On La Val­lée close

Jean-​Claude Rousseau in con­ver­sa­tion with Cyril Neyrat

CYRIL NEYRAT: What did you like about, what attracted you to this place?1

JEAN-​CLAUDE ROUSSEAU: I don’t know. The void. Def­i­nitely the mys­tery. And above all a path that leads nowhere, that comes up against a cliff, from the depths of which a river emerges. A hole water comes out of… The enclosed val­ley, for me, was this place where dis­tance is lost, with­out per­spec­tive but with end­less depths. A pic­ture that, on each bank of the Sorgue, could accom­mo­date the fig­ures of Giorgione’s La Tem­pesta. To be there was to enter its frame.

…So it was the need to film that made you decide to set up the cam­era and do a take.

It was the result of being cap­ti­vated. It’s like the same for all my films, those from before and after. The cap­ti­va­tion is in see­ing, but in the sense of the word “vision,” when you see with­out see­ing, when to see is like los­ing your sense of sight. That’s what it is to see the image. With­out think­ing about it, to iso­late within the field of vision what’s already there as the image. The image above all is in fram­ing. Think­ing doesn’t deter­mine my gaze, so I can’t say for cer­tain, but it seems likely that the image has revealed itself before I’ve even put the cam­era on its stand, and all I have to do is double-​check it in the viewfinder. It’s def­i­nitely a cap­ti­va­tion — a shock — that makes us stop, that seizes our gaze.

What do I gaze at? At noth­ing describ­able, that one can observe and detail. To detail the shot would be to lose the image. I’m think­ing of that beau­ti­ful pref­ace to the book of geog­ra­phy, but which, as a pas­sage, couldn’t be appro­pri­ated into the film. It’s a ques­tion of obser­va­tion; the goal of the text­book is evi­dently to teach chil­dren and to stim­u­late their obser­va­tion with the pic­tures. But to observe isn’t to be seized by the image. It’s to seize but not to be seized. The length­i­ness of the shot cor­re­sponds to this gaze that doesn’t inter­pret, that doesn’t insist on a motive, but that is a pure vision, as we say, “to have visions.” This goes back to those dis­ori­ent­ing moments where some­one you’re with seems “out of it,” when his vision’s taken him some­where else. And when you ask him, then, “what are you look­ing at?” it’s always the same reply: “noth­ing.” Sud­denly he’s there again, as if the ques­tion had bro­ken a charm. That’s what it is to see the image: it’s an absence. …

It’s always a mat­ter of mak­ing sure that the right frame­work ensures the same right­ness of what arises in the image. I’m still gain­ing expe­ri­ence; within a frame­work that’s been imposed, it’s likely that what­ever arises will fit it. That’s to say that the same elab­o­ra­tion in the tem­po­ral frame, a proper dura­tion, will jus­tify itself.

*

…Is sound always sec­ond to image?

I could say that, yes. But at the same time it mod­i­fies the image.

It never hap­pened that you started from a sound and looked for the reel that would match it?

No. It seems like it’s always the oppo­site. Sound is very impor­tant in a film like Venise n’existe pas (1984), it makes the film as much as the image, but it doesn’t pre­vent the image from being pri­mary. And out of this image comes the sound. If it were a mat­ter of giv­ing pri­or­ity to the sound, this sound, prob­a­bly con­sist­ing of speech, would be founded on telling, on what’s being told, which is the oppo­site of how the film oper­ates. It would have some­thing to say, to the detri­ment of the image that could only serve to illus­trate what’s being said. That’s exactly the oppo­site of the way in which things hap­pen: the image doesn’t say any­thing, and it even bids silence. In some way, it takes the words out from under us. Telling can’t be the prin­ci­ple of the film.

But there is also sound that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily tell. There’s a mate­ri­al­ity to the sound, which can make the image.

Absolutely. But this mate­ri­al­ity is in some way rein­forced by its syn­ergy with the image, when sound inflects the image. If it’s about speech, it’s not about what’s said, but the breath­ing, the rhythm, the breaths that can affect the image, and have a phys­i­cal effect on it. It’s the idea that there is no art with­out mat­ter. Every­thing that reaches past this mate­ri­al­ity risks inca­pac­i­tat­ing the image, even to coun­ter­ing the film. In the words’ intel­lec­tu­al­is­ing, you lose the point of view. Speech can’t be heard, except in its into­na­tion, as a song.

