Godard in Venice


A transcription of the entirety of Jean-Luc Godard's press conference for Prénom Carmen at the 1983 Venice Film Festival.

What led you, at the same time as several other international filmmakers, to shoot your version of Carmen?

Jean-Luc Godard: First, the film is not called Carmen. It is called Prénom Carmen and in the film, at one point a series of questions is answered: “What comes before the name?... What is its name?... And, moreover, must it be named?... Must we names things or should things come to you without being named?...”

All these questions, because I think that cinema must show things before we name them: so that we can name them, to help us name them.

Today, we’re in a time where a powerful terrorism of rhetoric and language accentuated by television is being practiced. And so I, as, I don’t know, let’s say a modest cinema employee, I’m interested in seeing things, not before they exist but before we name them: to talk about the child before dad and mom give him a name; to talk about myself before I was named Jean-Luc; to talk... about the sea, about freedom before it is named the sea, wave or freedom.

If it happened that several directors were also making films that are called Carmen, it is maybe because Carmen is a major feminine myth, a major feminine myth that existed only through music. And if the times wanted the media and the audio-visual to grab hold of this myth – since a small independent producer like me as well as a big commercial firm like Gaumont is interested in this feminine character – it is maybe because it’s in the air. But, what is in the air? It may be Carmen, if we’re talking about it... But it may also be either the final fight of women against men or the first...

In fact, I like to deal either with things that are no longer going to exist or things that do not exist yet. From there, the film could be called...it’s true title could be: Before Names, Before Language, with in parentheses: (The Children Play Carmen).

If it’s called Prénom Carmen and not Carmen, it’s because of the originality of the work, in Anne-Marie Miéville’s script and adaptation. Everyone knows the story of Carmen. At the same time, nobody knows what happened between Don José and Carmen, between Joseph and Carmen. We know how it begins. How it is going to end. But how do we go from the beginning to the end? Telling stories is showing what happened. That’s where the big difference lies between the Carmen Rosi is finishing and Saura’s, which are illustrations of a classical theme. What interested us was showing what a man and a woman said to each other under the influence of this image of love that weighs on them. Whether we call this love or their adventure: destiny, love or malediction.

What did they say to each other when they were in a kitchen? What did they say to each other when they were in a car? We don’t know what they said to each other. In my next film, as if by accident, I’m keeping the masculine character of Joseph: his Carmen will be named Marie. Well, what did Joseph and Marie say to each other before having the child? If you’d like, Prénom Carmen is also a preparation for my next film. For me, a film always announces the next one...thanks to the friendship of a co-producer, I’m already announcing the music...and I’m trying to not announce the catastrophes...

Why choose Beethoven and his Quartets when we were expecting Bizet’s music?

I didn’t choose Beethoven. I’d say instead that Beethoven chose me and that I responded to his call. Younger, around twenty – that’s the young age of my characters – I listened to Beethoven. It was next to the sea, in Brittany. And I discovered his Quartets. It’s an accepted idea that Carmen does not exist without music. Hamlet exists without music. Antigone exists without music. Electre exists without music. Not Carmen. Music is part of the story of Carmen. Besides, Mérimée’s novel has never been famous. It only became so once Bizet set it to music.

Bizet is a composer who made music that Nietzsche characterized as “brown.” It was the music of the Mediterranean. Bizet is a southern composer. He is, moreover, very linked to the sea. So I did not choose another music but another sea. The Ocean instead of the Mediterranean.

In fact, my idea in regards to the music is that it was necessary to choose a fundamental music. Music that has marked the history of music. Music that is both the practice and theory of music. This was the case with Beethoven’s Quartets.

I could have also chosen Bach and something like The Well-Tempered Clavier. It’s music that, again, synthesizes the theory and practice of all the music that existed and gave work to future musicians for a hundred or two hundred years. It’s in that sense that I made my choice. Besides, my next film will be conceived with Bach’s music.

Did you feel a need to try acting?

It was to have fun... Yes... To see if one really has fun being an actor. I have always had relationships that are both very tender and very violent with actors or with the crew. But for once I wanted to see myself in front of and not only behind the camera. It was also with the goal of preparing. I want to direct a film where I play the lead role. It would be a bit like in the past with the films of Harry Langdon or a small Jerry Lewis, a character for which you know I have great admiration.

