By Ken Chen.
Susan Sontag once called transparency – the luminousness of the thing in itself – the highest value in contemporary film. By this, she meant the way Renoir and Ozu remind us of life. What then should we make of the occluded films of Eugène Green, which invoke werewolves, Baroque opera, the ghost of one’s true love, the student protests of late sixties France, academic satire, child-eating ogres, wise babies, prostitutes, holy light, and the wounds of Christ? Green’s characters zig-zag through allegorical systems about art history or Christian theology. They’re eager to chat you up on topics like how words bind us, the way our faces resemble masks, and why certain people have no names. Green’s films have been called quirky, sublime, and capable of restoring one’s faith in film – but what do they mean?
A Baroque theater director and sixty-something American expatriate in France, Green has directed four oblique, tender and smart-alecky, charmingly pretentious films. These films have a calm sealed quality, like science fiction movies that only coincidentally take place in our own universe. In Green’s twenty-minute short, Le nom du feu (2002), a man tells a psychiatrist that he’s a werewolf. She meets him in the woods by a fire and flees wounded from the forest after she fails to talk him back into his humanity. Green’s first feature, Toutes les nuits (2001), awkwardly adapts Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Like a diary that is somehow apathetic about its subjects, this voiceover-laden film tracks the lives of two men – a surly lawyer and a pouting dreamer – who grow apart, find and lose love in the same woman (Emilie, played by Christelle Prot), and discover themselves on opposite sides of the late sixties student riots.
Green’s next film, Le monde vivant, a slight, perfect, slantlike hit at Cannes 2003, recounts the tales of a Lion Knight who fights an ogre and wears blue jeans. His ‘lion’ is a golden retriever with an MGM-style lion’s roar slapped on the sound mix. As we seep into this irreverent fantasy, as pat and precious as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mamet, we discover that Le monde almost accidentally becomes profound. It is a special movie about death, language, and love – a love story about performative utterances! Le monde shows us how love can course through sentences like electricity through a circuit board, as when a knight named Nicolas asks a damsel, ‘Why do you love me?’ and she replies ‘Because your words have freed me’. How does the boyish recipient of this love respond? ‘Maximus cool!’
The film has the geometric meaningfulness of sonnets and echoing motifs, not the social import of life – except that it somehow ends up being about age, with the four characters snapping into two pairs of mature and immature couples (‘Maximus cool!’) – and also about motherhood. Prot also plays the wife of the ogre, a woman named Penelope who sews not a tapestry but baby clothes for the children she never ended up having. While Green rarely leaves much room for his actors, Prot somehow manages to imply a history behind her melodramatically vatic character. She gives not just the most surreptitiously moving performance in all of Green, but also the most calm, the most credibly wise.
Toutes and Le monde belong to an unusual genre for such urbane and fresh moviemaking: they are pastoral films. The forests have been dappled by the yeasty sun. The world looks as though it has just been born. So as we tour these fables, we never get the feeling that Green wants his characters tainted with enough details for them to be believable: the films are bashfully realist.
Green’s most mature work, Le Pont des Arts (2004) is an occasionally wonderful, occasionally fatuous masterpiece that bestows the viewer with a feeling of placid sublimity and also the sense that someone is winding you up. The film holds itself out as both Baroque and anti-Baroque, rationalist and romantic, theological and secular – and appears earnestly faithful to the meaningfulness of these terms. Pascal (Adrien Michaux, who also plays a nearly identical if kinder character in Toutes and Nicolas in Le monde) is an apathetic poetry student at the Sorbonne, who reads Michelangelo’s poetry at cafes and learns to dislike his pretentious poetry professor, his dissertation topic, and his far more serious-minded girlfriend, Christine (Camille Carraz). When we step next door to the adjoining storyline, we meet Sarah (Natacha Régnier), a milky-faced woman who spends most of the film singing Monteverdi’s soul-inflating Lamento della ninfa as the somewhat precarious lead of a Baroque ensemble. Green has fitted the entire film around this wonderful song – actually sung by Claire Lefilliâtre – like a set of hallway doors. Sarah is harassed by her conductor – a wonderfully vulgar, dandified baboon called The Unnamable (Denis Podaldès, who can make even playing the piano seem perverse), who tells her that she sings like a sick kangaroo. And so she tries to console herself with her loving but boring husband Manuel (Alexis Loret, also the werewolf in Le nom du feu, the crass careerist in Toutes, and the Lion Knight in Le monde), who doesn’t know quite what to say when she tells him that her face is a mask.
