Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Colourful DeMille

When the Eternal (tired to be off screen) finally talks to Moses, he wears a beautiful spinach green tunic. This green is profoundly different to the apple green gauze underneath which we feel Nefertiti is naked. It’s not the grasshopper green of the tutus worn by a bunch of dancers. Nor the earth green of the cloud that kills Egypt's first-borns, nor the bleached green of the Red Sea when it opens up. Nor especially the beautiful turquoise blue of the headdress of the spineless Baka. This turquoise blue is the type you can still find in very old prints of the National Geographic Magazine. For anyone who is overwhelmed by a colour chart, The Ten Commandments (1956) is more a story of colours than of taste. DeMille’s taste is what it is but the colours are of a different nature, a nature loved like never before by the late Technicolor.  
If Cecil Blount DeMille, a filmmaker little known and without a great reputation, ended up being recognised, it’s less for the religious feeling that his films are strangely devoid of than for the way he tirelessly was able to talk about belief. With DeMille, you only believe what you see, and you only see colours. The man that turns the acid green Nile blood red must have a very powerful God on his side. And a God who sends a teaser in the shape of red cloud followed by a green halo on a mountain, knows that Moses is not colour blind.  
To believe in colours must have been easy after the Eternal had invented Technicolor. It would be harder today as the colour in cinema is everywhere ugly and unremarkable. There was a time when the gelatine of the three positives could be impregnated with the right dye and the matrices were quite happy to discharge their colouring on the mordanted surface of the silver halide film*. Colours then demonstrated a rock-solid stability. Seeing again The Ten Commandments is to understand that DeMille was not only the bigoted and reactionary tyrant who liked to see all his flock of extras piled into a single image, but also the kitsch aesthete that took the liberty to treat colours as extras.  
Stability is the right word to talk about this damaging filmmaker. DeMille is the man of belief, and of blind belief. But also the man of blindness, because blindness is also a belief. In the end, he talks less about sacred love than pagan love and if The Ten Commandments only contained the thoughtful Moses’ saga, the film would be a short one. Thankfully there are these surprising characters, among others: Nefertiti, Ramses and Dathan. These ones are, in a sense, ‘incredible’. The Hebrew God multiplies stunning miracles in front of their eyes and they couldn't care less! Nefertiti can’t see she’s boring Moses, the Pharaoh can’t see that his people are in danger and Dathan finds a way, two seconds after the Red Sea closes back, to continue to excite the people against Moses. Stubborn love, boasting arrogance, and constant nastiness become the real passions. The passion to see nothing of what stands out so obviously. They are as stable in their blindness as the colours of the film are in their stridence.  
In fact, DeMille’s real serious topic, the one he doesn’t deal with and perhaps never even suspected, was composed by Schoenberg in 1932 and filmed by Straub in 1974. It’s Moses and Aaron, the eternal (and painful) story of the quarrels between writing and image. If René Bonnell, thanks to whom we managed to see again (on Canal Plus) the Cecil B version, was logical, he would now schedule the Schoenberg-Straub version, and would thus contribute to the work of civilisation. If only to give Aaron his chance. His chance to doubt** and to be interesting.  
* Some are pointing out that this description is sexual. Duly noted.   
** Unfortunately, Bonnell (René) couldn't care less about this chronicle. 
First published in Libération on 16 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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