• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, August 14, 2018

    Othon (1969)

    Of all the films which Huillet and Straub made prior to Moses und Aron, Othon is perhaps the closest. Both films are adaptations set, at least on one level, in the ancient world. Both are located on historic (Italian) sites in the open air, locations that should be right for the subject, but somehow feel at odds with the work which they are adapting. Both works are poetic and have a rhythm and flow to the words and language. Indeed just as Moses und Aron utilises an unusual operatic singing style called sprechstimme which is partway between speech and singing, so the various speeches in Othon have a sort of sung quality.

    The film's proper title is Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu’un jour Rome se permettra de choisir a son tour (Eyes don’t want to stay shut all the time, or Perhaps one day Rome will let herself choose at her turn), but is based on the 1664 Pierre Corneille play Othon which played in Louis XIV's court where it's scathing portrayal of back-room political dealings was perhaps best appreciated. Whilst Corneille himself considered one of his best works (though given it came late in his career, that might just have been shrewd marketing), it's one of his less appreciated works. However, it's not hard to see why it appealed to the avowedly political Straub/Huillet nor why they would choose to dedicate it "to the large number of those born in the French language, who've never had the privilege of knowing the work of Corneille".

    The story itself is set in the A.D.69, the year of the four emperors in the final days of Galba's rule. Galba is hesitating over whom to appoint as his heir, the noble, but easily swayed Pison, or the shrewder Othon. Galba's three advisers Lacus, Martian and Vinius can't agree either, mainly because each is scheming to protect their own political future. Aside from the two men's qualities, there are also two potential marriage partners that could swing things one way or another. The emperor's niece, Camille, the only character with royal pedigree loves Othon, but he loves Vinius' daughter Plautine.

    Perhaps what is most striking about the film is its choice of location and the way in which that setting is set to work. Instead of the claustrophobic palace back rooms Corneille's play suggests, Huillet and Straub opted for the open air. Furthermore they chose a terrace on Palatine Hill, the site of numerous imperial palaces overlooking the forum in Rome. Instead of trying to block out the background noise of the modern day city far below they embraced it, experimenting with natural sound which would go on to become one of their trademarks. As a result much of the play is recited against the sound of traffic, wind and bubbling water. No effort is made to make the buildings look as they would have, they look as they do today, but the costumes match with what is considered typical Roman dress.

    The result is somewhat jarring yet it's easy to get lost in the easy rhythm of the words, or in trying to keep up with the House of Cards-like plot, or the gentle lulling sounds of flowing water or distant traffic. It's all helped by Straub and Huillet's beautiful compositions, or the way the actors keep their emotions strictly under wraps. There are no histrionics, evil smirks or heartfelt declarations of love, instead the film refuses to telegraph where it is going even though we know Othon is going to become emperor.

    Interestingly the film minimises Othon's role in his predecessor's downfall, even leading some commentators to think that it does not hold him responsible. Such an assumption is misguided, however. Galba and Pison's assassination is not shown, and as with the rest of the film Othon does not show any kind of emotion - positive or negative - at the news that they have been killed and he is to become emperor. Like the events that occur between the second and third acts of Moses und Aron whilst we have seen much of what has prompted regime change we are left reflecting less on the acts that caused it, than on what happens as a result.



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