Saturday, November 14, 2020

Gertrud

 Continuing the revision of the Cinema in Transit remaining translations.


Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer) 

There was no better way of opening this Dreyer month than with the great Dane’s last film, Gertrud, shunned by the foolish in 1964 and now overwhelming on its re-release. 

Once, I saw a man weeping in a film. Only once, and I really mean weeping. It happened one Wednesday in December 1964, an hour after the start of the first public screening of Gertrud, a Danish (and quickly damned) film by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The weeper (Gabriel Lidman, a poet by profession) was sitting there on a sofa to the right of Gertrud (to our left) in a tailcoat and in good health and was making a speech about his unhappiness (at having been left by Gertrud in the past and at never having understood why). And then, there’s an odd silence, the words are halted, the naked face is convulsed, the mouth is puckered up in an ugly grimace, there’s a futile snuffling of the nose, the eyes mist over and the man whimpers in pain. The poet can no longer endure the upright position and turns his numbed body to have a good cry on the arm of the couch. The woman tells him kindly: “You’re taking it all too much to heart, Gabriel”. It is a great moment in cinema. 

So what happened? Gabriel Lidman, poet laureate and bard of love, lives in Rome. He has returned to celebrate his fiftieth birthday at home, in the best Copenhagen society, but with the only hope of seeing Gertrud again. “Gertrud, Gertrud, why did you leave me?” – this is his sole refrain. And when he actually sees her again and finally addresses her, on the tragic sofa, it is even worse than he thought. Gertrud had left him to marry Kanning, a politician with ministerial prospects, but (at the start of the film) she has just decided to leave him too. Gertrud is ready to go off with a fashionable young musician, but in the next minutes she will give him up too. She will go her way and Gabriel his, irremediably. There is indeed something to cry about. Dreyer is one of the few un-misogynistic directors (along with Mizoguchi and Renoir) who knows full well that at the decisive moment it is men who strain their eyes looking in the past, and who weep. From rage, impotence and longing. 

Dreyer was seventy-five when he was able to adapt this Swedish play by Hjalmar Söderberg. Because he was filming very little (despite an abundance of projects), he had long since entered cinema history before having ended his own (he would die in 1968). Twelve years come between Day of Wrath and Ordet and another ten before Gertrud. A difficult situation and a major injustice. The outcome is that the Paris “release” of Gertrud remains one of the great milestones in the history of critical blindness. The press, reckoning it to be a doddering film, savaged it and the audiences stayed away. The outcome was that it was very pleasant to be among those who “defended” Gertrud against the idiocy of the critical establishment. It was a time when great auteurs could still shock. Two years later it would be Ford’s turn (Seven Women) to be slated. 

What the film narrates and how the film narrates it is the same thing (when the film is good). Gertrud leads her life as Dreyer leads his film: calmly, but at breakneck speed. In love with what, in the world of men, allows her to love. Full of scathing affection for their pathetic inability to do anything else than love themselves. Always disappointed and finally proud of having finished with these male ghosts, growing old alone and surviving “when everything is over”. How to film the irremediable? How to film it all the time? This was always Dreyer’s question. How to film a world with no imaginable remedy but love for which there is no remedy? How not to engender desire (and when it comes to physical desire, Dreyer is one of the most precise directors) whose detumescence or sublimation could not be filmed face on, like Gabriel’s tears, Gertrud’s blind gaze, the cowardice of the young musician and the hoarse scream of the abandoned minister. 

Seeing again Gertrud today, or quite simply seeing it as if no one had ever seen it before, amounts to a shock. Dreyer is one of the giants of cinema. In 1964, this theatre play filmed in black and white, with its antiquated theme (Love with a capital L), its unknown, straight-laced Danish actors, looked like some quaintly old-fashioned and half-witted classic lost among the spruce new-wavery of modern cinema. Only his admirers perceived once more Dreyer’s terrifying modernity, the logical progression of forty years of cinema spent probing the bottomlessness of love, and the false bottoms of the scenographic cube, employing white as torture, and music (or else tears) as what arises when words are no longer enough. And today, at a point when this modernity is apparent to everyone, the film is still ahead of its time and fits the eighties like a glove. 

It is hard to talk about Dreyer because there is something blinding or disarming (like a Moebius strip that can’t be edited together) in his way of opening the cinema out onto an extra dimension, the dimension of thought, when time and space are reversible (read what Deleuze has to say about this in L’image-mouvement page 145*). You slide between the frame, the shot and the scene. The present is immediately the past (and Gertrud holds herself on the wave of the present, empty and ecstatic), but the past returns intact as if it had never been present; the dream is real but reality has no more weight than a reverie. The most beautiful grey-scale photography in the history of cinema lays out endless layers of light like clouds of time, and since everything is irremediable, nothing looms through them. 

A less brilliant director than Dreyer would be laborious in this layering of dimensions. In Gertrud everything is given in a single gesture. Speed and slowness, for example. Gertrud, slow? When a word, a melody, a clearing of the throat are enough to precipitate the fate of several. Gertrud, fast? When a sob, a look or a word can take an eternity to appear or alight. Are Gabriel Lidman’s tears over his fate speeded up, or are they slowed down? Both, and that’s what is beautiful. 

* Gilles Deleuze, L’image-mouvement, Editions de Minuit, 1983. [Translator's note: check page 107 of this English edition: Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, 1986: “By suppressing ‘atmospheric’ perspective Dreyer produces the triumph of a properly temporal or even spiritual perspective. Flattening the third dimension, he puts two-dimensional space into an immediate relation with the affect, with a fourth and fifth dimension, Time and Spirit.”] 

First published in Libération on 12 October 1983. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Miss Oyu

Mizoguchi and the dentist. 

Miss Oyu 
In the early fifties Mizoguchi made only fine films. This story of a ménage à trois adapted from a short story by Tanizaki is no exception to the rule. 
First the design. A man goes to meet the woman he is to marry (and whom he does not know); he sees Oyu walking in front, Oyu sees him: it’s love at first sight. The problem is that is she’s not the one he is to marry, but her sister, Shizu. In the undergrowth where the meeting takes place (Mizoguchi is cinema’s master of the undergrowth and the glade) everything is already conjoined between dream and fear of awakening. The foreboding of a misfortune which will resemble no other, the need to nonetheless put an image – a shot – to this misfortune (as we say “to put a name to a face”), the impossibility of escaping the music of the great Hayasaka Fumio, who takes this distinguished world by the hand never to let it go. For we are among the well-to-do; Oyu, widowed with a young child, is compelled by social convention to live with her parents-in-law and not re-marry. She is refined and exquisite, gives concerts and is somewhat mincing. It is the archetypal Mizoguchi actress Tanaka Kinuyo who plays Oyu. 
In 1951, between Portrait of Madame Yuki and The Lady of Musashino (both with Tanaka as their leading lady), Mizoguchi was working on his finest portraits of women. Thwarted or impossible loves, baseness of men and Bovaryisme of women. He is always on the side of the women, never the men. In this respect Miss Oyu is a film which sums up the others, like a theorem which contains all possibilities but itself remains exceptionally mysterious. 
There is indeed a man, the nice, helpless Shinnosuke (Hori Yuji). There is indeed Miss Oyu, first as a (somewhat) frivolous and later self-abnegating widow. But they are not the story. Nor does it depend on them. It is the third character, Shizu (Otawa Nobuko) who matters. It is the intermediary who is central. Shizu loves Shinnosuke (so at least she declares), but seeing him smitten by Oyu she offers him this astonishing contract: their marriage will remain unconsummated and the three of them will live together with the onus on him to “make her sister happy”. For Shizu has only one wish: to stay with them, between them, and be their “little sister”. The first part of the film is this strange ménage à trois, which soon sets tongues wagging but where, despite apparent good spirits, sexual frustration is at a peak. 
The second part begins with the death of Oyu’s child. Back with the reality principle, she agrees to marry an old sake brewer and to disappear from the life of the young couple, which falls apart. Everything collapses very quickly: Shizu gives Shinnosuke a child and dies. One evening, Oyu, neglected by her new husband, gives an outdoor concert. The crying of a newborn can be heard in the reeds. Shinnosuke has just abandoned his child with a letter for Oyu. This replacement child is the only link between the three characters, who are now separated forever. It is a small wailing symbol. 
Mizoguchi did not invent this story. He never invented any of them anyway, demanding adaptations of classic and modern novels from his screenwriters (especially Yoda Yoshikata, his favourite whipping boy). This time Yoda tackled “The Reeds Cutter”, one of two short stories by Tanizaki, later published together in France under the title Two Cruel Loves. In Tanizaki’s novel the male character was more central to the story. In the Yoda-Mizoguchi adaptation the centre is empty, or rather it is occupied by Shizu, a character who has agreed to derive all her pleasure from the very fact of being between. It is quite logical. Mizoguchi has always tried to understand what links human beings to one another. Money, desire, kinship. He attempted the impossible: to film these links as they are, like hyphenations. And since he was a great draughtsman and a very solitary man he always preferred the hyphen. 
And then the manner of it – meaning, how to describe the very singular emotion which gets hold of us at each viewing or re-viewing of a Mizoguchi film? I would make a stab at a metaphor, and so as not to give these films any over-worthy and sublimatory image, I would select a rather trivial one. Imaging yourself sitting somewhere else. Not in the cinema theatre, but in the dentist’s chair. Ghastly? Quite. Imagine yourself, stoical but anxious, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed too. The director (what I mean is the dentist) adjusts the chair so as to get a better look. The sick tooth is approached, the cold metal instruments “burn”; this is full-scale metonymy. And when, gradually, the tooth is touched, because of the whole apparatus (I mean to say the editing) it will have become very difficult for you to distinguish between the real pain (ouch!), the blank pain wiped out by the local anaesthetic (ouch?) and the bitter satisfaction of the thought that the pain has been reached and there’s no need to look elsewhere (phew!). Good. 
But there’s still something missing from this banally masochistic ritual. The music is missing, the consoling background noise of some inexplicable cheerfulness or some sublime serenity, the way it floods out of the radio on France-Musique in a never-ending stream. With Mizoguchi, those three components (the stamp of pain, the courage of lucidity and a beauty that has become foreign, even cloying) are each in step with the other. This is why his films are heartrending. This is why Miss Oyu is sublime. 
Mizoguchi’s films conjugate three movements: the movement of the actor’s bodies, the movement of the camera and the movement of the music. Sometimes these movements are synchronic. That’s when we speak of harmony. But harmony doesn’t mean story. The story begins with dissonance, the freewheeling effect, the chalk-scored board or the snagged duration, when the movements begin to desynchronise. As if (to return momentarily to our dental metaphor) the consolatory music were to be stuck, the local anaesthetic no longer worked and the picture collapsed along with the chair. Mizoguchi keeps his actors, camera and music on a leash that is only ever slackened to catch them all the more. Therein lies his cruelty. 
For example, near the middle of Miss Oyu, the music thins out, consoling nobody anymore, absorbing nothing: then, the characters, reduced to their movements, become a dead weight of the disenchanted quotidian, and the gaze held on them becomes documentary. Or else the actor begins to collide with the set, to bump into the grasses, to put up barriers between him and the others, so as to escape. To escape the camera, to escape the other, to escape oneself. The rigidity of the Japanese social code, combined with the tightness of kimonos, makes these flights as desperate (and even faintly burlesque) as sack races. Or else it’s the camera which abruptly disaffiliates itself from what it is showing, taking on a life of its own and soaring up to fasten on the characters from above like so many transfixed butterflies. 
This is why if one had to define the art of Mizoguchi Kenji (whom I hope everyone knows is one of the giants of the cinema) it’s not viewing angles and off camera field we’d need to talk about, but of “taking the field”. In every sense, literal and otherwise. 

