Conventional performance modes are fashioned upon a premise of the portrayal of a coherent fictional character whose actions can be said to service the demands of the narrative. This paper will confront the affective power of the non-professional performance in its capacity to blur the boundary between contingency and control. While scholars frequently concentrate on both filmmakers’ employment of modernist tropes, including their durational aesthetic, de-dramatized narratives and commitment to a sensorial cinema, I wish to shift attention towards the radical reconfiguration of performance, arguing for its importance as an affective force that simultaneously embodies and expresses the central thematic concerns of the films. Indeed, the awkwardness at the heart of these performances aligns with and palpably enacts the broader critique of modern instrumentality and egocentric mastery structuring both films, while foregrounding corporeal movement as an affective force of becoming.

A detective enters his local precinct and learns that his friend has been accused of the crime he has been attempting to solve: the rape and murder of a young girl. Slowly approaching the man, the detective walks with a sense of uncertainty, one foot tentatively placed in front of the other, as though not quite sure how he is to proceed. His friend is seated, shoulders stooped, his face covered by his hands. Initially shocked, the detective castigates the man. However, his fury is almost immediately eclipsed by what appears to be compassion. Moving closer to the man, his hands gripping the back of his head, the detective buries his face deep in the other’s neck, feeling the texture, smelling the skin, before guiding him to his feet, where they stand locked in an awkward embrace. More awkward still, the detective then forces his lips upon the man’s and kisses him. Although this is the climax of the film, there is something implausible or incomplete about the scenario, a fact only enhanced by the uncertainty of the lead actor. Each physiological gesture announces itself as a force of material density, each action undercut at the point of revelation.

Another film, this one depicting a man and woman standing in the florescent glare of the subway, discussing the sudden death of a baby they kidnapped. The camera remains resolutely fixed on the scene, in one long take observing the material minutiae that subtly surfaces across each face. While we would typically consider such a scene to be melodramatic, any emotional resonance is abandoned in favour of their impassive faces and awkward, monotonic speech that conveys they are reading from a script. We may start to feel that there is something disconcerting or out-of-place in this sequence, while failing to entirely distinguish what it is. Even though they are discussing a death, the content of their speech almost falls into the background, becoming mere noise amongst the strange aural soundscape of the subway. Should we conclude that this indeterminate sensation we feel is evoked through the eccentricity of the performance itself and how the camera choses to observe it? The non-actors’ stillness, blank faces and unaffected dialogue make them appear as objects amidst other objects. However, there is at the same time something enigmatic, indeed excessive about their existence, something felt rather than understood.

Nonprofessional Performance

Pharaon kissing Joseph in L’humanite (Bruno Dumont, 1999)

Nonprofessional Performance

On the subway in Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, Carlos Reygadas, 2005).

The brief scenes that I have been describing are from Bruno Dumont’s L’humanité (1999) and Carlos Reygadas’s Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005), films that radically reconfigure traditional forms of naturalistic performance. Such sequences are emblematic of both directors’ work, privileging as they do nonprofessional performances that challenge acting as recreating a closed and mimetic inscription of character. These performances are not determined by the portrayal of a coherent fictional character whose actions can be understood within the objectives of the narrative. Rather, what we witness is a manifestation of performance as it comes into being, a physical engagement in which the material shape straddles the boundary between contingency and control. While scholars frequently concentrate on both filmmakers’ employment of modernist tropes, including their durational aesthetic, de-dramatized narratives and commitment to a sensorial cinema, I wish to shift attention towards the radical reconfiguration of performance, arguing for its importance as an affective force that simultaneously embodies and expresses the central thematic concerns of the films. Indeed, the awkwardness at the heart of these performances aligns with and palpably enacts the broader critique of modern instrumentality and egocentric mastery structuring both films, while foregrounding corporeal movement as an affective force of becoming.

Theories of Cinematic Performance

It has now become customary in film studies to initiate any discussion of cinematic performance by drawing attention to theorists’ neglect of what is an essential element of the medium. With regard to the presentation of emotion in film, this neglect is more often than not traced back to the early experiments of Lev Kuleshov,1 a filmmaker and theorist whose experiments with montage confirmed the practically superfluous nature of performance. These early tests in cinematic acting have continued to shape a century’s worth of criticism and have possibly contributed to the dearth of research dedicated to film performance. Indeed, the relatively short history of film studies has seen debates predominantly focused on montage, mise-en-scène and the ontology of the medium. However, I would argue that there has been a minor theoretical turn towards questions of cinematic performance with scholars introducing a number of methodological issues when it comes to defining its scope. While much of the recent research has relied on semiotic tools to understand recognisable codes and connotations of acting, other scholars explore the materiality of the performing body onscreen and how this affects the body of the spectator. This latter approach, realised in the work of Lesley Stern, Georges Kouvaros and Elena del Río formulates a process of theoretical engagement privileging sensory epistemologies rather than attempting to place the body within an easily intelligible and pre-coded sign system. By turning to questions of sensory engagement, this work explores “how movement, voice, gesture can bring about effects, how they can generate affect.”2 Emphasis on the affective nature of performance is increasingly attuned to the transformation of the body in movement as a material process. As del Río explains, “Affect broadly refers to the body’s capacities to affect and be affected by other bodies, thereby implying an augmentation or diminution in the body’s capacity to act.”3 Del Río uses the term “affective-performance” to describe corporeal movements that exceed the frame of representation and instead mobilise molecular intensities through the body’s power of self-modulation and becoming:

