"We always insert a point of view between the actor and the spectator. I hate it (...) I am not yet satisfied with my films but I do try to get straight to the emotions." So says French filmmaker Jacques Doillon, quoted in Jill Forbes' Cinema of France, who in much of his work, from the early Les Doigts dans le tte through to nineties films like Young Wertherand Ponette, seeks out the child-state. We could even say it has been the director's raison d'etre: how does a filmmaker often twice the age of his characters reflect their evolving consciousness? Now there are very good reasons why a filmmaker would want to capture this state. One for example would be a fairly conventional notion of authenticity, where verisimilitude demands we have a child's perspective to keep us inside the youth-driven narrative. There are a number of devices that can allow for this: we could have the use of an unreliable narrator, where events are related by a child whose nave vision of the world clashes slightly with the world shown, or we could have a camera angle that takes the child's eye view leaving the adults frequently shot around the mid-riff and thus keeping their full body out of the frame. But will these approaches necessarily take us straight to youthful emotions, or are they just tropes that give the impression of childhood? How to go much further, and is Demi-tarif one such film - a film Chris Marker announced as vital to a new wave in French film and perhaps the movement's A bout de souffle?
We might think here of the well-respected French musician Pascal Comelade and the closing song on his album Music for Films II, where he works directly from a child's out of tune voice and accommodates the music around that voice. It creates a beautiful innocence that comes from the opposite of what we usually perceive to be children's music. That is, instead of music for children it's music from children, from not the tropes that make something child-like, but that is from the existential reality of the child. Now of course this raises a possible conundrum: that if authenticity should come not from tropes of the child-like, but the reality of childhood, why don't we just give children cameras to make their own films, and arrange distribution networks to show them to other kids?
Not least because the children's film needn't only be about children, but about adults who create a communion of selves with children to re-enact in some sense their own childhood. It's a variation on, or a version of, Gilles Deleuze's ideas concerning a certain type of political cinema, where he says in Cinema 2: The Time Image, "the author takes a step towards his characters, but the characters take a step towards the author: double becoming." Thus the child gets to evolve a certain emotional state as a character, a mode of fresh being within the art work, whilst at the same time the filmmaker moves towards once again the state of childhood. It brings to mind Francois Mauriac's aside in Thrse, "whether one be ten or fifty, one's tears are always those of a child."
So now we have the co-ordinates in place to explore further. We have Doillon's idea of removing the point of view, the formal choice of children's perceptual possibilities, Comelade's child's as opposed to children's song, and Deleuze's double-becoming. How to become child, we might asks, and are the general forms of entertainment, of children's entertainment, in fact, contributing to the denigration of this becoming state? Do many so called children's films work from two things? Firstly, that the hopes and expectations come from adult notions of childhood, and, secondly, that because children's films are also watched by adults, they have to possess a layer of irony that young children are unlikely to get but the adults will. If this not an example of the point of view Doillion so despises?
In many ways, Isild le Besco's Demi-tarif wouldn't be called a children's film even though it explores exclusively the world of three young children hanging out in Paris one summer. It is as if in its very lack of point of view, the film loses its status as a children's film, and thus leads to a paradox. If films for children are not films focused so specifically on children, then do children's films require an adult perspective to work as children's films? Is this the false consciousness of contemporary childhood? It is like a variation on Alasdair Gray's comment in Edinburgh Review when he says the poor hate looking at poverty because they're living it: they prefer to raise their eyes up to the wealthy. It's as though children want to see themselves as adults see them and consequently become ever more adult in the process: adult in the sense of feeling cleverer, wittier, more self-conscious. But this might not be the self-consciousness of childhood but instead the appropriating insistence of adulthood. There is a major difference here though. The appropriating insistence of adulthood drags people into 'maturity' at the same time as it drags adults into childhood. In this sense it's a double non-becoming, apparent in perfectly adequate children's films like Toy Story, Antz or Osmosis Jones. In each instance the move towards a double register of films for children being watched by adults leaves the nature of childhood curiously untouched.
There is absolutely nothing in them to resemble the tentative exploratory becoming-child that is present in Comelade's song or Demi-tarif. Now what Demi-tarif wants to do is not assume tropes and clichs that kids knowingly get. So there cannot be a conventional hero, as there is in Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, or the dodgy corrupt president in Bill Murray's body in Osmosis Jones - archetypal figures familiar to us through the long history of drama. No, instead the child aspect in Comelade's song and in Demi-tarif is if you like pre-archetypal, almost primal in searching for emotion in its purest form. Hence in Demi-tarif rather than an expected narrative trope we'll instead have unexpected framing with the director shooting from about three feet off the ground. This gives the film the visual texture of a child's life as the camera seems to trundle along the streets and the metro as adults are reduced to heels, waists and feet. Rather than working with expected adult archetypes fitting into a children's narrative, the director offers a phenomenology of childhood, with adults being forced back into a world they they've perceptually lost by the very simple fact they're now much taller. The film has to utilise this framing not as a trope of childhood, a la E.T, but as a phenomenological return to childhood. We can no longer watch a children's film like Demi-tarif with assurance, but with instead a perceptual tentativeness as we witness with a camera that has little interest in our grown-up phenomenological assumptions.
