A Few Personal Messages, translated into English by Claire Foster, is available from Small Press. Pierre Clémenti runs October 13-31, 2022 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
As Pierre Clémenti tells it, Luis Buñuel cast him in Belle de jour (1967) without Clémenti needing to open his mouth. One can understand why; the role, which would be Clémenti’s best known as well as his break-out, needed someone who had as much appeal as they did threat. Belle de Jour is a film built from the fantasies of a housewife, Catherine Devenue’s Séverine, who decides to be a sex worker while her husband is at work. Only appearing an hour into the film, Clémenti’s Marcel, a young criminal, quickly fixates on Séverine. In contrast with the classically handsome but bland Jean Sorel as Séverine’s husband, Marcel could be someone Séverine made up in her fantasies. Clémenti is beautiful, but only because something is slightly off. He is almost androgynous, has a softness to him, but as Marcel he is still shaped by his violent life, proudly showing off his gold teeth, all knocked out “in one blow.” He moves between boyish remorse to a gleeful sneer, with an impulsive cruelty that comes from the confidence of youth. While Marcel changed the course of Séverine’s life, Clémenti made his mark on cinema.
One of the great faces of cinema, Clémenti was a darling of the 1960s European arthouse, often working without pay if the project appealed to him. He would create a career and star persona steeped in a revolutionary spirit, drawn to characters who would challenge the status quo and beliefs of the bourgeoisie, either as chaos agents, as in Belle de jour, or as the locus of change. His life, and career, were disrupted in 1972 by an arrest in Italy and then 17 months split between two prisons, Regina Coeli and Rebibbia, for drug possession. He wrote a memoir of his time in prison, A Few Personal Messages (1973), which has only now been translated into English by Claire Foster. It’s striking, and discouraging, to read a book published almost 50 years ago making the same points about prison abolition that’s continued to circulate now. It’s a stark and moving text, with a sharpness of language formed from anger and grief, grounded in Clémenti’s radical politics and ethos as an artist. He is always a poet, even as prison takes away his language.
The divide between deviant and innocent would be the space Clémenti would occupy as an actor, easily switching between a wealthy dandy to someone completely out of time. Clémenti’s first film role came after Alain Delon brought him to Italy. Delon was to star in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), and knowing Clémenti was broke, introduced him to the director. Visconti picked up on the contrast in Clémenti, calling him “a greaser with the hands of a prince”, and gave him a small role as Burt Lancaster’s son. In 1968, he starred in Michel Deville’s Benjamin, a remixing of the Belle de jour cast with Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, but this time Clémenti was the innocent aristocratic youth regularly seduced. He then played both types in Partner (1968), Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, as an inept college student and his identical killer, both driven towards revolution. Bertolucci would later use him in The Conformist (1970) as Lino, the chauffeur, who both rescues and threatens the child version of Jean-Louis Trintignant Marcello, an interaction which would be the seed of the latter’s fascism.
This high and low quality also took him to more mystical roles. He played the Devil in Buñuel’s religious farce The Milky Way (1969), and Jesus in Philippe Garrel’s experimental The Virgin’s Bed in the same year. Liliana Cavani’s would cast him as Tiresais in The Year of the Cannibals (1970), her adaptation of Antigone. In Pigsty (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini directed him in a role that was almost entirely silent, wandering around Mount Etna in medieval garb. Only at the end of the film does Clémenti speak, but by that point his character had changed from innocent youth to cannibal. As he recites the film’s tagline, “I killed my father, I ate human flesh, and I quiver with joy,” he has tears in his eyes, the equal parts shame and pleasure from his trajectory of being a base cannibal to pursuing something beyond flesh—and we see this mystical something play out on his face.
