La vie nouvelle

(Philippe Grandrieux, France, 2002)


Dance Girl Dance

Since its premiere screenings in late 2002, Philippe Grandrieux's second feature La vie nouvelle (The New Life) has been a cause célèbre. On its theatrical release in France, it was savaged by a large number of prominent newspaper and magazine reviewers. But the film has many passionate defenders, and their responses have been solicited for Nicole Brenez's book La vie nouvelle: nouvelle vision (Editions Leo Scheer, 2003), and on an episode of Contre Culture Générale broadcast on Zaléa TV, 22 January 2003.

Grandrieux's work plunges us into every kind of obscurity: moral ambiguity, narrative enigma, literal darkness. La Vie Nouvelle presents four characters in a severely depressed Sarajevo who are caught in a mysterious, death-driven web: the feckless American Seymour (Zach Knighton), his mysterious companion (lover? friend? brother? father?) Roscoe (Marc Barbé), the demonic Mafioso Boyan (Zsolt Nagy), and the prostitute-showgirl who is the exchange-token in all their relationships, Mélania (Anna Mouglalis).

Eric Vuillard's poetically conceived script takes us to the very heart of this darkness where sex, violence, betrayal and obsession mingle and decay. Grandrieux feels freer than ever to explore the radical extremes of film form: in his lighting and compositions and impulsive camera movements; in the bold mix of speech, noise and techno/ambient music (by the celebrated experimental group Etant Donnés); and in the frame-by-frame onslaught of sensations and affects.

Like Grandrieux's brilliant and ground-breaking debut feature Sombre (1998), La Vie nouvelle explores a punk-Sadean view of the human animal and crumbling social structures; far more than Sombre, it has divided audiences and ignited rejection from an affronted critical mainstream. But its advocates believe that this extreme cinema founded on a philosophic investigation of evil is also a blow for avant-garde liberty.

* * *

The films of Philippe Grandrieux pulsate. They pulsate microcosmically: in the images, the camera trembles and flickers so violently that, even within a single, continuous shot, no photogram resembles another. And they pulsate macrocosmically: the soundtrack is constructed globally upon unidentifiable, layered, synthesised, ambient noises of breath or wind, sucked in and expelled, which underlie the entire film and constitute its disturbed heartbeat, returning to our ear when all other sounds have disappeared. In the very beginnings and endings of his films, over the credits, there is nothing but this strangely bodily sound.

And then there are the pulses of music and dance. Grandrieux's films are severely mutated musicals. There is even a song delivered in a seedy Sarajevo nightclub by Anna Mouglalis in La vie nouvelle, reminding us of the spaced-out performances of Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and Asia Argento in Abel Ferrara's New Rose Hotel (1998). The dance music in Grandrieux's films is always driven, anguished. A robotic techno beat overlaid by punk cries, slurs, growls, murmurs. Trance music, fit for Rouch's maîtres fous.

But it is men who are the masters in Grandrieux's spectacles. Boyan in La vie nouvelle is lord of the dance: before the disco crowd, he pumps his fist manically into the air. And more than this: he is the marionette master. Mélania is his puppet. We know already from Sombre how much intensity and importance Grandrieux invests in images of control: its hero, in hiding, literally works Punch and Judy dolls to elicit screams of terror and ecstasy from small children. And so much of the texture of that film – from the disquieting images of cars in ghostly, floating motion to the eerie, disembodied loudspeaker announcements at outdoor sports events – evokes a sort of Mabusian 'remote control' of people and a dispossession of their wills.

Women under the influence. In Grandrieux's films, women seek more than the ecstasy of a trance in their dancing. They are beyond the momentary, transcendental grace of dance offered to Cassavetes-style heroines like the sad ex-lover (Robin Wright) in Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard (1995) or the battered wife-and-mother in Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth (1997). Or rather, Grandrieux's women seek through that trance-dance to escape, to violently tear themselves out of their own skins. To leave behind the impossible contradictions of the intersubjective bind in which they are caught, bought and sold and bartered like slaves, like chattel. Right in the heart of the worst moments – when they are scared, drunk, drugged, on display, menaced from all sides – Grandrieux's women dance. Think of the woman semi-naked in the car headlights in Sombre or, in the same film, Elina Löwensohn hurling herself about to punk-rockabilly as she tries to tell her new beast-captor: "I'm in danger".

Danger. Grandrieux is a filmmaker of the body, but rarely the variable space or interval between bodies, as in Visconti or Murnau or Mizoguchi. There is no space between bodies in Grandrieux; they are jammed together in a difficult, fraught intimacy. All clinches, all embraces are potentially violent, charged with the alienness of the Other and the terror of negotiating his or her too-close presence. From Boyan's cutting of Mélania's hair – a gesture as excruciatingly extended in time as it is collapsed in space – to the terrified inside-out souls lost in subterranean darkness, from the homoerotic rituals of men greeting and drinking to heterosexual violation and a cannibalistic death: bodies meet not in ecstatic abandon but on fearful alert. Mise en scène – the art of bodies in space – is always, subtly or overtly, a dance, but this is the dance of death, the living death of everyday power relations. The two scenes of Mélania's prostitution, one placed directly after the other in Grandrieux's cinema of cruelty, provide an inventory of bodily postures figuring fright, uncertainty, panic and stress, a primal, physical language of animals under threat: Seymour's instant post-coital blues, Mélania's vulnerable nakedness, and the icy upper-body stress of the French client, who finally withdraws into himself and away from the Other in order to masturbate in a fuzzy, atomised blur.

