"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Raymond Depardon, The Picture Thief

I would give anything to be in Paris right now to catch Raymond Depardon’s La France at the BNF, in order to see his miraculous and ordinary (yes, those two words can go together) photographs up close. Raymond Depardon is a photographer and a filmmaker, the French equivalent to a modern-day Paul Strand, and film work has often been compared to Frederick Wiseman. Depardon’s overarching sensibility is that of reverence for small and intimate improvised experience. The result is that each ordinary moment he photographs is enshrined and somehow emblematic of both a dense sweet past, and a thinned out, scattershot present.

Jean-Michel Frodon’s review of the exhibition in is a beautiful piece of writing in its own right. Here is a translated passage that encapsulates the essence of Depardon’s style:

“There is no secret in these photos, no revelation. Depardon’s art was never that of the knockdown, it was often noted for his documentaries about the quality of listening. With his enormous camera, he listened to everyday landscapes. And everyone hears. Everybody hears something, but never the same thing. Everyone takes ownership of these images, they live in our own memories, as reflections as done over time, and most often kept to oneself.”

Depardon’s New York, NY is a film that epitomizes the act of listening. A mobile portrait of the 59th Street Bridge — shot most likely from the Roosevelt Island tram — the film is both intimate and spare. There are some iconic shots of Wall Street, and then we traverse the bridge again with our eyes, this time at night:

Depardon describes his process as that of a flâneur losing himself in the crowd. This passage is from his essay entitled “The Picture Thief”:

I would seek cover amidst the throngs of people in the busy streets of these big metropolises. For a few hours, a few days, I was an inhabitant, a special kind of local. I remained a foreigner, but I was adopted and protected by the crowd. I have always liked being invisible, disappearing as soon as I’m noticed and slipping unobserved from one street to the next without trying to hide. I remained a tourist a little off the beaten track, full of curiosity, but always an amateur.

I think Depardon is overdue for a New York retrospective, similar to the one MoMA mounted for Wiseman. His filmography is vast and varied, and includes documentary, narrative, and short-form work. Unfortunately, not much is available on DVD.

An interview with Depardon in Cinemascope [Engilsh]

The Cynephile’s Top Ten Movies of 2010

So here’s my offering of films that knocked me out this year — not a complete list, nor something that follows any sort of rigid selection rules. I’ve omitted repertory screenings so that the list is roughly contemporary (though some may have been theatrically released in Europe in 2009). But we will not split hairs here, shall we? Years come and go, but great movies are hard to find. Onward!

1. DOGTOOTH. An authoritarian father virtually isolates his children from the rest of the world and puts a chokehold on the media. Sound like any totalitarian regimes today? Through this surreal and sickly comic film, Yorgos Lanthimoss produces possibly one of the greatest, most fucked-up allegories about control versus freedom ever.

2. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP. If this street art “documentary” is a Banksy prank, it’s a pretty damn good one. Plus, I am still humming this. Carry on Mr. Brainwash, whoever you may be.

3. VINCERE. An epic and wholly original masterpiece from one of Italy’s most underappreciated filmmakers. Bellocchio presents a winning take on Mussolini (the man turned icon) through uncovering the family we never knew he had. Giovanna Mezzogiorno doesn’t hurt either.

4. I AM LOVE. Could Tilda Swinton be any more captivating in this movie? Could the mise-en-scène be any more gorgeous? Could the score be any more majestic? And where can I order some of those prawns? Though I wrestled with some of its over-the-top moments, sequences from this film stayed with me for days, as did the music. I gave in.

5. ALAMAR. An exquisite, almost wordless portrait of the bond between a father and son while they cling to methods of the old world. Truly unique and unlike any film I’ve seen before in its approach to many nuanced subjects, this film “speaks” in gestures and is the closest thing to a child’s handprint in clay.

6. RUHR. James Benning makes an avant-garde film about trains, and it feels like the fulfillment of the apocalypse. Only he could make something that feels so simultaneously gritty and mystical.

7. THE GHOST WRITER. An taut thriller that needed nothing more than old-fashioned political intrigue and a more-than-competent cast to summon up some excellent suspense. I wish more mainstream films were as good as this one.

