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Preview Spectres - Phantom Seance at the MK2 Beaubourg

Phantom - vendredi 25 janvier 2013

 

The film Spectres, by Sven Augustijnen (Honorable mention, Mediathèque prize and the Research Cinema Group prize (GNCR) at the FID Marseille festival in 2011), will be presented as part of the Phantom series in March at the MK2 Beaubourg.

Preview of Spectres at the MK2 Beaubourg, Thursday March 14, 2013 at 8:30 PM, in the presence of the director and Olivier Marboeuf. There will be a discussion with the audience after the projection.

SPECTRES, by Sven Augustijnen (102 min, 2011)

Article by 
Jean-Pierre Rehm
 MARSEILLE, SEP. 20 – 2012.

“The assassination of Patrice Lumumba on January 17, 1961 and the circumstances and stakes of the incident, represent a difficult obstacle in the flow of colonial history (that is to say in the most immediate founding of our contemporary archeology) because the affair was essentially not elucidated. A very few films, either fictions or documentaries, Raoul Peck’s for example, have related the tortuous and criminal crushing of this burgeoning independence. These films are classics: very instructive, very convincing. With Spectres, Sven Augustijnen has no intention of repeating them, nor even of approaching them. His ambition lies elsewhere. He wants to interrogate the effect of the affair, which still resonates today, on Belgium, himself and a few of the Belgian actors in the event. His effort consists less in trying, yet again, to shed light on the affair than in moving, on the contrary, further into darkness, at the risk of becoming completely lost. In this sense, the title of the film is explicit. It is not an investigation, even if the film may seem at certain points to be a rather disjointed one. And not an a posteriori trial: no piece of evidence is really exhibited, and no figure is clearly accused.

 visuel-spectres petit

The leitmotif of Spectres is to accept being guided. However scandalous or naïve that may seem. And this is not new in the cinema of Sven Augustijnen, who signed the film The Park Guide in 2001. In that film the audience discovered the Royal Park of Brussels, with the help of a garrulous expert. But that very local specialist addressed himself directly to the director, facing the camera. In Spectres, on the other hand, the camera is trailing after. Trailing after another connoisseur, the Chevalier Jacques Brassinne de La Buissière who, deeply implicated at the time in the affairs of Belgian authorities, is very familiar with elements of the dossier, the chronology of events and the details of the protagonists. But in this case, the guide turns less towards the camera, with rare exceptions (for example when, extremely proud of himself, he opens a wardrobe full of his archives). It is more as if the guide drags the camera after him, almost forcing it to follow him on a succession of visits, conversations, ceremonies and expeditions which all concern him, primarily. It is clear that this passive attitude, the camera’s quasi servility, similar to the febrile submission of the dogs we see at the beginning of the film, is surprising, even shocking. For the sacrosanct dogma of documentary “point of view” is dangerously upset. And in fact, Sven Augustijnen refuses to intervene, he refuses to position himself as one of the witnesses, denying the option of obtaining even the slightest gain (on the audience) on the words exchanged or the gestures produced. As a result, there is no irony, no omniscience…no “mastery”. In the face of spectral power, he does not wish to substitute his own power..the hypothetical power of the “director” or “filmmaker” from which he is entirely divested here.

What is the result? A complete mess? Confusion? Spectres does welcome a generous amount of chaos. The chaos of a hand-held camera which, like a dog on the trail of several scents, doesn’t know which way to run. Between the portrait of an aristocratic family, champagne glasses in hand and the domain of the park, with the national flag snapping in the breeze, how can both be shown honestly, if not by conjugating them together in a single shot, however strange that might be? And such scenes are the rule, when making a cut, either in filming or editing, would manufacture postures that would anticipate the sort of measured, determined savoir-faire that Augustijnen refuses, instead preferring a long shot to unfold in all its spectral amplitude until it occupies the whole field…thereby colonizing once again the totality of space. As an example, the terrifying (because in truth endless) tableaux (how are they made, these endless shots, except because this interminable, this infernal infinity already resonates in the first seconds of the shot?) of the meeting with the eldest daughter of Tshombé at the grave of her father in the Etterbeek cemetery in Belgium or, later, this other encounter, glacial in its presumptuousness, the stolen ‘tutoiement’ with Lumumba’s widow and his children in their home in the Congo. And there is, very explicitly knotted, a familial thread to be untangled in the film (the place of wives especially), that could perhaps be traced back to the paternalist posture that lies at the heart of King Baudoin the First’s famous speech on June 30, 1960.

