Images of Collapse in French Film
Various British reviewers of the recent French film Polisse commented on the ridiculousness of the film’s final moments, including Dave Calhoun in Time Out, who called its conclusion, “one of the most disastrous endings we’ve seen in a long while”, and Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, who talked of the “wildly bizarre ending”. Concluding on a woman’s suicide as she jumps out of the window, it is not as if this event comes from nowhere, since we’ve seen more than enough throughout the film of the character’s attempt at self-definition: her compulsive exercise and her bulimic encounters in the bathroom. The perceived problem presumably has to do with the film’s melodramatic dimension, and perhaps its narrative acceptance within French cinema and its resistance in British film. After all, if your country has a suicide rate which is “over twice that in Britain and 40% higher than in Germany and America”, according to The Economist, then maybe it allows for suicide as narrative conclusion where it would seem less plausible elsewhere. Yet our purpose here isn’t at all to make some broad sociological generalizations, but to try and explore through a handful of French films the suicidal as narrative possibility and character examination. Neither do we want of course to claim that French cinema has a monopoly on the subject of suicide, since there are other nations with higher suicide rates (Japan for example), and other national cinemas that use suicide for the purposes of narrative development: Indie American films like Ken Park and Girls’ Town, for example, have utilised suicide as the premise for exploring youthful ennui.
No, what interests us here is to take a handful of French films and see how they explore character through a certain collapse of action-oriented behaviour. If most human action moves towards life no matter the end that awaits us all, does the suicidal figure move towards death, the logic of which we can only see after the demise? Each scene will consequently be not so much life affirming as death affirming: it contributes to the reasons for the character’s suicide or suicidal urge, and allows film to explore new avenues of being. In Screenplay, Syd Field quotes Aristotle’s Poetics: “Life consists in action and its end is a mode of action, not a quality”, and adds “that means your character has to be active, has to be doing things, causing things to happen, not just reacting all the time.” But we might think of Al Alvarez’s book on suicide, The Savage God, and Drieu la Rochelle describing his friend Jacques Rigaut’s demise. “This ridiculous act, not absurd (too big a word which might have scared them off), but flat, indifferent, this is how it becomes possible. ‘Going to bed, one morning, instead of pressing the electric light switch, without paying attention, I make a mistake, I pull the trigger.’” Often what films about suicide need to do is find not significant actions, but the means of reaction. It is no formal accident that a filmmaker like Robert Bresson was drawn again and again to the subject of suicide or at least the suicidal and the self-martyring (The Diary of a Country Priest, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Mouchette, A Gentle Creature, The Devil Probably), since he happens to be formally one of the most reactive of filmmakers, much more interested in the reaction to events than the actions themselves. “To move people not with images likely to move us”, he says in Notes on the Cinematographer, “but with relations of images that render them both alive and moving.” What we want to look at here then are French films where distinctiveness of form meets exploration of character, rather as in The Savage God Al Alvarez looked at suicide through the prism of literature. Unlike in Alvarez’s book, however, we aren’t at all interested in the personal lives of Bresson, Philippe Garrel, Claire Denis etc. only the work itself.
Louis Malle’s Le fou follet (based on Rochelle’s novel) offers a melancholic account of a man who no longer wants to live, and fits consistently with numerous films of the time in its interest in the flaneur, or rather the activity of the flaneur without necessarily the bohemian semi-purpose of a Baudelaire. Like Sign of the Lion, Cleo from 5-7, La notte, and The Silence, Le fou follet captures city street-life as a stream from which Maurice Ronet’s character is a fish out of water. Each encounter with friends, acquaintances and people he passes carries within it a far greater significance than it would have if he were not a man planning to end his life, and what the film offers so well is a variation of the Rousseau comment where he talks of a society where men “are forced to caress and destroy one another at the same time” (On The Origin of Inequality), and where this notion becomes all the more destructive when a person is suicidal. It is as though Ronet’s Leroy cannot countenance anything that does not move towards immense tenderness, and Malle reflects this not only in the few sympathetic characters he meets and who are contrasted with the general flux of human selfishness, but also in the intermittent use of Erik Satie on the soundtrack.
Yet one of the questions the film seems to ask is what sort of tenderness might someone require, and perhaps it demands a feeling that is unfamiliar consideration, a certain disinterest that is at the same time the opposite of indifference. As Leroy passes through the film there is a mismatch between his personal bewilderment and the familiarity of most of the people he meets. But whether these friends and acquaintances offer sympathy (like the characters of Eva and Solange, played by Jeanne Moreau and Alexandra Stewart) or judgement – a former acquaintance in a café, the friend who is now married with kids – they seem unable to offer the simple gesture of fellow feeling. This is the kindness of course of strangers, and maybe the most touching moment in the film would appear almost inconsequential. Leroy crosses the road and nearly gets runs over, and a young student with a handful of books helps him get out of the way of a passing car and the books fall on to the pavement as he does so. As he picks them up and Leroy slumps against a tree on the boulevard, so the student asks if he is alright. It is a gesture antithetical to one shortly before in Cafe de Flor, where Leroy feels haunted in one of his old haunts. As he looks from person to person, as he sits with a drink in front of him, all he sees are a series of judgements, and downs his first drink since rehab in one gulp. In such an instance the film captures this tyranny of the other in conventional cinematic terms, but it contains within it a philosophy consistent with Sartrean notions of shame, and interestingly touches upon the problem Sartre saw in Rochelle’s pro-Nazi sentiments. Editing a Nazi inspired review, Rochelle hoped that as “he reprimanded, rebuked and lectured his fellow countrymen…”, they would react, but “no one answered him because no one was free to do so.” (What is Literature?) The other functions not as shaming presence but subtly judgemental absence. It is as though the scene in the cafe plays somewhere in between absent judgement and shaming presence. As Leroy looks around the café he can no longer differentiate from those who judge him and those who are merely sitting in the café passing time. Everything passes through the unease Leroy feels, expressed when he admires the equilibrium of people he knows, “the certainty and peace of mind of these people”, he says: that peace of mind he so clearly lacks.
