The ‘psychoanalytic’ Body
There are certain films that so capture the insouciance of the characters that they transform cinema itself - no film more obviously than Godard's A Bout de souffle, where the break with conventional film grammar seemed to echo Michel's own refusal to conform. As Godard would later say, in 1980, in comparison to American cinema, "my cinema is younger just because there are no rules, and he has lots of rules. For the first time in twenty years, I have a feeling that they have to be discovered; one should neither obey nor revolt automatically." It is a quote that opens Richard T. Kelly's The Name of this Book is Dogme 95, a movement that also wanted to be young, exuberant and free. How to achieve this? One way is to think not in terms of the story, but the body of the actor, so that there are no rules, as such, no aesthetic technique that can be readily taught in film studies classes, nor in scriptwriting courses, because what matters is the flesh of the actor, the movement of the body, the quality of the face. Yet in some ways there are rules - the rules of the flesh as opposed to the script if you like. It is these rules Tony Gatlif sets himself in the fluid, yet syncopated, always energetic Exiles. It is as though in this study of a couple who head south from France to Algeria, by train, foot and ferry, Gatlif wants to assume the cinematic rules aren't there to be broken, but to be explored through the crisis that ruptures the characters, and that may subsequently demand their breaking.
Yet we're still very far away from, say, Pasolini's great rupture in film, in a certain area of sixties cinema that he talks of in an essay 'A Cinema of Poetry', where he believes film offered for the first time a free indirect subjectivity that captured the neurosis of the characters and released the directors from assumed technique, thus allowing for what Pasolini called a monstrous freedom. But perhaps part of that monstrous freedom was that the actors' bodies were very much contained by the director's camera: in films by Antonioni, Bertolucci, and even Godard in Vivre sa vie, the actor is at the mercy of the camera, at the mercy of the director's monstrous freedom. The free indirect point of view might convey the neurotic perspective, but it is a 'controlled' perspective, dictated by the control of the director rather than the freedom of the actor and character. What Tony Gatlif does, like the Dardennes, like Dogme, is insists the energy belongs to the actor: the actor must in some way bring the film into being. It is in this sense a return to the Godard of A Bout de souffle, but with even more freedom given to the performer.
Now this might also bring to mind the numerous post Nouvelle vague films that surrender the narrative to the body, and where the story is held in abeyance by the apathy of the flesh. In such works we have postures rather than movements, introspective thoughts rather than actions, monologue and digression over exposition: there is Akerman's Je tu il Elle, Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, Doillon's Le doigts dens le tete, Garrel's Le berceau de Cristal. Gatlif may or not be aware of this whole cinematic wave, but it's as if he is one of those filmmakers who wants to put spirit back into the posture, return the posture to movement over stillness.
This is a problematic many French films have been tackling in recent years. They've been trying to resuscitate the body, but it's been a restless, neurotic one because so often the minds of the protagonists are somehow ethically disengaged, searching yet somehow resembling Naima (Lubna Azabal) here when she's told near the end of the film that she needs to return to her roots, needs to find them otherwise she'll be living an incomplete existence. There is no doubt she is energized, as she dances herself into wakefulness one morning at a park after she and her lover have slept under the stars, or when she goes off, hornily, with another man. But she's one of those characters for whom we could say they are not all there, and that not-all-thereness is some missing, underpinning sense of stability. What often happens with this type of character, once loosely defined by Philippe Arnaud as 'refractory, is that they may even live at a higher pitch than almost anybody else, but that pitch allows them in some way only to hear their own voice, their own needs and desires. There is a nice passage from Lawrence's Women in Love that helps capture this problematic. During an exchange between two characters discussing the Lawrentian hero, Birkin, one says to the other, "There is an extraordinary rich spring of life in him, really amazing, the way he can give himself to things. But there are so many things he simply doesn't know. Either he is not aware of their existence at all, or he dismisses them as merely negligible - things which are vital to the other person." They go on to discuss the idea that he is a preacher: "Exactly he can't hear what anybody else has to say. He simply cannot hear. His own voice is too loud."
