Saturday, May 15, 2021

Cannes 1984: Auteurs: High and Low

Tavernier / Zulawski combo from the 1984 Cannes festival.

Auteurs: High and Low 
When the French film industry got organised to recapture markets (ten years ago), it inherited a new reality: auteurs. Those of the New Wave are over fifty years old now (they’re doing fine, thanks for asking), but to get the revamped machines going, one shouldn’t really count on them. They are too tenacious, too singular, too “auteur” basically. 
Then there was the next generation of cinephile filmmakers in their forties: very cultured and quite divided, between the cinema they had loved growing up (classic cinema) and the cinema they inherited (modern cinema). How many auteurs among them? Very few (Doillon and Garrel are specific “cases”). Sooner or later, Corneau or Tavernier had to accept this simple fact: the machine needed them and – propelled by their success – they would end up loving the machine in return. It was only logical. 
Unfortunately, in the meantime, the slogan “auteur” really took off: a sales pitch for distributors, almost a union benefit for young filmmakers (“the right to…”), a temptation for patron-producers to “reconcile money with talent”, assured billing at every major film festival, etc. 
The end result was predictable. In the current, modernising realpolitik of the French film industry, the idea of the auteur, vague but still unavoidable, becomes cumbersome. One only has to look at the selection of French films for the 1984 Cannes festival for proof. The official film (A Sunday in the Country) and the unofficial film (The Public Woman), in addition to their equal badness, have this in common: they caricature the notion of auteur. Broadly, downward with Tavernier and upward with Zulawski. 
Those who don’t like A Sunday in the Country find it old-fashioned, soppy and academic. But what struck me when seeing it yesterday in a multiplex on the Rue d’Antibes is rather that, behind the little Chekhovian music and this terrible “old traditional France” look that instantly recalls Gérard Lenorman’s song in praise of France, there was some of Tavernier’s “poetic art”, that behind the character of the old solitary painter was a plea for his own cause. Monsieur Ladmiral, we are told, isn’t a great painter. And even if he has realised right away that there was something new and strong about Cézanne or Van Gogh, he has continued to paint as he has been taught: perhaps he lacked courage. The character is rather moving, sincere, etc. And since he is making this melancholic confession to his own daughter in an outdoor country café worthy of Renoir, we really can’t be cross with him (how could we be upset with such a nice old man?). But the sense that it is Tavernier who speaks through him is enough to make us twitch. 
Why go through the trouble today of answering questions that, visibly, no one is asking any more? Why pretend to willingly endorse the rejection of the modern when you only relish the old? Why try so hard? Doesn’t this trick mean that Tavernier, despite being promoted as an “auteur”, thinks it is still his duty to redeem himself from this ungrateful role but still expects to reap the emotional benefits of this move? Keeping a low profile isn’t necessarily the same as being humble. The humility of the true labourers of auteur cinema was commendable. But this was a while ago, a long while ago. 
Because even recently, it was all about modern cinema (breaks, discontinuity, etc), with the romantic reign of the auteur, his readymade vision of the world, his tantrums and sufferings, his fundamental dissent. Andrzej Zulawski, in this sense, arrives a bit late. He’s unlucky. At a  time when there’s a lot of talk about him on the Croisette and in the media, when his film is pitted against Tavernier’s, when he finds himself in the role of the great, sweet enfant terrible, it is obvious that he has become the minstrel of his own cause. That of the Auteur, and more precisely, the auteur who came from the cold and who has to succeed in the West, at any cost. And the cost, in The Public Woman, is high. Those who don’t like the film find it narcissistic, artificial and academic. But what struck me when seeing it from the last row of the Louis Lumière auditorium, and when reading and listening to Zulawski’s interviews, was how terribly, suddenly old this hysterical demand for a visionary artist, deus ex-machina and professional dissident had become. 
In the film too, the character of the film director reels off cliché after cliché and one only has to close one’s eyes for a moment and listen to the soundtrack of the film to feel overwhelmed by the desperate evocation of all the platitudes that we have learned – since philosophy lessons at school – to take with a pinch of humour. 
The low-profile auteur and the high-profile auteur. Both doing too much – a sign that there is something rotten with the word (I do say the WORD) auteur. 

First published in Libération on 15 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Cannes 1984: Herzog with the Abos

Daney reports on day 5 of the 1984 Cannes film festival. See our footnote about the title of the article. 

Herzog with the Abos*

It’s been a long time since a film by Werner Herzog, always on the road and never missing a thing, brought so much pleasure. This time, he has gone to Australia.

At the press conference that immediately followed the screening of Where the Green Ants Dream, Herzog was asked: “Is making films a mission for you?”; “No, just a duty,” Herzog replied with a smile. He was also asked if he believes in God. “I’ve had a very religious period. I’ve converted to Catholicism. But I no longer believe in God, I only believe in the Church” (surprised laughter in the audience). Herzog is one of those filmmakers who is asked these kinds of questions. He attracts them. With him, big words are called upon.

After the Fitzcarraldo disaster, one may have wondered what Herzog’s mission across the world would look like. Herzog, a great documentarist, had proved himself a poor narrator in heavy and overblown productions. Shooting the film was akin to the labours of Hercules, but in the end, there was no emotion. Those who thought that this man, because he was haunted by faraway countries, the strange unity of the human race and a taste for initiation rites, was – for this reason – well-equipped to thrill audiences with great adventure films got it clearly wrong. They confused – silly ones! – fiction and narration (two very different things). Herzog’s world is that of pure fiction and the only stories that interest him are of cosmogonic nature: they deal with the creation of the world. 

This is how Where the Green Ants Dream begins, a film that he had wanted to make for a long time and which he shot last year in Australia, in the centre of the country. A mauve sky, 16mm film grain, a dark tornado that seems to join the sky with the earth, and suddenly, in colour, a bit of desert, a yellow tractor, “Abos” (i.e. Aboriginals) lying prostrate, a young geologist, tall and naïve: all this is laid out so clearly that we are immediately reminded what we love in Herzog’s filmmaking in the first place: his capacity to make, if not films, at least shots, one by one, which have an impact on us. 

The story is both beautiful and ordinary. Beautiful for us, ordinary for the Australians. A mining company is running blast tests. Thousands of small gravel cones create an endless lunar landscape in broad daylight. A handful of Aboriginals, dignified and a little absent, calmly protest: this land is “where the green ants dream”, and in their mythology, these ants play a fundamental role. From there, the film unfolds like an unpredictable news story, since the Aboriginals are unpredictable. There are even some funny things. The case goes to the Supreme Court in Canberra where, despite all the tact deployed to avoid shocking the “Abos”, the final verdict goes against them. The young geologist, in the process of gaining ecological awareness, leaves the mining company. 

The story is all the more muddled, funny and calmly disconcerting since the two logics at play – that of the whites and of the Aboriginals – almost never cross. Here are two worlds with different geographies. There are collisions but no encounters. In a supermarket, a small group of Abos hog an aisle without buying anything, only because – and they are the only ones to know this – it was the location of the only tree in the region. 

In the serene modesty of the film lies the implicit observation that ours is the time after all the dreams of universal reconciliation, and that the world (the earth, in fact) is already made of several overlapping levels (some of them invisible) inhabited by different beings (some of them dead). Herzog has always wanted to film characters who only appear to be sharing the same space and who in fact coexist light years away from one another. That’s the cross he bears as a missionary and his reason to film. With real persistence, he manages to transform these images into proofs that it’s not men who share histories, but that it’s mythologies that share people. 

The “paradox” is that the image becomes clear as a result, a little dry, with no sentimental glue; as it happens every time a filmmaker settles for simply showing

* Translators' note: The French title of the article is “Herzog chez les Abos” (in La Maison cinema et le monde). Daney uses “Abos” another three times in the text, the first two times with inverted commas. We can’t pinpoint where the word comes from (the film, the French subtitles, Daney) and although Daney uses it with some caution, he doesn’t seem fully aware of how racist it actually is. We translated it literally to present an accurate record of the text. 

First published in Libération on 15 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Cannes 1984: Valérie Kaprisky, Eulogy of the Nude

Two texts on Zulawki's The Public Woman published on the same day in Libération: one by Daney on Valérie Kaprisky and a "unanimous review" by all the films critics. 

Valérie Kaprisky, Eulogy of the Nude

Things happen too fast in The Public Woman for us to have the time to think anything of the actors’ performance. Bodies are in such a state of acceleration that we cannot perceive in them anything other than condensed energy ready to be unleashed in each shot, to tip over in an atmosphere, to flee in wide angle and to knock props off. Zulawski is too full of his own torment to share anything other than hysteria and nervous breakdowns with his actors. 

Yet, of the three characters in The Public Woman, the only one that – strictly speaking – keeps up, is the woman, Valérie Kaprisky. And among the countless images where she is pushed to the limit and left to her own reflexes, the only ones that stay afloat are the ones where she has the time to be visible. Visible and naked because she is dancing for a few banknotes from a photographer-voyeur who snaps away looking mean in an equally naked setting. Visible and naked because in these moments, she exists despite Zulawski’s pyrotechnics, playing the role of the object in the most naked expression of the relation between actor and auteur, when the object is reduced to a bulging eye on one side and a wriggling body on the other. Valérie Kaprisky conveys something rare in cinema: the nude. Not “in the buff” for a bit of starry flesh, but the nude, in the sense that a painter might see his model come alive, charge toward him, and risk performing threatening movements. An unchained Matisse, a feminine Bacon, with heavy ankles bound to the floor, a head that says no, a back scarily arched. It’s beautiful.