8. LAST TRAIN HOME. This documentary is about more than the annual Chinese New Year migration; it’s about a daughter breaking away from her parents. Both experiences feel harrowing and very real in this film.

9. PLEASE GIVE. This very New York, very funny movie reminded me of early Woody Allen.
The humor is wry, but the film has its touching moments too, not to mention a super ensemble cast. I wish more “quirky mainstream” or “mainstream indie” (mindie?) films were like this.

10. BLUEBEARD. It’s fascinating to see Breillat explore the twinned axes of the fairy tales and childhood to explore the formation of the gender roles and processes of sexualization that have always fascinated her. (That’s my girl’s school education showing, sorry.) She also wins for best final film shot of the year.

Runners-up: Film Socialisme, White Material, A Prophet, The Father of My Children, Mother,
Around a Small Mountain, 12th and Delaware, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Erie, The Silent Holy Stones.
Notably Absent: The Social Network, Inception

On Terrible Movies with Julia Roberts

So: she’s everywhere, with her big teeth, and I can’t stand it. Eat Pray Love has reared its ugly promotional head. For a non-eating (ok, maybe that part’s not true) atheist-leaning cynic such as myself, I cringe every time I see a poster, a promotion, or goddess forbid, the trailer. Aside from making me question the accomplishments of feminism on a daily basis, I also can’t fathom what exactly is supposed to be entertaining about the plot:

People: THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT A WOMAN WHO GOES ON VACATION. Go on vacation yourself. Or plan a staycation and eat some Neapolitan pizza. Do not go see this move.

Those who know me probably can picture my face at this moment. But for those who can’t, here you go:

Don’t I look ready for a “vacation” at the insane asylum? Doctor, If I wrap myself in a celluloid, will it go away?

My reaction to the trailer was similar to my response to the advertising campaigns for It’s Complicated and The Ugly Truth,
which — even though I never set foot into a movie theater to see these puppies — made me physically recoil upon looking at them. The posters in particular made me feel so sad for Meryl Streep and wish the oh-so-boring Katherine Heigl would stick to the middling Grey’s Anatomy and JUST STOP doing bad chick flicks that made me avoid fuschia at all costs. Manohla felt my pain too.

I generally have little to no tolerance for these demographically-determined commercial movies, and choose not to see them. (And to those who will criticize me because I obviously haven’t subjected myself to the torture of actually watching the film: you don’t need no weatherman.) But I wondered what the point of detesting them so virulently was, until I came across this quote from the inimitable Andrew O’Hagan:

“Maybe I’m too young in the head and haven’t spent enough time in Los Angeles or psychoanalysis, but I think it’s quite important sometimes to hate things, not to be amused by them, or loftily tolerant of them, but to want to cut off their oxygen supply and mash them into the ground, thereafter to plant something lovely in their place. Maybe a bad novel is just quieter, a bad gallery hanging almost private, while terrible movies starring Russell Crowe seem to come bounding towards you from every space in culture, leaving you no choice but to reach quickly for the elephant gun and fire…” (From his essay “Two Years in the Dark”)

That’s it exactly — bad movies are simply inescapable in our current media environment. You can’t not know about The Proposal or Julie & Julia or [fill in any movie with an aggressive advertising campaign here] even if you avoid all television, as I do. I’ve come to the crotchety conclusion that I find this noise offensive. But this also poses a significant challenge for good films without publicity machines behind them: how do they break through the awful and incessant blathering that these films make? That was once the critic’s role — to convince audiences that taking a risk on art could reap rewards far beyond Oprah-isms applied like a salve to society’s wounds. But can anyone really escape the jaws of Eat Pray Love, and America’s sweetheart’s teeth? Maybe the answer is to fight fire with fire, and mash it up into oblivion. Here’s a parody starring a Tibetan monk for the road. Let’s hope there’s more where that came from.