I am concerned with the performative dimension of bodies in the cinema [. . .] at the ontological level: bodies as doers, generators, producers, performers of worlds, of sensations and affects that bear no mimetic or analogical ties to an external or transcendental reality. From this standpoint, performance involves a mobilisation or affective circuits that supersedes the viewer’s investment in the image through representational structures of belief and mimesis.4

This notion of the affective-performance is especially helpful in addressing filmmaking methods that challenge conventional acting grounded in the organisation of identity and instead strive for moments of corporeal excess and disorganisation. Del Río argues, for example, “affective-performative moments challenge not only the concept of narrative organisation, but also the concept of character as a self-contained individual whose acts results from conscious and wilful intentionality.”5 Rather than secure forms of subjectivity that foreground intentionality and the instrumentalisation of the body, affective-performance moments emphasise “relations of speed and movement, degrees of intensity”6 that cannot be contained within self-enclosed forms of corporeality. The majority of films in mainstream cinema, including those that rely principally on nonprofessional actors, tend to foreground the semblance of emotion in the embodiment of a completed character. At this point I should clarify that employing untrained actors does not in itself entail a subversion of conventional psychological performance. The most famous examples of nonprofessional actors in recent decades, including well-known films like City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002), do not drift far from mainstream modes of performance. Indeed, as was widely documented, the amateur performers that appeared in City of God were trained for months in actor workshops in order to provide more naturalistic performances, thus raising the question of whether they are in fact “untrained”. In saying this, my conception of nonprofessional performance as process is not specific to the work of Dumont and Reygadas. Rather it has a long history that could be traced back to Italian Neorealism and seen more recently in the work of Pedro Costa, Lisandro Alonso and Abbas Kiarostami to name a few. L’humanité and Battle in Heaven are particularly noteworthy examples of contemporary cinema that depart radically from dramatic conventions based on “character”, with both films instead embracing an affective form of performance grounded in the sensation of movement that unfolds through the actualisation of the body’s potential. This actualisation exceeds the will of the individual, emerging instead as a unique affective encounter that exists prior to the organisation of a self-enclosed identity. In order to understand the distinctiveness of this approach, we firstly need to contrast it against the common conception of acting in narrative cinema.

Naturalistic and Method Acting

Cinematic performance in classical narrative cinema is typically regarded as an actor portraying a character in a fictional world. James Naremore provides a useful designation of this performance style, suggesting, “the typical dramatic film regards acting as an artful imitation of unmediated behaviour in the real world. The actor is taken to be an already completely formed person who learns to ‘think’ for the camera.”7 Indeed, Naremore and others have connected the rise of representational acting styles to the development of psychological narratives within Hollywood cinema. This privileging of representational performance has a strong inheritance in the theatrical techniques of Constantin Stanislavski. For Stanislavski, authenticity and integrity in performance is achieved through a means of technical mastery, one that provides the actor with the tools necessary to fully inhabit the character they were portraying. This method of performance comprised of rigorous preparation, where the actor achieved complete control over every element of the performance, assimilating their expressive rhythms and movements effortlessly into the wider objectives of the narrative. The aim of this technical mastery was the invisibility or dematerialisation of the process of performance itself, in which characters’ intentions were easily intelligible and able to be immediately grasped within the broader objectives of character psychology and narrative causation. As Stanislavski explains in his work, An Actor Prepares: “The whole stream of individual, minor objectives, all the imaginative thoughts, feelings and actions of an actor, should carry out the super-objective of the plot” (original emphasis)8 Although Stanislavski himself had little to do with the cinema, his theatrical techniques were perfectly suited to the medium. The task of adopting his ideas for the screen was undertaken by Lee Strasberg – most famously associated with inventing the Method school of acting – who updated and reworked some of Stanislavski’s key ideas in the 1950s, specifically his concept of affective memory. In Strasberg’s hands, naturalistic acting reaches an almost total assimilation of actor and character through a process of painstaking preparation based on recovering and working through repressed memories that the actor draws upon to fully embody the character. At stake here is the actor’s aptitude at delving into the depths of their unconscious, drawing from memories and traumatic experiences to render an honest representation of character.9 Priority is given to emotional truth, the actor being allowed the freedom to build a unique and fully realised character from the script. In terms of reception, audiences have by now become accustomed to judging performances through this narrow lens of imitation and emotional verisimilitude.