Like Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, Sarah’s lamentations seem not personal, but the bottomless channeling of the universe’s mystic hurt. She is ostensibly overcome by her conductor’s criticisms, but also seems wounded by inexplicable forces – and so she throws herself from a bridge. Pascal also tries to kill himself. We don’t mind really – we are incredulous that we should – since Michaux plays Pascal like a model Generation Xer: all arrogant ennui and pretensions to counter-cultural truth. Preparing for his suicide, Pascal puts on a recording of Sarah’s singing Monteverdi and her music sounds so sublime as he nuzzles his head into the gas-fuming oven that Pascal not only saves himself, he emerges from his suicide-chrysalis as a Baroque Romantic! Having molted off his indecisive postmodernism, Pascal enrolls himself in a quest to discover his true love – Sarah, a woman he’s never met! – and encounters Manuel, Christine (who has since acquired another boyfriend, a boring academic who studies soil qualities), and, like the final boss in a Nintendo game, The Unnamable himself. Movingly and somewhat preciously, Pascal also meets Sarah – still dead, for those of you keeping track – in a spiritual bridge-top encounter on Le Pont des Arts.
Though pert and original, Le Pont’s subject matter is that of a standard French satire of academic life. Like Va savoir (2001) and Look at Me (Comme une image, 2004), Le Pont possesses a light Rohmeresque style, namedrops dead white poets, and reminds us that Paris exists, is beautiful, and can be spotted looking civilized over the riverbanks. Add two extra servings of classical music slathered on top! Le Pont des Arts deploys these satirical elements for the not-entirely-believable ends of tragedy.
What makes Green’s films compelling is their wonderfully strange formal effects. When speaking dialogue, Green’s actors look directly at the camera (i.e., you) and stand at the center of medium shots that reveal only their torso, as though they were awards ceremony presenters. Yet Green’s actors do not break the fourth wall, speaking instead through monotonic voiceovers that Green actually recorded in caves – an effect that somehow reduces rather than inflates the films’ pretensions, as it allows Green to pare away all inflection until only his text remains. The dialogue seems to emit not from the characters but from some other lyric source, so that, like the conversations in Henry James, one could read the whole script straight down as one text. And because his characters always stand perpendicular to the axis of the shot, the visual space flattens until the shot no longer seems to take place in a real location, but in a formalized world of concepts. This blocking cleaves the conversation towards you, the viewer, who do not exist inside the story, so instead of perceiving two characters talking to each other, you feel as though two only tenuously associated characters both speak to you. In a few scenes, Sarah hugs Manuel and, while executing the hug and whispering her sweet nothings, she peers over his shoulder to the audience, even though her words are directed to him. Green’s blocking has reminded many of Ozu, whose Tokyo Story characters address the audience like they’re trying to sell you something. But it might be more helpful to consider Green’s background as a Baroque theater director.
The author of La parole baroque, Green founded in 1977 the Théâtre de la sapience, a theater group that sought to renew contemporary theater through the Baroque. The characters in theater – unlike taxicab drivers and jilted lovers – must always look at you, who are the audience, rather than at the diegetically appropriate space provided by the narrative, such as the other character’s face. ‘The true Baroque state setting is symmetrical’, art historian John Rupert Martin writes. ‘The reason is that in seventeenth-century scenic design the space of the stage (the world of art) is regarded as coextensive with that of the auditorium (the real world)’ (Martin, 1977: 195). When Bernini staged The Inundations of the Tiber, for example, he so effectively conveyed the bursting dikes that the audience, like Lumiere’s, leapt to its feet to avoid the flood. This ‘principle of coextensive space’, as Martin calls it, is a general trope of Baroque sculpture and painting: consider the Captain in Rembrandt’s The Night Watch who looks like he’s ready to step out of the painted surface (Martin, 1977: 158).
When this illusionism is applied, the picture frames melt into doors and windows. Now unstoppered, the ‘real space of the observer and the perspective space’ of the art pour into each other, and the proscenium stage and gallery walkway find themselves studded with portals to these higher worlds of aesthetic representation: the viewer finds herself an ‘active participant in the spatial-psychological field created by the work of art’ (Martin 1977: 14). So, although this first person cinema collapses the wall blocking reality from fiction, it does not violate it. More empathetic than metafictional, Green’s characters do not seem to know they are speaking outside the story or that you in the audience even exist. The characters are stilted, solitary personae and the web of sympathy does not fasten them to each other, but to the viewer. This spiritual intimacy is why Green’s characters never seem as cheeky as, say, Godard’s when they’re addressing the camera. They stare down the audience not to sneer at their own troubled ontology, but because addressing the audience is the closest thing to addressing God.
