The Acinema of Philippe Grandrieux: On Un lac
Un lac (2008) begins with an intense visual and sonic transgression that, seemingly directed at the express disorientation of the senses, activates if not panics the body. We are not watching a movie here — that much is clear. Pulled into a brutal, snow-covered landscape filled with nightmarish Friedrichian mountains and forests, our precognitive fight or flight reflexes are rudely awakened. We are not being introduced to a simple story of love — forbidden love, incestuous love, seduction, jealousy, or a painful coming of age. Nor to a tale about violence present within the intimacy of a family, as Grandrieux himself puts it: the creation of ‘household scenes in which Oedipus is never too far away.’ Instead, our bodies are forced to make a crucial decision: dare we follow Grandrieux’s camera?
If we do, this is what we’ll see in the first thirty seconds or so: someone, Alexi, is viciously chopping wood. The background is out of focus, subdued in black and white despite this being a colour film — resembling organic matter as viewed under a microscope, or blueish-black ink leaking on a canvas. It’s part of the landscape where the film evolves: a strange, haunting tableau made of trees, rock formations and snow (lots of snow), of which we’ll see more. The overwhelming sound of metal attacking wood intensifies the affective intimacy of the close-up shots of Alexi. There’s a strange rhythm to his chopping: something vaguely industrial yet organic heard in the metallic clang when he rips back his axe. The inevitable outcome of all this violence is the falling of a tree. Grandrieux’s camera is positioned at the base of the forest; the trees appear impossibly high, majestic, yet terrifying at the same time. But once a trunk is felled, the camera returns to its absence in the landscape, and we see others swaying in the wind as if mourning a fallen comrade. Our comrade, Alexi — by now we are physically invested in his well-being — has fallen down too. Lying in the snow, buried within it, staring up, he is shaking violently: an epileptic seizure.
The General Economy of Acinema
These first moments swing us back and forth between two extremes: total mobilisation, and equally, total immobilisation — an alternation that continues throughout the film. There is a sense of excessive mobility or movement from the very beginning of Un lac: when something moves it does so in a predominantly violent manner. Grandrieux’s style — to film, literally, with his hands, to see with his hands — takes what Laura Marks calls haptic visuality to its extreme (of which I’ll have more to say about later). Yet, at the same time, there are stretches of virtually no, or at least barely noticeable, movement. We are presented with these mentioned tableaux: pictures made of living people. Large parts of the film are shot in extreme darkness, itself an absence of movement brought about by the absence of light. The alternation between mobility and immobility creates an affective, bodily charge unique to Grandrieux’s cinema — from where might this be derived?
Reflecting upon the making of Un lac, Grandrieux says: ‘Writing devours me,’ I take this to literally mean: filming is writing.1 And in the case of Grandrieux it is a writing or filming with one’s eyes closed. This brings Grandrieux close to the theory of Jean-François Lyotard, as presented in his short essay Acinema: ‘Cinematography is the inscription of movement, a writing with movement, a writing with movements — all kinds of movements … in the film shot, those of the actor and other moving objects, those of lights, colours, frame and lens.’2 Cinematography is, from narrative to technical levels, entirely about ‘writing with movement,’ and this necessarily includes direction. In commercial cinema, a director’s job is to pick out ‘good,’ conventional movements: commodifiable movements valued in a strict capitalist sense, and ‘is valuable because it returns to something else … it is thus potential return and profit.’3 That returned to is in part the oppressive representational order of clearly identifiable things. In other words: a good scene must always return to something representationally relevant, whereas scenes that are ‘dirty, confused, unsteady, unclear, poorly framed, overexposed’ are deleted.4 It strikes me that all of these qualifiers might be applied to Grandrieux’s filmmaking. Does Grandrieux then, according to this exposition, not create cinema? Indeed he does, but Grandrieux’s cinema is an acinema.
