The Other Woman

Nick Pinkerton on José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses

José Luis Guerín, The Academy of Muses, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Emanuela Forgetta.

THE CATALAN FILMMAKER José Luis Guerín has been making movies for more than thirty years now, in the process never achieving more than niche notoriety. In part this may be attributed to the elusiveness of his work, which has moved freely between documentary and fiction, the literary and the cinematic, hard narrative and heady philosophy, a series of switchbacks that have made it difficult to scent his trail or predict where he might pop up next. This low profile suits Guerín’s films, which, though often urban in setting, are struck through by deep reserves of solitude—he is particularly taken with lonely perambulations and the strange tremors of life that can be found enduring inside empty rooms. Several of his movies are practically one-man-band productions, along the lines of Chantal Akerman’s diary films or recent Alain Cavalier, with Guerín himself providing the camerawork and the dialogue. These are small, private productions, meant to be shared with an intimate audience.

In the US Guerín is best known for In the City of Sylvia (2007), a cinematic ode to flâneurism indebted to Baudelaire and Bresson, in which a young man wanders through Strasbourg, France, looking for a woman whom he briefly encountered some years ago, being distracted from his quest—and at the same time returned to it—by the city’s many beguiling women. The inspirational quality of the fairer sex is also at the heart of Guerín’s latest feature, The Academy of Muses, a rambunctiously talky documentary-fiction hybrid which takes as its leaping-off point a lecture class that middle-aged Italian philology professor Raffaele Pinto is teaching to a largely female student body on the art of playing the muse, his discourse revolving around some of Guerín’s favorite topics: Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura.

The Academy of Muses, which was a standout at last year’s Festival del film Locarno and appeared earlier this year at Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real festival, is receiving a weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives, to be preceded by a retrospective of Guerín’s filmography—a happy opportunity for viewers to catch up with this entirely sui generis talent. In taking Guerín’s body of work as a whole, the sensibility that emerges is definitely Romantic. In Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007), a kind of essay-film blueprint for the fiction feature made entirely of still images and on-screen text, Guerín recalls first being drawn to Strasbourg in 1982 on a pilgrimage to find traces of Goethe and his Young Werther—and then his subsequent returns, looking for an elusive “Sylvia” whom he had met for a few moments some twenty years earlier. The tenacity of a lingering image is one of Guerín’s chief preoccupations, and with the Sylvia films he seems to evoke Bernstein in Citizen Kane (1941), ruminating on the girl with the white dress and parasol on the Jersey ferry. (“I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I hadn’t thought of that girl.”) He also occasionally risks recalling the beauty-obsessed playboy journalist played by Pep Munné in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (1994), for he is unabashedly devoted to the depiction and dissection of desire, operating from a distinctly heterosexual male point-of-view—though much of the pleasure in Academy is watching the various women doing sapper work beneath Pinto’s fortified, learned self-confidence. Guerín’s interest lies more with anticipation than fulfillment, and he is fascinated by the possibility offered by the come-hither enigmatic stranger or the incipient gesture—tellingly, his fourth feature, documenting the drastic transformation of Barcelona’s El Chine neighborhood, is titled Work in Progress (2001).

José Luis Guerín, In the City of Sylvia, 2007, 16 mm, color, sound, 84 minutes.

The earliest of Guerín’s features to play Anthology, his 1990 Innisfree finds most of his pet themes firmly in place. Here the “lingering images” in question are the creations of John Ford, specifically the sights of his The Quiet Man. In 1952, Ford and his crew descended on a village in County Mayo to re-create an Ireland of 1927, and of Irish-American Ford’s sentimental imagination. Some forty years later Guerín visits the locations that made up Ford’s “Innisfree” and finds that the fiction of The Quiet Man has been added to the overall repository of collective folk memory. Rather than disproving Hollywood mythologizing, Guerín finds something more provocative—that Ford’s ideal of Innisfree has served in a way to reveal a community to itself, even to cement the sense of community.

Time and again through Innisfree we are reminded that most of the talent behind The Quiet Man are long dead and gone—and death likewise haunts Guerín’s next feature, Train of Shadows (1997). The purported basis of the film is the unearthing of several reels of home-movie footage from 1930 attributed to one Gérard Fleury, a Parisian lawyer vacationing with his family at Le Thuit, Normandy, said to have died under mysterious circumstances shortly after. Much of the footage is overgrown by a thick patina of age and distress, and after playing it through, the film investigates the empty rooms of the Fleury estate in the present, the still-life compositions also heavily textured, given a surprising dynamism through Guerín’s layering of shadowplay and use of mirrors. In Academy, shot in cafés, offices, and cars, Guerín also shows this propensity for building dense images, setting up shots through reflective glass and overlaying images like a no-budget von Sternberg—he has the peculiar gift of being able to photograph a puddle showing a bit of the sky and in doing so suggest an aperture leading into another dimension.

As Train of Shadows returns to review Fleury’s films, the movie’s anonymous author begins to fixate on an image of a young woman, trying to tease out the silent conspiracy that seems to exist between her and the photographer. Fleury himself, largely unseen behind the camera until a late, lushly colored coup de cinéma reenactment that integrates him into the reimagined action, is Train of Shadows’s structuring absence—a key motif for Guerín. Sylvia is everywhere present and nowhere to be found in the city and in the two films that bear her namesake, while Guerín’s short Two Letters to Ana (2011) meditates on, among other items, the paintings of the Greek Zeuxis, which survive only in descriptions left by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. Finally, the subject of Guerín’s medium-length digital-video documentary Memories of a Morning is never seen, only spoken of by various interviewees—he being a fifty-year-old violinist neighbor in Barcelona who jumped to his death from his apartment one day, leaving behind no family and a translation of Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve. (Describing the book’s curious combination of “narrative and essay,” Guerín might be defining his own practice.)

Catastrophe strikes, and then life goes on, the same but irrevocably altered. At the conclusion of Memories of a Morning, Guerín seems to locate the dead man’s tune picked up by other musician neighbors, much as the face of Sylvia is reflected in the features of a hundred other women, as Ford’s Innisfree lives on in the shared unconscious of an entire village, or as, unbeknownst to the modern Barcelonans of Work in Progress, they have been living on top of the corpses of Roman Empire subjects, excavated resting peacefully beneath the city’s paving stones. “When the figure disappears,” as Guerín has it in Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, “the surroundings appear”—but are the departed ever actually gone? Hard as it is to pin down Guerín’s eclectic output, it might be that the best we can do to draw his films together is to call him an exemplary teller of modern ghost stories, locating the residue of what has passed through on that which remains.

“The Films of José Luis Guerín” plays August 24 through September 1, while the US theatrical premiere of Guerín’s The Academy of Muses runs September 2 through 13, both at Anthology Film Archives in New York.