To be brief, Spectres proposes a documentary dramaturgy (in other words, in this instance and as always, juridical), which is completely unprecedented. Let us try to recapitulate. On the one hand, a guide, knowledgeable and implicated—or reliable and dubious, guilty and made to feel guilty, haunted, ceaselessly in movement: troubled. An ideal guide in the sense that he surely has knowledge, but the use and enjoyment of it is new to him, and needs to be completed, or masked. He is not blasé as he traverse a fastidious and well-marked out itinerary, but on the contrary trots on ahead, because for him each point on the map must be revisited, explored and verified. On the other hand, a consenting victim of this unaccustomed trepidation in the documentary regime: the camera. It is neither independent of the guide nor complicitous, too manifestly dependent so as to permit any collusion. To express it in yet another way, Sven Augustijnen’s camera (he himself is the cameraman) does not overlap in any way with the guide; divested of autonomy, the camera never even finds itself in the position of adhering. You simply have to follow its movements to understand this; the movements are dictated by an effect of aspiration, of attraction. A constraint modeled on approximations, incapable of finding any other space than that which is defined by the friendly yet authoritarian gestures of its guide…and yet there is nowhere evidence of a sovereign acquiescence.

And so, to the question asked in an interview about the omnipresence of the subjective camera, Augstijnen responds: “I see film as a performative work, in other words it’s a matter of staging situations that are articulated together like choreographies in which I am one of the characters who moves.” We know that the word “choreography” is not used as a facile metaphor; Augustijnen made a film with Alain Platel’s dance company C. de la B. (Iets op Bach, A Little Thing on Bach, 1998). But what kind of dance is this here, that creates relations between all the dancers, implicating them in an equal movement, depriving them of distance, and preventing them from breaking apart one from the other? The tradition is well known and goes far back in time: the danse macabre. Spectres is a danse macabre in which each protagonist, subjugated, waltzes with its ghosts.

By the same means, and this is extremely important, Augustijnen never sets foot on the specters’ territory, never takes himself for one of them, or even speaks or makes judgment in their name, since he is, like all the other characters in his film, their partner, their captive: bound.

Such a gesture reveals two crucial points. The first, as the title unequivocally suggests, is that there are several ghosts: they are not only more than one, they are heterogeneous. Their shared haunting does not cancel their differences, and without a doubt the ghosts that spur the Chevalier in his quest are not the same as those who incited Augustijnen to begin his film—if only, and this is significant, the filmmaker could boast, like the Chevalier, to have that clairvoyance. In fact, it is precisely this difference that is the pivot of the film and produces a sense of trouble, a clear swing that prohibits the arrogance or lack of a “point of view”. For it is not a question of ambiguity (ambiguity is always suspect, for never being definitively ambiguous), but to carry further the idea of asymmetry in the elans, in the motives. The guide sets out with knowledge and a cause, to plunge into the unknown of his effects and try to silence them. Augustijnen starts with an imposed effect, a suffering of unknown cause and tries to find his way back to the origin. But both of them, the guide as much as the guided, find themselves meeting today. Spectres situates this intersection (which is a disordered, because violent, ballet) with fierce will, on the part of both protagonists, to untie this knot as quickly as possible, despite the disparity of their situations.

This is muted, but still sensitive: if the filmmaker chose to move so cheerfully into the trap, it wasn’t to be complacent and succumb—that would have been a preposterous idea—but because he made the wager in a blind way (and blinding is the other name for this chronic style, pathetic in one sense, of the ‘head down to the steering wheel’ nature of the film), that something, which for the moment escaped him, would float: that the spectral effect would desist from advancing, massive, compact, indivisible and therefore invisible, and that little by little, perhaps, it would present itself as differentiated, manifest, tangible, discretely dissolved in terms of crushing effect, and returning to the ground of its causes. Such is one of the objectives of cinema: to try to distinguish, without necessarily (being able to) comment at the same time.

Second point: rarely has such a place been accorded to the ghost amongst ghosts, the specter of the martyr, Patrice Lumumba. What place? The place sought after for him, of course, the place that has been methodically and savagely taken from him. And the repeated finale where Brassinne shouts himself hoarse, lost in the night of the African savannah, lit by the lights of his car, signals the fantastic, literally distraught, nature of his quest. It is a butchered cadaver that magnetizes him; he must exorcise the threatening wanderings of a martyr of History. But, like a character in Conrad, this concerns only the Chevalier: to allocate a tomb, the final official resting place, similar to Tshombé’s, for his own nightmares.

