Sunday, January 16, 2011

A ritual of appearance (Mitterrand)

Part 2 of a double post. Part 1 is here.

A ritual of appearance (Mitterand)

First, the pre-credits sequence: a man leaves the crowd and walks towards us. The camera captures him the moment he climbs up the stairs of an imposing building. He’s filmed from a low angle, alone, very alone. He’s well dressed, a bit stiff, but he knows where he’s going. The camera is then placed further and lets the actor arrive: it keeps see him coming. His footsteps resonate, (classical) music is heard: the sound reverberation lets us imagine a large building. The man moves closer. Does he know he’s being filmed? Will someone tell him it’s a candid camera? It’s not sure. Will he speak? Even less sure. In any case, he’s holding a flower.

Entered from the left of the frame, he logically exits from the right, once the camera has panned to uncover a pile of marble and statues with these simple words: National Convention. The man glances at them. Is he hesitating? No, but he moves away and disappears from the image. Clever, the camera gets ahead of him and frames an opening of soft golden light where our actor suddenly appears.

A closer shot shows him immobile, meditating. The suspense would be unbearable if it didn’t unravel abruptly: the man makes one step on the side and lays the flower – it’s a rose – on a block of stone where these simple words are written: Jean Moulin. Emboldened by his gesture, he repeats it on two other tombs: Victor Schoelcher’s (“who abolished slavery in 1841” explains a surtitle) and Jaures’. We are in the Pantheon. When the camera lingers on the six letters of the engraved word “Jaures”, the music gets louder. The effect is arresting. With no more flowers, the man leaves as he arrived: alone. End of the pre-credits sequence, beginning of the film, i.e. the seven-year presidential term.

This short film is not without merit, even if, in the dignified and monumental style, it’s neither Ivan the Terrible nor Land of the Pharaohs. We find out that Serge Moati is its author and Mitterrand its unique star. It’s a real film, with rehearsals, body doubles, prop managers (for the flowers) and everything. The great moments of cinema are in Cannes this year but on the 625 daily lines of our TV sets. For this little film is Mitterrand’s response to Giscard’s media challenge.

We remember that the latter had attempted to invent on air a ritual of disappearance: Mitterrand had to take up this challenge by inventing another ritual, one of appearance of course. A ritual of arrival in the field, of the camera and of history. By saying “Good bye” to France from a television studio, Giscard had implicitly assimilated France to French television – a dangerous metonymy. Once already he had made the mistake, talking to viewers, to call them “Mes chers téléviseurs (My dear TV sets)”. It was his “idea of France”, a limited and cynical idea, with no memory but not without a certain irony. It would have been a mistake for Mitterrand to remain prisoner of this decor, to come back exactly to the seat left empty by Giscard. So he too has attempted something: to force television to come to him, to film him, where it never goes, in the Pantheon, i.e. among the dead.

The message is clear, and there’s no doubt it was heard. A need for legitimacy, a desire to fit in the history of France (a double history, of the winners and the losers), a desire to choose his own ancestry by choosing “his” dead, to go point them out, not with his finger (it’s not appropriate) but with roses. In all mythologies, the hero must present himself alone in front of the dead but under the dumbfounded eyes of the living. You need to be three to create a symbolic event. Moati’s film created Mitterrand’s temporary loneliness, snatched from the living then released to them after a trip with the dead under the electronic gaze of the camera. It changes from Giscard’s amnesia, his inability to any pathos. This revival of the Republican mythology is rather perky, even if it can quickly lead to really pompous aesthetics (which the film gave a foretaste of).

But why wouldn’t we accept a bit of academic style? For the moment, there is emotion, at least in this desire to touch or to be touched which was characteristic of the whole ceremony. Then, we’ll have to see if this idea that television is a cool media is that true. We’ll see if television inevitably de-realises, de-ritualises, desecrates. It’s Mitterrand’s new challenge to McLuhan. To be continued.

All this was what we could see on television, the evening before yesterday. Later, on the same channel, I felt that the same film, the same trip to the land of the dead, was happening again: a young man moves forward, as if magnetised in a dark and bleak decor, he meets a friend that he thought he had lost a long time ago and they start speaking with strange voices “coming from elsewhere”.
- You look rather pale... and you smell like earth...
- You too...
- Are you going to stay here long?
- Forever...

We found out that it was a dream. One of these dreams that Luis Bunuel sprinkled in the film on Channel 2 that evening: The discreet charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Originally published in Libération on 23 May 1981, reprinted in Ciné-Journal, Cahiers du cinéma / Seuil, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.

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