Saturday, January 25, 2014

The "Berri affair" 3: the Berri affair

Libération front page - 28 February 1991

Serge Daney's review of Uranus (see: Uranus, mourning for mourning) incensed the film director - the French producer and filmmaker Claude Berri, best known for Jean de Florette - so much, that he sought to obtain a right to reply to be published in the newspaper. French law makes the right to reply an absolute right, open to anyone named in a periodic publication. However the custom is that art criticism, when not defamatory, does not warrant a response from the artist. Berri's persistence made him go to court twice before a judgement forced Libération to publish the text below. It was such an extraordinary event that it is considered jurisprudence and is now used as a reference in law studies on the possible abuse of the right to reply.
Claude Berri replies to Serge Daney
Serge Daney, 
I “may not think” – and that’s what you’re saying – but I sometimes reflect, especially at night.
At first I thought I was angry with you. But after sleeping over it, I read your article again, calmly. Here and there, I even understand a sentence or two. It’s a shame that the article lacks coherence. A detail makes you “rebound”*. A four-seconds shot where the actress Danièle Lebrun leafs through a film magazine of that time, probably Cinémonde. I quote you: “Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on.” There, you wrote it.
I don’t have to flag much more than this. For the rest, I refer the reader to your article dated Tuesday 8 January 1991 (even though Uranus was released on Wednesday 12 December, with a review in your paper on that day). If I, in turn, rebound, Serge Daney – as the right to reply allows me – it’s in the memory of my father who often said to me: “if someone spits in your face, don’t say it’s the rain”. It’s not the first time you’ve been after me. Already, for Jean de Florette, I had forgotten that you had asked the question: so why is BERRI going through all this trouble?
Your interest in me is touching. Few people posed the question in those terms. But after all, it’s not a bad question. And if you haven’t understood, let me answer it for you: I go through all this trouble, Serge Daney, since the age of seventeen – I’m nearly fifty-seven – to make films rather than fur. You know that my father was a furrier. At first, I remind you, I wanted to be an actor. Then, over time, I became a director, producer, distributor and an art lover. You know all that. As for me, I know nothing about you. Where do you come from? Surely, to write like this, you must be educated. What does your face look like? Someday, we must have a drink together. You’re so interested in me, it feels natural we should get acquainted. 
So, I went through a lot of trouble, and I’ve done really well. My father would be proud. The only thing that could annoy me would be take too badly what you write about me. But no – re-thinking and re-reading – I don’t take it badly at all. I won’t hide that my first reaction was to want to box your ears. Now that I’m over this first fit of temper, let it be known that, on the contrary, I cannot wait to read again and again the inevitable ramblings that you will surely produce for my next film.
A few years ago, you would have hurt me. I prefered when François Truffaut wrote about my films. It was clear, magnificent. Articles are like films, they resemble their authors. You must be a strange guy. Are you nasty? I’m not. I’ve only had successes, abroad too. Florette played for three years in London. In four weeks, nearly two million French people have seen Uranus. Overall, the media reception has been good. Uranus will represent France at the Berlin Film Festival. Why would I get angry with someone who rambles on? One must watch one’s temper. I prefer to leave that to the professionals. I’d like to see the film that you may make someday. 
Ok, no hard feelings. I’m an insomniac. And I’ve had a good time writing to you. And know that, if I didn’t think about anything while making Uranus, I just spent two hours thinking about you. Do you know that Jewish story? Moshe can’t sleep because he owes money to his neighbour. He gets up, opens the window and starts shouting: “Yantel! Yantel!” Yantel, who’s asleep, wakes up and opens the window. And Moshe shouts: “I will never pay you back.” Then Moshe goes back to bed and tells his wife: “Now, he’s the one who won’t sleep.” 
There you go, Serge Daney, do continue. Be sure that I will mention you in my memoirs. I’ll include this letter. When I made The two of us with Michel Simon, I immediately and instinctively knew that I’d have my place in history, at least because of that film. Be reassured, you will have your place in history thanks to me. Now, I’m going back to bed…
As my friend Coluche used to say: “So long, babe!”**
Claude Berri
* Daney’s article was published in the Op-ed section of Libération called “Rebonds” (Rebound).
** “Allez, salut ma Poule !” A “poule” is a colloquial term which can be used in a friendly way (honey, babe) but also to designate a mistress, or a women of easy virtue. In any case, it must have come across as extremely offending to Daney who was gay.   
