By ROBERT KOEHLER
In the last post, I had promised some thoughts on Philippe Grandrieux, the director of Sombre, Un vie nouvelle and his newest, Un lac. Well, more precisely, I noted that I hoped to discover Grandrieux. On my third day in Guadalajara, I was able to see the first screening of Un lac, but not until my seventh full day did I see Un vie nouvelle—a mere seven years late, after its 2002 festival tour—and screenings of Sombre, his first film from 1999, wouldn’t happen until I left Guadalajara. So without a complete view of Grandrieux, I won’t trace a complete line of his work. But these two films are enough to reinforce the view of several critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Koza, the circle around the exceptional French film journal, Trafic) that this is cinema of extreme majesty, strength and courage.
“I don’t think in terms of stories,” Grandrieux said to me in a taxi during a ride back to the festival hotel. “To me, these films are objects. They are plastic. They’re formed.” Film as sculptural object has a long tradition (consciously or unconsciously) in experimental film, predating Oskar Fishinger, but not nearly as long in cinema that tries to tell some kind of story. Grandrieux may not think of his films as starting or even ending with the demands of narrative, but a certain kind of story exists within them nevertheless, although they’re as furtive, as looming on the edges of the work as might seem permissible in something that belongs within what we think of as the category of features with representational states of reality, dramatized situations, with actors, locations and scenes. Grandrieux adopts all of those, but then molds them to his own ends in astonishingly radical ways.
I told Roger that watching Un lac, set in a cloud-shrouded, snow-covered region of the French Alps, involving characters of various accents and desires and needs, reminded me of Claire Denis’ L’intrus—at least those sections of Denis’ film set in a snowy patch of woods with Beatrice Dalle kicking ass with some of her dogs. I had also assumed before this, without seeing Grandrieux’s films, that no French filmmaker in the past decade had radicalized narrative structure within visual terms as Denis had with L’intrus. So, once again, as if we needed further reminding, our assumptions are only as good as the films we’ve seen. Grandrieux and Denis are both, yes, extremely plastic in their attitude towards the image: Denis collaborates with the world’s greatest cinematographer, Agnes Godard, who can do anything with the filming of reality; but more notably, Grandrieux (after working with Stephane Fontaine on La vie nouvelle) becomes his own lighting cameraman on Un lac. I use the old British term, instead of cinematographer, because it more accurately captures what he achieves. The images in Un lac shimmer, mutate, glow, float, transform at moments into Rothko-like orbs; light is almost not there in some scenes, and only the spectral outline of a character’s body can be made out on screen, in the most exact optical recreation of the effect we all have when we wake up in the middle of the night, the lights turned off, darkness enveloping everything, until tiny slips of perceptible “night light” hit our eyes so we can stumble toward the bathroom or the kitchen for a glass of water. Such precise simulations almost never happen in cinema, since reality is always mediated by the camera, and the trained audience eye can spot the manipulations by even those directors most committed to reality. In fact, before Un lac, the most ideal re-staging of such optical exactitude was John Alcott’s and Stanley Kubrick’s staging of card games purely by candlelight in Barry Lyndon. I’ve often puzzled over why directors and cinematographers didn’t adopt the Zeiss lens that Alcott and Kubrick used; Barry Lyndon remains, so far as I know, a unique experiment. But it’s pretty certain that almost nobody is going to go where Grandrieux goes with light in Un lac, since he literally makes the quality of light and its force as a form, as a plastic/optical medium, the engine of the film.
Well, and I have to add, right alongside this, sound—which can vary with Grandrieux from seeming like the music of the spheres to the sense of what Hell, if it were to exist, would sound like. I think that plastic nature he means is as much on the surface of the celluloid soundtrack as in the image itself, and if this all may seem abstract, the feeling of the combined aural-visual sensation in both films is about as far from abstract as it’s possible to manage. Sometimes, as in scenes in Un lac where the central character, a young man who chops trees in the dense forest to support his family, lapses into occasional fits or spasms or, worse, jealousy, the burning heat of the soundtrack (a mix of what hits the ear like altered natural and electronic elements) is a better expression of the boy’s inner turmoil than any dialogue could manage. Sound becomes soundscape, much like 19th century landscape painting developed (at its height through Turner and Pisarro) to the point where it could express states of mind and consciousness, even political consciousness. Sound sculptures, in Grandrieux’s hands, also largely supplant music, though music has its place (and becomes a pounding techno hammer of threat in La vie nouvelle). I couldn’t help but imagine what a Grandrieux attack on sound could do to transform the effect of how we listen to silent films, and how similar sound sculpture replacing the tired and antique use of standard keyboards and piano could utterly shift how we might watch, say, Gance, Griffith, von Sternberg, Vigo or, yep, even Keaton. Pretty great filmmaking is what gets you thinking this way while watching/listening to a film, and Un lac provides that kind of all-sensory experience.
There’s another silent film connection, as well: I leaned over to Roger during a scene where the woodcutter boy (maybe some kind of distant, half-Scandanavian relative of Saavedra in Alonso’s La libertad?) glimpses his sister, who it seems he loves at least secretly a little more than he should, kissing a new woodcutter who’s recently arrived to help out with the harvesting. The boy—too young to be a man yet, too old to be a child—stands at the cliff’s edge adjacent to a waterfall, looking down on the couple in a silhouette that shimmers in the wintry air. “Murnau” I said to Roger, and he knew what I meant. (Meaning, of course, Nosferatu.) But it wasn’t merely a film referential moment: It was a suggestion that the boy could be transforming into something awful, maybe not a vampire, but something fearsome at the same time, maybe a human monster. What raises Un lac to a work deeply observing a flawed humanity is many passages where the worst we fear might happen shifts into something unexpected: So the boy doesn’t transform into such a monster at all, but tries to run away, and later found vulnerable, in the snow, and tended back to health by his sister. The film’s grasp of emotions is really at the level of Artaud (with La vie nouvelle even more so), the expression of the most buried emotions allowed to explode out of characters’ bodies, arms hitting or stroking, mouths gaping wide and screaming. (Francis Bacon plays a pivotal role in Grandrieux’s sense of a plastic cinema, and La vie nouvelle seems impossible without Bacon’s visions of naked bodies trapped in spaces, humanity reduced to the level of meat, and, in about as terrifying a sequence as I’ve ever seen on screen, four-legged animals crawling in the dark seen through night-vision lenses.)
Michel Lipkes and Max Cruz, the former FICCO-ites, are organizing a Grandrieux video installation in Mexico City this summer, and are in the meantime bringing the three features to the capital’s Cineteca Nacional and the Filmoteca. Even more intriguing, Grandrieux is planning to shoot his next film in both Mexico and Los Angeles……