Paris Correspondence (October-November 2021): The Arhipelago of Cinema

13 November, 2021

19th of OCTOBER

In the evening – an event that was much longer than I would have liked, surrounding Ramon Zürcher’s L’Étrange petit chat (2014). I struggled to enter inside of the film itself, but I did indeed enter, dragged in by the tangible proof of a self-assured, singular gaze. I love it when I unexpectedly see how cinema, this creature that has been apparently powerlessly lying in stasis for decades, is forced to set itself into motion once again, for the good of a story. This is the case here – since what better method is there to describe the carceral rabble of an apartment in which the members of an extended family are cramped inside, than the over-usage of a hors-champ that is incessantly mobilized to assault the insides of the frame with every given occasion? Zürcher finds an ingenious gimmick here – I don’t remember what is the last film that I saw that offered such an incessantly bustling soundscape, one that is so painstakingly crafted –, which has all the rigor of a method and all the inspiration of a coup de grace. Like any grand film, this petite film (1h12) allows itself to be didactic within the limits of common sense, moreover, it also needs to be didactic, to impose some limits coming of its own volition, similar to these rhymes (the overflowing blood, the musical interludes, the micro-narrations that are strewn here and here), in order to gleefully prance around them, blowing everything up. What can I say other than the fact that this anti-Sieranevada was a total surprise, managing to splendidly suit itself between the needs of the story and the means of its form, thus showing us that family is little more than a theater filled with nut jobs that pass their roles from one to another, swaying from storyteller to spectator, just like the wind. In the end, a discussion in the presence of Pierre Eugène from Cahiers, Marie-Anne Guerin from Trafic and the two lovable brother-directors (Ramon directed the film, Silvan produced it), who spoke a French that was comical in the light of its wrongly-accented seriousness. This was my first time in the outdated, blue hall of the Cinema L’Archipel, close to the Strasbourg-Saint-Denis station, in a room full of people who were not wearing masks, starting with the front row (this is how things go over here…) and ending with the old man who sat behind me, coughing in my back of my neck for the entire film. Thank God for this jubilant sample of sounds that ricochet from one edge to the other of the screen, breaking into a million shards made up of pure vibration, and for this subterranean tentation towards morbidity, which animates a film that is otherwise solar in its solemn banality. Zürcher is, alongside Straub, Akerman and Godard, one of those precious creators for whom film is, first and foremost, a question of frames. I can’t wait to see his new film.

22nd of OCTOBER

In the afternoon I went to the Luminor, next to the Hôtel de Ville, and I paid 8 big fat Euros to see Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island: an old acquaintance, from my high school years. Her film was released in France sometime in July, and now it has been reprised for only three days in this cinema. And it proved to be a big old bore spread out through two whole hours, completely lacking in energy despite its desperate attempts at reanimating the narration, even resorting to a story within a story at one point, which keeps some vague tangential, coincidental relations to the bigger one, or to the usage of the ideal (or fatal) prop that is Faro Island, where Bergman led his life, or to the casting of names such as Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Anders Danielsen Lie, Mia Wasikowska, and still, all for naught… It’s Mia Hansen-Løve’s most disappointing film to date, a filmmaker that I had held in high esteem up to now, but who is definitely going through a rough patch in her career (her previous one, Maya, was set somewhere in India and already had some vague signs of sclerosis).

