First Love & Chats Perchés
Over the weekend, I motored up to Toronto to visit with la famille de Sirène before they fly off to Paris and move their household to New York soon after. I also took the opportunity to catch a juicy double bill at the Cinematheque. I was looking forward most to the new Chris Marker, and while it was terrific, it was the Kieslowski on the bill that unexpectedly proved to be the knockout of the evening.
A funny thing: I often find myself looking hard for traces of fictional elements in documentary films and traces of documentary elements in fiction films. Krzystof Kieslowski made the (ostensible) documentary First Love in 1974. It’s about a young Warsaw teenage couple, Jadzia and Romek, who have a baby. Kieslowski filmed them for a year, beginning when Jadzia was four months pregnant.
In the Faber & Faber book of interviews with him (my favorite in the series, although many others, including the Lynch and Sirk, are great too), he remarks:
When I was finishing film school I wrote a thesis called ‘Reality and the Documentary Film’ where I put forward the argument that in everybody’s life there are stories and plots. So why invent plots if they exist in real life? You only have to film them. That’s the subject I invented for myself. Then I tried to make films like that and I didn’t make any—except for First Love….There was masses of manipulation in the film, or even provocation, but you can’t make a film like that any other way. There’s no way you can keep a crew at somebody’s side for twenty-four hours a day….So I had to manipulate the couple into situations in which they would find themselves anyway, although not exactly on the same day or at the same time. I don’t think I put them in a situation in which they wouldn’t have found themselves if the camera hadn’t been there.
For instance, they are painting their apartment when a policeman knocks on the door and tells them that they are not officially registered to occupy it. Kieslowski actually found a policeman and informed on the couple (!) and filmed the visit, knowing (he says) that the cop would be lenient and wouldn’t really penalize them (or, with the shock of the visit, induce labor in the expecting mother!). Kieslowski gave the couple books (Young Mother; Developing Foetus) and asked them to read and discuss them without letting us in on it. And after the baby is born, and Romek calls his parents to tell them—through tears—the good news, we see the microphone jammed into the frame, not letting us forget that we are watching a (constructed) film. All of which I found fascinating.
The girl seems much more mature, resourceful, and worldly-wise; the boy still appears to be an overgrown adolescent. As the film unfolds and their personalities begin to emerge for us, the presence of the boy begins to recede in terms of screen time. Kieslowski simply finds the girl more interesting and the film slowly becomes more about her. Kieslowski shoots her in extended close-ups, riveted, and one can’t help but think ahead to the Three Colors trilogy and its woman-centeredness.
The other film of the evening was Chris Marker's new hour-long video, Chats Perchés ("Perched Cats," although the official English title is “The Case Of The Grinning Cat.”) Soon after 9/11, a mysterious perpetrator began stencilling large graffiti of a cat with a gigantic grin all over Paris. The images appeared on buildings, roofs, trees, and the Metro. (Coincidentally, Marker’s film about the history of the Left, made in 1977, was called Grin Without A Cat.) Marker begins to investigate the case of the grinning cat graffiti, and finds himself at a large anti-Le Pen demonstration held on the eve of the French election four years ago. (Along with a documentary filmmaker-friend, I remember spending most of the day marching in this demonstration on my last trip to Paris.) Marker spots the cat there, and then again at a right-wing rally where the speech-makers appropriate surrealist Paul Eluard’s words to their own ends. (Marker dryly mutters: “Causes are a matter of fashion. Sometimes it is an asset in life to not know what you’re talking about.”)
The movie quickly sketches a history of grinning cats, unearthing both Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and Miyazaki’s cat from My Neighbor Totoro. Marker visits the Louvre and hunts down Egyptian cat sculptures. (Come to think of it: Agnès Varda, another Left Bank filmmaker like Marker, has a feline obsession too, as you may remember from The Gleaners and I.) But Marker’s real destination, where he spends most of his time, is la musée de la rue. He prowls the streets and the Metro looking for graffiti and discursively riffing on the Iraq war, Bush, and the French political scene. Like with all Marker, a first viewing only gets you so far; the density of allusion and epigram leaves you gasping to keep up. One gets the feeling that enjoyable though the film is, it is willfully smaller and a shade minor in comparison to Remembrance Of Things To Come (2001), his essay-portrait of photographer Denise Bellon. Still, I’ll be looking for the next opportunity to see them both again.
UPDATE: I just got an e-mail from Brian Sholis, who writes for Artforum. He pointed me to the summer issue of the magazine, which went on-line yesterday. It contains a Top Ten list by Monsieur Chat, the secret artist behind the grinning cat graffiti.