Monday, October 29, 2012

Brian De Palma at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 2000’s

Since Brian de Palma’s Passion premiered last month there has been a lot of talk about the filmmaker: Jim Hoberman praises him in his review of Passion (“De Palma’s movie is a playful, shamelessly manipulative movie about shameless manipulation — not least of cinematic forms.”), John Semley profiled the director in the National Post, and Daniel Kasman has a lengthy interview with De Palma at Mubi. I would also add that there was a lengthy reassessment of Redacted over at Elusive Lucidity.

There is also the new book Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible – one of the year’s best film books, along with Hoberman’s Film After Film – where Chris Dumas provides a historical summary of how De Palma’s films have been received in the American mainstream press. By summarizing key, and representative reviews and other relevant sources - most of them accusatory of sexism and exploitative violence – Dumas through a great feat of argumentation, finds faults in their claims, offering alternative readings, and through this lengthy self-dialogue - where he also pits De Palma in opposition to Hitchcock and Godard - the book elevates De Palma to the status of a major filmmaker whose films deserve to be reevaluated.

De Palma is usually brought up in relation to Cahiers du Cinéma, where the main reference point being how Carlito’s Way was voted to be the number one film of the 90’s. But little is actually written about what their critics have actually written in their reviews of De Palma’s films and what they have to say about the auteur himself.

I recently translated a round-table Douchet décortique De Palma from 1981, which I posited as the defining embrace of the filmmaker at the magazine. I’m also planning on publishing their review of Mission: Impossible. But for now, the following is an attempt to summarize their reviews of De Palma’s films from the 2000 years: Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006), Redacted (2007), and the most recent Passion (2012).

For the sake of clarity and to not spend too much time translating easily available synopsis, I will only highlight and translate what I think to be the key points from the French reviews and essays.
Mission to Mars, de Brian De Palma (Cahiers, May 2000, N.546), w/ an interview by Cédric Anger with De Palma, Stéphane Delorme reviews the film, Mission to Venus; and Emmanuel Burdeau discusses the body in De Palma’s films, L’intouchable.

Delorme’s review Mission to Venus brings up a lot of significant points and the following are translations of them, with further comments to contextualize them within the review and to better understand the film. 

“Because with De Palma everything is revealed in the first scene,” for Delorme this virtuoso long-take that opens up Mission to Mars is important for how it introduces the viewer to most of the astronauts that will go off to mars. But what is also important is how the scene itself excludes two members of the crew. In this group where no one is left behind there is actually two people that are missing: Jim McConnell, who shows up late, and his dead wife, who worked with the group to undertake this project. Which leads Delorme to the claim that for De Palma, “a scene is only as important as what it leaves out.” De Palma's images, and images in general, not only mentent (Godard: “pas une image juste, mais juste une image”) but they also manque: “If his cinema is bouleversant and not only virtuosic and critical, its because they show an empty place in the scene and that this place (that of death) rests empty.”

By addressing how images lie and what they hide, De Palma is addressing the question of visibility. “In Mission to Mars, what is lacking for De Palma, is a body. And that body is a feminine one. The movie that comes closes to this one finally is Obsession (and its model Vertigo), the woman isn’t there and it is this longing that decides the path of its male protagonist.” Its also like a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with the naïve ideology of Cameron’s Abyss.

“There is only one major event in life: that is of seeing the person one loves die.” And for the Depalmian hero, “he caries this death on his back, that of the woman that he loved; because he’s responsible for the death (The Fury), because he saw her die (Mission to Mars), or the two together (the hospital scene in Raising Cain).”

In Mission to Mars, when Terri turns away from her husband Blake, who was just petrified in space, “In this instant where Terri is obliged to advert her eyes, and leave her husband: turning her back on him to rejoin the world of the living. In front of this wrenching moment where Orpheus is rejoining us: how could anyone reduce De Palma to a virtuoso formalist?”
Mission: Impossible, “no doubt the most important American film of the nineties, the malediction of touching takes on these delirious and genial dimensions.” Burdeau expands, from L’intouchable,“Mission: Impossible (and afterwards with Mission to Mars) shows the dimension of profound tenderness of De Palma’s gaze (beyond any kind of voyeurism), with sight and sound (De Palma never forgot the lessons of Blow Out). These are bodies that are prolonged and excited stubbornly towards their exterior.” For Burdeau, “Since the beginning De Palma wanted a body that was beyond blood, flesh and vomit. The untouchable: which isn’t touched or touches. The nightmare of skin, synonymous with the death of the astronaut once he removes his helmet, isn’t born from Mission to Mars.” Burdeau continues, “What Mission to Mars realizes, and which was already there in Mission: Impossible (less so in Snake Eyes), it’s this rapport between people, between two bodies, that of two faces looking at one another, but which can no longer distinguish the form. At the heart of the matter is the relation images have to other images. The body as a mannerist object that is cracked and mistreated and scattered to the four corners of the films frame… but which gets reconstructed. It’s like that the image itself gets reconstituted. And, “The pleasure that is derived from his cinema has always been tied to the cycle of memorials and ruins, alternating from high and low altitudes, connected to a fanfare beginning (the bravura opening sequences), an average “heart of the film”, which plainly halts, and a finale that is designed piece by piece, stone by stone, like a building or a cathedral.”