First published as “Mizogochi and the hard law of desire” in Libération on 12 December 1988. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. The translation is from the Cinema in Transit project, with a few modifications. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Toute une nuit

Toute une nuit – Chantal Akerman 

“A whole night,” in Brussels, Chantal Akerman weaves a film web. Fast love, germs of a story, emotion of the beginnings. She films at dusk, in great form. 

Chantal Akerman wrote to us regularly. She put her address on the back of the envelope (Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles - 1975), she signed (Je, tu, il, elle - 1974), she gave news in English (News from Home - 1976), she even made appointments (Les Rendez-vous d'Anna - 1978). Letters arrived, thrown in the waste basket by some, read with passion by others. I was more a part of the “others”. But, since 1978, no mail. Projects, but no films. This “lost” time must have nourished Toute une nuit, a film that is very free, low budget and quite funny. One of her best. 

What is it about? Akerman imagines that one night, in Brussels (identifiable from the first shot with the St Gudula Cathedral), it is very warm. Worse: it’s muggy. One of those summer nights with 16mm grain and direct sound indiscretions. Instead of going to bed, a large number of Belgian men and women behave strangely, in a way normally associated with characters of a Sci Fi film, before special effects kick in. They will struggle to sleep, even more to sleep alone. The city becomes a commotion of hypertrophied sounds, cafés refuse to close, an Italian hit song (L’amore, sai) pierces through. 

Another sound comes on top of these “natural” sounds. The sound of bodies which, exhausted by this nervous desire, fall heavily into each other’s arms, throwing and embracing each other. Once, twice, ten times, like variations on a unique theme. That night, when the curtain rises, we only see crushes in the dark, secretive impulses, half-missed rendezvous, baroque ideas, the sound of doors opening for the expected one, of heels on the pavement, of sleepwalkers’ talks. For a whole night everyone seems to be a winner at the lottery of the desire. 

It’s the funny part of the film, which confirms that Akerman is rather talented when it comes to madcap comedy, half-way between Tati and cartoons. She knows the clumsiness and the heaviness of these Belgian bodies, their fatigue and their moods, their awkward impetus. A gallery of “characters” is captured at the moment where it’s too early (or too late) to ask them “what they do for a living”. They are in the hour between wolf and dog, scattered in a warm night, very excited. 

Love, though, happens off camera. We see a lot of sweat, plenty of sensuality, but no sex. Akerman films the before and the after. Except that the after carries the traces of the before. Toute une nuit imperceptibly becomes a documentary on ways to sleep, on rituals, on bed sheets. A moustachioed man in a white singlet struggles to sleep on his couch (he is a writer but we will only learn this in the morning). An aged woman suddenly leaves her husband who slept in blue pyjamas; she goes to a hotel before changing her mind and going back to the blue pyjamas, thirty seconds before the alarm clock rings. A young man wakes up his partner, a soldier who sneaked out of the barracks and slips out of mauve bed sheets. The night is longer than the desire; the camera is more patient that the night; the city is waking up: Brussels is going to become Brussels again. 

We were waiting for daybreak, here it is. It’s the most beautiful part of the film. Twice obscure heroes, the “characters” are entering the light of day. Half-seen and half-known. We know just little enough about them to still see them for who they are, with traces of dreams on their faces, wrong reflexes boiling the morning coffee, memory lapses. Then, a soundtrack is unleashed and encircles them, like an island of possible fictions in a small (Belgian) world without fiction, a motionless racket. The real fiction, that goes from A to Z, from “once upon a time” to “the end”, is not for this film. With Toute une nuit, Chantal Akerman only films from A to B. Like thousand hopes of small fictions, but never a great story. If a circle is ideally made of infinite straight lines, here are a few lines. If a line is but a suite of dots, here are some dots. If a dot is, at its limit, an immaterial concept, then here is some immateriality. Knowing Akerman’s admiration for Ozu, this doesn’t come as a surprise. 

One objection can be made. And here it is. Ozu was telling a story. At the moment of the climax, unlike western filmmakers, he inserted these famous “empty” shots – a slipper or a factory chimney – to allow the audience to breathe in all directions and not just in the direction of the forced march of the story toward its denouement (it was the ma!). But it was a time when telling a story came naturally and washing dirty linen (in public) was simpler. Akerman shows the linen (she has a – Jewish – family and a mother, who plays in the film), shows the washing (her talent as a filmmaker) but it is the eye of the spectator that she wants to clean. It’s the audience that she wants to stop from sleeping, by suggesting that “a whole night” is long enough for a body to go through all its states, including the impossible states of desire and the least probable states of the love posture. The audience’s state included.

 First published in Libération on 29 October 1984. Reproduced in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinema, Paris, 1986.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Spring Rolls

Yet another translation. This time by Srikanth Srinivasan on his blog The Seventh Art.  When Daney was getting rather excited by television...


Spring Rolls

First published in Libération on 13 May 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma.

Monday, August 31, 2020

1984

Still revising and publishing the Cinema in Transit translations...

1984 (Michael Radford)

Before our very eyes, Orwell’s classic becomes a listed building. The guided tour is disappointing. Is Michael Radford an academic director? And what is academicism anyway?

What is more ambiguous than excessive fidelity? That of Michael Radford toward 1984 (the book) will undoubtedly please Orwell enthusiasts. It is certainly literal. But if I were in their shoes, I would be vaguely concerned. I would wonder what really motivated Radford and Simon Perry (his producer). A desire to adapt a classic of English literature (“a set book in schools”, says Radford, who read it at fifteen)? The temptation to make a splash (welcome to the new “young English cinema” of the eighties)? Probably both. But above all the wish to film 1984 in 1984. To come full circle. To do it this year or never. To return the book to its author-sender, like a pious boomerang, acknowledging receipt.

Right away, one thing is clear. Radford does everything but a “reading” of Orwell’s book (and even less a “re-reading”). He illuminates no past in the light of the present, no present in the light of the past. He doesn’t start out from the premise that 1984 London – even at a rudimentary level – is not the Oceania of Big Brother (Thatcher isn’t even a Big Sister). He doesn’t sort out what has and hasn’t happened from the Orwellian nightmare. Of the present, only one thing interests him: here we are at last in 1984, and it is possible to return the depressing old utopia to the frontier of the past that saw it come to light. By imagining in 1984 the vision Orwell had of 1984 in 1948, Radford slides (but is he aware of it?) from scrupulous reconstruction into implicit disavowal. Such is the paradox of blind fidelity: with 1984, the film, we’ve settled with 1984, the book. In 1985, just like yoghurt, inedible and past its sell-by date, the film would have been neither fresh nor feasible.

