terça-feira, 13 de janeiro de 2009

Uranus, Mourning for Mourning

Or group portrait of a foul period in the history of the Freefrance Family. Can this portrait be drawn without some thought for what’s being done? Answer: no. Did Berri think of anything at all when he was filming Uranus? Answer: it appears not. Subsidiary question: isn’t it a bit late to be aiming a camera at this old landscape (1945)? No answer.

Let’s take one of those little details which still prompt a desire to do ‘film criticism’, in other words to waffle on. In a scene where she’s lying on the bed reading, the actress Daniele Lebrun is leafing through a movie magazine of the period, probably Cinemonde. Nothing wrong with that, except that it’s a real Cinemonde of the day, a collector’s piece with the pages smoothed out and the paper gone yellow. In this passage from a Cinemonde of the period to a ‘period Cinemonde’ there lies the whole aesthetic of Uranus, halfway between antique market and TV film. When the past becomes this decorative it means it has ceased to work on our present.

Let’s imagine now what might have been the ‘realist’ solution to the problem. It would only have needed a facsimile of this musuem copy of Cinemonde to come up with a duplicate, its pages rustling and unyellowed. To move from the ‘genuine-old’ to the ‘fake-new’. To side with the character not the actress (or the props person). Then he would have had the sense that the character played by Daniele Lebrun had just bought Cinemonde, a copy of Cinemonde that would have to have been brand new. For a second or two this tiny detail would have given us a sense of 1945 as the present. In other words, history without a capital letter, aleatory, not yet on trial, nor its characters a gallery of nice actors taken up with ‘fabricating’ in 1990 yesterday’s not necessarily nice parts. And that’s the way a film meant to be fuelled by vitriol fast turns into antique soft soap.

Some will say that it’s not what Berri has in mind and that his only idea was to make people laugh thanks to the anti-heroes he found in Marcel Ayme. Some will even say that it isn’t fair to make a pretence of discovering that Berri is not a director to be ranked alongside the Renoirs or the Guitrys, for whom the movie-evocation of the past has indeed never depended on a ‘period-Cinemonde’. Uranus is in fact an addition to the fairly limited list of films which have set out to present on screen a France that was decidedly unpresentable, the France of 1940-1945. A hard gamble, since it amounts to interest the audience in a sample of characters who are not very interesting, who are fundamentally spineless or despairingly average. It is a tall order, and what is to be wondered at is not that Berri failed where even Brecht didn’t always succeed (though Losey did, in the Brechtian Monsieur Klien), but that once on his way to take up the challenge and leap into the unknown, that he went so far under the bar that it’s likely - being intoxicated by an atmosphere of concensual, bland hurrahs - that he didn’t even suspect that there was a bar there.

Let’s take another axample. There’s one single great scene in Uranus, the one where Monglat junior confronts his father and the latter, brilliantly portrayed by an intense Galabru, emerges as Evil straight out of Shakespeare. For Berri, who meant to make us laugh at the honest (or dishonest) mediocrity of his franco-fauna, this is a failure, since Monglat is specatular. The one thing is that, ever since Diderot, mediocrity cannot be taken for granted. Marcel Ayme treated it directly (in le Confort intellectuel) but not with fictional characters. Once you’re left with only one character in a scene, the most basically sound approach is to give it every scope (first of all to the character, then to the actor’s physical presence, and finally leaving it to the actor’s craft). And if this is really what happens, then inevitably it will be interesting. This is the iron law of all fiction. Fiction, willy nilly, redeems characters. Barthes, who was fascinated by stupidity, wrote no novels and probably suffered as a result. Even Flaubert admitted that in the end he took a liking to Bouvard and Pecuchet. Middling humanity is a very bad conductor of fiction. Especially in the cinema.

It is because none of this occurred to him at all, it would seem, that Berri made do with recording the often lazy work of a group of well-liked actors in the process of saving their characters from lack of interest or stale folk myth. In the tradition of Quality French cinema, it is always the famous actor (along with his witticism) who is asked to exorcise the lowly, cowardly, insignificant character whom he ‘embodies’. Thus, in Uranus, the collaborator prompts respect, the good, slow-witted communist prompts liking, and the communist intellectual, pity. The engineer is a brave man (he hides the collaborator), the teacher is a far-sighted man (he helps the engineer) and the grubby bistro owner is a brute saved by his discovery of poetry (he loves Racine). A positive overall assessment of a France which, having rather hastily taken its spinelessness for a refusal of manicheism, smiles at this extenuatingly engaging sight of itself in the two-way mirror of the past (‘everybody’s human!’). In the circumstances it becomes clear that it has been documentaries (like The Sorrow and the Pity) which have far surpassed fiction in resurrecting France’s past, provoking disapproval and creating disquiet. Whereas Uranus upsets no one and delights everyone.