Leroy’s emotional bewilderment is well captured formally earlier in the film when Leroy and his married friend walk through the streets of Paris, and Malle at one moment shows the two of them standing at a street corner, cuts into the sequence as they walk on, and then cuts back as if they haven’t moved at all. The film reflects in form what the character offers in feeling, and touches upon a basic problem of film in the sixties, where neurotic characters usefully fulfilled aberrant formal requirements that ‘healthy’, functional characters could not. This was the question concerning how to generate a new type of image in post-war cinema. This would of course still be a narrative image, still be interested in intriguing the viewer with questions of character and situation, but the characters and situations would no longer be assertively generated but questioningly suggestive. If we earlier proposed that early sixties cinema was populated by characters walking through the streets of Paris, Rome, Milan and so on, this was still consistent with, if an extension of, the realist turn in film. It reflected a post-war interest in the camera taking to the streets, as we find in any number of neo-realist films like Germany Year Zero and Bicycle Thieves. But what was also prevalent was the presence of the neurotic, the figure of futility, the suicidal, the emotionally unstable: a new set of archetypes for a new type of image. It was not that films before the sixties didn’t have neurotic, futile and suicidal characters, nor even that earlier cinema didn’t hint at this new type of image (Voyage to Italy is a great example of a film that wanted to find a form reflecting the collapsing marriage to which it bore witness). But in classic cinema, in for example the futile existence of the main male character in My Man Godfrey, and the suicidal impulses of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the futility is a state to be countered by narrative evolution, those of the characters in numerous sixties films by Resnais, Godard, Bergman, Antonioni and, in this instance, Malle, disintegrative ones. In other words in the latter films the characters’ feelings of futility and so on aren’t there to be arced into accomplishment and happiness, but instead towards a comprehension of the given state itself: of the feelings of purposelessness, lassitude, neurosis. The brilliant My Man Godfrey is not about personal futility, but personal futility is used to generate an ironic narrative: with the wealthy who take him in as a servant believing he is from poor stock, only to realize by the end of the film that his family wealth is greater than theirs. Equally, the deservedly classic It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t explore Bailey’s suicidal feelings; the purpose is to allow George to see how significant he happens to be in the small town in which he was brought up and never quite managed to leave. It is a though in each instance these fine examples of classic Hollywood function a little similarly to Leroy’s friend: as films that want to change the central characters, while Leroy asks merely to be left as he is. The sixties films echo Leroy’s sentiment in form and content: they try and find a mode in which to acknowledge despair on its own terms, and not those of narratively arced optimism.
Probably few filmmakers more than Bresson have concerned themselves with this question of the suicidal, as he allows it to take various forms in his work. Sometimes it is very direct, as in Mouchette, with the title character rolling down a hill and into the water at the end of the film, or in A Gentle Creature, where Dominique Sanda’s central character throws herself out of a window. Sometimes it is indirect, as in The Trial of Joan of Arc, where Joan ‘suicidally’ refuses to accept the dictates of the court and would prefer to die, and in The Devil, Probably, where our truculent hero asks a friend to shoot him as he no longer wants to live in a world with such horrible, environmental pollution. In The Diary of a Country Priest, the eponymous character slowly allows himself to die as he does little to attend to his consumption, living off a diet of bread soaked in cheap wine. In both Au Hazard Balthazar and L’Argent, the film follows the movement of a donkey and a bank note respectively, as we witness human interactions that indicate species behaviour that is suicidal to the human spirit. “The only things that matter are invisible,” Bresson says. “Why are we here? What are life and death? Where are we going? Who’s responsible for the miracle of animal and vegetable life?” (Projections 9) When Bresson reckons “once upon a time, we had everything. Now we have nothing” (Projections 9), this absence lies in the visible taking precedence over what cannot be seen, as cause and effect and the developments of technology remove the possibility for the spiritual. Is it any wonder that if the spirit has been given over so completely to matter that someone might choose to escape life and hope to find the spirit in the beyond?
Bresson’s suicidal problematic is not at all the same as Malle’s in Le feu follet, where, according to Malle, “it doesn’t really approach the problem of suicide in terms of sin or guilt. It’s an existential film because it just observes the behaviour of somebody who, in a way, is close to some other characters in my films – although he is almost thirty he is still very much an adolescent.” Bresson’s characters aren’t adolescents; they are children of God. As Paul Schrader puts it in Transcendental Style in Film: “Intertwined with the abjuration of the body in Bresson’s films is the vexing problem of suicide: if the body enslaves the soul, why not destroy the body and be free?” Schrader goes on to quote St Ambrose: “Let us die, if we may leave, or if we be denied leave, yet let us die. God cannot be offended with this, when we use it for a remedy.” If for Malle suicide is the existential solution; for Bresson it is metaphysical remedy: the means by which to escape a world which allows so little place for the spirit. In Le feu follet, Malle uses numerous examples of the judgemental close-up, with Leroy feeling that he is being shaped into an existence that he feels cannot be his own. A passage from Sartre’s The Age of Reason could easily fit into the film’s problematic: “I’m getting old. Here I am lounging in a chair and believing in nothing. And yet I also wanted to set out for a Spain of mine. But it couldn’t be fixed…I am my own taste, I exist. That’s what existence means: draining one’s own self dry without the sense of thirst. Thirty five years. For thirty five years I have been sipping at my self and I’m getting old.” Thirty five was the very age Ronet happened to be when shooting Le feu follet, and of course various people in the film comment on his no longer youthful self. Central to the film is the physical; not the metaphysical.
