Sunday, May 16, 2021

Cannes 1984: Angelochronopoulos

Day 6, 1984 Cannes Film Festival.

One day, in Hong Kong, during a sino-cinephilic conversation, I was horrified to discover that, for my Chinese interlocutor, European films were not “European”, not even “western”, but simply “slow films”. He was surprised that such a film genre existed, nothing more. He was far from suspecting that there was a time where European filmmakers didn’t hesitate to shake up habits and cause a scandal with very long films: two, three, four hours, or more. And that it was important for them that the audience didn’t just see the film, but had a sort of experience of duration. For where there is experience, there is duration, that of the too short or the too long. Experience being always a personal thing (and not a collective one), it is not surprising that it has never been accepted by mass audiences. What happens next is well-known. 
Today, the “too short” has clearly won. Just look at the growing taste of cinephile audiences (even among the ex-purists) for the thousand and one tricks of TV adverts, or more recently for film trailers or music videos, to realise that we all agree on this point: for lack of new stories to pretend to tell in two hours, better summarise all the old stories in twenty seconds, in an evocative and funny skeleton. 
But in a film festival like Cannes, we also know that each year, reliably, there will be the film-fleuve in which many – less and less Heraclitean – would rather avoid stepping in twice. The adjectives used are “long”, “boring*”, “beautiful” and there is only one conjunction to link them: “but”. A film is “long but beautiful”, “beautiful but boring”, and for those who can’t take it anymore, “long and boring”. Since those films often deal with noble and dignified themes, one rarely dares to spit on the reel, but it’s true – let me attest – that even veterans of “film as an experience of duration” struggle to repress an abject sigh of relief – almost of joy – when they learn that the film they are about to see is only ninety minutes. Great filmmakers are not the last ones to keep things short (Bresson last year, Bergman this year). 
Voyage to Cythera, Theo Angelopoulos’ sixth full-length feature, is one of those long films; it is “slow” as well. Everything has an air of beautiful stiffness and bored stateliness. Actors are sleep-walking through complex itineraries that the editing doesn’t attempt to shorten. The subject of the film is, of course, time. Time that is passing and time that has passed. An old Greek resistance fighter comes back to his homeland after thirty-two years abroad (in the USSR, where he has rebuilt his life). The man is a cross between Zorba the shepherd and an aphasic Nosferatu, a gangly man that no close-up shots will make us feel closer to. There is his family in Athens (his wife Caterina who has waited for him, and his children who have never known him), and in the countryside, there are memories of the maquis, the wetlands, and peasants that are leaving. At stake in the story is this: will he adjust to his old life again? Will he even talk? Throughout the first hour, and even after, the answer comes in slow motion: no. And the audience, also on board to Cythera, observes with despair that Angelopoulos is faithful to his manner as a hardworking and melancholic calligraphist. So yes, the film is beautiful – beautiful but boring. 
And then no. Suddenly, we are less bored, we watch with more attention. Since it’s clear that Spiros will not adjust to modern Greece again (the film’s main point), it no longer matters how things will end, for Spiros or for the film. There are no more stakes once we’ve understood the “lesson”. We even understand that the film was slow only because it was taking too long to impart its lesson, that suddenly it is no longer long, slow or boring, and that it is often beautiful. We thought we were crushed by a steamroller, but we find ourselves intact, and curious. 
It is as though, once the story has been told, the theme dealt with, and all the great clichés on meditation pertaining to this type of story reviewed (the return, the exile and the passing of generations), Angelopoulos had finally deserved to make a film. Freely, without stake. As though the characters, painstakingly drawn for our eyes by the script, refused to disappear straight away and, like tenacious puppets and familiar ghosts, obtuse bodies freed from their signifying duties, managed to touch us in the same way as Tati’s films or Antonioni’s epilogues, with sinister comedy. In these moments, we forget to find the film “long” or “slow”: image by image, it improvises itself. 
What happens in the last part of Voyage to Cythera? First it begins to rain (like today in Cannes), then the authorities decide to deport Spiros, and finally a tragicomic dance begins between the distressed family, the old man, port authorities, the circling of boats, a barge in international waters and a café where a music band – here to celebrate an unlikely docker festival – takes shelter. It’s good. 
Like many modern filmmakers, Angelopoulos maintains an ill-fated relation with History (and to the story as well). He spends a lot of time getting it over with (that’s when he’s slow), and then, where a Hollywood film would end for good (with fanfare), he claims for his actor-figurines, one or two more rounds, a surplus of reflex-activities, extra time, time to do anything at all “once everything is over”. His film – unfortunately – only begins at the end of the story. 
* Translators' note: Daney uses chiant in the French text, throughout. 

First published in Libération, 16 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné journal 1981-1986, Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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