I first met Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub sometime in 1975 when they came to show some of their films at UC Santa Barbara where I was an undergraduate film student. The evening began with some 100 students and, after four films had been shown, there were 12 of us left to speak with the two of them. As often happened in encounters with JMS+DH, this soon turned into a good-cop/bad-cop routine with JMS playing the ornery bastard and DH softening the blows and mediating, all the while using the “vous” form of address with JMS. These things make an impression.
Micheline, who had gone to school with her and had told me how Danièle would go off on long walks in the night with her dog, did not want to come to the funeral. She has been feeling a bit depressed these days and a funeral of a childhood friend was not about to cheer her up.
I took the car and went off to the suburban cemetery of St. Ouen (one of Paris’ official cemeteries extra-muros). As I walked from the car to the cemetery, I wondered how many people would there be: a throng or just a few. Danièle’s death was announced in French newspapers and some mentioned the burial. But one would imagine that the Straub/Huillet aficionados would have heard the news through the grapevine.
I also wondered whether smoking a cigar would be in bad taste. A question that was quickly answered as I saw Godard and Miéville walk up, JLG smoking a big fat Havana. They were accompanied by Freddy Buache of the Swiss Cinémathèque.
People slowly gathered at the entrance to the vast cemetery, waiting for the prescribed hour of 4pm when the burial was to take place. A mostly sotto voce crowd, people recognising each other, saying hello. Some who obviously hadn’t seen each other in years. Most of the ones I recognised, I had no wish to talk to: Raymond Bellour, Serge Toubiana, Jean Narboni, Bernard Eisenchitz.
I wondered where Straub was and suddenly saw him. As most people were wearing dark clothes, he stood out. Wearing a grossly misshapen jacket with white and black designs, he had put on weight since I last saw him about five years ago. Slumped, sitting in a corner by himself, looking beaten, a cigar hanging from his mouth as always.
Arriving people would go up to him to kiss him on both cheeks, some to actually hug him, others, just to pat him on the shoulder. Godard and Miéville hugged him, Godard patting him behind the neck.
As he always has seemed to do in life, he couldn’t stand still, he paced around, he walked here and there through the gathering crowd. A mixture of wandering aimlessly and of nervous energy.
A tall man came out of the cemetery office and told us all to gather behind the mortuary van and follow it to the gravesite. Two vans were actually ahead of us. Straub walked by himself between the two, alone, shoulders slumped. No one dared to join him.
Five minutes later, the funeral procession of some two hundred of us stopped in the alley of poplar trees, the actual gravesite being off the alley about 50 yards.
The van stopped and the attendants set up two portable metal stands in the alley. Seconds later, they took out Danièle’s plain coffin and placed it on the two stands. They laid wreaths and flowers on the coffin. Straub came up and asked them when they were going to open it. The man said after the speeches.
Four people spoke. Two women read a text from a book. A man read a handwritten text in German. Another, from Rome, talked about the two of them in Italy and the friends they had there.
The “opening” of the casket did not mean the removal of the full lid. It meant the opening of a triangular trapdoor at the head of the coffin. This hinged door measured some 12 inches in length – just enough to see the head of the deceased. It was topped by glass. Where had I seen a contraption like that before? In Dreyer’s Vampyr, of course.
The crowd was invited to pay its last respect to Danièle if they wished to.
But before this, Straub came up to the opening to make sure everything was all right (presumably). He looked at Danièle’s face then mumbled that he wanted her feet to be shown. Strange. Did he mean that he had wanted the window to open on her feet? Why? In his inimitable way, he grumbled, complained something about cops being everywhere. How you couldn’t do what you wanted to.
One by one, the procession went by the coffin.
As I walked by the coffin and peered at Danièle’s face, it seemed to me she looked more like she was 40, not 70. She looked quite beautiful, in fact. The mortician had probably put more makeup (though not overdoing it) on her face than she had put on it her whole life.
The coffin was then carried to the actual burial spot fifty yards into one of the narrow alleys of the cemetery.
The grave was opened. An old one, a family plot. A grey flat stone, no headstone. We stood around as the coffin was lowered into the grave.
I sat some fifteen feet from the grave, Straub also sitting on another grave, drooping, just a few feet ahead of me. I could see him from the side, sometimes only from the back. His cigar never left his mouth.
Then all the members of the funeral walked passed and dropped a flower into the grave. Those who had not brought flowers could take one from the many wreaths that had been sent.
The process took some fifteen minutes. Many teary eyed women. A young man in his twenties dropped a flower, turned to look at Straub and raised his fist in a salute of struggle. Straub nodded ascent.
As the file of mourners got shorter, Straub stood up. Asked where Jean-Luc was, he couldn’t see him. Godard was just a few meters further. Straub seemed relieved that he was still there.
No mourners were left to drop flowers in the grave. The funeral director came up to Straub and gave him four red roses.
Straub went up to the edge of the grave slowly. He suddenly threw the roses inside and let out a long blood-curdling wail that turned into a shriek. He ran away from the grave, screaming at the top of his lungs.
We were all in shock. I doubt that any of us expected this from Straub. He ran for a few yards. No one dared run after him – though I was a bit worried for him and wondered if anyone was keeping an eye on him. Stunned. More women crying.
Two minutes later, Straub slowly wandered back towards the gravesite, some people hugging him.
He slumped down again on another grave as the funeral attendants were about to close the grave and put the huge stone back on the emplacement – a matter of a few minutes.
Sitting on that other grave, Straub was joined by Godard. JLG put his arm around Straub, obviously consoling him. Strange to see these two men who have always been known to be so hard, so unswerving, never showing tenderness – and only emotion of a fiery sort to defend political stands – in this position. Like brothers.
Slowly, the gravestone was put back in place. The process was a delicate one, performed by two attendants and watched closely by some of us, including Straub. He seemed both fascinated by the precise nature of the process, moving the stone a millimeter to the right then to the left, and stunned by the realisation that they were shutting Danièle away from him for the last time. She would spend her first night alone in that cemetery that night.
When the gravestone was put back in place, Straub laid on the grave for a few seconds, as if hugging Danièle for the last time.
Then he walked away with some other mourners, some friends who talked to him.
We gathered a few minutes later in a café outside the cemetery. I asked one of Straub’s friends whether he would be all right. The man shrugged, he didn’t know. All he knew was that the friends from Vendée would be there a few more days. After that, who knew.
Next Wednesday, the new Straub-Huillet film was scheduled to open in Paris.
Met JMS+DH in 1975 at UC Santa Barbara. Show of several of their films in one evening.
Directed “L.A.X.” in 1980, strongly influenced by “History Lessons”, Akerman’s “News from Home” and Michael Snow’s “Wavelength”.
Met them again in Chicago when they showed “Too Early Too Late”. Showed them “L.A.X.” for which they had kind words of encouragement.
Saw them again in Rome during a dinner that ended in an epic cigar disaster. JMS has always smoked rank Toscanello cigars which taste as they are made from goat turds. I offered him a Honduran cigar which Samuel Fuller had recommended. He offered me the Toscanello. I turned green a few seconds later and ran to the bathroom to projectile vomit.
Asked JMS to write a text about Bitburg for the magazine On Film which I was editing.
Saw JMS again, drunk, at the end of a screening of “Empedocles” at the Action Christine.
Attended Danièle’s funeral.