Phenomenological notions of slippery subjectivity and the ‘chiasmic in-betweenness’ of the film experience are beautifully illustrated in Chamarette’s book which engages with one of the richest examples of thick phenomenological description.
Heavily influenced by the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Vivian Sobchack, Laura U. Marks and Martine Beugnet, Chamarette uses a phenomenological way of thinking to, as she explains, think with and think through texts by prolific French avant-garde filmmakers Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman and Philippe Grandrieux (1). Phenomenology and the Future of Film is a self-proclaimed ‘project of film philosophy’, neither a Filmosophy in Daniel Frampton’s sense, nor a philosophy of film like Stanley Cavell’s work (p.8). There is an enquiring voice throughout the book which explores the reflexivity of the filmmakers’ projects in terms of cinematic subjectivity.
Phenomenology and theories of affect and sensuous experience are certainly in vogue in film studies; I have heard them referred to as ‘Film Studies 3.0’ repeatedly at conferences in recent years. Marks (2000), Barker (2009) and Rutherford (2011) are just some examples of recent studies exploring materiality, embodiment and affect, and Chamarette’s book is a refreshing addition to the field (2). Frank Tomasulo’s (1990) belief that phenomenology was fading in the mid-80s greatly exaggerated its death. He soon realised this when he called for a ‘grand synthesis’ in film studies, which he believed the new voices of phenomenology, including Sobchack, would bring (3).
Many of the early works on film phenomenology sought to argue the case for applying Merleau-Ponty’s ideas to film. Sobchack’s The Address of the Eye offers a detailed definition of a ‘semiotic phenomenology’ (4). She explores the spectator’s relationship with the screen and the unique ‘double-occupancy’ of the film experience – where the view and viewed are both appreciated by the spectator (5). She also introduces the notion of perception as a sensuous experience and lays the foundation for Mark’s theory of haptic visuality -when visual stimuli can be translated into haptic sensation (6). While fascinating, such early works often disappoint me. Teasing with such intricate detail of the dialogic relationship between subject-object, but rarely dedicating time to thick phenomenological description of specific films. For a while it seemed phenomenology was stuck in a theoretical bubble, ironically epochéd from cinema itself. However, Chamarette, like Marks (2000), Barker (2009) and Sobchack – in her later book Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004), picks up where these early works left off.
As the title suggests, Chamarette’s work is characterised by the theme of ‘going beyond’. Her choice of filmmakers is illustrative of a trend in French avant-garde cinema to be playful with and challenge fixed notions of subjectivity. Yet she goes beyond thinking of French cinema as bound to national borders and not least because Varda and Akerman were born in Belgium. Akerman’s films exhibit a sense of being ‘far from home’ (p.146), she rejects tropes of European art cinema and the American avant-garde and refuses to focus on cultural icons when establishing a sense of place. Chamarette describes Akerman’s work as ‘resistant film’ (p.145) – resistant to generic or cultural categorisation. Grandrieux’s oeuvre is also distinctly not stereotypically national because he continuously foregrounds gesture, which he claims is absent from French cinema.
Despite focusing on particular filmmakers, Chamarette also goes beyond thinking about subjectivity as fixed to the point of view of the auteur -auteurism is of course a particularly French idea. She consistently reflects on the films in light of the filmmakers’ signatures: the absent-presence of Chris Marker, the personal nostalgia of Varda’s installations, the mediation of gesture in Akermans’ work and the phenomenological awareness of Grandrieux. However, this is not to define subjectivity as dictated by the filmmaker, in fact quite the opposite, because the works Chamarette focuses on forcefully distance the spectator from the auteur and specifically play with the idea of subjectivity. For example, the nostalgia images of Varda’s installation Noirmoutier (2005) do little to connect the spectator with the filmmaker’s personal experiences on the island. Instead, they act as unobtainable fantasy images – nostalgia for a past that never existed. While we understand these objects have symbolic meaning for Varda, we can only relate to them in the present of our visit to the installation. Chamarette’s corpus emphasises a space between spectator, screen and auteur and it is from within this space that subjectivity emerges. She also questions stereotypical ideas of the cinema as an auditorium where spectators sit passively. Through her exploration of Varda and Akerman’s installations, Chamarette highlights the importance of the spectator’s role in the film experience as s/he becomes an active participant in the artwork. Her rich description of these installations allows us not only to understand their features, but to sense the experience of interacting with them.
