September 29–October 14, 2005
Cinema is still a young art compared to the first six – yet it is not exempt from a certain lassitude. There is no image that hasn’t been shown already, no sunset captured, no taboo broken. Like a metaphysical picture of hell, contemporary cinema seems to be trapped in repetition – a victim, apparently, of the unstoppable flow of images that surrounds the post-modern subject. Maybe post-modernism has very little to do with it – as cinema’s “original sin” is indeed the compulsion to repeat. The paradox is no longer “if nobody witnesses the fall of a tree, has the tree really fallen?” – but “if there was no camera to shoot the fall of that tree, has it really fallen?” And yet, in the act of capturing that fall I have, within the space of a portable film strip, the tree as it is standing, the tree as it is falling, and the fallen tree. And I can look, again and again, at each of these moments, replaying them, reliving them.
Barthes, who understood little about cinema, nevertheless wrote profound aphorisms about our fascination for the photographic image. My mother is dead, and, looking at a picture of her, I am wavering between the Godardian desire to find “just an image” and the mourner’s longing to recover “a just image” – “which [would] accord with both my mother’s being and my grief at her death.” (1) What Barthes didn’t like in cinema – the passing of time that destroyed “the pose” (2) – is what makes the paradox of its reproduction mechanism even more poignant. It is the evidence of the fact that something (or someone) once was there (in a fictional or a realistic setting, depending on whether the film is a narrative or a documentary, or everything in-between, such as some sequences of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North ) – and the proof that it’s not there anymore, yet indefinitely re-presented to our eyes.
And let’s not forget that if Godard sees in the Lumière Brothers the true inventors of cinema, it’s not because they shot a station platform filled with a train engine that has long been dismantled and passengers that have long been dead – but because, immediately after the first screening, they organised another one, inventing what was, for decades, the staple of popular entertainment, le cinéma permanent (“continuous showings”). (3) First the thing/the person is duplicated, safely (?) printed on the film-strip, then it’s shown, again and again, every time taken away from the spectator’s eyes. In “La Suture”, a text rarely read but often mentioned, Jean-Pierre Oudard links this to the metaphorical death of the spectator – as after every film frame, the spectator is abolished in order to be represented by the next one. (4) A possible way of reading Oudard is via the figure of the double, or the haunted mirror of horror/fantastic films. The death of the subject represented on film, and the spectator’s death are mimicking each other – or maybe repeating each other (and one of them is stuttering). The figure of the double entertains a complex relationship with both the image of the mirror and the issue of reproduction (5) – but, as Freud makes it clear, it is also clearly linked with our fear of death. In The Uncanny, he describes the process doubling, as “the dividing, the interchanging of the self, mixed with a constant recurrence of the same thing” (6) – then, quoting Otto Rank’s studies, he argues that, even though our contemporary reaction to the double is that of fright and horror, it was originally invented as “an energetic denial against the power of death”. (7) Later, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud will link the compulsion to repeat to the death impulse. (8)
A film festival, with its series of discreet, “unique” events (woe to you if you miss that particular screening!), is the last place in the world where one could still experience le cinéma permanent. Yet, interestingly enough, at the 24th Vancouver International Film Festival there were a number of films that were clearly haunted by the cinematic implications of the compulsion to repeat. The most spectacular one was Nagasaki Shunichi’s remake of his almost-impossible-to-see 1982 film Yamiutsu Shinzo (Heart, Beating in the Dark). An independent production shot in super-8, it follows a young working-class couple on the run as they hole up in an apartment lent to them by a friend. In the long, no-exit night that follows, they argue, have sex, get sick on bad food, and then take turns to recount their story. Inako (Muroi Shigeru, who has since become a big star in Japan) and her lover Ringo (Naito Takashi) switch genders, as she tells his story and he tells hers – this disturbing exchange being interrupted, even more paradoxically, by the narration of a kind, male social worker who’s been exposed to similar situations. They unfold stories of loneliness, seduction, sex, lust, exasperation and murder. Trapped in menial jobs and irritated by his baby’s cries, Ringo cheats on the woman he used to love, roughs her up – but she, instead of protecting her infant girl, becomes an accomplice in the atrocious brutality, out of love/hate for her man.
