Parisian Correspondence (May-June 2022): Back to realities

18 June, 2022

9th of MAY

Saw a film from the Jean-Pierre Mocky retrospective at MK2 Nation, close to my place. I’m surprised that I haven’t come back here since the fall when I saw Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse, but mainly because films that are now entering the cinema aren’t that appealing… Room 6, the famous Room 6 of the MK2 cinemas, the smallest of them all, screens films that gather few spectators in their last week on the circuit. In this one, we have 17 seats, three comfortable couches, and a very good screen – unlike the living-room plasma TV screen at Beaubourg – where I only saw four people in attendance. We saw A mort l’arbitre!, which Serge Daney enthusiastically reviewed upon its release and then included the text in his mythical cine-diary, and that’s where I first discovered the filmmaker’s name, without having any chance to encounter his oeuvre so far – only in some Godard film or another, where he used to perform as an actor. The film: good. In the end, I didn’t figure out whether Daney believed in it more than I did. Upon re-reading his piece, I understood that the answer was no. He appreciated the fact that Mocky has an idea in each of his frames, along with the fact that he is “irregular”, meaning that he allowed the film to be traversed by a breath of life, of agility, of verve. The first sequence, of a working-class family, listening to a live television transmission of a football match, while the stadium is visible from one window, as the other shows a busload of hooligans: masterful, worthy of the social dramas of one Lino Brocka, the same fast and biting stroke of the brush, attentive of the social drama that unspools itself in closed kitchens. It brought to mind Manchete’s works filled with strident colors (besides, the film is inspired by a book from the Série noire): a minimal amount of attention is given to the plot, which bursts with hints on social classes and is sown together with on cruel tone and a direct manner, that simply can’t wait to degenerate from a farce into a scandal steeped in blood and death. The sequences set in that residential complex made from marble high-rises, worthy of a cheap American sci-fi flick about an invasion, are amazing, with Eddy Mitchell, the man who sang La fille aux yeux menthe à l’eau, playing cat and mouse with a handful of brutes that would like to skin him alive. An honest outburst of energy and verve, that doesn’t reveal its secrets (which might be a bit far-fetched, but in the end, they’re touching), the kind of which you can’t find anywhere else nowadays, because today everything has to be a statement, everything has to be underlined and pre-packaged in god knows what sort of good intentions. Mocky’s a virtual unknown outside of France. A shame: it’s their loss.

10th of MAY

Once again, rushing to the Mocky retrospective, before it leaves cinemas. On this occasion, I noticed – with a mix of delight and anxiety – that summer is almost here. I went from home to the MK2 Nation (less than 10 minutes walking) without doing anything special, just pulling a sweatshirt over my head and going, and my head begins to spin when I think that this is what it means to go to a neighborhood cinema. I went to the same room as yesterday’s screening, which had a few more spectators this time, and showed a film which seemed a tad better (yesterday’s was already good). Agent trouble (1987), with Catherine Deneuve in the lead role, transformed into a small bureaucrat working for a museum, somewhat touching in this forced flattening of her sensuality. The story is once again one from the Série noire, and suffers from the same limitations – I’ve had it with this idea of a civilian that single-handedly leads an investigation because the authorities are good for nothing, and he’s even aware that he’s supposed to lead it against them –, but it’s exactly these fabrication limits that allow us to notice the mise-en-scène at work in the unexpected interventions, the small gags, the choices which are operated within. It’s also the case of this high-altitude film – which reminded me of Jean-Pierre Limsin, when the camera seemingly lifts off and shoots a never-ending white, opening up towards the sky. Once again, I admire Mocky’s way f being attuned to social strata, the richness of the fresco that he pains, akin to the talent of sketching a scene in no time: just look at this phenomenal irony at the cost of group tours, when you’re forced to share a room with a stranger and have to choose between a boring visit to some random castle or the hope that you’re going to end up in bed with another traveler. Something in between Stévenin (the burliness of his scripts getting lost in the subtle direction) and James Bond (terrible conspiracy), sprinkled with Mocky’s very own brand of acidity, which throws an uncharitable gaze at society only to reflect it all the more voluptuously in all of its caprices and wayward drifts.

