Deformed by Matter
There is a comment by the painter Francis Bacon where he says “Isn’t it that one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do?” (Interviews with Francis Bacon) If Philippe Grandrieux’s La vie nouvelle in many ways resembles Bacon’s work, it’s in this conflict between representation and feeling, and the way it manifests itself as an aesthetic collision reflected in characterisational obsession. What Grandrieux does in this study of sexual desire set in a liminal world that seems to be on the border between East and West, is to suggest the difficulty in finding representational states for our desires. It is as though we usually have to settle for relative representation and relative feeling to arrive at a state that allows for emotional and sexual release. But in Bacon’s work, and in Grandrieux’s film, we have the new life that can’t quite find a healthy liminality and man is distorted by desire, or insists on distorting others through one’s desire. When John Berger in his great essay on Bacon ‘The Worst is not Yet Come’ states that objects are relatively realistic in Bacon’s work but the people are deformed, he was getting at this problem of the malleability of man versus the solidity of matter. Should man be seeking this fluid state or should he be looking for solidity, the sort of solidity Spinoza once talked about when saying man wishes to be a stone?
If Bacon’s work strikes us as so utterly significant, it is partly because it shows an inversion of the anthropocentric. Where the anthropocentric suggests the solidity of man as he moulds matter to suit his own ends, Bacon insists that man’s a warped, desiring nervous system constantly being radically altered by its desires. Berger says that what Bacon’s paintings do “is to demonstrate how alienation may provoke a longing for its own absolute form – which is mindlessness”, and here he insists that Bacon’s work has nothing to do with the symbolic – the paintings don’t symbolise loneliness, anguish or bureaucracy or industrialisation.
What happens is that the body lives for its own pleasures and distorts itself according to its own desires, but what it doesn’t do is find a regulating principle to control the desire. Now the regulating principle of a stone lies in its status as matter, and it requires either a long period of time, or external breaking to change its status. But man is in this sense the antithesis of a stone, much more so in many ways than just about any other living creature. If we look at cats, or dogs, or cows or sheep, they stay more or less the same physically throughout their lives. They of course grow older, and move from infancy to full development, but man often moves through several physical states with each one unrecognizable in relation to the previous one. What Bacon’s work so brilliantly shows is this distortion in a twofold manner. Firstly he illustrates it through the pace of transformation: he does to the body what the impressionists did to a landscape. If Monet and others showed the impression of man witnessing landscape as if from a moving train, Bacon shows the expression of our own desireous state as if from a position beyond man. What Bacon does so well is show the internalised process of self-destruction, and thus extends the expressionistic possibilities of emaciation in Schiele, interior horror exploding outward in Munch.
It is this expressionism Grandrieux expresses in La vie nouvelle: how does man explode expressionistically, how does man not so much create a world out-with himself, but with himself destroys a world that is his own body and soul. Now when Andrei Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time about the difference between East and West. ‘The West is forever shouting, ‘This is me! Look at me! Listen to me suffering, loving! How unhappy I am! How happy! I! Mine! Me! In the Eastern tradition they never utter a word about themselves. The person is totally absorbed in God, Nature, Time’, obviously this is Tarkovsky’s value judgement attack on the West. But we could see it as an example of the difference between the external and internal relationship to ourselves, and that expressionism in painting often that internal relationship; how we use the matter of the world not to change that matter, shape it as an artisan might, but to destroy ourselves with it.
Now what Grandrieux wants to do is create a work that functions off de-sublimated nervous systems looking for release, and at the same time suggests this is central to our new lives, to a life much more based on violent, impulses, incessant pulse music, and a dissolving sense of self. It’s thus a hypothetical film, a sort of science fiction piece without the science – like Crash, like In my Skin – as it hints at future possibilities. The film brings the very title of Berger’s essay on Bacon to mind: the worst is not yet come.