In La Val­lée close (1995) there are still points where the sense affects the image, the sense of the words.

They’re given along­side, and they’re for­tu­itous, but the sense of each is often warped, as if by the power of attrac­tion. For exam­ple, there’s the text on the move­ment of atoms, mag­ni­fied and at the same time dis­torted by the image.

You see it as much as you hear it, and it’s the film that says it. The mate­ri­al­ity is con­crete. It shows it. The mean­ing of the lessons also give way to these dis­tor­tions. That’s def­i­nitely the case in the 9th les­son on chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The con­no­ta­tion can’t go any­where but towards con­not­ing the film. It’s the structuring/​orientation of the film that makes sense of it. The orig­i­nal mean­ing of the speech, of a text, doesn’t per­tain to the film.

*

At what moment did you realise that a film could be made out of this footage? How did the book on geog­ra­phy, Lucretius, the dif­fer­ent ele­ments come to be assem­bled for the film?

Let’s just say that very quickly I saw the promise of a film: I was watch­ing the ele­ments ori­ent them­selves, and with­out being able to say where it was lead­ing, what I really wanted, it was clear that this cur­rent knew where it was going. It was sim­ply a mat­ter of fol­low­ing some­thing that would sus­tain itself, that had its path, and that I only had to recog­nise and fol­low. These dif­fer­ent vec­tors were con­verg­ing at a sin­gle place and mak­ing the film itself this nexus: Petrarch, a geog­ra­phy book, a Gior­gione paint­ing, an erotic photo, an aban­doned fac­tory, the foun­tain at Vau­cluse, and then inspir­ing cor­re­spon­dences between all these, as if val­i­dat­ing them, the text by Lucretius on the move­ment of atoms, or more exactly, Bergson’s sum­mary of it that he did in a book for phi­los­o­phy students.

I found that these things were sim­i­larly beau­ti­ful: the geog­ra­phy book as a basic text­book done in a lan­guage kids under­stand, and at the same time a mag­nif­i­cent text, with illus­tra­tions that are gen­uinely beau­ti­ful; the beauty of the sum­mary, or, to be exact, Bergson’s poem, which in a few lines evokes a pas­sage from De rerum natura. And also the beauty of the Gior­gione paint­ing, La Tem­pesta, and the art of a com­plex poetic struc­ture, the ses­tina, in Petarch’s Il Can­zoniere. There’s some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing about the mys­tery these ele­ments share. We don’t know much about Gior­gione and his work sus­tains mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tions (though this desire to inter­pret doesn’t inter­est me as much). It’s also the mys­tery of the place, this resur­gence of a cur­rent whose ori­gin nobody’s been able to find. We don’t always know where water orig­i­nates. And you were ask­ing me how the film originated…

The water of the Sorgue?

The water of the Sorgue. There were a few deep-​dive expe­di­tions that didn’t lead any­where. I know that a few peo­ple lost their lives. That mystery’s also at the heart of Petrarch’s poetry… And so these ele­ments should hold our atten­tion, pro­duce a ten­sion that’s going to ori­ent every­thing towards the place of the film, whose sub­ject, will not reveal itself as a whole until its end.

For exam­ple, can you say why Giorgione’s La Tem­pesta has entered into this constellation?

