Where Angels Roam

By Keith Griffiths

ange-patrick-bokanowski.jpgL'Ange, 1983

Producer Keith Griffiths celebrates Patrick Bokanowski’s little-seen film L'Ange

“I could see everything, but in a strange way, like the dreams of people who have been blind for a long time.” – J. G. Ballard, The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon

For more than ten years I have been straining my eyes looking at a poor quality video of one of those rare hidden riches of contemporary cinema, Patrick Bokanowkis’s L'Ange. Then, browsing aimlessly through the book shop at the Beauborg in Paris recently, there it was, a VHS in PAL, commercially available and standing proudly next to the films of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Hans Richter and other such great innovators of the moving image. If I could give a gift to our almost visually illiterate television mandarins it would be this film, with the vague hope that they might be startled and bewitched by this 70-minute masterpiece and feel some guilt at their neglect of a cinema that works at the borders of our imagination and aspires to the realms of music and painting rather than to the theatre and the novel.

When L'Ange first appeared at the Cannes film festival in 1982, Michel Chion wrote in Les Cahiers du cinema that the film had the impact of a UFO landing, “A 2001 produced under the same conditions as Eraserhead.” And like most UFOs it has remained largely invisible to audiences, in particular to those outside France and Japan. The film supported by the French audio-visual agency INA, took its creator more than five years work, two years filming sets, models and sequences with actors and three years of ‘special effects’ and editing. Bokanowski studied photography, optics and chemistry and his films are those of a true inventor. They are the films of an artisan who, using live-action, models and engravings, manipulates the image by optical printing frame by frame. The making of the films themselves are painful yet delirious journeys of exploration and optical research into the image – into the light and darkness.

In this respect they remind one of Oskar Fischinger’s glorious abstract black-and-white animated film music Studies or Len Lye’s hand-etched films, Particles in Space and Free Radicals. But L'Ange also has the quality of nightmare, and while not following a conventional linear narrative, it presents five interlinked sequences of a very recognisable world, or at least an imaginary one close to our dreams.

ange-patrick-bokanowski-2.jpgL'Ange, 1983

With trepidation we follow in the footsteps of a half-glimpsed and grotesque wanderer climbing an immense staircase in an undefined architectural space. At various levels we witness strange events and happenings. But like Paul Klee’s late drawings of angels, which look up with one eye and down with the other, we too are able to look in opposing directions. On one landing a figure lunges and slices savagely with a sabre at a suspended puppet; on another a maid, like a moving Vermeer painting, repeatedly appears out of blackness to place a milk jug on a table which finally crashes to the floor with the action multiplied and time suspended. In a tin bath a Pickwickian man combs his bald head observed by his faithful, manic dog; in a bedroom, tilted at a crazy angle, a man gets out of bed, dresses and leaves. Each scene is interspersed with images of the partially illuminated staircase, prisms of light blinding the camera lens and water erupting out of control as water bursts from doorways and rages downwards past us.

We find ourselves in a library from hell, in which frantic frock-coated figures rummage the stacks, creating unstable piles of literature, failing to find any order in their index cards of this closed universe. In a bleak landscape, tiny ant-like figures carrying poles and axes race across the frame, sometimes frozen in motion as they attempt to attack or rescue a naked isolated female figure. One of the pursuers smashes through a door, the fragments and splinters of which fly through the air creating a torrent of particles. We find ourselves in an etched room in which turbaned figures peer through optical apparatus similar to the perspective drawing machines of the Renaissance – or have we unwittingly stumbled in to the alchemist’s lair? Here in this white room we experience the shimmer and glare of light, of reflection, refraction, magnification, of mirrors, prisms and beam splitters – the power of metamorphosis.

It is impossible to locate the steep staircase at the heart of this film, it is probably in the land where all angels roam, halfway between the light and the darkness of chaos. As the film reaches its climax we are led little by little towards the zone of great light in which humans and non-humans meet and are caught like rabbits frozen in the glare of headlights. Over this universe of almost indescribable images and scenes soars the musical soundtrack by Michele Bokanowski. There is no dialogue and no traditional sound effects in the film – the music is the soundscape and is as integral a part of the film as the images.

L'Ange is a prolonged, dense and visually visceral experience of the kind that is rare in cinema today. Difficult to define and locate, it strangeness is quite unique. That its elements are not constructed in a traditional way should not be a barrier to those who wish to cross the bridge to what Jean-Luc Godard proposed as the real story of the cinema – real in the sense of being made of images and sounds rather than texts and illustrations.