I can happily watch almost any film directed by Benoît Jacquot. Of course, his relatively prolific output is uneven, and his subject or script material can be stronger or weaker from one work to the next. At times, a sketch-like haste is all too apparent, especially in his television assignments.
But a certain quality is almost always there: a fluid elegance of mise en scène (often widescreen) and dramatic construction; an ability to coax the best from actors and give them a detailed characterisation to work with; an often affecting, emotive punch – especially in the well-timed transitions from long take two-shots to reverse-shot, over-the-shoulder volleys. In Jacquot’s cinema, the human face always captivates.
There is usually also, on another level of film form, an aura of freedom that is a proud legacy of the Nouvelle Vague in French cinema – sudden, ostentatious, “narrational” touches where we are made deliberately aware of the hand of filmmaker: like shock edits or transitions; whip pans; or a hitherto unheard voice-over (whether of a character or an impersonal storyteller) making an unheralded appearance midway through a film. The kinds of touches that send some reviewers barmy, like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky complaining, in relation to Jacquot’s version of Diary of a Chambermaid (2015), about “barely motivated flourishes of style”. But Jacquot claims his artistic right to such flourishes, which will not be disguised within the “motivated” fabric of a purely classical mode.
There is something else, again, that speaks to me and resonates in Jacquot’s work: an intimate and deep feeling for dissociation. In his best films, including La Désenchantée (1990), À tout de suite (Right Now, 2004) and Au fond des bois (2010), we closely follow characters who are, to varying degrees, “out of themselves”, walking through life like sleepwalkers – but not, for all that, entirely “alienated” in any recognisable or conventional sense. It appears to be a different generation of dissociation than what we used to witness in Antonioni, for instance, or even today in TV’s The Girlfriend Experience.
The relation between thought and feeling, commitment and constancy, work and fulfilment, sex drive and death drive, always seem to be askew – and yet, somehow, people go on functioning, and relating to each other, however catastrophically in society’s terms. Some elegant pattern of dissociated interrelation still manages to trace itself out – and this, too, creates problems for the critical reception of Jacquot’s films, damned for their apparent surfeit of (to cite Vishnevetsky again) “surface pleasures”. The “cruising” ambience of Jacquot’s work, so much a part of his style, allows us to float among these surface pleasures – and surface anxieties.
To grasp a logic to this unusual spectacle of the emotions – often pitched, in terms of its scenography, at the shut-in level of chamber drama, or even the more enclosed session of the analyst’s couch – we need to understand Jacquot’s close relationship to psychoanalysis, particularly of the Lacanian variety. (He once married into the Lacan family, and old Jacques himself – for whom Jacquot had made the talking-head video document Télévision in 1973 – devotedly wrote a celebrity-review of his first feature, L’Assassin musicien, in 1976.) Raymond Bellour has referred to Jacquot (in the course of a discussion of Au fond des bois, one of several of his films dealing with varieties of the hypnotic seance) as a “devoted Lacanian”. From that particular, complicated web of Lacanian culture in France, I shall draw only a particular, general attitude toward human desire (popularised today by Zizek) – desire that is at once tormented, forever displaced and, in its own, strange way, constitutive of everyday reality.
In Jacquot’s films, it comes down to this. Very often his stories hit a plateau where something resembling “normal life” – marriage, kids, work – is being lived. It’s not necessarily unhappy or dissatisfying: as Three Hearts shows, in the relationship of tax officer Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde) and his wife Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), there is sexual pleasure, happiness, even a kind of “complete” love. But there is also the sense – beautifully conveyed by Jacquot’s stylistic treatment of such plateaux of normality – that his characters (or, at least, the chosen, central figures) are in a kind of trance: the years are racing past, fading away, and its protagonists are not really “there”, while all the same being fully there. There is an unconventional itch at work: what Alain Resnais called, à propos his masterpiece Wild Grass (2009), a “desire to desire”. A very Lacanian condition!
It’s the same “ordinary” state – chilling (in this case) in its affectless banality – that Lili (Isild Le Besco) arrives at in the finale of À tout de suite. Yet what preceded it – and what often fills out the drama of Jacquot’s cinema – is no less unreal: an explosion of desire, burning up in an incandescence of lust or crime or exotic adventure, or simply the groundless state of “getting away from yourself” and going elsewhere, as Ann (Isabelle Huppert) does in Villa Amalia (2009). It is life lived at the highpoint of fantasy, equally doomed – like normality – to, at some point, evaporate. Jacquot’s films swing between these two modes of evaporation of the self, of our ego-identity.
Three Hearts comes closer than Jacquot usually does to pure melodrama, even TV-oriented “soap opera” intrigue. The script – co-written with three-time collaborator Julien Boivent, who also works with Anne Fontaine – seems to take a leaf from (of all things) Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957): its opening movement hinges on the missed rendez-vous between Marc and the woman he encounters on the night streets of Lyon, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Once that connection is manqué and the two characters are safely ensconced in separate, distant countries, Marc then “just happens”, without knowing it, to get involved with Sophie – Sylvie’s sister.
Jacquot deftly handles the implausibility of the situation (that Marc could pass weeks and months without twigging to this fact of sibling relation) by insisting on a wilful disavowal on Marc’s part: he fully knows there is a whole stairwell of photos at the house of their mother, Madame Berger (Catherine Deneuve), that could prove or disprove his silent suspicions … In fact, this is part and parcel of that “unreality of normality” which Jacquot nails so well. We walk on through our days and nights, blind …
Unlike, say, Olivier Assayas in laboured films such as Personal Shopper (2016), Jacquot doesn’t make a big deal about “new technology” as a defining part of his characters’ everyday life. But, nonetheless, he contrives the most powerful moments of Three Hearts – veritably Lacanian “brushes with the Real”! – around the uncanny effects of this technology: the marvellous scene where Marc “confronts” or unveils his presence to Sylvie, without saying a word, simply by turning Sophie’s Skype connection on – resulting in Sylvie coming close to her screen and scanning it, staring at it in disbelief. Likewise, the crucial moment near the very end where both sisters anxiously utter the name “Marc” … with one of them sounding through a mobile phone dropped on the floor.
The “three hearts” of the title refer, of course, to this agonised, sentimental triangle, but also, in the manner of Hollywood “weepies” like Untamed Heart (1993), to the actual, physical heart problem suffered by Marc – he has several episodes cardiac arrest in the course of the story. This “bad heart” is less a heavy-handed, dramatic metaphor, in this instance, than a key to characterisation, performance and direction: Jacquot always gives his players a very specific, physical “bearing” and traits to work with.
Poelvoorde is an actor I have never noticed much prior to this film, but here he is remarkable, with his way of leaning his head forward, his nervous tics, his rudely inquisitive manner … Equally impressive is Mastroianni, who plays Sophie as someone always too close to her emotions, on the verge of fright or panic at all times. Gainsbourg plays emotional reserve: especially in the scene of a family dinner, her stony evasion of Marc’s look is formidable … until the second, worthy of the glances at the end of Garrel’s Les baisers de secours (1989), when she decides to give him the eye, full on.
I have elsewhere pondered the “trouble with fiction” that an entire generation or two of modern filmmakers seem to experience when they are faced with the prospect of conveying a “full-blooded” story on screen: better by far, it appears, to play it down, elide it, minimise it, de-dramatise it, stretch it out or compress it, place it in figurative quotation marks … Jacquot is part of this generational movement (as many of his films show), but in Three Hearts he bravely, gamely takes the bait: he goes all the way with melodrama, and the result is very satisfying.
MORE Jacquot: The School of Flesh
© Adrian Martin January 2018