Sunday, February 25, 2024

What Can a Heart?

Another translation found by chance on the internet. Posted here with some revisions by me. 

What Can a Heart? 
Manoel de Oliveira, Francisca     
Both are standing, one in front of the other. 
Camilo: “No. But I know what I’m rejecting. You wouldn’t understand that.”   
José Augusto trembles, starts walking compulsively from one place to the other in the room; goes to the window, comes back to the table, leans on it, turns around, and goes to stand in front of his friend, progressively more irritated.   
José Augusto: “Am I, perchance, a cripple? You think I’m incapable of loving Fanny? Well, I shall awaken a great love in her... A love I would censure, stirred by my own severity. (…)” He stops in front of the table and concludes facing the camera: “To produce an angel in the fullness of martyrdom”.     
1. When these terrible sentences are uttered, we are in Vilar de Paraíso, in Camilo’s room, with that blue alcove and that desk turned towards us. Camilo was writing and his friend José Augusto entered coming from the background of the scenery. We are in the thirty sixth scene of Francisca, the last panel of the triptych by Manoel de Oliveira dedicated to frustrated love (Past and Present, Doomed Love). We are at the point when characters are going to irremediably put in motion their destiny and Oliveira his movie. To this cold program (“To produce an angel in the fullness of martyrdom”), Camilo, disturbed, can only respond: “Are you capable of doing that?”.     
We watch the birth of a passion. A countdown commences with this challenge. A challenge like the ones that are only proposed to a best friend. Like if two were needed to love one woman. Oliveira, even if he deals with Portuguese romanticism, is a filmmaker of the fiction. He knows that if “one is never right” and that “truth begins with two”, three are needed to share a crime, to articulate desire and passion.     
In Francisca, desire mainly connects the two men (it will be supressed) and the passion binds one of those men to a woman (but the movement of passion is infinite). Everything separates the two (young) men and, because of that precisely, there is a mutual fascination. What can link a poor young writer and an idle young aristocrat? The first one writes for money and to exists in the high society of Porto: he despises it (but also envies it) as the society despises him (but begins to recognize him, because he’s Camilo Castelo Branco, future author of Doomed Love, already adapted to film by Oliveira). The second, José Augusto, is without desires: rich, he doesn’t have anything to gain, he can only lose. Camilo drily tells him: “You love out of pride, you love the luxury of loving.” To the poor, the desire, to the rich, the passion. Desire is production, passion is waste.     
2. At the beginning of this passion there is a trade. Let’s translate: José Augusto basically says to his friend: this woman who doesn’t love you (to be understood as: who’s not for you), but whose love you place so highly, I’m going to make her love me; but I’m not going to possess her, she will be unhappy and, this way, I’ll avenge us. I’ll avenge you for not having had her, and me of only having desired her through you. To “produce an angel in the fullness of martyrdom” is, in its abrupt form, the minimum program that, in our societies, legitimises any exclusively male alliance. The suppression of the homosexual connection and the lowering of women produces the Woman, which often means an angel (sometimes a blue angel). But also, images, stars, madonnas, so easily fabricated and traded between Catholics (see Buñuel).     
