Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Dust of Empire

 Another revised translation from Cinema in Transit. 

Dust of Empire (Lam-Le)

Lam-Le does more than pulling off his first feature; he is planting the seeds of his personal cosmogony. Confusion is only on the surface.

Say there’s a footbridge [passerelle]. The kind with room only for one person at a time. In the middle, reckless and clever, there’s a man – alone of course. It’s Lam-Le, who was born in Haiphong thirty-six years ago. He is really “in the middle”. He has lived eighteen years in Vietnam and eighteen years in France. Then he made Dust of Empire. A passeur between two worlds (but he’s the one who built the footbridge), magnetised by two cultures (but without losing the North), a fragile ambassador between Paris and Hanoi (but working independently), he has made a film where, logically, everything is doubled, starting with the title. Dust of Empire or Hon Vong Phu (the Vietnamese title) is one of the most ambitious and original films to be seen for a long time. 

There are many ways of approaching the story. With the poster? Try and see. An overturned colonial helmet, red graphics for the title and the names of two outstanding and well-known actors: Dominique Sanda and Jean-Francois Stevenin. She’s a (nameless) missionary and he’s a sergeant in the French army (his name’s Tamisier, but he calls himself Tam-Tam). You’re right in the middle of “Indochina War” (water, rice fields, sweat, military kit) and you watch the jeering NCO and the lofty nun carefully compose their characters, somewhere between Hergé and televised Noh theatre. They gesticulate and strike attitudes, they quote. They quote the films of John Ford (7 Women) or John Huston (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison). The white cinema of fine colonial souls, with soldiers soft-hearted beneath surly ways and nuns who are still women beneath their stiff looks.

That said, their “action” is modest: showing the Vietnamese villagers a little Pathé-Baby film on the life of Christ, cobbling together a screening, preaching. They are theatrical about their film show, they’re no great shakes and they make a mess of it into the bargain. Outside, the rain turns to a downpour, the screening is cut short (they don’t even get to the Wedding at Cana), dark water rises in the cabin where they’re staying, the enemy prowls around, the nun is on edge and when they go on their way the next morning, all covered in mud, they are unceremoniously mowed down by Vietcong machine guns. The film goes on without them and, as a disconcerted spectator, you can’t help wondering. What, the stars are dead already? Is this a different film starting now? Have you been had?

You then remember that, parallel to this story, there’s another narrative thread, tenuous but this time unbroken. In the village, a wounded guerrilla (played by Lam-Le) was entrusting a message-poem to a dumb child. He wants to let his wife know that he isn’t dead. The guerrilla’s wife is a servant with the French in Saigon. The guerrilla sticks the message on the child’s kite. The child meets the nun-Tam-Tam couple, smiles at them, takes them to the cabin, then disappears, forgetting his kite. When the water rises, someone deciphers the rain-washed message, but it’s too late.

It’s then you suspect that the real “hero” of Dust of Empire is the four lines of poetry and their transmission, and you’re right. As a result, when you think about the long Sanda-Stevenin episode you perceive one of the most hazardous things that a director can come up with: a shortcut which goes astray, a blind alley which leads back to square one. But this doesn’t mean that the episode is without meaning. For one thing it is filmed in a certain way and the rest of the film in a different way. As if the film-maker had two styles.

When he talks about it, Lam-Le is very specific. As a director, he is very much – almost too much – at ease with this dramatic scenario. But as someone who was once a Vietnamese child, he hasn’t forgotten the impression white adults made on him, their heavy-footed and alarming way of occupying space, of jostling everything, of detaching syllables (to preach) or gobbling them up (to insult). His is the memory of the colonised. Perhaps he wanted his film to “go through this”, as a kind of exorcism, halfway between affectionate homage and spiteful parody. Perhaps he wanted to show where his liking for the cinema came from: from the colonists and their pious images.

And so the film begins all over again. We encounter the guerrilla in prison. There’s an escape from the adjoining cell. He entrusts his message (the same four lines) to an escaping prisoner. Night, topless bodies, flight, accomplices, a house. And in the house a leprous old woman and a little boy, Phong (the wind). The message is passed in whispers. The child learns it by heart then writes it in a piece of paper, next to a yellowing drawing. The nuns – them again – send the old woman back to the leper colony and the child to Saigon.

And at this point the film takes off into the ether. Phong – the wind-child, grave-faced, with his baggy shorts and his satchel tucked jauntily under his arm, crossing Saigon in search of the “Villa des Roses” where the guerrilla’s wife works. He finds her. The wife looks after the children of a French couple who are going back home. She goes with them, heavy-hearted. On the quayside, Phong gets the message to a smilingly beautiful singer (Myriam Mezières, in yet another fine performance) who is signing autographs before embarkation. From then on, the piece of paper travels incognito, enters into the French children’s games (the little girl makes a fan out of it), following them to Marseille, then to Paris where, for more than twenty years it’s used to wedge the buttons on a radio set. Is it lost?

At this point in the film you fear for the piece of paper. It’s to be expected: you’ve entered into the logic of the melodrama and you will be very moved. One day the old wireless set has broken down altogether. Time has gone by, even in Vietnam where the “American war” has just ended, and the little girl has grown up. She falls upon the folded paper and everything comes back to her. The guerrilla’s wife is now an elderly, stooped woman. At the Mutualité for the Tết celebrations, she cries as she receives this message which has reached her so late. It’s her daughter who will bring things full circle and take a plane to Vietnam, landing there today. A dilapidated airport reeking of the Third World and littered with plane corpses. The guerrilla’s daughter rides through the Vietnamese countryside on a bike. Time stopped, accelerated, plainly dreamed. Sublime.

