JACQUES NOLOT NEVER FORGOT how Roland Barthes introduced him to André Téchiné: “Je vais te montrer une roulure” [“I’ll show you a slut”]. A young and come-hither mec on the make, Nolot would only later become known as a writer or a filmmaker, or even the suave figure in films by François Ozon, among others. He commented, decades later, on the not precisely meet-cute in a bar with Téchiné, the director he would end up working with more than any other, both as an actor and screenwriter, and on Barthes’s exactitude: “That was true in a mythological sense: he who has no stable place.” When Pierre, the aging hustler and writer played by Nolot in his own bracing, cinematic autofiction, Avant Que J’oublie [Before I Forget, 2007], tells a similar story to the dizzying number sitting across from him, he puts it this way: “He [Barthes] said I was a whore. In the semantic sense. With no attachments, no place, no roots. I was just that, a whore.” What’s attractive at twenty or twenty-five or twenty-nine is a bit trickier when one is sixty, and yet, in his film, Nolot, almost actuarially, accounts for it all.
While someone could map a lineage for Nolot’s spare, enthralling work—starting with Proust’s Sodom et Gomorrhe (1921–22), cruising along to Renaud Camus’s Tricks (1981) and then to Guillaume Dustan’s Dans Ma Chambre (1996), at some point reconfiguring Genet’s 1948 Pompes funèbres with, to put it somewhat bluntly, AIDS taking on the role of the Nazis—to do so would miss entirely the images of solitariness, contemplation, and their silence of which Nolot is a master: Pierre’s insomniac tossing and turning; quietly making early morning coffee; concentrating, with a cigarette, at his desk, or padding barefoot around it, not quite at the point of writing; matter-of-factly considering suicide by leaning out his apartment window; having dinner by himself in front of the television, news of Gaza exploding on TV the only noise. Two sounds dominate the action: talk among lovers, former lovers, friends, former rivals—almost all of them in the same line of work—and the soft rustle of cash. We observe Pierre paying his regular trick, Marc, after a particularly rough fuck at home; paying the new grocery delivery boy, both for groceries and for the blow job Pierre delivers to him; paying his analyst. Life insurance policies have never been itemized with so many riders of erotic drift. Everything and everyone has a price, which isn’t to state that there aren’t also pleasures, memories, encounters that escape the grind of monetization. The films ends with Pierre dolled up in convincing drag, at Marc’s request or dare, to go out to porn theater and then maybe a club.
No film, no filmmaker, has shown so directly the tolls of “managing” life with HIV for twenty-four years, which is to say: There’s plenty of sex, but we also witness Pierre head off on his way to cruise, only to be stopped in his quest by shitting himself. Watching debonair Nolot strip away any deflective devices and bare all is thrilling as it is moving; such a calm, difficult poetics of self-exposure proves the often vying selfieness on Scruff or Instagram feeble and concealing. Only George Kuchar, usually in a droll or bittersweet mode (e.g. Weather Diary #3), has equaled what Nolot presents, a single man, middle-aged and aging, point-blank, naked, actually and existentially. Mature themes, kids, not simply comic or tragic, but coming soon, right atcha. And for those who assume, now that Truvada’s arrived, there won’t be any more bumpy nights or some, um, really super special surprises, well, have fun with that.
To close the magisterial survey at Lincoln Center, “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?”, our filth elder, the important trouble born of an unforgettable, midnight ménage among P.T. Barnum, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Robert Bresson, has chosen to spotlight Before I Forget, a film he’s “jealous [he] didn’t make.” When I asked Waters, the greatest cross-platform multitasker (director-writer-artist-showman–style icon–public intellectual–OG) this country has ever produced, if he would provide some fresh details of his love of all things Nolot, he responded:
When I first got to meet Jacques Nolot at a film festival in Switzerland a few years back, I was as giddy as a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber. Here was one of my idols. Mr. Nolot was exactly as I expected: wearily handsome, funny, smart, and a fan of many of the same types of movies as I am. He didn’t feel that comfortable speaking in English and I couldn’t say a word in French but that didn’t stop us from asking the translator to do his best at deciphering different dirty terms for obscure sex acts we wanted to trade culturally. Jacques and I got on like a house on fire that others have unsuccessfully tried to extinguish. I can take more of Jacques Nolot than I can of myself!
The third of a trilogy that begins with the too rarely seen L’Arrière Pays [Hinterland, 1998] and La chatte à deux têtes [billed as Porn Theater in English, 2002], Nolot’s subtle masterpiece (the only word that will suffice, despite the fact that Before I Forget’s gracefulness thwarts such categorical baggage) shrugs off any belabored truisms about film and identity while testing how “fiction” arrives at “truth” or “relevance.” Nolot once described his process this way: “My writing is a bit schizophrenic. You tell me a story, I appropriate it, I make it my own, I don’t know anymore who is who, who is I, what’s true and what isn’t. I no longer know where reality lies.” There could be no finer cultural attaché than Waters, who knows about probing supposed limits and boundaries, to accomplish détente with whatever has kept Nolot’s work from being better known.
We first see Pierre from the back, standing in front of a double gravestone, close to a much older man, Bruno. Toutoune, who was once a whore as well as Pierre’s mentor-lover-father-brother-friend, and, yes, “bank,” is returned to youth by a letter written long ago that Pierre reads aloud at his desk. An aubade of autumnal, even ominous visions, Before I Forget reckons with the costs of living, desperate and otherwise, but it’s alive with rakish daring, reminding anyone who ever thought otherwise to never underestimate the tricks a trick has up his sleeve. No queen worth the name is about to go gently into that Cineplex night.
Before I Forget screens on Sunday, September 14 at 1:45 PM as part of the John Waters retrospective at Film Society of Lincoln Center, in a Waters-curated sidebar titled “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make.”