Copyright © 2012 by James Clark
Henri-Georges Clouzot was a most peculiar filmmaker who endured a most peculiar tenure. From out of an early career as a screenwriter and screenplay refurbisher, his full-scale productions strike me, at least, as written with brilliance and originality, and as attaining to management of mise en scene that is utterly masterful. And yet, what reputation he managed to evoke was that of a flashy entertainer, a French Hitchcock, and butt of disdain from the putative deep guys of the New Wave.
Thereby we are assured by film commentators and historians that in 1959 he was ordered to make a Brigitte Bardot movie and promptly whacked off the screenplay for what came to the public in 1960 as La Verite (Truth). His public image being what it was, no one at that time showed the temerity to credit Clouzot with the kind of fastidious foresight (also, come to think of it, seldom credited) demonstrated by Billy Wilder vis-à-vis Marilyn Monroe, in The Seven-Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
The mundane-saturated emanations of Clouzot and Wilder came to look obsolete in light of the audacious and loudly heralded weirdness of films like Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura and Breathless, all made at exactly the same time as La Vérité. It was apparently impossible to extend to Clouzot any credit for dealing with the same abysmal wildness his younger colleagues played to the hilt. (Fortuitously, a very recent and similarly head-turning film, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, dips into the specific ranges of those revered titles, in order to very overtly reactivate for ongoing consideration the verities contained within the watershed moment of high-octane sensuality. We have a tony [wedding] party from hell—replete with a quickie divorce—[a foregone profit centre for Fellini, Antonioni, Robbe-Grillet and Godard], at a fabulous mansion with stunning grounds [vide Marienbad and all those billionaires’ digs beloved by Fellini and Antonioni]. We have the loveless bride trashing the hosts’ collection of austere and game-changing Suprematist graphics and replacing them with art books showing Renaissance devotional items. We have a rogue planet looming to trash a planet the bride declares to be “evil,” and, in a spate of voodoo physics, also declares to be the only place in the universe with “life.” [“I know these things,” she modestly admits.] Happy to be headed for extinction, she musters a bit of chipper diversion for her sister and the latter’s son, on their well-tended grounds just before the crash. A preamble had shown them at ground zero where compromised gravity endowed all movements with the uncanny reverb their hearts could never elicit. Von Trier thereby posits with maximum [and heavily precedented] panache the blind and deadly plunge of world history [a sidelight of which consists of the droll conceit that official science—predicting a close but harmless encounter—has missed the point]. [The ending of A Serious Man is in this vein.] What he does not powerfully convey are resources on behalf of countering such gracelessness in face of matter’s eerily foreclosing on consciousness. His Dancer in the Dark, a marvellous bit of Demy-revival, does address this more rounded phenomenon; but his Breaking the Waves goes much farther, as I hope to make understandable two weeks from now.
All that aside, a close look at La Vérité can, I hope you’ll come to agree, put into play a frisson every bit as biting as those other works touted for avant-garde stardom. What is more, it can bring us up to speed about currents of human energy implicated in a trial of coherence more sophisticated than those spotlit death spirals winning such overwhelming acclaim. Granted, their sauna-like activation of the equilibrium-site of human sensibility, as suffused with cosmic powers and dangers, increases their range of cinematic and personal excitement. But I think we need from cinema both branches at full flood, and not the consignment to limbo of one deemed to be uncool.
The principal conduit for Clouzot’s filmic tour of the end of a personal history that is far from the end of a world history is Brigitte Bardot’s Dominique, as beleaguered by her own carelessness in dreaming supple dreams in a surround of rigid alertness. Sentimental melodrama though it might be, it possesses extra ingredients disarming attempts to consign it to the usual, disregarded, fate of melodramas. For instance, the opening scene has a nun in severe black garb unlocking the cell doors of a women’s prison (and receiving loud endorsement from an inmate, perhaps in the wrong kind of institution, at the first doorway, who fully opens each door with a jarring crash). One of the other inmates, Dominique, is bound for her murder trial that day and in the cut to that event our eyes are primed to notice that the severe black garb of those at the judiciary bench and of that worn by the advocates for the Prosecution and the Defence collude with the presence of the nun. Proceeding from this undercoat of gloom and dominance, there is the second coat for this mise en scene, in the form of the elaborate, precious and deep-cutting gestures of the Chief Prosecutor, complementing his spoken barbs within the church-like configuration of the court, with its pulpit of professionals displayed to advantage in face of the pew-like seating for those faithful to the saga unfolding by virtue of their superiors. Compellingly linked to such calculatively efficient kinetics are the slashing, piercing, commanding and self-charmed thrusts of the young student of symphonic conducting, Gilbert, seen in flashbacks ignited by the proceedings of the trial concerning his having been murdered by Dominique, whose entanglement in a drama of dominance or power startlingly transcends her Barbie-doll features.
