I gave this paper in Adelaide last week, as part of a panel on cinema and materiality.
In the opening moments of Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac, we hear the sharp, rhythmic thwack of an axe. The arms swinging it fly across the screen. Behind the heaving red shape, stretching across the back left corner of the frame are some hazy, grey-green trees, their trunks blurred at the edges, smoothed into the pale sky. A trembling close up of a boy’s face. The camera shudders as if a small earthquake is rippling through the forest. Breathing hard the boy looks up, then begins driving his axe into the tree again, his face heaving back and forth with his breath, while the tree trunk hovers over the screen’s left edge. Then an upward shot into the canopy and the creaking sound of the tree cracking like a seismic fault line opening up and with a roar, the tree falls. The other trees sway, and then there is quiet. The camera moves across the forest ceiling in a quivering arc.
Later, as the boy leads his horse through the deep snow dragging the logs behind them, the camera “walks” too, shaking up and down so that part of the boy’s face falls off the bottom of the screen and moves out of focus as the shot tightens. He turns, a blurry ear, and then darkness. The image moves into abstraction. The crunching of the snow underfoot is loud and steady. The boy’s head moves in and out of the front of the frame, too dark and close to be anything more than a shape, a mass in motion. A jolt. Trees lurch in the background and the boy falls. An innervation of dark lines, a brush of spare branches, appear on the side of a rocky mountain then disappear. The camera tremors and the image is thick with the sound of rapid shuddering. When we see the boy again, he is lying in the snow in the shivering grip of a seizure.
Watching this sequence, I am struck by the force with which the camera and sound evokes the sensation of being in the human body. By this I do not mean to say that Grandrieux presents a haptic image, as is often suggested of this film, but that the shuddering of the camera and the way the sound brings the offscreen space into the image makes visual the energy of the body, and the sensation of being.
In his wonderful book on Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze writes, “Colour is in the body, sensation is in the body, and not in the air. Sensation is what is painted. What is painted on the canvas is the body, not insofar as it is represented as an object, but insofar as it is experienced as sustaining this sensation, (what Lawrence speaking of Cezanne, called the appleyness of the apple.)”[i] Of course, the appleyness of Cezanne’s apples is not actually the appleyness of apples, but the appleyness of paint. It is the way the material qualities, the thickness, the shininess, the texture of brushstrokes, all come together to evoke the sensation of apple while also presenting the sensation of painting. Cezanne’s fruit are particularly good examples of this idea, because parts of the canvas are often left raw, so that the texture of the linen is visible alongside the texture of the paint. The experience one has standing before them is not just of what has been painted but also of the paint and the canvas.
Likewise, material qualities – of sound, light, shade, colour, camera motion – enable Un Lac to evoke the sensation of being in a body, and to explore themes of tenderness, intimacy and connection with the earth, while making visible the materiality of cinema.
When we speak about the materiality of cinema, what exactly are we speaking about? I’m going to revisit some very basic, primary ideas here, because I think the way materiality is spoken about in relation to cinema can be confusing, and because I want to suggest that questions of cinema’s materiality are linked to questions of medium.
The material of cinema is an immaterial material – a thing that has no solid physical presence, a material whose very nature is visual and (usually) sonic. As noted by Jee Hee Hong, this paradox is assumed in the term “materiality.”[ii] The OED defines materiality as “that which constitutes the ‘matter’ of something: opposed to formality; the quality of being material; material aspect or character; mere outwardness or externality.” This gestures toward the stuff of the image – format, the grains on celluloid, the pixels in a digital image, glitches, lightness, darkness, those visual qualities that make up what we see.
Darren Ambrose, writing of Deleuze’s aforementioned book, defines materiality as “the problems, meanings, intensities and sensations actually happening through the material of paint (or in this case film) itself.”[iii] Rather than using film to put forward a pre-constructed image, the filmmaker gives themselves over to the medium, “surrenders to the matter […] and follows its virtual singularities. By attending to these traits the artist allows it to speak to their “instinct” and then devises a range of practical strategies to bring out these virtualities to actualise them as sensible “possibilities”, as heterocosmic facts.”[iv] The material conditions lead the image.
This is central to Un Lac, and to all Grandrieux’s work. He has said that at times, when the conditions are right and he and the performers are fully present in the moment, he films with his eyes closed, feeling, hearing, sensing his way through space. In an article framing Un Lac through the lens of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s 1979 article ‘Acinema,’ Rodney Ramdas argues that through this sense driven filming, Grandrieux “eliminates the eye from cinema.”[v] However, I would argue that rather than abandoning the visual, as Ramdas suggests, Grandrieux opens the eye up to the possibilities of sight. By presenting a vision that is fluid, amorphous and disorienting, Un Lac shifts what we define as an image.
Although Grandrieux’s shivering image is frequently abstract, I am hesitant to call it formless, or to say that it is opposed to formality altogether, because although it raises a challenge to conventional form, it nonetheless establishes its own logic and formal boundaries. Just as the work of painters like Cezanne and Bacon re-imagine rather than reject the structures of painting, Grandrieux does not abandon pre-established conventions of cinematic form, but pushes them in an attempt to capture the sensation of life with the machine of cinema. He presents a version of the visual that is uncoupled from thought, so, unable to translate what we see into information we simply see and hear the intensities and sensations that are the matter of the work. This is not chaos. Rather, we are presented with an alternate rhythm, a form built on an affective structure, one that is radical and challenging.