But the main difference between the Lawrentian figure so described, and the refractory character in the specific mode we're thinking of, is that it's not so much the sound of one's own voice that matters, but often the sonic presence of music that invades the characters' thoughts, and functions almost like a sub-conscious, or just an edgy energy that refuses to take language itself as a serious mode of expression. Samantha Morton's characters in Under the Skin and especially Morvern Callar are recent British examples that come to mind, and in France we might think of Emmanuelle Beart's characters in J'Embrasse pas, La Repetition and Nathalie, or Sandrine Kiberlain in En avoir ou pas and A Vendre. It's as if in this refractory figure there is a "voice too loud", drowning out the other voices that can allow for a relatively 'rounded' human being.
There is perhaps some haunting absence, and in Naima (Lubna Azabal) Gatlif finds a character with whom he can explore this lack. Now this isn't to say Naima's the film's central character - strictly speaking she's no more so, and perhaps less so, than the man with whom she travels, played by the well-known French actor Romain Duris. But if Duris's body is equally present on the screen, and equally determined to re-embody itself through travel, there is no especial inner crisis: he's narcissistic, certainly, but we feel there's an embodiment to his ethos, his vanity and his determination to return to his roots. For Duris's Zano it's a travel trip that will allow him to see the Algerian home his white parents were forced to flee from at the time of the revolution, and he wants to do it in as eco-friendly a way as possible. Ideally he would make the whole trip by foot. This doesn't mean he's incapable of, or not in need of, catharsis: after all his parents died when he was young, and when he returns to the family home and looks at pictures of his parents he finds he can't hold back the tears. But we always sense that the voice within him is never too loud; he knows how to hear others.
We can see this when the film empathises with his point of view: in a number of shots where Zano comments on the surrounding vegetation, the director cuts to shots from behind the very vegetable he's describing, as if Zano's perspective isn't self-absorbed, but capable of absorbing itself in other things at one remove. We see it again when Zano one evening gets lost in gypsy music and Naima, apparently lacking the attention she so craves, immediately takes off with another man for the evening. Now ostensibly Naima's an egotist, but perhaps we need another word, or phrase, to pinpoint Naima's self-absorption: it's a kind of fractured egotism, where the self doesn't accumulate meaning and purpose through egoistic development, but instead desperately finds moments and events to shore up the on-going collapse. A healthy ego shouldn't need to do this, if we take into account Bruno Bettelheim's belief in The Uses of Enchantment that "after all, the task of the ego is to protect us against the devastating deprivation..." If anything, we see these 'fragmentary egos', these refractory characters, allowing their apparent egotism to damage their very selves. When Zano initially chastizes Naima for disappearing with the other man, he does so with a combination of exasperation and moralism. When he asks her where she learnt to fuck so casually, she replied in porn movies, like him. Now this may appear to mean that they've both been porn actors (a reading Tom Dawson assumes in his review in The List), but the line is offered ambiguously, and that what is really being said is that where Naima has appeared in porn movies, Zano's experience is just of watching them. This would help make sense of their different perspectives: Zano casually takes what he needs from viewing porn to affirm his narcissism - whether watching or appearing in porn there is little hint that it's generated in him a fragmentary ego - Naima, appearing in it, seems to have allowed it to continue the destruction of hers. To what degree we don't know, but there are hints that ever since the age of fourteen she's been forced into some form of servitude, and there is a nasty scar on her back that she's unwilling to talk about. Thus when, near the end of the film, the Algerian 'healer' insists that she needs to return to her roots, it is perhaps to say that she needs to find co-ordinates more stabilizing than those she's found in the world of porn (in one shape or another), the world of contemporary music, or even in the arms of Zano. How can she once again hear the sound of her own voice and at the same time the voice of others?
However, while the narrative throughline, such as it is, may want to show Naima moving towards de-fragmentation and wholeness, Gatlif wants the film first and foremost not to move towards integration, but towards the aesthetics of fragmentation, and proposes that if we're going to have integration at all, let it be consistent with the aesthetics of energy, and not the aesthetics of conformity. Gatlif has to show us a consistent aesthetics of energy even if he's going to show Naima's, and to a lesser degree, Zano's move towards wholeness. Thus we have the great second to last scene done in a single take where Naima and Zano go into a trance and appear to find their souls not in losing themselves in the music, but finding themselves in it. How, we might ask, can we find ourselves in music, whilst at the same time retaining the energetic propulsion that a life in which we lose ourselves so often demands? For of course there are many forms of perceived self-discovery that are, strictly speaking, de-energizing; they constantly want to turn feeling into language, and movement into stillness. Is psychoanalysis and therapy not so often about slowing down the body and allowing it to find the right pace for the mind's needs, taking into account Freud's famous comment in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis? "Nevertheless it may be admitted that the therapeutic efforts of psychoanalysis have chosen similar lines of approach [to mystical practises]. Its intention is, indeed, to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the super-ego, to widen its field of perception...so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id," But Gatlif here doesn't of course propose the talking cure, but a return, if you like, to the mystical option, and yet without the containment of religious rectitude. Thus what is interesting about Zano and especially Naima's move towards integration is that it retains a sense of movement and the non-linguistic without, finally, disintegration.
