Saturday, November 14, 2020


 Continuing the revision of the Cinema in Transit remaining translations.

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer) 

There was no better way of opening this Dreyer month than with the great Dane’s last film, Gertrud, shunned by the foolish in 1964 and now overwhelming on its re-release. 

Once, I saw a man weeping in a film. Only once, and I really mean weeping. It happened one Wednesday in December 1964, an hour after the start of the first public screening of Gertrud, a Danish (and quickly damned) film by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The weeper (Gabriel Lidman, a poet by profession) was sitting there on a sofa to the right of Gertrud (to our left) in a tailcoat and in good health and was making a speech about his unhappiness (at having been left by Gertrud in the past and at never having understood why). And then, there’s an odd silence, the words are halted, the naked face is convulsed, the mouth is puckered up in an ugly grimace, there’s a futile snuffling of the nose, the eyes mist over and the man whimpers in pain. The poet can no longer endure the upright position and turns his numbed body to have a good cry on the arm of the couch. The woman tells him kindly: “You’re taking it all too much to heart, Gabriel”. It is a great moment in cinema. 

So what happened? Gabriel Lidman, poet laureate and bard of love, lives in Rome. He has returned to celebrate his fiftieth birthday at home, in the best Copenhagen society, but with the only hope of seeing Gertrud again. “Gertrud, Gertrud, why did you leave me?” – this is his sole refrain. And when he actually sees her again and finally addresses her, on the tragic sofa, it is even worse than he thought. Gertrud had left him to marry Kanning, a politician with ministerial prospects, but (at the start of the film) she has just decided to leave him too. Gertrud is ready to go off with a fashionable young musician, but in the next minutes she will give him up too. She will go her way and Gabriel his, irremediably. There is indeed something to cry about. Dreyer is one of the few un-misogynistic directors (along with Mizoguchi and Renoir) who knows full well that at the decisive moment it is men who strain their eyes looking in the past, and who weep. From rage, impotence and longing. 

Dreyer was seventy-five when he was able to adapt this Swedish play by Hjalmar Söderberg. Because he was filming very little (despite an abundance of projects), he had long since entered cinema history before having ended his own (he would die in 1968). Twelve years come between Day of Wrath and Ordet and another ten before Gertrud. A difficult situation and a major injustice. The outcome is that the Paris “release” of Gertrud remains one of the great milestones in the history of critical blindness. The press, reckoning it to be a doddering film, savaged it and the audiences stayed away. The outcome was that it was very pleasant to be among those who “defended” Gertrud against the idiocy of the critical establishment. It was a time when great auteurs could still shock. Two years later it would be Ford’s turn (Seven Women) to be slated. 

What the film narrates and how the film narrates it is the same thing (when the film is good). Gertrud leads her life as Dreyer leads his film: calmly, but at breakneck speed. In love with what, in the world of men, allows her to love. Full of scathing affection for their pathetic inability to do anything else than love themselves. Always disappointed and finally proud of having finished with these male ghosts, growing old alone and surviving “when everything is over”. How to film the irremediable? How to film it all the time? This was always Dreyer’s question. How to film a world with no imaginable remedy but love for which there is no remedy? How not to engender desire (and when it comes to physical desire, Dreyer is one of the most precise directors) whose detumescence or sublimation could not be filmed face on, like Gabriel’s tears, Gertrud’s blind gaze, the cowardice of the young musician and the hoarse scream of the abandoned minister. 

Seeing again Gertrud today, or quite simply seeing it as if no one had ever seen it before, amounts to a shock. Dreyer is one of the giants of cinema. In 1964, this theatre play filmed in black and white, with its antiquated theme (Love with a capital L), its unknown, straight-laced Danish actors, looked like some quaintly old-fashioned and half-witted classic lost among the spruce new-wavery of modern cinema. Only his admirers perceived once more Dreyer’s terrifying modernity, the logical progression of forty years of cinema spent probing the bottomlessness of love, and the false bottoms of the scenographic cube, employing white as torture, and music (or else tears) as what arises when words are no longer enough. And today, at a point when this modernity is apparent to everyone, the film is still ahead of its time and fits the eighties like a glove. 