Green’s trompe-l’oeil of the soul works best in two situations: when the character appear to be communicating a private moment of suffering (such as when Sarah sings in Le Pont des Arts or when Penelope glances at the camera after the man she love dies in Le monde vivant); or when the characters stand in obviously empirical backgrounds and speak from the world to send a message out of it – the message is that art can free us from these petty surroundings. When the setting is more theatrical, the dialogue less deep, as in most of Toutes, the eye contact feels confrontational, cheapened, juvenile, and the actors become ridiculously flat, like those shoddy cartoon characters from the ‘80s, who when talking, remained completely motionless and only moved their lips. But Green’s blocking more often gives the viewer a way to crawl inside his otherwise hermetically-sealed world. Pricked by a Green character’s confrontational eye, the viewer thinks that she too is – like the characters onscreen – just another emoting individual, another spiritual node. Or as Martin writes, ‘Far from being merely a form of clever theatrical trickery, Baroque illusionism has a persuasive purpose – that of transferring the mind of the viewer from material to eternal things’ (Martin, 1977: 14).
Green’s films seem to be ‘about’ this sense of connection more than the actual psychologies of the people involved. The characters of Le Pont des Arts don’t seem terribly interested in how each other’s day went or what’s for dinner, but they do like watching each other. The film doesn’t quite form a plot, but a tour of spectacles, as in Dante. We see Sarah’s many Monteverdi recitals, the hammy monologue of a Baroque theater director, a Nō drama, and the singing of a gypsy. Always, the camera rows back and forth between art and the audience members, whose blank faces appear sanctified by the power of art. In the last two cases, Green only films the faces of the viewers, giving us the performance only as sound. I think Green’s ‘point’ is that beauty is dialogic. Great art may usher us to the higher world of truth, but the artist requires the audience – who else will comprehend him?
The Lion Knight in Le monde vivant looks like just some guy in blue jeans to the other male lead, Nicolas, but a child he encounters clearly recognizes him as the Lion Knight, because, she says, she doesn’t need glasses yet. So when the Lion Knight dies, he says to himself that he too will die without needing glasses – since he can still see things with the romantic eyes of a child. And in Le Pont, Pascal sees a Kurdish woman singing and when she stops, he asks if she stopped because of him. She replies, ‘Perhaps I began because of you.’ Less social than spiritual, Green’s interest in audience arises out of a phrase we use commonly, unaware of its origins as the technical jargon of Christian theology: platonic love.
Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino called love a ‘voluntary death’, because the lover abdicates his body and recovers himself in the love of another (Ficino, 1985: 55-56). But Ficino stated that heavenly love sought beauty not through the body but through the other faculties, such as the mind. ‘Therefore we shall hunt beauty’, Ficino wrote, ‘and by means of the beauty which appears in sounds and bodies, as if by means of certain footprints, we shall track down the beauty of the soul’ (Ficino, 1985: 42). In Green’s three features, characters fall in love with people they barely know or find themselves tugged back to life by the mystical union of love. In Toutes, Emilie sleeps with an escaped convict because he bears the stigmata of Christ and the name of her true love, Jules, a man that she has met only in letters. In Le monde, the resurrected Lion Knight creeps up behind the Ogre’s wife like the ghost of Eurydice. And in Le Pont, what composer does Sarah sing but Monteverdi, whose central opera tells us the same story of art and resurrection – Orpheus. Our relationships may find their home not in psychology but the same awe of art, our extra-human solidarity before some unknowable presence. I think this is the point of Cedric, the Unnamable’s steward, who is irrelevant to the plot but necessary as a mirror of the edified audience. When Sarah sings, only he cries.
Ficino, incidentally, thought of platonic love as a male-to-male friendship, encouraging his male students to write love letters to each other, and Green in Toutes seems fascinated by this boyish love: Henri and Jules girlishly splash each other in a lake and, in the film’s most human scene, a girl asks Jules if he ever slept with Henri, her father she has never met. Jules initially says no, but fondly remembers that he did put Henri up in his bed many years ago and says yes, laughing nostalgically.
