Ariadna Solera Centeno
In memory of Jean-Luc Godard's Drôles de Guerres, I wrote about some fragments of memories stored in my mind regarding my participation at the Viennale 2023.
I remember how Fabrice Aragno kindly showed me images of the production documents of this very film presented at this year’s festival. Collage cardboards relating to his own work, replete with his and Godard’s usual digressions, hand-written and drawn on paper including the editing order which was planned before the material was filmed. I discovered manifold quotes and references that have traversed their work (mentioning Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil again), so powerfully presented in the film via the author’s characteristic off-screen voice which unexpectedly made me nostalgic.
Godard's posthumous work was screened alongside Pedro Costa's latest film, As Filhas Do Fogo. During the flight from Barcelona to Vienna, I jotted down in my notebook what I was planning to ask the professionals participating in the film writing workshop. However, when we met with Costa, I couldn't ask any of those questions as he was in high spirits treating us to a two-hour historical-political discourse. Talk about the context, the ins and outs!, he proposed.
Erika Balsom, who was another guest at the workshop, highlighted pressing concerns in academia: the lack of institutional support and funding for film archives as well as a generational turnover. More and more cultural institutions around the world are now discussing these issues collectively.
For an internal view of the festival, we also had a conversation with programmer Rebecca De Pas, who described the daily consumption of an immense amount of audiovisual material.
We also met with Miguel Marías, a film critic who taught us to talk about the context, the ins and outs of the industry. I remember reading his texts as a teenager in the film magazines I found in public libraries. He shed light on the formation of major production companies, the ethical and aesthetic principles followed by executive producers such as Arthur Freed, their artistic role as patrons, and the challenges faced by artists.
Vienna’s sense of cleanliness is extreme: I hardly saw any building that wasn't perfectly clean and painted white, seamlessly fitting into a homogeneous urban plan of order and public neatness. Nostalgia works in curious ways: after a week, I found myself missing the dirty streets, the smell, and the noise of Barcelona.
Similar sentiments arose with some of the films I watched during the festival, yearning for some dirt on the screen, the beauty derived from impurity, unbalanced or audacious editing, a glimpse into the corset of cinema. Now that we find ourselves in an uncertain time, heading back into recession, grappling with confusion in interpreting reality, facing financial oligarchies aiming to dismantle public services and to challenge democratic frameworks, the films I enjoyed were the ones that also appealed to chaos and cracks.
Before boarding the return flight, I engaged in a discussion with a colleague. He asked me, What do you gain from indignation? What's achieved by talking about it? To which I can only respond: Didn't you enjoy the Costa session featuring Godard's posthumous work? Wasn't their commitment to the world moving? Is cinema a mere depoliticized ornament for you? Doesn't the Viennale become a more beautiful place when it enables cultural resistance through a screening of Drôles de guerres? Isn't the greatness of any festival found in sharing sessions like that, then taking to the streets and connecting a film with our immediate reality?
FEARS AND HOPES
Is there any relation between Un prince (Pierre Creton, 2023), The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir, 1947) and L’été dernier (Catherine Breillat, 2023)? Naturally, all three of them were made by French directors, yet this doesn’t bring us very far. They were also screened on the same day at the Viennale, but this is probably not the time for a hermeneutic reading of the festival schedule or the way I made use of it on that specific day. Instead, I’d just say that, beyond their mutual fascination with gender dynamics, sexuality, and desire, what ties those films together is their belief in mise en scène.
Ah, the old, rusty term, making yet another comeback! Mise en scène is an almost archaic expression! Mention it, and you will instantly find yourself among a group of geeks meeting in makeshift spaces in order to discuss… their love for cinema! As soon as one dares to utter this word one is taken to be an idealist, or worse, someone ignorant of the nitty-gritty, the tangible, the sometimes mundane, and occasionally even the autocratic aspects of the filmmaking process.
Philosopher Jacques Rancière once wrote: “[Cinephilia] affirmed that the greatness of cinema lay not in the metaphysical high-mindedness of its subjects or the visual impact of its plastic effects, but in an imperceptible difference in the ways of putting traditional stories and emotions into images. It called that difference mise en scène - staging, direction, production - without being too sure what it meant. Not knowing what it is that one loves and why one loves it is, they say, a characteristic of passion. It is also the path to a certain kind of wisdom.”
Rancière’s position is minoritarian, at least in the world I discuss cinema in. Especially in academia, a milieu which imposed a more pragmatic conception of cinema, there seems to be a certain air of superiority, if not outright disdain, for those who do not rely in their explanations solely on what can be measured or calculated. Nowadays, cinema; more than being a personal expression, has become a symptom of the times The trend of discussing films without actually experiencing them – without delving into the innumerable ways in which images impact us – is increasingly prevalent. Reducing the specificities of an art form to the question of mere content makes it akin to advertising, political messages and other vehicles for ideological communication.
