Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Two-Headed Star

Despite the 2015 publication of his "complete" writings, new forgotten texts by Serge Daney keep emerging. This one from a 1988 special edition of Le Nouvel Observateur on "The new language of love". Thank you to Pierre Eugène and Gaspard Nectoux for unearthing it.

The Two-Headed Star  
Who remembers how seriously we talked about the crisis of the couple in the early ‘60s? Couples have been around forever but we seemed to discover their existence. Better (or worse): the couple became the favourite subject of modern filmmakers, those who, after the war, challenged the traditional ways of telling stories and of filming. This is how a word as hideous as “incommunicability” gained success, and how scenes of domestic quarrels moved from comedy to being at the very core of modern cinema. There no irony whatsoever to this: from Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together along with Godard’s Contempt, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore or Rivette’s Mad Love, many great films focused on exploring this new character: the couple. A novel object, a rough two-headed star, a war à deux.  
Until then, filmmakers were more interested in how, after the happy ending, a man and a woman would begin to live happily ever after and have many children, off the camera screen. The interest wasn’t the couple but how it was formed. How men conquer women (the sex wars) or how men get castrated by beings destined to a sort of sacred prostitution: the stars. Couples were merely improbable conventions and the details of their private life not deemed worthy of cinema. It required the war – the real one – so that, over the ruins of collective myths (superman, new man) and in the ruins of bombed cities (in Europe therefore), something like an interest for the human being, in the shape of a couple, came to light. This interest had a name, the one who got a jump on everybody else and cleared the way for others: Roberto Rossellini. 
In the mid ‘50s, instead of simply managing his image as a neorealist, Rossellini pulls off a coup. He steals a star from Hollywood, makes her his wife and model, and with her tells the first adventures of the modern couple. Ingrid Bergman is at the centre of a few great films, from Journey to Italy to Stromboli, via Europe ‘51 and the curious Joan of Arc at the Stake. In order to film her, Rossellini is forced to dynamite traditional cinema. He is like a painter who, faced with a new object, must start again from zero. Story, duration, character evolution, the whole and the detail, dead times and high points, etc. The couple – this modern but ungrateful object – forces to rethink cinema. Even Lelouch, ten years later, will understand – albeit confusedly – that A Man and a Woman is a complex affair. 
Ingrid Bergman, Monica Vitti and Anna Karina 
At what point did the crisis of the couple ceased re-inventing cinema? In the end, the answer is simple: when the filmmakers (in the ‘70s) stopped being madly in love with their actresses. The story between Rossellini and Bergman was all over the tabloid press before ending badly, but when we see Joan of Arc at the Stake, we know that it was a real story. In the same way, Antonioni doesn’t make the same films with or without Monica Vitti (L’Avventura, La Notte). The same goes for Godard after Anna Karina (Vivre sa vie, Bande à part) who will work on a true theory of the Other, as voluntarist as unavoidable. Except that this Other will regularly not be at the place Godard allocates for him. This seat that we refuse to everybody because it’s already taken.  The same again for Rossellini: exasperated by the navel-gazing of cinema, he will work toward the dream of a didactic television where everything is done for an Other that we no longer need to know: the TV audience. 
There is of course a more trivial way to discuss all this, with sociology. Post-war European countries went through waves of economic growth. The middle-classes emerged as cultural agents, consumers, actors and desiring-machines. This didn’t happen without problems. As soon as it was born, the New Wave was accused of a major crime: being petit-bourgeois. Admittedly, but the New Wave had talent and its enemies were rancid. And when 1968 arrives, this Wave has already trailed the way that leads naturally to the avatars of the liberation. Liberation of oneself and of the old crisis of the couple, the almost always heterosexual, sad and so depressingly normal couple. We no longer talk about incommunicability and the word “desire” takes over. 
Cinema didn’t benefit from 1968, not in an artistic way. This is logical since 1968 was all about theatre (and this very French genre: political theatre). But subsequently, in the aftermath of the events, the language of love and the way to make films with it began to change. Mainly because of what we used to call – hypocritically – the specific movements. As soon as the homosexuals and women began to claim their autonomy, the old couple stories imploded. The Other was clearly present, but in unexpected and often marginal ways. The Other could be another man, a child, an animal or an object. Scenes of domestic quarrels appeared obsolete; we focused on the experience of limits. An experience à deux, far from society’s rules of good conduct, an experience where we no longer know who goes along with whom, and toward which abyss. 
Good filmmakers of that time (mid ‘70s) are called Pasolini, Fassbinder, Oshima, Ferreri, Wenders. They are more like logicians, hard ironists. They are not French. They don’t observe couples but show how the couple is everywhere. In Theorem, Pasolini sends an angel to seduce one by one all the members of a bourgeois family. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder shows that things work out neither better nor worse between an old German lady and her young Moroccan lover than with a so-called ordinary couple. In Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, a woman begins by following a man in his sexual cravings before the man, exhausted, ends up following the woman in her quest for the absolute. But sex is only a manifestation of desire. It sometimes hinders it: in Ferreri’s The Last Woman, Depardieu eventually cuts it off. It sometimes is completely or partially sublimed: in Alice in the Cities, a floating hippie and a little girl form an alliance, and therefore a couple. 
The moralising French cinema 
This is why it’s not surprising that some of the most beautiful films of that time were made by Luis Buñuel. From Belle du jour to That Obscure Object of Desire, this man who never compromised with the strength of desire and the bizarre logic of its metamorphoses was like a fish in the ocean. This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that French filmmakers are less inventive, less adventurous that the foreign ones named above. French cinema, even at its best, is made by moralists. This means it is more interested in the point of view than in the things viewed. It has never ceased – through an incredible flow of words and speeches – to mark out the paths for adventures that it doesn’t necessarily wants to live. Putting aside Vecchiali (Women Women), French cinema in the ‘70s tries – with real violence – to draw out the morality of what happened elsewhere. In other words, there are no French filmmaker that compare to Fassbinder in this decade. 