3D: A Study in Depth

Film Forum is in the midst of a Classic 3D film series that is eye-bulgingly essential for anyone who cares about the past and future of cinema. I dragged a friend to see KIss Me Kate on Sunday and we were transported to such a state of euphoria (spinning diamonds! saucy lyrics! silly outfits! jazz hands! gangsters spouting Shakespeare!) that leaving the theater was like coming out from under ether. (Admittedly this experience was augmented by some ‘50s-era wax soda bottles from Economy Candy that gave us both a suitable sugar high.) According to the trailer, Kiss Me Kate was the greatest event in the history of our times:

Kate is that great, and those who delight in the golden era of 3D will be knocked out by Film Forum’s pristine dual projection. Moreover, cinephiles who are sickened by the success of the behemoth Avatard and the bumper crop of unnecessary 3D titles that it has spawned will get a much better sense of the untapped potential of “depthies,” then and now.

First things first: all filmmaking is three-dimensional in the sense that motion pictures provide many depth cues that we also use on a daily basis to perceive the visual world. However, stereoscopic cinema maintains the illusion of extending into the space of the audience, going boldly where no movie had gone before.

One could make the argument that three-dimensional cinema is inherently more realistic, because it locates objects in space, rather than on a flat, two-dimensional plane. And it certainly expands the visual field, bringing the spectator seemingly closer to the image. However, it is more accurate to say that three-dimensional is hyper-realistic, or radically exhibitionist, because instead of the spectator’s vision directed “inward” towards the screen, the image is literally directed “outward” towards the spectator. The 3D film, in essence, does the work of perception for the spectator—it commands us to focus on this character or that part of the mise-en-scène, simply by the jutting out of certain pictorial elements over others.

3D cinema, therefore does the finger-pointing for us — look at this here, right now! A 3D model of spetatorship is inherently anti-Bazinian because it rejects any notion of the interior life of the screen image — and infantilizes the spectator who prefers to let his eye roam over the image. I think this explains why die-hard cinephiles dismiss these films as passing novelties, films in which objects were hurled at the spectator and film art was nary a concern — the cinematic equivalent to a paintball game. However, a surprising number of prestigious and high-budget features were shot using 3-D (but not necessarily released that way). The list is impressive: it includes Kiss Me Kate, along with House of Wax, The Charge at Feather River, Miss Sadie Thompson, Creature from a Black Lagoon, and Dial M for Murder.

Dial M for Murder is a example of how three dimensional processes can be used to create effects that transcend mere gimmicks; Hitchcock shows admirable restraint and allows for the action of the film to dictate 3-D movement along the Z-axis. The film is based on a stage-play, and most of the action takes place in the living room of a London apartment. (As a director, Hitchcock had a definite techno-fetish, exploring rear-screen projection, matte, and other unconventional techniques. 3D was no exception, though Hitchcock was a late adopter, coming around to the process in 1954.) In Dial M for Murder, composition and movement are carefully controlled: the first half of the film is static and consists only of subtle maneuvering between lamps, chair arms, and other household items jutting out in front of the actors. Every shot was masterfully executed with proper camera movement and very precise convergence.

Dial M for Murder contains three outstanding examples of 3-D virtuosity. First are the tight, extreme close-ups on wristwatches; second, the suspenseful shot of a telephone dial as the murderer pokes his finger into the number six hole, the titular “M.” Both shots were faked using a giant prop technique, making it possible to manage extreme close-ups without inflicting eyestrain, and demonstrating Hitchcock’s ingeniousness for outwitting the limitations of 3D.

Hitchcock’s most obvious and effective three-dimensional moment comes during the murder itself: As the murderer attempts to strangle poor gorgeous Grace Kelly, she is forced back across her desk, and her grasping hand is thrust out at the audience as she reaches for scissors to stab the murderer. Even here Hitchcock demonstrates restraint, as the movement of the stabbing goes away from the camera rather than toward the camera and audience. I saw a 3D projection of Dial M for Murder a number of years ago and I’ve never forgotten this scene. It’s playing Aug 21 and 22 at Film Forum — don’t miss this!

