The Exigencies of Mystery:
Loitering Around Jean-Claude Rousseau’s
La Vallée close (2000)
Cahiers du cinéma: But isn’t one of the constants of your work this relationship between people who, physically, finally do not reunite?
Leo McCarey: It’s possible that this is an inner theme in my films ... But I’m too close to them to notice.
Interview by Serge Daney and Louis Skorecki, “Taking Chances”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 163 (February 1965), translated in Cahiers du cinéma in English, no. 7 (January 1967)
A few months ago, at the Las Palmas Film Festival in Gran Canaria, Jean-Claude Rousseau presented his film Festival (2010). I was in the theatre when he mentioned the name of Leo McCarey as one of his influences – or, at least, one of the filmmakers whose work he regularly rewatched. And I was sitting in a café, a few hours later, when I heard from his own lips that the films he usually watches on DVD are mostly classical Hollywood comedies: Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch (especially Ernst Lubitsch).
None of this would be terribly surprising if it were not for the well-known fact that Rousseau as a filmmaker is apparently a million miles away from these models he cites. The more believable statement, for the orthodox cinephile, would be Rousseau’s connection – also avowed and perfectly evident – with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet; because he shares with them the fidelity to a certain ‘cinema of the real’ that goes far beyond banal reality, thus making cinema an art of the image much more than the narration of a series of events.
Rousseau’s films are comprised of long, lengthy shots that follow each other like stone blocks, sometimes filmed in a single take on Super-8 reels, and more recently taking advantage of how video now allows us to no longer keep such diligent track of cinematic time. There is little dialogue of a conventional sort, and what there is, is based upon the idea of scene repetition or commentary, instantly exposing the representational nature of it all: the strips of celluloid used, the black ‘flashes’ that suddenly cross the frame, the demonstration of the process through which the film has been made ...
A film. What, for Jean-Claude Rousseau, is a film? Certainly not the majority of contemporary cinema, but rather a tradition that derives from the art of the pictorial image and arrives on the screen of a dark room, in order to make it absolutely clear that you cannot film in just any old way, that the position of the camera or the available light really make the film. They give us another kind of image, an image of the world, perhaps not the sensible world, but a parallel, possible world: one in which there dwells the ability to try to understand ourselves through our represented reality. Socrates’ maxim “know thy self” is transformed into a strange, difficult watchword, something that takes work and effort to put into practice – and not always with the desired results.
But let’s get back to that strange, shotgun marriage between Rousseau and classical comedy: looking over his filmography, nothing would prompt us to imagine such a possibility. His best-known films – Les Antiquités de Rome (1991) and De son appartement (2007) – correspond better to the genres of the filmed diary, of self-fiction, or of the essay-film. Rousseau is a filmmaker of the self, and often it is he who appears in his films to prove it.
There are two things, however, that begin to sow a doubt. Despite his apparent seriousness, there is a detached, there is an ironic humor that opens a gap between this seeming solemnity of the mise en scène, sometimes coming from his predilection for repetition – like a running gag that leads to loud laughter, as the characters have one more go at their impossible mission, often as part and parcel of a flat everydayness. When Rousseau films himself sitting once more on a hotel bed, or looking into his mirror, this character seems very much like a postmodern Jacques Tati: awkward, insecure, helpless before the world’s illusions.
On the other hand, Rousseau’s cinema seems obsessed with thresholds, doors, frames – and with the eruption of someone into that space, in the same way that the direct sound comes and goes unexpectedly in some shots. It is a piece of received wisdom that Lubitsch is famous for his doors. Let's agree to the truth of that, for the moment. This door is not only an ellipsis, but also an off-space: in this case, the desire to suggest another possible world that not is given to us to see, a world going on behind the door. What happens when a door is closed? Then our laughter is prompted both by what is on this side of the door, the satisfaction of a world under control that prompts a self-sufficient smirk – as well as by what is on the other side of the door, our nervous laughter when faced with the unknown.
Rousseau also spoke to me about McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957), and its final scene, where the two lovers incarnated by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr get caught up in an impossible labyrinth of unopened doors – which is instantly a representation of the memory they want to keep under lock and key, so that the world will not corrupt it. But the world is stronger than everything – desire included – meaning that everything will be revealed, all doors will open, bringing back the fear, pain and loneliness. (1) Well, then: Rousseau is situated in the moment just prior to this discovery, at the threshold, and we will never know what is behind those doors, or, at any rate, we will never go there. If, in McCarey, comedy is, thanks to these strategies, converted into melodrama, in Rousseau comedy takes the guise of some ancient treatise on geography that we review, over the years, trying to establish what was once there, in those other places, and smiling at our own naïveté.
