Pierre Thorreton, L’Amour fou, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes. Production still. Photo: JC Deutsch.
THE TITLE OF PIERRE THORETTON’S documentary on the relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé—who met in 1957 at Christian Dior’s funeral and remained close companions and business partners even after they split as a couple in the early 1980s—suggests madness, passion, obsession. And though the stately Bergé doesn’t demur from recounting the trying times—Saint Laurent’s extreme emotional fragility, his drug and alcohol abuse, his affairs—he doesn’t dwell on them, either. Reflecting on his fifty years as the caretaker and protector of Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, Bergé, in his calm, measured responses, never gives the slightest indication that he regrets the intensity of his devotion to the man considered the greatest couturier of the second half of the twentieth century. As former French minister of culture Jack Lang puts it, the two gave a certain “nobility to love.”
YSL, the subject of two documentaries by David Teboul from 2002—the straightforward biography Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times and the trancelike Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris, which captures the unwell designer at his atelier as he oversees the creation of one of his last collections—remains a haunting, seductive presence in Thoretton’s film. L’Amour fou opens with an ashen-faced Saint Laurent announcing his retirement on January 7, 2002, a heady speech in which he acknowledges his past addictions and quotes his beloved Proust. Footage of YSL from the ’60s and ’70s reminds us of his odd, lanky beauty and charming shyness—qualities Bergé surely found irresistible.
L’Amour fou is organized around the 2009 auction of Bergé and Saint Laurent’s astonishing art collection, culled from their three homes in Paris, Normandy, and Marrakesh. Yet Thoretton’s depiction of the Brancusis, Mondrians, and Ensors being studied, appraised, and packed up never devolves into the glib, gaudy celebration of wealth and excess found in another recent couturier study, Matt Tyrnauer’s slick Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008). Like Bergé, Thoretton’s film is never less than dignified.
If anything, L’Amour fou may be too delicate, its director too deferential to further press Bergé, who once said that Saint Laurent “was born with a nervous breakdown,” on the toll exacted by caring for the genius neurasthenic. Bergé, so often overshadowed by his partner, is rightfully proud when he speaks, briefly, of his own, non-YSL accomplishments: his work on behalf of François Mitterrand, who appointed him president of the Bastille Opera in 1988; his commitment to AIDS activism. But one senses that even Bergé considers his political and civic roles ancillary to his legacy as Saint Laurent’s lifelong helpmate. What’s missing from Thoretton’s decorous film is a willingness to probe the darker side of this five-decade relationship, memorably (but still respectfully) detailed by Cathy Horyn in “Yves of Destruction,” her 2000 New York Times Magazine profile of the designer. There’s plenty of love in Thoretton’s documentary—it just needs more crazy.
L’Amour fou opens May 13 in New York.
WITH A SLATE divided roughly 40/60 percent between nonfiction and fiction films, any foray into the Tribeca Film Festival this year was bound to involve documentary. And an unlucky sampling of dramas could make the docs portion seem all the more engaging. Swede Lisa Aschan’s World Narrative Competition award-winner She Monkeys, for example, was an assured yet inert depiction of two teenage equestrian frenemies, its young actors incapable of sustaining our interest in the trickle of revelation and humiliation (periodically stopped dead by a tone-deaf side plot about a younger sister’s awkward sexual stirrings). Putative showstopper Beyond the Black Rainbow, an anesthetizing megadose of shoestring futuristic dystopia, demonstrated director Panos Cosmatos’s complete and utter mastery of … two or three visual effects. Rwanda trauma meta-drama Grey Matter, in recounting the efforts of a young filmmaker and the grim postwar drama he is struggling to get made, failed to revivify clichés of artistic struggle and madness.