It is hard to talk about Dreyer because there is something blinding or disarming (like a Moebius strip that can’t be edited together) in his way of opening the cinema out onto an extra dimension, the dimension of thought, when time and space are reversible (read what Deleuze has to say about this in L’image-mouvement page 145*). You slide between the frame, the shot and the scene. The present is immediately the past (and Gertrud holds herself on the wave of the present, empty and ecstatic), but the past returns intact as if it had never been present; the dream is real but reality has no more weight than a reverie. The most beautiful grey-scale photography in the history of cinema lays out endless layers of light like clouds of time, and since everything is irremediable, nothing looms through them. 

A less brilliant director than Dreyer would be laborious in this layering of dimensions. In Gertrud everything is given in a single gesture. Speed and slowness, for example. Gertrud, slow? When a word, a melody, a clearing of the throat are enough to precipitate the fate of several. Gertrud, fast? When a sob, a look or a word can take an eternity to appear or alight. Are Gabriel Lidman’s tears over his fate speeded up, or are they slowed down? Both, and that’s what is beautiful. 

* Gilles Deleuze, L’image-mouvement, Editions de Minuit, 1983. [Translator's note: check page 107 of this English edition: Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, 1986: “By suppressing ‘atmospheric’ perspective Dreyer produces the triumph of a properly temporal or even spiritual perspective. Flattening the third dimension, he puts two-dimensional space into an immediate relation with the affect, with a fourth and fifth dimension, Time and Spirit.”] 

First published in Libération on 12 October 1983. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Miss Oyu

Mizoguchi and the dentist. 