I think that it’s also in the interest of not working my mind alone. I wanted to work my body and my voice.

And then for technical and narrative reasons I thought it was good to play, under my own name, something that was not entirely me, all while being me, so that we believe in the truth a bit: just like we see the musicians, the one inventing the story is part of the story.

Carmen is a love story. Curiously, we never see Maruschka Detmers laughing. That didn’t bother you?

You must not have watched the whole film. Or you sneezed just at the moment when Maruschka was laughing. She was even laughing much too often for me. I had to eliminate laughs in the editing. She laughs often. Three or four times. On other hand, maybe she doesn’t smile. That’s true. But you would have to ask Maruschka why she doesn’t smile. I let the actors do absolutely what they want. I put them in certain conditions. They think it’s going to be easy and they discover that it is rather hard: it’s up to them to save themselves. They told me they knew how to swim. I threw them in the sea and I watched how they swam. That’s my manner of working with actors. Maybe that makes them not smile...

Doesn’t dealing with the theme of love in a film at the moment seem to you something out of fashion?  

I think that in cinema there can only be love stories. With military films, it’s about boys’ love for weapons; with gangster films, it’s about boys’ love for theft... That’s cinema, in my opinion. And that’s what the New Wave brought that was new: Truffaut, Rivette, me and two or three others, we brought something that didn’t exist anymore, maybe, or that had never existed in the history of cinema; we loved cinema before loving women, before loving money, before loving war. Before loving whatever, we loved cinema. For me, I’ve often said that cinema made me discover life. It took a while. It took me thirty years. All that because I had to go beyond, in fact, what I was projecting, myself, on the screen.

There are no films without love. And if today cinema still works on television and it’s even the thing that works best, that’s the reason. There is no love in television. There is something else that is very powerful, both in life and the industry: there’s power in its pure state. If cinema, like sports, works it is because the people who do it, be it Zidi or myself...above all, we love: we need to go towards the screen to go towards others. In life we don’t manage to go towards others. We’re a bit powerless, which is to say we don’t have the power of soldiers or scientists or television people. We recognize ourselves as powerless but that said, we have the desire, the sincerity to go towards, to project, and then we hope...and then others come to meet us. That’s cinema. Cinema is love for oneself, love for life, love for men on the earth... In another way, it is very evangelical. It’s no accident that the screen is white: it is a canvas and it is me. In my next film I would like to take it as such: it’s Veronica’s Veil, it keeps a trace, some traces of the world. There are no films without love, whatever it is. I insist on that. That doesn’t exist.

Isabelle Adjani was supposed to have the role of Carmen. What happened between you and the actress?

It’s true, at the beginning we were supposed to make the film with Isabelle Adjani. I think she was very tired from the two films she had just finished. We went into production. She arrived. And she didn’t think she was pretty. She found that there wasn’t...and then no, I think that she didn’t think she was pretty enough. We did fifteen days of tests and afterwards I think that I fired her at the same time that she fired me. Following that, Alain said “We’re continuing.” We found Maruschka. That’s that.

Doesn’t recording direct sound lead to conflicts of incompatibility with the shot, especially during the shooting of a subject like Prénom Carmen where music occupies a predominant place?    

Since the beginning, meaning since I have been directing films, I have worked this way. We were the first to make films with direct sound. I stopped seeing Italian films when, having shot in Italy, I noticed that they weren’t recording the sound whereas there’s a great Italian musical tradition.

In Prénom Carmen there is no conflict between image and sound. There cannot be any. Quite the contrary. The music is part of the action. I wanted that because I didn’t want it to be like Saura’s Carmen, a literary pretext to show that musicians are playing. Which is to say that if the musicians stop playing, I have no more ideas. When Prokofiev was working with Eisenstein, the battle in Alexander Nevsky was first written as a score. That gave ideas to Eisenstein. He had the score modified. Then they shot.

For example, the idea of the bank robbery came to me while listening to a certain part of the 10th Quartet. As I was thinking that there would be a police aspect in my film, the music made me see that Carmen could belong to a small gang and at that moment the idea came that Don José is a police officer and we return profoundly to the true story of Carmen.

