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Our Only Hope Lies in the Image: A Conversation with Jean-Claude Rousseau

The singular filmmaker discusses transitioning from Super 8 to video, the essence of the cinema, and his film honoring Chantal Akerman.
In Memoriam
Ever since the late eighties French filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau has been a name commonly attached to the most adventurous and difficult type of filmmaking. Far from the American, well-established niches of experimental film, he has been working sparsely in Europe (and Japan) for over thirty years becoming a sort of mythological, solitary figure for this continent’s avant-garde. His oeuvre, roughly divided into two periods—the Super 8mm period going from 1983 to 1995; and the video work, still ongoing since 2003—deals constantly with the most primary elements of cinema: composition, movement, trace, and light, as if in every single shot of his films he wanted to make us reconsider what we normally take for granted about these concepts. Nevertheless, much more interested in cinema’s ends than in its mediums, Rousseau’s extremely rigorous but romantic approach to art reminds us less of structuralist filmmakers such as Ernie Gehr or Michael Snow—of whom he talked wonders, off the record—than of other free artists from the past centuries that would at first seem far removed from his practice: Johannes Vermeer, Paul Cézanne, or Robert Bresson. His is a concern for sensuousness, freedom, profundity.
In Memoriam, his latest film, was shown as part of the Moving Ahead section of the 72nd Locarno Film Festival. It is a work dedicated to the memory of the late Chantal Akerman, whose death Rousseau found out about during a brief stay in Lisbon. As in her films, we see a room and a figure doing seemingly ordinary things in it, inhabiting the rarified space. It is the filmmaker whom we see standing, walking, laying down, dancing. This is a delicate film that is not afraid to appear simple, as all it has for matter is but a room, a figure, a laptop, and a window. We sparsely hear music, or the news of terrorist attacks on the soundtrack, while Rousseau repeatedly, as in a cinematic ritual, gently takes out small candies out of their golden wrappers and eats them. It is the story, or rather, the experience of a short stay in a hotel room, of candies being eaten, of a joyful mourning. Never, as in the last seconds of this film, has the paper wrap of a little caramel carried with it such emotional charge. In its deceptive simplicity, In Memoriam seems to stand monumentally against most of contemporary filmmakers’ notions of “urgency” or “necessity,” against their lack of a sense of condensation. Louis Zukofsky once said of poetry that condensation was more than half of composition, the rest was breathing space, ease, and grace. The same could be said of cinema, and In Memoriam is but the understated model that could illustrate this idea. It is also, and this is perhaps its greatest achievement, a film that unabashedly affirms itself as the only thing it could possibly be: a film. 
I sat down with Jean-Claude Rousseau during a sunny afternoon at the Teatro Kursaal in Locarno. We chatted for almost an hour. I spoke very little and decided to do the most listening. This is a man that, like Bresson, of whom he talked for quite some time, is not afraid to reject many words and many conventions of the cinema, both “experimental” and “narrative.” In a state of things where the “avant-garde” all-stars fill out festival slots with tired products that increasingly seem to appeal only to programmers, he stands as a solitary, stubborn old bull of a filmmaker that nonetheless belongs to a greater, nobler family of brave and tireless artisans. No wonder he later told me that the day after our conversation he was paying a visit to Jean-Marie Straub in Rolle.

NOTEBOOK: Let’s begin by recalling how and why did you started, after several years working on Super 8 film, to shoot on digital video.
JEAN-CLAUDE ROUSSEAU: When I made La vallée close (1995), which I shot in Super 8 and transferred later to 16 mm, the étalonnage process was really tough, it was terrible. You know what the étalonnage is, right? A technician, who always knows his work perfectly, can either raise the light in your shots or reduce it. This is a very important thing because evidently it can destroy a film. I won’t speak too much of this but after the experience with this film it just became too difficult for me to continue working on Super 8.
