In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discusses two items he calls the studium and the punctum. The studium is a photograph’s ostensible subject; the punctum’s what catches our eye. I kept thinking about the difference during Land of Madness, former French New Wave writer-director Luc Moullet’s new film. The documentary is about murder in the provinces, but during the many talking-head stories about bloodlust and murder, the gory details often prove the least interesting. A doctor outlines how people catch goiter next to a large, serene Buddha statue; a woman talks next to the 73-year-old Moullet on a bench, a great pile of leaves in the foreground between them. As one subject narrated a particularly gruesome tale, my eye kept wandering to the bright red and yellow book on his shelf: Le Cinéma Americain.
Like fellow French film essayists Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, Moullet is extremely playful. His films are spectacles of mundane behavior (a man struggles to ride a bike or whines next to his wife in bed, penis flopping). Yet they’re also inflected with a deep cinephilia, reflected in the articles he’s written for Cahiers du Cinéma and other publications as a critic on filmmakers varying from Edgar G. Ulmer to Luis Buñuel to Fritz Lang. From Madness’s outset we know we’re watching a movie; we hear a gunshot, and then Moullet enters serenely to tell us, “I’m not a very normal person. I always lie somewhere outside reality.” Though he loves cinema, he says (and shows us his prints), he’s especially fascinated by murder in rural areas; he pegs five spots on a map marking small towns where crimes have happened and hooks them together with a rubber band, shaping a “pentagon of madness.” Later he says, “I admit that the pentagon is a bit abstract, a bit theoretical, but it helps the audience.”
Moullet once wrote of “a principle common in crime or fantasy film (or fiction): the recourse to a sole protagonist, a promoted narrator, allowing the audience to introduce itself more easily into a strange world.” The world Moullet gives us is certainly strange (at one point, we glimpse a sort of religious theme park, with gigantic icons), but so is he, invoking it. He describes his father in an early scene, a farmer who worshipped despots like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mitterrand. From there he brings up incidents of murder and madness in his own family, before moving on to other people’s. But the details, narrated calmly both in his stories and in those of others, flounce so grotesquely that I have a tough time believing them; as a cop recounts finding severed arms in a river, then a big pile of blood beneath a mattress, then watching a suspect munch a “famous meal” while confessing, the possibility rises that Moullet’s made everything up. He’s in the text, but also winking at us, outside it. As David Phelps has noted, even a scene of Moullet contemplating suicide is a visual reference to one of his earlier films.
Like Orson Welles, Moullet has starred in a number of his movies, whether fiction or documentary. The way he uses his own presence here calls Welles’s F for Fake to mind. In Welles’s documentary about art forgery, we learn belatedly that Welles has made up many of the events he depicts; in Moullet’s movie about madness, we learn that the narrator/writer may be mad himself. The explicit suggestion of this twist comes toward the end of 85 rambling minutes. The stories blend together after a while (“It’s your typical family murder,” Moullet says of one), and Moullet doesn’t do much visually beyond showing people telling them. Nor, coyly, does he venture many attempts to explain the crimes; his best guess is that the isolation of a rural life can drive folks insane. Yet the repetitive nature of the anecdotes may be their point, or lack of one.
Moullet once wrote admiringly of a Claude Chabrol film, “One is in a perpetual uncertainty and that’s what interests us: we don’t know what the direction of the film is, and we can’t because there isn’t one.” Fabien Boully, writing on Moullet, made a seemingly contradictory, but in fact related argument: “It is less the strength or quality of the gags that count than the dynamics of how the gags are produced…So much so that there is no great necessity for the gags to be funny…What is important is that each gag should function in an essential project whose purpose is to find an endless stream of gags.” For Moullet, a story works when you don’t know where it’s going; for Boully, the most interesting part of a Moullet film like Land of Madness isn’t the stories, but the fact that people keep telling them. In this Moullet resembles Jacques Tati, whose best films produce few belly laughs because the complex, intricate gags are still unfolding by the time the movie ends.
Tati, of course, was a visual wizard, and so too was Moullet in several earlier films, particularly his shorts. 1988’s Essai D’Ouverture earns an especially gold star, as a man (Moullet) tries to open a Coke bottle, can’t unscrew the top, chips at it, steams it, freezes it, breaks the bottle, finds another. Essai’s gags unfold without a semblance of structure, but they’re also inventive, and really funny. Land of Madness’s, while pleasant enough (a strange thing to write about a comedy of murders), aren’t. I treasure the film’s last scene, in which one of Moullet’s female companions calls him out (the closing shot is an especial delight), but for the most part the film’s a greenery-shrouded wax museum, unfolding in a movie world with only little nuggets of real darkness (as opposed to “Numbers sanctify, my good fellow,” at the end of Monsieur Verdoux). Then another gunshot sounds to close the end credits, and we’re thrust back into the light.
The Land of Madness played on February 27 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series.