I stand by the originality between sound and me in relationship to other filmmakers because I find that I am, in fact, very original. My work is even, undoubtedly, unique in so far as all my films, since Sauve qui peut (la vie) have only two tracks. I don’t know if you know the technical side, but in general for a film, there are several tracks. When a car arrives, next to the sea, there’s the direct sound, the sound of the car. Then there’s the sound of the actors’ voices: one says, “I love you,” the other responds, “me too” or the opposite, that makes a second track. On a third track we hear the noise of the sea. The sound of the music is on a fourth track. And if we are in the countryside, near a farm, there’s someone who says, “it would be good if we put in a rooster sound,” so we add a rooster and that’s five tracks. Then we place the tracks, beforehand, like in television, and we make them march like soldiers in a parade. We call that the mix.

I’m not against putting in a rooster, if we’re eventually within the proximity of a farm, but with me, all the sounds are regrouped and there is almost no more room on the two sound tracks. I use two tracks because we have two hands. If I had only one hand, I would film with one hand and I would only use one soundtrack. I’m sorry for talking a bit technically but it’s rare with journalists to be able to talk technically...and about art too...

Let’s go back to the relationship between image and sound. For the love scenes, I had asked the crew and the actors to go see Rodin’s sculptures. They refused. That was supposed to give me ideas. They didn’t want to. It wasn’t done... Nevermind that at the moment of shooting those scenes, we were saying: “Oh, we’re going to do the Rodin..." While cutting, myself, and mixing, I rediscovered the idea that I had about Rodin: the image of a sculptor who works with his hands a surface that he digs into. He digs into space, and here musicians would undoubtedly talk about sound space. It interested me to succeed in digging into the sound space. In filming the performers – they were only good performers, but very good, like the actors – I already had a physical feeling for the music. Especially with the violin. At times it gives the impression of digging. At those moments, you look for and find connections. After an image of the violin digging into the sound, what must be shown as the image? An image of the sea must come to mind. With hollows, highs and lows. If you have an idea about high and low, you find a story where there are two characters who are going to know highs and lows. Everything is linked. Logically. Completely. That’s cinema. There are is no invention in cinema. We can only look and try to organize what we’ve seen...if we have been able to see.

Aren’t you generalizing a bit with Italian cinema?

The only one who did sound in Italy is Nino Rota. There’s nobody else.

Many young filmmakers reference you. What’s the Godard style for you?

Godard has no style. He wants to make films, that’s all. If I’ve been able to influence young filmmakers who are a bit my children or my brothers or who were my parents before I began, it’s by showing them that a film is always something possible; that a film can be made without money. When one has a lot, one can make one too, but differently than Americans, Russians or television do it today. In fact, my process has always involved going to the side, being marginal, in the margin. I’m in the place of the audience who is watching. Being marginal is occupying the audience’s position.

A notebook doesn’t exist without margins. The margin is a necessary place.

I’m beginning to understand today all of the power of television. Twenty years from now, I won’t even have the right to pretend to have a place sweeping at RAI. They’ll refuse me even that. So I have to save myself. Likewise, I’m looking for characters who are interested in saving themselves. If these are Palestinians, these are Palestinians: I’m not forced to go see them, I can try to listen to them... If it’s a musician, it’s a musician... If it’s Picasso, it’s Picasso... If it’s an unknown, it’s an unknown... If...

I’m also now appreciating what must have been the drama of certain directors like Keaton – who fell – like Chaplin – who took time falling – like others who picked themselves up, when talkies appeared. At that time, cinema was a major and authentic popular art. That’s my idea and I’m preparing a history of cinema in collaboration with channel 4, in France, where we’ll try to show that, in fact, cinema, with all the cultural forces it put into play, was unique.

Painting never knew this. Goya was seen by few people. Beethoven was not heard much. There wasn’t like today with technology, 60,000 people who listened to Beethoven every morning. Those things were made for princes. Cinema, however, was immediately seen by 100 people at the Grand Café. And then it was a phenomenon of inflation. It met with a true popular anchorage: whether it was intentional or not, whether it was for reasons of money or not. Birth of a Nation was made for money reasons, to make some dough, even if Griffith had other reasons, and ultimately the reasons were shared democratically.

