Bresson, Mangolte, Dulac

Given my eclectic approach to film appreciation, it’s funny how various events surprisingly coincide. On Friday, I travelled to the University of California in San Diego to attend a colloquium given by filmmaker and academic Babette Mangolte, who discussed her latest research project connecting the ideological dots between French avant-garde filmmakers of the ’20s and the film theories of Robert Bresson in the ’50s, whose Au hasard Balthazar opens Friday here in L.A.

Paris in the ’20s was a hotbed of artistic movements–particularly surrealism and impressionism–a myriad collection of modern aesthetics promoted by filmmaker-theorists such as Abel Gance, Marcel L’Herbier, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Fernand LÈger, Luis BuÒuel, RenÈ Clair, and Germaine Dulac (the only woman of the bunch). Emphasizing abstraction and fragmentation, these filmmakers rejected the theatrical French cinema of the day and promoted movies as a unique, “Machine Age” (LÈger) art form emphasizing emotions and inner states of consciousness over plots and external narratives.

Mangolte pointed out that Bresson was a painter in Paris during the ’20s (a profession he later abandoned for filmmaking) and would no doubt have been influenced by the artistic ideas being proliferated at the time. Since her research is a work in progress, I won’t divulge the details here, but suffice it to say that she makes a compelling argument regarding Bresson’s idiosyncratic theories on “cinematography” (cryptically described in his book Notes On the Cinematographer) and how they conceivably could be linked to the non-theatrical and interior ideas of the French cinemagraphic avant-garde. (It’s remarkable to note that Bresson misrepresented his age for years–his life spanned from 1901 to 1999 and bridged numerous artistic epochs.)

Mangolte is the renowned cinematographer of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and a director in her own right beginning with the acclaimed What Maisie Knew in 1976. Coincidentally, a superb interview with her has just been published in the latest issue of <a href="; target=_blank)Cinemad, a progressive film magazine edited by a former colleague of mine from the University of Arizona. (The articles are in pdf format.)

Coming back to L.A. from the colloquium, I was pleased to discover the UCLA Film & Television Archives was, in fact, featuring a two-day retrospective of Germaine Dulac‘s work this weekend. The films were prefaced by the series’ curator, Irina Leimbacher, who described Dulac’s feminist leanings and emphasis on psychology. In Cinemad, Mangolte suggests Dulac was virtually the only other filmmaker who had attempted to express the embodiment of a certain kind of feminist archetype previous to Jeanne Dielman…, as seen in her film The Similing Madame Beudet (1923), which was one of the films featured at the retrospective.

Madame Beudet is indeed a striking and moving film that attempts to convey the inner anxiety and disillusionment felt by a woman in an unhappy marriage. Using a hefty dose of superimpositions and metaphorical juxtapositions (prisons, driving over clouds) to depict Beudet’s psychological world, Dulac effectively communicates Beudet’s feelings of entrapment with very little use of expository intertitles or dialogue. The screening was a particular treat, as the print for the film was newly restored and a live keyboardist provided the musical accompaniment.

With the exception of Bresson, whose work I’m often obsessed with, none of the filmmakers listed in these preceding comments were in my mind as recently as half a week ago. But in true Bressonian fashion, the “accidental” vagaries of chance and fate fluidly merged them together into a provocative and fascinating weekend. And for those in the L.A. area, the UCLA programmers announced two more exciting retrospectives coming this spring: G.W. Pabst and Chantal Akerman.