When Michelangelo Antonioni premiered his film L’Avventura at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, it was met by a chorus of boos and cat-calls. It is easy to see why – L’Avventura is nearly two and a half hours long and despite its backside-destroying length, it contains very little actual plot. Instead of a narrative, Antonioni presents us with a series of frayed edges that he picks at in a rather half-hearted manner : A girl is in conflict with her father. A girl disappears while exploring an island. People attempt to organise search parties. Couples bicker. Dramatic arcs are initiated but never resolved. The film radiates a sense of lethargy and detachment echoed by that of its characters – Everything about it is seemingly laid-back, directionless, self-indulgent and spoiled. Watching L’Avventura it is possible to picture Antonioni sitting in his director’s chair and sighing heavily before wearily dragging himself to his feet and issuing a few half-hearted and half-arsed instructions. “I suppose we should get back to work” he says distractedly. Of course, the exquisite shot composition, careful location selection, control of tone and fiercely intellectual engagement with the language of cinema itself make it abundantly clear that there is absolutely nothing half-arsed about L’Avventura. Its refusal to be anything approaching dramatic is quite deliberate. Its slow pace is quite intentional. Its emphasis of tone and atmosphere over plot and characterisation quite carefully planned. L’Avventura, along with Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), managed to set the thematic and stylistic agenda for the emerging tradition of art house cinema. It started a conversation that continues to this day.
In his editorial to the April 2010 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, Nick James addresses this conversation by pointing out that it may have run out of steam. Art House keeps returning to the same topics in the same manner and, as a result, the techniques pioneered by the likes of Resnais and Antonioni are starting to grate :
“Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.”
L’Avventura and Marienbad‘s rejection of the traditional language of film was not merely ground-breaking, it was culturally earth-shattering. To this day, people think of art house cinema in terms of long takes and wordless shots of scenery designed to capture some fleeting emotional moment. My girlfriend, for example, does not share my love of art house film, which she refers to as “Boring Films” as though they constituted some separate cinematic genre like a thriller or a horror film. Which, of course, they absolutely do. Another front of the battle waged against Hollywood by art house cinema is that fought by Michael Haneke. As I pointed out in my review of The White Ribbon (2009) – Haneke’s career has been dominated by a deep ambivalence towards genre. Haneke keeps making films that are ostensibly works of genre but every time he makes a genre film, he makes sure to deny us the kind of emotional closure that comes from conforming to familiar methods of genre story-telling. He rewinds the tape when someone escapes in Funny Games and he never allows the mystery to even resemble anything that might make sense in Hidden. If L’Avventura rejects many of the forms and methods of traditional cinematic story-telling, then Haneke’s films satirise and attack those very same forms. However, as James’ editorial suggests, it is 50 years since art house cinema began to wage its war against the norms of Hollywood. Hundreds and hundreds of films have been made in the mould cast by Antonioni. Is the language of art house cinema still dangerous or is it just another ossified set of genre conventions in desperate need of deconstruction? The fact that films as empty as Carlos Raygadas’ Silent Light (2007) can compete at Cannes suggest that rebellion must take a different form and find a new angle of attack. As my reviews of the films of the Cannes-winning Apichatpong Weerasethakul have suggested, I think that his recombination of genre tropes, art house techniques, mystical sensibilities and visual art aesthetics may prove fruitful going forward… but the battle needs a similar kind of second front as that provided by Haneke. Enter the cruelly overlooked French drama La Moustache by Emmanuel Carrere, based on his novel of the same name. It is a film that takes aim at many of the conventions of art house cinema and the crudely psychological register that so many of those films operate in.
Marc (Vincent Lindon) and Agnes Thiriez (Emmanuelle Devos) are a middle-class Parisian couple of ancient lore. They are attractive, work in creative industries, eat out, buy designer clothes and live in a stunningly designed and decorated apartment. In other words, they are the man and woman on the Clapham Omnibus of French film. Marc is reclining in his bath when he announces to Agnes that he is thinking of shaving off his moustache. Agnes responds that she likes his moustache and then pops out to the shops before the pair head out to dinner with friends. Seizing the opportunity for mischief, Marc carefully shaves off his ‘tache and hides the evidence. He then playfully hides his face from his wife as the pair finish getting dressed. Eventually, after much horsing about, he reveals his freshly denuded upper lip and is met with… nothing. Agnes does not mention it, react to it or even look at it.
As the couple drive to their friends’ we can see that Marc is annoyed. He wanted to surprise his wife and instead he gets no reaction at all. This annoyance then blossoms into obvious anger when he arrives at his friends’ only to find that they also refuse to acknowledge his lack of moustache. Obviously, Agnes called ahead and they are all now playing one huge prank on him. According to the couple’s friend Serge (Mathieu Amalric), Agnes has form in this area. After an evening of being what he imagines is the butt of a joke, Marc explodes with rage in the car on the way home and forces Agnes to feel his top lip. However, rather than apologising or reacting to the lack of facial fur, Agnes denies that Marc ever had a moustache to begin with. Carrere carefully leads us into the traditional psychological territory of contemporary French drama – It is not just a film about a prank, it is a film about the simmering tensions within a marriage and how these can erupt over the most ridiculous of subjects. It is also a meditation upon differences in perspective and how what is important for one person can appear utterly trivial or even risible for another and how such a simple breakdown in communication can result in tensions that blossom into the kind of anger and resentment that can easily poison an otherwise healthy relationship. However, Carrere does not leave it there.