Everything is doubled in this film. The four lines of poetry and the piece of paper aren’t the only “heroes” of this “second” part. The fourth line refers to a “waiting stone*”. the film’s title is Hon Vong Phu. This means precisely “waiting stone” and it’s the ultimate symbol of the film, derived from a legend of a woman who, having to wait for the man she loves, takes on the form of a great grey stone sunk into the ground, such as the ones found in Vietnam. In the crevices people leave messages: signs of life or proofs of love. Vietnam = patience. The guerrilla’s daughter finds the stone mentioned in the poem and embraces it in tears. A bright-eyed young girl born with the new Vietnam comes and speaks to her. “Are you the one who has come from France?”, “Do you know the story of the stone?”

It’s then that you remember. The real beginning of Dust of Empire was neither the story of the cinephile nun and the sergeant Tam-Tam, nor was it even the bleeding guerrilla writing on a kite; it was – quite simply – the credits! The ideogram “sky” exploding in the darkness of the world’s creation with a meteorite plunging fast towards the earth and towards this part of the earth called Vietnam. Lam-Le doesn’t begin his film “somewhere”, but nowhere, with his own cosmogony. And to end it, above the woman standing near the stone, a star speeds through the sky and closes the film. The stone from the beginning, but seen from below.

Nor is it over yet. This stone is really precious and here is why. Simultaneously a narrative thread, a container for the message, and a proof of Lam-Le’s existence as a director and as a Vietnamese. It bears proud and modest witness to he who wishes to “leave something” behind him. It’s a good symbol, this fat pebble. For this stone isn’t a real stone found and filmed by Lam-Le in Vietnam, it’s a polystyrene sculpture, designed and constructed in France and taken to Vietnam. A part of the set, that’s all.

Afterwards (Lam-Le narrates with delight) the stone stayed on – half as an oddity, half as a souvenir of the filming –, like the wreckage from the first “French” film shot (partly) in Vietnam, the sign of an alliance, a crumb of bread on the fragile footbridge of the “friendship between peoples”. A fake that has become real. Hollow, it has assumed weight. Not the least touching thing is the thought of Lam depicted as some kind of Little Poucet leaving a real film here and a fake stone there, restoring something sacred to Vietnam. Not a film (he settled accounts with sacred cinephilia with his Pathè-Baby movie-patronage episode), but a “waiting stone” fallen off a film cargo.

If I had time I would now begin to tell you what kind of artist I think Lam-Le is. I say “artist” advisedly because he has already done painting, acting and drawing (he has even designed story boards for other people’s film); an exceptionally talented artist of our time. That is to say aware of the powers of the false and the truth of the sham. That’s another reason to make Dust of Empire a landmark. A political reason, no less.

For what have we seen of the North-South dialogue in the cinema department? The South reduced to walk-on parts or silence, while the North took the principal roles (nun and soldier for example) and had plenty to say. The South reduced to its folklore difference which was then recreated in the studios of the North (Hollywood). The guilt-ridden North going to the South to extract “real images” which will be thrust upon the noble souls of the North (Malle filming Calcutta, for example). The South filming like the North, with State sponsoring.

Lam-Le is different. He doesn’t “extract” images-as-evidence, he “adds on” objects-as-signs. Extracting something original still comes down to removing. Adding on a copy is still enrichment.

* "Pierre d’attente" in French is a technical term in theatre and construction [toothing stone] broadly meaning a harbinger.

 First published in Libération on 7 October 1983. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Small Sentence




The Small Sentence

August 1985, Cairo. Youssef Chahine films Adieu Bonaparte amongst the pyramids. But this beautiful film will be snubbed*. 

Everything leads us to believe that on July 3rd, 1984, a man woke up (in Cairo) with a certain anxiety (in his heart). Youssef Chahine, Egyptian filmmaker by trade, born fifty-eight years ago in Alexandria, is filming the most expensive Franco-Egyptian co-production. Adieu Bonaparte is in its fourth week of shooting, and today the schedule says: “Scene 33: Exterior – Day. Pyramids.” The dialogue includes a small but unavoidable sentence without which a film on the French campaign in Egypt (1798-1800) would lack spice: “From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us!”. Right, but how can we give this old schoolbook cliché some new blood?

Everything demonstrates that on that morning, an actor woke up with the same anxiety. The one who has to say the sentence, the one who plays Bonaparte. Patrice Chéreau (who already played Camille Desmoulins in Wajda’s Danton) wakes up, having just recovered from another “pharaonitis”, under the banyans of the Manial Palace, in Rhoda Island where the Club Med(iterranean) puts up, as a token of friendship to Chahine, the French crew of the film. A whole month that Chéreau is thinking about this sentence (in La Scala in Milan, on the Egyptair flight, everywhere). How can one escape the stereotypical image?

Everything points to another actor, in a neighbouring bungalow, behind the walls that (fortunately) badly isolate the Club and its cheerful staff and guests, from the sound of Cairo’s senseless bustle (one of the best soundtracks of the century), who thinks resignedly of the artificial leg that he must wear everywhere on the shoot, in the studios and outside, on foot and horse-riding. He thinks of the sun that burns and of his real leg that he must keep folded and hidden for hours, of the difficult graft that is required of a great actor. For he is the one – and not the soldiers – that the small sentence will be destined to. He, Caffarelli, the limping hero of this heroic film, this general of Bonaparte who did exist (a street bears his name in Paris) and died in Egypt. Michel Piccoli plays the role. Both superb (the role and the actor).

On the afternoon of July 3rd, the crew has set camp along a collapsed mini-pyramid next to the pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest of the three big ones. Off screen, off sound-and-light show, and almost off onlookers. Still blazing, the sun is declining. And yet, Chahine goes fast. Everything is drawn, sequenced, nothing is left to chance or is allowed to distract from the essential. A blue truck, spanking new, is parked at the edge of the desert: the only working silent generator in Egypt. It has just been purchased (second hand) for the film and bears the white letters “Victorine Studios”. There are shouts (in French and in Arabic), a very normal chaos, children holding horses with leads, a sound engineer panicking (a boom operator is missing), and in the middle, a neophyte horse rider, Chéreau-Bonaparte, very conscious that his horse is evidently unruly. 