More than 20 years later, Nagasaki – now a major force in contemporary Japanese cinema – experienced the desire to “revisit” the original story. In the 2005 version of Heart, Beating in the Dark, Muroi and Naito play middle-aged versions of their former narrative selves. He’s divorced, lonely; she’s still on the run, for unclear reasons (she seems to lie a lot); they haven’t seen each other since that time they left the apartment together. As they are about to indulge in nostalgia, their path crosses that of a young couple (Eguchi Noriko and Honda Shoichi) trapped in a similar situation. Nagasaki explores the variations of the story; in the 1980s, the woman was more sexual, but also more subservient; the modern young woman is more independent and pro-active. As the middle-aged couple becomes the powerless witness of the unfolding of a story they have already experienced, Ringo wants to take a moral stand, and punch this heinous version of his younger self. Yet Muroi-the-actor is a bulky, muscular, powerful man, and the much skinnier Honda has no desire to be punched by the elder professional.
The original film was rough and claustrophobic, and cast doubt on the “truth” of the representation by using experimental techniques, from gender-bending and alienation affect to psychedelic-type footage suggesting the characters’ dreams and unconscious. The new version is pristinely shot, elegantly staged, suggesting ambiguity through the different levels of the narration, and offering a lyrical opening toward the sea at the end.
Another Japanese master bent on exploring the seductions and fallacies of the doppelganger is Kitano Takeshi, whose latest movie, Takeshis’, is a disturbing reflection on success, failure and identity. Kitano packs the film with enough gunshots and bloody corpses to satisfy his “core” audience – but the sheer excess of the violence hints at its parodic aspect. With a smug mixture of narcissism and reprobation, Kitano casts himself as a successful media figure – famous, rich, powerful, contemptuous, cynically suspicious of the sweet young thing he sleeps with. He’s also his own double, a born loser working in a convenient store, waiting for his “big break” by going to audition and moonlighting as a clown with hair dyed blond. Through a chance encounter (Kitano 1 does not recognise “himself” and snubs the hapless autograph seeker in his ridiculous make-up), the world is suddenly turned upside down, and violence rages at every corner. The sweet young thing reappears as Kitano 2’s lustful neighbour who takes pleasure in tantalising him by exhibiting herself with her boyfriend. Yakuzas, fat stand-up comedians and drag queens appear out of nowhere, noodle chefs shoot at you if you’re not polite (depending on who their customer is, they’re the ones who might get shot), bodies have to be killed more than once before being really dead. And, for a very short but action-packed ride, Kitano 2 gets the girl, drives the car, runs over people, shoots with an Uzi… or was it an illusion? One can wonder, as the film ends on a direct quote from Kitano’s most famous gangster film, the violent-yet-melancholy Sonatine (1993) in which he gets to shoot himself in the head in close-up. More than anyone, Kitano-the-star knows the difference between a media personality and an unknown bum – and it’s not pretty.
Repetition can be a psychological pattern – or an aesthetic device. To the former belongs Sheng Si Jie (A Stolen Life) (2005) the haunting new film by Li Shaohong. One of the most interesting female directors of the Fifth Generation, Li has experienced professional ups and down, and she’s been recently working for television. A Stolen Life was initially conceived as part of a fact-based series about the lives of contemporary Chinese women; then the film was blown up to 35 mm and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was awarded the “Best Narrative Feature” Prize. It stars the alluring Zhou Xun – once revealed as the blonde-wigged mermaid in Lou Ye’s Suzhou He (Suzhou River) (2000) – which is both good news and bad news. Good news because Zhou has a unique capacity to project an aura of mystery, a complex psyche whose layers could indefinitely peel off without us ever getting at the centre. Bad news because the actress’s prettiness sometimes curbs the film in the direction of preciousness or silliness. Li herself fell into the trap in her earlier film, Lian’ai zhong de Baobei (Baober in Love) (2003). But, well directed and given a strong screenplay, Zhou can turn her beauty into a form of surrealism, a seductive instance of alienation effect. In A Stolen Life she is a young girl abandoned by her parents and raised by an aunt. Much later she’ll understand that her mother’s apparent coldness was an awkward way to try and protect her from making the same mistakes and giving up her future for a man unworthy of her. Yet, Yan-ni can’t wait to “live her life” – even if it means squandering her chances for a college education as soon as she meets Muyu, a handsome delivery man. Unknowingly, she finds herself trapped in repetition: not only – horror! – of her mother’s life, but also – horror of horrors! – of the lives of the other women who have been seduced and swindled by Muyu. As the screw turns and the melodrama thickens, I found myself recoiling – no, it’s too much, no woman would be that clueless, that gullible. Yet, it’s based on a true story, and in real life, while horrible things do happen to women, most of them display a surprising resilience that goes beyond the stifling confines of melodrama. In the last part of the film, Yan-ni gets a hold of herself and takes stock of what her possibilities are. Maybe she needed to have her entire life “stolen” from her, to realise who she really was. A metaphor, a simple observation, a way of getting out of the repetition? Yan-ni does not walk into the sunset, but I no longer feel sorry for her.
