Monday, October 08, 2007

Leila Attacks

Last week, Chris Marker released a new minute-long small movie to the Internet, which can be viewed here at the Cahiers du cinéma website. Accompanying the video at the same place is a new essay by Marker that provides a little bit of context to this latest work. I've translated his remarks into English, and present them below.


While the recent One Minute Film Festival was taking place (yes, yes, this exists — in America, naturally), the professionals of the profession acknowledged a different sort of minute, specifically, one of silence, in memory of Leila the mouse.

Actually, the mouse... well, Leila was a little rat, but in French those words are terribly lacking in grace; and yet Leila was grace itself; therefore, she will be a mouse for posterity.

Everyone has experienced this phenomenon: whenever a glance is cast your way for a certain length of time, you can feel it, and physically. It's what happened to me one day while I was working at my computers. Someone, somewhere, had fixed their gaze upon me, and so I looked carefully around — not the slightest human in sight. "Human"? Here was the error. As though there didn't exist other gazes. It was upon lowering my eyes that I saw that little creature standing up on its hind legs, so haughtily, and asserting by the repeated wrinkling of its nose an indisputable interest in my humble work. "What are you doing here, you?" — and at the time of posing the question I remembered that, in effect, my neighbor's daughter kept four small rats in a cage. No-one ever knew how the one who hadn't yet gone by the name of Leila had managed to escape, but here she was.

And yet this all happened on a Saturday afternoon, which in the twentieth arrondissement amounts to an early curfew. Put an other way, the humans of the place had gone away for the weekend; there wasn't a single boutique on the horizon where anything resembling a cage could be found; to allow her to roam about the studio was to risk losing her amid the jumble of boxes and piles; and to put her outside would be to expose her to the patrols of cats less responsive to her charm. What to do with her? I transformed a computer box into a temporary shelter, with holes for breathing — I came up with this by recalling some of David Carradine's lessons in Kung Fu — and I shut the lid again. In a flash she had been given her name. Two days earlier, Florence Aubenas [the Libération journalist who was abducted in Iraq, then released in June 2005 after being held for six months] had succeeded in the unprecedented exploit of managing to get a bunch of journalists to crack up in laughter as she related her life as a hostage — to show so much class in describing so much suffering, I found simply dazzling. Yet we recall that her captors had changed her Infidel-name right away to another: Leila. And in the aforementioned flash I saw myself, in the eyes of the mouse, transformed into a captor. Of course it was for her own good, but what was it she saw in me? That this inordinate entity to whom she had gently come to pay a visit had shut her up inside of a box. "Pardon, Leila," were the words that came to me instinctively — and she had been baptized.

Florence Aubenas at the 2005 press conference following her release (photographer unknown):

Happily, things didn't stay this way, and I was quickly able to pass from the involuntary jailer phase to that of devoted friend. I was used to cats; I had taken in a few owls; I knew nothing of the likings of mice — with regard to music, for example. How to make things so that she wouldn't get too bored? One attempt in front of the television had been catastrophic: she simply fell into a catalepsy —which should make us reflect, then, that there's something ontologically monstrous inside of that machine (and it wasn't even Cauet [host of a French talk show called La Méthode Cauet (The Cauet Method)] or Christine Bravo [host of a French variety show called On a tout essayé... même sans le patron (We Tried Everything... Even Without the Boss Around)], just ordinary television). Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans had more success; mice seem to like piano. Soon the weekend was over; life returned to its course; Leila rediscovered her own hearth-and-home, and greeted me warmly whenever I paid her a visit.

The Ahmad Jamal Trio perform "Darn That Dream" in 1959:

Bill Evans performs "Your Story" at The Molde Jazz Festival in 1980:

Her expedition to my place was proof enough that she had character. My neighbor informed me that she exhibited this in an entirely different way, indulging regularly at her own home in a ritual so cinematographically promising that I swore I'd come by and record it — and if I say nothing more about this here, it's to allow the surprise for future spectators. What's worth noting for the time being is how I made sure to wait patiently for the right moment, taking up my position in expectation of the ritual in question. Yet hardly had I fixed the camera onto her than she executed her routine — as though she had heard "action!" — with the mastery of a real pro.

And that's it in a nutshell. This Leila could have been called Eve, the one from Mankiewicz. The little starlet who finds a pretext for entering into a director's intimate acquaintance, and in doing so sets the stage for a brilliant career. And myself, stupid as any man [bête comme tous les hommes], I coddled her ("Oh, the gentle little mouse...") when she only had her very own glory in mind. And glory there would be. A tabac on YouTube; a DVD in the company of my other animal films; later on — when she had rejoined Guillaume the cat in animal heaven — the One Minute Film Festival; and now the complementary piece for a film at least as mysterious as she — that of Isild. [Marker is referring to Charly, the new and second feature by the extraordinary Isild Le Besco.] A film of claws-out emotion and of truth, which refuses the make-up of seduction in order to reach that incandescent point where the difficulty of being with someone else is no longer a role-playing game but a leap into the void; which breaks with all the codes of cinematographic nicety; and which does not allow itself to be forgotten.

All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950:

Backstage by Emmanuelle Bercot, 2005:

Charly by Isild Le Besco, 2007:

All the same, there's something troubling in the story of Leila, that very tiny life that was invited to leave, for a time, some small trace upon my own. I can't swear to the fact that there exists an animal heaven, but I know, wherever her innocent soul might be today, she had some idea that another small animal endowed with character was embroiling her in a new adventure, and she's awfully proud of that.

— Chris Marker

Da zui xia [The Great Drunken Hero] / Come Drink with Me by King Hu, 1966:


  1. Thanks, Craig, for a perfect translation (something I'm not accustomed to) and perfect illustrations. You went even as far as choosing my all-time favorite piece by Bill Evans. Kudos.

    Chris Marker

  2. That's so kind of you to say, sir — I appreciate it very much.

    For me, your work helps redeem the modern world as something more than "a house in which we live." That is, in a Chris Marker film, words like 'freedom', 'memory', and 'love' do more than signify "all mod cons" (to quote the English classifieds) — they reveal themselves (for whenever we've forgotten!) as the foundation-blocks of that utopia called the personal-present.

    Your work means a great deal to me, and I'm very grateful for that.

    craig keller.


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