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Pont des Arts

Rites of Passage


To be or not to be; that is certainly the question if we think of Eugène Green’s Pont des Arts, and also Camus’s comment that great art and suicide come from the same place. It is almost as if Green’s purpose resides in the very justification of Camus’ comment without grandiloquently expressing it. For what we have here is a Paris tale of art and culture, but what Green manages to do is suggest that culture is meaningless yet art essential as his central character Pascal looks to escape writing a thesis on Transcendental Materialism in Breton’s work, and eventually finds a degree of transcendental materialism in life instead: he falls in love with the singer on a Monteverdi LP who committed suicide shortly before his fascination with the piece on it. As we see her earlier in the film suffocating under the weight of perfectionism without an apparent purpose, Natacha Régnier’s Sarah seems like she’s looking for that one human encounter Ivan Klima once proposed (in his book Love and Garbage) Kafka so desperately searched out.

Some might argue this is finally audience friendly cinema, with Green mocking high art on the one hand and delivering it to its central character in his moment of need on the other, but this is also a film about the baroque, a movement in art that, as one of the characters here (Olivier Gourmet’s theatre director, Méréville) suggests, manages to contain apparent incompatibles: life and at the same time death, the tangible and the spiritual. for example, and so we might see that Green (who for many years ran a Baroque theatre company of his own) wants the apparent contradiction of high art both mocked and glorified. Yet what is important is that it is mocked generally and glorified specifically. When we witness Denis Podalydes’s fruity and high-minded mandarin, The Unnameable, offering derogatory comments about Sarah’s singing, this is high culture as hysteria, an over-reaction to any hint of a flaw in the material because art has some innate perfection that man tries to attain. But despite Green’s own quite formal and specific visual style (apparent in all his film work, a small oeuvre consisting of several other films including Night After Night, The Living World and The Portuguese Nun) it’s finally where the art comes from, humanly, that matters. He may show the influence of Bresson – in his use of mid-level shots of doors and use of off screen sound –and Oliveira (in the clipped dialogue and his flatly lit tableau framing of characters), but this seems less homage than an attempt to find a de-animated social self: a sort of sociological equivalent of the limitations of being from which art must stem.

In Green’s take, socially man is much less than the sum of the aesthetic parts that can be accessed, and in such an inaccessible state is closer to an automatic response mechanism. When the central character Pascal’s girlfriend imploringly tells him he needs to work on his dissertation, her arguments are consistent with this automatic response to the world, but can’t at all compete with a self that decides to be soulful rather than social. When she says one needs to study and work because when we look at the social mirror we have someone staring back at us, Pascal (Adrien Michaux) wonders if this is just narcissism – shouldn’t we love something other than ourselves? Does the social self just get caught in an endless hall of mirrors with no fixed point of soul sustenance?

So what we have here is social mockery, yet within it personal salvation. Through the character of Podalydès the film manages to show just how successful personal mockery might be to prop up a social self that possesses no underpinning. When Green insists that though “some people felt the scenes with “L’Innommable” were caricature…I always say it’s not caricature, it’s documentary – believe me, with regard to that character, nothing is invented”, we might add that such a character who possesses no interior perspective is a caricature anyway. Sure, Green seems to play up the sheer comic appal, and casts a comic actor in the role, but just as Sarah possesses no outer life, no social reason to live, so the Unnameable possesses no interior reason to exist. Yet that proves no problem if there are enough inner vacated beings around for him to manipulate, enough, if you like, social mirrors to break, and to take especial glee in their shattering. When near the end of the film he tells Pascal that there is no inner meaning to art, he offers it with the certitude that can’t be contradicted by anyone who doesn’t possess that inner meaning him or herself, but that seems laughably naïve to someone who does. And of course by this stage Pascal is such a character – Sarah’s singing of Monteverdi has quite literally saved his existence. As he supposes his own life possesses no meaning, he puts on the record as he tries to gas himself in his flat, and finds that there is enough purpose and meaning in this record to keep him alive. The Unnameable may believe music is less the assuager of the soul than the means with which to decorate one’s house (he lives in a luxurious garden property in Paris, with objets d’art all around him), but Pascal really does believes music can furnish the soul – the only property worth possessing and augmenting.