[Libération, 28 February 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt]
From the testimonies I have found, Serge Daney was extremely hurt by the publication of this insulting reply. Here's his account, in the last months of his life (Daney died of AIDS in June 1992, less than two years after the Berri affair):
There were two moments in my life where I was ashamed to belong to something idiotic (…) The second was the Berri affair last year, concerning Uranus. I have to say that the idea of “one for all and all for one” took a serious blow. I hoped that, just like in the movies, friends would come out from everywhere, dropping everything else, and saying “What the hell is going on here? We’re going to pummel the guy who’s hassling our friend.” It wasn’t all that important, but no one came out. 
[Serge Daney, Postcards from the cinema, Berg, 2007, p.124]
And here's Daney's reaction, in an interview he gave for his last book (Recrudescence), soon after the events:
When I surprised myself writing again good things about Fritz Lang and always bad things about René Clair, I was less amazed by my loyalty to the traditional tastes of Cahiers than by the vehemence with which I refused all reconciliation. (...) When a televised film ceremony elected Les Enfants du paradis the finest French film since the talkies, I had the feeling that we hadn’t won. Who is this we? Those for whom French cinema is rather La règle du jeu, Pickpocket, Playtime, L’enfance nue or La maman et la putain. And then I argue it out with myself and tell myself that if we loved those films for their minority violence, it is to be expected that in this period of renewed bourgeois hypocrisy (I prefer this expression to soft consensus, which is now a dull cliché), violence should be ill-regarded, the critical sense devalued and the minority quickly put in the wrong.
So I ought not to be surprised that between the raw and the cooked the war goes on. A culinary war (this is France after all) where, opposing raw naturalism (Renoir), raw impressionism (Bresson) or raw modern art (Godard) we still find Tavernier’s stew or Berri’s fry-up. And I’m not surprised that Berri should hound me through the courts like some wounded big shot. It’s the legacy of Delannoy’s mush or L’Herbier’s boiled beef (he was a dead loss and no mistake). Taking this into account, everything tells me that there is something like a franco-French civil war, which is about this country and its history, which goes beyond the cinema and which will never be over. Someone wrote to me at Libération accusing me of doing a Truffaut thirty years on. He was right. We are thirty years back.
[Serge Daney, Cinema in transit, unpublished]   
It's not clear what hurt Daney most: Berri's response, that it got published in Libération, what it meant for French cinema (and the state of France as a whole) or the fact that "no one came out" to support him. On the spot, Daney himself was close to a pretty silly reaction (as told by Jean-Claude Biette):
I owe to Daney’s memory to tell that he had the intention, following the controversy over Uranus, to send Claude Berri a copy of Devant la recrudescence, with a dedication mimicking the words Berri had used to salute Daney “Here’s some reading, babe!” and that he had abandoned the idea because of the effort of finding Berri’s address and eventually admitting – in front of this obvious waste of time – the he didn’t hold that much against Berri.
[Cahiers du cinéma, issue 458, July-August 1992, special issue on Serge Daney, pp. 51-53, my translation]
It's perhaps with Serge July - the editor of Libération - that Daney was most upset with. According to Jean Guisnel, in his  history of Libération, July had committed himself to write a text next to Berri's reply - a promise he failed to fulfill. Here's the text that July wrote when Daney passed away:
"The question of our cowardly times really is: what is resisting? What is resisting to markets, media, fear, cynicism, idiocy, indignity?" He founded Trafic with this resistance in mind. Daney opened the first issue with a "Diary of the past year" from which this - almost gaullist - quote is from. He rightly blamed me for not having resisted - when I should have done so - to one occurence of the dominant indignity. 
I must begin with this: Claude Berri’s indignity. Berri had just made Uranus and Serge Daney, in the Rebound section of Libération, had written an article worthy to feature in an anthology. Its object? An abject side of France in this stinky cinema. Claude Berri subpoenaed Libération, a court agreed and imposed the publication of a right to reply which I steadfastly refused to publish. But I had no choice. The court had chosen the date. It coincided with the most dramatic hours of the Gulf war*: Berri’s text would appear without me defending Serge Daney, publicly at least. That day, I wrote about the war. He never forgave me for not being present at a battle that he judged fundamental. I had - as some used to say - let Berri pass. Daney was right. It remained an incurable wound for him.
* The day Berri's right of reply was published (28 February 1991) was the day George Bush announced the end of the first Gulf war (see image above).