When the letter is dead, there remains fidelity to the spirit. For, prior to being a sci-fi extrapolation, 1984 is a document. Eric Arthur Blair (better known under his pen name Orwell) was first and foremost a great journalist. He was in a good position to undertake – in the thick of things – one of the first Identikit pictures of what was yet to be named “totalitarianism”, but which existed nonetheless, already, among others in the land of the “Father of Nations” (Darkness at Noon appeared in 1940). Genuine fidelity to the spirit of Orwell would entail this same journalistic talent, today. Now, can we imagine the face of a contemporary totalitarianism whose features are different from the ones Orwell definitively popularised? It doesn’t seem so to me (and this lack of imagination – ours and Radford’s – remains disquieting).

Orwell was the contemporary of a “vile beast” (quoting Brecht) which did not yet have a name. Thanks to him we are the contemporaries of the name (“totalitarianism”) with which we baptised the beast in question. Reams have been written (from Hannah Arendt to Daniel Sibony), mournings undertaken (from Syberberg to Tarkovsky), we have a description of paranoia in industrial societies and even a (cosy) way of playing at scaring ourselves half to death retrospectively with the officially detestable image of Dzhugashvili and some others. But the name isn’t the thing and, in a sense, Radford is being honest by kindly posting back a copy of Orwell with illustrations in the margin. He too is unable to imagine in 1984 a different face of totalitarianism than the one that Orwell gave it in 1948. This face still scares him of course, but it is sufficient for him. Thus the rites of good conscience are fulfilled. Hence the unease. As if we were being insistently shown an old yellowing photo of a criminal whom we would not be certain of recognising in his current guise.

Now I can imagine the reader demanding to know a little more about the form of Radford’s film. It’s the reader’s right. But once I’ve said that 1984 is rife with academicism, I’ll only be repeating the same thing (see above) in different words. For what does academicism come down to? Isn’t it just a style, a failing, a lack? No, academicism is the aesthetic of nihilism (and the refuge of professional hardheads). One suspects it’s got nothing to do with optimism and pessimism. Orwell believed in the need to say that there was maybe no hope. Radford “believes” in the need to say that Orwell said it. That’s the difference. Academicism (yes even the kind that’s ubiquitous and which gives us the nasty sense of a return to the “quality cinema” of the fifties) is never anything more than the disillusioned seriousness with which the most traditional and hackneyed form is used in order to signify that there is no content deserving of being painstakingly worked on with a new form. Of course it’s an abdication, but one that goes for the substance too.

Between those two entities that it’s out to tackle (the “great book” to be adapted and the “mass audience” to be edified), academicism maintains a distance (as one “keeps one’s distance”). The audience is merely enlisted as the witness to an immaculate operation which vaguely concerns it but never involves it. We never “see” 1984, we wordlessly turn the pages of a ghastly album. Coated pages, but no more than need be. We see the excellence of the set designer’s work (he’s called Allan Cameron), the pontifical seriousness of the actors (Burton, in his last role, still moves), the creation of a “look” halfway between a documentary on a blitzed London and reminiscences of the “Zone” in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (decidedly a great film). We notice that Radford (who has already given us one good film – Another Time Another Place – and whose talent, be it that of a first assistant, isn’t negligible) has a taste for the dissecting table (Bacon without the colours) and the academy nude.

Accordingly, we are not surprised that the film’s only success should be of decorative order. Radford has “respected” the book and the audience too much not to find himself empty-handed every time he took steps to make his narrative progress dramatically. When you don’t want to “play” with your audience at all, you wind up – it’s normal – not even being able to tell it a story. What was appalling in Orwell’s words (O’Brien’s double game, the final scene, the rats) merely becomes discomfiting in Radford’s images. In the end a director has to be someone who lights a fire between his film and us, especially when he’s confronting a “big subject”. To warm us up, to play with it, to deserve the risk of getting burned. Remove that risk and the cinema becomes a poor thing. Decent and dead.

One final question: what is English academicism? And why have those two words always gone together so well? Why is English cinema nearly always decorative, phobic, flat? Why is Hitchcock the only exception (and even the one who knows all there is about playing with the audience)? I hazard a cruel hypothesis. This is it. If there is a single nation in Europe that is ill-equipped to speak from the inside of a phenomenon like totalitarianism it has to be the English (Cromwell died in 1658). 

This is even the reason we can like England and the reason the best English films (the films of Humphrey Jennings for example) are the ones where you feel that democracy, civic sense, resistance to delirious excess are not just for show. Of course, they are almost all documentaries, for as far as “mourning” fictions are concerned they’ve come from Italy and Germany, just as one might expect them from the USSR (let’s not expand on collaborationist France).

The country to which any kind of madness is most foreign (alien), condemned to stiff respect for the other (habeas corpus) and pathological politeness (“I am afraid that…”), is similarly the one that can only supply the decorative frame for what unhinges entire nations; but elsewhere, on the continent.

 First published in Libération on 15 November 1984. Re-published in Ciné journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

On Daney - Bill Krohn's Letters from Hollywood

Bill Krohn's newly published Letters from Hollywood 1977-2017 - a selection of his writings as "the Los Angeles correspondent of Cahiers du cinéma" - is pretty much essential reading when it comes to Serge Daney, not only for the real life connection between the two film critics but also for resurfacing an important interview that Bill conducted with Daney (translated in English of course). 

The first part of the book features Daney almost as a central character. Bill Krohn explains in the introduction that it is "Serge" who appointed him as the Cahiers American correspondent after they met during the Semaine des Cahiers at the Bleecker Street Cinema in 1977. Two texts written for this event follow: "The Tinkerers", on the theoretical influence of Cahiers and an "Interview with Serge Daney" (who was Cahiers editor-in-chief). The book also contains the English version of the obituary Krohn wrote at the time of Daney's death and which details his friendship with Daney ("Serge Daney 1944-1992"). 

The rest of the book has of course some great writings by Bill Krohn, so if you can afford the price tag, don't hesitate. The first chapter is available for free online at the State of New York University Press website.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

I Was Born in Calcutta

It's fantastic to see others translating Daney. Here's a new one from The Seventh Art blog: Daney's 1982 interview with Satyajit Ray.  

I Was Born in Calcutta

Serge Daney’s interview with Satyajit Ray published in Libération on 9 February 1982 and reprinted in Daney’s Ciné Journal Vol. 1 (1998, Cahiers du cinéma). 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Vertigo - Sueurs froides

https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/american-actor-james-stewart-getting-into-the-car-in-the-news-photo/154069491
Another translation from Cine-journal, Daney's second book. Thanks to Andy Rector / Kinoslang for his help with the translation.