It’s lucky that, in the evening, in the grand, dark and uncomfortable hall of the Centre Pompidou, I could witness the (virtual) meeting of two great contemporary American filmmakers, Kelly Reichardt and Todd Haynes, the first joining in from the cinema, the second one somewhere across the ocean, but present on screen. Everything happened at the end of a screening of Haynes’ Safe on 35mm, which I believe was the only non-Reichardtian film in this full retrospective that was dedicated to her (a small one, but which raises all sorts of questions regarding sensibility, gaze, mise-en-scene), and so, the only one that truly interested me, since I know her films very well, from first to last. I had really wanted to catch Safe somewhere, since I had read about it in a book that had influenced me a long time ago, and also because Haynes is one of those filmmakers that I began to appreciate and seek out on every occasion due to his magnificent Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2016). Safe is a bit of a different creature – slower, more economical with its enlightening close-ups, further away from melodrama, from which it borrows its hardened shell (the upper-middle-class context, the all-too-suffocating suburban life…), but not its teary nucleus. But what this film has to say – about a housewife (Julianne Moore, in an amazing shape) who slips into a sort of neurosis due to pollution, or maybe paranoia or depression, then enters a rehab that is similar to a Jonestown-esque sect and a New Age-y yoga class, which slowly, but surely alienates her from the world – is purely explosive, proving an incredible lucidity, precognition, and depths. Since Haynes could not possibly have guessed, back in 1995, that the wave of wellness (which mixed in recent years with some anti-vaxx tendencies) would sweep everything in its path in the next couple of years, ravaging those people who were increasingly losing sight of the horizon, increasingly sinking in the swamp of pretty and happy lies that is their own life – but he certainly announced its arrival in Safe, admirably so. At the end, he had a very pertinent and articulate speech, to the same degree that he was simply giving of this sort of typically American coolness through each and every one of his pores, and he spoke about the nascent moments of the harmful self-help ideas which sucked people in so easily, since “we will always prefer self-blame to chaos, even if the only thing this ever does is to lead us to failure, every single time, since it stops us from seeing the bigger picture. But chaos cannot be understood, and that frightens us, we prefer even an artificial order to it. People are all just children who, helpless in front of their parents’ divorce, have nothing left but to ask their mothers if all of this is happening because of them.” Safe is a cold and impenetrable film, but, like any Haynes, it has its moments of acidic irony and of thinly-veiled romanticism, a sign that Sirk’s lesson was duly assimilated: who could ever believe in these happy endings that bring tears to our eyes? Julianne Moore looking at herself in the mirror and getting stuck in this non-language of forced self-love is this cutting film’s most ravishing tableau, as political as only sublime melodramas know how to be.

Todd Haynes
Todd Haynes

23rd of OCTOBER

I had decided to stay in tonight, but then I thought to myself that it would be best not to – and that I’d go see that one film directed by John Sayles, City of Hope (1991), which is running at the Cinematheque as part of the retrospective that is dedicated to him, and which had been described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as an honorable film on part of this director. As I’d never heard of Sayles before running into this retrospective, I told myself that I’d start off like this. But what a complete non-entity of a film, my God! What a crass lack of talent, or even of artistic intelligence, or even a little spark in there, somewhere, which would tear the film out of the feeling that, okay, despite being visibly labored and a true effort, it might lead to something, anything. Nothing of the sort: formal ideas – none, sans the conceited idea of playing the auteur; content – none (alongside it, a film like Do the Right Thing looks like the work of a pure genius). The only good thing about it was this lady sitting in the row in front of mine, who kept on doing these ample gestures with her hands in the dark – the film had already started – towards her friend who was on the aisle, unable to see her, as if she were directing a plane towards its final landing position.

24th of OCTOBER

Today I saw a wonderful film, Jacques Becker’s Falbalas, together with a chock-full Henri Langlois Hall at the Cinematheque. In total, the whole ordeal lasted, starting from the time I left home and the time I got back, around 5 hours – this is how much time the Paris transit costs me! –, of which around one hour and a bit consisted of queueing for my ticket and then entering the cinema. So, what was the rush? The fact that Jean-Paul Gaultier himself, who organized an exhibition about cinema at the fifth floor of the Cinematheque, joined the event at the end in order to discuss the film, his relationship to cinema and so on. (Almodovar’s Kika, a pretty weak one that I saw here last week, was part of the same mini-retrospective; Gaultier had designed its costumes). And so, Falbalas is a lesser-known film, recently restored, belonging to the most important classical post-war French director, and the fact that Gaultier passionately told the story of how he discovered the film on television when he was about 13 years old, and was thus determined to pick up design. Or the fact that Micheline Presle herself, the wonderful and wonderfully beautiful main actress of the film (and of Grémillon’s L’Amour d’une femme, which I wrote about in the previous correspondence) came to the exhibition’s opening night, which coated the event in a charming aura. By the way, Micheline Presle is still alive – she is 99 years old! –, and she is the mother of director Tonie Marshall, who died of covid-19, and Gaultier wonderfully recounted the story of how, in spite of her failing memory, she immediately reacted to an image of her from Falbalas, which is included in the exhibition, by seemingly rediscovering something that belonged to the aura of the once-shining cinema star. And she said the following to Jean-Paul: “I am your grandmother…!”, since she performed the role of his grandmother in a show that he had put on, the Fashion Freak Show… Anyways, Falbalas is a sort of ancestor to Phantom Thread, about a womanizing and misogynistic designer (an excellent Raymond Rouleau) who makes it his mission to seduce the fiancé of his best friend, just for fun – and he is precisely that: a Don Juan who advances upon women as if they were territories to conquer and quickly set under his own flag –, who then realizes that, oopsie!, he might have fallen in love with her. The object of desire starts to emancipate and break beyond the limits imposed upon itself… A tragic, splendid ending, seasoned with a handful of hypnotic close-ups which cinema knew, at one time, how to use in order to charm us. A film which finds its resolution at the ending of a spicy and funny script, treated with a modern eye and filled with gusto. Like the scene in which, at the fashion show towards the end, the seamstresses are crowding behind closed doors, hoping to catch a glimpse of the models through the keyhole, only for them to fall over like bowling pins when the doors open from the other side. And the character of this Micheline Presle is so incredible, a strong young woman who, upon having understood that the courageous little seamster played a number on her, adopts a gracious attitude of rebellion, with which she defeats him on every front and thus digs his grave. A grand, truly grand film.