A person capable of inventing such movements isn’t an ordinary one. That’s the word on the Croisette. Cinephiles know Kaprisky because they saw her as Jean Seberg’s remake in Jim McBride’s sweet film (Breathless). They are mostly unaware that she also appeared in films such as Men Prefer Fat Girls (1981), Une glace avec deux boules (1982), Aphrodite (1982) and Légitime violence (1982). They are unaware that she was born Valérie Chères, in Neuilly in 1962, and that she almost played in One Deadly Summer (1983). But they weren’t completely wrong. Valérie Karpisky is among those actresses that arrive at a point where they need to both create an image and stick to it (in commercial films), and not refuse the role of a guinea pig in an art film experiment that may crush them, harden them and perhaps get them noticed. With The Public Women, Valérie Kaprisky seems to have managed this successfully. 

Of course, when listening to what she says about her work with Zulawski, one must make allowances for the obligatory discourse inherent to this kind of project. “I believe that I’ve really pushed my limits. I gave everything in the first days for the dance scenes, and by the end of the first week, I decided to give even more.” To which there is nothing to say except that this conception of the work of an actor as a gift and a therapy suddenly comes across as dated (like the film, by the way). As for her relationship with Zulawski: “He was often affectionate and fragile, and we were capable of not giving him anything, in self-defence. What interests him is to work with actors who have an inner richness but who are also manipulatable, whom he can fashion in different ways.” That, we certainly got.  

First published in Libération, 14 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Our unanimous review

Everyone is free to think what they want of the media bluff that sucked up to the trumpeting presentation of The Public Woman. They can even salute, without irony, the marketing performance. If all this noise had been at the service of a masterpiece, we could have possibly even been cordially pleased or complicit in it. But The Public Woman is wide of the mark, to say the least, and the bluff of the film vastly overshadows the bluff of its promotion.

Zulawski enjoys a certain reputation: the man who loves women, who makes them suffer and derives films from it (remember the ultrasonic Adjani in Possession). Here once again, he relies on a woman (Valérie Kaprisky, rather deserving) to tell his story: a modern young girl who hesitates between being a whore, a child-woman, and the main character in a remake of Demons directed by a mad Franco-German director (Francis Huster). What else? Nothing, for all this is a necessary but not at all sufficient smokescreen at the service of some pretty over-the-top ideas about cinema. For there are messages here, and what messages they are! That the creator gives birth to his art through suffering, that auteur cinema is hell, that to film actors is to grant them immortality. In short, the whole “Shush, I’m creating!” shebang that no one wants anymore after Fellini’s 8 ½.

What’s left? A certain virtuosity in making the camera and images run around, but at the service of the discourse just explained above, therefore empty and neutralised. Valérie Kaprisky is kind enough to tolerate what Zulawski makes her go through but often acts a little forced; Huster is hysterical as a fake blond, Lambert Wilson rather convincing as a drinker of dirty water; Jean-Paul Farré remains in completely nutty nirvana. What a disappointment!

Signed: all of us.

Published in Libération, 14 May 1984. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Cannes 1984: English TV Goes to the Movies

Second of three reviews of films shown over the first weekend of the Cannes 1984 festival.

English TV Goes to the Movies 
The opening of Another Country, the first English film in competition this year, is superb. In a dingy eighties Moscow apartment lives an old man named Bennett. A sort of arrogant dwarf, very British, prognathous queen in a wheelchair. A journalist has come from the West with a little tape recorder to capture his confessions. “I’ve always wanted to go down in history,” says Bennett. “Even as a spy in the pay of the Soviets?” asks the journalist. 
One can tell that Bennett is a double for Burgess, MacLean, Blunt or others, who, in the thirties (in their youth), chose Communism, spied, then rotted in the East and died there. with their secrets. How could one become a Soviet spy back in 1932 as a member of the ruling class, the class that sent its children to be knocked into shape at public schools? Alan Marshall (the film producer), Julian Mitchell (the author of the play) and Marek Kaniewska (the director, who came from TV) have asked this question very seriously. 
The answer is to be found in the English public school system, with its rituals and ragging, the childhoods of its humiliated ruling-class, its organised repression of all by all, this machine manufacturing repressed little monkeys ready to serve the Empire, fearing God and loving cricket. And this machine, as is bound to happen, has its failures, its extremists, its real idealists. 
In Another Country, they are two: Bennett and Judd. Bennett’s tragedy is not that he is homosexual, but that he can only assert his desire in a society which lives off sublimated homosexuality like immoral earnings. Bennett is brilliant, nonchalant and dreams of becoming an ambassador. But when he loses face, all he has left is to be an ambassador in his own fashion: a spy (but the film doesn’t tell us about that, it only covers the genealogy of a choice). As for Judd, Bennett’s best friend, he has other reasons for rejecting the taming machinery: he is a Communist and a serious one, furtively reading Marx, and will die a few years later in Spain. The double exclusion of the faggot and the bolshie from the “English” tribe (the tribe that produced the two Lawrences, D.H. and T.E.) is the angle that the film-makers have adopted in their approach to their subject: class treason, no less. 
A big subject then, and intelligently elaborated. What about the film? There isn’t any film. For a long while now, thanks to their origins in television, English directors have brought to their films the seriousness of their scripts and their lack of visual imagination. Few across the Channel still believe in the specific power of cinema. A film like Another Country has no style, just “craft”. It gives us time to notice the good performance of the actors (Rupert Everett, Colin Firth) and to take pleasure in the frequently deceptive feeling that we are suddenly wonderfully intelligent and able to talk for hours – in a pub or a club – about the serious things that the film is about. 
What does this triumphant infiltration of TV drama into cinema finally come down to? It comes down to the world being seen in medium shot (and medium, mediocre, media is all the same thing). In retrospect, we can really understand what cinema was: an adventure in perception, a way of seeing the world from too near or too far, an art of adapting the gaze, of inventing the necessary distances to locate your subject; an art somewhat on its last legs, short of subjects. For, to be frank, this has to be said: as far as the treatment of the aforesaid subjects is concerned, English directors are the best in the world, much superior to their French colleagues. 
So, movies on the one hand and TV on the other? That would be too simple. The boundaries are never as distinct. Nowadays, making movies often comes down to the most conspicuous possible demarcation from TV, from TV-perception. The only “subject” for today’s cinema is its rejection of the TV gaze, of the world seen in medium shots. This leads to a wearisome mannerism (see Beineix) or prematurely worn-out histrionics (see Zulawski). But on the other hand, TV directors go on being dissatisfied with just being TV directors, serious handlers of big subjects, excuses for film debates and jammed talk show switchboards. They too would like to belong to the great sinking continent of Cinema. At the press conference for Another Country, the film-makers said that this wasn’t a film on Communism, homosexuality or the English education system, but that it was, first and foremost, a film! A pity, because it was exactly a film on all those (serious) things. But a film is something else, it is never “on”, it is always “with”. TV leans on things. Cinema deals with them. 

First published in Libération on 14 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Cannes 1984: Bergman, After the Competition

The first of three films reviews by Serge Daney published in Libération on Monday, May 14th, 1984. 

Bergman, After the Competition

After the Rehearsal is a beautiful telefilm talking serenely about the theatre of words and the fatigue of bodies.

In the final scenes of Fanny and Alexander, the women of the Ekdahl family laughingly decide to restage a play by Strindberg, “that old misogynist”. It’s this play – A Dream Play – that Henrik Volger is in the process of staging in After the Rehearsal. Except, this is the fifth time he is staging it. Henrik is an old man who has loved women and theatre a lot. He’s at the centre of this 70-minute film that Bergman has shot for the Swedish television and that Gaumont had the smart idea of distributing. Erland Josephson plays Henrik: white hair, sharp eyes, wrinkled face, clumsy body. He is the one who played the role of the cabalist Isaac in Fanny and Alexander. Here, he’s very obviously Bergman’s alter ego, and we’re grateful to the latter for not pretending that he isn’t the vicarious hero of his film. This honesty allows him to get to the heart of the matter quickly.

One may recall that Bergman had announced – rather jokingly – that Fanny and Alexander would be his last film “for the cinema”. The press still in shock, he was already in Stockholm quietly shooting a play (with three actors on a single set) he had written himself: After the Rehearsal. Check-up, assessment, self-questioning: a man decides to talk about his trade. One day, ”after the rehearsal”, Henrik Volger is woken up from his nap by a young woman, his actress, who, in all senses of the term, is after him. A scene starts between them. And very quickly, the truth comes out: theatre is not a trade, it’s a way of being with the other, to listen to him talk, to love him and to be at his mercy, to take turns playing all the roles (Henrik is therefore a severe master, an ideal father, a possible lover, a playmate, a perverse theoretician etc). To do theatre is to ensure that the other is always responding, whatever we tell him. 

Coming from Bergman – it’s the first thing that comes to mind – this kind of digression-manifesto-trick is not surprising. It’s even thanks to him that we know quite a bit about truth and falsehood, sincerity and subterfuge. Yet, After the Rehearsal is a short, diabolical and surprising film. Why? Because the subject of the film isn’t the stage but the noise of the stage that has always been with us, when we talk, when we confide, when we believe in our own sincerity. And this particular noise (theatricality) never goes away. 

So Anna, the young actress, ill-at-ease, curious about everything and dissatisfied with herself, forces old Henrik to talk, to confide. 

