This was a secret society that was headless and its symbol was Andr[é] Masson’s drawing of a headless man. This headless ‘deity’ was not a symbol of the condensation of power, but a symbol of loss: “He has lost himself, loses me with him […]” (1)
In this text on Georges Bataille, Christopher Noys discusses the writer’s journal, and secret society, Acéphale (“Headless”). This sense of ‘loss’, or even will for ‘loss’, in a societal context is perhaps similarly active in the group of films made some three decades later that have come to be known as the ‘Zanzibar’ films. Made between 1967 and 1969 by young artists engaged in the revolutionary mindset of ’68, they were all privately financed by heiress Sylvina Boissonnas. These often-stark, formally confrontational works collectively offer an alienated, ‘back to zero’ rejection of contemporary society that remains unnervingly forceful even forty years on. And perhaps the most powerful and accomplished of these movies appropriated the title Acéphale.
In common with other Zanzibar films, Patrick Deval’s Acéphale (1968) eschews conventional narrative in favour of an experimental arrangement of austerely executed but intensely hallucinatory episodes that build into a nightmarish fever of isolation and hopelessness. Adopting a detached, long-take style, Acéphale alternates theatrical monologues and tableaux with trippy pseudo-documentary passages, and extremes of visual stasis giving way to occasional scenes of breathtaking fluidity. Linking these stylistic shifts is the consistency of its black-and-white photography, amongst the most beautiful in all cinema, at once pushing contrasts to extremes and remaining elegantly controlled. Its quietly lustrous, even shades of grey are always ready to give way to deepest blacks that swallow and sometimes perhaps shelter the entranced performers, or to burn them out of the picture in searing washes of pure white. These photographic extremes perfectly articulate the existential extremes in which Acéphale’s group of young, Dandy characters flicker, wither and writhe. Inhabiting the marginal spaces of seedy flats, urban wastelands and primordial forests, they enact the radical rejection of contemporary society and the impossible desire for tabula rasa, a return to origins. Less a coherently formulated political tract, more a gut-felt bellow of poetic despair, this deeply haunting masterpiece remains one of the strangest and most compelling cinematic relics of May ’68.
Its director, Patrick Deval, came of age in the ’60s as a devoted cinéphile. He made his first short in 1966, the now lost Zoe Bonne. This was followed by another short, Héraclite l’obscur (1967), described by its author as a “philosophical peplum”. Shot in Tunisia, this vision of Heraclitus is an intriguing combination of fiction and documentary techniques that in many ways prefigures Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘mythological’ phase, not least in seeking an image of the Ancient World in today’s Third World. He shot one more film under Boissonnas’ patronage, Acéphale bis (1968), also sadly lost. (2) The widely travelled Deval’s subsequent returns to filmmaking have all been documentaries.
The following interview with Patrick Deval is timely for at least two reasons. First, there has been much recent interest in the Zanzibar phenomenon thanks largely to Sally Shafto’s book, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968. More recent, Re:voir has released a number of these films on DVD, including an indispensible double bill of Acéphale and Héraclite l’obscur. (3) With the fortieth anniversary of May ’68 just past, we asked Deval to share his memories of a very particular time and a very particular film.
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Can you tell us about Visage du cinéma, the magazine you set up with Serge Daney and Louis Skorecki, in the context of how your early cinéphilia influenced the making of your early short, Zoe Bonne, and then Héraclite l’obscur?
In 1960, I was 16 years old at the Lycée Voltaire, Paris XI, with Daney and Skorecki among other characters. Our teacher of French and Latin was Henri Agel, a cinema critic who had set up a cine club in the Lycée. With him, we were tripping from Cicero to F. W. Murnau, from [Jean] Racine to Fritz Lang, from Molière to Kenji Mizoguchi. We became cinéphiles, haunted the Cinemathèque, met Henri Langlois and Jean Douchet. With our 18-year-old ingenuity, we thought we could bring “a politique des auteurs” further than Cahiers du Cinéma, our idols. We believed we could do even better: quest for fatherhood and attempted killing of the father at the same time. So we created Visages du cinéma. That lasted two issues only (Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger), a real teenage endeavour! But that was part of our very lively ‘sons of cinema’ trail. I’m amazed you know about this episode!
When I did Zoe Bonne in 1966 (I was then 22), it was more out of respect for Jean Renoir and under the influence of comedy à la française. It’s a strangely classical first film.
On the other hand, Héraclite l’obscur looked more like me, obsessed with the origin of everything, from words to seeds, fond of history and antiquity, and enraptured at the time by the words of the philosopher. I still appreciate the daring spirit that allowed me to endeavour a philosophical peplum.
Both Acéphale and Héraclite l’obscur contain interesting tensions between documentary and fiction elements and techniques. What is the relationship between fiction and documentary in the context of your work? And what led to your ultimate decision to work only in documentary?
[Louis] Lumière and [Georges] Méliès. From the start, they were the two patrons, the two ways to relate to the new mystery of the memorized image – pictures that last. Cinema shows the world and makes it up as well.
I loved Orson Welles, the magician. Then I met Jean Rouch, who showed me African sorcerers. Finally, I chose Rouch and the world. Discover, transmit, marvel, get to know. I became friends with Joris Ivens and Richard Leacock, who still tells me about Robert Flaherty. Actually, I just met Al Maysles in NYC, 80 years old, beautiful pioneer of American cinema direct. Without talking of Jonas Mekas: I must be a gerontophile!
To go back to Acéphale and Héraclite, yes, you saw something there, some signs of my attraction to blunt talk, lack of artifice and outer worlds. It was also the début of light shoulder synchro cameras, freedom, end of studios, improvisation, jazz. Documentary is outdooring. I like that. At the time, boundaries between fiction and documentary started to blur. Disappearance of the frame. Premises of digital today.
Were you interested in making documentaries before encountering Rouch?
I was interested in documentary since I saw Nuit et brouillard [Alain Resnais, 1956] when I was 16. But the real trigger came after ’68, while I discovered the South, from where I could see the ignorance of the North, and naïvely thought I could document to alleviate it.
With the recent resurgence in interest in the Zanzibar films, much emphasis has been placed on the Zanzibar group as a group. To what extent did you, at the time, feel that you were working as part of a ‘group’?
I never knew I was part of a group named Zanzibar when we were playfully producing Acéphale. Actually, it was only in the ’80s, when coming back to France, that I learned my pals of the time – mainly Philippe Garrel, Daniel Pommereulle, Jackie Raynal, Serge Bard – had done a movie with a cheque from this lady, Sylvina Boissonnas, and that the productions of this group in the year ’68/’69 came to be called Zanzibar. I even learned only in ’85 that Acéphale had been shown at La Quinzaine des réalisateurs in Cannes ’69, which shows how much I had gone ahead without looking back!
In this summer of love, the cameraman of Garrel, Michel Fournier, whose purity and quest of origin (family, cinema, society …) impressed me, worked for me, and true enough we were all excellent friends – actors, painters, musicians. Many are not here anymore. I keep seeing a few, others are elsewhere, life has many paths, it’s another story.
There was Laurent Condominas, a close friend and alter ego. There was this group from London, The Exploding Galaxy, and I was also friends with David Medalla, Eve Ridoux, Christian Ledoux, Michael Chapman. Also Jackie Raynal, editor and my girlfriend at the time; Barbet Schoeder, Serge Bard, Pierre Kalfon, Pierre Clémenti, Pierre-Richard Bré, Pommereulle. We shared a lot.
Did you see connections between the political impulses current at the time of your Acéphale and those impacting on Bataille in his time?
Not precisely. But the general mood in ’68 drove us to plotting, underground, esotericism and whatever could subvert, trouble and erase the establishment. So, I may have recognized in Bataille’s Acéphale or Le Grand jeu (4) some secret links, some ancestors. Nevertheless, I was too much of a Dandy to bother about really acting.
How does your interest in anthropology tie in with what one might call the ‘pseudo-anthropological’ passages in Acéphale: observing the characters as if they were of a completely different culture or from a different era? You mentioned that you are “obsessed with the origin of everything”. Is Acéphale, in a way, imagining a ‘new origin’ (or return to origins) for a new society?
