Monday, March 02, 2009

Merely 'Flesh'-y?

I remember standing in line to buy the issue of Art Forum containing James Quandt’s article "Flesh & Blood" on what he terms, the New French Extremity. I was a fan of much of this new wave of auteur film practice and was glad it was getting its fair dues. An entire article! I was giddy.

I was then disgruntled after reading Quandt’s brutal attack. Of particular insult were Quandt’s indebtedness to a “classical” mode of filmmaking as sort of urtext and that his terminology spoke so personally and derisively against this body. I’d like to look very closely at this text – in which Quandt’s arguments neatly fold in on themselves – and expand outward to investigate more thoroughly a now defunct cinematic French movement.

Quandt can see little more in “the drastic tactics of these directors” than “an attempt to meet (and perchance defeat) Hollywood and Asian filmmaking on their own Kill Bill terms or to secure distributors and audiences in a market disinclined towards foreign films.” While I would certainly entertain the second portion of this claim as a driving factor for these films (for what is film if not a business), but some 40 years ago, would Quandt have not claimed the same of Bardot, who his precious Goddard would use to High Art ends in Les Mepris?

Lisa Downing acutely blows the first part of Quandt’s claim out of the water in discussing Baise-Moi and Irreversible. She first notes that the former incorporates scenes from Noe’s prior film into its text as well as narratively referring to Quentin Tarantino (who is, of course, always gesturing elsewhere). “The Film’s dialogue is very self-aware as it reflects openly on the constructedness of the convention of characterization and on the kinds of subjectivity that given generic models presuppose”[1] This cinema uses the narrative elements of horror cinema or pornography to envision figures and scenarios “not in terms that suggest the concerns of well-rounded psychological characters of a realist cinematic mode with whom the viewers are encouraged to identify – but rather as textual effects, devices used to reveal the self-reflexivity of their own construction.”

Let us consider the language Quandt employs to discuss this “growing vogue for shock tactics” produced by “Francois Ozon, Gaspard Noé, Catherine Breillat, Phillippe Grandrieux – and now, alas, Dumont.” Bruno Dumont, whose work is now “subject to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement. Images and subjects once the provenance of splatter films, exploitation flicks, and porn – gang rapes, bashings and slashings and blindings, hard-ons and vulvas, cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest, fucking and fisting, sluices of come and gore – proliferate the high-art environs of a national cinema whose provocations have historically been formal, political, or philosophical.”

Quandt denigrates the “faux philosophy” that such filmmakers deploy, citing Breillat, Noé, Grandrieux as the worst of the lot. In Anatomy of Hell, Breillat cast pornstar Rocco Siffredi and Chanel model Amira Casara. The heady dialogue they spew emerges distant from the social function of their forms. They deliver dialogue that the speakers themselves do not seem privy to, formally becoming talking heads.

Ginette Vincendeau has placed Romance in the tradition of Sade, Apollinaire, bataille, Klossowski and Pauline Réage. Still, for Lisa Downing these writers maintained their texts as inseparable to the erotic as the sex act. “Breillat, by contrast, uses the voiceover and dialogue [and in Fat Girl, I would argue these reaction shots of Anaïs in the adjacent bed] to discourse upon the discontents of sexuality, from the point of view of the female located in the heterosexual economy.”[2] Porn is a language that many of these films take up to destabilize the patriarchal gaze it establishes. The body is the playing field of these films and language, most often, the tools of trade.

These loose narratives that Quandt bemoans as “indecipherable” askews focus to a more formally based investigation of subjecthood. The details which clutter generic structure (particulars of the film “shoot” they are scouting for in Twentynine Palms or the genetics experiment in Trouble Every Day matter less than the charged symbolism of the Hummer, a pitchfork or Beatrice Dalle’s whetted lips. As Williams states of Breillat, her “films have ellipses of plot where other films have ellipses of sex.”[3]

This loose story structure and focus on the formal quality of the scene also gives rise to a more quotidian method of looking which at times seems somnambulistic. Almost all of Twentynine Palms occurs in very long sequences which take in the landscape. It is the landscape which will eventually consume our couple – quite contrary to Quandt’s yearning for Dumont’s prior L’Humanité, “a film about the body in the landscape and the landscape of the body.” The film becomes trance-like. In one haunting sequence, the couple stop to regard the large industrial windmills which hum and whirl. The buzz of street lamps and the incessant passing of violent trucks punctuate the later soundtrack. Are these not the Formal and Philosophical provocations Quandt warned these works as lacking. Vincent Gallo is the zombie to Beatrice Dalle’s vampire in Trouble Every Day and complains about the industrial light in his eyes or enacts in a covertly, social violence as he endlessly caresses a woman mid-public transit, while pressing a recently purchased puppy between them.