In his book Cinema I: The Movement-Image, Gilles Deleuze draws attention to what he refers to as the sensory-motor schema involved in the technique of Method acting. The sensory-motor schema allows a living image to react appropriately to stimuli in the environment through the process of intention and selection. For Deleuze, the action-image is organised around sensory-motor connections, which create unifying links between images that uphold the individual as rational agent easily able to act upon and change his or her environment. The philosophy of the Actors Studio is analogous to the action-image more generally, since the performer relies on “sensory motor training” to tap into the reservoirs of inner existence and express them through a corresponding action. What is at stake here is an organic composition between circuits of interiority and action that evolve along linear lines of perception. Indeed, this sensory-motor training is manifested in the intensive preparation and analysis of character encountered in the Method school of acting, where what is required is a recognition of self-identity as a form of organic intensity. For Deleuze, the action-image and Method technique work in tandem, each reinforcing the other in an integrated circuit of movement:

It is here that the sensory-motor takes possession of the image, and that a genetic element tends to emerge. From the outset, the rules of the Actors Studio applied not only to the actor’s acting out but also to the conception and unfolding of the film, its framing, its cutting, its montage. We must infer the one from the other, the realist nature of the film from the acting of the actor and conversely.10

To simplify things, at stake here is the rendering of emotion, an internally subjective state apprehended on the level of external behaviour. It is worth noting the distinction the cultural theorist Brian Massumi draws between emotion and affect. For Massumi, “emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and recognised.”11 Following on from the work of Deleuze, Massumi defines affect as the suspension between action and reaction. In this regard, realist acting and movement-image cinema generally is more interested in recognisable subjective states than with the emergence of unfamiliar affects. The apprehension of emotion in much screen acting is facilitated by realist aesthetic codes that assist the naturalistic nature of the performance. It would not be too simplistic to position this representational ontology as emblematic of instrumental forms of identity, working through a gestural economy that understands action through the lens of egocentric intention and control. In this regard, the Method proposes a functional understanding of movement, grounded in ideal forms of mimesis, whereby corporeality becomes the means to produce an underlying and ahistorical form of identity. Every physiological movement is implicated in a wider teleology, organised through the economy of egocentric mastery. This is indeed also embodied on a thematic and narrative level, with the hero able to react appropriately to external situations and change the course of history. It is therefore worthy of a critique such as Bertolt Brecht’s alternative promotion of a presentational form of performance, in which the actor remains critically detached from the demonstration of their physical gestures, observing and commenting on them rather than identifying with them. This form of acting is motivated by a wish to disrupt romantic conceptions of bourgeois autonomy witnessed in naturalistic performance and instead promulgate a didactic theatre that discloses the individual’s interpellation in ideology. Shifting emphasis to the socio-historical existence of character entails downplaying mimetic forms of acting based in psychology and subsequently challenging the self-determination of external action.12 Perhaps more radical was the work of Frenchman Antonin Artaud, who raged against what he called the tyranny of the text. Desiring a theatre unburdened from representation, he proposes a violent form of aesthetics grounded in the cataclysmic energy and aleatory otherness of corporeal intensity. His theatre of cruelty takes shape through the staging of affective rhythms and vibrations that works directly on the nervous system of the audience.13

The films of Reygadas and Dumont have their lineage within this eclectic genealogy of modernist and avant-garde methods that seek radical alternatives to naturalistic forms of psychological performance. In their hands, nonprofessional performance similarly ruptures stable forms of representation and egocentric instrumentality. However, before elaborating on this, we need to explore how nonprofessional performances is informed and takes shape through the filmmaking process itself.

