Paris Correspondence (november 2021): Old Masters

11 December, 2021

A material by Victor Morozov about what a „capital of cinephilia ” means anymore and about the pleasure of „travelled cinema”, as critic Serge Daney called it. A parisian correspondence which proposed to relive freshly-seen films, telling the story of fugitive impressions that do not have the pretense of being exact, but that might yet have something to say about a passion. The format will be free, personal, and will only abide by one cardinal point: cinema.

 

15th of NOVEMBER

Still haunted by the short film program that I saw yesterday at the Cinematheque, the first screening I attended was from the Alain Resnais retrospective. Each of them has something to it: Le Chant du styrène, with its abstract, mechanistic gleefulness and the joke-text composed by Raymond Queneau, would make even Il deserto rosso-era Antonioni jealous; while Toute la mémoire du monde, the series’ most conventional, regarding the French National Library, is still traversed by a subterranean gust, a precise coordination, an elevated science of the misé-en-scene, which reminds one, again and again, of the weight of the centuries that have passed in this marvelous place. But I think, of course, about Nuit et Brouillard, which I had delayed for such a long time and which I still quickly chose as a cornerstone of my cinephile life. Because I have also stumbled at one point over the one who heard the calling and became the greatest film critic of the last half-century, and who, shortly before dying, incandescently recalled its beginnings: “Henri Angel showed things, himself. He had this certain talent. He showed things because he had to. And because the discipline of highschool cinema culture, for which he militated, was also passing through a quiet combing-out of those who were never going to forget Nuit et Brouillard, and the rest. I was not part of «the rest».” Thanks to Serge Daney, I “went” to Nuit et Brouillard, just as a muslim goes to Mecca. And even knowing the place that this documentary occupies in history, I couldn’t help myself from discovering, with a mix of surprise and horror, those atrocious images extracted from the past and present of the concentration camps. As if the film, made many years after the information had become available, thanks to pioneering journalists such as Edward Murrow, would still force us to see, preventing us from finding excuses to this moment, from finding ways to lessen the taste of the bitter pill. Long before the imperative of the non-representable was imposed by Claude Lanzmann, Resnais showed everything: decapitated bodies, emaciated deportees, mountains of meaningless objects collected by the Nazis. The music did not age well – a total silence would be preferable –, but its visual document is indispensable. Jean Cayrol composed a poetic and outraged text, traversed on all sides by the cynicism of one who is powerless when faced with the void. A text which, at times, leaves its frame, sometimes eliciting a sort of awkwardness – and, on top of it all, it never says the word “juif” outright, preferring to mix everyone into the story without differentiating them –, but it repays itself through this exceptional phrase which closes the film, preventing is from going home with a sleepy conscience, calmly and at peace: “And then there is us, we, who sincerely regard these ruins, as if the ancient, concentrationary monster had died under their crushing weight, those who pretend that this image that is wearing off would be capable of bestowing hope once more, as if it would heal us from the concentrationary plague, we, who pretend that all of this belongs to a given time and given country, and who do not think enough to look around ourselves and who cannot hear the ceaselessly wailing world.”

In the evening, at the Cinematheque, I finally got around to the Jacques Rozier retrospective, with his last film, Fifi Martingale, released in 2000. A theatrical comedy – in the sense of filmed theater – which was more than reasonable, and made me laugh my heart out, thanks to Jean Lefebvre and my old friend (from Stévenin and the same Rozier) Yves Alfonso, who performs here the role of an actor who had to compensate for his physical incapacity – his leg is in a cast – through a magnificent verbal fray. This film, I’d like to say, lies somewhere between the finesse of Jean-Claude Biette’s Le théâtre des matières and the sleaziness of Nae Caranfil’s È pericoloso sporgersi: the backstage drama of the theater group matters less than the voluptuousness of acting (there are many close shots), which has an obligatory stopover through an unleashed form of verbal comedy, which is fatally untranslatable. There is also the vaguely colonialist joke of the play that is being produced, which is set in “Poldavie”, a made-up country at the borders of the East, with its bearded and Dostoyevskian church leader, enveloped in a gorgeous yet ridiculous head-dress, led by a foul-mouthed voivode whose words are heavily accentuated and largely made-up, such as the delightful “shopatek”. Probably a very politically incorrect movie, but I had the time of my life.

 

27th of NOVEMBER

Two films by Jacques Rozier, this great forgotten face of the Nouvelle Vague. Du côté d’Orouët, an absolute masterpiece. A long sequence of Bernard Menes returning home together with two of the three girls that he had spent his vacation with – including his work colleague, whom he is in love with –, chugging countless glasses of wine, cooking a large fish for a dinner that he managed to somehow conclude successfully in ways only known by himself, only for everything to end with a gigantic fiasco (everyone is in love with someone else), is purely anthological. I can even picture Rozier coming up with this project nowadays and presenting it at pitching sessions at National Cinema Centers and being kicked in the nuts over and over again: who could finance a film like that in this day and age, one that is only based on a few disjointed lines of dialogue, on gags which are incomprehensible outside of their context, on a feeling, a palimpsest of reality based on improvisation?