As the film opens on a hovering steadicam shot moving in on faces, Grandrieux offers a humming soundtrack of future foreboding. There is a hint of a different type of East meets West than the Tarkovskian. This is an East meets West in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and functions not unlike the otherness of the East present in Pola X, where a world of senselessness meets refined sense, where the abject meets the signifying chain, described in Joel Dor’s words as possessing only one destiny: “to insert the subject’s unconscious desire in the subject’s utterances. Thus it constitutes the design and the weave of the speaking subject’s psychic fabric. More generally, it is involved in all psychic causality.” Do films like La vie nouvelle attempt to break the chain, to create a new psychic life? But where Leos Carax in Pola X was looking for a narrative of collision as his wealthy central character was taken over by a usurper mood that dragged him into a language and culture he could never really comprehend, La vie nouvelle wants a liminal space, a no man’s land, where being isn’t narratively shaped – as in the narrative arc of decline and fall that Pola X utilises – but much more based on inertia and repetition.
Now the problem Tarkovsky touches upon is central to the abject problematic. The self-sacrifice of man to object in the Tarkovskian sense gave man a potential well-being. He was constantly giving himself over to the object’s usefulness. Throughout, the aesthetic process was this sense of what was it serving and who was it serving. Bacon himself touches upon this when he says on the one hand photography has replaced painting for representational significance, and on the other hand, and perhaps consequently, “I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can.” There is no longer the fidelity to the object as Tarkovsky might define it, but instead a fidelity to the subject: to painting from one’s nervous system. This though also inverts the sacrificial element Tarkovsky talks of, because the thing made has less to do with craft than with a certain self-recognition. Hence the self-sacrifice goes not into the object, but is in danger of destroying the subject. When Al Alvarez talks about suicide the modern artist in The Savage God, it is this problem of working from a perceived self, creating out of a perceived self, that causes so much damage. The abject problem – the problem of colliding with matter through the demands of the nervous system, whether the person’s an artist or not – raises this issue of representation in a similar way: whether an artist or otherwise, the nervous sensation and the semiotic chain function similarly. We no longer have certain images of beauty for example that signify desire; images of ugliness that signify disgust. One has called into question the assumptions of image and representation and wants to live a life where the semiotic isn’t a given in which we have to fit, but a constraint upon the nervous system that is sometimes useful, sometimes not. When it’s not pertinent we might feel this desire for enacted, even public, self-destruction, that we see in films like Pola X and In My Skin, where we have to escape the constraints not into formulated language but a deformed state that forces upon ourselves and others several questions: who am I, what do I want, why did I harm myself?
This abject demand wouldn’t just be a call for attention in any conventional sense, but an imperative towards la vie nouvelle, towards a new life, a search for meaning out-with the nervous system’s present linguistic and representational significance. Disgust could create desire, beauty distaste. Equally behaviour can no longer be taken as given, for it wouldn’t be enough to read the signs of personality; it would require much more a comprehension of someone’s nervous system, not just the superficial signs they give off, but their physiological needs and not only their psychological motivations. If villainy in contemporary cinema has become more interesting it is partly in this area, where the viewer isn’t only aware of a ‘bad’ character, but jittery around the mood swings of a figure at the mercy of their nervous state.
Now in Grandrieux’s film, the sensation/representational problem gets pushed further than perhaps ever before because he wants to explore this new life not as a celebration (though that could be his intention) but much more as a hypothesis, and that the film offers a performative illustration of that task. So the new life isn’t just presented to us; we’re expected to see how we feel about this new type of life in the semi-sensation/semi-hypothetical form in which it appears to us. For example when one of the central characters, Melania (played by Anna Mouglalis) strips in the bar and gets prostituted in the hotel room, Grandrieux is careful to remove what we could call ‘representational motive’ from both Melania and her clients. For in representational motive we would sense ourselves working much more from representation than sensation and thus be on the side of semiotics over our nervous response to the images. It is as though Grandrieux wants us to share the characters’ sensations as their motives are as hidden from us as they are from themselves. Why, we might ask, does one man start punching and slapping Melania, and why, equally, does she to some degree accept it? Conventional representation might offer the man up as a gangster who’s been cuckolded by his moll and who gets his revenge on a young prostitute who’s in complete fear of him. All these motives are possibly valid but they’re interpreted, and they’re interpretations forced upon us by the film’s abstractness whilst at the same time we’re confronted with certain sensational immediacies – like Melania being beaten and more or less raped.