Performance as Process: Between Contingency and Control

Against the aforementioned naturalistic approach to performance, Dumont and Reygadas understand filmmaking as a process in which the new and unexpected can continually erupt and manifest. This is not to suggest that both filmmakers follow an improvisational method. Rather, at stake is a precarious balance between control and contingency in the profilmic world, where the physical engagement of the performance is provoked precisely through the material process of filmmaking. For example, both directors insist on meticulously planning almost every element of pre-production, the filmmaking process and post-production: this includes a specific knowledge about how each shot will be framed and composed and a desire to control the physical rhythms of the non-actors. However, this control is continually compromised by the performers not being provided with a completed script or given information concerning the plot. Instead, the amateur actors are informed on what to say or do immediately before they shoot a specific scene. Because both directors work with a long take aesthetic, there is a high degree of contingency in each shot. These unexpected moments have the potential to destabilise the construction of a completed character and insist instead on the phenomenological weight and surface textures of the performance. Discussing his method of working with amateur actors, Dumont states:

I prefer having awkward things and then digging, scrapping and editing it all; it’s fascinating. I can tell that I have an increasing desire to work with awkwardness, with waste, the little things that break, the falls, the accidents . . . To a certain extent, when I say ‘action’, I don’t know what is going to happen. I wait and watch. I want an accident to occur.14

This desire to work with awkwardness is found in the performers the director employs. He gravitates towards actors who exhibit noticeable tics, speech impediments, scars and other physical deformities. In addition, he depicts these bodies in sexually explicit scenes and feats of physical exertion, thus continually placing them in precarious positions that fray the edges of representation and allow an open space for indeterminacy to manifest.15 In L’humanité, ungainliness seems to infuse the film as a whole, not only in the lethargic rhythm of the performer, Emmanuel Schotté, which the camera entirely succumbs to, but also in minor, almost banal accidents that occur throughout the film.

A fascinating example of such an accident is the actor’s obvious anxiety behind the wheel when driving, being unable to operate a vehicle at the time of production.16 While Dumont could have easily got around this issue by shooting from different angles or using a body double, he actually embraces and even emphasises the actor’s fear, focusing closely on his face as he drives. By rendering this fear of driving, we come to see how the actor himself, much like the character he portrays, is ill-equipped to inhabit the technological world.

Similarly, Reygadas is more concerned with the possibility of documenting the material deformations, discontinuities and gaps that emerge in the process of filming. Indeed, the dialectic between control and contingency is perhaps taken to its apotheosis in his strange and paradoxical working methods. While he wishes to exert almost complete control over the actors’ physical movements, going so far as pulling strings attached to their legs when they are required to walk, he nevertheless refrains from informing the actors on what facial expressions to use.17 Adding to this, he privileges the first take because this has the highest degree of contingency. Discussing these methods, Tiago de Luca, has appropriately stated how Reygadas’ formal rigour is continually undercut by the irruption of the spontaneous real.18 However, taking this further, we could suggest a mutual implication or dialectic between these seemingly contradictory registers, wherein formal rigour indeed creates the space for the real to emerge. The constraints placed on the non-actors is ultimately a productive means of enacting boundaries that generate the possibility of intensifying the real. Dumont and Reygadas subvert naturalistic performances that have their lineage in Stanislavski’s approach. The performer’s body as solely expressive of character psychology is disrupted by a presentational performance style that privileges instead the physicality of bodies. Disfiguring character motivation and narrative teleology entails an emphasis on ungainly gestures and uncertain bodily movements.

Sensory-Motor Collapse

L’humanité and Battle in Heaven respectively chart the meandering spiritual journeys of a male protagonist who is dealing with the death of a child. In Dumont’s film we watch the ineffectual policemen Pharaon de Winter struggling to come to terms with the murder and rape of a little girl. Set in the modern sprawling metropolis of Mexico City, Battle in Heaven follows a chauffeur named Marcos, unable to decide whether to turn himself in to police after the death of a child he and his wife have kidnapped. The incapacity of the protagonists to act resonates with Deleuze’s time-image cinema, where the sensory-motor link between the image and the world is broken.

Deleuze argues that after the devastation of the Second World War, the movement-image undergoes an immense crisis. This crisis is first realised in the films of Italian Neorealism where movement is no longer invested in autonomous action, but instead becomes dispersive, inchoate and immanent. The evacuation of action is embodied in drifting characters, whom the philosopher describes rather suggestively as a new breed of mutants: people lacking the sensory-motor schema to respond to their environment. For Deleuze, the collapse of the sensory-motor schema is often found in a confrontation with an intolerable circumstance, “it is supposed to make us grasp, something intolerable and unbearable.”19 In this new regime, the presence of time becomes palpable, seen in the build-up of purely optical and sound situations, where characters can only passively see and hear. Faced with the unbearable trauma of modern existence, Pharaon and Marcos lack the sensory-motor schema to circumnavigate their environments and accordingly react to situations. Taking this one step further, we can say that the non-actors themselves are consumed by a certain motor helplessness, lacking the capacity to master the character they attempt to portray. This gap or dissociation between the character and actor is where the performance appropriately materialises.

