Sunday, January 19, 2014

The "Berri affair" 1: Jean de Florette

I'm starting a series of three posts on the "Berri affair", which Serge Daney described as one of the "two moments in my life where I was ashamed to belong to something idiotic." Future posts will attempt to describe what happens in 1991 (a year or so before Daney's death). But we must begin with an earlier text: Daney's review of Claude Berri's Jean de Florette.

 The TV commercial that Daney refers to in the title *
So, why is Berri going through all this trouble?*
Phew! Yesterday was national Jean de Florette day. Today we can finally talk about the film. It’s an illustration of Pagnol’s novel. By the way, what’s an illustration?
As a dull illustration of a novel that is not dull, Jean de Florette (part one) leaves you a bit depressed but not quite appalled (but are there still movies that can truly appal?). It’s in the very nature of academism – in its fundamental modesty – to discourage exegesis as if it was venom. So, now that the media frenzy is over, there is still a film. And I’m guessing that even the most bashful admirers of the film will admit that it is primarily the (pious) illustration of a (great) book.
To appreciate Jean de Florette with the supposed innocence of its ideal audience, we must make the effort to remember the books of our childhood. These books used to contain, every ten or twenty pages, one illustration (drawing or engraving), with a sentence from the text below it. We must remember that the charm of these illustrations came from their scarcity and that we did not yet have the desire (it was before storyboards) to imagine the whole text in images. We were content, while reading, to take an image break (just as you say a toilet break), which was never more than an image just to see, a hypothesis, a conditional image. Since any illustration is only a series of propositions, the (popular) pleasure that we derive from them consists in quibbling about which actor/actress truly personifies his/her character: a perverse pleasure since it necessarily leaves the door open to all the possible castings (why not Claude Piéplu as Papet, Gérard Lanvin as Ugolin or André Dussolier as Jean de Florette? I can hear you screaming: “No!” You’re already playing…)
The limits of illustration
Illustration always refers to something else. It can be self-referential and create its own autonomous graphic or aesthetic universe (Gustave Doré or Sir John Tenniel). It can attempt to refer to the other illustrations in the book. And that’s where it stops working because the very principle of illustrations is that there is nothing between them but text. Together, the engravings of a book do not create an independent world, in the same way that a stroboscopic vision is not a gaze and a series of toilet breaks doesn’t quite make a river. Only random moments remain, like the stage finish of an invisible Tour de France and the obstacle course of professional screenwriter of adaptations, petrified by the respect of what eludes him (words). In the case of Jean de Florette, each and every one can have its own illustrations. Taken individually they are not worthless (Berri – So Long Stooge proved it – can be competent), but only on the condition that we forget that this is cinema and that a film is not meant to be leafed through but must be watched (and sometimes seen). The arrival of Jean de Florette and Aimée in their rundown farmhouse, Ugolin suddenly dreaming of his carnations, the Papet ruining his eyesight looking cunningly around the hedges, the intromission of the giant rabbits, the yellow sirocco wind, the truth about the emeralds, and especially the clouds that the mountain splits, forcing the rain on the wrong side: all play their roles as icons. This leaves the rest (and regardless of your choice of icons, there will always be something left), i.e. all those shots whose only legitimacy are these images, just as these images are summarised on the film poster (which it would be inappropriate to confuse with an advertisement for a 100% vegetable oil or a new mayonnaise with Herbes de Provence).
Knowing that cinema is twenty-four images per second, and that eleven billion francs has just been spent to make merely four or five images in a film that is over two hours long, the cinephile feels depressed (but, I repeat, not appalled). A filmmaker – the cinephile perseveres in thinking – is a person who makes the in-between perceptible: in-between images, in-between actions, in-between stars and extras, in between anything, just in-between. A filmmaker doesn’t believe in illustrations as a nice supplement to the text (especially when the text is strong) but he dreams of a film woven by images and not decorated with them. But let’s leave the cinephile to his field of carnations, and let’s see how, even in the context of pious and academic cinema, Jean de Florette falls short. And this forces us to ask the question of Berri’s masochism. 
Pagnol: forgotten
Jean de Florette is not only a great book (the story is so strong that it literally carries through the film and saves it from boredom), it is also written by a man who was a great filmmaker. From Berri’s statements, we can unfortunately deduct this: he felt it useful to tone down the folklore of Pagnol’s world (less Pastis, less accent, less local colour) for a rather naive conception of the holy Greek-therefore-universal-tragedy on a background of beautiful landscapes. Worse than treason, it’s a real step back compared to Pagnol the filmmaker. For Pagnol, landscapes didn’t exist and places – in black and white – owed their strong presence to being the stakes in the stories. Pagnol is not Giono. He is – like Benoit Jacquot? – a filmmaker of the contract and promise, and nothing else interests him. Pagnol’s world, including the folklore, is abruptly thrown against the savagery of the Word and the precision of peasants’ calculations.
Mercy for the actors
What’s left is another form of Berri’s masochism: the actors. Nothing can be added to the comparative assessment of the three male stars of the film (in the spirit of the game, let’s say that Montand is inconsistent and Depardieu amazes but in a vacuum; let’s say that it doesn’t really matter; let’s also say that Auteuil is indeed remarkable), but there is still the question (which, obviously, does not interest anyone) of the small roles. And it’s always worth starting with the hare of small roles, because it says something about a film’s ethics. Take Aimée (Elisabeth Depardieu) for example. At one point, the problem is no longer that the actress is not good or that the role has been hollowed out, but that we are watching her shots with the same embarrassment we feel in front of someone we’ve invited over without telling her why, without offering her a seat or suggesting she wait and leaf through an illustrated magazine while the thing goes on. Between the failure to assist actors in danger and a lack of interest for characters on the sole basis that they are secondary, lie the reasons why Berri is not yet David Lean or William Wyler (who were academic filmmakers too).
It’s not merely an ethical question of relations with actors and to what they are supposed to impersonate, it’s also – of course – a question of aesthetics. If cinema is twenty-four images per second and n bodies in presence, a filmmaker is the one who manages to make everything move at the same time. And when I say move, it doesn’t mean jiggling around hysterically, transitional cuts or jolting the camera around, it means that film characters (just like an object, a rabbit or a field) are like clouds, they move even when they’re not being filmed. It means that great films are those where the things that are filmed (called on screen) and the things not filmed (called off screen) are exposed together to wind, erosion and time. It means that between a shot and a reverse shot, there isn’t an actor waiting for his turn, but time passing for all.
PS: I imagine that Berri, both producer and director of the film, has been caught between the two demands and that the producer’s demands (putting together the project, securing the cast, guaranteeing the image, providing some media-ready material) took precedence. They are laudable, and there is no doubt that Berri is one of the great producers of French cinema, but the fact that he is more personal as a producer than as a director is an issue, and perhaps a final bit of masochism. For the movie – no doubt about it – will be a success. 
* “A quoi ça sert que Berri, il se décarcasse ?” The title is a pun on a popular TV commercial for herbs and spices food manufacturer Ducros: "A quoi ça sert que Ducros, il se décarcasse ?". The commercial was on TV for most of the '70s and '80s and played heavily and annoyingly on the folklore of the Provence region.

First published in Libération, 29 August 1986, reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde volume 3, POL, 2012, pp. 53-56. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt.

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