Another female Chinese director dealing with repetition, at the level of a formidable aesthetic statement, is Liu Jiayin, still a student in the screenwriting department of the Beijing Film Academy. If you’ve been around film festivals, or if you have read reports, chances are you’ve already heard of Niu Pi (Oxhide) (2005). Hailed as a genuine breakthrough in Chinese independent cinema, the film has already reaped a number of awards in Berlin, Hong Kong and finally Vancouver – where it won the Dragons and Tigers competition. Acknowledging the influences of Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-liang, the Dardenne Brothers and Michael Haneke (Wao!), (9) Liu apparently believes that, in order to really exist, life as we know it has to be reproduced in front of a camera. In 23 rigorously designed static shots taken with a small digital camera using a Cinemascope format, Liu films her minuscule family apartment, herself, and her parents, involved in small, sometimes irritating rituals: making a discount sign for the window of the small leather good shop managed by the Liu father; measuring the short and tomboyish Liu daughter to haplessly realise that she seems to have lost a little bit of height since last time; cutting a piece of oxhide (hence the title) that has been scratched by Mao, the family cat; discussing the best way to make sesame paste (and its medical properties against constipation); washing one’s feet; getting angry at each other; going to bed.
No – it’s not a vérité documentary – but a work of fiction, and the film is entirely scripted. Father, mother and daughter are re-presenting themselves in the film, reduplicating fragments of their lives – creating what Tony Rayns describes as a “tension between ‘reality’ and artifice”. (10) Another landmark in independent Chinese cinema, Zhang Yuan’s Erzi (Sons) (1996) had already explored these troubled waters. Zhang had filmed a family of neighbours in crisis – with the members (a couple of ex-ballet dancers and their slacker, rock’n’roller sons) replaying themselves in a screenplay co-written by Zhang’s wife, the talented writer Ning Dai, and one of the sons. The result was appropriately disturbing, and is probably one of the best films of the “Chinese Sixth Generation”. This meant, among other things, that Sons had an underground, oppositional flavour; shot illegally, it cast an acute, yet cruel light on the grey, depressive years following Tiananmen Square. The filmmaker was a witness of his time. (11) Liu belongs to an entirely different generation – one which, in terms of filmmaking, has yet to be given a name (considering that “post-sixth” does not quite sound right, and nobody’s ventured to talk about “the seventh”). While the Cultural Revolution had been the “founding moment” of the consciousness of the Fifth Generation filmmakers, the June 4th Massacre that of the Sixth Generation, the common experience linking people born in the late ‘70s or ‘80s is that they belong to one-child families and grew up in a China that was, slowly at first, then more and more quickly, opening up to the West and the vagaries of market economy. (12)
They also display a different sensibility, termed by some as “post-political”. Liu does not intend to “demonstrate” anything about contemporary China but to show the intimate relationship between three ordinary people, one of them being herself. Such ordinariness is what makes the unicity of the representation. The Liu family does not stand as a “symbol” for a class as in Maoist art – nor as a sociological sample as in some works inspired by neo-realism. No heroes, no class enemies, no victims of an unjust system – yet their lives are precious and worthy of being re-produced, magnified by a precise, rigorous mise en scène. Far from trying to present a faux documentary look, Liu extracts abstract images by reframing her fictional reconstitutions. A shot at the beginning of the film is telling: the only thing shown is a printer. Off-screen, a male and a female voice argue about font, spacing, lay-out. Finally the printer spits out a sign announced 50% the marked price on leather good. In most of the images, the human body is cropped up, or absent. What is signified in these blocked-out, partial visions, is the place of the observer (like in Ozu’s pillow shots or Akerman’s positioning of the camera at the height of a relatively short woman). What is reproduced is the vision of a child who gradually explores the confines of a small, 50 square meter apartment as if it were a microcosm of the world.
