Othon: au revoir à Straub et Huillet

The mystery of Straub and Huillet has not been solved by watching their films.  This afternoon TIFF presented the final screenings of Not Reconciled: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet. And while the TIFF series may be over I will have to investigate further on my own.

This is the 9th in a series of pieces. Everything I’ve been seeing or reading over the past two months has been informed by their politics, their rigor, their aesthetic.

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Gustav Leonhardt conducts players of Concentus Musicus, Wien and (I think) a young Bernd Weikl (photo: Barbara Ulrich)

And finally, today’s program of Proposition in Four Parts (the film with the SHORTER title of today’s films) followed by Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times or Perhaps One Day Rome Will Permit Herself to Choose in Her Turn.

Maybe it’s the mood I am in today, but I found today’s selections disappointing: as I shall explain.  I suppose I was hoping for something especially powerful to close the retrospective: an unreasonable expectation on my part.

We began with Proposition in Four Parts, a 40 minute film that re-purposed or more accurately re-visited images I had seen before in other Straub – Huillet films.  The program guide says this:

Straub-Huillet fashion a caustic critique of capitalism,
suggesting that not much has changed since Griffith’s analysis.

I was more of the opinion that maybe it’s more that not much –or not enough—has changed in film-making since DW Griffith. Their zen approach that can be so tranquil, full of lyrical beauty is at times puzzling, for instance in using an excerpt from Moses and Aaron.  I don’t mind that it’s obscure. I just don’t think it accomplishes very much.  I find myself hungry for pointed commentary, for writers or film-makers willing to take a position.

The main item on the program—the film with that impossibly long title—is an adaptation of Corneille’s late tragédie Othon.  I know I wasn’t the only one puzzled, as I heard others in the audience, exchanging questions as they exited the theatre.  We saw some of the same curious dramaturgy seen in Moses and Aaron and Too Early/Too Late—both operas by Arnold Schönberg –even though we were watching an adaptation of a spoken play rather than opera.  I hope I can be forgiven for calling these Brechtian devices, in their tendency to call attention to artificiality, for example

  • personages in classical costuming even though we could hear traffic noises and see modern buildings
  • quirky camera work as we’d zero in on one person in a conversational exchange while we would only hear the replies and not see the person speaking those replies.
  • Personages (both in Othon as in the two operas) delivering their lines without eye contact, standing still while firing out their lines, sometimes with extraordinary speed

I’d felt strange about the delivery of the lines in French.  I saw a curious remark in the closing credits from Straub & Huillet, (ex-pat French living abroad, largely because Straub had avoided the draft during the 1950s, during the Algerian War) , dedicating the piece to those who had not had the opportunity to hear the glory of the French Language (and excuse me that I may not be quoting this accurately, as I grabbed this quickly from the credits –in French—as they zipped by).

But the colossal irony of all this? The cast were not French. Adriano Aprà (Othon) is Italian.  Anne Brumagne is Belgian, and almost everyone else is also Italian.  At times the lines are being delivered in accented French, and often very quickly.  It is the most curious thing, this sense of alienation brought about by a sort of frozen delivery, from people making no eye contact, even when speaking of love and loyalty.

While there is a musicality to the delivery, it’s the music of Rossini, as though the lines are being delivered mechanically without empathy or emotion.  I wonder what Corneille would make of it.  I believe the result is very reified in the manner of our own reading, where we are deep inside the text and its implications and not distracted by the personages performing: even though some of them were very beautiful to look at.  I am sure Brecht would approve.

But this is most emphatically what one must encounter in a retrospective. Not just the greatest hits. Not just the famous parts, the popular moments.  To properly explore any artist we must see the extent of their work, whether we like it or not whether we get it or not, and attempt to reconcile all these parts.

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Cover of the Columbia University Press book edited by Ted Fendt. Click on the link to see more about this book.

Yes I am very much reconciled to Straub & Huillet, even if I have a project ahead of me: to find books about the film-makers, and to dig up their films. As James Quandt told us (in the interview)

“The best possible primer on Straub-Huillet is the new volume edited by Ted Fendt, published by the Austrian Film Museum.”

Thank you James Quandt.

Thank you TIFF!

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