There again, some will say that it’s asking too much of Berri, who, after all, isn’t the author of the scandal. Too busy paying his illustrative respects to the most franco-French of the regional writers (Pagnol, Ayme, not exactly progressives), too admiring of the other arts (painting) and not admiring enough of the cinema, though it’s the only art which, being impure, by its nature swings between past and present, the age of objects filmed and the ‘hic et nunc’ of the camera. And then, for collective mourning isn’t there a sell-by date - just as there is for eating yoghurt. Aren’t there moments in the life of peoples as in the career of an artist when something like a ‘work of mourning’ (Freud’s Trauerarbeit) can be effected before fiction ‘redeems’ everything, albeit cheaply? Isn’t the example of the Germans - Fassbinder, Harlan or, yet again, Syberberg - to be refelected on? Questions. Serious, not to say recondite questions which some will say Berri did not think of. Fine, let’s leave him at that and move on to something else. To the French cinema, for example.

French cinema - it has been repeated ad nauseum - suffers from a quite extraordinary memory defect. Which has made it, ever since the war, a matter for (New Wave) morally aware auteurs rather than for (French Quality) jobbing narrative film makers. Which has made it absolutely not American, hardly at all Italian, and carrying, like a millstone all of its own round its neck, a ‘script crisis’ which is never anything but a badly digested scrap of French history. The past (collaboration, purges, colonial wars: much that is despicable) is never past.

Certainly, there’s been no shortage of films about score settling, from le Corbeau up to Uranus by way of a few good Autant-Lara films like la Traversee de Paris or the little-known Patates (with Pierre Perret). If mourning were a matter of conducting investigations and reviewing judgements, finding new culprits or dismissing all and sundry without a verdict, all these films with their satisfied masochism and decorative bleakness would have been adequate to the task. But mourning is something quite different: not a way of disqualifying the past but a way of detaching oneself gradually from a a past that is loved in spite of everything. Loved when even History itself would condemn it wholesale.

Aesthetically, mourning is a labour of amiguity which begins by restoring to the past its pristine shallowness as the erstwhile present, and to the characters that ‘freedom’ of choice of which, being either too young or too ignorant, mourning is done badly and is lost in the sourness of endless recrimination (‘all of them rotten!’).

Non-ideological mourning is, to be more specific, what separates parents and children, is the question the latter ask the former (‘What did you do in the War, Daddy?’), in other words the badly transmitted burden of unfulfilled conviction as the twentieth century draws to an end. Communist conviction, for example, obviously one of the great affairs of the century, calls for far better treatment than the botched ecumenism it gets in Uranus. French cinema’s stubborn refusal to transform the bona fide communist into a bone fide fictional character must go some way to explain the stupefying coma which envelopes the French Communist Party today. A refusal so stubborn that the recycled Marchais figure has to be turned into a show on a TV puppet show! The story of the communist father and his children who can no longer be one is one to which the French cinema should have given the utmost importance, but it hasn’t done so. The Italians for their part have done it, not all that badly, and it’s enabled them to produce one filmmaker (Moretti) and to move on to something else (but not in the cinema).

Hence the question: isn’t it too late? And doesn’t mourning have a biological limit, one that assumes the co-existance of two generations still at loggerheads and, as Straub said, totally nicht versohnt (not reconciled)? Is this to say that real mourning isn’t mourning for my convictions (this only produces disillusionment, which itself produces nothing), but mourning for the conviction of the generation before me when they were my age? And the real scandal of mourning isn’t just that there are the innocent and the guilty (even still unpunished), it is that in every period and in every sense of the word there have been people too young not to have been, though involuntarily, innocent? For example, that those Vichy years were the years of their youth and their discovery of the world, the world ‘as it was’, that’s to say not up to much. The scandal isn’t just the guilt of the actors of the past, it is also their innocence (‘we don’t take things seriously at seventeen’). Even the innocence of the housewife and mother who buys her brand new Cinemonde and turns the pages looking forward to pleasures to come.

P.S.: On a recent ‘Film Night’, put on as a benefit for the cinema on Canal +, les Enfants du Paradis was named the finest French film since the advent of the talkies. There was the elderly Marcel Carne thanking the jury, whereas the least the TV decision makers could have done would have been to thank - by way of Carne - this cinema which makes ends meet for them in the absence of programmes. Les Enfants du Paradis is certainly not a bad film, it is merely the best that an occupied country can produce, with its escape into décor, into the past, into its actors’ gallery and ‘the fine craft of film’. Into a collective art dedicated to the group portrait and to unsayable nostalgia (what could be more ‘innocent’ than children and paradise?). So long as good film buffs and decent folk prefer the gilded bolthole of les Enfants du Paradis to the open exposure of le Regle du jeu, we can be sure there’s still an occupation going on somewhere or other.

Serge Daney

8 January 1991

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