In Au Hasard Balthazar, the suicidal resides less in the individual than in the social, as if the environment in which the characters interact, and where a donkey gets passed from one character to another and suffers various iniquities, can generate no spirit but only life. In such circumstances death comes as a relief, and that is how the donkey’s demise is presented at the end of the film. As Bresson films in his usually constrained style, so he gives actions not their neurological and physiological justification, but shows them as spiritually devoid. When one character sets fire to Balthazar’s tail, or when Anne Wiazemsky’s character expresses a love for the young man responsible for the deed, Bresson demands from the actors not demonstrative feeling, but its opposite. He could have shown the young man frustrated, just as he could have shown his lover passionate, but instead Bresson wants to explore higher case notions of evil through suspending, making ‘unrealistic’, the lower case actions of the characters. Bresson’s work is like an inversion of Dostoyevsky (whom he adapted twice and was clearly inspired by once). Where the writer offers figures of nervous energy; Bresson gives us people of muted responses. As he says, “models mechanized externally, internally free. On their faces nothing willful. ‘The constant, the eternal beneath the accidental’”. (Notes from the Cinematographer) Why focus so strongly on the physical action when it is but a minor element to the eternal taking place inside the person? One could say that Malle offers Leroy realistically while Bresson presents people unrealistically, but this would be like offering a value judgement and leaving aside the more important question of a different problematic. Malle wants existentially to explore Leroy’s life; Bresson wants metaphysically to explore the lives of his spiritual figures traced in light.
Bresson’s method requires not only a different approach to acting and narrative, but also a different approach to the camerawork, editing and most especially sound. When asked why he always used a fifty millimetre lens, and would sometimes leave the background blurred, Bresson replied that it was partly because it was the sound that could give the image depth, “because it is sound that gives distance and perspective”. (Projections 9) But perhaps this distance and perspective is not only a question of pro-filmic space, of cinematic space that includes the out of frame, but more that the distance and perspective Bresson chooses alludes to the spiritual rather than the spatial. When many filmmakers utilise off-screen space their purpose is to expand the geography of spatial perception. They can use off-screen sound to indicate planes taking off in the non-visible distance, birds tweeting on trees, conversations taking place in a cafe and so on. Bresson’s sound design is often more metaphysically suggestive. Certainly in A Man Escaped the sound serves a pragmatic off-screen function, as the central character is trapped in prison and attentive to the sounds beyond his immediate vicinity. But more often the sound doesn’t open up the off-screen space but instead closes down the onscreen one. In the axe murdering sequence in L’Argent, we hear a dog off screen that will of course prove vital to the sequence later as it barks its way through witnessing the central character’s murderous actions, with the film focusing on the dog over the representation of the murders.
In many a filmmakers’ work, off-screen sound contributes to expansive spatial possibility. Even if we do not see what we hear – planes flying overheard etc. – we sense a space far greater than the on-screen image because the director wants us to imagine a milieu in which the image is but a part of the whole space captured. Michel Chion in Audiovision talks of the three “acousmatic zones”: “the offscreen, onscreen and non-diegetic”( the space outside the story as in music on the soundtrack, or voice-over), with Chion later talking of the notion of extension in relation to on and off-screen sound. “Extension of the sound environment is our designation for the degree of openness and breadth of the concrete space suggested by sounds, beyond the borders of the visual field, and also within the visual field around the characters.” Bresson will extend sound beyond the visual field, but not especially to suggest the breadth of the visually implied, but for the purposes of visual claustrophobia. It is as though the sound of the dog doesn’t indicate the off-screen, but crowds the on-screen space. We don’t so much wonder where the dog happens to be in the house, but hear the dog as a presence gnawing away at the edge of the frame. This use of sound is equally valid for Lancelot du Lac, where the sounds of the horses braying in the background invade the image more than imply the extended visual space that we find in many films invoking the off-screen. Even in A Man Escaped, the off-screen space makes us think of it through the on-screen character’s confinement. If as Mark Cousins (in Widescreen) and others have astutely noted that Bresson’s films concern themselves with the problem of imprisonment in all its manifestations, then vital to this contained perspective is sound that might be off-screen but that isn’t quite extended into the off-screen space, but contracts the on-screen world.
Bresson’s metaphysical cinema asks how does one show the body locked up in its own spiritual problematic. “Models. No ostentation. Faculty of gathering into himself, of keeping, of not letting anything get out. A certain inward configuration common to them all. Eyes.” Unlike Malle’s Leroy, Bresson’s characters cannot find their problem in the existential and die through the nature of that problem. It would not be unfair, even if it would be an oversimplification, to say that Leroy kills himself because he knows that drink permeates his life as Sartre explored the way smoking permeated his in Being and Nothingness, and once again indicates the existential. “A few years ago I was led to stop smoking. The beginning was rough, and in truth, I did not so much care for the taste of tobacco that I was going to lose, as for the meaning of the act of smoking. A whole crystallization had taken place. I used to smoke at performances, mornings, at work, evenings after dinner, and it seemed to me that in ceasing to smoke I was going to subtract some of the interest of the performance, some of the evening dinner’s savour, some of the fresh vivacity of the morning’s work.” As Malle follows Leroy through what in his past would have been a typical day, so one would see how central drinking would be to this rhythm. Leroy more or less admits as much at the beginning of the film, where he acknowledges if he enters his old milieu he won’t be able to stay sober: the old habits die so hard that his own death might be easier than giving up the addiction.