Anna then doubles down on her confessions: she agreed to play the role even though she was pregnant by the director, a certain Johan whom we will never hear about again; she has (already) had an abortion; she is jealous of her mother, an actress as well, who died five years ago and whom Henrik loved; and – of course – she’s in love with Henrik. In the meantime, Rakel, one of Henrik’s former mistresses, an alcoholic and pathetic has-been (Ingrid Thulin), comes to see him and makes a scene that we imagine to be a ritual (laughter, tears, sarcasm, demand for love). Anna, frozen in her armchair, is there without really being there. It resembles Bergman’s earliest high-society comedies (like A Lesson in Love), and it is, of course, unforgiving.

The cruel thing is that it never stops. If theatre is life, it is immortal. It’s only actors that die. But they are never more alive than when they suspect this truth. It’s still true of Rakel and it will be true one day of Anna. How to make her understand this? And what about the audience? Once Rakel leaves, Anna picks up the interrupted dialogue and offers herself to the old man. He panics. It’s the most beautiful part of the film. Let’s imagine, Henrik says, that we let ourselves go through with this, let’s foresee what would happen: the highs and the lows, jealousy and predictable failure. Anna plays along, the image closes in on them, on their faces, on Anna’s ever more childish face (Lena Olin, very beautiful), on the excitement of giving tit for tat, on the madness of “what could be”. The complicity that binds them as they imagine themselves squabbling becomes a squabble. So much so that it is no longer a game between truth and falsehood, but between a present already over and a future already there. For at least twenty minutes, with the sole intensity of faces and words, Bergman almost proves that the wise thing would be to experience everything in the present, if possible, playfully. 

But something – obstinately – says “no” to this tightrope walker’s wisdom, and that’s the body. Rather strangely, at the beginning of the film, we sometimes hear Henrik’s voice over, a voice beyond the grave of the one who sees himself from very far, without complacency. The theatrical babbling then fades away and the voice tells the truth: not that of words (which have little truth in themselves) but that of the body (which knows only one truth: fatigue). This voice over isn’t an easy trick. It’s a formidable proof of courage. As if the filmmaker, knowing himself to be virtuoso, serene and masterful enough, capable of dissecting a face like no other, had – despite everything – no illusions. When Henrik fears a sexual fiasco or when he notices that, having become partially deaf, he no longer hears the church bells, he knows that the only “off-screen” space that remains is the one that announces his own death, in his own voice. 

This beautiful film goes beyond optimism and pessimism. It is both cheerful and sad, calm and light, and very simple. Few filmmakers in 1984 can take the liberty of making a “divertimento” right after a saga. Such freedom was so unwelcome at Cannes that After the Rehearsal went almost unnoticed. Out of competition, really. 

First published in Libération on 14 May 1984. Republished in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Cannes 1984: Fort Saganne, Three Hours Without Drinking

Third text of our Cannes 1984 series. First film review. 

Fort Saganne, Three Hours Without Drinking 

First French film shown (out of competition) for the opening of the 37th Cannes Festival, Fort Saganne by Alain Corneau. A big budget chasing a big subject. The camels are full of talent.

Fort Saganne, a French film out of competition, was without a doubt the film of the day. Because it was the only one. It’s an honest film, decently made and rather bad. Let’s say “not entirely bad, but inexistent” to be kind. Otherwise, it’s the most expensive French film (says the advertising for the film): both “Saganne of Arabia” and “Apocalypse Yesterday”. Yet – every cinephile knows this – the more expensive a film manages to be, the more it is condemned to be but about one topic: failure. 

Fort Saganne is the story of Charles Saganne, a small peasant from the Ariège region who becomes a hero of the conquest of the Sahara Desert between 1911 and 1914. Like any hero, Saganne is manipulable and empty, driven by the sole logic of being ever more heroic even as the reasons for heroism go missing. The making of Fort Saganne, the film, naturally reflects this scenario: the idée fixe of a producer (Albina de Boisrouvray) leading to a gamble on an actor (Depardieu as Saganne) and the know-how of a safe pair of hands (Alain Corneau). The era where films were “big” by virtue of the importance of their subject (from Griffith to Cecil B. DeMille) is long gone. Today, big films exist only to deploy incredible logistics for our very eyes at the service of no particular thought process whatsoever. One could even say (not without some sadness) that if Corneau were like Hawks (or Hathaway, let’s say), meaning a filmmaker nurturing no bad conscience in regards to the role of the white man in non-white continents, his talent would be given free rein and the battle scenes – which he manages best, by far, in Fort Saganne – would take on their full meaning. It is the paradox of left-leaning Americanophile cinephiles when they become filmmakers. 

This film lasts three and a half hours (it’s long). So we had plenty of time to ask ourselves: what’s its genre? Watching Fort Saganne, I found, one after the other, a retro film on the French colonial saga, a meditation on the theme of the desert, a film on military propaganda and a (Conradian) reflection on the idea of failure at the heart of any human endeavour. 

I saw them pass one by one, and I saw clearly that Corneau and Depardieu would be sad at the idea that one might believe them incapable of dealing with these subjects. But in the end, there is nothing. And “nothing” is very difficult to film.

We feared the return of the colonial saga; with Spahis, Méhari jeeps, fraternal tribes, French flags and all this barely repressed fantasy, with its hot sands, scarves flapping in the wind and never satisfied camels. But it’s clear that the filmmakers have bypassed such a film and introduced some psychology (the relationship between Saganne and Colonel Dubreuilh, played by Philippe Noiret as a hardened dinosaur), whereas a reassertion of the old colonial good conscience of France would have shocked. 

We feared that the theme of the desert would be sprawling; surpassing oneself, experience of the limits, endurance and solitude, truth at the corner of every oasis. All this tempting mythology is set aside, reserved for secondary yet credible characters (R. Dumas, H. Girardot, etc). Saganne’s earthy roots prevent him from getting lost in metaphysical sands, and during his African adventures, he discovers no truth. He is not an intellectual like Colonel Lawrence but a courageous soldier who wages war where he is told to wage war, without ambitions (he harbours some for his younger brother, but will be disappointed), simply confronted with other soldiers, some with a lot less integrity than him. 

We also feared that a film on manipulation might be a bit facile. Destined to serve, Saganne also serves strategies that he doesn’t know how to use to his advantage. When Dubreuilh sends him to Paris as a “hero” in order to influence public opinion and continue the war in the Sahara, he understands that he is being used and ridiculed. But the film is not in the vein of post-modern Westerns (Altman) or post-spaghetti Westerns (Leone) with their sarcastic reflection on heroism that becomes legend, legend that becomes an image, and the image that becomes a mere pawn on the political chessboard. 

Remains the Conradian meditation on failure. It doesn’t really happen. Saganne, in the end, obtains many things (the woman he loves, the Legion of Honour) and when he dies in a bomb crater in July 1914, it is without a sense of fate or irony. Moreover, it’s clear that if Depardieu hasn’t yet reached a point where he can wink at the audience (like a Morfalous-style Belmondo), he cannot be seen playing a character with suspicious or negative values anymore. At this level, it’s the film’s budget that decides this.

So there is an alignment between the way Corneau films, the way Albina de Boisrouvray produces and the way Depardieu “composes” his character. The only risks they take are related not to the subject of the film, but to shooting conditions (that we imagine to be epic, complex, heroic, in beautiful, faraway and natural Mauritanian settings). Otherwise, there is nothing. Nothing to report. But I did say that “nothing” is difficult to film. This “nothing”, this profound indifference of academic filmmaking towards anything it touches, this way of controlling everything but filming nothing, sometimes works as it is. Obviously not in the ridiculous episodes with women, rarely in the desert landscape (the desert is not always that decorative), but a lot in the battle scenes (Omar’s well-defended attack and the war trenches at the end are beautiful pieces of filmmaking) and infinitely with the camels. 

These beasts, often handled cavalierly in cinema, are in themselves film enigmas. With their pitiful screams, their painful tendency to fall on their knees, their rolling hump, their phallic neck and their general appearance of a global gag, they sow the seeds of trouble and irony that Saganne and his fort so sorely lack. 

First published in Libération on 12-13 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Cannes 1984: Cannes-speak

Serge Daney's playful intro to Cannes 1984 in Libération. Note: in the French text (see picture), this Cannes glossary is in alphabetical order. The translation simply follows Daney's article.
 
