Benoît Jacquot: Documentary Films, Part 1

A theme that emerges from the first four documentary films presented at the Benoît Jacquot retrospective at the Walter Reade – Merce Cunningham and Co., Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, Louis René de Fôrets, and Elvire-Jouvet 40 – is the filmmaker’s recurring preoccupation with documenting the artistic process. For Jacquot, intrinsic in this process of documentation is not solely the artist’s consciousness of real-time in the repetition of performance or attention to the authenticity of recreating the essence of the source of inspiration, but also to attempt to capture a certain open-endedness – an unresolved ambiguity – that perhaps suggests the elusiveness of the ideal performance. In this respect, Jacquot’s aesthetic can be seen, not as attempts to record the culmination of the subject’s craft, but the mundane, almost ritualistic process and indefinable alchemy of creativity, where the nature of art is not an achieved ideal, but rather, a pure representation of the quotidian in all its idiosyncratic imperfections and chance coincidences – a transfiguration of the self – a transcendence through erasure.

Merce Cunningham and Co., 1982. Composed of real-time dance company rehearsals and one-on-one interviews with avant-garde dancer turned choreographer and Martha Graham disciple, Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham and Co. is a reverent portrait of an aging artist who, even in the twilight of his career as a performer, remains a passionate and innovative force in modern dance. Perhaps best known for his collaborative work and partnership with seminal experimental music composer John Cage, what is revealed in Cunningham’s grueling and elaborate, but illuminating rehearsals is an artist acutely in tune with each dancer’s internal sense of rhythm and space – an intuitive perception of the human body’s integral “musicality” where the individuality of motion is akin to uniqueness of an instrument’s voice. Within this framework, the dynamics of Cunningham’s avant-garde choreography can be seen, not as the movement of bodies in relation to one another, but rather, as the art of bodies moving within the kinetic spheres of their own natural state – where perturbations from a dancer’s native frequency define a kind of quantum physics paradigm for the dynamic molecular interaction of organic bodies within their spheres of influence.

dellerAlfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, 1976. One of my favorite films in the Jacquot retrospective, Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice is a fascinating portrait of renowned English contra-tenor, Alfred Deller, an incomparable artist who ushered the modern day renaissance of the medieval-era contra-tenor, a high male vocal range often associated with the falsetti and castrati that, with the advent of Romanticism (as Deller postulates), fell increasingly out of favor, and was gradually replaced by the creation of a more emotionally “expressive” female contralto that better suited the nineteenth century artistic movement. Intercutting a series of interviews and performances by Deller and his vocal chamber group, the Deller Consort, Jacquot’s camera is probing, yet unobtrusive, allowing Deller’s intelligence, charisma, and talent to articulate the uniqueness of the role of the contra-tenor in medieval music – a role that best captured the compositional intent of the human voice as a musical instrument in its uninflected clarity and enunciated grammatical rhythm. In essence, rather than using the voice to interpret the music, the role of the contra-tenor was to articulate the music exactly – without embellishment, without the introduction of personality – a faithful “reproduction” of the music that sublimates the individuality of the artist – the performance – for the creation of the art itself. As in Merce Cunningham and Co., Jacquot presents a thoughtful and persuasive illustration of the artist as an instrument of art.

Louis René des Fôrets, 1988. In Louis René des Fôrets, Jacquot transforms a rare interview with reclusive and intensely private postwar novelist, Resistance fighter, poet, and anti-war activist Louis René des Fôrets (author of Les Mendiants, Le Bavard, and the experimental autobiography Ostinato) into a broader meditation on familiar themes that resonate throughout the author’s body of work: the creative process, silence, memory, and the trauma of history. Perhaps the most illuminating conversations with interviewer Jean-Benoit Puetsch in the film occur during des Fôrets’ description of the silence that pervades his work as subconscious (or perhaps, intentional) acts of cognitive auto-destruction as a result of personal trauma, where the thought is intercepted and erased before the act of articulation, resulting in conscious, alienated silence. Juxtaposed against des Fôrets’ admission that he had earlier burned manuscripts of works that he had found personally unsatisfying, what emerges is a portrait of an artist who, despite personal success, continues to struggle with self-doubt and the consciousness of imperfection. Within the context of des Fôrets’ revelation, his recurring preoccupation with the cognitive process of auto-destruction can also be seen as an autobiographical reflection of an artist’s profound humility in his systematic distillation and self-erasure of an “author’s imprint” during the process of creation, leaving only the inconcrete traces of impression and memory as the art itself.