Lyotard’s definition of acinema extends from his reconception of jouissance without exchange — one not having as its objective a return to anything in the same way that, for instance, the jouissance of genital reproductive sex has as its objective to produce, that is, to return a child. In other words, this kind of pure enjoyment is structured not as arétournement but a détournement ‘that misspends energy’ purposefully.5 Illustrating this point with a pyrotechnical example, he reminds us that if we strike a match to light gas, we aim for the return of something, a coffee that fuels our journey to work, for instance. This is in contrast with the reason why a child strikes one, desiring simply ‘to see what happens — just for the fun of it.’6 The point of striking the match is that there is no point other than to watch it burn and die. Here, it is the Freudian death instinct, the desire to return the organic to an inorganic state, that is at work in the child’s diversion. And, for Lyotard, this economy of misspent energy, a ‘pyrotechnical imperative,’ converts cinematography into acinema; laying down the two ‘contradictory currents’ of immobility and excessive movement that avoid commercial cinematic convention.7 Instead, with acinema, ‘vain simulacrums’ and ‘blissful intensities’ can be produced by moving between total immobility and mobility; by writing with movements that go beyond the point of no return, ‘[spilling] the libidinal forces outside the whole, at the expense of the whole (at the price of the ruin and disintegration of this whole).’8 9 Acinema takes movement for what it really is: ‘a sterile difference in an audio-visual field.’10
In his book on Lyotard and cinema, Jean-Michel Durafour develops Lyotard’s acinematic thinking further. Durafour defines extreme mobilisation or excessive movement as ‘that what according to conventional perception, must be appeased’, and extreme immobilisation as ‘that according to which the same conventional perception would be moved.’11 With this he means that mobilisation-images tend to demand the opposite of what they entail — rendering us immobile — while immobilisation-images animate us. The effects of extreme mobilisation and immobilisation are contradictory in cognition, but as Lyotard reminds, ‘it is only for thought that these two modes [mobility/immobility] are incompatible. In the libidinal economy they are, on the contrary, necessarily associated. Stupefaction, terror, anger, hate, pleasure — all the intensities — are always displacements in place.’12 And this is where the affective and even erotic charge finds its genesis. Lyotard rethinks ‘emotion as a motion,’ that is to say, a movement that, keeping the death instinct in mind, moves towards its own extinction.13 Emotion thought as a kind of movement is ‘an immobilising motion, an immobilised mobilisation,’ a movement exmovement, which Durafour designates as ex-motion.14 15
Lyotard’s paradigmatic example of ex-motionally created intensity is the tableau vivant; referencing Pierre Klossowski, he approves of this as ‘the near perfect simulacrum of fantasy in all its paradoxical intensity.’16 Through the representation of untouchable living organisms standing very still, the tableau, verged on bursting into an orgy of activity/mobility, gains an erotic and phantasmatic edge — like how De Sade poses, in the literal sense, his “victims” to generate anxiety, agitation, or emotional turmoil.
The relation between the tableau and the spectator is not voyeuristic, as Lyotard warns us; a gaze does not render some-body into a thing. Instead, the objectification of the tableau’s bodies is given. In other words: people within the tableau are objects out of their “normal” context, yet are still identifiable (they lack referential integrity and are unable to return to something identifiable), becoming a “sterile difference,” and as such loosen the affect within the tableau’s onlookers. By making acinema move towards the pole of extreme immobilisation, acinema similarly creates affect or agitation: ‘instead of good, unifying and reasonable forms proposed for identification, the image … give[s] rise to the most intense agitation through its fascinating paralysis.’17
In an interview with Stardust Memories, Grandrieux, asserting his affinity with Straub, Fassbinder and Stroheim, says that ‘the film pivots around the figures of sexuality, language and death’ and that films like his and the aforementioned directors revolve around ‘the question of the body, sexuality, desire’ — in short, the ‘affective and physical machine.’18 It is the currents of mobility and immobility that power these affective and physical machinations, with the claustrophobic result within the tableau being the rendering of a haunting aesthetic; one transcending itself, moving toward what we might call tableaux hauntants: that in which we witness ‘the phantom of the organic body.’19
The Flesh of the Film
Lyotard relates another example from representational art with the mobility of acinematic movement: lyric abstraction—an effect defined as a ‘polarisation no longer towards the immobility of the model [object] but towards the mobility of the support.’20 With immobility, objects — people enacting a living painting — retain their representational character since the medium remainsunproblematic, or is ‘held in insensibility or unconsciousness.’21 In the case of lyric abstraction, however, the medium, rather than that depicted, becomes perverted, or ‘touched by perverse hands.’22 Lyotard names Rothko and the excess of movement in Pollock’s paintings as examples, jouissance generated not by a lack of representation but rather by an excessive mobility that completely takes over the medium: ‘the represented ceases to be the libidinal object while the screen itself, in all its most formal aspects, takes its place.’23 It is the same with acinematic film: the excess of movement renders the medium opaque, thereby blocking a cognitive path towards a ‘synthesis of identification’ of that shown.
