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.

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