“Without Franco, I wouldn’t be here, nor this book. Thank you, Francisco. It’s the only good thing you did in your life.” The author behind this characteristic note of thanks is none other than French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet, whose endearing and very funny autobiography, Mémoires d’une savonnette indocile (“memoirs of an unruly piece of soap”) has just been published by Capricci. In 42 chapters, the “prince of shoestring cinema” walks us through his young years as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma, his filmmaking life, and his stints in various professional and educational bodies. The book was announced in 2012, with the intention for it to be published posthumously. Reading it nine years later, with the author still in the pink of health, one senses that the cause for Moullet’s original reticence may have had to do less with his comments on his peers and collaborators than with the encouragement the book might give to the French tax department to come after him.
“My whole life has just been a series of exclusive passions I was ashamed of,” notes Moullet in the first chapter. Frowned upon at home, cinema became clandestine education for this Paris-born recluse, who talked to practically no one and had few friends at school. Haunting the film club of the Latin Quarter, he gradually found a “standing place” at Cahiers at the age of 18, thanks to the detailed filmographies he could assemble with the help of English dailies. A first text on Edgar G. Ulmer was rejected by Truffaut, who “was afraid of being ridiculed by the caricature of himself that I was.” Once into the ranks, Moullet was on the hunt for “unknown and forgotten filmmakers,” this kind of provocative rehabilitation being a sure-fire way to critical limelight. Very soon in his career, he says, he decided to stick to two principles: to write in a way that was “easy to understand,” unlike some of his colleagues at the magazine, and “to educate through laughter”—principles that have evidently remained intact throughout his life.
We also get personal assessments of the other leading lights of the magazine, and hence much of the Nouvelle Vague, whose criticism, declares Moullet, was ratified retroactively by the success of their first films: François Truffaut (“one of the rare filmmakers to not have been flattened by the roller of traditional culture”), Jacques Rivette (“the driving engine of the new criticism”), Jean-Luc Godard (“he put everything into his work, nothing into his life”), Claude Chabrol (“a filmmaker who looks at others… our little Balzac”), Éric Rohmer (“his strength was not getting out of a narrow subject, imagining all its facets with an unusual, fascinating and passionate tenacity”), Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (“made all the girls fall for him without wanting to”). Interestingly, Moullet’s views of André Bazin register as more conflicted; the latter’s “art of analysis,” it would appear, was put in service of terrible films (“How could F.T. like this guy who often spent his time defending turkeys and destroying masterpieces?... Was Bazin a great stylist rather than a great critic?”). “In real life,” he adds however, “each of his gestures towards others seemed to be to be a model.”
The transition to filmmaking, Moullet tells us, was much easier, and happened without him even trying, at the age of 23 years. Everything he knew about shooting films at that time was taught to him by Rivette “over a lunch on Washington street between 1 PM and 1:40 PM.” Even so, after initial hiccups, Moullet the filmmaker overtook Moullet the critic, who nevertheless continued to produce texts, even major ones. The bulk of Mémoires is devoted to the discussion of each of his films: the reasons for their making, circumstances of their production, incidents from the shoot, their critical and commercial reception. Hilarious anecdotes abound, but sprinkled throughout are also tips for young directors both tongue-in-cheek (how to behave at cocktail parties, how to fudge your way to state subsidy, how to avoid paying lunch money to your crew) and serious (“never do your storyboarding when you aren’t absolutely sure of the participation of each actor”).
In terms of the information it offers, Mémoires has some overlap with Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, also Capricci), the book of extended interviews that he wrote with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni. All the now-familiar themes of Moullet’s work make regular appearances: geography (“I learnt to read maps before I learnt to read”), cycling (“Truffaut was an autodidact. I was a cyclodidact”), mountaineering (“I’ve seen every film, and I’ve climbed every mountain pass; well, 229 of them”), and naturally, women (“The drama of my life is that I’ve always been a toy for women… I was in love with four Françoises at the same time”). All this intersects with cinema in amusing ways, as when Moullet is scandalized at his own attraction for the Positif critic Michèle Firk: “How could I desire such a contemptible girl, a Biberman fan and a Fuller hater?” The episode would be the inspiration for Les sièges d’Alcazar (1989) two decades later.
