Philippe Grandrieux's 2008 film Un Lac begins with a man repeatedly whacking something off screen with an indiscernible blunt object. This sums up Grandrieux's frequent relationship to his audience. The maker of several documentary shorts and three fiction features belongs to a school of recent French cinema. A French professor I heard speak recently called it a tendency to emphasize sensuality and the body; I call it undressing people and then chopping them into bits. One way in which Grandrieux differs from his ultrashock colleagues—Gaspar Noé, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Michael Haneke, the directors of Baise-moi—is that his films are often as dark visually as they are thematically; his first feature's title, Sombre (Shadow), could represent his entire oeuvre. Adrian Martin has written that "Grandrieux's work plunges us into every kind of obscurity: moral ambiguity, narrative enigma, literal darkness." I agree with Martin resoundingly, and even think it's done masterfully, but I question the ultimate point.
I write all this knowing that Grandrieux is much, much smarter than I am. Over the course of a day watching the gentle, bespectacled man introduce and hold post-screening discussions of his three features (1998's Sombre, 2002's La Vie Nouvelle, and Un Lac), I heard him make reference to Jean Epstein, Antonin Artaud, Jean Renoir, Brakhage, Dreyer, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Dostoevsky, fairy tales, Greek myths, Courbet, Rembrandt, Rodin, and El Greco; if one wanted, one could have added Bresson, Goya, Francis Bacon, and a host of techno musicians. It became clear after a while that he knew exactly what he was doing with all three films, and believed he had achieved exactly the result that he wanted. That result, so far as I understand it, is to replace philosophical explorations of good and evil with what he calls "a morality of forms."
To Grandrieux, people are figures in landscapes, in fact parts of the landscape, so that the films literally become action painting. Sombre paints its flop-sweating, vampirically pale protagonist, Jean (Marc Barbé), frequently stalking through the woods. Jean is a serial killer committing crimes of passion; his victims disrobe for him, and he stares at their vaginas until he snaps and strangles them. One day, though—like Chabrol's butcher, Chaplin's Verdoux, or Breillat's Bluebeard—our monster (an early scene shows him wearing a wolf costume) meets a woman he doesn't want to kill.
I disagree with the idea that artists can withhold judgment; the statement that people cannot be judged is a judgment in and of itself. The most they can do is make it harder for us to guess. Grandrieux's handheld camera movements thrust us into the middle of scenes, and then the film cuts so suddenly that we grow lost within them (Danny Kasman has written a wonderful visual analysis). But even though the visual scheme may befuddle us, the line of action is always clear: A woman on a beach screams for Jean to leave her friend alone, and he wades into the water, Colossus-like. The next scene shows the three in a hotel room, the two women retreating from him. Grandrieux offers no reasons for the women to stay with him, nor for this man without a past to continue pursuing them; as in fairy tales, the patterns simply repeat.
The fairy tale comparison is Grandrieux's. It's problematic, since men like Jean do exist in the real world, and while their behaviors are not always explicable, they're often traceable. By chance I saw Frederick Wiseman's documentary Domestic Violence a few days before Sombre. Wiseman's film tracks abused women's journeys, from the first police phone call through to their release from the shelters; the more they talk, the more we understand how abused people stay with their abusers out of combinations of fear and low self-esteem (one woman says of her 33-year relationship that the man abused her from the second week on), and that the abusers keep them around out of a combination of low self-esteem and lust for power. One of Sombre's most beautiful moments comes late, when Jean's near-victim (Elina Löwensohn) lies about the pain she's suffered, her face falling deep into shadow. The moment shows a woman trying to preserve her own fairy tale, and it gives us something that much of the rest of the movie doesn't: An insight into human behavior. I get that Grandrieux wants to strip away the idea that cinema can carry moral lessons about psychology, but so long as movies contain people and are made by people, they're going to be inherently psychological. An image always refers to something, and so can never be just an image, especially when they're dealing with material as loaded as this.
