffaut had eliminated the reasons for this neurotic, or at least odd, behaviour and that the film held together very well without these explanations. On the other hand, Blake Edwards’ film gets unfortunately tangled up in a very American and very pedantic psychoanalytical study that forestalls the surprises created by the actions and the elliptical elegance of the original.

We sense that Truffaut was hostile to psychology inasmuch as it supposes a certain continuity in the individual. He latches on to an actor’s truth of the moment, which can be entirely different from the truth of the next moment. We understand better the Truffaut character, apparently so contradictory. It might be that we are nothing more than unpredictable reflexes and instincts – the moral of Jules and Jim.

Psychology, in the literal sense, study of the psyche, study of the soul, is hardly present in Truffaut, except perhaps in the beginning, in The Soft Skin, for example. It’s rather the observation of instinctive behaviours (whence The Wild Child and all the films on children and adult-children). What interests Truffaut is the sudden explosion of unusual reactions. He plays on the unusual. And, at the same time, thanks to the actor’s work and thanks also, as we have seen, to the unquestionable enormity of behaviour, he makes us believe and accept these behaviours. The difficulty of the undertaking necessarily brings him to either dazzling success or total failure. In fact, there’s only one total failure, Mississippi Mermaid, where Belmondo was happy to recite a text which aimed too high. Finally, Truffaut is able to make us overlook psychological improbability just as Hitchcock could make us accept factual improbability. We accept the relationship between Mrs. Tabard and Antoine Doinel while it doesn’t stand a considered examination.

The last storyteller

Connection, and so narration, but not traditional narration. There are some great narrators in cinema – Griffith, Ford, Pagnol, Mankiewicz, Fassbinder. After the death of Fassbinder (whom he admired), Truffaut became the last storyteller. No one’s left now. The end of an era. Comencini, Brocka, Cronenberg, Rohmer use narration well, but it’s less important in their work than the thing narrated. There’s Chabrol, in theory. But he doesn’t use his storytelling gifts in Death Rite, or in The Twist, or in Alice, or in Blood Relatives, or in The Horse of Pride

Great narrators base their art on a certain manner of taking their time and, often, on a duration that’s much longer than the average. With Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm, One Exciting Night, America, Griffith stays at around three hours. Ford gets close (Cheyenne Autumn). Pagnol crosses it (Manon of the Sources) and pegs his minimum at two hours. With Cleopatra¸ we are at four hours and Berlin Alexanderplatz eyes fifteen hours.

Truffaut, on the other hand, never takes his time. He is afraid of boring the audience. With his customary discretion, he prefers to stick to the norms, except with two films, where he marginally crosses two hours (The Last Metro, Two English Girls). He was so remorseful about the latter film that he cut a quarter hour from it to bring it under limits.

And if One Exciting Night or Sleuth took a story unfolding in a brief time interval and extended it over a long runtime (Sleuth, in this regard, has set a record), Truffaut does the reverse: twenty-five minutes of runtime for six months or a year of life narrated (Les Mistons, Love at Twenty). All these films unfold over months, years (Jules and Jim, The Wild Child, Adèle H. etc.), the shortest time interval being that of Confidentially Yours, perhaps a few days. But it’s an exception. In truth, I must say that I’m hard put to discern the time interval in which the stories unfold, except The Last Metro and Jules and Jim because they refer to the two great wars. It’s as though the exact duration was of no importance (we sense it clearly in Adèle H, or Two English Girls). The reason for it is that, rather than narrating an action, as other great storytellers do, Truffaut narrates feelings, the evolution of feelings, or an idée fixe2.

The action, even if it exists, is of little importance in Truffaut’s work. We aren’t all that eager to know if the bride gets caught by the police, or who the murderer of Confidentially Yours is: the ultimate insult for a crime movie… It doesn’t matter how it ends, what happens next to the characters, if there is a happy ending. The ending often seems to be the product of chance (Les Mistons, The Soft Skin, Piano Player, Mermaid). We are always in the present moment, we never let ourselves be anguished about the future (the opposite of Hitchcockian suspense).

The idée fixe is The Bride (a vengeance abstract in its disproportion), The Wild Child (Itard’s pedagogical obsession that ends up becoming an absolute torture by education) and, of course, The Green Room, The Man Who Loved Women, Adèle H., three consecutive films, as though by chance. Here too, the idée fixe becomes abstract: by dint of pursuing the man she loves, Adèle doesn’t even recognize him anymore. Curious premonition, two years before the Buñuel of That Obscure Object of Desire.

Feelings: Truffaut gleans ten interesting seconds one day, ten the month later; this is the principle behind the two films adapted from Roché and, less overtly, behind all his films. A survey of action, of emotions (or of the idée fixe) with numerous short stopovers at meaningful moments connected by the commentary track.

Here too, a surprising contradiction: fan of the ten-minute take in his reviews, expert of the long shot during filming, Truffaut soon manages to butcher his long shots (with the exception, right at the beginning, of Léaud’s famous interrogation by the social assistant in The 400 Blows) to retain no more than ten seconds sometimes.

Mister Post Office

You must’ve noticed a practice that’s familiar in the novel: less attached to reality than cinema, the novel can afford to flit over time. Truffaut’s cinema, as everyone has noted, is the continuation of the novel, the 19th century French novel in particular3, often quoted throughout his films whereas he ignores references to plastic arts (except, indirectly via Almendros and the “candle period” in a work that remains rather accessory to Truffaut and more conventional than his – cf. Adèle H.) and to music (except contemporary French pop music). I will consider as negligible the borrowings from Mendelssohn, Chopin, Vivaldi (Vivaldi, for Truffaut, is perhaps mostly The Golden Coach). The opposite of Godard.