Cannes-speak 

Over 12 days, the small town of Cannes (in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France) becomes the world capital of an imaginary country: Cinema. And during these two weeks, the natives of this temporary principality talk, more or less fluently, an appropriate language, Cannes-speak, a living dialect of cinema as alien as any other with its own syntax, lexicon, grammar and accents. Whatever this tribal Esperanto is, it develops a plain-speak each year of its own specific vintage. 
Poster  
A cute one. Designed by Trauner. Blueish. Unlike last year’s poster cruelly designed by Kurosawa and the one from two years ago by Fellini, it alludes to a slightly retro, Carnéphilic imagination, (Les Enfants du Paradis are here, somewhere). Does it anticipate a similarly serene festival? 
Bunker 
Far from squeaking, we will make do with the “bunker”, even slightly improved. In 1983, Robert Favre Le Bret, the president of the pinkish building confessed that it wavered between a cavern, a museum and a cathedral. As true Platonists, and friends of myths, we clearly come down in favour of a cavern as the future of the bunker. 
Cannes 
Let one thing be clear: the Cannes film festival stopped being a great celebration of cinema a long time ago. Instead, it is the harsh capital of an imaginary yet very real country: Cinema. Every capital has its officials, its ambassadors, its offices, its administration, and of course its dissidents. Dreamers, stay away. 
Christians 
(“Away with them to the lions!”) We are thinking specifically about a female colleague who, not so long ago, ruined a private screening by eating Bounty bars nervously. We are talking of course about The Mutineer on the Bounty (out of competition). 
USSR Consulate 
If you want to protest against the boycott of the Olympic Games, here is the address you need: 3 avenue Ambroise Paré, 13000 Marseille, tel: (91)77 15 25. 
In a constantly evolving audio-visual world… 
Mandatory introduction to any speech by the powers that be. 
Gaffe 
Some metaphors may bring bad luck. Example: Favre Le Bret comparing Cannes and the Olympic Games: “For films, Cannes is the Olympic Games every year!” What a scatterbrain! 
Big 
Only one “big one” this year, Sergio Leone. We can already say that Once Upon a Time in America is a beautiful film. Long live the big ones! 
Gulag 
The title of an American superproduction, produced by Lorimar and shown at the Marché du Film. With Malcolm McDowell, ex-Caligula, as the main actor. Must see. 
Out of competition 
The plague of recent festivals. Any film not willing to risk the embarrassment of not getting a reward features at the Cannes film festival “out of competition”. That’s cheating! Fort Saganne (Corneau), Broadway Danny Rose (Woody Allen), After the Rehearsal (Bergman), Once Upon a Time in America (Leone). 
Innovation 
The word strangely comes back again and again. It seems that there was no choice. The 37th Cannes film festival is not rich in cinephilic monuments. Many auteur films, not quite ready, will likely feature in Venice. The organisers were left playing their last card: that of discovery, meaning first films and lesser known national cinemas. We shall see. 
Jury 
There’s no head or tail here. Still, at the head, Dirk Bogarde. Then: Isabelle Huppert, Michel Deville, Stanley Donen, Franco Cristaldi, Istvan Dosai, Arne Hestenes (a Norwegian from Dagbladet!), Ennio Morricone, Jorge Semprun and the handsome Vadim Yusov. 
The masses 
Let’s not give too much heed to what Nadave Silber, in charge of the alternative official selection that is Un Certain Regard (“You have beautiful eyes!”), when he says that the festival has instilled “a taste, a love for the cinema” among the masses. We know that few Cannes locals have access to the screenings open to the public. It’s really a festival of professionals, which gives it, unlike Berlin or Venice, a stuffy, tribal and uptight ambiance . 
Marché du film 
The largest in the world (we can never say it enough!) 
Recent Palmes 
For the forgetful, let’s recall the Palmes d’or of the 1980s (already a few years into it): 1980: Kagemusha (Kurosawa, Japan) and All That Jazz (Fosse). 1981: Man of Iron (Wajda, Poland). 1982: Yol (Guney, Turkey) and Missing (Costa-Gavras, pass). 1983: The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan). 1984: ? 
Palais Croisette 
Last year, this old ugly building became friendly again by hosting screenings from the Directors’ Fortnight. A cinephile wind brought some warmth to it. What will happen this year? Everybody at the Blue Bar! 
French selection 
Scandalous, once again. Reduced to two films (two!). Bertrand Tavernier’s already released and expired A Sunday in the Country and Jacques Doillon’s eagerly expected The Pirate. Clamour about the good health of the French cinema industry seems contradicted by this weak choice. What will they think of us abroad? 
Victorine 
Jack Lang inaugurates the Victorine Studio renovated just before the Lautner festival,  Belmondo uses them to film Happy Easter and everybody suddenly remembers that it is here—yes, here!—that Carné shot Les Enfants du Paradis. So many emotions! 
Celebrities 
A major player is missing! Alain Delon, the hero of Bertrand Blier’s Our Story wasn’t deemed Cannable. Too bad. Remaining, among other shooting stars, are Depardieu, De Niro, Deneuve, Birkin, Gibson and many others that we already love. 

Published in Libération on 11 May 1984. Co-written with Gérard Lefort. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Cannes 1984: Introduction

The Cannes Film Festival will take place in July this year (it's traditionally in May but there's a pandemic going on). While we wait, and over the next two weeks, this blog will publish translations of all the articles written by Serge Daney while covering the
1984 Cannes Film Festival for Libération

They will be published "in real time, thirty-seven years later", meaning on the same day of the year that they were published in 1984, giving a sense of Daney's  writing rhythm and (varying) quality. The twenty or so texts will go live on the blog shortly after 12 noon UK time. On some days, several texts will be posted (up to three).

A very special mention to Srikanth Srinivasan of The Seventh Art blog without whom these translations wouldn't have been possible. 

We begin with Daney's introduction to the chapter on Cannes 1984 in his book Ciné journal. In this series, you will find the texts from this chapter along with others from the volume 2 of La maison cinéma et le monde as well as some other pieces written for Liberation.

A Cannes festival

For the one for whom Cannes remains, above all, a film festival and that nothing should be “news” except films, the task is increasingly difficult. Maintaining the fiction of “instant criticism” and “on-the-spot reaction” is a gamble particularly strange since “on-the-spot” nothing happens apart from predictable and pre-sold things. Controversy has become rare and few of the “eagerly awaited” films have not already been seen in Paris private screenings before the festival. Yet, if the plight and raison d’être of the daily film critic is to write as best he can with his back as close to the wall as possible, in Cannes this plight becomes a little-known feat and a luxury on the verge of masochism. Thus, from 1982, when Libération decided to dedicate several daily pages for the Cannes Festival, the Cinema team has gotten used to seeing the return of the month of May as a test of their sporting abilities. 

A festival also has its advantages: for want of enjoyment of the films that one must report on and for want of witnessing the reaction of a real audience, it is still possible to measure the temperature of what flows in between the films and what gives a “state of things” in official world cinema. It is even tempting to keep a sort of public diary, made of speculative moods and theoretical hearsay, in short to take up the immodest project of a chronicle, and to name it “From the last row” in order to take a step back, even forcibly, from the feigned frenzy of the festival.

Introduction to the Cannes 1984 section of Ciné journal 1981-86, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

Ludwig: Viscontians, One More Effort

Slightly revised version of Liz Heron's translation for the abandoned Cinema in Transit project. One of the few texts by Serge Daney on Visconti.

Ludwig (Luchino Visconti) / Viscontians, One More Effort

An uncut version of Ludwig is on Paris screens. We will never see an end to the guided tour of this unclassifiable monument. Neither to Ludwig, about which everything is known. Nor to Visconti, who remains, whatever might be said, a director as little known as he is famous. 

First condition: a German version two hours ten minutes long (by all accounts a real slaughter). Second condition: an English version three hours long (it’s this half measure that came out in France, ten years ago now). Third condition: an Italian version four hours and five minutes long (released today). Viscontians, one more effort if you want to take the tour of this Ludwig, in the disarrayed condition it is, always changing language, lineaments and length without ever ceasing to be your favourite monument. The long version, a “work of devotion” for which we have to thank Ruggiero Mastroianni (the most famous Italian editor) and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (one of the most famous Italian screenwriters), is no doubt more “in line with the original”. Except that the original version of a film that is already so original (to put it in a nutshell, a monster) doesn’t mean all that much. In her – sadly, bad – hagiobiography of Visconti, Monica Stirling alludes to half a dozen scenes which the maker of Senso ended up cutting out. Among them was a private performance of Tristan, the death of Wagner, the reaction of Elisabeth “Sissi” of Austria to the news of her cousin’s death: “They’ve killed him! Traitors! Murderers!” she exclaimed. 

Nothing stops us from imagining all the additional pictures which Visconti could easily have inserted into his Chinese box fresco. Nothing stops us from suspecting the truth: that in Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), Visconti the man (1907-1976) had found his perfect “subject”, Visconti the painter his fondest motif, Visconti the engagé artist his favourite anti-hero. Had the result been a short, a two-part film or a twelve or seventy-two-hour-long series, the effect would have been the same. This film is infinite like the infinite patience of the man who, having made you his guest, honours you with hospitality and is your guide in his (great) small world. We shall always visit Ludwig for the nth time. All we had seen to begin with were the ceremonial rooms, there suddenly encountering a coronation filmed as if in a kitchen. Then we discovered the key to the keep where the master of the house has his childhood memories. Sooner or later, we’ll come across sealed up doors, forbidden apartments, sauna vapours in a Wagnerian grotto, a stud farm in a corner of this baroque garden, a farm boys’ bordello filmed as if in a palace. We shall never be surprised. We’ve got our minds made up (about Visconti). 

Domesticity, promiscuity, prostitution are the key words of the Visconti universe. It’s not so much that he has made films about love, more that he has filmed every desire as sexual (in its essence) and as economic transaction (in its form). Remember Romy Schneider, the wife who sells herself to her husband in Il Lavoro, an admirable, though short, film. Visconti is less a witness to class struggle than an entomologist with an unimpeded view of promiscuity between classes. And yet, if we forget for a moment the painful clichés about the contradiction of the engagé aesthete or the queer Marxist prince, if we wonder what a Visconti film “is like” (as old Sam would say), we come up against one of the most hermetic styles in the history of the cinema. With the effect of a stationary monument, with the tedium of guided tours, with the feeling of not counting for much in this spectacle which unseeingly tolerates us. 

