In the semi-darkness of a packed East Village bar with the movie-ish name Heathers, an unruly-haired man in his late thirties wearing a vintage dress shirt is hunched over a pair of turntables and boxes full of 45s. Solid chatter of the Saturday night crowd drowns the joy emanating from the subpar speakers—predominantly American garage rock and sunshine pop. The DJ flew in from his home base in Paris a few nights ago but spinning records in front of a roomful of mid-April ski-hats, fedoras, bushy beards, and oversized thick-framed glasses was not the main purpose of his trip. The man’s name is Serge Bozon, his main vocation is filmmaking, and he was summoned to New York by the Film Society of Lincoln Center to present a series of films he made, along with others by half a dozen of his cohorts (Jean-Charles Fitoussi, Axelle Ropert, Pierre Léon, Benjamin Esdraffo, Sandrine Rinaldi, Jean-Paul Civeyrac, and Aurélia Georges), and also a handful of movies that influenced their—or at least his—cinematic style and cinephile taste: classics by Jacques Tourneur and Allan Dwan but also obscurities from the 1970s and 1980s by filmmakers little-known in the US—Paul Vecchiali, Marie-Claude Treilhou, and Pierre Zucca.
The title of the series—“Free Radicals: Serge Bozon and New French Cinema”—proudly proclaims Bozon as the leader of the pack of these Parisian filmmakers. Bozon is certainly the most outspoken of the bunch, and his La France (2007) is the best known film in the program; it enjoyed a 10-city North American tour in 2008. The tag “free radicals,” however, may be a bit misleading. It unnecessarily evokes the titles of two other films—a hand-scratched avant-garde animation by Len Lye from 1958 and the recent Pip Chodorov documentary tracing the history of experimental cinema from Hans Richter to Stan Brakhage.
The truth of the matter is that the films by Bozon and company, while being wildly inventive, are, with few exceptions, the polar opposite of non-narrative avant-garde cinema; they are deeply rooted in storytelling and dialogue, “the pleasure of the writerly,” as Bozon puts it, conflating two Roland Barthes notions into one. These are not genre films, either, but rather what the French call OFNI (objets filmique non identifié)—unidentified filmic objects teetering between conventions: of musical and war film in the case of Bozon’s La France, campus comedy and musical in his Mods (2002), science fiction and road movie, among other things, in Fitoussi’s Je ne suis pas morte (I Did Not Die, 2008).
These movies also stand apart from the typical arthouse fare that nowadays deals in post-Antonionian contemplation, quasi-realism, or extreme sex and violence, sometimes all three simultaneously; thus they are not screened in competition at the Big Three (Cannes, Berlin, Venice). In fact, minor festivals such as Locarno, Rotterdam, Viennale, Belfort, and Clermont-Ferrand may be the only venues where these films can be seen. Olivier Père, now the artistic director of the Locarno Festival, who did manage to sneak several films by Bozon, Ropert, and Fitoussi into the Directors’ Fortnight, the Cannes sidebar he was in charge of between 2004 and 2009, went so far as to call them “directors without an audience.” So perhaps a more fitting name for the Lincoln Center series would have been “Band of Outsiders.”
The title of the 1963 Godard film is not taken in vain, as it has been so often in the recent past. All discussions dedicated to this filmmakers’ collective never fail to include comparisons to the New Wave auteurs, not least—and primarily—because, just as the young turks half a century ago were writing iconoclastic articles for Cahiers du cinéma, many of the directors featured in the Lincoln Center series have also established themselves as talented film critics aggregated around a short-lived but influential film journal that even bore a similar name, La Lettre du cinéma. This is why buzz phrases bandied about Lincoln Center during the retrospective described the group as “critics-turned-filmmakers” and the “La Lettre circle.” Some qualifications, however, are in order. To start with, at least one of the directors in the series had nothing to do with La Lettre—Aurélia Georges, who made her feature debut L’homme qui marche (The Walking Man) in 2008, used to write for the magazine L’Art du Cinéma.
On the other hand, not all of the filmmakers who were affiliated with La Lettre are considered members of the “circle”—the most notable absence was Vincent Dieutre, whose articles were featured in nearly every issue but who was a part of what might be called a “modernist” faction of La Lettre critics (which also included, among others, Christian Merlhiot and Jean-Charles Masséra); they were writing mainly on video art, installations, and experimental cinema, and later formed the artists’ collective Point Ligne Plan. Dieutre’s own films belong, for the most part, to the subgenres of travelogue and “autofiction.”