[Libération, 13 June 1992, my translation]
Berri himself (who passed away in 2009) came to "regret" his response, albeit not for the best reasons. Here's the interview he gave to Cahiers in 2003:
When you react to Serge Daney’s text in Libération against Uranus, you actually demand a right to reply and you obtain it via the courts. What did upset you so much that you took such a drastic measure?
[Berri gets up and goes to his desk, looking for the article in a folder]: We talked more about this, this conflict with Serge Daney - whom I didn’t know - than about what Henri Langlois wrote about Le Cinéma de papa. [Claude Berri has found the article and reads it outloud] You’ve never read it?
Yes, I did, at the time. I remember what he said about a film magazine in your film, which was a collector’s piece where it should have been new.
When I read the article, I didn’t write to Daney or call him, I only asked for a right to reply. The reply was scathing. At the time, I didn’t know that Daney was sick, I didn’t even know who he was. Especially since three weeks or a month before Libération had printed five pages on the film. The review wasn’t amazing but the film was considered a real event. When I read Daney’s article, I couldn’t contain myself.
There was a sentence, an idea which had shocked you.
When I read it now, not really [laughs]. I didn’t take stock. But it was especially contemptuous. [He reads an extract]. “Given the group portrait of a rotten period in the history of France, can this portrait be drawn without thinking a little bit about how it should be drawn? Answer: no. Did Claude Berri think of anything at all while filming Uranus? Answer: it doesn’t seem so. Subsidiary question: isn’t it a bit late to aim a camera at this old landscape (1945)? No comment.
Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on. In a scene where she is reading in bed, the actress Danièle Lebrun is leafing through the pages of a film magazine of the time, probably Cinémonde. So far nothing wrong, except that it’s a real Cinémonde from that time, a collector’s piece with tattered pages and yellowed paper. In this choice of a period-Cinémonde over a copy of a Cinémonde from the period, there lies somewhere, halfway between second-hand shop and telefilm, the aesthetic principle of Uranus. And when the past has become that decorative, it has stopped making an impact on our present.”
It’s a good remark, no?
Yes, yes… Well, no, honestly, with hindsight, re-reading it, I wouldn’t have replied. I had no idea that he was a cult critic, that he was gay and that he was sick, and if I had known...
What would it have changed?
I wouldn’t have replied. I was shooting at an ambulance. I take no pride in having replied.
Serge Daney was more upset with Serge July who didn’t support him than with you.
But my reply was mean. Thierry Levy, my lawyer, went to see July two or three times and we obtained the reply via the decision of a tribunal. It was imposed onto them. They published my reply – a real turn of luck for them – the day of a strike in the press printing industry, which means it wasn’t read by many but clearly left its mark on a few minds. In one’s life, there's a lot, good moments, dramas and moments of stupidity. I didn’t realise how much grief it was going to cause in the eyes of some people. I can even regret to have replied because it wasn’t worth it. Perhaps it came after quite a number of humiliations which I had to suffer in my life.
[Cahiers du cinéma, issue 580, June 2003, pp. 60-69, my translation]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "Berri affair" 2: Uranus

Second post on the "Berri affair": Daney's review of Claude Berri's Uranus published in the daily newspaper Libération in January 1991. This is the text at the source of the controversy. It has become a sort of a new reference in the never-ending fight within French cinema between New Wave / modernity and the tradition of quality / academism. Next post will cover Berri's extraordinary reaction and how the affair unfolded.
Uranus, mourning for mourning
Given the group portrait of a rotten period in the history of France, can this portrait be drawn without thinking a little bit about how it should be drawn? Answer: no. Did Claude Berri think of anything at all while filming Uranus? Answer: it doesn’t seem so. Subsidiary question: isn’t it a bit late to aim a camera at this old landscape (1945)? No comment.
Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on. In a scene where she is reading in bed, the actress Danièle Lebrun is leafing through the pages of a film magazine of the time, probably Cinémonde. So far nothing wrong, except that it’s a real Cinémonde from that time, a collector’s piece with tattered pages and yellowed paper. In this choice of a period-Cinémonde over a copy of a Cinémonde from the period, there lies somewhere, halfway between second-hand shop and telefilm, the aesthetic principle of Uranus. And when the past has become that decorative, it has stopped making an impact on our present.