Vertigo / Sueurs froides
All those years without Vertigo: how did we cope? Wasn’t it Alfred Hitchcock’s most sentimental film? Yes.
Truffaut: “I believe the film was neither a success nor a failure.”
Hitchcock: “It will break even.”
Truffaut: “So it’s a failure?”
Hitchcock: “I suppose.”
In 1958, US audiences snubbed Vertigo but the French quite liked Sueurs froides*. In 1984, both films are re-released: Sueurs froides for the philistines, Vertigo for the others. As it became cult, the film didn’t only earn its original English title (that would merely be snobbery) but also earned something like a secret and friendly nickname: “vertigo”, in Latin, – the type of name we give to beloved beings when they are gone (I do say “beings” even though I know it’s only a pile of printed film stock – only a film – but films don’t just age, they watch us age too). We’ve been missing Vertigo for too long. No rain gutters, red robes, sequoia trees, grey suits or San Francisco streets have ever really existed on screen since Vertigo. No film in fact resembles this one. 
Is this a dithyramb? Yes. But a strange one, like the film. For Vertigo, unlike Rear Window, is far from a perfect film. Not funny, like North by Northwest. Not terrifying, like Psycho. Not chilling, like Birds. It’s not even, to use Truffaut’s beautiful expression, a “grand film malade**” like Marnie. No, Vertigo is mostly a moving film.
One interest of this “return to Hitchcock” that – delighted and bemused – we are witnessing today on both sides of the Atlantic, is to make redundant the (sticky) label of “Master of suspense”. For two reasons. Firstly, Hitchcock is a Master, just a Master. Not a so-called money-grubber but the only one to have found the right distance (in a sort of interior exile) to know exactly what the grub was made of. And if the grub had to be American, the knowledge about the grub could be universal. Thanks to Hitchcock. Secondly, because “of” suspense means nothing. What suspense? Hitchcockian suspense is unique and like no other. There are no recipes because they are inimitable. Who will dare to do as he does? Endless “exposition” scenes where nothing seems to happen? Criminals whose identity is known straight away? Films divided in two symmetric parts, folded around a central axis, as is the case in Vertigo? No one.
We won’t tell the story of Vertigo. Let’s not spoil any of the pleasure. But let whomever is seeing the film for the first time know that the “key” to the enigma (a rather crude flash-back but that explains everything) is to be found soon after the first half of the film. Here’s a paradox of a fake ending right in the middle of the film. “Everybody around me”, Hitchcock tells Truffaut, “was hostile to this change, because they thought this revelation should only come at the end of the film”.
But this is precisely where the emotion comes from. It comes when the spectator – mystified until now, then put in the know and proud of his new knowledge – realises that the film is not finished! Suspense of a new suspense. The spectator (you, I hope) watches with compassion the cataleptic bodies of James Stewart and Kim Novak. The spectator didn’t know enough. He now knows too much. He is guessing that appearances will never give up their platonic dance, and that the actors are chained to a fiction that he cannot – in the moment – know what to make of. It doesn’t last but this suspense is deeply moving. Look at Judy when Scottie comes to find her: she slowly turns her head toward the camera, less to give us a look into the camera than to see herself joined by her destiny, with breakneck speed. 
It’s because the first part of Vertigo adopts the point of view of Scottie, the duped man, that such a scene, suddenly seen from the point of view of the woman, gains all its importance. Hitchcock often proceeds this way: in his stories of chained couples, he obscures along the way the character that seemed transparent and lightens the one that seemed opaque. Hence, many of his films are strangely constructed: in two parts, according to a pattern that Rohmer described as helicoidal. Except that the loop never closes back completely. The man/woman symmetry exists no more in the Hitchcockian universe than it does in the real world. The story of Vertigo is that of a man who moves from acrophobia to necrophilia, therefore of a “grand malade”. But the beauty of Vertigo is in the way a woman, despite everything, exists. 
Despite everything. To Truffaut who assures him that eventually Kim Novak was very good in this role designed for Vera Miles, Hitchcock replies nothing. There are many anecdotes telling of how little interest Hitchcock gave to this (still young) star. A limited actress, of vulgar and bland beauty, with ugly legs (Hitchcock insisted on that point) and terrified with stage fright. But this is precisely where the emotion comes from, because of this supplementary mirror effect. 
Kim Novak plays the role of a woman who, twice, is only an image, the materialisation of a man’s fantasy. She is “herself” only once, the day Scottie comes to find her, squeezed into her terrifying green dress. Otherwise, she lives in fear. The fear of betraying herself, the fear of not being up to the job. Kim Novak’s fear as well, as an actress, of not understanding what the “Master of suspense” wanted from her on set. So much so that Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s usual photographer, could not avoid recording this fright and disarray, the solitude of the Hitchcockian actor (or simply of actors in general) at the sound of the clapperboard. We are watching a series of screen tests: they follow each other feverishly, documentary-like, giving Vertigo, this Vertigo-with-Kim-Novak-and-despite-Alfred-Hitchcock, a real unease.
And then there is James Stewart, brilliant. He has been a better actor (in Ford’s Two Rode Together or in Preminger’s Autopsy of a Murder) but Scottie is his most beautiful role. Watching him move – attentively – in Vertigo, one understands what was unique in Hitchcock’s cinema. Unique in the sense that it could only happen once. Here is a man who never stopped denying the “direction” of actors, who said horrible things about them, who prided himself on never looking into the viewfinder and sketching all his shots in advance. He exaggerated of course, overdoing it a bit. Nevertheless, if Hitchcock’s posthumous return today works so well, isn’t it because he is, in the strongest possible sense, an experimental filmmaker, halfway between silent cinema (the art of mime) and television (and its babbling)? The master of all those who prefer to explore their tools than to deliver a message?
Experimental filmmakers generally do without actors or, since they can’t afford them, pretend to hate them. Hitchcock was the only one in the history of cinema who could hate them and afford them. Logically he has given them split character roles. Cruelly, he has directed them like body doubles. But a body double called Cary Grant or James Stewart will never simply be a double. There will always be something remaining of their mastery, aura, intuition and professional reflexes. And this is precisely where the emotion is born.
Look at Stewart in Vertigo: slightly robotic, zombie-like, holding on to reality only by his waking dream and to the set only by the markers of the mise en scène, like so many stitch points*** separated from one another by nothingness. One can laugh at this game, find it slightly obscene and dated. One could also say that Scottie is the last of Hitchcock’s alter egos. Or that the skinny James Stewart is the last actor that the fat Hitchcock still had the desire to identify with. Say what you want, cinema is a very human art.  
First published in Libération on 27 March 1984 with the title “Vertigo, enfin visible” [finally visible]. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translated with the invaluable help of Andy Rector.

Translator’s notes:
* The French title of the film, literally: “cold sweat”.
** A sick or diseased film.
*** “points du suture” in French.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Ennio Morricone / Sergio Leone

I couldn't resist a (very quick and approximate) translation of this interview with Serge Daney on Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone. You can listen to the full programme here, including an interview with Sergio Leone. 