And it is precisely as a treatise on geography that La Vallée close (2000) presents itself: a film which now strikes me (having seen it just recently) as one of the key works of contemporary cinema. (2) Filmed between 1984 and 1995, 140 minutes long, one could easily describe it as monumental, in several senses. First, it is a monument by Rousseau to a certain ‘modern’ cinema taken to its limit, along the Straub-Huillet line, fully aware of its slow disappearance. Second, it is a monument to a place, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, where the Sorgue river starts: a place Rousseau has frequented for many years, trying to unravel the mystery (or mysteries) it suggests. And third, it is a monument to a film genre which precisely derives, in part, from the romantic comedy, and that Rousseau simultaneously leaves reduced to its most basic, essential schema, but also overflowing, universal, in the sense of taking part in the desire of the universe’s laws.
La Vallée close resembles, in its trials and results, films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989-1998), Philippe Garrel’s Les Amants réguliers (2005) or Pedro Costa’s No quarto da Vanda (2000), because it is a commemoration that seeks to sum up many things, to celebrate and understand them. All these are films of love: love of cinema, of memory, of a more severe present; all built upon the basis of taking a camera, or a moviola, and waiting. So, on with the waiting. And such waiting is, precisely, the universe’s law, because it involves time, and what emerges in its gradual formation. (3) Some of the repetitions in the film capture this, creating such waiting in the reiteration of a moment or situation – to see it well and study it, but also so that it loses its meaning after so many recurrences. “The movement of atoms is eternal”, says Bergson, quoting Lucretius. And, starting from there, he establishes three categories: those who manage to join in with this wandering; those who do not succeed and become light or air; and finally, the solitary ones, who end up floating in space “like powder in a dark room”. Here we have a propaedeutic of love, of the couple, of solitude, of the attraction of beings following the pattern of the universe’s movement. All seems in place.
But is La Vallée close a film of geography, of metaphysics, or a simple puzzle with images filmed over years while, however, denying all knowledge of the passing of time? There are several images, repeatedly appearing throughout the footage of the twelve chapters, that comprise and come from that treatise or manual of geography: day and night; the seasons; the points of the compass; orientation; the wind, the clouds; the hill, the mountain, the valley; the source, the creek, the river; the sea, the storm, the port; lines of communication; the plan of the class and the school; the representation of the earth; the legend and scale of maps … all recapped in an epilogue. Rousseau has avowed that the structure does come from such a manual, but also from a particular poetic form found in Petrarch: the double sestina, which brings his film closer to poetry than to narrative. Neither the one nor the other but, nevertheless, the two together. Because we have to go back to those repeated images, which are sometimes anaphoric, and at other times simply cumulative.
The initial, primordial image, from which all others are born: the observation of the birth of the Sorgue, an immense black hole that begins to sprout water, at once life and death, light and darkness, to the extent that Rousseau shoots it from different camera angles ranging from absolute blackness, to the tourist or tourists who come to this abyss to try to know it. Then there is a house in ruins that also appears and reappears from different angles. Also a hotel room – the Hôtel du Château, as we will later learn – in which there apparently dwells a filmmaker (this filmmaker?) who has come back to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to add sounds to his film, from which we partially see (always in fragmentary form) a wall telephone, a bed, a window, a door. Places of transit as much as shelters for the soul, these three ‘landscapes’ all refer to the same thing: no further step beyond, as Maurice Blanchot might say, and this relates to the inability to grasp the contexts, where the ‘wolf’s mouth’ of darkness is going to end, where that man is going once he leaves his room – like an endless comic gag, by the way, producing something like the absurd from the moment that the door has an automatic movement, à la Buster Keaton – and where the memory of that house has gone … perhaps to some images that look like a home movie and are populated by women washing clothes, men working, children wandering …
So, we reconstruct it: a filmmaker lives in the Hôtel du Château of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, where the Sorgue begins, to add sound to images filmed long ago; and from there, from his room phone, he has a series of conversations with a loved one who is far away, which always end exhibiting some misunderstanding. Conversations we never see; we only hear them as the aural backdrop during some filming. We are, therefore, on the terrain of absence.
