Friday, August 22, 2008

La Vie de Jésus

Lazaral Moves

Overheard at Overheard Everywhere...

BOB DUCHESNE: I've walked out of two films in my life: Niki Caro's Whale Rider, and the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: One of my professors in college, who showed us Tout va bien, confessed to walking out of only one film ever — Le Gai savoir. But back to the Dardennes — have you read Frodon's review of Le Silence de Lorna in the latest Cahiers?

BOB DUCHESNE: I have. He says that the facility and rhythms of movement are where the power of the Dardennes' cinema lies, especially in the latest. ("Circulation, movement, exchange. ... Fabio, master of circulations inside his taxi, and organizer of traffic in every sense, 'metteur en scène' of this film regulated like an efficient machine, ... [T]his complex visual-plan that seems as regulated as a clock-shop, ... [This] organised universe, in which social functions are shown revolving in a well-lubricated manner, ... [T]his universe where everything has been regulated under the condition of 'it's circulating', and everything is remunerated, and transferred, in a total fluidity of exchanges (a factual, not even polemical, definition of financial capitalism as widespread organizational model for human relationships), that excess of demand that grinds the machine to a halt.") For me, the core of the Dardennes' fictions — situations we might characterize as the implausibly plausible — resides entirely inside the diegesis; the mise en scène here provides no link, no 'cellular' communication, between interior movement and form, medium-form. That is, internal gestures of plasticity (I'm not being redundant — there are simply two levels of plasticity that can be mastered and 'worked' in the cinema; see Rossellini's Viva l'Italia!) swim unanchored, as though the frame has become a window, or a television-frame (or, fine, an aquarium — was it Raymond Bellour who coined it?), and a show is happening on the other side.

Le Silence de Lorna [Lorna's Silence] by Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2008:

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: I think I follow your argument. The alchemy of the emulsion — the theoretical alchemy, i.e., the real emotional alchemy, another connective tissue, this time running from form to spectator — does not... 'take'. (To retake:

----Connector 1: diegesis to medium-form [with mise en scène operating inside of both, in addition to formulating the unification of each on a third 'outside' level];

----Connector 2: medium-form to spectator.)

In one part, it's the fault of the Dardennes; on the other hand, it's because modern film stocks have become a tragic case. Other filmmakers find a way around this 'lack', the bad film-stocks... maybe the Dardennes have, and you and I just can't see it.

BOB DUCHESNE: It's possible. But let's not just let this issue of bad Kodak and Fuji stocks lie there. When did it begin — or, rather, when did it end? The early-/mid- '70s? The late '60s?

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Something like that. Everything looks grubby and un-special now. I'm hopeful about HD. Just look at Operetta Raccoon Palace or Tale of Cinema or Miami Vice. It's something new, and powerful, and like eating drugs.

BOB DUCHESNE: Moi j'am still hopeful about miniDV — suddenly the 35mm material in julien donkey-boy or INLAND EMPIRE meant something again.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Don't forget Eloge de l'amour...

BOB DUCHESNE: Dude, it didn't even need to be mentioned. It's the ne plus ultra of the modern image. Godard: "No-one has worked harder than I have to bring video into the pictorial tradition." It's one of the greatest films ever made, maybe one of the five best films ever.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Obviously. While we're talking about Godard, isn't it amazing how all the old cinephiles talk about "John Alton" as the default of photographic excellence, but no-one says "Willy Lubtchansky"?

BOB DUCHESNE: I mean, you can't take this seriously. But it's very strange. They're all in the midst of midlife crises and are regressing, clinging, to the berceaux.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Ah oui. — I hope it rains.

BOB DUCHESNE: I hate August.


BOB DUCHESNE: And I, too, hope it rains.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Maybe you walked out of Whale Rider because the weather on the outside of the film didn't match the weather on the inside.

BOB DUCHESNE: Not the weather; the climate. It didn't agree with me. It had a very humid stupidity. The young actress in it —

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Keisha Castle-Hughes?

