“For It Is the Critical Faculty That Invents Fresh Forms” (Oscar Wilde)
To the staff of the Cinematheque française
With a few remarkable exceptions (Jean Mitry, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Noel Burch ...), the history of cinema has mainly been recounted from the industry’s point of view. May this contribution to a history of forms help us to escape such a dominant ideology and reconsider the works and the artists from a different perspective. Today the violence of the cultural industry is so cynically triumphant that it is possible to establish a law of inverse proportions between the social visibility of a film and its real eminence. So the reader should not feel reassured; the less familiar the names and titles mentioned in this essay may appear, the more important they are in reality. But the author of these lines is far from sure of herself: prey to the intuition that she still knows nothing of all that remains to be done in this field, and aware that it will require a vigilant, collective and infinite effort.
False Oppositions and Real Divisions
The 1960s begin in 1957. At least three events of that year now appear highly symptomatic of the creativity and crises that were to follow. The Situationist International is founded in Cosid d’Arroscia, a movement whose theoretical reflection and strategic example prefigure the radical film collectives that will appear all over Europe some ten years later. In Venice, Jean Rouch receives a prize for Les maîtres fous, a film that politically forces the Western world to look at its own image as a colonial oppressor, while formally announcing the critical ethnology that will influence so much of the cinema of the 1960s and beyond. And in Paris that year, a polemical exchange took place between André Bazin and Jean Carta in the pages of Esprit that illustrates precisely how a radical challenge to the false distinction between formal experiment and political content was to set the filmic agenda for the whole period covered in this chapter. In an article entitled “The Resignation of French Cinema”, Carta had attacked Jean Renoir’s Élena et les hommes (1956) for portraying the love life of a proto-fascist general when French cinema as a whole lacked the courage to fight political censorship and address contemporary issues such as the war in Indochina, the Suez crisis or the Algerian question.1 In response, Bazin penned his last published essay, “Cinema and Commitment”, arguing that a film’s importance should not be judged by its content alone but also by its aesthetic rigour and ambition.2 This polemic is important because, stuck in a Cold War confrontation, both protagonists are right; Bazin recommending that cinema be pushed to its limits within a given economic system. Carta calling for an alternative cinema that would help to build a different future. The history of French cinema since 1960 is the story of the more or less abrasive or conciliatory responses to a fundamental split around this question: “What is cinema – doing in the world?”
The division is therefore between two conceptions of the real, rather than between content or form, experiment or commitment. On the one hand, there is the Bazinian conception of the world as already there, always given, a “seamless robe of reality” that cinema can approach but never touch, and in relation to which the essence of cinema becomes a critical engagement with the forms of representation. Developing the models of Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini, this line of figurative investigation has proven to be the most prodigious in modern French cinema, notably in the work of Marcel Hanoun, Jacques Rozier, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Marie Straub and Danide Huillet, Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat, Christian Boltanski, Ange Leccia ... But there exists another conception of the world that sees the real as never definitively given, a real that remains to be decided and that cinema can precisely help to transform. Whereas the first notion of the real-as-given addresses the moral consciousness of the spectator, this second conception of the real-to-change addresses the spectator as citizen, capable of political action. This real-to-change has produced two further vital tendencies in modern French cinema. First, there is a political cinema of contestation, of counter-information, of ‘social intervention’, to use René Vautier’s expression, a cinema that engages with the world in a historical struggle whose outcome it believes it can influence. Second, there is a vein of ‘useless’ experimentation, to use Jonas Mekas’s term: in other words a cinema that is unruly and asocial, irretrievably committed to ever more radical research, as if by defying all the formal' conventions and institutional demands of its time, a purely experimental cinema could already assert the existence, here and now, of another world. Since 1960, therefore, three equally rich areas of experimentation have existed side by side: figurative investigation; social intervention; and irreconcilable research. As we shall now see, however, the most significant works of the last forty years have transgressed such boundaries in order to create their own legitimacy. In the following pages, it is above all their story that this history of forms will endeavour to record and relate.
Cinema Ripped from The Real
According to a convenient misconception, politically committed cinema, because it is caught up in the practical necessities of history, remains indifferent to questions of form. This betrays a purely decorative understanding of formal issues, since on the contrary the cinema of intervention exists precisely in order to pose, the most vital questions about cinema’s presence in the world. Why make an image, which one and how? With whom and for whom? If it is the image of an event (the death of a man, a war, a massacre, a struggle, an encounter), how should one then edit it, in which context should one place it? To which other images is it opposed? In terms of the story, which images are missing and which are indispensable? Who should be given the right to speak, and how do you assert that right if it is denied you? Why do we want a history and which history do we want? All these questions materially inform the project of René Vautier, each of whose films is an instance of cinematic thought in action. Through specifically filmic means, each work reflects on the place and responsibilities of cinema in the world. Above all the filmmaker’s role is to realise those images that the political context forbids and forgets. As Vautier often says, “you can’t allow governments to write history”.
In the course of his lifelong investigation into the necessity and relativity of images, Vautier has explored a vast array of different possible articulations between visual document and visual argument. Here is a crude taxonomy of his creative range: documented fiction, e.g. Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès (1971) and La Folle de Toujane (with Nicole Le Garrec, 1974); didactic fable, e.g. Les ajoncs and Les trois cousins (both from 1970); allegorical pamphlet, e.g. Le Remords (1974), a highly burlesque satirical assault in which Vautier himself plays the role of a film-maker who has succumbed to self-censorship like so many others; documentary poem, e.g. J’ai huit ans (1961, with Yann and Olga Le Masson) and Le Glas (1970); documentary polemic, e.g. Transmission d'expérience ouvrière (1973) and Quand les femmes ont pris la colere (with Soizig Chappedelaine, 1977), Marée noire et colère rouge (1978) and Hirochirac (1995); methodological enquiry, e.g. Mourir pour des images (1971), a piece about the links between those who film and those who are filmed. This latter question is further examined in the theoretical essay, Vous avez dit français? (1985), which traces an alternative history of France through successive phases of immigration, and questions the notion of collective identity; and more recently in the work in progress Dialogues d'images en temps de guerre, which demonstrates practically the need to produce and compare images of all the parties concerned in a conflict, whether it be local or national, and is thus primarily a history of political, military and economic censorship, informed by Vautier’s experience in this matter.
Sometimes his films become pure testimony, as in the case of À propos de l’autre détail (1988), which presents a series of interviews with the Algerian victims tortured by Lieutenant Jean-Marie Le Pen (long before he became a presidential candidate) and which was actually used as evidence in a real trial. This rawness of the document could hardly be more poignant than in the case of Destruction des archives (1988), which shows Vautier himself walking among the remains of his films and archives after they had been covered in petrol and partially destroyed by an as yet unidentified assailant. Filmed by Yann Le Masson, Destruction des archives, in its absolute factual simplicity, sums up the fate of political cinema today: dispersed, destroyed, shredded in the memories of those younger generations for whom it sought to build a better future. A similarly emblematic quality can be seen in the poetic essay, Et le mot frère et le mot camarade (1995), which explores the function of writing and especially poetry in the history of the French Resistance during World War II. Taken as a whole, then, Vautier’s work of the last fifty years constitutes the backbone of French cinema understood in terms of its ethical and political responsibility. In the process, it has expanded more than any other single work the range of cinematic forms of critical investigation.
