Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Stella, ethics and existence

‘What do films become when on television?’ 
‘They become what they are of course.’ 
‘But what if they are nothing?’ 
‘If they are nothing, they might be television.’ 
 ‘But is television really nothing?’ 
We could go on like this for hours but it wouldn’t stop us from spitting this out: Stella by Laurent Heynemann is almost nothing. Stella (1983) is skeletal. 
Merely existing as a film, Stella is a tele-film with ethics. Reduced to its core, without the matter and thickness that make a film, unsteady with the image and wobbly with the sound, it is perfect to introduce a television debate. In the same way human beings can donate their body for science or medicine, films can recycle their old reels on television. To best introduce a debate on television, better be skeletal and talk about ethics*. 
Nicole Garcia (Stella) is not quite skeletal when she leaves a concentration camp at the beginning of the film. She loves Yvon (Thierry Lhermitte) who joined the Gestapo to save her, and as long as she loves him, she will turn a blind eye to what others say or think. But from the pale rogues with no hope to the impeccable resistance fighters, all of them – even the most repulsive ones – have this in common: ethics. And since nothing is really happening to them (more than an action film, Stella is a film where the concept of an event is unknown), they have nothing else to do but to expose him, with such literary words disguised in sober sentences and such monochord tones that it’s embarrassing. 
Stella forces us to take on earlier than planned this difficult question: does television exist, and if yes, how do we know? That an increasing number of ‘films’ are accidentally released in theatres (where they usually don’t last) is now a phenomenon unanimously accepted (and even faded). That there was an entire dispositif which was only made possible because of the theatres (with spectators and their identification, with time and distances, the whole and the details, the light and the shadows) will eventually become obvious. That these films will be (slightly) better off on television goes without saying. For television doesn't need this dispositif (it has its own) and calls upon something totally different: the goodwill of the TV citizens and its ability to judge – and even to condemn. Hence its need for skeletal products to trigger debates (between guests) or verdicts (with questions from the audience). 
Where’s the disaster? With the actors of course. There’s nothing more depressing for an actor than to offer their character to the tribunal of History without having a chance to defend** it, even if the character is indefensible. There’s nothing more sinister than Lanoux, once again spineless, than Brialy, losing even more of his panache, than Lhermitte, playing another monster, than Denner acting as the clever one and Nicole Garcia as the lucid but tormented soul. But what else can they do other than underplay their roles or cast on everything around them the detached gaze of the one that judges? As if on television, characters mimicked the way they know they will be watched: like easy allegories. 
Some will say that Heynemann avoids Manicheism and belongs a new generation of (left-wing) film makers who – finally! – accept that those stories of collaboration, resistance and ethnic cleansing are not so simple. The problem is that he makes them complex instead of revealing their complexity and that the necessity to abandon all-white resistant fighters and all-black collaborators comes with a lack of interest in anyone. It’s probably why all the characters talk in the same way, as if actors’ style had become obscene when all we need are a few well-known extras. 
We should be worried for this type of products. They no longer belong to the menu of cinemas and they are only listed on television for their roles as starters. Sometimes, we feel an incredible cruelty making us think that a few commercial breaks would really help Stella. We would then have the feeling of a secret rhythm and scansion, of a thread often lost but always rediscovered. One more step and we might change channel. 

* All of those who didn’t like the debates in political cine-clubs have now been avenged by Nanni Moretti in Sogni d’oro
** Conversely, I remember how much I was touched by the actor Yves Alfonso who, at the release of Doubles Messieurs, had defended so well ‘his’ character, and only the character. 
First published in Libération on 19 October 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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