Between the Lines

Nick Pinkerton on Marcel Hanoun at Anthology Film Archives

Marcel Hanoun, The Authentic Trial of Carl Emmanuel Jung, 1967, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 65 minutes.

A WOMAN newly-arrived from Lille (Micheline Bezançon) tows her young daughter through the Paris suburbs in a vain quest for work, increasingly broke, increasingly hungry, finally reduced to sleeping on a patch of waste ground in the banlieue, where she looks up to a single lit window in an HLM building, shining like the Star of Bethlehem. This chain of anecdotal incidents that leads to this moment comprises Une simple histoire (A Simple Story)—not really so simple, for the soundtrack consists of the woman’s past-tense recollection of the events being shown, overlapped with the synch sound present-tense dialogue. Reviewing the film in Arts magazine, a young Jean-Luc Godard cited Neorealists Roberto Rossellini and Cesare Zavattini, as well as the ascetic formalism of Robert Bresson—but even if you know all of the aforementioned names, you could be forgiven for never having heard of the director of Une simple histoire, Marcel Hanoun.

Une simple histoire won the Gran Prix Eurovision at Cannes in 1959 and, when it belatedly played at the 1970 New York Film Festival, earned Hanoun the fervent admiration of Jonas Mekas, the avant-garde filmmaker and cofounder of Anthology Film Archives, where a retrospective of Hanoun’s work begins tonight. New 35- and 16-mm prints were struck when Cinémathèque Française likewise honored Hanoun in 2010 and, still near-mint condition, these are what will be playing at Anthology’s retro, which consists of twelve short features—the longest, Autoportrait (1985), runs an atypical 104 minutes, and most are pared-down to nearer the hour mark—as well as a handful of shorts.

Hanoun was born into a Jewish-Algerian family in Tunis in 1929, when Tunisia was still a French protectorate. Escaping the worst of World War II, he came to Paris to stay after the Liberation, and worked there as a journalist and a photographer. (His father had been an avid amateur camera buff, influencing his son’s vocation.) Hanoun directed his first film for television in 1956, about refugees from that year’s Soviet-suppressed Hungarian Uprising. This was also the year of Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a film which was a revelation to the young Hanoun—and the inextricable ideas of displacement and freedom would be key to the future work of this self-styled Wandering Jew. Like Bresson, Hanoun the filmmaker would be a theoretician as well as practitioner, his films the conscious workings-through of his ideas about cinema. To the end of his life he continued to write copiously, and even edited two revues: First Cinéthique, which began its brief run in 1969, and then Change cinema, in 1977. (You can see Jean De Gaspary reading a copy in that year’s Gaze.)

Hanoun had been present at the Lexington and Concord moment of the French Nouvelle Vague, his Une simple histoire showing at Cannes with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, but he didn’t have the temperament of a joiner, and subsequently established the pattern of stubborn independence that he would continue to pursue for five decades. The success of Une simple histoire allowed Hanoun to make The Eighth Day (1960), his first and last big-budget film, with Félix Marten and Hiroshima star Emmanuelle Riva. The experience disillusioned Hanoun with the industrial moviemaking process, and so he decamped for Spain, where he shot bullfights and the sets of Samuel Bronston’s runaway epic The Fall of the Roman Empire, a film whose toga budget was bigger than that of Hanoun’s entire filmography. This Spanish retreat produced several documentaries and Hanoun’s 1964 October in Madrid, a film about floundering for the means to make a film, indicative of the direction that his work was to take in years to come. The productions would be stripped down, with Hanoun acting as cinematographer, editor, cameraman, and the process of their own making would become their subject.

Peripatetic through his life, Hanoun was at home only in contradiction. For example: After the title card of The Authentic Trial of Carl Emmanuel Jung (1966)—a staged tribunal for a Nazi war criminal (Maurice Poullenot) played out against a black-box theatrical background—the voice of a narrator bluntly informs us that “This trial is imaginary.” Carl Emmanuel Jung was Hanoun’s first film featuring the burly Anglo-French actor Michael Londale, only one of his more famous collaborators here: Godard lent funding, and there is a cameo by Jean Eustache, then just starting out, whose cinema would seek out the No Man’s Land between fiction and documentary in years to come, working along parallel lines to Hanoun. (The title of Eustache’s 1977 doc-recreation diptych Une sale histoire [A Dirty Story], starring Lonsdale, is a play on Hanoun’s Une simple histoire, while Eustache’s 1980 Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights, like many of Hanoun’s works, revolves around the detailed exegesis of a painting.)

A bridge between the New Wavers (Godard, Resnais) and the generation that followed (Eustache, Pialat, Garrel), Hanoun doesn’t strictly belonging to either—and his films dwell in neither/nor interstices. Like Une simple histoire, Carl Emmanuel Jung addresses one of Hanoun’s principle preoccupations, the dislocation between spoken language and what it represents—in the former case, the narration of the story which we see on-screen, in the latter, the dry recounting of atrocities that remain unseen. This, and other dialectics—subject and representation, reflected and reflection, performance and presence, black-and-white and color—are further explored in the quartet of seasonally-themed films that Hanoun completed between 1968 and 1972, films which represent the highest attainment of his art. These are works so richly ornamented with ideas, and so ripe with sensorial pleasure, that I can only hope to set down the basic facts about them here.