Yes, genealogy matters. At the time, I often felt I was not the son of my father and mother. Refusal of my human origin; I must come from another planet. My generation is also coming from elsewhere. Freaks of nature. Those were the peculiar bases upon which rested my anthropological outlook, which I don’t think Claude Levi Strauss would appreciate.
I became a bit radical in my refusal of Western Civilisation, constantly raving about the end of the white man. Rouch was closer to this view, becoming himself a joyful African in the oral tradition. But that was not so far from [Arthur] Rimbaud, [Antonin] Artaud or [Paul] Gauguin when he decided to ‘ensavage’ himself.
In common with many films of the Zanzibar group, Acéphale appears profoundly pessimistic, especially for a film coming from a time reputedly infused with the desire for renewal.
It is true nobody laughs in Acéphale (except for the forced ‘affreux rire de l’idiot’ close-up). We were involved in ‘tabula rasa’ and that’s no joke. There were some joyful moments in ’68, feast-like, maybe Dyonisian here and there, but mainly we were serious and grave, first because we hated the greasy laugh of our elders, but also because we could not get satisfaction. There was nothing to laugh about when you were in this world, being a Vietnamese or otherwise. I feel there is even much less to laugh about today. I understand more and more Heraclitus, ‘the weeping philosopher’.
What did you do on a daily basis during the ’68 Events? Did you go out on the streets or, as you suggest, did your Dandyism see the whole thing as a bit messy? Was there a certain violent element to your Rimbaldien desire for both purity (the zero-degree) and hybridization (“I am a bastard, a beast, a negro …”)?
First, in February ’68, I was at the manif’ supporting Henri Langlois, father of the Cinemathèque, who had just been fired by André Malraux, Minister of Culture for [Président] De Gaulle, for bad accounting. That took place in the garden of the Trocadero in front of the Cinemathèque. The police charged, beat us. Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais were bleeding, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut were yelling. That was the first act of this revolutionary year. Later, we understood the words of president Mao: “One spark set fire to the plain.”
On the 3rd of May, I think, I went to hang around, as the atmosphere was electric, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Here I see people starting to break open the pavement with big iron grilles that are at the foot of Paris trees. Then a human chain takes the paving stone and passes it on – like in China – to erect a barricade. Then came a night of war with the police, cars burned, tear gas, the Sorbonne invested as a refuge and a free territory. That started a crazy month.
Then I got involved with the états généraux du cinéma, where most of the movie people gathered to reconsider their relationship with the socièté du spectacle and with their activity as a whole … as did the shoemakers, the nurses, teachers … everybody at the time. Then all dwindled in typical French rap, indefinite dialectic and drunkenness of the logos. I shared that at the Théâtre de l’Odéon where free speech and free happenings were going on. I met Julian Beck among others there.
I attended also some heavy manif’ at Gare de Lyon, and I remember walking on a railway bridge with a gang trying to reach La Bourse [Stock Exchange] to burn it. Paris nous appartenait. [“Paris belonged to us.”]
In the general ’60s climate of revolt, many different youth factions believed in overthrowing your ‘elders’. As Dandies, how did you look on the hippies? Were there feelings of contempt towards their faux innocence or, on the other hand, was there an admiration for the more edgy New York underground? How exactly would you define the Dandy ‘philosophy’?
About the hippies, after a short snobbish reaction of rejection, I became resolutely one of them and shared the “Peace and Love” motto as well as “turn on, drop out, tune in” and became fully immerged in the trip, brother and sisterhood, and so on … And still am, but completely outdated. So the Dandy ‘philosophy’ is one thing and me another. Yes “ma différence est ma nécessité” as the poet says. Like Pasolini, I wonder about human beauty and ugliness, but can’t we appreciate life only through death?
Mentioning Pasolini, Héraclite l’obscur, in particular, reminded me of Pasolini, but later Pasolini, as if the influence was in the other direction, from you to him. Can you talk more about your ‘formal’ concerns when you made Héraclite? What governed your shot choices, shot lengths, camera movements, etc.? Were these worked out in advance or did you give the cinematographer a relatively free hand? Also, do you think May ’68 affected the form of Acéphale and how different were your formal or plastic concerns then than they had been when you made Héraclite?
