Paris Correspondence (November 2021): Enfin le cinéma!

27 November, 2021

 Parisian correspondence (November 2020): Enfin le cinéma!

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.

 

7th of NOVEMBER

The day before yesterday, I went to see the Enfin le cinéma! exhibition, curated by Dominique Païni at the Musée d’Orsay. A genius idea: an exhibition dedicated to cinema that doesn’t directly speak about cinema, but about the arts that prophesied it. An intuition to understand the 19th century – with its photography, fairs, theater, feuilletons, modern sports – as the century of desire towards cinema. On top of it, they sell beautiful postcards with the exhibits, so I might come back to buy some more. Of the four films I saw on the big screen during the happy daze of the past few days, I remember that what I enjoyed most was this restored version of The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, 1945), by Robert Siodmak, seen at the Écoles Cinéma Club in the Latin Quarter. It starts off as a melodrama (Harry is prevented from marrying his love by his tyrannical sister), goes on as a noir movie (Harry decides to take his revenge en beauté) and ends on a happy end that is as shameless and hallucinatory as the essays we would write in primary school: “… alas, it was all but a dream…”. In the end the credits even say that “if you wish that your friends, too, can enjoy this film, do not reveal the ending to them…”. So please forgive my transgression in the name of this jubilatory narration, which could have been led in so many different ways, either in a immoral-nihilistic manner (Harry accidentally kills one of his sisters, and sends the other one to the gallows instead of himself, while he is enjoying his happiness together with the forbidden woman), either moralistic-wise (Harry loses on all fronts, and the sister whom he blames for the crime wins “on the eternal plains”), etc., etc. The film winks towards all of these possibilities, and its ultra-oedipal script, which is all grimaces and backstabs, with an alien-like George Saunders who has seemingly just landed amongst these castrating women who are piloting his life, is a sample of generous laughter. I also retain from these days the fact that The French Dispatch is a stylists’ film which is sort of made in vain: one cannot help but salute its formal mastery and its sporadic righteous notes (the little tale of Owen Wilson pedaling through a French town named “Ennui” while describing his daily rhythms shows Wes Anderson at his best), while at the same time being perfectly aware of its holes, of its structure composed strictly out of shiny surfaces, of its de-dramatized and de-politicized pastiche, as any pastiche (the segment dedicated to May 1968 is absolutely ridiculous). On Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash (1973), of course, dedicated to David Hockney, and restored in a light copy, I can only say that it’s truly one of the best films about artists that I have ever seen, and its lax and apparently unplanned beauty, its unjustified lengths, its sensuous languor – all of these participate in the almost viscous experience of a connected and underground London, which announces the commodification and the grey areas of morality that we would collectively launch ourselves into later on. Anyways, today I finally saw Singin’ in the Rain, but not in any simple old way, but in a grand one, since it’s the first time I went to the Le Louxor, a gigantic cinema operating in the same place – a palace built on the corner of the Barbès-Rochechouart boulevard – which was opened in 1921. I read that it was transformed into a club in 1983 and then abandoned in 1988, and reopened only in 2013 as a cinema hall. Anyways, the experience reached an absolute high in the company of this crepuscular movie of the Golden Age.

Le Louxor
Le Louxor

9th of NOVEMBER

Yesterday morning I saw a beautiful film at the MK2 Bastille: Compartiment no. 6 by Juho Kuosmanen, the man who gave us Olli Mäki a few years ago. In the hours that have passed since, my enthusiasm seems to have somewhat dissipated since – and I see it all the more clearly – the film owes too much to the boy meets girl (or vice-versa) recipe, and to the obligatory transformation of this meeting from an initiatory nightmare into an improbable love: an intrigue that is much too rusty, incapable of hiding the white threads that it needs to stick together. But, on the other hand, Kuosmanen’s talent at putting meat on this conventional skeleton is worth applauding; shot in Russia, the man seems to know the places well, and everything that he includes within the frame – in a beautiful, and unforced nineties-era atmosphere – rings true and authentic. Like the scene in which the Finnish woman and the Russian man are travelling through the snow in a Lada, arriving at a ramshackle hut, spending their nights in the company of a portly woman as they drink their minds away, then they quickly take the car to catch the morning train – and that morning, with its hungover light, its sharp air, its happiness jumping into the frame from nowhere, is perfectly executed by Kuosmanen. It matters less that the film grabs onto its protagonist’ goal (she wants to see the petroglyphs of Murmansk) in an infantile manner in order to deliver a predictable happy end: she sees them, of course, together with this slimy and sympathetic man (a notable acting performance on part of Yuri Borisov). I am rather interested in all the other stuff, the attention paid towards the nuances of the languages, to the age’s social landscape, to the Russian grotesque, which does truly exist, but is so easy to miss (as Loznitsa does in all of his emphatic fictions) – but which Kuosmanen manages to nail, in his oh-so-alive images of these “common” train wagons, with legs teetering above the aisles, Rubik cubes, voices and pickle jars mixing up together into a charmed life, which supersedes any possible script – or in a hallucinogenic version of common life. I know that things do look like this, because I saw them with my own two eyes, on the night train to Kiev. And I maintain my trust in this film, because it reminded me of my love for the East, which has been dormant inside me for a long time, as if it were awaiting Kuosmanen.