[Besides topo­graph­i­cal affini­ties,] more pro­foundly, what drew me to Giorgione’s La Tem­pesta was the same thing I was antic­i­pat­ing: what I was sens­ing in La Val­lée close. With­out really think­ing about it, this paint­ing had some rela­tion to what I had in my head. What was that? Above all, the hole of the cave, where dif­fer­ent things fell in. A void, as in the eighth les­son, reduced to a few sec­onds of black­ness, that makes a hole in the film because its title, ‘the sea, the tem­pest, the port’, wouldn’t be able to bracket any­thing but the entire film. I mean, even if you’ve hardly looked at the Gior­gione paint­ing, the film could be called La Tem­pesta. Let’s say that the film was in the paint­ing. I saw it there. And this vision wasn’t evoked by aca­d­e­mic inter­pre­ta­tions, since I didn’t know them. How­ever, by chance, I was pleased to see my vision of the Gior­gione, entwined for me with La Val­lée close (artic­u­lated in an arti­cle by Marcelin Pleynet pub­lished in the mag­a­zine Tel Quel). The article’s an exe­ge­sis of the vagi­nal fea­tures in La Tem­pesta, with an empha­sis on these sym­bols. To be hon­est, I don’t believe in the sym­bolic painter. And the sym­bol­ism is so sub­tle, that, I’d say that if you see it, you would no longer see the paint­ing. But to be fair, Gior­gione was a great painter, and you can see it and more. It makes me think of what we were say­ing about sound, when the mean­ing of the thing comes after the fact. So what’s in the paint­ing La Tem­pesta, whose title itself is fairly mysterious?

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Hon­estly, there is no tem­pest, one that would, for exam­ple, pre­vent the dis­robed woman from stay­ing qui­etly with her child on the side of the river, and from see­ing a man with a tall stick stand­ing on the oppo­site bank. “I plant a stick straight down in the mid­dle of the gar­den,” says the geog­ra­phy les­son, inno­cently erotic. Between the two fig­ures of the paint­ing, there’s the water, which might as well be that of the Sorgue. You can see a flash of light­ning in the sky, which is more of a storm than a tem­pest, but in any case there’s a mys­tery, like that of the Vau­cluse foun­tain. We can go from Gior­gione to Petrarch, from the paint­ing to Laura and the cave. And the poet very quickly finds him­self head­ing toward an inter­pre­ta­tion of the place sim­i­lar to Marcelin Pleynet’s on the Gior­gione paint­ing. I like this cor­re­spon­dence. We don’t know what the thing is, we don’t know where we are or when we’re there. There, in front of the cave, or in front of the painting.

Right, that’s what I thought you’d like.

And that’s what makes it so that we’ll never get tired of going back to it. To finally arrive at the source itself, which is mag­nif­i­cent, is to arrive nowhere.

It’s a place for your ideal: the place where the sense of things is suspended.

Yes, that’s a good way of putting it. The enchanted val­ley: at the same time a place you run up against, val­lis closa, enclosed val­ley, and also the place of ori­gins, from before birth. I could say that the film also comes out of that resur­gence. Now I’m think­ing of L’Origine du monde. Is it purely down to chance that Courbet came from a region where he saw other resur­gences, rivers that he also painted? But it’s like ask­ing where water comes from…

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The name “Enclosed Val­ley” evokes a cir­cu­lar form, like the film’s.

A cir­cu­lar form is def­i­nitely the best way to make sense of how the film was made and how the ele­ments that com­pose it, with­out being tied together, hold together on the same orbit, as if by grav­i­ta­tional effect. The oppo­site would be a lin­ear form, but I never thought about La Val­lée close that way. …

The place­ment of the ele­ments was done deduc­tively: I’d tell myself ‘no, that’s not it,’ ‘that’s not it,’ ‘that’s not it either.’ And if it didn’t work, if it wasn’t that, then I just hadn’t recog­nised it yet, there had to be a right place­ment. And it would appear with­out warn­ing. But it wouldn’t be right to say that that there weren’t any prin­ci­ples to guide the place­ment. La Val­lée close started off by using the poetic form of a ses­tina, or six stan­zas com­posed of six lines, whose final rhymes are shifted for­ward from each stanza to the next. With­out quite approach­ing that com­plex­ity, the idea was to dis­tin­guish six parts where these ele­ments, the Super 8 rolls, would find a place, each of these parts com­posed of six reels. I held insis­tently to Petrarch’s model, but I was frus­trated by the even-​number form, which I’ve never been able to work with. So I had to keep five reels in each stack instead of six. This was done quickly. The other thing was that there were many takes, many reels, almost like I’d exhausted all the ele­ments and the mate­r­ial wouldn’t hold together in six parts. So while keep­ing this idea of the ses­tina, I looked through Il Can­zoniere for a dou­ble ses­tina — there should be two of them. At the level of poet­ics, it’s a sort of styl­is­tic exer­cise, so I thought it was legit­i­mate to do twelve parts instead of six. But twelve parts is still an even num­ber, and there too some­thing was inevitably bug­ging me. So it was that one of the parts was left blank [est vide]. In the course of twelve geog­ra­phy lessons, if the eighth only shows its title, it’s because the meter imposed this hole in the film. But the struc­ture of the film is pri­mar­ily found in the geog­ra­phy book: the suc­ces­sion of lessons. In start­ing with the first, which is also the book’s, ‘Day and Night’, and con­tin­u­ing with ‘The Sea­sons’, I kept, among the numer­ous lessons of the book, those that would accom­mo­date the mate­r­ial of the film.

