Assembling a perfect portrait of any critical moment in film history is, quite frankly, impossible. Vagaries of distribution and reception will always leave some films under-screened, legally unavailable in certain territories, or worse, almost completely unknown. The overall state of film history’s preservation (thoroughly mediated by commerce) especially at the far corners of the globe makes a recent assertion by one of America’s most prominent filmmakers that there aren’t really any truly great lost films (paraphrasing slightly) seem more than a little absurd. Who really knows what’s out there, lurking in a vault or someone’s closet that could, if not bust up the canon (DaVinci Code-style!), bend it more than a little? Of course, film loving being the immensely personal, unquantifiable act that it is, it bears repeating how questionable the whole canonization process is as a way to view the medium.
An example: Seeing Luc Moullet’s first four features (Brigitte and Brigitte, The Smugglers, A Girl Is a Gun, and Anatomy of a Relationship) last week in succession at the Harvard Film Archive certainly expanded how I viewed the French New Wave, though I’m sure that plenty of folks were left unmoved, or even annoyed by their frenetic primitivism. Before Moullet, I’d never found a true comedian amongst the New Wavers: Godard is often very funny, but never separates his humorous moments from his theoretical engagement with the idea of the laugh; Rohmer’s usually more winsome and intellectually wistful than simply funny; Truffaut too earnest and lacking in that dash of sadism which underlies true hilarity; Rivette too psychologically intense. At times, all of these directors tackle “comedy” in their works but Moullet seems unique (Varda comes closes at times, but her works range across a wide, wide spectrum) in his investment in exploring absurdity and physical comedy.
His first two films Brigitte and Brigitte (1966) and The Smugglers (1967) are his most typically “New Wave”—B&W, location set, formally playful, and highly low-fi, so much so they almost feel like the art brut cousins to comparatively polished films like Breathless and The 400 Blows. I like the grungy ingenuity of both, especially the way the former plays with its completely artificial interior spaces (this thing could have almost been shot entirely in against one wall of one room with furniture changes marking the different locations) just as its follow-up, while ditching the city, still seems like a bunch of folks running around in costume through different parts of the same couple of hills. I also like his willingness to overtly tweak his audience: a character might order another to be quiet, and so Moullet cuts the sound, another digs around under a blanket for papers, exclaims “this is a dark tunnel” and the image cuts to black.
Good stuff, but it wasn’t until his third and fourth (I guess technically post-New Wave) films that I ended up stunned. Calling A Girl Is a Gun (1971) an acid western is to do a movie that finds Jean-Pierre Léaud alternately, playing gunslinger, raving with lovesickness, mad with dehydration, eating dirt and grass, attempting to hang himself with the stump of a noose, scalped, betrayed, and married to a young Native American girl who looked suspiciously French to these eyes, little justice. Keystone Cops+The Searchers+Zabriskie Point+Twentynine Palms–I’ll be damned if I know exactly what to call A Girl Is a Gun besides one of the most wickedly funny, willfully bizarre films I’ve seen in ages. It’s also dubbed poorly into English and features a totally disconcerting droney krautrock score. Both are compliments in this case. Moullet’s third film is most assuredly for aficionados of outré singularities like Rohmer’s Perceval and Malle’s Black Moon.
Anatomy of a Relationship (1976) is initially a more controlled, “typical” nervous comedy of a relationship dissolving under the weight of neuroses and sexual dysfunction, but it explodes itself about 80% of the way through becoming instead an examination of the filmmaker’s (sad-eyed and bearded Moullet stars himself) process of re-creating a real (maybe) relationship with an actress while the actual lover watches from behind the camera. As Moullet piles on the added registers of discourse, the effect is liberating—almost as if we’re being freed from the entire history of romantic drama and invited in to look at the mechanisms that make them work. In Anatomy and Girl Moullet most makes me think of Donald Barthelme, which is to say, one of those rare auteurs who can tell us story, simultaneous to offering an explanation of how it’s being told.
I have no idea how far and wide these battered prints will travel (this mini retro contains two more films and a short), but if they end up in a theatre near you, you won’t be sorry…