Burdeau concludes: “The humanization and incorporation of the image, with it’s new proximity to man, is without a doubt the most decisive thing that’s going on today in American cinema […] science-fiction, progressively, is becoming the major genre of American cinema, to the detriment of action films, which is too attached to spaces and its laws, the cities and its walls. […] The most important filmmakers (De Palma, Ferrara) are trying to go beyond this simple distinction between a cinéma du corps, which is something that is warm, concrete, open to surges of uncontrollable desires; with a cinéma des images, which is something that is cold, abstract, produced by intelligence and destined to prioritize itself, and is a tomb: there is an erasure by way of an enchantment.”
Femme Fatale (Cahiers, May 2002, N.568), w/ an interview by Olivier Joyard and Jean-Marc Lalanne, Les vances de monsieur De Palma; there is Portrait: Rebecca Romijn-Ramos by Olivier Joyard (“In contemporary cinema, she’s the best at undressing: to slowly show her skin before taking it all off.”), and a review of Femme Fatale by Jean-Marc Lalanne, Histoire d’un oeil.

“More so than anything else, De Palma’s Femme Fatale is an optic drama, slowly laying out a series of episodes that have to do with gazes,” writes Lalanne. And on the opening long-take at Cannes, “in the time in which these magnificent scenes take place, we discover a humanity which has been blinded.” For Lalanne, what’s interesting about Femme Fatale, “It is in this faith of photography, where the missing scene – that of the redemption – is something a simple as sunlight, a ray of light that ricochets and transpierces the harmful character, and where the photographic trace leads to the finishing of him off.” Which leads Lalanne to conclude, “The image is a mirror and film is a purely reflexive material. The person who reflects: drowns.”
The Black Dahlia (Cahiers, Nov. 2006, N.617), w/ Hervé Aubron reviews The Black Dahlia, A plat.

“We would have preferred to have gone overboard, claim that Brian the master filmmaker is back. Except that this isn’t the case, at least for now – and it seems like it’s been a while,” writes Aubron, “though it should be said that Dahlia is perfectly equipped to delight the dialectician cinephiles that always prefer their films to be malade to “good”.” On Liz’s corpse: “De Palma seems apparently indifferent […] and when we find it, it’s in the background - hard to distinguish behind all of the cries and gestures. De Palma is already elsewhere.”

Aubron’s conclusion is great and poetic and I don’t think that I could do it justice, so here it is in French: “Engagé dans les terres arides du work in progress, le vieux rhinocéros met à bas son trésor et s’expose bravement à la traversée du dérsert: adieu orchidées capiteuses, riches bouquets du maniérisme, je m’ennuie à vous bouturer, je pars à la recherche de nouvelles oasis, avec juste un dahlia séché à mâchonner.”
Redacted. De Palma en Irak: la colère des images (Cahiers,  Feb. '08, N.631) w/ Événement Redacted: a review of Redacted, Les images sont là, and an interview with De Palma, both by Emmanuel Burdeau; Jean-Philippe Tessé's brings up the YouTube videos that seem to be the inspirations for the movie; and there are three other essays: Farce attaque by Stéphane Delorme, L’image de la fin by Hervé Aubron, and Cinema de conflit by Eugenio Renzi.

“This is exactly what Brian de Palma has done: he has just realized in digital, and with little known actors, a fabulous anti-war film where all of the images have a second-hand quality to them,” writes Burdeau. And on the use of digital video in Redacted, “It now needs to be said, unless it will never: Redacted marks the end of a rhetoric and the beginning of a new one […] We will no longer be searching for images under other images, instead we will be captures them in motion as they are presenting themselves to us […] Cinema is now secondary in how images are put together: what it does is it organizes how they are distributed, except that none of them belong to it.”

For Burdeau, what De Palma does with images is really important: “With this film, De Palma penetrates the domain of pure images: barely created, and already seen; barely gone, already worn out.”

Burdeau concludes: “De Palma achieves what is a great voyage. He has finally found what so many of his films have been searching for: these “zero-degrees images” that are beyond any suspicion, which are made by nobody in particular and everybody, seen by nobody and the whole world. He should feel joyous and a little terrified with what he has created. Immediate, perfect, and without any destination: the cinema that he has created with Redacted resolves all of his past’s ambiguities. This work of pyrotechnics is awe-inspiring and stuns.”
Redacted is surely the film our era,” writes Delorme in Farce attaque,Redacted hits hard. It’s a charge. And its principal weapon? Farce.” Delorme continues, “We are finished with the kind of criticism that come from “good intentions” (the fictions from the left about Irak), we are finished with popular ironic spectacles (Starship Troopers): farce destroys everything in its path.” And for De Palma, “Irak is the bad remake of the Vietnam war, more so than the Gulf war.”

In front of De Palma’s cinema, and which makes it terribly important, the spectator has only one choice: that of courage. Because, according to Delorme, “the moral question for De Palma is never the simple: “Would you have done this?” but: “What would you have done when this is what’s really going on?” What would you have done if you had to bear witness?” and there’s finally only two ways to classify the filmmakers who think about this ethical question: those that take it up through courage and that see evil as a flaw (De Palma, Lynch, Ferrara) and those that see in the wrong a temptation, an ambiguity, which is closer to something fatal. De Palma is clean, he doesn’t fog his vision, and his film is as clear as water from a spring. Only with a real blindness could one believe that all of these images are equal and that non show truths; they escape the cynicism which is so in abundance in this spectacle that we are living in.”
Passion (Cahiers, Oct. ’12, N.682) w/ Venise à deux vitesses, Stéphanne Delorme and Jean-Philippe Tessé bring up Passion in their La Mostra coverage.

“One of the most intense pleasures of the festival,” writes Delorme and Tessé about Passion, “which sometimes reaches the self-referential; it deals with a multiplicity of ideas, forms, and identities." And, "It’s drenched in memories of Femme Fatale, Body Double and Dressed to Kill, which gives immense pleasure for those that admire De Palma.” 

No comments: