PRINT Summer 2008


Jacques Nolot

IN THE FILMS OF JACQUES NOLOT, weakness of the flesh implies bodily decline as much as unbidden desire. Nolot’s unflinching camera looks with equal asperity and tenderness on the corpse of an old woman with its hairless vagina, spreading breasts, and wizened skin; aging drag queens in erratic mascara and tortuously extruded bosoms prowling the periphery of a porn theater; and the filmmaker’s own naked corpulence, its mottled sag blue-lit and afflicted in a nighttime kitchen. While Nolot’s protagonists, acted by the handsome director as obvious versions of himself, gloat that “other people’s troubles exhilarate me” or “I don’t believe in happiness, especially other people’s,” his films never succumb to schadenfreude. Their vision of human triviality and carnal chagrin may depend on disgust or ridicule, but Nolot’s directness and self-implicating wit avert the baleful. Absently wiping ass lube into his hair during sex with a young hustler, or confiding to a traffic cop that he just shit himself, Nolot maintains his dignity by accepting that each new day brings fresh ruin and humiliation, but also the possibility of fugitive pleasure.

In person that rare thing, the reticent libertine, Nolot allows no such discretion in his art. His autobiographical trilogy—L’Arrière Pays (Hinterland, 1998), La Chatte à deux têtes (Porn Theatre, 2002), and Avant que j’oublie (Before I Forget, 2007)—unabashedly chronicles Nolot’s life over the past two decades, his body waning but his persona remaining essentially the same: tamped, watchful, mordantly amused at frailty when not exasperated by his own. (In a bildungsroman way, the story of his youth is backfilled in two earlier films written by Nolot and directed by André Téchiné—La Matiouette [1983] and J’embrasse pas [I Don’t Kiss, 1991]—which encompass his flight from his rural birthplace, his arrival in Paris after living rough in the provinces, his life as a young gigolo whose clientele included Roland Barthes, and his first return home, hair tinted blond, at the age of twenty-two, in a Mercedes convertible: “a malicious pleasure of provocation,” according to Nolot.) Each of his three films laments the passing of a way of existence, memorializing, respectively, his mother, his adopted son who died of AIDS, his own failing life.

L’Arrière Pays, one of the most remarkable feature debuts of the past decade, was shot in Marciac, the village in southwestern France where Nolot was born. Encouraged by Agnès Godard, the cinematographer who has also worked miracles for Claire Denis, Nolot took great risks as a neophyte director, especially in using nonprofessionals for almost all the supporting roles. (He did the casting in a village café.) The locals’ raw authenticity, what Nolot calls their “maladresse,” or clumsiness, stands in contrast to his urbane, gay outsider, Jacques Pruez, a minor television celebrity who returns to his hometown from Paris to see his dying mother. Revealing its origins in a novel unfinished by Nolot, Pays consists of three chapters: Jacques’s arrival, up to his mother’s death (and the shocking sequence of the washing and dressing of her corpse, which culminates in a reverse pietà); the funeral and various encounters and confrontations with family and villagers, in which secrets are revealed that overturn Jacques’s grasp of his past; and, finally, Jacques’s delayed leave-taking, including the sudden interjection of a remembered adolescent fantasy involving rugby players and bullfighters, locked in homoerotic rites, their tight pants revealing what French alliteratively elides as la queue et les couilles, otherwise known as cock and balls. (Nolot once remarked that if Jacques Rivette could show Emmanuelle Béart naked for four hours in La Belle Noiseuse, he could indulge his own proclivities.)

The film’s early sequences seem made under the sign of Bresson: no nondiegetic music; elliptical imparting of information; a materialist sound track and cutting style that places images side by side like objects; and Nolot’s own stoppered walk, frugal and indrawn, like that of a Bresson “model.” Nolot recalled “a fear of feeling” during the film’s making, and the occasional derisiveness and overall stylistic concision seem ramparts against unwanted sentimentality. Nolot’s regard is sec, rigorous, even as his characters—Jacques’s hedonistic father; his brother, a policeman imploding in long-nurtured rancor; an aunt who blithely admits to pro-German sympathies during the war—challenge his detachment. Pays is bracingly edited, its final section accelerated to imply a sense of imminent escape, though the film relies overall on extended takes and protracted pans within constricted space—shots whose length serves less an aesthetic of duration than a practical function, emphasizing the emotional connections between characters (and relying on a boggling amount of memorization as Nolot’s amateur actors deliver copious dialogue without benefit of edits).

L’Arrière Pays reminds one of Maurice Pialat’s La Gueule ouverte (The Mouth Agape, 1974) and Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses (1974) and La Rosière de Pessac (The Virgin of Pessac, 1979), but Nolot rejects any notion of cinematic influence or reference—despite the poster for Raúl Ruiz’s Généalogies d’un crime at a local gas station in the film. Pays, however, did follow immediately on such harbingers of an emerging rural naturalism in French cinema as Sandrine Veysset’s Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël? (Will It Snow for Christmas?, 1996) and Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus (1997), much as Nolot’s second film, La Chatte à deux têtes, seemed to reflect the New French Extremity of its time—the strenuously transgressive cinema of such provocateurs as Catherine Breillat and Gaspar Noé. Though ultimately too sweet, endearing, and humane to align with that trend, Chatte clearly shares the aim to shock and unsettle, with its hard-ons and cum shots, its salty talk (“I need cock,” huffs a Christian Schad–looking transvestite) and dank environs: This cinema calls for nonskid shoes and doesn’t Scotchgard its seats. (The film’s English title, Porn Theatre, captures nothing of the piquant smuttiness of its French original, itself a sly dig at Cocteau’s two-headed eagle.)