BOB DUCHESNE: — she wasn't bad. She wasn't without a certain charm — an insolence. I thought we'd be seeing more of her. Maybe we will, and in something other than a Niki Caro film. As followers of modern goss know, instead of taking the laurel offered her by the Oscar nomination, the whole Hollywood deal, she had a baby with her long-time boyfriend, and at 18 is a young mother. Have you read her quotes to the press?

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Yes, they're defiant, they're spectacular. On one level, we have to imagine she had the baby out of spite.

BOB DUCHESNE: It makes me wonder what it might have been like if Fritz Lang had filmed the scene where No-Man gets a spear in his eyeball. But, no, you're right, I saw that recent paparazzo photo, which was very interesting. It's as if she's opted by default to become a character in a Dardennes film, but the film I wish they'd make. The one outside of the idiom of modern European default-cinéma d'auteur mise en scène: i.e., the same ways of cutting in and out scenes, the same ellipses, the 'this-is-good-enough' quality of modern lighting and modern emulsion we've touched upon... The paparazzo photo was an image where the Dardennes might have met Assayas.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Good for her. I could see there was hope for her future anyway, even from watching Whale Rider. (I walked out too, but maybe not so fast...)

BOB DUCHESNE: Why do you say that?

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Because of the one sequence that almost — almost — came from Donovan's Reef.

BOB DUCHESNE: Funny you bring that up, because I was just thinking of some related images. A few weeks ago The New York Times reported that the amount of censorship on the part of embedded photojournalists has reached an all-time high — that the American populace are not being shown the great-numbered dead — the blood already coagulating beneath the skin of what were by then corpses, in the process purple-blotching their forms. Nor shown the civilians who are wiped out by errant fire, or 'only' splattered by the blood of their parents' guts on their faces. Of course Americans should see these images, the news should begin with them every night, or they should be given pride-of-place on the color Page Ones — it would serve to 'humanize' them in a way that might seem inconceivable when, as abstracts, they remain as inconceivable, as latent-Hollywood ("not yet like a movie"), as images of a foreign army invading the American countryside, blowing away kids on Sidekicks, grandmas on respirators in Keds, handsome dads with wallet condoms, in public spaces. This did arrive once, however, and with a vengeance: Katrina, when circumstance met subject in de-abstracted media terror.

Photo by Michael Kamber for The New York Times:

Photo by Chris Hondros, for Getty Images:

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Umm, it was still abstract for some; many said, "These people already look like corpses." Which (wait, and I guess I wonder what role the word "media" just played in your syntax there?) was peculiar — (1) Because of the "like"; (2) Because the primordial image in these instances was 'likely' not I Walked with a Zombie.

I Walked with a Zombie by Jacques Tourneur, 1943:

BOB DUCHESNE: No, it was footage from the riots of the civil-rights era — in other words, a 'period', an 'epoch' that had been contained, by virtue of its relation into images. Isn't this the danger too?

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Also the danger of 'film criticism' — or, let's say, 'film scholarship'. In other words: "We'll explain away your pain." But let's be precise about this footage: "by virtue of its relation into newsreel images, that have in turn been embedded into A&E / cable-channel documentaries." Savaged by more commentary than an angle can, or needs to, provide.

BOB DUCHESNE: Isn't "A&E" what the English call an ER?

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Yeah, "accident & emergency".

BOB DUCHESNE: And the network —

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: — "Hooker & Eight-Ball."


MARIE KARAGHEUZ: But the observation about corpses was because the media, having paratrooped into the waters, said: "It is our duty, nation, to inform you that these black people look like corpses." With the unspoken subtext: "(We, of course, are hoarding the images of the dead Americans and the dead Iraqis, and know what happens to their skin. We won't show them to you, but we'll feed our bad montage, bad conceptions of editing, back into our language...)"

BOB DUCHESNE: There wasn't a silent image in sight.

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: There wasn't an image without a stratagem. No, wait, there were two: Charles Burnett's Quiet as Kept, and another image, in words, when Dylan sang: "Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones."