*

Can you give an exam­ple of how you cal­i­brated sound to image?

One of the most strik­ing instances is at the end of a reel, where the Bergson/​Lucretius text about the move­ment of atoms is inter­rupted by the words ‘lancés à tra­vers le vide’ [’cast through the void’, from the Berg­son text]. It’s inter­rupted because we’ve arrived at the end of two min­utes, thirty sec­onds, and the word ‘vide’ [emptiness/​void] falls on the leader at the end of the reel. The leader is pre­cisely the void. When this type of acci­dent is pro­duced, it’s over­whelm­ing. Another exam­ple would be the sequence show­ing the tor­ren­tial flood of the Sorgue. It’s set to a bit of tango which is exactly the same length. The vari­a­tions of the music meet the vari­a­tions of the image exactly. Sim­i­larly, toward the end, there’s also a café waiter mov­ing on a bal­cony at the edge of the water. His move­ment so per­fectly cor­re­sponds to the rhythm of the tango that you’d think he’s danc­ing. In all this, there’s no sound mon­tage, just the encounter between the sounds of a beach and the tex­ture, image of the reel. … Some of the reels showed lit­tle inter­est but became mag­nif­i­cent, sim­ply through their encounter with the sound.

*

The nar­ra­tive of the film is self-​generative. There’s a story: the story of the film and a per­sonal story; the two are entan­gled. The story of the film is that of the reels and their encoun­ters with each other. The fact that they go together or don’t go together: ‘some­thing is hap­pen­ing to make them hinge on each other.’ It’s the move­ment of atoms. The text from Lucretius is suf­fi­cient to tell the entire film. It’s also the encounter of sound and image, while a per­sonal encounter, a romance, sim­i­lar to all sto­ries of love, enters into the film: the encounter with another per­son, more or less long-​lasting, at times brief and painful, maybe happy for a time, and then sep­a­ra­tion. Again the move­ment of the atoms. The tele­phone calls, even if you only hear a word, each time mark a return to the other per­son, until there are no more words left because the record­ing announces that there is no longer a client for the num­ber being called. There’s def­i­nitely a steady pro­gres­sion through the sequences of the story, even if you don’t realise it until you’re halfway down its path. The film’s a love story. When I say “love story,” I’m also talk­ing about the rap­port between the reels, that there’s an attrac­tion between them. Maybe it would be bet­ter to say “the story of love.” And sens­ing that towards the mid­dle of the film, every­thing becomes sig­nif­i­cant, and sud­denly comes to life. The heavy mill­stone that had marked a con­sid­er­able iner­tia starts to turn on its own, and you could say that it keeps on turn­ing after the end of the film. But there’s this iner­tia from the start. Then, with­out forc­ing the tempo, at the same rhythm, the film grinds out its story. The com­par­i­son with the heavy mill­stone becomes nat­ural for this film where you see the water, the mill, and the water­wheel. One of those mills that acti­vate the paper­mill along­side the Sorgue.

On the tele­phone, you’re usu­ally talk­ing about the film while it’s being made. Where does that aspect of “work in progress” come from?