The closed world of L’Arrière Pays becomes even more contracted in Chatte, a chamber drama that derives quite conspicuously from a theater production. The porn cinema, already an anachronism and soon to disappear, becomes an arena of indeterminacy under Nolot’s telling eye. The porn on its screen may be straight, but the trysting in the loges is anything but—all male and of every persuasion. Gays, straights, trannies, don’t knows, and not sures mix it up and get it off with one another, though more often not: Many are left alone or smoldering, some resorting to unhinged persistence, like the butterball in tawny wig and electric blue blouse who sings the habanera from Carmen between hapless attempts at seduction. Nolot, his usual reserved, intent self, plays a character identified only as “the fifty-year-old man,” who waits in the midst of this maelstrom, bills of various denominations tucked in socks and pockets should any encounter require payment. Alibis, lying, and self-delusion prevail: A soldier, determined to maintain his straight identity, demands fifty francs before cumming on his own tummy. One thinks of Genet (the aura of ritual) and Cocteau (the Orphic journey), and, oddly, of Jean Renoir. Chatte turns out to be, amid the flying jizz and wonky wigs, a Renoirian social comedy, presided over by a seen-it-all, done-it-all, whiskey-tippling Mamma Parigi (Vittoria Scognamiglio), the cinema’s philosophical cashier. Chatte ends as Nolot, cashier, and projectionist—a sweet, straight young kid from Auch, where, he says, “everyone is normal”—head off for a shared assignation, proving that two heads are better than one and three is never a crowd.

The black hole that enlarges to eventually swallow the screen’s white field before the credits in Nolot’s masterpiece, Before I Forget—a morose variation on the iris-out with which Jacques Demy often began his films—suggests many things: le trou de mémoire, or blackout (literally, “memory hole”); the anus, to which the film frequently refers; and, more drastically, the nothingness that threatens to consume Nolot, here called Pierre. The French word for forgetting suggests oblivion, and Nolot’s sepulchral comedy, which opens in a cemetery, concentrates on loss, decline, abandonment, the imminence of death. An unsentimental requiem for a generation of gay men and its clandestine culture of hustlers, rent boys, kept men, and fleeting lovers, Forget finds Pierre, who has lived twenty-four years with HIV, nauseous, insomniac, lonely, suicidal, unable to write, and incapable of routine sex—breathing during fellatio difficult, fucking too painful, a visit to his old cruising grounds ruined by loose bowels. Pierre’s lover has left him (“I’m very unhappy,” he tells the bailiff come to collect on his ex’s parking ticket), his days now punctuated less by sex than by mittfuls of pills.

Bristling with malicious wit and stinging aperçus—“You can go down a floor,” someone once warned Pierre’s boyfriend about the young gigolo, “but not to the basement”—Before I Forget rivals the logorrhea of Rohmer. Crisply photographed in slow pans and locked shots in even, precise light—cinematography that seems an emanation of French rationality—the film consists of a series of conversations between Pierre and old acquaintances, mostly about sex, decrepitude, and money. “I sublimate,” Pierre jokes to a friend who is increasingly “greedy” for rent boys though he owes four hundred thousand francs in back taxes on his ancien régime digs. Sums stipple dialogue—thirty thousand francs for rent, eighty euros for the shrink, and amounts paid in various currencies for Slavic tricks, Brazilian boys, the Moroccan delivery man who desultorily allows Pierre to fellate him in a barber’s chair—the talk preoccupied with matters of inheritance and commerce. (The film could well be called L’Argent.)

Containing rage with formal refinement, Nolot returns to the materialism of L’Arrière Pays: an emphatic sound track (birdsong, traffic, footsteps, the cracking of tablets), straight-cut shots, and a camera that sometimes lingers a beat or two after actors have exited the frame. Aside from a couple of mismanaged moments—a clumsy flashback of a dash through Paris streets interpolated into a lunchtime discussion, a showy Resnaisian tracking shot—Nolot soberly holds back, so that when he finally does let go, in a closing sequence of reckless beauty, the effect is of inundation. His mustache shorn, Pierre arrives in full drag at a Pigalle porn theater accompanied by his young trick Marc, who has convinced him to act out their shared fantasy. Loosed from the bonds of his being, Pierre leans against the foyer wall, lights a cigarette, toys with his wig, and contemplates his fate while a mournful trombone from the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony slowly wells on the sound track—an oblique invocation, perhaps, of Visconti’s Death in Venice. Hesitantly, as if deferring his embrace of the end, Pierre enters the cinema, his arms and legs glimmering in the obscurity, the darkness consuming him, counterpart of the ingestive void at the film’s beginning. Apotheosis and surcease, a blaze of splendor before oblivion.

Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget opens at the IFC Center in New York on July 18.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.