Talking cinema – speech – appeared at a time of unemployment in the US during which Roosevelt took power and during this time, in Germany, Hitler was beginning to take hold of power as well, meaning of speech. But it wasn’t about the true speech of philosophers, or even of lovers’ words of love. It was the speech of people in power; speech that today has been installed through technology, in television. As a result, there are no more images today and we don’t read anymore.

Jean-Pierre Gorin, during the time I was working with him, told me: “We don’t see films anymore, we read them.” And it’s for this reason that round tables where people – sincere and intelligent as they are – talk, aren’t very interesting. They talk without the object. It’s like parents talking about the happiness of their children without trying to see with them if they prefer a bike, candy or a bank account... How can they pretend to understand?

I, who was interested in new technologies before they had a certain order, a certain discipline, I noticed that video, which means “I see,” took hold of speech with the complicity of the crowd of people who desire, precisely, to not see. “What makes it so that in the world, American films are enjoyable?” The question has been asked, I ask it myself, because there must be something true in it. Didn’t an average American film, let’s say the remake of A bout de souffle, tour the world? It was bought everywhere. The people who made it live properly. They have cars, television sets, two bathrooms. It made them money. My films don’t tour the world. I have a big problem reaching people at the right moment. Americans know how to touch the public at four in the afternoon or eight in the evening, on television or with videotapes on which nothing is seen, moreover. That’s a huge force.

A Swedish film doesn’t tour the world either. One from time to time. It’s the same for a Japanese film. As for African films, from North Africa or South Africa, it’s not even worth talking about. People don’t want to see them.

What do we have to recognize in Americans that allows them, like Greek gods in the past, to have the right to accomplish things that men who live on the earth normally don’t have?

What I regret most is that Americans benefit from their situation by dominating instead of allowing a bit of freedom. When I meet a taxi driver who knows my name a little, who tells me: “I didn’t like your last film too much,” I respond: “I don’t like the way you drive too much.” This could be the same thing. It’s just an example. Which doesn’t stop there from being a deep mystery. Which is not ready to be cleared up. Of course, Americans are the last ones who want it to be. Is it a story about dollars?... What makes it so that we trust more in the dollar than in the Italian lira?

Based on the photography in Prénom Carmen, you still use very few lights. Nevertheless your palette seems to have been considerably enriched.      

I’m happy. It’s time to talk about technology. Like all children, I began in primary school with primary colors, with everything that is primary. I filmed idiots, or people that were called idiots, who, however, for me, were not idiots. Now, I feel like I’m entering, and it’s normal at fifty, into secondary school.

For me, the camera is not a gun, it is not something you fire. It’s an instrument that receives, thanks to light. It is for this reason that in the opening credits, equally, you will see that the film’s photography is signed by three people. Me, who said “we’re filming this,” Coutard next who still manages today, when he hadn’t shot too much of SAS before, to accept – while all the other cameramen refuse – working without lights, while still thinking what he’s doing is interesting. He accepts thinking that light filtering through a curtain is not the same as light entering through a door. He tries thinking about this and we see together if we reconstitute it or not. Finally, the third character, who has always been a friend, Kodak. I prefer it to Fuji, and for once I put it in the credits. Which doesn’t prevent me from thinking that the Japanese are right to shoot on Fuji. Besides, it’s time that Africa invented its colors because in television and cinema the white or grey level is done but it is in relation to white skin, never in relation to the somewhat muted skin of the Japanese, somewhat yellow of Eskimos or black of black people.

Black and white are the most delicate colors. Here, we tried mixing them. But it’s still a problem for labs who are obsessed with the television-image.

As I was telling you, there is lighting, very little, but there is no light. That’s what scared Adjani. Like all stars, she thinks that lots of lighting, lots of spotlights assures a better rendering of her beauty. She didn’t manage to see that daylight, corrected a little – because now I correct it, I don’t accept it raw – could also ensure her beauty.

In Prénom Carmen, we tried constantly to mix the light in the shots, artificial light and daylight. We tried to have on the right what we see at the end, so yellowish light, candlelight, like in church, and on the left, daylight, so bluish light. All that in order to obtain a constant mixture of hot and cold corresponding to the film’s climate. In sum, we have a super classical film. We rediscover constantly in the photography, the hot and cold that Carmen expresses in her emotions. From this point of view, it was relatively polished.