On the other side of the doc/fiction line, Bombay Beach (also a prize-winner) offered an acute chronicle of hard times on California’s dilapidated Salton Sea community, leavened with staged dance sequences. Israeli director Alma Har’el, who also makes music videos, pulls in an ambitious spread of personalities from American past, present, and future. Perhaps none is so poignant as the divergent portrait of youths: there’s the teenager looking to get out through football and currently deep into a bout of puppy love, and then there’s the pint-sized son of an excon, a serious-looking boy zonked on psychotropic cocktails that seem to be slowly flattening his off-the-wall spirit. Shadowing their two portraits is the ancient Depression veteran who makes money reselling cigarettes, the epitome of a go-it-alone survivor, a maverick on his own terms. A fascinating bookend to the hardscrabble Americana was Eva Mulvad’s The Good Life, about a Danish mother and daughter—the once rich and now flat-broke Beckmanns, living abroad in Portugal—whose insularity will inevitably elicit comparisons to the two Edies of Grey Gardens. Markedly less eccentric, their “plight” is epitomized by the baby-faced middle-aged daughter’s blinkered sense of entitlement, toxic arrested development, and bewildering flashes of self-awareness. But the film (Mulvad has called her subjects “bad at being poor”) leaves a viewer feeling queasy about all the class-reinforcing voyeurism.
A rollicking run of old-fashioned escapism was available to the Tribeca-goer who caught Tsui Hark’s Tang Dynasty adventure yarn Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. From the introduction of the premise (the empress’s underlings keep bursting into flames) on through the early moment when a deer opens his mouth to make an oracular pronouncement, you know you’re in good hands, with a rejuvenated Tsui happily embracing a world where the fantastical is second nature.
James Fotopoulos, Alice in Wonderland, 2010, still from a color video in HD, 99 minutes.
“CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER,” said Alice, although I can’t remember exactly where. Was it after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole or when she crossed to the other side of the mirror? No matter: Alice in Wonderland (2010)—James Fotopoulos’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by way of Henry Saville Clark and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children—is an extremely curious object in its own right, and its premiere New York screening is a must-see. If you doze through a few of its ninety-nine minutes, your dreams will be the better for it.
A prolific Chicago-based underground filmmaker, Fotopoulos created a stir with his stupendously creepy feature Migrating Forms. It screened in 2000 in the New York Underground Film Festival, which subsequently renamed itself by borrowing the film’s title. The concept of “migrating forms” has remained a constant in Fotopoulos’s work: In Alice, it applies to the fragments of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Carroll’s Alice books and the bits of Carroll’s prose and poetry that migrate to Fotopoulos’s movie, along with excerpts from the score of Clark and Slaughter’s opera. One might view the slow dissolves between the hundreds of drawings that Fotopoulos created for the film as another layer of migration; so too is the mix of the nineteenth-century score with droning metal–art music that sounds as if it’s erupting from the bottom of a swamp.
Alice is a multimedia opera presented in the form of a single-screen movie. In terms of avant-garde genres, it could be classified, to borrow a term from P. Adams Sitney, as a trance film. At the center of the proceedings is a medium close-up of a very beautiful young woman who appears in two guises. In Part I (subtitled “Alice in Wonderland”) her dark hair curls about her face and is held in place by a white housemaid’s bonnet. In Part II (subtitled “Through the Looking Glass”) her hair is blonde, long, and straight, swept away from her forehead in the manner of Tenniel’s Alice. Although her face almost never changes its expression, it seems very much alive, thanks to the talent of the actress and Fotopoulos’s filmmaking. One fully believes that the drawings (most of them charcoal-shaded outlines on a coral ground), which cross-fade seemingly in front of her face and behind her head, are projected from her psyche. As in many of Fotopoulos’s movies, the narrative is couched as a stream of consciousness. The drawings—most of them of body parts, strange animals, whiskers without a cat, a long-eared rabbit head cut off at the neck, a terrifying featureless face, and other less legible organic forms—evaporate before they can be fully grasped, as do the single words and phrases that pop onto the screen in varying sizes of white typeface, punctuated before they can accumulate into a complete sentence by the word “pause,” always placed, as if it were a stage direction, in parenthesis.