Green seems to love solitude for its plucky monasticism, but also love love, for the way it transports us to a higher bliss and blots our self out with the self of another. Platonic love reconciles these two modes. When the Lion Knight dies, he says to the Ogre’s wife, ‘Isn’t it strange that we can be alone, even though we are two?’ The wife replies deadpan, ‘Grammar makes it so.’ When the audience and the artist meet, when two friends discover that they have become one person, we achieve the undifferentiation that properly belongs to the simpler world beyond empirical reality.
Ficino argued that all love is love towards God and so love compels us towards this ideal world. ‘If we do love bodies, souls or angels, we shall not really be loving these things but God in them’ (Ficino 1985: 144). In the Nō opera that Pascal watches in Le Pont, a drowned musician walks across a bridge to play the drum he left behind. This idea – that the beauty of art persists when the body itself is gone – leads Pascal to console Manuel, still grieving over Sarah’s death. ‘When life ends’, Manuel says, ‘Silence takes over.’ Pascal replies, ‘No, the music remains.’ The Nō plot functions as CliffsNotes for the film’s cryptic finale: how else could Pascal meet Sarah, herself a drowned musician, but on the bridge of the arts? And Sarah’s suicide makes little sense from characterization, but seems obvious under the lens of the sublime. One could argue that she kills herself not out of a psychologically comprehensible sadness, such as the sensitive wound struck open by her conductor’s caustic remarks, but because she is overwhelmed by her own singing. The infinite force of art terrorizes her, it stamps out all self from her soul. Her conductor has coerced her towards true art, has torn off her mask and found nothing underneath it. Now she is a ghost. She must align her true and dead self with her empirical one. Like many Christian Romantics who rank passion over the blithe ache of contentment, Green opposes art’s true artifice over the phony happiness of convention. In Le Pont’s most metafictional moment, Manuel hugs Sarah and says, as though to the audience, ‘This is beautiful, isn’t it?’ But Sarah, unconvinced by this portrait of flat domesticity, looks out and says, ‘All that is beautiful is beyond us.’
Yet, just as the Baroque smashed together opposing ideas, Green’s films tell us that this artist’s spiritualism is both sacred and ridiculous. Sarah and Pascal both attempt suicide, but Pascal’s suicide seems like a silly parody of Sarah’s understated death. And Sarah’s singing of Lamento della ninfa is a truly sublime sample of the Baroque, but Green mocks the same exaggerated aesthetic in another scene, in which a theater director – played by The Son’s Olivier Gourmet, who looks at people as though elevated on a stool and through slits – tries to impress a male prostitute by screeching Phaedra in a slip dress and rabidly tearing the stomach out of a doll. Such mocking excessiveness constitutes the second category of joke Green is capable of telling – the first being deadpan one-liners – which makes his films seems simultaneously humorless and glib. Yet this hysterical character in the very next scene becomes the spokesman for the Baroque, warning us away from the lies of bourgeois art. Green seems to be ridiculing vulgar arts and curating heavenly ones. The former merely amuse, manipulating us with rhetoric, rather than the sincere intensity of the performer. They have an insufficient quantity of God.
Yet how eagerly should we believe these distinctions? Green’s characters want art that is sublime – a concept that allows us to avoid equating art with decoration and instead lump aesthetics with the devastating smackdown of Truth, galloping and splashing beyond human fads and beliefs. Bored by unromantic love or art that is only entertaining, Green directs us towards heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs, like Giordano Bruno and Saint Sebastian, who gives a wooden performance as an arrow-pricked statuette. Yet how gullibly would we take art’s claim to truth if we delicately lifted Monteverde out of the equation – the equation being, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – and jammed in Howard Hawks flicks, Jack Kirby comics, and Iggy Pop? Green’s films become less credible the more you think of art as not merely a vehicle for truth, but as a way to have fun or a process by which we learn how to understand other people – a human practice, rather than a secular religion.
And while Green hunts after such big game of the soul – transcendent truth and the nature of the Baroque – these goals contradict each other to the extent that Green sees Truth as universal and anathema to historicism. For a film that holds itself out as historically conscious, Le Pont is an interestingly ahistorical film. The Baroque is its aesthetic, not its subject matter. As with Toutes, it is a film about history that does not believe in situatedness – also known as reality. This is because fact has no authority over the heart. The poet hero resides not in an empirical place, but in a locale of pure mind. And so Pascal sympathizes with Michelangelo, Bruno, and Edward Vaché as much as with contemporary rock music and, after watching a Nō play, confesses that he was born in the wrong time. And he can meet the dead Sarah because they possess a relationship not in the history of the world, but in the history of the spirit.