In true phenomenological style, Chamarette also goes beyond cultural criticism and psychoanalytical traditions of film theory. Like Sobchack (1992) and Marks (2000) before her, Chamarette aims not to disregard cultural and psychoanalytical approaches to film, but to improve on them. As she notes, psychoanalysis is useful when studying patriarchal films about desire and cultural studies can reveal larger socio-cultural issues in a film. However, neither field engages with an embodied sense of subjectivity. Psychoanalysis’ focus on identification and desire emphasises “a presence without a body” and cultural materialist criticism “posits a body without a presence” (p.50). Thus we arrive at the overarching theme of the book: subjectivity.
Chamarette improves on, or ‘goes beyond’, theories of fixed subjectivity. She explains subjectivity as a slippery and plural notion which does not belong to one body. It emerges from the gaps in language and is characterised by a ‘chiasmic in-betweenness’ (p.3). It is the “condition under which time becomes decipherable and comprehensible to us as anything other than a ceaseless flux” (p.24). Following Sobchack’s influence, Chamarette engages with the present of the film experience -the moment of encounter and all it involves.
The chapter on Chris Marker is a particular highlight of the book, though I must admit personal bias because of my fondness for La Jetée (1962). Chamarette is aware of the extensive pre-existing literature on Marker’s seminal short film, but rises to the challenge of providing a new perspective. She considers Marker’s use of ‘nearly new’ technologies, such as photogramme and videotape, the former in La Jetée, and the latter in his ciné-essais films Sunless (Sans Soleil, 1983) and Chats perches (2004), as prosthetics for the illusive Marker, who is neither present in his films nor keen to be interviewed. However, as Chamarette highlights, it is this very absence which “serves to highlight the immaterial, technological, and sonorous presence of his words” (p.70). Marker the man may remain a mystery, but Marker’s films have a cinematic identity. Through a marvellously rich phenomenological description of La Jetée, engaging with its materiality and rhythm, Chamarette expresses how the film’s playfulness with cinematic movement and time problemises notions of the cinematic “enduring image” and the “impossibility of representing subjectivity” (p.70). She discusses the photogrammes’ potential, despite their stillness, to emphasise the particularities of cinematic rhythm and movement by their very disruption of the “illusional logic of cinematic time” (p.74). Thus La Jetée illustrates the “impossibility of a pure representation of time” (p.75). What is particularly interesting about Chamarette’s analysis here is the space she dedicates, unlike Marks (2000), to sound. She explores how the voices – heard or read – in Marker’s films emphasise the filmmaker’s disembodiment and highlight the space created by the contrapuntal relationships between sound and image which expresses the plurality of subjectivity. Chamarette works through Marker’s films thinking about disembodiment and in-betweenness, but considers how these two recurring themes might emphasise sensations of embodiment by the threat of absence they impose on the body.
In contrast to the recluse Marker, chapter three moves onto the ever-present Varda -public figure, filmmaker and performer. Though Varda has always claimed to be more interested in people than the material, it is the “uncanny affective power of objects” that particularly entices Chamarette towards the auteur’s work (p.109). These objects do not bring us closer to characters, but rather distance us. For example, Chamarette speaks of Mona in Vagabond (Varda, 1984) and the postcards and pebbles which she lays out wherever she rests. These objects obviously have a powerful significance to the character, but the spectator is never aware of their symbolism. While Mona never speaks and is only spoken for by others, the spectator tries to understand her both through the interviewees and the objects which serve to highlight the slippery plurality of cinematic subjectivity. This plurality is further emphasised in the Noirmoutir section of Varda’s L’Île et elle (2005) installation discussed above. Chamarette talks through the subjectivity that passes through the material in Varda’s installations where objects seem to stand in for bodies which have left their trace on them. There is an ‘embodied relationality’ between people and objects, an exchange which illuminates issues of cinematic subjectivity (p.115). This ‘relationality’, which brings to the foreground the sense of otherness, is further emphasised when Varda films herself on screen, as filmmaker coexists with film subjects.