In spite of their stylistic differences, there exist many points of contact between the works of René Vautier and Chris Marker. Products of the same political culture of Resistance and Communism, they have both explored the relationship between a cinema of factuality (producing concretely the image that official history does not authorise) and a cinema of methodology (reflecting on the functions of images in history). They share a political commitment to collective action (Vautier founding the Britanny Cinema Production Unit, Marker establishing the group Slon/Iskra) and to the political struggles against colonialism in Africa and for the working class in France. They also have in common a love of Dziga Vertov and Eisenstein, and a stylistic preference for essay and argument, both of which derive from the same formal principle of “images in dialogue”, to use Vautier’s expression. They are also to be found at the origin of two great polyphonic films of cinema history: in Vautier’s case, Peuple en marche (1962), a film about the first year of Algerian independence; in Marker’s case. Loin du Vietnam (1967), which in the service of the Vietnamese cause brought together 150 film-makers and technicians, among whom were Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Joris Ivens, Agnes Varda and William Klein.
In the conception of these two collective projects, it is possible to see a clear distinction between Vautier and Marker’s methods: the former opts for a fusional polyphony, i.e. the sequences filmed by different film-makers and cameramen remain unsigned and are edited together (in the same way that to this day Vautier freely gives away his images and films to whoever might need them); whereas Marker prefers a differential polyphony, i.e. each autonomous episode is signed by its creator. This reflects a more general difference between the two figures: while Vautier proclaims a committed partiality, notably taking sides with those who do not have the right to images. Marker always tends to the problematics of subjectivity. Point of view, memory and amnesia, the workings of the psyche in general, these are Marker’s concerns, each film dealing with the representation of consciousness, the ways in which the mind associates or separates phenomena, organises them in networks, in layers, knots and loops. If Marker’s early films are constructed as subjective cartographies, e.g. Description d'un combat (1960) and ¡Cuba Sí! (1961), after La jetée (1962) the task of description becomes increasingly complex and problematic, until we reach the haunted structure of Sans soleil (1982), where the actual film merges into a pure hypothesis of a film. Such labyrinthine cartographies, serial inventories and visibly embroidered montage in fact constitute the emblematic forms not just of Marker’s work, from Olympia 52 (1952) to Level Five (1996), but also those of the other so-called “Left Bank” film-makers: Resnais, from Hiroshima mon amour (1959) to L’amour à mort (1984), and Varda, from L’opéra-mouffe (1958) to Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Although Marker’s cinema explores the movement of the image through the twists and turns of thinking, the folds and recesses of memory, it never becomes mere subjectivism. However intimately melancholic and utopian it may appear, history for Marker remains collective, and the intellectual internationalism that he invented provides us with a record of the successive states of universalism in the 20th century.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vautier and Marker participated in a common political experience, the emergence of the Medvedkine groups, which involved teaching workers how to use film equipment so that by and for themselves they could describe the conditions of their lives and their struggles. Thanks to Marker’s initiative, and the logistical and material support of Vautier, Ivens, Godard, Mario Marret, Bruno Muel, Antoine Bonfanti, Jacques Loiseleux, Michel Desrois and many others, a number of brilliant and violent film-pamphlets appeared from 1967 onwards, initially made by the workers of the Rhodiaceta factory in Besançon, then by the workers of the Peugeot factory in Sochaux. The names of these unknown filmmakers, who are the pride of French cinema, deserve to be cited: Georges Binetruy, Christian Corouge, Georges Maurivard, Henri Traforetti, and many more ... Their films, such as Classe de lute (1969), Images de la nouvelle société (1969-70) and Sochaux 11 juin 68 (1970), fully realise the project defined by Bruno Muel in these terms: “to show the cultural taboos that must be overcome, the knowledge that must be usurped, in order to give oneself the means to struggle on equal terms against those who believe that everyone should remain in their place”.3 Formally diverse and inventive – featuring rapid montage and long takes; flickers, zooms and slogans; quotations from the discourse of the authorities contrasted with direct testimony; a loving use of music and songs; the systematic working with collage - these Medvedkine films, which refer directly to the “laboratory-studios” invented by the soviet Proletcult, today appear even more precious than their model because of their purely critical character. The simple description of facts is a form of protest, just as information is a call to arms, not so much propaganda as a permanent feeling of revolt. The experience comes to an end in 1974 with a masterpiece by Bruno Muel, Avec le sang des autres, an implacable essay on the everyday despair of working life in a controlled society.
Prefigured by the experience of the Newsreels collective in the USA, active since 1966, as well as by the example of Loin du Vietnam in France, the era of the film collectives began in the wake of an extraordinary historical event, the Estates General of Cinema, in May 1968. The Estates General brought together 1,500 people, professionals and non-professionals, who wanted to “make political films politically” and who were ready to reconsider all aspects of film practice, whether it be production, direction or distribution. The Estates General serve as a reference point in one of the most formally inventive periods of film history, with the propagation of what might be called the Grand Revolutionary Style, one of whose essential components was its internationalism. Inspired by Soviet examples, by the Frontier Films of Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz, by Santiago Alvarez in Cuba or Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in Argentina, inspired more profoundly by the heroic example of the Vietnamese people, a common style of protest spread across the world, adapting itself to local political conditions.