And, occasionally, we see a long shot of Alice I and Alice II superimposed on the close-ups of their respective faces. At one point Alice I slow-dances alone, and the undulation of her torso is among the most erotic images in cinema. Alice II is pregnant, which certainly would have taken Carroll aback. I wish Fotopoulos hadn’t tried so hard in the last ten minutes to reach a conclusion with texts that are foursquare on the meaning, unlike anything that came before. I had hoped that the last text on-screen would be “pause.” Instead, in the movie’s only bow to convention, it’s “The End.”
Alice in Wonderland screens Saturday, May 7, at 7 PM at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.
TRIBECA (THE NEIGHBORHOOD) has evolved so dramatically over the past fifty years—from nameless industrial district to second SoHo to celebrity nesting zone—that it was fitting, if entirely coincidental, that I chose to attend two documentaries about radical transformation in the tenth year of Tribeca (the film festival).
The first, Limelight, directed by Billy Corben, tells the tale of the rise and fall of New York’s club scene—retroactively embodied by ur–club kid/amateur murderer Michael Alig—through a pocket biography of Peter Gatien, the undisputed king of 1980s–90s Manhattan nightlife as owner-impresario of Limelight, Palladium, and Tunnel. A soft-spoken, deadpan Canadian, known for wearing an eyepatch to cover the eye he lost playing hockey as a teen, Gatien bought clubs in Miami and Atlanta in the ’70s before setting his sights on New York. Correctly noting that “the chrome-and-neon thing had been taken as far as it could go,” Gatien secured an unoccupied Gothic Revival church in the no-man’s-land between Chelsea and the Flatiron district and converted it into the most decadent club of the ’80s and early ’90s—Limelight. Dividing the formerly sacred site into different rooms with disparate vibes, Gatien hired club promoters to throw theme nights in the various spaces. Alig was one of his stars, having come to Limelight after “bankrupting all the other clubs in the city” with his extravagant party concepts.
Another key figure was the young Staten Island thug who went by the name Lord Michael and almost singlehandedly imported acid house, techno, and the new designer drug ecstasy from the nascent UK rave scene. Much like LSD, E (or X as it was then known) enjoyed several years of default legality due to governmental obliviousness before being classified as Schedule 1, and during this period Limelight served as a new kind of electric Kool-Aid acid test. (Literally: Ecstasy punch was a frequently served beverage in the club at the time.) This led to clubgoers from oil-and-water demographics—Alig-like club kids, established celebs, well-dressed trannies, and, from Lord Michael’s crowd, hooligan mooks from Brooklyn and Staten Island—to melt together in a giant, nightly love-in. “It was Caligula with music,” one observer recalls in the film. Alig, interviewed from prison and surprisingly clean-cut and sweet-natured, remembers a Limelight game called What’s My Line?, where several rails of different substances were carved out on a table and snorters had to guess which drug they’d just ingested. It was “degeneracy without negative consequences,” he sighs. Not for long.
The ecstasy era was also the crack era, and the gang-related street violence of the latter trade led to the election of former US Attorney and zero-tolerance law-and-order candidate Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Abetted by his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, Giuliani went on a crusade against drugs and deviance in the city, soon alighting on Gatien as the Mephistopheles of E, even though the all-business club owner rarely used substances and hardly even drank on the job. The rest of the film concerns Giuliani’s relentless pursuit of Gatien, the closing and reopening of Limelight, and an absurd trial where witnesses for the prosecution (informants, including the recently imprisoned murder suspect Alig) ended up discrediting not only the undercover cops assigned to the case but also each other. Gatien was acquitted of the drug-related charges but later pled guilty to tax evasion and ended up being deported to Canada in 2003. Corben effectively blends period club footage and news reports with talking-head interviews with Gatien, Alig, Lord Michael, and many others in a club-style “bar” illuminated by acid colors. Like Abel Ferrara’s 2008 doc Chelsea on the Rocks, about the last days of the famous bohemian hotel, Limelight is a paean to a lost New York that was sleazier and more dangerous—but also more fun. In a telling conclusion, it is revealed that the Limelight church is now a luxury minimall.