SIMSOLO: This was the music of Once Upon a Time in America, Sergio Leone’s last film, hopefully not his final one. Serge Daney, you remember that one day we had lunch with Sergio Leone and what had striked you that you didn’t know at the time was this sort of precision in what he was doing. Despite appearances, he was very conscious of what he was doing. And although he was attacked by critics at first: destruction of the American western genre, phoney filmmaker that caricatures things, bit of a joker, etc, he slowly established himself as an obvious style, rejected or embraced, but clearly a style, total and consistent. When he makes Once Upon a Time in America, there is a use of the mythology of the cinema of Hollywood, of archetypes of the America of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. And with Morricone, his old accomplice as he said very clearly in the interview we just heard, a research so that the sound outline of the film, sound and music, integrate elements of originality and dramatisation but without illustrating. He is not a filmmaker that uses music as an illustrator, like Hawks for example, but uses music like total element of the fiction. So I’d like to put the question to Serge Daney, film critic but also sport and society critic: how do you feel the effects of this unique work? 
DANEY: What strikes me is that we have realised very late that music in the American cinema was broadly a rehash of the Viennese School through the Jewish, German, Austrian and Hungarian musicians who left Europe for America. And we accepted this so naturally that we forgot to ask a very simple question. There has been a serious American music, and I do say “serious”, which is not bad at all, and which almost doesn’t feature at all, apart in some musicals, in the American cinema. And one only has to listen again to some records on 20th century American music to discover people that are relatively known, like Ives for example, to realise that there has been a music that tried to take into account European classical music and something specifically American (marching bands, choral societies, guimbards, hymns from North and South, of the Civil War, etc). This music is not in the cinema. 
SIMSOLO: except a bit in Ford’s films. 
DANEY: A little bit with Ford. Wagon Master for example. Things like that but rather in the minority. And it came down to an Italian filmmaker, a childhood friend of an Italian musician: Ennio Morricone, a pupil of classical music, to bring back through Italy – the pure conscience of classical music – that there had been an American music which was called Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson. People like that with a bit of jazz, a lot of popular music. And so it was thanks to Italy, and musically as well, not just the relation between Leone and Ford – Leone as the ultimate heir to Ford – but also Leone as the ultimate heir to Ives, let’s say. With a sort of village cacophony, with very simple melodies, and some very complex things, mixed together and having nothing to do with the serious music of the Viennese School. 
SIMSOLO: A sort of return of America and its music via a European. Whereas until now Europe had fed Hollywood and Europe had fed from Hollywood. 
DANEY: Yes, I would say that it’s the Europeans who have sent the pupils of Schoenberg or Bartók to Hollywood. But it’s also one European, two Europeans, two Italians, late, in the sixties, who implicitly said to the Americans: listen as well to your own musicians, the locals, from your village. 
SIMSOLO: I’ll give you an anecdote that Sergio Leone told me. Maybe you were there. He said “The first time that I saw Morricone, I asked him: What did you do before?”. And Morricone said “The music of some western film”. “But that is bad Tiomkin.” And Morricone replied: “But what if they had commissioned bad Tiomkin?” And I think this is very revealing of what you have just said. For a while, through the imitation of the Hollywood system via the Italian or German series of fake westerns, musicians were asked to compose fake Tiomkin music or fake Waxman or fake Steiner music. Morricone was doing this but when he meets Leone, this is no longer what needs to be done. One has to return to the real. 
DANEY: And the real when it comes to America is something quite simple. It’s a rather exploded culture, with many different parts, with a mix of very serious and very popular things, something lost in Europe. And what Morricone does with some magnificent melodies but also very refined orchestrations is to bring – apologies for the slightly pompous word – a carnivalesque dimension, in the way Bakhtin meant it, a heterogenous mix of things. So in the music that Morricone composes for Leone there are the guimbard (which in the end refers to the Jew’s harp), Viennese waltzes, and there is mainly military music. And military music is extremely important with Leone because he is perhaps the last filmmaker that is profoundly pacifist, anti-militarist actually, to make films. There is a description of war in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a hate of war, which apart from Ford, the Ford of The Horse Soldiers, had never really been shown in the American cinema. 
SIMSOLO: And what also happens is that the music of Hollywood, illustrative or contrapuntal, or to think of it in as a function in the fabric of cinema, played either the theme of the character, and Morricone knew how to do this, as we’ve seen with Addio a Cheyenne, or of the situation, but rarely played the profound origin of people. It’s only with Ford that when a character arrived, we heard in the music some Irish rhythms to guess his origins. Whereas with Leone and this is what we will hear now. Since in Once Upon a Time in America, it’s about the Jewish mafia, one character is going to play the pan flute, as someone could have played it in the Palestine of the 1910s. And it’s mixed with the rest of the music, which means not only there is the character and the situation but there is also what the character fundamentally is, and he can’t function in any other ways than through his profound origins, and that music becomes in this instance not only part of the fabric but also an element of the analysis we can make about the cinema. 
DANEY: We could say that this is the music that De Mille couldn’t create.  
 (...)
SIMSOLO: So as we reach the end of this series of broadcasts, there are a few things I’d like to say which are a bit anecdotical, slightly beside the point. But it’s true that when we got to know each other at the end of the 60s, at the time of the Cahiers du cinéma, before Cahiers du cinéma take an ideological turn, we sometimes found ourselves in popular film theatres with people like Jacques Rivette who watched films by Leone, who had been rather despised at some point, and who found an immense force in his cinema. And it’s also true that the force we found in Leone wasn’t just the mise en scène, in the flattest possible sense of the term, meaning how one enters the field of camera, how one cuts, how one constructs a close-up, but also the whole of the tapestry, of the mechanic that was rendered. And it’s true that even though critics like those at Cahiers du cinéma and other precise critics didn’t take the music in film as a fundamental element of the quality of a film. There was even this sentence if you remember that said “when the music of a film is good, we don’t hear it, we don’t remember it.” Leone and Morricone have reversed this problem. It is not possible to think of Leone without Morricone’s music as the interview I conducted with him in Annecy just reminded us. And we have the impression today, twenty years later, is that this crystallisation that he managed to operate between a very present music and a very present cinema modified the way in which people use music in cinema. 
DANEY: And you inadvertently just said the word that allow me to make a link… 
SIMSOLO: Why “inadvertently” Serge? 
DANEY: Hold on. You don’t know which word I mean. It’s “crystal”. I didn’t invent that. It’s in the tome two of Deleuze’s book where there are some beautiful things about the cinema. And he talks about certain filmmakers, not Leone because perhaps he doesn’t know him well enough, but he talks about Renoir, people like that, about Ophüls with whom it is already more telling, and he talks about the structure of the crystal. This means that the ensemble of the things that happened, character by character, action by action, memory by memory, is in a crystal. So we can’t touch it. And inside the crystal, there is a small merry-go-round. And each character is riding his own merry-go-round. And the merry-go-round is circular meaning that the characters can’t escape the crystal. It is the past. Fossilised but always ready to return, with the same intact emotional force. 
SIMSOLO: Yes, like in the finale of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly where the dead punctuate the duelling trio. 
DANEY: Exactly. It takes place in front of a cemetery, in front of the dead. And perhaps because of Leone and also Demy with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg as it’s around the same time, there has been the possibility for a film to have a music that was both in complete synchronicity, in complete osmosis with the film, a music that said the same thing as the film, that there was this unforgettable and slightly idiotic crystal where people turn round in circles, are in cycles, do the same gestures, the same mistakes, the waltz of the shadows, and that we could remember the film or the music individ... indifferently. It set a precedent, for better or worse, often for the worse. And the most moving moment is the starting point: Leone. Leone is the first who made films, with Morricone as a magnificent accomplice, where the crystal was eternal. And what could we see inside the crystal? We could see both refrains, which is very Italian, like Nino Rota, differently but in the same way as Nino Rota. Something that an American can’t do. An American can’t create a refrain because he is caught in the countdown of an action. He can only compose a melody with a final catharsis like Tiomkin. Italians have always composed melodies, even refrains and choruses which they have even integrated into classical music. Morricone did this and it matches perfectly with the Leonian project which was to say: look at the cinema we no longer know how to make, let’s say Ford to be quick, before it disappears, and look also at the cinema that is coming: a cinema where we are going to take sample / signs, where we will be between fashion, advertising, short forms, recitative forms, extremely pathetic, where each character do their act, in a loop, with accompanying music. 
SIMSOLO: I remember showing to an editor, Khadicha Bariha who worked with Chris Marker, films by Leone that she didn’t know but knew of reputation: popular films, etc. And seeing these films as the technician that she was, as someone who sticks together images and sounds to make a film, she told me “it’s strange, these are auteur films, totally”. Meaning there isn’t one element that has not been thought of. The films are popular but are fundamentally auteur films, as much as Straub or Garrel. And what’s very peculiar in the crystallisation that I was referring to. Leone, while playing a card completely distinct from popularity, but by mixing different elements, managed to give back to the popular cinema its great lyrical force, while never abandoning anything from his own project. And this is where others like Peckinpah have tried but not succeeded as well. For them, the musician, the actor, the archetype, the script, the décor, and always the music, came like an opera which was the musical opposite of the libretto, like a permanent counterpoint, to give a breathing to the modern cinema that we were expecting. That Leone and Morricone gave to us and that for years nobody had seen it. 
DANEY: Nobody saw it but everybody took it, everybody copied it, digested it. His films have entered a sort of vague and obscure collective conscience. And now we see very well that Leone was the first, not only to have announced things that are common today, but to have said: this is the river bank we are leaving behind, and this is what is in front of us. What we leave behind is the painting, the symphony. And what we are heading towards is the sampling. We sample qualities from a character, a character from a décor, a rather empty décor. We become incredibly sensitive to a mix of hyper realistic documentary (Leone has observed the true West a lot) which becomes a neo-neorealism [term prompted by Simsolo] and we could say that if there was a history of the sur-figurative, Leone would be its starting point, but more friendly and moving than its current forms because Leone still knows after what this is coming. So this is really a mandatory passage. It’s like the bridge in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We blow it up in the end. But once it’s been blown up, we’ll have a lot of difficulties in continuing to tell stories. 
SIMSOLO: There’s also something more technical. What has always titillated me with Leone is that I have listened to a lot of soundtracks which were illustrative, contrapuntal, theme of a character, theme of a situation. But with Leone, something very strange happened. The feeling of the montage: close-up, medium shot, relations between the two to be structuralist. The instruments played a role. When the pan flute plays, it indicates a certain framing of the image. When it’s the Jew’s harp, it’s something else. Music is not here just as a total element of the tapestry, it is sometimes like in painting or in modern music, a given element that can redefine itself and recompose itself. And it’s particularly striking because it’s only Morricone with Leone, not with the others. 
DANEY: What Morricone does with music is the equivalent of what Leone does with his shots. He gives a feeling of what is close and what is far. Of what we are getting close to and at what a musical close up would look like. What we often take as melodies, magnificent of course, are close-ups. And what we take for complex orchestral things, are simply long shots. And to have worked with someone who was doing in his domain, his art, music, the same effort of distancing to take a general view, or of tightening to get to a close-up is something absolutely unique. And it’s true that Morricone didn’t do it with the others. 
SIMSOLO: That’s the problem. Because with the others, it was: here’s the music, do what you want with it. With Verneuil, with Don Siegel, with great filmmakers. What’s surprising with Leone is this osmosis that we haven’t found elsewhere. Like Rota with other filmmakers than Fellini. 
DANEY: This what everybody can understand today with the Dolby, the compact disc, or spatialised music. Music is also in the space. And people in the sixties must have felt implicitly, very directly, that the space that Leone was fracturing in a very inventive way, by keeping in turns the general picture and the close-up, the other one, in music, was doing the same. 
SIMSOLO: Let’s listen to the music of a film that I believe like me you like very much Duck, You Sucker!
First broadcasted on 24 February 1989 on France Culture. Part of Noël Simsolo's series "Musiciens pour cinéastes". 

Friday, July 03, 2020

On Le Pont du Nord

This translation was in the booklet of a DVD of Rivette's Le Pont du Nord, now out of stock and discontinued. Thanks to Craig Keller, the translator, for sharing it and allowing its publication here. 