For there are directors who demonstrate and directors who show. They are seldom the same. Visconti has long had a weakness for demonstration (in The Damned for instance). Not for showing. Which is what, I dare say, makes him a monster. For when all’s said and done, the cinema is “giving to have”. Except that the manner of giving is sometimes more important than what is given. When the Visconti camera frames, de-frames and re-frames, zooms, de-zooms and re-zooms, when it crosses the space of the scene like a thick pencil line (you can almost see the arrow, like in a Veličković painting), hacking through the extras who trample across the shot in full harness, it is not the eye of the master who sees for us, or we who see thanks to him; it is not even the gaze that moves back to judge (there is never any judgement with Visconti, only condemnation, silently and without appeal); it isn’t a matter of vision, it’s a hand. Yes, a hand. The hand of the painter who already has the whole painting in his head and is (furiously) touching up a detail or (hastily) layering a coat of extra colour across a slow-moving scene. The hand of the master of the house who takes advantage of the guided tour to dust his collectors’ items in passing, as if he were discovering them along with us, as if he didn’t know, as if he knew no longer. Always courtesy, always the hand. It is to the painter’s hand that we owe Senso (but then Visconti was, as they say, more engagé with History). It is to the proprietor’s hand that we owe this disarrayed Ludwig. For that’s the oddest thing; Visconti isn’t the inventor of his world (its auteur) more its proprietor. He doesn’t express this world (that would be in distinctly petit-bourgeois bad taste), he takes us round it (that’s the minimum courtesy). He lets us see it, he doesn’t show it. 

Paradoxically, in this orgy of sumptuous sets, and costumes to turn Louella Interim pale with envy and real live castles, there isn’t an ounce of fetishism. Oddly, in this story of kingly extravagance, there isn’t a milligram of surprise, nor any room for suspense. And yet this monster-film is no stone cold alter or disused cathedral (as in Syberberg’s version). You only have to know how to look at it and, for that, to move a little to the side in relation to the unshifting picture and the hand at work drawing. What do you see in the end? Redrawing the ineluctable decline of the king of Bavaria, Visconti opts for no romantic treatment (Ludwig alone, patron and builder) but for a decidedly clinical approach. 

Each scene in the film always plays out the same little scenario: a character “of sound mind” converses with the mad king, demanding something of him, and each time the king yields. He yields to everyone about everything (except to the expensive tart paid to deflower him). To the ambitious Von Holnstein (Umberto Orsini) who asks him to give up his throne, to Durkheim, the noble spirit (Helmut Griem) who reminds him of his kingly duties, to Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) who asks him to settle Wagner’s debts, to the minister who proves to him that Wagner is an adventurer, to father Hoffman (Gert Fröbe), who dissuades him from ceasing to be a virgin king, and above all to his cousin Elisabeth (Romy Schneider, more Sissi than ever) who asks him not to love her. To all of them, he yields; the rest he pays (the travelling player, the valet-lover, etc). 

This is where Visconti catches us out. Either you choose to look at only Ludwig in the image, or else you look at the gallery of “others”. It’s hard to do both. It is a comic situation, a cruel comedy, worthy of Molière: the master is raving, for sure, but the representatives of “good sense” are hardly any better. There’s an Orgon in Ludwig and a Tartuffe in Wagner. So much so that when we look at the others, what we see is painful: not just their toadying faces or their hypocritical demeanour, but also the slack indulgence of those who have realised that, in any case, given the king’s autistic exaltation, there’s no longer a need to feel uncomfortable. What we then see, by anamorphosis, is pure obscenity. On both sides. 

First published in Libération on 6 July 1983 as "Viscontians, One More Effort". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Coppola, Made in Tulsa: Rumblefish

Another revised translation from abandoned project Cinema in Transit.  

Rumblefish (Francis Ford Coppola) 

Out of sorts with the adult world, the unrelenting Coppola concocts a tale of (still) mimetic violence among Tulsa teenagers.

What’s good about Coppola is his awareness of being part of the History of the Cinema, with capital letters. What’s tiresome about Coppola is his awareness that the quickly embittered prophet in him must negotiate hairpin bends within this very history of cinema. That’s why his most recent films are a bit doltish. That’s why they depress American critics (who tend to have a phobia about prophets – look at Welles). That’s why, in spite of everything, he interests us phenomenally (after all, it was Europe that took it into its head to write the History of Cinema).

Watching a Coppola film – Rumblefish more than all the others put together – is like encountering a new pinball machine. A Gottlieb or a new-look Bally (you hardly ever see any Williams any more) where you would put an old ten-franc coin in the slot in a state of anxious excitement. How does this one work? Where are the bumpers, corridors, free spaces, targets, the captive or extra balls, the special? What sort of noise does it make? What’s the best way to win? 

When you look at the backglass of the pinball machine (let’s call the “old” part of Coppola’s films their “backglass”) you always see the same inscriptions. “It’s more fun to compete” means there is more pleasure playing with others (because of the competition). Well, Coppola’s films are always stories of gangs. Mafiosi, soldiers after that, teenagers after that. “A game of skills” means that you have to be dextrous in order to play and have total command of the film technique (and film memory). Now when you look under the glass of the pinball machine (let’s call the most modernist part of Coppola’s films the “glass”) you can easily see that this man has a need to test himself out by pursuing the movies in their most advanced form. 

I say “advanced” as I would say “decomposed” if talking about a piece of meat. Twenty years on, Rumblefish is the equivalent of what Arthur Penn tried to do in his little-known film Mickey One (1964). The same kind of blandly angelic good looks hero (Warren Beatty then, Matt Dillon now), the same retro-style black and white, the same metaphysics of scores outstanding, the same vanities. Except that in twenty years the images and sounds of the American cinema, worked on by video, electronics, Europe and its idea of its future, are now able to come up with different dreams in the same bed (in the same film). Nowadays it’s an experience that can be bought. In 1964 it was Penn who was mannered. In 1984 it’s the audience of Rumblefish (an audience targeted by Coppola as younger and younger) which is naturally mannered. All of today’s directors with a bit of life in them (from the most laborious, like Beineix, to the most talented, like Ruiz) are heirs to this phenomenal corpse: the cinema. All big wheels in a sense, but rolling at breakneck speed towards the “new images”. Auteurs, it’s true, but of somewhat comical prosthetic parts. The truth of the lie was yesterday. The powers of the false are for today. Signs of the times. 

There was one important date in the history of the pinball machine (but a clever anthropologist would align it with the history of cinema); it was when it too started talking. “Play me again!” implored the abject Xenon. “Bye-bye!” the irritating Q*bert’s Quest simpers nowadays to the player who has just lost his stake. There’s nothing human about these voices, they no longer “stick” to the image, they accompany it. 

Coppola is contemporary to Xenon. His “style” is a matter of displaying – conspicuously if possible – the choice of amplification to which he submits this or that detail (whether visual or in sound) so as to make it play a little solo, just like in jazz. This is what he started doing in One from the Heart. Something in between pointless showing off and last-minute verification, the test and the check-up. So in Rumblefish there are solos: of images (Stephen Burum’s), words, music (Stewart Copeland’s, the drummer from Police), of gestures, camera movements, of everything. They have no purpose apart from the pleasure of someone noisily revving up a very fine machine before riding out on it. 

Some examples. The film’s American title cues its meaning, that’s to say that unless we leave the tribe we are doomed to hurl ourselves upon our own image and to gnaw it or destroy it; in “French": the title has become Rusty James. Now these are the words most often heard in the film. The hero is continually called by his name, either in challenge or with affection, often in the way that a child is spoken to, to get it used to the idea that it has a name – its name, a name all of its own. This “Rusty James!” uttered in an Arkansas accent (the setting is Tulsa) is a way of drawing in the spectator, like the Xenon pinball machine’s “play me again”. There are many other examples of this art of amplification. The decision to film in black and white with the alibi of the Motorcycle Boy’s colour-blindness. Or that long scene between the two brothers where the elder (the Boy in question) keeps on asking the younger just one question: “Why?”. “Why why?” the other finally protests. And the scene continues, getting stuck on this little word like a clot of blood. Or again those fight scenes choreographed like commercials, shot at Adidas level, as if already quoting from a film that we were supposed to know. Or the sudden colour of the fighting fish (red, blue) in their poverty-stricken aquarium. Or the virtuosity of the camera movements, as if, since he has begun using video to rehearse his films like ballets, Coppola was finally able to treat the camera with all the consideration owed to a character. 

This is how F. ‘Ford’ C. painstakingly creates today’s mannerist cinema. This Italo-American is our Parmigianino or our Primaticcio. Everything he loses on the one hand – spontaneity, humour, inspiration – he gains on the other – inventiveness, melancholy, courage. Of course, there’s often a desire to beg him (you’d have to shout very loud) to let his characters and his shots breathe, not to smother them – and us – beneath his show-offish expertise, not to lose what often gives his films their charm (for example the whole Mark Twain-style episode in The Outsiders), not to want to perpetually control everything (because “everything” is too much). Of course, he is further away from the lyricism of Nicholas Ray or Sam Fuller (other analysts of group violence and its homosexual core) than from the frigid pyrotechnics of Otto Preminger. But all the same, he’s there. 

For the mistake would be in imagining that Coppola makes do with tacking on a hypertrophied style to what are in the end hackneyed themes. This isn’t quite true. The man possesses a “vision of the world” which is perfectly in keeping with the pandemonium he has in mind for the movies. 

