Following their first collaboration with last spring’s French Cinema’s Secret Trove, legendary French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York’s premiere French cultural center, have partnered again to present the CinéSalon film series Eccentrics of French Comedy. Running from January 6 to February 24, the series features a selection of rarely screened French comedies selected by FIAF’s Delphine Selles-Alvarez and Cahiers du Cinéma’s Jean-Philippe Tessé and Nicholas Elliott.
Indiewire is pleased to be partnering with FIAF and Cahiers du Cinéma to present reviews of films in the series originally published in the magazine and available here in English for the first time with translations by Nicholas Elliott, the magazine’s New York correspondent.
This review of Luc Moullet’s “Land of Madness” was originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 652 in January 2010. It was written by critic and director Serge Bozon, whose films include the features “La France” and “Tip Top.” “Land of Madness” screens at FIAF on Tuesday at 4pm and 7:30pm. More information is available here.
I. Guns, elastics, shoe soles
A gunshot snaps, the film hasn’t begun yet; another, during the end credits, the film isn’t over yet; in between, several times, over edits, like in “I Stand Alone.” After admiring DeMille and Vidor, is Luc Moullet now inspired by Gaspar Noé? To be aggressive toward the viewer, Noé films rapes, fascists, and killers. Being aggressive toward the viewer by filming aggressive people is redundant. Moullet, who is more inventive, had an idea, which relies not so much on mise en scène as on mise en sound.
Sometimes when you’re by yourself screaming at the mountains, there’s an echo. So to film criminal madness in the southern Prealps, where there is no more than one inhabitant per square kilometer, one must not film crimes, like Noé does, but invent an echo which extends these solitary gunshots. Which echo? The sound of an elastic snapping. The heart of the film is a pentagon delimited by an elastic pinned to a map by five thumbtacks. The five peaks of the pentagon are Castellanne, Montclar, Rosans, Sault, and Quinson, which delimit the aforesaid “land of madness.” Each time he touches the map, Moullet makes the elastic snap at the end of the shot.
Sometimes, you get lost, so you ask your way, and the person who answers has such an interesting manner of speaking that you ask him questions to which you know the answer just for the pleasure of hearing him talk a little more. I experienced this type of pleasure (particular to documentary?) while watching the alert candor of a woman recounting the following tragedy in “Land of Madness.” Her grandmother was placed in foster care with some farmers when she was seven years old.
Since a sow was about to give birth, they left the child in the pigsty for three days, with a candle, so that she could let them know. The candle went out on the first night. Terrorized, the child started having convulsions, fell ill, and was brought back inside with the family. Once an adult, she had a son, whose father forbade him to go hunting because he had seen enough guns during the Great War. The son found an old gun from the War of 1870, which he hid in a bush. While trying to cock it, he killed himself. His mother, who was passing by with a mule, came upon the body and started jumping up and down. Worried that they weren’t coming home, the father went looking for them. When he found them, the mother was still jumping, and her Saint-Vitus Dance had worn holes in the soles of her shoes.
Farmers against workers: next to an elastic or a shoe sole, even the red pallets in Dernier Maquis (Ameur-Zaïmeche) are a proletarian luxury, a noble matter with which to work, warehouse, and move. Elastics and shoe soles, same difference: what has to be found is a system of peasant poverty particular to the smallest scale, for even the smallest things, which cost and weigh nothing, can get worn out. Once this system is found, it becomes possible to risk provocation (of the litany of crimes) without risking redundancy. The elastics snap, like the guns, and madness wears out shoes. When a joke makes them laugh too hard, some old farmers exclaim: “What misery!”
II. Putting your foot in it; getting a pickaxe in the ass
In an interview with La Lettre du Cinéma (no. 22), Moullet admitted that he became a film critic to defend “the point of view of the doorman and the lumberjack.” Behind the juxtaposition of lurid news items (the doorman), more than 30 in all, Moullet has another idea — let’s call it Faulknerian (see the farmers in the Snopes trilogy: to only take an interest in the kind of madness suitable for his type of comedy, meaning gregarious, low-flying, primitive madness (the lumberjack).