From the beginning Clémenti was adamant about the importance of the immediacy of art, and the rejection of more commercial avenues, eschewing offers from talent scouts. Born the illegitimate child of a maid, Clémenti’s turn to acting was entirely by chance. He spent most of his youth working odd jobs in Paris, including as a telegram delivery boy and bellhop-cum-poet. One day he was spotted in the street and asked to join a theatre troupe. He took acting classes at the Theatre du Vieux-Colombier and the Theatre National Populaire, working in cafe-theatres for the next few years with Jean-Pierre Kalfon, who spotted him initially, Marc’O, and Bulle Ogier, who’d all become life long collaborators in film and theatre. He would later write, “I always thought that in order to be an actor, one must answer to some higher order, to a rule of life and thought, a quasi-religious Asceticism,” the driving force behind his artistic choices. This quest for the sacred, would be, for him, something he would then need to share with an audience. His work as an actor was tied to various artistic communities, from the cafe-theatres to the filmmaker collective the Zanzibar Group, and the wider political upheaval of May ‘68—he flew back from Italy to France in order to film and take part in the protests—are all grounded in a desire to change the world around him, liberating the audiences from the chains of normalcy.
In 1967 Clémenti picked up a 16mm film and regularly began filming. The films he would make from this footage, all self-funded and made over a number of years, are a mix between diaristic and lyrical, heavily influenced by the American underground movement. They’re an exploration of how human psyches are shaped by the radically changing cityscape around them, but always return to Clémenti’s politics. Visa de censure n° X (1967) begins with a naked Clémenti coming out of a cave—the dawn of man, and later he and his wife would climb cliffs by the oceans, their naked bodies exalted by the sun. He would reuse his diaristic footage throughout his few films, of figures in the Paris underground like Tina Aumont and Nico, of his family in nature, of his own face. These films are constantly moving, superimposing the neon lights of nightlife or people on the streets of Paris onto whatever else he was filming. He would film the protests of the May ‘68 movement in The Revolution Is Only a Beginning. Let’s Continue Fighting (1968), but would juxtapose images of his family. His only feature film, In the Shadow of the Blue Rascal, made in 1986, is a sci-fi punk film about the after effects of a failed revolution. After a criminal gang is given control of the city of Necropolis to quell the revolutionaries, the ones that survive have been institutionalized and tortured with drugs. The film braids in moments from Clémenti’s life, including his arrest. He would work through this again in the 1988 short Soleil, a film specifically about his time in prison, recreating his arrest and weaving in text from his memoir. In this short he would always return to footage of his mother, son, and wife, the figures that, while imprisoned, would always ground him.
Due to this trajectory, Clémenti was famous, but not wealthy, and a key figure of various counter-culture movements. When he was 28 years old he was awoken the morning of July 24, 1971 by the Roman police for a charge of drug possession. He was arrested and would spend 17 months in prison, until his charges were thrown out due to insufficient evidence. He was alone in this, with no help from the French government due to his involvement with May ‘68. This incarceration in Italian prisons changed Clémenti, and his memoir non-linearly focuses on life in prison, the oppression of the State, and his own life, all now inherently linked. The book begins and ends with a direct address, first to a warden of the prison, and ending with one to a judge, asking them to experience the prisons as he did. Clémenti’s desire to undergo something transcendental and make it communal, which formed his acting career, shapes this text just as much.
Fascism, Clémenti writes, “takes root somewhere in the back of the brain and never leaves.” The Italian prison system at the time of his arrest grew directly from Italy’s fascist regime, with the same men working under Mussolini now police officers and judges. In Italy, prisons would function as a means of absorbing the masses of unemployed men from the south of Italy and anyone who deviates from the norm. Clémenti was initially housed in Regina Coeli, as a “preventative” detention for his charge of drug possession. In Italy the minimum sentence was two years for drug possession, the same amount for trafficking. People would spend months in prison simply for being caught smoking a joint or looking suspicious, Clémenti writes, with no idea when they would have their trial. This, he writes, was punishment for people rejecting the bourgeois society that the judges upheld. Traffickers were businessmen, which could be understood; users were a sickness that needed to be stamped out. “It wasn’t my trial being held here: it was a trial about drugs and addicts,” Clémenti wrote. He would later add, “The addict isn’t the only person being targeted; it’s through his image that all of society’s bastards, bands of outsiders, and any others who don’t conform to the norms of the moment are also targeted. And any departure from the norm is then judged and stifled.” Clémenti, a famous counter-cultural icon, long-haired and known to interact with drug users, insisted on his innocence. This did not matter to the judges. It was the men he represented, not him, who was on trial.