25th of OCTOBER

At 6PM I went to the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin to see one of the two remaining Éric Rohmer films that I hadn’t seen, that is, the nineties-era Les Rendez-vous de Paris, shot between two entries of his more laborious tetralogy of the seasons. A chance to also discover this small cinema that is placed just a few blocks above Reflet Médicis, on the same street, with the tightest stair that I had ever seen – otherwise, the screening rooms are pretty big and are situated in the basement – with a toilet that can be entered directly from the hall itself and where I believe that most spectators went to before the film started. To the degree to which I even started to wonder if they were giving something out behind those doors, since everybody seemingly wanted to go there. Then, the film began – a triumph, like any Rohmer. It’s composed of three wonderful sketches – and much more solidly compacted than those slightly unconvincing ones, even for my very indulgent, fanatically Rohmerian taste, of Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle, which I saw not too long ago. Especially the second sketch, regarding a love story that takes place during the period of conquest, between an indecisive her and an impatient him, exclusively set in Parisian parks (Rohmer even has fun while making a clear inventory of said parks, listing them), is a masterpiece about destiny and farce. I will never be tired of these inventions and little tricks of this conservative who is capable of enacting the miracle of seeing outside himself and of conducting free, roaring, charming, nonpartisan investigations of social milieus with whom he had nothing, or almost nothing, in common – but, see, this was never a problem for him!

Cinema Luminor
Cinema Luminor

27th of OCTOBER

I saw my first Danièle Dubroux – and I am saying this because, in my mind, ever since I was relentlessly reading Serge Daney, who was a friend of hers, Dubroux always seemed to have the scope of an intransigent auteur, and this thought took shape even without knowing what kind of films she made and how, even knowing that she only made a handful of them. Thus, I set off towards the Forum des Images under the weight and excitement of these intimidating expectations – where I had the luck to catch a clean 35mm copy – and found none of all these, just a film with unapparent intentions, in the vein of those particular French eighties-era auteurs who are dear to my heart (Jean-François Stévenin, Patricia Mazuy), but that still lets itself animated by the strangest possible currents of subterranean air, capable of creating large waves at the surface. The film concerns a woman that is past her prime – performed by Dubroux herself, who was also the scriptwriter – who leaves her bourgeois partner behind in order to pursue a relationship with a 22-year-old – whose face is hypnotically similar to Vincent Lacoste’s –, only for her to become increasingly convinced of the fact that the guy, who is the son of a past lover, is in fact her son, too. Border Line (1993) – that’s how it’s called – is at times very funny (a minimalist comedy of language and reactions that anticipates filmmakers such as Antonin Peretjatko or Léonor Serraille), at times truly frightening (I was afraid more than once that it’s about to slip into body horror), and most often unstable beyond its false-conventional form, evolving along an emotional path that is hard to keep in line. There is a great scene in which Dubroux transports the guy’s “mother” – a zesty woman with a thin voice, who electrocutes herself in the bathroom and dies – back to her home, without taking much precautions to prevent being caught transporting a cadaver in her car: it’s a moment which contains in itself all the sensitive strength of this film, in its almost déjà-vu-like familiarity, which brings forth laughter in the face of perplexity (transported to a psych ward, she will calmly talk about how she took this dead woman “home”) and restlessness in front of familiarity (of course, the gas station employee almost caught her etc.). I have a really bad copy of Les amants terribles somewhere, one of her previous films, which I’ll see as soon as I can once I have a little bit of time for it.

