PRINT September 1996


Île de Beauté

IF AMERICAN ARTISTS HAVE BEEN turning to celluloid in record numbers (Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat being only the latest such venture), the French aren’t far behind, even if they have bypassed Hollywood for the look and feel of experimental film. Last winter, Sophie Calle’s road-movie cum unrequited love story, No Sex Last Night, 1996, an debuted in a few art-house theaters; this fall, Ange Leccia and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster will follow suit with their first filmic effort, Île de Beauté (Island of beauty).

Gonzalez-Foerster, whose own artwork often draws heavily on biographical accounts, worked with Leccia to cull images from his decade-old videos of trips to Corsica (his birthplace) and Japan, then arranged them in a highly evocative, nonchronological sequence. The focus shifts from airplanes, boats, jet streams, and seaside roads—the means and modes of travel—to sparsely populated, at times nearly abstract landscapes. Like much of Leccia’s work, preoccupied as it is with the strange, oddly beautiful intersection of technology and nature, these long, slow sequences have an almost mesmerizing presence.

Though Île de Beauté holds out the promise of narrative, it is not fulfilled. One simply follows the gaze of a never-glimpsed protagonist always heading somewhere yet never actually arriving. What might, described in this way, suggest little more than a clichéd riff on early Wim Wenders, is in fact an equally subtle, nonnarrative meditation on the permeability of memory. Time collapses into itself, as the viewer becomes immersed in the interplay between the images and the carefully crafted sound track—much of it made up of the dull hum of motors and accidental auditory interference—which mixes with the white noise of the theater to conjure an atmosphere of solitary reflection and regret. There is no dialogue; emotion, divorced from narrative, is the sole object of these lyrical sequences. The four or five ’80s variety show–tunes that punctuate the film contribute much toward its psychic charge. Though, admittedly, perhaps you have to be French to appreciate how these Gallic numbers—alternately in their original, saccharine versions and in their recent techno-pop incarnations—manage to suggest at once a nostalgic sentimentality and the cold hard edge of the future. They envelop the spectator in the folds of memory, only to jolt him into a brave new world—the Japan of cyberscapes, corporate culture, and urban anonymity—speaking better than any narrative high jinks of the disjunctive nature of modern experience.

The film ends, in fact, in song, the camera lost in a television screen in which a halogen lamp and an empty room are reflected. Île de Beauté rubs up against the clichéd, the banal; in teetering on this edge it reveals the poetry of the commonplace.

Olivier Zahm contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the French by Sheila Glaser.