“To call a work obscure is just as disastrous as to call it a masterpiece of clarity: the text becomes burdened with a prejudice that prevents the reader from relating to it directly. The work is imprisoned,” wrote Marguerite Duras in 1971, imploring audiences to go out and see Straub-Huillet’s film Othon.1 She knows that the critics will hate it and laments that it will not have the commercial pull to stay in cinemas long enough for people to see it and decide for themselves.
Othon was Straub-Huillet’s first film in colour, and their first in a number of films set in the ancient world. Like much of their work, it is based on a lesser-known text by a canonical author: Pierre Corneille’s 17th century tragedy Othon, a play inspired by an episode of Roman history from 69 A.D. It tells the story of an ambitious Roman nobleman who negotiates his search for power through both love and political scheming.
Straub dedicated it to “the large number of those born in the French language, who’ve never had the privilege of knowing the work of Corneille,” citing its potential to hold sway for a newer, more democratic audience. “I would like to have OTHON seen by workers in Paris,” Straub said in an interview. “They’ve never been told that Corneille is impossible to understand…I think also that OTHON is a film that threatens not just a class but a clique of power, and that the French bourgeoisie recognizes this and is threatened by it. Workers, having no interest that would be attacked, could watch the film more calmly, more serenely.”2
Some critics have taken a less romantic view of the film’s reception: “No matter how much they insist they have shown Othon in French factories and that it was the workers who best understood the revolutionary message of this film (in form and content), I have trouble believing it,” wrote Martin Schaub.3 I would give some credit to this skepticism. The dialogues in Othon, rapid-fire recitations of French Alexandrines, barely give the viewer enough time to assemble the onslaught of words into a plot, much less synthesize a subversive political manifesto.
The film’s original title, Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu’un jour Rome se permettra de choisir a son tour (Eyes don’t want to stay shut all the time, or Perhaps one day Rome will let herself choose at her turn), at first glance incomprehensible, can actually help to open up Straub-Huillet’s take on the text. Both phrases are lifted directly from a tense dialogue between Othon and Camille, the emperor’s niece. “Eyes don’t want to stay shut all the time; but empire has charms for them all the time,” he says, convincing Camille not to marry him now that the throne has been offered to someone else. Camille tries to woo him into imagining a different order of things. Othon may not have the support of a predecessor, “but perhaps one day Rome will let herself choose at her turn. To make an emperor then… our union will have the votes of every side.” Othon dismisses her suggestion, but the scenario that she puts forth– the masses choosing their own leader– comes through once again in the play’s revolutionary ending. These two sentiments draw from conflicting forces within the narrative: a ruling class that can’t seem to act outside of its own interests or logic of power, and the possibilities for political revolution when the people decide to choose for themselves.
“The Straubs’ craft,” Tag Gallagher writes, “is finally to make the texts themselves disappear, whereupon we have a movie – which is why the words have so much more substance.” 4 Othon doesn’t elevate the language of the play by creating artifice around it; the words become another material element of the filming process. In several scenes the physical surroundings compete with the fiction. Recorded as direct sound, the trickling of running water from a fountain or the noises of Roman traffic nearly drown out the actors’ voices. The language does not even take priority in the actors’ performances– they recite their lines with little expression and structure their intonations around breathing patterns instead of poetic principles.5 The flattened hierarchy of material and narrative lets us experience the film sensorially: the timbre of each actor’s voice, the hum of the background traffic, and the texture of the green trees and wine-red tunics are as important to the film as Corneille.
The filming location forms part of Othon’s visual impact– not a set but the ruins of Roman palaces: the place where the story would have occurred, now bearing the marks of time and history. Instead of recreating the ancient setting as fiction, Staub-Huillet document it as a physical space within contemporary Rome. The actors in classical dress –youthful, regal, earnest– move from one crumbling stone wall to another on the Palatine Hill, and the viewer is left to imagine what was once the grandeur of this now empty palace, reconciling the vestiges of empire with the invasive vivacity of the urban landscape. “Fiction is important for us,” Huillet explained, “because, when mixed with documentary images or a documentary situation, a contradiction is created, and a spark can flash up.”6 Othon sparks questions about the nature of history with images of genteel Roman noblemen posturing themselves as powerful against the backdrop of an empire in ruins.
Othon unearths a complex archeology of contradictions. Rather than isolating individual layers of history and narrative, it invites the viewer to experience the tension between past and present, between fiction and reality. Watching Othon is demanding, but thought and reflection shouldn’t detract from our appreciation of the film. The “clique of power” that Straub-Huillet challenge governs not only the structures of political power but also the aesthetic standards through which we judge art as valuable or not. “Let’s invent our own standards and trust only in spontaneous criticism,” Duras wrote. “Don’t be stupid, go see Othon.”
Othon (Italy 1970 88 minutes)
Dir: Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet Pro: Klaus Hellwig Scr: Jean-Marie Straub, adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Othon Phot: Renato Berta & Ugo Piccone Ed: Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet Hair Stylist: Guerrino Todero
Cast: Adriano Aprá, Anne Brumagne, Olimpia Carlisi, Ennio Lauricella, Anthony Pensabene, Jean-Marie Straub (as Jubarite Semaran)
- Marguerite Duras, “Othon: Jean-Marie Straub” in Outside: Selected Writings, Trans. Art Goldhammer, (Boston: Beacon 1997) p.155-157. ↩
- Joel Rogers, “Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet interviewed: Moses and Aaron as an Object of Marxist Reflection”, Jump Cut, No. 12-13 (1976), https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/jc12-13folder/moses.int.html ↩
- As quoted in Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 31. ↩
- Tag Gallagher, “The Greatest Filmmakers You’ve Never Heard Of,” Sight and Sound, London 19.12 (Dec 2009), p. 38-41. ↩
- Daniel Fairfax, “Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet,” Senses of Cinema 52 (September 2009) http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/great-directors/jean-marie-straub-and-daniele-huillet/ ↩
- As quoted in Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance, p.66. ↩