Scene 33. Caffarelli and his friend Horace Say (played by Christian Patay, ex-Bressonian murderer on L’Argent) ride along the satellite pyramid and stop short in front of the three large ones (Al-Ahram, in Arabic). Stupefaction. The camera must capture Caffarelli’s ecstasy when finally seeing what he only knew from books. Piccoli-Caffarelli must take off his hat, brandish it and shout only one word: “Passionately!”. In the film, Caffarelli is an adventurer-general-scientist-idealist interested less in what he can guess (Bonaparte’s cold ambition) than what he discovers (Egypt, the real myth, a world to civilise, a people to respect, boys to love, sublimely if he can). Youssef Chahine has enjoyed creating Caffarelli. He has placed in the character the universal (his enemies would say “cosmopolitan”) side of his affects. Since Caffarelli is the precursor of all those lost soldiers who will discover themselves via the sensuality of the Arab desert and cities. For now, Caffarelli and Say ride down in front of Khufu’s, Khafre’s and Menkaure’s pyramids, behind a dune, between rock and sand, overwhelmed with emotion. 

As daylight declines, dusk comes too quickly. The camera, now at ground level, discovers three riders in a low angle shot. Bedouins? No, but a voice says “I understand you… It’s a great moment.” It’s Bonaparte, followed by one of the scientists on the expedition (Monge) and a secretary (Perseval), both dressed in black. “My dear Louis,” Bonaparte says, “imagine that from the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us!”. “That’s it, he fell for it!” Caffarelli says laughingly to Say as Perseval adopts a smile of naïve satisfaction. “Did you say something?” asks Bonaparte, feeling that he is being mocked. “I was enjoying… how it came to you… the inspiration!”, Caffarelli answers jeeringly. It’s Piccoli who says this last sentence, euphoric and mocking, very much in the style of the Comédie-Française. Bonaparte, glad to have got over his historic words, leaves. 

To understand the spice of scene 33, one must have read the (admirable) script and especially scene 25 where, during the charge of the Mamlukes, “behind the infantry squares, on the West side of the Nile”, Caffarelli and Say surprise Perseval working on the small sentence. “Look down… down from the heights… down on us…” he recites. Caffarelli mocks him: “I doubt the general needs your muses to find the right words. Plus, one shouldn’t describe the pyramids from afar. They are pyramids you know…” But Caffarelli is wrong. He is not thinking of the media yet. Bonaparte is. 

Night has fallen on scene 33. The dusk-effect doesn’t work. Spotlights are transfiguring the desert into a pale and lunar space. The sound and light show will soon start (“disgusting!” says Piccoli, “vile” Chéreau confirms). The pyramids of Gyza suddenly seem far apart from each other: Khufu’s the “tranquil block here on earth”, Khafre’s and its patched-up top, Menkaure’s in the turbulence of hot and porous air. Stuck in the sand, the crew waits. Piccoli dozes on the floor. Chéreau regularly utters the gimmicky sentence: “From the heights of these pyramids… blah blah blah.”

Does Chahine like Bonaparte? Not sure, since he says “Adieu” to him. Still, he has spent over two years moving heaven and earth to show the film, his twenty-seventh. He wasn’t satisfied with being considered – rightly – as the best Egyptian (and even Arab) filmmaker, with twenty-five years of experience (genre by genre) in the studios of Cairo, with directing the singers Farid al-Atrash and Fairuz, with his role as a poor wretch and sex maniac in Cairo Station (1958), with making the first CinemaScope film in Egyptian colours (Saladin, 1963), to have believed in Nasser and the friendship with the Soviet Union (People and the Nile, 1968), to be internationally renowned (The Land, 1969): he still had to discover that he could die. 

“I was in London,” he narrates, “and the doctor tells me: you will undergo open-heart surgery on Saturday (it was Thursday), you have a three or four percent chance that it will work. I haggled and he gave me almost fifteen percent. So, for two days, I asked myself who I have been: an entertainer, a man spontaneously committed. But I didn’t mind that. So I said to myself: right, if I come out of it, I will make a film where I really commit to my private life. After all, it’s not sacrosanct: I will say everything (and it will be very hard).” And here is how Youssef Chahine has become a “special case” in the Arab cinema: more than a veteran or a master craftsman, better than an auteur, someone who speaks, more and more, in the first person. Ostensibly autobiographical, Alexandria… Why? (1978) and An Egyptian Story (1982) are beautiful films. The type of films one must make when one has no more time to lose. 

Impossible not to love Chahine, not to call him “Jo” like everyone else. If he impresses his crew, it’s because he knows how to do everything, because he is familiar with all aspects of cinema. Funny, available, crafty, passionate, always exposed. This is the reasoned, but also unreasonable, catalogue of the contradictions (there are many) that objectively fashion him and that he upholds. For this ex-patient of open-heart surgery remains bon vivant. This famous Alexandrian is an atypical Egyptian (neither Muslim, nor Copt, but from a Catholic family and educated in an English school), this public figure remains liable to the courts (all it took this year was a small reactionary judge who got angry with him to raise the threat of imprisonment, see Libération dated 10 April 1984), this universal spirit only works well at home, and especially, a rare paradox, this filmmaker embarking on a super-coproduction on a big topic has rarely been less inclined to make concessions on what matters to him. For Chahine is a sailor. His blue desk is like the bow of a ship which, from the thirteenth floor, floats over a cushion of dirty air and noise, over a sea of the colour of dry earth: Cairo. “I am from Alexandria,” he likes to say, “when I see water, I dive in, I can’t help it.”