Marcel Hanoun, Une simple histoire (A Simple Story), 1958, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 68 minutes.

Summer is a plein air idyll featuring a young woman (Graziella Buci) in retreat at the home of family friends in Normandy, recouping from personal and political heartbreak. The film’s closing credits state that it was shot between August 19th and 25th, 1968, which is in keeping with Hanoun’s tendency to put the circumstances under which his films were made before the viewer, but also emphasizes the proximity of the project to May ’68. (The subject’s transistor radio brings news of the Warsaw Pact nations invading Czechoslovakia, and the end of Prague Spring.) Winter (1969) is even more a behind-the-scenes documentary of its own making: Lonsdale stars as Julien, a director employed to shoot a film of the famous art and canals of Bruges, Belgium. Hanoun cuts between the footage that Julien shoots, which is in color, and footage of Julien shooting, in black-and-white, the effect something like the “Camera one, camera two” of closing one eye, then another. We next find Lonsdale at the center of one of the two distinct narrative threads that make up Spring (1970), playing a fugitive crossing the countryside on foot, hiding in the woods by day. Scenes from his furtive, hunted existence are cross-cut with vignettes of domestic life in a rural home whose only residents are a girl at the edge of puberty and her grandmother. One anticipates that the fugitive must eventually show up at the farm but, as in Agnès Varda’s 1955 La Pointe Courte, the film’s two parts are never brought to a traditional confrontation. (An early shot of a rifle over the mantle suggests Chekhov’s famous formulation, but the climactic bloodshed is menstrual.) Finally, the Lonsdale-as-filmmaker character from Winter returns in Autumn (1972), though here his director (Julien, again), is plunked in front of an editing console with an assistant, Anne (Tamia), scrutinizing footage and working through scenes. They face out at the spectator, oblivious to the presence of an audience, as though the screen of the editing table were a two-way-mirror. We can hear soundtrack selections, but until the end of the film we aren’t privy to what they are looking at, only to what they think about it, and the air is thick with Hanoun’s epigrams: “The scene denounces itself to acquire its own authenticity,” says Julien. “That must be the cinema.”

While Hanoun’s strategies are strikingly different in each of his films, they recognizably belong to a single universe. Visible on the wall behind the principals of Autumn are shots of actresses from other Hanoun films—and a calendar for Anthology Film Archives!—while the dialogue seems to refer to past and future Hanoun projects. Talking of a film that she would like to make, Anne says she’d “like to recount the cruelty of a little girl, for example,” and here she might be describing the motive behind a scene in Spring in which the girl snips a goldfish in two with a rusty pair of shears. Later, Julien notes that “political cinema tends to resemble pornographic cinema,” continuing that “Politics and pornography must be lived, not shown.”

This anticipates 1977’s Gaze, Hanoun’s crack at solving the problem of screen sex, funded by a porno producer. A couple, Jean and Anne (De Gaspary and Anne Bellec), awake in a Brussels hotel room. After announcing that she’s dreamed of two men making love to her, Anne departs for the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. While she stares in rapt attention at Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, her narrated musings on the canvas carry into scenes of Jean and another woman (Juliette Le Clerc) wrapped together in connubial bliss, their unstimulated coupling viewed from every angle, including the typical ones. Both gifted with magnificent curly manes, De Gaspary and Le Clerc resemble the figures depicted in Gustav Klimt’s Adam and Eve, a postcard reproduction of which hangs on the hotel room wall, which Jean and Anne had discussed before she left. Just as Lonsdale’s fugitive in Spring may be only a figment of the little girl’s imagination—or vice-versa—it seems entirely possible that the sex in Gaze is a fantasy, either Anne’s, Jean’s… or Marcel Hanoun’s?

Like the vagabond characters in Une simple histoire and Spring, Hanoun kept on the move—this includes a stint in New York City—usually broke, though always generous with his time for the young and curious. He died at age eighty-two in 2012, only a couple of months after Chris Marker, whom Julien, in Autumn, calls “an overlooked filmmaker,” although compared to Hanoun, Marker was a household name. Like Marker, Hanoun remained abreast of everything new in both world events and technology, producing work on digital video—Cello (2010), made with the assistance of a cadre of admirers “Produisez Marcel Hanoun,” is playing Anthology—and, in a rather forward-thinking move, making his filmography available for free online, albeit without English subtitles. Even Francophones should make the pilgrimage to Anthology, however—for Hanoun’s finest works are marked by a rare combination of philosophical rigor and enveloping carnality, and they are best surrendered to in the movie theater.

A retrospective of Marcel Hanoun’s films runs May 29–June 5 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.