Being Bit By Charlie [Chaplin]

So I’m coming off the high that was Film Forum’s Charlie Chaplin Festival and I can’t stop thinking about what makes Chaplin so singular as a performance artist for me. Perhaps there are no words — fitting for a mostly silent star. As I learned over the course of the series, Chaplin also shone brightly in speaking parts, but his true genius is centered mostly in his body as a threshold for human movement — especially as movement gathers force in his seismographic face. I could wax on for hours about that exquisite piece of tissue — framed by those twitchy brows and set off with an iconic exclamation point of a mustache — and its mimetic power. When Chaplin smiles, the audience cannot help but smile with him. In James Agee’s essay on Monsieur Verdoux he expresses regret that his words can only approximate Chaplin’s greatness: “I can only hope that these notes may faintly suggest the frame-by-frame appreciation; the gratitude; and the tribute which we owe this great poet and his great poem.” In that spirit, here are a few of my favorite Chaplin moments, film by film.

MODERN TIMES: Chaplin must perform a song to a packed house. He forgets the words and makes up something that sounds vaguely Italian, complete with saucy gestures. Side-splittingly funny.

THE CIRCUS: A slew of monkeys make a late entrance and predictably steal the show.

CITY LIGHTS: The tramp and his rich tippler of a friend sit down to eat. Spaghetti, confetti, what’s the difference?

THE GREAT DICTATOR: Chaplin as Der Phooey is full of hot air.

THE IDLE CLASS: This short contains one of my favorite Chaplin moments of all time. Watch it all the way through — there’s a big payoff that involves a cocktail shaker!

Truly Madly Guitry (and yes, that is a Savage Garden reference. *shudder*)

Oh Sacha, you handsome devil you.

I am often asked which films turned me on to cinema. It’s hard to to determine the exact tipping point, but I think I became a die-hard cinephile, a true stickler-of-the-celluloid when I was taking an afternoon French class at the Alliance Francaise. They were doing a retrospective of Sacha Guitry films all summer and after class I would stick around the quartier waiting for the film to begin, perhaps going to Fauchon (which — dégueulasse! — no longer exists) or Central Park in between. I would then join the thirty-odd senior citizens and show my membership carte for free entry, and was subsequently sucked into his Guitry’s entire oeuvre. (Whether or not you *believe* in auteurism, there is nothing like the experience of finding an director that you truly appreciate to usher you into the art of cinema via his or her unique vision.) Guitry did it for me and I was hooked.

Jacqueline Delubac and Sacha Guitry in Quadrille.

What did I love about these films? I think it was a combination of the joy of being able to follow a good part of the French (for these actors, unlike their New Wave successors, had excellent elocution) and an overall playfulness with words that I regarded as the height of sophistication. I recognized Guitry’s films as mannered and artificial and I loved the stylization of reality — the wit, the unbelievable conceits, the unflappable comic arrogance of Mr. Guitry himself. I adored Jacqueline Delubac and Raimu and Fréhel, eccentric stars that to me could only thrive in French films. There is a scene in Les Perles de la Couronne in which Jacqueline Delubac is forbidden to speak in anything but adverbs because her husband suspects her of flirting with another man. Let’s just say his attempts to limit her communicative powers are in vain, and there isn’t a soul who has used a single part of speech more suggestively, ever. (Good grammar is sexy, folks. Well, at least to me.)

Heureusement, the new box set from Criterion includes four of the best Guitry films (though I do wish I could swap out Quadrille for Mon Père Avait Raison) and it is a glorious introduction to his substantial and overlooked contribution to cinema. The beginning of Le Roman d’un Tricheur is a tongue-in-cheek, behind-the-curtain peek at the stagecraft of cinema, and a good taste of Guitry’s irreverent, let’s-poke-fun-at-haute-culture approach. (Also, if you notice, Kind Hearts and Coronets is as indebted to Le Roman d’un Tricheur as Bladerunner is to Metropolis.) For better or for worse, these are the films that initiated my love affair with cinema.

Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies [Arne Glimcher, 2008]

If the Met’s massive retrospective and MoMA’s concurrent exhibition of prints aren’t enough to satisfy Picasso devotees this spring, they will fortunately have recourse to yet another venue: the movie theater. Adding fuel to the Picasso frenzy is Arne Glimcher’s documentary Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies, a short but incisive look at how two of art history’s most prominent figures were influenced by the revolutionary medium of cinema. Narrated by none other than Martin Scorsese and featuring interviews with scholars and artists alike, the film doggedly makes the case that moving images exerted a profound influence over the formal development of Cubism, inspiring Picasso and Braque’s invention of a new kind of pictorial space in which, like cinema, reality is viewed from multiple angles at once.

Picasso’s sketches of a cinematograph? You be the judge. [1912]

Occasionally disjointed, the documentary assembles an impressive stream of early film excerpts punctuated with plentiful examples of Picasso and Braque masterpieces (often shown side by side) that fell under cinema’s spell. Film fanatics especially will delight in the early actuality footage of the Lumière brothers and the more fanciful, impish attractions conjured up by George Méliès. Interviews with artists, including contemporary heavyweights such as Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Julien Schnabel and Coosje Van Bruggen offer intriguing analysis on the aesthetic links between cinema and Cubism, sometimes tying in their own artistic practice as well. (Eric Fischl, for example suggest that Cubist painters emulated cinematic projections by evoking a flickering light source at the edges of their canvasses.) However, those looking for an exploration of Picasso and Braque’s relationship will be disappointed: though the two artists (who were the undisputed Romulus and Remus of the movement) worked so closely together for a period of six years that some of their work was virtually indistinguishable from one another, very little is offered to explain their affinity and the equivalence between their work.

The film makes the case that Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907} was inspired by the serpentine dance of Loïe Fuller.

While the overall premise is of the doc is fascinating, at times the execution leaves something to be desired–at its worst moments, the film plays like an exceedingly well-researched Powerpoint lecture. Rather than allowing the images to construct a vivid sense of the particular correspondences between Cubism and early cinema, the film is overly insistent of its argument, resorting to large-scale generalizations and weak suppositions. However, those that don’t mind its boilerplate History Channel approach will appreciate this in-depth study of the compelling intersection of art and film at the turn of the century.

A still from “The Accordion” [Pathé Frères, 1906] and Picasso’s “The Accordionist” [1911], underlining the conceptual similarity of early cinema and Cubism.

Picasso and Braque Go To the Movies is currently playing at Cinema Village in New York, NY.

Happy Together [Wong Kar Wai] and Buenos Aires

Happy Together is a story of a fleeting love affair, but it is also a love letter to Buenos Aires. I recently visited the city for the first time and was struck by the slow ebb of energy that pulsates in its streets and cafés, a melancholy aura that betrays nostalgia for a faded past, and dreams for the not-so-certain future.

In Happy Together, the main character Lai Yiu-fai (played by Tony Leung) lives in the neighborhood known as La Boca, literally the mouth of the Riachuelo river. This barrio, with its colorful houses and storied history, is often invoked as as emblematic of Buenos Aires as a whole. The birthplace of Argentinean tango, it is a dangerous neighborhood to walk around in outside the limited tourist district. It is also quite a bit of distance from the city’s center.


The rooftops of La Boca in Buenos Aires

Lai Yiu-fai is shown repeatedly catching the bus to and from La Boca from his job at a doorman at a nightclub. I also took the #29 bus, which looks almost exactly the same today.


Lai Yiu-fai running after the #29 bus

The La Boca bus depot

And here is the La Boca bridge that the two lovers jog across one cold morning:

Ho Po-Wing [Leslie Cheung] and Lai Yiu-fai [Tony Leung]

The La Boca waterfront with the bridge in the background.

And lastly here is El Obelisco, located in the center of the city at Avenida 9 de Julio. Wong Kar Wai uses sped-up footage of this monument, which is located in the middle of the widest street in the world, as as a trope to showcase the swift passage of time.