And he dives in for good. The day after the Pyramids, the 4th of July, the crew moves a hundred kilometres south West of Cairo, to Faiyum. The colourless water of a lake located thirty meters below sea level acts as the Mediterranean. Bonaparte and his generals, lost, are meant to get their horses bogged down in the mud there. Caffarelli and his artificial leg share a moment of frustration (“Leave me alone! Let me die here!”). Bonaparte turns around, weighs up Caffarelli and lashes him with his horsewhip. In the water, a man, only one, in unlikely white trunks, becomes agitated: it’s Chahine. The filmmaker, literally, is getting his feet wet. But others are also getting their feet wet for him. An assistant tirelessly dives in fully dressed after each “clap” and swims underwater until he’s off camera. Among the stagehands, one is mute, consumed with anxiety and devotion, in charge of the chocks for the rails used for tracking shots. Slapdash shooting? If you want. But it is also a (beautiful) image of the Muslim world: do not exclude anybody upfront, segregate the least. 

Chahine also got his feet wet financially. Putting Adieu Bonaparte together hasn’t been simple. It’s the type of film where “everybody is willing to invest, but as late as possible. Once more, I’ve had to take all the risks.”, says Jo, “I was even ready to risk my toothpaste!” He wrote – alone – the first version of the script as early as August 1982. He has kept re-writing it since, with the help of a young journalist attracted to cinema, Yousry Nasrallah, who has become Chahine’s right-hand man on the shoot. “My mom had read the cards and saw that I was going to stay in Cairo” (he was in Beirut), “and that I was going to work with a man with big glasses.” She was right: Chahine does wear large glasses: his gaze is visible kilometres away. 

Impossible to put together such a film in today’s reduced Egyptian cinema system. In Cairo, a film is rushed for less than 200,000 Egyptian pounds, in four weeks of shooting, with over-pampered stars and hideous sets. With funding based on advances from film distributors and the video market, Egyptian films must take into account the infinite stupidity of the official censorship and the normative puritanism of the Gulf countries, the main buyers of video rights. This is how a certain “Gulf” style (a certain lamé in the costumes according to Yousry) insidiously modifies Egyptian cinema, caught between the nostalgia of its heyday (musicals and social melodramas) and the evolution of its audience, less family-oriented (families watch television), more cynical and more disoriented (the “Infitah” mentality, post-Sadat, corrupt), also more receptive in a way. But with not very reputable theatres, dilapidated studios, and only three or four decent films produced every year, Egyptian cinema is selling itself cheap. 

If the other big names of Egyptian cinema have seriously lost themselves in the super productions of Iraqi propaganda (Salah Abu Seif with his regrettable The Qadisiya or Tewfiq Saleh with his appalling hagiography of Sadam Hussein), if Shadi Abdel Salam (celebrated auteur of The Night of the Counting Years) has been moping around for ten years working on his mad project Akhenaton, Youssef “Jo” Chahine is the only one able to work on a Franco-Egyptian coproduction of twenty-four million francs while making, despite everything, his film. Rare case, unheard-of adventure. The other Egyptian filmmakers hold their breath, slightly jealous and rather perplexed (what if all this was good for them?).

Who helped Chahine? Jack Lang first, rapidly convinced of the merits of the project. Then the Egyptian Culture Minister, probably not to be outdone. But while these noble supporters gave “credibility” to the project, they only brought in about 20% of the total budget. 

Television channels had to be involved: TF1 in Paris and the Egyptian television, this “State within a State” (negotiations are still on-going), as well as advances from distributors in two countries. In France, Claude Berri, seduced by the script that he read this year at Cannes, eventually came in with AMLF. This summary is of course very elliptical. There were many other scenarios. With the Americans (Jon Voight and Columbia), with Gaumont (before the current crisis that we all know of) and even with the Algerians (Alger had co-produced Alexandria... Why?; Chahine went to see Lakhdar-Hamina, ex-strong man of the ONCIC, in vain).

So, who helped himself (without expecting God to help him)? Chahine. Via Mist International, his production-distribution company, he has invested, borrowed, scraped every last penny and advanced the first funds. In Humbert Balsan and Jean-Pierre Mahot of Lyric International, he has found two young executive producers to manage the budget and spread the work across the two sides of the co-production. On the French side, the lab, the finishing stage, the sound engineer (Michel Berthez), some of the equipment (not the camera, an Arri BL belonging to Chahine) and two of the main actors: Piccoli and Chéreau. On the Egyptian side, all these unquantifiable things which, if provided at a French price, would make Adieu Bonaparte akin to Fort Saganne

First among these things, time. Twelve weeks of shooting, but six days a week and up to eighteen hours a day (the notion of overtime seems to have been completely forgotten). Manpower as well since real Egyptian new recruits are playing the French soldiers. For forty centuries, modern farmers of the valley of Nile have been looked down on from the height of their own pyramids. Fitting dialectical reversal of roles. In addition to weapons and horses, a specialist organisation of the Egyptian army has lent around seven hundred and fifty men that can run, stumble and die in the background, in the desert. No more expensive than extras and a lot more disciplined (the Colonel Mohammad Mustafa is present on the shoot, dressed as a civilian with a flowery shirt, overseeing everything). Finally, the clothes. In a workshop in Cairo, twenty-five dressmakers have spent six months creating twenty-five thousand costumes, and the great Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle, taking care of all the details but imperial, came to help with the final touch, wrapping the extras in their stomach scarves (the red must go on top!), fitting their boots in imitation leather, making up women Directoire-style and avoiding the “TV-drama” look. 

Diverse, devoted, not always bi-lingual, the Egyptian crew can work wonders. One can sense the love of cinema in Abbas, the prop manager, in the old scene shifter with his white cap who is merrily pushing the tracking dollies, away from the Egyptian studios where one guesses he has spent all his life, in the “old school” set photographer, the meticulous Jimmy. No disdain, just a desire to do well and fast, to go to the essential (which, in a Chahine film, means the emotion); few are those who do not feel that they have embarked in an unprecedented adventure. 

An adventure that sometimes leads them to hell. On July 7th, the crew is transported to “the worst part of Cairo” (according to Jo), South of the town, to the East of the Coptic Museum and Fustat, beyond the squatted shacks and before the piles of rubbish that are burning so slowly that the smoke cannot be easily distinguished from the dust and the wind. A terrible place, and on that day, a magical one. Ain Al Sira with its fort and (Roman?) mills in ruin, a sort of plateau overlooking the city like a sandy diorama. It is said that eight tons of dust fall on Cairo each day. It’s a lot more here. The dust puts a veil on lines and obscures shapes, it blocks nostrils and suppresses odours, it fades colours and discourages vision. 

The crew spreads out and sets itself in motion. The army recruits in white underpants are queuing in front of the costume truck. A colourful line of children, dirty and quiet, sitting cross-legged, serves as a boundary between nothing and nothing. There is a scene where the door of the fort explodes, and another where Bonaparte, in between the mills, confronts Caffarelli. The latter has taken it upon himself to restore the windmills (new fabric sails have been fitted on one of them) and leads, plans in hand, a sort of dozing and epic construction program. Whereas Bonaparte, who has just learned from an orderly that one of his lieutenants has been assassinated, is fleeing very quickly criticising Caffarelli for once again getting his priorities confused: “We should have built fortifications, not windmills!”. Close-up on Caffarelli who remains enigmatic. 

This said, the topic of Adieu Bonaparte is neither the petit caporal (with Chéreau being more than convincing in the role: dry, abrupt, the lack of humour of the character leading to a kind of dry funniness in the actor) nor the general Caffarelli (it will be one of Piccoli’s great roles, I’m putting a wager on it), but the way in which an Egyptian family at the beginning of the nineteenth century witnesses and lives the French campaign in Egypt, opens itself to the modern world (thanks to the French) and to national conscience (against the French). A great and complex subject. Egypt is then a distant province of the Sublime Porte that governs it via the Mamluks. Later Muhammad Ali (the one featuring in our history books) will reap the modern benefits from the French, their ideas, their scientists, the turbaned Bonaparte and the impassioned Caffarelli. For now, there is only a brush between the two worlds, revolt, and lack of understanding. 

With his unique art of interlacing choices and destinies, the weight of things and the tenacity of desires, Chahine has invented in minute detail the thousand and one ways that the family learns to live with the occupier. There are three sons. The one who fights blindly (Bakr), the one who doesn’t really understand (Yahia), and the one, yes, the small positive hero, who will end up understanding everything (Ali). Ali is played by Moshen Mohieddin, the young actor who played Chahine as a teenager on his way to study drama in California in Alexandria... Why? Just watching him on the set and seeing his smile is enough to be convinced that he instinctively understands all the nuances of the role. Caffarelli, dying, will say the last sentence of the film to him: “I love you less… but so much better.” With his years of apprenticeship over, Ali goes away. And the scenario adds: “Caffarelli restrains himself from dying.” The scene acting isn’t easy, but Piccoli is in charge. 

 * Translator's note: The standfirst refers to the film box office performance. It was probably written for Ciné Journal since the original Libération article is a report on the shooting. Daney discussed the reception of the film with Chahine on his radio show in 1986. The two shared the disappointment that the film didn't do better (160,000 box office tickets v. 30,000 for previous Chahine's films), didn't trigger a public debate and was quickly forgotten altogether. They blame the distribution for advertising this intimist film as an epic saga,  explore the the racist and post-colonialist reasons for the snub, and end up in a bitter argument over the state of the world of cinema in 1986, including the role of Cannes.

First published in Libération on 22 August 1984. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector. 

Thanks to Samir Ardjoum who spotted Daney among the officers in Adieu Bonaparte

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Nagisa Ōshima - Max, My Love

Not one, but three texts by Daney on Nagisa Ōshima's Max, My Love.

I recently came across an unpublished text written by Daney and translated in English for the press kit of the film. I found a reference to it 16 years ago but somehow came across it recently, thanks to the Cinefile archives of Berkeley University. 

Since Daney wrote two other texts about this film (both for Libération, a report about the filming in Paris, and a film review), here are the three of them in one go, translated. Their content is very similar.

Ōshima Nagisa by Serge Daney 

Whatever he does, Ōshima is a rather peculiar Japanese man. Now, whatever you might think, Japanese culture does not encourage peculiarities. It still feels too peculiar as a whole to tolerate being so in detail. One can only escape Japanese conformity by eccentricity. In Japan, it is perfectly possible to be officially eccentric, to irritate and be envied. The eccentric is envied because of his candid way of talking ; he irritates because his reputation sometimes goes beyond the waters of the archipelago. That's where the ambiguity begins. How can one stay oneself between two deforming mirrors? Real gymnastics, almost an art: the art of Ōshima Nagisa. 

Ten years ago, the trendy world audiences discovered In the Realm of the Senses. In Western countries people were quick and ready to admit that the Japanese knew something about the distinction between eroticism and pornography, Bataille was quoted and people were moved by this film. In Japan, things were taking a more trivial turn. The censor imposed little puritan and pink clouds over the taboo parts of the body (body hair, not the organs) and the illustrated book of the script was banned. This was followed by a trial which Ōshima, who was delighted, used as a rostrum to speak in favour of freedom of expression against hypocrisy. Already ten years ago. In the Realm of the Senses was Ōshima's twenty-first feature film. So, not only is he not a beginner, but context of the Japanese society and film industry of the sixties when he started is now far away. In the Realm of the Senses is produced by Anatole Dauman, a Frenchman; the age of international co-productions and the cinephilic jet set is upon us. For the people who discovered him in those days, Ōshima was the impeccably dressed character going from festival to festival, who was not very talkative, polite and brutal, vaguely effeminate and quite unfathomable. For the Japanese public he is a media star who answers anguished Japanese housewives' questions on the television. He is also the man who films and models in Kansai Yamamoto's fashion shows (who dresses him). This reconversion of an old leftist dissenter into a society figure irritates and creates envy. Has he betrayed the romantic anarchism of his earlier days? Many of his old friends think so, but their opinion is of little importance now. 