Pascal brings to mind not only of course France’s foremost theologian, but also Montaigne, when the latter says “poverty of goods is easily cured; poverty of soul, impossible”; and also that “the greatest thing in the world is to know how to be self-sufficient.”  The Unnameable, with his poverty of soul, and Pascal’s girlfriend, with her need for the social mirror, fly in the face of such comments.

Yet if this were all the film happened to be saying, we would admire its message, but wonder why the director went looking for a distinctive way of it. This is where Green is both indebted and distinctive. As we’ve already suggested, there’s a strong hint of Bresson and Oliveira, both filmmakers interested in the needs of the soul over the expression of either a realist aesthetic or a narratively driven verisimilitude. But if Green is less of a radical than either it resides in his use of humour: the distanciation doesn’t always create that curiously other-wordly echo of a Bresson, an indeterminacy of feeling in Oliveira, but a wry sense of nothing being taken too seriously except the sentiment. One uses the word carefully, and it shouldn’t be confused here with the sentimental – which is like an outpouring of sentiment, an emotionally immediate device over a reflective value. Like Bresson and Oliveira, Green wants feeling that isn’t quite a feeling, that isn’t quite the emotional arc we  often find in so many cutesy independent films (Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite) where a sentimental tone replaces a cynical one. Sure Green wants a humorous undercurrent running through the first half of his film to give way to a weightier portent, but this still seems consistent with the humour rather than a counter to it. This might be because the humour isn’t especially cynical no matter if it is mocking – it is humour that creates a perspective rather than offers up characters for caricature. Even the Unnameable and Mereville are presented less for the audience’s amusement, than to illustrate echo chamber personalities, as empty vessels who nevertheless make plenty of noise as they prove culturally significant. Pascal might insist that The Unnameable isn’t of any interest, and that when listening to Monteverdi it wasn’t his piano playing but Sarah’s singing that moved him, but wasn’t it The Unnameable who was behind the project? Green certainly seems to exaggerate the character traits, whatever his claims to the contrary, but if there is a final ambivalence in the presentation it resides in the mandarins who do actually get things done, no matter the odiousness of their personalities, and their destructive influence on others. At one stage Mereville rolls around the floor enacting a theatrical performance to a young gigolo who looks on aghast. No matter how daft the inner life given outer form; there’s still a bureaucratically impressive exterior that seems to get shows rolling: Mereville is an idiot, but he isn’t afraid of looking a fool for what he sees as art.

But of course Green would argue that what matters is less the form of the thing than the feeling which demands form. The Unnameable in the late exchange with Pascal more or less admits this is absent in him – or rather less admits it, which would suggest modest retreat, than insists upon it: insists that art isn’t really about feelings but about formalism.  However, if we return to the Camus comment from the beginning of this piece, shouldn’t art stem from some sense of necessity, some necessary resistance to the nature of the world as it is, and contain the possibility of the world as it might be? With the slightly somnambulant acting style that we also see in Bresson and Oliveira, Green offers a form of being that looks for the resuscitative element of art to animate, to give three dimensionality, to his characters. When a teacher talks to Pascal’s class about an artist’s work and pays ultimate homage to him by insisting on a period of silence, this isn’t the silence where a work of art comes from, but the pomposity from which charlatanism and social superiority stem. When Pascal later insists that he’s following her lead and won’t write a word on Breton, he’s mimicking her reasoning and just adding to the absurdity.

Yet what finally makes Green’s film such an invigorating work is that it manages to convince us of the presence of the inner life no matter its mocking attitude towards outer existence. And he does so by trying to find in art what can give us this inner meaning while at the same time making a film that must be an addition to this type of art. How he achieves the inner feeling through the diegetic resides in his use of Monteverdi, through playing the piece over and over and allowing it to effect not just Sarah as she sings, but more especially others as they listen. There is obviously Pascal, whose life it seems more or less to save, but there is also The Unnameable’s servant, Cedric, (Jéréme Renier), who becomes so moved tears start running down his cheek as he listens to Sarah’s singing. But Green achieves the significance of the inner life non-diegetically also, through a bigger principle the film searches out. Through the acceptance that opposites can co-exist he proposes an inner life that is deeply meaningful with an outer existence which is clearly absurd. When for example Pascal’s about to commit suicide by putting his head in the oven, he goes next door and asks the woman in the bakery if she’ll pop round in half an hour and turn the gas off. There’s the absurdist gesture matched by the inner despair, and Green manages – like the tragi-comic Finn, Aki Kaurismaki – to show how comedy and tragedy can sit side by side without the comic destroying the tragic. It is perhaps even an ontological principle – our external absurdity, our day to day mediocrity, sitting alongside our metaphysical potentiality.

