• 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.

    Monday, September 02, 2019

    Trop tôt/Trop tard Too Early/Too Late


    Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981) is Huillet and Straub's other film set in Egypt, only here it is documentary rather than drama. Before getting to Egypt though the film begins in France. The film's opening shot is one of its two most memorable - a six and a half minute rotational pan, (presumably shot from the side of a vehicle) going round and round the Place de la Bastille in France. It's a clear signifier of what is to follow - an exploration of the cycle of revolutions in France and Egypt. There's no doubt a pun here, revolutions of the camera in a film about revolutions. Most of the rest of the film, both the French and the Egyptian segments comprise of a series of long takes, either static, or panning, often in complete circles.

    Whilst this is happening two monologues are read out. Firstly there is a letter by Freidrich Engels detailing the extent of poverty in various villages and towns in pre-Revolution France. Then there are longer sections from the Cahiers de Doléances. These are read out by Huillet herself and is accompanied by images of the relevant locations today. Usually they are peaceful, places where people largely are not and the calmness of the imagery and (as ever, direct) sound belies the grim statistics that are being recited. One notable example is a shot of the side of a rural building upon which someone has graffitied "Les paysons se revolteront 1976" (the countries will revolt 1976) in big red letters. It is at this point that Huillet reaches the passage that includes the film's title, the point being that "the peasants always start the revolt too early and, then when it comes to seizing power, they arrive too late" (Pummer, 2016: 60). Engels was writing on the eve of the 1789 revolution in France.

    In the Egyptian segment, the reading is more recent, the author Bahgat Elnadi reads from the book he wrote with Adel Riffat under the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein about the overthrow of British colonial powers. The film's most famous shot, is a ten minute static diagonal shot of workers leaving a factory in Egypt. The nature of the shot recalls the Lumière Brothers Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). The section is considerably longer here, but the parallels between the two segments are apparent. That said there is one stark contrast: whilst the French footage is deserted, the Egyptian footage is peppered with human activity. The camera maintains a discreet distance, in an attempt not to interfere with the world they wish to document; "their respectful distance allows for the anonymous Egyptian peasants and workers to...occupy and traverse the space entirely on their own terms" (Small 2019).This is documentary filmmaking at the opposite end of the spectrum to the vox pop heavy style of our own era.

    There are various similarities with Straub and Huillet's other work here, in particular Fortini/Cani (1978) which similarly accompanies a writer's work with images of the described locations today, but also the long tracking shots of History Lessons (1972) and The Bridegroom, the Actress and the Pimp (1968). And of course, the handful of shots in Moses und Aron (1974) taken in Egypt.

    It's a film that has the ability to create startling reactions. At one point Jonathan Rosenbaum put it on his all-time top ten list for "Sight and Sound". "The extraordinary result of this technique is that one almost feels able to taste these places, to contemplate them – to observe and think about them" (Rosenbaum 1983). Many have looked at Huillet and Straub's films and conclude that nothing really happens. But in fact, the second half of the film is teeming with activity if you observe closely enough, it is just that they keep a respectful distance from us just as they do to the characters who move across the screen. No matter where people are in relation to their camera and their screen, they do not tell us how to act and react.

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    Pummer, Claudia (2016), "(Not Only) for Children and Caveman: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet", in Ted Fendt (ed.), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen.

    Rosenbaum, Joanthan (1983), Film: The Front Line, Denver: Arden Press.

    Small, Christopher (2019), "A Straub-Huillet Companion: Too Early, Too Late", mubi.com Notebook Column, August 6, Available online: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/a-straub-huillet-companion-too-early-too-late.

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