After an uncomfortable evening, Marc gladly escape the flat in order to go to work. He strolls into the office fully expecting his co-workers to provide him with the reaction that Agnes so utterly failed to deliver. But instead, his co-workers also fail to notice his change in appearance. Marc immediately assumes that Agnes has again called ahead and is now using the joke as some kind of insane weapon against him. A passive-aggressive stick with which to beat him. However, upon confronting both his co-workers and his friends, Marc is told that there was no joke… he never had a moustache.
This instantly changes the register of the film.
When one goes to the cinema to see films that do not ostensibly make narrative sense such as Polansky’s The Tenant (1976), Hadzhihalilovic’s Innocence (2004) or the British cut of Marshall’s The Descent (2005) there is an understanding between the director and the audience : Yes, the film may not make sense at first, but if we the audience draw upon our own critical faculties, the true meaning of the film may will reveal itself. So the audience begins to sift through its critical tool-kit in order for a solution to the puzzle : Aha! He’s dreaming! Aha! She’s actually insane! Aha! It’s all a metaphor for some abstract concept! Aha! It’s a story-within-a-story and the narrator is unreliable! In their own way, the audience’s use of these kinds of interpretative techniques and critical stand-points are no different to those that underpin the act of watching a piece of film. For example, when we see a film of a lion jumping at the camera or a train heading straight for us, we no longer run from the cinema in panic. We simply understand that what we are seeing is not ‘real’ and we move on. Similarly, we assume that the events that we are shown on screen obey the principles of cause and effect and take place in a straight-forward timeline. These kinds of basic assumptions about film flow from our psychological reaction to the medium of film itself and also include better known psychological quirks such as the Kuleshov Effect, which demonstrates how we our brains tend to fill in the gaps between different images in order to make sense of them :
Critical techniques such as the assumption that we are watching a delusion or a fantasy are ‘higher level’ than the assumption that two successive images are somehow linked but it is still an assumption. An assumption that forms part of a formal system. A formal system of symbols no different on a philosophical level than the assumption that a plot line presented to us in act one will play itself out at the end of act three or that a film will follow the traditional aesthetic principles of dramatic form – the same assumptions that films like L’Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad set out to deconstruct.
Marc’s movement from questioning his relationship with Agnes to questioning his own sanity comes with a sense of grim inevitability. Carrere has made it clear that La Moustache is a psychological drama and so it follows that one of the characters must question his or her sanity, leaving the audience to work out which (if any) of the characters is living in ‘the real world’. But Carrere brilliantly refuses to provide us with a neat set of nuts and bolts we can loosen using the contents of our critical toolbox – Marc may be mad, so might Agnes, but what of Marc’s co-workers? what of the fact that his driving licence has a picture of him avec moustache? From there, Carrere raises the bar again by having other aspects of Marc’s world seemingly pop out of existence : A conversation with Agnes reveals that his father died years before… Then a set of photographs featuring the moustache disappear… Then the couple’s friends start phasing in and out of reality… Is Marc insane? Is Agnes playing a trick on him? Is the entire film set in a glitching computer-generated environment?
The answer is none of the above.
Marc eventually flees Paris for Hong Kong where he experiences some kind of break-down that obliges him to spend all day travelling back and forth on the Kowloon ferry. But rather than clearing the ontological air by cementing Marc’s insanity in our minds, the breakdown merely makes things worse as we assume that Marc is mad only for Agnes to turn up in his hotel room as though the couple had been on holiday for ages thereby calling into question the ‘reality’ of everything that happened in Paris.
Carrere’s play with the ‘truth’ of his story constitutes a brilliant attack upon audience expectations, but rather than taking aim at the traditional tropes and techniques of mainstream Hollywood film, Carrere’s targets are the art house drama and the psychological thriller – films that define themselves precisely in terms of their adoption of non-standard narrative techniques including a refusal to provide a narrative that makes sense in order that the audience do the conceptual heavy-lifting themselves.
La Moustache is a film that makes no sense. It cannot be made to make sense using the conceptual tools at our disposal and by refusing to make sense the film is making clear to us quite how sclerotic art house cinema has become and our acceptance of an ageing critical and narrative system has left us just as infantilised and passive as we would be if we were sitting through a Hollywood blockbuster. Films such as L’Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad were special because they made demands of their audience. They forced them to create a new formal system that could accomodate a new cinematic form. The post-war boom in film criticism and the emergence of academic film studies were partly a response to the challenge laid down by the post-war generation of filmmakers to their audience. However, fifty years on and, as James points out in his editorial, directors are still returning to the same well of inspiration. They are still using all the same tools and making all the same moves. They may well be using them with greater sophistication and producing memorable works of art but directors and audiences are rarely forced out of their bourgeois intellectual comfort zones.
The time has come to move on. Directors must demand more of their audiences and the critical fraternity that stands between the two camps. A lot of words have been written about the replacement of professional critics by amateur bloggers. Those who defend this shift argue that bloggers can do everything that professional critics once did. Those who bemoan the lack of prestige and professional opportunities for film-writers argue that critics offer something that bloggers do not : Let us see which of these two camps is correct. Let us create new forms of expression both cinematic and critical. Let us re-write the language of cinema anew. We must move on!