That the trial boils down to bidding for discovery or disproof of the killing’s being a “crime of passion” casts a searchlight beam upon the nature of passion. Whereas the ascetic court (with its jury of ciphers, chosen in the course of inserting chips on a board representing persons acceptable to the advocates) is determined to fix upon one or other of the antithetical absolutes (flaming infatuation or cold-bloodedness), the pulse of this acutely observed drama brings to bear a stunning weave of self-contradictory actions. It frames the dynamics of the narrative thus distributed by a series of physical circumstances displaying vivid simultaneity of ascetic and sensual possibilities. Dominique’s sister, Annie, shown in the first scene as a prim, proper and devoted daughter and apple of her parents’ eye (diametrically distinct from Dominique’s rebelliousness), is also devoted to the fires of music performance on her violin. Gilbert, first encountering Dominique as Annie’s indolent room-mate in Paris, finds her, face-down in bed shaking her bum to a bossa nova beat and quickly declares, “I can’t stand your sort of music.” Though he’s pronouncedly tight-assed throughout, there are moments, particularly when engrossed in conducting “The Firebird,” when even party-doll Dominique feels the enchantment of his devotion to brains-laden productions entailing disciplined will. One of the student/ Left Bank bohemians she links with on bailing out of Annie’s atelier (scene of the budding musician’s constant practicing) with the parting shot, “Happy scraping!” is Michel, a gaunt and gangly chain-smoking, hunched over ascetic at work on a novel. “It’s about life”/ “A big subject”/ “That’s right.” On the other hand, his greatest source of delight is a mobile (d’apres Alexander Calder). Much of the action centers upon the Church of Saint Germaine district, somewhat paradoxically a long-standing pleasure zone and tourist trap. (Within view of the Church is a bar called “La Spoutnik.”)
With such problematic suggestiveness lighting our way, we may discern something different in this film, from a lugubrious account of a victim of the seductiveness of the decadence of modern history. Though the Court and spectators do their utmost to maintain the status quo—the leeway in French jurisprudence for intrusive and abrasive attack upon the accused by the judicial panel greatly accentuating the confrontation—the heavily mined narrative installs a state of emergency for truths taken for granted from the farthest reaches of history. One of the most striking inputs pertaining to this crisis involves the Chief Defence Attorney, at times seriously intent upon countering vicious and cheap opportunism on the part of the Chief Prosecutor. (“The veracity of her feeling [her passion within a skein of crimes of passion] is more important than technical details.”) But ultimately he treats the whole (murderous, as it happens) exercise as an in-group game. On the announcement that Dominique has committed suicide overnight before the final day of the trial, the assistant counsel for the Defence mutters with regard to the Prosecutor who, the day before, had put Dominique through a humiliating re-enactment of her killing Gilbert and unsuccessfully killing herself (due to running out of bullets, and then being resuscitated from gas poisoning), “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.” Her boss quips, “You will be, next week” [when they clash again, this time by way of their taking up the prosecutory role]. During the selection of the jury, we see him with a sketch pad drawing a spider and its web, presumably pertaining to the perils of Dominique at the hands of the Court. This would interpose against the default conclusion that it is sex, drugs and rock and roll which do the damage. Such an isometric standoff seems to call for turning our attention away from the protagonist’s vulnerability—admittedly quite a daunting task in view of her catastrophic state of affairs—and toward her generating a channel of dynamics every bit a match for her seemingly vastly superior adversaries. Amidst a hysterical outburst precipitated by testimony from Annie, she cries out, “You hate me because you’re all dead!” Despite clinging to the gratifying delusion that Gilbert would have remained being nuts about her, copious evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—emboldening her to brag to Annie and to everyone in the Court, “He made love to me thousands of times!”—in her final seconds at an Emergency Ward she posits the far more nuanced realization, “He loved me, but we didn’t love each other at the same time.”
