Monday, June 2, 2014

Some notes on the Marcel Hanoun festival at Anthology Film Archives

One of the nicest things about the admittedly small film repertory scene in NYC (four theaters, two museums) is the fact that various retrospectives are held celebrating filmmakers whose work would never be seen otherwise in the U.S. These festivals become a little unwieldy for the attendee, since he/she has to rearrange their life for a few days or weeks to take most of it in. The result, though, is in most cases an overwhelming “ride” into the imagination of an artist whose work has basically been hidden from American viewers.

I've attended a few of these retros over the past few years and have noticed that, after a time, the memories of these events start to blur at the edges. I recently did two episodes of the Funhouse TV show about the 2013 Howard Hawks retro at the Museum of the Moving Image, but for the most part I haven't written about the retros or presented episodes about them on the show, since I am only able to comment on them *after* having sat through the films, and there are usually other things on the menu for the show and blog.

Thus I missed out on documenting on festivals that I became addicted to, including the amazing comprehensive Werner Schroeter retro at MOMA a few years back, as well as several terrific festivals of European directors' work at Anthology Film Archives (including Jean-Daniel Pollet, Carmelo Bene, Ulrike Ottinger, the “Zanzibar group,” and the actor Pierre Clementi).

While immersing myself in the latest festival, a retro of the work of French filmmaker Marcel Hanoun at Anthology, I thought it would make sense for me to “document” my opinions about the films I've seen. Yes, these are highly personal capsule reviews of films that are indeed pretty damned hard to see (written by memory shortly after seeing the films — thus, the aspects of plot mentioned here are 80% certain, rather than 100%). But I post them here to simply record a viewer's opinions, and also to “situate” the filmmaker in question.

I've found that the European filmmakers who are commemorated in these kinds of near-comprehensive retros tend to blend in the memory, so if I can help any reader (or myself, in later years, rereading this...) by offering my gut-level reactions to the work of Marcel Hanoun here, it's worth it.

A SIMPLE STORY (1959). (Viewed on DVD-r.) Hanoun's “greatest hit” is indeed one of his best films, if I can judge by the several I've seen in this “binge” viewing of the retro (yes, I'm always fascinated by the folks who argue that current drama series can be easily binged-on because they are “like good cinema”; maybe it's possible just to skip the “like” part there?). It's a very simply-shot fiction feature about a mother and daughter from Lille wandering around Paris trying to find a place to stay and a job for the mother.

It is a film that conjures emotion in the viewer through its storyline and imagery – Hanoun clearly decided to lose the former in his later works in favor of the latter. There's a documentary-like style to the proceedings, but we are taken out of the “real” world by Hanoun's use of a Bressonian technique, “doubling” the action through narration (read: hearing about what we're watching).

So Hanoun has the mother character narrate the film and tell us what she and others said, while enough of the ambient soundtrack exists so we can hear them saying basically the same thing – in some instances they say slightly different things, which one assumes is important for story reasons (why is the mother not repeating it verbatim – is her memory of the event dim, or does she want to alter the story somehow?).

The film's virtue, and one that Hanoun held to for quite some time, is that it runs just around an hour. Thus it draws the viewer in with its emotional storyline and good performances, while also not belaboring its concept.

OCTOBER IN MADRID (1964). This was seen right after I had left work on a Friday night. The film is a non-linear “account” of a director who can't make the film he envisioned. The Spanish locations are picturesque, and the film's b&w cinematography (plus the fact that this was the one blotchy, unrestored print I saw in this festival) made me pass right into the arms of Morpheus. Not qualified to review it, was out cold for more than half of it.

THE AUTHENTIC TRIAL OF CARL EMMANUEL JUNG (1967). Fortified with caffeine, this title had the opposite effect on me. I stayed awake because Hanoun used a grating technique to illustrate his message. The concept is simple: a fictitious German officer who decided which inmates would live and which would die in a Nazi prison camp in the early Thirties is put on trial in France in the Sixties.

The piece is shot like a filmed play, except that Hanoun “un-synched” his sound because, as the opening narration tells us, this trial would be one held in France to convict a German-speaking man. Thus we watch an hour-long film loaded with portentous dialogue which was post-dubbed so it would intentionally not match the movement of the actors' mouths.

I have indeed seen many dubbed films, but the technique used here is the kind that wears one down after 10-15 minutes. Hanoun also decided to not show a verdict for his fictional Nazi, so while the film does work as a taut trial drama (with the un-synched gimmick detracting from the proceedings, in my opinion), one can't help but think of the other dramas that have gone over the same ground but depicted real-life Nazis on trial. (The Man in the Glass Booth stands as the most fascinating attempt to vary the situation with a fictional narrative.)