It’s this representation/sensation issue that can lead Grandrieux to call his film La Vie nouvelle. Perhaps he really does believe that the world he shows in the film is part of the joy of life. “There’s no melancholy. The film was made under the sign of enormous heath, vital energy, the blazing sun. That surpasses desire, it is even more archaic and formative; it comes from the sun itself, from a star beyond us that we aspire to, in a totally chaotic way. This aspiration towards great energy and happiness, it infused the film, which we made in a wild state of joy, six weeks of shooting like a single stroke, without a second thought.” But it might be more useful to think of Lars von Trier’s provocative proclamations on Dogville when he suggested it wasn’t important, finally, that Grace was raped. What he meant, like Grandrieux, was that the important thing was the suggestion/representation issue, and that, for the moment at least, we need the strongly sensational if we’re to move towards deconstructing the representational.
This of course needs further explanation, and to explore it we can look at the ways von Trier and Grandrieux answer it very differently. Grandrieux goes in what we’ll call the Bacon direction – the Bacon direction touched upon when the painter says in the Interviews that he often looks to record an image of somebody he’s seen in life, “it becomes more and more insistent, only because I think that, by being anchored that way, there is the possibility of an extraordinary irrational remaking of this positive image that you long to make.” In von Trier we could say it’s the Brechtian direction he takes, by making everything more and more artificial, that can perhaps return one to the nervous system. It is a variation on T. S. Eliot’s the objective correlative attached to Heidegger’s experiencing – that where Eliot demands an aesthetic distance to release the required emotion, Heidegger demands a felt strangeness on the way to this release.
But this isn’t Grandrieux’s concern. The felt strangeness isn’t an aesthetic conceit but a visceral confusion, the closeness to the characters’ state that we mentioned earlier. It is an attempt at new representations, at expanding the semiotic vocabulary via the nervous system in a manner not too dissimilar to Bacon. Thus central to the film is the dissolving of a social self, a self that would be too representatively categorical, too psychological, too sociological, for a self that is in a state of geographical and psychic fluidity. By setting his film in a place without these ready coordinates, the director gets close to the rawness of an existence that can’t be explained by the sociological and psychological aspects – by the already present signifying chain.
Let’s take for example the character, Roscoe, played by Marc Barbé, an actor who played the serial killer in Grandrieux’s first feature, Sombre, and also played the bullying nightmare in Night Shift. In Sombre we now little about him except his predilection, whilst in Night Shift we were given numerous psychological and sociological reasons for his behaviour no matter the various enigmas. But his character is presented so elliptically here that the oppositional elements present to some degree in Sombre (serial killer/victim) and very much on show in Night Shift, are collapsed in La vie nouvelle because the nervous system isn’t pursuing power through the sadism/masochism dichotomy that would manifest itself socially in bully and victim, serial killer and murderee, but through its own excited impulses. So for example when Roscoe is torn apart by dogs near the film’s conclusion, we’re never quite sure what’s going on. Has he been sentenced for beating Melania’s character, is it an act of supreme masochism that includes his own demise, and did he deliberately beat Melania so that he could meet this specific end? By making as ambiguous as possible the characters’ motives and the narrative elements, Grandrieux manages to stay close to nervous excitation. It is this that justifies the film’s scenes of raw bodies, with the director using a thermo-camera and allowing us to witness the characters now ‘reduced’ to animal states while they dance in a nightclub.
