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.

Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003)

French director Jacques Rivette’s recent death may not have been a surprise, but it was unwelcome for fans of his kind of long-form slow-burn filmmaking — always a rarity on the film landscape — which seems to have aged little in the intervening years, unlike some of his mainstream contemporaries. The 1970s was a difficult decade for a lot of the old nouvelle vague filmmakers — difficult in the sense of seeing them struggle to integrate narrative with a rapidly fragmenting anti-authoritarian politics, though plenty of essential works came out of it — but Rivette continued to put out excellent films in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that repay the effort in watching them. The 2.5 hour running time of Histoire de Marie et Julien is about average for most Rivette films, but it allows for the development of feeling between two actors who seemingly couldn’t be more mismatched, Polish emigré Jerzy Radziwiłowicz as a clock repairer, and Emmanuelle Béart, who for various reasons doesn’t seem defined by her work. That said, the development of the story makes it clear that they’re not supposed to be, as there are increasingly odd hints that Marie isn’t what she seems. It’s all elaborated very subtly in the filming over the course of the four-act structure, with a certain quality of detachedness to Béart’s performance and the use of various mysterious objects imbued with an uncanny power (something of a favoured device for Rivette). As ever, Rivette’s cinema rewards greater attention from the viewer, so for my own part I can only confess to having watched it at home (never ideal) and that a cinema screening — should one ever come around, and one can only hope that there will be some retrospectives mounted over the next few years — may be the best way to experience his films.

The Story of Marie and Julien film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Rivette; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Rivette; Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Emmanuelle Béart, Anne Brochet; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 January 2016.

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.

Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid, 1994)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films. In fact, I saw this film during a retrospective of the work of Jacques Rivette, so I have several other reviews of his films from the same time. I’ve picked one that’s (slightly) more widely available than some of the others I saw, such as the 12-hour Out 1.


Over the course of his career, Rivette has more and more adopted a stripped-down visual style. Often there will be empty frames, clear contrasts and frontal lighting, and a smoothly-gliding camera, all offset by very basic black titles and baroque music. This is very much evident here as well, over both parts of this lengthy film (and even this seems to be slightly shortened from its length on the original French release).

Of course, a filmic portrait of Joan of Arc was always going to measured in relation to earlier efforts by Bresson and Dreyer, both of whose films focus on the trial and burning of Joan as a heretic. Rivette’s film also features her final moments, though perhaps unsurprisingly given its illustrious cinematic forebears, it replaces the trial with a titlecard. This kind of elision isn’t unusual in Rivette; what isn’t elided are the long sequences of questioning doubt and loneliness. There are some battle scenes, but so depopulated as to seem absurd, as if the director were just making a gesture towards the existence of people by having more than one or two. This again is a conscious strategy — a stylised presentation of a time far removed from our own, with very different customs and only tentatively grounded in historically verifiable fact — and as such is not entirely inappropriate.

Despite being in her 30s, Sandrine Bonnaire seems like the right choice for Jeanne, and brings something of a monomania to the part, without subsuming it in a haloed divine grace. This is very much a human protagonist confronted by political chicanery and human cynicism.

For a film of over four hours in length, it sustains the dramatic momentum admirably. However, it achieves an odd alienation effect, as if it were not transcendent enough to fit with the cinematic archetype as created by Bresson and Dreyer. It may be hard for the character of Jeanne to escape the forces of history, but it is just as difficult for this film to escape its own cinematic history.

(Originally written on 17 May 2006; reposted here with slight amendments.)


CREDITS
Director Jacques Rivette; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette; Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 280 minutes [in two parts: Les Batailles and Les Prisons].
Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Tuesday 16 May 2006.