El Obelisco at night

Some Comments on Godard


Godard’s new film Socialisme premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday, and is also being streamed online (though sadly only available to those in France). Though I wasn’t able to view the film (mon dieu did i try) the few reviews I’ve scrounged up are all tentative attempts to make sense of the subject matter, and avoid passing judgment on its aesthetic merits. The film is undoubtedly layered and opaque, and part of the confusion seems to stem from the deliberately obfuscatory subtitles — perhaps Godard’s resistance to translating the film into coherent English is an attempt to undermine its commodification. There is also a lot of controversy over Godard’s no-show at the press conference and the statement he faxed (faxed!) over to Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director:

Suite à des problèmes de type Grec, je ne pourrai être votre obligé à Cannes.Avec le festival, j’irai jusqu’à la mort, mais je ne ferai pas un pas de plus. Amicalement, Jean-Luc Godard [“Due to problems of Greek type, I can not be obliged to you in Cannes. I would go unto death for the festival, but I will not be able to take a step further. Regards. Jean-Luc Godard”]
This note was accompanied by a portrait of Ozu.

In our flurry to understand the most enigmatic of directors we cannot resist trying to decode this statement. Do “problems of the Greek type” allude to the present-day riots, or is it a more oblique Classical reference? Does Ozu have any special significance? And does the potent phrase “jusqu’à la mort” suggest health problems?

The film also ends with the title card displaying the words “NO COMMENT” (There are no credits). This strikes me as an extraordinarily pessimistic coda, and the lack of subject position/opinion betrayed by this statement is in and of itself a commentary on the possibility of political action. “No comment” is a deflecting phrase, used to fend off ornery inquiries and to eradicate conversation. I can’t really determine anything beyond that without having seen the film, but here is the elliptical trailer (with English subtitles):

Whatever one may think of Godard’s talent as a director, it is difficult to deny the breadth of his intelligence — evidenced by his copious references. When faced with the daunting prospect of having to produce copy on a Godard film after a single viewing, it is only natural that most reviews will fall into one of the two established camps: anti-intellectual hostility or cinephilic adulation. While I personally think Godard is a great director who has produced a few stinkers (e.g. King Lear), I just wish that critics would abandon their usual criteria for evaluating his films, because for Godard, the rules don’t apply (and they never did). Take a deep breath. Soak in the composition and the movement. Use the film as a skein and weave your thoughts around it — the words, the music, the images.

My favorite essay on Godard is actually quite critical of his films — but evinces a strong fascination with his aesthetic philosophy and a desire to determine if the films are good, bad or something in between. The writer is none other than Raymond Durgnat and it is entitled “Asides on Godard” (from The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Ian Cameron). Here are some excerpts that seem especially relevant in light of Socialisme:

I. God, Godard, Godot

Godard is of Swiss Calvinist stock. His art is basically a Protestant one. Grey, ascetic images reduce the world to a concept of itself. He photographs Karina like Dreyer photographs Falconetti, but reduces her to just a face, mysterious, melancholy, ethereal even gaiety, where Dreyer’s images are sculptural, anguished. There’s flesh in Dreyer, despite the resonances, resemblances between flesh and stone, which asceticism apart, carry the implication that people are real and strong like stone, like rocks of ages. Bu in Godard everything is a grey, jerky flow. Godard’s is an art of the plastic age, of fluent, pliable, putty characters.

Godard’s words-on-images suggest an agnostic, nay nihilistic Bresson, and indeed the Catholic critic Henri Agel accused Bresson of Jansenism, which is a heresy with many Calvinistic connections. Godard’s is a Calvinistic mind astray in a Godless, soulless world, a world of accidents which because they lack essence lack even a felt existence…

Godard’s films which seem to me ludicrously bad fascinate several people whose opinions I respect, and I explain their infatuation as follows (which infuriates them). His evocations of an emotionally and morally lost world would appeal to my acquaintances’ disillusionment, their pain as nice, idealistic, upper-middle class liberals, finding themselves in today’s cool, fluid, cynical world. His despair catches their own melancholy. His best films are those where feelings of pain and loss are most plausible: À Bout de Souffle, Let Petit Soldat, and one or two passages in Pierrot Le Fou, notably the beautiful ending. The feelings are plausible because the characters have positive, focused desires, the frustration of which we observe.

