Variety’s critics’ poll at the close of Venice 2009 showed a serious lack of appreciation for Patrice Chereau’s Persecution (Persécution), arguably one of the best films of the festival.
Persecution is a monument to man’s incapability to deal with love. Not a monument as absolute and extreme as Doris Lessing’s The Cleft where women have banned men from their midst altogether – and portrays them as a God’s ‘cosmic afterthought’ – but a monument that should remind men that their petty insecurities are destructive and should be overcome, unless they’re genetic of course, as Lessing suggests.
The film is cleverly written, precisely balanced and contains outstanding acting. There were many strong women on the Venice screens this year – Isabelle Huppert in Claire Denis’ White Material, Margherita Buy in Lo Spazio Bianco, Kseniya Rappoport in La Doppia Ora, Orsolya Tóth in the Silver Lion winner Women without Men and many more – but none with the quiet sincerity and realism that Charlotte Gainsbourg showed in her meticulously crafted role of Sonia, the lover of protagonist Daniel, marvellously portrayed by Romain Duras. Daniel is simply not able to recognize his lover’s loyalty and commitment and his need for constant reassurance creates a desperate and unstable affair. The film isn’t necessarily about masculine insensitivity, Chereau told me in an interview, but as he wrote the story from his own perspective the main character naturally became a man.
Persecution succeeds in conveying a complex and very real sense of Daniel’s insecurity and through that quiet chaos establishes the notion that self assurance and independency is crucial to experience real love. Chereau makes his viewers truly experience Daniel’s unrest and to eventually come to understand his behaviour while at the same time will conclude and accept that Gainsbourg’s character can no longer put up with it. Chereau with surgical precision visualizes the inevitable self-destruction of real love. A phenomenal accomplishment.
The lukewarm reception of the film by many critics in Venice could be the result of festival overkill in which a delicate story like Persecution can simply get lost in the crowd. Or maybe people read Daniel’s predicament as unbalanced writing and simply don’t experience the meticulous emotional landscape of the film. Whatever it may be, for those who didn’t get it the first time, I recommend a second viewing.
On first impression one could say that the visuals in the film clearly had to take a backseat. But one time theatre prodigy Chereau cleverly confined Daniel’s world to a few narrow spaces that effectively create a claustrophobic atmosphere, a reflection of his thinking. The location for a lot of the crucial dialogue between Daniel and Sonia is the café, where cinema has always sought and found the heart of France. Nothing new there. The other crucial location is the empty loft that Daniel is repairing and that he temporarily occupies, an obvious metaphor for his problems with settling down, with commitment and with trust. The locations might not be revolutionary but they’re sufficient.
And then there’s the madman (Jean Hughes Anglade) that the story could have done without. He does serve a purpose because in different ways he is Daniel’s exact opposite. He falls in love with him unconditionally, something that Daniel is incapable of. He’s also the reflection of total freedom – and, ambivalently, a total loss – where Daniel is trapped by his own obsessions with losing Sonia. The story didn’t need that and it feels like an obvious plot device, more so because Daniel doesn’t take anything from the encounter. But it’s not enough to affect the overall power of the film.
Chereau’s film is one of the most accomplished portrayals of insecurity in a relationship, maneuvering around the fringes of emotional chaos while keeping all its elements up in the air. In a straight line from Alexandre’s pathological insecurity in La Maman et la Putain – without the philosophizing – Daniel embodies the immaturity of man. The difference with Jean Eustache’s film is that in the meantime cinema’s women have grown up.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2009