FALLING OUT OF LOVE

In Annaud's THE LOVER, set in 20s Vietnam, every image is an orphan, argues Serge Daney, who sees its director as a new - and profoundly ignorant - kind of filmmaker.

There is an expression in French which people use, apologetically, to describe a film during which they have had difficulty staying awake: Ca m'est tombe des yeux, literally, "It fell from my eyes." A rather nice phrase, which seems to register the fact that every film is simultaneously projected twice: once onto the cinema screen and once onto our retinas. It is almost as if, when we 'take in a movie,' we have to hold it in the depths of our eyes, and cannot do so - cannot make it stick - without the 'clothes pegs' which constitute our appreciation of that beautiful thing we call cinema.

A film which 'falls from your eyes' is one where you have to keep readjusting your retina, just as circus clowns keep pulling up their trousers. The tears it produces are fake tears, caused by conjunctivitis, not emotion. And the anger it provokes is also fake, born of irritation, not revolt. It is in this sense that bad films are fake films.

L'AMANT (THE LOVER) is a film which falls from your eyes. As a production it is somewhat less alarming than the campaign of intimidation which accompanied its launch, and it would merely inspire pity were it not for the realization that with Annaud we now have the prototype - fully operational at last - of a new brand of filmmaker: the 'post-filmmaker,' in other words, one who knows nothing of what cinema once knew.

But he didn't start yesterday. Annaud found his Road to Damascus a decade ago, when he had the truly blinding intuition that everything which had for so long been 'natural' in cinema - the fact that there were men and women, bodies and characters, emotions and experiences, stories in short - was destined to fall into a kind of "dark continent" which henceforth we could only reach from outside, with the help of ever more rhetorical and consensual simulations, of which US 'reality shows' represent the televisual pits.

Annaud is thus the chief usherette who was present at the birth of humanity (LA GUERRE DE FEU) and its middle age (THE NAME OF THE ROSE), at a young animal's introduction to life in the wild (THE BEAR) and a young girl's introduction to eroticism (THE BEAR.) So it was that he put his stamp on several media events of the 80s, years which - let us not forget - were inevitably marked by the regrettable revival of old mythologies in our televisual village. Mythologies which needed a new aesthetic matrix (advertising and its kitsch imagery) and, eventually, a new kind of communicator, devoid of feeling (Annaud, for example.)

For unlike Besson and Beneix, who are more talented or are still consumed by the passion of cinema, Annaud has always made films in complete ignorance of the fact that there had been any cinema before him. By dint of imagining himself to be the guiding light shining on the first faltering steps of anything which moves, by dint of watching over the prehistory of our species and our origins as Pithecanthropus Erectus, Annaud forgot that there were others before him who had played with this marvelous device, with cinema and those clothes pegs which hold its images on our inflamed retinas.

To judge by the way THE LOVER has been promoted, it may well be that audio-visual vandalism has at last found its own Vandals. Will we ever convert them to Cinema? Who will save us from them? Will they put us to the sword? And who are 'we' anyway? Let's just say that 'we' are the fans of clothes-peg cinema, people who increasingly have the feeling of being other, other than Vandals.

Annaud, too, isn't just anyone: he is the first non-cinephile robot in the history of cinema. In the manual he mugged up in the space capsule which carried him through time to us, "The Human Species In Twenty Storyboards," he read that cinema consisted of 'telling a story in pictures.' And one feels that he will never get beyond that particular cliché, that he will always know what cinema should look like, that it should be a 'summary' of human feeling and behavior. But that is indeed all he knows: his knowledge is that of the robot who doesn't know that he doesn't know everything.

He doesn't know, for example, that there are things which you see without really seeing them, and others which stare you in the face but don't reflect any real experience; that there are moments when you must not make too much noise; that there are things which are omnipresent but insignificant, and others which are absent but powerful; that there are collective lies and partial truths - in short, that there are experiences which cinema sometimes finds it hard to approach (yet its dignity lies in the attempt.) This is hardly surprising. It wasn't in the manual, because the manual - well produced though it was - was written by advertisers during the 80s.

Let us go back to the cinema, to our retinas and clothes pegs. Why does this film fall from our eyes? Because something essential - essential to cinema - has disappeared. Cinema has always depended on a simple fact: the knowledge that something communicates itself from one frame to the next, one image to the next, one moment to the next, one shot to the next., and that these all end up constituting a logical and entangled fabric, full of twisted threads: one where the viewer doesn't have to be continuously 'grabbed' in order to be implicated, involved, delighted and caught up in new configurations of space-time. This is why all the great manipulators of the audience - from Hitchcock to Tati, from Chaplin to Leone - have also been great logicians, who gambled on the pride which we had every right to feel - as viewers - when we had learned to see, to deduce, to imagine, on the basis of the rebus they offered us.

That pride vanished some time ago, to be replaced by mere enjoyment of the effects of 'filmed cinema.' It is undoubtedly to faire cinema - to put on a show - in the manner of all the parvenus who seem to have acquired droit de seigneur over the entire world - to clothe himself in the cheap literary finery of a story signed "Marguerite Duras" (a story where essentially there is nothing but moisture, heat haze, nervous flux and contagious sensuality), that Annaud accepted the very costly challenge of giving his interpretation of a best-selling colonial novel. Which only makes all the more obvious the way that, for him, the manufacture of images has replaced cinema.