What makes La Vérité such a thrilling film is its sending out ripples of rising to great heights, palpably ensnared in rot from within and without. The main transmitter of this primal drama—beset with self-delusory vigilance on the order of the concierge at Gilbert’s place perversely insisting (against evidence she’s often missing in action) she couldn’t have overlooked Dominique’s having spent the night (before the murder) with him, thus undoing the legal point about no “passion” between them as underlying the crime—is Brigitte Bardot’s physical sensibility, driven by Clouzot so far into the horrific and ongoing odds that she herself attempted suicide after completing a scene from this picture that was far from over. During the vigilante-judge’s lead-off enunciation of the calamitous tendencies of the accused, he cites an instance of her presumably debauched reading habits (getting her expelled from high school), an erotic passage from the novel, The Mandarins (present company excluded, of course), which the Defence Counsel points out to be a Goncourt Prize winner by Simone de Beauvoir. That criss-cross labelling (she also found it “pretty boring”) serves as a logo for the ways of her tits and ass and sensually sublime face as she proceeds through a spectacularly self-indulgent and indolent pilgrimage at the kick-ass Mecca of Paris. Understanding that lurking somewhere (at a bemusingly remote distance) within the default mechanism of promiscuity is a throughway to the contrarian goodies she can almost taste, Dominique becomes a mascot of sorts for a clutch of Left-Bank late adolescent rebels. In their midst is the bovine figure of Daisy (an American student/artist of tenuous concentration), who befriends her and whose quiet generosity acts within the narrative swirl—of a clique with much more time than patience—as an almost indiscernible reproof against the resort to low-key resentment and waywardness that represents the protagonist’s supposed getting down to brass tacks. On that first encounter with Gilbert, she asks him if he’s screwing Annie. “She’s such a square. It might make her nicer.” He replies, “I’m a square, too,” and, though that warmly sensual Bardot smile remains intact, we feel a cold front passing through, kicking up complications in no way prepared for by the smug arbiter of transcending squareness. Square though he may be, soon he too is after the rudiments of her wherewithal. But he had rather pompously urged that he and Annie are about meaningful work on behalf of music, and his being focused in that way (and also being exceptionally handsome) impresses her to the extent that she declares to Daisy, “I felt it should be different with him,” that is, tapping something beyond straightforward plumbing. Her groping toward “different” allows us to begin to appreciate difficulties of love (passion) lurking within her sightline of easy daring.
Though on his first seeing her—in the midst of her little dance to herself… and to joie de vivre—she smiles warmly and tells him, “Come in… I don’t bite…” Dominique comes to the inference, expressed at his first advances, “You’re not my type.” And, having accompanied the perseverance of her party animality, we can discern that she instinctively weighs such interactions with a view to some kind of courage. When Annie shouts, “I’m ashamed of you!” after Gilbert finds that she’s connected to someone of such unacceptable crudity, and then goes on to roar, “That was the last straw!” Dominique angrily snaps back, “You won’t find me here when you come back!” She quickly packs and leaves for good, not simply because her sister sharply looks down on her, but because, as perceived to be a tepid coward, she lacks the credibility to so invade her consciousness. (When priest-like Gilbert—“… one serves music best…”—insists, “We work together…” Dominique sneers, “Oh it must be a riot!”) In Court Annie insists, “We went to publish the banns… He was marrying me…” And Dominique sneers, “… to darn his socks.” Before storming out the door, Dominique levelled the parting shot, in response to Gilbert’s sounding like her Daddy (he of the town she had nailed as “dreary”)—“There’s more to life than fooling around”—“Enough of your high principles! You were made for each other!” Moreover, she immediately targets his shopping for her, as fast food, to be wrong from any angle. “It doesn’t suit him.” And yet he has introduced something into her life that she has to pursue. “You’re a stuffed shirt but…” On his waiting for her all night, down the street from the Odeon Theatre, home of La Comédie Française, due to her racing off as a passenger on a hot motorcycle, he bundles her into a taxi, they’re together in the organ loft of the church where he works as musical accompanist for weddings, he calls her a slut and hits a discordant chord and she counters with, “You want to be added to the list? Then it’ll be over!” In the soft darkness of her bed, in the aftermath of the addition, we have something the complexity of which very surprisingly, but not improbably, coheres with the Odeon at its best—a few seconds of honest passion. “I’d never have believed it,” she says. “Me neither,” he concurs. From there, she’s delightedly watching him rehearse a student orchestra at the Conservatory, a performance which his mentor kindly describes as “still a little tense.” But Dominique already was fully apprised that he was a “stuffed shirt;” she was willing to take a chance on the pulse of creativity his stuffiness had embraced. He quickly moves on to grasp a windfall of directing a novelty-act student orchestra as a show-biz phenomenon (“The Firebird” being its big number); and she—hearing him say, in the full flush of his success, “I feel at home here… I can breathe… We’ll get married…” only to be puzzled by his crazy conventionality and his self-importance, and infuriated by his insistence they stay home every night while he works toward stardom (“I’ve got a life! I need friends, dancing…”)—no longer receiving funds from disgusted parents, finds work as a coat check girl and decorative asset at the Spoutnik. Gilbert worries and fumes, “I’ve fallen behind in my work!… Who were you with the past three days?… You slut!… I forbid you to accept [the job at outer space].” She calls back from the enormous distance: “Earning money without getting up early… It’s terrific!” She does some dancing to the juke box, and with her ample form and streams of blonde hair she channels Fellini’s Anita, making the irate lover a double-ridiculous Tarzan. The magic truly dies apropos of the commander of Spoutnik frequently driving her home and then eventually to a hotel in Montmartre, scene of a much earlier bid to transcend the “dreary.” As this skirmishing leaves her increasingly adrift, she regards herself in Michel’s mirror and unhappily poeticizes, “From girl to hag… [from sensualist to ascetic].”