The main character is named after the famous psychologist presumably because Jung was initially pro-Nazi; the character here is a different individual whom Hanoun made up. The use of the word “authentic” in the title is without question the most intriguing thing about the picture.

SUMMER (1968). Hanoun's “May '68” film is a super-minimalist affair in which an Italian woman stays at a friend's house in the countryside after having been witness to the havoc in Paris. She writes to a German friend (whom we see/hear reading the letters) and thinks of her ex-boyfriend (whom we see in flashbacks and photos – he is named “Jean-Luc.” A reference to Godard?).

Thus one's reaction to the film depends on one's feelings about watching a pretty Italian woman alone in a house, walking in a field, doing cartwheels in a bikini, walking some more, pondering her relationship, and looking at herself in photos taken on the streets of Paris where she is posed against political graffiti.
One thing becomes clear seeing a number of Hanoun's films: the gent loved classical music and thought of rock as some alien business that had to be depicted in menacing or downright silly terms. Here our protagonist briefly enters a storefront rock club (where the insert from We're Only In It for the Money hangs on the wall, along with the pop poster of Allen Ginsberg wearing an Uncle Sam hat), supplying one of the few “youth culture” moments in a film that betrays no feeling for or against the events of May '68.

WINTER (1970). A beautifully shot color variant on OCTOBER IN MADRID set in Brussels. This time the great Michael Lonsdale is the filmmaker who can't get his film made. We watch he and his collaborator talk about what they'd like to do, see ravishing locations in Bruges, and witness the relationship between he and his wife unravel. The result is eye-catching, but sleep-inducing.

SPRING (1970). The film that made attending the festival worthwhile. A terrific minimalist film, crammed with narrative incident and characters one could actually get a handle on. Two plotlines are cut together: a fugitive from the police (Michael Lonsdale), whom we later learn murdered his wife, takes refuge in various parts of the countryside, while a young girl (Veronique Andries) who lives with her stern grandmother (who kills and skins a rabbit in real time on-camera) matures through the absorption of creepy fairy tales, experiments with cursing and smoking, and the arrival of her first period.

All of Hanoun's visual devices are at play here – flipping from b&w to color and back; making the camera into a presence in a room (it serves as a mirror for the characters, or a window, or... you get the idea); his obsession with the beauty of the countryside and its inherent menace. The dialogue appears primarily in the scenes featuring the little girl; Lonsdale has one, possibly two scenes with dialogue.

The element that makes the film so compelling is not only the notion of suspense in the Lonsdale plot, but the fact that the girl lives in a world that is picturesque yet disturbing and somehow alien (in the sequence where she practices smoking and cursing, she puts on a little clay eye-mask when doing so in front of a mirror).

There is one difference between this and the other Hanoun films I've seen: the script is credited to Hanoun and Catherine Binet (who is fourth-billed in the film as an actress; I believe she plays the girl's teacher, who imparts creepy fairy tales to her students). Binet was a scripter and editor who was the partner of novelist/filmmaker George Perec (Life: a User's Manual) and appeared as herself in the documentary “Les Vamps Fantastiques” (!). Binet's contribution clearly made SPRING a very different film from Hanoun's others. The result is a compelling and involving work that still adheres to Hanoun's minimalist approach.

AUTUMN (1972). Hanoun made this film alone, and we're back in concept-land. The actors, playing two filmmakers (a director, played by Lonsdale again, and his editor, played by an actress known simply as “Tamia”), stare into the camera because we, the audience, are the film they are watching on an editing machine. For some reason, though, these filmmakers are watching a film that seems to be pretty much finished, since they stare at us for long (lonnnng) periods of time.

What Hanoun does to reinforce his concept is to turn off the visuals (a blank screen) whenever Lonsdale or Tamia turn off the editing machine. (At that point we listen to phone calls.) When they are not editing, but the machine is on, Hanoun plays with overdubs on the soundtrack, gives us all-too-brief glimpses of the characters' fantasies, and quick-cut sequences of the couple talking.

There is a random quality to what happens throughout – a factor that often is transformed into visual poetry in the works of Godard, but in Hanoun seems to indicate that he took what had happened to him before the film shoot and would try to shoehorn it into the production. Here Lonsdale talks about shooting home movies, and we then see what are clearly Hanoun's own movies of a family outing. At the film's end we see footage of autumn in the woods, first in real time, then as fast-forwarded through by an editing machine – then the "countershot," the editing machine itself. The filmmakers are evidently done with their project.

All in all, the film isn't the ordeal that it could have been, but pretension appears throughout, primarily in speeches Lonsdale gives his editor, dispensing what we can only imagine are nuggets of Hanoun's own wisdom (a major one being that “cinema is the art of subtraction”). Perhaps the most noteworthy thing here is that Lonsdale's character declares that his fave filmmakers are Bergman, Bresson, Dreyer, Visconti, and one he claims not too many people know, Chris Marker.

Considering where the film was being shown, it was noteworthy to see an Anthology Film Archives schedule hanging on the wall behind the two actors throughout the film.

THE GAZE (1977). Anthology's description of this film wisely mentioned to potential viewers that it's a film about sex that is not pornography or erotica. This is true. The actors have real sexual intercourse on-camera, but here is the “plot,” such as it is: a woman in bed with her lover in a hotel in Belgium leaves the room to visit a local museum to see a collection of paintings by Bruegel. A second woman, with fuzzy hair that matches the man's curly mane, comes into the hotel room and the two fuck for the rest of the picture, while the woman at the museum stares at us (the audience in this case standing in for the Bruegel painting she is obsessed with). We study details of the painting, as well as the lovers' bodies as they have sex. 

The sex is indeed depicted in an unsexy fashion (and a lot of their anatomy winds up being hidden beneath their partner's hair); Hanoun does add short images of the man's erect penis, presumably to show that the couple is indeed doing it for real. The study of the painting — and the truly oddball images where the woman staring at it is joined by others who slither up and down into and out of frame behind her —is far more interesting. The film's one bravura moment only lasts a few seconds: the figure of Icarus in the Bruegel painting "comes to life" via animation, and we see his legs kick in the water.

There are times during THE GAZE that one could easily take the film for a parody of an “art film.” This I believe comes from the fact that Hanoun didn't like to display a sense of humor. There is a playfulness about Godard and Marker's work, a wildly dark humor in Fassbinder's, even glimmers of humor in the "transcendent trio," Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson.

Hanoun took his work very seriously, and thus when the fuzzy-haired girl here is suddenly seen wearing wings while fucking (relating to the Bruegel painting, which depicts Icarus) or a black man suddenly appears in place of our hero (thus paralleling the constant play between b&w and color), we want to laugh but Hanoun doesn't want us to (which of course makes us want to even more).

LA NUIT CLAIRE (1979). (Viewed on DVD-r.) Offering the other side of the unsexy sex that appeared onscreen in Gaze, this film is more concerned with love and passion. It tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, plus another mythological couple, and a modern-day equivalent. The style is very much that of (natch) Cocteau and the avant-garde filmmakers of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

There are surprises in store, though, as the film begins with much walking in barren landscapes (a visual trope in Sixties/Seventies experimental cinema), but the last third truly is a mind-bender. After Orpheus screws up and loses Eurydice forever, the women warriors known as the Maenads kill and eat him and another man (I assume the other man is the male member of the modern-day couple; then again, I have given up on truly getting a handle on the characters in Hanoun’s work).

At this point the film becomes a savage weird outing along the lines of Sweet Movie or Pollet’s Le Sang (another French rarity seen only at the Anthology). The women feast on the two men at a giant banquet table (aided by a hungry cat). The actresses savor the meat and viscera for several minutes, until the leader of the group takes Orpheus’ head and ventures into the water with it, swinging it around wildly.

Definitely a departure from all of the other work in the festival, the film is the strangest damned thing I saw in my hours of Hanoun-watching. He counterpoints his mythological material with the rehearsal of an opera about Orpheus, thus the reversion to gore, viscera, and painted warrior-women comes as a major surprise.

CELLO (2012). Hanoun’s last feature, made when he was not in good health, is a digital-video project that finds him and two actresses reading a text he had written. Their voices are overlaid at points, and we see them working with the camera crew on the shoot. For their part, the crew isn’t i.d.’ed on credits, but instead introduce themselves on-camera in this manner: “sound engineer on ‘Marcel asked me.’ ” (Evidently the crew liked working with M. Hanoun.)

The title Cello turns out to be a nickname Hanoun was given as a young man, a diminutive for Marcel. To further tie the phrase into the feature, he shows a woman playing a classical instrument but admits it’s a viola de gamba, not a cello.

The effect of this film is elegiac, as could be expected from an 83-year-old man making his final project. As I noted recently on the Funhouse TV show when giving the “U.S. TV debut” to scenes from Fellini’s Voce Della Luna, artists’ last works may not be their best (in some cases, very far from it), but they do contain much insight into the person’s view of life and the creative process, as well as offering much in the way of genuine emotion.

Here Hanoun uses his favorite techniques: nature shots punctuate some of the very long passages of the actors reading, and the performers do acknowledge the camera, but in this case we are given the “countershot” throughout and see the small video crew of young people “asked by Marcel” at work.

