Toutes les nuits
It is fascinating to step back 21 years, in Eugène Green’s filmmaking career, to his debut feature, Toutes les nuits – made when he was already 53 years old. At first glance, almost everything in Green’s cinema seems to arrive fully formed here: the very particular syntax of actors looking into the camera to deliver their lines; the preponderance of shots of hands and feet; the occasional “pillow shots” of a depopulated place or space; the spare use of baroque music.
His “world view” – to which we shall return – also seems entirely in place: a sublime, “courtly” vision of absolute love based on distance and denial; the chaste (fade out fast!) depiction of physical relations; sarcasm toward any sign of modernity in thought or manners. Even his beloved candles – paradoxical sign of a pre-industrial illumination caught by a post-industrial camera – are already well in evidence. (For an excellent retrospective appreciation of the film, see Sarah Elkaïm’s review from 2009.)
No one who has ever seen even the shortest work subsequently made by Green – I am particularly fond of Le Pont des Arts (2004), Correspondances (2007), La Sapienza (2014) and How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal (2018) – needs to be told that the general stylistic orientation of his work is proudly “Bressonian”. It is even, in a certain way, even more Bressonian than Bresson: a method or approach hardened into a tight system that is rarely deviated from by Green.
This has long become, by 2021, an almost comical aspect of watching each new Green film (and perhaps deliberately so): one can predict exactly how and when the découpage will click into its pre-arranged moves of side-by-side two-shot, then alternating mid-shots (into camera), then alternating close-ups (ditto) … with, all the while, the actors keeping a straight face as they utter the gravest statements about life, love, art and faith. Green’s sensibility is, in fact, not adverse to a little comedy, and this tendency has pushed further toward physical farce in, for example, passages of Le Fils de Joseph (2016, among his weaker efforts).
Toutes les nuits, in this regard, offers the somewhat ragged pleasure of seeing the Green system not yet fully clamped onto the scripted material of every scene. With his key collaborators including recurring cast members (such as Christelle Prot and Adrien Michaux, both present here) and cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne, all the signs and intentions are there but not quite their super-precise execution: the images do not always have the clean luminosity they will acquire later; the actors are still sometimes allowed to be a bit fidgety and “emotive” in a manner that will come to be extremely controlled in the years of work to follow.
There are even (for Green) small flourishes, moments of excess – odd cut-aways, a tracking camera movement inwards – that will later be expunged, or at least more precisely placed within the structured ensemble. In particular, the looks-into-camera that will eventually only be used for dialogue scenes (or the highest, reflective points of the narrative) are scattered everywhere here, almost like in a Peter Watkins film: they serve as constantly reiterated and varied portrait-shots where characters, alone, present themselves to us, usually at the conclusion of scenes.
One could say, indeed, that Toutes les nuits is Bressonian in a way that is equivalent (or at least comparable) to Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses (1974) – at once “applied Bresson”, somewhat mechanical and clumsy in this application (as Luc Moullet has argued in relation to Eustache); but also Bresson forcibly taken to some non- (even anti-) Bressonian places.
Above all – and herein lies the essential interest of Toutes les nuits – the particular novelistic format chosen to tell the tale (based loosely on Flaubert’s 1849 The First Sentimental Education, preceding the better-known, official version of 1869) is far from Bresson’s practice. It is striking to realise, in comparison, how compressed the plot action of Bresson’s films generally tends to be, even with all their famous ellipses taken into consideration: there’s the break between childhood and adulthood in Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), but normally Bresson contrives a tight flashpoint of days and weeks in which something unravels in one, circumscribed setting (man in a cell, woman in a village or an apartment, priest in a parish …).
Toutes les nuits is, however, a sweeping chronicle of friendship and love taking us, across many far-flung spots (Paris, London, Aix-en-Provence), from 1967 to the late 1970s – and thus also a cultural and historical testament passing through (rather derisively) May 1968 and its aftermath. Après Flaubert, Green may well be loosely keying the plot template to his own experiences and memories: ’67 is the year when, at age 20, and having been (in his own account) bouleversé by a viewing of Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), he relocated to Paris and “reinvented” himself as French, angrily erasing (as he showily does in all his work) his “barbaric” American roots.
Two men (Michaux as Jules and Alexis Loret as Henri) and a woman (Prot as Émilie) “conjoin”, variously, across this passage of time. But it is no jaunty Jules and Jim tangle; the film’s central poetic matrix is that of experiencing, and coming to accept, “solitude in the night”, a night that at once shared, stark, and infinitely open in its possibilities. Distance, separation, indirect communication rule the narrative here – hence the epistolary device of diary entries written and letters sent (and read on the soundtrack) between them, familiar from Bresson in the ‘50s (but not, interestingly, later). While Émilie leaves her husband and “gives her body” to Henri, her heart comes to belong to Jules – whom she literally never meets (in a prime Rivettean moment, they pass and do not recognise each other at a crossroads).