On Le Pont du Nord

Bulle and Pascale Go Boating in Paris (or in Ailleurs-les-Oies? [i.e., “Elsewhere-the-Geese”, connoting The Game of the Goose –ed.]).  To properly choreograph these “Ogier Follies”, Rivette needed to succeed in orchestrating his comeback. Done.  
As is customary, one says: I’m going to see a film. Often, one only sees two or three images floating inside of a void, shameful adverts, stretched-out commercials, but it doesn’t matter; one says: I saw a film. Force of habit, fatal grip of the a. Sometimes, one truly sees a film, something that doesn’t resemble anything else around – Le Pont du Nord, for example. And here, if one were being honest (and less a slave of the a), one would say: I saw films, or: I saw cinema. Nuance. 
I’ll provide an example. Towards the end of Le Pont du Nord, the two Ogiers wander the length of a railroad. While Marie (Bulle) carries on in monologue, Baptiste (Pascale) lies down on the ground and puts her ear to the rail. Light euphoria in the theatre, cinephilic gag, a flash: we’ve already seen this image – we’ve seen it a hundred times, but we’ve seen it somewhere else: in westerns. It’s the classic situation of the solitary lawman, lost in a strange land, while some green-horn who wants to make himself useful follows along with the clumsy stubbornness of Rantanplan in Lucky Luke [a long-running Belgian comics series created in 1946 by cartoonist Maurice De Bevere, aka Morris –ed.] or John Derek in one of Ray’s westerns (Run for Cover [1955], to be exact). 
Except that in Rivette, it’s more than a gag – it gives you the sudden urge to watch Le Pont du Nord over again from the beginning, but as a western. The film lets you: the concrete and scrap-iron city is like a desert (or like a ghost-town), the Indians (the “Max”s) are everywhere, there’s shelter to be found at night, places to get some water, a map, a compass, showdowns. It has to end with a rancid old story and rest can only be thought of – later on. 
Fall off or dance? 
This is just one example. Le Pont du Nord is also in fact a political thriller with a hunt for a woman and an urban setting, a documentary on the state of Paris in 1981, an old modernist film composed out of an incomplete and undecidable tale, of the Paris nous appartient type, a modern metaphor of ancient myths with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur, etc. These aren’t “levels of interpretation”, these are films to see and to listen to all at the same time. A film, Le Pont du Nord? Come on! One should see it like one slides a finger (nervously) along a dial in order to tune in to n free-radio stations. Free, that’s what the film is – Rivette is the needle, and we are the dial. 
This is why it would be useless to try and “sum up” the scenario, the script, of Le Pont du Nord. On the pretence that the two heroines come from nowhere and wander about a Paris filmed as it never has been before (such a beautiful city!) – on the pretence that the film perhaps takes place in “Ailleurs-les-Oies” and that it has to do with terrorism, a blacklist, and a great deal of paranoia – we’d be pulled too quickly onto the side of allegory or capital-S Symbolism. No – we have to throw aside the open-ended artwork and the bon chic bon genre lacuna (this a bit worn out – at least for the time being) and speak differently about this film. Don’t start with the script. 
There’s good reason for this. Rivette’s cinema always tells the same story: how to forget about the script, the scenario. A clarification, here: the Scenario is many things. It’s that thing dictated and banged out on the machine that you have to write to convince the Advance on Receipts [a French production-financing arrangement –ed.] or to reassure a financier. It’s that inevitability that ensures that each generation be deemed at some moment a “lost generation” (for example, a generation of terrorists, political and aesthetic, pre- and post-’68, a generation which the faces of Bulle Ogier and Pierre Clémenti incarnate in an almost documentary manner, all the way down to the twitching, the tics, and the hippie-locutions). A scenario is obsessive short-circuits too, the minuscule rituals we undertake throughout all life-experience and which create the automatic reflexes of the cinema, in some way its safety net. A glance should encounter an object, that’s the scenario – a bullet should go through a body, there’s another one – a line of dialogue should fall off before the end, that’s typical too. Every scenario is the story of a fall
This is why, besides the fact that it’s a moment of superbly filmed euphoria, the final scene between Stévenin and Pascale Ogier, the karate lesson on the Pont du Nord, tells something of the truth of the film: “Don’t forget your enemy is imaginary,” Stévenin says. And if the glances, the bullets, the words “don’t carry”? And if there was only dance? And if dance alone – “the passion of being someone else” – allowed one to forget about the Scenario? And if Rivette (alone or almost so within French cinema) were a choreographer making his comeback? To speak of Le Pont du Nord as a musical comedy – the “Ogier Follies” or “Paranoid in Paris” – that’s already better. 
One will say: but the Scenario doesn’t forget about you. Of course. It doesn’t neglect Marie Lafée who foolishly dies in a twist of fate after having brought to her murderer the precious “documents” (which were what, exactly? a map of Paris with a Game of the Goose drawn over the top: again a scenario, with 63 scenes!). It doesn’t neglect Rivette either, who needs it, but in the way one needs a negative pole, a trap to avoid, a threat to flee – a wicked North. Whence the Ogiers’ wanderings. 
Return to Paris 
Leaving the scenario aside, frustrating its inevitability, dancing it in order to shoot it, is already old news, that of modern cinema, that of Rivette. Le Pont du Nord is, on this day, its most recent episode, and its most joyful one, too. Let’s recapitulate. It all started with a paranoiac scenario out of Lang (Paris nous appartient), followed by a scenario of persecution whose sadised victim was a woman (La Religieuse [The Nun, Jacques Rivette, 1966]). Then, taking off from L’Amour fou and its entangled device, in which the scenario, which contained the same idea, was scrapped, with Rivette staying dedicated to his troupe of actresses (Ogier, Berto, Karagheuz, etc.). From Céline and Julie in their boat [as at the beginning of the essay, Daney refers here to Rivette’s 1974 film Céline et Julie vont en bateau / Phantom Ladies Over Paris, or Céline and Julie Go Boating or Céline and Julie Go Off the Deep-End, etc. –ed.] to the company of Amazons of Noroît [Scènes de la vie parallèle: 3: Noroît (une vengeance), or Scenes from the Parallel Life: 3: Nor’wester (A Vengeance), 1976], the most experimental period of his oeuvre corresponds to the unrealised project of the “Filles du feu” [“Daughters of Fire”]. Facing a scenario whose terms are set, more or less hypocritically, by men (stories of secret societies, scavenger hunts, traps), the women respond by inventing an even more aleatory way of acting! A game unto themselves, then a game between themselves – beyond all hope, parodic, and excessive. In the face of this fire, Rivette scorched his wings a little. 
This is why Le Pont du Nord marks Rivette’s returning, in the double sense of the term. Returning to the circuit of cinema; re-turning in, retracing, his steps. Returning and new departure. For there’s a difference in stature. Up to this point, Rivette was only interested in what might happen between characters of the same age group. In stories of alliances and sects, as it were. With Le Pont du Nord, for the first time, he chances the description of two generations. His actresses have gotten older; they themselves could have children – have had them, in any case, and, what’s more, the children are all grown up. Which is where Bulle and Pascale come in. A generation is only ever lost when it no longer knows how to tell its story to the generation that follows. It’s rescued when it knows that it no longer knows anything. Between Marie Lafée and Baptiste, time has dug a strange gully. Rivette’s (and William Lubtchansky’s) camera becomes ethnographic again, a little Rouchian, sensitive to these two ways of speaking, of thinking, of moving, of shivering or taking in the sun, of acting and of withdrawing from the act. One must see Baptiste listening with a benevolent gravity to Marie’s soliloquies, and must see Marie cast a glance upon the prowess of karate-ka Baptiste. To speak of incommunicability is to say too much. “To each her own thing” would be better: to you, the voice; to me, the body; and an identical space to accommodate the two; an identical film to act in. 
Not everyone gets the chance to make a first film twice. It’s a luxury that is paid in journeys across the desert and in blacklists. Like Marie Lafée, Rivette could say: But I’m still alive! Le Pont du Nord proves that he’s very much alive, even. Last year, Godard was said to be very happy to have made – with Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man for Himself, 1979] – a first film for the second time, that is, for a second generation of spectators. Twenty years later. Rohmer, as well, said that after years in the studio and making costume films, he had rediscovered the desire to go down the street and see if Paris had changed any. This resulted in La Femme de l’aviateur [The Aviator’s Wife, 1981, the first in the series of Rohmer’s Comédies et proverbes, or Comedies and Proverbs]. I’m citing individuals from the Nouvelle Vague. Deliberately. These are the only ones today to carry any trace of our recent past – twenty years of adventures in and through the cinema. After a period of experimental withdrawal, having lost nothing of their independence, they’re starting once again from square one, from Paris, from this fictive and documentary Paris which was the theatre of their débuts. The Game of the Goose has once more been initiated. Amnesia is impossible but bereavement is done with; those rugged years of the Seventies are now in the distance. 
Le Pont du Nord restarts in a minor mode what Rivette had once pretended to take too seriously. The squabbles over the scenario of men and the body of women? An enigma and a dance – nothing more. Jean-Claude Biette recently said that The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man [La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1981] was the first Italian film after the death of Pasolini. I’d offer that in France, Le Pont du Nord is the first film of the Eighties. 
First published in Libération on March 26th, 1982. Translation by Craig Keller. 