20th of MAY

Midday at Le César, a cinema in a middle-class neighborhood of Marseille, to see Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il buco and to get some rest after swimming in the salty water. I’m expecting to be annoyed by this slow landscaping, which, in my eyes, was discredited by so many formalist attempts that sought out slowness out of snobbery and an unhealthy attachment to aesthetics, but here I am absorbed by the film with an incredible conviction. I like his idea – of creating a super-imposition between the old world, slowly dying away in a shabby wood cabin, and the new one, which despite all good intentions, stomps down in its boots into the former, thanks to a small event that has Time itself at its very core. Its opposition lies at the very limit – one more step, and it would become didactic, too easy. But Frammartino never loses the reins, because he limits the havoc of words, so to say, through his total trust in the gaze: no single word is spoken in the film – none intelligible, at least –, without this reducing the sensible tissue of life in any single way. On the contrary, this gesture is enriched by his attempt to reach the essence: work and the unspoken – that is the film. A few images captivated me: especially the one where children wear the headgear of explores, and they illuminate the walls of the village still lacking electricity (it’s 1961), and all that we can see from above is the shadow of light passing on the facades of buildings – and that’s a decision that only a filmmaker could discover. And I like how the film switches between a diorama – the team of spelunkers shies at a distance from the camera, and their truck, their tens, their tools seem to be constructed on a scale, poor little resin copies – and one of closeness, with the mountain-man that seems to lose another breath in close-up, every single time the men of the technological present take another step towards the obscure center of the Earth. Still, the film is neither pro-tradition nor pro-progress. It’s simpler (and more complicated), it found a discreet rift that allows it to access the insides of society – like a portal that renders all meanings visible, surprising us with its illumination.

27th of MAY

The first time in several months at the Forum des Images, where they’re holding a cycle titled The Phantoms of Western, of which I’ve already seen most titles. Today I caught up with Broken Arrow (1950) by Delmer Daves, with James Stewart and Debra Paget. More than a year ago, when I spent a few weeks watching a western a day (where did I have so much time from?!), I only saw one of Daves’ films, 3:10 to Yuma, which however seemed to me as the most elegant and charming representative of the genre that I know. Now the time has come for this title that is just as surprising, but at a different level – that of the remarkable grace given to the Apache Indians. Here, Stewart is tasked with what he had to do awhile later in Ford’s Two Rode Together: to work as both a messenger and moderator. But here things are much more in-depth: he becomes friends with Indian leader Cochise and eyes a beautiful local virgin, whom he gets married to in short order. This ease with which the film goes from one to the other, from whites to reds, is almost jubilatory, and whenever they go on an adventure, you’d be tempted to think that they’re going on vacation. Unwittingly, the frame of contemporary reality came to my mind, in the scene in which Stewart is grabbed by the cuffs by his white co-nationals and treated as a traitor or spy, and here we see these two camps that are caught in a fierce clash, similar to the one we see today in our vicinity. But sometimes it’s better to let your mind wander far away, even for it to only come back even more decidedly to the present: on this modest 35mm copy, the colors had an artificial and welcoming shine to them, and the fiction was richer than anything we could ever see in the ambiental mediocrity of modern productions, and the moral compass (one is good, the other is bad) was firm and made everything easier. To pay for a cinema ticket to see old films that you could easily find in media libraries, on streaming platforms, or somewhere else: a normal gesture when almost nothing contemporary can even dream about the wonders born from the mind of a storyteller, and of a camera that knows its place.

10th of JUNE

Went to see the new Cronenberg that was shown in Cannes because I was in the mood for something that’s spoken in American (as Godard would put it). Meaning, I went in without having any expectations – I always saw his films from a place of admiration and coldness – and left with the certainty that he’s one of the greatest artists and thinkers in our world. I hadn’t visited the Louxor, the Egyptian cinema from the Barbès, since fall, and now I added the effervescence of the screening to the effervescence of the street brimming with people. Now it seems to me that I’m regarding all of his past films in a different light, sensible at their self-reflexive backbones, full of experimental interventions in the flesh of the real. Amongst them, this new work, Crimes of the Future, a wonderful theoretical film. A film that is the opposite of Videodrome (1983) or eXistenZ (1999), strong gestures of an auteur to the degree to which their plots were pierced by conceptual eruptions – “Death to realism!”, a character screamed at one point –, because here the plot must sneak away, seemingly out of shame, between massive blocks of theory. And here I’m not only thinking of these quasi-Brechtian sentences (as Flavia Dima put it) which are plastered on billboards like Body Is Reality, but especially because the entire film is built, clumsily so – but it’s precisely this fragility that seems to entail beauty –, as a research report on corpor(e)ality. Cronenberg passes through performance (these real-time harvesting of organs) and installation (the man who grew ears all over his body, dancing in the spotlight) with the same voluptuousness of self-questioning that, in eXistenZ, allowed him to introduce episodic characters that the protagonist would, later on, judge as being ill-conceived. Crimes of the Future is a film with a wide span: it reimagines the world (there are signs that we are walking on the dank and decrepit streets of Greece, but it could very well be anywhere) under the form of a dystopic ode that is sung to the body. I like this idea of a performative film: the word brings image to mind, as if all of Cronenberg’s conclusions couldn’t be included under a purely visual shape on the insides of a sole film. I like it because, in a way, the image itself turns into a sort of battlefield, the stage of a massive crisis: in the end, its transformation into merchandise is that which determines the worrying mutations described by Cronenberg, and its incapacity of incarnating – the film is very special in its status as a hybrid, essayistic material: it’s one step removed from Godard! – is telling for this dispute between the virtualization of the world and the repressed monster of the hyper-corpus, a straw man abandoned on an operating table, under the gaze of a circus audience.

