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

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