The film is very tight in its com­po­si­tion, even while show­ing the state of its own pro­duc­tion. It’s a fin­ished prod­uct, and one that’s form­ing itself. … I’m think­ing of a sound­track that, while the film was being made, was matched with two dif­fer­ent reels. As it was per­fectly matched with both, you hear it two times. The work of the film can be seen in that echo: the film reveals its own exper­i­ments, trial runs. And so two times you hear talk of a bur­glary. The sec­ond time, the sound is set against the sight of a blue drum in an aban­doned fac­tory. This fac­tory, whose roof is destroyed, where you’re nei­ther inside nor out­side, is like a site of break­ing and enter­ing. At the end of this reel show­ing the fac­tory, you hear me say: “I still have a lot of things to try with sound.” The film includes its own process of cre­ation. It makes it vis­i­ble, sen­si­ble, and finds its own sense and mean­ing. It was already there in the script for Con­cert cham­pêtre [Coun­try Con­cert, a film that was never produced].

*

What’s the struc­ture of the film as it relates to the geog­ra­phy book?

The film starts pre­cisely, with the lessons from the geog­ra­phy book. With titles for the parts, which are from the lessons: ‘Day and night’, ‘The sea­sons’, ‘The car­di­nal points’. Like those boards they used to put on the wall, or bet­ter, in front of the black­board of ele­men­tary school class­rooms to show an image from the les­son of the day. Each of the shots that fol­low are like those boards and some­how illus­trate the lesson.

But then the film goes off on its own devel­op­ment; while wel­com­ing in new ele­ments like the phone con­ver­sa­tion; while aban­don­ing the text of the lec­tures and only keep­ing their titles. So you lose the con­ti­nu­ity of an aca­d­e­mic lec­ture, until you return to it at the end, when every­thing is drawn together and you redis­cover the struc­ture of the geog­ra­phy book while again lis­ten­ing to the lessons in their entirety, after the 10th les­son. Aban­don­ing the texts of the lessons, the film turns down a more way­ward path; it’s as though it were skip­ping school. The stu­dent is no longer watch­ing the teacher nor the images put up behind him, but lets him­self be dis­tracted by what he sees through the win­dow. Dis­trac­tion, escape. It becomes the film of a bad stu­dent who’s no longer fol­low­ing the lessons. It goes back to the idea of absent-​mindedness, of dis­tract­ed­ness in the way the film forms itself. Bad con­duct, an aban­don­ing of the noble res­o­lu­tions made at the start of the school year. You could say that the film, like a child, can no longer be rea­soned with. To me, this dis­obe­di­ence has always seemed like the very con­di­tion of art. It’s made in desire, as an unrea­son­able effort. The les­son is rea­son and the film is desire. You can rea­son about works installed in muse­ums. But if the work ends up in a museum, it doesn’t begin anywhere.

Dis­trac­tion or digres­sion: the sound strays off from the image and the film becomes engaged in a sort of wan­der­ing, with­out a goal.

Yes, it starts a bit deceit­fully. We start off in a lin­ear fash­ion, not very imag­i­na­tively, know­ing where we’re going: geog­ra­phy lessons with a series of shots that illus­trate them. But it doesn’t last: at a cer­tain moment, they stop cor­re­spond­ing, there’s a dis­crep­ancy between what we’re see­ing and what we’re hear­ing, and then, soon enough, we no longer hear even the text of the les­son. It makes me think of a Jean Eustache film that I really love, a short film that’s rarely shown, called Les Pho­tos d’Alix (1980). In the film, the pho­tog­ra­pher describes the pho­tos that she’s show­ing to a young man, but at a cer­tain moment we no longer recog­nise them because the com­men­tary doesn’t cor­re­spond at all to what we’re see­ing. I find that extra­or­di­nary. There’s some­thing of that struc­ture in La Val­lée close, with­out my hav­ing thought of Eustache, since it was well after fin­ish­ing the film that I saw Les Pho­tos d’Alix. So there comes a moment where we no longer know where we are, and so some­thing else is intro­duced. Like another propo­si­tion: you can ask your­self where it comes from, even if you’ve heard it com­ing, since there are the tele­phone rings that pre­cede the speech. A pretty monot­o­nous speech that only says pretty dull things, like most rou­tine con­ver­sa­tions on the telephone.

*

You’ve said that you often return to these places, in dif­fer­ent seasons.