What is a producer for Jean-Luc Godard?

A producer like myself...

Listening to you talk about television, one might think that cinema has entered a twilight phase.

No, not at all. When we say this called the dawn, it isn’t necessary to make us say that this is called dusk. Basically, I have in mind a notion of dusk. But aren’t the most beautiful walks often taken at nightfall when there’s hope for tomorrow? Lovers rarely walk hand in hand at seven in the morning. In general, they wait for seven in the evening. To my eyes, dusk carries hope rather than despair. I’m beginning to find something beautiful and very human in films that gives me the desire to make them until my death. And I think that I will probably die at the same time as cinema, such as it invented itself.

Cinema is neither painting, music or dance. It’s something that has to do with the reproduction of men and women’s movements. It can no longer last the way it was invented. Already television is has something else to do. The existence of cinema cannot exceed, more or less, the length of a human life: between eighty and hundred and twenty years. It’s something that will have been fleeting, ephemeral.

Now, we don’t see films anymore. We stock them on videotapes. But the more we buy tapes, the less time we have to watch them. We stock up more than we can eat. That’s not a film. It’s ephemeral. It lasted, moments. And I who lived through this period completely, whose parents knew the beginning, I’m going to extend your remark by saying: “It’s terrible, but what are we going to become?”

Originally published in Cinématographe, no. 95, December 1983.
"And even then King did not think of his work as complete. In 1921 he personally toured Tol'able David, presenting the film in different parts of the country. In 1936 King devoted time to marketing The Country Doctor, taking it to exchanges across the country and to studio-arranged meetings with key exhibitors. When Zanuck wondered why he was doing this, King replied that it was all part of the service. Zanuck was so impressed that he raised his salary $25,000 a year--at a time when a single-engine private plane cost $9,000.

For King such work was play. And play it is if one recalls that in English and German, to play is to imitate an action, and thus games and drama may be linked as an imitation of life. King worked a 12-hour day, was on set at 7:00 a.m., rarely sat down, and delighted in his vocation. He never tired of the constant challenge:

To make a picture, you work for months preparing a story, going into business, getting a crew, getting a staff, getting sets built, doing research. You complete the picture--you edit it--you preview it--you're out of business. Now you start over and go into an entirely new business. You have only the experience and judgement gained from past performances. You can't use anything... from this past picture. You can't use the same technique or anything else because it doesn't fit--like trying to wear another man's clothes."

Walter Coppedge, Henry King's America, 1986





Along with this I still have this absurdity of being foreign, noble, an orphan, of living in a castle lost in the countryside, and I am in the hands of a great, hypochondriac lord who looks like Chateaubriand’s father. What do you want me to do about it? Did I choose this place? I hate it.
Dialogue d'ombres
(Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, 1954-2013)

Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, 1956)

The Number Two
by Luc Moullet

I can see what first attracted Buñuel’s attention in [José-André] Lacour’s novel: a “non-conformist” tone pushed to madness. “He was undoubtedly encouraged by a certain hunger to destroy, to destroy for nothing, for the insult that it throws in the face of things, and less so by a penchant to create and to love that had no outlet other than in a certain pain inflicted on beings and things and by which, surely without him realizing it, he again became the accomplice, the neighbor, the brother of things and beings…” (readers will appreciate this). There are also the points against governments and societies, against religion and the clergy and, finally, this association of men brought together by chance and who, enemies in the past, rediscover in the heart of nature the meaning of human solidarity, the ideal of all atheism-based thought.

Buñuel’s metaphysics is a metaphysics of ambiguity and complexity, but this complexity finds the ideal material of its expression in what is most opposed to it – the satisfied certainty of the bourgeois, of the clergy (Susana, El, The Criminal Life of Archibald de la Cruz) or of anarcho-atheists (L’âge d’or, That is the Dawn, Death in the Garden). The betrayal of the words of the novel is accompanied by a betrayal of the spirit, meaning by a “de-mythification.” The values preached in the book are demolished here. They are the reflection of a certain impartiality before events and the goal of Buñuel’s work is the search for a greater truth, of an absolute that, once attained, consequently finds itself destroyed. An event never has a meaning that the human mind can conceive: El is the living confirmation of this, there is not a single scene in the film whose importance we can specify without being mistaken and, if we formulate an opinion, the following fact will undoubtedly contradict it. In Buñuel’s films, the truth is the juxtaposition of an opinion and its opposite, an action and its opposite, a thought and its opposite, an attitude and its opposite.