Focusing on a very different (though equally druggy) underground, French-born, New York–based Marie Losier offers the unique love story of Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV frontperson Genesis P-Orridge and his soulmate, arty former dominatrix Lady Jaye. Meeting in a New York dungeon in the early ’90s, the couple were married in 1993 and soon began to merge their identities, seeking “pandrogyny.” They dyed their hair platinum, underwent facial surgery and other operations (including getting breast implants on the same day), and blended their names and personae to the extent that Genesis speaks in what could be taken as the royal “we” (until you realize that s/he’s speaking for both of them). Shot over seven years in intimate circumstances, the film sutures together different film stocks and styles, with experimental interludes (some reminiscent of a low-budget Derek Jarman) linking the handheld 16-mm scenes.
This makes for a sweet, if bizarre, domestic tableau until, beyond tragically, Jaye dies of a seizure in 2007, about three-quarters of the way through the film. It’s a totally unexpected and uncalled-for moment, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho (1960) or the killing of the son in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). You can’t believe that anyone, not the viewers and certainly not the remaining subject, can go on. But Losier shows Genesis gamely surviving, he/r complete immersion in Jaye’s identity ironically enabling he/r to maintain a measure of positivity. Many people say that their deceased loved ones are “still with us,” but Genesis’s unshakable belief that this is true of Jaye is terribly convincing—and moving. “Reality is just stuff,” Genesis concludes while sitting in front of a sampling keyboard. A lifelong acolyte of the cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, both of whom s/he befriended, Genesis realizes that physical life is just a sample source for endless remixes. This allows he/r to approach the latest version—that of aging pandrogyne, widow/er, retired musician, and currently active artist-writer—as terrain at once familiar and strange.
If anything ties Gatien and Genesis together, it is their stoicism in the face of extreme reversals—an admirable, much-needed quality in these trying times.
Hartmut Bitomsky, Dust, 2007, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes.
THE RATHER WRITERLY GERMAN director Hartmut Bitomsky likes to quote Oulipian writer Raymond Queneau. A work of art, according to Queneau, needs a rules-based structure. If those rules remain invisible, then the unseen and paranoia-inducing regularities will prey on the mind. The audience need not know the creator’s purpose. Neither, then, do the participants in Bitomsky’s new film, who are earnest German housewives, factory workers, construction laborers, scientists, and intellectuals, all of them occupied or preoccupied with dust.
Bitomsky, who is currently working in grimy Berlin after a long stretch teaching cinema in sunny California, has created a work engineered to feast on the anxieties of tidy-minded Teutons. Dust is his meditative, polymorphous essay on the pulverized: that which remains formless, invasive, unprunable, and uncategorizable. Bitomsky’s dust is not mere meaningless bits of fluffy gray trash, but an itchily anal Freudian antisubstance that pours in through every crack in the German psyche.
Bitomsky never coaches his players; he simply sets up a camera and waits for them to do something unheimlich. They consistently oblige him. Most of the figures portrayed here are burdened with formidable academic learning and gleaming, ultraspecialized machinery. There are a few perky, lighthearted ones, such as the grinning female obsessive who collects lint balls and dust bunnies, categorizes them in fake Linnaean fashion, and preserves choice samples within solid plastic as a kind of “jewelry.” She’s clearly having a ball with her stark confrontation with the ineffable.
As for most of the film’s other women—crop-haired cleaning ladies, glum assembly workers, and dutiful, objective scientists devoid of cosmetics and nail polish—they all tote psychic burdens that would baffle Hitchcock. Locked in intimate combat with irrevocable forces of decay, these fading flowers are morosely resigned to the microfilth that besieges them; each softly falling mote of dust weighs on their souls like an anvil.
