Jerzy Skolimowski’s Le Départ (1967) was shot in three weeks on a budget of just $US100,000 – a low cost even in the mid-1960s (1). There was also a good deal of improvisation in this film, the first Skolimowski made outside of his native Poland. The director’s unfamiliarity with the local context coalesced with his intent, as signified by the title, to make a film that he hoped would have wider audience appeal and would be “made only of lightness… without the serious layer I like in my work” (2). This is reflected in the apparent casualness of Le Départ’s narrative and its feeling of contingency heightened by the active camera and a diversity of comic situations rather than plot-driven linearity. An important unifying factor, in what Skolimowski regards as his most “musical film”, is the strikingly percussive jazz score composed by Krzysztof Komeda (who had also composed the score for Bariera [Barrier, 1966]) which was recorded with Don Cherry, Gato Barbieri, René Utreger and Kenny Clarke.
The positive response of Godard and the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma to Skolimowski’s early films meant that Léaud, having recently completed Masculin Féminin (1966)with Godard, was keen to work with Skolimowski. One of the lead actresses, Catherine Duport, and the cameraman Willy Kurant were also signed up more “because they were available” than by design (3). Nevertheless, Léaud, a figurehead of the nouvelle vague as Truffaut’s alter ego in the Antoine Doniel films and Paul in Masculin Féminin, was a crucial element in transplanting Skolimowski’s forcefully original approach to filmmaking from the East to the West. As Skolimowski said at the time, he only knows one way to make films, which is “to please myself” (4).
Kurant, primarily a documentary and newsreel cinematographer used to working with minimal lighting, delivered a muted winter effect that heightened the impersonality of the city in a fashion reminiscent of how Warsaw was shown in Skolimowski’s preceding Polish “trilogy”.
In Le Départ, 19-year-old Marc (Léaud), a hairdresser’s assistant, is obsessed with acquiring a Porsche (a 911S, he insists) in order to compete in a weekend car rally. He is resourcefully opportunistic in pursuing the means of achieving this goal and his efforts range from outright theft and misrepresentation to the selling of all his possessions of value (and those of his girlfriend) in order to hire the Porsche. He is joined on his quest by Michèle (Catherine Duport), whom he met while delivering a wig to a customer.
Like Leszczyc, Skolimowski’s alter ego in Rysopis (Identification Marks: None,1965) and Walkover (1965), his first Polish features, and the student in Barrier, Marc is at a crossroads. We see Brussels through Marc’s eyes blinkered by the restless self-absorption that accompanies his obsession, and also in interludes of surreal detachment heightened by the score.
Skolimowski portrays the young men in his Polish “trilogy” as lacking identity. Their desperate reticence turns to cynicism in an existential “rush” while “in this cynical and unidealistic generation romantic impulses manifest themselves”, to quote a seminal line spoken directly to the camera in Walkover (5). Marc is a “relative” of these young men but he exists in a state of what has been described as “intensified childhood” (6). Michèle, at least initially, matters less to Marc than his pursuit of a car. Her value consists largely in her usefulness in its acquisition, as little more than an accessory, a role she appears to willingly accept. Yet Michèle is seemingly more mature than Marc; her self-assurance contrasts with his histrionic single-mindedness masking shyness and emerging self-doubt. Their relationship develops in key scenes: at the motor show; in the playful moments with the mirror; in the theatrical play in the darkened hairdressing salon before the boss unexpectedly returns with his car; and in the touchingly awkward confirmation of feeling between them in the final scenes, introducing a more engaging emotional substance underlined by the song that his heard over the opening credits and that recurs as a love theme throughout the film.
Like the more naïve Mike (John Moulder-Brown) in Deep End (Skolimowski, 1971), Marc acts with little social or political consciousness. In post-Freudian terms, like the heroes of Skolimowski’s first two features, Marc, Ewa Mazierska suggests, remains in a pre-Oedipal state, rejecting everything relating to the function of the father while remaining detached from what the patriarchal order stands for (7).
Outside the attractions of Western consumerism, Marc lacks a social and political context comparable to the Polish “trilogy”, a reality with which Skolimowski was very familiar. In place of the contextual layering of his previous films is an original blending of the otherwise familiar coming-of-age theme with a mobility narrative, an existential search for identity, “a non-serious film about a serious subject” connecting “two extremes between the hero’s job as a hairdresser’s apprentice and his dreams of winning a motor race” (8). This has led some critics to conclude that Le Départ lacks substance beneath the virtuosity of its surfaces. It is true that Skolimowski himself acknowledged his lack of interest in the politics and cultures of the countries he lived in as an outsider. This indifference may have been exacerbated by the anti-Western propaganda that Mazierska suggests Skolimowski might have almost unconsciously assimilated in Poland, reflected in his complaints that “in the West only money matters” (9).
Skolimowski’s characters are especially mobile in his travel-filled early films. Cars become desirable erotic objects in Le Départ, and at one point are explicitly compared with women. With Western affluence the previously unattainable seems almost within reach. Less than a decade earlier, when Skolimowski was scripting Andrzej Wajda’s Niewinni czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers,1960) in Poland, the moped on which Marc now does his daily errands and treats with throwaway carelessness, was a luxury item (10). Cars are on display like the models in the swimming pool fashion show. However, Marc seems continually faced with the choice between the girl and the car; as if it were impossible to have both. The transience of the different expensive cars Marc drives is not a measure of their relative desirability but of Marc’s lack of money to buy or even rent one for more than one drive. In this, they remain dream objects, at their most dreamlike at the motor show when, in perhaps the film’s most poetic image, the revolving display car divides, with Marc and Michèle, each on their half of the stand, separating and coming together.