==================================
 
INTERVIEW WITH RIVETTE by Serge Daney and Jean Narboni 1981 

DANEY & NARBONI: You’ve just finished a film, Le Pont du Nord, which we haven’t seen yet. Can you tell us about it? 
RIVETTE: Maybe only anecdotally, because I don’t even know what this film is yet – maybe I’ll never know, that’s what happens sometimes. But with this, we have the feeling (I say “we” not in the royal sense of the word; it’s a collective “we”, as this film was made with several collaborators, and I think we’re all in the same state of mind) that it’s very difficult to know what it is. And the reactions from a few people to whom we showed the work-print are so dissimilar that it hardly helps us any. 
DANEY & NARBONI: At the start, you spoke about it as an “appraisal film” about the France of 1980... 
RIVETTE: That’s only what I said when I started it!... But no, it’s a small story about two people who wander through Paris... Actually, we began with the desire to make, ten years after Out 1 [1971/1989] (since the project goes back to a year ago, April ’80, and the shoot of Out 1 was April ’70), the desire to make a different film... – “appraisal” is too much, but actually, still, a small sort of tableau of France as seen from my little tower: what Out 1 wanted to be, for even if, concretely speaking, Le Pont du Nord only deals with a couple people, I hope that something comes across of what France was like two years after ’68 and (this was exactly what the project of the film was) that it comes across in ricochets, without ever being addressed directly. So, with this, we had the desire with Bulle, and Suzanne [Schiffman], to kind of remake the same thing, ten years on; very quickly, we tried to bang out a story where there’d be Bulle, and eventually Juliet [Berto] – but it turned out the film project she’d been developing for several months was starting to take shape [this was Neige (Snow, 1981) –ed.], and that, as happens, she was no longer available enough to work with us – and then the same thing with Hermine [Karagheuz]. In fact, everything ground to a halt pretty quickly: because, first of all, we had the feeling that it risked being too much of the same thing from ten years prior, even if it was the same things that I’m into and with the people that I’ve always wanted to shoot a lot with: then, seen from the point of departure we’d taken (while using as the backdrop another Balzac novel), it risked being a copy of the first film too much. Actually, there was just as much risk of making a relatively expensive film, relatively difficult to edit, not to mention there not being that many producers on the horizon. And so one fine day, the fact that Juliet was tied up with her own film; the fact that, on the other hand, Bulle and Pascale were very attached to the project; the fact of being told that, if you wanted the chance to make the film, it had to be as marketable as possible – all this eliminated the initial project. So we started over with the principle of being as simple and economical as possible, therefore: to shoot a film with two characters (Bulle and Pascale) and with exteriors alone: where there wouldn’t be a single interior shot, not a single lit shot, everything in the streets of Paris, from the first image to the last, and without leaving the confines of Paris. Which gave us a good, precise, and stimulating framework. Only then maybe would there be the ability to return in bursts to the first project, “Tableau of France in 1980”, but this isn’t “Tableau of France”, it’s just glimpses, overtures, things like that, here and there, by way of these two characters and two male characters who cross their paths (Pierre Clémenti and Jean-François Stévenin)... It’s a film that, as is often the case with films I make (this is something I’ve always wanted to do and which sometimes works out well, sometimes badly) seems to be headed in a certain direction in the first half-hour, takes a 180 at the end of the half-hour, takes a second 180 a half-hour later, a third 180 again three-quarters of the way through... Sometimes I think this works well, like in Céline et Julie, sometimes less well, like in Merry-Go-Round [1978/1981]; sometimes the turns are a little hair-pin, like in Duelle [Scènes de la vie parallèle: 2: Duelle (une quarantaine), or Scenes from the Parallel Life: 2: Duelle (A Quarantine), 1976] and, in this moment of the 180, half the audience heads for the exit... 
DANEY & NARBONI: Is this zig-zag construction, in general, premeditated, or does it occur to you only once the film is finished? 
RIVETTE: This is a film that, in my opinion, doesn’t resemble Céline et Julie or Merry-Go-Round whatsoever, except through this principle of construction I was just talking about, but which operates, I hope, a little differently. Aside from this, it was shot in the same fashion, that is, there’s a pretty precise construction at the beginning, more precise than for Merry-Go-Round where we were obliged to modify things several times in the course of the shoot; here, we largely kept the construction we’d established beforehand, which anyway was a very simple one. And it was written, as we went along, by different people, the principal one being Jérôme Prieur who did the basic work of writing the dialogue; therefore at certain moments it’s Jérôme’s dialogue exactly as it was written, then at other, more simple moments, shot with more or less prepared improvisation (for example, Bulle improvises, but Pascale’s interventions were devised beforehand). This is a formula I really like: let the dialogue take its own shape as we go along via someone who’s been somewhat involved in the course of the shoot, with repercussions and interaction from the one to the other... Aside from this, it was very “aleatory” in the same shooting plan because we were outside the entire time; we were lucky in that it never rained, but on the other hand it was freezing cold and the days were very grey and short. And when you shoot in the cold, you’re not really doing the same things you’d do when it’s warm out. In this case, I suddenly understood why, as you’re aware, despite my being crazy about Altman, there’s one Altman film that I won’t defend – and that’s Quintet [1979]: because it’s a film paralysed by the cold! 
DANEY & NARBONI: So the ignition was the desire to make a new film with people you’re friendly with? 
RIVETTE: This is a film that started from the desire to make a film, as is always the case. And then to shoot once more with Bulle, because, if it goes great shooting with actors you admire and who aren’t yet well-known, like, for example, was the case with Geraldine Chaplin for Noroît or Maria Schneider for Merry-Go-Round, it’s insanely great to shoot with actors or actresses you’ve known for a long time and with whom you’ve already made several things; of course, it depends who it is – but I know that with Bulle, it’s the fifth film, and I have the impression that we could still make at least five other ones, and that I’d always discover even more new things. I think that with Juliet, it would be the same, with Hermine too, and several others... So, the project was born out of a conversation with Bulle, and Bulle got on board right away while proposing the idea for an eventual character. Then also Pascale came up with the idea for her character pretty quickly. And with Suzanne, we started tracing the steps of these two characters. 
DANEY & NARBONI: There’s also often an idea, a principle, of music at work, as you start planning your films... 
RIVETTE: The only music is a collage, after the fact, in the editing. There was, from the start, in the work-print, a three-minute sequence where there was no sound, and so that this sequence wouldn’t be too depressing a thing to have to sit through in the first work projections, we said: we’re going to put a record on – and then we got used to this record being there, and we left it in. 
DANEY & NARBONI: What is it? 
RIVETTE: It’s a tango by Piazzolla!... It’s somewhere between brothel music and church music, but I really like it! So we wanted to keep this music in and, as a result, there are two, three little echoes like this at other points in the movie, which come like little gusts of wind... 
••• 
DANEY & NARBONI: Are you thinking that we’re going to sense, with your film, the end of the reign of Giscard [Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, President of the French Republic from 1974 to 1981 –ed.], as you liked saying the last time we spoke? 
RIVETTE: Of the first reign of Giscard, is what I said exactly!... Once again, it’s above all a film about two characters who meet and spend three-and-a-half days together. It happens that, at certain moments, they get to talking a little about things that connect them, and there’s a lot to say about France, but, in any case, Paris at the end of October and the beginning of November in 1980. Anyway, I was going to mention this explicitly at the beginning... I’ve got two kinds of films: there are those where I want to put a date at the opening, and those where I don’t. It’s used in Paris nous appartient, in Out 1 (the case of La Religieuse is totally different), it’s used with the date at the beginning of the film corresponding to the date of the shoot (or the writing of the scenario, in the case of Paris nous appartient). Since, at best, the film won’t be released earlier than six months from then, so I don’t know what the case will be with this one in six months’ time, but it will inevitably be very “staggered” by virtue of its connection with what October ’80 was... or maybe not even. 
••• 
DANEY & NARBONI: So, there are two tendencies in your films – films anchored in a particular moment in time, and then the mythical films; those that want to be marked with a date, and those that don’t. And yet what hasn’t been elucidated much is what it is for you that was the point in common with the Tetralogy [Scènes de la vie parallèle] that you were supposed to make: the four days off during which the dead return to earth. 
RIVETTE: This was a point of departure, a point of reference for subsequently telling stories. Because I’m pretty crazy about the carnival, the Celtic myths... But it’s great when, suddenly, a desire to film meets certain elements, and you say to yourself: “Well, maybe this material’s possible after all!” and then this material ends up working out well, or doesn’t. Here, I had the feeling that this little book about the carnival by Gaignebet, which I came across at random, contained material which set me off on my way. In the end, it got mixed together with a bunch of other things: Duelle, for example, uses lots of elements of the quote-unquote French pseudo-poetic film, while trying to be, more or less successfully, something in a Cocteau-Franju vein; as for Noroît, there’s practically nothing other than that... But in these films there wasn’t really a general idea – it corresponded instead to something that I think I wasn’t the only one, at that moment, to have experienced, and which was already there in Céline et Julie – something which was, actually: the need to create types of little structures of protection closed-off from any connection with the outside world... I think that this is found in the same subjects: it’s not for nothing that Noroît takes place in a kind of citadel, and Duelle entirely in closed-off, nocturnal environments; and this would have been there just as strongly in [Scènes de la vie parallèle] Part One, if it got made – the love story between Leslie Caron and Albert Finney, which was practically nothing but a tête-à-tête between two people in an isolated house... [i.e., Marie et Julien, the material of which Rivette later revisited for his 2003 film Histoire de Marie et Julien, or Story of Marie and Julien, starring Emmanuelle Béart and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz –ed.] Yes, there was a period when I didn’t really want to make things that were related, either closely or loosely, with whatever was going on in France. It was a refusal, it held no interest for me, and this refusal has for the time being fallen a bit to the wayside. 