Let’s now imagine what might have been the realist solution to this problem. It was enough to make a facsimile of this Cinémonde and obtain a duplicate with fresh pages and white paper, to choose a fake new over a true old, to position oneself on the side of the character and not on the side of the actress (or the props manager). Then we would have had the feeling that the character played by Danièle Lebrun had just bought Cinémonde, a logically brand new Cinémonde. Thanks to this tiny detail we would have had, for a second or two, the feeling of the present of 1945, i.e. of history without a capital H, a history that is still arbitrary and has not yet become a tribunal, with characters who have not yet become a gallery of friendly actors composing in 1990 the not so friendly roles of yesterday. And here is how a movie that is supposed to run on vitriol turns rapidly into museum pomade.
Some would say that this is not what interests Berri and that he only wants to make us laugh (mirthlessly) thanks to the anti-heroes he has found in Marcel Aymé’s novel. Some would even say that it is not fair to pretend to discover that Berri the filmmaker is not up there with the likes of Renoir or Guitry for whom a cinema evocative of the past has never depended on a period-Cinémonde. Uranus is indeed an addition to the rather short list of films attempting to present on screen a France that is not presentable: the France of 1940-1945. A difficult gamble since it implies interesting the audience in a sample of rather uninteresting, fundamentally spineless and despairingly mediocre characters. This is no small task and the surprise is not that Berri failed where even Brecht didn’t always succeed (although Losey did, in the Brechtian Monsieur Klein) but that, ready to take on the challenge and to jump into the unknown, he has failed to reach the bar by such a margin that – probably carried away by consensual and tepid hurrahs - he didn’t even suspect that there was a bar (1).
Let’s take another example. There is one great scene in Uranus, where the Monglat son confronts his father and where the father, wonderfully interpreted by the intense Gallabru, becomes, in the midst of evil, nothing less than Shakespearian. For Berri, who wants to make us laugh about the honest (or dishonest) mediocrity of his Franco-fauna, it’s a failure since Monglat is grandiose. This is because, since Diderot, mediocrity is not a topic available to anyone. Marcel Aymé approached it head on (in Le confort intellectuel) but not with fictional characters. As soon as there is at least one character, the most elementary morals consist in giving him every chance (first to the character, then to the actor’s body and finally to the profession of acting). And if he’s really given his chances, then inevitably, he will interest us. This is the iron law of fiction. Fiction, despite itself, tends to redeem characters. Barthes, who was fascinated by stupidity, didn’t write novels and probably suffered as a result. Even Flaubert admitted in the end that he had developed some sympathy for Bouvard and Pécuchet. Average humanity is a very bad conductor of fiction, especially in cinema. 
Since apparently none of this occurred to Berri, he was happy to merely record the frequently lazy work of a group of popular actors trying to save their characters from lack of interest and stale folklore. In French cinema’s tradition of quality, it is always up to the famous actor (and to his tirades) to exorcise the dubious, cowardly and mediocre character he embodies. Thus in Uranus, the collaborator inspires respect, the good stubborn communist empathy and the intellectual communist pity. The engineer is courageous (he hides the collaborator), the professor is far-sighted (he helps the engineer) and if the suspicious barman is a brute, he is saved by his discovery of poetry (he loves Racine). Overall, this is a rather positive appraisal of a France which, having rather hastily taken its spinelessness for a refusal of Manichaeism, smiles to discover itself, despite everything, very likeable in the two-way mirror of the past (“only human after all!”). In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why it is documentaries, like The Sorrow and the pity, that, much better than fiction, have resuscitated France’s past, have been under attack by the censors and generated unease. Uranus does not disturb anyone and pleases everybody.
There again, some would say that this is asking too much of Berri who, after all, is not at the origin of the scandal. He is too busy being the illustrator paying his respect to the most Franco-French regional writers (Pagnol, Aymé, who were not exactly progressives) and too admiring of the other arts (painting) and not enough of cinema – albeit the only art which, impure, oscillates by nature between past and present, between the age of the objects filmed and the hic et nunc of the camera. And then, isn’t there an expiration date for collective mourning – like for yogurt? Aren’t there moments in the life of a people, like in an artist’s career, when something like grief work (Freud’s Trauerarbeit) can happen before fiction redeems everything, albeit cheaply? Shouldn’t the example of the Germans – Fassbinder, Harlan or Syberberg – be meditated upon? Questions. Important and often abstruse questions which some will say Berri didn’t think of. OK, let’s stop demanding too much of Berri and move on to something else. To French cinema for instance.