In Kongque (Peacock) (2005), master Fifth Generation DP Gu Changwei’s first foray as a director, the elusive “truth” is not reproduced twice, but three times. Based on Li Qiang’s semi-autobiographical screenplay, the film creates a complex mosaic by unfolding, one after the other, different variations of the same story as experienced by three siblings growing up at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the small town of Anyang (Henan Province). The sister, Weihong (a fascinating performance by Zhang Jingchu) is a sullen, uncooperative teenager who hates her job as a bottle cleaner. A chance meeting with a paratrooper who’s literally landed from the sky to recruit volunteers for the army sets her on a collision course with repressed dreams. Her application as a soldier rejected, Weihong locks herself in a pattern of self-destructive behaviour: promiscuity; awkward search for an older “mentor” who’d be a father figure; hasty marriage with a man she doesn’t love. The older brother, Weiguo (Feng Li), the victim of a childhood disease that left him mentally challenged and overweight, is doted upon by his parents, at the expense of his siblings. Yet he only wants two things – the respect of his co-workers, and the love of the most beautiful girl he sees. He gets neither. An embarrassment to his siblings, he narrowly escapes being poisoned by one of them. Married off to a crippled girl (who turns out to be a headstrong, hardworking, cynical woman), he unexpectedly becomes successful running a food stall in the street. The voice-over narration reflects the reflexive point of view of younger brother Weiqiang (Lu Yulai). A promising student, he gets kicked out of the house by his father for having drawn a naked woman in his school’s notebook – a keen commentary on post-cultural Revolution puritanism, as is the “scandal” caused by Weihong’s friendship with the old accordion player. He then disappears for a life of vagrancy – only to re-enter the fiction with a singer-wife whose career he more or less “manages” and whose little boy he babysits while she’s working. And a missing finger, never commented upon by his family members. (13)
A coda weaves the three strings of the narration – a subtle succession of small events that, instead of being repeated, don’t really happen. Weihong runs into a young married man and his baby boy, in whom she recognises the paratrooper, and says to him: “I was just telling my brother you’d love me all your life.” “What’s your name?” says the man – intimating that, for him, the initial meeting had never taken place. Later the three siblings stop in front of the cage of a peacock, and vainly wait for the latter to display its feathers – but the bird waits until they are gone to open its tail. Visually, the rounded tail is a reminder of one of the film’s most striking images – Weihong riding her bicycle while pulling behind her an open parachute she’s stitched herself. For a bird, displaying one’s feathers is an act of courtship, and Weihong’s spectacular act is a desperate attempt at seduction – except that there’s nobody to seduce. The paratrooper is gone, she’s ridiculed by the town and shames her mother. At the end of the film we realise that none of the siblings get anyone to open their feathers for them – cynically or regretfully they contract marriages in which desire is absent. Even the peacock won’t give them the time of day.