We might ask a couple of important questions here. Does the film seem to be proposing a new life that’s based on pure excitation, exhilaration and cruel violence, or is the film looking just for a first principle in which it chooses to locate the self? That is instead of locating ourselves first and foremost on the semiotic chain, we locate ourselves within the nervous system’s demands. Now this needn’t necessarily mean giving ourselves over to our nervous system, but it does demand that it be the place from which we work. It brings to mind Spinoza’s ideas that we must start with the body, but, more importantly, we can add to this the Spinoza notion of adequate and inadequate ideas: “the actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the passions depend on inadequate ideas alone.”
We could even say there are two ways to have inadequate ideas, but at opposite ends of the spectrum, though both functioning ‘thoughtlessly’, and that tie into our comments about the difference between Bacon-like rawness and Brechtian distanciation. We can have an inadequate idea, for example, because we haven’t brought it forth from the nervous state to a lucid state, that we’ve denied it rational cognition and allowed it to sit in the body as if controlling our motives and gestures without being brought to the surface by rational thought. The second type of inadequate idea though is more or less adequate in the world of language and society but proves inadequate to us. It can’t speak for us or through us and though it may seem very lucid and intelligible, it remains inadequate, perhaps even clichéd. In the attempt to turn the former into an adequate idea we have the intensity of a Bacon and in the latter we have the removal of a Brecht. In Bacon, and also Artaud let us say, and Van Gogh, and maybe even Henry Miller, we see the way thought tries to burst through the nervous system into an area of scandalous new possibilities. In the Brechtian manner we have an attempt to break through the clichés and tropes by utilising them in the most self-conscious, even absurd way possible. Thus in Brecht, instead of the gesture which would indicate the action in life in close verisimilitude, we have the gest, which plays like a self-conscious joke at the expense of the gesture.
Both, though, are searches towards a new life, but whatever the violence involved in Grandrieux’s view, what interests him is the bursting forth to new possibilities in being. If he were only interested in the representationally positive, in images of obvious love, obvious friendship and obvious warmth, then the new life might appear too readily ideologically facile, and what’s interesting about the artists we have mentioned in relation to the possibility of an adequate idea out of nervous excitation is their representational pessimism. This is possibly a notion in some ways indebted to Schopenhauer when he argues for example on the centrality of strife in art. In summarizing Schopenhauer’s position in his Introduction to ‘The World as Will and Idea’, David Berman mentions Cinderella. “But why so little space given over to their happy life ever after? Schopenhauer says it would be incredible, even to children, for life is not about happiness or satisfaction, but about desiring, striving, longing, craving, and hence suffering. Moving from low to high art, this is also the reason, Schopenhauer suggests, why Dante’s Inferno is far more convincing than his Paradise. In short, the world is a struggling hell, not a blissful heaven.”
Can we both argue for and against Schopenhauer here? Argue with him in the sense that the new art in its very striving for new representational significance perhaps needs to show in its search for new representations traces of its own breakthrough. So when Bacon says in The Interviews, “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our own existence, we create certain attitudes which give it meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless really.” If an artist is going to strive for new meanings out of a feeling for the void, it is understandable that art is likely to contain more despair representationally than art which, in a respect for already given types of narratives or representational ploys, will seem more optimistic. This could reside in a sense of alienation that comes from being outside one’s time. It’s the Musil comment that one can’t resent one’s era without being swiftly punished by it, if we see being outside one’s time as being outside the already givens of representation. As the artist pushes to express him or herself, and finds the only way to do so is to push into new images, there’s not the anxiety of influence, of Eliot-like expectation in respect of tradition, but of loneliness, madness, alienation, as the self’s unsure of the space he or she opens up. If one’s working not so much from the history of culture that may create a low-key anxiety of influence, but instead from a tight rope hanging over the void, despair in one’s art would appear much more likely than otherwise. Not necessary, we should hasten to add, but entirely probable. It is, as Bacon suggests, trying to generate meaning out of chaos, and can hardly rely on the representationally assumed to achieve its ends.