elvirejouvetElvire-Jouvet 40, 1986. Composed of a series of re-enactments based on influential stage actor Louis Jouvet’s transcribed lectures at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris during World War II and Joviet’s manuscript, Molière et la comédie classique, Elvire-Jouvet 40 chronicles Jouvet’s (Philippe Clévenot) demanding (if not emotionally brutal), yet enlightening class rehearsals for Molière’s Dom Juan, and in particular, a pivotal scene involving the reappearance of Dom Juan’s spurned lover, an emotionally transformed Elvire to warn him of impending danger. In playing the role of Elvire, Jouvet’s student Claudia (Maria de Madeiros) attempts to apprehend the essence of Elvire’s character through exhaustive repetitions that, rather than increasing her confidence in her performance, instead brings her into a state of constant uncertainty and self-doubt. At the heart of Jouvet’s abrasive and seemingly divergent method of instruction is the fundamental idea that the nature of performance does not lie in an actor’s ability to conform the role through a personally accessible range of convenient, ready-made affectation, but rather, to sublimate the self entirely within the character – to perform a selfless act of empathetic self-erasure. In establishing the notion of transparent, “direct” performance, Elvire-Jouvet 40 thematically converges with Jacquot’s earlier documentaries Merce Cunningham and Co. and Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice in presenting the philosophical ideal of the role of the artist, not as the center of creation, but as the integral medium of pure aesthetic transmission.

Benoît Jacquot: Documentary Films, Part 2

The second series of documentaries presented at the Benoît Jacquot retrospective – Nombres et neurons, Jacques Lacan’s Psychoanalysis Part One, La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais, and Écrire – may be loosely categorized as films that examine the thought process indigenously from within the idiosyncratic perspective of the creative mind. Within this framework, Jacquot’s unobtrusive, “transparent” approach to filmmaking proves especially suited in capturing the unique and infinitely fascinating personalities of the respective subjects of his films – mathematicians, scientists, psychoanalysts, and writers – allowing them to emerge, not as objects of momentary curiosity, but as impassioned visionaries seeking, in their own irrepressible ways, to reconcile the world around them with the idealized images of their imagination.

Nombres et Neurones, 1990. A filmed conversation between mathematician Alain Connet and neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux on the nature of applied mathematics provides the framework for Jacquot’s examination into the rapid-fire process of logical thought and philosophical argument in Nombres et Neurones. At the heart of the irresolvable argument is the idea (as articulated by Connet) that applied mathematics is not an abstract concept but rather, a reduction of derived formulas and equations that, when juxtaposed against physical reality, invariably verifies the behavior of (conceptually) tangible, real-life phenomena – in essence, that mathematics self-converges towards only equations and solutions that analytically describe natural phenomena that, in turn, serve to validate its own existence. In order to illustrate this point, Connet cites the anecdote of a man who proposes to guess a mystery word that has been agreed upon by a group simply by asking a series of questions. Selecting the word “cloud” after an unusually extended series of questions, the man discovers that the group had secretly arranged not to preselect a word before the question and answer session and instead, had just agreed on a pattern of answers to the questions. Through the episode, the argument presents that even if a solution is not known beforehand (i.e. not based on “reality”), the analytical process will still invariably converge towards a solution that is based on reality. However, in defining the discipline of applied mathematics as a kind of self-editing mechanism that instinctively discards impossible equations – analytical resolutions not rooted in reality – a converse argument for human interference also becomes valid: that in generating theoretical equations that are not immediately rooted in problems derived from reality, there is also the risk of conforming reality to the limitations of provable theory.