These counter-information films are generally made like tracts, foregrounding the lived experience of protagonists rather than elaborate argumentation, and featuring constructivist graphics, the use of the caption-stand, rapid montage, pop music, the iconography of the struggle and the irrepressible urgency of the here and now. Each collective adapts these common stylistic features to its own ends: an investigation, a documented pamphlet, a theoretical demonstration. The ciné-tracts, for example, a collective enterprise again inspired by Marker and bringing together many protagonists of the French avant-garde such as Godard, Resnais, Guy Chalon, Helene Chatelain, Loiseleux and many more, constituted a simple form of visual report. Predominantly silent and shot in black and white, each work was made by refilming photographs of May 1968 and of current events in the world, in order to create a brief visual collage three minutes long. According to their own anonymous and undated protocol, the ciné-tracts must “contest-propose-shock-inform-question-assert-convince-think-shout-laugh-denounce-cultivate” in order to “inspire discussion and action”. The ciné-tract numbered “1968” known as Le Rouge, a collaboration between the painter Gérard Fromanger and Jean-Luc Godard, was the film version of a poster created by Fromanger for the Popular Workshops of the School of Fine Arts, the source of the most famous emblems of May 1968. In Le Rouge we see the red of the French tricolour spreading out onto the other two colours of the flag until it covers the whole screen. It is both a powerful visual conceit and a humorous response to other committed painters such as Pommereulle, Erro and Stämpfli, who in 1967 had organised an exhibition entitled “Painting in Action”, where instead of displaying canvases they had projected films by Lang, Eisenstein... and Godard. In 1969, at the request of Marin Karmitz, Fromanger produced a second version of Le Rouge that served as the trailer for Karmitz’s film Camarades, the story of a young worker who comes to Paris and discovers the necessity of revolutionary struggle. Fromanger uses the same motif of the flag, adding a soundtrack recorded in the Renault factory at Boulogne-Billancourt and a series of silk-screen prints that he describes as “ten images of righteous working-class anger faced with police brutality and ten images of flags that burst through the wall just as a hard and beautiful image bursts though the screen at the cinema”.4
The ciné-tracts, along with other collective series such as On vous parle de... (1968-71) and Images de la nouvelle société, return to the inventive practices of agit-prop, of Vertov’s Kino-Pravda, Alexander Medvedkine’s agit-films, and in this sense we can say that the 1970s reinvent the 1920s for different times with different needs. Many individual artists disappear into the anonymity of the collectives, at least temporarily (Godard of course, but also Muel, Dominique Dubose, Jean-Pierre Thom), while others emerge as artists from these groups: Tobias Engel, Nicole and Félix Le Garrec, Jean-Louis Le Tacon. Still others work tirelessly for the cause, filming, producing, distributing, maintaining the link between the different collectives, artists and media (photography, film, television, newspapers): Marker and Roger Pic are exemplary in this regard. As for Philippe Garrel, he makes what Godard called “the best film about May 68”, in 35mm, although unfortunately it is lost today.5 Among all this creative activity, three types of initiative can be traced, although they are by no means exclusive: first, to encourage the autonomy of the protagonists in the struggle by training them in the use of film equipment (the Medvedkine Groups, the Peasant Front); second, to work on the description of conflicts (the Brittany Cinema Production Unit and Slon/Iskra, but also Cinéma Libre, Cinélutte, les Cahiers de Mai, le Grain de Sable, Cinéma Politique); third, to invent and enrich the cinematic forms of questioning and argumentation (the Dziga Vertov and Cinéthique groups). In this latter vein, several essays are devoted to a political analysis of cinema itself: for example, Quand on aime la vie, on va au cinéma (1975) by the Cinéthique group is an implacably concrete analysis of the ideological determinants underlying the mass production of stereotypes (“not a single image, nor a single sound, that is not linked to reality from a class point of view”); as well as the films of the Dziga Vertov group, which develop the line of research started by Godard in the Camera-Eye episode of Loin du Vietnam and in Le gai savoir (1968). Taken as a whole, the period of the film collectives from 1967 to 1975 represents perhaps a unique case in French history, where future researchers will one day be able to establish the truth based on audiovisual sources that for once will not have been dependent on any economic or state power. Rarely has cinema collectively developed its descriptive and analytical powers to such an extent, and if Saint-Just could write of the 18th century that “it should be placed in the Pantheon”, then the avant-garde cinema of this period, thanks to its cult of critical reason and its aspiration to social justice, must certainly merit the same recognition.
Whether working alone, or in dialogue with Jean-Pierre Gorin in the context of the Dziga Vertov group, or with Anne-Marie Miéville in the context of Sonimage, or indeed with the great ghosts of the history of cinema in, precisely, Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98), Godard has essentially developed a poetics of the missing image. Whereas René Vautier rips the image from the real, paying the price with injuries, condemnations, imprisonments and hunger-strikes, and Chris Marker travels the world highlighting and commentating on the links that secretly exist between one phenomenon and another, Godard collects already existing images in order to observe their relationships, their powers and their limitations. All the texts, sounds, shots and cuts in his work are citational and, if they ever appear original, it is simply because we have not yet come across the reference. But his general project, enriched by the formally sumptuous manner of the invocation, remains totally original, indeed it is the greatest systematic interrogation of the image undertaken by cinema in cinematic terms. Explicitly present, therefore, in Godard’s work are the three characteristic formal traits of what he calls “modern cinema”: the negative; the heterogeneous; and the critical. He has worked on these through six decades of incessant invention, always renewed, always inspired, always at the vanguard not only of cinema but of art in general.
The first trait, identified by Godard as early as 1958, is the incorporation of the negative, which results from the conflict between his original classic cinephilia and his apprenticeship in the values of Bazinian cinema. The negative appears in the first instance as the opposite of mastery, as the cinema of fear:
“After all, if a modern novel is fear of the blank page, a modern painting fear of the empty canvas, and, modern sculpture fear of the stone, a modern film has the right to be fear of the camera, fear of the actors, fear of the dialogue, fear of the montage.”6
Therefore each shot, each cut, each filmic phenomenon in Godard’s work must take the risk of starting cinema from zero, in the name of an ideal called firstly “truth” (the 1960s, Pierrot le fou), then “reality” (the militant years), then “the Real” (in the Lacanian sense, during the 1980s and 1990s), and finally “History” (the project of a lifetime). It is a fundamental principle of Godard’s cinema that representation must always confront that which it cannot represent, a great alterity that relativises its powers, informs it with its absence, threatens it at all times with disappearance (as in the broken ending of Soigne ta droite, 1987), and yet justifies its efforts precisely in terms of the most fragile, uncertain and naked qualities that it nonetheless conveys.
The second principle is therefore an imperative need for heterogeneity: since no image, whether it be vision, word or sound, will ever be sufficient, it will never be too much to summon all images, taken from the vast web of their links and their differences. On this point, the work of Godard continues the tradition of German romanticism, of Schlegel and Novalis, about whose work Benjamin wrote, “the infinity of reflection is not an infinity of progression but an infinity of connection”.7 In The Old Place (2001), Godard described this labour of linking as “the constellation” and he thus rediscovers the formula of Holderlin, “to connect infinitely (exactly)”. At the same time, this principle of heterogeneity determines first the most consistent feature of his work, which is the bringing together of the two most distant images possible in order to produce a third image, or what Alain Bergala describes very well as “the cinema of the greatest gap”;8 and secondly the most dynamic element, since these constellations evolve from one period to the next, always producing new forms of confrontation and discontinuity: jumping (e.g. the initial jump-cut of À bout de souffle, 1960), irruption (the flashes of Le mépris, 1963), interruption (the black screen and the prophylactic soundtrack of the militant years, “a healthy sound over a sick image”), suspension (the endings of Je vous salue, Marie, 1983 and Soigne ta droite, 1987), pure conflict (the flickering of opposites), crossing (the superimpositions), stratification (the multiple superimpositions of sound as well as image in the videographic works).
This constantly creative dialectic between continuity and discontinuity leads to the third trait of Godard’s work, his profound belief that cinema is invested with a critical mission. Over the decades, there are few powers that Godard has not attributed to cinema, and its mission has variously been to tell the truth, to restore people’s dignity, to produce the image of a nation, to find a cure for cancer, to divide, disturb, frighten, even to haunt the universe with a solitary and orphaned history of mankind... In what sense is this messianic torment to be considered modern? It is that cinema is never a response but rather a question addressed to History, a permanent laboratory of understanding and exchange with phenomena, the place where we can see most clearly human thought at work, in its obscure stumblings, in the impatience of its efforts, its tensions and its ironies. Across the range of forms that he has explored or invented – fables, pamphlets, tracts, songs, reports, sketches, frescoes (as in Histoire(s) du cinéma) – Godardian cinema remains poiesis, creation, in the sense that no manner of totalisation can exhaust its possibilities, nor can any critical accomplishment deny the promise of a new beginning.
