Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).

Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (Antigone, 1992)

Taking a rather more abstract approach towards the theme of resisting demagogues is this film by the directing partnership of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose films have increasingly illustrated a certain high modernist style in the cinema, one that is almost architectural, especially given the unmoving statuary of their actors (though that at least seems earned given this film’s origins in ancient Greek drama). It also features one of their typically unwieldy titles, which is far more about explaining the origins of the text as evoking any particular feeling. At some point, I need to devote some proper space to the way that my own feelings towards Straub-Huillet’s films has progressed over the years (sometimes they bore me, sometimes I love them, and I think most of that is in me, as their own gaze seems almost sublimely disinterested in how anyone might feel). For more context about their work, Pedro Costa made an excellent documentary called Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001). This film, Antigone, is currently on Mubi, though leaving very soon I believe.


I’ve seen a number of Straub/Huillet films, and I find myself constantly on the cusp of really “getting” their work. By this period of their output, certainly, they had pared down their dramaturgy to having their actors stand and emote in particular ways in a particular setting, often not looking at one another, often unmoving, sometimes just looking at the text, and it certainly has a peculiar affect. Here they take a Brechtian update on Sophocles play, but stage their actors in ancient Greek ruins, bringing it somehow back to the original in a way. There is perhaps less artifice in the staging (in terms of sets), but the ruins and the togas and the statuesque poses bring their own form of reinvention to the text. I feel I would have got a lot more out of this (and it’s a feeling I have with a lot of Straub/Huillet’s work) if I had been familiar with the original play better, but through the staging and editing and the excellent declamatory acting, it becomes clear what’s going on, and it’s a universal theme as resonant today, right now in our world of demagogues and oligarchs, as it was when it was written, of a powerful ruler who loses all those around him whom he loves because of a hubris that slights the gods (the refusal to bury a fallen leader). Even when I felt the text going over my head, there was still a solid, silent power in the staging, almost a purity that carries the film through.

Antigone film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the play Antigone by Bertolt Brecht, itself adapted from Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of the play Ἀντιγόνη by Sophocles Σοφοκλῆς); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Astrid Ofner, Werner Rehm; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 27 May 2020.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001)

Films About FilmmakingFor this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.


The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.

As mentioned above, the primary location for the film is an editing suite, where Straub and Huillet are working on their 1999 film Sicilia! (which I didn’t see until after I’d watched this documentary). Huillet sits at the editing booth, while Straub offers his opinions to her as they (and we the audience) look at the film’s scenes, replaying small moments over and over again and noting the tiniest of details of gesture, eye movement, extraneous detail, even sound (for such are the concerns of the editor). Straub also paces around, holding forth about various subjects related to their own work practice and to film history, addressing his comments to an unseen and unheard interlocutor (not always Huillet, and never directly to Costa, but perhaps just to himself, such is his manic energy). As such, much of the film takes place in the perilous darkness, lit only sporadically by the editor’s lamp (which flicks on only when the footage is not playing on screen), or the light from the outside corridor when Straub pops out — which happens frequently, incessantly — while Huillet is cutting the film.

If this insight into their methods has its own fascination, what’s striking is how out of time it seems, even for 1998 when they were making their film, as Huillet physically marks and cuts the lengths of film that she runs through spools, watching the footage on a small monitor accompanied by the loud mechanical whirr of the machinery. But it also has a sort of purity given the very spare images that they have filmed — all the ones we see are a series of dialogues between two people, echoing perhaps the dynamic in this very documentary — and makes the viewer think even more about the choices they make as editors about where exactly to transition between one shot and the next. It also occasions some comparison with Costa’s own methods, who unlike Straub and Huillet is not restricted to a strip of film with its image and soundtrack combined — indeed, the older filmmakers spend a lot of time contemplating where to cut based on extraneous noises that crop up, such as a car door slamming in the background, which would seem bizarre to a modern editor for whom the soundtrack is quite separate from the image. And so Costa has some of the cranky monologues being delivered by Huillet matched with the footage they’re looking at — or maybe not looking at, given that we only hear their voices much of the time (and it would appear, from what I’ve subsequently read, that in fact Straub’s comments are being addressed to unseen students) — meaning that the final film is every bit as much a construction as the one Straub and Huillet are working on.