Obviously it could be said there's nothing especially fresh in this. Carol J. Clover in her book on horror, Men, Women and Chainsaws, pointed out that the genre frequently offers off-centre camera positioning, and Spielberg's aforementioned E.T. was praised for its extra-terrestrial camera positioning by for example Chris Peachment in The Film Year Book Vol. 2. But we're still talking here about specific ends. In the horror film, the intention is to induce certain fairly conventional states of fear and shock, terror and surprise, and in E.T. to capture the supernatural aspect of an extra terrestrial in a 'normal' world. In each instance their primary purpose is to serve a generic function, and it's in this generic function the viewer is, if you like, phenomenologically reassured. A double becoming does not aim for this reassurance but in some ways seeks out the opposite. The camera positioning doesn't so much have a point as offer a point of view. This is an important difference, for in the point the shot is illustrative - it gives us the unit of information David Mamet, for example, in On Directing Film, insists upon when he talks about the uninflected shot. The shot conveys its point and then swiftly moves onto the next one. The point of view on the other hand, though, has no authorative perspective and searches out the vagaries of a situation. Most children's films, however, work from the uninflected shot, the rational shot, where the unit of information is offered authoratively, but a film like Demi-tarif ushers in somethin closer to an irrational, uncomprehending shot.
This makes a certain technical/ontological sense, because, as any parent will testify, one of the great joys of watching children grow lies in seeing their move towards making rational sense of the world. So let's say we have two children and we take them to a museum. One is three; the other six. The ticket collector at the museum tears the tickets as we all go in, and the younger one says, with indignation, why did the ticket collector damage the tickets, and the older child explains that it means they have been used and they can't be used again. Would a genuinely children's cinema work much more from this low-key epistemology rather than the broader based tropes of adult comprehension, watch how these irrational decisions are made and remind us of our own stumbling towards making sense of the world in the most vulnerable of ways?
Yet curiously, Demi-tarif applies a point of view nevertheless, as it's voiced-over by someone looking back on the events the film depicts. Yet it is a tentative, searching voice-over that in fact incorporates another element of becoming-child. Not just the becoming-child of filmmaker to the characters she films, but the memory-becoming also, the sort of recollected becoming that returns us to child-like thoughts. It is as though in this apparently light and brief sixty three minute film the director wants to access multiple layers of child-becoming. If we compare it to a film like Toy Story or Antz, we can begin to understand the complexity of its project, and the way it opens up possibilities for other filmmakers.
That is, instead of working with the given narrative ends, and the tropes utilised, the phenomenological children's film works from specific observational means. It works directly from the children's behavioural actions. Even in moments of suspense, the suspense isn't technically manipulated but intimately suggestive. Thus when one of the kids gets caught shop-lifting, Le Besco doesn't present the sequence through heavy cross-cutting, but through the specifics of the young child's nervousness. In most narrative cinema suspense superimposes itself on the nervous state. A character might be nervous, but it's as though that nervousness is too specific and subtle an emotion and has to be transformed into suspenseful devices. Thus we no longer have a microcosmic nervousness, but a macrocosmic suspensefulness. In Demi-tarif's shoplifting sequence there is no suspense, but the child's confusion and fear are well registered. Thus we can see how a children's cinema needn't only specifically tell us things about childhood, but can also bring us back to certain first-principle states that have evolved in cinema into stylistic and generic devices.
Of course Demi-tarif isn't coming out of nowhere, and it has similarities with an intimate cinema of childhood that has usually been less specifically focused and has often played on childhood cuteness (say Truffaut's Small Change) or childhood innocence, shattered or otherwise (My Life as a Dog, Come and See). But in Demi-tarif's genealogy can be traced it must surely be to Doillon's films, where children, or more specifically often teenagers in Doillon, are observed in their specifics, in their concerns, rather than ours, ours as paying viewers demanding certain narrative actions towards the double non-becoming we mentioned earlier.
So maybe all we are looking for here are some distinctions to be made about children's films based on the mainstream model and children's films made with a different purpose. On the one hand we have the children's entertainment film, and on the other the children's behavioural film. Many undoubtedly fall somewhere in between - one thinks here ofForbidden Games or The Spirit of the Beehive, for example, where a child's perspective and a degree of narrative evolution combine. But there is a priority of observation in Demi-tarif that augurs well for a cinema of phenomenology, a tentative perceptual doubt that helps us to understand our own adult sensory motor evolution.
© Tony McKibbin