The absence of that black hole of the Sorgue; absence of the past and, therefore, time itself; absence of the beloved. The vast mouth of the river becomes the door leading from the room to the abandoned house. The rhymes follow on, but their cumulative power gives rise to something resembling a narrative poem which, bit by bit, we get to know – making out images, establishing connections. Via a plaque, those who did not know beforehand learn that Petrarch lived in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse for a period, and that there he composed "Clear, sweet fresh water”, the 126th poem of The Canzoniere, dedicated to Laura, i.e., to an absence. It was also from Petrarch that Rousseau was inspired to adopt a double sestina structure for the film. And The Tempest, the enigmatic painting (1506-8) by Giorgione, plays a key role near the end of the film. But what is this role? On the one hand, the iconography is clear and matching: ruins, the river, the entire landscape, a man and women separated by distance. On the other hand, the famous hermeneutic resistance of this canvas – inciting multiple interpretations – seems to want to infect the film, turning it into another mystery closed within itself. Closed valley. Closed life. Closed love. Closed image.
We talked about Straub and Huillet. Rousseau himself, during a meal the day after the projection, spoke with me about Bresson and Ozu. There is, in the McCarey of An Affair to Remember, something of both artists, a fact which ca widen our circle of influences, interpretations, associations – things that are not always rational or explicable. Rousseau remembered the kiss between Grant and Kerr on the boat, where McCarey hides almost everything in order to display only the feet of the couple on the steps, as their lips get closer, something we do not see. Bresson and Ozu are also filmmakers of the not-seen, as so many things happen beyond the frame, behind doors, in the off-space, in the black hole that is situated on the outside of the image. And herein lies the paradox.
For filmmakers in whose practice a certain caring for the image – in the therapeutic sense of the word – is of crucial importance, it is curious that there is even more of the not-said and not-shown, or that the image is negated aggressively by words or speech, i.e., something like the nothing-image, or the image-nothing, to use terms that would be more Deleuzian. (4) This would explain the duration of the shots, which exclude time, or the unvarying repetition of images that are identical, or very similar. On the one hand, this allows us to watch calmly: a balm for the eyes. On the other hand, the procedure verifies that the shot is held because, otherwise, nothing would be filmed; it is something unrepresentable, unless he lapses into either the ridiculous or the commonplace – therefore he is compelled to hold the shot because of an inability to change it. This is something very characteristic of modernity, affecting Bresson in a different way: in his films, the shots come faster but never show everything – preferring the detail to the whole, in fact a little bit like Hitchcock, who in turn could be opposed to Hawks. (5)
La Vallée close is a fundamental film because it brings together all these reflections in one, because it links Bresson and Ozu to classic comedy, because it declares to us that there can be no possible separation in the unfathomable black hole which is cinema history. And maybe what Rousseau is making is no longer cinema, or is the contrary of most cinema we see. In any case, there are an increasing number of images being made now about the absence of cinema – in the same way that Rousseau makes La Vallée close about amorous absence, about those atoms lost and never found, about time that exists only in its repetition, its simple repetition … and about one of the few possible ways of ordering images today.
Original Spanish text © Carlos Losilla June 2012. English translation © Adrian Martin June 2012.
The Spanish version has been published on La furia umana, n°9.
1. For more of this analysis, see Carlos Losilla, “The Gate of Heaven, The Place of the Other”, Rouge (2006), http://www.rouge.com.au/rougerouge/affair.html
2. Thanks to Gonzalo de Lucas, Gregorio Martín Gutiérrez and Gloria Vilches for this.
3. Waiting might resemble duration according to Henri Bergson’s definition: “duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new”. From Creative Evolution (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1911), trans. Arthur Mitchell, p. 11. On-line at http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Bergson/Bergson_1911a/Bergson_1911_01.html
4. Commenting on Marguerite Duras’ cinema at the end of The Time-Image, Deleuze invokes this nothing-image or image-nothing that might have been her next stop, had she continued with her research: “Speech reaches its own limit which separates it from the visual; but the visual reaches its own limit which separates it from sound”. Cinema 2 (London: Continuum, 2005), trans. Robert Galeta and Hugh Tomlinson, p. 267.
5. However, Rousseau, despite his long shots, demonstrates his devotion to Bresson by the manner in which scale reduces in its repetitions. In his book of aphorisms, Bresson quotes Pascal: “A town or countryside at a distance is a town, a countryside; but as one approaches it, those are houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grasses, ants, ants’ legs, to infinity”. Notes on Cinematography (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), trans. Jonathan Griffin, p. 46 (note).