Ōshima has forgotten nothing, but he is lucid. In a bourgeois, nouveau riche country, cinema is no longer the mirror, even the cracked one, where the image of Japanese society is composed. The very desire of expression through cinema needs a favourable balance of power. Even Kurosawa experienced this. Ōshima's strength is his name and his brand image born along with In the Realm of the Senses

Only cinema specialists know bits and pieces about his earlier works, which are his most beautiful (The Little Boy for example) and know that in the early sixties there was a shock in Japanese cinema, a rebellious movement, a new Wave. The specialists even think that the young Ōshima had a feverish and headlong way of shooting one film after another, like Fassbinder. He divorced the old consensual cinema (led by Ozu), the American model and imperialism, narrow-minded feudal morals and the inertia of the great film studios. Sometimes a film from that period comes back, like the Cruel Story of Youth today.  We are struck dumb. But Ōshima lives with his time. He shoots less, with more difficulty and maybe with less inspiration. But he gives up nothing of the essential. And the essential is that today's Japanese at long last accept to "belong to mankind," that they do not drift towards an electronics Clochemerle or a military organisation of the peace, and that they stop despising all that is "cosmopolitan". This is why Furyo is an important film. For the first time, a Japanese movie maker decided to narrate an episode of the last World War, putting himself in yesterday's enemy's shoes as well, the Whites. 

This is why Max, My Love will surely be an important film. For the first time a Japanese movie maker tells a story which has absolutely nothing to do with Japan. It doesn't sound like much, but it's really quite something. This is why every morning in the Billancourt Studios in Paris, we have bumped into a very relaxed Ōshima, who is delighted with his alliance with Serge Silberman, the French producer (the man who made Ran possible). Ōshima, a normal movie maker, talking normally about the complex love between a diplomat's wife and a sentimental chimpanzee, quietly in search of new barriers to be the first to cross. He was zealous enough to come and live alone in Paris, cut off from his mother tongue, reduced to a rather approximate spoken English, and a rugged form of French. He has transformed the hazards of production into a pioneering experience: he is quite simply one of the first real travellers in the history of Japan. 

Believed to have been written exclusively for the press kit of Max, My Love, Greenwich Film Production S.A., 1986. I've amended the translation slightly.


Ōshimax, My Love!

Suite of the Franco-Japanese entente cordiale. Serge Silberman produces Nagisa Ōshima. Scandalously serene, the auteur of In the Realm of the Senses gave his film the title Max, My Love. The story of a ménage à trois. But who’s Max? And where is Ōshima at?

Consider a couple, in bourgeois circles. The man is a cultural attaché at the British Embassy, he is therefore English (Anthony Higgins). The woman (Charlotte Rampling, incredibly elegant) is French. Their apartment, invented by Pierre Guffroy, luxurious and outmoded, is similar to the decors in Buñuel’s last films, which is normal since Guffroy was production designer on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Along with Jean-Claude Carrière, he is one of these talents that Serge Silberman does not lose sight of or allow to remain idle. On the large Billancourt set, Guffroy has designed a succession of apartments (brass columns, linoleum-made marble) based on the movements of the characters as they were specified with precision by Ōshima and Carrière in the script. And since the Billancourt studios, to their dismay, can only rent raw space (“even the guardrails had to be built”), even the smallest accessory had to be carefully chosen. It took three weeks to build the décor where the young diplomatic couple lives and where Max – that’s the story of the film – will soon move in, in the last room, a bit dirty, like a den. 

Margaret, the wife of the cultural attaché, has met Max and (the detective in charge is sure of it) has made Max her lover. But we would be wrong to think that the cultural attaché was cheated on. It’s complex because the other man is other without being a man: Max is a chimpanzee. Apart from the maid (Victoria Abril) who develops an allergic reaction when in contact with the beast, all of them (including the child of the couple, a young blond boy called Nelson) welcome Max and accept the love relationship (sexual? not so sure) that it has with his master-partner. How far will they go? Will this romantic dispositif survive in a society so stiff and policed? What about Max’s jealousy? Will Peter, that’s the name of the attaché, truly accept this blow to monogamous values?

The starting point comes from Jean-Claude Carrière and it is rather Buñuelian. Silberman produced Buñuel’s last films before managing the mammoth production of Kurosawa’s Ran. He meets the other internationally renowned Japanese filmmaker (Ōshima) in 1982 and they decided to make a film together as soon as possible after Ran. Ōshima had no difficulties adopting Carrière’s idea. He sees it as a commentary, ten years later, on In the Realm of the Senses where already two characters (a couple) were quietly casting themselves away from social rules to pursue, outside the rules, an experiment where eroticism would attempt to seal the dead ends of human communication. At the time, Ōshima had already worked with a French producer, the great Anatole Dauman. Strange how across a decade and a continent, in this situation created by the exiles and the co-productions that define auteur cinema today (at least its international side), all the threads come into knots, all the batons are passed, all the inheritances are received with the most unflappable logic. 

Max, My Love will only cost 4 million dollars (v. 17 million for Ran). Filming started on September 23rd and will last twelve weeks. Paris, its suburbs and its studios (Billancourt) will serve as the background for this discreet shoot where even the master has become Parisian. Not a Japanese word on the set, only some “Action!” shouted in English like some Banzai charge, Raoul Coutard’s grumblings, the repertoire of French chanson hummed by the key grip and Max’s squeaks. Thousand anecdotes could be told (like on any shoot) but the essential seems rather to be the impression given by Ōshima that he “knows where he is going.” The film is likely to be less mannered than Furyo, simpler and fainter, in this forthright and falsely subdued style of Chabrol’s or B series bourgeois extravagances. The only remaining questions are whether the constant melange of the two languages in the dialogue – French and English – will give the international credibility that Silberman and Ōshima wish for their product? And will Max be “probable”?

