‘He was the only man I had been waiting for.’ Monsieur Artaud and Monsieur Prevel

By Patricia Duncker

Vertigo Personal Choice
En Compagnie d’Antonin Artaud

A film by Gerard Mordillat
France 1993 / 90 mins

This is an utterly engrossing film. The material is not promising. Two writers, one off his head, the other stony broke, marching briskly round an atmospheric post-war Paris, all filmed in grainy black and white. Women have walk-on-undress parts as conscientious, bitchy bourgeois wives, wearing black petticoats and taking off their stockings, very, very slowly, or as dopehead bimbos who peel off their cling-film slacks rather more rapidly. The men are represented as monsters of egotism and selfishness. All the Really Big Clichés are fully operational. The writer must be in revolt against all social conformity. He (sic) spends his time writing in cafés or writing in bed, when not fucking the wife (by now pregnant, resentful) or the obligatory, skinny mistress. He lives for art. He is a genius. He is misunderstood. He is misjudged and rejected by evil, fat literary editors, who sit in offices like dentists or lawyers and are bad at spotting genius. Or, as Artaud points out, are good at deliberately suppressing poets with promise. And so the writer’s suffering is without limits, without end. He takes drugs. He nurses his addictions. He owes it to his public. He owes it to himself. He has in fact died. All that is left of him is this final overflowing of his writing and his passion, his message to a largely ignorant, uncaring world. So what is it about this film that is so haunting, compelling, ravishing, extraordinary?

The dramatic encounter that is central to Gérard Mordillat’s En Compagnie d’ Antonin Artaud is the friendship between Artaud and Jacques Prevel. Artaud spent the last years of his life living in the grounds of an asylum on the outskirts of Paris. In Mordillat’s film he appears to lead a fairly independent life, holed up in the gazebo. In one wonderful sequence, Prevel and Artaud get back to the asylum after lock-up time and Artaud has to climb over the wall. They are assisted by two passing gendarmes who comment on the irony of trying to break into rather than out of the asylum. They heave Artaud over the wall with a ‘There you go, Granddad!’ The scene is funny, but it pulls the spectator up short, in that we suddenly see how the outside world perceives Artaud – as a mad old man. And it made me realise how utterly in sympathy I was with this paranoid, obsessive, opium-addicted psychotic. I had begun to see the world as he did. I had begun to see him through the eyes of Jacques Prevel. The trick here is not simply to manipulate the spectator’s sympathy, but their point of view. This is not a naturalistic film. The camera eye is fixed on Artaud like a magnet. The build-up to his appearances are always careful, well-paced. Prevel chases round Paris in search of drugs for Artaud, waits for hours in cafés, smoking neurotically, like a woman who has been stood up on a date, when Artaud doesn’t show. He accompanies Artaud on his route marches, day and night, listening fervently, swallowing every word whole. Sami Frey (Artaud) delivers the master’s sepulchral pronouncements dead straight, from a gaunt embattled face. Marc Barbé (Prevel) takes it all on board, mesmerised, adoring. For this is a love story. And Artaud is the Beloved, courted, sought out, accompanied, extravagantly mourned.

Nothing actually happens in this film. They meet. They become friends. He dies. But it moves along at a cracking pace. The trick here is subtle and simple. We are following Artaud and Prevel through Paris at astounding speeds. The camera and the spectator hurtle after them. Every sequence is laden with significance, explicit or otherwise. Artaud is given to muttering terrible murderous threats. His impenetrable unpredictability is hypnotic. A man in revolt against convention is also free from restraint. He might, quite literally, do anything. We cannot take our eyes off the screen.

Artaud spends his time producing the final instalments of his experimental, disturbing work. One sequence presents Artaud rehearsing with Colette, an actress now reduced to a tearful and robotic state by his bullying. He insists that she must raise recitation to the level of hysterical scream. Artaud is clearly excessive, obsessed, but it is also quite clear that he has a precise echo of the performance in his head. Language has become scream. In fact, one scene presents the two men screaming at the climax of a row, heads together in peculiar complicity, like a long-married couple. Artaud turns it all to his advantage by stepping back and offering the one thing that Prevel craves, his approval.

Artaud oversteps the mark once or twice; insulting the dopehead bimbo, a wonderfully Gothic performance by Julie Jézéquel, whose make-up gives the impression that she is sporting two permanent black eyes, and, more revealingly, by arguing that Prevel’s sexual adventures are vampiric, draining Artaud’s own life-blood away. This argument takes place in a natural history museum where the two men are striding purposefully through rooms of suspended dead creatures, surrounded by cabinets of the defunct and the extinct. Artaud goes over the top when Prevel hasn’t supplied sufficient drugs with the requisite rapidity. He even suggests that all the laudanum in Paris should be at his disposal, referring to himself as Artaud, in the third person. He is the master, the king returning to Paris, prepared to demand adulation and constant attendance from his courtiers, his disciples. He gets it. Prevel isn’t the only one circling round him. There must be a master. This is a very French method of teaching and of advancing intellectual and literary careers. I have kilometres of film with Foucault and Lacan holding forth. They sound like Socratic teaching machines, producing knowledge and Significant Statements. They are always surrounded by disciples. I spend a lot of time watching these films, thus forming part of the adoring court. The disciples must be faithful, uncritical. Their allegiance must be absolute.