So far we’ve explored the existential and the metaphysical approach to filmic suicide, but what about Denis Lavant’s possible suicide at the end of the Beau travail? Director Claire Denis offers us a sensuous, perhaps even a sensual suicide: a death that comes out of the vital limitations of a life given over to the militaristic. Denis shapes her film around the fragmentary exploration of bodies, but in a style very different from Bresson. Where Bresson offers a spiritual problem and thus contains the bodies within an immaterial hunger the characters often cannot quite see or express, in Beau travail, Denis explores the physical through images that turn the world into sensuous enquiry. In one scene Galoup (Denis) gets told by his senior, Forestier (Michel Subor), that he will be ejected from the foreign legion, and the scene is a long-take medium long-shot, with the discussion heard against the sound of the sea in the background. As Chion notes, though sound is rarely used arbitrarily in film, we understandably credit source sound with more fidelity to the image than sound manipulated into the images after the event. However, this doesn’t mean that all source sound is equal. “Many people consider location sound not only the sole morally acceptable solution in filmmaking but also the one that simplifies everything, since it eliminates the problem of having to make choices.” But, as he says, “it seems obvious that [Eric] Rohmer [for example] in his soundtracks sniffs out and chases away any anecdotal sound – whether it’s the kind that’s recorded accidentally by the location mike, such as beeps and honk, sirens, shouts, or other noises, or whether it’s the kind of anecdotal sound usually added intentionally later in the mix, in accordance with certain codes, habits and clichés.” Taking this into account we notice that Denis builds a sensuous soundtrack that will make us wonder about what we might call the sensually peripheral. As others in the foreign legion live a sensual life in a world where the legionnaire is militaristically semi-futile, so the veteran Galoup seems to lead a much more mechanical one, as if the sounds and images that make up the texture of the film are lost to him when he experiences them alongside all the others while still in the legion, but that come back to him like a sensual haunting when it looks at the end of the film as if he will take his own life.
The story hinges on Galoup’s banishment from the legion after he jealously tries to eradicate Sentain when the latter receives the favour of the troop’s aforementioned commander Forestier. Sentain is the young recruit capable of allowing the textures of the world to impact upon him, and whether it is dancing in a nightclub or sitting in the sun, Sentain is a figure of epicurean pleasure next to Galoup’s human militaristic hardware. As Denis fragments her film into moments of intense experience, so at the same time can we see, at the film’s conclusion, that they can also be events couched in the context of Galoup’s memories and imaginings. It’s as if while Galoup is suicidal because his identity cannot hold in the absence of his legionnaire duties, so the film finds a form in which to suggest that there is another life that might save him. The film is like a palimpsest – with the legionnaire world of hard toil covering a layer of sensual possibilities that Galoup could not see before, but might be able to see as a man confronting the body’s most basic element as he thinks, with gun in hand, killing himself.
Much of Beau travail’s mystery comes from its editing, from the viewer piecing together its causes and effects, and while it is tempting to reduce the film to the categorical memory fragments of Galoup, it is perhaps better to see it as a film creating the space for such interpretation but one that hardly demands it. As Denis says, “I tend to like the way in which the actors and actresses I work with move their body – they have a sort of a harmony. I don’t try to aestheticise this, but simply to allow the camera, and the viewer, to be with them physically. When you are casting an actor you immediately feel the presence that the body expresses, even if the actor is shy. But I don’t look at bodies, I look at people.” (Quietus) Beau travail works partly because of this interest in bodies but equally the film’s fascination with people. Perhaps if it were only about people (in this instance Galoup) one would see a fascination with subjectivity, and see events as the grouping of Galoup’s memories. But there are also the bodies, the feeling that Denis wants not to corral them into a resentfully confused point of view, but hint at their autonomy, perhaps so Galoup can also hint at his own. The film concludes not on Galoup’s suicide, but on a moment in a nightclub where he manically dances to ‘Rhythm of the Night’. This could be a moment much earlier in the film where we see him in the same clothes, but it could also be one where he fantasises escaping the limitations of his legionnaire mindset and finds a baggier sense of being.
No such freedom exists for Parisian architect Serge in Philippe Garrel’s Le vent de La nuit. Here is a man living undeniably in the present (the film offers no flashbacks and the chronology is strictly adhered to), but for whom the past is a constant haunting. He is a figure from 1968 and its failures, and a man who has lost his wife in the indeterminate past, and who cannot see much point in working on architectural projects no matter his reputation. If the subject of suicide for Malle and Denis was an occasional narrative possibility, Garrel is like Bresson – a filmmaker fascinated by the suicidal as a means by which to shape a film. Sometimes the suicides are undeniable (as in Le berceau de cristal, Le vent de la nuit and Frontier Dawn), sometimes drug-induced as in Sauvage innocence and Les amants regulier, but its likelihood haunts most of the director’s work – though for reasons very different from Bresson’s. If Bresson’s films indicate an escape from this world into another shaped by the metaphysical possibilities of a higher cause, Garrel’s films are populated by characters as lost causes, as people who are creatures of the night, seeking to disappear into, often through heroin, a retreat from work, commitment and purpose. They disappear into a haze of undifferentiated being, and at the same time often possess an inability to extricate themselves from a loved one. It is as though some notion of the undifferentiated manifests itself as an oceanic feeling with another, so that the world collapses through the combination of drugs and love. In Les amants regulier, the central character falls deeply in love with someone he meets at a party after the political events of 1968, and also falls deeply into the use of heroin. If Malle searches out existential suicide, Bresson the suicidally metaphysical, and Denis the corporeally suicidal, Garrel seems interested in the oneiric suicide: suicidal possibilities that come out of retreating from society into a dream-like, drug induced existence where death is the final sleep and perhaps the great, deep dream. Is this what happens to Louis Garrel’s character at the end of Les amants reguliers as he dies a drug-induced, lovelorn death in a chapter that begins with the words, “the sleep of the just”?