During his testimony at the trial, Michel insisted, against the pseudo-church’s Gilbert love-in, “He kept her in purdah.” The forum from which that unwelcome critique surfaced proves to be a factory stamping out gratifyingly antiquated fictions about the dimensions and shelf-life of passion. Consequently, the denouement sets in relief a violent upheaval between someone burning out due to heartfelt though inconstant devotion to the punishing weight of joie de vivre and a poseur of devotion to verve (ultimately too hot for him to handle), an ally of Annie, who, during Dominique’s blow-up with her father about moving to Paris with her conventionally-connected sister, leaving her not quite fatally overdosed, offers the top-girl homily, “You’d have got your way if you played your cards right.” To be sure, Dominique had never got the hang of that profitable deception in the service of tranquility, born of enticing (rich-beyond-their ken) ciphers beyond their comfort zone. (Her crude directness shows up at the first scene where the nun gently addresses her, “You’ve a hard day ahead of you” and all she can say is, “Go to hell!”) With Gilbert impressing upon her what a pest she’s become—“You don’t love me…”/ “I think I never did…”—and mocking her bid to shoot herself in the throat, describing flashy and machine-like volleys as if he were on the podium going for a big climax (or, much more unique, a triumph of harmonics), Dominique’s violated last shreds of striving for luminous power give him a climax he’d never taken into account. Though in testimony she would maintain that their affair was a torrent of deep mutual affection, the crime she committed comes to us, by virtue of Clouzot’s laser into the full course of intent, as a paroxysm of impassioned resentment toward the hand she has had to play, the shabbiness of the talent pool she chose to bank upon. (In the final row with Annie, she marvels bitterly, “All for that pompous fool?!”) Though her management of the passion of love was second rate (a “crime”)—she remarks in her final coma, “I’ve always been in the wrong…”—the camera has shown that her many, seemingly better-prepared adversaries and few friends would come in at an even lower level.
This film is not simply a depiction of a trial, but an arena for another trial, that of an audience’s passing judgment upon the film itself. Whereas Clouzot has deftly exposed the incompetence of the legal beagles and those showing up to applaud their infirmity (the Press Corps’ fandom for the Chief Prosecutor is a neat bit of bloodletting), in light of the energies having been broached there, his entire presentation to the public comes to stand before us as expecting little better from filmgoers than what Dominique received from presumably competent stalwarts. As such, he joins at quite an early date a process of modern cinema that gains an extra dimension of verve for being essentially incomprehensible in its urgency. This is a state of affairs invisibly weighing upon the whole endeavor and experience of contemporary film art, and particularly salient to participants of film forums. It devolves to a fascinating and disconcerting level of violence—not only on the part of audiences feeling overdosed by the uncanny injections but also on the part of prickly (to say the least) auteurs like Lars von Trier (putting to us [with provisos] a death star for a terminal species) and the Coens (doing a Manson Gang [also with provisos] on their Jewish homestead and, by extension, all of classical rational culture).
A symptom of the widespread and inchoate duress felt within this sector is there for all to see (granted access to an obscure vehicle) in the posthumous pastiche (L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot, by Serge Bromberg) concerning Clouzot’s unfinished film, L’Enfer (Hell), abortively produced in 1964, but not prepared for the public until 2009. Granted a lavish budget by Columbia Pictures, the director dying to shine—shooting was halted when he suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack—set up a mini-NASA in order to evoke, by technical innovation in optics and the like, not simply uncanny confluences between human entities and their settings, but noticeably more powerful frissons than those wows coming out of Fellini and Antonioni pictures. Caught up in such an arms race and with cumbersome means—three separate filming teams, for example—Clouzot became paralyzed with over-writing, over-planning and such multiple takes that his leading man abandoned ship. The premise of Hell was very similar to the jealousy motif of Quai des Orfèvres; but whereas the latter was suffused with a masterful touch, the new work was riddled with incertitude, overreaching and heavy-handed hostility leading him to abandon the genius that Godard and Truffaut didn’t like and whose critiques he didn’t have the self-mastery to neglect and the wit to enjoy, they being small grains of sand in a desert of impasse with its own peculiar beauty.
Woman in the Dunes was produced on a budget of $100,000 and propelled by sheer panache of camerawork, mise en scene, performance and screenwriting. Teshigahara—probably always more comfortable with flower-work, anyway—though sporting a wicked, covert wit, gives us in our time of high tension a film instinctively at home with being ignored, but still contributing greatly.