So I asked myself, why not just work with digital? But it was not easy. First, it takes me a really long time to see a film within the images I shoot. The digital video that was being used back then had really unstable support, what you shot with it did not last for very long. For this reason I could not use it, because for the way I work, it takes several years after the shooting for the film to manifest. For instance, this last one, In Memoriam, I shot the images in 2015, and I finished the film just a couple of months ago. So at that time I could not use video for this reason, until I was told there existed a new type of technology in which you could preserve your images for a much longer time. After that, what held me was a matter of light. Digital has evolved a lot since then, but I was really doubtful: was there a way to capture light on video? Light is impression, it’s chemical, it’s not algebra with numbers and letters. It was hard for me to think of light being captured on digital.
But in the end, out of laziness… actually let’s say, first, more out of the true necessity of film. For me it’s all about seeing the frame. In a few words, the necessity of seeing the image. I see it on digital, on this level there is no difference, speaking specifically of the frame. For my first film on video, the frame is 4:3. I made many films in this aspect ratio, and when I switched to HD, it became 16:9, and well, there is no way to find a noble frame on 16:9. So, out of laziness I shot in 16:9 two films in Japan, Arrière-saison and Si loin si proche, and after that, I shot in Lisbon what now became In Memoriam. What I found out while making these films is that if there is a way to find a noble composition on 16:9, it is by thinking of it as 4:3. Finding the 4:3 in the interior of it. I had always in mind the painting by Edward Hopper, which is a composition made in 16:9, Nighthawks. You see the people in the bar, sitting, and on the left side you see the street. It’s magnificent. In this 16:9 composition you can find the 4:3, it is in the bar, and to add to it there is also the exterior with the building and the street. I think this is what we should look for when shooting films on this widened format, it is of course not a new thing. We can feel an image’s justness, its nobility, on 16:9, only if it contains a 4:3 composition inside of it.
Anyways, I’m now speaking about format, therefore about frame, but this is essential, because for me it is the frame which determines the film, before there is any idea or any intention.
In Memoriam
NOTEBOOK: What would you say was the most blatant difference between digital video and Super 8? Did you have to switch your approach?
ROUSSEAU: I used Super 8 for what it was. For its materiality. I used cartridges, which last for a little more than 2 minutes if you’re shooting on 24 frames per second and around 3 minutes if you’re doing 18 frames per second. So from my first film, what I looked for was unity, inside of the cartridge. As if every cartridge was a brick in the composition, in the construction of a film. This can only be done on Super 8.  When I started out, in Jeune femme à sa fenêtre en lisant une lettre (1983), for the first cartridges I shot, it can perhaps be noticed, I had the idea to choose from among the shots I had, the best take, and then to cut out the ones that didn’t work: what is normally called montage. But then, after holding this very small, fragile material, for some reason I realized that what I needed was the entire duration of the reel. That it constituted a sort of unity for the film. I like to use the word brick. To make a sort of building with the bricks of Super 8 cartridges. I have a profound love for Japan, so I’d like to compare it to a tatami. It’s a measure unit for the Japanese. You measure a room by the number of tatamis. This table we are sitting on could be two tatamis. So it is a measure unit. This cannot exist on digital video, which is not without limit, but with which you can make really long takes. It is a very important change. In the Super 8 films I even kept the leader of the film, the end of each reel. At that moment I didn’t really know why, I just felt like it. But now I can say that it was for the sake of the independence of each cartridge. In order to refuse, as most as possible, by keeping the leader, and with it the independence and unity of each reel, any sort of raccord. Their independence allowed me to set each one of them in relation, not only with the previous and the following ones but with the whole, thus creating not a raccord but an accord.
On video, on the other hand, there is no materiality. There used to be these little cassettes, but not anymore. I had a Sony camera that used them with which I made a lot of the films on 4:3, but it was more about dematerialization, in a way. It’s also just not the same metric. Precisely, on Super 8, the cartridges create a sort of metric.