Unable to reveal all about Max, it is possible to lift a corner of this hairy veil. Here is the authorised version: “Rick Baker himself, the make-up artist behind Greystoke, the specialist of fake reproductions of Tarzan’s primate friends, came to help with the project. In the background, there are six Brits under the direction of the American looking after latex moulds, the mechanic behind the precision of simian expressions, contact lenses and hair implants. The complete costume with the fur, the underwear giving the right anatomic shapes, the legs, the arms and the head, took six months to build. And since everything gets worn out, we had to plan for spare parts. And let’s not mention the hair that need to be implanted one by one and require the patience of a monk. Then, because we need every movement to have the same truth as the outside appearance, we need a professional to learn to live inside the envelope. That’s Alisa Berk, a performance artist in her thirties, who has spent a lot of time in zoos, been pally with other mammals for several months, assimilated the body language of the monkeys to a point where she is undistinguishable from a beast.”

Another question that will doubt interest those that have known Ōshima since the beginning of the sixties and know how important he was for contemporary cinema (let’s recall some of the titles: Night and Fog in Japan, 1960, Death by Hanging, 1968, the admirable Boy, 1969, The Ceremony, 1971, In the Realm of the Senses, 1976): has the author of these violent and anti-conformist films kept his energy intact? Where is he at?

“I must suffer from cyclothymia,” he wrote in 1974. “One day, the flow of my emotions keeps pouring over. They envelop me like dense air, and my body is one with the world. The day after, air rarefies around me, and my chest is heavy as if made of lead. My body is insensitive to the outside, as if the world around me had lost its gravity and floated in blueish sadness. I lose all the clues that could lead me to human dignity. The vitality that is specific to people in jail, of the criminals about to commit another crime, of those that need to oppose themselves frontally to modern Japan in order to live, doesn’t exist in me.” (Écrits, Cahiers du cinéma - Gallimard).

Does the man who wrote these lines nearly twelve years ago still suffer from cyclothymia? If yes, then we found him on a good day. It’s the usually impeccable Ōshima (always dressed by Yamamoto Kansai) who welcomes us after a day of shooting, slightly dishevelled and rather merry, delighted with his alliance with Silberman that allows him for once to concentrate on his mise en scène. We had met Ōshima several times in Paris, Cannes and Tokyo and had found him tense, almost uncomfortable, caught between the two images of a Japanese media celebrity and a controversial auteur of global cinema. But in Billancourt that day, he was – finally – a filmmaker like any other, happy to get to work. 

Co-signed by Serge Daney and Bertrand Raison. Published in Libération on 18 December 1985. 


Ōshima apes humans

A serene anthropologist, Oshima invents a ménage à trois where the other is a monkey. Max, My Love isn’t his best film, but it is so nondescript that it still disturbs. 

Nagisa Ōshima’s new film is strange. It will disappoint those that expected it to be scandalous and shocking, but won’t comfort those that don’t like scandals or shocks.  It shines with a faint radiance, like something distant or faded. All the same, it is difficult to shake it off. As if, in 1986, Max, My Love was the stubborn ghost of a (once) modern cinema, a cinema once heralded by Ōshima as one of its heroes (let’s never forget that he made Cruel Story of Youth and In the Realm of the Senses).

The cage is here, the beast is there

So, Max is the love-object. The chimpanzee was bored stiff in a zoo when an elegant woman – the wife of an attaché at the British Embassy in Paris – buys it for a handful of peanuts and grants it, each day in a hotel, a number of mysterious hours. That, we don’t see but we learn at the same time as the (young and impeccable) husband who, believing he was being cheated upon, had his wife followed by a detective. If it wasn’t a film by Ōshima, the situation would be worthy of some Ionesco-inspired vaudeville. For what does happen in Ōshima’s films? Always the same thing. A character, at some point, accepts to follow another to the end of his pleasure (the pleasure of another, of course). This character does this because of conviction, holiness, or voyeurism, in a word: for love. And to do this, one must begin by renouncing to the (sexual or social) roles that were his preserve. For example, the pleasure of a man ends where the pleasure of the woman begins, and he follows her knowing that he will stall along the way. That’s the last, very beautiful, part of In the Realm of the Senses

“Let’s live with Max!”, the young attaché proposes to his wife, who accepts. And here is the couple, very select and very bilingual (and with a young child for good measure), embarking without safety net on a human-monkey conviviality experiment. Max (very sentimental) plays the role of the “Other” perfectly, meaning with jealousy. It only likes the attaché’s wife and only it, seemingly, can satisfy her. Their friends laugh uncomfortably, the neighbours’ dogs bark, the maid develops a skin rash, Max seeks freedom and the husband wants to murder Max. But on the whole, the cage is here, the beast is here, they have breakfast together, it begins to work. 

Why does the film both disturb and disappoint for not disturbing more? Hard to say. The first reasons owe to the production of the film. Since Furyo, Ōshima has suffered from the lethargic state of Japanese cinema. His encounter with Silberman who was producing Ran in Tokyo allowed him to return to filmmaking. He instantly liked the idea of Max, My Love proposed by Jean-Claude Carrière (which is only logical since the idea is very Ōshima-esque). For the first time, a Japanese filmmaker shoots, far away from his native archipelago, a film where nothing Japanese is at stake (which, when it comes to Japan, is quite something). Ōshima, who gets by in English but struggles with French, must direct the film in these two languages. This logically creates a slight hesitation in the dialogues. As if the filmmaker had organised his film from a faraway planet or if he had directed it with a walkie talkie, with the exaggerated precision of a long-distance communication device. To overcome this predictable disadvantage inherent to the co-production, Carrière and Silberman made a reasonable choice: to write and produce Max, My Love like one of Buñuel’s last films. With the same bourgeois interiors, the same opacity of a dream that is too sharp, the same faded exteriors and the same strange interiors. This wasn’t a bad move since Ōshima has many things in common with Buñuel (logical, deadpan, anarchist) but we couldn’t quite adhere to it completely. This posthumous Buñuel offered by Ōshima to Silberman lacks humour. 

