Paradis Gained

Nick Pinkerton on Alain Cavalier’s Le Paradis in Art of the Real at FSLC

Alain Cavalier, Le Paradis, 2014, color, sound, 70 minutes.

ALAIN CAVALIER’S LE PARADIS, making its US premiere Tuesday, April 14 at the second edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real festival, begins with an almost unbearably moving overture. The first images are of a brown, fleecy peacock chick, sticking close to the shadow of its mother. After a cut, the little bird is seen inside a cardboard box, swaddled in what appears to be bandages. Finally, it lies lifeless at the base of a spindly tree—“In the fresh blue watercress,” intones the director, an invisible presence throughout by way of voice-over and his first-person singular perspective, here quoting Rimbaud’s “Le dormeur du val” (The Sleeper in the Valley). After a suggestive shot of a black cat trundling up a stairwell, the camera returns to the peacock’s grave and finds it empty. Cavalier, reaching into the frame from behind the camera, marks the spot with a piece of flint, and has a young man—a grandson of the eighty-three-year old director, perhaps?—fasten the rude monument in place with nails. Through all of this, it is green summer; when Cavalier returns in winter, the trees are gone, but, clearing snow from one of the stumps, he discovers the monument intact. “Saved!” the director cries.

Cavalier completed his first feature in 1962; if he is familiar to American audiences at all, it is likely for this film, Le combat dans l’île, which enjoyed a limited rerelease in 2009, or perhaps for Thérèse, his austere 1986 biopic of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Since Le rencontre (1996), Cavalier has been working in the mode of film diary, and though the films he has subsequently produced in this vein—Vies (2000), Le filmeur (2005), and Irène (2009)—as well as his recent collaborations with the actor Vincent Lindon, in which he is also playing himself, have been hailed in his native France, they have scarcely been heard of in these United States.

Le Paradis, as its opening may suggest, finds Cavalier directly concerned with death, as he was concerned with aging and infirmity in Le filmeur. His proximity to death, however, brings him closer to youth here—not only in terms of his “co-stars,” playmates who with one noteworthy exception are of tender age, but to his own boyhood. “At the age of seven,” his voice-over intones, “they stick you in a boarding school, to learn Latin, to read the gospels. Then you learn Greek, to read Homer’s Odyssey. Then they let you go with your head stuffed full of crazy, crazy images.”

Now, seventy-five years later, the crazy, crazy images through which Cavalier first learned to understand the world continue to knock about in his head. The greater part of his sixty-seven-minute home movie finds him “reenacting” these foundational myths—Odysseus’s journey, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the myth of Job, the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus—with the humblest of household materials. Windup toys—a tin robot and a plastic goose—become the hero of the Odyssey and the Prodigal Son; a ceramic owl plays Athena; a wooden knob on the “stern” of a hollowed fruit becomes Charon and his boat. If I am not mistaken, I believe Christ is played by a reflective lawn ornament of some sort. Each of these little scenarios is staged with the resourcefulness common to a lonely child left to his own devices. What Cavalier is interested in is expressing the eternal by way of the trivial—or rather in illustrating how they are one in the same. In a 1960s film by Jean-Luc Godard, to whose late work Cavalier’s own has often been compared, the universe was located in a coffee cup; in Le Paradis, you can find it in a junk drawer.

Like Godard’s Goodbye to Language (2014), Le Paradis is a home movie—the great majority of it seems to have been shot on Cavalier’s own property, and he locates the Eden referred to in the title in his own backyard. But where Godard’s film is typically gnomic, Cavalier’s is sweetly pellucid. His language, though delivered in a conspiratorial hush, is plain, his points of reference the lingua franca of Western culture. The usual dismissal that greets work made in the amateur mode—“My kid could do that”—would be off-target here, as always, though one doubts Cavalier would take it as an insult.

Alain Cavalier’s Le Paradis plays Tuesday, April 14 at 7 PM at the Francesca Beale Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series “Art of the Real.”