Cinema and its Harpsichords

in 73rd Venice International Film Festival

by Alexey Gusev

There is probably no more cinematic subject than the road. And despite the historical facts, the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of a Train still counts as the first film because it looks as it it is cinema. The myth here is more convincing than reality, and more truthful, too. The spatial transference that happens in time and is captured on uncoiling film forms a trinity so indivisible that one could easily imagine some impudent and rollicking conceptual essay that would proclaim the travelogue as the only film genre, thus reducing the achievements of film art. In this way, the names of towns and cities on the roadside would be indistinguishable (according to Godard’s maxim of le paysage comme le visage) from the names of characters who pass through the life of the protagonist. And, vice versa, a film then becomes similar to a landscape covered with road network that are the plotlines, where the filmmaker chooses the route and suggests the order in which we, the viewer, pass through inhabited localities and characters.

And, again vice versa: from this point of view, one of the most evident aims a cinematographer could set himself is making a screen version of a country: to transform the land into a plot, to project a two-dimensional geographical map on the temporal axis, to arrange a line of meetings and sojourns, to convert towns into sketches for a travel diary tacked on thread of road – not for imposing some external meaning onto the country, but for revealing the meaning hidden inside or beneath. Such a meaning harbors a national identity as an archetype of the landscape. Making a screen version of a country means dismantling it into toponyms, which would then have to be assembled to a new plot that may disclose a stylistic unity of specific landscapes and form such an archetypical landscape. In this way cinema becomes the image of a national idea (and, vice versa). Cinema set this task before itself not very often, but quite emphatically: from Claude Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1926) and Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia 1954) to Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten 1973) and Manoel de Oliveira’s Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Viagem ao princípio do mundo 1997). This task is so suited to cinema that the most difficult meaning can be rendered with the simplest tools. For example, the subject of Peter del Monte’s Traveling Companion (Compagna di viaggio 1996) – a story about an old philologist who forgets words and faces) – is gradually anonymized in the Italian landscape: the names of towns become less and less clear and, towards the end, they disappear altogether… Strangely enough, of all cinematic countries France has been least represented through such a cinematic image. And the first thing the debutant Jérome Reybaud does is to fill this gap: his Days in France (Jours de France) is a screen version of France, no less.

The plot deals with two separated gay lovers: one of them departs, the other rushes after him, and now they are both travelling across French roads – a journey that is filled with brief encounters (with a high level of promiscuity involved). Indeed, the theme of homosexuality is least important in the film, but merely brings in a series of fleeting coitions, when – thanks to apps – every night two loners meet. Taking into consideration that for the two-and-half hours of film time there is not a single heterosexual man (only gays and women of every stripe), the homosexuality in Reybaud’s film is, above all, a metaphor: not a very refined one, as the metaphor rules over the plot too authoritatively, but it works concisely and in a surprisingly multifarious way.

Yet there is another, even more important thing: for a long time I have not seen a film with such a clinical dedication to the purity of language – cinematic as well as verbal. In one scene a barman tests his godson’s knowledge in two subjects, orthography and geography, and Reybaud really doesn’t make any difference between these disciplines. Every spoken word, every camera move, every director’s ploy – like a town sign on the roadside – is taken in a frame: it should to be spelled this way and no other, because if one makes just one small mistake – spelling, panning, articulation – the route is astray, the plot distorted, and the two lovers will never find each other again, desperately erring around incorrect maps of words and shots. Reybaud treats France’s geographical map like an inviolable datum, like a Scripture where you cannot change a letter, otherwise the entire meaning changes. The invariably touching and sometimes unbearable hair-splitting manner with which the French treat their literary heritage (some French essayists, for instance, take a phrase or even a word in a certain sense, place it in inverted commas and bracket the author: they quote not a combination of words, but their usage) is presented in Reybaud’s film in all its beauty and glory. Here, the words are toponyms, landscapes, screen images, and Reybaud, a maximalist in spirit and a minimalist in style, traces every shot with the zeal of a Benedictine calligrapher. His film could be easily upbraided for excessive purity of method (that would be, however, just natural for a debutant who has to be a perfectionist), but this purity is not superficial; it is cognate to the general idea and, moreover, to the material. In other words, this purity is French par excellence: it is not the cleanness of over- fastidious and manipulative post-modernist games, but a purity in Flaubert’s phrase, elegant and adamant; from the point of view of the entire construction, it is the purity of a French novel of the Enlightenment (mainly a road novel, such as de Sade’s Juliette or de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie).

Reciting Rimbaud in duo, or talking over Corneille, or mentioning Poussin, or rushing at full speed along a nocturnal highway to the accompaniment of Rameau’s harpsichords, the characters do not flaunt with the culture and are not seeped in it; they always keep inverted commas handy. They are placed in these quotation marks themselves, since homosexuality places man in inverted commas: the sterility of Reybaud’s style is akin to the sterility of a homosexual relation that reveres beauty for its own sake (“the road is for the road itself”, the protagonist says); every encounter is placed in inverted commas (the traveler opens quotation marks upon entering the town and closes them when he passes the town sign on the exit); and quoted are also every spoken cue (Reybaud’s dialogues may seem old-fashioned and grandiloquent to those accustomed to using interjections with dots), and every shot. Days in France is like in an operating theatre: it is clean, quiet, and there is no rush; everything is set up, everything shines. After all, that is the difference between harpsichords and a piano: the sounds of the former live separately, they are connected by the performer but not acoustically. Some years ago Steve McQueen in Shame used the phonogram of Glenn Gould (who played the piano without using pedals), and this was the story, lyrical and hopeless, of the break-up of a life’s melody on separate disconnected notes. But if the sterility of an emotional life – to which the protagonist is doomed by his sexual addiction to modern devices – was for McQueen menace and pathology, for Reybaud it has the certainty of delicacy, tactfulness and neatness. Aristocratic by idea, irreproachable by workmanship, devoid of any sensual slovenliness, Days in France is one of the most exquisite cinematic spectacles of this century; and there is only one thing to rebuke it for: the homosexual topic with all this exquisiteness is, maybe, over the top.

Edited by Birgit Beumers