• 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.

    Tuesday, May 26, 2020

    Cézanne: Dialogue with Joachim Gasquet (1990)


    Painters have been a popular subject for filmmakers, going as far back as Pathé's 1910 film about Murillo (L'Orgueil) and Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto's 1919 Leonardo da Vinci, not least because of the connections between the two art forms.1 It's hardly surprising, then, that Huillet and Straub - whose films revolve around adapting the work of artists from all kinds of art forms - would eventually create a film about a painter, and in their own idiosyncratic fashion.

    As their subject they chose Paul Cézanne, an artist who, at least in the eyes of Benoît Turquety, shares their passion for "objectivity" and "impersonality" 2. As with so many of their films Cézanne (1990) straddles the gap between adaptation and documentary. Whereas most 'films about painters' have tended to be either biopics or documentaries Straub and Huillet take a different approach, combining scraps of biographic material with images of his finished paintings as displayed in galleries. Throughout words from Gasquet's conversations with Cézanne are read out, with Huillet speaking Cézanne's words and Straub occasionally posing one of Gasquet's questions.

    The resulting film has the feel of a cinematic scrapbook. In terms of the rest of their body of work it perhaps bears closest resemblance to Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's 'Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene' (1972). As with that film Cézanne features photographs, actors reading others words in lengthy excerpts as if standing-in for the original orator, seemingly unconnected film footage and shots of landscapes. Turquety divides the film into two.3 The first half overlaying photographs of the artist with words purportedly from his conversation with Joachim Gasquet; a shot of Cézanne's "La vieille au chaplet"; excerpts from their own Death of Empedocles (1986); and Renoir's Madame Bovary (1933) and long takes of country scenery including Mont Sainte-Victoire. The second features shots of nine more of Cézanne's paintings in their present locations, finished off by a shot of the gated area where his Paris studio was situated.

    Here is the full sequence of  the film's 75 shots:

    - Opening credits on white then on black.
    - Two distant panning shots of Aix-en-Provence. Quiet ambient noise.
    - Still photo of Cézanne accompanied by recollection of the conversation by Joachim Gasquet
    - Painting 1. "La vieille au chaplet" (1895-6)
    - Excerpt from Madame Bovary (Jean Renoir 1933) - 50 shots.
    - Static shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire
    - Excerpt from The Death of Empedocles (Straub/Huilllet, 1986) comprising five static shots taken on the slopes of Mount Etna - featuring Andreas von Rauch reading words from Hölderlin's play.
    - Static shot of Mont Sainte-Victoire, eventually panning right
    - Three still photos of Cézanne
    - Static shot of Mount Etna, from Death of Empedocles.
    - Painting 2. Still Life with Apples and Oranges (1895-1900)
    - Painting 3. Montagne Sainte-Victoire (1890)
    - Painting 4. Le Mont Sainte-Victoire vu des Lauves (1904-1906)
    - Painting 5. Rochers et branches à Bibémus (1895-1904)
    - Painting 6. La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, vue de Lauves (1905)
    - Painting 7. Apples, Bottles, Chair Back (1902-1906)
    - Painting 8. Les Grandes Baigneuses (1894-1905)
    - Painting 9. The Gardener Vallier (1906)
    - Painting 10 Femme nue debout (1895)
    -Gate to Cézanne's Paris studio . Quiet ambient noise.
    - End credits on black.


    Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg is one of my favourite Huillet-Straub films, in part because it manages to be so rhetorically passionate, despite rigorously striving for  objective neutrality. You have to know enough about how they handle the material to be struck by it, but once you do it's incredibly powerful. Here's the subject is clearly less emotive, but I do like films such as Cézanne, Introduction and their 1968 film The Bridgegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp which approach the same theme by collaging different types of visual and aural material. The artists featured in these two films, Schoenberg, Cézanne, Renoir, Hölderlin and Flaubert all shared a similar approach to their art - an 'objectivist' approach as Turquety would explain it.

    There are also obvious similarities with the pair's later A Visit to the Louvre (2003) which not only features numerous shots of paintings, but also includes dialogue which Joachim Gasquet noted down from his conversations with Cézanne. Thematically there are similarities too - Huillet's concern with how paintings are displayed in museums and galleries looms in visit to the Louvre and Cézanne seems to have been conceived, in part, from Straub and Huillet's experiences of visiting these paintings in galleries around the world as they toured with Moses und Aron (1975). Huillet railed against the "horrible...madness" of making them "invisible" by hiding them behind protective glass.4 Elsewhere Straub talked about paintings being "prisoners of a museum".5

    It is perhaps because of this that the film makes so much of framing. It is perhaps best known for the manner in which it displays the ten paintings by Cézanne. Whilst the majority of them are in landscape format, meaning it would have been easy for Huillet and Straub to crop out the galleries' frames, they not only include them, but also include a little of the museum's wall. This is partly out of a sense of objectivity and respect for Cézanne's original compositions and framing. Nonetheless, at times they do not even centre the canvas in the precise middle of the frame - clearly a deliberate act for such meticulous filmmakers. This presentation draws attention to the paintings imprisonment and how paintings created to capture and reflect light are now trapped inside under artificial lights. It also distorts perspective, "the film-frame makes every painting the same scale, their relative sizes are equalized, even if they are actually very different".6

    But by this point 'framing' has already been introduced as a theme in various different ways. Böser notes how in the excerpts of Renoir's film "a dominant stylistic feature of the film are secondary apertures, frames within frames which frequently establish shot compositions of a pronounced symmetry" noting also "double framing" and "prominent vertical or horizontal lines".7 Then there is the moment in their own film when Empedocles stands up with the result that his head is no longer in the frame as if he is breaking out of the frame.