 

10th of NOVEMBER

I went to La Clef again, to finally see the film of my teacher Noël Herpe, La Tour de Nesle, an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas. Herpe has been ceaselessly promoting the film for the past couple of months, sending emails before every one of its – few – screenings (there was one at the Cinematheque and another one at Paris 8). I can’t say that I fell out of my chair due to admiration, nor that it made me bend over – I prefer that film à sketches which is Fantasmes et Fantômes, which was shot as a preparation for this new one, and which we had to see on his course on adaptation from last year. An occasion on which, to quote him, he could work on his “musical scales” before getting to something more serious – but that film, in its sub-Rohmerian economy, developed a sort of sublime ease, as well as a more fertile connection to theater, it seems to me, something which pertains to a directness that is capable, in ways that escape me, to mask the total poverty of its means. Here, things are much too fragile – the costumes seem to have been rented from the shabbiest place around, the creaky floor sounds like a 21st century petit-bourgeois caprice, the canvas which acts as its background is a scribble, and, still, the textual current that should bring everything to life is weak, light years away from Resnais or Cocteau. In the end, in a dialogue moderated by researcher Diane Arnaud, Herpe had a good speech – he’s a fabulous orator, and if there is one reason to go to his blabbering courses, it’s this –, saying that, even though it was not at all easy to make this film in this formula, a bigger-budget film (bigger than the 30,000 Euro he had at his disposal here) would not have interested him at all. Obviously. But it seems to me that the scope of the play, its Romanesque and campy vein, its blood and cadavers washing up on the banks of the Seine, is much too hostile towards the well-meaning amateurism of this project. Still, I appreciated him when he said that he did not follow a political, Brechtian approach of Dumas, but rather, an autobiographical one – he shot his friends and the people that play a role in his life, beyond the margins of his cinema, searching for a truth that would lead towards his favorite works, towards his dramatic taste, towards the emotions of childhood. Herpe says that he searched for the feverish transition from person to personage – and that his film lies there, in that transition. Taken this way, together with the post-screening discussion, I enjoyed the film a lot more: I sincerely appreciated its faults and the fact that, like in the case of Rohmer, it’s composed of a mix of people that act well and people that – visibly – act not as well, and a way of life results out of this collision. Anyways, a relaxing screening, albeit rather long in the company of an ultra-independent film that doesn’t bother anyone. Made out of a personal wish (not even a need) and destined to the very few that might eventually discover themselves in this truculent taste for backstage intrigues and 19th century vaudeville. It’s not bad to forget about the fierce festival fights for a night.

Diane Arnaud & Noël Herpe
Diane Arnaud & Noël Herpe

12th of NOVEMBER

Saw a wonderful film today, Marius et Jeanette (1997) by Robert Guédiguian, together with five ladies at the Forum des Images. My experience with Guédiguian was rather limited until now, but even so, I could realize that the man is a sort of Ken Loach that, at his best, can even surpass him when it comes to evoking emotion, which is quite a feat. I laughed at Marius et Jeannette – an adorable scene of a working-class bar on the pier of Marseille (G. being the biggest filmmaker in contemporary Marseille), when all of its tipsy clients start throwing punches at each other, breaking bottles against each other’s heads and stumbling into crates of squid and seafood –, I felt saddened, I pondered. There are some almost rhetorical moments, when one of the characters, tightly gripping L’humanité, the communist newspaper, in his hand, bitterly discusses how the Pope’s Palace in Avignon will be transformed into an UNESCO monument, but their places – the places of the poor, such as the area’s local disaffected cement factory – will always be the same: just some ugly places meant only for the poor. There is something very didactic about the film – the entire schematics of its construction are predictable from the get-go, based on the model of mutual aid between workers that animates the cinema of Ken Loach; the miracle, however, has to do with the subtle manner in which G. sprinkles these small vignettes about little lives as a sort of vital elan that is impossible to falsify. Just take a look at the scene which follows the bar brawls, when the men of the town return home after getting supremely drunk, having gone to the harbor in order to throw water onto their faces, and start to yell “je t’aime!” into the dark night, directed at their exasperated wives… It’s a moment both comedic, touching and ridiculous, the mark of a filmmaker for whom a harsh ideological discourse will always melt into the steamroller that is life itself, which has a poetic kernel to it, and is hard to integrate into fixed structures: a football match that is seen on the neighbors’ television set, a dance ring that is improvised in an abandoned factory, a wife’s joke about her husband amongst her girlfriends – these kinds of small, spontaneous things, which mobilize the impression of something that is lived, that is experienced first-hand, and only then re-created.

