Le moindre geste

A few recent gems from France:

Screenville‘s Harry Tuttle has sent in his enticing review (perhaps the first in English) of the recently-restored Le Moindre geste, a film with a complex, 40-year history that just received its official release in France.

And Franck Poncelet wrote us at Masters of Cinema about a real find, the DVD release of 1963’s Un Roi sans divertissement (A King Without Distraction), a film directed by FranÁois Letterier, the lead “model” of Bresson’s 1956 A Man Escaped. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t contain English subtitles, but Poncelet assures us that “like good wine, [it has] aged superbly.” –Doug

* * * *

Le Moindre Geste (The Least Gesture) (1970/2004/Fernand Deligny/France)

By Harry Tuttle (with English translation help by Doug Cummings)

Mesmerizing like a silent avant-garde experiment, powerful like a biopic documentary, this film (part fiction, part documentary) is a fantastic hymn to the weakness of humanity on both sides of the autistic wall. Throughout this disturbing journey into madness, a glimpse of how complex and overbearing the universe of autism can be is suggested with stunning simplicity.

Yves, an autistic young man (played by Yves Guignard, an autistic actor), runs away from an oppressive mental institution and meanders across the dry and barren landscape of the CÈvËnnes rocky hills in southern France, bathed in sunlight. Yves is joined by Richard, a 13-year-old child from a nearby village, who locks Yves in an enclosure in a derelict pasture.

As Yves tears down the bottom of an old door and crawls his way out of the prison Richard left him in, he turns around and continues to slam the door from outside. Instead of challenging Richard for his mean trick, he hits the object that kept him from moving. This reaction might sound misdirected, but the release of anxiety is no different than a “normal” person who demolishes the phone upon reception of bad news…

Later, however, Richard falls into a hole and screams for help while Yves strives to rescue him to the best of his ability, totally mindless of the emergency.

This deliberately-paced cinematic journey offers a difficult yet poetic allegory on the mental impairment of a walled-in being. Minimalist in form, with fragmented montage and de-contextualized soundtrack, the film wonderfully illustrates the lack of communication in a world disconnected from any surrounding concerns and limited by short term memory and attention spans. The story portrays the occurrence of an emergency crisis in the life of an autistic child and tragically depicts how the concept of danger is trivial to him, generating a series of anachronistic events barely integrated by word association.

Once Richard screams “Yyyyyyyyves” (offscreen) from the bottom of his dark hole, Yves follows his flawed logic without being able to abstract himself towards a projected future, or a recalled past, which explains the timing of his responses. Instead of reaching for help, he first installs a barricade in front of the ruin as a cautious warning. Then he proclaims his death, and proceeds with a symbolic funeral, piling up stones around a wooden cross.

Only later will he look for a rope, and waste precious time trying to attach two pieces of a broken string together. The never-ending noises coming from a close quarry attracts his attention, but he falls into catatonic contemplation. Finally he drags along a cable found on a railroad, but falls into a compulsive tremor when the cable gets stuck to a tree. These moments of a “peaceful panic” tell the struggle of an introverted soul attempting to grasp a hostile environment

Yves demonstrates a remarkable obsession to control each new situation despite the shallow scope of his personal awareness. He’s like a fly hitting a window without understanding why the path to freedom is denied, why reality refuses to be subdued to his will. Even his motion is a fight against his own body. We observe his quest with emotion and worry, every step of the way, while Richard is abandoned to his fate.

Yves’ dialogue, always uttered loudly with an unexplainable rage like a narrator talking to himself, constitutes long-winded speeches truncated into portions of unfinished phrases assembling a patchwork of ideas: a lifelong witness of an absurd environment recorded incoherently in a mad mind. We can discern his words from TV, political propaganda (General De Gaulle’s speeches), automated prayers (from Catholic lectures), furious insults (of the institution guardians), etc. But unlike the parrot’s mimic, the human sensitivity emerges through a collection of words that obviously don’t belong to him: a textbook practice of “automatic writing” venerated by the Surrealists and Sigmund Freud because the subconscious speaks its own infra-language between familiar images.

Yves’ profound resentment against humanity arises after a while thanks to telling phrases: “They locked me up at the mad house, locked up all the way [talking about his own body], that’s as much as they could do, bunch of savages”; “the coffin of our childhood”; “The mad house, it’s like hell, it’s like communists, it’s like the dead”; “The dead don’t cry, they weep”; “The dead when they dream they phone”; “The dead bless themselves.”

The juxtaposition of this layered discourse with such an overwhelming dramatic gesture makes this docudrama a tremendously thought-provoking revelation.

When first-time filmmaker and psychologist Fernand Deligny met Yves Guignard in 1958, Yves had been locked away in a mental institution for five years, a traumatic experience leaving him in a prostrated posture blocking any interaction with the outside world. It took years of compassionate patience and watchful attention for Yves to even articulate his disordered monologues. As in the film, Deligny’s peculiar method apprehended the imperceptible expressions beneath language because he believed in restoring the dignity of infra-human behaviors. In his eponymous book published in 1979, Les dÈtours de l’agir ou le moindre geste, he clearly states that the intention to act or to behave is more important than the accomplishment of doing. Other books on the same subject are lyrically titled These Autistic Children Whose Project Escapes Us or The Efficient Vagabonds. This is a serious evolution in the conception of mentally challenged behaviors that are apparently eccentric, whimsical or unpredictable. Le Moindre Geste is an admirable testimony to experience the impossible autistic world from inside by piecing together the remnants of a lonely daily life.

Deligny treated people who were labeled “incurable” by the academic community and he developed an alternate therapy involving dramatization, games, and creative activity contrary to the usual procedure based on drugs, shocks, isolation, and mistreatments. A simple project to play with Yves in 1962 by studying his preoccupations turned out to become a feature film with the help of FranÁois Truffaut (Deligny was an advisor on The 400 Blows in 1959–he actually suggested its closing sequence on the beach–as well as on The Wild Child in 1971). Psychology can be a social art, introducing play into the tyrannical routines of autism, helping us understand its shuttered world and reminding us of the dignity and humanity hidden inside.

This film was improvised on location for two years with a non-professional crew of four, and they revealed an extraordinary understanding of cinematic language. Sumptuous 35mm black & white photography artistically composed by JosÈe Manenti (who had never used a camera before), largely comprised of silent, uneventful lingering shots are intensified by images of ruins and a desolate environment. A discontinuous soundtrack overlaps Yves’ soliloquy and creates the most experimental aspect of the film. Image and sound were neglected until Jean-Pierre Daniel edited the film in 1969 into something of a narrative (following Deligny’s storyboard) out of 20 accumulated hours of footage. Unexpectedly, what Deligny called a “monster-film” wound up selected for the Cannes Film Festival (Critic’s Week) in 1971! Lost again later, the film was resurrected with the help of Chris Marker to be released commercially only today.

Mentally impaired people have been featured in Ordet, Oasis, and The Best of Youth, films that rehabilitated the gestures and speech patterns of abnormal behavior usually dismissed by politically correct statements or simply ignored. Here, the autistic child is the sole protagonist and owns the entirety of the story. Yves is the first-person narrator, the onscreen hero, and the subjective camera. The disturbing topic of mental illness and its incapacity is treated frontally without distracting melodrama, external commentary, or supporting cast.

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