Singular Experiences and Solitary Workers
Each in their own manner, the projects of Vautier, Marker, Godard and the film collectives have consistently and coherently developed the critical forms of French cinema. There also exist isolated experiments in this field that are nonetheless important, in some cases astonishing; Vite (1970), for example, by the artist Daniel Pommereulle is a dance of execration during which the artist travels through worlds symbolically opposed to the West, in search of gestures and rhythms, connections and sensations that no longer have anything to do with rationalism: exorcism, repetition, discontinuity, access to the impossible. If the poet Arthur Rimbaud had made films in Abyssinia, he would have created Vite. Two further unique instances of critical protest bring to its culmination the polemical experimentation typical of the 1970s; namely Yaa Bôe (1975) by Dominique Avron and Jean-Bernard Brunet, a joyous little pamphlet demonstrating through the sheer force of its formal invention the predatory character of the cinematic apparatus as a powerful Western technique for the visual conquest of the world; and also Ali au pays des merveilles (1976), a film about Algerian immigration in Paris, whose authors Djouhra Abouda and Alain Bonnamy confront the official denials of racism with the brilliant eloquence of a documented conflict, a political struggle between shots, sounds and discourses, producing a general conflagration whose symbolic violence constitutes a proportional response to the oppressive violence of the social reality.
Another highly individual form of protest cinema, the psychedelic autobiography, can be traced back to the mid-1960s. This is no longer a question of presenting a critical vision of the world, but rather the creation here and now of a visionary reality, starting from a unique and singular point of view that is capable of rebuilding a human community. With Voyageur diurne (1966), Homéo (1967) and Chromo sud (1968), the French Canadian Étienne O’Leary inaugurates the flamboyant tradition of hedonist and utopian filmed journals. His example inspires Pierre Clémenti’s Visa de censure no.X (1967) and New Old (1978), Alain Montesse’s U.S.S. (1970) and Les Situs heureux (1970-76), and Ahmet Kut’s Pour faire un bon voyage prenons le train (1973) ... All use the same technique, the daily filming of the everyday, in 16mm or Super-8, employing rapid montage and multiple superimpositions, often with saturated colours, sumptuous graphic effects and lots of music, sometimes created by the film-maker himself (e.g. Pierre Clémenti playing live accompaniment to the projection of his films). Two crucial works mark the historical and formal limits of this tradition: Clémenti’s Visa de censure no.X in 1967 and Ixe by Lionel Soukaz in 1980. In an intimate mode of expression, these two artists take up the protest against social censorship and private self-censorship: both exposing their lives and their bodies in the smallest details of their pleasure and their pain; both pursuing an aesthetic of collage, flashing montage and generous doses of pop music; both following the same ethical “appeal to disorder”, a call to live (as proclaimed by the poster of the Kurosawa film Live  that we see on the walls of Lionel Soukaz’s room), according to Rimbaud’s “scrambling of all the senses”. Certain social changes of the 1970s are summed up in the difference of tone between these two otherwise very similar works. In 1967, Clémenti’s euphoric psychedelia incorporates images of death, struggle and exorcism into a radiant, densely mystical energy that absorbs those images and transposes them into a love song. But thirteen years later, in Soukaz’s work, despite the love, the beauty and the corrosive laughter, an irresistible movement now carries the protagonist towards death, pleasure becoming convulsion, the flashes becoming atomic explosions, the sampled songs becoming a sardonic snigger. Ixe wipes out the 1970s and announces prophetically the different pandemics (including AIDS) that would only be identified from 1985. Between 1967 and 1980, sexual desire has been cruelly transformed from the driving-force of liberation into a deadly game of chance, and in the following decades all that remained was for it to be reduced to a mere advertising strategy. We can be sure that this tragic trajectory will one day be visible in Soukaz’s filmed journal, Les 1001 heures, journaI/annales, a fascinating work in progress since 1991 that has yet to be shown publicly.
Finally, in this section, French cinema has always been rich in solitary pamphleteers, some of whom have preferred to work in the context of industrial cinema and even genre cinema, far from the collective movements of social protest. This reclaiming of a genre by a critical spirit has given us some masterpieces, each of which represents a brilliant formal proposition. First, there is the great Jacques Tati, whose Playtime (1967) and Trafic (1971) are critical essays of a supreme stylistic elegance about the supposedly advanced features of a consumer society. In Amours collectives (1976), Jean- Pierre Bouyxou subverts pornographic cinema by crossing a sense of burlesque improvisation with a veritable passion for the human body. Jacques Demy with Une chambre en ville (1982) and Chantal Akerman with Golden Eighties (1986) each pay homage to the most unreal of genres, the musical comedy, by linking it to the most concrete of real problems, the class struggle. With Ma 6-T va cracker (1997), Jean-Franfois Richet, a great admirer of Soviet cinema, crosses the ethnographic cinema of Jean Rouch with the action films of John Woo, and frames the result with revolutionary music videos: political analysis and unreasoning rebellion, sentimental identification and formal distanciation, alternate, accumulate and merge into a cinematic proposition with an energy unmatched in French cinema.
If Richet is today the only film-maker directly representing the collectivity with motifs of crowds, tribes and class, other artists are renewing genre cinema by working with individual characters: a French teen-movie, Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta et moi (1994), by introducing discontinuity everywhere, between people, between shots, between types of images, draws the ultimate portrait of adolescence hallucinated by the absolute, whether it be love (for the heroine, Christine) or freedom (for the hero, Nicolas). In surely the most corseted of genres, the historical reconstitution of Saint-Cyr (1999), Mazuy again succeeds in profoundly questioning the strange workings of rationalisation: rather than employing the usual techniques of modernist distinction, she develops a critical construction from the scenario, in the manner of Rossellini and Francesco Rosi, so we have to deduce the film’s proposition from the crossing of the characters’ trajectories (the sympathetic little girl rebels, the rebellious girl wears herself out). In another move, Baise-moi by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh-Ti (2000) imports into France a minor American genre, the rape revenge movie: the film proclaims loud and clear its formal nudity and invents an intransigent irony that makes it one of the most violent and idealistic films about power ever made. Caspar Noé’s Seul contre tous (1998) articulates both gore film and visual essay, and its descent into the psyche of a fascist butcher admirably expresses the autism of hatred. All of the above examples are rare and solitary films that nonetheless transform the most restrictive and widespread aspects of cinema (genre and stereotype) into formal treasures. They are the authentically popular films of that “missing people” identified by Carmelo Bene and later by Gilles Deleuze.9
Always at the Vanguard of the Avant-Garde!