Death in the Garden is in the same vein: there is no social critique here, criticism is impossible in this work where each shot orders us: “Do not judge because you don’t have the possibility or the right;” the governors of Cuchazo are both dictators and weaklings, murderers and cowards, but are they not right to forbid all private prospecting? Nationalized prospecting would make the natives wealthy – more admirable than these upstarts who have no other ambition than filling their pockets before going back home. There's a stunning scene when the machine gun platoon charges the inoffensive mass of cowardly workers and moves out of the way to let its most dangerous enemy, Chark, pass by! Castin, this mediocre fellow, in love with a prostitute, spending all his time in church, is no less complex than his companions, Djin and Tito Jonco, amateur double dealers; as for Padre Fernandez, his character evokes not so much Breton, Sade, Artaud or Claudel as Bernanos. The Spaniard who spent ten years of his life with the Jesuits is deeply attentive to religion but he does not allow for the idea of Providence. Every time our priest sets to predicting the future or giving his word, he finds himself contradicted by the facts. But Buñuel has particular fun showing us the incompatibility between the divine and the human. The first duty of a Christian is to help his fellow humans and save them from death; as no plant in the jungle can burn, the priest resolves to tear some pages from his missal, though his first duty as a priest is to respect the Holy Book. The boa constrictor having been devoured by ants, he calmly puts the torn pages back in their place. But he gives the chalice to those who are thirsty. The Padre seems to act like every good Christian should but his behavior puts him at odds with the theory he professes. Take the scene where he tries convincing Castin to give himself up to the police. Castin responds: “It’s an innocent man who’d give himself up.” A few minutes later, he is forced to make the villagers who have broken into Djin’s house believe that he was the one who needed the prostitute’s care. “He’ll understand what it means to be innocent and to pretend to be guilty,” lets out Djin. As for the old myth about human solidarity far from the social world, it appears even more ambiguous: Castin, Djin, Maria, Chark and the Padre are only brought together because their union is their only chance for survival. That’s no joke – the final massacre and the dissensions after the plane’s discovery are proof of it. But why does Chark backtrack to bring food to his famished companions? He could have left them forever without it costing him anything.

The unusual is only a subtle form of ambiguity, both are extensions of the same origin, the components of Buñuel’s universe: man cannot know the truth because it is always beyond his grasp. Ambiguity, duality as well as the unusual, and the extraordinary are by definition what we feel without managing to explain them. Surrealism only added to the bourgeois and Jesuit influences that marked Buñuel’s early years, drawing his attention to things of this world that go beyond the limits of what is rational, to the point that he was forced to conclude that there are no others. This aesthete’s attitude becomes in Buñuel work – and in his work alone – a vision of the world, adapted in every way to the reality that justifies it: Land Without Bread is the most typical example of this surrealist neo-realism. Love of the bizarre is not an aesthetic attitude but the natural way of acting with a knowledge of the world and a generous appreciation of what it contains. “I find that there is no better means of expression than cinema to show us a reality that touches us directly everyday.”

There is nothing cheerful or flattering about this universe. But the pessimism is not arbitrary, Buñuel likes his neighbors, like every major filmmaker: his bitterness is linked to his complete impartiality which forces him to accept a tragic idea of the world. To François Truffaut who, very correctly, said to him, “You like to disturb to the point that we could almost tell you that you do films the way Gide does novels: to unsettle,” he responds: “I force myself to do nothing disgraceful or reassuring. We must not make people think that everything is for the best in the best of worlds. We don’t have to break everything and make subversive films but I would like Bread, Love and Dreams better with a few less dreams and bit less optimism.” Buñuel’s temperament is marked by a fundamental honesty. He recognizes the authority of the material edifice over man’s soul but, rather than delighting in it, he lets out a cry of pain. Isn’t the rooster at the end of The Brute the living symbol of a universe that is foreign to us? The animal theme that we find again in The Brute as well as in Death in the Garden (the stunning fauna in the jungle, the boa constrictor, the cat, the plane, etc.) and all the other Mexican and French films is charged with a terrible meaning. The animal – a soulless being that strolls through events and things of the universe without understanding anything – singularly recalls the contradictions of our own existence. A pessimist, for sure, but Buñuel is not just that: the danger is wanting to ignore our own insufficiency, palliating it with a comfortable theory, the work of the intellect, on which we can rest easy; faced with this hypocrisy, he proposes the recognition of our own state and bases our grandeur on our weakness; we must know how to live our lives and construct them on perceptible facts. 