 

13th of NOVEMBER

Today I saw Alice Diop’s Nous at the Forum des Images, followed by a discussion with the filmmaker and Romain Lefebvre of Débordements, who, as usual, asked a question or two, then handed the microphone to the audience and that was about it… But the discussion itself was very good and I couldn’t help but stay to the very end even though I was in a rush, captivated, maybe, by this discourse that was so measured, so reasonable, so rightful on part of this militant director, who, I believe, has created a marvelous political film. Walking with her camera along the RER B train line – the famous route which connects Paris to its northern and southern suburbs –, Diop wove an assemblage of images, which, through accumulation, traces a tableau that is inevitably partial, but nonetheless telling of contemporary France, and of the France of yesteryear. An incendiary assemblage, due to the act that Nous managed to reunite, in ways in which only the most gifted of filmmakers, from Frederick Wiseman to Claire Simon, all sort of different, even antagonistic segments of society, juxtaposed or clashed into each other in a global image with a subtle radicalism. It’s due to this that we see kids of color rolling on an abandoned hill, or some obsoletely-dressed bourgeois, members of a ridiculous hunting organization with its faithful hunting dogs, as they pay tribute to Louis XIV, or workers that wake up in the early hours of the day to catch their commute train. I also remembered the more structurally strict, yet equally powerful film that Alice Diop herself presented in her class with Claire Simon last year, La Permanence. Here, however, we discover a silky quality of the gaze, which acts like an act of bestowing the right of existence to a handful of people that are usually invisible, thus extracted from the cruel temporality of reportages and allowed to exist. A lady noticed the character of Ismael, a Malian immigrant who has been living since 2001 in France and still does not have any documents, shot as he is talking on the phone with his mother from Africa, while bending over a car engine (magnificent scene) – and then connected him to the father of Alice Diop, who is present in the film through various archive images, who arrived to France in 1966, founded a family there, lived a harsh life, yet still a dignified one. And bang! All of a sudden, I was hit by the social degradation that has been going on between then and now, the horrible world in which we are living now, when the realities of yesteryear now seem to us as true utopias. And here is where the force of this film lies – in how it operates parallel histories, in how it resuscitates the memory of some places, in how it traces a human geography that is animated by a solidarity that transcends its era.

Romain Lefebvre & Alice Diop
Romain Lefebvre & Alice Diop

17th of NOVEMBER

Yesterday, a full house attended the screening of Farhadi’s latest, Un héros (Grand Prix at Cannes), at the 300-seat hall of Forum des Images. A screening introduced by Asal Bagheri, a specialist in Iranian cinema, apparently, who spoke about the “love story” between Farhadi and Memento, the French production/distribution company that bought his films. What is certain (according to me) is that since Memento jumped into the picture – at About Elly (2009) and especially A Separation (2011) – Farhadi’s films have consistently taken a downwards turn, up to this latest example of a narration that gets shipwrecked under the weight of its own stupidity. It’s a well-known fact that Farhadi’s films only work in terms of narration – doting on plot twists and other simple effects that open his cinema up to all categories of the audience. In my memories, A Separation aptly turned the screws of its story, and lies, betrayal and things left unsaid – the central topics in Farhadi’s cinema, as Bagheri identifies them – found their small spaces in the world of fiction with relative ease and naturalness. Here, things are turned around on all sides until they lose their entire breath, and the whole affair has something of the atmosphere of an older exercise in style, with which Farhadi – incapable or unwilling to examine his society under a more political, less agreeable term – catches us once more, without realizing, in his “international” scam, that, in the end, the joke is on him.

