The cinema of Pierre Clémenti resists easy comprehension in much the same way its maker resisted society
Perhaps best known for his role in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Clémenti the actor was also an ardent creator who sought to explore cinema’s intrinsic connection with the subconscious, a relationship often made literal in his distinctly, deliberately avant-garde works. Hindsight sees these films as distinct creations of their time, ready to be dismissed by those who see only the counterculture elements long since rendered cliché. Treading arguably pretentious and fatuous grounds, Clémenti’s smorgasbord utilization of sight and sound demands one engage it on its own ever-shifting terms, which routinely break the fourth wall and were surely made with the intention of being experienced under the influence. Viewed sober, his films (considered here are four works: Certificate No. X, New Old, In the Shadow of the Blue Scoundrel, and Soliel) remain trips whose nature transcends traditional designations of good or bad; as if finally escaping a hazy, disorienting fog, the only word I could use to describe them is essential.
Certificate No. X is broken up into two separate works that, while bearing separate names, Visa de Censure No. X and Carte de Væus, and filmed eight years apart (1967 and 1975, respectively), render what appears in context to be a seamless whole. Seamless, however, is hardly a word to use in describing a viewing experience that makes everything from Un Chien Andalou to Inland Empire look relatively straightforward by comparison. Commencing with the image of a nude man (Clémenti himself, a regular in his films) exiting the mouth of a cave (Plato’s, perhaps?), Visa de Censure quickly lobs the viewer into a tailspin of psychedelic imagery both thrilling and exhausting. Images of war, religion, oppression, and frank nudity are interspersed with a stylistic freefall of strobe lighting, camera filters, layered shots, and scoping effects, among others. The effect is less powerful in any given instance than it is as a cumulative, primordial mood piece, though several key images leave a lasting impression (a face is juxtaposed over simmering flames, a man “plays” a woman with a violin bow, etc.). Steadily, a theme of broad enlightenment emerges: Obsession with circles gives way to eyes and spectatorship, and the film wordlessly speaks to the necessary union held between the art, the artist, and the viewer.
The smooth transition into Carte de Væus suggests a deliberate comedown from the preceding hysteria. Warm images aplenty (including the face of a girl Clémenti was obviously enamored with, at least as a subject) don’t negate the heavy lifting, however, a quality humorously acknowledged by the image of a white bunny being forcibly pushed along toward the inevitable rabbit hole. Coming on the heels of Visa de Censure No. X, an experience that initially suggested the freak-out sequences of Ken Russell’s Altered States, Carte de Væus is something singularly unique, and Clémenti pulls out all the stops in establishing a self-serving mythological tone (the same can be said for all of his works to some extent). Words flash across the screen as additional mood enhancers atop images as far ranging as that of an animated skiing penguin and an impromptu shot of a vagina. As art goes, the entire Certificate No. X is most certainly fubar. It’s up to each viewer, I suppose, to determine whether that’s a good thing or not.
New Old, from 1979, is described as Clémenti’s autobiography, but viewers hoping for something more narratively straightforward might be disappointed to instead find a work merely somewhat less diffuse than its predecessor(s). Assembled from the approximately 15 hours of footage Clémenti shot during a self-described nomadic existence (carefree frolicking, streaking, and dancing abounds), the hour-long feature bears witness to an unflinching life of exploration complete with an ongoing creative struggle and insatiable longing for truth. The framing device of a writer at his typewriter is both appropriate and, scantly returned to, only vaguely literal. New Old’s bombardment is more controlled and, ultimately, more scintillating than Certificate No. X’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, tapping into a dreamlike euphoria as it utilizes similar techniques with greater focus as well as a number of devices from the silent era’s bag of tricks (the use of a negative shot recalls Nosferatu, but a simple effects shot involving Satan on a beach is my favorite). The film doesn’t end so much as eventually wind down, affirming the work of an artist as a lifelong endeavor. The words of Robert Altman hover about the proceedings: “Retirement? you’re talking about death, right?”
The closest Clémenti ever came to making a traditional film was In the Shadow of the Blue Scoundrel (shot and assembled from 1978 through 1985), a noir-ish tale of social dystopia and political espionage, the subversions of which are probably all the greater for their relatively straightforward presentation. Placed in the fictitious Necro City and starring Clémenti as the city’s military leader General Nutsbody, Blue Scoundrel is less stylistically assaulting in composition, but its ramshackle appearance (fish eyed lenses, over- and underexposed images, cheap effects and makeup, etc.) are both oddly poetic and appropriate to the storyline, suggesting that the film itself is the product of revolution. Amid a plot involving drugs, murder, and hidden motives, what stands out is the voiceover used to increase dramatic momentum, while the looping used for dialogue, while probably a budgetary necessity, further suggests that the film is little more than its maker’s id poured directly onto the screen.
For an artist so purely guided by creative self-actualization, it seems obvious that his final work, the short film Soleil, would be his masterpiece. Released in 1988 (11 years before his death at the hands of liver cancer), it is a breathless outpouring of exquisitely rendered philosophical rhetoric comprised more of questions than answers, delivered here in the form of a stream-of-consciousness voiceover set to personally and politically appropriate imagery. In its dogged quest for truth, it encapsulates an entire worldview, and to attempt to further put the experience in words would be both futile and an affront against its purity of essence. The use of footage from the previous three films shows an artist both resourceful and daring, one who cares not what you think of him, only that he might force you to truly think in the first place.
The Films of Pierre Clémenti will play at Anthology Film Archives from June 11 – 17. For more information, click here.