I’m like a laborer who depends on the evolution of his tool. Only if his tool is transformed, his thinking becomes transformed too.
By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
When we watch the first minutes of La Recontre (1996), it seems that we’re confronted with a revolution: digital cinema has merged with the home movie, and they both have reached a new narrative language in which the immediate recollection of images through the analogue system provides the filmmaker with the immediacy and urgency of what needs to be captured. The role of Cavalier as a realisateur became one of an enabler of dialogue between the filmmaker and the camera, between cinema and the physical presence of the director. The subsequent title that ended this “autobiographical trilogy”, Le Filmeur (2005) (a first film, Ce répondeur ne prend pas de messages  was shot in 1977) further cemented his reputation as this collector of intimate fragments of life, a purveyor of the aesthetics -and ethics- of the digital format, a filmmaker who built a unique relationship with cinema, where the camera is not only an extension of the memory, but also a therapeutic device in which illness (cancer) and death are dealt with.
Cavalier becomes a habitant of his surroundings, and each element of his meditative stance recalls a significant part of nature. This fragmentation of the image into small episodes is born from the freedom than the digital format ensues, with a one-man crew that has absolute liberty over what he films and when he films it, with a script that is dictated by life itself and has no particular course other than the course of life itself.
Hi-8 issues and the quotidian
Video has particular qualities that separate it from film. We’re not of course, talking of the High Definition digital cinema that we see nowadays in film theaters, but the old analogue format which carried some elements that were deemed as non-desirable for most filmmakers. The flatness and lack of definition of the Hi-8 video of twenty years ago was more suited for video-art, installations of such artists like Paik or early Rist, among many others. But the rawness of the image generated by tape was precisely what Cavalier was ready to use after experimenting with the whole “filmmaker” format in such magnificent films as Théresè (1986) and Libera Me (1993), where he was already pushing the limits of conventional filmmaking.
The pixelated texture of tape images (something that went from the simple handycam to more professional video cameras that allowed different qualities of image, and also dealt with the digital format) wasn’t something that played against this first attempt of Cavalier as film diary filmmaker, in fact, it was quite the opposite: it was precisely this texture that approached reality closer to the viewer. This immediacy of encoding reality to tape and re-encoding it to 35mm to be projected brought with it a new way of seeing and perceiving intimacy. Of course, this had much to do with Cavalier’s own talent to direct his handycam to the most precisely and carefully chosen elements, elements that breath life in the screen, elements as simple as the dissolving of an anti-acid in a glass of water.
La Recontre’s love poem structure with two voices was in no way assembled by chance: Every small detail, every single shot has a deeper semiotic significance, not that of revealing but of revelation. Through hidden language, or metaphoric imagery, the filmmaker becomes the inventor of a new cinema, one that is not concerned of portraying reality but redirects its gaze on precisely what lies beyond reality: a hidden language indeed, in need to be decoded, a narrative that gives new meaning to the term “intimacy”. It is not just the intimate of the quotidian, but also the intimate of the image, of what we perceive as spectators, and what the image tells us about our own presence. These “communicating vessels” that mirror the role of the filmmaker and the image that is being filmed, come through the Hi-8 tape image of video, and there lies the ability of Cavalier: in the least “personal” medium, an underappreciated device that simplifies reality in the margin of a magnetic tape, lies the decoder for this new encrypted language. In the realm of the video image and its pixels we found the answer for a secret world that is deeply personal and passionate.
We return to this “carefully chosen elements”, because here objects are, finally, what give meaning to this relationship we’re witnessing throughout the seventy-five minutes of the film. One could draw a parallel with Leo Hurwitz Dialogue for a Woman Departed (1981), in which also the love relationship of the filmmaker with his deceased wife is channeled through a series of memories and recollections: photographs and appropriation of worldly events he and his wife had similar views on. Here, Cavalier focuses instead in the most innocuous objects. The film starts, and after some minutes of staring at the movement of water in wet asphalt we stand in front of an image of a fish. “You’ve bought this fish” says Cavalier, “It’s called a sea-bream” says his muse. With something that everyone could call an image or dialogue of little importance, a huge intertwining of beings, the mere birth of complicity is born. After that we catch a pebble, feet, watches, marbles: each element with its own personal history, and also part of the secret history we decode between Cavalier the filmmaker, Cavalier the lover, his muse (Francois), and cinema.
