Monday, September 18, 2017

Lara, inn-keeper

In 1951, disappointed by The Red Inn, André Bazin said: ‘The moviegoers don’t know what is expected of them because they can’t see what the authors were expecting of their script.’ A comment that defines well Bazin’s idea of cinema but not at all the one that was practiced – with a certain mastery – by Aurenche, Bost and Autant-Lara. They expected only one thing from their script: that it could be identified by anyone – spectators and characters – as a script, and nothing more.  
The characters are split in two camps: those who know the rules of the game (since they have invented them) and those that will never know them. The audience, in on it by default, can only laugh at the show of a tailor-made character: the one that has the whole film to create the script he fell into, a not so simple monk played with great energy by Fernandel. And when terrified, he moans ‘Where have I fallen?’, the black Fétiche replies ‘In an inn where everybody dies!’, which could be the summary of the film in a TV guide.  
Pitched as an anti-bourgeois shooting gallery, The Red Inn is a game with zero risk for the audience: it only has to keep the score and laugh as if watching Hidden Camera. The characters that will catch up with the script will be saved, the others will be abandoned less as the puppets offered to a joyful class hatred than as those whose role was never explained.  
What happens when the scenario has invaded everything? Strange dialogues happen. When the inn-keeper’s daughter falls in love with the monk, she tells him: ‘Why don’t you wait for a heartache before becoming a monk?’ To which the boy replies with a bland voice: ‘One needs a girl to have a heartache.’ They don’t talk like human beings, they talk like intentions of the script.  
There is a strong temptation to oppose this cinema – where everything is sacrificed to the script and to acting – to another, founded on what Bazin called the expectation of the audience, an expectation that only the mise-en-scène could build up. But this debate is well-known and has already happened. Perhaps it is better to compare Autant-Lara to filmmakers seemingly from the same family.  
Autant-Lara had a worldview and a certain conception of cinema, and in 1951, if these were already academic, they weren’t yet Lepenist. In principle, Autant-Lara is closer to Buñuel with whom he shares the same themes (anticlericalism) and a dry and calligraphic art of positioning things. But even this comparison runs short. Why? Because Buñuel never places the audience on the good side, on the side of the wink and of the connivance. Because for him, the script is more an obscure inevitability that clouds the characters than the chance to be on the side of those who have read the script and laugh because of their knowledge.  
The ‘crisis of the script’ may have started in France in the fifties. At a time when too many stories (of France) couldn’t really be told anymore, it was felt right to replace the story that was nowhere to be found with the fake script. It was a mistake because as a result one began to forget that a script is not just a technique (recipes to deal with any topic) but a history onto itself. As any obsessive person will tell you, it’s not funny to spend your life repeating the same scenarios. Buñuel and Hawks are pure script writers: for them the script is more than an object to make, it’s their subject – their passion.  
Seeing again The Red Inn (and let’s be clear, it’s a very funny fabliau which even takes off once or twice), one can feel that it anticipates a series of recent French films where the search for the script becomes the very stake of the film and where it becomes more a board game played willingly by experienced actors. Since we’re gathered up and we’ve assembled a good cast, they seem to say, why couldn’t we improvise a script? 
From Bertrand Blier (Our Story) to Michelle Deville (Paltoquet) and the last Sautet (A Few Days with Me), the children of The Red Inn are more numerous than it seems. The inn is a much broader church, it has less customers and willingly admits its spleen, but it’s the same one that Autant-Lara filmed in 1951. 
First published in Libération on 17 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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