While Bozon, Esdraffo, Ropert, and Rinaldi—all representatives of what Bozon calls the “cinephilic” axis—were indeed regular contributors to La Lettre (and Ropert, along with Christine Martin, acted as the chief editor of the magazine between 2001 and 2005), Fitoussi was more of a freelance satellite. Léon and Civeyrac were more subjects than authors: several of their films were enthusiastically reviewed in the journal, but their own critical contribution was minimal. (Bozon and Esdraffo actually claim that Léon was not really a fan of the magazine.) Being a decade senior to most of the La Lettre critics, Léon and Civeyrac were like older cousins or uncles, role models and objects of admiration. Léon, with his freewheeling early films peppered with songs and musical numbers, was a particularly strong influence on Bozon, while Civeyrac’s ghostly, oneiric films were important touchstones for Fitoussi, and it was in Civeyrac’s movies where the young directors of the group first discovered the actor Guillaume Verdier, later to appear in many of their own films. Civeyrac was also the first one to employ Bozon’s sister, Céline, as a cinematographer, on his feature Fantômes (2001), and she subsequently lent her lens to Bozon, Fitoussi, Ropert, as well as numerous others, and now has more than forty films to her credit.
As it might be evident by now, writing about these filmmakers is like drawing an elaborate family tree: almost all of them have acted in each other’s films (Bozon and Léon being the most frequent), or directed each other in their own films; many of them share cinematographers (Céline Bozon and Sébastien Buchmann), a composer (Benjamin Esdraffo, who is also an actor, assistant director on several of Bozon’s features, as well as director of his own short, Le cou de Clarisse [Clarisse’s Neck, 2003]), a costume and set designer (Renaud Legrand, who frequently acts in Léon’s films and even penned the catchy Cubanesque tune “Puccini, c’est du chacha,” which closes Guillaume et les sortileges [Guillaume and the Spells, 2007]), and a stock company of actors (including Laurent Talon, Laurent Lacotte, and Verdier). Add to the mix Pierre Léon’s younger brother, Vladimir (an actor, director, and, since recently, also producer), a couple of La Lettre alumni (Pascale Bodet and Emmanuel Levaufre) playing bit parts here and there, and you’ve got yourself one busy beehive.
Employing the same group of actors and technicians from film to film is surely not a novel notion—Ford and Fassbinder did it—but Bozon and his associates have elevated the art of inter- and intra-crew-swapping to a disorientingly rhizomatic level. If this gang of filmmakers are to be considered a “wave,” like their Right Bank predecessors, perhaps an apt if somewhat frivolous name for them, reflecting these familial inter-connections and cross-pollinations, would be Nouvelle Vague Incestuelle, bearing in mind the distinction between “incestual” and “incestuous” introduced by the psychoanalyst Paul-Claude Racamier (the former term does not imply a sexual act but is rather a “mood”). Or, to avoid any undesirable connotations entirely, one can probably discuss them simply in terms of friendship, Friendship (L’amitié) also being the title of Bozon’s first feature film (1998). It would seem that collaborating with friends and acquaintances rather than unpredictable strangers is a more agreeable experience, with a more relaxing atmosphere on the movie set and wilder wrap parties. It may also have monetary benefits since it is much easier to convince friends to work for free—although Fitoussi recounts an anecdote about his cousin, who would be great during rehearsals but freeze with fright every time the camera started to roll. Shooting his two-minute scene required so many takes that he effectively depleted the supply of the film stock, paralyzing the production of I Did Not Die for several months.
