Critic at Cahiers du cinéma, filmmaker, globally recognised auteur. The trajectory is a familiar one, particularly for a French cinephile born in 1930, and thus belonging to the same generation as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette. In Paul Vecchiali’s case, however, this path has been a more serpentine one than that of his nouvelle vague confrères, who were catapulted into international prominence with break-out hits such as Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, Truffaut, 1959) and À bout de souffle (Breathless, Godard, 1960). Although he has amassed a corpus of nearly 30 feature films and many more shorts and television works over the last half-century, and continues to prolifically release work up to the present day, Vecchiali’s oeuvre remains little-known outside of select circles of mainly Paris-based cognoscenti.
German literature in the 19th century was dominated by a single, vexatious question: how can one write after Goethe, after Schiller, after Hölderlin? What was there to say that these poetic titans had left unsaid? What possibility is there to be original when they had already sweepingly transformed the literary landscape? The same concerns plagued French filmmakers who became active in the latter half of the 1960s and 1970s: how can one make films after Godard, after Truffaut, after Resnais? How can one revolutionise the cinema when it has already been revolutionised?
As with the work of compatriots Jean Eustache, Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel, Vecchiali’s has inevitably been given the label “post-New Wave”, and has grappled with the legacy of this landmark movement. Operating in the more obscure margins of the film world, with an indefatigable attitude of fierce independence, making work that is neither unabashedly commercial nor unmistakably auteurist, he has struggled until lately to garner both recognition among critics and mass audience appeal. But with a recent retrospective overview of his career playing at French repertory cinemas, a DVD edition of eight of his films released by Shellac and the premiere screening of his latest work, Le cancre (The Dunce), out of competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, there are signs that Vecchiali’s work is beginning to receive the critical and curatorial attention it deserves.
Born in Ajaccio, Vecchiali first wrote for Cahiers in early 1963, and is often included (alongside Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni and Jean-André Fieschi) in the “gang of Corsicans” who began writing for the prestigious film journal during this period – although Comolli and Narboni were actually from Algeria. His association with Cahiers would be brief, but his tastes in cinema can already be detected in reviews he wrote of Procés de Jeanne d’arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, Robert Bresson, 1962), Les carabiniers (Godard, 1963) and Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy, 1964). Vecchiali’s active collaboration with Cahiers ceased in May 1964, although the filmmaker would retain close ties with the journal’s editors, who unstintingly defended his work in the 1970s.
Vecchiali’s cinephilia has a much more venerable vintage than his time at Cahiers, however, and he recalls that his desire to work in the cinema was first aroused by seeing Danielle Darrieux in Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (1936) at the age of six.1 The actress would later star as an aging widow in Vecchiali’s En haut des marches (At the Top of the Stairs, 1983) in a role based on the life of Vecchiali’s own mother, and French cinema of the 1930s (particularly the films of Jean Renoir, Jean Grémillon and Max Ophüls) has been one of the chief influences on his work. His exhaustive knowledge of the period even gave rise to the Encinéclopédia, a two-volume comprehensive overview of filmmakers working in France during the decade, whose encyclopaedic format does not prevent Vecchiali from issuing flagrantly subjective judgements on the directors under discussion.2
It was in the 1960s that Vecchiali first began making films: while the 1961 film Les petits drames (Little Dramas) is no longer extant, the shorts Les roses de la vie (Roses of Life, 1962), Le récit de Rebecca (Rebecca’s Story, 1964) and Les premières vacances (First Vacations, 1967) already testify to his inimitable style, while his 1966 feature Les ruses du diable (The Devil’s Ruses) – with its tale of a young provincial woman who works as a seamstress in Paris and receives the mysterious daily gift of a hundred-franc banknote in an envelope – presents the viewer with one of the strong female protagonists who will be a feature of so many of his later films.
It was in the 1970s, however, that Vecchiali came to prominence as a filmmaker, with two works in particular garnering critical plaudits. L’étrangleur (The Strangler, 1970), centring on Émile (Jacques Perrin) – a man who, obsessed with the murder of a woman strangled by a scarf that he witnessed when he was a boy, repeatedly reproduces the deadly act on unsuspecting ‘women of the night’. The film’s baroque aesthetic – occasionally recalling the work of Josef von Sternberg – is already established in an opening scene set in a pre-war railway terminus, and its rich score, composed by Roland Vincent, also harks back to the poetic-realist cinema of the filmmaker’s cherished 1930s.
A similar nostalgic bent governs Femmes femmes (1974), probably Vecchiali’s most well-known film. Shot on chiaroscuro black-and-white film stock, and co-written with Noël Simsolo (another refugee from the cinephile scene of the early 1960s), Femmes femmes features Vecchiali regulars Hélène Surgère and Sonia Saviange essentially playing themselves, as two ageing actresses living together in a Paris apartment overlooking the Montparnasse cemetery, who console themselves over their declining career prospects with alcohol and each other’s company. Although the premise suggests a French version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), Vecchiali does not allow the characters to slide into sadistic bitterness; instead, a sense of whimsical reverie dominates the proceedings. The film evinces similarities with contemporary works such as La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, Jean Eustache, 1973) or Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975), and was an inspiration for Pier Paolo Pasolini, who reprised a scene with the two actresses in his final masterpiece, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975). But the photographs of movie stars from the classical era (Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Michèle Morgan) pinned to the wall of Hélène and Sonia’s apartment again indicate where Vecchiali’s true influences lie.
