Prod Co: Tadié-Cinéma Production Dir: Alain Resnais, Chris Marker Scr: Chris Marker Phot: Ghislain Cloquet Ed: Alain Resnais Sound: René Louge Mus: Guy Bernard Narration: Jean Négroni
Mystery enshrouds so much of the life and work of Chris Marker that any details, particularly about his early filmmaking, are at best informative placeholders in the exceptionally rich, but often frustratingly opaque cinematic tapestry that he has woven over the years. As Sarah Cooper points out in her monograph on Marker, films from this early period of Marker’s oeuvre (1950-61) are relatively difficult to access, and while researchers on Marker can view them in the French archives, opportunities to view them in a cinema are relatively few and far between (1). It is only very recently that some of Marker’s early work has become more widely available, which includes Marker’s first short film, Les Statues meurent aussi, co-directed with Alain Resnais. This 30 minute short film has a chequered history of censorship that at one time elevated it to a somewhat mythical status (2), and which prevented it from being brought into the wider public eye until some 16 years after it was completed. After its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, and in spite of winning the Prix Jean Vigo in 1954, Les Statues meurent aussi was banned in France by the Centre National de la Cinématographie between 1953 and 1963 owing to its controversial anti-colonialist stance (3). While a truncated version was made available in 1963, the unabridged film only became available in 1968.
Les Statues meurent aussi was commissioned by the literary review and publishing house, Présence Africaine, which was set up in 1947 in Paris as a quarterly literary review for emerging and important African writers. Founded by the Senegalese thinker Alioune Diop, it housed the writings of some of the most important francophone thinkers in the latter half of the 20th century, such as Aimé Césaire, Ousmane Sembene, Léopold Sédar Senghor, in addition to French metropolitan writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The journal also translated groundbreaking works by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka into French for the first time. Having emerged so soon after the new French Constitution of 1946 had declared a “French Union”, Présence Africaine’s publications signalled a new, post-colonial status for French and francophone thought, embracing what was then a key notion: that of négritude (4). It is this notion that the second half of Les Statues meurent aussi engages with most deeply, and perhaps most controversially, especially as it strives to connect the death of the statue with the rise in the commercialisation of African art for the pleasure of the colonial classes. Indeed, it is against the backdrop of a France that had so recently lost its colonial power, but which still retained many of the quasi-Manichean distinctions between white, Western culture and black, African culture, that (and in spite of their claims to the contrary) Resnais and Marker’s film projected its passionately anti-colonial, anti-racist, even anti-capitalist audio-visual collage. It is little wonder then that such a film should have been censored until the late 1960s, by which time it might have lost some of its topicality, but none of its political vigour.
According to a 1961 interview with Resnais in the French film journal Premier Plan, it proved impossible merely to censor the film rather than ban it, as the censors claimed that any cuts made would run the risk of them effectively re-editing for their own ends (5). In effect, what this double-edged and ambiguous comment on the part of the censors suggests, is that the censors at the time were unable to extricate the insidious, intelligent and deeply controversial implications of the film from its patient, attentive visual aesthetic and complex, lyrical voiceover, soundtrack and musical score. Marker also critiqued the censor’s reluctance to make clear what their objections were, and in fact published the full details of their letter in an appendix to his written volume Commentaires in 1961. Commentaires also contains the full poetic commentary of Les Statues meurent aussi, in addition to four of his other early works: Dimanche à Pékin (1956); Lettre de Sibérie (1958); Description d’un combat (1960) and Cuba Si! (1961). That said, the written text only echoes, rather than replicates the extraordinary contribution that Marker’s authorial poesis makes to the film as a whole. A generous interpretation might suggest that, for the censors in 1953, the powerful sound and image track of Les Statues meurent aussi proved impossible to untwine in a way that would not simply present a brutal butchery of the film’s aesthetic.