In dif­fer­ent sea­sons and in dif­fer­ent years, as I did for Les antiq­ui­tés de Rome (1989). That period was nec­es­sary: we had to wait for the ele­ments to acknowl­edge them­selves. Of course that can be done quickly if you know what you want and you bru­tally insist on its coherency. But I don’t know what I want. From the start, how­ever, a film seems to be promised. We’re never far from intu­it­ing it. But really, impa­tience won’t leave the film time to keep its promises.

This rela­tion­ship to time is pretty far from a nor­mal pro­duc­tion schedule.

Yes, and nor­mally the time is cal­cu­lated. You’re not enti­tled to the sea­sons, not even to the vari­a­tions of light in the day. So you have to keep your eyes on the main event. The impa­tience to accel­er­ate the course of the clouds is too great. … The sea­sons are cycli­cal. As much as they don’t seem like it, they form a cir­cle; the cycli­cal struc­ture of La Val­lée close can be seen this way too, as much in the water­wheel or in the return of the same ele­ments in each part. Besides, the les­son on the sea­sons is one of the first geog­ra­phy lessons heard in the film and spo­ken in full. It cor­re­sponds to one of the reels show­ing an aban­doned fac­tory. At that moment, the shot cuts to black, then starts again in the same place, with the same frame, but an hour later, when the sun is no longer on the fac­tory. The light becomes autum­nal at the moment when the text of the les­son has us hear: ‘we are in Autumn.’

In Autumn, when the classes start up again, when the kids are once again within the walls of the school and for­get­ting the black­board while look­ing out the win­dow. I know that my dad would escape that way, and his escape was real, since it didn’t con­sist in just look­ing out the win­dow, but in actu­ally step­ping through it. To act like him would have been impos­si­ble for me. For me, the way to skip school at that age, in ele­men­tary school, was to become invis­i­ble, to not attract atten­tion. And you attract atten­tion when you go through your class­room window.

Leav­ing the place behind, cross­ing the thresh­old, isn’t that how La Val­lée close ends?

It’s true that there’s an escape at the end of the film. It’s a sort of coda under the title “Leg­end.” It’s also there at the end of Les antiq­ui­tés de Rome, with the last part enti­tled ‘Dream.’ Con­sid­er­ing the dynam­ics of the film, I could say that La Val­lée close, in its rota­tions, is like a par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor, and that cer­tain par­ti­cles in the end are pro­pelled far from their source, to the seashore. As a more still-​life exam­ple, I’m think­ing about the cover of the geog­ra­phy book and how the draw­ing breaks through its own frame. It’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the peak of Dru, emerg­ing from the bulk of Mount-​Blanc: the sum­mit passes the con­tours of the image, its tip beyond it as though the sky were open. For me that also evokes the lim­it­less vision of some­one whose head crosses beyond the sky, where he dis­cov­ers the wheels of the uni­verse, the uni­ver­sal mech­a­nism, and where he surely hears the music of the spheres.

Rup­tur­ing the frame is this feat. A feat that’s fatal and sub­lime. In art, it’s been dared from the start. The museum guide at the Acrop­o­lis, who explains Athena’s hel­met rup­tur­ing the upper limit of a bas-​relief as a mis­cal­cu­la­tion of the figure’s size, doesn’t under­stand it. The art of the sculp­tor is exactly that. It’s also the art of Bry­gos’ paint­ing, which on a bowl in 5th cen­tury BC shows the feet of Ajax, dead, rup­tur­ing the drawing’s cir­cu­lar border.

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But for there to be this rup­tur­ing of the frame, there has to be a frame, an enclosed space. My films are like that: in a room, but look­ing out onto an open sky. It’s the col­lapsed roof in part of the fac­tory in La Val­lée close. ‘If Paul was mak­ing a hole in the ceil­ing of the class­room, what would he see?’ The val­ley is only closed in on one side. How­ever, it doesn’t get a reverse shot. The reverse shot — the other side — of an image, a painted land­scape as well as a por­trait or a still life, is always toward the open sky. Noth­ing can come face to face to con­front the image. And cer­tainly not any­one who’s look­ing at it, since he dis­ap­pears into this vision.

When you say that, are you claim­ing a mys­ti­cal con­cep­tion of the image?

No more than Cezanne say­ing, ‘at each brush­stroke I risk my life.’

[Rousseau gets up and goes into the neigh­bour­ing room. He returns with a photo.]

