Since so many academic books go unnoticed, it was initially a pleasure to see Dimitrios Latsis’ recent review of Angela dalle Vacche’s edited anthology, Film, Art, New Media: Museum without Walls (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Still, I am puzzled by the author’s assessment of my own contribution, “Artistic Encounters: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet and Paul Cézanne,” which he critiques on two counts: first, for its “overt reliance on the dated and partly inaccurate Gasquet biography” and for what he terms my “frequent tangents (on, for instance, Empedocles and Hölderlin.)” For someone who has not read my article, such criticisms may seem valid, and thus deserve to be addressed.
Latsis neglects to mention that I, as well as the filmmakers, are perfectly aware of the problems with the Gasquet text, written fifteen years after Cézanne’s death. Nevertheless, as I carefully explain in my article, the Gasquet memoir provided the structural and historical point of departure as well as the dialogue for the Straub-Huillet film, Cézanne (1989) and for their subsequent film, Une Visite au Louvre (2004). The subtitle for their Cézanne film also comes from his memoir: Conversation avec Joachim Gasquet. Gasquet’s Cézanne offers a first-hand, in-depth study of the painter by a contemporary. Straub-Huillet relied on it, precisely because there is a dearth of eyewitness accounts of the painter. The filmmakers circumvent the problems of the Gasquet text by “stripping it of all excess and topical references deemed un-Cezannian.” The sound-track of the film includes Cézanne speaking (Danièle Huillet’s voice) and occasionally Gasquet responding (via Jean-Marie Straub’s voice).
Straub-Huillet’s approach in their preparations to make a commissioned film for the Musée d’Orsay on Cézanne closely resembles how they tackled their Bach film, where they relied on the obituary of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the musician’s own letters to compose Bach’s voice-over narration (read by the musician playing his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach). In making their Bach film, Straub-Huillet were aware, thanks to their extensive historiographical work, similar to their painstaking research for their Cézanne film, that we now know that many manuscript pages were actually penned by Anna Magdalena. In both instances, the filmmakers worked with the actual record and its limitations of two historical figures.
Secondly, in referring to what he calls my “frequent tangents (on, for instance, Empedocles and Hölderlin), ” I can only conclude that Mr. Latsis has entirely missed the point of my study— a detailed analysis of Cézanne, shot by shot—and thus of the film itself. What he terms “tangents” are neither mine nor peripheral: The first half an hour of the film, whose total length is a mere 51 minutes, includes three film clips, two of which are from the previous Straub-Huillet film, The Death of Empedocles (1986), based on the writings of the German poet, Hölderlin. My article explores the pertinence of these seemingly exogenous elements in a film on Cézanne. Probing their presence is crucial to understanding what Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet undertook in this film, which represents a distinct departure from the average film about a painter. In addition, the fact that the filmmakers chose to originally distribute their Cézanne film with their next film on Empedocles, Black Sin, similarly inspired by Hölderlin and completed the same year as Cézanne, reinforces the parallel.
The work of these two rigorous filmmakers is founded on the idea of artistic encounters, an intellectual meeting between artists that produces reflection and a new work. For Straub-Huillet who have always been wary of museums, an encounter can be had not just with a painter, but also with a musician, a philosopher, or a poet. Teasing out their serial parataxis was the brief I set myself in writing about their film. Readers of Senses of Cinema can read or re-read my article, first published in September 2009 in this journal.