Originally published as Le chiffre deux in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 56, November 1956

Life Hesitates at 40 (Charley Chase, 1935)
I wanted to shoot in a city that I knew, where I'd lived. I don't entirely agree when people say: you have to see a city with the eyes of someone who is arriving for the first time. Instead, you have to see it with the eyes of someone who leaves his house everyday and impose that on the audience from the start. This is found in the films I love. It's a bit to illustrate and defend this cinema that I loved that I took this stance. Even if it takes an hour to adjust, a city must be shown in a certain way. Aside from people from Narbonne, everyone must be surprised.

– Jean Eustache on Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus

Secret Défense (Rivette, 1997)

Secret Défense: Small Trafficking in Death
Claire Vassé

After a foray into musical comedy, with the intersecting adventures of three Parisian girls in Haut, bas, fragile, Jacques Rivette now guides Sandrine Bonnaire between the countryside and Paris, but a Paris that is distinctly less playful, closer to the Paris of Paris nous appartient. Without a single note of music – aside from the credits – or dancing, Secret Défense is a film in which the weight and movements of the bodies are all the more realistic for constituting an essential part of the film. For the most beautiful scenes are perhaps the trips on the subway (one of which is filmed in real time) and train that allow Rivette to prove once again that he is the master of prolonging time. This is not to say he is a filmmaker of time: Rivette is above all a director of space, and this latest film affirms so, ostensibly in a somewhat diversionary manner, but ultimately quite neatly.

If the essence of Rivette’s cinema is not time, it is, first, because the films lack a notion of irreversibility that alone affords time its true substance, permeated by tragedy and death. The director of Céline et Julie vont en bateau prefers to shift back and forth between dreams and reality, envisaging life as a vast, endlessly restarting Game of the Goose, like so many mysteries whose resolution remains suspended. Just as Ida in Haut, bas, fragile, is running away from her rediscovered origins, Rivette is running away from the how and why, preferring to suspend time than to complete it with a conclusion that would herald death – or at least give  a foretaste of it.

Curiously, though, Secret Défense defies these characteristics, ending instead in the most definitive manner possible: the death of Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire), the mystery having been cleared up. “Paris bores me,” the character of Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) says at one point; and these words could be understood as a direct echo of the filmmaker’s first feature, a kind of confession of weariness from someone who has always wanted to understand the world as an immense game in order to preserve its inconsistency and labyrinthine mysteries. But this may be jumping the gun: if Rivette’s latest film appears to be more linear and more conclusive, it is not without a spirit of twists and turns that strives to deviate from the path, the better to make it go in circles.

The first diversion requires the application of the film’s own mise en scène to resolve the mystery: a story about body trafficking, that of Sylvie’s sister, Elisabeth, whom her father sold to satisfy sordid professional ambitions. And the traffic of bodies is Rivette’s main business more than ever. Rivette is just as happy contriving their intersections and reappearances in his giant, playful race, as he is having them pass away, so that they can be simply and purely interchanged with one another. This is explicitly the case with Ludivine (Laure Marsac), the twin sister of Véro, who appears after the latter’s death and takes her place in the bed of her lover Walser. Trafficking bodies in a way, Rivette tries out roles, movements, behaviors and clothes on the same actress, just like Walser, the director’s alter ego, when he hides Ludivine in the shadows so that he can better orchestrate the surprise of Sylvie discovering her; and so that he can better test her nerves, a matter of experimenting how the surprise will affect her exhausted body as it bends the tiniest bit. More metaphorically, bodies are interchanged by fulfilling tasks that were not initially their responsibility: Walser killed Sylvie’s father so that her mother did not have to,* and Sylvie tells her brother, who wants to kill Walser, “I have to do to do it in your place.” As for the film’s two murders, they also happen to concern bodies being substituted for one another: those of Véro and Sylvie, blocking Walser’s body, the only one actually being targeted.