Does this explain La vie nouvelle’s despair? Yes and no. Yes, from the point of view of representational originality as it pushes the etat civil, the social body, into the desires of the nervous system. Imagine, it seems to say, a world where our values aren’t relatively given out of the thoughts of many years of civilization, but seeks instead meaning in an eternal present, where any notion of the three tenses – past, present and future – lies in excitement, satiation and boredom. And out of this being state we never search beyond this nervous condition. When we talk of a collapse of values, perhaps we can talk of them as Grandrieux explores them here, in the curious creation of an ahistorical being out of an historic moment in time – La vie nouvelle’ is clearly working from recent notions of the liminal between East and West, and even the liminal which has a historical/fictional genealogy – the crossing of the threshold towards the irrational forces of the East, a la Dracula and Nosferatu, as Martine Beugnet touched upon her book Cinema and Sensation.
But we can also work from the perspective that says we’re too kow-towed by representational expectation to get close to fresh ways of thinking and feeling. Is it better to stay with the stale forces that reveal more the social body than the biological one which offers the chaos of the nervous towards new energy and forces? We can say, though, that much of La vie nouvelle’s optimism resides in its respect for representational cinema, which it tries to deform, rather than escaping into the abstract. Just as Bacon worked with the figure and constantly deformed it – creating a semi-abstract expressionism by pushing the figure into disfigurement but not quite into abstraction: if he lost sight of the figure altogether he would destroy the painting – so Grandrieux wants to force narrative and character into their further reaches.
One way of seeing how Grandrieux achieves this i by comparing the film to Lukas Moodyson’s Lilya 4Ever made around the same time. Moodyson’s film also focuses on the liminal and the sexual, as a teenage girl in Russia finds herself prostituted in Sweden. Moodyson’s film though is representationally obvious, as it uses verisimilitude not for ambiguity but for certitude, and the de-realized not for suggestiveness but much more for pathos. The vividly realistic block of flats illustrate Lilya’s going nowhere existence, and the nature of poverty. The fantasy sequences of the angelic little boy, and the slow-mo moments work the audiences’ pathetic feelings but don’t arrive at the ‘optimism’ of new possibilities. There is no creative evolution in Moodyson’s images because he wants to make clear the appalling state of Lily’s life.
Grandrieux is much more given to creating an awful but evolutionarily possible question that wonders what sort of being functions in a liminal world without a past (we have no idea where Melania is from), nor any conceivable future. Where Lilya’s nervous system seems not to be her own, but is merely battered and bruised by those with whom she comes into contact, Melania searches out her own desires even as she’s apparently being brutalized by those around her. In Lilya 4Ever, we’re left in little doubt that Lilya’s being mistreated, and this leaves the viewer with a settled value system even if our nerves are on edge in relation to Lilya’s life. This combination of settled values and raw nerves is exemplified in one scene where the camera takes on Lilya’s point of view as she works as a prostitute. All we see are various men pounding on top of her. But the values remain intact: these are reptilian men taking advantage of an innocent, helpless young woman. In La vie nouvelle the men are ostensibly more reptilian still – the gangster type who beats her, the young American, Seymour, who forces her violently into sex – but we’re still left with this woman who seems to see each act of sexual ‘degradation’ as, perhaps, a purification ritual.
There’s an aspect to Grandrieux’s film that says nothing is given and everything is possible, and this where our nervous system and Melania’s are in tandem. Where Moodyson asks us to feel for the awful predicament of his central character, Grandrieux asks us to share the nervous excitation of his by excluding the sociological and psychological, so that we’re left responding to the (un)given situation. Now if we knew more about Melania’s background – if we knew she was poor and had been abused as a child – then we would be responding to the sociology and psychology as much as to the milieu, as in Moodyson’s film. But what if she isn’t poor, what if this journey into abjection is part of a self-administered rite of passage, would our responses be different? Just as Grandrieux keeps Roscoe’s motives and being outside our ken, so he does the same here with Melania; again there is the subjective state and the incomprehensible situation. If most films create from the objective state subjective motives – like Lilya’s poverty stricken background and her determination to escape from it – Grandrieux shows merely the incomprehensible situations and we’re left to interpret subjective states. It is in this interpretation of subjective states attuned to the nervous condition Grandrieux generates that can again lead to a new life – a new life in the sense that we’re constantly asking questions about the characters’ motives and subsequently forcing ourselves into another’s mind. What the objective criterion does – and this is often naturalism in its crudest form – is to determine for us the conditions of a character’s psychic state.