But what is identical, when working on either one of them, is that there is never a project. I’ve never had any project for a film. This is very important. Because for me if there is an intention, that leads to a search, that ultimately leads to the theme one had in mind, this impedes a film. It prevents its coming into being. Picasso said, perhaps quoting Corot: I don’t seek, I find. This is fundamental because art is nothing but risk. Projects that exist in a written form, as a script, they are not only reassuring for the people that give you money, they are also reassuring for the filmmaker, because he knows what he wants, and this is bad There are many anecdotes of Bresson which are very enlightening. When people went to work with the master, Robert Bresson, they were very impressed because even after many days of shooting, they did not understand a thing of what was going on, simply because Bresson himself did not know what he wanted. While a filmmaker that is not very interesting, Jean Delannoy, he always knew what he wanted. He could tell his technicians what he needed. Art does not function like that. Cinema, we like it or not, is images. And we cannot speak about images but in terms of art. There is a very deep misunderstanding of cinema, because teachers, filmmakers, and critics think of it, and talk about it, in terms of writing, as if it was literature. Cinema started out with Lumière as something plastic. The operators of the Lumière cameras were art school students, they knew about noble images and beautiful frames. So cinema was never meant to be on the side of literature, but of painting. When you consider cinema on the side of literature and when you analyze it with a literary vocabulary you are completely missing out what cinema really is. There are even certain works in which you simply cannot do it. For example, Godard, you cannot analyze him in this way, because it works, as art. In a few words: it cannot be “told.” A painting cannot be told. An image cannot be told. And cinema is images.
NOTEBOOK: For La vallée close, for instance, you found a sort of montage system that dictated the form of the film. Do you still work in this way, finding systems?
ROUSSEAU: You use the word montage, which I have refused to use for a very long time. What is montage? To relate images in order to say something. As if images became a sign, which is impossible—because then they would no longer be images. An image hides if one uses it in this way. I am not an expert on this vocabulary, but I would say that the image used like this would be an “ersatz,” not an image. It cannot be reduced to a sign that says something, it has nothing to say. We can make it say many things, with montage, but by itself it has nothing to say, it can only be seen, contemplated.
Godard is all about this: who can tell a film of his? You can’t! What do you say about a film of Bresson if you tell, for example, the story of Mouchette? It’s not seeing the image, not seeing the film. So one must never imagine before seeing an image. In this level, again, there is no difference if you’re using film or video. What is usual is to imagine, to have a mental “image,” and to search for the equivalent in reality that fits our previous mental image. But this is not making an image. Because images are found, they cannot be looked for. On the contrary, if we look at the image, if you really look at it, it is the image that imagines. What is a film? A consensual relationship between images that provoke an emotion, a feeling, that should in the end reach a subject. But the subject cannot be seen beforehand. When the subject is seen, the film ends. It’s the opposite of the usual way of making films. So I don’t seek, I find. It’s not comfortable. Bresson liked to cite the beautiful words of Cézanne: “in each stroke I risk my life.” There should be no comfort.
You speak of systems. I saw recently Floating Weeds by Yasujiro Ozu. He had a system, just as Bresson did. Ozu’s system is all about frontality. I did something with frontality too on my first film. One of the times I met Bresson, when he was very old, he asked me about the film, and I explained the idea of it briefly. I said there was a window, a painting… He couldn’t believe it. He said: “impossible!” Because his system is not frontal, it looks more from the side.
NOTEBOOK: Could you talk about how you work with sound? In particular for In Memoriam, where it has a rather elusive complexity to it, and also deals with some strong connotations on a content level.
ROUSSEAU: It is in the just encounter between sound and image that emotion surfaces. Of course, this needs a very precise synchronism that, just as for the image and the nobility of a frame, is found rather than sought. The adéquation of sound and image is felt, not than reasoned, and it’s frequently an unforeseen encounter so that the effect can be fulgurant. I remember once, after a projection of La vallée close, Jean-Marie Straub asked me: “How do you do these fulgurances?” I didn’t know what to answer, so I said: “It’s when sound touches the image.” Be it music or words, sound acts over the image, it makes it alive.
For this film, the nobility of synchronization is found, above all, in the sequence where one hears [Alexis-Emmanuel] Chabrier’s music and sees, through the window, a man sitting in a bench with a woman that is walking her dog. The music is suddenly interrupted when you hear the sounds coming from the streets which seems to extend the overtones of the music. I love these sound ruptures, and they are frequent in In Memoriam.