For so often in cinema we see momentum in relation to its scientific logic: the way the pace of life constantly increases, and hectic situations are upped, until death becomes almost inevitable. It is central to lam movies like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Thelma and Louise, and the self-destructive personality was wonderfully captured in all its tragic inevitability by Betty Blue. However, we should be careful not to read Gatlif's film too readily within these traditions; and if we do, then we should at least accept how he has managed to escape them. His film is undeniably an optimistic 'momentum movie'. Its purpose seems to reside in generating optimism out of pace, so that it combines the lam movie notion of momentum, with the cinema of postures that so often lacked that very pace, and yet Gatlif manages, out of these two ostensibly pessimistic approaches, to arrive at an intriguing optimism.
What the film assumes is that the body is both the place of trouble and also the place of relief. It is a Lawrentian argument if we take into account Lawrence's perspective on psychoanalysis very different from Freud's, offered in Lawrence's Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Here he believes "the first seat of our primal consciousness is the solar plexus, the great nerve centre situated behind the stomach. From this centre we are first dynamically conscious. For the primal consciousness is always dynamic and never, like mental consciousness, static." Now generally Freudian psychoanalysis, and, if you like, a cinema that demands sublimation, wants to move towards the static, wants to anchor this primal energy in another form of energy Lawrence would connect not to the solar plexus, but the lumbar ganglion, a much more conscious sense of self that allows for ready differentiation. The characters in Exiles, however, don't search out differentiation but integration, but integration on terms that won't destroy their energy sources. As the characters seek relief in that lengthy long take scene of trance-like music, we see in the closing one they've achieved tranquillity not especially through some psychic catharsis, though that may also be true, but chiefly through a sense of exhaustion. This is perhaps much more consistent with a kind of Lawrentian psychoanalysis rather than a Freudian one, if we take into account Lawrence's claim: "After our long training in objectivation, and our epoch of worship of the objective mode, it is perhaps difficult for us to realize the strong, blind power of the unconscious on its first plane of activity." Lawrence insists this is "something quite different from what we call egoism - which is really mentally derived - for the ego is merely the sum total of what we conceive ourselves to be." "The powerful pristine subjectivity of the unconscious on its first plane is, on the other hand, the root of all our consciousness and being, darkly tenacious. Here we are grounded, say what we may."
Now of course many filmmakers have over the years argued against the focus on the story and the character arc, which are perhaps much more consistent with the Freudian draining we quote above; and one of the most forceful ways to do so is to work less from the script, nor even the camera, but from the physicality of the body. It's as if, though, utilising the sort of language Lawrence uses, and semi-dismisses, cinema's gone in the direction of the mind over the body: that it has become a cinema of scripts, psychological problems and careful camera movements filming the crises. The actor thus doesn't so much have a body as a duty: he has actions to perform rather than a body to manipulate, render and shape. Freud's talking cure resembles in some ways cinema at the birth of sound: talking became the paramount means of expression, and the films had to reflect this.
But clearly Gatlif is much more interested in a return to 'silent cinema', a cinema at least where the characters aren't aural and gestural automatons, but sensual, multi-faceted physical beings moving through cinematic space. Even in a scene where Naima dances in a football park after waking up, this is a freedom of character in the sense that though we as viewers hear the music Zano is playing on his headphone; this is not music Naima will be listening to herself. It gives her dancing a disjunctive freedom in relation to her body movements, and the music heard on the soundtrack. Equally, the sequence is made up mainly of long takes as Naima moves towards and away from the camera, as if the director is happy for her to move wherever she wishes as she dictates the nature of the shot as a close up, a medium shot or a long shot. The director's job is to create these spaces not as a constraining, dramatic mise-en-scene, but as a fluid, mobile possibility.