Like many works more interested in theoretical systems than the hefty ballast of fact, Green’s airy films levitate above any specific time or place. They accrue this lightness from their theatricality. Aside from obvious location shots, such as Paris marinating in the Seine, nearly every shot takes place on a stage set or a barren room and Green almost always cuts away from the action. He focuses on an object – a face, a door, a cup – while the story spills forward, unseen, on the audio track. This is Green doing his impression of Bresson; the films provide us with objects spackled with offscreen dialogue, many shots of people’s feet and two guest appearances by mules. But, while Bresson awoke us to the phenomenological touch of objects, the way our labor toiled us away from ourselves and towards the Lord, Green’s foreground is comparatively light.
Such evasive composition – showing a door, rather than a room – is a helpful strategy for low-budget filmmaking, but it also implies that the image does not matter to the ‘essence’ of the shot, for our reality of rocks and persons only flimsily represents the Platonic world of essences. This is why Green has little sense of rhythm – if things are defined by their essences, they cannot change. In Toutes, a theater director tells Jules he can’t write a play about the death of Rimbaud since death is only an instant, but Jules replies that in that instant we have time to see our whole life. Abstractions are eternal. Abstractions are static. And so Green’s camera fails to swoop or waddle. The cuts do not gallop one after another to suffuse the shots with life. But his flatness rarely feels neorealist or durational, as in Antonioni: we certainly never see people living their daily routine. No, Green’s editing feels obvious, like paraphrases. Although he is an aesthete, he is one skeptical about our world of appearances, so his films are cobbled together from muted spectacles – performances that are somehow instructive, but neither overwhelming nor instrumental to a larger structure of meaning. The art is itself the point. Green’s poetry is also what makes him seem plotless.
What Green likes about the Baroque is the way that its artists sought not only to combine opposing ideas, but to connect static theological themes with a more active, human reality. And thus do neoclassical Baroque paintings possess the quality of a feverish and vaguely mathematical struggle – or of meditative graphs whose inhabitants possess shockingly personalized – transparent! – gestures and emotions. The subjects of these paintings are always sliding on their gloves, pouring a white stripe of milk from a pitcher, or stretching a hand towards the viewer. And though the Baroque style now embarrasses us with its dramatic curves, biblical capes, and splotchy haloes, it was a realist genre: by convincing Biblical and Classical heroes that they were in fact real people, Baroque art could – Martin writes – ‘give new force and meaning to received truths by transplanting them from the realm of the general and abstract into that of the immediate, sensuous and concrete experience’ (Martin, 1977: 132).
Like Baroque paintings, Green’s films possess a rigorous, diagrammatical quality. For Green, a character is not only himself, but also, say, the spirit of Classicism. The couples in Le Pont des Arts, for example, suffer romantic problems because, although they love each other, they are not allegorically compatible. Pascal and Sarah are both neoplatonist romantics, while Christine and Manuel are positivist conventionalists – normal people! In Toutes les nuits, Jules and Henry blatantly stand in for romanticism and the horny and luxurious lack of value offered by positivist life. Jules, like Pascal in Le Pont, is played by Adrien Michaux, who seems to be Green’s emblem of an insouciant and naïve French poetic spirit. Like most of Green’s young male characters, Michaux floats around as a white and hairless, nude-faced boy, romantic but sexless. In both Toutes and Le Pont, his character is assaulted by professors and graduate students who deconstruct his romanticism as bourgeois, class-oppressing, male phallocentrism. Yet, although Green is obviously fond of the university, of theory and critique, his films do not actually engage with them. In Toutes, for example, a feminist poetry-lover tries to seduce Prot’s Emilie with feminist erotica and our heroine bursts out laughing. This is representative of Green’s skill as a lampoonist. His academic characters are so strident and one-dimensional that they seem automatically satirical, but Green never has any response to the critics he’s embedded in his own work.