    It's significant as well that before encountering these photographed paintings inside, the film starts and ends with exterior shots. The first of these are of the place of his birth; the last of where he lived, and worked, in the last days before his death. "The film is thus bookended by the two geographic locations central to the painter's life"8. Indeed he worked on painting 9, "The Gardener Vallier" (1906) on the day of his death. These shots are accompanied only by the natural ambient sounds which are so central to Straub and Huillet's broader body of work. As the film cycles through the paintings the frames begin to lose their hold, first paintings appear not in a visible frame (no's 6 and 7); then a framed painting appears but accompanied by natural sounds, the like of which cannot be heard from within the central London gallery where it resides; then the painting of "The Gardener Vallier" on an easel worked on the day before he died - as if capturing at the moment of his death; finally we have an unfinished painted over sketch, a painting where Cézanne is still attempting to capture the light on, and the fire below, the surface. These are two themes Cézanne/Huillet's "narration" touch on. Elsewhere, referring to Mont Sainte Victoire we hear "these hunks of rock were made from fire, and there is fire in them still."

    That penultimate shot of "The Gardener Vallier" gets increasingly meaningful the more you probe.  It is one of nine attempts at the character by Cézanne late in his life (six oil paintings and three water colours) and the film lends them, and itself, an air of melancholy by Cézanne/Huillet reflections which end with "c'est effrayante, la vie" (life is terrifying). Gasquet himself discusses these works - though not in one of the passages in the film - claiming that when the old gardener failed to show up for sittings, the artist modelled for himself, setting himself up in front of the mirror.9 This corresponds, in a way, to the relationship between the first painting displayed in the film - "La vieille au chaplet" (Old Maid with Rosary) - and the ensuing clip from Renoir's Madame Bovary. As the painting is displayed 'Cézanne' discusses how the inspiration for the painting - notably its colours - came from Flaubert's novel.

    In many of Straub and Huillet's films there's a fascination with texts and layers of history. Here things are simpler than with their works set in the ancient world, but the use of Gasquet's recollections is one way in which this surfaces. There is the original conversations between the two men; Gasquet's subsequent recording of them much later; and then Huillet/Straub's selection, abridgement and performance of them. Like anyone Gasquet's words are prone to the loss and distortion of the memory of these events, and the possibility of deliberate embellishment or fabrication. Gasquet's words 'frame' our impressions of Cézanne and their unreliability highlight the inaccessibility of the past. In a similar fashion, even our impression of Cézanne's art is limited and distorted by their being filmed, variations in colour, lighting, grain and perspective all change how the viewer sees the paintings.

    That this film was originally commissioned by a gallery to accompany an exhibition of a selection of the artists works, only adds a further interpretative layer.10 It reflects that is so central to Moses und Aron - the tension between a purity vision and the impossibility of communicating it more widely without reducing or distorting it. "As the institutional guardians of art, such institutions may be viewed to exert a tangible impact on our experience of the exhibits in their care and possession".11 Also as with Moses und Aron (as well as Class Relations (1983) and others) Huillet and Straub's interest in unfinished or incomplete works again resurfaces with inclusion of some paintings that Cézanne had not yet completed, testifying to the ragged edges and reality of artistic process and thought. Even the film itself exists in two versions the French version I have discussed here (and which is available on YouTube) and a German version which is twelve minutes longer.

    Sadly, the gallery that commissioned Cézanne, Musee d'Orsay, declined to show it in the end saying it was "not an educational film, but an auteur's film".12 Yet despite such a poor initial reception, Cézanne has gone on to become one of their most analysed latter works (at least among English language texts) given more serious consideration than their more popular films from the final third of their career. Thirteen years later Straub and Huillet would return to Cézanne, again through the recollections of Gasquet, in their 2003 film A Visit to the Louvre only this time the focus was the works of other artists such as Courbet, Tintoretto and Veronese with Julie Koltaï giving voice to Cézanne's thoughts on their work.

    ======================
    1 - Rizzotto was an Italian actress who turned to directing after the First World War. There's a great write up on her here by Alessandro Faccioli, Marzia Maino. As well as tipping me off about this, Michelle Facey also mentioned two 1911 Italian documentaries on Leonardo. Thanks to Roland-François Lack for the tip-off about L'Orgueil.
    2 - Turquety, Benoît (2020) Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema, (Translated by Ted Fendt), Amsterdam:Amsterdam University Press.
    3 - Turquety. p.207
    4 - Huillet, Danièle (2016) "Quite a lot of Pent-Up Anger" in Straub, Jean-Marie and Danièle Huillet, Writings, translated and edited by Sally Shafto with Katherine Pickard. New York:  Sequence Press. p.229-231.
    5 - Chevrie, Marc (1989) 'Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele Huillet: Entre Deux Films', Cahiers du Cinema, (418) April. p.64. Cited in the catalogue for the 2019 BFI/Goethe Institute retrospective.
    6 - 
    Turquety. p.209.
    7 - Böser, Ursula (2004) The Art of Seeing, the Art of Listening: The Politics of Representation in the Work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p.173-4
    8 - Shafto, Sally (2012) "Artistic Encounters: Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, and Cézanne" in Angela Dalle Vacche (ed.) Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? London: Palgravce Macmillan. p.216.
    9 - Cited in Platzman, Steven (2001) Cézanne: The Self-portraits. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p.190.
    10 - Böser, p.188.
    11 - Böser, p.188.
    12 - Raymond, Jean-Louis (1995) 'Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele Huillet, Le Mans' in Rencontres: Jean-Marie Straub et Daniele
    Huillet, in Bruno Tackels (ed.) Strasbourg: Limelight. p. 33.

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