By Victor Bruno
What follows is severe.
There are many ways to touch God—I have no doubt about it. And by God one has to understand that I mean Nature, Earth, feelings—in short, anything that makes a man remember that he is nothing more than that: a mortal object. Something that once was born, and now is growing and some time, sooner or later, will cease to exist.
Henceforth, I have chosen two films by Jean-Marie Straub to make talk about: Le genou d’Artémide and Le streghe, femmes entre elles. With this piece I have no intention other than just talk about the moment someone has a snap and notices that sometime this person will die. And when you die, you are immortal, because you turn to be a living matter in the memory of those who you knew and lived with. If this seems to be too substantial and has no contact whatsoever with Straub’s work or cinema as a whole… well, if you’re thinking that way, it’s time to reconsider the very concept of cinema.
The way of the body
Let’s first ask: what is cinema? Or rather: what is the power of cinema? Cinema has the whole power of the world. Rohmer said, “The art of cinema takes us back”[i], but it can also truly take us forward. Few filmmakers—and by them I’m thinking of Blake Edwards, Werner Herzog, Manoel de Oliveira, King Vidor, Budd Boetticher, Rogério Sganzerla and the beloved John Ford—had the capability of take us forward. The great filmmaker projects his feelings to the past to make the audience think about his own future.
These two films, Artémide and Le strenghe are Straub’s look to the past. Of course, in every film Straub made he is looking to the past. The most obvious is Not Reconciled. But in these films, his look is the same of a historian. He is trying to understand the way of the humanity this great mass of bodies, souls, ides and, most importantly, acts. A film by Straub is made out of acts. No act, no picture. Because the nature of taking photographs of people is that of capture the act when it happens. (More on acts later on.)
But what separates the look to the past of, say, Moses und Aron to the look to the past of these two films? Simple: what is being looked at. And in these two films what is being looked at is clear: Straub’s own past. Straub is looking at Danièle Huillet.
Is it correct to interpret a film based on the personal life of its author? Perhaps not. But it is all a matter of interpretation. When you see a film, you’re the author of the film as much as the filmmaker with the name in the credits. And in my film, Straub is being hopelessly romantic. This romantic approach to act of cinema—so biased in nostalgia—makes Straub thing about his place in the world. This mortal body at work. In these two films, Straub is trying to make an impression. He is no longer making this severe judgment, this audacious adaptation of the Biblical reality, of the worker’s reality (another way to make an adaptation of the Biblical reality, because the Bible = the man; the man is the true face of God). No, he is not doing that anymore. Straub is a fan of The Long Gray Line: he is making what Ford chronicled in that film. With the work, spending his last years on Earth working with love and body, he tries to reach immortality. The body will no longer be a body: he will be transformed into something else. Into memory.
The way of the word
— The mortal man, Leucò, has only it of immortal: the memory he carries and the memory he left behind. Names and words, that’s all they are. Facing memory they even smile. Lazy!
— Circe! You’re saying words too!
— I know my destiny, Leucò. Don’t be afraid.
It’s of common sense to say that when a film is based more in words than in images, the filmmaker is putting more weight in words, so the images are of less importance. To me, only a fool could say that. Few filmmakers are so rigorous than the already quoted Manoel de Oliveira, and few filmmakers has such a faith in the image than same Oliveira. It is just a matter of logic: supposing I am a good filmmaker, if I am careful with the words, the image is a complement of them. Or rather the reverse.
Truly the reverse.
Both Le genou d’Artémide and Le strenghe feature a tone covered with slime. In the latter, the stone is prominent. I have no information if both films were shot in the same place, but that is the very kind of thing that is not left by chance. Both films are rigid, both films have cuts in precise places. Both films are framed with care.
What happens is that cinema is the convergence of the arts, and Straub works in that fashion. If his characters adopt for most of the film the same pose, moving only in determined phrases and words is because he is evoking sculptures. Not that the characters are models, but because they are things from the past, with all the weight of time (with its advantages and disadvantages) over their shoulders. If the film has rigid framing, it is because Straub is evoking paintings. If it has a lot of words… it’s because we say a lot of it. Let’s not forget that the invention of sound in the motion picture art was only a matter of time.
You see, to speak about Straub is to remember. It is to accept.
But on the other with this “rigid” thing, it is important to know that in Straub, the Butterfly of Griffith makes its presence. As I said, Straub films acts. He films gestures, heads rolling, eyes blinking… but he makes divisions. A character, like in Artémide, is divided because he is confined in the back of the frame, cantilevered on a tree. This is invisible, but is natural, and it is there. We notice what he does, because we see the ambience. And he is part of it. Or, more explicit, in Femmes entre elles, they’re divided because one is in the left, other is in the right.
Straub is always aware of things. He is the filmmaker of the sun. The fact he films with diegetic sound has influence in the image. A sound is never repeated twice. When the camera cuts, together goes the sound. So everything changes. The nature changes. Half of the frame may be in blinding sun. And Straub is aware of that. The blinding sun is exactly in the half of the frame that belongs to someone who knows her fate. A goddess that knows she no longer will be a goddess. And you see butterflies (those of Griffith?) that seem to be forever there.
And what about Straub? Well, he keeps trying to be a god. He tries to reconnect. And by doing that he makes love letters. And that is personal. That is truthful. He tries, in short, to be subjective. And as Kierkegaard says, the eternal happiness goes to those who try to be subjective. And brings us tears of joy. At least to me.
[i] Eric Rohmer in Pascal Bonitzer, “New Interview with Eric Rohmer”, Senses of Cinema 54, April 2010.