 

28th of NOVEMBER

I have this burning wish to travel, to see parts unknown, after yesterday’s screening of Rozier, this grand filmmaker of escapades. Les Naufragés de l’Île de la Tortue, the last film that I was missing from his small and worthy oeuvre, is about this gimmick of some tourism agency clerks, who decide to sell trip packages to a deserted, Robinson Crusoe-esque island. Rozier’s film works because his humor, which is not so effortless, ceaselessly references a tiny world that is oh so familiar: who of us has never experienced the thick absurdity of a group trip? And this film, miraculously!, manages to stand upright despite all of the temptations (anti-colonialist, adventurous, postmodernist) that threatened to disintegrate it. Its heart beats especially in the not at all declarative scenes in which two improvised tour guides slowly lose their minds: an imperial Pierre Richard goes mad in a way in which he ends up dreaming of Robinsonian bravados – he throws the tourists’ luggage in the water, makes them swim all the way up to the island, until one of the clients tries to wake him up: it’s not a big deal to swim for a hundred meters, but still, wouldn’t it be better to land ashore, as they do?; a colossal Maurice Risch gets lost in an inescapable, philosophical mutism. A sweet critique of the white man’s greed, of the type of tourism that kills any place that it touches, of the stupid wish for “authenticity” – they rent a motor-propelled boat and pretend that they’re sailing –, of its impossibility in our post-industrial world. It’s increasingly clear to me how contemporary French comedy – the good, acidic minimalistic, political one – is much rather descended from Rozier, with his gradually constructed humor, through a mix of classical gags (the man who slips, a chair that breaks, and so on) and of subtleties in the dialogue, sparks in editing, an unleashed mimicry. Du côté d’Orouët is even better, given its final gag – supreme in its overwhelming simplicity – is the very toponym of its title, which the three graces of the film pronounce with different accents, keeling over from laughter. In fact, the entire film is a continuous burst of laughter, interrupted only by the infantile screams of the very same women who are scared by the eels that they buy from a local farm (a superb scene with Bernard Menes trying to cut the head of a slithering and slippery creature, only for him to drop the tub in which the animals were waiting to die down the stairs, wreaking havoc onto their rented villa). A film whose solar and funny project – three girls who decide to make fun of their suitor, set against the backdrop of the coast of Bretagne – ends on a bitter sadness that is synonymous to the end of the holidays and of the Indian summer, reaching the same heights as the previously described scene, when the entire ridiculousness of Bernard Menez’s character, a mountain of delightful clumsiness, transforms into a tragedy worthy of the ancient heroes. Never before has it happened that the drama of being rejected by one’s object of desire has struck me so powerfully with its paradoxical force, a mix of stupidity – the event itself lacks any consequences – and abyssal depths – what is worth living for? It’s no blasphemy to see a superior quality of tone in these sequences – even in the entire films, with their offhanded poetry – than in Rivette’s fantasies. Bernard Menez, who was present at the screening, with tears in his eyes as he remembered this film, which set his acting career into motion, just one day shy of his departure to Canada, in search of a new life that, in the end, did not end up revealing itself. Seeing the shine of these sequences (on 45mm) which encapsulate within themselves a different time, with different hearts, I could start to understand where all of this emotion was springing from.

Today, the most strenuous endurance training of my cinephile life: nine full hours at the cinema. But more on that, tomorrow.

MK2 Odéon
MK2 Odéon

30th of NOVEMBER

I don’t know when I will find the time to describe the Resnais tour de force at the Cinematheque from the past couple of days. (Still, how embarrassing can it be to still protest against “filmed theater” in 2021!) I prefer to briefly mention the hours that I spend in the morning, up until lunchtime, at the Salle Athena of the Paris 3 University, together with Robert Bonamu, who had his HDR (in order for him to gain the role of PhD supervisor), together with seven other professors who arrived from every single horizon one could image in order to judge his paper. I left the presentation feeling tired, my mind torn to pieces, but also with the feeling of having witnessed something grand, and unplanned, which – at least to a certain degree – was being invented under our very eyes. I saw people who were showing that they are disposable, careful towards the work of another, cherishing the precision of words, the verve of intellectual exchange. Strictly on the basis of their interventions, I wished that many of these speakers could have been my professors. I expected something docile, tame, brimming with the nauseating sense of boastfulness, but it was not at all like that: aspects were questioned, explanations were asked, even conflicts at times, of course, all under the generous umbrella of intellectual camaraderie and on the basis of a thorough cinema, which I had dearly missed. A day of travails, but of a divine travail. In the end, I discussed a little bit with Nicolas Klotz, asking for his film, so that I could add it to our festival table.

