by Victor Morozov
The campus of the Université Grenoble-Alpes, in the South East of France, is a sort of autonomous city filled with students and academics. It is largely composed of buildings dating from the socialist era that face the picturesque Belledonne mountain range, located somewhere on the distant horizon. Their snow-covered peaks are treacherous: always visible, and yet somehow kept at bay.
Last November I returned to the campus on a quiet Saturday morning. The place was monumental and eerily beautiful. I remembered that, during my four-semester stay there as an undergraduate student some years ago, I would often walk across campus on weekends when it was deserted, except for some joggers. I’d sit on the grass reading, gazing down on the iconic “chess table” (the checkerboard pattern of black and white concrete slabs that comprised the main square of the campus) from above, while trying to breathe. These were, now that I think of them, my favourite moments of an otherwise unhappy experience. Back then, I was perhaps too anguished and too young, as well, ever the foreigner, no doubt. I never thought about those mountains as I encountered them daily, or about the rosy glow they sometimes bathed in at dusk, nor have I ever dreamt of hiking on their trails, no matter how within reach they were. And when I finally left Grenoble for good, I thought it was a done deal. But as it turns out, it wasn’t.
I came back to Grenoble almost three years later to take part in a conference on the great Kazakh filmmaker, Darezhan Omirbaev. This “journée d’étude” was co-organised by Robert Bonamy, whose classes I had the chance to attend during my undergraduate years. He used to teach “History of cinema from the 1960s to the 2000s” – a vast subject, if there ever was one – in his own way. Rather than attempting to sweep entangled filiations alongside canonical works in just a couple of hours each week, he chose to focus on one specific filmmaker per decade. These classes included the names of Glauber Rocha, Sharunas Bartas, and Tariq Téguia and were enlightening, to say the least.
So, when during my last semester in Grenoble, I found out that he was going to teach an entire module on a single French filmmaker, I tried to anticipate who it could be. Would it be Robert Bresson, the unsurpassed master of the art? Jean Renoir, the spiritual parent of everything good that was to come? Jean-Luc Godard, the quintessential example of perpetual change? As he unveiled the name to a class of skeptical students who were, in truth, more concerned with securing their diplomas than exploring radical cinema, I felt there could still be hope in the act of teaching. I had never heard of those names, Nicolas Klotz and Élisabeth Perceval. In short: NKEP, as their production company is commonly known. This was going to be a huge leap into unknown territory – the kind of territory that universities nowadays tend to invest ever more rarely, and where revelations are likely to arise.
Little did I know that, in fact, this course was a prototype even for its professor. Much like the finest modules that I would later attend, it was structured as an evolving chantier, a work in progress in constant evolution, offering no systematic theory, but brimming with countless hypotheses, trajectories, thoughts. In essence, it was the only fitting response to a body of work that permanently shifts and defies clear categorizations, spanning from short films to four-hour odysseys, from video essays to filmed interviews, from preparatory sketches to non-definitive attempts.
As they bridged the apparently insurmountable gap between the core of the industry, where they started working (Nicolas is the son of Georges Klotz, renowned editor of, among others, Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades and Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga), and the margins that allow for intense creative freedom, the filmmakers discovered, in Gilles Deleuze’s words, their true colours. In doing so, they became radiant icons of what cinema, as a vital non-commercial industry, still has the power to embody.
In between La Nuit Bengali (Klotz’s adaptation of Mircea Eliade, made in Calcutta with a meagre budget in the late 80s) and Le Nouveau Monde (Klotz-Perceval’s loose reimagining of Finis terrae by Jean Epstein, filmed near their home in Normandy) lie more than 35 years of relentless quests for meaning, truth, and a distinct vision of cinema. In an interview that I conducted with him, Klotz explained that, for them, crafting a film invariably recreates the idea of filmmaking in Calcutta, this buzzing city that encapsulates everything. In many ways, his debut film was already the culmination of a journey, a terminus of sorts. However, to reach this understanding, they had to forget all of the cinema business – and start learning “it” anew.
Week after week, in that seminar room within the so-called Stendhal Building of the university, with the mountains overlooking our screens, we discovered one of the most impressive artistic trajectories of the past few decades. At the end of the course, I knew what everyone in the industry hides from aspiring filmmakers: that cinema, in all its wonder, is at its most potent when it’s at its simplest, a camera, your life partner, a bouquet of flowers, and the sea… (Cosmocide 2022) With Bonamy, we learnt to seek that kind of cinema which proves that there is life beyond the relentless talk about money. Bristling with formal inventions and political conscience, this filmography showed us the uncorrupted joy of making films.
These are, I fear, idyllic thoughts. But are they less realistic for that matter? Could they stem from an interlude between the decline of a system and its restoration? Are Klotz and Perceval the ones that got away and, in the process, lost everything, from commercial pressure to spectators? Can the desire to stay true to your vision resemble something else than a complete erasure?
In any case, their situation is paradoxical: indeed, how could I satisfactorily account for their relatively obscure status as filmmakers, despite their arduous activity of raising a crucial audiovisual testimony of our contemporary societies, unbeknownst even to the majority of cinephiles? Their followers seem to form a perseverant enlightened faction. Their most basic desire would be to expand, because transmission is the clearest sign of a vivid community. As homages abound (most recently, an integral retrospective was organised by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in December 2021 with the collaboration of Robert Bonamy, who also provided the title: Le cinéma en commun), their fragile status serves as a stark illustration of the film industry's tendency to disregard paths that deviate from the conventional norm.