Long after their dissolution as a couple, Émilie will contrive to have a daughter by Henri (without telling him), and – in what she describes as “the most important act of her life”, driven by a divine “sign” – will make love with another man named Jules for one night only, a criminal decked out with Christ’s stigmata (Green is never afraid to include such grand, quasi-melodramatic conceits). In the meantime, that daughter (Juliet Combet) has been shipped off to be raised by Émilie’s older ex-husband; Jules, in the final sequence, has a high-flown, philosophical exchange with her that chimes as one of Green’s best screen accomplishments.
It is a more sexual (while never being graphic!) film than Green has allowed himself to make since (and thus the resonance with Eustache, Benoît Jacquot in his occasional Bressonian mode, or even Jean-Claude Brisseau – where, in all these cases, asceticism goes with erotic arousal). Indices of an almost Garrelian “sentimental education” – including the crucial, recurring presence of prostitutes – fill the storyline. Of special note is the way that the “two childhood mates sharing the same woman” schema – however delicately handled by Green – opens up to a queer dimension more likely to be mocked and fled in his later work.
When Jules and Henri return to the rocky pool in Aix-en-Provence where they gazed upon their “primal scene” of the “savage” whore bathing naked – and that’s about as close as they ever get to her – their bare feet touch and do not flinch away from this chaste but charged “embrace”; a little earlier, in the sequel to a mutual water-splashing frolic, they even share a small, single bed, giggling like kids as they wiggle around in close, bodily proximity – a truly disarming and lovely scene, unusual within the Green œuvre.
Let’s be clear: the hint of “virtual” male queerness is noble and sublime, but lesbianism does not fare so well here! This returns us to the political and cultural context of the tale. There has been, right from the first, an obvious, sometimes heavy-handed, even frankly silly dimension of social satire in Green, and here it takes shape in gags about MLF (the French Women’s Liberation Movement), women wanting to cut guys’ balls off, and (weirdly) Marguerite Duras – the type of “interesting person” that Émilie subsequently decides is not very interesting at all.
Although there are a couple of minimalistic shots of Jules at the May ’68 barricades and a nasty-looking cop who’s just whacked this “innocent” on the head, the revolution (and its lingering zeitgeist aftermath) is just a big joke to Green: it’s always cast (as in Erik Anderson’s My Thesis Film, 2018) as a battle between the sublime beauty-truth, deep emotion, and eternal “order” of Art on the one hand and, on the other hand, the fashionable, ideological idiocies about “fascist, bourgeois aesthetics” spouted by angry young, feminist women in cafés and a disapproving lecturer in a vaguely “structuralist” classroom of the early ‘70s (who admonishes Jules with “I have never heard such a reactionary statement from one so young” – and he does kinda have a point there … ).
Searching for something else while writing this piece, I stumbled by chance upon a telling remark by Green in an article – a tribute to the book of Bresson’s collected interviews (English edition: Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943-1983) – from a 2016 issue (no. 100) of Trafic. He’s describing the famous exchange between Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard from 1966, included in that book and in the classic James Quandt anthology Robert Bresson (Cinematheque Ontario, 1998 & subsequently expanded). Green has to admit to, and even admire, Godard’s appreciation and respect for the Master. But look at how he describes the contextual moment of that starred meeting: “In 1966, Cahiers du cinéma, and Godard in particular, represented the political – one could say today, mediatic – triumph of the Nouvelle Vague. Bresson had always been, and would remain, a solitary creator, isolated from all trends and fashions” (Green’s article, moreover, bears the title “The Voice in the Wilderness”). What a loaded way to arrange that mise en scène! Bresson, “solitary creator”, had no truck with “mediatic” self-presentation? (Quite the contrary, as several studies have shown.) The entirety of the Nouvelle Vague (Godard especially) is merely a “political” sideshow?
Green, as much he may wish or imagine himself in the role of solitary creator beyond trends and fashions, clearly cannot resist getting his hands dirty with his own, Hussar-style, ideological potshots and provocations (another link, in fact, to the more “sordid” Eustache persona); these span the give-away thank-you in the end credits of Toutes les nuits to all those who “respect the French language”, to elaborate Monty Pythonesque chuckles over “American gender studies” (identity politics is just another USA aberration for him!) in his most recent work, Atarrabi & Mikelats (2020), via low jibes at gays with ludicrous high voices in Le Pont des arts. Not to mention that unfortunate, boorish and insensitive “Aussie tourist” in La Sapienza! Or the late 2020 incident at the San Sebastián film festival, where Green was unceremoniously ejected for refusing to wear a mask during screenings. One can almost hear him (in one’s imagination) protesting during that “mediatic” scene: “You cannot encroach on my personal freedom!” Such is the speech-cry of a certain species of reactionary.
This caricatural, conservatively-driven aspect of Green’s art is assuredly not his best side. But there’s plenty left over once that’s been acknowledged, and Toutes les nuits shunts us instantly into what can be most moving and expressive in his work. It’s a fitting introduction, and an impressive start, to his filmmaking output.
© Adrian Martin 21 January 2021