In chapter four, Chamarette even ‘goes beyond’ phenomenology, claiming her exploration of Akerman’s work to be both “phenomenological and post-phenomenological” as she thinks through the “resistant, often immaterial body of the filmmaker” alongside the materiality of her films (p.144). Pairing Akerman’s film Tomorrow We Move (2004) and installation To Walk beside One’s Shoelaces in Empty Fridge (2004), Chamarette explores repetition and variation between the works. From this, a space emerges where issues of the cinematic can be thought through: issues of “fiction and autobiography, genre and verisimilitude, cinema and installation, filmic space and gallery space” (p.153). She explains that the physicality of the burlesque comedy in Tomorrow We Move allows quotidian gestures to be seen as performance, which draws our attention to the mundane and the miniscule that passes us by in the lived world. The slapstick style of the film overemphasises bodily experience of the physical environments. Of course, it is hard to escape the feminine – or feminist (though Akerman refutes the latter) themes in Akerman’s work, and Chamarette discusses the film as one which thinks through the relationship of performance, gesture and gender.
It is the abstract, formless bodies and corporeality of Grandrieux’s work that dominate the final chapter. Chamarette returns to gesture as a “manifestation of the coming-into-being of materiality” (p.191) and considers Grandrieux’s films as illustrations of cinematic corporeality as an excess, beyond the boundaries of representation. Through Sombre (Grandrieux, 1998) and La Vie nouvelle (Grandrieux, 2002), Chamarette explores the phenomenological notion of slippery subjectivity. The violence to bodies on screen renders humans unrecognisable as subjects. The films’ bodies are distinctly present, yet free of body-subjects to which some form of fixed subjectivity may belong. She explores Merleau-Ponty’s concept of la chair (the flesh) – a flesh continuously “in contact with subjectivity, while not being contained by subjectivity” (p.134) – in order to think through the blurring of sound and language, and bodies and image in La Vie nouvelle and returns to the performative body in her study of archetypes in Sombre. These fairy tale archetypes translate as ‘barely human’ (p.215) figures on the screen, they are ‘body-objects’ who are constantly ‘becoming material’ (p.215). Subjectivity does not belong to any of these bodies: it is liminal, slippery and plural. It transcends screen bodies, auteur and spectator.
Chamarette does not analyse her corpus in the traditional semiotic sense, for this would contradict the notion of phenomenological description. Instead, she thinks through them, to use her expression, in order to reveal how the films illustrate phenomenological thought. She philosophises through films to explore the slippery nature of cinematic subjectivity considering their materiality, performance and the impossibility to fully engage with characters who do not speak for themselves and do not appear in recognisable contexts. Her use of phenomenological investigation to explore experimental French films and installations is inspiring; truly engaging with in depth studies of texts from a phenomenological perspective. Chamarette shows how close attention to the minuteness of details of film can reveal so much about the cinematic experience. She takes us beyond French cinema, beyond film theory and even beyond phenomenology.
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Routledge, 2002), Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: a Phenomenology of Film Experience, (Princeton; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image, Culture (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 2004), Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), Beugnet, Martine. Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002).
- Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), Barker, Jennifer. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, USA: University of California Press, 2009), Rutherford, Anne. ‘What Makes a Film Tick?’: Cinematic Affect, Materiality and Mimetic Innervation, (Bern: Peter Land, 2011).
- Tomasulo, Frank P Phenomenology: Philosophy and Media Theory-An Introduction in Quarterly Review of Film and Video Vol 12 (3) pp1-8.
- Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: a Phenomenology of Film Experience, (Princeton; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.49.
- Sobchack, Vivian. Ibid, p.10.
- Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).