What’s the story of Rumblefish? An attractive and charismatic ex-gang leader known by the name of Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) comes home to Tulsa now older (he is twenty-one!) after a trip to California. He joins his father, an out-of-work alcoholic lawyer (Dennis Hopper, who is terrific) and more especially his younger brother, Rusty James (Matt Dillon). While he has been away Rusty has tried to keep the gangs going and be one of their leaders. Rusty is wildly beautiful. Rusty totally looks up to his brother. But Rusty is betrayed by words; the fact is: he’s not very smart. He doesn’t realise that no one believes any longer in this kind of heroism, nor does anyone believe in him as a leader. How is he to be made to realise this? Motorcycle Boy is in the fiendishly Coppalesque situation of someone who has touched bottom, found nothing there, and is reduced to sporting a dandyish demeanour of few words (he’s not just colour-blind but half-deaf!). So that his little brother can become a man (who knows?), he will have to resort to the complicated metaphor of the rumble fish. And this metaphor will be the death of him. 

Clearly, Rumblefish is a story of disillusionment. Made flesh, the ideal disappoints. Idols have feet of clay. (Remember Kurz-Brando in Apocalypse Now). This is nothing unusual. A filmmaker who wants to rethink the cinema’s powers of illusion needs to believe that the world (the “real” world) is already an illusion. That it consists of appearances, of celestial twinkles and earthly shams. The beautiful, very innocently Disneyesque scene where Rusty James has been knocked out and dreams he is dead and you see his levitating body turned into a soul in transit overflying a smoke-filled field of mourners, perhaps tells us the truth of Coppola’s cinema. The world in essence hardly exists. The director only manipulates its substance in order to extract a little of his soul.

 First published in Libération on 15 February 1984 as "Coppola, made in Tulsa". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Introduction to Indochinema: Dust of Empire

 Another revised translation from Cinema in Transit. 

Dust of Empire (Lam-Le)

Lam-Le does more than pulling off his first feature; he is planting the seeds of his personal cosmogony. Confusion is only on the surface.

Say there’s a footbridge [passerelle]. The kind with room only for one person at a time. In the middle, reckless and clever, there’s a man – alone of course. It’s Lam-Le, who was born in Haiphong thirty-six years ago. He is really “in the middle”. He has lived eighteen years in Vietnam and eighteen years in France. Then he made Dust of Empire. A passeur between two worlds (but he’s the one who built the footbridge), magnetised by two cultures (but without losing the North), a fragile ambassador between Paris and Hanoi (but working independently), he has made a film where, logically, everything is doubled, starting with the title. Dust of Empire or Hon Vong Phu (the Vietnamese title) is one of the most ambitious and original films to be seen for a long time. 

There are many ways of approaching the story. With the poster? Try and see. An overturned colonial helmet, red graphics for the title and the names of two outstanding and well-known actors: Dominique Sanda and Jean-Francois Stevenin. She’s a (nameless) missionary and he’s a sergeant in the French army (his name’s Tamisier, but he calls himself Tam-Tam). You’re right in the middle of “Indochina War” (water, rice fields, sweat, military kit) and you watch the jeering NCO and the lofty nun carefully compose their characters, somewhere between Hergé and televised Noh theatre. They gesticulate and strike attitudes, they quote. They quote the films of John Ford (7 Women) or John Huston (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison). The white cinema of fine colonial souls, with soldiers soft-hearted beneath surly ways and nuns who are still women beneath their stiff looks.

That said, their “action” is modest: showing the Vietnamese villagers a little Pathé-Baby film on the life of Christ, cobbling together a screening, preaching. They are theatrical about their film show, they’re no great shakes and they make a mess of it into the bargain. Outside, the rain turns to a downpour, the screening is cut short (they don’t even get to the Wedding at Cana), dark water rises in the cabin where they’re staying, the enemy prowls around, the nun is on edge and when they go on their way the next morning, all covered in mud, they are unceremoniously mowed down by Vietcong machine guns. The film goes on without them and, as a disconcerted spectator, you can’t help wondering. What, the stars are dead already? Is this a different film starting now? Have you been had?

You then remember that, parallel to this story, there’s another narrative thread, tenuous but this time unbroken. In the village, a wounded guerrilla (played by Lam-Le) was entrusting a message-poem to a dumb child. He wants to let his wife know that he isn’t dead. The guerrilla’s wife is a servant with the French in Saigon. The guerrilla sticks the message on the child’s kite. The child meets the nun-Tam-Tam couple, smiles at them, takes them to the cabin, then disappears, forgetting his kite. When the water rises, someone deciphers the rain-washed message, but it’s too late.

It’s then you suspect that the real “hero” of Dust of Empire is the four lines of poetry and their transmission, and you’re right. As a result, when you think about the long Sanda-Stevenin episode you perceive one of the most hazardous things that a director can come up with: a shortcut which goes astray, a blind alley which leads back to square one. But this doesn’t mean that the episode is without meaning. For one thing it is filmed in a certain way and the rest of the film in a different way. As if the film-maker had two styles.

When he talks about it, Lam-Le is very specific. As a director, he is very much – almost too much – at ease with this dramatic scenario. But as someone who was once a Vietnamese child, he hasn’t forgotten the impression white adults made on him, their heavy-footed and alarming way of occupying space, of jostling everything, of detaching syllables (to preach) or gobbling them up (to insult). His is the memory of the colonised. Perhaps he wanted his film to “go through this”, as a kind of exorcism, halfway between affectionate homage and spiteful parody. Perhaps he wanted to show where his liking for the cinema came from: from the colonists and their pious images.

And so the film begins all over again. We encounter the guerrilla in prison. There’s an escape from the adjoining cell. He entrusts his message (the same four lines) to an escaping prisoner. Night, topless bodies, flight, accomplices, a house. And in the house a leprous old woman and a little boy, Phong (the wind). The message is passed in whispers. The child learns it by heart then writes it in a piece of paper, next to a yellowing drawing. The nuns – them again – send the old woman back to the leper colony and the child to Saigon.

And at this point the film takes off into the ether. Phong – the wind-child, grave-faced, with his baggy shorts and his satchel tucked jauntily under his arm, crossing Saigon in search of the “Villa des Roses” where the guerrilla’s wife works. He finds her. The wife looks after the children of a French couple who are going back home. She goes with them, heavy-hearted. On the quayside, Phong gets the message to a smilingly beautiful singer (Myriam Mezières, in yet another fine performance) who is signing autographs before embarkation. From then on, the piece of paper travels incognito, enters into the French children’s games (the little girl makes a fan out of it), following them to Marseille, then to Paris where, for more than twenty years it’s used to wedge the buttons on a radio set. Is it lost?

At this point in the film you fear for the piece of paper. It’s to be expected: you’ve entered into the logic of the melodrama and you will be very moved. One day the old wireless set has broken down altogether. Time has gone by, even in Vietnam where the “American war” has just ended, and the little girl has grown up. She falls upon the folded paper and everything comes back to her. The guerrilla’s wife is now an elderly, stooped woman. At the Mutualité for the Tết celebrations, she cries as she receives this message which has reached her so late. It’s her daughter who will bring things full circle and take a plane to Vietnam, landing there today. A dilapidated airport reeking of the Third World and littered with plane corpses. The guerrilla’s daughter rides through the Vietnamese countryside on a bike. Time stopped, accelerated, plainly dreamed. Sublime.

Everything is doubled in this film. The four lines of poetry and the piece of paper aren’t the only “heroes” of this “second” part. The fourth line refers to a “waiting stone*”. the film’s title is Hon Vong Phu. This means precisely “waiting stone” and it’s the ultimate symbol of the film, derived from a legend of a woman who, having to wait for the man she loves, takes on the form of a great grey stone sunk into the ground, such as the ones found in Vietnam. In the crevices people leave messages: signs of life or proofs of love. Vietnam = patience. The guerrilla’s daughter finds the stone mentioned in the poem and embraces it in tears. A bright-eyed young girl born with the new Vietnam comes and speaks to her. “Are you the one who has come from France?”, “Do you know the story of the stone?”

It’s then that you remember. The real beginning of Dust of Empire was neither the story of the cinephile nun and the sergeant Tam-Tam, nor was it even the bleeding guerrilla writing on a kite; it was – quite simply – the credits! The ideogram “sky” exploding in the darkness of the world’s creation with a meteorite plunging fast towards the earth and towards this part of the earth called Vietnam. Lam-Le doesn’t begin his film “somewhere”, but nowhere, with his own cosmogony. And to end it, above the woman standing near the stone, a star speeds through the sky and closes the film. The stone from the beginning, but seen from below.

Nor is it over yet. This stone is really precious and here is why. Simultaneously a narrative thread, a container for the message, and a proof of Lam-Le’s existence as a director and as a Vietnamese. It bears proud and modest witness to he who wishes to “leave something” behind him. It’s a good symbol, this fat pebble. For this stone isn’t a real stone found and filmed by Lam-Le in Vietnam, it’s a polystyrene sculpture, designed and constructed in France and taken to Vietnam. A part of the set, that’s all.

Afterwards (Lam-Le narrates with delight) the stone stayed on – half as an oddity, half as a souvenir of the filming –, like the wreckage from the first “French” film shot (partly) in Vietnam, the sign of an alliance, a crumb of bread on the fragile footbridge of the “friendship between peoples”. A fake that has become real. Hollow, it has assumed weight. Not the least touching thing is the thought of Lam depicted as some kind of Little Poucet leaving a real film here and a fake stone there, restoring something sacred to Vietnam. Not a film (he settled accounts with sacred cinephilia with his Pathè-Baby movie-patronage episode), but a “waiting stone” fallen off a film cargo.