That risk, you can see it here.

A Last Judg­ment? Ah, no, it’s the sac­ri­fice of Isaac.

What’s sur­pris­ing is that this representation’s done on a nar­row pilaster.

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It’s com­pletely ver­ti­cal. Abra­ham and Isaac stand­ing one on top of the other, the father lean­ing his child’s head toward him and hold­ing him by the hair with one hand, while the other hand, ready to hit him, is held back by an angel descend­ing with the lamb that will take Isaac’s place. The angel and the lamb, they are also placed ver­ti­cally, in freefall. What we see is the instant of con­ver­sion. ‘That with­out a thing chang­ing, every­thing is dif­fer­ent,’ Bres­son will say. This seems a ways from La Val­lée close for you…

Explain.

It’s about going back to the ele­ments and their agree­ment. The ele­ments, with­out being forced, and far from their orig­i­nal con­text, have to agree to har­monise, to res­onate, and to make the story heard. With­out warn­ing, some­thing emerges. I can’t even say myself that some­thing is accom­plished, because that would mean there’s a begin­ning and an end. Rather: when it arises, it has a com­pre­hen­sive effect, like a con­ver­sion, as if all of a sud­den, every­thing har­monised and took its place. That’s the film. I can’t really say it except to repeat that Bres­son note, ‘that with­out a thing chang­ing, every­thing is dif­fer­ent.’ The film exists. The fic­tion is set up, and we believe in it. The just­ness of the agree­ment leads us to believe it, because every­thing plays equally at being a sign. That’s the arrange­ment of the ele­ments. It’s an act of faith. … La Val­lêe close is just this: ele­ments treated above all as if in a doc­u­men­tary that, with­out being changed, por­tray the story and reveal between them the ele­ments of fic­tion. But above all seen as they are, insignif­i­cant. And then in the rela­tions they set up, they can sat­isfy our desire for a story.

*

What’s beau­ti­ful in La Val­lée close is that the story comes after the fact, after the “conversion.”

That’s to say that the story is always holy. Because it’s this need to believe that makes the film an act of faith. There’s some­thing there that can over­come the short-​sighted dis­tinc­tion between doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion. That’s what the cin­ema is. What’s impor­tant to me is this rela­tion to belief. This con­ver­sion means that the ele­ments let us believe. You can’t help but believe in them. The rela­tion­ship between doc­u­men­tary and fic­tion is right there.

… There’s a pas­sage where we hear a speech about the Gala­pa­gos Islands, about Hawaii, and all the beau­ti­ful things you see on the land. In what’s said, there’s an encounter with an image that comes from afar, from so far away that it gives the scene an emo­tional impact. On an emo­tional level, it’s maybe the more pow­er­ful sequence in La Val­lée close. What do we see? Not much, and that’s why it’s so powerful.

So then what do we see?

The sun has barely set, and we see a track­ing shot, the only one in the film, of the sil­hou­ettes of trees along­side the road we glide on away from Fontaine-​de-​Vaucluse, and the image’s faint vis­i­bil­ity gives some force to a voice-​over from a film on space shut­tle mis­sions over the Gala­pa­gos Islands, Hawaii, etc., ‘…and the sun rises for the six­teenth time.’ Right when we get to that point in the voice-​over, we are sud­denly beyond the road bounded by the black trees and there’s a clear­ing that lets us see the last lights of the sun, that we now take, thanks to the voice-​over, to be the sun­rise — ’and the sun rises for the six­teenth time.’ It’s espe­cially strik­ing because the speech holds out for the exact two and a half min­utes, from the start to the fin­ish. That hap­pens in other reels as well, like the one with the tango.

In the film, there are two reels of home movies. Where did they come from and how did they find their place in the film?