Marker and Resnais’ collaborations – both together and with other people – have produced an aesthetic that is intensely political. Although their collaborations took on more formal guises in the so-called “Left Bank” New Wave post-1958 (6), and then again for Marker under the guise of the politically-active filmmaking group SLON between 1967 and 1974, and the distribution company ISKRA thereafter (7), the two filmmakers had already informally collaborated together on a number of films, the first of which was Les Statues meurent aussi. Filming began in 1950, and was completed in 1953, two years before Resnais’ terrifying and equally censored documentary on the concentration camps, Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), and a year after Marker’s first solo documentary project, Olympia 52 (1952). Les Statues meurent aussi reflects both the insightful political nuances that are the signature authorial style of Marker’s work (one could name countless works, but Le Fond de l’air est rouge [A Grin Without a Cat, 1977/1993] and Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1982) might particularly stand out in this regard), and the ethical, political and aesthetic concerns with animation and the inanimate, movement and stillness. These aspects also evoke a key visual aesthetic of Resnais’ films, also found in Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961).
As Jean Négroni narrates in the opening minutes of Les Statues meurent aussi: “Quand les hommes sont morts, ils entrent dans l’histoire. Quand les statues sont mortes, elles entrent dans l’art. Cette botanique de la mort, c’est ce que nous appelons la culture.” (8) Marker’s poetic commentary in Les Statues meurent aussi, spoken as always through a voice that is not his own, acknowledges that the passage of time ravages the faces of statues and busts just as it ultimately destroys the flesh and bones of man. Death pervades the extraordinarily attentive images of the film, which rest just a fraction of a second too long upon the broken faces and distended eyes, lips and teeth of African masks, tools and religious artefacts, at once abstract and unnervingly real. This fraction of a second transforms scrutiny into discomfort, always threatening to reanimate the African statuary that has already been made dead, and thus, “safe”, by virtue of its meticulous labelling and placement behind glass in the museum (9). Such discomfort is enhanced by the, at times, harmonious, at others rhythmic and militant musical score of Guy Bernard, by the high-key lighting that tricks the eye into believing that these African masks and tools really do glide noiselessly past the camera, and by the merging and superimposition of one image onto another, which at times seems to render indistinct the material differences between the face of the mask, its world, and the faces who watch these objects so intently.
From the opening minutes to the last, the aesthetic of Les Statues meurent aussi draws attention self-reflexively to acts of looking. Not just that of spectators who peer into the camera lens just as they peer into the glass cabinets of the British Museum, the Musée du Congo Belge or the Musée de L’Homme, where much of the footage was filmed, but the “looking” of us, as spectators in the broader sense. Even in a more contemporary light, after the Algerian War of Independence; after the Cuban Missile Crisis; after the European political upheavals of 1968; after the myriad political and world events that Marker and Resnais have consistently brought to the public eye, Les Statues meurent aussi subtly implies that because we look we are complicit in the events of the present and the past. In this respect, it retains all the clarity of its vision, even a half-decade after its first screening.
- Sarah Cooper, Chris Marker, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008. As Cooper points out, Les Statues meurent aussi is available as an extra on the French DVD release of Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Arte France and Argos Films, 2004.
- See Roy Armes’ entry on Les Statues meurent aussi in his The Cinema of Alain Resnais, A. Zwemmer/A.S. Barnes, London and New York, 1968, p. 34.
- This is heavily documented in scholarship on Marker and Resnais. In particular, see Cooper, p. 12; Emma Wilson, Alain Resnais, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2006, pp. 22-4; Nora M. Alter, Chris Marker, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, 2006, pp. 58-9.
- For further details see V.Y. Mudimbe (ed.), The Surreptitious Speech: “Présence Africaine” and the Politics of Otherness, 1947-87, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1992, pp. 3-4.
- Alain Resnais, “Interview”, Premier Plan no. 18, October 1961, p. 54.
- See Richard Roud, “The Left Bank”, Sight and Sound vol. 32, no. 1, Winter 1962-3, pp. 24-27.
- See Cooper, pp. 73-111.
- “When men die, they enter into history. When statues die, they enter into art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” (My translation). Chris Marker, Commentaires 1, Seuil, Paris, 1961, p. 9.
- For this reason, Les Statues meurent aussi has particularly fascinating resonances with the work of the contemporary poet Emmanuel Hocquard. See his Elegies, POL, Paris, 1990.