This formal justness of synchronism can also exist with words, with the words of the journalists on television or those of Chantal Akerman. Every sound must be heard musically, and so must the word, as a pure sound element, independently of the meaning it carries along. The word is constantly in an accord with the image by opposing it. And the image is opposing what we hear: we hear a journalist talking about the terrorist attacks in Paris, and in a moment he says “Look!”, and the film is showing, through the window, a square in Lisbon and its calm liveliness. There is another moment when we hear, “You have to stay at home…!” and you see a party at night, with many people on the square. This form of dichotomy “speaks” more than the images (those shown at television, that we never get to see) that show what is being said. You don’t have to show what is being said. You have to always avoid images being an illustration of words. 
To say a couple more things about music, the same musical fragment can find its right place at different moments of a film. This return is what can bring rhythm and reinforce emotion. It is Mozart, repeated in A Man Escaped, or Schubert in Au hasard Balthazar. In the ending of In Memoriam there is a music fragment that we’ve already heard before, at the moment where the golden papers are falling before Chantal Akerman’s face, just before she disappears when I shut down the laptop screen. The synchronism, conceived in this way, from an encounter as risky as it is loving, is then very emotional.
NOTEBOOK: I would like to know more about the choice of putting yourself in front of the camera, on the scene…
ROUSSEAU: From my first film I was in front of the camera, but this is not mise en scène. To enter the frame has two possible effects, which play both in the sense of disappearance. When a figure enters the frame it can (a) erase the lines that make up an image’s justness, and this would be the disappearance of the image, or (b), if its presence does not disturb these lines, it is the figure itself which disappears among them, it dissolves in the image. This is what my first film was about, Jeune femme à sa fenetre en lisant une lettre. Finally, at the end of the film, I use again the idea of shooting several takes of the same thing in order to choose the right one later, and the film ends when, very briefly, I enter the frame, and I find the exact lines, the exact frame that correspond to Vermeer’s painting. It is within the right axe, and not deviated, because during the other 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the cartridge where I had entered the frame and walked up to the window with a letter in my hands three times the shot was deviated, and it didn’t work. But in the end, I managed to put the camera on the right axis, and then it was noble. And suddenly there is a relationship of lines that is the exact same as the one in Vermeer’s painting. In the new films it’s always about this too.
In Memoriam
In Memoriam
NOTEBOOK: But this relationship of lines that you talk about, this can also be called mise en scène.
ROUSSEAU: No. Lines are composition, not mise en scène. Mise en scène comes from the theatre, it has the word scene on it, so it has nothing to do with it, with images.
NOTEBOOK: When you see a film by someone like Fritz Lang, there are brief moments when a character enters the frame that feel exactly as how you just described your film.
ROUSSEAU: Yes, but these are men that knew the image very well…Spectacle quickly gave cinema a form which is not what cinema had coming for it.  You know, the difference between landscape and portrait. Today, you can shoot in the landscape format, with your cellphone, but it will always be a scene, it’s theatrical. Theater has determined the landscape format, so it’s always registering what should only be performed on top of a stage. In painting of course there is landscape format and portrait, which can also be the representation of a landscape… however, very quickly theater determined what cinema was to become—and this was not Lumière. Lumière sent his operators into nature, and not to shoot any theatrical representations.
NOTEBOOK: So in painting you would reject “scenes” too?
ROUSSEAU: There are no scenes in painting, there are motifs, repetitions. It’s never about representation. Mise en scène is representation, and painting is not re-presentation, but presence. It’s about presence. A work of art grabs us, not the other way around, by this effect of presence. That is what the vision of a work of art is.
There is a confusion with the word “vision.” In French, la vision is the act of seeing, by which a work of art seizes us. It goes beyond the motif, beyond what is represented. This is what is admirable about Vermeer. It might seem a little off topic, but it might help getting the idea of vision across. In Vermeer there is a respect for the laws of perspective, that make up representation, but, an extraordinary thing: unlike his contemporaries, who painted the same motifs as he did, the lines that make up representation and that follow these laws of perspective, they are also the ones that make up the disappearance, a relation between the lines that produce an effect not of aiding the motif but of going through it. When I started to be interested in Vermeer, around the age of 20, it was because I saw two paintings of him that did not represent the same thing and had the same configuration of lines, the same relations. This is what makes our eye not to stop at the motif but traverse it. It is vision, in the sense that when one achieves this, one no longer sees. This is also profundity. And actually, what most commonly forbids profundity from appearing is perspective, because it gives the illusion of representation. Profundity is real, perspective is illusory. And in Vermeer, there is respect for perspective laws, but the configuration of lines that make them up are also the ones that make this passage possible. It’s also because of this that, for me, a Mondrian is very close to a Vermeer.
