Filming the state of the world… and of oneself

Filming the state of the world… and of oneself

My latest cinematic article shines a spotlight on two filmmakers, Olivier Assayas and Mia Hansen Løve, who were lovers in the past. Non-fiction, the latest film by Assayas, poses the question “is this how men live?”, to borrow the famous words of a poet. The director turns this observation into a mixture of joy and anxiety. Film critic André Bazin invited us to consider films by Pagnol, Guitry or Cocteau as pure cinema and not “filmed theatre”, or to put it another way, theatre as reality captured by the art of film. In the same way, the “meaningful” situations featured in Assayas’ film are cinema, from the staging to the shots of text messages in Personal Shopper, which were wonderful examples of cinematography (although some may disagree). These highly original cinematic moments reflect a congruence between the impact of a “man about town” and a Bergman-Bourdieu-like contemplation and are due mainly to the direction of Assayas’ actors. Their performances are very “contained” including the work by Vincent Macaigne and Nora Hamzawi.(who is a great surprise with her beautiful delivery and pure naturalness). Juliette Binoche gives an understated performance, giving us just a glimpse of what makes her so powerful as an actress. As for Guillaume Canet, he offers a face like an illuminated screen of endless conflicting emotions. Non-fiction belongs to a class of film closer to the director’s earlier work in Late August, Early September (1998). The cynicism with respect to literature is articulated as cynicism about love. The couples are jaded and only stay together out of social and professional obligation.

I like the daring techniques that Assayas employs to do battle with the dangers of a continuity script that might be a bit too linear. That is precisely why conversations between the characters in their public context (restaurants or offices) are abruptly shown in wide shots that distance us from the intimacy of their exchanges. The way in which apartments are described is accurate down to the last cartoonish detail and reveals a lot about the social and sentimental circumstances of the women and men who participate in this “ballet”. Yet paradoxically a lot happens in this film where the word takes precedence over staging. Assayas remains consistent and yet avoids the pitfalls of treacly naturalism. His social concerns are appropriately translated into cinematographic form. Assayas’ work does not rely on the usual excessive editing (which take on a pace of its own) used by many filmmakers. Most often his characters are shown sitting on sofas or at tables, situations that reflect the disarray of a socio-professional milieu whose primary activity seems to be to engage in never-ending conversations. The characters are captured in their comings and goings between their workplaces and their intimate lives. They speak and listen to each other (sometimes well and/or badly). Their indifference is sometimes aggressive, they are plagued by doubts which are often hidden by social niceties. And Assayas develops his own pacing where everything happens quickly, moving between the characters’ professional and intimate lives. As these double lives continue to spin, it’s the word that creates the form, an ongoing speech that is alternately comedic or pathetic (could they be the same thing?) and compels us to listen intelligently. The concerns that Assayas expresses in his storyline populated by professionals in the publishing industry is precisely the danger that threatens to someday eliminate what he “imposes” on the audience: a certain elegant literacy on which their speeches are based.

Mia Hansen Løve, who appeared in Assayas’ films Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies (2000), has emerged as an important contemporary French filmmaker. In her film Maya, I was struck to find the explicit bias of her earlier films; rebuilding reality with fluidity, giving prominence to sequences that eliminate the differences that others enflame or suddenly using anachronisms to create artificial lyrical resolutions. In her film, the director is able to suggest the violent rifts of the geo-socio-political reality without being overtly graphic. She challenges clichés in order to avoid the political correctness currently preoccupying a large part of a film industry that doesn’t want to be seen as being out of step with respect to the evils of the world. Since this film is about reconciling, within one man’s consciousness, the distance and proximity of Syria and India, Hansen Løve’s very personal filming and editing style is required to successfully bridge this gap, namely the variability of shot sequences and footage! I really admired her gall in presenting a character (who is in almost every scene) in ongoing movement, in non-stop “circulation”, especially while riding a scooter (which are some of the film’s best shots) and that’s not the least of the dramaturgical and artistic biases she uses in that way, in fluid movements, a mentally restorative “retreat” for a young man whose profession is precisely based on movement, travelling and international journalism. But this sought-after Indian inertia obviously proves to be quite different from the trials faced by detained hostages. That’s what makes Mia Hansen Løve such a skillful director; Indian immobility is made up of infinite movements, a deceptive retreat from the world described in opposing terms. This motion becomes a trip of a different kind, a trip back in time (including a cinematic example featuring Johanna Ter Steege from Philippe Garrel’s film The Birth of Love!)

And then the fluidity of the editing radiates a kind of softness, a sweetness that the exceptionally captured Indian light reinforces. I find Hansen Løve very adept at articulating things that are highly “contradictory”. We already knew that contradictions were her forte, contradictions that are revealed in the film’s form film rather than in spoken confrontations. That’s all part of her “oratorical” side! The beauty that she reproduces coexists with the terror created by inconceivable horror—Islamic beheadings, the current murderous lunacy flooding a major part of the world; the violence outside the law of profit that is permanently destroying Goa—the horror sweeping away the memories of what was once a utopia now seems very naïve and bygone. It’s the cruel state of affairs that makes the distinction so painful, the choice between the guilty refuge of beauty (represented by Maya) and the ”unconscious” irresistible pull towards danger (the reality of the world). I thought about this complex conceptual relationship that is fundamental to Hinduist thinking. Maya, between truth and illusion, personifies this conviction (rather than belief) of the contradictory duality of everything. Choosing Maya as the name of the young girl who enters the life of a journalist who observes the world, is probably not an innocent choice made by the director. Maya, the film, depicts the quest of a man whose obsession is to always be somewhere else and who is confronted with that choice in its two opposing yet unified forms; war and desire.


Photo copyright Les Films du Losange.