Le Filmeur, in contrast, is a film that took ten years to be made, a collection of several pieces of video the filmmaker collected through the years. Talking about this film, Cavalier said:
The first of my autobiographical films was made in 1978. It was called, “This Machine Does Not Accept Messages”. In it, I was seen with a tape around my head. The second such film, entitled “Encounter”, was shot in 1996. It featured my hands, my voice but not my face. This time, in “Filmman”, I am revealed. There are reasons why my head must appear.1
It is indeed true that Cavalier appears as a filmmaker, always reflected in a game of mirrors and shadows. He shows his face as a transitive method of dealing with his own concerns with cinema, and in that, dealing with personal illness. Suffering from skin cancer, we watch as Cavalier goes through a series of surgical procedures to eliminate this foreign object from his body. If in Ce répondeur ne prend pas de messages we were witness to the spiritual struggle of the filmmaker with the loss of hir former wife, bandages in face and in a minimalistic fashion (it is still now, one of the most complex Cavalier films), here in Le Filmeur, we witness Cavalier dealing with his own mortality, an incident that desperately needs a physical revelation. And the effect of watching time passing by through the ninety six minutes of the film gives us the impression that indeed time has helped heal the body, and also helped the filmmaker reach a higher level of understanding, dealing with the loss of both his parents, and the contemplation of his current life. In this film also, the face of his wife (Francoise Widhoff) is revealed, and a tender loving physical relation gives place, an intimate stance that could’ve only been achieved with the kind of camera format the filmmaker used. Showing his face to the world, Cavalier was able to reveal himself not only as a physical presence in the image, but also as the image the camera returned to him, and to the spectators. This hybrid being that inhabits both universes is another creation of the French filmmaker and one of his most notable contributions to modern cinema.
The Coming of Digital Video: Ìrene (2005) and Pater (2011)
In Dans l’intimité d’Alain Cavalier (2011), a wonderful small television documentary on the filmmaker, we have a personal approach into the new format Cavalier embraced, the DV or digital video2. Now the hidden language behind the Hi-8 film was to be encoded in the binary system, and Cavalier appropriated the format for two new experiments.
In Ìrene, the filmmaker’s former wife, Ìrene Tunc is brought back to life by the filmmaker. Disappeared 40 years ago in a car accident, Cavalier channels her presence through a 1971 diary he founds between his things. Like a resurrection, Ìrene seems to inhabit every single place the filmmaker films. It’s a double game though, since Cavalier himself seems to call on the spirit of his former lover which in place takes over the whole film. And if in Le Filmeur Cavalier dealt with physical struggle, now his film takes place of a coming to terms with loss. As much as a recreation of a past life, Ìrene is also a film which deals with release and personal freedom from a traumatic event.
The binary system of the digital image, paradoxically deals with a sharpened imaged, less pixelated than before. In this evolution of the filmmaker tool, the filmmaker goes through an evolution himself, since the images he portrays are suddenly more warm and crisp, and convey the sensation of some texture, even if it’s the poor texture of the digital. But Ìrene has little to do with this and more with how Cavalier deals with this long lost memory that comes back to haunt him. It is a beautiful and poetic film, and one of the filmmaker’s overseen masterpieces.
Pater, his latest experiment, is a fictional political drama in which Cavalier again reinvents himself. A kaleidoscope film in which the documentary, the film essay, the film diary and the fiction overlap with each other, it is both one of the most daring and the most underrated of Cavalier films to date. The parallel of the power plays that are present in political life are also present in the “set” of the film, and between the relation of the director with the actors, most of them friends of Cavalier. So this event acts like a two level parody of political life in the intimacy of Cavalier surroundings with his friends, the persistence of the intimate and the political hand to hand, somehow reminiscent (if only in spirit) to Justine Triet’s Battle of Solferino (2013) . Cavalier allows Vincent Lindon, old friend and main character of the film, to be part of this game even by giving him a camera, which he uses to capture Cavalier in his role as president and also as his real role as personal friend, becoming the documented subject. A complex film that deserves further studying.
In creating a new “intimacy of the method”, Cavalier has revealed himself over time as one of the most brave and exciting filmmakers living today, a creator of complex and varied narratives that tries to respond to the eternal question what is cinema.
1 Le Filmmeur, at Cannes Film Festival 2005 http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/4283092/year/2005.html
2 Dans l’intimité d’Alain Cavalier http://www.telerama.fr/cinema/alain-cavalier-jamais-jamais-je-ne-corrige-une-image,48849.php