As to Augustijnen’s film, from the very beginning another type of urgency commands. For it is the place of the ‘placeless’ which is in question, and leaving it so on the one hand, which explains the camera’s refusal to calculate a place for itself, even in the name of homage, fidelity, etc. The placeless then, but not the voiceless. And this paradoxical place, unlocatable, indeterminate (we will never see an image of Lumumba, except on the covers of books in Brassinne’s library or in a frame on the wall) yet resounds noisily, a voice that comes to us today, not just in the recording of the June 1960 declaration of independence. That would be risking exhuming merely a “spectral archive”, in the possession of the conquerors, the Chevalier and his murderous colleagues. And it is notably at his home, seated on his couch, that the Chevalier listens once again to the famous hectoring, but it is in muffled, far off tones that we hear the proud vigor of the response to the king. In this vacant place, which becomes an immense echo chamber, Augustijnen has chosen to use music to indicate place. Which is why Bach’s The Passion according to St. Jean, in the magnificent version interpreted by La Petite Bande, under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken, emerges intermittently in Spectres. But, as we immediately understand, although the music is heartbreaking, it is never a “film score”.

On the contrary, the Bach partition imposes itself. It arrives like a palimpsest, adding to the general chaos: it is the threat of an untimely voice that weighs on all that has been revealed by the Chevalier’s help. It is all the more troubling because this music has nothing to do with Lumumba, except if we hastily imagine it in an allegorical mode (the account of a passion). Worse, for Sven Augustijnen it evokes (cf. FID interview 2011) cryptic elements of exchanges between the secret services of the period. And so we must search elsewhere for the source of its power, and where else but in this discrepancy? For this oratorio is heard for the first time at the end of the visit to the Aspremont Lynden’s, the family that everything suggests would be the legitimate depositary of such sacred music, related in this sense to the music heard in the Brussels cathedral during the royal commemoration. But this music does not content itself with being heard as a “musical interlude”, even of the respectful nature, nor prisoner (for example) of a tradition that a caste or continent might appropriate. On the contrary, it crushes, concretely, what is said, which is suddenly sent by editing decision to the realm of the inaudible. Even more outrageous, it changes the meaning of what is pronounced, canceling it with a prolonged cry that repeats in chorus, “Lord, our Master.” It transpierces our eardrums, a brutal way of recalling them to another way of listening, other scansions, other timbers.

Brecht cited this oratorio from 1724 as an example of what he called a “musical gesture”. The baroque Flemish interpretation Augustijnen has chosen to use resonates with all its theatrical exuberance, all its restrained vehemence at the edge of the most devastating turmoil—and so the music refuses to belong to the film. To object to the “documentary project”, understood as a profitable accumulation of disparate elements. Because the music creates a rift. A rift in which nothing evoked in the film can find lodging. Not even its allegorical vocation (for example: Lumumba’s cry, or the account of his passion), unless, secondarily and in the mode of the most flagrant mismatching. To say that this music is outside the film suggests that it does not have the function of reconciliation, neither between the present and the past, nor between horror and art or even, between the film and itself. On the contrary, the music is another gap, distinct, displayed, excessive.

Here again is something unheard of: if blindness seems to be at the commands, by default, in the observation and recording of the guide’s visits, “something” in the film rebels against this native weakness, against this approved fatalism. Another ghost appears—ghost facing ghost. Against the closed eye (and the closed ear, deaf in its own way, which seconds it, obeying the orders of the Master), another mode of listening is proposed; it will deliver nothing, nothing in terms of information, nor in terms of redemption; in one sense it is a mute music. Pure rebellion but also, and this is important, pure theatrical insurrection. If Bach’s oratorio is detached from the film, it actually separates itself from it, from its constraining attachment, it shows itself to be arbitrary, ‘puffed up’ like a desperate, useless, unreasonable gesture: declamatory. A stupefying avowal, arriving after the already impressive avowal of constituent impotence: the power placed in reserve and suddenly activated here is merely a pure gesture.

In opposition to the vicious and tightly knotted danse macabre, weighted down by fallen bronze statues, emerges the song of a tradition that the song itself betrays, in order to resurrect not the dead, but the painful rift of discord, the sensitized frontier of a smothered call.”

 

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