From the ‘80s, nothing is obvious anymore. Until then, each great mutation of the language of love forced the filmmakers to work at the mutation of their tool – the cinematographic language – even if it meant breaking taboos. Rossellini broke the Hollywood convention of useful time and freed up the notion of dead times. Godard made a joke of the dogma of continuity. Others, later, integrated nakedness with representation. And each time, there were people that felt shocked. And each time, the gap grew wider between cinema and its audience. The liberated audience accepted the worst of audacities while the old audience, the captive audience, chose television without regrets since it offered the continuation of the old cinema, academic and conventional. As a result, cinema lost more and more of its power to shock. Society and the language of love keep evolving but cinema is ever less likely to be used as their echo chamber or the place of controversy. In other words, cinema becomes a minority in a media-based world. 
Cinema in the age of “personalised communication” 
The proof? After the shocks of the great films of the ‘70s (we remember the scandal that accompanied the 1973 Cannes festival selection of The Mother and the Whore and The Big Feast!), came the time for appraisals. It was time to see whether and how behaviours had changed, as well as their representation, to see how a whole generation had lived alongside the idea of liberation, and to see what the actors of that generation looked like. In France, things were simple. A whole generation of the so called “café-théâtre” (people like Coluche, Lavanant, Jugnot, Blanc, Dewaere, Balasko, etc) was the natural heir of post-1968. The problem is that when cinema took interest in them, there were no filmmakers with as much talent as them. A serious disjunction between the talent of the actors and the mediocrity of filmmakers. And if films like Viens chez moi, j’habite chez une copine made a mark, it wasn’t as an adventure with and in cinema, but as a testimony in the capacity of actors to act as the mirror of their time (but not to reveal it). 
We must get used to it. The history of cinema is like a long forward tracking shot. At the start, there are crowds, people and wars. Then we make out smaller units, couples, normal or disparate. Eventually, we see the individual appearing in his singularity, alone and with all his connections. Individualism is becoming a theme in France. Rather late. The individual that consumes the social but also does not cease to snatch spans of autonomy from it. The Other was hell, then it was a challenge: now it has become – as Gilles Lipovestky says – a nice “gag”. Rich countries digest their liberations and turn away more and more from others (poor countries or poor people in their country). A county like Italy which had the chance of having a real South within its borders could tell for a long time the comedy of social classes and invent the actors it needed to that end. One day, not so long ago, Italy found itself rich, without cinema, Berlusconised, and nevertheless very much alive. No one knows what cinema (the art of the obscure theatre and of the anonymous audience) will/would look like in the age of personalised communication
As for the language of love, it has changed. Filmmakers initially observed that communication is rare and difficult, then they understood that it is easy and regular, and they realised there is no reason to be screaming for joy. In the meantime, television and the media had conquered the monopoly of social communication, leaving to cinema the used-up pathos of the couple, the dreams of universal and mystical communication, and the ironic realisation of the disappointment that is successful communication. In France, someone had understood everything very early: Tati. Tati taught us to laugh at something that is functioning. But Tati wasn’t interested at all in the languages of love. His Hulot-hero is a man full of goodwill and whims but already without desire. 
In the ‘80s, a filmmaker eventually obtains a lot of success: Rohmer. Why? Because he is quintessentially the filmmaker that closes the loop between tradition and modernity. He takes contemporary characters and traps them. Without realising, he had us move from the theme of the liberated woman to the theme of the free woman, from post-feminism to pre-feminism. As a moralist, Rohmer obviously requires his guinea pigs-actors to work at their own image. Otherwise, where would be the pleasure in being a moralist? Here is a man interested in individuals but who keeps whispering to them that they need a good master, a god, an auteur or a green ray. 
We remember that The Green Ray was released simultaneously on television and in cinemas, and that it didn’t suffer from this competition. This is a precious clue. To follow the avatars of the new language of love at the age of declared individualism, one should perhaps turn toward the small screen. And what can we see on it? Pascale Breugnot’s programmes for instance which staged all kinds of volunteers playing all kinds of psychological games, from Psy-show to Sexy-folies and Moi je. The boundary between private and public life that Rossellini had begun to destabilise is now floating. Representation can no longer be scandalous and the Minitel – invented and successful in France – clearly shows that the languages of love keep evolving, off images. 
This is why cinema looks so weakened. To continue to understand current times, it must hark back on the ancient mode of the comedy, take up Tati’s idea, explore it. Next to the French marivaudage (Rohmer) tinged with ever more inoffensive social games (from Deville to Chatillez), there are isolated satirical auteurs like Woody Allen or Nanni Moretti. In Europe Moretti is alone in knowing how to tell us that we are prodigiously individual, conscious of our subconscious, available without passion, very humorous but strangely alone. Long ago, when we were in love, we were courageous, headstrong, today, we are merely funny. Like in television sit-coms or in the games at the Club Med. 
There will always be angels 
All this lacks grandeur? Quite. This is perhaps why cinema – who wants nothing less than be like television – seems to hark back, aesthetically, on the old themes of passion and love. On one side, the Minitel and the sex chatlines, on the other aesthetically beautiful films to dream à deux. There is a lot of mushiness in this return of the couple-in-love-despite-society-hardships. There is some Lelouch in Beinex, and even some Carné-Prévert in Wenders-Handke. The logic of the desire is long gone and sex is no longer a moment of truth. The individual is searching for partners that are no threat to his ego. He finds them in heaven, in the shape of guardian angels in “the sky above Berlin” (Wenders). This angelism may be a path to allow whatever art is left in cinema to survive for a time the amusing hell of the televised others
Published in Documents Observateur, n° 2, juillet 1988.