If I had time I would now begin to tell you what kind of artist I think Lam-Le is. I say “artist” advisedly because he has already done painting, acting and drawing (he has even designed story boards for other people’s film); an exceptionally talented artist of our time. That is to say aware of the powers of the false and the truth of the sham. That’s another reason to make Dust of Empire a landmark. A political reason, no less.

For what have we seen of the North-South dialogue in the cinema department? The South reduced to walk-on parts or silence, while the North took the principal roles (nun and soldier for example) and had plenty to say. The South reduced to its folklore difference which was then recreated in the studios of the North (Hollywood). The guilt-ridden North going to the South to extract “real images” which will be thrust upon the noble souls of the North (Malle filming Calcutta, for example). The South filming like the North, with State sponsoring.

Lam-Le is different. He doesn’t “extract” images-as-evidence, he “adds on” objects-as-signs. Extracting something original still comes down to removing. Adding on a copy is still enrichment.

* "Pierre d’attente" in French is a technical term in theatre and construction [toothing stone] broadly meaning a harbinger.

 First published in Libération on 7 October 1983 as "Introduction to Indochinema". Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Small Sentence




The Small Sentence

August 1985, Cairo. Youssef Chahine films Adieu Bonaparte amongst the pyramids. But this beautiful film will be snubbed*. 

Everything leads us to believe that on July 3rd, 1984, a man woke up (in Cairo) with a certain anxiety (in his heart). Youssef Chahine, Egyptian filmmaker by trade, born fifty-eight years ago in Alexandria, is filming the most expensive Franco-Egyptian co-production. Adieu Bonaparte is in its fourth week of shooting, and today the schedule says: “Scene 33: Exterior – Day. Pyramids.” The dialogue includes a small but unavoidable sentence without which a film on the French campaign in Egypt (1798-1800) would lack spice: “From the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us!”. Right, but how can we give this old schoolbook cliché some new blood?

Everything demonstrates that on that morning, an actor woke up with the same anxiety. The one who has to say the sentence, the one who plays Bonaparte. Patrice Chéreau (who already played Camille Desmoulins in Wajda’s Danton) wakes up, having just recovered from another “pharaonitis”, under the banyans of the Manial Palace, in Rhoda Island where the Club Med(iterranean) puts up, as a token of friendship to Chahine, the French crew of the film. A whole month that Chéreau is thinking about this sentence (in La Scala in Milan, on the Egyptair flight, everywhere). How can one escape the stereotypical image?

Everything points to another actor, in a neighbouring bungalow, behind the walls that (fortunately) badly isolate the Club and its cheerful staff and guests, from the sound of Cairo’s senseless bustle (one of the best soundtracks of the century), who thinks resignedly of the artificial leg that he must wear everywhere on the shoot, in the studios and outside, on foot and horse-riding. He thinks of the sun that burns and of his real leg that he must keep folded and hidden for hours, of the difficult graft that is required of a great actor. For he is the one – and not the soldiers – that the small sentence will be destined to. He, Caffarelli, the limping hero of this heroic film, this general of Bonaparte who did exist (a street bears his name in Paris) and died in Egypt. Michel Piccoli plays the role. Both superb (the role and the actor).

On the afternoon of July 3rd, the crew has set camp along a collapsed mini-pyramid next to the pyramid of Menkaure, the smallest of the three big ones. Off screen, off sound-and-light show, and almost off onlookers. Still blazing, the sun is declining. And yet, Chahine goes fast. Everything is drawn, sequenced, nothing is left to chance or is allowed to distract from the essential. A blue truck, spanking new, is parked at the edge of the desert: the only working silent generator in Egypt. It has just been purchased (second hand) for the film and bears the white letters “Victorine Studios”. There are shouts (in French and in Arabic), a very normal chaos, children holding horses with leads, a sound engineer panicking (a boom operator is missing), and in the middle, a neophyte horse rider, Chéreau-Bonaparte, very conscious that his horse is evidently unruly. 

Scene 33. Caffarelli and his friend Horace Say (played by Christian Patay, ex-Bressonian murderer on L’Argent) ride along the satellite pyramid and stop short in front of the three large ones (Al-Ahram, in Arabic). Stupefaction. The camera must capture Caffarelli’s ecstasy when finally seeing what he only knew from books. Piccoli-Caffarelli must take off his hat, brandish it and shout only one word: “Passionately!”. In the film, Caffarelli is an adventurer-general-scientist-idealist interested less in what he can guess (Bonaparte’s cold ambition) than what he discovers (Egypt, the real myth, a world to civilise, a people to respect, boys to love, sublimely if he can). Youssef Chahine has enjoyed creating Caffarelli. He has placed in the character the universal (his enemies would say “cosmopolitan”) side of his affects. Since Caffarelli is the precursor of all those lost soldiers who will discover themselves via the sensuality of the Arab desert and cities. For now, Caffarelli and Say ride down in front of Khufu’s, Khafre’s and Menkaure’s pyramids, behind a dune, between rock and sand, overwhelmed with emotion. 

As daylight declines, dusk comes too quickly. The camera, now at ground level, discovers three riders in a low angle shot. Bedouins? No, but a voice says “I understand you… It’s a great moment.” It’s Bonaparte, followed by one of the scientists on the expedition (Monge) and a secretary (Perseval), both dressed in black. “My dear Louis,” Bonaparte says, “imagine that from the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us!”. “That’s it, he fell for it!” Caffarelli says laughingly to Say as Perseval adopts a smile of naïve satisfaction. “Did you say something?” asks Bonaparte, feeling that he is being mocked. “I was enjoying… how it came to you… the inspiration!”, Caffarelli answers jeeringly. It’s Piccoli who says this last sentence, euphoric and mocking, very much in the style of the Comédie-Française. Bonaparte, glad to have got over his historic words, leaves. 

To understand the spice of scene 33, one must have read the (admirable) script and especially scene 25 where, during the charge of the Mamlukes, “behind the infantry squares, on the West side of the Nile”, Caffarelli and Say surprise Perseval working on the small sentence. “Look down… down from the heights… down on us…” he recites. Caffarelli mocks him: “I doubt the general needs your muses to find the right words. Plus, one shouldn’t describe the pyramids from afar. They are pyramids you know…” But Caffarelli is wrong. He is not thinking of the media yet. Bonaparte is. 

Night has fallen on scene 33. The dusk-effect doesn’t work. Spotlights are transfiguring the desert into a pale and lunar space. The sound and light show will soon start (“disgusting!” says Piccoli, “vile” Chéreau confirms). The pyramids of Gyza suddenly seem far apart from each other: Khufu’s the “tranquil block here on earth”, Khafre’s and its patched-up top, Menkaure’s in the turbulence of hot and porous air. Stuck in the sand, the crew waits. Piccoli dozes on the floor. Chéreau regularly utters the gimmicky sentence: “From the heights of these pyramids… blah blah blah.”

Does Chahine like Bonaparte? Not sure, since he says “Adieu” to him. Still, he has spent over two years moving heaven and earth to show the film, his twenty-seventh. He wasn’t satisfied with being considered – rightly – as the best Egyptian (and even Arab) filmmaker, with twenty-five years of experience (genre by genre) in the studios of Cairo, with directing the singers Farid al-Atrash and Fairuz, with his role as a poor wretch and sex maniac in Cairo Station (1958), with making the first CinemaScope film in Egyptian colours (Saladin, 1963), to have believed in Nasser and the friendship with the Soviet Union (People and the Nile, 1968), to be internationally renowned (The Land, 1969): he still had to discover that he could die. 

“I was in London,” he narrates, “and the doctor tells me: you will undergo open-heart surgery on Saturday (it was Thursday), you have a three or four percent chance that it will work. I haggled and he gave me almost fifteen percent. So, for two days, I asked myself who I have been: an entertainer, a man spontaneously committed. But I didn’t mind that. So I said to myself: right, if I come out of it, I will make a film where I really commit to my private life. After all, it’s not sacrosanct: I will say everything (and it will be very hard).” And here is how Youssef Chahine has become a “special case” in the Arab cinema: more than a veteran or a master craftsman, better than an auteur, someone who speaks, more and more, in the first person. Ostensibly autobiographical, Alexandria… Why? (1978) and An Egyptian Story (1982) are beautiful films. The type of films one must make when one has no more time to lose. 

Impossible not to love Chahine, not to call him “Jo” like everyone else. If he impresses his crew, it’s because he knows how to do everything, because he is familiar with all aspects of cinema. Funny, available, crafty, passionate, always exposed. This is the reasoned, but also unreasonable, catalogue of the contradictions (there are many) that objectively fashion him and that he upholds. For this ex-patient of open-heart surgery remains bon vivant. This famous Alexandrian is an atypical Egyptian (neither Muslim, nor Copt, but from a Catholic family and educated in an English school), this public figure remains liable to the courts (all it took this year was a small reactionary judge who got angry with him to raise the threat of imprisonment, see Libération dated 10 April 1984), this universal spirit only works well at home, and especially, a rare paradox, this filmmaker embarking on a super-coproduction on a big topic has rarely been less inclined to make concessions on what matters to him. For Chahine is a sailor. His blue desk is like the bow of a ship which, from the thirteenth floor, floats over a cushion of dirty air and noise, over a sea of the colour of dry earth: Cairo. “I am from Alexandria,” he likes to say, “when I see water, I dive in, I can’t help it.”