This lack of sensory-motor wholeness is firstly encountered in the bodies of the protagonists, certainly both picked for their undeniable fleshy vulnerability. Challenging the hard and impenetrable physiognomies frequently seen in conventional representations of detectives, Schotté’s body is ungainly and awkward, the buckled shoulders, collapsed chest and protruding stomach antithetical to stereotypical action heroes. Indeed, his drooping flesh and lugubrious movements reveal the remarkable force of gravity and expose a certain passivity in the flux of matter. This incongruity or disjunction between the actor’s corporeality and the role he portrays means we cannot see the character as completed and subsequently suspend our disbelief.

Nonprofessional Performance

Emmanuel Schotté in L’humanité: ungainly and awkward.

While the obese body of the actor Marcos Hernández in Battle in Heaven is more believable, being a lower-class, indigenous chauffeur, the relationship he has with the young and attractive upper-class woman is anything but believable. Significantly, the body in both films is antithetical to the more “ideal” bodies found in the majority of classical narrative cinema. The non-actors’ bodies defy the cultural legitimacy and aesthetic validation Hollywood has bestowed on star performers that adhere to classical conceptions of beauty. Both Dumont and Reygadas enhance the intensities of these physiologies, through the use of extended takes, frequently depicting physical feats of endurance and explicit sex. In this regard, the bodies themselves articulate the affectivity of matter, being defined by a passive pliability in terms of its relational force with its environment. Think of the gruelling trudge Marcos endures on his knees through the sweltering streets of Mexico City or the uphill bike ride undertaken by Pharaon where we listen to his heavy breath and see his undulating chest. In these instances, the filmmaking process is less about following a pre-established narrative trajectory and more about provoking corporeal affects through extreme physical situations.

Affective Deviations

Both scholars and critics have continually associated Dumont and Reygadas’s employment of nonprofessional actors with the work of French director Robert Bresson. Reacting against psychological techniques of performance predicated on a conventional expressive rhetoric, Bresson demands a process of physiological refinement and de-dramatization. This process, developed through rigorous and repetitive bodily movements, encourages a form of automatic performance, one completely excavated of conscious will and autonomy, guided instead by some inexplicable logic of the unknown. Tony Piplo explains: “Only by living with the unknown, he [Bresson] claimed, could they maintain innocent, curious, virginal demeanours in front of the camera, eager to take the next step but ignorant of the overall design.”20 One does not need to look hard to grasp the commonalities between these directors’ approach to performance – amateur actors, automatic gestures, the denial of emotional projection – however, in many respects the working methods of Reygadas and Dumont are the complete reverse of Bresson’s.21 Isolating each simple gesture and relying on montage means that the actor’s movement in Bresson is subordinated to the precise dictates of the frame and allowed little space to exceed its constriction. In doing so, corporeal movement is positioned strictly in relation to the restriction of the frame, the particular manner of action being determined in advance.22 Contrastingly, in L’humanité and Battle in Heaven the physiognomy of the performer remains the ultimate measure of the frame and indeed often exceeds it through unpredictable and affective deviations that emerge in each shot from the body of the actor. The long take aesthetic is significant here, since duration continually enacts a certain pressure or force that has the capacity to provoke unknown affects in the body of the actor. In these moments, the performance is not wholly determined by the restrictions of the frame, but rather materialises through an unstable interaction with its parameters, providing ample opportunity for the affect to emerge.

Consider a brief scene from Battle in Heaven in which Marcos goes to Ana’s apartment to inform her that he will soon give himself up to the police. The scene will end with Marcos, for some unknown reason, knifing Ana in the stomach and watching her die. In this scene, as in the rest of the film, Marcos’s movements are to a large degree automated. However, in contrast to Bresson’s models, this robotic quality does not seem to emanate solely from the overall narrative logic of the film. Instead, Marcos throughout the film embodies an uncomfortable awkwardness and uncertainty, the burden of a specific corporeal density that betrays an incapacity to reproduce what is ostensibly expected from him by the director. Contrasting the emphasis on self-identity and instrumental control that defines naturalistic performances, Marcos’s untrained inelegance announces itself through an explicit resistance to corporeal movement: the kinesis of the body paradoxically measured and excessive. While he appears restrained and almost robotic in this scene, there is, however simultaneously a sense of surplus movement that continually surfaces. On the fictional level this mirrors the character’s existential and political plight, reflecting as it does the character’s incapacity to achieve any freedom of movement against the technological force of the urban environment.