If as a film this makes it sound particularly slow and difficult to watch, then it is at least leavened by humour, as the two older filmmakers (a married couple) bicker incessantly and amusingly at each other’s contributions. Or rather, it is Huillet who is more often heard grumpily telling off Straub for his meandering monologues and for some of his interventions to the editing discussion. However, the rhythms of the film are certainly slower than most, as the faces of the filmmakers only dimly stand out from the gloom of their editing room, accompanied periodically by the deliberately-paced drama of their film. But for those with the patience, what results is a beautiful work. In some senses, it’s a film about love in one’s declining years (Huillet died five years after this film was released), whether that be love between two people or a love for one’s métier, in this case filmmaking. It’s an elegy for what’s been lost — the craft of Huillet on her archaic apparatus, or the strangely spectral images seemingly from another era as projected on the editing machine — and for its power to still affect us. But it’s the single-minded focus on the craft of making a film that shines through most of all, as Straub and Huillet argue over the exact frame where a gesture or an emotion begins in their actors, or Straub angrily sounds off about filmmakers who have lost his respect (Woody Allen and John Cassavetes are mentioned).

It’s a curious documentary then, but a beautiful one, that captures something of the essence of cinema itself through its blend of an inky dark canvas punctured by flashes of light, manipulated film footage, and the absolute focus of its filmmakers. It may not make you appreciate Straub and Huillet’s films any more, but it makes you respect their earnest devotion to their art.

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? film posterCREDITS
Director Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 9 January 2014.

Sicilia! (1999)

If you’ve been brought up on the action-oriented three-act-structured cinema of the classical Hollywood tradition with its star systems and psychological characterisation, then moving into the world of avant-garde European auteurism — with its loose sense of narrative structure and causation, and its use of non-professional actors — can sometimes prove difficult. I must say that I’ve been trying to watch films like this one for years with middling success, and the sense not that the films are bad as that I am not equal to enjoying them.

There’s a prominent strand of late-20th century cinema in Europe that I would characterise in terms of its relation to concepts of ennui and boredom, whether that’s at the level of subject matter (Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura springs to mind) or formal methods. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, like their French compatriot Jacques Rivette to a certain extent, seem to fall into this latter camp, toying (if “toying” is indeed the most apposite word) with the aesthetics of duration — long takes and extended pauses — which can easily lead to accusations of boredom on the part of audiences and critics. I don’t mean, therefore, to come across as smugly superior when I say that there’s plenty of this cinematic tradition that I really enjoy — there’s no real reason why you should expect to like it, and I get the sense that these films and the filmmakers that make them don’t really seek anyone’s approval — but for those in the mood for something that unfolds at an almost catatonically unhurried pace, then Straub-Huillet are for you, and Sicilia! ranks among their more accessible works.

Not the least of the factors at play in this assessment is the film’s relatively short running time of just over an hour, though that’s not to say it’s exactly fast-moving. There are in fact only a handful of different scenes in the film, taking place in different (sometimes picturesque) locations, making it all feel a bit like a travelogue — and while it’s not in any sense a documentary, it does have traits in common with that style. At the heart of the film is a series of dialogues motivated by the travels of the central character (played by non-professional Gianni Buscarino), who says he has returned from New York after 15 years to visit his hometown in Sicily. We see him first, back to the camera, sitting on the docks where he has arrived, talking to a poor man selling oranges, in the course of which is discussed the different diet in Sicily. He is then seen talking to strangers on a train, at home with his mother discussing his childhood and her relationship with his absent father, and then finally on the steps of a church in his hometown conversing with a knife-grinder. The dialogues touch, I suppose, on what it is to be Sicilian and to live on the island, though more broadly it is about being an outsider to one’s own culture and sense of identity.

More immediately obvious, the film is ravishingly shot in highly-contrasted black-and-white by veteran cinematographer William Lubtchansky. Any given image could be taken from the film and framed, particularly the still lifes that punctuate the conversations, or the long takes of the countryside (in silence from a train window, or panning across the protagonist’s Sicilian hometown and back again from a hilltop vantage point), which act as a sort of extended visual chapter break at various points throughout the film. Shots of the rugged faces of these non-professional actors are held at length after they’ve finished talking, as Straub and Huillet hold out for some kind of feeling of closure to the dialogues. That and the pauses in the actors’ speeches form the most consistent aspect of the directors’ stylisation, which suggests a further level of dislocation in the central character’s journey, giving the film a kind of dream-like quality.

It is certainly difficult to describe just what makes the film enjoyable and fascinating, and it would be far easier to lay into it for being bloody-mindedly difficult and painfully slow, were I of that opinion. Instead I think the camera holds its subjects in a fascinated gaze that is as revelatory (after a fashion) as it is beautiful. I like the sense of awkwardness and otherworldliness that the acting style imparts, and the unrushed unfolding of the drama. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes I concede, but it’s an hour-long insight into a quite different way of making films.

Sicilia! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the novel Conversazione in Sicilia by Elio Vittorini); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Gianni Buscarino; Length 64 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014.