After, there is an accident. The woman doesn’t fit the description. There is a mistaken identity. Francisca, with her sweet aura, is just as cynical and amoral as José Augusto. Right from the start, questioned by Camilo, she lets escape twice, as if by distraction: “The soul is a vice”. On the other hand, at the end of scene 36, José Augusto sums up the terrible destiny awaiting him: “Ashes instead of desire. Conscience instead of passion.” Cold determination, without object. The accident is that José Augusto and Francisca are similar, doomed to oscillate in the same direction, like people put face to face with one another with synchronous hesitations. One can use the other’s weapons, turn them against him. Unhappiness is transformed into pleasure, resignation into victory: everything is done to have the last word. This way, Francisca has a secret weapon that lets her break apart the romantic duo and reinstate the infernal trio: she writes (to whom? It doesn’t matter) that she is mistreated, abandoned, maybe even abused. Her letters fall into the hands of that other writer, Camilo, who gives them back to José Augusto. The blow is terrible: this woman who gave herself to be read is worse than if she had cheated on her (future) husband. José Augusto follows his script to its last consequence: marry this woman that he abducted and not touch her.  
Finally, between the two there is a game of hot cockles. Francisca inverted José Augusto’s challenge the moment where she shouted this sentence: “You love me, I swear”. Haunting sentence. There is no possible escape for this mutual upping of the ante, to this series of challenges. Like in Truffaut’s latest movie – but without the residues of fetishism – the passion is without end, inexhaustible. It can only disappear with the disappearance of the bodies from where it originates. And even then.     
3. In desire, the problem is never knowing exactly what the other wants. It’s this not-knowing that makes one desire even more. What counts in passion is what the other can, what he/she is capable of. I highlighted, in a succinct manner (but the whole film has the conciseness of a theorem), how Francisca went from the ploys of desire (José Augusto wants to cancel Camilo out by pretending to fulfil his desire) only to end on the side of the forcing of passion. Between José Augusto and Francisca there is an infinite and above all indeterminate game, a game “without qualities”, an “other state”, to use the words of Musil. Because at the heart of passion, as its empty driving force, there is a fundamental uncertainty. The uncertainty isn’t randomness (this was the biggest re-discovery of “modern cinema”), just as it isn’t ignorance or false certainty (that the classics spoke about so well). It’s something stranger.     
Let’s consider the moments when certain sentences of the dialogue are repeated. Everything happens as if the fact that a sentence was uttered (by an actor) and then heard (by a spectator) doesn’t ensure its guaranteed existence. As if it was necessary to risk with sounds what in past times was risked with images: the continuity errors. As if the words of the dialogues were things to which the starting point and one of its ending points had to be pointed out. Splitting of the dialogue. Never has the refusal of naturalism and the necessity to adopt in all things (and words are things) a point of view, an angle, been taken so far.     
Oliveira says he’s only interested in representation. And he says so without doctrine whatsoever – in over 50 years of cinema, he has experimented with everything: documentary, naturalist tales, social comedy, live capture and editing. In Francisca, free from any naturalist concerns, faced with the entirely artificial material he has chosen (text, set), he ensures this relation of uncertainty permeates the whole film. It isn’t just at the heart of the passion that consumes characters, it is at the heart of we shouldn’t be afraid to call his “aesthetics”, especially as it’s something quite rare nowadays. 
4. There is in Oliveira (like in Syberberg, Bene or Ruiz, other great baroques) a provisory forgetting of any idea of the referent. Each “figure” has to enunciate its identity, show its way of working, be tested according to its duration, its solidness, its velocity. What is the other capable of? But also: what is this or that other represented figure capable of? Characters or sets, details or ensembles, objects or bodies. We can see Francisca as a quite comedic film (in the same way Méliès can be comedic), in every time a figure “forgets” to behave according to the naturalist code. I’m thinking of that moment, that always makes one laugh, in which José Augusto enters Camilo’s room on horseback. A horse, instead of champing at the bit in the limbo of the set, enters the scene and, all of a sudden, unbalances the space. Or then, it’s a character in the foreground that, instead