Who was Antonin Artaud? The film assumes that you know. Artaud’s influence has had far-reaching effects on theatre and cinema, but his own writing is less widely read, less well-known. His engagement with surrealism and his experimental Theatre of Cruelty are the most powerful intellectual traces he has left on Anglo-Saxon culture. He was born Antoine Artaud at Marseilles in 1896. He was an actor, appearing in many films in the 20s and 30s, including Abel Gance’s monumental Napoléon. He was an artist, a poet, a playwright, a critic, a theatrical impresario. And he was famous for being mad. He was also a cartographer of madness. In 1937 he suffered some kind of breakdown, after attacking two members of the crew on board the ship that was bringing him home from Ireland. Artaud was convinced that the two men were coming to get him. After this he was incarcerated in the French asylum system for nearly nine years.

A bizarre encounter between Jacques Lacan and Antonin Artaud took place in the asylum of Sainte-Anne at Paris in 1938-1939. Lacan was in charge of diagnosing and assessing the patients in the hospital’s psychiatric clinic. He dismissed Artaud as ‘chronically and incurably insane’ and implied that Artaud had ‘inflamed’ himself and should be ‘calmed down’.[1] This is as good as implying that Artaud had driven himself mad. In the spirit of retaliation, Artaud claimed that he had been poisoned at Sainte-Anne. He was then dismissed into the labyrinth of the French psychiatric system, ending up in the mountains at Rodez, where he was forced to undergo electric shock treatment and menaced with deportation during the war. There are many similarities between the work of Antonin Artaud and Jacques Lacan. Both of them sceptically interrogate the drama of psychosis, the splintering of the self and the tensions within analytic discourse. But in 1939 it was Lacan who was signing the forms. He had the power to say what madness was and who was mad. The question is, as Humpty Dumpty put it, ‘Who is to be master?’

Mordillat’s film celebrates the return of the master. We are not given the big scenes. He avoids the famous performance at the Vieux-Colombier theatre on 13 January 1947, when Artaud harangued and screamed at the audience for over three hours. André Breton, Gide, Camus, Pierre Boulez, even Georges Braque, were all in the theatre. So was Jacques Prevel. Artaud read poems and told stories. He yelled, he hissed, he bullied and raged. At the core of all his poems and stories was his own story: the story of suffering, imprisonment, fury and despair. The audience was spellbound. He answered Breton’s comment that he was still a ‘man of the theatre’ by declaring, ‘I don’t believe I’m exaggerating when I say that “no man of the theatre” has ever before taken the attitude which I had that night on stage at the Vieux-Colombier, which consisted of my wailing out bursts of hatred, cramps and convulsions to the limits of black-out, etc… furies which made me vomit my intestines and which I don’t think constituted a very “theatrical” spectacle.’[2] For Artaud this was not theatre, but anti-theatre.

Mordillat concentrates on the dynamics between Artaud and Prevel. This is not a film about a public life, but a private friendship. The concentration on the two writers alone together makes the film intimate, touching, harrowing. Formalities are maintained throughout. The two men never descend to addressing one another as ‘tu’ or as anything less than Monsieur Artaud and Monsieur Prevel. But gradually, inevitably, and very movingly they come to love one another. It has been said that attention is a kind of passion. If you give someone your absolute attention you give them back themselves, you confirm their right to be.

In his last years, Artaud had cancer. He was, quite literally, in hell. He took opium to quench the pain. Prevel, bringing him drugs, was his angel of mercy, his deliverer. His last works are an assertion of identity, despite those long years of breakdown, fragmentation and humiliation within the French asylum system. And that identity, so dearly bought becomes indestructible, eternal, once more under his control. Mordillat had an idea, simple, witty and bold, for the resolution of his film, which affirms his themes. Prevel, grief-stricken, follows Artaud’s body to the grave. He now knows that not only was this the man he had been waiting for, but that this was the man he had loved. If you fight hard enough for the right to remain who you are, that identity can never be obliterated. Prevel sees Artaud again, for the last time.

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
I am Antonin Artaud
and I say this
as I know how to say this
you will see my present body
burst into fragments
and remake itself
under ten thousand notorious aspects
a new body
where you will
never forget me.[3]

And if you are not naturally inclined to fall for psychotic, paranoid, narcissistic, opium-addicted Frenchmen? Don’t worry, doesn’t matter. By the end of this film you too, like me, like Jacques Prevel, will be bewitched, in love.


[1] Stephen Barber, Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs (Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 9.
[2] Stephen Barber, Weapons of Liberation (Faber and Faber, 1996), p.53. For more information about Artaud and the cultural scene in post-war Paris, see especially Chapter 2 which concentrates on Artaud and his work.
[3] From The Theatre of Cruelty (1947) cited in Barber, Antonin Artaud, p. 13.

Patricia Duncker is the author of Hallucinating Foucault, published in paperback by Serpent’s Tail