French cinema – this has been repeated ad nauseam – suffers from an exceptional memory deficit. This is why, since the war, it is more about moralist auteurs (New Wave) than artisan-narrators (Tradition of quality). This is why French cinema is absolutely not American, not very Italian and wears its very own ball and chain: a script crisis which is nothing but a part of French history that hasn’t been well digested. The past (collaboration, purges, colonial wars) hasn’t passed (2).
Certainly there have been many score-settling movies, from Le corbeau to Uranus via a few made by Autant-Lara such as La traversée de Paris and the little-known Patates (with Pierre Perret). If mourning was about conducting and revising trials, finding new suspects and denying everyone any responsibility, all these movies with their satisfied masochism and their decorative darkness would have been adequate to the task. But mourning is something else altogether: not a way to disqualify the past but a way to untie oneself, slowly, from a past that is loved in spite of everything, loved even despite its general condemnation by History.
Aesthetically, mourning is an ambiguous work-in-progress which begins by giving to the past the fresh frivolity of its status as ex-present and to characters that freedom of choice which often, too young or too ignorant, they haven’t used. When it is solely ideological, mourning doesn’t work well and loses itself in the bitterness of infinite denouncement (“All rotten!”).
Non-ideological mourning is, more concretely, what separates parents and children. It is the question from the latter to the former (“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”), i.e. the poorly transmitted burden of the hesitating beliefs of the 20th century as it comes to a close. The communist creed for instance – obviously one of the biggest issues of the century – is worth much more than the rapid, ecumenical reconstruction in Uranus. The stubborn refusal of French cinema to transform a pure communist into a character of pure fiction explains in part the amazing, contemporary brain death of the French Communist Party. A refusal so stubborn that a figure like Georges Marchais end up being recycled as a female pig on a televised puppet show! The story of a communist father and of his children who can no longer be communist is one of the stories that French cinema should have made it a priority to tell. But it hasn’t. Italians have done it, with difficulties, and that has allowed them to produce one filmmaker (Nanni Moretti) and to move on to other things (not cinema).
Hence the question: is it too late? And aren’t the limits of mourning biological, assuming the coexistence of two generations still in conflict and, as Straub said, completely nicht versöhnt (not reconciled)? Does this mean that real mourning is not about mourning my beliefs (this would only generate disillusion which generates nothing), but mourning the beliefs of the previous generation, when they were my age? And what if the true scandal of mourning wasn’t only that there are innocents and guilty ones (even unpunished) but also that there has been, in every period and in every sense, people too young not to have been innocent? For instance because the Vichy years were the years of their youth and of their discovery of the world – the world as it was, i.e. not brilliant. The scandal is not only the guilt of old actors, it is also their innocence (“You’re not serious, when you’re seventeen”) – even the innocence of a housewife and mother who buys her brand new Cinémonde and gets a lot of pleasure out of turning its pages. 
PS: At a recent “Special evening of cinema” on television – a charitable operation mounted by Canal Plus in support of cinema – Les enfants du paradis was voted the most beautiful French movie since the advent of the talkies. Old Marcel Carné came to thank the jury whereas the least the television broadcasters could have done was to thank – through Carné – cinema for helping them make ends meet in the absence of good programmes. Les enfants du paradis is not a bad movie but it is merely the best that an occupied country can produce, fleeing into the decor, into the past, into the gallery of actors and into the beautiful craftsmanship of movie making. Fleeing into a collective art dedicated to the group portrait and unspeakable nostalgia (what could be more innocent than children and paradise?). As long as the good cinephile and the decent folk prefer the golden hideaway of Les enfants du paradis to the dry account of La règle du jeu, we can be sure that a form of occupation, somewhere, continues. 
(1) This is no longer probable; it’s now certain. 
(2) It is not impossible after all that the typical situation of French cinema is the one of the prisoner. There would then be two ways out: either by adjusting to prison, by making it human, by surviving with alliances and know-how, or by refusing it, even if it means a chance to discover oneself in a newly found freedom (through spiritual or physical escape). Long held as the greatest French film, Renoir’s La grande illusion (like later Le caporal épinglé) shows both paths. But if Renoir plays this game, Bresson (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc) is the one choosing the escape route. See also Cocteau (La belle et la bête), Grémillion (La petite Lise), Becker (Le Trou) and many others. For the New Wave, it was enough to escape from the studios to have access to a certain freedom. This freedom however is never the theme of the movie: even in Rohmer’s movies, one is only prisoner of his social being
 First published in Libération, 8 January 1991. Reprinted in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997, pp. 153-6. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The "Berri affair" 1: Jean de Florette

I'm starting a series of three posts on the "Berri affair", which Serge Daney described as one of the "two moments in my life where I was ashamed to belong to something idiotic." Future posts will attempt to describe what happens in 1991 (a year or so before Daney's death). But we must begin with an earlier text: Daney's review of Claude Berri's Jean de Florette.