When, eight months after his arrest, Clémenti finally had his trial, he was explicit that the trial, and whatever he was to say there, was simply a performance put on by Italy’s judicial system.
It was his appearance and the roles, both onscreen and off, he took that made him both a star and a prisoner. At his trial a considerable amount of press had arrived, and the best and brightest of the Italian art scene had come forward to support him. Vittorio De Sica was at his trial, and Federico Fellini, unruly haired, took the stand to testify to Clémenti’s character. It did not matter that Clémenti did not do drugs, that the evidence was circumstantial, that the home he was staying at belonged to his friend Anna-Maria, and she had an open door policy for months. What mattered to the judges was that Clémenti had long hair, was an illegitimate child, and that his manner could only be explained for them by drug use. Long hair, now, seems a particularly absurd thing to focus on, but the way people are punished for any kind of visible difference should be as familiar now as it was then.
Clémenti did attempt to build community in prison like he had on the outside. When the younger guards recognized him from his films, he encouraged them to leave the industry, for their sentence as employees is longer than his as a prisoner. He recounted his own life story—where Kalfon took a chance on him—to his fellow prisoners, and heard theirs. But the prison machine, as Clémenti calls it, would do everything it could to quell this kinship. A prisoner’s life was shaped by violence and monotony, with cells with small holes instead of windows, the uncertainty of when prisoners would have a trial, the violence of the prison guards—at one point the guards beat up a prisoner and accidentally castrated him. Any warden with an inclination towards progress would be quickly shuffled out. There was no rehabilitation in the two prisons Clémenti was housed in, instead it was a way of getting rid of unwanted kinds of citizens. This time in prison is “inscribed in you,” he writes, and only breeds more prisoners, for it was a stigma few could overcome.
While imprisoned Clémenti’s case was well debated in the papers, and the drug laws were changed after he was released to decrease the sentencing for possession. But outside of a few letters from lawyers, Clémenti and his fellow prisoners had little news of the world. In response to the isolation and uncertainty before his initial trial Clémenti stopped speaking for two months. His lawyers had no news, and it was preferable to retreat into this world of fantasy, an experience he would describe as a swimmer caught in a whirlpool, better to sink to the bottom in order to survive. This so unnerved the warden that he sent Clémenti to solitary confinement; the actor’s silence was what the warden would call a “dangerous threat to the prison’s tranquility.” In the months before his appeal Clémenti descended into a “kind of madness,” writing unpublished letters to the pope and the press, a period of time that he would later only remember as brief flashes. Here Clémenti retreated into himself, ignoring letters from his lawyers and agents, having his hair shaved off. This checked-out, half conscious, barely eating Clémenti was the logical end point of the prison machine, and because of that abhorrent to it, for it is unbearable for the prison to admit it's true purpose. Clémenti’s warden would pull him aside wanting to help his most famous prisoner, while his lawyers would tell the press that he had gone crazy, but both would matter little to him. In the most moving section of his book, Clémenti is granted two hours with his wife and son, neither of whom he’d seen for over a year. In their short time together Clémenti can only gather his young son in his arms and cry, the months of repressed emotion spilling out once he was reconnected with the outside world.
Though Clémenti did do film work after his release, a leading role in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1975) and smaller, but striking, roles in Zoo Zéro (1979), Merchant Ivory’s Quartet (1982), Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord (1981) and Hard to Be a God (1989), the trajectory he had before prison was lost, and his focus turned to theatre. He would die young, of liver cancer, when he was 57. It’s hard not to wonder, with such a radical attitude towards art and society, what would Clémenti have created had he lived longer? Had he not been punished by society at large for challenging the norms?
During his time in Rebibbia, Clémenti took part in a prison riot. The guards barricaded themselves in the basement while the prisoners streamed out to the roof of the prison, shouting at the neighboring town. They went to the highest possible point of the prison so that the citizens of Italy could see their conditions, see the price of their perceived safety. That the masses could see what was shaping their lives, the hypocrisy and the oppressive systems, was always what called Clémenti to create. As he tells it, when he first met Fellini, the director pulled back his hair and told him, “You have the pointy ears of a wolf, you shouldn’t hide them.”