24 Frames: A Morte ao Vivo (La Mort en Direct, Bertrand Tavernier, 1979)
The idea of voyeurism as a defense from an overwhelming reality, is something that every citizen of the 21st century now understands. The endless, artless video looping of the twin towers recorded a micro-Hiroshima and Nagasaki that unfolded in world consciousness in real time, but the machine buys us time to deal with the reality of instantaneous death. La Mort en Direct. Or Death, Live.
These days we have reality television, virtual reality and the Jean Baudrillard comic book versions, The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999). But Bertrand Tavernier made a movie on this subject back in 1979, set in the near future, which is to say our vulgar present. In Deathwatch, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) is dying in a world where science has banished the angel of death. Roddy (Harvey Keitel), a television director, has a camera implanted in his eye to secretly record the process of death for an American network.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tavernier is very concerned with the morality of representing certain acts or images. A camera does not give you a “safe conduct”, it demands responsibility. A filmmaker, in his view, can never be vigilant enough:
Roddy is becoming a living camera. I felt a kinship to that. The fear I feel as a director is of two sorts. It sometimes seems that everything you see, you immediately unconsciously transport into terms of filmmaking. That can be very dangerous because you can witness something sad or close to you and suddenly think, my God, that would be great in a film. It’s horrible. I did that a couple of times and felt ashamed. I wrote a line for the movie about the second fear. Roddy’s wife says ‘He understood things only when he was filming them.’ Sometimes I feel I’m only real, I’m only open, only noticing things when I work and not when I live. That is a danger which I think a lot of artists feel.
– Bertrand Tavernier on Deathwatch
Secular art creates a space for people to reflect on their lives. It is a parallel universe, which serves the same function as Tomatsu’s mirror. If we are too distracted to notice beauty, too numb to feel pain, if we don’t have mindfulness of our lives, art can give us back a piece of that lost world. That is the seductive power of art. But it can also alienate us from the people we love. In ‘Round Midnight, Francis makes (presumably silent) films of Dale, trying to stay the moment, to savor the music in his head, to the exclusion of everything else.
This phenomenon is not limited to the film era. Art is a kind of savage platonism. The ideal takes no prisoners. An example from the life of Berlioz: a Shakespeare company had come to Paris for the first time, upon the stage the tragedy of Hamlet was enacted; Hugo, Dumas, and Delacroix and Berlioz are in the audience. Though none of them speak English, they are thunderstruck by the experience. Berlioz is infected by an insane passion for Harriet Smithson, the second rate actress who incarnated Ophelia. He pursues her for the better part of five years. He composes the Symphonie Fantastique for her, which is a morbid fantasia of a spurned lover who kills his beloved and is sent to the scaffold. Strangely enough, Miss Smithson at last agrees to marry him. The marriage is a disaster, for having crossed the dreamline, Berlioz finds his ideal all too human, his love sublimated in the Fantastic Symphony, and Harriet Smithson becomes a kind of mad Ophelia.
Lulu (Didier Bezace), a narcotics cop, undergoes a similar experience in L.627 (1992). The film is an unflinching portrait of the daily lives of an urban drug squad. Dysfunction is the name of the game. Swamped in mindless paperwork, we witness the casual racism of the squad. The “body-count” mentality of Dodo, the aptly named leader, leads to pointless suffering. But there is no relief, for the flics live in a sullied world of alcoholism, tenuous camaraderie, and divorce. Lulu, who once applied to film school, moonlights as a wedding videographer. We watch him trying to edit his way into the real world. Watching normal people at the wedding, we know instinctively that this is a world that Lulu can only watch, never fully participate in. But Tavernier blows no trumpets, he passes over this moment, like Wittgenstein, in silence. L.627 is filled with Brechtian moments. Lulu is consumed with his work, he films drug deals, watches them over and over at home. In an eerie moment, Tavernier SHOWS US a junkie falling in stupor, but Lulu, in contrast, points his camera away saying “That, I don’t film.” Tavernier wants to make us accessories after the fact.
“I feel as if I know things better when I film them,” Lulu tells his wife. It’s nearly the same line from Deathwatch. His wife asks why he’s never filmed her. There is a strange charge to the moment, a lovely, weird intimacy between them, that makes us feel like we’ve intruded. He also has a tortured intimate relationship with Cecile, a junkie and a HIV+ prostitute. He needs her for his redemption. She is his Ophelia, if he can get her off the drugs, he can justify his existence to himself, forget the failures. The climax of their relationship is a harrowing scene where Cecile takes off her clothes, her ribs sticking out. She tells him to look at her. Lulu pretends to admire. We are allowed to gaze for a moment, and then Lulu vents his fury and revulsion at what she is forcing him to give. Tavernier is constantly pushing and pulling the boundary of acceptable representation, forcing the audience to move fast, or risk getting lost.
But at the end, Cecile is able to escape her life, for the moment, but Lulu is trapped. Along with her address, he has lost his soul somewhere along the way. Welcome to the Tavernier universe.
Profoundly rooted in a national culture, they refuse all spirit of insularity, serving as proof of an openness of spirit, a curiosity and almost unique breadth of vision…His intentions go beyond everyday naturalism, and lead to an irrational, metaphysical intensity which bears innumerable visions. You don’t follow a plot, you dive into a universe…
– Tavernier on Michael Powell.
The experience of plunging into Tavernier’s film-universe is unsettling. You seem to know all the landmarks, are comforted by the apparent naturalism and narrative structure. Then growing more alert, even nervous, begin to notice strange displacements. You begin to barrage yourself with questions: Who’s speaking the voiceover? Aren’t voiceovers bad? Shouldn’t we know more about these characters by now? Is this a political movie? What is he trying to sell?
Tavernier loves and understands the nature of Hollywood’s expressionism more than most of us. Expressionism is a kind of romantic warping of reality, an aesthetic compression of landscape, character and emotion into the dense matter of the story. It is an arranged and violent marriage of few words between the camera and the world. Sometimes out of it a great love is born, but not often.
But there has always been a dissident tradition in the film image. It is more in the manner of a long courtship with the world. It is reverent, mindful, awake, empty. It is the art of Jean Giono, of Chris Marker, Jacques Tati, and Yasujiro Ozu.
Tavernier’s films are both at once, and it is a mark of his characteristic rigour that neither is ever sacrificed to the other. Bertrand Tavernier has never made a movie except by choice, and his restless choices seem like a cunning dance to avoid the traps of genre, formalism, complacency, and fashionable nihilism. Confluence seems to be his supreme aesthetic principle. He aims to be the river rather than the channel.
But he’s no Zen master. Tavernier is a moral filmmaker, politically engaged, an eternal scrapper, a man obsessed with lighting up dark corners of French history. He is paradoxical, both a radical and a conservative. He is the president of the Institute Lumière, which aims to preserve rapidly vanishing film culture in France. He is active in the writers’ and directors’ guilds, and numerous activist organisations. If the French film survives as a distinct cultural entity in the new Europe, it will be in no small measure due to the resistance, innovation, and continuity provided in equal parts by Bertrand Tavernier.
His narratively subversive films are deceptively user friendly. But their nature is elusive; the films are likely to explode in your face and, as Tavernier said of Powell, when they do, they bear innumerable visions.
Senses of Cinema
Nota: Apesar de ter Peeping Tom como referência, o filme é dedicado ao recém falecido Jacques Tourneur. Daddy Nostalgie foi dedicado ao Michael Powell.