LA RENCONTRE

Directed by Alain Cavalier

Made in collaboration with Françoise Widhoff and Florence Malraux

Distributed by Artistic License Films

***

According to my French-English dictionary, "la rencontre" means "meeting" or "encounter." It's an appropriate title for this unique film, which spends 73 minutes pursuing a number of innovative encounters. First of all, the encounter between a man and a woman, who decide to document the first year of their relationship on video. Then, the encounter between video and film, because Cavalier made the video with the intention of showing it on film in a movie theater. Third, an encounter between the private and the public, because the intimate moments and memories of this couple are being shown to an audience of strangers. The meeting room gets pretty crowded.

Although Cavalier was honored with retrospectives at the 1996 Telluride and 1997 Rotterdam Film Festivals, only one of his films (the 1986 THERESE) has received much exposure in the U.S. He's a contemporary of the Nouvelle Vague, having made his first feature, LE COMBAT DANS L'ILE, in 1962, at the age of 31. According to the Rotterdam festival catalogue, "he was commercialy successful in the late 60s, but turned to a more personal style in the 80s, earning him the title of 'France's master of Minimalism'." I haven't seen his previous feature, the 1993 LIBERA ME, but it was also an experimental work: a non-narrative film without dialogue that "refers to a period of concentration camps and violent dictatorships." Even if Cavalier is a "professional" filmmaker, LA RENCONTRE is somewhat of an amateur film: shot on Hi-8 video with his pocket money in complete independence. However, LA RENCONTRE takes certain tropes of French "auteur" film (use of personal, even autobiographical material, a fondness for talk, a fascination with the everyday life of a couple) and deploys them in a much different context.

The concept of a diary film isn't particularly new, and some of the ideas behind LA RENCONTRE remind me of filmmakers as different as Jonas Mekas, Ross McElwee and Chris Marker. Like Marker, Cavalier is simultaneously willing to share his intimate memories with an audience and reluctant to reveal very much about himself. (In an interview in LE MONDE, he said "Embedded in this film, perhaps, is the key to my life, but spoken in a foreign language." ) Neither his name nor his partner's are mentioned, so I'll refer to them as he and she. (He never refers to his profession as a filmmaker, although he does mention a work-related trip to Istanbul.) Their bodies are only shown in fragments (legs and hands, for the most part) and their faces are never clearly shown, just glimpsed in a handful of fugitive images (his in a reflection, hers in an old photo and one very brief, out-of-focus shot.)

Much of LA RENCONTRE consists of a procession of still life tableaux: objects shot in extreme close-up from a still camera. The inventory includes a pair of shoes, wash basin, a heart-shaped pebble, a 4-leaf clover, a whistle made from an apricot pit and the dessicated corpse of an African "rhino" bug. These objects are important only as they function as aides-mémoires, triggering recollections of incidents in the couple's relationship and lives. Despite the distorted, monochromatic color texture and extreme grain of the video-to-film transfer (accomplished by rephotographing the video onto 35mm film from a monitor), some of these images are quite beautiful. (The shot of an Alka Seltzer tablet slowly dissolving in a glass is worthy of Godard's TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER.) As the procession continues, the couple discuss the events of their everyday life and ride on the flow of memory provoked by these images. Their talk implies a great deal about their pasts, childhoods and relations to their family (her mother has just died, and he shoots his blind father), but it implies it elliptically, without spelling out a biography.

Needless to say, the outside world makes only a handful of intrusions. Apart from the couple, the only other people shown are family members. One would be justified in accusing LA RENCONTRE of self-absorption and self-indulgence, but there's not much point to it. Complaining that John Woo's films are too violent or that Jim Carrey's are filled with lowbrow comedy would be equally justifiable, but if you're going to make the complaint, you may as well stay home. But the film suffers from a more serious problem. She begins the project as an equal partner but grows disenchanted with it halfway through the year, complaining that he is invading her privacy. She makes a few token complaints, but her protests don't change the nature of the project.

So, the experiment isn't a complete success. Experiments are risky by nature. Home video technology has always held the utopian promise of a collective experiment: that the difference between image-makers and image-consumers could be effaced. In the real world, the results have been pretty disheartening, except for fans of AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS and amateur porn. In its best moments, LA RENCONTRE seems to speak from an alternate universe in which that promise has been kept.