Lean to live with the limit

Then there are the fundamental reasons. Ōshima is a realist (he makes necessary changes for the needs of the coproduction) but he is also stubborn. He cares for his fundamental project in practical anthropology. He likes situations where humans must confront their humanity to what appears inhuman to them: women, non-Japanese, non-humans. Ōshima seems to say that, even though we are wishing it, the humanisation of the world will (fortunately) never been complete. And to wish it, we must go through a limit between the outside and the inside of a group, and to learn to live with this limit. Ōshima adds a new limit to the one separating men and women, one that separates them from the beasts. But what separates is also links. 

In 1986, Ōshima is less interested in the extremes of sexual desire than to the infinity of love. It’s his way to move with the times and to age. This is why, in final analysis, Max, My Love wouldn’t work at all without Charlotte Rampling. Beautiful and more than troubling, she manages – with great elegance – not to answer the question that, in the film and in the audience, is on everyone’s lips (“So, how is it, with the monkey?”), and to simply offer her serious face to the camera. The audience must then overcome its jealousy and also accept that while all this concerns it, it is also none of its business. 

First published in Libération on 14 May 1986. Reprinted in La maison cinema et le monde, vol. 3, P.O.L., 2012.


Friday, January 22, 2021

Translation news: The Cinema House and the World

[UPDATE 1 MARCH 2021: the book page is live on the publisher site]

Semiotext(e), an independent American publisher, have announced the publication of an English translation of the volume 1 of La maison cinéma et le monde for 2022.  

Hedi El Kholti from Semiotext(e) kindly confirmed in an interview and in an email that: 

  • They have acquired the translation rights back in 2013.
  • After a couple of translators dropped out, Christine Pichini, who translated Hervé Guibert and Michel Leiris for them, is "almost done" with the translation.
  • Hedi refers to The Cinema House and the World as a possible translated title.
  • Target publication date is Spring 2022. 
As a reminder, Daney published only four books in his lifetime, all collections of his articles. A few books have been published posthumously in France (an unfinished book project, one containing his film notes, and one his reviews of tennis matches). And in 2001, P.O.L. embarked on publishing most of Daney's remaining texts in four thick volumes (2,500 pages in total). 

The volume 1 of La maison cinéma et le monde covers "The time of Cahiers 1962-1981": from Daney's first articles in Visages du cinéma - the magazine he created as a young film critic - to most of his production for Cahiers du cinéma and several other articles written for the daily newspaper Libération and other outlets.  

What to expect? about 200 articles by Daney, including film reviews, pieces on film directors, festival reports, many essays on film and television as well texts on tennis. Fewer "political" writings than you might expect (POL didn't include the anonymous collective texts written during Cahiers' cultural revolutionary front that Daney may have contributed to) and none of the texts that Daney had already chosen to include in La rampe, his book covering roughly the same period (1970-82).

Here is the table of contents from the French edition (with my translation of the P.O.L. section titles and links to existing translations):

Preface (Patrice Rollet)

Interview with Bill Krohn in 1977 (available in Bill Krohn's latest book

1. The Flow of Films

Many film reviews mostly for Visages du cinéma and Cahiers. The longest section by far, half of the book. 

2. Politique des auteurs
3. The Critical Function    

The most theoretical text of the volume published from mid-70s CahiersPart 1,3 and 4 translated here.

4. In Focus

 Essays on various topics triggered by films and TV broadcasts. 

5. The Test of the Image 

Short texts on images. One for Kino Slang who has already selected one: The Dog and the Rope (Hitchcock).
6. Here and Elsewhere

Various festival reports, including Daney's famous trip to Hong Kong and China in 1980.

7. The Chronicle of Answering Machines

A five-part essay on television written for Cahiers in 1976.

8. Close to the Net

Four texts on tennis matches, one of Daney's other passions. I assume these are the remaining texts not published L'Amateur de tennis (POL, 1994).
There is a long wait until 2022. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Serge Daney in 2020

Here's the usual annual round-up on translating Serge Daney in English. 

2020 saw sixteen new translations published on the blog. The one on Gertrud seems to have really resonated with readers. Also worth reading is Daney's scathing review of Kazan's The Visitors. I enjoyed Daney's take on classic films (see texts on Hitchcock or Mizoguchi) or his long article comparing cinema and Television. 

As always, this has been a collaborative effort. Let me thank those who helped: Andy Rector, Srikanth SrinivasanCraig Keller and indirectly Liz Heron (whom I don't know but whose work on an aborted translation project in the 1980s has been helpful this year).

Beside translations, two notable events:

* Bill Krohn published a new book called Letters from Hollywood with a long section on Serge Daney and the 1977 Cahiers week organised (with Daney) at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York. 


* A bombshell that appeared online earlier this week in an interview with the editors of Semiotext(e) where Hedi El Kholti offhandedly announced:
I think we acquired the first volume of Serge Daney’s collected works, The Cinema House and the World, in 2013. It went through a few translators, who started the project but felt overwhelmed by the scope and commitment and gave up. It’s finally coming out next year, or in early 2022.  

A million questions popped in my puzzled head immediately and I have tried to make contact with them to find more. Has there really been a secret translation project running for the past seven years? Are they actually translating the four volumes of La maison cinéma et le monde (that would be a bold move with over 2,500 pages but also a strange choice as Daney's own books are not included in these editions)? I've learned to be cautious with announcements of upcoming books of translations when it comes to Daney but I will share any news I receive on the blog. Very exciting.

In the meantime, let me wish you the best and let's hope we all come out of the pandemic safely in 2021. Here's to parties, meeting more people, live performances, actual cinemas, music concerts and festivals!

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.