The same thing can also be found in La Religieuse or L’Amour fou, which are just as much films of imprisonment (but more concretely so, less cut off from what’s called reality) and alternate with two films, Paris nous appartient and Out 1, which are a little more opened-up – let’s say that in them, from time to time the windows are open... However, generally speaking, they’re still films of imprisonment, when all’s said and done. 
DANEY & NARBONI: Isn’t the element of the citadel, whether under siege or not, your central theme? 
RIVETTE: Perhaps. Except that in this most recent one, there’s no citadel. Or rather, it’s Paris, whose ramparts have been fallen for a long time now, but everyone acts like they’re still there. 
DANEY & NARBONI: This theme of the citadel is certainly there in the films of Ruiz which recently have begun to deal with it more and more, but under a theoretical guise, under the direction of someone who has a great familiarity with theology and who always poses the question of point of view, in the way in which power is bred. But with you, it’s the citadel of the point of view, perhaps, of the people who are already inside of it...? 
RIVETTE: It’s never the point of view of power, that’s for sure! As the only time there are tiny approaches toward people who gaze outward from the side of power is in Out 1, with the characters of [Jacques] Doniol-Valcroze and Françoise Fabian, who still remain internecine intermediaries, and who aren’t portrayed in a very serious light. That too, I wouldn’t have been able to do any other way. I always feel incapable, it’s probably a handicap, of showing a character of power in a serious light. But in order to do this, maybe you have to do what Jean-Marie [Straub] does: go looking for Corneille, Schönberg, or Brecht! 
••• 
DANEY & NARBONI: It’s true, if you take the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, that they all had this moment of withdrawal: La Chambre verte [The Green Room, 1978] by Truffaut; Ici et ailleurs [Here and Elsewhere, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1974], Numéro 2 [Number 2, Jean-Luc Godard, 1976], Godard sleeping on top of his editing table; Rohmer making historical films, yourself making mythological films. 
RIVETTE: I’m telling you, it was Giscard!... I think that, without exaggerating anything, by the end of ’74 there was a very strong feeling, that all of us more or less experienced, of a collective vacuum, and the desire to try to remake ourselves, to close ourselves off from ourselves and those who were close to us. 
DANEY & NARBONI: Do you think you’ve managed to escape it now? 
RIVETTE: I think so, yes! But maybe since we’re going to come back to this a few months from now, let’s wait for the counter-shock of the elections. And then again, also, maybe the cinema is an outdated medium. It’s very possible. The distribution of cinema, such as it exists, in any case, gives one the impression that we’ve arrived at a breaking point: the way in which films are consumed, are circulated, are viewed, also figure into it. And, just take music, where everything is now refined, digital recording systems, etc., it’s as though there’s some hesitation among monied interests to make the jump towards an approaching future, because it’s too strong a shift from the current marketplace. I think that’s where cinema is at, as well. Which is where this impression of being stuck in a rut comes from. Almost every filmmaker of the last ten years has spent their time in a rut; good or bad, with more or less talent, but during these ten years there hasn’t been a change on the horizon, or anywhere, to my knowledge. As though it were a general shut-down... waiting for the messiah, for the apocalypse, call it whatever you want! And we continue filling time waiting, because we live on, we get by, years pass... 
DANEY & NARBONI: In France, or more generally speaking? 
RIVETTE: I have the impression that this is an almost global phenomenon... Yes. Giscard isn’t in power by chance, after all! It’s a European phenomenon, in any case. But we’re not going to launch into the philosophy of history!... This isn’t only related to politics, it also reflects the fact that, after ten years, every filmmaker feels that the way in which films are made – and this is as much to do with the technical method as the method of distribution – is in suspension... And this is a very strong feeling that I’ve had ever since L’Amour fou as we already did it with Out 1, very prematurely, in a thirteen-hour-long perspective, thinking of a kind of eventual televised serial, along with parallel, utopian, or even inaccessible possibilities of distribution, but already, even so, thinking of something else. It happened that, effectively, now, there’s still no possible means of distribution for this type of enterprise; that, or they remain very unsatisfying; same for Jean-Luc’s [five-hour long] Le Tour de France [France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, or France/Tour/Return/Two/Children, Jean-Luc Godard, 1977], or, in another way, Syberberg’s  [seven-hour long] Hitler [Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland, or Hitler: A Film from Germany, 1977] – there are lots of examples... 
••• 
DANEY & NARBONI: [In a previous interview with the Cahiers] you put forward a certain number of ideas very much within the sensibility of the era: the idea of the obstacle as opposed to the spectacle; the abject in cinema; the rejection of the auteur, the erasure of the auteur... 
RIVETTE: I’ve always agreed with this idea of erasing the auteur. Maybe not erasing, but still... I keep thinking that a film is more interesting if aspects of it are handled by different people. There are of course exceptions to this – Bresson, and a couple others. But all the same, the entire American cinema, and the major part of Western cinema, is never one sole individual – it’s not a writer at his work table nor a painter before his canvas; I think something happens by way of a connection between a person who is the director and the actors, and also the principal technicians when they know how to play their part. Of course there’s always someone who has to take the responsibility of the [spoken in English] “last cut”, and not only that. In fact, there are two responsibilities on a film: the one is: “it gets started”, and the other is: “it gets finished”. There obviously has to be someone who says: “we’re starting”, and who brings other people together by way of a project that’s supposed to happen; and another who says: “we’re wrapping up, we’re through, that’s the way it is, done, we’re making the release-print, this is the way people are going to see it”. It’s not necessarily the same person who says both of these things. What happens within the French cinema system, more often than not, nine times out of ten, is it’s the filmmaker who makes the initial proposal, and who decides when it’s finished. But everything in between these two things, I think it’s more interesting if there’s an opening, even if this opening is a tactical one, if it’s a manoeuvre. This is what bothers me a little in recent American films, like The Deer Hunter [Michael Cimino, 1978] or Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980] – it’s the fact that they’re centripetal, self-sufficient. It’s even more striking in De Niro and all the American actors of his generation; it’s evident in a film like The Dogs of War [John Irvin, 1980], a film which vacillates its entire run-time between being a banal mercenary film and the second-coming of The Deer Hunter, in which, in turn, Walken totally wants to be a new De Niro; it’s evident that [De Niro] was the key figure throughout the entire film, that the project was probably built around him, that he’s the one who prepared his character all on his own for six months, seeing as De Niro was most likely the one who laid down the law – at least that’s the impression one comes away with – who influenced all the decisions on the set. De Niro pulls this off because there’s no-one to get in the way, thanks to his rapport with Scorsese, and yet the result is that this generation of actors – not just De Niro or Walken, but also Stallone, etc. – can now only play the roles of men who are obsessed, paranoid. And likewise, Scorsese, and Coppola, can no longer direct this. Even so, it’s a little disturbing; an enormous limitation of subjects, compared to all the possible and eventual human relationships out there. All this because there are still power struggles. I for one continue in theory, and as much as I’m able to do in practise, to stand against power struggles. Of course, everyone knows quite well, bearing that discourse in mind, that there’s an element of hypocrisy, an element of cowardice, an element of obvious degradation, and that the attitude that this cultivates on my part during the shoot is often very difficult for the actors and the technicians to deal with: that is, refusing to hold on – not always, but sometimes – to the place that, in the end, should be mine alone. And standing around waiting for something to come from one side or the other, and sometimes it comes, other times it doesn’t, of course... What I’m describing is the method by which I make films, and this method, as always, creates subjects; one might see a thematic throughline here after the fact, but I believe that it’s always the outcome of a way of shooting which is purely physical. 
DANEY & NARBONI: Yes. And still one senses that you’re closer to Altman or Cassavetes. By the fact that you allow a certain margin within your acting?... 
RIVETTE: Yes. One which is always rigged and booby-trapped! But it’s true, I like this feeling!... You really get the sense in Altman and Cassavetes that they’re not trying to be demiurges. Maybe what I like the most in Altman is precisely the messy side, which shocks people, even if it’s not always graceful – far from it – and which gives this impression that something’s happening, something’s coming closer, which hasn’t been anticipated; and which comes about because a certain number of people found themselves brought together by certain circumstances, as though by accident. The feeling also that everyone would have been different if there were other people involved – the opposite of pre-established and interchangeable “roles”. 
And indeed, in the extraordinarily rigid system of American cinema, Altman and Cassavetes are practically the only ones to have tried doing this in the last ten years. When you know how difficult it is within the European system, you can only imagine the enormity of the difficulties that they must encounter... 
DANEY & NARBONI: [And Robert] Kramer? 

RIVETTE: Yes. But, without wanting to take anything away from his merits, Kramer had the advantage of his marginality... 
The text is excerpted from Cahiers du cinéma no. 327, September 1981. Translated by Craig Keller.