The Acin­ema of Philippe Grandrieux: On Un lac

Rod­ney Ramdas
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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.

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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

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Tableux ‘Hauntants’

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

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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.

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Hap­tic Materiality

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.

Notes

  1. Grandrieux, Philippe. ‘Troisième Film’ in Trafic, 2008, p.123.
  2. Lyotard, Jean-​François. ‘Acin­ema’ in The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Ben­jamin, Oxford: Black­well Pub­lish­ers, 1989, p.169.
  3. Lyotard 1989, p.170.
  4. Lyotard 1989, p.169.
  5. Lyotard 1989, p.171.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Lyotard 1989, p.172.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Lyotard 1989, p.171. Grandrieux him­self is astutely aware of this risk of ruin: ‘I think of Rodin, when he was very old, chop­ping a block of mar­ble … It is nec­es­sary to dis­en­gage the form con­tained within the mar­ble and with every chop there is a risk of los­ing it all. Cin­ema is like that. It is a bat­tle with the world, with its weight, with the dull pres­ence of things’ (Grandrieux 2008, p.122, my translation).
  10. Lyotard 1989, p.170.
  11. Durafour, Jean. Jean-​François Lyotard: Ques­tions au Cinéma, Paris: PUF, 2009, p.23.
  12. Lyotard 1989, p.177.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Durafour, p.38.
  16. Lyotard 1989, p.177.
  17. Lyotard 1989, p.178. My emphasis.
  18. Grandrieux, Philippe. ‘Entre­tien avec Philipe Grandrieux’ in Star­dust Mem­o­ries, 4 March 2009. Last accessed on 29 August 2010. <http://​www​.star​dust​-mem​o​ries​.com/​u​n​-​l​a​c​-​e​n​t​r​e​t​i​e​n​-​a​v​e​c​-​p​h​i​l​i​p​p​e​-​g​r​a​n​d​r​i​e​u​x​/>
  19. Lyotard 1989, p.180.
  20. Lyotard 1989, p.177. Amended.
  21. Lyotard 1989, p.178.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Lyotard 1989, p.179.
  24. Ibid. My emphasis.
  25. Ibid. Empha­sis added.
  26. Durafour, p.26.
  27. Appar­ently some­thing that already started to hap­pen while film­ing Som­bre, cf. Grandrieux’s Star­dust Mem­o­ries inter­view (2009).
  28. Grandrieux 2008, p.122.
  29. Ibid. My emphasis.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Lyotard, Jean-​François. Libid­i­nal Econ­omy, trans. Iain Hamil­ton Grant, Lon­don: Con­tin­uum, 2004, p.1.
  32. Lyotard con­ve­niently lists some for us: ‘the scalp … the ten­der pubic fur, nip­ples, nails, hard transparant skin under the heel, the light frills of the eye­lids’ etc. (Lyotard 2004, p.1).
  33. Lyotard 2004, p.2.
  34. Marks, Laura. The Skin of Film: Inter­cul­tural Cin­ema, Embod­i­ment and the Senses, Lon­don: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2000, p.xi.
  35. Perkins, Claire. ‘This Time It’s Per­sonal’ in Senses of Cin­ema, 2004. Last accessed on 29 August 2010. <http://​archive​.sens​esofcin​ema​.com/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​s​/​b​o​o​k​s​/​04​/​33​/​t​o​u​c​h​_​l​a​u​r​a​_​m​a​r​k​s​.​h​t​m​l>
  36. Lyotard 1989, p.179.

Bio

Rod­ney Ram­das is a writer based in the Netherlands.