In the course of Gérard Courant’s hugely engaging 2001 documentary portrait of Luc Moullet, L’Homme des roubines (The Man of the Badlands), Moullet approvingly cites Howard Hawks’ opinion that a filmmaker should try his hand at every genre. Comic social essay (Brigitte et Brigitte, 1966), Thriller (Les Contrebandières, 1967), Western (Une Aventure de Billy le Kid, 1971), relationship drama (Anatomie d’un rapport, 1976), documentary (Genèse d’un repas, 1978), period rom-com (Les Sièges d’Alcazar, 1989) and sketch comedy (Parpaillon, 1993) (1) – the seven films included in Blaq Out’s marvellous four-disc boxset – cover a fair expanse of generic terrain. Yet Moullet somewhat qualifies his comment to Courant by explaining the point of a genre as being a useful ‘handle’ to sell films with. And then Moullet makes the inevitable shift towards the absurd. Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl is a Gun) played in more than forty Third World countries thanks to its status as a Western. Where’s the absurdity in this? In the idea of an audience expecting something resembling a normal cowboy film confronted with A Girl is a Gun, an oneiric burlesque that plays out like La Cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, Philippe Garrel, 1972) hijacked by a thirst-crazed Buster Keaton in Erich Von Stroheim’s Death Valley. Amusement at this image of audience bemusement is further heightened by the knowledge that no filmmaker would be more suited to imagining and depicting that audience and their reaction than Moullet. Les Sièges d’Alcazar, set almost entirely within a cinema, takes as its subject cinéphilic rivalries between Cahiers du cinéma and Positif in the mid-1950s. Yet it unfolds as a series of sketches detailing frustrations to the film-viewing experience, mercilessly deflating the sort of nostalgic cine-fetishism typified by Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988).
Even if no other film in this collection is quite as far-out as A Girl is a Gun, its deranged highpoint, each entry is chiefly characterised by Moullet’s humour. This is the distorting element moulding his films from their structures and particular (re)interpretations of genre down to their constituent images and events. Or, rather, from the parts to the whole. Moullet’s cinema is one of details, fragments observed with a very particular perspective and subsequently collated into narrative form. As Fabien Boully observes:
What Moullet retains from Aristotle – the reference being very explicit in the terms of beginning, middle and end – is the immortal triad that results in a work which is a totality. But we can see […] that it represents nothing more than a shell emptied of its substance, a purely formal algebra. The linking of causes and effects which usually ensures that the beginning lengthens naturally into the middle, which in turn leads to the ending where it finds its resolution, has disappeared completely. (2)
To return to Courant’s film, which is included as an extra feature in the set, Moullet offers two further helpful comments. One is advice, after Ernst Lubitsch, to the effect that one shouldn’t film actors until one knows how to film mountains. The other is that when filming in his beloved French badlands – the dramatically desolate backdrop of the two best films in this collection, Les Contrebandières (The Smugglers) and A Girl is a Gun – he plays on the perspectival distortions this landscape gives rise to. It is often difficult there, according to him, to make out how near or far off an object is and, consequently, how small or large it is.
In linking the filming of actors to that of mountainscapes, he suggests two things: first, an observational, distanced stance towards his often depsychologised subjects; and, second, taking into account his thoughts on the tricks his favourite landscapes play on the eye, the possibility that there is a cognitive discrepancy between characters and viewer. This film is a Thriller, a Western, a Comedy. Genre implies a given contract between film and audience. Yet Moullet often overturns these æsthetic assumptions not with the heavy hand of a self-importantly subversive artist but through a posture of faux naïf good will that is both humorous and mysterious. The characters’ logic, and, by extension, that of the film, remains opaque whilst seeming to presume itself utterly transparent, operating within a common code. This ‘misunderstanding’ is analogous to that experienced by an outsider in a foreign society, thinking himself in conformity with local mores and behaviour although all the while appearing utterly other to indigenous inhabitants.