Many of Garrel’s films are seen as autobiographical, and he often casts lovers or members of his own family. More than half a dozen seventies works starred Garrel’s long-term lover of the decade, Nico; in later films his father (Maurice) and his son Louis appeared. But Garrel’s distinctiveness lies not in the autobiographical, but in the thematically specific as he searches out the problem of living couched by the possibility of death. It is as though heroin for Garrel is the halfway house between life and death, a nightmare or a dream, a means of escaping from this world without quite entering the beyond. In Le vent de la nuit, Serge is no longer a heroin addict, but when he says he lives in the world as it was and not how it is, this seems to be a comment that is both political and personal, and contained within both would be the drugs he used to take. As we see him blinking in the light, his face as if ravaged by the nocturnal, so this is a man living a waking life but doing so without point or purpose. The only purpose he has is towards his own death, and when he visits his wife’s graveside in Berlin, it is perhaps more a hello rather than another goodbye – will he not soon be joining her in a world beyond this one? Earlier in the film we’ve seen him prepare for his own death. Garrel’s is a suicidal aesthetic loosely akin to the Romantics as described by Alvarez: “Before the craze for Werther, suicide for reasons more high-minded than money was thought to be a lapse of taste: now it was more than exonerated, it was fashionable”.
Garrel’s cinematic style owes something to Bresson, but his interest is much more with faces, where Bresson was of course famous for his concern with hands and feet and midriffs. Garrel often searches a face looking not for its motivational possibilities, but for its suicidal instinct: for what it will reveal about a character’s desire to leave the world rather than its purposeful actions in staying in this one. In a great scene from Les amants regulier, we see Francois (Louis Garrel) lying across the couch, while others dance to The Kinks’s ‘This time Tomorrow’. It is as if this shot, inserted into a sequence that concentrates on the others dancing, alludes to Francois’s time tomorrow, his own death that the film foretells in this arbitrary shot that might be wondering in the words of the Kinks’s song: will we still be here? Visually it looks like a variation of the famous ‘Death of Chatterton’ by Henry Wallis: a painting showing the 17 yr old Romantic poet Thomas Chatterton’s suicide.
The scene also resembles a moment from Garrel’s previous film Sauvage innocence, where in the film within the film the characters dance to Van Morrison’s ‘Friday’s Child’, and the scene ends with a cutaway to the character that will die of a heroin overdose later in the film. In each instance Garrel shows the life force through the music, but a hint of the death-drive through apparently arbitrary cuts to characters that have little purpose in the scene itself except as thematic underpinning and suicidally inclined foreshadowing. We cannot watch such Garrel films without seeing suicide and the beyond as the pull behind the films, and so Garrel’s break with the sensory-motor schema in Les amants reguliar and Sauvage innocence consists of trying to find a form for the death-drive over the life-drive.
Both The Adversary and Time Out also wonder about this death drive, but base themselves on a particular case. In the early nineties, Jean-Claude Romand, after half a life of lying, shot dead his wife and children, set fire to the house, took a bottle of Nembutal and waited for death. Romand didn’t die, but he clearly wanted to, and Romand seemed to represent a horrible variation of Alvarez’s comment on Cesare Pavese that “a suicide of this kind is born, not made.” Was Romand an example of the suicide made, not born, someone who after starting to lie at medical school continued to do so for the rest of life? Romand never qualified as a doctor, even though his wife, friends and family all thought he worked for the World Health Organisation. Instead he was accumulating a parallel existence, one in which debts piled-up and subterfuge was piled on top of subterfuge. It was a horrible house of cards in which his entire family was implicated, and so Romand set on fire the literal house in which he was living after killing his loved ones.
A very fine and important book, The Adversary, by Emmanuel Carrere, also lead to the two film adaptations mentioned: one a close account of Carrere’s book (though the central character goes by the name of Jean-Marc Faure) by Nicole Garcia that takes the book’s name, and the other a fictionalised version by Laurent Cantet, Time Out. The films aren’t only distinctly different in the story they tell (The Adversary follows the case closely; Time Out concludes very differently), but also in their form. Garcia adopts a flashback structure that starts with the present and moves back and forth in time. Time Out is a chronological account that relies instead on one significant ellipsis. Where The Adversary casts Daniel Auteuil as a man physically very dissimilar to Romand, Time Out looks for an accuracy in appearance that it foregoes in the delineating of the story: Aurelian Recoing has the balding pate and a rounder head that allows him to bear a passing resemblance. Auteuil’s more angular, harsher features, and the full head of hair, indicate a different figure altogether. Equally, while The Adversary follows the actual story; Time Out looks for a slightly different angle on the same problematic. As it shows Vincent’s life is crumbling in on itself, so Vincent returns home in a moment of immense vulnerability and we may wonder whether he will burst into tears and hug his family, or blow up in a rage and kill them. Cantet searches out the ambiguity of response as if determined to be true to the instincts that led Carrere to write his book, but without feeling under any obligation to be faithful to it: Romand’s time out may have been over many years; but Vincent’s seems only to have been seven months. But both are investigatory but in different ways. When Carrere wrote to Romand in prison he said, ‘Monsieur, my proposal may well offend you… I am a writer, the author to date of seven books. Ever since reading about your case in the newspapers I have been haunted by the tragedy of which you were the agent and sole survivor. I would like to try to understand as much as possible of what happened and to make a book out of it”. He added, “I am not approaching you out of some unhealthy curiosity or a taste for the sensational. What you have done is not in my eyes the deed of a common criminal, or that of a madman, either, but the action of someone pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces, and it is these terrible forces I would like to show at work.” (The Adversary) Much of the mystery of Carrere’s book comes from the constant enquiry in the writer’s prose, as he keeps exploring new elements of Romand’s past life. In film this is much harder to do and usually demands flashbacks than can remove the inexorable. By setting the film over a matter of months, Cantet wants not to explore the life but merely follow a short period of it. If the film were set over many years, we would understandably wonder how he managed to keep funding his unemployed life whilst retaining a standard of living that would have been comfortably middle-class. To do so wouldn’t have made the film implausible (after all, Romand did exactly this) but it might have been dramatically debilitating: that the explanation would have undermined the story’s unremitting chronology. As the film moved into flashback, so the tension of the character’s present predicament could have got lost to past tense justification. This works wonderfully well for Carrere’s meditative study, but would have diluted the chronological compactness of Cantet’s film: a work of inexorable movement over meditative exploration. Cantet looks closely at the surface of Vincent’s life, but he doesn’t choose to get underneath it, and it is in the decisions he makes that we are expected to understand the nuances of Vincent’s character. While Vincent is quite happy to take advantage of those with spare capital, when a friend with only a small amount of savings wants in on Vincent’s get-rich quick deal (which is of course nothing the sort, but instead money to fund Vincent’s lie) he tries to dissuade him, and later gives him the money back with interest, though of course no interest has been made.
