O gt votre sourire enfoui?

(Pedro Costa, France, 2001)


Pedro Costa's Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (roughly, "where lies your hidden smile?") is a portrait of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (or, as the French love to say, the Straubs) at work – and, historically, the final episode of the famous television series Cinéma de notre temps.

Costa's two-hour cut, for cinema screening, is his preferred version; I cannot imagine it a second shorter. It is a film that inspires superlatives – I heard it described variously as the best film about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and the best documentary of its kind – but such praises, for me, fall short: it is quite simply a masterpiece, among the best documentaries of any kind that I have ever seen.

Costa, in his illuminating presentation of the work at the 2001 Rotterdam Film Festival, spoke of his admiration for and affinity with his subjects – summarised in the sublime formula of "patience, concentration and work, work, work" – and clarified some of the deliberately withheld mysteries of his portrait: such as the fact that, all the time Huillet sits at the editing machine (cutting a new version of Sicilia! [1999] still sadly unseen in any form in Australia) and Straub strides in and out of the room, ceaselessly raving, they are in fact presenting a three week-long masterclass of sorts to a group of film students assembled nearby in darkness.

And Costa confessed to his surprise realisation, on finishing the film, that he had inadvertently made his "first comedy" and his "first love story" – and his immense pleasure that these most ascetic of filmmakers should have ended up embodying such genres in the flesh. (The tag line for the film's French cinema release in 2003 went one better, calling it a "comedy of re-montage".)

What a movie this is. Without the slightest bit of forcing, without the slightest trace of sentimentality – indeed, as Costa put it, Straub and Huillet behave for the most part like animals trapped together in a cage – we are made to grasp, equally and simultaneously, the puristic political materialism of these filmmakers (Straub's dissertation on dishonest sound mixing is classic) and the incredible intimacy that has grown between them over fifty years together. The '80s Godardian aphorism – work to love, love to work – has never attained such visible, palpable reality as here. Watching in enormous detail their editing process – the systematic variables that dictate cuts (looks, pauses, where a word or gesture physically begins and ends for them), the reflections on acting performance, the struggle to every time find an exact, truthful rhythm – is an exceptional, magisterial lesson in cinema. Costa's own work with the digital format – nailing down absolutely static frames and embracing the fact that much of what he shows is shrouded in inky darkness – truly radicalises this new medium.

And – the mark of a great film – Où gît votre sourire enfoui? has a perfectly chosen beginning (after a gruelling editing decision, Straub concludes: "There's one frame difference between us!") and ending (the filmmakers watching and waiting outside the hall, and handling their anxiety in different ways, as the screening of Sicilia! concludes inside).

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? provides, apart from anything else, a welcome entrée to the work of Costa, hitherto unknown to many except as a name on lists and in articles.

© Adrian Martin March 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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