While his cartoon professors appear ridiculous on their face, Green’s indifference to critique points to a larger flaw in his films. Eugène Green is like a man who gives you a jeweled key and asks you to open a combination lock. His films are charming in how they’re not interested in making sense. They have a fresh, pompous, illiberal unwillingness to explain themselves yet demand that you understand them on their own terms. Gourmet’s theater director in Le Pont intones that the key to interpretation is subtext, but Green’s films have no subtext. If we interpret them in a conventional way, inquiring about the characters motivations in our mild-mannered way, the films will seem frustrating and subjectless. We will be unable to resolve most of the key issues, for example: why the Unnamable has no name and treats Sarah cruelly; why Sarah and Pascal try to kill themselves; or the purpose of whole scenes and characters who are introduced and never developed. While Green’s films are not absurd, anti-realist, or dislocated, sense is only a pleasant byproduct of his films. If coherence emerges, great – but it does so only incidentally, the way our voices may or may not sound musical when we talk. Green does not revel in his incoherence, like David Lynch. How then do we reconcile Green’s baroque systems with his apathy as to whether he can be deciphered? Le Pont des Arts is a formidable, neo-Platonic movie, one that hangs out in the silence beyond ‘human intelligence’ – a concept that the film rolls its eyes at. Here, dead lovers conduct disputations on bridgetops. Death rows a husband across a somnolent river. It all sounds terribly important, but Green’s poetry gives his films a dandified reticence, as though they stood just a few feet away from comprehensibility. In most elusive, literary, dense films, interpretation is fraught, but not impossible. In Green’s case, interpretation is embarrassing. We are handed allegories but feel reluctant to decode them without telling boring lies. We feel like we can’t understand his films because understanding itself would be antithetical to the tangled spiritualism of the romantic soul.
Although Green’s films are serious and beautiful, this romanticism dampens their shine with an intellectually sleazy tint. Because he only cares about the individual genius’s encounter with Truth, Green seems preemptively bored by anything larger than the self or smaller than God: politics, ‘normal’ people not interested in art, social and cultural context. If deep meaningful experiences are synonymous with God, then God becomes detached from cosmology and morality. What Green – and many sensitive persons – like about such Christian mysticism is its lack of a organized structure, its emphasis on feeling and the meaning of life(!), but this diminishes God from the source of an ethical theology into a private self-help practice. Typical of Green’s Baroque irony, Le Pont anticipates this critique: Manuel tells Sarah that, ‘Society is the mirror we look in.’ And when Pascal claims he is lying silent in the dark so he can creep up on the sublime, his girlfriend states, ‘In silence, philosophy dies and fascism is born.’ But quoting an argument does not ameliorate it. In Toutes les nuits, Jules runs through the student riots of the sixties wielding a torch and poetry, and one feels that Green likes the torch and poetry, rather than the politics of the riots.
Like Wong Kar-Wai, Eugène Green views characters as intimates: we understand them at a pure, but not entirely realistic level – ‘pure’ in the sense that all class or racial texture, foggy etiquette, or social roles have been stripped off from them, so that we only have who they are – individual spurts of soul. Most of us do not exist only as hermetically sealed lovers or bundles of intense dialogue. We have jobs, vote for political parties, are someone’s son or daughter, were born in a certain place with certain people raised in a certain way. Because Green and Wong do not understand people in those ways, they are unable to create ordinary people. In Le Pont, the characters that possess psychologies are icons (Pascal and Sarah), while everyone else is an unsympathetic caricature or an actor throwing off lines. Le Pont cannot understand Christine and Manuel – the two characters who seem to represent the normal serious people upon whom the world depends. Such non-aesthetes lack the romantic spirit that would let Green be curious about them. We may say that Romanticism sees the individual imagination as the home of truth, but such an ideology only privileges the genius – it says only certain people are special. Unlike Bresson, who reduced his actors to mute and unspecial vessels, Green is unwilling to cede his aestheticism: he wants his entire work to be special. His characters speak their dialogue using a French oratorical style typically used to recite poetry (la liaison), an effect which is sometimes beautiful, but revealingly callow, as if Green saw poetry as a blanket effect, a way to slam the volume dial to high, rather than a way of expressing especially poetic content. Green’s films require this narrowness: they could not perform their spiritualism if they saw people as being their jobs, historical baggage, or family roles, rather than poets questing for the truth.