It was as though Cantet wanted to play fair to this ambivalence of character, and maybe often the problem with true life adaptations is one not too far removed from generic works: that both create in the viewer an expectation of event. In the genre film it might be the showdown in the western; in the horror, the likelihood of a character getting bumped off when they go into the woods on their own; in the sci-fi that the person they loved is an android. In the true story it might be waiting for Muhammed Ali to beat George Foreman against the odds; knowing that George VI will control his speech impediment when it comes to an important address to the people, that David Helfgott will master Rachmaninoff and return to the concert hall despite all the mental health problems along the way. In such instances, in the true life story, dramatic license often coincides with generic expectation as feeling. The genre film might be based on the conventions of fiction, and the true story move towards the high point of biographical info, but the viewer’s assumption is basically the same. One awaits the set-piece, be it biographical or generic. Cantet removed the real life murders and removes also the real life history that led Romand to spend many years taking time out, and concentrates it into a melancholic period of a few months. Consequently, the true life gets concertinaed into a densely compacted hiatus (which removes the dramatically deadening impact of justifying flashback, which makes Garcia’s film less memorable), while the eschewal of dramatic expectation (the murders) removes the horrible equivalent of the generic expectation: when are we going to get the character murdering his family. What Cantet needs to search out is the problem of taking time out as narrative dead time and sensory-motor inaction.
Thus Cantet seems to want the sort of ambivalence Carrere talks of, understanding that while the true story led to the actual atrocity, nevertheless fiction can use its dramatic license not to create the even more conventional, but instead the more fruitfully ambiguous, for example in the need for a character to lie not for manipulative ends but survivalist ones. Vincent lies to retreat from society and this may well lead to his demise, but not inevitably so. The film plays up the idea of the mythomaniacal suicidal, but not to the certitude of his death. Cantet’s figure can still choose, unlike the actual figure that must kill his family. But this is part of the socio-political purpose behind Cantet’s film, as he says though Vincent survives and the family also, nevertheless “I think he might as well be dead at the end of the film; life is not exciting anymore. He’s just doing what other people expect him to do, and he doesn’t have the courage to go on fighting.” (Cineaste, XXVII) It is as though for Cantet the mythomania possesses a heroic dimension, a refusal to accept the social conventions, no matter if doing so requires the creation of a parallel universe. If in Garrel’s work the characters escape this world through the oneiric, and makes one think if the Romantics, Vincent escapes through the mythomaniacal and invokes the criminal. His heroic gesture is contained by the criminal sense of duplicity. The criminal, apart from any crimes he commits that damages the well-being of others, also creates an inevitable schism in himself as he becomes not only a thief, but also a liar. He is not unique in creating this division – and it might be the rare individual who can claim that they do not possess this schism at all – but it is an inevitable byproduct of criminality if the person doesn’t want to get caught.
With Vincent in Time Out and Jean-Marc in The Adversary, though, it is the lie that produces the crime, not the crime which produces the liar. These are characters that have to lie their way out of situations, but also have to fund a life they set in motion which starts with duplicity. Vincent for example does so by claiming to be a UN bureaucrat in charge of development, but makes his money from illegal business schemes and involvement in the black market economy. Here we have sensory-motor reversal where instead of the criminal activity demanding dishonesty as the criminal sets out to rob a bank, for example, in the classic example of the heist – with films from Rififfi to la Circle rouge classic examples of sensory-motor cinema, tightly-plotted, planned and executed – we have the emptiness of the life, and the filmic need to find a correlative for that void. When Carrere says in an interview with Gaby Wood in The Observer that he could see similarities with Romand and himself, he did so partly because Carrere as a writer and Romand as a person leading a double life lived much of their existence in solitude, in empty time and space. The correlative for Garcia in The Adversary is to try to find this inexplicable dimension in time – through relying on the structure of flashback. For Cantet, however, he is more interested in the problem of space, and perhaps consequently arrives at the more interesting film.