This is partly where Green differentiates himself from Bresson and Oliveira, who take the externality of being straight: they don’t mock it, they accept it. Bresson does so by proposing it is merely a carapace for the soul; Oliveira by often playing up the restricted bourgeois characteristics of his characters to the detriment of agency (Abraham Valley, The Party). But Green is very interested in the humorous gap between the external and the internal, and it is a risk he takes. By mocking much that passes for high art and the needs of the soul, he is in danger of pushing the tone too far into the comic to draw it back enough to arrive at the meaningful. Yet part of the film’s non-diegetic optimism resides in the film’s capacity to work this combination, as if Green wanted to find his very own way of being faithful to the paradoxes of the baroque. When Pascal decides to stick his head in the oven; or when he verbally attacks The Unnameable in the church, we’re aware of his Romantic high-mindedness but at the same time no less aware of the easily perceived pomposity of his stance. Green’s is not by any stretch of the imagination a subjectively skewed view of the world, but rather an austerely humorous perspective that nevertheless allows for the breakthrough of subjectivity.

Thus when the servant cries, when Pascal decides not to kill himself, when Sarah sings, these are moments that break through the surface of the film and are in fact consistent with a certain spiritual austerity critics like Susan Sontag and Paul Schrader perceive in ‘transcendental’ approaches to cinema: transcendental in the sense that there is something bigger than the apparent reality we occupy ourselves with. Sontag says of Bresson in an essay in Against Interpretation that “he does not intend his characters to be implausible, I’m, sure, but he does, I think, intend them to be opaque. Bresson is interested in the forms of spiritual action – in the physics, as it were, rather than in the psychology of souls”. Schrader in Transcendental Style in Film says, “transcendental style is fundamentally just that, a style, it can be isolated, analyzed and defined.” What we have here are the limitations of the psychological on the one hand, and the illustration of the ineffable on the other. Green suggests the needs of the soul over the revelation of character almost by the very framing that Schrader talks about. If most filmmakers visualise their world in such a way that we do not feel an element is missing from it, then actions, goals and appointments are all very well, and the film doesn’t exist within a wider, vague purposefulness. But Green wants this ambiguous meaningfulness: he wants the film to be suggestive rather than assertive, and we see this not only in the manner of the acting and the framing, but also in his approach to coincidence, chance and synchronicity.

Paul Auster, a writer who loves these elements, wondered why critics attacked him for their use, when he believed they were part of daily life. He reckons it is because “they’re so immersed in the conventions of so-called realist fiction, that their sense of reality has been distorted. Everything’s been smoothed out in these novels, robbed of its singularity, boxed into a predictable world of cause and effect.” (The Red Notebook) One way that Green returns the fiction to the mysterious over the ‘realistic’ is by refusing the inevitability of cause and effect once coincidences come into play. Hence both Sarah and Pascal happen to go the same café and happen to be there at the same time on a couple of occasions but never talk. There is of course no reason why they should except for plot logic: the cause and effect that Auster talks about, where characters ‘meet cute’ in Hollywood parlance and then move towards the match made in movie heaven. This is the sort of coincidence a screenwriting guru like David Howard, in How to Build a Great Screenplay, would call ‘unavoidable and necessary ones’ – the chance encounter that sets your story in motion. Later in the same passage on coincidence he mentions the coincidence that turns out to be predestined or motivated, where in films like The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense what the viewer takes to be initially coincidental later turns out to be a surprise twist. When they work well, fair enough, but Adam Mars-Jones in a piece in The Times astutely noticed that this is usually the anti-clock wise twist, where he reckons Fight Club and The Sixth Sense are both ruined by silly self-defeating narrative ploys. Then there are the coincidences beloved of ‘hyperlink’ cinema, where characters paths constantly cross in films that ostensibly suggest the chaos of modern life but more readily reveal the mechanics of plotting. When Howard says ‘unnecessary coincidences are the most aggravating of all,” and goes on to mention “if our protagonist is in New York to find her long lost sister and the first person she meets in the city is married to that sister, it will be completely phony. We won’t buy it for a second. If she goes to a village of fifty people and the first person she meets is married to the sister, it won’t seem so far-fetched.” But what we often have with hyperlink cinema is the coincidences of village life functioning in the large scale space of a city, with Paul Haggis’s Crash a particularly clumsy example. Here his LA set film relies on the sort of coincidences that beggar belief as, for example, the white bigot cop who harasses Thandie Newton turns out to be the very cop who saves her from a nasty crash: a reckless piece of driving brought on by the harassment she received earlier in the film by…the very cop who now saves her life.