But it is, of course, the theme of money that gives the book its tuning note. What makes Mémoires such an unusual, and perhaps even radical, autobiography is its lack of any sense of shame in talking about creative work in terms of finances. It isn’t just that Moullet often translates budget numbers of his films into what it could buy (a small car, two lofts in Paris) or that he discloses all the fraud that goes on around state subsidies. One of the permanent fixtures of this book is the author’s discussion about his personal relationship to money. So he talks about making do with very little, picking “soap from Lelouch’s home, paper reams from Societé des auteurs, newspapers from trash cans… toilet paper from Centre du cinéma.” It’s easy to believe that Moullet completed the script of Brigitte and Brigitte (1965) in small writing in an old school notebook in order to avoid buying a new one, but less so when he declares that he used to remain in the buff at home to avoid large laundry bills.
Some of these no-holds-barred revelations around money are positively discomfiting. It is one thing to create shell companies to avoid tax or to charge Tunisian distributors of his films for old prints already paid for by the British. But it’s something else to be on the dole while producing profitable films or hiking in the Himalayas, and to buy studio apartments in Paris with this welfare money. Moullet’s financial wiles were, moreover, supplemented by inexplicable windfalls, like the time he was credited 80,000 Francs by Crédit Lyonnais owing to a computer error. He describes this incident in some detail in Mémoires and his elaborate efforts to make sure that the money wasn’t retrieved from him. “I have no regrets about it,” he states, “Bravo Luluc (but I had regrets about watching Vidor’s The Fountainhead only in 1958. To each his own morals).” Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have been more sensitive to the feelings of individuals than the rights of institutions in his dealings with money, as is attested by his desire not to ruin Françoise Vatel following the fiasco of A Girl Is A Gun (1971) or his periodic cheques to Jeanne Moreau for Nathalie Granger (1972), which he produced.
Borrowing a journalist’s qualification, Moullet describes his public self as “an unruly piece of soap,” whence the book’s title, as someone who has always eluded grasp, an individual who signs up for one thing and does another. Admittedly, there is a groupie side to him that has wanted to belong to “families” like the ones at the Cahiers or the SRF (Société des réalisateurs de films, where he was once treasurer). Also, as an outsider, an “apraxic autistic Alpinist,” the prospect of sticking to dominant standards, such as making genre films or shooting on digital video, has been an attractive one. But this is counterbalanced by a flight from commitment. The filmmaker explains his refusal to define himself politically as an “instinctive reflex” against his father, who was constantly switching allegiances, being at one point a pro-Nazi militant.
There are other areas in which this perpetual slippage manifests. Moullet admits that, whenever planning a new project, he tried to make it run counter to the grain of the previous one. So the “navel-gazing” of Ma première brasse (1981) was a repartee to the social film that was Origins of a Meal (1978), itself made against the inwardness of Anatomy of a Relationship (1975), a follow-up to the Western A Girl Is A Gun. In his docu-fiction hybrids, such as La cabale des oursins (1991) or Le ventre de l’Amérique (1996), one isn’t always sure whether to take what is seen and heard at face value. Moullet makes reference to pataphysics once or twice in the book, but even without that framework, it’s plain that his films often use trappings of scientific research (enumeration, measurement systems, statistics, reportage, expert commentary) to absurd ends.
In the same vein, at a number of places in the book, it isn’t always clear if it’s the memoirist or the farceur in Moullet who is holding forth; for instance, when he rails against the evils of automobiles or when he performs a ridiculous psychoanalysis of women’s fear of cockroaches. This détournement, this formal displacement as it were, seems to be at the heart of his work.
The tendency for evasion may also be a survival mechanism. The overall impression one gets from Moullet’s book is of a rather easy life, one without much drama, controversy or struggle. Except for a brief lean period following the failure of A Girl Is A Gun, there appear to have hardly been any money troubles for him; friends on festival committees and boards of institutions have lent more than a helping hand in getting his films funded and showcased; the filmmaker has enjoyed a stable marriage of over fifty years and the advantages of a relatively good health—facets that a romantic (and masochistic, Moullet might add) conception would deem unconducive to good art. Shooting only for nine days a year, he seems to have led a life consecrated instead to the pleasures of farniente.
Cinema, in such an order of things, becomes a simple activity, pure game, made for and with pleasure, without any high stakes riding on it. When shooting a scene, writes Moullet, he looks for the easiest way to film it, unlike Delmer Daves, Bertrand Tavernier or Rivette who “willingly complicate life.” How to open a bottle of Coke, what are the challenges in booking a room in a mountain refuge, why do the French deify dogs: these are the burning questions his movies tackle. Moullet’s greatest legacy as a filmmaker, and the prime pleasure of reading his memoirs, may well be to have whittled down the universe to a human size, to have offered a working model of a creative life responsive to the world around it, but not caught up in the social and political upheavals of its time. For an artist, as he wrote back in 1959, “it’s enough to be a maker of objects.”