Caché (Hidden) (2005), Michael Haneke’s latest film shot in France (winner of the Best Director Prize at Cannes), is, from its inception, about the uncanny. The static, wide-angle opening shot shows a cross-street in a quiet, bourgeois Paris neighbourhood, rare passers-by coming and going, the entrance of a house. After a few minutes, the image rewinds and we realise that we’ve been watching a video. No: they – George (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) – have been watching a video of their house, anonymously deposited in their mailbox. The initial situation may remind viewers of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), in which it was turned into a Moebius-strip narrative and a meditation on double and identity. Haneke’s take is different, suggesting that the daily lives of his protagonists is nothing but the illusory copy of something “hidden” (caché) that happened either in the past or is happening now, but covertly. What surfaces is the slow disintegration of the façade offered by the couple to the world and to themselves – a few lines of sharply-written dialogue suggest they can’t stand each other anymore. Most interesting is the character of Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), the son, presented at first as a typically sullen teenager: in a painful scene of confrontation with Anne, there are hints that the boy harbours deep resentments toward his parents.
Caché combines the return of the repressed with an incisive exploration of the role of the Other. And, in French contemporary society, the role of the Other/insider is played by the population of Arab descent – born in France, yet still treated with hatred and racism (as the recent riots in France have reminded us). As the anonymous videos turn to showing images of Georges’s family home, as well as streets of working-class suburbs where the former immigrant population has been quartered – we gradually understand that, as a child, the liberal intellectual that Georges is committed an act of outright racism and destroyed somebody else’s life. Georges can’t reconcile himself with the boy who did that, this other within himself, and, instead, becomes hysterical, violent, pig-headed, objectionable.
As Georges changes, the world around him changes. Does he really know his wife, his son, his oldest friends? Is the publisher who has been coming to dinner with his blonde wife for years having a secret affair with Anne? Why does Pierrot disappear? Confrontations with an Arab man and his French-born son lead nowhere – they just show Georges in a very ugly light. Much to Haneke’s credit, the mystery is never solved, and the last surveillance shot of the school attended by Pierrot, with the students spilling out and Pierrot conspicuously absent (or, rather, “hidden?” at the edge of the screen) only thickens the ominous atmosphere. If an explanation is to be found, it is at the metaphysical, not a literal level. I have, like every viewer, my secret theory, remembering Haneke’s interest in the trope of the monstrous child/teenager – especially armed with a camera as in Benny’s Video (1992). Like distorted mirrors, children sent us back an image of ourselves, yet they are also strangers eating at our table.
While repetition is hell in Caché, two other European directors explore the fetishist aspect of the return of a lost image in cases of melancholia. At Cannes, André Téchiné’s newest opus, Les Temps qui changent (Changing Times) (2005) was poorly received by some as a misguided star vehicle. True, Téchiné cast two of the most formidable icons of French cinema, Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, but his film is a no-less formidable reflexion on their star status and what their image still means to us. In the opening sequence, Depardieu, as an engineer supervising a construction project in Tangiers, falls into a mud pit. In the middle of the film, upon accidentally glancing at his former love (Deneuve) in a supermarket, he violently collides with a glass door, wriggles in pain on the floor, and, as he’s rescued by Deneuve’s doctor husband, pitifully confesses that he’s soiled himself. Toward the end, he’s a vegetable in a coma. So the metaphorical arc of the narrative is inscribed on the sufferings inflicted to Depardieu’s compact body. The actor started his career with small parts in the early 1970s, until his big break as the young thug Going Places with Patrick Dewaere in Bertrand Blier’s 1974 hit Les Valseuses. His supple, skinny and alluring body has gained weight throughout the years – a fact ironically commented upon by Deneuve – as Depardieu shifted from delinquents and lovable misfits (that culminated in his interpretation as the eponymous Loulou, Isabelle Huppert’s working class lover in Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film) to figures of authority and/or historical significance: reaching international fame as the title character in Andrzej Wadja’s Danton (1983) and eventually becoming the best-known and most-often cast French actor of his generation, appearing in “prestige” productions (Claude Berri’s 1986 Jean de Florette; Bruno Nuytten’s 1988 Camille Claudel; Jean Paul Rappeneau’s 1990 Cyrano de Bergerac; Yves Angelo’s 1996 Le Colonel Chabert; Pitof’s 2001 Vidocq), starring in broad comedies directed by Francis Weber (La Chèvre, 1981; Les Compères, 1983, Le Dîner de cons, 1998 or Le Placard, 1981) and even cast as Obélix, the fat, dumb and invincible Gaulois in a series of films inspired by the famous French comic-book. In addition to gaining weight, fame and visibility came with a price. Once a counter-cultural hero (he’s worked with Marguerite Duras, Téchiné, Pialat, Beineix, Marco Ferreri, François Dupeyron, Tony Gatlif) and a representative of French auteur cinema for his work with Truffaut, he’s now considered, and sometimes hated, as a mainstream actor.