On 9 January 2002, coming out of the Trois Luxembourg cinema, Andre S. Labarthe turned to Maurice Lemaître and declared: “That’s what will remain of cinema when everything else has been destroyed.” He was referring to the projection of Un soir au cinéma (1962), which Lemaître, its indefatigable creator, had typically just transformed into a live performance. The exchange is significant for this history of forms. For here were the two great branches of modern cinema in France, the New Wave and Lettrism, speaking to each other again after decades of rivalry and mutual incomprehension. And yet in the 1950s they had sat alongside each other at the Cinémathèque of Henri Langlois, whom they had also jointly defended in the demonstrations leading up to the revolt of May 1968. However, whereas the project of the New Wave was to invade the mainstream by various means (notably by creating independent economic structures, like Rohmer and Truffaut), the strategy of the Lettrists was, on the contrary, to refuse any compromise whatsoever with the film industry or the art market. The result of their refusal is that, fifty years after Le traité de bave et d‘éternité by Isidore Isou and Le film à déjà commencé? by Maurice Lemaître (both 1951), we can observe the exceptional phenomenon of an avant-garde movement that has lasted half a century, and still continues today, without losing any of its radical aesthetics and ethics (two synonymous terms in the context of Lettrism). So although 1960 is an important date in the cultural memory of French and world cinema because of the New Wave, one could equally argue that 1951 marks the real break and renewal in terms of formal history, since with those two films Isou and Lemaitre established a profound inversion of formal values that has characterised a certain tendency in French experimental cinema for the last fifty years. All the essentials are present in these two works: the privileging of critical reflexivity, of unfinished work, of destruction; an aesthetic of discontinuity, negativity and appropriation; and a possible fusion of art and life via the creative disruption of the parameters of the film apparatus (what the Lettrists called “syncinema”, later to be known as “expanded cinema”).
After Le traité de bave et d’éternité, Isou more or less abandons cinema, but from 1962 Lemaître takes up the initiative in this field and since then his filmic creations have never ceased. For Lemaître, each film work must be simultaneously a new formal proposition (about the relationships between image and sound, image and body, or film and projection); an invention in aesthetic terms (on the status of the work in life); and an assertion about the history of art (its so-called “meca-aesthetic dimension”). Let us cite, among the forty films catalogued that by definition do not cover the whole corpus, a selection of works that Lemaître has made on the basis of these three requirements: Chantal D., star (1968), Le soulèvement de la jeunesse (1969), the series of Six films infinitésimaux et supertemporels (1967-75), Un navet (1976), 50 bons films (1977), the hyperautobiographical series Vies de M.B. (1985-90), especially the sixth episode Tunisie, Tunisie, the homage to Erich Von Stroheim (1979), L’ayant-droit (1991) ...
One day, alas, Lemaître’s films will be shown without their necessary link to live performance: the presence of the artist, the participation of the spectators,the general displacement of the film apparatus. According to syncinema, every material element of cinema can and must be brought to life: the traditional white screen is replaced by a human screen (Un soir au cinéma, 1962), by a screen of flames (Montage, 1976), by sheets of paper distributed to the audience ... The spectator must become a creator, either by participating in the show, or by making the work himself (supertemporal cinema), or by being prevented from making it himself (anti-supertemporal cinema) and therefore being obliged to free himself (anti-anti-supertemporal cinema). Cinema leaves the film theatre, and the film is projected onto buildings, the sky, anywhere and everywhere. The film can be projected intermittently, shown (in the cans) but not projected, constructed during the course of the show. It can equal the sum of the images that the spectators have in their heads, or are carrying on their person, or are capable of making on the spot ... The film show is transformed into a happening, a lucky dip, a critical discussion. It can sometimes not take place at all, or it can happen anywhere and at any time, or it can be the meeting of the film-maker and the spectator on the street, or the simple fact of thinking about it... With the Lettrists (Isou, Lemaître, but also Roland Sabatier and many others), the cinema becomes an infinite expansion of possibilities organized with one simple aim in view: namely that art should be fused with life, that it should not remain the property of a few but should contribute to the liberation of everyone. In the great tradition of Dada, Lettrism has practised the cult of creativity against the cult of the object, of art as the deathly emblem of fetishism.
While the creative rigour and polemical virulence of the Lettrists protect them from any institutional recuperation, their vehemence has also been exerted against those film-makers who, consciously or not, have worked on similar formal questions: the desynchronisation of sound and image (“discrepancy”), the material destruction of the photogram (“chiselling”), graphical research (“hypergraphy”), the absence of the image, appropriation, expanded cinema ... In turn, Godard, Resnais, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and many others have been attacked as crooks and plagiarists. But the most fratricidal polemic took place between the Lettrists and their principal dissident branch, the Situationists. As far as cinema is concerned, Guy Debord, at first very close in the 1950s to the abstract and destructive aesthetic of Francois Dufrêne, Gabriel Pomerand and Gil Wolman, adopted another style in the 1960s and 1970s: Critique de la séparation (1961), La societé du spectacle (1973) and In girum imus et consumimur igni (1978) today represent the classic form of the film essay. This is for three related reasons: first, Debord’s use of visual appropriation expresses his cinephile’s contempt for the cinema, since in “the society of the spectacle” it is no longer possible to make images innocently; second, the soundtrack, almost entirely occupied by the voice of Debord and punctuated by sad and beautiful musical extracts, never diminishes the speculative demands particular to critical theory; and third, the whole accords a new importance to the expression of sentiment in thinking. Whereas the Lettrists are always seeking more artistic radicality in order to open up more formal and conceptual inventions (“Always at the vanguard of the avant-garde until paradise and beyond!”, to quote Lemaître’s formula), Debord explores a single and simple form, the essay-pamphlet, ever more profoundly. His films are the hypothetical product of an impossible encounter; a simplified Lettrist montage crossed with a text written by the philosopher Adorno that somehow has been translated by the eighteenth-century moralist La Rochefoucauld. Their beauty stems from this tension between the elegant irony of a heteroclitic visual collage and the apodictic character of the commentary, which is in turn underlined by the perfect calm of the diction. Like the Dadaists and the Lettrists, Debord conceives his work in an afterlife of art, formally seeking to satisfy two negative criteria: that art should no longer be a symptom of the division between life and creation, nor a simple instrument for the destruction of a divided society. For Debord the solution consists in inflecting critical theory (“the negation of negation”) towards melancholic meditation. The essay can thereby become the site of a subjective assertion of self, even in the “false world” of Adorno, where everything is working towards depriving the individual of himself and teaching him merely to understand his unhappiness. In this regard, it is in Debord’s work – and Lemaître’s Tunisie, Tunisie – that we find a unique formal rehabilitation of feeling: far from any arbitrary pathos, sentiment for Debord no longer represents the obscure origin of an individual expressivity, but results logically from a revindication of speculative sovereignty and a fiercely defended critical dignity.
