On Books

The Wrong Man

Review of
-La Grande Illusion De Céline, Jean Narboni, Capricci 2021
-Maurice Pialat, la main, les yeux, Capricci, 2021

While post avatars of French theory continue to be translated and published, with the current crop of both Bruno Latour and Bernard Stiegler heirs in the foreground, numerous essayists, who carefully or deliberately steer clear of topical currents, remain very much of a French thing, and often not translated nor discussed. Capricci, a publisher and film distributor, has released in 2021 two titles that warrant, for distinct reasons, attention in Northern Asia, from where we are writing.

Jean Narboni arrives with a celebrated critical history. He was co-editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma with Jean-Louis Comolli (1968-72), when the journal took its red turn and began looking to thinkers who were breaking out of academia and into other arenas, ultimately reaching out to a number of them for interviews, including Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. Narboni, who had begun writing for Cahiers in 1963, also taught in the film department at Vincennes, which would become Paris 8, from 1971 to 2003. His previous books were on filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, Sam Fuller, and a subtle study of Mikio Naruse. His new one, were it to be translated, would need to come with countless trigger warnings. He discusses the rabid hatred French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, author of Voyage au Bout de la Nuit and unhinged antisemite, held for Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. Renoir’s film, about French soldiers, prisoners in a German camp during the first world war, looks in particular at the friendship between the blond and blue-eyed Maréchal, played by Jean Gabin, from a working-class background, and the wealthy Jewish tailor Rosenthal, played by Marcel Dalio, who would go on to play the aristocrat Le Marquis de la Chesnaye in Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu.

Jean Gabin
Marcel Dalio

The breadth of Narboni’s culture has him bring up other unpleasant characters close to Céline such as George Montandon and Armand Bernardini, Nazi collaborators and self-made experts in establishing, and denouncing, Jewish identity. Céline would come to admire their writings and cherish Montandon’s friendship.  It is armed with such tools that Céline goes after La Grande Illusion. And yet there is one character in the film, nicknamed Pindare, for the classic poet whom he studies and quotes, that escapes Céline’s wrath.

The monstrosities gleaned at by Narboni would be condemned in films ranging from Otto Preminger’s Exodus to Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein; but by far it is for Nobel prize-winning author Patrick Modiano, and his novel Place de l’Etoile, that Narboni takes, if not pleasure, then something close to duty in describing the writer’s aptly clever and subtle description of Paris under the occupation, and the act of revenge and retribution against the friends of  occupied Paris, operating in his narrative

Narboni’s own victory comes then before the figure of the poet Pindare, whom Céline excluded from what he termed a nauseous assembly and proximity of races. Pindare was played by actor Sylvain Itkine, a Jewish performer who became active in the resistance, later captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo in Occupied France. So much for a manic nationalist’s inability to recognize identity in the face of a will for poetry. The grace and elegance of Jean Narboni’s writing, and that of several of his peers, from Pascal Bonitzer to Serge Daney, has produced pretenders spread out in dailies and culture periodicals in France. But few dare to write like him anymore, and this book is an emblem of refusal in an era that continues to practice repressive persecution, notably in parts of Asia,  based on issues of faith.

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The smaller essay on Maurice Pialat announces on its cover page that it is by Jerome Momcilovic, a film critic very much part of the current French generation who has like-minded film followers and colleagues on his social media accounts, seemingly all of whom have praised the book. Capricci had also published his two previous titles, a timely and delicate essay on filmmaker Chantal Akerman and a clever and larger volume on Arnold Schwarzenegger. This eclecticism immediately distinguishes him from critics like Jean Narboni, as does the writing style. This study of Maurice Pialat, a director practically unknown in Japan (1) and yet ostensibly one of France’s greatest postwar filmmakers, a late starter whose first feature at 43,  L’Enfance Nue (1968), was produced by Francois Truffaut, is composed of fragments made of analytical insights relying on the films, interviews with Pialat over the years, and literary and painterly references. 

In a recent review of this book in Cahiers du Cinema, critic Charlotte Garson praised this approach that avoided turning into a bloated reading grid (2). And in doing so it celebrates a poetic intimacy Jerome Momcilovic would have forged with this body of work, resulting in two figures offered to the reader. The first has to do with the title, la main, les yeux/ the hand, the eyes. The essay makes a case for Pialat moving away from painting, the hand, to cinema, the eyes. Something was abandoned, and yet needs to keep reappearing, as with the opening shot of his film Van Gogh; the hand about to apply the first strokes on the canvas is the filmmaker’s own. The second suggests that this theme (and trauma) of being abandoned haunts all of his films, including his earlier shorts. His lead (male) characters, many of whom were portrayed by Gérard Depardieu, display behavior, commit actions, speak something unwanted that results in driving away those dear to them. And so, rather than having been a director working within a tradition of realism, as he has often been discussed,  Pialat becomes an explorer and performer of distance, each film measuring how far you can push someone. 

The fragments illustrate this through descriptions and a penchant for allegory (3), making sure not to assign any theoretical model to the films. Which is not to say that this book reduces the director. Rather, it does call for other readings that would both build on, and challenge, what the JM posits. The fragments are not improvised, there is no riffing. The structure is composed of carefully selected moments from the films- which include adaptations, a biopic, and original screenplays – and from his extraordinary television work, La Maison des Bois. 

Still, what if the films of Maurice Pialat were about characters who had fallen for the wrong person, had made the wrong choice? Or if they were one and the same. 

  1. Most of the films of Maurice Pialat have not been shown in Japan. À nos Amours and Sous le Soleil de Satan (which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1987) were discussed decades ago. It is rumored that Japan’s leading film scholar did not care much for Pialat’s films, nor for those of Alain Resnais, a director whose early films from the sixties garnered considerable praise in Japan, but whose later ones still remain unreleased. 
  2. Jerome Momcilovic does however allow himself to quote Jean Starobinski, a thinker who endeavored in avoiding currents and movements.
  3. These do not always benefit the demonstration, as with the attempt to discuss the dying words of the mother, twisted with wrath in Pialat’s La Gueule Ouverte, and the voice of evil and torment emanating from Regan in William Friedkin’s masterpiece, The Exorcist. Pialat could not have become Bruno Dumont.

Maurice Pialat, La Gueule Ouverte
William Friedkin, The Exorcist

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