Indeed the film seems to be hypothesizing a psychology that is even less motivated by reason and more by what Schopenhauer calls the ‘animal will’. In a passage from The World as Will and Idea, he discusses the differences between a properly rational will and an animal will, and offers examples that often seem between the two. Now in many ways we might say most people give sex and desire over to our rational will, allowing for a certain animalistic freedom free play within the act. But what if the animalistic desire takes precedence over one’s being, if the scent, touch, and look of another takes precedence over one’s own constructed identity? Here motive – and do we not so often perceive ourselves as ‘motive constructions’ – gives way to the desiring machine. Is this not what happens to Seymour in the film? Maybe he arrives in a no-man’s land as a sexual tourist, safe in his identity as dollar man who can buy any piece of quality ass. But then he becomes fascinated and then obsessed by Melania, and we watch as his identity deconstructs in the face of passionate obsession. It’s as though his accumulated rational being proves weak next to his animal will.
Now in Lilya 4Ever identity is readily given – be that the innocent decency of Lilya – or the sleaziness of the man who takes advantage of her. Words like passion and desire run through the film only to move the stiff-jointed story from one point to the next. Grandrieux though is fascinated by a movement of desire that moves too quickly for the characters’ sense of self as we witness selves dissolving into desiring states. This doesn’t mean the director negates psychology altogether, but it as though he’s positioned himself on the side of the desiring will and witnesses the fluidity of being in relation to it. It’s a little like filming a disaster movie not from the position of the characters’ fighting the tornado, but the tornado destroying the people.
So, central to the film is a question, and that question resides in how to perceive being. Is it an abject space constantly being opened up to outside forces, by other bodies, by other smells, by other energy forces, or is it a site whereby we make decisions on how to live within this body? And is letting go of this body, allowing numerous others to fuck us, touch us, kiss us, necessarily a failure of will or a way of killing off repression within us that has become second nature? What is fascinating about La vie nouvelle is that it postulates a new condition based simply on a certain kind of logic. Imagine, it proposes, that we’re not beings willed psychologically by parents, family, schooling and our peers, but by desires within us that are stronger than the collective existential accumulation that gives us our social identity. Many of us will have felt this desiring strength versus existential weakness at moments in our lives – the way perhaps we might miss an appointment to make love to a relatively new lover in the afternoon – but it’s as though our own existential accumulation, and the accumulated existential being of those around us, works against the desire becoming all-encompassing. But what if all these co-ordinates were no longer in place?
“I think that man now realizes he’s an accident, that he is a completely futile being?” Bacon suggests in The Interviews. And it’s here perhaps where the existential accumulation should meet the animalistic desires. For maybe if man is too much inclined towards the one or the other – towards pure form or pure sensation – we have futility or meaninglessness. But if we manage to combine our existential accumulation with moments of passion, have we found a healthy balance between being and nothingness? This isn’t of course strictly speaking Grandrieux’s thesis, just as it isn’t Bacon’s. They’re much more interested in the logic proposed by man as an accident, but that doesn’t mean we have to negate what they’re saying, just instead see it as a way station towards a greater health. If Bacon can insist that “all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself” we can just as readily say art has become instead hypotheses and choices: what type of being do we want to become? Should the new life be one based on sheer desire or assumed values, or a combination that moves us into ever newer and fresher areas of choice?