Saturday, June 13, 2020

Our Marriage really holds up

Another text from Serge Daney's second book, Ciné Journal

Our Marriage really holds up   
Until now the editor of her husband’s films (Raoul Ruiz), Valeria Sarmiento has just made a great film, as troubling as beautiful. 
Without families (to hate or create) there would be no domestic scenes – therefore no modern cinema. No Antonioni, no Bergman, no Pialat. But without family there would have been no melodrama – therefore no “classical” cinema. Neither Ford, nor Pagnol, nor so many others who counted on our tears. It is through the aesthetic of the domestic scene that we have become modern (therefore full of resentment), but it is through the cold logic of the melodrama that we remain, despite all, archaic (therefore a little frail). Melodramas make people laugh where not so long ago they made them cry; but as the author of Hallelujah* said: “If you laugh, it’s because you’re afraid”. One shouldn’t be afraid to rush out and see Valeria Sarmiento’s Notre Mariage. A modern melodrama? A magical photo novella? Fetid rosewater? Tricksy Nous deux**? What does it matter, this is the most beautiful film of the week. 
Without families there would be no film. On the one hand there’s a couple, and on the other a widower surrounded by his children. The couple is rich and the widower is hard-up. Salvador (that’s his name) is a solicitor whose exaggerated sense of honour doesn’t’ enrich. Whereas Lorenzo only has his fortune to take care of, and no children (his wife is sterile). This takes place somewhere in a Catholic South, in one of those countries where respect for conventions is as strong as without substance. One day (the film has just started), one of Salvador’s daughters – Lola – is very ill; only an expensive operation can save her. The operation takes place, the little girl is saved, Lorenzo paid the bill. Since that’s the way it is, says the proud Salvador, this child is no longer mine, she belongs to you. 
Lola, the little rich girl, grows up adorably with her “parents” who adore her, just around the corner from her brothers and sisters, who have been ordered not to play with her any more. One evening, she turns into a stubborn young girl, and her “mother”, watching her daughter with nascent jealousy, let herself slowly die. Lola then chooses to live with Lorenzo, rather like those Ozu heroines who “forget” to marry in order to look after their big child of a father, who in turn has “forgotten” to marry them off. The audience allows itself to be led by the hand towards what it imagines to be a deliciously immoral story of bourgeois incest, in the vein of late Buñuel. The audience is wrong. Valeria Sarmiento’s film isn’t immoral, but amoral. 
For, meanwhile, Salvador’s family has become well-off again. The children have prim expressions and conventional ideas. It annoys them that their sister lives with this widower, and the inevitable rumours which indirectly threaten their good reputation make them turn nasty; they want Lola back among them. Too late. For Lola, in love with this false father who is so sweet (and maybe spineless too, despite his big voice and square frame: a stunning Nicolas Silberg), resists the family, confounds its plans and finds a solution on her own. If we get married, she tells Lorenzo, I shall be your wife for others and your daughter between ourselves. Lorenzo doesn’t refuse. 
So the family looks on, in a fury, as appearances are officially kept up. The wedding takes place, then the honeymoon (in Madeira), then the wedding night (sleepless, and chaste like the wedding). Two years go by and Lola doesn’t conceive any children; the family again becomes concerned. Crisis. The couple visits Salvador’s house in the countryside; Lorenzo can’t stand it any more, there’s a tentative rape, a slap, tears. Lola refuses then eventually accepts “normal” physical contact. The final scene is beautiful: Lola, on horseback, does an about-turn and heads towards Salvador, who is watching her from afar. She tells her real father that she loves him very much, “more than anybody in the world”. And since there is now no longer two families, but one, no longer perverse contracts but amnesiac happiness, there is no longer any reason to keep the film going. 
It was Corin Tellado who wrote the book on which Notre Mariage is based. This, it turns out, is a Spanish-language Delly*** or Cartland, widely read in Latin America. Valeria Sarmiento has been clever enough not to imagine herself any smarter than this rather crafty tale. For what does this tale have to say? Roughly (for the sake of speed, even if it shocks) that in the family there are thrills to be had every which way and in every guise, that the family is still the best protected place to cash in on all round desire. Tactfully and with unobtrusive cheek, Notre Mariage manages to capture, in slow motion, what usually is only virtual, secret or repressed. 
Remains the talent, or rather the “chance” of Sarmiento. She is one of those who only film the essential moments in a story, and who, by means of logic and sensuality, rid their narrative of all excess fat (sociological or otherwise). As in all successful melodramas, only the structure counts. As in Buñuel, the more limpid the filming the more it intimates a tortuous and, deep-down, utterly insalubrious story. At each moment in Notre Mariage something irremediable happens, choices are made, irrevocable decisions are taken. It is even this exaggerated gravity that leaves a light, similarly Buñuelesque irony hovering over the film. An affectionate irony, a puzzled smile that is prompted by these actors (all of them excellent) who coalesce in dreaming together too lovely a script, and in speaking – with never a voice raised – lines just distanced enough to make their “inflexions” appealing to us (reminiscent of Arrieta’s best films, like Flammes, or Ruiz’s – allowing that Sarmiento is Ruiz’s wife and collaborator, and that he wrote the script and the dialogues of Notre Mariage). 
Marriage for forms sake, incest in essence (and vice versa). This is the subject of Notre Mariage. But also its form. Valeria Sarmiento’s respect for the American melodramas of her Chilean childhood is flawless. All the same, this is not mere copying of the form. The director has a point of view on her story. This is where we must talk about Jorge Arriagada’s music – spellbindingly effective yet again. All the more noteworthy in that it does more than accompany the film, but follows it step by step, shot by shot. Melodrama-cinephiles will spot traces of scores by Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner or Joseph Newman, and they’ll be right. These are symphony orchestras which, caught somewhere between sound effect and voice over, want to speak in their own right. Like in Mankiewicz’s fairytales or Hitchcock’s filmed pathologies. 
One single difference: here the music no longer doubles up, and when it attacks with violins, swells, lulls or threatens, it is not for suspense. This means that we can watch tranquil moments in terror and witness the horror of others with inordinate calm. For this waywardness alone, it’s worth going out of our way and watch the film.  
Translator’s notes: 
* Georges Bataille. 
** 1985 music video with French rock star Jesse Garon, known for being the first all-digital television production. 
*** Pen name of a late 19th century author of romance novels. 
First published in Libération on 12 September 1985. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.


  1. Hi,

    my name is Héctor Oyarzún and I'm a film critic from Chile. Thank you very much for your work, it has been my main source to read Daney. I'm a big fan of Valeria Sarmiento and I didn't know he wrote about one of her films. I wanted to ask, would you give me the permission to make a translation to Spanish? I would love to make this available in Spanish.


  2. Hello Héctor,

    Thanks for the comments. Feel free to translate. No need to ask. I’m happy to help if you have any questions about the original text.



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