And he dives in for good. The day after the Pyramids, the 4th of July, the crew moves a hundred kilometres south West of Cairo, to Faiyum. The colourless water of a lake located thirty meters below sea level acts as the Mediterranean. Bonaparte and his generals, lost, are meant to get their horses bogged down in the mud there. Caffarelli and his artificial leg share a moment of frustration (“Leave me alone! Let me die here!”). Bonaparte turns around, weighs up Caffarelli and lashes him with his horsewhip. In the water, a man, only one, in unlikely white trunks, becomes agitated: it’s Chahine. The filmmaker, literally, is getting his feet wet. But others are also getting their feet wet for him. An assistant tirelessly dives in fully dressed after each “clap” and swims underwater until he’s off camera. Among the stagehands, one is mute, consumed with anxiety and devotion, in charge of the chocks for the rails used for tracking shots. Slapdash shooting? If you want. But it is also a (beautiful) image of the Muslim world: do not exclude anybody upfront, segregate the least. 

Chahine also got his feet wet financially. Putting Adieu Bonaparte together hasn’t been simple. It’s the type of film where “everybody is willing to invest, but as late as possible. Once more, I’ve had to take all the risks.”, says Jo, “I was even ready to risk my toothpaste!” He wrote – alone – the first version of the script as early as August 1982. He has kept re-writing it since, with the help of a young journalist attracted to cinema, Yousry Nasrallah, who has become Chahine’s right-hand man on the shoot. “My mom had read the cards and saw that I was going to stay in Cairo” (he was in Beirut), “and that I was going to work with a man with big glasses.” She was right: Chahine does wear large glasses: his gaze is visible kilometres away. 

Impossible to put together such a film in today’s reduced Egyptian cinema system. In Cairo, a film is rushed for less than 200,000 Egyptian pounds, in four weeks of shooting, with over-pampered stars and hideous sets. With funding based on advances from film distributors and the video market, Egyptian films must take into account the infinite stupidity of the official censorship and the normative puritanism of the Gulf countries, the main buyers of video rights. This is how a certain “Gulf” style (a certain lamé in the costumes according to Yousry) insidiously modifies Egyptian cinema, caught between the nostalgia of its heyday (musicals and social melodramas) and the evolution of its audience, less family-oriented (families watch television), more cynical and more disoriented (the “Infitah” mentality, post-Sadat, corrupt), also more receptive in a way. But with not very reputable theatres, dilapidated studios, and only three or four decent films produced every year, Egyptian cinema is selling itself cheap. 

If the other big names of Egyptian cinema have seriously lost themselves in the super productions of Iraqi propaganda (Salah Abu Seif with his regrettable The Qadisiya or Tewfiq Saleh with his appalling hagiography of Sadam Hussein), if Shadi Abdel Salam (celebrated auteur of The Night of the Counting Years) has been moping around for ten years working on his mad project Akhenaton, Youssef “Jo” Chahine is the only one able to work on a Franco-Egyptian coproduction of twenty-four million francs while making, despite everything, his film. Rare case, unheard-of adventure. The other Egyptian filmmakers hold their breath, slightly jealous and rather perplexed (what if all this was good for them?).

Who helped Chahine? Jack Lang first, rapidly convinced of the merits of the project. Then the Egyptian Culture Minister, probably not to be outdone. But while these noble supporters gave “credibility” to the project, they only brought in about 20% of the total budget. 

Television channels had to be involved: TF1 in Paris and the Egyptian television, this “State within a State” (negotiations are still on-going), as well as advances from distributors in two countries. In France, Claude Berri, seduced by the script that he read this year at Cannes, eventually came in with AMLF. This summary is of course very elliptical. There were many other scenarios. With the Americans (Jon Voight and Columbia), with Gaumont (before the current crisis that we all know of) and even with the Algerians (Alger had co-produced Alexandria... Why?; Chahine went to see Lakhdar-Hamina, ex-strong man of the ONCIC, in vain).

So, who helped himself (without expecting God to help him)? Chahine. Via Mist International, his production-distribution company, he has invested, borrowed, scraped every last penny and advanced the first funds. In Humbert Balsan and Jean-Pierre Mahot of Lyric International, he has found two young executive producers to manage the budget and spread the work across the two sides of the co-production. On the French side, the lab, the finishing stage, the sound engineer (Michel Berthez), some of the equipment (not the camera, an Arri BL belonging to Chahine) and two of the main actors: Piccoli and Chéreau. On the Egyptian side, all these unquantifiable things which, if provided at a French price, would make Adieu Bonaparte akin to Fort Saganne

First among these things, time. Twelve weeks of shooting, but six days a week and up to eighteen hours a day (the notion of overtime seems to have been completely forgotten). Manpower as well since real Egyptian new recruits are playing the French soldiers. For forty centuries, modern farmers of the valley of Nile have been looked down on from the height of their own pyramids. Fitting dialectical reversal of roles. In addition to weapons and horses, a specialist organisation of the Egyptian army has lent around seven hundred and fifty men that can run, stumble and die in the background, in the desert. No more expensive than extras and a lot more disciplined (the Colonel Mohammad Mustafa is present on the shoot, dressed as a civilian with a flowery shirt, overseeing everything). Finally, the clothes. In a workshop in Cairo, twenty-five dressmakers have spent six months creating twenty-five thousand costumes, and the great Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle, taking care of all the details but imperial, came to help with the final touch, wrapping the extras in their stomach scarves (the red must go on top!), fitting their boots in imitation leather, making up women Directoire-style and avoiding the “TV-drama” look. 

Diverse, devoted, not always bi-lingual, the Egyptian crew can work wonders. One can sense the love of cinema in Abbas, the prop manager, in the old scene shifter with his white cap who is merrily pushing the tracking dollies, away from the Egyptian studios where one guesses he has spent all his life, in the “old school” set photographer, the meticulous Jimmy. No disdain, just a desire to do well and fast, to go to the essential (which, in a Chahine film, means the emotion); few are those who do not feel that they have embarked in an unprecedented adventure. 

An adventure that sometimes leads them to hell. On July 7th, the crew is transported to “the worst part of Cairo” (according to Jo), South of the town, to the East of the Coptic Museum and Fustat, beyond the squatted shacks and before the piles of rubbish that are burning so slowly that the smoke cannot be easily distinguished from the dust and the wind. A terrible place, and on that day, a magical one. Ain Al Sira with its fort and (Roman?) mills in ruin, a sort of plateau overlooking the city like a sandy diorama. It is said that eight tons of dust fall on Cairo each day. It’s a lot more here. The dust puts a veil on lines and obscures shapes, it blocks nostrils and suppresses odours, it fades colours and discourages vision. 

The crew spreads out and sets itself in motion. The army recruits in white underpants are queuing in front of the costume truck. A colourful line of children, dirty and quiet, sitting cross-legged, serves as a boundary between nothing and nothing. There is a scene where the door of the fort explodes, and another where Bonaparte, in between the mills, confronts Caffarelli. The latter has taken it upon himself to restore the windmills (new fabric sails have been fitted on one of them) and leads, plans in hand, a sort of dozing and epic construction program. Whereas Bonaparte, who has just learned from an orderly that one of his lieutenants has been assassinated, is fleeing very quickly criticising Caffarelli for once again getting his priorities confused: “We should have built fortifications, not windmills!”. Close-up on Caffarelli who remains enigmatic. 

This said, the topic of Adieu Bonaparte is neither the petit caporal (with Chéreau being more than convincing in the role: dry, abrupt, the lack of humour of the character leading to a kind of dry funniness in the actor) nor the general Caffarelli (it will be one of Piccoli’s great roles, I’m putting a wager on it), but the way in which an Egyptian family at the beginning of the nineteenth century witnesses and lives the French campaign in Egypt, opens itself to the modern world (thanks to the French) and to national conscience (against the French). A great and complex subject. Egypt is then a distant province of the Sublime Porte that governs it via the Mamluks. Later Muhammad Ali (the one featuring in our history books) will reap the modern benefits from the French, their ideas, their scientists, the turbaned Bonaparte and the impassioned Caffarelli. For now, there is only a brush between the two worlds, revolt, and lack of understanding. 

With his unique art of interlacing choices and destinies, the weight of things and the tenacity of desires, Chahine has invented in minute detail the thousand and one ways that the family learns to live with the occupier. There are three sons. The one who fights blindly (Bakr), the one who doesn’t really understand (Yahia), and the one, yes, the small positive hero, who will end up understanding everything (Ali). Ali is played by Moshen Mohieddin, the young actor who played Chahine as a teenager on his way to study drama in California in Alexandria... Why? Just watching him on the set and seeing his smile is enough to be convinced that he instinctively understands all the nuances of the role. Caffarelli, dying, will say the last sentence of the film to him: “I love you less… but so much better.” With his years of apprenticeship over, Ali goes away. And the scenario adds: “Caffarelli restrains himself from dying.” The scene acting isn’t easy, but Piccoli is in charge. 

 * Translator's note: The standfirst refers to the film box office performance. It was probably written for Ciné Journal since the original Libération article is a report on the shooting. Daney discussed the reception of the film with Chahine on his radio show in 1986. The two shared the disappointment that the film didn't do better (160,000 box office tickets v. 30,000 for previous Chahine's films), didn't trigger a public debate and was quickly forgotten altogether. They blame the distribution for advertising this intimist film as an epic saga,  explore the the racist and post-colonialist reasons for the snub, and end up in a bitter argument over the state of the world of cinema in 1986, including the role of Cannes.

First published in Libération on 22 August 1984. Reprinted in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Andy Rector. 

Thanks to Samir Ardjoum who spotted Daney among the officers in Adieu Bonaparte