Indeed there is almost a play here on the constrained mise-en-scene in one shot just as Zano and Naima cross the border to Algeria from Morocco. In the shot's foreground sit two stoical Moroccans, a young boy and an old woman. It's as if Gatlif's asked them to sit as still as they possibly could for as long as they possibly can, whilst Gatlif's deep shot show us at the same time Zano and Naima casually, autonomously crossing the border. We sense the two Algerians as restricted as conventional life models, whilst Zano and Naima have all the freedom of constantly improvising stage actors or dancers. Now this isn't at all to condemn a constrained mise-en-scene, and we of course often find in Fassbinder's early films tableaux shots that make it clear just how little freedom the actors have within the frame: as if Fassbinder's pushed further the monstrous subjectivity of the director and treated monstrously his very cast: one could almost see some of Fassbinder's actors loosening the muscles, arching their backs and uncricking their necks after a shot. We might think back to the early Fassbinder film, Katzelmacher, that, with half a dozen exceptions, uses fixed shots, with the actors hemmed into the frame, their body movements minimal. In Gatlif's film it is as if the gestures could be contained within the very filming process, if we think here of the already quoted scene where Naima wakes up one morning after they've slept in the open air, and dances around the park as she loosens her muscles.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that we have two poles here. Fassbinderian thespian constraint, and the gestural freedom Gatlif practises. The former seems to want to frame the actors as if they are models, perhaps even statues; the latter wants to all but eschew the notion of the frame altogether. Now this of course doesn't make Fassbinder a conservative filmmaker; it's just that he's a great filmmaker of filming the conservative: the way his characters are often shrunken by narrow expectation, and framed by Fassbinder within an aesthetic narrowness that reflects this. For as soon as one thinks of framing, do not all the connotations of the word lend themselves to containment and restraint? In Gatlif's opening shot, though, we see Duris from behind, as the director concentrates on his back and slowly zooms out until we see both Duris's back and buttocks. In conventional terms this would be the shot: we know he is naked, and we need no further information. Except then Duris gives us 'too much information' as he turns to face the camera and we see him totally naked in a manner that turns the shot from a piece of essential information, to one that contains ostensibly too much of it, or at least more than we've come to expect. Now many will no doubt see this shot as narcissistic: Duris is in good shape, fairly well-endowed and has a look of sneering self-satisfaction on his face as he looks in the direction of his lovely, naked lover, Naima, on the bed. But it is a good example of this assertive self-framing, where we feel an actor somehow takes over the shot. Obviously this isn't to say that Gatlif merely wanted a rear view shot and Duris turned round and gave the shot a narcissistic twist; but it is to say that we feel whilst watching the shot that it isn't just about directorial constraint, but also actor freedom. We sense, while watching this scene, what we have is the actor's rather than the director's monstrous freedom, and thus our sense of narcissism in relation to the image. The narcissism superimposes itself on the framing.
It's perhaps this narcissistic superimposition itself that leads some viewers to feel a sense of irritation, as if there is in the notion of framing a weld between actor and director that passes for the institutionally acceptable. Thus Gatlif's approach, though antithetical to Fassbinder's, nevertheless suggests a thespian narcissism as opposed to a directorialnarcissism Pasolini's concept allows, as both break with the idea that generally the camera should move with the actor. Often in early Fassbinder the actor will move out of the frame but the director won't re-frame to hold to the actor's movements, but the actor will have to return to the shot to be on film. In Gatlif's film we feel it is the director who must in some way catch up with the performer.
So what we're suggesting here, and what we see Exiles as a good example of, is the significance of the actor over the camera, the monstrous possibility of the actor over that of the director. That he is far from alone in this is evident in other recent directors' comments. The Dardennes have talked in Enthusiasm magazine about the casting of Rosetta, saying "we were looking for a person, not a character." Lars Von Trier claimed in a piece in Film Comment that "we don't rehearse, we just start off with the actors standing where they want to stand, doing exactly what they think is right for the character, and then we shoot." This is finally Lawrentian rather than Freudian psycho-analytics, and can be usefully explored as a way of de-sublimating cinema, thinking back to Freud's above remark where he also says in the same paragraph, "where id was, there ego shall be. It is a work of culture - not unlike the draining of the Zuider." But does draining not have connotations of loss of vitality, of energy, the very elements Lawrence sees so significant, and Gatlif insists on acknowledging: that any catharsis must be physiological rather than psychological?