It must be said that Marcos’s performance materialises through the interaction and construction of a precise filmic lexicon, his movements rendered in long takes and captured in performative fragments. In this context, the succession of shots does not develop a homogenising narrative logic, but instead proceeds through stops and starts. We are witness to a strange stratagem of performative surplus, the actor being filmed prior to the moment when the narrative action has occurred and after it has concluded. This temporal excess that goes beyond the demands of the dramaturgy further assists in eroding any distinction between the staged and the real, the process of shooting coming to provoke additional indecision and uncertainty in the performance. Thus, after Marcos has told Ana he will turn himself in to the police, the camera does not cut immediately, but instead remains filming. Noticeably uncomfortable, the actor stands awkwardly in front of the camera and there is a moment, fleeting yet significant, when he does not know what to do with his body: what he does do is indecisively move his hands towards his pockets. However, he keeps them suspended at his sides, his fingers merely fidgeting nervously. In this disruptive moment, the unpredictable real indeed trumps the staged, as we witness physiological actions that disturb the coherent organisation of a fully realised character existing in a fictional world.

Nonprofessional Performance

Marcos waits in Battle in Heaven

Borrowing from the work of Deleuze and Guattari, Marcos’s movements in this scene and throughout the film could be read as a form of performative stuttering.23 While these thinkers consider the literary fiction of Franz Kafka in its ability to disturb the signification of a major language and unleash affective intensities, we can similarly see this at work in both films discussed here, where the major ontological syntax of performance predicated on order and completion is disrupted. If the major, or what I have been referring to as naturalistic, performance proceeds through ontological veracity and subjective mastery, these films’ affective forces emerge in indecisive, disorganised and jerky bodily rhythms announcing quite explicitly the failure to master performance.

Impotency and Suspension

What we witness in L’humanite and Battle in Heaven is an impotency at the heart of performance, whereby the untrained actor cannot fully imitate or master the gestures expected of him. The actor’s vulnerable physicality is disclosed precisely in this gap, where the performance does not elicit a suggestion of character, but signals rather the materiality of the performance itself. In other words, the unfinished quality of the performance produces a documentary dimension to the character, whereby we must attend to the actor attempting to perform, rather than performing a stable and completed character in the fictional world. This performative stuttering is an ontogenetic force that simultaneously embodies and evokes the thematic and symbolic resonances central to both films. Depicting a modern reality seemingly evacuated of any ethical commitment, the films portray a world governed by instrumental calculation and control. Set in very different milieus, the same process nevertheless seems to take place in both worlds, in which a hapless protagonist is ill equipped to inhabit an increasingly instrumentalised environment characteristic of technological control. The logic of instrumentalism is most forcibly seen in the death of a child, an event that provides the impetus for the narrative and structures both films.

In Battle in Heaven, the child is kidnapped for a paltry financial ransom, reduced to the status of commodity that seems essential for the protagonist’s survival in an increasingly harsh urban environment. This instrumental world is observed in the urban milieu that seems to quite literally swallow Marcos, its gigantic scale and speed reducing him to a paltry figure struggling amidst the inhuman density of supposed progress. Existing almost completely in the non-places of the metropolis, the film foregrounds the collisions and encounters between Marcos’s body and that of the city. He seems to be assaulted by the machinery that defines the urban habitats rather than having any capacity for autonomous movement himself. In the subway sequence, Marcos boards a congested train, first struggling to find adequate space that would accommodate his big frame and then falling to the floor when the train suddenly grinds to a halt. Soon after, on a busy freeway, he sits motionless in his car daydreaming only to be violently abused by another driver who then promptly speeds off. Being a poor, indigenous man, Marcos’ journey appears completely at odds with the functional and teleological movement that defines the biopolitical operations of the state. At the beginning, his awkward physical movements are contrasted against the instrumentalised bodies of the military men who march in unison. While the national flag is raised high into the heavens, the protagonist’s journey is one of increasing debasement and eventually death. The film simultaneously presents the economic and ethic disparity that defines contemporary Mexico, by depicting the huge financial inequality that exists in the capital. The sexual relationship between Marcos and his employer’s young and attractive daughter, Ana, is a means not only to reveal the divide, but also an attempt to suspend it through documenting an affective encounter between two bodies that otherwise exist in differing worlds.

Nonprofessional Performance

Raising of the flag in Battle in Heaven.

In L’humanité the inhuman world of instrumental technology is symbolically connected to the rape and murder of the child. While Pharaon exists uneasily in this world, Joseph the killer appears more than comfortable operating the heavy machinery of the school bus and driving dangerously through the quiet streets of the local town. Even more palpably, machines continually disturb the otherwise peaceful pastoral setting: military jets, the Eurostar train and huge trucks penetrating the placidity of what is depicted as the otherwise tranquil environment. Against this logic of instrumentalism, Pharaon appears a vulnerable figure continually pulled down towards the earth. In the first few shots of the film, presumably having just stumbled upon the murder scene, he trips in a ploughed field and lands face first in the mud. The camera then captures his dormant body, his face half-submerged in the ground, while one eye gazes into the distance. Rather than mastering the environment through functional movement, the detective exists primarily in a disturbingly intimate and intertwined relationship with nature to the point of complete subjective collapse.24 While Macros is almost completely controlled by institutional forces of the state, the protagonist of L’humanite cannot separate himself from the natural environment and therefore undertake action.