Deneuve never had such a troubled image – her face has always been a signifier of refinement, mystery, allure, elegance and delicacy, even in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in which she plays a psychopathic killer. It comes from being a blonde, and probably the most beautiful French woman of her time. Fame hit when Jacques Demy cast her as the heroine of his musical comedy Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), and she remained faithful to him, appearing in two more of his films. She was also a favourite actress for Buñuel (Belle de Jour, 1968; Tristana, 1970) and Truffaut, who probably saw her as a Hitchcockian heroine (La Sirène du Mississipi, 1969; Le Dernier métro, 1980). She was wonderful in fluffy romantic comedies, such as Michel Deville’s 1968 Benjamin; worked in Italy and the UK, made films with Marco Ferreri, Téchiné, Dupeyron and Raul Ruiz; and appeared in mega-productions like Regis Wargnier’s 1992 Indochine. At the apex of her fame, in 1985, her bust was reproduced as Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic posted in every town hall – succeeding Brigitte Bardot (1968) and pop singer Mireille Matthieu (1978), but was eventually replaced in 2000 by fashion model Laetitia Casta. In the last few years, Deneuve has been cast in secondary roles by respected auteurs, such as Leos Carax, Lars von Trier, Manoel de Oliveira, François Ozon, and Arnaud Desplechin. (14) There is an unbalance in gender roles, even for movie stars: while it’s clear that Depardieu will be asked to carry a film well into his seventies or beyond, Deneuve is now rarely cast as the main female part – a fact she dryly comments upon in Changing Times by saying she “doesn’t like her body anymore”.
Deneuve and Depardieu appeared opposite each other in two exceedingly romantic films, Le Dernier métro and Dupeyron’s Drôle d’endroit pour une rencontre (1988) – and Téchiné (one of the few filmmakers to still give top billing to Deneuve) is making a film about the desire, yet the impossibility, to recapture the magic and the chemistry they had during their youth. Meanwhile, as “sacred monsters”, they are dangerously close to clichés about French masculinity and femininity – a rough, rumbling façade, slowly revealing uncanny smartness and an irresistible streak of romanticism for the men; and sophisticated sensuality for the women. Yet Téchiné uses them exactly for what they are – symbols of a French civilisation that is no more. With a stroke of genius, he locates their second meeting in Tangiers, the place of wasted colonial dreams, of the frayed romance between France and North Africa. Cécile and Antoine were lovers 30 years ago, but she left him, and is now married to a North African Jewish doctor in Tangiers and works as a radio host. He never married and manoeuvres to be assigned to a construction site in Morocco with the hope of seeing her again. The first encounter is a catastrophe for Antoine, and Cécile seems to be adamantly opposed to the very idea of nostalgia. Yet, as her bi-racial, bisexual son longs to reunite with his Arab lover, fending race and class prejudices (a familiar trope in Téchiné’s cinema) she start seeing the faults in her apparently comfortable marriage.
The end is wonderfully ambiguous. As he’s reduced to total helplessness, Antoine is no longer the one wooing Cécile – but she keeps on visiting him and talking to him on his hospital bed. And what rouses him from his coma is not the soothing voice of the woman he loves, but the sound of her “cruelty” – of her refusal to be a prisoner of repetition. She tears apart a picture of their young selves leaving a trendy nightspot in Paris in the 1970s. At this moment, Antoine wakes up.
