Acting Out

Left: Lou Castel, Convergences, 2005, still from a color video, 35 minutes. Right: Lou Castel, Pyramidial, 2005, still from a color video, 90 minutes.

BEGINNING WITH HIS baby-face embodiment of filial angst and eruption in Marco Bellocchio’s debut Fists in the Pocket (1965), the career of sixty-seven-year-old Colombian expat Lou Castel has intermittently dovetailed with minor highlights of the past five decades of New Wave–influenced European art cinema (Fassbinder, Wenders, Ruiz). Fists in the Pocket is the most well-known example, though for its abbreviated Castel series the French Institute Alliance Française has chosen to emphasize his French work from the 1990s onward: in Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love (1993), in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), and, more recently, in Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector (2007).

Perhaps the most curious item on the docket is a short Castel himself directed in 1998 called Just in Time. It’s the only title that appears in both the FIAF program and a concomitant series at Anthology Film Archives. The latter program draws a line between Castel’s acting and his own experimental work as a filmmaker, with Anthology presenting his other, lesser-known creative side. Castel the thespian is best known for manic-depressive performances that yo-yo between contemplative dourness and disgusted volatility; Castel the director interrogates the act of expression (and communication) altogether.

In Just in Time, Castel, filmmaker Robert Kramer, Nadine Naous, and Sarah Jalabert play four brooding lovers trapped in a café, possibly aware of their role in a work of fiction and thus in search of an author. At times Kramer appears to be this creative god figure, giving camera directions on-screen; at other moments Castel takes over such duties. The production process is foregrounded, with boom mics popping into the frame and retakes left in the final product. The oblique narrative is filtered through Castel’s presiding ennui: In the penultimate shot a character’s command—“Let’s fuck”—is followed by men kissing women in an eerie tableau less evocative of lasting romance than of the stasis of unsatisfied desire.

Just in Time is Castel the filmmaker’s most accessible film, which says a lot. Our Tongues Are Moving (2005) breaks down the situations and dialogues of Just in Time to even more digressive and abstract bits, with Castel fixing his camera on mundane street scenes and littering the screen with text. Convergences and Revoyant (both 2005) offer split-screen experiments, the former a diagonally bifurcated work that brings together seemingly unrelated shots, the latter an overwhelming multi-image mosaic comprising what look like home movies. Pyramidial (2005) meditates on the effect of light coming through holes punctured in a can. These films could be read as either incredibly hard-core avant-garde stuff or total wankery. I lean somewhat toward the latter; it’s worth noting that these works are a combined five hours long, and not very entertaining or illuminating to sit through. A few accompanying films about Castel, including ones by Gérard Courant and Yuka Toyoshima, put the actor’s high-art hobby into better focus; the labors of love themselves remain mystifyingly lazy.

The Lou Castel retrospective is co-presented by Anthology Film Archives and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF). The FIAF program will run Tuesdays December 7–December 21; Anthology Film Archives’s program runs December 8–12.