When one sees, in a pictorial sense, it’s always a flattening. It’s not perspective, it’s flattening, and it reminds me of Bresson, who in one of his notes says: do not forget that it will all end up in a flat surface. And on another one he says: flatten the image as one would iron a shirt. It’s paradoxical, there is no profundity without flattening. It’s the opposition between tricky perspective and real profundity. Reality is a relationship between lines on top of a surface. It’s in Vermeer, as I said, where lines make up perspective and at the same time they open up the passage to a type of relation that creates profundity. When you see a painting by Pieter de Hooch, a contemporary of Vermeer, who was not a bad painter and who painted the same things Vermeer did, one stops at the motif, our gaze doesn’t go through, and even if you describe what a painting of Vermeer shows, you would say the same thing you would say if describing a painting of de Hooch, but there is a big difference: a Johannes Vermeer is not a Pieter de Hooch. The difference is simple: profundity.
Detail of Johannes Vermeer’s Brieflezend meisje bij het venster 
NOTEBOOK: What interests you about architecture then, throughout your work, is also a matter of a rapport between lines?
ROUSSEAU: It is indeed always a matter of rapports, relations. A relation established either between Super 8 cartridges or, in my digital work, between takes. It’s always relational. But it must be a free relation, not imposed as the one you establish when you have something to say, when you want to say something and take images to put them together in order to say it. To say is to use images as signs. In that way of working there are no lines. What I call lines are a relation among takes that establishes itself on the whole and that is not limited to the effect of a raccord between images that follow each other. You lock up images this way, and they cannot stand being locked. It is not part of their nature. It ceases being a matter of vision.
In this new film, In Memoriam, there is a line going through the whole film; we don’t know much about it, and we ask ourselves where it is going. But it’s inevitable, if it is a film—and this is also what makes the emotional aspect of it—that one recognizes a line and that everything one sees is walking, going somewhere. To take an example out of this film, in the beginning I take a candy out of the second drawer. And in the end there is no candy, there is only the golden paper wrap left.
It’s just to say that a film does not exist if it is not taking you somewhere, taking you, to be precise, to the subject. The subject is at the end, not at the start. For me it’s very startling, all these writing workshops, to write a screenplay, therefore to have a subject in mind even before an image is seen. Even better: before an image has offered itself.
NOTEBOOK: I think that in Chantal Akerman’s films, even if she sometimes had the subject for her films on her mind before shooting them, they are always heading somewhere and you can find in them many different configurations of lines.
ROUSSEAU: In Chantal Akerman what is tragic to me is her relationship to the image. Her first film is already very suicidal on a thematic level. It’s the idea of a profound despair that is seen on her cinema, on the images. She did not believe in the image, she had no faith in it. As for me I think our only hope lies in the image, but she didn’t have this faith. There is instead a deep despair. It is very despairing, because she really could see an image, but it was never about vision, she didn’t find hope. This is what is tragic.
NOTEBOOK: On the contrary, your film dedicated to her is full of hope.
ROUSSEAU: Well, yes, I’m still here. Listen, it’s all about entering the image. Let’s go back to this first film, where fiction was jumping out of the window. You see the window open, as if someone had gone through it, and at the end of the film, on top of the leader, you hear the noise of my footsteps that jump on the window’s ledge only to turn back. This is how the film ends. So it’s about this: to go through the window, you can do this only once; to enter the frame, you can do it and then do it again and again and again. This is what I’ve been doing ever since I started shooting. Saying this after all that we’ve said up to now, maybe it makes sense. But it’s important. It’s about disappearing in the image. It’s a matter of disappearing.
In Memoriam
Translated from the French by the author.

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