Romantics, Richard Rorty writes, ‘attribute metaphor to a mysterious faculty called the “imagination,” a faculty they suppose to be at the very center of the self, the deep heart’s core. Whereas the metaphorical looks irrelevant to … positivists, the literal looks irrelevant to Romantics. For the former thinks that the point of language is to represent a hidden reality which lies outside us, and the latter thinks its purpose is to express a hidden reality which lies within us’ (Rorty, 1989: 19). While most of us think that language is arbitrary and contingent – that a rose would smell just as sweet if we called it ‘manure’ – in Green’s films, language more often functions as it did in Eden. His romantics use the word to drag the flesh along like a leash, unplugging the signifier from the signified and re-socketing them in a non-arbitrary way. Because language can alter how we perceive the material world, language in Le monde operates as a special effect. (One can easily see it inspiring a generation of cheap student films.) For if we are entities bundled together by ideas, then redescribing those ideas changes our nature as entities. When one character refers to Penelope in Le monde as the Ogre’s wife, she corrects him and says she is now the Ogre’s widow, and we feel the new category click into place. The characters’ first loyalty is towards the word, not towards their own motivations, so the film becomes a logic game of romance (‘If the damsel of the chapel loves whoever draws the sword from the chapel and if Nicolas draws the sword from the chapel…’). The characters describe a dog as a lion and a rabbit as a baby elephant, and the same magic of description later brings two characters back to life. The Ogre feeds his victims to dogs, but is eventually eaten by – depending on your point of view – the Lion Knight’s own dog, which is a lion, or the Lion Knight’s lion, which is a dog.
There is a romantic silliness to this parallelism – as Lincoln said, calling a dog’s tail a leg doesn’t make it so – and the content of Green’s dialogue rarely leads the characters anywhere different from where they started from. But how many other contemporary filmmakers, excluding Alain Resnais, are willing to make such abstractions not just the topic of their work, but the banter and comedy of it? Because Green seeks to express that which cannot be stated, his filmmaking engages in a brinkmanship of names. He assembles his films camped out at the penumbra of what is expressible and they are works that throw their words past human life and towards a realm beyond language – the mystical silence of God. In parallel scenes in Toutes les nuits, Henri sleeps with his principal’s wife (Emilie), and Jules unsuccessfully seduces a local actress. In the afterglow not of sex but of communion, Henri and the actress both say that what they are thinking of has no name. (Plotinus, the ‘founder’ of neoplatonism, states that the One has no name.) And although Pascal’s teacher in Le Pont assigns him work on the transcendent-materialism in André Breton, he sits through class almost mute and studies Edward Vaché, the French poet of silence who, Breton said, sought to produce nothing. Le Pont ends with Pascal telling the Unnamable that he knows why the man has no name, but it’s not obvious why. It could be that the Unnamable – a fickle, inelegant conductor – is the Devil or that he is Death, since he does seem to row the dreaming Manuel across a rather Styx-like river. He may also be a proxy for God, who in Neoplatonic philosophy has no name. But a more germane explanation may be that the Unnamable cannot affiliate with and recognize true art – and therefore lacks the essence that a name could be tied onto.
Like Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, Le Pont is a messy, fresh, incoherent, mostly satisfying, great film. Both movies take an eccentric glee in bashing context apart – fragmenting continuity not unlike The Simpsons, whose light but hermetic world is simultaneously consistent and free, arbitrary, rambunctious, eager to ignore its own laws. And like Kings and Queen, Le Pont des Arts is sometimes more complicated than complex. But, like a Looney Tunes character sprinting through liquid concrete, if either of these films were heavier or more intelligible, they would fail. And though Green’s films are obviously private and aesthetical, rather than public and ethical, they are surprisingly concerned with moral pedagogy. In fact, the point of Le Pont may be its snobbery. The film is an argument about why we should like one pair of characters (Sarah and Pascal, who are unhappy and curious artists) over another (Manuel, Sarah’s unmagical husband of normal life, and Pascal’s pedantic girlfriend Christine, a sort of technocrat of graduate school). Green’s two other features also juxtapose dueling couples. While every Green film may snub a host of people he’d disagree with – the secular liberal, careerists, those who do not like or value art, the unsentimental, economists and lawyers, people with regular day jobs, entertainers and academics – Green does offer alternatives. His films may not voice a fair or particularly mature debate, but they do ask the viewer, ‘Who would you rather be like – a successful businessman with a family but no inner life or a trembling artist who can see the Truth glowing just a few inches beyond her fingertips?’
Ken Chen is Executive Director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love.Trans. Sears Jayne. Dallas Texas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1985.
Martin, John Rupert. Baroque.Boulder, Colorado: West View Press, 1977.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.