31st of OCTOBER

I gave John Sayles another try, after reading a Facebook post on Lianna written by critic Mathieu Macheret – and, indeed, had I not known, I would have never guessed that the man who hatched the mesmerizing City of Hope is the same one who reflected deeply upon this very hot flick about a chick who leaves her husband and children behind in order to move in with her evening class teacher in a college campus on the East Coast. In fact, it is this thematic amplitude – especially this difference in topics, rhythm, sensibility between the two films – that makes me reconsider Sayles, because I know all too well that nowadays, or even the yesterday to which this film belongs, it’s increasingly difficult to cover distinctive, even diametral opposite territories like in the good old days, refusing to get stuck in the always handy coordinates of a well-known area. If it wouldn’t be slightly clunky and demonstrative at times, I would have allowed myself to sway to this serious radiograph of the American college milieu (the bourgeois, bastardly husband who teaches film studies and who attends festivals in order to watch “Lithuanian masterpieces” with disgust is quite something). But I remain in awe of the almost spontaneous way in which the film knows how to bestow a radical freedom onto this woman, sticking to her side until it’s positive that she can make it to shore, in the midst of the homophobic eighties. 

Tonight is Halloween, I saw some costumed people around. While going back home, I caught a glimpse of a couple that was hurriedly going somewhere, he was the Joker, and she was someone I couldn’t recognize, since I’m not that good at these things.

1st of NOVEMBER

Today, I finally caught up with The Girl and the Spider by Ramon and Silvan Zürcher (the first of which directed, the second produced it, and both wrote its script). A film made in the same vein as the last one, even though there’s a roughly 8-year time span between them. The same huis clos which is populated by characters brought together by the occasion of a random reunion, who are allowed to free their energies and delirium in pairs, in threes, or however many… But its formula, once the taste of revelation faded away, no longer seemed impressive, not even interesting (such a fashionable term nowadays), but completely dependent on the didactic premises that are a necessary cornerstone for it to be able to function. This entire framing into small asides has its moments – especially between Mara, the mysterious girl who seems to shiver from the cold whenever she is speaking, thus investing her with the authentic aura of vulnerability, and Jan, an insignificant character, as a sort of delayed and strong conversation starts to develop between them, in which love becomes a performative discourse capable of replacing any sort of conventional gestures. There is a lot of electric energy flowing through these scenes, which light up a film that is otherwise a tad too mathematical, despite its surprisingly free sensuousness (someone always hits themselves against something, someone else has a frostbite, someone else starts to bleed…). But everything has the air of a formal impasse: even its musical interludes are transposed one to one, as in their 2013 debut. And their jerky style has something that is a bit tiring. It might be a coherent sensation if one relates it to these suffocating narrations, but I’m not really keen on rewatching their films too soon.

John Sayles x3. The Secret of Roan Inish, the final one in the retrospective that I might catch, since I had a vested interest in it: it was shot in Ireland, in those incredible landscapes that I once had to leave behind, without ever forgetting them. It’s a shame that, in the end, I had to make do with a folky tale for kids, with pensive seals, gluttonous seagulls and other such beasts – just a little bit more of this and the leprechauns might have also showed up –, which starts off quite interestingly, around a series of historic echoes, but which collapses under the emptiness of its own narration. Something which could have brought to mind the magic of Ford’s The Quiet Man and Minelli’s Brigadoon, while keeping in with proportions, of course, since Sayles is, at most, an honest handyman that has nothing from the genius of the aforementioned masters, lying closer to Lemony Snicket… I left the cinema feeling frustrated, because the film fluttered before my eyes the possibility of an extraordinary world despite being mature, but crushed it in the name of an infantilism that is ridiculous, at the very least. As usually with Sayles, some reasonable intuitions are ruined by a mise-en-scene that is lacking in ideas and a plot lacking in vision – for example, what can one even say about all the stylistic redundancy of these stories which construct the film’s first part (each of the family members recounts ancestral stories to the young heroine), barely helping the effort to remain anchored, only for it to falter into a gap which Sayles fills up with music and, yes, filler shots?

9th of NOVEMBER

In the break between classes, my colleague Roxanne told me that she has recently seen a splendid film: Lianna. After chatting in an admirative tone about this remarkable directorial effort, thankfully noting that we saw it at the Cinematheque on different days and that we didn’t miss each other as we were in the same cinema… Roxane told me that John Sayles himself performs Lianna’s rather pitiful buddy, the one who, upon finding out that she has broken up with her husband, barges into her apartment and starts to quite obviously hit on her… only for him to redeem himself later, during a beautiful scene set in a park during autumn, when he interrupts his jogging session in order to apologize for himself and to offer one of the most empathetic appraisals of Lianna’s situation. The entire film is just like this: filled to the brim with false curves and unforeseeable possibilities, reserved for each and every one of the characters, to reveal their unseen facets or true lights. Roxanne recommended another one by Sayles, Baby It’s You, from the same year as Lianna. Maybe I still have time to catch it.



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.