Quiet as Kept by Charles Burnett, 2007:

BOB DUCHESNE: There weren't images of dead in gassy bloat, chewed up by their own crawlspaces... savaged in branches, insulation...

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: Is the image at the end of Dumont's La Vie de Jésus, Freddy in Rimbaudian berceau, an image of the living or the dead?

La Vie de Jésus [The Life of Jesus] by Bruno Dumont, 1997:

BOB DUCHESNE: It's an image of the dead — like Ophelia unaware of her artist, so: poised for resurrection. The film begins on a death as well: the friend who passes away from AIDS. The circumstances of his infection remain mysterious — one is forced to reflect upon this, given the relatively isolated milieu of the town of Bailleul. The sarcoma announce themselves on the boy's body like stigmata. As disjunctive as the affliction itself, on the wall of the hospice room hangs Giotto's image of the resurrection of Lazarus. So, as with all "acts of God" — taken as superstition applied after the fact by the living, as a coping mechanism; taken as real, supernatural phenomenon; or taken as arbitrary occurrence in a real-chaos universe — the ends will be the same, no matter the mystery of the means — and those ends are relief from the suffering of this earth. The drama of The Event — that one has no control over one's destiny — sets us all inside of the only real determinism: the indeterminable: ourselves at the mercy of the uncontrollable — and if we thus do not retain any ultimate control over our lives, if the control lies elsewhere, then at the level of the ends, our circumstances function identically to any system of events controlled/created by an Other. Our own moral structure will exist as our own active imposition... magic or ritual like any other, an organization of the arbitrary taken as active sign, like the appearance of the footage from Africa (abstraction) beamed in onto the bar television. (Conversation at the bar later on: "What's he got?" "AIDS." "AIDS. Is he homosexual? Just like all of them on the TV...") Suffering has the power of a universal truth, so given the arbitrariness of any invent, we might do well to heed the parable; when we act we only mirror the creation. "The life of Jesus" is only a framework for the story of us all. When Freddy looks up at the sky (the same sky seen by Kader, the Arab later beat to death by Freddy and his friends), Dumont's challenge is for the spectator to peer into and understand the revelation that arbitrary occurrence can be understood as miracle and guidepost, which phenomenon is in turn a miracle, and the indicator of the inherent grace of humanity.

La Vie de Jésus [The Life of Jesus] by Bruno Dumont, 1997:

MARIE KARAGHEUZ: It's like Rossellini's phrase — "Things are there. Why invent them?" — which in paradox (all existence as ouroborosian Tao, generative and passive-consumptive) contains its own opposite: "Things aren't there. Invent them." — Anyway, Dumont's film can exist, and succeed, because all its creator wants to do is 'show' — like real parable — and so the aforementioned "Connector 1" that energizes diegesis with medium-form and vice-versa has in this instance been rendered wholly irrelevant. That is: If the film looks a little grubby, or washed-out, the patina comes from the earth; Dumont knows the true emulsion lies elsewhere.






by Arthur Rimbaud



Sur l'onde calme et noire où dorment les étoiles
La blanche Ophélia flotte comme un grand lys,
Flotte très lentement, couchée en ses longs voiles...
— On entend dans les bois lointains des hallalis.

Voici plus de mille ans que la triste Ophélie
Passe, fantôme blanc, sur le long fleuve noir.
Voici plus de mille ans que sa douce folie
Murmure sa romance à la brise du soir.

Le vent baise ses seins et déploie en corolle
Ses grands voiles bercés mollement par les eaux;
Les saules frissonnants pleurent sur son épaule,
Sur son grand front rêveur s'inclinent les roseaux.

Les nenuphars froissés soupirent autour d'elle;
Elle éveille parfois, dans un aune qui dort,
Quelque nid, d'où s'échappe un petit frisson d'aile:
— Un chant mystérieux tombe des astres d'or.


