FilmJuice have my review of Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille. Which, despite being one of the most insanely popular French films of all time, remains largely unappreciated by English-speaking audiences.
Set during World War II, the film involves a pair of bumbling Frenchmen being sucked into the resistance movement and deciding to help three allied Airmen escape into unoccupied France. As I explain in my review, this image of ordinary French people as ‘citoyens resistants’ was part of a concerted effort to re-write history by replacing the truth about French collaboration with a myth that restored pride to the French military, honour to the French political class, and self-respect to ordinary French citizens:
Though challenged in the wake of the May ‘68 riots through films such as Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary The Sorrow and The Pity, the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity. The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive. It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films like La Grande Vadrouille.
The question of French collaboration and the policies of the Vichy regime has been one of my favourite historical riffs since I first saw The Sorrow and The Pity. One of the strange things about having spent my entire Childhood in a French school is that I grew up with a very clear myth of Frenchness that stretched from the caves right up to the figure of the citizen resistance fighter. The Sorrow and the Pity really helped me to see beyond that propaganda and considerably darkened my vision of humanity.
This being said, it occurs to me that something really needs to be done about the British equivalent of the ‘Citoyen Resistant’ myth as British politics is shifting further and further to the right and this move to the right is being at least partially fuelled by this myth of Britain as a plucky little nation that managed to survive on its own outside of Europe. Indeed, one of the things I really like about the British TV series Peaky Blinders is that it portrays 1920s Britain as an ethnically diverse and deeply multicultural place where the Establishment either murdered its opponents or plied them with money in an effort to bring them into line. At a time when people like Winston Churchill are being lionised by fascist revanchistes, Peaky Blinders dares to present him as nothing more than an Edwardian supervillain.
Towards the end of his life, Andrei Tarkovsky decided to set down some of his ideas not only about film in general but also about his own artistic process. The resulting book – Sculpting in Time – is extraordinary in so far as it manages to be both lightly conversational and intensely theoretical without every seeming to break stride or shift emphasis. While the book covers a lot of ground, it is forever returning to these sweeping metaphysical proclamations about the nature of art and the quasi-spiritual role of the artist as a figure in 20th Century culture. As befits an artistic genius like Tarkovsky, most of his proclamations are in direct opposition to each other and yet themes and methods do emerge from the chaos.
One of the book’s recurring motifs is the idea of the artist as destroyer who does not so much create new meanings as remove extraneous in an effort to reveal hidden patterns of truth and meaning:
What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.
The eccentricity of this worldview is perhaps best expressed through one of Tarkovsky’s own thought experiments: Imagine making a film that captures every detail of a person’s life. Imagine filming every last second of their life and doing so with a mastery of style and technique so flawless that you convey not only the objective facts about your subject’s life but also the nuances of their inner turmoil. According to Tarkovsky the resulting document could be beautiful, thought provoking, and compelling to watch but it could never be a true work of art. For Tarkovsky, art was not about capturing and reflecting objective truth but about simplifying reality to the point where it becomes comprehensible to the human mind.
The question we need to ask when watching the films of Tarkovsky is whether the truths uncovered by the process of simplification are supposed to be anything more than the reflection of our own prejudices. Was Michelangelo’s David literally present in the marble before he picked up his tools or did he simply hack at a piece of stone until it started to resemble our pre-existing ideas about men with huge hands and tiny cocks? Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Tarkovsky understood the psychological processes involved in making sense of cinematic imagery and he understood that a series of evocative images would encourage audiences to leap to their own conclusions as to the ultimate meaning of the film. These questions become even harder to answer when you realise that Tarkovsky not only acknowledged the death of the author but viewed his audiences as active and equal participants in his own artistic process thereby ensuring that the truths we uncover in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are always at least partially our own.
Given that the metaphysical and epistemological issues surrounding Man’s Search for Meaning are obviously present in mature works like Stalker or Mirror and obviously absent from his debut film Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s second film Andrei Rublev can be viewed as an important transitional work in so far as it spends nearly three documenting the life of its subject without ever managing to secure a definitive meaning beyond those generated by the speculation of the audience.
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