Lyric abstraction in acinema, therefore, amounts to film’s replacement by the bodies it contains and projects. Taking over and becoming its flesh, ‘The filmstrip is no longer abolished (made transparent) for the benefit of this or that flesh, for it offers itself as the flesh posing itself.’24 The film strip — or digital video in this case — offers itself as a body, an organic whole, to the viewer, but refuses to produce lack and thus fantasy. Instead, so reasons Lyotard, it is the viewer who sacrifices his own bodily integrity to re-constitute lack:
[I]t is at the price of renouncing his own bodily totality and the synthesis of movements making it exist that the spectator experiences intense pleasure: these objects demand paralysis not of the object but of the subject, the decomposition of his own organism.25
Our panicked paralysis when watching Alexi ferociously attack the tree is an effect of this excess of mobility — its sensuousness extending from the screen, with our bodies focused on Alexi, or a truncated image of him. In the relation between me and what goes on on-screen I feel as if it is me who is being chopped down, who is being subjected to violence, and decomposed in the tree’s stead. I believe this affect extends as an effect from the flesh of the film.
Durafour rightly refers to Kafka’s experience of cinema when speaking of Lyotard, and how cinema affects us. Kafka allegedly claimed that: ‘Sight does not master the images, it is the images that master our sight.’26 With Grandrieux, however, we should say that the images master not just our sight but our bodies: what we experience with Grandrieux is the erasure of sight, or more precisely, the disappearance of the haptic gaze.
Describing how the images he filmed for Un lac took hold of him, Grandrieux recalled how he was overtaken by a desire to close his eyes: ‘Sometimes, although I do not know how, [the image] appears as a field of flowers … vibrating against the day, against a dark mass of opaque trees bordering the field, and someone is there, immobile; the camera is fixed upon him for too long.’27 28 At this point the image takes over and enters the body: ‘I have within my hand that child and the field and the flowers and the trembling of those flowers and the ink-like colours, and I know that the moment has arrived when I can film with my eyes closed.’29 Or, more precisely, ‘I will film with my hand’ — which is to say, in a way, that he is not filming at all. The filmmaker becomes ‘an occupied country,’ a country needing to be ‘folded open from its interiority.’30
Again this is close to Lyotard: the philosopher calls ‘the great ephemeral skin’ which results after we’ve opened up the ‘body and spread out all its surfaces’ a vast surface of surfaces, not just the epidermis, the enclosing skin of a body, but all of the other surfaces found within a body too — no less folded open from their interiority. 31 32 When we find there is no interiority or exteriority but only an ‘immense membrane of the libidinal body … made from the most heterogeneous textures, bone, epithelium,’ the unfolding becoming a vast conduit for the relaying of intensities, or affect. Before we know what’s happening on screen we’ve already felt it in our muscles; our bodies flex and spasm in panic before we realise Alexi is just cutting down a tree — even before we know what is happening.33
This effect moves beyond what Laura Marks termed ‘haptic visuality’: ‘the way vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes’ or Marks, our eyes gain tactile capabilities before the screen; in becoming touch-organs their light-sensitivity is exchanged for skin-sensitivity.34 With Grandrieux, however, we do not touch his film or images with our eyes — rather, all of our bodies’ surfaces are attached to them. His images should be thought of as Lyotard would: as material — as Claire Perkins nicely summed up: ‘the image exists in itself as matter, not as a sign for matter which is hidden behind the image.’35 The image as matter itself is contiguous with our own corporeal materiality, and I believe it is this that generates the sheer sensuousness of his work, something beautifully hinted at in Un lac when we see in extreme close-up Alexi’s face besides that of his horse.
This is not cinema as skin, then, as in the case of haptic visuality, but a cinema experienced in the absence of skin; meaning the absence of the filmstrip. Again, we see the medium (the filmstrip/digital video frame) becoming opaque. What remains is the image as libidinal object and thus an intensity, generating and relaying materiality. Grandrieux does wield his digital camera haptically, but it is a surgical hapticity: it attends to the skin of its cinematic subjects in order to lay it bare, and unfold it — the cinematic body becomes a conduit for relaying such intensities.
Here, the body-image binary mediated through the haptic gaze is gone. Grandrieux does not extend the gaze with a haptic-tactile notion, he eliminates the eye from cinema completely: the eye matters no more. The ‘eye-cortex’ alone is too fragile for encounters with reality — instead, the full surface of an unfolded body is required in its place.36 Ending his reflection on Un lac, Grandrieux offers a heartfelt, almost naive, wish that also stands as the highest attainable ambition for any film maker: ‘Je voudrais faire des films avec la vie nue’. I do not know why Grandrieux would wish for this, since I believe Un lac already succeeds in this regard. In every respect it is a film made of bare life.