lacanJacques Lacan’s Psychoanalysis Part One, 1974 In contrast to the animated philosophical arguments presented in Nombres et Neurones, the intriguing concept behind psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan’s one-man lecture show fails to crystallize into any accessible or illuminating form in the oddly sterile documentary, Jacques Lacan’s Psychoanalysis Part One. Fractured, dry, and monotonic in his manner of speech and constantly looking down to read from his reference notes that he keeps in front of him as if conducting a class lecture (he rarely, if ever, looks into the camera), the quintessentially eccentric Lacan manages to dodge, circumnavigate, or otherwise evade every question presented to him by deploying tangential semantics and unrelated theoretical concepts (then expounding on them) that invariably stray ever further from the nature of the question. What results from Lacan’s murky, long-winded, and fragmented expositions is a kind of maddening, obfuscated, syntactic free association responses to the questions presented that paint a curiously unresolved portrait of the iconoclastic Lacan as seemingly ever teetering between dotty intellectual and charlatan, abstracted genius and raving lunatic.

duras_aviatorLa Mort du jeune aviateur anglais, 1993. The friendship between Jacquot and novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras results in a sublime and palpably intimate organic conversation on the nature of evocation, history, memory, transference, and artistic creation in La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais. A wartime anecdote recounted by Duras – a story that would subsequently serve as the basis for her latest novel Ecrire – provides an appropriately poignant, somber, and thoughtful introduction to the Duras and Jacquot’s incisive and illuminating dialogue: a young English aviator – an orphan – who had been shot down during the war and crash landed in a forest in Trouville was adopted in death by the town and given a proper burial and annual commemoration. The gesture would move Duras profoundly, a story that, as she subsequently muses, perhaps resonates with the trauma of her own brother’s death at a young age, or perhaps with the romantic idea of lost youth. From this seemingly innocuous episode, Duras embarks on a thoughtful meditation on the frailty of the human condition, her meticulously detailed, proposed manner of filming the site of the aviator’s grave (which Jacquot faithfully recreates on film), the ephemeral process of remembering, the isolation of memory, and the happenstance of inspiration.

Écrire, 1993. Serving as an anchoring film of sorts to the equally fascinating and indelible, anecdotal side story of La Mort du jeune aviateur anglais, the double-entendred, titular Écrire of the film is not a contextual reference to Duras’ latest novel, but rather, to the indefinable method – and madness – of writing. Speaking candidly, and often humorously, about her own idiosyncratic rituals and complete immersion into her own personally attuned creative environment for the indeterminate duration of the process, from the necessity of profound isolation (inhabiting a psychological nadir that she illustrates with an amusing anecdote of her one-time obsession with the frenzied trajectory of a dying fly’s final moments in the house during the height of her own self-imposed exile to finish writing the novel), to a kind of arbitrary, alienated resonance with characters from finished works drawn from her own imagination (Duras admits her continued affinity with the Vice Consul’s inconsolable grief in India Song even as she feels disconnected from the equally haunted memories of Anne Marie Stretter and Lola Valérie Stein), to the almost superstitious introversion involved in social conversations that may broach unwritten ideas and undeveloped concepts in order to avoid contaminating the purity of the written word before the moment of its inception on the blank page of a manuscript. But beyond the casual documentation of an artist’s craft, what inevitably elevates the film is Duras’ own thoughtful and enlightened ruminations on an artist’s visceral imperative to create – not as an expurgation of the soul or a validation of ego – but as a morally integral, existential duty to contribute to the collective culture of humanity.