 The TV commercial that Daney refers to in the title *
So, why is Berri going through all this trouble?*
Phew! Yesterday was national Jean de Florette day. Today we can finally talk about the film. It’s an illustration of Pagnol’s novel. By the way, what’s an illustration?
As a dull illustration of a novel that is not dull, Jean de Florette (part one) leaves you a bit depressed but not quite appalled (but are there still movies that can truly appal?). It’s in the very nature of academism – in its fundamental modesty – to discourage exegesis as if it was venom. So, now that the media frenzy is over, there is still a film. And I’m guessing that even the most bashful admirers of the film will admit that it is primarily the (pious) illustration of a (great) book.
To appreciate Jean de Florette with the supposed innocence of its ideal audience, we must make the effort to remember the books of our childhood. These books used to contain, every ten or twenty pages, one illustration (drawing or engraving), with a sentence from the text below it. We must remember that the charm of these illustrations came from their scarcity and that we did not yet have the desire (it was before storyboards) to imagine the whole text in images. We were content, while reading, to take an image break (just as you say a toilet break), which was never more than an image just to see, a hypothesis, a conditional image. Since any illustration is only a series of propositions, the (popular) pleasure that we derive from them consists in quibbling about which actor/actress truly personifies his/her character: a perverse pleasure since it necessarily leaves the door open to all the possible castings (why not Claude Piéplu as Papet, Gérard Lanvin as Ugolin or André Dussolier as Jean de Florette? I can hear you screaming: “No!” You’re already playing…)
The limits of illustration
Illustration always refers to something else. It can be self-referential and create its own autonomous graphic or aesthetic universe (Gustave Doré or Sir John Tenniel). It can attempt to refer to the other illustrations in the book. And that’s where it stops working because the very principle of illustrations is that there is nothing between them but text. Together, the engravings of a book do not create an independent world, in the same way that a stroboscopic vision is not a gaze and a series of toilet breaks doesn’t quite make a river. Only random moments remain, like the stage finish of an invisible Tour de France and the obstacle course of professional screenwriter of adaptations, petrified by the respect of what eludes him (words). In the case of Jean de Florette, each and every one can have its own illustrations. Taken individually they are not worthless (Berri – So Long Stooge proved it – can be competent), but only on the condition that we forget that this is cinema and that a film is not meant to be leafed through but must be watched (and sometimes seen). The arrival of Jean de Florette and Aimée in their rundown farmhouse, Ugolin suddenly dreaming of his carnations, the Papet ruining his eyesight looking cunningly around the hedges, the intromission of the giant rabbits, the yellow sirocco wind, the truth about the emeralds, and especially the clouds that the mountain splits, forcing the rain on the wrong side: all play their roles as icons. This leaves the rest (and regardless of your choice of icons, there will always be something left), i.e. all those shots whose only legitimacy are these images, just as these images are summarised on the film poster (which it would be inappropriate to confuse with an advertisement for a 100% vegetable oil or a new mayonnaise with Herbes de Provence).
Knowing that cinema is twenty-four images per second, and that eleven billion francs has just been spent to make merely four or five images in a film that is over two hours long, the cinephile feels depressed (but, I repeat, not appalled). A filmmaker – the cinephile perseveres in thinking – is a person who makes the in-between perceptible: in-between images, in-between actions, in-between stars and extras, in between anything, just in-between. A filmmaker doesn’t believe in illustrations as a nice supplement to the text (especially when the text is strong) but he dreams of a film woven by images and not decorated with them. But let’s leave the cinephile to his field of carnations, and let’s see how, even in the context of pious and academic cinema, Jean de Florette falls short. And this forces us to ask the question of Berri’s masochism. 