Skolimowski’s existential concept of identity is always in a state of flux. In Le Départ Marc distances himself from an identity he cannot accept (that of a hairdresser) and which requires him to suppress his real nature in adopting a subdued pose with his women customers. This is thrown into relief by his loud and frantic behaviour in the staff room and elsewhere, in contrast to the demeanour required of him at work. Marc finds self-belief in his obsession with car racing, a masculine way of dealing with his lack of clear identity. This links him to the central character in Walkover played by Skolimowski; in their ambition both “lose before they can even properly start” (11).
Skolimowski did not understand French while making the film and worked with two interpreters. He understood the actors through facial expressions, not too difficult with an idiosyncratically expressive actor like Léaud, although Skolimowski once admitted that there “wasn’t a good director-actor rapport”. Nevertheless, on another occasion he acknowledged that he achieved excellent communication with his actors, especially Léaud, “by gesturing and making faces” (12). It is evident that Léaud’s arbitrary agility as an actor is matched by Skolimowski’s similar facility as a director. He gives the film over to Léaud’s atypical persona by, as Mazierska points out, “allowing him to dominate the screen to an even greater extent than he permitted himself in the films about Leszczyc. Consequently, it feels like Le Départ [is] less about the specific character this actor plays, and more about Léaud himself.” (13)
In the films with Godard and La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973), Léaud’s rebellion against his situation has a political dimension. In comparison, Léaud’s Marc is less complicated. His rebellion against the prospect of a relatively comfortable but conformist and standardised life is personal and not political. Léaud’s deeply felt performance as Alexandre in Eustache’s film is rightly regarded as a career peak. In Le Départ his mannered comic performance, bordering on the manic, abruptly switches from the near frantically eccentric to the pensive, akin to Léaud’s style of playing of Colin in Out 1, noli me tangere (Jacques Rivette, 1971)(14). In the final scene in the hotel room with Michèle in Le Départ, and unlike the precarious romanticism of the final image of Barrier whichends on the girl’s face,Marc’s conflicted solitariness yields to previously suppressed sexual feeling as he turns, with the touching hint of a smile, to look at Michèle, naked under the bedclothes. Skolimowski then signifies, with an image he had foreshadowed earlier in ending Michèle’s slide show, that “[Marc] has grown up. There is nothing more to say.” (15)
Le Départ will screen at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on Jean-Pierre Léaud, co-curated with Philippa Hawker. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. Ewa Mazierska, A Companion of Eastern European Cinemas, ed. Anikó Imre, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 486. Skolimowski’s director’s fee of $US4000, then “a legendary sum for the majority of Poles”, allowed him to purchase a Ford Mustang which he later sold to Czeslaw Niemen, “the greatest Polish pop star of the sixties”.
2. Skolimowski in interview with Dan Yakir, “Polestar”, Film Comment vol. 18, no. 6, November-December 1982, p. 30.
3. Yakir, p. 28.
4. Yakir, p. 28
5. In his Polish “trilogy” Skolimowski uses lines from his poems to illuminate what he called “the mental landscape” of the hero, an expression of tension between cynicism and romanticism.
6. Ewa Mazierska, Jerzy Skolimowski: The Cinema of a Nonconformist, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2010, p. 32.
7. Mazierska is applying, to Marc and Leszczyc, “the central concept of 1960s and early 1970s psychoanalysis, the Oedipal complex” noting a particular trajectory described as “losing their innocence” (p. 45).
8. Skolimowski in an interview with Christian Braad Thomsen, “Skolimowski”, Sight and Sound vol. 37, no. 3, Summer 1968, p. 142.
9. Mazierska, p. 44.
10. Mazierska, p. 101.
11. Mazierska, p. 42.
12. Peter Blum, “A Conversation With the Young Polish Director “, Film Comment Fall 1968, p. 14.
Skolimowski has been somewhat confusing, if not contradictory, in speaking at different times about his working relationship with Léaud. In an interview with David Stratton, published in Bulletin 4 at the 1971 Sydney Film Festival, he said, “Léaud was a very intelligent boy who communicated with me very well”. He had earlier told Dan Yakir that he could not “even call what Léauddid in Le Départ as acting” (p. 30). Léaud’s preference was to “have the director provide some ideas and some words, leaving… room for the actor in between”. See interview with James Monaco, Take One vol. 5, no. 4, 1977, p. 20.
13. Mazierska, p. 45.
14. In Rivette’s twelve-and-a-half-hour, eight-part serial (also in a completely re-edited four-hour version, Out 1: Spectre, 1972) Léaudplays Colin, a young outsider attempting to uncover, in “real life”, the Thirteen, a rich, powerful and sinister secret society, originally the subject of three short novels by Honoré de Balzac. Léaud’s playing of the bizarrely obsessive Colin matches his performance as Marc in Le Départ.
15. Thomsen, p. 142.