  1. Hello, here should be inverted these phrases possibly:
    Without realising, he had us move from the theme of the liberated woman to the theme of the free woman, from post-feminism to pre-feminism.

    I guess from pre-feminism to post-feminism, right?

    Thank you

  2. Hello, welcome to the intricacies of Daney! The translation is correct. "From post-feminism to pre-feminism". I'm as puzzled as you are. Could be a mistake or a publisher's typo or Daney trying to say something that I don't quite understand (it wouldn't be the first time).

    1. Thank you for the response (and for everything else you are doing).

  3. One more question, if I'm not bothering you,
    this sentence is quite obscure to me (probably My English fails me, but still):

    "They are more like logicians, hard ironists." Especially when "hard" is in italics.

    Does this sentence means that "They are more like logicians, HARDLY ironists" i.e. they are not ironists, or does it mean that, they are logicians and "hard", stern, ironists too.
    Thank you.

  4. Hi Lasha,

    Happy to help. Not a problem

    The French sentence is "Ce sont plutôt des logiciens, des ironistes assez hard." ("Hard" is in English in the French text hence why I kept it because Daney, like Godard, often uses the distinction between "soft" and "hard").

    So literally, "they are more like logicians, rather hard ironists". And yes, your are correct, it means they are "hard" or stern ironists. They use irony coldly, bluntly, as required, with not attest to soften it.

    I hope this helps.


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