The queen among them is surely the museum staffer, who is fluent, heavy-lidded, conscientious, and yet touchingly disheveled in Berlin alterna-girl fashion. This punked-out functionary’s melancholy task is to remove the dust from medieval statuary. She is keenly aware, as she reveals to us, that the ancient, crumbling paint on the drying wood is itself just a kind of dust. The polluted air of modern Berlin and even her own human exhalations are integrating themselves into the very substance of Germany’s cultural heritage. She’s in a quiet, ruthless, unwinnable war of camel’s hair and damp Q-tips. It’s painful to see her postmodern penance at the feet of a crumbling icon whose original artisan probably finished in a week, put down his chisel, and went out for a beer.
There’s also an extensive tour of a paint factory, where plastic tubs of pulverized pigment would seem to offer a golden chance for some sticky, Disney-style polychromatic lyricism. That’s a temptation Bitomsky firmly resists: This rainbow factory is a whirring, clanking tomb, which breeds dust in fantastic profusion. There’s no getting away from the stuff, anywhere; it even haunts high-tech clean rooms where bunny-suited metaphysicians have to chase it down with sponges. Naturally the debris they pursue is commonly skin cells flaking off their own bodies. Ashes to ashes.
As the film rumbles on, spewing dense clouds of billowing particles, the scale methodically expands. Closets become echoing clean rooms, dead factories become exploding quarries, and quarries become old battlegrounds bedizened with toxic, fetus-wrecking spews of depleted uranium shells, which saw lavish use in Iraq and Kosovo. The eponymous Dust Bowl also takes its turn on the stage, where yesterday’s hapless Okies endured desiccating woes that make Katrina look like a cakewalk.
As a documentarist whose previous works pondered (among other subjects) bomber aircraft, road construction, and an aging movie studio, Bitomsky is known for his wry repurposing of found footage. In Dust, he’s outdone himself by finding some grainy reels literally eaten up with dust. These are writhing, spotty, and ontologically horrible, like some Man Ray experiment in cinematic autocannibalism.
In Oulipian fashion, Dust is a 35-mm film that tackles the smallest object that can be captured on film. As is pointed out in voice-over, film itself is merely colored micrograins haphazardly stuck to a frail plastic substrate. One hates to contemplate the inspired riffing Bitomsky might bring to digital bits, which are just like dust, only not even visible.
Dust “has its own life,” intones our narrator, who is a definite presence in many of the scenes, although nameless and persistently invisible. This sardonic, gravelly character becomes quite sinister when, still invisible to us, he slyly infiltrates a woman’s home to interrogate her as she twitchily vacuums the upholstery.
Rather than working itself up to a Wagnerian crescendo, the film slows in its closing moments. Dust is finally overwhelmed by its own fine, choking substance, and loses its ability to breathe. One section near the end is downright pedantic, although its topic, the cosmic physics of dust during planet formation, ought to glitter with Carl Sagan–like pop-sci brio. Instead, hapless astrophysicists, trying to get dust to adhere and cohere, find themselves puzzled and frustrated.
Dust is a world of true grit—even our stellar aspirations are grit. We’re compounded of stardust, which, under Bitomsky’s microscope, looks as glumly unpromising as an East German Trabant. Under this film’s shrouded skies—a leaden miasma of coal exhaust, factory smokestacks, and the wind-lofted grains of the perpetually stricken Sahara—we can no longer aspire, or even respire. Our feet are still firmly in the gutter, but the stars are denied us, these days.
Dust plays at the REDCAT in Los Angeles on Monday, May 2, 2011. This essay originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Artforum.
“IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE WORDS,” Claire Denis said when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. “There’s sometimes no need for words.” Denis is a filmmaker who privileges sensory experience, but while she may often strip away words, she never foregoes music, and in fact views it as central to a cinema that strives to act on the unconscious. Since her fourth feature, Nenette and Boni (1996), she has collaborated with the great, perennially underrated British band Tindersticks. (The one exception is her Beau Travail , which used the Benjamin Britten opera of the Herman Melville novel on which the film is loosely based.) Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009, a five-disc box set out this week from the Montreal-based Constellation Records, brings together all six sound tracks (only two of them previously available) that the band—and two of their members, working solo—have composed for Denis.
As with all great director-composer pairings, from Hitchcock-Herrmann to Leone-Morricone to Paul Thomas Anderson’s associations with Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, the Tindersticks make film music that goes far beyond its traditional illustrative role. You could call this a match made in synesthetic heaven—critics have long tagged the Tindersticks’ expansive orchestral rock as “cinematic,” and Denis’s elliptical films certainly have a musical quality—and it’s telling that the musicians have described this artistic kinship in the most fundamental terms. Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples has said that their music and Denis’s films both create “a sense of space”; for violinist and multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, the common factor is that they “don’t fit easily into standard time.”
Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard and the stable of actors that includes Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin, and Isaach de Bankolé, the Tindersticks have become part of Denis’s creative family, long-standing collaborators for whom working together is largely a matter of shared intuition. When Denis says that the Tindersticks are in her films, she means it quite literally, given how deeply embedded each party is in the other’s process. They start when she shows them the script (which tends to be spare), and their music, as it evolves, helps her find the rhythm and shape of the films.
Denis met the band at a show in Paris in the mid-’90s. At that point they had made two albums (1993 and 1995, both self-titled, still their high-water marks), and the wide-screen sweep of their baroque romanticism made them naturals for film music (parallel to their relationship with Denis, the band has worked with the British filmmaker Martin Wallace on a series of “companion films,” among them a Super 8 charmer for the second album’s “Traveling Light”). Denis had just finished writing Nenette and Boni, an intimate brother-sister story set in Marseille, and had been listening compulsively to “My Sister,” a droll, delicate mumbled-word number from the 1995 album. The Nenette and Boni score, which largely riffs on the shimmering “My Sister” (beginning with a rearranged instrumental version called “Ma Soeur”), goes a long way toward creating the film’s daydream atmospherics.
The range of the sound tracks speaks to the band’s versatility, and of course to Denis’s appetite, her desire never to make the same film twice. Trouble Every Day (2001), her notorious tale of vampiric, cannibalistic sex, matches the Tindersticks’ predilection for orchestral gothic, right on the cusp of beauty and dissonance, tenderness and savagery. (Denis said of the film, “It starts with a kiss and ends with a bite.”) For Friday Night (2002), an altogether more civilized erotic fable, set in an enchanted (though traffic-clogged) Paris, Hinchliffe conjures an air of expectancy and quiet delight from a narrowed musical palette and a small string section. Staples, handling the more opaque and experimental The Intruder (2004), accompanies the hallucinatory final journey of a man and his fading, newly transplanted heart with a kind of cardiogram motif: a repetitive guitar loop, by turns lulling and ominous.
After making six studio albums, the band members took a break for solo projects, and half of the original sextet—Staples, keyboardist Dave Boulter, and guitarist Neil Fraser—regrouped in 2007. (Hinchliffe has gone on to a prolific scoring career in indie film, working with Ira Sachs, Debra Granik, and James Marsh.) The reformed band scored Denis’s last two films, the Ozu-inspired father-daughter drama 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and the roiling postcolonial African nightmare White Material (2009). As with their predecessors, these are sound tracks that easily survive the transposition to home listening even as they instantly summon a welter of indelible images for anyone who has seen the films. A wistful melodica refrain brings to mind the crisscrossing railway tracks of 35 Shots; slow-building crescendos evoke the stealthy progress of the child soldiers in White Material––a testament to the respective power of the images and of the music but, more than that, to their mysterious inseparability.
The Tindersticks will perform with scenes from Denis’s films on April 30 in Los Angeles at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex and at the Castro Theater on May 2 as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.