Nonprofessional Performance

A scream against the inhumanity of the instrumentalised world in L’humanite.

Through the protagonists’ spiritual struggles, both films present the dangerous side of comprehending the world from a solely instrumental perspective. They reveal the economic inequality and corporeal suffering that has emerged in the ceaseless reign of egocentric mastery. This is in essence a post-religious world, the promise of transcendence futile, God has indeed been dead for some time, yet where he once stood, in his place there is instrumental man, whom reigns over nature, over humans and over the self. We see this in the elevation of the national flag that directly follows the erotic prologue in Battle in Heaven, and the technology that inhabits the sky in L’humanité. Both are intimations of an epoch understood through the logic of instrumental control, where man merely manipulates nature and all organic existence for his own ends. Beyond this transcendental elevation of man above the immanence of existence, we can begin to understand how nonprofessional performance enacts a process of material agitation and affective assemblage that challenges stable forms of identity. It emerges as a process whereby the performer’s capacity to affect and be affected cannot but exceed their own egocentric control. While this suspension of mastery may initially appear frightening, insofar as it seemingly strips the individual of autonomy, it nevertheless simultaneously offers the potential for us to think new forms of affective subjectivity beyond the limits of self-enclosed agency.

This is also shown in the sacrifices that end both films, which nevertheless depict dissimilar conclusions. L’humanité concludes with Pharaon seemingly accepting the full burden of the worldly guilt by taking the place of the killer. While the ending remains ambiguous, it seems to be redemptive insofar as it implies that people like Pharaon will continue to exist against the forces of evil. On the other hand, Marcos’s journey in Battle in Heaven towards some form of personal redemption for his crime appears all but futile, ending not in catharsis, but rather completing the process of objectification, witnessed when his lifeless corpse collapses to the ground against the grander of the basilica. Reading both films in terms of redemption is perhaps a little too teleological, too much a higher means to an end. Instead there is a greater sacrifice – one that could be associated with the writings of Georges Bataille – at the heart of both films: a radical negation of subjectivity, meaning and structure through the affective force of what we could call sensuous unknowing.25

Sacrifice and Spectatorship

A sacrifice of structure and meaning is conveyed through the sensorial aesthetics of both filmmakers’ work, a performative process that similarly breaks down a seamlessly instrumentalised or knowable reality and instead partakes in what Jean-Louis Schefer refers to as a suspension of the world.26 In this understanding, film images do not represent the hegemonic reality disseminated on a daily basis, but rather disturb our habitual conceptions of representation, revealing what “does not let itself be thought in thought.”27

In L’humanité and Battle in Heaven, this suspension does not only occur in the all-too-obvious plot flaws and enigmas that detract from the representational form of the narrative, but also in both films’ endeavour to capture the material flux of existence, which is similarly indeterminate and open to irreducible holes and breaches in meaning. Connecting this to Deleuze’s powers of the false, De Luca has similarly explained these holes and enigmas as impossible fictions, insofar as they “radically rearrange sensory realities.”28 Speaking favourably of L’humanité, Jonathan Rosenbaum argues “Dumont’s film is ‘unfinished’ in the sense that some paintings are; that is, some parts of the ‘canvas’ are only sketched in while other parts are fully realised” (original emphasis).29 This sacrifice of aesthetic totality or completion indeed embodies a stuttering of the major conventional regime of representational truth seen in the bulk of contemporary cinema. As with the nonprofessional performances, what is foregrounded is the lacuna or interstice, clashes of control and contingency that redirect attention from the closed totality of instrumental form to the open emergence of affective force.

In doing so, the spectator’s sensory-motor schema similarly remains suspended, unable to evaluate the action through the predicable flow of movement and anticipate its future materialisation. Instead, we are forced to experience the external force of unorganised affect. Del Río reminds us that the performing body in cinema is not merely a signifying tool, but instead can produce “a shock wave of affect, the expression-event that makes affect a visible and palpable materiality.”30 This is achieved when the body, ungrounded by the molar plane of identity and organisation is experienced instead as a pre-personal expression of movement and becoming. L’humanité and Battle in Heaven similarly perform a gestural expenditure that produces affective shocks, rather than being based on spectatorial identification and mastery. Corporeal movement, freed from teleological and instrumental ends, emancipated from communicative mastery, proceeds through an immediate and excessive force of material becoming.