Then the film can easily string stories together (external channel surfing) or even intermingle them (internal channel surfing) by multiplying rhythmic and stylistic ruptures (short shot/long shot, interview/subjective camera reenactment, portrait/still life etc.), the unity of cretinism will still do its work in depth, work masked by the surface unity of the pentagon’s 6,000 square kilometers.
Far from unifying the narratives, this surface unity actually allies itself with the twin channel surfing by enabling the many pans that allow us to abruptly move from one village to another, and thus from one story to another. This aesthetic of the pan as live channel surfing, inherited from Coline Serreau (see the postmen scene in “Saint Jacques…La Mecque”), culminates in the slapstick tale of Moullet’s cousin’s non-journey, with five pans in a row. To get from Lagrand to Orpiere, should you take the bus, a car, or walk? The cousin hesitates. Finally she won’t budge.
As Jean-Claude Biette said, naturalism is the identification of elemental life with humankind. “Land of Madness”‘s in depth unification by the most primitive madness, that of cretinism, does not make the film naturalist, for cretinism here is on the order of esotericism. In the middle of the film, Moullet says: “President Chirac had a psychoid daughter, but President Sarkozy didn’t, so he reduced the money allotted to psychiatry.” The audience laughs, it’s easy. Except that 20 minutes later, this dumb and mean laughter is upset by an even more troublesome laughter due to the revelation of Moullet’s failed suicide attempt from a bridge. Esotericism: the easiest hides the most difficult while accentuating madhouse bareness on the off-beat. Thus the viewer gradually understands — but never at the moment — that everything here resonates in the hidden setting of the self-portrait, even bile and death.
III. Irène and Antonietta
Penniless art, self-portraiture, shamelessness, and video: the comparison with Alain Cavalier’s most recent film “Irène” is enlightening. “Irène” is less a film about a beautiful dead woman than about an obscure present-day feeling of guilt, that of the man filming. But you cannot feel guilty about a person you haven’t really met. What kind of meeting is possible in Cavalier’s film?
The notebooks he kept at the time of his affair with Irène are strictly on the same order as his voiceover today, namely an inventory of elementary traces, those very traces he films without respite (leaving an imprint on the sheets, crumbs on a balcony etc.). This sickly and trembling homogeneity uniting what is written, what is said, and what is filmed crushes the possibility of a real encounter, and thus of guilt, in favor of a dumb and mean suspicion initially experienced while watching certain films by Philippe Garrel: What if these filmmakers had only lived with depressive models in order to reap readymade the aesthetic work of the future bereavement? They only had to watch them decline and take notes.
Moullet is the contrary. He really meets women, specifically because he’s scared they’re going to kick his ass. Yes, he’s fearful bordering on autistic, but precisely because he prefers the burlesque discomfort of life, even in works as morbid as “Death’s Glamour” and “Land of Madness,” to the piety of mourning and the solipsism of guilt. The hilarious example of the final shot in “Land of Madness” is revealing. Like at the end of “Imphy,” “Capitale de la France” or “Anatomy of a Relationship,” his wife (Antonietta Pizzorno) violently takes him to task, going so far as to question the existence of a pentagon of madness. Moullet grumbles, becomes agitated, steps back. Zoom out: they are lost in the Alps.
The viewer has the impression that everything can start up again though he foresees that it’s over: If Moullet takes another step back, he falls into the abyss; if he doesn’t step back, she’s going to rape him. Eros and Thanatos by Laurel and Hardy. Setting the record straight and starting from scratch when the bells are about to ring in the mountains is a beautiful cosmic clean break. From cosmic to orgasmic, there is but one step, taken in the last shot of “Shipwrecked on Route D 17” (Iliana Lolic and Patrick Bouchitey break everything). From elastic to cosmic to orgasmic, there is but one gunshot, that of the last second of “Land of Madness.”