Yet ideological readings can only take one so far. In some cases, they yield anomalies. Take for instance L’Été dernier, Catherine Breillat’s attempt to faithfully adapt a recent Danish movie, Dronningen (2019). Sitting in the Urania Cinema in the evening, I felt a vague sense of déjà-vu. Yet nothing, not even a clear recollection of the original plot, could encourage a hint of direct lineage between the two: for anyone with eyes to see, there was simply no possible filiation. This was not just a remake: it was the transposition of ordinary audiovisual content into the realm of mise en scène.
There are countless ways to shoot a script. Some filmmakers opt for mere visualisation, they illustrate what they read. Others have the power to make you forget there ever was, at the beginning, a written reference. Maybe noticing that Breillat captures the electric charge between bodies, or that she has the rare capacity to record the actors’ skin, as noted by film critic Murielle Joudet, does not reveal much about the film’s production mechanisms, which, as always with ‘impressionistic’ readings, remain obscure. But should it be otherwise? Knowing more facts about the context of a shooting certainly enriches interpretation – but it cannot come beforehand, and it cannot explain on itself why Breillat, unlike others, matters for those who love cinema.
How might the cinema of tomorrow unfold? Perhaps as an ecology of the gaze, in the fullest sense of the word. I began my ‘French’ day by watching Un prince by Pierre Creton. With its perpetually moving cycle that intertwines everything – plants, sexuality, movement, death – into a pleasurable feast, this film leaves no residue in its wake. While not immediately apparent, every shot serves a purpose: an act of homosexual lovemaking will ultimately find it its rhyme in a sequence of planting flowers. It all finds its way back to this self-contained audiovisual machinery. Just notice how farmer Creton seamlessly weaves not only his Normandy home and friends into the frame, endowing them – their rugged, uncharacteristic faces – with the aural presence of classic movie stars, but even repurposes old shots from his earlier films. Recycling, as an overarching life principle, has never felt more apt. And what about the rotating candelabra made of penises towards the end? I’d say that not everything has to cohere – and that this spike in frontality serves as a caution against dogmatisms of any kind.
What remains for us cinephiles to witness as our object of love is fading away? During my daily walk along the Wiental Kanal, this question had become somewhat oppressive. This was after seeing the Jean Renoir in the Metro Kinokulturhaus sumptuous theater: an almost implausible matching in the name of a gone era. Films like The Woman on the Beach, with its perfectly crafted, bristling-with-ideas 75-minute narrative, suggest that the fight might already be lost. There is simply no going back to that point of exquisite equilibrium between form and meaning, when everything on screen belonged in its right place.
Yet, it is precisely because of the vanity of the battle that we are free to use whatever is in our power – chiefly, emotion. There is a feeling of great liberation in the act of embracing change – not in itself, as an uncritical fetish for novelty, but as an opportunity for displacement. It is not satisfactory to mourn a state of cinema that is long gone. One has to look elsewhere, to find new (or renewable, for that matter) sources that can fuel one’s passion.
Cinema always dealt with illusions. I ended the day walking to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, to see the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder with my own eyes. I was tired, consumed by the images I had just seen, not sure whether there was space for more. The streets were buzzing with extensive preparations for the national day. Amidst army tanks, trucks, and buggies adorned with QR codes guiding passers-by to an online enrollment portal, one phrase caught my eye: NEXT LEVEL REALITY. I realized that, without any signal – no frame, no luminous screen, no movie theater –, this was simply a prolongation of my cinephile day, albeit a less innocent one. Now, beyond the confines of movie theaters, cinema can finally be everything.
At the end of L’Été Dernier, Anne has skillfully averted her family’s destruction. Following a summer embroiled in lusty games with her teenage stepson Théo, she now manipulates truth to his detriment, accepting the boy’s renewed exclusion from her family as collateral damage for the sake of its continuity.
We assume the affair must be over, that passion has given way to juridical settlement. Théo’s desperate tears betray the youth of his face, his softness, pliability—a kid, not a lover. Surely Anne must have seen that too, and surely there can be no way back from a realization like this for either of them. But a few nights later, Théo comes knocking. He has had too much to drink; he is angry, alone, expelled from a home that should be his own but whose threshold is now a barrier. Woken by the noise, Anne leaves the married bed to make sure Théo stays away for good, to guard the threshold. But a switch flips and soon she is on the ground, he on top of her. The soil glistens with moisture, a crisp night at the season’s end. The chiaroscuro of the scene heightens its drama, reminiscent of a Baroque altar, a Caravaggio painting which refutes the moral high ground, taints saintly bodies with scandalous dirt, makes the beauty of light dependent on a vortex of darkness.
