Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001)

The news is spreading that DaniËle Huillet–the personal and filmmaking partner of Jean-Marie Straub for over half a century–passed away this week, ending one of the most acclaimed filmmaking teams of the New German Cinema (though Huillet and Straub were both French and lived in Rome). If you’re unfamiliar with their work, you can be forgiven–only their first feature, the exquisite Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is available on DVD in North America, and co-director Huillet isn’t mentioned once in its liner notes by Armond White or the excerpts from Richard Roud’s study, simply entitled Jean-Marie Straub (1972). Barton Byg, whose scholarly Landscapes of Resistance (1995) I’ve just discovered is online, refers to Huillet’s constant marginalization:

“Although DaniËle Huillet is clearly one of the most important women working in the postwar European cinema, she remains almost totally ignored by film criticism. One reason for this is as scandalous as it is simple: since all of Huillet’s work has been in collaboration with Jean-Marie Straub and the two have refused to stylize themselves in any particular way as ‘artist personalities,’ the sexist assumption of the 1950s that Straub is the principle auteur of the two has remained unquestioned. . . . Instead, for years [Huillet] has stayed in the background, especially since she believes that interviews and discussions–in which Straub more readily engages–may do the films more harm than good. . . . Furthermore, the single area in which Huillet does leave more of the decisions to Straub is the aspect of filmmaking that has been reified into the directorial ‘signature’–e.g., script and mise-en-scËne–and especially those areas in which Huillet may be more in charge–sound, editing, ‘scene design,’ and many producer’s functions–all fit more readily the stereotype of women working behind the scenes.”

But nowhere is the equality of the Straub-Hullet creative partnership more evident than in Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa’s excellent portrait of the duo, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, filmed as part of the estimable CinÈma, de notre temps French TV series. Since Costa’s magisterial Colossal Youth (one of the best films I saw at TIFF) is receiving accolades at the moment, I thought Huillet’s tragic passing would be a good time to consider the documentary (available as a Portuguese DVD from AssÌro & Alvim).

Costa observes Straub and Huillet in the editing process, juxtaposing Huillet’s movieola screen (featuring clips from 1999’s Sicilia! that she runs through the viewer) with wider shots of her room (which Straub continually paces), another room of technicians (probably editing assistants), and a public screening in which Straub delivers an informal talk.

I was immediately struck by the film’s similarities in tableau visual style to Colossal Youth: Straub and Huillet’s room is dimly lit and statically shot with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 at a slightly lower angle, with a figure (in this case, Straub) frequently posed in the doorway. More than an aesthetic signature, however, this approach lends the setting a dramatic gravity and emphasizes the shifting space–and corresponding emotional and creative distance–between the two filmmakers. As tensions flare at one point, Straub saunters out of the room (“You don’t want me in here anyway”) but gently reappears: “I’m afraid you’ve won,” he tells Huillet after admiring her scene assembly. “Men!” she sighs.

And flare their tempers do, even as their preferences to cut a shot may differ only by a single frame. Straub, a natural magpie mind with a quote for every occasion, seems to thrive on osmosis and verbal pontification; Huillet seems more task-oriented and focused on immediate solutions. “After all this time we’ve been editing films together, how come you still don’t have the discipline?” she shouts at Straub. But after talking through their differences, Straub eventually finds the words to articulate a stronger defense for his perspective.

As Huillet repeatedly runs the film back-and-forth, searching for precise editing moments, Straub muses on film theories promoted by Cocteau, Bresson, and Chaplin, quotes scenes by Tati and Mizoguchi, and racks his brain trying to recall the name of Hitchock’s script girl. (When talking of how he met Huillet at the LycÈe Voltaire for the first time in 1954–“I had fallen madly in love at first sight”–he claims he was kicked out because “I knew too much about Hitchcock and that disturbed the class.”)

As might be expected, Straub provides the bulk of the film’s philosophical flair, describing why formalists have less patience and therefore less creativity than realists (“charged with contradictions”), or why professional actors are more false than non-professional actors. But Costa’s film is infused with Huillet’s creative energies as it emphasizes the nuances of her constant searching, playing, marking, and replaying moments of film. In addition to being a multifaceted portrait of their creative process, it’s an instructive examination of the art of editing in general; one of the film’s pleasures is watching how closely Huillet and Straub observe their own footage, discovering unwanted palm trees, random butterflies, or subtle smiles, and coming up with solutions to incorporate or elide them in their final cut. The film’s obtuse title, in fact, could be a playful riff on the latter as a tribute to the filmmakers’ sensitivity to cinematic realities, but also as a testament to the subtle warmth that has clearly cemented their long and fruitful collaboration.

Straub-Huillet will be missed. You can read an insightful 1976 interview in Jump Cut with them here. Let’s hope their films will continue to surface on DVD in the near future.

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