Besides, I don't really think that Grandrieux's just watching his characters. The soundtrack gives what the images don't. Bauhaus's "Bela Lugosi's Dead" plays over a party scene, suggesting Jean's monstrousness; Serge Gainsbourg's "Les Amants Perdus" accompanies the end credits, lending an air of doomed romanticism to the hunter-hunted saga; and as a friend pointed out, when you play "St. John's Passion" during an epiphanic moment for a character named Jean, you're pretty much seeking to glorify him, no matter how much of a bastard he may be. The film seems much more complex in discussing a viewer's relationship to this material: The opening shows a group of children's delight with a violent puppet show, and the ending shows a group watching the Tour de France. A French word for "entertainment" is "spectacle." Jean's story, sandwiched between these two spectacles, provides a third, with the roving camera outside Jean taking on an outside perspective—perhaps ours.
Yet the idea that Grandrieux is commenting on the problems of spectatorship also feels tricky. Though the film is very far from erotic, by showing the snuff elements of his story Grandrieux's indulging in the behaviors as much as he's commenting on them. My response, ironically, is the same that I take to a brainless Hollywood action film: I absorb the images, and so grow duller to the real things. My own aesthetic prefers Michael Powell's approach in his film Peeping Tom, where a character films himself murdering women and then plays the movies back later. We never see the films, only characters watching them, and their sheer discomfort-or-pleasure makes us aggressively, intellectually question our own.
Grandrieux claimed in one of the talkbacks that he feels French cinema is too intellectual, "too much bound up with ideas" (though my favorite French movies last year, Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, and The Beaches of Agnés, were all extremely sensual). The two best pieces I found on Grandrieux in English, Adrian Martin's feature and Nicole Brenez's interview with him, both assume a breathless quality, seemingly trying to capture how much Grandrieux's work appeals to the senses. Though La Vie Nouvelle, Grandrieux's second feature, opens with a crowd scene, zeroing in on the eyes of individual lookers, it gets to the battering quickly. We don't know what the crowd members are regarding, perhaps the film itself (the movie cuts from the group to its fictional narrative, never to return).
Grandrieux said he took La Vie's idea from a brothel in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he learned of an American soldier who'd abused a Bulgarian girl. The movie, shot around the time of conflict in Kosovo, follows an international group, relationships unclear, whose two central members become an American soldier (Zachary Knighton) and a local prostitute (Anna Mouglalis) with whom he grows involved. Involvement here means turning her over while she's whimpering, sodomizing her, slapping her bloody, and screaming, "Shut up!"
Brenez, who has edited a French-language essay collection on the film, claims that "it opens out the most extensive visual palette ever seen on screen." This probably isn't true. It is true, though, that Grandrieux exercises a great variety of visual styles to disorient us, accompanied by a smashing techno score that blasts our brains into even smaller pieces. The movie fades, or grows extra-bright; the American paces from the dark to bright ends of a room, while staying in shadow himself throughout. A dancing woman shatters up into little bitty frames. A distant, still shot registers the fact of a man being torn apart by dogs, then quickly cuts in for a visceral rip. Thermic, X-ray-colored shots show people running back and forth, or crawling on all fours, and a woman faces the frame with a dark triangle in the middle of her face, suggesting a bloody nose. The movie's shaky last shot shows the American, mouth open wide, screaming, with the focus on his bloody Adam's apple. The reference is to Bacon's The Screaming Pope, but I ask: So what?
At worst, Grandrieux is coating a slick religious sheen over violence; I can't help but think of the bounty hunter in Jarmusch's Dead Man staring at a corpse and sneering, "Looks like a goddamn religious icon." (As a side note, Grandrieux's films generally aren't funny, save for the sheer incongruity of Sombre's Jean trying to fit in at a rave.) At best he's offering a fairly banal statement on the traumas of war. Sombre seems closer to occupying purgatory, La Vie Nouvelle closer to hell, bodies jammed closer together, violence more visceral (Sombre contains no blood). One audience member rightly pointed out that many of Stan Brakhage's images—children being born, men braving snowstorms—are also banal, but to me Brakhage's edits between symbols create a new way of seeing, while Grandrieux seems more intent on daring the viewer to watch at all. Perhaps I am able to leave La Vie so easily because its unrelenting nature keeps me from ever fully entering it.
