Et la vie – Denis Gheerbrant goes on the Tour de France

11 December, 2020

„For a long time, I thought that others possessed within themselves the knowledge of life. The inner meaning of a mystery that I was incapable of piercing. I was on the outside. I could look at them from a distance, from that place. But when I started getting closer, they began to look back at me. We exchanged glances. And we shared our astonishment.” – Denis Gheerbrant

For over 30 years, filmmaker Denis Gheerbrant has been traveling all across France with a camera in his hand. What is he looking for? For an answer to the following question: “is it possible for two people that barely know each other to arrive at a common ground?” In other words, he’s searching for the precious moment in which a person transforms from a subject that is intimidated by the camera lens, one which seemingly arrives out of nowhere, into a friend. Few directors are more sincerely preoccupied with the absolute nature of meeting one another than Gheerbrant, who is willing to give anything up – such as the invisible shield that is conferred by the object that he wields, pre-established methods, the cold and calculated perfection of composition – for that ineffable something to establish itself between himself and the one who sits opposite of him. A lévinasian project and a hippie ideal, the impulse to accommodate otherness into one’s own space – call it what you will. What matters is that Gheerbrant shows the transfer of energy that starts to flow between two people who are in the situation of communicating without any pre-existing foundations. For those who may still believe that cinema sometimes amounts to more than just “a girl and a gun”, it’s important to see how this invisible flow between two people, how these bits and pieces of truth that usually pass through the generous meshes of industrial cinema, can be inscribed onto film reels.

However, Gheerbrant is not as innocent as he seems. After all, there is a fine line between favoring the kind of conditions that lead to a confession through the camera and ripping the spoken confession from a vulnerable subject by force, goaded by a mechanical eye, and it’s finer than we might initially suspect. Time is needed to accommodate oneself with the sheer physical proximity that Gheerbrant sets between himself and the people he interviews. But I must admit that there are not a million ethical ways in which Gheerbrant’s impulse can be put into practice – but only one, rather, which, as they say in sports, means aiming for contact from the get-go. Seemingly enamored by the concept of the human face, Gheerbrant approaches it from the angle of an interesting (and explosive) mix between fascination and shyness – and it wouldn’t be wrong to try to follow this red line throughout the entirety of his output as a filmmaker, observing the evolution of his way of approaching strangers. Since Gheerbrant has never lost track of the North on his compass of interhuman-exchange-at-all-cost. But the sheer distance which separates a film such as Et la vie (1991) from one as Le voyage à la mer (2001) is remarkable, two hand-crafted necklaces where the string is the road, and the beads are the meetings strewn all across. Et la vie starts with Gheerbrant timidly entering the home of a laborer and asking him (his camera fixed on an empty wall): “May I turn towards you? Is it okay if I ask two or three questions?” Meanwhile, in his more recent endeavor, the filmmaker is much more at ease, and there he is, at the beach, cheekily analyzing the pecks of a handsome dad together with two young women.

Et la vie
Et la vie

What I mean to say is that, for Gheerbrant, the human face presents itself like a landscape that begs to be explored. But only for a while, like a stop-over down the way, since the destination lies far beyond in the depths which facial expression alone is incapable of revealing by itself. That is where Gheerbrant sets out to arrive, to illuminate matters from the inside, and even more so, in a very short amount of time: a project that is vast for a film crew composed of a single man, who seems to learn the craft of his trade along with us.

And if the closeness works, it is because the director mobilizes massive resources of empathy to back it up, which are capable of erasing the unequal relations of power that lie between the man-with-the-camera and the man-in-front-of-the-camera. An entire essay should be dedicated to the discreet, yet decisive presence of Gheerbrant behind the camera, who doesn’t hesitate to reveal itself when it’s necessary to do so, in order to meet the other. Rarely has a voice seemed more embodied, more riddled with inflections. I like it a lot when he manages to find the right words and, through them, to set free a dialogue that is in danger of grinding to a halt. Language becomes, in these cases, something akin to a friendly pat on the shoulder. The lesson is simple: just look at how much a simple “yes” can do, a simple indication of understanding that arrives at the right moment, meaning exactly at the moment in which the other speaker is signaling that they might lose their trust, or refuse the rule of the game.

My favorite film from Gheerbrant’s oeuvre, La vie est immense et pleine de dangers (1994), is a tender testimony of the process in which the director makes friends with a little boy who is suffering from cancer, tender especially due to his decision to always treat the boy as his equal, whatever the situation. Condescendence has no place in Gheerbrant’s home – and Et la vie, which is a grassroots investigation of France’s working-class neighborhoods, which are threatened by dereliction, that is, if they’re not already history, is a tour de force in this sense. Clunky ideology takes a back seat, and in the foreground, we see diverse people who finally have the possibility of exposing their dramas, their regrets, their pasts. It’s as if a humanist refuge is woven from that exchange of glances which Gheerbrant discusses. And what marvelous moments of cinema happen to pass in front of our eyes for a moment, just as when a few words timidly spoken by a teenage girl are more than enough to indicate a tragedy within her family, caused by joblessness. For a film to be politically relevant, says Gheerbrant, one doesn’t need reflective traffic signs, but rather, just a bit of openness towards other people’s traumas. When I want to recall a free cinema, created in collaboration with – and from – the Other, and to think that it is still possible, I watch Denis Gheerbrant’s films. In the times that we are living through, marked by such a sensibly reduced leeway between people, his films feel like a remedy.

A selection of Denis Gheerbrant’s films is available until the 3rd of January 2021, as a part of the One World Romania Cineclub. Today, on the 11th of December, the cineclub’s Facebook page will host a live transmission of Et la vie, which will be followed by a discussion with the director.


Avatar Victor Morozov
Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for the Dilema veche cultural magazine and collaborates with Acoperișul de Sticlă, Film Reporter, Ziarul Metropolis; enrolled in a Film Studies programme at Trinity College, Dublin.