We are very far in such instances from the sort of metaphysical possibilities deployed by Green, where he wants not so much narrative coincidence as transcendental opportunities. Here a coincidence, whether it is to set the story in motion, to throw the audience by surprise, or to create hyperlinks, would be of no interest to Green because they are all too grounded. They wouldn’t allow the film to find that fourth dimension of spiritual purposefulness. Thus if Pascal and Sarah hooked up at the café, even through mutual despair, it would still be too close to meeting cute in Hollywood terms. But how can characters meet metaphysically; how can someone find that strange route the central character in Bresson’s Pickpocket so famously journeys along as he finds Jeanne? Coincidences that don’t form into a categorical alliance would be one way; and that is really the approach Green adopts. For example on a couple of occasions it looks like Cedric might be the very figure with whom Sarah could make contact as he sympathetically offers her encouragement after she is verbally abused by The Unnameable. And then, taking time out from the Unnameable’s wrath, she sits in the very café Pascal’s sitting in but no contact is made. In each instance we might be led to think that salvation is just in front of Sarah’s eyes or around the corner, but metaphysical alliances don’t seem to demand meetings as such, but much more spiritual acquaintanceship. What the film needs to do is make us regret less the missed opportunities (which are undeniable) and recognize the gains out of the apparent loss. Part of this is of course metaphysical in the spiritual sense – as the dead Sarah talks with the living Pascal – but it’s also there in the humanly meaningful sense also. For example when Pascal pays a visit to Sarah’s grieving boyfriend, their exchange helps both of them, and inner friendship evolves. It is the sort of friendship that may never require another meeting but that seems like it will sit deeply inside both of them as they discuss Sarah. As Pascal talks about how much of an impression this late woman has made on him, so he captures with his curiously timeless, non-corporeal passion for Sarah a Sarah that perhaps the boyfriend can share too: they might not have been able to share her in life, but they can both share a memory of her. The boyfriend through her formerly living presence; Pascal through the music that gave him his life back.

But we might feel it also works on the structure of the self, as Pascal’s relative petulance earlier in the film evolves into inner purposefulness by the end. We sense the silence his teacher offers as high-minded respectfulness, that he then offers as mocking low-mindedness by not writing anything on Breton, will have the sort of appropriate weight by the film’s end. As he meets up with his ex-girlfriend in the closing stages of the film, long after they’ve parted and where she’s accumulated a new boyfriend,  he has become a young man who knows where his centre lies. Where the girlfriend has continued on the path of least resistance, with a new man and concentrated study, Pascal looks like he will continue on his quest for a much broader sense of self-definition. It is in this a rite of passage film, but it is the rite of passage with the emphasis on the spiritual possibilities of rite rather than passage. It is a question many of us may ask: to what degree has our passage to maturity contained or eschewed the spiritual possibilities in the self? Much art, to return to Camus’ comment, doesn’t seem to come from the same place as suicide, as people making it and receiving it feel no need for its spiritual meaningfulness, evident here in characters like the Unnameable and Mereville. It becomes semi-objectivised and impersonal culture, rather than singularly personal art.  Thus Green’s interest in signs isn’t symbolic – he doesn’t want us to decode the art work, so much as encode ourselves, give ourselves the sort of inner resources Pascal works toward. When talking about a short he made in 2006, called The Signs, Green insisted in Film Comment that “it shows you very clearly what I mean by “signs”: not symbols, not intellectual concepts represented by a character or an object, but rather fragments of the world.” He adds, “I see the world as  puzzle where every element relates to all the others, if you believe that the world has an overall meaning, then everything that you encounter can be seen as a sign that can help us pursue our path.” Such is the personal rite as rite of passage.


©Tony McKibbin