I don't dismiss Un Lac, my favorite Grandrieux. But if Un Lac is my favorite, I also recognize that it's his most deliberately pleasing, his most distilled, and in many ways—politically, socially, morally, visually, and aurally—his least complex. Grandrieux said that he wanted to make a film about someone with a pure heart, and farm boy Alexi (Dmitry Kubasov) seems to come pretty close. Alexi is deeply in love with his sister (Natalie Rehorova), who in turn pines for the new hired help (Alexei Solonchev). The title refers to the lake at the edge of their snow-covered land (unnamed, though Un Lac was filmed in Switzerland, with Russian actors speaking French), a symbol of escape that the girl, Hege, might claim. "The setting is a psychic element," Grandrieux believes, and the shots reflect it. Though the movie's lighting varies, its system's easy to follow: Grandrieux shoots his snow-covered exteriors in bright, clear sunlight, and his household interiors in muddy, murky reds and browns.
In contrast to his previous two films' jarring, stop-and-start, heavily edited soundtracks, here Grandrieux scoops out the score. Un Lac's lone instance of music is a song that Hege bursts into, with an off-screen Schumann piece accompanying. I'm not sure what the song is doing in the movie (nor did Grandrieux, when asked about it), but it does seem to point to a life outside the film, much as the lake points to a life outside the woods. In listening to the music, I also thought about the way Robert Bresson, one of Grandrieux's acknowledged influences, uses classical music. Bresson's films often take place in confined, constricted settings—a prison, or a stifling small town—and his periodic use of Mozart or Monteverdi becomes a way to enlarge the world. In Bresson's world, the music's effect is ultimately hopeful, suggesting the possibility for his protagonists to escape from cruel surroundings (one reason Bresson's later films feel so pessimistic is that he stops using classical music). In Un Lac, though, the focus is shifted; there's hope for Hege, but Alexi, our lead, can only look on.
Looks, or gazes, matter to both Bresson and Grandrieux, who hold similar theories on acting. In his great book Notes on Cinematography, Bresson refers to actors as "models," demanding that they pose as he tells them, without assigning motives; Grandrieux, somewhat more charitably, asks that his "presences" do the same. Yet the biggest area in which they differ (aside from Bresson's insistent use of nonprofessionals versus Grandrieux's willingness to mix amateurs with trained actors) lies in the way they film eyes. Bresson frequently has his actors stare at the ground, depriving us of meeting their gaze, while Grandrieux shoots eyes more memorably than any other part of the body. In Un Lac in particular he frequently frames the camera tightly on Alexi's open, clear, blue, forward-looking eyes without showing the object they meet. The strategy gives Alexi's isolation from other characters. As with the crowds in Grandrieux's two previous films, the temptation's to ask whether Alexi's regarding us. Emotional cruelty replaces physical cruelty here, and as Hege considers abandoning Alexi, Grandrieux seems to be asking whether we're willing to watch.
Grandrieux frequently cuts off gazes in his other movies, placing his characters at odd, off angles to each other. His differing ways of suggesting isolation provide one more example both of how he can seemingly get any effect that he wants and of how he doesn't integrate them. I'm reminded not so much of other French directors as I am of Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven, Silent Light) and Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle, Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring). In all three cases a director who has previously specialized in hyperkinetic ultraviolence produces a work of still, calm, peace, and the result has tasted less like tranquility and more like sleeping pills.
Yet Reygadas and Kim both seem to me scoundrels pulling a con job on art-house audiences; by contrast, when Grandrieux says he believes that "there is no intention in the world," I'd like to believe him, even though I refuse the position myself. I do believe that Grandrieux is capable of wedding Un Lac's sympathy to character with the technical virtuosity of his earlier work. (I haven't seen any of the documentaries in full, but clips are here; it seems he was using the handheld all along.) If he wants to, that is, because it seems like he's satisfied with what he's done so far. After the Sombre screening an audience member complained that the female characters were all types (the virgin, the whore, the married woman), to which Grandrieux answered that her complaint was accurate, but irrelevant: "They're not really characters. They're figures." I see what he's saying about life as an allegory, though it clashes with my sentimental temperament; I'm the kind of viewer who loves Code Unknown's vision of Paris, but would rather watch Before Sunset. So chapeaus off to you, Philippe. I wish you the best of luck.
Un Lac, Sombre, and La Vie Nouvelle all played on February 24 as part of this year's Film Comment Selects series.