À tout de suite
Lili (Isild Le Besco) may already be sleeping with guys, but the condensed, fleeting, in medias res glimpses we get of her in the opening scenes of Benoît Jacquot’s À tout de suite underline her childlikeness: sharing a bed with her gal pal, throwing a tantrum in public. It takes one tiny shift off the beaten track – into a bar where she would normally never go – to plunge Lili into another world, and the instantly electrifying encounter with the Moroccan Bada (Ouassini Embarek).
But if this seems like the start of a Surrealist trip – the birth of love amid décor of everyday life – it is also the beginning of the kind of disorienting, perpetually out-of-phase, potentially fatal hook-up we know from the films of Bruno Dumont or Monte Hellman. And then everything we have seen at the start will fold in on itself, sombrely: there will be infinitely more serious tantrums, and other, graver bed scenes with women to come, far away down the line of the plot.
Second fracture, superbly directed: while eating with her parents at home, Lili gets a sudden phone call from her exotic, mysterious, sensual new man: “I’m inside the bank. Switch on your TV”. And what she sees there hurls her into a different genre of adventure: crime, smuggling money past airport Customs officials, guns, murder, gang (including the lovers) on the run.
Is this a thriller? Not really – or only in that indirect, Bressonian, dedramatised way that Jacquot has often emulated. À tout de suite is sometimes suggestively described as a road movie, but its globe-hopping ellipses never add up to the sort of existential plenitude we sometimes associate with that form: landscapes (Tangiers) and cityscapes (Madrid) alike are rendered as partial glimpses of mostly rushed-past backdrops (train platforms, hotel room curtains, water churned by boats). There is no time to ever stop, settle, take root. And, like in a film noir, paranoia builds, while the members of this motley crew bicker. New encounters bring new and fleeting alliances, but none are to be truly trusted.
Jacquot records, as few others can, the gradual but irrevocable dispossession of a self. Lili loses everything, bit by bit – which is not just something she suffers but, more ambiguously and richly, something she invites, something she so deeply desires. “It was like a holiday, my first holiday. Maybe the only holiday I’ll ever have”. Like Bernardo Bertolucci’s underrated adaptation of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1990), À tout de suite delves into the strangeness (and the underlying terror) of even the most banal, most predetermined holiday: accidents happen, the ego drains away, it is so easy to let go of all that one was, far away back home …
The decisive crack comes around an hour in, at a Greek airport: right outside the doors of the terminal, her accomplices must drive off without her to avoid detection. Penniless, bereft, completely alone and unmoored in every sense, she must give in to the opaque kindness of a Lebanese stranger. From then on, the need to survive mingles with the desire to escape. There is release in drink, dancing, a three-way group-grope; but sexual predation and victimisation is never far away. And will she ever see the face of Bada, that face she often drew in Parisian art class, again? The attempts in the second half of the film by anyone (parents, friends, lovers) to make contact are agonising, and unfulfilling even when they do occur.
Based on an autobiographical memoir titled I Was 18 by Elisabeth Fanger (who collaborated on the screen adaptation) – bizarrely, almost every English-language reference makes this I Was 19, Lili’s age in the film – the fact of its mid-‘70s setting becomes more than simply coincidental. À tout de suite joins a group of films made at that time or later, looking back at it: Godard-Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972), Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (1973), Alain Tanner’s Le Milieu du monde (1974), Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994). It is, as depicted, a moment of post-1968 disillusionment (even – or especially – when May ’68 is not even mentioned), of barrenness, void, a loss of radical subjectivity: the alienation endemic to the social order bites back into human creatures with an icy vengeance.
The affluent teenagers of the ‘70s may be into lifestyle experiments (drugs, sex, travel) or what Serge Daney once called the “adventure of the couple” (across lines of class, race, age … ), but they have already forgotten or lost touch with the political experiences and insights of their elder brothers and sisters. They are aimless, vacuous – but in a new way, part of a different social mood, which Jacquot’s choice of black-and-white widescreen cinematography (by the great Caroline Champetier) captures to bleak perfection (odd, brief, bleached-out, squeezed or stretched “stock shots” from the period add to general tone of malaise).
Le Besco, too, is perfectly cast and used within this mood: an extraordinary screen presence (sullen, impulsive), but also formless, open, never mimetic (she met her real-life model and read the book only after making the film). And the repeated Tangerine Dream synth-heavy snippet (from “Ricochet Part 1”) cements the ambience – not to mention that Diana Ross hit heard and truncated with a brutal cut, like so much in this film: “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”
Like many Jacquot films, À tout de suite has a psychoanalytic, and specifically Lacanian air (the two men were acquaintances, and connected in various ways: Jacquot shot Lacan’s video lecture-interview Télévision , Lacan reviewed Jacquot’s first feature film in 1976, and the director later told an important chapter of the history of French psychoanalysis in Princesse Marie ). The film opens a psychic wound in Lili which cannot be easily sutured: chronic dissatisfaction with the bourgeois, quotidian world will be her lot for ever more. Her return (under the guise of good, civic works) to the state of eternal, drifting holiday in the haunting closing scene offers no closure, but merely opens an infinite abyss of aching memories of her ex-transgression, and a recognition of all that is now denied her. “It was a great life”, Lili recalls in her spare voice-over narration at one point. “I’m not sure if it was real life”.
© Adrian Martin February 2009