For of course Gatlif's background is Romany, a culture surely of immediacy over reflection, taking into account Gatlif's own examination of the milieu in films like Latcho Drom and Gadjo Dilo. Here there is a study of the gypsy world, but at the same time, and just as importantly, an exploration of vital energy, indicating that Gatlif shouldn't so much be pigeon-holed as a gypsy filmmaker, though internet interviews by Roger Morier and Gerald Peary focus on this aspect of Gatlif's work, but as a filmmaker who wants to capture energy that the Romany community harnesses. Now this is loosely a Lawrentian harnessing of forces over a Freudian sublimation of will, so that energy isn't transformed, but merely seeks the path towards maximum well-being whilst still retaining the energetic. What Gatlif tries to do here, it seems, is allow this well-being to become manifest without the characters changing direction, without their energy being curtailed, and their bad values being replaced by good values, or at least unconscious forces being replaced by conscious forces. Thus Freud can say in a passage quoted in Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death "the whole of psychoanalytic theory is in fact built up on the perception of the resistance exerted by the patient when we try to make him conscious of his unconscious." This isn't Gatlif's interest, and he finds an aesthetic correlative to this lack of concern by not so much insisting the actor fits the frame, as the psychoanalytic patient must fit the psychoanalytic structure, but that the director finds the frame, finds the appropriate framework to examine these characters.
This returns us to our perhaps provocative point where we suggested that cinema after the silent days has been essentially Freudian: that both Freud and cinema have been interested first and foremost in talking cures, in this idea of making conscious the unconscious. There is something static and bourgeois about Freud's notion of culture, for all his genius, and it is as if Gatlif's gypsy perspective has no need of a framework that sees culture produced out of the sublimation of the id. For Gatlif there is little stillness in Romany culture: "when something bad happens you deal with it, maybe you weep, but then you move on - you don't stop." From such a perspective Lawrentian psychoanalysis is obviously much more useful than the Freudian. In fact there is a nice passage from Lawrence that chimes neatly with Gatlif's beliefs. Gatlif claims "The gypsies have no political power. To be seen to be helping them would be turned against any government." Lawrence meanwhile insists that "our leaders have not loved men: they have loved ideas, and have been willing to sacrifice passionate men on the altars of the blood-drinking, ever ash thirsty ideal." There is no sense in the Lawrentian of citizen building, just as in Gatlif's mindset there is no space for gypsies having political franchise. If one can offer oneself up as an idea, as a bourgeois being, as a product of nationality, as a member of a conventional family structure, then political possibilities are available. If you're nomadic, restless and amoral, then the conventionally political and psychoanalytic cannot really help.
Thus what we've explored in Gatlif's film is this notion of exile creating an aesthetic freshness. Certainly some will wonder just how radical Gatlif's work can be when he casts what Gerald Peary has called "a pretty-boy French actor, a Tom Cruise lightweight" - namely Romain Duris. But we could just as easily say Duris here is a lightweight not in the Tom Cruise sense, not as an actor of narrative propulsion, but of existential flight - a rather different form of light-weightedness. Here Duris captures well a nomadic lightness of movement, a point evidenced in his insistent need to make much of the journey by foot, as Gatlif shows Duris' bodily being, and not his narrative figuration - the way one gets into and out of narrative situations, and also in and out of cars, trains and automobiles, la Cruise. For this is really central to the sort of psychoanalytic model as cinema we've been exploring here. That is we neither have at one extreme the talking cure aspect where narrative is essentially the revelation of feeling, as we see in the many verbal character conflicts and spats that are present in most Hollywood films, nor the very physical narratives Tom Cruise films deploy where Cruise goes from one goal-oriented situation to the next. What Gatlif seems interested in here is the body neither given over to talk nor to action, but something in between. This in-between state is close to the Lawrentian psychoanalytic, where a body finds its own solutions to the problem. This is neither denial in action, nor confession through talk, but finding out what the body needs. At the end of the film as Zano and Naima tranquilly visit a graveyard, we feel that they've expelled enough energy - rather than confessional thought - to achieve a degree of equilibrium. Gatlif's purpose has been to search out this state through giving narrative over to the character, and to give the character over to the body. He is hardly new in this, but his exploration contains a healthy degree of exhilaration that makes the film, from a certain perspective, and that is the one we've explored, as fresh as any released in recent years.
© Tony McKibbin