Brigitte et Brigitte treats of almost precisely this situation, although strictly from the viewpoint of its eponymous heroines (Colette Descombes, Françoise Vatel). These are two self-declared ‘typical French girls’ fresh to Paris from remote mountain communities. It follows their student life in the French capital, its ‘outsider perspective’ providing a zany critique of the situations they encounter. Its most emblematic scene features the two Brigittes wandering around the city giving prominent buildings marks out of twenty, which results in some very surprising scores! Yet this confrontation between the girls and the modern world never becomes a preachy attack on the latter, with the former standing in as examples of a sounder way of life. Rather, the girls are as strange and as alien from the viewers as their environment – sometimes more so.
His conception of Guy Moscardo (Olivier Maltinti), the nerdy critic protagonist of Les Sièges d’Alcazar, superficially a less confrontational film than Brigitte on a formal level, is another example of Moullet not only allowing his characters their strangeness but taking it for granted. Alcazar’s typically fragmented story concludes with Guy opting to stay on in the cinema to the end of a screening of a film by his hero, Vittorio Cottafavi, instead of leaving to consummate a relationship with a seductive woman. At first glance, this would seem a choice of cinema over ‘life’ or, at least, the use of cinema as a pretext for escaping ‘life’. Yet account must be taken of Moullet’s decidedly odd way of conveying, or failing to convey, the presumed emotional charge of Guy‘s passion for cinema to the viewer. In complete contrast to, for example, Bernardo Bertolucci’s invitation to his audience to share in the visceral excitement of his cinéphiles’ experience of moviegoing in The Dreamers (2003), Moullet essentially keeps us out of the screen/viewer emotional dynamics of his filmgoers. In Moullet, the cinema auditorium is an arena for a series of comic struggles, sketches built around interruptions to the enjoyment of films, frustrations that are as often as not self-inflicted. Although clips of films being screened in the cinema are used in Alcazar, their effect on the audience is conveyed as a strange ‘reflection’ in the auditorium of what happens on screen, with the crowd becoming a sort of ‘reverse shot’ of the projection. One of the best examples of this is the screening of Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954), in which audience members appear as theatricalised tableaux lit in a an exaggeratedly stylised manner. Unlike in Bertolucci, we do not vicariously experience the film clips through the onscreen audience’s reaction to them. Instead, Moullet causes us to remain equally detached from both the spectators and the films they are watching.
It is useful to further compare this approach to that adopted by Federico Fellini in his cinema scenes. In, for example, Roma (1972), he creates bizarre pastiches of old films to project in the period cinemas that he dreams up. These are memories of vintage movies rather than movies themselves, and they function as extensions of the caricatured dreams and desires of his vision of a Fascist-era audience. Even if Moullet’s cinemagoers are every bit as cartoonish as Fellini’s, they are placed before actual films. The clash of the documentary and the grotesque, of which this is an example, is key to Moullet’s cinema. Each aspect functions to undermine the other, with the grotesque mocking the security of the ‘factual’ and the stolidness of the documentary elements grounding the grotesque in a reality that feels disconcertingly close to home. The unique distortion that occurs where Moullet’s documentarian and caricaturist tendencies come together creates the world that his characters inhabit, one comprehensible to them but always slightly impenetrable to us in its beguiling confusion of the recognisable and unrecognisable.
This strategy is also the means whereby Moullet manages to show an appealing generosity towards his characters. In suspending them just beyond our full comprehension, he also often holds them just beyond the reach of our judgement. To return to the ending of Alcazar and Guy’s decision to choose film over sex – in spite of the apparent transparency of his first person voice-over narration – we remain so unsure of the emotional logic behind his dithering that we are unable to completely succumb to the temptation to write him off as no more than a pathetic nerd. The strength of this example lies in the fact that it exists even in a narrative as apparently straightforward as Alcazar. The evidence of such opaque motivations becomes clearer in more radical works such as Brigitte, The Smugglers or A Girl is a Gun. And, even when these films veer towards cruelty, Moullet continues to treat his characters with the same spirit of generosity. However superficially savage, Moullet’s humour always comes with a sort of safety-net of civilisation. He always knows how far to go too far, irrespective of the extreme situations he is often drawn to. In this respect, he is the opposite of another equally individualistic actor-writer-director, Joao Cesar Monteiro. Ill-concealed beneath the impeccably civilised surface of the Portuguese filmmaker’s comedies there bristles a flinty refusal to take any prisoners.