The themes of community and family also seep into the subject matter of the films made by the group. In Ropert’s short Étoile violette (Violet Star, 2005), a forlorn and not very dexterous tailor, played by Bozon, attends a literature course at night school and meets a whole classroom of other lonely souls determined not so much to learn about the topic of “The Solitude of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” as to break out of their own loneliness. In her next feature, the stylized and darkly comical La famille Wolberg (The Wolberg Family, 2009), Ropert examines—in sumptuous CinemaScope—the disintegration of a rural mayor’s family. Most of Pierre Léon’s oeuvre is also focused on families and often features his own relatives as actors: Le Lustre de Pittsburgh (The Chandelier from Pittsburgh, 1995) peeks in on the pastoral bliss of a family on the verge of receiving an inheritance; L’Adolescent (2001) transposes to modern times Dostoevsky’s 1875 novel about conflict between father and son; and Nissim dit Max (Nissim aka Max, 2004) is a documentary Léon made with his brother Vladimir about their own father who worked as a journalist for the French communist newspaper L’Humanité in Moscow. And—of course—Bozon’s films, all scripted by Ropert, are notorious for their obsession with groups and cliques, frequently wearing uniforms, be it the musically-inclined World War I deserters led by Pascal Greggory in La France, the Buster Keaton-esque adynamic duo of soldier brothers (played by Bozon and Verdier) in Mods, or the “mods” themselves, sporting identical Harrington jackets and bob haircuts.
In contrast, Fitoussi’s work seem to stand apart from this trend and is more concerned with singularity rather than community, zeroing in on individual quests. In his debut feature, Les jours où je n’existe pas (The Days I Don’t Exist, 2002), the main protagonist lives only every other day, promptly vanishing at midnight and reappearing twenty-four hours later, which works fine for defying the aging process but has numerous other not-so-beneficial consequences, from difficulty with an after-midnight social life to the impossibility of intimate relationships. I Did Not Die tells the story of Alix, a young woman created by a sinister professor, drifting from person to person and from locale to locale in hopeless search of the love that she is unable to experience. (Still, both of these narratives are framed through sub-plots involving families: the story in The Days I Don’t Exist is told to a boy by his uncle during their journey through the French countryside, while the voiceover narration in I Did Not Die—the “I” in the title—belongs to a matriarch in a coma). Steeped in the tradition of the fantastique, these movies are pitch-perfect contributions to a small but precious group of minor masterpieces that can be categorized as “existential sci-fi without FX” and includes such films as Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime and Hilary Brougher’s The Sticky Fingers of Time.
Fitoussi’s casting methods are also decidedly different from the rest of the group (he calls casting “pornographic” and “humiliating” for the actors, akin to a line-up in a police station, and tries to avoid it at any costs). Rather than always working with a small clique of old and reliable allies, Fitoussi often uses nonprofessionals that he befriends during the shooting process or during his travels. I Did Not Die, for example, was improvised in its entirety around such chance encounters, with Fitoussi sometimes writing the scenes and creating the characters for people he met a day or two earlier: a woman running the counter in a Paris bistro, a young boy playing a bit part in the amateur sketch-comedy theater in Rome, or an elderly German who used to be a senior liaison officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
Regardless of whether they are working with friends new or old, however, all members of the Lettre circle have also become adapt at integrating into their “minor” casts the progeny of New Wave directors (Eva Truffaut in several of Léon’s films, Thomas Chabrol in this year’s Bozon short, L’imprésario) as well as established “system” actors (Luís Miguel Cintra, Lou Castel, Pascal Greggory, Guillaume Depardieu, Sylvie Testud, Jeanne Balibar). Casting Balibar and Testud in Léon’s L’Idiot (2008) actually stemmed from his dream project from nearly ten years ago: he was trying to adapt Jane Bowles‘s novel Two Serious Ladies for the screen with these two actresses playing the leads but couldn’t afford the rights.
The night before DJ Bozon rocked Heathers, he received the classic Upper West Side treatment: while presenting one of his carte blanche films (and a personal favorite of many of the Lettre directors), Paul Vecchiali’s Femmes Femmes, he was booed off the stage by two couples who were eager to see the film they paid for and couldn’t care less about Bozon’s French-accented rapid-fire lecture, full of arch digressions and poetic flights of fancy. (All four noisily departed twenty minutes into the screening.) Bozon did not seem upset but rather amused by this encounter that unintentionally highlighted the difference between the cinephagia of an average moviegoer and cinephilia of his circle, which treats watching a film and passionately analyzing it as part of the same activity. One could also add making a film to this continuum.