I’d filmed them a num­ber of years before. Maybe 20 years before. And they don’t resem­ble any­thing else that makes up La Val­lée close. Why’d I find it nec­es­sary for them to be there? Just so there’d be some vari­a­tion in the film’s devel­op­ment. Two reels of that sort posi­tioned so that they res­onate, that they respond in echo across a dis­tance from where they’ve found their place. They don’t resem­ble the reels that pre­cede or fol­low them at all, but they still have a sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion to one another. For exam­ple, the first of these home movies fol­lows a reel where at the end we hear: ‘Have you ever seen your mother hang the wet laun­dry out­side?’ We hear that over the leader that ends the reel, and what fol­lows is the silent home movie where we see a young woman with her son and an older woman in the coun­try­side. They’re doing their wash­ing out­side, and smoke is com­ing out of the wash boiler they’ve lit a fire under. This fire is also the story that we’ve heard told at the school in the les­son about the clouds. The voice explains the for­ma­tions of the clouds by ask­ing a kid: ‘Have you ever seen your mother hang the wet laun­dry out­side?’ And we see, in this silent sequence, this woman pulling out from the wash boiler the laun­dry that’s boil­ing hot and smok­ing, rins­ing it in a lit­tle pool of water, and tak­ing it over to the clothes line where she hangs it up. It’s per­fect, as it relates to the exact same tone of the les­son call­ing out to the kid about his own fam­ily life, as well as to what it’s sup­posed to be doing, teach­ing about cloud formations.

The other home movie fits into La Val­lée close in an essen­tial way. Again, when the one reel ends with the sounds of ‘I still have so many things to try with sound,’ we move on to this other silent home movie. What do we see? Once again a young woman in the coun­try­side, with a child who’s maybe five years old, and some­one who we imme­di­ately imag­ine to be the father of the child, the hus­band of the wife, who is work­ing in his wood­work­ing shop in the open air. It looks like an evo­ca­tion of the Holy fam­ily. You can see the frame of a win­dow the child goes up to.

In posi­tion­ing the reels like that, it’s not a mat­ter of try­ing to say some­thing, but of find­ing an arrange­ment that will encour­age these cor­re­spon­dences, and allow for these syn­chro­ni­sa­tions. That’s the film: cor­re­spon­dences from one reel to the next, from one sequence to another. The child in the work­shop approach­ing the win­dow with­out a win­dow­pane, as if he were going to open it. In a Gior­gione paint­ing you see later, the child, held in the arms of the Vir­gin Mary, leans his head, as if he were lean­ing towards the earth.

I imag­ine these two reels weren’t filmed in la val­lée close.

That’s right.

Are they the only images that weren’t filmed there?

Yes. Every­thing was filmed there except for the sequence on the seashore at the end of the film, and the Gior­gione repro­duc­tions and the black and white erotic photo, which were filmed at my house. There’s also the merry-​go-​round, ‘Rain­bow’, filmed at a fair in the Tui­leries gar­den in Paris. I’d for­got­ten about those takes that weren’t filmed in Fontaine-​de-​Vaucluse, since they’d become inex­tri­ca­ble for me from the vil­lage fair, with the singer and the fireworks.

That the coun­try­side of both home movies is a bit hilly shouldn’t let them be con­fused with the land­scape of La Val­lée close and that spot where the foun­tain is sud­denly over­taken by an extremely tall cliff. It’s also impor­tant that the land­scape is dif­fer­ent in the two reels. They include another time and another place within the film. They shed some light on it. The bor­ders of the enclosed val­ley, the rock face of the cave, become that much neater and dis­tinct in con­trast. … I never returned to the home movie evi­denced in those two reels of La Val­lée close. I never took up the cam­era again except in the hopes of a film.

Notes

  1. The unedited, orig­i­nal lan­guage ver­sion of this inter­view can be found in Lancés à tra­vers le vide, pub­lished by Capricci, 2008, p.1364. This abridged trans­la­tion for Lumen is by David Phelps.

Images in order of appearance

  • La Val­lée close (The Enclosed Val­ley, Jean-​Claude Rousseau, 1995)
  • La Tem­pesta (The Tem­pest, Gior­gione, c. 1506-​08)
  • River Land­scape (Gus­tave Courbet, 1869). Source of scan unknown.
  • Wine Cup with the Sui­cide of Ajax (attrib­uted to the Bry­gos Painter c. 490 B.C.)
  • Sac­ri­fice d’Isaac, église abba­tiale (Xlle siè­cle), Souil­lac (Lot). Image taken from Lancés à tra­vers le vide, Capricci, 2008, p.51.