CODA (posted 6/6/14):
After I did my Anthology blitz, I searched the Internet (you know, this thing that everyone is so gaga about) to see how Hanoun was represented on here. It turns out that he authorized people to post many of his films on two sites, YouTube and Vimeo, and that there are also helpful articles on him in French and a very well-written one in English.

I was most interested in seeing his "Jesus film," a 1977 feature called La verite sur l'imaginaire passion d'un inconnu, one of his few vintage features shot on film that was not included in the Anthology retro. The film is indeed on Vimeo, albeit with no English subtitles. The picture was indeed another surprise, as it is seemingly, despite its "blasphemous" union of modern elements with the Christ saga, a solemn, almost reverent retelling of the tale.

In Autumn, Lonsdale singles out Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew for praise as a very special, beautiful film. Hanoun followed along similar lines in inconnu, although he did include an element not tried by any noted filmmaker (that I'm aware of): casting a woman (actress Anne Wiazemsky, in all of her pouting beauty) as Christ. In fact, she alternates the role with an actor (Michel Morat, right), so that there are two Christs in the film.

Here, a woman finds Christ on a crucifix by the side of the road and we backtrack to see his life, from John the Baptist on. Hanoun described the plot this way: "At dawn one morning on a wooden cross, a girl, stupid or visionary, discovers a dead crucified man at the entrance of a small village in the South of France. We are in 1977. Is it possible to listen to Jesus' Word and hear It in 1977? What possible options are there for the Suffering Man who uses the Word as a weapon?"

Hanoun switches between his he-Christ and she-Christ, having them alternate lines and at points speak with each other's voices. At one particularly odd point, Morat is shown looking "at" Wiazemsky. As noted throughout this piece, Hanoun eschewed the shot/countershot method of depicting a conversation in favor of both characters speaking directly to the camera.

The one truly odd element (unless I missed a stray French line, most of the dialogue seems to be "dialogue" taken directly from the gospel of St. John) is that Lonsdale plays Pontius Pilate as a TV newsman, seen in a darkened TV studio. Later on, he interacts with both Christs, each in their turn. The entire film can be seen on Vimeo (without English subs, thus the importance of the Anthology retro!).

Hanoun definitely did want his work, especially his later features and videos, available for free on the Net (except the "season quartet," which is supposed to appear on DVD). He had not one but three official sites:,, and

Hanoun's official YT account is here. And here is a very clear print of A Simple Story. All of the embeds below are unfortunately unsubtitled.

His one mainstream production, The Eighth Day, with Emmanuelle Riva:

The Authentic Trial of Carl Emmanuel Jung:  

The Vimeo account containing his work is far more inclusive (probably because YouTube is run by Americans, and thus has a moronic attitude toward nudity). Here one gets a clear look at the later work that wasn't included in the Anthology festival (and, again, will most likely remain unsubtitled for a long time to come). That account can be found here.

Although I didn't wind up becoming as obsessed with Hanoun's work as I did with Moullet, Pollet, Clementi, and Schroeter, I'm very glad I took the time to attend Anthology's Hanoun retro. The AFA programmers again excelled at finding rare films and presenting them to the NYC viewing audience (which was, naturally enough, quite small, except for THE GAZE). The projectionists and the young man who did a particularly fine job of keeping the "soft-titling" in synch with the films deserve special commendation (the titles were in synch even when the print of OCTOBER IN MADRID tore at two different points).

"Soft-titling" is a process whereby we watch a pristine print of the film ("sans titres"), and the English subs are put below the screen on an added piece of cloth (or polyvinyl, or whatever film screens are made of). The titles are on a computer program that is "paged through" by a person in the theater or projection booth who moves them ahead via a laptop. It's an invaluable and important process that I have only seen at the Anthology and at Film Forum for the "Tutto Fellini" fest back in the early Nineties.

The former main film curator of the Museum of Modern Art once told me in correspondence that MOMA will never use soft-titling because the audience members (many of whom, remember, just wander in from an exhibition in the museum and don't know what they're watching) "don't like it." I had mentioned the process because MOMA was showing several films in different festivals at that time without English subtitles, including one Bunuel film that had played with soft-titling at AFA a few months before.

Thus, it is all the more important that Anthology (whose budget is much, much, much smaller than MOMA) does use the technique to subtitle extremely rare foreign films that will probably never, ever be subtitled on the Net (even in the veritable fount of amazing material that is "the Torrents") or on DVD.
But back to Hanoun: The surprises in the retro, and the two superb films, were worth the moments where his techniques seemed gratingly transparent, or where mine eyes just decided to shut down for a while. Simple Story and Spring are indeed terrific, and his work is worth a look for all fans of French and avant-garde cinema.

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