Perhaps the most consistent vehicle of the ‘documentary’ side of Moullet’s cinema is his obsession with numerical quantification, with figures and measurements. It is abundantly present in The Man of the Badlands, both in the announcements of the heights of the various mountains he visits and in the hilarious accounts of his dealings with the tax office. Elsewhere, he has described a method of screenplay construction involving his noting each single good idea that comes to him on a small piece of paper weighing one gram. When he has a hundred such pieces of paper – a hundred grams of good ideas – he forms them into a script. This nonsensical application of needlessly precise quantifications again serves to undermine the very notion of a common understanding of reality implied in a rhetoric of factuality. One might even wonder if the title Blaq Out gave this DVD boxset – Luc Moullet 6 Film Boxset – is in itself a Moullet style gag: there are actually eight films, seven by Moullet. The medium-length Alcazar is passed off as an extra, as is Courant’s documentary.
This pedantic, comically exaggerated fixation with facts and figures finds its most elaborate form in this collection with the deadly serious documentary, Genèse d’un repas (Genesis of a Meal). This retraces the production history of the food on Moullet’s plate one mealtime: tuna, eggs, bananas. In so doing, it exposes a bleak chain of poverty, post-colonial strife and capitalist exploitation. Yet, rather than working directly backwards from food to source in a linear fashion, Moullet opts to jump back and forth between the foods and their distribution circumstances in a witty and ultimately vertiginous comparative strategy. The facts flow thick and fast, questioned by other facts almost as soon as they are uttered. Through his arrangement of precise facts and figures, Moullet not only exposes some of the lies that they conceal, especially in the realm of sales rhetoric, but creates from them a vision of near universal suffering and drudgery that filters down to a single consumer comforting, if grossly mendacious, image: the face of a French fisherman on a can of African tuna. Perhaps it is against the evil of such easily legible images that Moullet’s whole æsthetic of ‘distortion’ is aimed.
Its most thorough and glorious application in this boxset is the magnificent The Smugglers, a wacky abstraction of a thriller reminiscent in some details of Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963). It follows a customs officer turned smuggler and his two female accomplices as they carry contraband back and forth across the mountainous borders of two unnamed countries. Their freedom is constantly challenged by both Customs and a bureaucratic smuggler’s union. Their final return to urban office life fails, dismissed by the hero as an “adventure” too dangerous. The thriller plot is fragmented, subsumed in absurdist detail and consistently mapped onto the ever-present, rhythmically determining struggle between body and landscape. Punctuated by moments of startling poetry and sensuality as well as by inspired gags, its sense of pataphysical disorientation remains appealingly strange.
Another major film in this collection is Moullet’s collaboration with Antonietta Pizzorno, Anatomie d’un rapport (Anatomy of a Relationship). This foregrounds the director’s presence as an actor. He plays a whiney, self-involved filmmaker whose relationship is in trouble. Bold in its unvarnished depiction of sexual problems, this film’s physical openness and confessional aura are effective yet not entirely unproblematic. Its apparent forthrightness carries a strong hint of self-consciousness or even self-importance not visible elsewhere on these DVDs. This is especially present in the metacinematic flourishes with which the film concludes.
In spite of boasting relatively few extras, Blaq Out’s Moullet boxset is not only a rewarding selection of this distinctive and often fascinating director’s works but a godsend for those of us who have been long waiting for a chance to see them subtitled. My only quibble is the decision not to have the option of English subtitles on A Girl is a Gun. Although the cartoonishly dubbed English language version which is included has a charm of its own, it’s jarring to see an actor with a voice as recognisable as Jean-Pierre Léaud’s speaking with another tongue.
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- Brigitte et Brigitte (Brigitte and Brigitte, 1966), Les Contrebandières (The Smugglers, 1967), Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl is a Gun, 1971), Anatomie d’un rapport (Anatomy of a Relationship, 1976), Genèse d’un repas (Genesis of a Meal, 1978), Les Sièges d’Alcazar (The Sieges of the Alcazar, 1989), Parpaillon (Up and Down, 1992).
- Fabien Boully, “Gags, Nonsense, Seeing, Imagination: Luc Moullet and Parpaillon’s Pataphysical Theatre”, http://rouge.com.au/6/parpaillon.html.