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At the cinematheque: "Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa" (Depardon, France, 1985)

Although the immediate reason why Jacques Rozier's Du côté d'Orouët (1973) and Raymond Depardon's Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa (1983) are being included in the traveling Jean Eustache retrospective seems like simple thematic links between these films and those of Eustache with which they are paired, it is far more fun to look between these works to find reasons both more abstract and more direct that connect them to Jean Eustache.
Seeing Empty Quarter with Eustache's voyeur-focused short A Dirty Story (I & II) (1977) connects thematics, but it is in fact the viewing of Depardon's film after that of Rozier which helps clarify more intangible commonalities, at least between those two films. Both Empty Quarter and Du côté d'Orouët are clear examples of a personal cinema, one of carefully delineated sensibilities (youthful in Rozier, poetic in Depardon), a simple, clear form and mise-en-scène based on documentary (realism of activity, of mood in Rozier; of photographic travelogue in Depardon), and, most interesting of all, rhetorically effaced filmmakers.
Jacques Rozier effaces himself through the seemingly aimless, borderline undefined direction and construction of Du côté d'Orouët. Depardon has a more rigorous aesthetic, and pushes this experiment further: Empty Quarter takes the form of a first-person diary, narrated off-screen by an unseen man, with the view of the camera functioning as an approximate—I underline that qualification, approximate—point of view for this male character/narrator. We are not talking about a Lady of the Lake-style first-person narration with the view of the camera literally mimicking what someone sees as they move around the film-world, but more like what a fragmented, lyricized, visualized personal diary of a sort of brief affair and trip across Africa would be like.
There is no dialog or actions involving the narrator, only vision and sounds; the characters sometimes address or look at or near the camera as if it were a person, but the camera only holds one shot at a time, as if it were a singular way of viewing a particular memory. Depardon thereby records not a story but rather a series of poeticized (and remembered?), lyrical impressions and senses. The film is far from structureless, however, and as the title implies, the narrator's mind, vision, and trip around Africa are funneled through an obsession with an equally mysterious and wayward unknown woman (Françoise Prenant).
As he ponders his infatuation and inevitable break-up with this woman, Depardon's narrator subtly but indelibly draws connections between his own desire and memory and the desire and memory evoked by photography and cinematography that records—or perhaps re-presents—this story. The camera's desire for personality, for interpretation, and ultimately for control and influence quietly come alive as this anonymous man's views of beauty and frustration are channeled through the gorgeous, but limited and limiting view point of the film's diary-like camera.
Viewed from the limited standpoint of only a handful of Rozier and Eustache films, and only this one fictional feature by Depardon, we can see a cinema that is wrestling with ways of "accurately" portraying reality through distinctly focalized view points. Instead of a documentary that presumes to be seeing reality, Rozier, Depardon, and Eustache each let the filmed blossom and flourish through carefully contextualized fictional ways of seeing that reality. These may be shooting fictional characters like a documentary and constructing this document like it was a fiction (as in Rozier); framing one's highly realist material cinematography through intense admittance to who is seeing and determining what is being seen (Depardon); or the myriad of examples in Eustache, be it the double-telling of a story, one acted by actors and one acted by the real people (A Dirty Story) or emphasizing highly subjective and artificial impressionism and sensuality inside a story of youth, shot and told with an anecdotal authenticity and a photographic realness (Mes petites amoureuses, 1974). As disparate as these filmmakers may or may not be, they each indelibly bare the influence of the French New Wave, grappling with considerable formal nuance complex issues of bringing to cinema a reality directly more in tune with the world in which the audience lives.
*** Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa played in the traveling retrospective, Jean Eustache’s Circle.

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