Cannes Film Festival, 2008: "Le Genou d'Artemide" (Straub, Italy) & "Itinéraire de Jean Bricard" (Straub/Huillet, France)

Daniel Kasman

It is easy to forget that the cinema is but light and shadow, and for such a simple admission, it takes someone like Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet to remind us of this vital fact.

Le Genou d'Artemide, to my knowledge Straub's first film directed by himself after Huillet passed away, is really nothing but the sound of wind in the air, and the look of moving light through trees. There is a dialog too, of course, again adapted from Cesare Pavese like many of Straub/Huillet's previous films, and fittingly it is about the vast distance between a mortal and the woman he loves, a goddess of dreams who encompasses all that is wild and wonderful, beastly and beautiful in the world. After the dialog, a series of wide-angle pans treat us to a near panoptic, resplendent vision of humanless forests, ending cryptically on what seems a grave or monument amongst the tree.

Like much of the Straub I have seen, the rich context and background, not only of the source text so beautifully embodied in voice and posture of the actors, but the locations themselves are something I am woefully ignorant of. But no previous knowledge is required to understand the tenor and wisdom, the passion of this handful of simple, but undeniably magnificent visions of light and sound. When Straub holds the last shot of a man in the film, the dialog complete, and the sun passes and moves the grove into shadow, it is evident that in the end light and shadow reign over the most beautiful of cinema, and can say things about loved ones, life, and death that words can never reach.

L'Itineraire de Jean Bricard

More cryptic than Le Genou d'Artemide is what seems to be the last film made by the husband and wife couple, Itinéraire de Jean Bricard, shot in severe, silvery, and restrained shades of black and white. A travelogue of the island area which Bricard grew up and lived on during the German occupation, with astringent matter-of-factness Straub/Hulliet show us the places once imbued with farming, commerce, and, later, apparently, a degree of resistance against the Germans, as well as deaths by their hands.

Opening with two long traveling tracking shots of a boat passing the island coast and curving around its point, the film eventually grounds itself on land, around the buildings and earth that made up Bricard's life. We know this because the soundtrack, beside ambient direct sound, consists of Bricard's recorded voice from the 1990s, saying here is this, there is that. With the floods and change in water level, a number of places of some importance, either to Bricard or to history or both, are partially obscured or no longer visible (a placard commemorating the death of a number of island residents and one of Bricard’s family is actually on the wrong side of the river), and Straub/Huillet commit their film to the solemnity and presence of an area, landscape, and history that no longer seems evident without background, without someone like Bricard—or the filmmakers—to help us.

Commemorated now, even if only commemorating its passing, the filmmaker couple's last film becomes an ode to the evidence of a disappearing history—or the history of disappearance—just as their final project may become but the last surviving evidence of cinema's master artists.

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