 

 22nd of NOVEMBER

I left Memoria, seen at the MK2 Odéon, after carrying with me all the accumulated tiredness from the trains and planes I took to and from Romania, aware that I might end up being a sort of ideal spectator for this poet of sleep that is Apichatpong Weerasethakul. A serious film, which demands from cinema nothing more, nothing less than everything: to let go of the bitterness that keeps the overwhelming majority of films at bay (characters, plot, dramatic conflict etc.: all these props are waved at from a distance, here) and surrender to the waves of the high seas. Instead of characters – presences; instead of a plot – time; instead of a dramatic conflict – masses of air that are mobilized by the camera’s lens. Memoria is not a film about something in particular, but even so, it seems to include an exceptional mass of things in its runtime, from the ancestral feeling of the earth to flying saucers, from the high-tech laboratories (be they of archaeology or sound design) of Colombia to its villages nestled in the mountains. It’s too much, one could argue, for more than a fourth of the many spectators with whom I set off on this trip at the same time, who resigned to get off the adventure before it was over (not to say that I hated each and every one of them, together with the sound of opening and closing doors). Even so, how can one refuse the embrace of the incantational and disconcerting simplicity of this film which, as it’s recording the most banal things one could imagine (as a somber PowerPoint would), still aspires to set itself under the eternal stars of sound and landscape – of absolute things, which surpass the half-measures touted by mainstream cinema nowadays – managing to reveal a sort of essence of the world that is stratified in time. Memoria is not my favorite film by A. W. (Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee, although seen long ago, still reverberate in my memory), nor did it captivate me on a sensorial level like Lapid or Verhoeven did, but it contains what might be the most beautiful and captivating hour of this year’s cinematic output, the hour on which the film ends, passing through the meditative hallways of the transcendental and, in the end, gaining the opening of a pure and inexplicable landscape. Apichatpong went to the land of final things: who, in Colombia, would have walked around Medellin while playing with a dog – which, directorial pedigree oblige, could have been God undercover, or some ancestral uncle that died eons ago and is now reincarnated, or some alien – instead of saying a story by the book, with narcos and social hysteria? In contrast to his older films, mysterious objects through and through, Memoria seems both more ambitious and lazier: a falsely rudimentary object, in which temporalities mix together in the subterranean, and its old and new beliefs no longer crash into each-other save for the level of dialogue: is it enough, I wonder, to transmogrify reality, offering us a more generous version of it? An open question, which every spectator is free to solve according to their own will.

 

23rd of NOVEMBER

It should be of no wonder that a grand creator could at one point wish to take a step back, redress themselves on the terrain of simplicity, and abandon complex pirouettes in the name of a conceptual smoothing, that acts as a summing-up. Sometimes, this is a good thing, since any film that manages something without strenuous labor is worth noticing. In other cases, such as the one of Nanni Moretti’s – the most important Italian filmmaker in the last half-century – Tre piani, we must resign ourselves in front of the overwhelming evidence: minus (one of the most conventional forms around) and minus (a dusty narrative schematism) and minus (literary dialogues) do not give a plus in the end, however much we might wish for it. A reviewer’s sadness is all the more encompassing in this case, if they are to hold Moretti in a high position in their personal cinephile pantheon, as the possessor of the last burlesque body of work that is relevant at a global level, through all that he knew to summarize (from café society Marxism to neighborhood sports), through all that his presentments announced (from the dissolution of social safety nets to the increasing isolation of the individual). The thing is that “our man in Rome”, as Serge Daney called him after the release of Palombella rossa, his grand claustrophobic film, has turned bourgeois himself, and the choir of engaged and inefficient youth that he belonged to has been pulverized into a handful of adults whose joints are aching, sharing anodyne intrigues (adapted from Eshkol Nevo) amongst each-other across the floors of a chic apartment building, with its large, wooden doors. The Rome he shot not so long ago – must I even say it? – in an unequaled masterclass of cinematic grace (Caro diario, 1993) does not transpire at all in the frame, at most only as a slim addition to these people who dance in a procession that is a pale imitation of the dancers in the earlier film. In 2001, Moretti won the Palme d’Or with La stanza del figlio, and there, for the first time, we explicitly saw the short path that lies between laughter and death, and which animates the Italian’s every film. This is the film which Tre piani resembles the most, but here, the amplitude of emotion is denied to us due to various strange reasons – with two or three exceptions: Margherita Buy as she’s mourning the death of her husband while trying to maintain appearances, for example. The people who populate this story are unidimensional, incapable of laying claim to an autonomous existence that lies beyond the limits of fiction for one single moment. The lack of ambition in Tre piani has something touching and enigmatic to it – it keeps on forcing you to ask whether or not Moretti is preparing to play one on you –, but the film’s reticence in authorizing itself even the most meagre of deviations from its imposed program kind of drove me nuts. I knew Moretti as being more playful and subversive than this.



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.