That is why describing Bozon, Ropert, Fitoussi, Léon, et al., as “critics-turned-filmmakers” is not entirely accurate. For them, by their own admission, this metamorphosis was never a linear process, just more intense gradations on the spectrum of watching—criticizing—creating. In this light, some of the films made by the group also work as pieces of onscreen criticism. For instance, Ropert’s portrait of a small-town bourgeois Jewish family in The Wolberg Family can be thought of as a continuation of longtime La Lettre du cinema stance against the films of Arnaud Desplechin, as well as a celluloid extension of Ropert’s own article “Feu ma famille” in the magazine’s June 2004 issue, which analyzed Chantal Akerman’s Tomorrow We Move and tackled the subjects of “third generation” Jewish identity and comédie féminine pimpante (dapper female comedy).
By the same token, La France, an austere and strange World War I musical devoid of spectacular battle scenes, historical verisimilitude, or rancid nostalgia, was consciously conceived by Bozon as criticism of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s overblown A Very Long Engagement, like Hawks’s Rio Bravo was supposed to counter Zinnemann’s High Noon. Furthermore, in the cases of Léon, Fitoussi, and Bozon, the temporary relationship between writing about films and shooting them was actually reversed, since all three made their first shorts before penning a single piece of criticism. And even now, after becoming filmmakers firmly established in their obscurity, most of them are still active as critics: for Cahiers du cinéma and Cinema Scope (Bozon), Trafic (Léon and Bozon), Les Inrockuptibles (Ropert), and Vertigo (Esdraffo and all of the above). This tight intertwining between the vocations of film critic and filmmaker is certainly not unique to France (one can recall Filmkritik group in Germany that included Wenders, Farocki, and Bitomsky, or Jonas Mekas’s New American Cinema arising from the pages of Film Culture and The Village Voice) but only in France did it reach such endemic proportions, with the gush of the first New Wave followed by a steady drip of critics (Carax, Assayas, Bonitzer) and, before that, even novelists (Robbe-Grillet, Duras) continuously supplying the ranks of directors.
In any case, Bozon’s long-winded speech before the screening of Femmes Femmes was not a laundry list of talking points; it was a performative act of powerful criticism and, at the same time, a manifesto. The main focus of Bozon’s talk was the Diagonale group—a circle of close associates of Paul Vecchiali who had been releasing films under the auspices of his production company, Les Films Diagonale, in the 1970s and 1980s, and became an important influence on the Lettre filmmakers. As a starting point, Bozon referred to the 1998 article “Le gouvernement des films” by critic and Diagonale director Jean-Claude Biette, who claimed that any given film could be viewed as a battlefield of three distinct forces—the narrative, the formal project, and dramaturgy—with one always dominating.
Bozon extrapolated this idea onto the French cinema of the last twenty-five years, observing that several filmmakers who started out in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Erick Zonca, Xavier Beauvois) shared an interest in the “entropic drive of family wreckage,” were heavily influenced by Maurice Pialat, and predominantly concerned with dramaturgy, whereas such arthouse fare as Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis), Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont), Irreversible (Gaspard Noé), Tiresia (Bertrand Bonello), and Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux) were led by the “thanatological drive of flesh and mutation,” strongly affected by Lynch and Cronenberg, and thus interested in the cultivation of a formal project. Most of the La Lettre directors, however, drew inspiration from the films of the Diagonale group, who, according to Bozon, tried to find the balance between all three Biettian cinematic forces but foregrounded the narrative: the taste for dialogue, humor, and “moments of rupture,” the taste that, Bozon argues, had all but evaporated from cinema with the ascent of Antonioni and Bergman.
Femmes Femmes is a perfect ambassador of the Diagonale spirit, even though it was made in 1974, two years before Vecchiali started his production house. It features two middle-aged unemployed actresses (Vecchiali’s sister Sonia Saviange and recently deceased Hélène Surgère) playing grotesque versions of themselves: sheltered in their small apartment with windows facing the Montparnasse Cemetery, the two has-beens perform for each other bits of Racine and burlesque numbers, indulge in bouts of logorrhea, nostalgia, and alcoholism, detaching further and further from reality. This film impressed Pasolini so much that he invited Saviange and Surgère to reprise one of their routines in Salo. Looking like a cross between Celine and Julie Go Boating and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Femmes Femmes is chockfull of those “moments of rupture” that Bozon was referring to—violent unexpected swings between comedy and tragedy, small talk turning out to be quotations from a classical play, characters spontaneously breaking into song. The deep imprint Femmes Femmes and other films by the Diagonale crew left on the Nouvelle Vague Incestuelle is undeniable: it’s in the repetitions and anti-naturalistic dialogues of Ropert’s scripts, in Raymond Queneau-esque wordplay, in the mixture of decadence and opulence in the interiors in the films by Rinaldi and Esdraffo; and, of course, in the “mutant musical” numbers—nursery rhymes alternating with classical music pieces in Le Lustre de Pittsburgh, awkward/beautiful dance suites choreographed to obscure garage rock in Mods, or heartfelt songs in La France sung by World War I soldiers but arranged to resemble British pop-sike and American sunshine pop of 1960s, and played on DIY instruments made out of cans, canisters and everything but the kitchen sink.