We have seen a similar sort of durational somnambulism at play in Fat Girl during the seemingly endless seduction scene. As Linda Williams writes, “…Explicit sexual action, along with uncommon duration, allows the battle over the loss of virginity to become a more psychologically and emotionally accurate ordeal, both immediate and powerful in its effects on Elena, and distanced and refracted through the eyes of an empathetic, jealous, and sorrowing Anaïs.”[4]

Such moments of somnambulistic duration also leave us all the more stunned when the narrative delivers these films’ famed shock sequences. Such moments of shock alarm at a level of unconscious and can momentarily jar the viewer, calling into question the reality status of that object. And further, after the shock is quickly recalled as fiction, the lingering image can call into question the generic, social or narrative structuration of that figure or event.

In Fat Girl, there is no denying the 12 year old Anaïs’ age and weight. Anaïs' body, Breillat has claimed, “protects her from becoming a product of society’s norms.”[5] When she is attacked in the final sequence, she does not acknowledge this assault as rape because this is the mandate of the social in which she refuses to enact. Placed in an impossible situation, many viewers side with the social in viewing the character Anais’s narrative plight, since we are also aware of our watching actress Anaïs Reboux perform in this harrowing scenario. But the shock has a freeing capacity, also.

Like Emma Wilson writes on Romance: “Here the scene makes us uncertain of further boundaries between the ‘real’ and the staged. As Marie is untied, it has suddenly become too much for her, we witness what seems the literal untying of Caroline Ducey [the actress]”[6] or, to again quote Williams “The question arises then: How do viewers’ own bodies engage with the sex acts of these scenes? If the films are not ‘only’ pornography, by which we mean not ‘only’ designed to arouse us, then what is the role of our own bodily engagement with the aroused, desiring, but not always pornographically satisfied, bodies on the screen?”[7]

These are art films made to resemble genre films so as to deracinate the very ideology at the latter’s core. These films look to the basest of genres (be it porn or slasher) to submit a bodily appeal. They shock the viewer – like horror. But their shock is lasting as it seeks to destabilize the convention of its lineage.

Quandt goes on to argue that the films are too disparate to be classified as a movement. In this way he is somewhat correct. It was never a conscious ship that anyone jumped aboard, for which anyone penned manifestos. I myself hold the contributions by Denis, Dumont, and Breillat in far higher regard than I do Noé’s and of Baise-Moi. I disagree completely with Quandt’s listing of Ozon here, as Ozon’s influences arise as much from melodrama as they do from horror. And Breillat, who has been working in this capacity for the 40 years? It would be crude to label her as partaking in a trend when, in 1968 she wrote these words:

That is the solemn difficult moment when his hands take out his heart During the infinite shortness he has left to die in he places it slowly and with devotion between her legs The last throbbings in her organ make sumptuous delicate love to it that becomes violent when the final jerks become synchronized with his own; Then everything grows calm again and his heart takes its place for ever in her vagina which itself has found its final place after having experienced the most marvelous of orgasms).[8]

[1]Lisa Downing. "French Cinema's New 'Sexual Revolution': Postmodern Porn and Troubled Genre", French Cultural Studies 15(3): 274

[2] Downing: 270

[3] Linda Williams. (2001) 'Cinema and the Sex Act', Sight and Sound 27(1): 25

[4] Williams (2001): 24

[5] Criterion (2004)

[6] Emma Wilson (2001) 'Deforming Femininity: Catherine Breillat's Romance', in Lucy Mazdon (ed.) France On Film, London, Wallflower Press, 154

[7] Williams (2001): 22

[8] Catherine Breillat, A Man for the Asking, trans Harold . Salemson (Morrow: New York, 1969), 127-128.

The Quandt article in question: was published in the February 2004 issue of Art Forum.

And, by the by, there's a rather good new book on Breillat published out of Manchester press by Douglas Keesey.