It is as though he thought the best way to capture this sensory-motor inertness was to create non-spaces to reflect non-being. One uses non-places here in the sense that Marc Auge utilizes the term in Supermodernity. “Non-places are the real measure of our time; one that could be quantified – with the aid of a few conversions between area, volume and distance – by totaling all the air, rail and motorway routes…the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets…” Vincent is a figure of non-places not least because he must be nowhere so that he can be assumed to exist somewhere. His lying isn’t only readily temporal – he will tell people how his job is going, what he did at work, people he met and so on – it is most especially, in Cantet’s film, spatial. He has to cease to exist for most of the day in the eyes of the people who know him, so needs to find places as anonymous as possible to hide from plain sight. If spaces (high streets, pubs, cafes, churches and theatres) are places of communal recognizability), the non-place allows for spatial anonymity. Whether it is a UN style company offering development in Third World countries, or sitting in the car in a car park, Vincent is somebody who seeks the anonymity of shadows even in broad daylight. His is a modern solution to a modern problem: for many people they feel their work environment alienates them from others (often commuting from place to place, working in anonymous offices with numerous members of staff they couldn’t possibly know or name, and feeling that they are invisible figures in the facelessness of contemporary bureaucratic existence). But a man like Vincent can turn these negatives into positives, or an ever more deeper negative. As Carrere’s claims, “I think he felt trapped, and that it would have been a great relief to him to be discovered. At each stage the consequences became greater. At the beginning it was a little lie, then his wife might have asked for a divorce; later, because of his dodgy financial dealings, he might have had a brief stint in prison. But nothing more than that. And it never happened. His luck was his terrible misfortune.” (The Observer)
Equally, the reified work life many people lead allow Vincent to live it as a fiction. If society had been structured in a different way, more attentive to work colleagues, more focused on small business where everyone knew everybody else, could such lies be sustained? Cantet’s previous film was Resources Humain, where he explored the work environment from the shop floor, and the conflict between a father who was a union man and his college educated son, a son who comes in to lay off workers. Maybe Cantet made it a father and son story no matter the contrivance because it captured the problem of the personal and the public life, privacy and employment: where the anonymity of work feeds in to, and creates, an anonymous sense of self privately also. The father and son are in danger of become strangers to each other as the work the son is expected to do estranges him from everyone else.
Equally Vincent becomes estranged from everyone also. As Carrere says of Jean-Claude, even though at one moment during his student days Romand tells everyone he has cancer in an attempt to win his girlfriend back who had left him, his fellow medical students never asked him in detail about this disease he had fictionally conjured up. Is this merely human discretion, or does it segue into a very basic lack of interest in other human beings when we are structured by elements other than the human: when we are perceived to be no more than human resources? When Fredric Jameson once noted that “in that simpler phenomenological or regional sense, place in the United States today no longer exists, or more precisely, it exists at a much feebler level, surcharged by all kinds of other more powerful but also more abstract spaces” (Postmodernism), is this true also even of France, and does this feebler level architecturally also show itself at a feebler level of human interaction? If society keeps creating non-spaces is it also consequently creating non-being?
This isn’t to wax lyrical about the past; more to try and understand something of a present problem that can create a figure liked Romand. While Garcia’s film utilizes flashback and takes it in the direction of the psychological; Cantet focuses on the present and allows the film a strong spatial, architectural dimension, but both take off from Carrere’s existential enquiry that asks how can a lie be sustained for so long, and how, in filmic terms, can the problem escape from the convention of sensory-motor cinema that underpins actions lying in conventional causes. As Carrere says, “the lie wasn’t covering up anything else. We all know stories about people who lead double lives, but here there was no double life – hiding behind the lie was nothing but a total void”. (The Observer) The mythomoniacally suicidal person is perhaps quite different from someone who lies to get what they want. The latter still falls into the sensory-motor schema, and the thief, the con-artist, the embezzler who dissembles, does so with the possibility of tangible gains, but Romand seemed to sustain what was essentially a collapse of identity and meaning that he retained for twenty years. This was a man on the road to nowhere, rather than someone going somewhere, and what his life reflects is the abyss of meaning that stares anybody in the face if they lose faith in the real. But imagine sustaining that fiction for half of your existence: how can one trust in such common notions as transparency, depth, integrity and any number of words that however we might question them intellectually, people often live by emotionally? Many of these words must have sounded very hollow to Romand, but he lived within them, committing not quite suicide, but living instead a suicidal life. It is the life of the epistemological revenant, the figure travelling through time and space aware that words have a different meaning to him than for others. The Adversary and especially Time Out, capture this revenant epistemology, and this is why we might reverse the Alvarez comment concerning Pavese. These are potential suicides not born but made, made in the lie that then creates its own horrible logic. Whether it is the scene as he watches his friend’s family one evening from outside their apartment block, or the anonymity he seeks wandering through a UN building, Romand serves for Cantet a great metaphor for the worker’s reification. Where many an employee feels their time is stolen by work; Romand’s absence of employment means that the lack of a job makes him a semi-spectral figure. Where a great documentary like Chronicle of a Summer explores one man’s observation about the working week as he says he might only be working part of the day but his whole life is structured around this labour, Romand has no work but consequently not quite a life either. He’s the living dead, and whether it is certain moments where Vincent, sharing a drive with another shadowy outsider, is framed like a Rembrandt painting with the light falling only on his face, or the red lips against pale skin, there is a vampiric, other-worldly quality here. The mythomaniac, like the vampire, lives between two worlds: not the living and the dead, but the actual and the virtual.
Finally, what about Seul contre tous and Le vie revee des anges, with the first indicative of the monomaniacal suicide, and the latter the hubristically suicidal? In Gaspar Noe’s film the central character is a butcher whose interior monologue runs throughout in voice-over, all the while Noe’s images reflect in their wide-screen, wide-angle jaundice no exit from the man’s rabid ramblings. As he beats his mistress to a miscarriage, as he runs out of money and can’t find a job, as he seems to sexually abuse his daughter and prepare to take his own life, so Noe wants to create a suffocatingly enclosed world, a personalized universe that will take us beyond the good and evil of moral coordinates, and into one where, as the title suggests, it is one man against all. The butcher’s mind isn’t so much imbalanced (though in many ways it is), but his view of the world is mimicked so carefully by the director that we cannot easily find the space for a perspective on the butcher. Often Noe partially frames a figure, as if reflecting the metonymizing instinct of a man who refuses to see the world whole, and who sections it off into little parcels of prejudice, masticating on the view that life is a Hobbesian hell that is of course poor nasty, brutish and short, but also, in Hobbes’ words where “the condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”. (Leviathan) Few films have gone further into showing formally the condition of man against man, with Noe indicating no exit in the shot choices and the insistent voice over as well as in the very format chosen. Noe shot the film in 16mm and blew it up to 35mm to give the film its grainy look, and the widescreen format utilized gives the impression of a man in a coffin. There are many films that show an inclination towards the point of view of one character – from Taxi Driver to The Long Goodbye, from Rear Window to La collectioneuse – but few films hold us so strongly in the headlock of monomaniacal perspective as Noe’s does. Its escape from sensory-motor action doesn’t at all make the butcher passive as we would often expect, but more it’s as if the character is driving the wrong way down a one way street: a purposeful pointlessness, a suicidal singularity.