of belonging to the action, immobilizes himself like the annoying head of another spectator, becoming a dead part of the shot, an area of lesser life in the scene. Like José Augusto – at the end of a meal where Camilo was really talkative – who doses off on the foreground. Or even the first shot of the film (the ball). “I always try to find a line that separates the machine from the actors. Because the job of the machine consists in fixing the work of the actors from the film theatre, the place of the spectator” says Oliveira. As long as this line hasn’t been found, it can’t be said what is near and what is far: the horse has the right to come nearer and the sleeping to become absent. 
Oliveira is an immense scenographer. Because he doesn’t reduce his work to “acting styles”. The choice of actors and faces follows a search even more paradoxical then Bresson’s: if the latter is interested in eventual “models”, Oliveira takes them as landscapes. Faces, in Francisca, are assemblies of objects in which each one obeys its own law and ignores the others. This is not true (people will say to me) about Camilo, but that is because Camilo is a being of desire, and that desire makes him “consist”, identical to himself, in every scene. On the other hand, José Augusto and Francisca, beings of passion and decomposed by this passion, are submitted to a vertiginous anamorphosis. 
5. Speed, or dromoscopy, is talked about a lot in this day and age. I fact, we wonder how it was possible to talk so much about movies without having questioned the relative velocities of the bodies that they set in motion. “The cinema”, says Oliveira, “is what we put in front of the camera.” But to record what? The speed of decomposition and re-composition, of evaporation and sedimentation In Oliveira’s world, desire composes and passion decomposes: an eye can be faster or slower than a gaze, a mouth than what it says. Francisca has a way of “having her head spin” and José Augusto of “losing his senses” that shouldn’t be analysed solely in sociological terms (decay of aristocracy), but should be referred to the materialist question par excellence: what can a body? 
Two fingers perched on a table, a shoe thrown far away, servants (always very fast), slow horse riders, letters, loves, all have different speeds. In Francisca, it is very rare for two characters to be given the same speed. Quite the opposite. If they are so quickly separated, if so many serious things are so hastily said, if the film’s narration is so prone to gaps, it’s because they are all in orbit, like stars or electrons. They only meet in precise moments, certainly calculable, but with a certain margin of uncertainty, like Heisenberg said of the atoms. 
Atoms. This is the decisive word. I don’t see any other filmmaker (except Biette and his “theatre of matters”) that is so close to old school materialism. The strength of Oliveira is that he has chosen to deal with one of the type-scripts of religion (“To produce an angel in the fullness of martyrdom”) with the lack of pathos and the detached acuity of a pagan philosopher. Passion affects the bodies in full and each part of those bodies in full and each part of these parts in full, etc. In full and in a different manner. There is no end to the burning uncertainty of passion, especially not death. 
6. The most beautiful scene of the film takes place near the end. Francisca has died, José Augusto has sent her to be autopsied and saved her heart in a jar and that jar in a chapel. The red organ terrorises the maid. This is not a vain fetish. To that muscle-heart, to that entirely material heart, the same thing is asked: what is it capable of? What can that shrunken object? The answer is given by José Augusto himself: “We live torn to pieces, in search of our bodies scattered all over the earth. The belly screams, wanting to forget sin. The liver moans, pressed against the right side. And the heart, in a thousand pieces, goes down wretched alleyways asking for the blood that forms it.”. 
What can cinema? An old man, one of the great living filmmakers, gives his answer. Maybe, he says to us, that cinema is like that body. It’s necessary that it recomposes itself, organ by organ. Down with the storyboard, down with the museum. Long live the cinema.    