Odete (Portugal 2005), the second feature of Joao Pedro Rodriguez (auteur of the remarkable O Fantasmo in 2000), is similarly iconoclastic: in one scene the picture of a dead young man is destroyed. Yet it ends up in the creation of a novel, unexpected – and profoundly disturbing – image: a young woman in masculine clothing penetrates a man with a dildo. To reach that powerful climax, the film muddles a bit through uncertain waters, but the pay-off is undeniable. Two lovers, Rui (Nuno Gil) and Pedro (Joao Carreira), kiss each other goodbye. As Rui calls Pedro on his cell phone, the latter crashes his car and dies instantly. Crushed by guilt and sorrow, Rui can’t overcome his sense of loss. Meanwhile, Pedro’s neighbour, Odete (Anna Cristina de Oliveira), breaks up with her boyfriend because the latter does not want children. “Discovering” she is pregnant, Odete starts fantasising that Pedro is the father and imposes her highly staged scenes of hysterical sorrow to the grieving family. Rui eventually meets Odete, and their encounter is physically brutal. Is that bimbo for real, and did Pedro cheat on me? Or is she totally nuts? Actually, Odete may be nuts, but her sense of loss is real too – and between the hysteric and the brooding obsessive, a strange contamination of feelings, mixed with sympathy and identification, evolves. Rui’s real trauma (he’s caused the death of a man who was the world to him) and Odete’s imaginary grief (she mourns a man she never knew) eventually merge in a single sorrow.
Quitting her job, stealing baby goods in specialised stores, spending her nights in the cemetery, Odete manages to get “adopted” by Pedro’s widowed mother, who puts her up in her son’s room. What follows is quite remarkable. Odete may not be pregnant after all. She starts wearing Pedro’s clothes and patronising gay bars. As if she had gone on the other side of “mourning and melancholia” by identifying with the man she lost. Except it’s not the straight father of her child, but a gay man, unwilling to make love to a woman.
Conversely, Rui’s own desire is also in question. Why should the empty space left by Pedro filled by the unreliable Odete? Like Téchiné, Rodriguez is finely attuned to the bridges existing between gay and straight love – how they can become metaphor, and even substitute for each other. Far from the political correctness and “essentialism” of some militant queer films, far also from the bubbling optimism of mainstream gay cinema, Rodriguez keeps exploring the dark waters of homosexual desire – with brilliance.
Before I end up, I need to briefly mention two more instances of repetition caught in Vancouver. The first is the totally endearing, totally irritating new instalment of Caveh Zahedi’s autobiographical saga, I Am a Sex-Addict (USA, 2005). Since his first feature, A Little Stiff (1991), Zahedi has produced, written, directed and starred in a number of semi-documentary re-enactments of his personal life – mostly his sexual obsessions. While his self-absorption may turn some off, the candid persona he’s created (I know I’m a total asshole but at least I tell everybody about it) is seductive. Moreover, Zahedi is a true independent filmmaker, who knows how to creatively and cleverly use the medium to compensate for small budgets and create a multi-layered approach to the “truth”. In I Am a Sex Addict, in which he recounts his compulsive attraction to prostitutes, Zahedi finds out, by exploring the web, that his first (French) wife looks very much like porn actress Rebecca Lord, contacts the latter, casts her in the part, jokes about the coincidence and draws wonderful effects from it (and an arresting performance from Lord).
The second is of a more personal nature. At the Vancouver Film Centre, the curators of the Festival had organised a lecture by US film scholar David Bordwell (also a member of the Dragons and Tigers Jury) on CinemaScope. Well-informed, exhilarating and thought-provoking, the lecture concluded with the screening of one of the most beautiful, yet controversial, Cinemascope films ever made, the long-unavailable Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958). It is said that the film so influenced Godard that it gave him the idea for Jean Seberg’s role in À Bout de souffle (Breathless) (1960). I had seen an earlier restoration of Bonjour Tristesse at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1980s – at the enthusiastic prompting of independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport. Not that I needed much prompting. In my first year in college, I had discovered, through a fellow student, the novels of Françoise Sagan, that my mother had specifically forbidden me to read, for they were “trash”. I can say that, even though I had started to read Proust the year before, Sagan was my real introduction to modernity in literature. There was particularly a passage that my friend admired most. After having had her first sexual encounter with the boy vacationing in the neighbouring seaside villa, teenage Cécile faces the investigative gaze of Anne, the older and more sophisticated fashion designer her father is courting. To hide her confusion, Cécile wants to light a cigarette, but fails to crack the match. Sagan painstakingly describes the increasingly awkward efforts of the girl as she unsuccessfully tries to light a second, and then a third match.