This ludic spirit was also evident in the pages of La Lettre du cinema, which, incidentally, started as a fanzine-cum-catalogue for the Prix Georges-Sadoul, in the mid 1990s, when producer Emmanuel Giraud invited several young Parisian film addicts to form a selection committee for the annual festival affiliated with this award and to write critical texts on each of the selected films. Even though La Lettre’s most important contributions to cinephilia were powerful reviews, think pieces, appreciations of filmmakers ranging from Larry Cohen to James L. Brooks, and lengthy interviews with unjustly ignored or forgotten directors such as two Jean-Claudes (Biette and Guiguet), Paul Vecchiali, Jean-Pierre Mocky, and Luc Moullet, it also featured fake festival reports, silly letters to the filmmakers, and playfully transparent pseudonyms (Ellexa Trepor).
In the same aborted pre-Femmes Femmes speech, Bozon proposed two criteria to gauge the impact of a cinematic “wave.” The first question to ponder: have the films produced by the “wave” inspired anyone to start making films; the second: have the directors comprising the movement discovered any new actors. The original New Wave succeeded spectacularly on both counts: there were nearly as many young people instantly provoked by the young turks to buy or steal a movie camera as there were inspired by The Velvet Underground to start a band, and they launched the careers of a plethora of actors, including Léaud, Belmondo, Karina, Lafont, and Brialy. The Diagonale didn’t fare as well: the only group of filmmakers it seems to have inspired so far are Bozon and company; and the few actors it unearthed (Saviange, Surgère, Michel Delahaye, Paulette Bouvet), although talented, were rarely seen in films other than Diagonale productions. Nouvelle Vague Incestuelle is in even worse shape: it prefers to recycle the same faces (usually their own) rather than look for new actors; and there are no imitators in sight.
Perhaps it is not a “wave” after all. Or maybe it’s too early to tell. During his weeklong stay in New York, Bozon mentioned on several occasions that the Lincoln Center retrospective of their work was “premature” and possibly even “dangerous”—both for future public expectations and for the filmmakers’ egos. But from the glass-half-full perspective, the series, organized by Scott Foundas and the first time ever these filmmakers were gathered under the same roof and the same banner, was massively important, and in a desperate need of a part two, and soon.
Here is the proposal for the second installment: Bozon’s rarely-seen debut feature; the entirety of Fitoussi’s oeuvre, including Nocturnes pour le roi de Rome (Nocturnes for the King of Rome, 2005), one of the first films to be shot in its entirety on a cell phone—transferred to 35mm and in the Academy aspect ratio to boot—as well as the documentary he made during the shooting of Sicilia! by Straub and Huillet (for whom he worked as an assistant for almost ten years); a dozen of Pierre Léon’s films as well as works by his sibling, Vladimir, including his just completed Les Anges de Port-Bou (The Angels of Port-Bou, 2010), inspired by the last trip Walter Benjamin made before committing suicide; the second feature by Rinaldi, a musical comedy Cap Nord (2007), still undistributed in France; shorts by Bodet; more Diagonale films, especially those by Biette that didn’t get screened this time around, either because of print unavailability or problems with subtitles . . . the list could go on. Premature or not, the Lincoln Center series only whetted the appetite of those who were curious about what’s transpiring in the margins of the “New French Cinema,” were patient enough to absorb Bozon’s energetic rants and Fitoussi’s measured reflections during Q&A’s, or willing to stick around until 4:30 in the morning at Heathers to hear the fading-out triumphal drum beat in the coda of “Agitated” by the Electric Eels.