The Great Exchange of Cinema
The readymade is well known as one of the most radical forms of modern art. The second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation of filmic readymades, such as Une oeuvre by Lemaître (1968), the films or performances of Giovanni Martedi and Nicolas Villodre, but also the appearance of its dysphoric version, the “readystroyed” (if we may introduce the term). Whereas the Duchampian readymade, by the sheer force of its modest presence, quietly induces the collapse of an institution (the Museum) upon its very foundations (the fetishistic conception of art), the “readystroyed” film adds to the refusal of fabrication implied in the found object by further refusing to preserve the film’s integrity. With Graphyty (1969), Jean-Pierre Bouyxou establishes the epitome of the readystroyed; during a year he edits together found images in an aleatory fashion, then paints them, scratches them, adds different soundtracks to them in performance, and simultaneously attends to the decomposition of his film in the course of its projection-cum-performance. Of a maximum length of forty-five minutes, the film today lasts twenty minutes; a generalised destruction of forms, of syntax, of any ideal of self or art, it is twenty minutes of pure infantile beauty, convulsive and enraged. As is always the case, we realise only in retrospect that the destiny of the arts was played out precisely in those forms, which at the time were experienced as peripheral or ignored as extravagant. Thus the Lettrist proposition of syncinema, which simply involves respecting the heterogeneous nature of the cinema apparatus and enriching it with multiple crossovers, notably from live performance, has today become an institutional reality. In museums today, films are hung on the wall like paintings; in galleries, video manipulates film as if it were a natural substance; and in films themselves the different technologies and formats are superimposed, like so many coats of paint, to produce new textures and forms. On this last point, certain contemporary masterpieces belong just as much to the history of video as they do to the history of cinema; Sombre (1998) by Philippe Grandrieux, Île de beauté (1996) and Gold (2000) by Ange Leccia and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, II n’y a rien de plus inutile qu'un organe (1999) by Augustin Gimel, My Room le Grand Canal (2002) by Anne-Sophie Brabant and Pierre Gerbaux, High (2000) by Othello Vilgard, Samouraï (2002) by Johanna Vaude, Histoire(s) du cinema and the end of Éloge de I’amour (2001) by Godard . . . Film shoots become exhibitions, as when Philippe Jacq invites the visitors to a Con temporary Art Fair to watch the making of his film Ophélie et Marat (2001). Or the film’s projected version is adapted into an installation, as in Akerman’s D’Est (1993). For the last thirty years, the work of Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki has practiced these disciplinary hybridisations, between film, video and the visual artists. Their films, installations and performances, organised into grand cycles and closer to architectural frescoes than to episodes or chapters, such as Tétralogie corporelle (1975-9), Cycle de l’Unheimliche (1977-82), Cycle des hermaphrodites (1982-90) or the current Cycle de l’ange, employ the full range of artistic instruments in their studies of the body, especially the female body.
At the start of the 21st century, cinema has become a disciplinary interchange; constantly exporting itself beyond its frontiers, it has invaded the other visual arts and collects all their artistic grafts. In fact, the material medium of cinema has never been as determined or determinant as people like to pretend. From the chronophotographs of Étienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s to the multimedia installations of Chris Marker, in particular Silent Movie (1995), the cinema has not been subordinated to projection any more than to celluloid. We could rather consider it, more generally, as the art of organising or disorganising all its component parts, as the art of montage understood in its broadest sense. Today there is more cinematic commerce in Aveugle (2000) by Régis Cotentin, Pulsar (2002) by Maria Klonaris or the films of Dominik Barbier, which are all made on video, than there is in the majority of films projected in commercial theatres. Does this mean that cinema, once “an impure art”, has now become dissolute? Have we entered a platinum age, corresponding to the golden age of the 1920s? Does the White Ball, with Man Ray projecting Méliès’s colour films onto dancers, transformed into mobile screens, provide the model for Visual Jockeying and other contemporary forms of audiovisual performance? Or are we now witnessing a final firework show before celluloid is devoured by digital? And will cinema leave to the collective imaginary something more than an industrial iconography? We believe that, to use Eisenstein’s expression, its legacy will comprise both the instruments and examples of an art of movement, as well as the keys and principles of the movement of art.10 Certainly the work of great film-makers, from Réne Vautier to Lionel Soukaz, from Jean Rouch to Maria Klonaris and Katerina Thomadaki, from Robert Bresson to Christian Boltanski, authenticates Adorno’s belief that “cinema enlarges the field of art”.11
Mimesis as the Art of Rupture
In France, two related strands of figurative investigation, minimalism and naturalism, have explored the problematics of cinema as mimesis or the representation of the real. Minimalism is essentially an aesthetic of trauma, stripping representation down to its barest essentials, as in the works of Jean-Pierre Melville, Alexandre Astruc, Robert Bresson, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Philippe Garrel, Sylvina Boissonnas, Yvan Lagrange, Jean-Pierre Lajoumade, Christian Boltanski, Chantal Akerman, Gérard Blain, Jacques DoiUon, Claude Lanzmann. Naturalism is not so much the opposite of minimalism as its continuation by other means: in the works of Maurice Pialat, Jean-François Stevenin, Patrick Grandperret and Claire Denis, mimesis is the bare presentation of everyday reality rather than the codified universe of conventional realism. All of these film-makers have worked on mimesis as the art of rupture, clearing the path of all superfluities, in the case of minimalism, and accepting only the sublime, even if it is a sublime of the ordinary, as in the case of naturalism. Although the greatness of these works stems from their extreme singularity, we can identify common traits that characterise this particularly fertile area of formal experimentation. They all use mimesis, explicitly or in effect, as a critique of the verisimilitude of orthodox realism. They also share a common aesthetic horizon: absolute exactitude, whether this be thought of as the truth, as the Real, or as the unnameable. Three principal sources inform their aesthetic project: the decisive historical trauma of World War II; the powerful model of high French classicism, which Paul Bénichou12 called “the morality of the Great Century”, derived from Racine, Pascal and La Rochefoucauld; and a constructivist imperative that each film must discover its own form, rather than obey the iconographic, narrative or plastic conventions currently in force. We can survey this field under five major headings: litotes (understatement); syllepsis (the use of the same term to two different effects); inductive logic (arguing from the particular case to the general truth); discordance (the incompatibility of elements); and the architectonic sublime (a unique structure for each work).