There are of course other reasons for responding to Godard’s duller films. One may be a connoisseur of remarkable idioms and styles. One may be skeptical to the point of nihilism, suffering from a moral and emotional impotence behind which lies just the breath of remorse that appears in Godard’s films…Or one may admire Godard’s bad films because of their sense of the world as unreal — a schizophrenic art for a schizophrenic epoch.

Film Socialisme may very well be the latter.

La Barbe-Bleu [Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat, 2009] or Catherine Breillat and the École Lacanienne


I want to talk about a particular instance (perhaps a small, striking moment) in Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat’s provocative take on the classic fairytale by Charles Perrault. i As she has done in previous films (most notably Anatomy of Hell), Breillat makes use of a framing device to set off the dominant narrative, punctuating the Bluebeard story with interludes of two young sisters reading the tale aloud to each other. As Micheal Koresky writes in his excellent Reverse Shot review:

The device becomes a way for Breillat to both make a greater dramatic point—about how rules of male courtship are imbued into girls at an early age—and to simultaneously deflate her own drama by acknowledging it as child’s play. The younger girl, Catherine, played by five-and-a-half-year-old Marilou Lopes-Benites, is more curious, and in ways more sexually sophisticated than her older sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), even if she mixes up and misinterprets some of the information she’s gleaned from the adult world—when speaking of marriage between a man and a woman, she insists that after the wedding, “they want to become homosexuals.” Her older sister corrects her, saying, “Marriage is when two people love each other.” With a glint of sly self-confidence, little Catherine retorts, “No, homosexuality is when they’re in love.”

This little exchange provokes a genuine burst of laughter — and Breillat in general is not known for inducing giggles. While the joke is funny on a contemporary level (petite Catherine should be enlisted as the cutest Prop. 8 activist ever) it is also a Lacanian jeu d’espirit that reveals an anxiety over heteronormative coupling (which reaches its apogee with marriage). Specifically, it reminds me of an anecdote in L’Instance du La Lettre in which a little boy and a little girl (Lacan informs us they are brother and sister) are seated across from each other in the train compartment. There is a window that affords them a view of the platform where two doors are situated. The little boy speaks first upon the train coming to a stop. “Look,” he says, “We’re at Ladies!” His sister insults him: “Imbecile!” she says, “Don’t you see we’re at Gentlemen.”

But–attendez!–both children are equally mistaken, because they confuse the plaques above the bathroom doors that bear the signifiers “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” with their current location, the name of the train station. Lacan, ever the raconteur, can’t resist a bit of hyperbole when he ostensibly gets around to the point of this story: “To these children, Gentlemen and Ladies will henceforth be two homelands toward which each of their souls will take flight on divergent wings.” This is evidently a joke with not-so-funny moral: Heterosexual orientation (which is by no means biologically necessary) is an association that is gradually learned: it is an ideological position that is taken up through normative conditioning, through repeated re-marking.

The sisters’s dialogue in Bluebeard also emphasizes the role of signifiers as they are inducted (in part through fairytales) into the École des Femmes, and petite Catherine’s playful attitude towards words reveals a suggests an whimsical attitude towards language in which words are not tools but toys, and words can mean whatever the child wants them to mean. (Alice in Wonderland: “At least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”) However, what is amusing and curious in children is pathological in adults; evidently, once a child reaches a certain age, he or she cannot play with the materiality of the signifier in quite the same unconscious way.

From a textual standpoint, the framing device reveals Lacanian frame of mind — something I think often gets overlooked when considering Breillat’s approach to cinema. It is the equivalent of a parallax view, providing a vantage point from which to “look awry” at the Bluebeard story. The framing device de-sutures us from the Bluebeard narrative and its accompanying circuit of male/female desire. It also provides an obstacle to identifying too closely with any one character — and that’s exactly what makes Breillat’s films so much more interesting than that particular genre of European art porn (or something like The Girlfriend Experience). Her films constantly question our perceptions of intimacy, which is precisely a question of where we end and others begin.

On that note, here is an extraordinary interview with the provocatrice herself on that very subject. Her view on art: “Everything can be expressed by 24 images per second and 26 letters.”