Perhaps this indifference stems from the fact that painting and music are arts more foreign than French, elite and thus more distant for Truffaut the autodidact.

From the novel, he goes to the source, to letters, since the novel, at its beginnings, disguised itself as a collection of letters (Manon, La Nouvelle Héloïse, Laclos etc.). Truffaut, a famous letter writer, turns some of his films into a series of letters. It’s these letters that facilitate declarations of love. If I had to describe Truffaut in a single word, it would be Mister Post Office.

There is, in his work, two pieces of anthology. The first is the series of letter exchanges in Jules and Jim, where the camera insists more on the material circulation of mail while the soundtrack discreetly evokes the content and the evolution of emotions. The second, adapting to the evolution of time, is the exchange of telephone calls (often hung up or aborted) by the lovers of The Woman Next Door and of Confidentially Yours.

This importance of connection, through post, allows the filmmaker to summarize the contradictory evolution of minds briefly and precisely, to express in terms discreet and concrete at once a range of emotions that, shown more directly, would come across as too indecent or could be suspected of falsity: when an actor and an actress kiss, the viewer can always suppose that they are pretending. On the other hand, when these emotions are indirectly alluded to and the viewer actively participates in their discovery, they can hardly be questioned.

Postal reference will also constitute one of the strengths of Adèle H. Truffaut takes pains to show all the material circumstances of Adèle’s quest – difficulties in getting the mail, in having the money sent to her, her various wanderings – which most other filmmakers would’ve eliminated as being too trivial.

Truffaut – and it’s the secret of his critical genius – always starts from the material and the particular to arrive at the abstract and the general. An autodidact’s approach more in tune with lived facts than learned ideologies. When he becomes a militant ideologue, he falls flat (Fahrenheit).

Connections are of so much importance that they become a world in themselves, the only world that creation really exerts a hold on, that they locate their power on the exaggerated banality of the connected elements: everything is relation, everything is but relation. Everything’s been said, everything’s been shown. Maybe creation is only an art of relations. Plastic values, as we have seen, tend to be ignored, the composition of the image “within the frame” has nothing exceptional about it, the social is forgotten or disdained (whence the ire of Zhdanovian critics) and I’m tempted to say that there’s no psychology. We can wonder what remains. Disconcerting gaps, especially since this is one of the most complete bodies of work in existence.

A typical example of the neutrality of elements is the last shot of The Bride, probably the most beautiful last shot in the history of French cinema. I won’t say the most beautiful ending in the history of all cinema, since there’s the wave that drowns Matahi in Tabu, and Citizen Kane, whatever one says about it. But we’re not very far.

Generally, in cinema, we guess the ending five minutes in advance, if not earlier.  Comforted by a quick glance at the watch, we have already put on our coats, scarves or our shoes – as the case may be – to prove that we’ve not been fooled, that we are ahead of the director. All that is impossible, thankfully, in The Bride, where Truffaut manages to surprise us (like he had us with the final bridge of Jules and Jim, whose broken section was hidden in the preceding shots). Vaguely uneasy, we wonder at the beginning of the shot how Truffaut can possible conclude, since it’s time the film ended. We’re sure, at any rate, that it’s not the current shot, so trivial, that can serve as the epilogue. In a long hallway, the heroine wheels a trolley containing food for the inmates of a women’s prison. A banal shot that could’ve been shot by anyone.

It’s only in the final seconds of the shot – the hallway turns right, there’s no one in the frame, but we hear a scream off-screen – and we understand that everything’s been said. There can’t possibly be any other conclusion, nor as logical a conclusion. And just then, the external signs of the film’s end appear. The time interval between the ending and the viewer’s understanding, if there is one, isn’t more than one second one way or the other.

Nothing in the shot, everything in the relation to the context. Genius is genius precisely because it’s based on nothing.

 

1Although the stain of blood…

2There are exceptions such as The Last Metro and Day for Night. His knowledge of the entertainment world is so considerable that, along with the plot it constantly fuels, it constitutes the principal subject of his films. Ellipse and overview are very rare here. It’s perhaps due to these characteristics that they constitute Truffaut’s two biggest hits among the audience.

3Everything links Truffaut to the past, not to the present. It’s perhaps more the rejection of the present than the necessity of the past. Truffaut is at his best when he limits himself to studies of romantic relationships disregarding the period (notably Two English Girls) or when he situates himself in the past: the 19th century of Adèle H., The Wild Child, the twenties in Jules and Jim, all the more so because there’s no one to contest their veracity. Or it’s the Occupation (The Last Metro), the fifties (The 400 Blows), the isolated world of entertainment (Day for Night, The Last Metro) that he understands marvellously.

The opposite of Resnais. Resnais is the present invaded by the past. Truffaut is the past experienced in the present; that is, the search of the present moment.

It seems that, after 1959, Truffaut cut himself off from the world around him through work. That’s of no problem when the film doesn’t engage with it, hinged when it is on fantasy (Confidentially Yours), feelings (Mermaid) or abstraction of the idée fixe (The Green Room), but there’s something scholarly, and indecisive, in the presentation of provincial social reality in The Woman Next Door, thankfully very marginal to the film. This isolation destroys Love on the Run: it’s a film based solely on the relation between its elements, between various stages in the life of a man, which is right up Truffaut’s alley, but the modern element is not simply neutral here. It’s negative in that it expresses a total absence of experience, which contrasts with the elements of the past (deriving from Love at Twenty) which are infinitely more genuine. Bed and Board was limited in this regard, closer to the world of René Clair than that of 1968-70.

A filmmaker can’t film everything. It’s to the credit of Truffaut’s intelligence for having always known, expect one near-exception, what he could film and what he couldn’t.

 

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