Letter from...Paris

By Eugène Green

nuage-sebastien-betbeder.jpgNuage, 2007

Words in faith with a new generation of makers

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities might very well describe the situation of art cinema in Paris. That it is the worst of times need hardly be proven. Although non-commercial cinema has always been, and continues to be, more favorably endowed here than in the other capital of Dickens’ novel, there is general agreement that in the past few years there has been a dramatic narrowing down of possibilities and directors who always managed, even with very limited means, to regularly shoot new films suddenly find themselves lost in a desert with no visible road in sight.

However, rather than dwell on the bleak side of the situation, it is more heartening to look at the positive aspect, which is the emergence of a certain number of very young directors, who not only refuse to be discouraged by the material difficulties of filmmaking in present-day France but who refuse also to enter the moulds and patterns stamped out for pseudo-art cinema by the sources of funding. This is true in particular of a group of four directors (two of whom form a tandem of brothers), still little known outside festivals and cinephile cercles, but who share a certain number of characteristics.

Sébastien Betbeder (pronounced Bebdé), the oldest of the group, born in 1975, is also the only one who has made a feature film. Born and raised near Pau, in the Pyrenees, he studied at the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts, then went to Le Fresnoy, a sort of studio of contemporary creation for young artists in the North of France (see the Patrick Keiller piece in the previous issue of Vertigo). He made several shorts (Voix d'alentour, Nu devant un fantôme), then a long-short (the long-short is in France a recognized and widely practiced form), Les mains d'Andrea, presented last year in Locarno and numerous other festivals, which tells how a man with a gift for manual healing brings peace to a living man and a ghost.

chroniques-clement-cogitore.jpgChroniques, 2006

His feature Nuage, with Adrien Michaux and Nathalie Boutefeu, takes place in his native region, and its title refers to a mysterious cloud which, cutting off vision of the outside world, opens up eyes to what had been hitherto invisible. The film revolves around questions of art, visibility and blindness. Although rooted in a recognizable reality, the world of Betbeder includes forces whose existence is not provided for in traditional French rationalist philosophy. His images are conceived to make the spectator feel the powers present in the natural world, and he concentrates also on the natural energy of his actors, in something which goes way beyond psychology.

The Governatori brothers, Luca, born in 1977, and Diego, born in 1981, who have just graduated from the FÉMIS (the National Film School), are the sons of the Italian painter Aroldo Governatori, and were brought up in exactly the same district of Béarn as Sébastien Betbeder. After a poetic documentary based on a shoot in which they were assistants, they realised several films which have been programmed in important festivals. Le Chant des oiseaux (title of a work by Renaissance composer Clément Jannequin) is a documentary about the writer Éric Vuillard whom they interviewed during an entire whisky-irrigated night in his isolated country dwelling. Progressively, the social representation gives way to a strong human presence, and the anxiety of the night to a day-break of light and joy.

Their most accomplished short, Vita di Giacomo, shot in Italian, in their father’s home-town of Senigallia, was presented this year as part of the Cinéfondation section in the Official Selection of Cannes. Set in 2006, but with nostalgic echoes of the Italy of the 1960s, it concerns a pretino, a young seminary student, Giacomo, who is about to take his vows and be ordained as a priest, but who is also attached to the joy of the world and human life. Mixing theological lessons, mystical images, burlesque beach scenes recalling Fellini and references to the Football World Cup, the film ends with a sublime sequence in which Giacomo, having been ordained, celebrates a memorial service on a boat for a fisherman lost at sea. In these last images the faces of the non-professional actors, together with close-ups of a fishing net unraveling towards the water, unite the living and the dead, man and the natural world, in a sole spiritual presence.

vita-di-giacomo-diego-governatori-luca-governatori.jpgVita di Giacomo, 2007

The youngest member of the group, Clément Cogitore, born in 1984, and brought up in the Vosges mountains in Alsace, studied at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasburg, and is now finishing his residence at Le Fresnoy. Besides video installations presented in a number of galleries, he has made two shorts shown in prestigious festivals. Chroniques, which received a Special Mention in the 2006 Belfort festival of avant-garde cinema, is a poetic mixture in which fictional, and only partially defined characters in exile alternate with historical documents showing movements of refugees in Eastern Europe. Voice-over texts refer sometimes to the fictional situations, and at other times, making a link between the two elements in the film, give Biblical quotations.

His latest short, Visités, presented at this year’s Locarno festival, is another poetic and fragmentary evocation of a fictional situation: a young woman loses her sight in a car accident, and suddenly all her family circle – parents, brother, even their dog – are ‘visited’ by a strange undefined presence. There are no words and there is no psychology, but, as much in a wide-angle shot of the wild night sea, or in a close-up of a door jamb with the hip of his heroine passing before it, the director looks for, and renders apparent, the same hidden forces.

Although these three new names do not form any structured group or ‘school’, their arrival together on the scene of French cinema is not a simple coincidence. For, in addition to a deep belief in cinema as a medium of vital existential expression, they have in common a personal connection with the visual arts, a desire to use film in its most specific possibilities, and the ambition, in a world which conceives itself more and more overtly as a purely materialistic machine, to render apparent, through the art of cinema, the spiritual forces, present in every human being, which create invisible ties between them and all others, between them and the world. If only for the hope that these young artists represent for the future of cinema, we can consider that today, in Paris, it is also the best of times.

Eugène Green is one of the most important filmmakers at work today. He has made three features and several short films. He is also a writer and poet. See also OPEN SOURCE, Rue des Canettes.