Bonamy’s choice was therefore an act of transmission. Much like the French film critics from the post-World War II era, he functioned both as a messenger and an interpreter. It is remarkable that, even in today’s world, we still have a tremendous need for passeurs – to borrow the famous term of film critic Serge Daney – even as we are led to believe that we don’t. The passeur is someone who refuses to accept the idea that there could be an end to transmissions. As such, when it comes to the most intimate “items” of this ineffable commerce, he or she only can only swear by friendship. For he or she knows that objectivity, when discussing matters of the soul, can only take us this far. And that friendship, much like cinephilia (the love of cinema), does not preclude clarity – on the contrary, in its most ecstatic form, it transforms itself into a form of lucidity.
Right from the outset, Bonamy made it evident that he not only had a personal connection to Klotz and Perceval, but he actively participated in their recent projects as a means of “research through practice”. Beyond merely writing about their films – although he did so extensively, the most brilliant contribution being “Qu’est-ce qu’un film refuge?” [What is a refuge-film?], musing on a concept that philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy coined specifically in relation to Klotz and Perceval’s films – he accompanied their creative process as often as possible. When, in Paris, he presented his thesis for the completion of his habilitation to direct PhDs, Klotz and Perceval were present in the audience, living embodiments of his research. As an editor of De l’incidence publishing house, he published two books on the duo: Les Frontières brûlent, an anthology with significant contributions from researchers and filmmakers, and Sécession cinema, mon amour, an incandescent collection of texts authored by Nicolas Klotz himself. Bonamy was not exactly an insistent observer, much less a paparazzo. He was more than a documentarist, less than a collaborator: a friend. He would mobilize a filmic reflection filled with personal references and landmarks, drawing from his early days as a researcher on Roberto Rossellini and the concept of cinematic background which would, in turn, intersect with the duo’s own ideas and creative hypotheses. Thus, both experiences mutually enriched one another through this political experience of informal collaboration and togetherness.
This companionship, I understood over time, seemed both natural and intriguing. For some, the very notion of a scholar of film theory who not only maintains a personal acquaintance with the filmmakers they are tasked to write about but also regularly interacts with them and forms a genuine bond could be disconcerting, if not outright unthinkable. I vividly recall one fellow student on that course exclaiming, on our way out of class, that he had enough of “Bonamy’s friends”.
What is it that makes the notion of friendship between theorists and practitioners of cinema so unpalatable? Part of it certainly has to do with a desire for a clear boundary between critics and filmmakers, as they should ideally operate in a realm of absolute non-interference. This separation is seen as a way to maintain objectivity in the analysis of cinema, free from personal biases or favoritism. However, in today's world, this clear distinction is increasingly challenged, if not entirely outdated. The art of filmmaking and film criticism are interconnected, and the idea that critics should exist in an entirely separate sphere from filmmakers might be more wishful thinking than a practical reality.
When I met Nicolas for the first time, we sat down at Folies Belleville, a charming unpretentious café in my favourite Parisian neighbourhood. During our conversation, he shared a thought that has remained etched in my memory. We were talking about Serge Daney, who was also a highly social individual with a profound appreciation for the art of conversation. (See, for example, his well-known exchange with Godard, parts of which were included in his Histoire(s) du cinema.) Nicolas told me that Daney’s brilliance lay in his approach: he never wrote for the general audience – he actually wrote letters to the filmmakers, subtly disguising them as criticism.
I have written on Klotz and Perceval’s films multiple times, both in Romanian and in French. I have done it, of course, as a proof of my deep admiration for the latest period of their work, in which they managed to explode every rule of the game and to appropriate the tools of the industry. From the very beginning, I knew them as the authors of that tremendously disturbing, profoundly humanist, extremely necessary film that is L’héroïque Lande, where I was hit by the wisdom of two people who are more populated within themselves than an entire blockbuster crew. But there were moments when I wrote about their work in response to what I sensed as a wavelength of melancholy stemming from this self-imposed exile they had embraced. As if this decision, though it was the only reasonable thing to do, still brought about violence. Being a maverick is never easy. Sometimes a text written out of comradeship could mean that you are not alone in your struggle. And that you were right to fight on.
In my first year as a co-programmer for the One World Romania Documentary Festival in Bucharest, Romania, I proposed that we show L’héroïque Lande and Nous disons révolution, their latest film up to that moment, as a double bill on the radical potential laying in the craft of making images. To my surprise, the proposition was accepted, and I felt that the circle of transmission could finally be complete.
In one of Klotz and Perceval’s most recent films, Cosmocide 2022, the camera does a 180-degree panoramic, moving away from an endless sea to discover the rocky coast and, right next to it, a concrete construction and a line of barbed wire sealing off access. This idea of linking, in a single shot, what is forever untamable and what is forbidden or captured lies at the core of their art: free horizons and human-made material, captivity and rebellion, brought together, in the hope that our gaze can seek a better tomorrow. As I looked beyond the grey buildings of the campus, I suddenly saw the mountain range, and it was as if, once again, there was the possibility to escape…
For the first time the VIENNALE hosts a YOUNG CRITICS' CIRCLE. A group of young, international film critics are working under the editorial and organisational guidance of author and film critic Patrick Holzapfel on a number of texts dealing with the programme of this year's festival. This initiative is related to our commitment regarding the perception and discussion of film criticism in its permanent state of crisis.
Monography: NICOLAS KLOTZ UND ELISABETH PERCEVAL
The films of Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval are world works. On the one hand, because they represent concrete forays through the world in all its diversity. On the other, because they absorb and document the experiences and cultural background of the people they encounter and about whom they narrate.
More information here!