A few months after reading the book, I had my own first sexual encounter. I don’t smoke – so there were no wasted matches, but I remember my feeling of gratitude for Sagan for having so beautifully suggested the inner turmoil a young girl experiences “afterwards”. And the scene, played between Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr, is there, intact, in Preminger’s masterpiece.
I was at a film festival, ready to be enlightened by Bordwell’s lecture – but not ready to “waste time” watching a second time a movie I had already seen, while treasures of world cinema were waiting to be viewed and written about. Yet, when discussing the techniques used by various directors to “inhabit” the difficult space of CinemaScope, to create a frame-within-the-frame and suggest a off-screen space, Bordwell showed several slides from Bonjour Tristesse, in which Cécile and her boyfriend kiss while a deep-blue parasol falls down, concealing part of the action. (This moment precedes the “cigarette scene”). I was totally hooked, I had to stay. And so, to my extreme pleasure, I saw the film again. But it was more than “deux fois”. The first time had been the reading of the book, from the point of view of a girl I will never be again – a girl who could only suspect what the “cigarette scene” meant. The second was the discovery of the forbidden fruit, that gave a retroactive meaning to that scene. And then, no matter the number of screenings of the film I may enjoy, there is the ongoing rediscovery of beloved images, that every time become richer through the experiences and memories we project onto them.
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucinda, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1981, p. 70.
- “In the Photograph something has posed in front of the tiny hole and has remained there forever…; but in cinema, something has passed in front of this same tiny hole: the pose is swept away and denied by the continuous series of images.” (ibid, 78).
- I don’t know the situation in Australia and other English-speaking countries, but in France, until about two decades ago, you could enter a film at any time and stay for the next show(s) as long as you wanted. The Surrealists had taken advantage of this, going to see American gangster films in the middle of the plot, leaving and then seeing another one in a different theatre – creating a sort of cinematic “exquisite corpse”. In Pierrot le fou (1965), Godard shows Jean-Paul Belmondo hiding (and sleeping) in a cinéma permanent, a situation that would be impossible today.
- Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Notes on Suture”, Screen, vol. 18 no. 4, winter 1977–78, p. 35. (First published in French in 1969.)
- See Jorge Luis Borges: “the world we live in is a mistake, a clumsy parody. Mirrors and fatherhood, because they multiply and confirm the parody, are an abomination.” (Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1972, p. 84 – originally published in Spanish in 1954).
- Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” in James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works by Sigmund Freud, vol XVII, Hogarth, London, 1953, p. 234. First published in 1919.
- Freud quoting Rank, ibid, p. 235.
- Here I find myself trapped in repetition as well, as I developed a similar argument in “Stan Douglas’s Win, Place and Show” in Lynne Cooke & Karen Kelly (eds), Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, Dia Art Foundation, New York, 2004, pp. 121–138.
- Information culled from a conversation with Liu Jiayin, Beijing, June 2005.
- Tony Rayns, Vancouver International Film Festival catalogue, p. 60.
- Still trapped in repetition, I must confess that I wrote about this in a chapter of Zhang Zhen & Zhijie Jia (eds), The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the 21st Century, Duke University Press, Durham, forthcoming, 2006.
- The one-child policy was initiated by the Chinese government in 1979. See Seamus Grimes, “Controlling Third World Population Growth: a major theme of the UN population conference in Cairo”. The same year Deng Xiaoping travelled to the US, as a result of the “Open Door Policy” he officially proclaimed in December 1978. Liu Jiayin was born in 1981.
- At 144 minutes, the “international” version of Peacock (that was awarded Berlin’s Silver Bear) is still not the director’s cut. The latter is rumoured to have included, in addition to background material about the parents’ story, a homosexual subplot concerning Weiqiang’s “missing years”.
- On Catherine Deneuve, see Maria San Filippo, “Two Women: The Dialectical Sexual Persona of Catherine Deneuve”, Senses of Cinema, no. 23, November–December 2002.