Let us take an example. Let us take a single bad cut (there are quite a few in THE LOVER.) If my memory serves me well (and I have no intention of seeing the film again to check), the first thing we see of the lover is one of his shoes. The shoe, extremely fashionable and expensive, is pointed towards the viewer, rather like a face, in a long, vacant close-up. A close-up which lasts long enough for the viewer to reach the following conclusion: these shoes don't come from Dolcis and the feet which are wearing them aren't just any old feet. And indeed in the following image we see the elegant, finely dressed form of the Chinese lover straightening out before us as he steps from his luxury car. The problem is that between the way the shoe is positioned in relation to the viewer and the movement of the actor's body there is, dare I say it, a degree of awkwardness, of clumsiness, which results in the image 'falling from the eyes' for lack of clothes pegs. In short, the tragedy of a bad cut.

Of course I appreciate that a bad cut isn't a crime and doesn't shock anyone. But this time it's not because - as in the days of BREATHLESS - cinema is trying to overturn the dusty old rules which say 'how' one should cut. No, it's because Annaud's work no longer has anything at all to do with memory, sequence, time, montage. This is cinema where there is no communication, because everything is communicated. The shoe is an item from the script which has turned into a surreptitious little commercial for an attractive marketable object, a kind of Indochinese Bally, just like all the other promotional objects in the film, from the virgin car to the designer girl.

But readers will point out, of course, that the vast majority of the press and television has endorsed the thing. That is true, unfortunately. And they will add, the film is a success and no one has complained. Only too true. So it is now that I must show myself worthy of this publication and introduce someone very important to the life and death of films: no one less than the viewer. Let us return - I'm afraid we must - to the shoe.

For if the scene is so long, so badly cut and so insulting to the viewer's intelligence, it is not only because Annaud has a poor notion of his audience's critical facilities, it is also because he assembles his film as a series of orphan images, images which must, one by one, be seen, recognized and, so to speak, ticked off by the spectator-consumer.

In this aesthetic, an image never finds its sequel, its mystery or elucidation in another, more or less contiguous image. Henceforth, images are to be 'scanned' twice, once by the post-filmmaker who signs them and once by the post-public who endorses them. They are only presented to the audience (and no longer articulated with other elements in the film) as a kind of preview, a run-through of visuals, not the sharing of a vision. "You saw nothing in Cholon, nothing." {Cholon is the Saigon suburb in which THE LOVER is set. The reference is to HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR: "Tu n'as rien vu a Hiroshima, rien."} The images line up on a waiting list, to be submitted for public approval, for instant endorsement, for God knows what kind of mark of confidence.

Let us be serious. Many people have talked about contemporary individualism and its paradoxes. One of these paradoxes is nothing less than a certain eradication of taste among a public who are more adult, that is, better informed, less naive, better off, easily bored, happily cruising among the various lifeless luxuries which the market tosses in their direction. These spectators, proud of their independence and well aware of their power, nonetheless have to face the rather comic obligation to adopt as 'theirs' all the latest clichés and the conformism of their social group, with the proviso that they can feel they are living and organizing them on their own behalf.

And nothing makes them angrier than pointing out that for all their individuality, their refusal to follow fashions and formulae, they are still trotting out the same stunningly conformist idiocies as their closest neighbors. Which is why film critics, and indeed critics in general, for the simple reason that they dislike clichés and off-the-peg ideas, are an endangered species. In a world where the personal appropriation of clichés is a condition for the spread of cultural tourism, that's hardly surprising.

What, then, is this close-up of the Chinese shoe? Nothing less than a cry. The shoe cries out to be recognized, recognized in its advertising essence as a solitary shoe, in its radical shoeness. It cries out that it's been selected by Annaud for the spectator, in the same way as bingo numbers are called out for players to cross off their cards. Too bad for anyone accustomed to cinema, who waits impatiently for the next scene to follow, irritated by the way this film from his eyes. For there is no scene to follow, merely another image which in turn will demand approval and authentication by the spectator.

What was bound to happen has happened. From now on the spectator-consumer is confronted by an image which resembles him, which, like him, proclaims it has no need of others (other images, but also sound and duration) in order to create social and domestic kitsch (in this case, a kind of EMANUELLE with a bit of literary gloss.)

The result, of course, is lamentable. For having become master of all he surveys in a film which is communicated to him image by image, the spectator is trapped by his own feeble status as a consumer-decoder. He hasn't time to understand anything which he didn't already 'know,' which leaves him with nothing, with the already seen or the scarcely seen at all, with ads and logos, visuals and kitsch, in short, with banalities and platitudes.

How utterly pointless it was for Annaud to have shot the film in the real Vietnam. Hadn't the unfortunate man already ensured there was no danger of his camera accidentally recording a few seconds of unprocessed reality? But in an age of synthetic images and emotions, the chances of an accidental encounter with reality are remote indeed.

Originally published in LIBERATION.

First published in English in SIGHT & SOUND, July 1992.