With this in mind, I am again brought back to the enigmatic scene which introduced us to Pharaon, when the detective buries his head deep within Joseph’s neck, feeling the material texture of his humanity, smelling it, tasting it, even going so far as to absorb it through his open mouth. Neither Pharaon nor the film attempt to decipher the mystery behind the crime committed, or provide an explanation that would reduce the immensity of the otherwise insensitive act. Rather, the protagonist and the film itself strive firstly for sensual contact: not solely to grasp the physical force of our shared humanity, but to experience also the interstice that exists between two bodies. This endeavour is embodied most immediately in the physiological experience that emerges between the spectator and the nonprofessional performances, the circulation of affective resonance working against any functionality to welcome instead the failure of knowledge. Although this failure in itself can never be complete, it is the genesis of a palpable bodily force that exposes our own powerlessness and contingency in the presence of matter, one that might inspire a more affirmative ontology grounded in the intense alterity of affective forces.

This article has been peer reviewed.



  1. See Lev Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film, ed. Ronald Levaco (Berkley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 67–71.
  2. Lesley Stern and Georges Kouvaros, “Descriptive Acts” in Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance, eds. Stern and Kouvaros (Sydney: Power Institute, 1999), p. 20.
  3. Elena del Río, Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers of Affection (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), p. 10.
  4. Ibid., p. 4.
  5. Ibid., p. 50.
  6. Ibid, p. 53
  7. James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 18.
  8. Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 237.
  9. It is worth noting the individualistic and indeed solipsistic preoccupation with the self that has come to define Method acting. Naremore emphasises this, claiming that Strasberg’s method upholds the conception of a romantic ego and even goes so far as to accuse it of promoting a “reification of the self”. Naremore, p. 18.
  10. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I: The Movement Image (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press. 1986), p. 155.
  11. Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (London: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 28.
  12. See Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, eds. Marc Silberman, Steve Giles and Tom Kuhn (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994).
  13. See Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty (New York: Grove Press, 1958).
  14. Philippe Tancelin, Sébastien Ors and Valérie Jouve, Bruno Dumont (Paris: Dis Voir, 2001), p. 58
  15. In the same interview, Dumont mentions that he disposes of shots when he feels the acting is too good.
  16. Lübecker remarks “Schotté (. . .) did not know how to drive at the time of filming. However, Dumont decided to take advantage of this, and he put Schotté behind the wheel.” Nikolaj Lübecker, “The Poetry of Idiots: Siegrid Alnoy, Lars von Trier, and Bruno Dumont,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 11:4 (2013): p. 448.
  17. For a full discussion of Reygadas’s working methods see Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality (New York: I.B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014), p. 75.
  18. Ibid., p. 75.
  19. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 18.
  20. Tony Piplo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 21.
  21. Cardullo suggests that the comparisons between Bresson and Reygadas are “strained”, believing Bresson’s models are quite simply the embodiment of his ideas, whereas Reygadas’s non-actors, “are individuals who are permitted to bring their own distinctive personalities to the screen.” Bert Cardullo, World Directors and their Films: Essays on African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern Cinema (UK: The Scarecrow Press, 2012), p. 278. De Luca suggests that articulating the differences is difficult, but similarly proposes that Reygadas’ actors are allowed to bring their “singularity” to the screen “in a more spontaneous fashion.” De Luca, p. 77.
  22. My ideas here are informed by del Río’s discussion concerning the relation between the body and the frame in the work of New German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Addressing the contrasting use of framing devices in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), she argues that the former “unambiguously embodies the function of ideological containment or determination.” In The Bitter Tears, however, “the frame does not determine the body in advance; instead the body itself is shown capable of generating its own frames through the powers of affection and expression.” Del Río, pp. 85–86. While arguably less concerned with ideological containment than Fassbinder, Bresson’s films are often approached through the lens of predestination. The relation between frame and body therefore reflects the harsh theological determination of Bresson’s cinematic cosmos, with each action fully contained within the limits of the frame.
  23. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986).
  24. Martine Beugnet similarly describes Pharaon as “painfully sensitive” and argues he has an “incapacity to distance himself from the world’s meaningless, organic obscenity.” Cinema and Sensation: French and The Art of Transgression (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), p. 104.
  25. Bataille’s notion of sacrifice should not be understood in the theological sense. Rather, sacrifice speaks to the transgression of limits of productive knowledge that situates the subject in a position of mastery over the environment and the Other. This transgression of limits is associated with a return to the world of animality, immanence and intimacy. See Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1989).
  26. Deleuze, Cinema II, p. 168.
  27. Ibid., p. 168.
  28. De Luca, p. 82.
  29. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 120.
  30. Del Río, p. 10.

About The Author

Michel Rubin is a doctoral candidate and sessional lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University, Melbourne. His current research addresses the new extremism trend in contemporary filmmaking, with specific focus on aspects of bodily performance, affect and ethics.

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