First published in Cahiers du cinéma, issue 330, December 1981. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, vol 2, P.O.L., 2002. Translation by Tera Toma with some changes by me.     

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Vecchiali Shoots in Sequence

Surprise translation spotted on the internet and reproduced here with minor changes. It's from the second volume of The Cinema House and the World which we understand is currently being translated by Christine Pichini for Semiotext(e). 

Vecchiali Shoots in Sequence*   
Trous de mémoire is the title of Paul Vecchiali’s next-to-last film. He shares top billing in this strange, unfashionable “impromptu” with Françoise Lebrun. Despite appearances, a whole ars poetica
What filmmakers and cameras have in common is that they sometimes take stock**. They wonder how to “take some distance with the shots [champ]” while plonked in the middle of a field [champ]. They wonder where they stand, and with whom? How to keep focus, how to stay sane? That's when they're ripe for the impromptu. Able to shoot in a single day what a lifetime would not be too long to ponder. The impromptu is less heavy-going than the appraisal, less serious than the will. It has the slight cheek of the check-up and the half-time break. It allows us to move on to other things, to get on with things [d’enchaîner].     
Owing to the bond between Paul Vecchiali and Françoise Lebrun (and, of course, director of photography Georges Strouvé), Trous de mémoire is an impromptu. Stubborn, discontented, “untimely”, Vecchiali is one of those all too rare people who put a lot of energy into not letting themselves be trapped by any a priori form (or formula, or format). We've seen him move from feature-length films to shorts, from cinema to theatre, from television to sketches or impromptus. This freedom of movement has always been his strength. It gives others (those poor things called journalists, for example) the freedom to say, half the time, that Paul Vecchiali matters to them. Before moving on to the next thing [d’enchaîner].     
A man arranges a meeting with a woman in a green space, a field in the outskirts of the city. Four years ago, the woman left him, and each of them, as they say, "remade" their lives. He's a filmmaker (Vecchiali plays the role) and she's an editor (this is Françoise Lebrun). He says he still loves her, and he's doing everything he can to win her back. They're alone on screen, with only a bench, trees, grass and daylight as props. They're not going to win any costume Oscars, dressed like they're part of a minor news item. They'll do nothing (not even make love, much to the man's chagrin), and the day won't end until the woman has left a second time, vaguely won back and still unattainable. Each will cry in turn, and a strange emotion will engulf the spectator – even the Vecchialian – who has shared this field with them. Before this spectator, too, moves on to something else.     
Presented with such a deliberately scanty set-up (one set, two actors, some text), the viewer tends to think the film's stakes must be inversely proportional to its pared-down richness. Is it a question of whether the man will succeed in his bid to win her back? For a moment, we can see them playing battleship, like schoolboys. You can see that he's “scoring points”, that the woman might give in, and that they might both try a second “first time”. But no, that's not it. The suspense is a red herring.     
Faced with a “face-to-face” encounter, the viewer thinks all that remains is to watch for the moments when the profound truth of the characters, like a little bird caged by the camera, will inevitably emerge. In sentences, postures, slips of the tongue and silences. Are we – though in the open air and broad daylight – in a closed-door domestic setting, a game of truth?*** No, the unveiling is a red herring too. There's no time for truth.     
Then there's language. Vecchiali has always excelled at the “on the bench” genre, at bitchy tit-for-tat and home truths. Trous de mémoire is a documentary about how one man goes about things when his job (as a filmmaker) is to convince and seduce. How he goes about things with words, how he indiscriminately uses psychological interrogation, emotional harassment, blackmail and the complicity of memories. It's a catalogue of everything one can do with words to disarm the other: prepared speeches, general ideas, singular words, cries of pain, mute gestures.     
But the impromptu is a serious genre. It's an opportunity to speak your mind and define your “ars poetica”. Molière was no different. Nor were Cocteau, Giraudoux or Gabriel Fauré. There is a Vecchialian ars poetica, which is also a morality. Why did he shoot Trous de mémoire in one day and in broad daylight? Without break and without shade. Was it not to have two parallel flows, one of words (which carry desire) and one of light (which marks time)? To say that a cloud passing in the sky is the same thing as an angel passing in conversation?**** That there is no other truth than that of sequencing [l’enchaînement], that it is better to contradict oneself, like Walt Whitman, than to stop talking? We must sequence, says Lyotard in The Differend, but the code for sequencing is never necessary, it is only ever suitable or improper. (For readers who would like to know more about Vecchiali, Lyotard's book can only be beneficial).     
Vecchiali's unseemliness is not about vanishing, body and heart, into the great oceanic whole, or drowning in a second-hand “Panta rhei”. Quite the opposite, in fact. No one is more ready to fight against whatever hinders desire or prevents it from being expressed and asserted. No one is more terrified by the idea of the extinction of desire. The strongest moment in Trous de mémoire comes when the man, who knows he won't win the woman back, says that his desire is always greater than the encyclopedia of objects – seemly or not – that whet his appetite.     
We need to be able to sequence desires the way we sequence words, the way the camera sequence images and the way light sequence things: in other words, non-stop. It's nothing less than a Sadian project. To sustain the world, tirelessly, solely by getting a hard-on for reality.    
First published in Libération on 25th October 1985. Reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde, vol 2, P.O.L., 2002. Translation by Sam WM with some corrections by me. 

* The French title, "Vecchiali enchaîne en scène", is untranslatable. It is somewhere between “Vecchiali links in scenes” and “Vecchiali links in on stage”.    

** Faire le point does mean to take stock but it also means to focus.     

*** Le Jeu de la vérité, "The Game of Truth", was a French television programme in which celebrities had to field questions from members of the public. It was often controversial, and earlier in October 1985 had featured an episode in which the singer Dalida had been submitted to a painful interrogation of her personal life.    

*** The French phrase un ange passe, "an angel is passing", is used in conversational lulls.