Noe’s cinematic influences seem more American than European; he appears more inclined towards the violent imaginings of a Kubrick, Scorsese or Peckinpah than the meditative musings of the Nouvelle vague. Noe might say dismissively that “more and more directors in France are trying to copy Kubrick, Scorsese and Peckinpah”, but nobody is doing so more than Noe – and nobody with more originality. The break with the sensory motor schema contains within it a respect for its manipulations and even its gimmicks. Noe doesn’t only draw from the high points of American film, but also the cinematic slums too: with William Castle’s device warning viewers to leave the cinema before things become really scary utilized in Seul contre tous. As Noe says, “We all know that the cinema is a game played by the people who make films with the people who watch them.” But it is also a means by which a problematic can be explored and worked through, and few films have better captured the monomaniacally suicidal than Noe’s.
Noe’s butcher survives, though in an ambivalent conclusion suggesting just as he is about to blow his brains out, an epiphany takes place indicating the previous ten minutes or so have been a reverie and not a reality. In La vie revee des anges, the sensory-motor problem is split in two, between Isa and Marie. Both are young people at loose ends, but where Isa moves from situation to situation in her active life with purpose, and in her emotional life with compassion (she befriends a young woman in a coma), Marie wants simply to tie the knot – she becomes obsessed with a wealthy local in Lille whom she hopes will give her the good life. She doesn’t want to work: when Isa and Marie audition for a job where they have to impersonate someone famous, Isa throws herself into the show; Marie looks like she doesn’t quite know how to be herself let alone anyone else. But hers is a curiously hubristic suicide, as if she feels she needn’t act in the world but is entitled to be shaped positively by it. She thinks the local beau is her dream life, while Isa knows that life is potentially as harsh and cruel as the Hobbesian, but one can also help shape its trajectory for the better, even if much of this life consists of low-paid work in demoralizing jobs. By the end of the film Isa is doing factory work, while Marie is dead after throwing herself out of a window. The conclusion isn’t optimistic, but it is resilient: as if the film is saying that contemporary society pushes people towards collapse, but one can resist even if this hope mainly has to take place without much active change. This was what worried Elodie Bouchez concerning her character in an interview with Henri Behar: she worried that Isa wasn’t strong and active enough. “I loved the story and character of Marie, but Isa was too passive” (Film Scouts)
But the film is the exploration of inner resources: Isa possesses them; the tragedy for Marie is that she does not. Her hopes for life contain within them the love for another who has no interest in meeting them. For the beau Marie is a figure of sexual pleasure, not a mate for life, and Marie becomes increasingly obsessed with this man who wants not to have nothing to do with her, but wants only a little from her. If one terms her suicide hubristic it is for no other reason than that the hubristic figure wants to control a reality that is beyond their ready means. Marie puts hope into this hubris, but it is a strangely passive form, only really active when it comes to her obsessive behaviour over her lover. This isn’t to condemn Marie as a character; more to try and understand something of Marie’s suicidal need. As the actress playing her, Natacha Regnier, insisted: “you can’t call Marie egotistical. She was flayed alive by life. She is lonely. Nobody was around to educate her, Those who don’t know can’t love.” (Film Scouts) It might be Marie who looks for love as a transformative shift in her life, but it is Isa’s patient presence next to the comatose person she befriends where love takes on a far greater positive dimension. One night she offers a vigil to the young woman in the coma after it looks like she could pass away or move towards recovery, and when it turns out to be the latter it might be seen as a moment where one ought to put one’s faith in God, but it is above all else a moment where Isa has put her faith in life: faith in the life of the young woman whose house Marie and Isa have been staying in after the girl and her now dead mother had an accident. When Isa angrily asks Marie what she is doing with her life getting obsessed with the lover who owns a nightclub, drives a 4 by 4 and sees Marie as a source of punctuated pleasure, Marie can’t but bring up the girl in a coma: what sort of friendship is that? The irony is that one can see for all the life coursing through her, it is Marie sleepwalking her way to her own demise. She puts all her eggs in the one basket, and her life ends in a horrible splat on the pavement: a suicide almost identical to the one we started with: the suicide in Polisse.
It is interesting that Bouchez uses the word passive in relation to her character, because it is not her character who will take her own life, and yet central to what we’ve been exploring here is the sensory-motor collapse, the passivity of the suicidal impulse when framed in the context of action. Yet this notion of passivity has to be understood within a certain type of action that might more usefully be called the receptive, a mode where one’s egocentricity gives way to the peripheral. Whether it is Leroy looking at faces looking at him, Bresson’s figures as watched-over rather than acted upon, Garrel’s absorbed by another and the drugs they themselves take, Galoup showing more interest in Sentain than in himself, the butcher looking at the unfairness he believes is all around him, or Vincent dropping out of his life to the degree that he becomes an outsider of even his own existence, this is cinema that replaces action with reception, feeling states over purposeful movements. All we have tried to explore are the means and methods adopted to show, in French cinema, elements of what leads, in certain instances, to the suicidal.