7thheavenSeventh Heaven, 1997. A delicately rendered, slice-of-life relational drama played out as psychological mystery, Seventh Heaven incisively opens to an unfocused shot of Mathilde (Sandrine Kiberlain) standing near the glass doors of a department store until her visage gradually comes into focus – and with it – her abstracted gaze as she compulsively steals a scale model car from a nearby toy bin. This interrelated shift in balance – between space and object, foreground and background, the visible and invisible – inevitably foreshadows the emotional dynamics between Mathilde and her husband Nico (Vincent Lindon) as well. Having (seemingly) coped with the death of her father at a young age, Mathilde had been leading a fairly mundane life of privilege, leisure, and contented – if sexually unfulfilled – marriage, until succumbing to a recent compulsion for toy theft and a spate of inexplicable fainting spells – a psychological break that may be tied to the traumatic anniversary of her father’s death. Pursued by an intriguing and mysterious psychoanalyst (François Berléand) who takes interest in her case after finding her detained in the security office of a department store for shoplifting, she immediately connects with the perceptive stranger who initiates a conversation, not only to offer redecorating advice in order to realign the feng shui of the couple’s apartment to be more conducive for romance, but also to probe the circumstances behind her father’s death in the hypothesis that a reconciliation with her suppressed past will permanently silence her self-destructive compulsion. But as Mathilde gradually emerges from the darkness of her psychological captivity with renewed confidence and passion for life, Nico begins to succumb to jealous obsession and self-doubt over his wife’s profound transformation. Eschewing deeply embedded psychoanalysis for facile explications of Mathilde’s compulsion, Jacquot presents an intelligent and compelling argument for psychotherapy, not as a panacea for modern relationships, but as a facilitator for communication and objective arbiter of the power dynamics intrinsic in the inevitable evolution of every romantic relationship. In this respect, perhaps the most compelling sequence in the film is in the sound of the couple’s continued conversation against the black screen of rolling end credits – an evocation of fragile intimacy and reconciliation through the continuation of mundane ritual within the implicit renewal of exposed vulnerability, unconditional acceptance, and articulated desire.

princessmariePrincess Marie, 2004. Jacquot’s thematic penchant for performance, historicity, and probing the creative mind converges impeccably in the epic biopic Princess Marie on the remarkable life of Princess Marie Bonaparte – the libertine, progressive thinking, seemingly anachronistic great grand-niece of Napoleon and Princess of Greece and Denmark – and her close association with Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna in the groundbreaking field of psychoanalysis during the historically transformative (and increasingly turbulent) period between the two world wars. A graphic illustration of the female sexual anatomy during the opening scene sets the film’s wryly offbeat and taboo-breaking tone, as the forthright Marie (Catherine Deneuve), in consultation with a specialist over a scheduled surgical procedure to cure her frigidity, makes a candid request for the surgeon to explain the details of the operation, not through discreet euphemisms and allusions, but using the actual scientific terms and processes entailed in the gynecological procedure. However, when medical surgery fails to cure her frigidity, Marie soon decides to leave her family and embark on an indeterminate trip to Vienna at the office of renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (Heinz Bennent) in an attempt to secure, at any cost, his services for an aggressive schedule of two analysis sessions per day in the belief that the answer to her malady resides in the subconscious. Flattered and affronted in equal measures by the boldness of her presumptuous proposition, Freud is nevertheless intrigued by the idea of collaborating – at such a late stage in his professional career – on a research project to explore the nature of female desire. Chronicling the evolution of their relationship from patient, to advocate, to colleague, and even subsequently, to protector and benefactor, as Marie uses her personal fortune and international, aristocratic cachet to secure exit visas for the entire Freud household (secured, in part, by supportive testimony from Freud admirer, Benito Mussollini) after the ailing Sigmund – an atheist of Jewish ancestry – becomes increasingly subjected to harassment and intimidation by the Nazis following the German occupation of Austria, the film is an elegantly rendered fusion of scientific theory and practical application, personal expression and social custom, intimate biography and geopolitical history. However, far from a staid history lesson on the cultural zeitgeist of wartime Europe, Princess Marie is also an effervescent, tongue-in-cheek evocation of the very principles of psychoanalysis itself. Casting Deneuve’s real-life son Christian Vadim in the role of young Marie’s (played by Marie Christine Friedrich) rogue seducer Léoni, and Heinz Bennet’s real-life daughter Anne in the role of Freud’s daughter, Anna (whom Freud had psychoanalyzed during his research despite the murky ethical implications entailed in such an act), Jacquot playfully (and infectiously) upends the textbook cases of incestuous and taboo relationships that have become the reductive, hackneyed root cause of all psychoanalytical trauma in the diagnosis of twentieth century neurosis.

Acquarello, 2006 [reprinted]