Secret Défense sticks clearly to its refusal to represent the past, leaving all tangible signs of other temporal layers to the background: photos and the children of the servant Marthe, the symbol of a new generation, that we only glimpse. The film takes place, moreover, over seven days, ending on the day it begins, closing the loop clearly as it ends on the murder of Sylvie by Ludivine, the twin sister of Véro who was killed a few days earlier by Sylvie. In a sense, Rivette is inviting us to a circling dance of death, but one that is in a certain way contested, the murdered body rising to the surface to take revenge on the murderer.

“Rising to the surface” is in fact the major subject of the film, which continually reduces questions of time and death to questions of spatial configuration, as in the case of Véro’s murder. The only difficulty it seems to cause Walser is that the body, which he gets rid of by throwing it into a river, does not “rise to the surface.” The time of the dead, then, is fixed to a space. In this regard, the real-time filming of a scene of travel that is actually about retracing one’s steps is emblematic, as if time could have little sway over a space that eschews time altogether by moving in an endless circle. The association of space with time in order to counter the influence of the latter is, moreover, the most significant maneuver Secret Défense makes to counter the march of time – or rather, to counter the figure of death. When Sylvie finds herself at risk of falling into the depths of the past by looking at a painting of a Middle Ages landscape, she is rudely brought to her senses by the surrounding space, which is made apparent by  the noise of her brother Paul’s motorcycle arriving at the estate. And the past relative to Elisabeth is also put into relation with the space since, above all, it is initially her bedroom that Sylvie mentions to start the conversation about her with Marthe. As for Ludivine, she does not want “to follow the same path as her sister,” that is, by dying. Here again, death is expressed in terms of space, which is, in a way, a compensatory equivalent to the time that is slipping away. “I drove fast to catch the lost time,” Walser explains to Sylvie when he tells her about the circumstances of her father’s murder. As though this spatialization of time was a way of circumscribing death in a territory, of containing it within limits.

If death is present in Secret Défense, it is, curiously, because it is missing, placed at the center of the film only then to be constantly denied by Rivette. This incapacity to stage death gives way, moreover, to one of the most beautiful moments in the film: Sylvie and Ludivine are in the estate’s garden, and Sylvie wants to confess to her that her sister is dead. Very quickly, the scene turns into a confrontation, Ludivine reproaching Sylvie for “her superior airs” of someone who knows more than the others. Of course Sylvie knows more than she is saying but, in Rivette’s universe, death is not spoken, its experience is not communicated. Nobody is qualified to talk about it, not even Rivette, whose complex relationship to aging is expressed by Sylvie's nightmare, imagining that she meets her sister fifteen years after her death, and that her sister hasn’t aged but nevertheless is still the oldest. Despite her position as the oldest, she agrees to play with Sylvie, who ends up suddenly noticing that she is alone, then wakes up. This way of wanting to deny time – or at least of distorting it to try to reduce its fatal effects – is what is at play in Secret Défense.

Rivette’s mise en scène is euphemistic. It makes death a simple desertion of space and not of time. Paradoxically, the weight of death only gains more importance because there is a downside: a simple absence carries the seed of the eventuality of death. The sound work bears witness to this underlying anguish about spatial separation: voices on the phone are in no way muted—a way of attenuating distance, or in fact, of refusing it altogether. But death only becomes more haunting. These voices that echo with such abnormal loudness are voices coming from nowhere, voices of ghosts that float, like Sylvie’s body, which refuses to give way to the desire of her lover Jules to “finally have a moment together.”

As if by a boomerang effect, the death that one wants to push off into space ends up invading the entire film. Rivette is not a filmmaker of time, he does not film “death at work,” but bodies and spaces that traffic in death and lead the spectator on a wandering journey that is both fascinating and enchanting.

*The dialogue between Sylvie and her mother Geneviève is explicit in this regard. When Sylvie asks her why Walser killed her father, Geneviève responds: “For me.” To which Sylvie replies: “You mean: in your place.”

Originally published in Positif, no. 446, April 1998
Translation by Ted Fendt