Le Grand Action
Le Grand Action

12th of JUNE

There’s a Cronenberg retrospective at the Le Grand Action, on the Rue des Écoles. I like this name, Cronenberg: soft and sleek like a Belgian beer, like a paved path on the Tour of Flanders. So, I went to see Scanners, from 1981. Somewhat conventional, but still remarkable in its eighties-style essence, which reveals, with extreme pleasure, all the ugliness of the decade: from cars to clothing to urban landscapes, everything is grey and shapeless, stupidly seeping into a light-hearted brine, the same in which we spent our entire childhood as we watched the evening films on ProTV. Still, what a psychedelic torrent the Canadian filmmaker manages to get even out of this formless content… In the final moment, when two paranormal brothers battle telepathically, as they dispute world supremacy amongst one another – their faces grow ulcers, their eyes pop out like champagne corks, red sauce pours down their faces and makes their heads sizzle –, pure Cronenberg, and the happiness that follows, more bitter and tricky than any Pyrrhic victory, and typical of the filmmaker’s unquenched inspiration of closing his films in the only way possible – through an illusory exit from the metaverse, which makes everyone unable to stand still (a true exist is impossible). There’s something about his cinema: even where the premises are wrong – or, better said, too fantastic –, the conclusions are still perfectly valid, and these explosive plots that mix degenerate bodies and unleashed technologies, under the specter that is either distant, either pressing of Nazism, we all have a lesson to learn about contemporary humanity. They are topical films, essential for this publicity-driven, postmodern drift which was announced in the ‘80s and then swiftly put into practice. I am increasingly appreciating this “talentless genius”, that filmed things not to tell stories, but to traffic his research intuitions.

Thirty years since the death of Daney, the last critic to write while thinking about filmmakers, the last one to ever believe that this kind of dialogue was still possible. Nowadays, people write with the audience in mind, and that’s why everything has gone downhill.


14th of JUNE

Full house yesterday at the premiere – one of a couple held all around town – of the Quentin Dupieux filn that screened at the Berlinale, Incroyable mais vrai, with Alain Chabat, Léa Drucker, Benoît Magimel and Anaïs Demoustier. A stellar cast obligated to run amok in a world without contours and coordinates. Pure madness, like all of his films, but which – obviously – opens us all sorts of parables on the brim of philosophy. This space-time portal that is lost in an abandoned villa, where the Chabat-Drucker couple moves in, becomes a metaphor – first for material unhappiness, then for all sorts of addiction that lead to perdition. Besides, the film is one of the filmmaker’s most melancholy, even considering its obligatory jokes, mediated in particular by Magimel’s character, the boss who had an electronic, dirigible sex installed (is this some sort of ill-spirited reference to trans people?). I still feel somewhat vexed by Dupieux’s cinema: I would like to see more than just the author artificially flexing himself, but sometimes it’s the only thing that I can see. Of course, the nonchalance of this device – in an era full of manneristic effects – has something fresh to it, to the same degree that it sends to a system of creating that belongs to yesteryear, and that is more supple and efficient in the way it conveys emotion. But the cinephile in me seems too long for at least an element that would foil this sublime laisser aller, which transforms the film into a simple warehouse where everyone is invited to look for whatever they may please.

16th of JUNE

No time left to catch Get Carter at the cinematheque, at the British noir retrospective. I hope that, in time, this diary will become a testament to the things one could do in Paris but also – to quote Sartre – to the things that one couldn’t. Tomorrow I’m going back home.

Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.