 

1st of DECEMBER

Feeling rather despondent, and only a bike trip through Bois de Vincennes was able to bring me to the shore. I went to a lot of film-related events in the last week, passing from in-group to in-group, and my conclusions are rather grim despite some small flickers of hope and momentary sensations of enthusiasm. Earlier, at the INHA, together with the ubiquitous  Antoine de Baecque, Cécile Sorin and a few other academics who monopolized and thus killed a discussion that had some potential, I asked a few questions of Marcos Uzal, the boss at Cahiers. It’s a manner of speech, because the conversation was polite and pious, and given that it was me, of all people the most reticent when it comes to discussing politics, that asked him about the magazine’s new ideological direction, a track which Uzal approached in a very elusive and slippery way, and so it’s clear that these sorts of events are no longer what they used to be. To me, Uzal came across as rather defeatist, startlingly sincere: he said that he’s aware that some kinds of materials are lacking from the magazine, that women are a part of it mostly in name, because, de facto, it’s still the men who are writing the bigger features, and so on and so forth… Last year’s Frederik Wiseman issue, which I also bought, was sold in less than 2000 copies… A Brazilian dude with a strong accent and who was starting to go bald turned Uzal inside out on the topic of the covers: he talked about their paramount importance, because that had been the place where, long ago, the hirsute visage of Glauber Rocha made an appearance, and that had led to the explosion of Brazilian cinema. Uzal admitted that such a feat is no longer possible nowadays, and that the cover runs through the board of trustees: that’s why it has become increasingly glossy, increasingly inhabited by A-list stars, increasingly marketing-oriented. What is clear to me is that the machine has confiscated this magazine, too. Independence is but an illusion.

On the other hand, the programming of the cinemas has never seemed as bountiful as it is these days. Looking left and right, I haven’t got any clue what to choose out of all of these options. Yesterday, for example, I saw Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears (1986), which was also screened at Chéries Chéris (the LGBT festival that ended yesterday), but here, at the Forum des Images, it was screened on film reel, and I didn’t have to pay a ticket with my subscription. Not a lot of people in the cinema – De Baecque claims that  40% of spectators haven’t set foot in a cinema since the lockdown – and so I keep on asking myself whether this cinema, with its splendid halls and its magnificent programming, is sustainable or not. The film, starring Gary Coleman and Alfred Molina – none of which is recognizable to me – as the sixties-era playwright Joe Orton and his lover: a new LGBT biopic, after yesterday’s, which I much rather preferred, which is confirmed by my interest for Frears’ films from the eighties, who fully engaged in this paradoxical new and incisive wave of provocative films made in the midst of the Thatcher years. Besides, the nerve, the ambition and naturalness of the film are remarkable to this day – just take a look at its darkly cruising scenes set in public bathrooms, or the ones in which the partners mutually massacre each other for more or less petty reasons, or the grinding poverty that is treated as an objective given, and not as a monkey to present to the audience as if this were a circus. The film is mature and swift with its ending, which arrives with the calmness of self-evidence: death as the most banal thing that can happen to a living human. The story itself, with this working class boy who steals the lead of his mentor and lover, becoming even more famous than him and thus burying him in failure, is either explosive or as banal as it can get, and the film mines it’s jewels from this state of indecision: Molina is a hurricane, a Nosferatu sucking the pulsating blood out of any happy or energetic event, methodically constructing an inferno in between the four walls of a room; and Oldman plays the role of an overly happy and buoyant man, who had no idea what hit him (a hammer, that is). When his lover notices his exceptional physique, Joe Orton replies: “I want the world to remember me as the most athletic English playwright in history”. Not in the least a minor film, but a harsh, tonical work that must be placed between the greats, up there with My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

 

4th of DECEMBER

So, Resnais. With two siamese films, Smoking and No Smoking, and then, immediately following them, Pas sur la bouche, the only ones that I was missing from the later part of his career. And, all apologies, but I think that I prefer this period of his career to his grandiose films about history and anticipation from his early body of work, which I haven’t revisited in recent years, maybe out of foolishness, but certainly due to my fidelity towards the sensation of heavy narrations, which are perfectly characteristic of a given era, but which are now kind of dated, weighed down by a rather suffocating sense of intellectualism. But what a surprise, what voluptuousness, what a ball it is to see this professorial filmmaker throw his entire being into the cheesy meanders of the most bawdy comedies that one can imagine, in order to adapt them with finesse, humor and sensuality. If Smoking/No Smoking wasn’t fully convincing to me, despite some moments of actorly bravado – the unparalleled Sabine Azema, cavorting on the floor in the midst of a nervous breakdown, in front of poor ole Pierre Arditi, never better and profounder than in these roles of naïve gentlemen –, Pas sur la bouche, with its grandiose intelligence, seemed quite exceptional to me, the sheer force of its spectacle being comparable to the heights of Golden Age Hollywood. After all, in all of these close-ups that kept on lighting up the gigantic screen of the Cinematheque’s Salle Henri Langlois, I caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a sort of enamoured reference towards those times in which a face could hypnotize the entire world, detaching itself from the film and gaining a sort of autonomous existence. And this musicals with its stellar cast (Azema, Arditi, of course, but also Lambert Wilson as this sweet American man who must learn things on the go, Audrey Tautou in the role of a jeune première etc.), its wild game with interiors, its soaring passion of hearts constrained by social norms – this musical is nothing short of a wonder.

 

 



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.