Two fundamental texts, Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer and Marcel Hanoun’s Cinema cinéaste: notes sur l’image écrite, both in turn drawing on Pascal’s Pensées, mark out the ethical necessity and the material means of this art of exactitude. “They lack poverty,” says Bresson13 citing Mozart; “the film is constructed by cutting back images and sounds,” says Hanoun.14 According to litote, when everything else has been removed, that which remains is unquestionable. In order to reach that state, two approaches are possible: either pure factography, a descriptive literalness that presents the event in all its factual cruelty, like the partisans’ bodies that are bound hand and feet and thrown into the river Po at the end of Rossellini’s Paisà (1946); or a strategy of confirmation, like the voice-off that confirms the image in Bresson’s Le Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951) and Pickpocket (1959). For more than twenty years, from the end of the 1950s to the early 1980s, the great factographic films invented new combinations of these two seminal approaches. In Marcel Hanoun’s Une simple histoire (1958), which in turn develops the model of Francesco Maselli’s Histoire de Catherine (1952), there is a system of exact duplication between on-screen dialogue and voice-off, which describes to the last franc the protagonists’ gradual descent into destitution. We find the same extreme approach to the documentary function in Maurice Pialat’s L’amour existe (1960), where the soundtrack announces in descending order a list of statistics regarding poverty in France: “The number of germs per square metre inhaled by a shop-girl: four million. The annual number of keys struck by a typist: fifteen million. Percentage of working-class students at university: three. The number of theatres outside Paris: zero …”. And we find the same idea in Christian Boltanski’s L'essai de reconstitution des 46 jours qui précédèrent la mort de Françoise Guiniou (1971), in which the voice-off describes with an objectivising precision (since it delineates the facts as well as the unfolding of the film) the actions of the people filmed without sound, a profound silence that provides an equivalence to the absence of response and love that is slowly killing them: “The Jean Jaurès housing-project was constructed in 1933. Here they come up the stairs and go into the apartment. Here they are in the kitchen …”. And finally in Straub and Huillet’s Trop tôt, trop tard (1981), we hear a voice reading the enumeration of taxes, of the poor and the dead, established by Engels in The Peasant Question in France and Germany (1894), which informs the landscapes we see filmed in long sequence-shots.
One of the obvious strengths of this pure literalness is that, far from being univocal, it leads to forms of syllepsis (the same element used twice in different ways), which can describe the real precisely in its complexity. At the start of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970), for example, we see two men get into a train. Similarly dressed, they also have the same blank facial expression, they make the same gestures, without exchanging a word. Are they accomplices, colleagues, friends, brothers? They go into their compartments and we discover that they are joined together by a pair of handcuffs. But the twin-like prologue lends a human fraternity to their social antagonism. Certain films maintain the syllepsis throughout: for example, Christian Boltanski’s L’essai de reconstitution des 46 jours qui précédèrent la mort de Françoise Guiniou transposes the enforced seclusion of Anne Frank into the suicidal seclusion of Franfoise Guiniou. But the latter is probably no less constrained by emotional and economic factors than the former, so the current-day story of Françoise Guiniou is also and simultaneously part of a collective historical mourning. In similar fashion, Philippe Garrel’s Le berceau de cristal (1975) portrays mainly in long takes a series of characters isolated from each other: Garrel himself, Tina Aiunont, Margareth Clémenti... and above all Nico. She dreams, writes, composes, and on her monumental face we witness the temporality of the creative act, as if we were entering the spiritual world of Sappho or a mythological poetess. But in the final shot, Nico picks up a gun and shoots herself in the head. What we understood as creative meditation must now be rethought as preparation for death, the work as testament, the portrait as a memento mori.
Whether it be in the works of Bresson, Melville, Pialat, Garrel or Boltanski, why are they peopled by all these obstinate, fierce, solitary characters, blinded by their passion? What is the “reason for these effects”, as Pascal would say? What infinite powers must we infer from this art of understatement? In modern cinema, there are three types of infinity we can establish by induction, although they may often appear superimposed or, with certain film-makers, mixed together. The first is transcendence, as in the great tradition of Bresson, who considers any figurative universe as a negative anthropology. The second infinity is the historical trauma of World War II, which determines in particular the aesthetic of Melville, as Olivier Bohler has demonstrated: whether cops or gangsters, partisans or gamblers, the characters survive the trauma according to a code of behaviour derived directly from the Resistance, and founded upon clandestinity, moral rigour and sacrificial loyalty, which are totally incompatible with the industrial modernity of the so-called ”thirty glorious years” of post-war economic prosperity. According to Bohler, Melville invented the contrary of the archetype, the teletype, in other words “a figure neither living nor dead, inheriting a past that is definitively extinguished, and for whom there is no future”.15 While maintaining the anachronistic values of the Resistance, and investing them in figures as apparently different as a partisan leader or a Samurai, Melville affirms the presence of an irreparable trauma at the heart of a modernity that is less interested in treating the wound than in dramatically forgetting or foreclosing it. Only Pialat, in L’amour existe, L’enfance nue (1970) and La maison des bois (1971), and Christian Boltanski in his entire filmic and artistic output, have recorded with such implacable constancy the forms of survival, in the industrial world, of the disasters of war.
The third infinity, rarely commented upon, is economic oppression, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as defined by Hegel: “an alien power over which man has no control... a scarcely knowable, invisible, and incalculable power ... this unconscious and blind fate”.16 This is the most frightening infinity of all, because it is the most banal and ineluctable, yet it structures the formal invention of Bresson, Hanoun, Pialat, Garrel, Jean Eustache and Jacques Doillon. Bresson’s character Mouchette epitomises the figure of the pariah: despite her total emotional destitution, distraught solitude and economic misery, which place her beyond the bounds of the village and transform her into a sexual prey, she manifests nonetheless a fierce class solidarity with her rapist when, against all the evidence, she declares to the bourgeois women who come to her assistance that “Monsieur Arsène is my lover”. Rather poverty, rather emotional confusion, rather rape and death than accept the false charity of wealthy old women. Such is Mouchette, the figure of political intransigence who does not need anyone or anything to remind her where justice resides. The female protagonist of Hanoun’s Une simple histoire obeys the same logic: descending into poverty, she does not even think about asking for help from anyone, because this is still a time when women have interiorized the laws of oppression to such an extent that they only have duties but no rights. The difference between Bresson’s Mouchette and Hanoun’s character Micheline Bezançon lies in the treatment of interiority: whereas Mouchette’s intuition does not vary one iota, Micheline goes deeper into the experience of disaster, and through her we understand more painfully the way in which poverty affects human relations and the relationship to the world. When, from the depths of her despair that renders everything opaque and incomprehensible, she says, “I went by a tunnel where cars were going in and coming out further oh, we realise that, unlike the cars, fragile human beings do not always re-emerge from the shadows. However, it is the same world that we must infer both from the off-screen space of Mouchette (1967), where cars constantly pass but never stop, and from the suburban wastelands of Une simple histoire, where women end up abandoned: it’s a world where to be poor is to be guilty”.
Where Bresson represents the infinity of earthly evil in the form of an event, and Hanoun represents it as a process of psychological interiorisation, Maurice Pialat proceeds in the same inductive manner to extend this observation onto a class level and to describe self-deprivation as a condition accepted by the majority of people, and the absence of self as an active principle of socialisation. The silent shots of the miners’ demonstration at the start of L’enfance nue, the distant allusions to unemployment in Passe ton bac d’abord (1979) – and the same is true of the financial impossibility of Daniel continuing his education in Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses (1974) – all designate an economic context that is never treated other than in terms of its effects and whose relationship to events is never presented as direct or even certain. In L’enfance nue, perhaps it is poverty that obliges François’s mother to abandon her son, but perhaps she is also an unworthy mother. In Passe ton bac d’abord, a common resignation is transmitted from generation to generation: emotional relationships get worse and worse, nobody learns anything at school, the working-class woman sleeps with the bar-owner out of pure emotional lack, the mines close, people have to go to Paris to find work. But none of this is experienced as scandalous, the everyday is saturated with familial and tribal gestures and it provides a thick, ultimately protective, barrier between the adolescent apprenticeship of selfhood and the harsh economic realities. As it is said in L’amour existe, “this is the time of civil barracks, of prison-camps financed on the instalment plan, of town-planning conceived in terms of refusecollection, and cheap materials worn out before the building is complete”. Having stated head-on this collective suffering, Pialat’s work explores those individual resources that allow human beings to endure the violence they must suffer without even having the means to account for what is happening to them.