It is for this reason that I think that the question of cinematic materiality is tied up with the question of medium. The question, what is cinema? necessarily comes into play when we ask, what is the materiality of cinema? because the notions we consider when we ask the former – time, montage and the problem of narrative to name a few – are all part of the stuff from which we build a film.
So how does Un Lac consider these questions of medium via materiality?
Narrative paths. There will be no answers, no final gestures, but only possiblities. Look for example, at the image of Alexi (Dmitry Kubasov) that comes toward the end of the musical interlude, the exquisite moment when Hege (Natalie Rehorova) sings Schumann’s op 39 lieder MondNacht. Shot from what feels, in this film of unbearably intimate close-ups, like a distance, his body lies motionless in the snow, out of focus, a Figure (as Delueze writes via Cezanne) rather than a figurative depiction. That his body is still, not shaking, and that the image is placed at this point in the narrative – Hege sings just after she loses her virginity and steps into a space of desire that will take her away from her family – suggests death. But, after Hege and Jurgen (Alexei Solonchev) row across the lake, Alexi re-appears – just as his father suddenly appeared out of the darkness midway through the film – his body re-animated as if one has turned back the pages in a choose your own adventure and taken a different path. That is one way, the film suggests, and this is another.
Sensation. In a review of The Logic of Sensation, Russell Ford explains sensation like this, “Sensation is not a faculty of the subject but, rather, the mutual limit of the subject and the object, a place in which these two aspects become indistinguishable, such that one can say that in sensation the subject is altered by aspects of worldly forces that are occluded by the perception of constituted objects.”[vi]
Un Lac presents this sensation through the use of soft focus and overexposure, by fuzzying the line between figure and ground, human and world. It performs this sensation by placing us in intimate proximity to the image. For example, in the opening moments we are struck by a hard thwacking sound and a rush of red motion, a red made more intense by the greenish grey behind it. Faced with this force of sound and colour, we sensate (if I can put it that way) because we cannot comprehend what we are seeing. The notion of sensation is extended in the way the film makes visible the invisible workings of Alexi’s body. The film itself enacts the shuddering of his seizures even when he is not having a fit, as though to make seen his hidden internal rhythm.
Flow. On the question of what Yvette Biro calls ‘flow’ – the way a film is structured to lead us from one sensation to the next, slowly, quickly, following or refuting the conventions of build up and release – Un Lac encloses us in the snow, the image, the intimacy of the family, almost until the end, when the claustrophobia of winter in the forest is broken with Hege’s newborn singing voice.
Grandrieux has used this technique before. In Sombre, when in the final moments, the camera travels up the mountain past ordinary people watching the tour de france, the sunlight glittering on the film so brightly after all the darkness that has come before it, and the sound of the song, Elysian Fields version of Serge Gainsbourg’s Les Amours Perdues mixed with the slowly ascending camera movement affects a sensation of opening, of expansion, an incredible charge of energy after the close intensity of the film. On the one hand it’s a terribly manipulative trick, but on the other, the obviousness of the manipulation and how far the conventional rhythms of build up and release favoured by Hollywood have been pushed makes it a powerful gesture, as if the intensification of the device transforms it into something radical.
In Un Lac, however, the effect (and the affect) of the technique is different. Here it marks a transition. It’s near the end but not the end, and it gives the film an injection of incredible warmth. For me, this moment opens up a space to read the materiality of the film as immanent. Un Lac’s vision of spirituality then, lies not in the nature depicted, as it does in a film like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but in the way the forest and the family who live with it are bound through sound and image and transformed into cinema. Hege sings, the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds, and the father takes Alexi’s unconcious head in his hands with a look of sublime tenderness. It is not the song that is immanent here, although it’s very beautiful, it is the way it is sung, the way Natalie Rehorova’s voice loses pitch, and when the piano creeps in in (I think) the only moment of non-diegetic sound in the film, falls out of time with its accompanying line. It is the sun and the clouds and the pale bright yellow of the patch of sunlight. It is Alexi, lying still in the snow and the way his father holds him. And in the shot of the father’s hand on his son’s head, you know what the film is gesturing toward. That the spiritual, the divine, resides in us, in the materiality of the world, and in the cinema.
In a fiery piece on the cinema, Grandrieux writes, “The future of cinema is to be free and great and strong, to transmit some of the ‘windy chaos’ that we tend to protect ourselves from, as if we desperately wanted to believe that the world is ordered, reasonable, possible, when it’s exactly the opposite: chaotic, delirious, untenable, driven by the unstoppable force of desire. Beyond will and morality, the world is what we desire, absolutely. And cinema should be considered commensurate with this excessive horizon.”[vii]
[i] Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 32.
[vi] Russell Ford, “Review: The Logic of Sensation” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63, 4 (2005) 409.