Miss Oyu 
In the early fifties Mizoguchi made only fine films. This story of a ménage à trois adapted from a short story by Tanizaki is no exception to the rule. 
First the design. A man goes to meet the woman he is to marry (and whom he does not know); he sees Oyu walking in front, Oyu sees him: it’s love at first sight. The problem is that is she’s not the one he is to marry, but her sister, Shizu. In the undergrowth where the meeting takes place (Mizoguchi is cinema’s master of the undergrowth and the glade) everything is already conjoined between dream and fear of awakening. The foreboding of a misfortune which will resemble no other, the need to nonetheless put an image – a shot – to this misfortune (as we say “to put a name to a face”), the impossibility of escaping the music of the great Hayasaka Fumio, who takes this distinguished world by the hand never to let it go. For we are among the well-to-do; Oyu, widowed with a young child, is compelled by social convention to live with her parents-in-law and not re-marry. She is refined and exquisite, gives concerts and is somewhat mincing. It is the archetypal Mizoguchi actress Tanaka Kinuyo who plays Oyu. 
In 1951, between Portrait of Madame Yuki and The Lady of Musashino (both with Tanaka as their leading lady), Mizoguchi was working on his finest portraits of women. Thwarted or impossible loves, baseness of men and Bovaryisme of women. He is always on the side of the women, never the men. In this respect Miss Oyu is a film which sums up the others, like a theorem which contains all possibilities but itself remains exceptionally mysterious. 
There is indeed a man, the nice, helpless Shinnosuke (Hori Yuji). There is indeed Miss Oyu, first as a (somewhat) frivolous and later self-abnegating widow. But they are not the story. Nor does it depend on them. It is the third character, Shizu (Otawa Nobuko) who matters. It is the intermediary who is central. Shizu loves Shinnosuke (so at least she declares), but seeing him smitten by Oyu she offers him this astonishing contract: their marriage will remain unconsummated and the three of them will live together with the onus on him to “make her sister happy”. For Shizu has only one wish: to stay with them, between them, and be their “little sister”. The first part of the film is this strange ménage à trois, which soon sets tongues wagging but where, despite apparent good spirits, sexual frustration is at a peak. 
The second part begins with the death of Oyu’s child. Back with the reality principle, she agrees to marry an old sake brewer and to disappear from the life of the young couple, which falls apart. Everything collapses very quickly: Shizu gives Shinnosuke a child and dies. One evening, Oyu, neglected by her new husband, gives an outdoor concert. The crying of a newborn can be heard in the reeds. Shinnosuke has just abandoned his child with a letter for Oyu. This replacement child is the only link between the three characters, who are now separated forever. It is a small wailing symbol. 
Mizoguchi did not invent this story. He never invented any of them anyway, demanding adaptations of classic and modern novels from his screenwriters (especially Yoda Yoshikata, his favourite whipping boy). This time Yoda tackled “The Reeds Cutter”, one of two short stories by Tanizaki, later published together in France under the title Two Cruel Loves. In Tanizaki’s novel the male character was more central to the story. In the Yoda-Mizoguchi adaptation the centre is empty, or rather it is occupied by Shizu, a character who has agreed to derive all her pleasure from the very fact of being between. It is quite logical. Mizoguchi has always tried to understand what links human beings to one another. Money, desire, kinship. He attempted the impossible: to film these links as they are, like hyphenations. And since he was a great draughtsman and a very solitary man he always preferred the hyphen. 
And then the manner of it – meaning, how to describe the very singular emotion which gets hold of us at each viewing or re-viewing of a Mizoguchi film? I would make a stab at a metaphor, and so as not to give these films any over-worthy and sublimatory image, I would select a rather trivial one. Imaging yourself sitting somewhere else. Not in the cinema theatre, but in the dentist’s chair. Ghastly? Quite. Imagine yourself, stoical but anxious, wide-eyed and wide-mouthed too. The director (what I mean is the dentist) adjusts the chair so as to get a better look. The sick tooth is approached, the cold metal instruments “burn”; this is full-scale metonymy. And when, gradually, the tooth is touched, because of the whole apparatus (I mean to say the editing) it will have become very difficult for you to distinguish between the real pain (ouch!), the blank pain wiped out by the local anaesthetic (ouch?) and the bitter satisfaction of the thought that the pain has been reached and there’s no need to look elsewhere (phew!). Good. 
But there’s still something missing from this banally masochistic ritual. The music is missing, the consoling background noise of some inexplicable cheerfulness or some sublime serenity, the way it floods out of the radio on France-Musique in a never-ending stream. With Mizoguchi, those three components (the stamp of pain, the courage of lucidity and a beauty that has become foreign, even cloying) are each in step with the other. This is why his films are heartrending. This is why Miss Oyu is sublime. 
Mizoguchi’s films conjugate three movements: the movement of the actor’s bodies, the movement of the camera and the movement of the music. Sometimes these movements are synchronic. That’s when we speak of harmony. But harmony doesn’t mean story. The story begins with dissonance, the freewheeling effect, the chalk-scored board or the snagged duration, when the movements begin to desynchronise. As if (to return momentarily to our dental metaphor) the consolatory music were to be stuck, the local anaesthetic no longer worked and the picture collapsed along with the chair. Mizoguchi keeps his actors, camera and music on a leash that is only ever slackened to catch them all the more. Therein lies his cruelty. 
For example, near the middle of Miss Oyu, the music thins out, consoling nobody anymore, absorbing nothing: then, the characters, reduced to their movements, become a dead weight of the disenchanted quotidian, and the gaze held on them becomes documentary. Or else the actor begins to collide with the set, to bump into the grasses, to put up barriers between him and the others, so as to escape. To escape the camera, to escape the other, to escape oneself. The rigidity of the Japanese social code, combined with the tightness of kimonos, makes these flights as desperate (and even faintly burlesque) as sack races. Or else it’s the camera which abruptly disaffiliates itself from what it is showing, taking on a life of its own and soaring up to fasten on the characters from above like so many transfixed butterflies. 
This is why if one had to define the art of Mizoguchi Kenji (whom I hope everyone knows is one of the giants of the cinema) it’s not viewing angles and off camera field we’d need to talk about, but of “taking the field”. In every sense, literal and otherwise. 

First published as “Mizogochi and the hard law of desire” in Libération on 12 December 1988. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. The translation is from the Cinema in Transit project, with a few modifications.