Pagnol: forgotten
Jean de Florette is not only a great book (the story is so strong that it literally carries through the film and saves it from boredom), it is also written by a man who was a great filmmaker. From Berri’s statements, we can unfortunately deduct this: he felt it useful to tone down the folklore of Pagnol’s world (less Pastis, less accent, less local colour) for a rather naive conception of the holy Greek-therefore-universal-tragedy on a background of beautiful landscapes. Worse than treason, it’s a real step back compared to Pagnol the filmmaker. For Pagnol, landscapes didn’t exist and places – in black and white – owed their strong presence to being the stakes in the stories. Pagnol is not Giono. He is – like Benoit Jacquot? – a filmmaker of the contract and promise, and nothing else interests him. Pagnol’s world, including the folklore, is abruptly thrown against the savagery of the Word and the precision of peasants’ calculations.
Mercy for the actors
What’s left is another form of Berri’s masochism: the actors. Nothing can be added to the comparative assessment of the three male stars of the film (in the spirit of the game, let’s say that Montand is inconsistent and Depardieu amazes but in a vacuum; let’s say that it doesn’t really matter; let’s also say that Auteuil is indeed remarkable), but there is still the question (which, obviously, does not interest anyone) of the small roles. And it’s always worth starting with the hare of small roles, because it says something about a film’s ethics. Take Aimée (Elisabeth Depardieu) for example. At one point, the problem is no longer that the actress is not good or that the role has been hollowed out, but that we are watching her shots with the same embarrassment we feel in front of someone we’ve invited over without telling her why, without offering her a seat or suggesting she wait and leaf through an illustrated magazine while the thing goes on. Between the failure to assist actors in danger and a lack of interest for characters on the sole basis that they are secondary, lie the reasons why Berri is not yet David Lean or William Wyler (who were academic filmmakers too).
It’s not merely an ethical question of relations with actors and to what they are supposed to impersonate, it’s also – of course – a question of aesthetics. If cinema is twenty-four images per second and n bodies in presence, a filmmaker is the one who manages to make everything move at the same time. And when I say move, it doesn’t mean jiggling around hysterically, transitional cuts or jolting the camera around, it means that film characters (just like an object, a rabbit or a field) are like clouds, they move even when they’re not being filmed. It means that great films are those where the things that are filmed (called on screen) and the things not filmed (called off screen) are exposed together to wind, erosion and time. It means that between a shot and a reverse shot, there isn’t an actor waiting for his turn, but time passing for all.
PS: I imagine that Berri, both producer and director of the film, has been caught between the two demands and that the producer’s demands (putting together the project, securing the cast, guaranteeing the image, providing some media-ready material) took precedence. They are laudable, and there is no doubt that Berri is one of the great producers of French cinema, but the fact that he is more personal as a producer than as a director is an issue, and perhaps a final bit of masochism. For the movie – no doubt about it – will be a success. 
* “A quoi ça sert que Berri, il se décarcasse ?” The title is a pun on a popular TV commercial for herbs and spices food manufacturer Ducros: "A quoi ça sert que Ducros, il se décarcasse ?". The commercial was on TV for most of the '70s and '80s and played heavily and annoyingly on the folklore of the Provence region.

First published in Libération, 29 August 1986, reprinted in La maison cinéma et le monde volume 3, POL, 2012, pp. 53-56. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Serge Daney in 2013

It's time for the annual round up of English translations of Serge Daney. This blog spotted thirteen new translations, some here, several elsewhere. The highlight of the year was the co-translation with Otie Wheeler of Daney's introductory texts to the chapters of his first book, La rampe, published as a series in the summer. I strongly recommend you to read them if you haven't done so already. I was surprised to see that over time, most of La rampe has been translated.

A most satisfying part for me was the sheer number of people who gave their time and effort to translate or help translate Daney. What, at times, has felt like a solitary endeavour has become a collaborative effort. So thank you to Adrian Martin, Ted Fendt, Stoffel Debuysere, Craig Keller and Otie Wheeler. Let's keep it up in 2014.

On this blog:
In terms of readership, Google Analytics tell me that there were 5,500 unique visitors to the blog (a thousand more than in 2012). However, when I filter down this meaningless number (it counts web crawling robots) to the visitors who stayed more than a minute, we're talking about 900 people (the same as last year, you loyal readers!)

Google also tells me that, although visitors came from over a hundred countries, only 40% of you were from English-speaking ones, that most of you are under 34 years old and 54% are male, and that the text on Mannerism seems to have been the most popular.

So here's to 2014. New texts are already being prepared. Happy New Year!