Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Cannes 1984: Vertigo

Another two texts from Cannes 1984 published in Libération on May 19th. First up, a Huston / Skolimowski combo. 

Does a parallel stand up between the two films of the day, by Huston and Skolimowski? No, of course not. Unless we question the question itself. Unless we take the cinema as an art of standing up and a technique of falling. Caught between vertigo and equilibrium. A tightrope walker. 
If Under the Volcano is the wait for the final fall of one body, the body of the consul riddled with bullets at the door of the Farolito, a shady Mexican bar where he should never have set foot, Success Is the Best Revenge is by contrast the spectacle of an endless number of things “falling apart” (a roof, illusions, projects, football players, a teddy bear, a cup). Yet Huston and Skolimowski have something in common: they behave themselves. The former at the twilight of a long, prestigious career, and the latter on the cusp of international (that’s to say non-cinephilic) recognition, are all too aware of the ridiculous courage of their peers to let themselves be overwhelmed by even a pinch of sentimentality. Pathos is their enemy, intelligence their strength. That’s about all they have in common. 
As for the type of cinema they are practicing, they are quite clearly very different from one another. Any interest in the upright position (erectus), in vertigo and in falling, varies according to whether you are one of the last great classical directors or a leading figure of modern anxiety in cinema. 
Let’s start with alcohol. Alcohol constitutes a permanent exile. For the one constantly boozing, it imposes a kind of surplus labour: that of standing up, of composing his “character” in complete semi-lucidity, but “from the outside”. The real alcoholic is less someone who lets himself go than someone who watches himself holding on. This is why scenes of drunkenness, so frequent in movies because they look so “easy” to act, are seldom convincing. Actors hiccup, stammer and reel about with no regard for what is serious in the depths of drunkenness, and without reflecting the comic aspect of this seriousness (keeping composure, searching for words, talking in earnest etc.). The labours of the dipsomaniac are the hardest of all to act. 
Let’s make it clear right away: Albert Finney is a tremendous actor. He doesn’t play the consul like a wreck or a crazy man, but like a body watching over its own demeanour, in spite of the deficiency, the vertigo and the imbalance. You have to look at his face, decomposing-recomposing itself every instant like a video mask; you have to see his grimaces changing into words, his drooping body wedging itself into place in the image. You have to see him, shortly before his death, saying something like: they say the earth is round, so I’m going to wait for my house to come around once again so that I can go home. The alcoholic can have such raving insights, remembering that the earth turns too, and deciding to regard himself as the sun. What does Huston do? He puts Finney at the heart of each image, without any fuss, merely observing him, again, “from the outside” (no subjective or blurry shots here, thank goodness) and recording the actor’s motionless vertigo on the only surface available: a face. Classical, you will say. Well yes, this is (was) classical cinema: a camera dedicated to detachment and compassion, protected from vertigo, too static. That’s why there were stars. 
Let’s end with exile. Exile is a situation that cinema, owing to its own evolution, records all the better as time goes on. This situation can as well spawn “cosmopolitan fools” as produce an acute sense of the precariousness of everything and of the organisation of one’s survival. And of energy. If anything, there is too much energy in Skolimowski’s film. The film’s form feeds off it: its momentum, its surges and ricochets. And this is why, even more so than in Moonlighting, objects keep falling and bodies keep picking themselves up. This produces a graceless kind of burlesque against an English background. But this time, vertigo isn’t the disorder that grips one individual, but the movement which seizes all of cinema, head on. There aren’t any actor’s showpieces in Success, because there are already so many other showpieces: the pulsating sound, the upside-down image, the double, not to say triple narration, the jokey dispersal of all the different elements, and the figure of the auteur “in person”, equally mishandled. Skolimowski turns himself into a tightrope walker and the title of his film has a lot to say about his desire to do away with any safety net – at any cost. 
Huston has built numerous films on the mythology of failure. Very early on, Skolimowski told the story of a “defeat by forfeit” (this was in the sublime Walkover, a boxing story). For one as for the other, every round counts. 

First published in Libération on 19-20 May 1984. Reprinted in Ciné-journal 1981-1986, Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1986. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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