Friday, November 16, 2018

The passeur

[UPDATE 25 Dec 2021: This text has now been published in the last edition of Trafic, the review founded by Daney and which lasted 30 years after his death.] 

Wait, what? There's a little known text by Serge Daney called "The passeur"?

Recap for those discovering this blog: "passeur" is a term Daney used to define his position as a critic in his later years and the term has become closely associated with him. Difficult to translate, it can refer to a smuggler, a ferryman (real or mythological), or simply someone passing something to someone else. Here are two quotes where Daney gives clues of what he means:
“I like this small word: passeur. I remember a fantastic article by Jean-Louis Comolli about Eric Dolphy entitled ‘the passeur’. (…) The passeurs are strange: they need borders but only to challenge them. They don’t want to be alone with their treasures and at the same time, they don’t really care about those to whom they pass something. And since ‘feelings are always reciprocal’, we don’t really care about passeurs either, we don’t pass anything to them and we often empty their pockets”. (Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, 1991). 
“As a passeur I stayed midstream, waiting for someone from one of the banks to call me or reach out to me, and since that never happened I began to send little messages, both written and oral, sending news from one bank to the other without myself belonging to either of them” (Persévérance, 1994).
It turns out that Daney played with this term for quite some time, as far back as 1978 when he first used it in a newly found text about Grémillon. Thanks to Pierre Eugène who unearthed this text (via Jeremy Sulpis) and to Andy Rector for helping with the translation.

The passeur 
In 1978, The Action-République cinema took the risk of organising a tribute to Jean Grémillon, a great filmmaker without an audience, struck by some sort of official curse during his lifetime and after his death. Seizing the opportunity to take a closer look, the audience, often young, discovered in Grémillon more than a great filmmaker, they also discovered a passeur who, between two ages of French cinema, obstinately took upon his shoulders the risk of a mutation.  
Before Grémillon, it had been possible to make great films without necessarily being an ‘auteur’. After him, in France, it had become impossible. Before him: a prodigious actors’ cinema. After him: the naked, ungrateful, even unpopular necessity to sign one’s films, not only with a ‘style’ or ‘know-how’ but with one’s body. And that’s a completely different can of worms. Grémillon was the contemporary witness/craftsman/victim of the slow withdrawal of the body of the actor from French cinema. A withdrawal that continued beyond measure, up to the sudden emergence, in the place left vacant, of another body: that of the auteur (today? Godard, Duras, Truffaut…). After the war, it would no longer be really possible for a filmmaker to work, film after film, this filmic material that is the body of the professional actor. And French cinema would start searching for the idea of models, heralded by Bresson, everywhere but with the professional actors (doomed to decadence and then unemployment). Grémillon is the one who, caught between the Renoir-continent and the Bresson-continent (to be simple), will experience uncertainty with regard to actors, with regard to what will eventually be called casting. He belongs to two worlds. It’s enough to see the evolution, throughout his work, of the image of the working-class hero, to which Grémillon is very attached. It begins with Gabin (deeply moving in Lady Killer), followed by the pale Marchal (in Lumière d’été), then the evanescent Girotti (in The Love of a Woman). In the end, all that is left is a vague leather jacket, a cast-off.  
But this cast-off is precisely what has always interested Grémillon. He’s not only the one who ‘came at the wrong time’, born too early or too late, he’s the one who this situation (in-between two stages) tortures and enchants. He’s a passeur in more ways than one: between two ages of cinema, between two wars, between two worlds (the best and the other), between two sexes. In other words, he believes that in better tomorrows, women can take the place of men, and vice versa.  
Grémillon’s films, like those of Mizoguchi, are subjected to a double logic and the necessity to concede nothing of one to the benefit of the other. On one side, there’s the social class of the heroes, irreducible and final (Grémillon was one of the rare directors who likes to film people at work). On the other side, there is, in the bonus gift promised by Socialism, a redistribution of the roles between men and women, on either side of the desire that binds them to each other. More than Renoir or Daquin, Grémillon took seriously the question of the positive hero (already the case with the convict played by Alcover in the remarkable Little Lise). But in the end, the positive hero can only be a woman. Throughout Grémillon’s work, we witness a sort of mutation. At the beginning, it’s a world of men where women only bring misfortunes. Men are bound to their labour, naive and violent. Women are without ties, from anywhere and nowhere (see how Gabin, a typographer in Lady Killer, follows Mireille Balin, or how the same Gabin meets Morgan, a woman from nowhere, on a lost vessel in Stormy Waters). But instead of using a generalised phallic solution, Soviet-style (where the woman is virilised without the man being feminised), there is in the surprising The Woman Who Dared a new separation, a new division of labour, and of the elements: man to the earth and woman to the sky, the place of pure passage (and that’s why I wish to see a tribute to Grémillon in the final image of Adolfo G. Arrieta’s Flammes). 
These questions are rather buried, one might say. But is this true? What is Grémillon talking to us about in the end? Something that nowadays is avoided, circumvented, forgotten, left to the photo novels, the sentimental press, and cinephilic nostalgia: that human beings are beings of desire, caught in the class struggle. Remove any of the two components of this sentence and nothing makes sense anymore. Grémillon’s films are carried by one question, too simple not to move us: What is a man? What is a woman? Are there distinctive signs which would be anything other than biological markers or social conventions? Where to draw the dividing line, assuming such a line needs to be drawn? What does a man desire in a woman? Nothing more perhaps than what jerks him in motion (in all possible senses and literally). What does a woman desire in a man? Maybe nothing more than that empty cast-off of his, which she will keep when he is no longer there (a signifier, a ‘lady killer’, a mask). 
Grémillon’s films are difficult because they demand that we stay as close as possible to something (desire) that keeps extending itself, like onward marches, surviving itself, gaining over nothing. Between two scenes, two shots, there are not only ellipses, discontinuity, and the edges of the narrative, but the horror when everything is missing and we have to start from zero. No comfort for the enemies of comfort!
Published in Chefs d’oeuvres et nanars du cinéma français 1930-1956, a booklet for the Grémillon retrospective (Dec 1978 – Apr 1979) at the Action République cinema. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated to filter spam.