The success of Femmes femmes allowed Vecchiali to set up his own production company, Diagonale, which helped to produce the work of kindred spirits such as Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Marie-Claude Treilhou and Gérard Frot-Coutaz. The collective, artisanal nature of the enterprise enabled these filmmakers to work outside of the dominant structures of the French film industry, and the late 1970s and early 1980s saw Vecchiali at his most prolific: his films experimented with radically non-naturalistic acting styles (most pointedly in C’est la vie [That’s Life, 1981]) and explored queer themes that were often still taboo in French cinema at the time (Encore [Once More, 1987] was reportedly the first French film to explicitly link the AIDS epidemic with homosexuality). In 1988, however, Diagonale collapsed, and Vecchiali’s ability to make the work he wanted was severely hampered: in the following years, he mainly worked on television series and straight-to-DVD releases.
The last few years, however, have seen the octogenarian filmmaker make a striking return to cinema screens: 2015 saw the belated distribution of Retour à Mayerling (Return to Mayerling, 2011) and the premieres of Nuits blanches sur la jetée (White Nights on the Pier, 2014) – a modern adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novella White Nights – and C’est l’amour (That’s Love, 2015). The last is probably the most interesting of this trio of 2015 releases. Filmed in the spectacular rural setting of France’s Var region (where Vecchiali now resides) and shot on crisp digital photography that lends the work a soupçon of television soap opera, the film’s themes are announced from the start by a direct-to-camera address by Vecchiali himself: “From this maelstrom of sentiments, only one endures, insidious, unsolvable, randomly sowing troubles and tremors, pain and joy, disappointment and pleasure. This sentiment is love.”
Fearful of being deceived by her gruff husband, Jean (Julien Lucq), the auburn-haired romantic Odile (Astrid Adverbe) decides to pre-emptively retaliate by seducing the raffish actor Daniel (Pascal Cervo), who himself is in a relationship with an older man suffering from a war wound. With subtle nods to queer artists Jean Genet and Alain Guiraudie, the film is frequently interrupted with elaborate musical numbers, and its dialogue scenes unfurl in prolonged, precisely framed sequence shots that lead up to the film’s understated yet tragic denouement. Vecchiali’s most daring touch, however, comes in the film’s opening episode: a tense discussion between Jean and Odile is shown twice, with the two versions successively taking place from the standpoint of each of the two lovers.
Whereas Vecchiali had a small role in That’s Love as a benevolent father-figure, his most recent film, The Dunce, sees him take centre stage as an actor, in a film that is perhaps his most autobiographical work to date, avowedly inspired by a recent encounter with a former lover from his teenage years. Vecchiali plays Rodolphe (the allusion to the character from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary can only be deliberate), an ageing ladies man who spends the film encountering a stream of former wives, lovers and acquaintances – a plot device that allows for appearances by Mathieu Amalric, Édith Scob and Françoise Lebrun – in a bid to find the address of a paramour from his younger days, Marguérite. Rodolphe does meet Marguérite (Cathérine Deneuve in a cameo role), but the ghostly apparition of his lost love leaves the viewer unsure as to whether this scene is merely a fantasy sequence, and in the end his quest is a mere Hitchcockian MacGuffin, allowing for the protagonist to spend the film reminiscing about his past romantic conquests with his patient son Laurent (Pascal Cervo, renewing his collaboration with Vecchiali).
A film about memory, love, family and old age, and shot mostly in Vecchiali’s own house on an exiguous budget, The Dunce pushes the exaggeratedly literary inclinations of his recent work to their furthest extent: the film’s eloquent, almost Proustian dialogues, sprinkled with puns and aperçus, are delivered in a mannered, theatrical fashion, with cadenced diction and overly deliberate gestures. While That’s Love is inscribed with lugubrious tragedy, The Dunce is infused with a mischievous, surreal sense of humour that links back to the filmmaker’s earlier work. Even at the age of 88, Vecchiali’s recent spate of films should warn us against considering Le Cancre as a testimonial work, but it is hard to think of a more fitting film to encapsulate the career of one of French cinema’s most mercurial franc-tireurs.
- See Jean-Jacques Gambarelli, “Paul Vecchiali ou l’insolence d’un realisateur”, Corse-Matin, 25 January 2012, http://www.corsematin.com/article/ajaccio/paul-vecchiali-ou-linsolence-dun-realisateur.566195.html ↩
- Paul Vecchiali (ed.), Encinéclopédie, 2 vol. (Paris: De L’Œil, 2010). ↩