What characterises the relationship between effect and cause, event and origin, personality and environment is discordance, a dissonance between the powers of the world and our powers of understanding. Discordance may take the form of an excess, an event that is unassimilable by fiction, for example the reappearance of the supposedly dead gamekeeper in Mouchette. But more generally it takes the form of an absence, a lack, because what remains incomprehensible and unacceptable is the inaccessibility of other people. The great modern characters are figures of abandonment: Mouchette, Françoise Guiniou, Micheline Bezançon, François in L’enfance nue, Hervé in La maison des bois, the child in Garrel’s Le révélateur (1968), who is pursuing his own abandonment, or the protagonist of Sylvia Boissonnas’s Un Film (1969), played by the film-maker herself, cloistered in her barrel into which are poured sand, like tons of despair, and water, like floods of tears. These constructions deal head-on with the impossibility of finding a corresponding counter-shot, a space that is exterior to the shot, some kind of a response. The perfect illustration of this is Pialat’s La maison des bois, in which war produces a mass of children who have lost their parents, but also, and even more tragically, just as many parents who are desperately searching for their children. When they do exist, even the closest relationships – whether blood-ties (legitimate children) or emotional bonds (orphans, lovers, husband and wife) – are destroyed by collective history (Pialat, Eustache). But more often they are not even possible, and the films become rituals of lamentation and mourning (Boltanski, Boissonnas, Garrel), or denial (as in Doillon’s Ponette, 1996). The third type of discordance, the most astonishing, concerns those films that are trying to find forms of healing, ways of getting over the trauma, of bringing experience back into the realm of understanding, or of discovering a route to the inaccessible: but then nothing is more painful than the healing process. In Hanoun’s L’authentique procès de Carl Emmanuel Jung (1967), for example, a fundamental essay on barbarism, there is the shot of the torturer Jung finally screaming his guilt, a shot that is realised but at the same time is explicitly signalled as impossible. In Hanoun’s L’été (1968), there is the final undecidable shot where we perhaps hear the man murmuring to the woman “I’ve come to get you”. In Bresson, there is the shot of Mouchette in tears, exhausted, beside her dying mother and almost appearing to breast-feed her younger brother, thereby offering a poignant image of what she will no longer be and what she will never become, neither daughter, wife nor mother. Symmetrical to this image we can place that of Françoise Guiniou, who has just strangled her daughter and is offering her breast to her older son. Or there is the elegiac “Deutschland über Alles” that we hear at the end of the third episode of Pialat’s La maison des bois, accompanying a forward tracking-shot that instead of finishing on the corpse of a German moves slowly towards the face of a surviving French soldier. Finally there are the adolescents at the end of Doillon’s Les doigts dans la tête (1974) who have lost everything, family, work, love, but who sing their total and unconditional freedom at the top of their voices. All these moments represent acts of symbolic healing in respect of collective suffering and private pain, and although there is something necessarily impossible about these acts, they do constitute modern cinema’s response to Pascal’s expression of fear as “suffering this pain and abandonment in the horror of the night”. They are consciously working against the evidence of despair.
The final important form is the architectonic sublime. From the pure seriality of Sylvia Boissonnas’s Un film to the fragmentary sketches of Godard’s videographic essays, there is no preconceived composition, the films invent their own rules of construction. Sometimes the scaffolding is left visible, as in Hanoun’s Octobre a Madrid (1964), sometimes it is all that is visible, as in Hanoun’s Un film (1983), whereas in other cases the films enact their own destruction and extinction, like the admirable libertarian films of Jean-Pierre Lajournade, Cinéma cinéma (1969), Le joueur de quilles (1969) and La fin des Pyrenees (1971). One artist, Philippe Garrel, reinvents the rules of construction in every film, as is readily visible in his films of the 1970s and 1980s, where the motifs are always the same (portraits, especially of women), the sequences are always serial, but the architecture is different each time. Un ange passe (1975), for example, exposes in a profound and disturbing way the powers of parallel editing. Two types of sequences are alternated throughout the film: on the one hand, portraits of Nico, on the other, dialogues between the actors (Laurent Terzieff, Maurice Garrel, Bulle Ogier, Jean-Pierre Kalfon). These two sides of the film never meet, their relationship remains implicit, mysterious, suspended. What is happening, however, on each side of this schism? It is essentially a formal question, the question of creation. What is the relationship between Nico’s face and her music? Is she remembering, preparing, contemplating her music? Is she letting it take her over or is she taking a rest from it? Symmetrically, the spoken sequences with the actors represent all the possible forms of the sketch, they show the actors at work, getting ready to perform, in performance, improvising and in full flight. In this way, the timeless, indescribable and enigmatic link between Nico and her song, the sublime link of creation, is displayed in its clear, material, concrete forms by the actors, who remain in a perpetually formless time of work-in-progress. Thus Un ange passe proposes two endings, the first is classical, like a fairy-tale, in which the fairies are the modern forms of poetry, with Nico playing in concert, far off, on the distant stage, caught in an immense beam of white light; she becomes the syncretic image of poetry, musician, poetess, actress, priestess. As for the second ending, with the actors, its incompleteness is made sublime by a falling away: starkly shot against the devouring light of an immense bay, Laurent Terzieff and Maurice Garrel speak to each other, reciting the German poet Rilke and the shortest haiku in the world: “A man falls. The sound of water.” To reach this point, Garrel has had to invent a new structure, which shows at the same time the profound silence presiding over the demiurge, as well as the concrete, sometimes faltering, inspiration – nurtured by hesitations and anxieties – that characterises the working of art.
Questions of Formal Negligence
In contrast to the inventive and experimental qualities that distinguish the films discussed in this chapter, what should we say, in conclusion, about the formal negligence in mainstream cinema? What is there to say about purely conventional forms? Is it just a question of formlessness? Is it perhaps an eternally fixed formal repertory? Or maybe it is a continual bastardisation of older forms, and if so which ones? Does the process have a history? Do we really need to analyse it, or does the corpus by definition contain no surprises and nothing that we do not know already? For the moment, then, we simply propose to replace this vast and exciting historical project by an enjoyable projection of Maurice Lemaître’s Un navet ...
(... And then there all the lost films.)
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Originally published as ‘Forms 1960-2003. For It Is the Critical Faculty That Invents Fresh Forms (Oscar Wilde)’ in The French Cinema Book, edited by Michael Temple and Michael Witt (BFI Publishing: London, 2004).
© Nicole Brenez, used by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.