O pâle Ophélia belle comme la neige!
Oui, tu mourus, enfant, par un fleuve emporté!
— C'est que les vents tombant des grands monts de Norwège
T'avaient parlé tout bas de l'âpre liberté;

C'est qu'un souffle, tordant ta grande chevelure,
A ton esprit rêveur portait d'étranges bruits;
Que ton coeur écoutait le chant de la Nature
Dans tes plaintes de l'arbre et les soupirs des nuits;

C'est que la voix des mers folles, immense râle,
Brisait ton sein d'enfant, trop humain et trop doux;
C'est qu'un matin d'avril, un beau cavalier pâle,
Un pauvre fou, s'assit muet à tes genoux!

Ciel! Amour! Liberté! Quel rêve, ô pauvre Folle!
Tu te fondais à lui comme une neige au feu;
Tes grandes visions étranglaient ta parole
— Et l'Infini terrible effara ton oeil bleu!


— Et le Poète dit qu'aux rayons des étoiles
Tu viens chercher, la nuit, les fleurs que tu cueillis,
Et qu'il a vu sur l'eau, couchée en ses longs voiles,
La blanche Ophélia flotter, comme un grand lys.



translation by Wallace Fowlie (the only acceptable parallel-text French-/English-language edition of the complete Rimbaud), with modifications by me:


On the calm black waters where the stars sleep
White Ophelia floats like a great lily,
Floats very slowly, lying in [her/their (the stars')] long veils...
— You hear hunting-horns in the distant woods.

Behold, for more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
Passes, a white phantom, over the long black river.
Behold, for more than a thousand years her gentle madness
Murmurs its romance to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and arranges in wreaths
Her great veils softly cradled by the waters;
The trembling willows weep on her shoulder,
Over her wide dreaming brow the reeds bend down.

The ruffled waterlilies sigh around her;
At times she awakens, in a sleeping alder,
Some nest, from which escapes a slight rustle of wings;
— A mysterious song falls from the golden stars.


O pale Ophelia, beautiful as snow!
Yes, you died, child, carried off by a river!
— It is because the winds falling from the great mountains of Norway
Had spoken to you in low tones of bitter freedom;

It is because a breath, twisting your great hair,
Bore to your dreaming soul strange intimations;
Because your heart was listening to the song of Nature
In the tree's complaint and the sighs of the nights;

It is because the voice of mad seas, an immense rale,
Broke your infant breast, too human and too soft;
It is because, one April morning, a handsome pale knight,
A poor madman, sat mute at your knees!

Heaven! Love! Freedom! What a dream, oh poor Madwoman!
You melted to him as snow to a fire;
Your great visions strangled your words
— And fearful Infinity terrified your blue eyes!


— And the Poet says that with the rays of the stars
You come at night to look for the flowers you picked,
And that he saw on the water, lying in [her/their] long veils,
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.




  1. An excellent entry, but you/they are completely wrong about the Dardennes! It's not a realist/naturalist tele-window in their films, not for one moment since the first frame of LA PROMESSE: it's an incredibly stylised way of producing, observing, exploring and extending human gestures in a;; their profound mystery: where does an act, a gesture come from, and where does it go? LORNA'S SILENCE is their best film since ROSETTA. One needs Levinas (whom they knew and loved - on the face and 'nakedness' à la Pialat's 'naked childhood') and Agamben (on gesture and drama) to lever this richness open in their films, but once you're in you can fly ... All I am saying is: give them a (second) chance!

  2. Yeah, I too think that you are, or Duchesne is, barking up the wrong tree about the Dardennes, though I'm not sure I agree with Adrian. Duchesne seems to want plasticity, but that's exactly what they don't want to give. They want a cinema without blocking, without chalk marks, without geometric arrangements of masses in the frame. They want to disprove the idea that some spaces are better to film in than others. They want the camera to do all the compromising and the actor to do none. They may not completely achieve this impossible goal, but the viewer senses the attempt.

    For an example of someone who feigns verite-style but surreptitiously finds plasticity, I'd go to Doillon.


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