There are many women on stage in Grandrieux's films – showgirls, gyrating as they display their sad flesh, draping themselves over men in order to solicit money as they gaze at themselves vacuously in a mirror (Mélania performs this gesture early in La vie nouvelle, exactly as Seymour becomes entranced by his fantasy of her). The trance or flight offered by dance cannot happen on stage like this, during work hours. It must happen within the Dionysiac confusion of a crowd that is saturated by music and noise, fuelled by intoxicating substances, as it does for the wildly dancing women in Emir Kusturica's Underground (1995) and Black Cat White Cat (1998), women who party like it's 1999. Yet when does the Grandrieux heroine ever leave the stage, completely? That is the question posed in the remarkable five-minute dance sequence towards the end of La vie nouvelle, shortly before Boyan invites Seymour into the thermic inferno.

The sequence develops in stages, closely tied to the progressive layering of tracks in the techno music mix. It begins in silence, with that ambient wind sound soon entering, plus a floating, chiming chord every few seconds. In a first phase, the sequence shows us Boyan caressing Mélania as if to mould her. He is the metteur en scène and the choreographer here, and he directs his puppet to twirl. As often in La vie nouvelle, Grandrieux cleverly contrives unusual, paradoxical effects of speed and movement, always based on the unexpected and uncanny comparison of different vectors or planes in the image. Like the woman who, in the opening shots, remains with eyes wide open while her companion blinks furiously (it is a fast-motion effect), or the other local inhabitants who, while in out-of-focus close-up, later seem to glide slowly through the day-lit landscape on some unseen conveyor belt, here Mélania's spin is irreal: she is clearly on some rotating disc we do not see – a device pioneered by Jean Cocteau in the credits of La Princesse de Clèves (Jean Delannoy, 1961) and extended over an entire film by Miklós Jancsó in The Tyrant's Heart (1981) – and meanwhile the camera's own circular movement confounds the spatial and perceptual paradox.

Boyan's hands fan, flutter, guide, caress, mock Mélania. Boyan turns to his own dance reverie – this is the second phase of the sequence, devoted entirely to shots of him, as a techno beat and a fast bass pattern on a single note enter. Lighting and posture (particularly his hunched position as viewed from the back) transform the marionette master momentarily into a Nosferatu, and images of his face resemble a demon. Then (phase 3) the scene reintegrates Mélania in her increasingly accelerating choreography. Two repeating synthesised notes, a tone apart, fill out the musical space between the bass line and the floating chime-chords. More techno percussion enters, capped off by a disco high-hat cymbal. Mélania's spinning reaches a frenzy, a crescendo. An inspired noise effect has also joined the fray: a whooshing, whip-like sound. At first it seems keyed to Mélania's twirl, but almost instantly it gains a musical, sensorial autonomy, disengaged from synchronisation with the action.

The sequence, now centring on Mélania, reaches its high point of visual defiguration (phase 4). The camera shakes so much in response to her dance that her face in close-up is flattened, stretched, lost, found, from one frame to the next. One can no longer tell what exact gestures she is performing, where she is situated in the room, or even where the line of her body ends and the surrounding environment begins (a pictorial subversion common in Grandrieux). If one freezes these frames of her face, arms, neck and shoulders, a hundred things can be seen or hallucinated, hidden by the défilement: a torso, a cloud, an insect, a mask, sexual organs.

In this fury of defiguration, a miracle is performed, a magical and lyrical transport. The music fades, and there is only, for about five seconds, the whooshing whip sound. Mélania seems weightless, detached from time and space. She is freed at last. But at a certain moment, during this movement of her body, there is a subtle transition – from the reddish background of the rehearsal room to bright lights piercing darkness. The transportation has (although we don't realise this immediately) reversed its direction and fallen back to earth. Mélania is now in a nightclub. The sound tells us this before the image: fade up on a cheering crowd, and the return in full force of the techno music. There is no escape for her.

Now (phase 5) Mélania is again the centre of attention with Boyan, adored by a crowd. Their dancing is intense. While Boyan is certain of his movements, always in control, Mélania dances to get out of herself – an impulse conveyed in her constant violation of, and flight from, the borders of the compositional frame. Sudden cut to a sixth and final phase: the wind-breath sound is prominent, and the music is only a distant, muffled rumble, as if in an adjacent room. Mélania has passed out and is held in Boyan's arms. Away from the crowd (who are glimpsed eerily still in their frenzy, but without the fullness of their soundtrack), Boyan poses with her limp body, like the Pietà, or James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Close-up on Boyan, who looks blankly, then smiles wickedly and throws his head back to laugh. End of sequence.

Is all this a matter of men and women, fixed gender roles, in Grandrieux's cinema? Not quite. For, in the generalised and systematic confusion of forms, identities and elements that is La vie nouvelle, all gestures are dispersed, shared. Roscoe, too, raises his arms to dance like Boyan; but he is alone, the master of nothing, and his little pirouettes anticipate Mélania's frantic, imprisoned spinning. Roscoe and Seymour will also be seen in Pietà-like arrangements. Seymour will be embraced, sculpted, led by Boyan's hands, just as Mélania has been. And the Francis Bacon-style concentration on Mélania's upturned neck during her dancing lift-off and set-down links her to Seymour in the final moments of the film as to the anonymous Sarajevan at its prologue ... La vie nouvelle, this "immense clip" of a film (as Raymond Bellour calls it), bound together by rhythms, pulsations, and screams of horror.

MORE Grandrieux: Un lac

© Adrian Martin March 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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