Programmed alongside features and shorts shown in the international competition at the ‘EntreVues’ film festival in Belfort, now in its 27th year, retrospectives and themed sections have long been a staple of a festival that prides itself in linking emerging filmmakers to the rich history of auteur cinema which has shaped them. One of the themed sections in the 2012 festival, which took place from 24 November to 2 December – ‘Art press: 40 ans de regard’ – was exceptionally curated by art press editor-in-chief Catherine Millet. To mark the 40th anniversary of the influential contemporary art monthly that she co-founded in 1972, Millet was given carte blanche to choose the films she pleased. Her selection of 15 visually ravishing and often sexually explicit films by Catherine Breillat, Bertrand Bonello, Bruno Dumont, Peter Greenaway, João César Monteiro and Pier Paolo Pasolini, among others, was meant to reflect an art magazine’s take on auteur cinema from the 1960s to the present, proved worthy of the author of the best-selling memoir La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M (The Sexual Life of Catherine M, 2001).
In the discussions following some of the screenings and at a roundtable that brought together artists, filmmakers, curators and critics who responded to yet another selection of (this time) brief, artist-made video and film clips, Millet readily admitted to being a visual person. This predominantly visual sensibility comes across in the films she chose, some of which were made by filmmakers who are also painters or artists in their own right. Unsurprisingly, pictorial and art historical references abounded in such films as Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), referencing Christian paintings and sculptures across centuries; in Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), whose candlelit scenes evoke Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour; or in Alain Cuny’s 1991 L’Annonce faite à Marie (The Annunciation of Marie), with its stunning sets and gorgeous costumes designed by Tal Coat. As Millet points out, each take in Cuny’s film (and the same can be said of the other two) could, and indeed should, be viewed as a tableau.
An adaptation of Paul Claudel’s play-poem by the same title, L’Annonce faite à Marie was emblematic of the theatrical, somewhat affected diction that was another recurring feature of the selected films. Jean-Marie Straub’s 15-minute L’Inconsolable (2011), the first film he has made since the death of his partner and collaborator Danièle Huillet in 2006, features two elderly characters sitting in a forest, amid ferns, declaiming lines from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leuco, recounting Orpheus’s loss of Eurydice. In Eugène Green’s Le Pont des Arts (2003), which subtly weaves together the destinies of two young couples with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a backdrop, the slow pace of the delivery is matched by rigidly frontal views of the actors’ faces. The combination is deliberately unrealistic, hieratic, even stilted, in keeping with the rarefied atmosphere of the film, whose protagonist, Sarah, sings in a baroque music ensemble.
A certain baroque sensibility underpinned the heady mixture of ritual, eroticism, death, and aesthetic refinement that permeated these films, perhaps best embodied in critic and poet Monteiro’s A comedia de Deus (1995), which sees the lustful aging manager of an ice-cream parlour, João de Deus – a recurrent figure in Monteiro’s films, played by the film director himself – sexually initiate his apprentice Rosarinho. In their frank and at times graphic depiction of sexuality, many of the selected films conformed to what the magazine’s long-standing film collaborator Dominique Païni aptly labels as ‘pornographic experimentation’, in connection with Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus (1996). Dumont’s award-winning début feature, whose protagonist is subject to occasional bouts of epilepsy and engages in decidedly un-Christ-like behaviour, from copulation to sexual assault to murder, features close-ups of penetration. The same holds true of Catherine Breillat’s first film, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl, 1976), starring Charlotte Alexandra as the bored and sexually precocious teen condemned to spending the summer holidays in her family home. Based on Breillat’s novel Le Soupirail, the film was banned until 1999 on account of its obscene portrayal of Alice’s erotic fantasies.
If we can speak of ‘pornographic experimentation’ in relation to these films, it’s more to do with their transgressive subject matter than with formal experimentation as such – with one notable exception. Jean Eustache’s Une sale histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977) consists of two short films, a fictive and a documentary account, filmed respectively in 35mm and 16mm, in which a man confides to a largely female audience, rapt in concentration, how he became a voyeur after discovering a hidden hole in women’s toilets that offered a direct view of female genitals. Thanks to it, the protagonist comes to realize that there is no obvious equation between the outward appeal of a woman and that of her sexual parts, which in the end is the only thing that matters. In an unprecedented move, the original tale is retold almost word for word in the second, more stylized version, using a cast of professional actors. There is nothing quite like this doubling effect in the history of cinema.
That Millet should evince an interest in all this was hardly surprising given that, by her own admission, La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M. draws on the methods of pornographic films, when it comes to the framing and close-ups of sexual organs in particular. In fact, Jacques Nolot’s La Chatte à deux têtes (Glowing Eyes, 2002), appropriately shown at one of the late screenings which, courtesy of art press, had more than their fair share of X-rated matter, depicts the closed world of a pornographic cinema near the place Clichy, catering to a homosexual clientèle. What Millet particularly admires about the film are its autobiographical elements and the risk-taking involved in publicly baring oneself, no doubt an implicit comment on what she regards as her own achievement in the literary domain. Nothing if not coherent, the choice of films made by art press for the 27th edition of Belfort’s film festival amounted to a self-portrait.