In a brief address that preceded the first screening of L’Été Dernier at Viennale, director Catherine Breillat let the audience know that morals are not her cup of tea—too static, too chaste, presumably. No matter how tempting, we are not supposed to rashly judge her characters’ actions, see Anne not merely as an adult preying on young flesh, but equally as a victim of youth’s seductive enigma, of Théo’s fragile, fleeting suspension between sexual maturity and innocence. Dwelling in ambivalence, however, does not mean Breillat shies away from big words altogether: “I defend what I think is truth,” she has declared, seeking it in the desiring body, the forbidden lust her characters inhabit.1
L’Été Dernier, neat tale of a hot mess, seems to say: Desire, a force to be reckoned with, dark truth beneath the surface of a bourgeois veneer! But the sex scenes between Théo and Anne are where Breillat’s own “truth” slips out of the director’s hands. Desire here is as performative, as “untrue” as all the other motions Anne goes through each day. Head bent backwards, she muffles her own moans as Théo chafes away in missionary. The whole thing is over faster than it takes to brew a cup of coffee, which is to say: the interaction we are witnessing is not, by most standards applied, good sex. Rather, Anne is putting on a show of enjoyment for herself in order to bring about a trickle of its actuality, to stage herself as part of this unruly scene, to feel herself feeling.
A few years ago, Breillat was among those film professionals who voiced skepticism of the allegations of sexual misconduct that swept the movie industry. She insisted on the convolutedness of sexual politics, a gray zone where right is not easily separated from wrong. At the time, this felt like a betrayal, pointing the finger at the least powerful. But to call out the betrayal of a cause sounds like the kind of political dogma that I used to frown at, “complicate everything!” being the only writerly imperative I would subscribe to (maybe). L’Été Dernier has, unwittingly, opened a way to disagree with Breillat’s postulations on the ground of her own insistence on convolutedness: what if Anne’s devotion is not the sudden eruption of an otherwise suppressed desire for boyish bodies or sex tout court, but a desire for desire itself? And what if lust is therefore understood not as a dismantling of the bourgeois ego’s integrity but as its creation and preservation? To uphold desire as a truth that must roam freely may, in the end, uphold a different kind of high ground.
Jacob and I went to see Justine Triet’s Anatomie d’une chute last week and he said something about how the film thinks of writing. The Bad Writer (the husband) is bad because he is ambitious: he fails because he aims too high and never reaches that apex – quite the opposite, he falls to his death. The Good Writer (the woman) is good because she is productive: she succeeds because she settles for what is possible and gets writing done. And good for her, I guess, except that what we hear of her autofiction in the film is as prosaic as the film itself.
I am plundering Jacob’s thoughts on the film as a way of saying that I liked the Viennale workshop because it was sympathetic to The Bad and suspicious of The Good. (Convinced, after two hours with Pedro Costa, that it was better to do nothing at all than to participate in what one member of the group called ‘the tyranny of mediocrity’.) Anatomie d’une chute kills off ponderous writers and lets productive, professional ones live, while we lingered with what writing might look like were it not churned out according to a decent-enough formula. What Patrick called essayistic was actually, I think, experimental.
I am plundering Jacob’s thoughts on the film not to become The Good Writer: this is not a knowing preamble to A Good Article about writing and gender in Anatomie d’une chute. In truth, I wanted to write a different final text for the workshop but I – The Bad Writer – prevaricated, procrastinated, and ran out of time.
This is how it is in my mind at the moment: it is called ‘Goldfish (To We Critics)’ and it is about pleasure. On the surface, the speculative piece would circle around women’s buttocks and the beauty of them. Written in the form of a short story about a critic and writer, it would narrate an oblique obsession with a rhyme cut and it would use the third-person voice. (This isn’t autofiction, although I do sort of wish it were.) When I saw Trần Anh Hùng’s Pot-au-feu, I laughed out loud when that succulent image of a poached pear – already so evocative of feminine curves, slunk on the plate in the way that it was, like an art-historical nude – was followed by Juliette Binoche’s divine derrière. Was it a rhyme cut at all, or indulgent tautology? Anyway: the critic and writer of the short story would see it and then suppress it; her flat bottom is numb and unrefined from hours of film festival screenings, and those luxurious images are unthinkable. Filing run-of-the-mill writing after a festival, she is riddled with vague depression – but then she eats something moan-inducing, delectable. (Although I am not trained to write fiction, I suspect that this should not be a poached pear.) I don’t know whether it would end happily or cynically, whether she would start to fail in a way that was interestingly Bad or simply bad, but she starts a long, long poem. And she never finishes it; it is just for herself.
In unserem erstmals stattfindenden VIENNALE YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE arbeitet eine Gruppe junger, internationaler Filmkritiker:innen unter editorischer und organisatorischer Begleitung von Autor und Filmkritiker Patrick Holzapfel an einigen Texten, die sich mit dem Programm des diesjährigen Festivals auseinandersetzen.