I still wonder if I saw Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex  before or after I made Héraclite l’obscur? In any case, I always felt they are brother movies. In the Third World approach to Antiquity and in the will to actualize mythology.
My formal leanings at the time before ’68 were under the spell of classical cinema: Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Lang, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Mizoguchi, Raoul Walsh, Renoir and Luis Buñuel, the giants who impressed my imagination through frames and lights and stories. Suddenly arrived shoulder cameras and synchro sound; that changed it all. Is the medium the message? Or were we too weak to adapt the new instruments and tools to the old ‘classical’ manner? Would it be expressionist like Lang or plain magisterial like Mizoguchi? I think the dream went on and we are still in it with some nightmares passing by. L’art onirique par excellence.
So, to answer precisely, yes, in Héraclite and Acéphale I remember I was quite precise with my cameraman. I knew what I wanted to the point that the first shot of Héraclite going down a huge slope to the sea was exactly imitated from a shot in Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu . I was fond of citation anyway. Then there are a lot of static shots in Acéphale, in contrast with very speedy mobile shots: that was wanted too! That was subversion at the time and I liked to provoke the passive crowds!
But, while shooting, I’m sure I was not thinking of how I should make films differently from the elder New Wave. Neither the spirit of May ’68 nor some Pop or Warholian influence reached me. Next to the cinéastes I mentioned, Rimbaud, [Le Comte de] Lautréamont, Artaud, Bataille, [Henri] Michaux and Thelonious Monk were rather haunting my soul.
Visually, much of Acéphale could be seen as an attempt to update Mizoguchian techniques with the new technologies …
Yes, I loved the Mizoguchian touch at the time. Now I appreciate also Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, S. Ray and N. Ray, without forgetting Ernst Lubitsch, Vincente Minnelli and Sam Fuller. Here and there I must have picked up techniques and manners. These guys were my universities, then came ’68, new technologies and the opening of the South, and that became the world as our playground, praxis and discoveries. Another trip.
Can you tell us about the performances in Acéphale? How did you work with the actors? What were the influences behind the performance style?
The performances in Acéphale, the ones in the forest, are a mix of free expression of that group of friends who came from London, The Exploding Galaxy, early flower people who lived on garbage-runs and at love-ins in the parks and participated in Acéphale – Eve Ridoux, Michael Chapman, Christian Ledoux, Audrey Vipond, mostly – and my own first acid trip in this Fontainebleau forest revisited. Nobody was a professional actor, but, in those days, my friends were playing their life and expressing themselves a lot. La Coupole restaurant, L’Odéon theatre, everywhere was a stage and life a play.
Besides that, I still wonder why there are so many direct glances to the camera in this movie, talking to you from the other edge of time …
I believe you have published at least one book of poems. Can you talk about your poetry? And couldn’t this be a possible definition of (your lifetime of) Dandyism: to be able to apply the Poetic Attitude to whatever field one is inhabiting at a given time, be it writing, filmmaking or living?
Yes, Friedrich Holderlin said it all: “L’homme habite en poète.” Or, earlier, the Latin poet Horace: “Vetat mori”, “It prevents from dying, poetry.” Let’s dwell and abide in those maxims.
No, I never published a book of poems as such, even if what I wrote along my way – scripts, dialogues, newspapers or essays – is consubstantial with the poet’s relation between words, visions and imagination. It takes a lifetime to fathom the lies and truth embedded in language. Even several lives, if you believe in reincarnation. Then you have to start again a new mother tongue, learn how to babble and speak. This is quite strange for an old soul wrinkled in the corridors of time, becoming blank again, like a cuneiform tablet of tender argile ready to be printed anew …
Maybe I am going a bit too far out now, so I stop here and wish you all the best …
- Christopher Noys, Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (London: Pluto Press, 2000).
- According to Sally Shafto, this film consists mostly of people walking past a camera in Boissonnas’ living room.
- Le Grand jeu was a journal created in the 1930s by a group of dissident poets of surrealism, among them, René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte.