Self-portrait in front of a mirror (1908), Léon Spilliaert. MuZee, Ostend. Photo: © Sabam Belgium 2016
I would not paint — a picture —It's bright impossibility
When asked about his first short film, a beautiful portrait of the amazing Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, filmmaker João César Monteiro declared, rather dissatisfied, "Well, this film is proof to all those who say that you can not film a poem." The same statement has often been made about any other art that dared be approached by cinema. A strange suspicion arises once a film tackles art. It seems to be deeply grounded in an idea of cinema as the art of the little man, rooted in the soil of simple folks. Thus, approaching other arts hides a desire and an impossibility of cinema. However, Alain Badiou famously labeled cinema a "bastard art": The seventh art is capable of subtracting elements from all the other arts, combining them, using them or transforming them. Looking at how cinema deals with the task of making other arts appear on the screen, one can easily find two tendencies. Filmmakers either choose to document an art form and the work, as well as life with it, or they adjust the form of their film, stepping into a dialogue with other arts. Yet I feel what Monteiro was trying to say, and also trying to do in his first film combining images of the poet at home with images inspired by her writing, is an approach towards transformation. When a film really becomes a poem, a dance, a sculpture, a building.
In Antoine Barraud’s Rouge the ideas of art and transformation are challenged. When the filmmaker Bertrand (Bertrand Bonello) looks at one of the many paintings dealing with monstrosity in the film, the art expert (Jeanne Balibar) tells him: "The painting itself is a monster." The film deals a lot with research and inspiration, as Bonello’s character is searching for an idea for his next project. Rouge is more about looking at paintings than the paintings themselves. Barraud frequently cuts from the point-of-view of the people looking at the painting to the point-of-view of the painting looking at the people. The paintings become a character of their own, not only because there are so many things hidden under their appearance but their appearance itself seems to perceive what is going on around them. There is an uncanny element concerning paintings in cinema: it invokes the phantoms living on their surfaces. In this regard, it seems very fitting that Bonello is obsessed with a self-portrait in the film: The portrait of a painter looking at himself. Léon Spilliaert’s Self-Portrait in a Mirror, at which Bonello stares in the film, is a strange and troubling vision combining many of the Belgian painter’s main obsessions: Himself, reflections, death and melancholy. The painting not only shows the distorted, death-like face of Spilliaert, but also a mirror placed in the center of the frame. Looking at the painting is like looking into a mirror, a mirror which shows death. Transformation begins here when the comfort of looking vanishes, when something is not right, when cinema brings movement to a painting or a painting brings death to cinema.
A film can never be a pure depiction of painting, poetry or any other art, it is always cinema looking at it. In this regard, it seems very fitting that Spilliaert, whose self-portraits worked a lot with distortions, experimented with creative connections between art and literature. He illustrated poems by Émile Verhaeren and Serre Chaudes. He never tried to make a painting like a poem, but he more or less tried to invoke feelings and rhythms existing in the poems. More interesting than the translation from one art to the other seems to be what is changed, deformed or distorted. In Rouge, the distortion not only derives from Spilliaert’s painting but from the obsessive and consistent way Bonello looks at it. Somehow the art of looking seems to awake the ghosts in the painting. Something related to the identification with a piece of art is happening in the camera. It is a dangerous line, as identification to a certain degree also means to not really look at something other than oneself. In this way, anything can be become a piece of art, be it a red skin rash or the clothes of a person in the room. Rouge shows the danger of everything becoming art depending on the way one looks at it. It is reminiscent of Guillaume Apollinaire’s depiction of crashing airplanes as falling stars.
Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera
Bertrand Bonello is a perfect match as the main actor in Barraud’s under-recognized film on and of art. As a filmmaker, Bonello constantly challenges other arts, be it music, dance, performance, photography or design. By doing so he regularly invokes ghosts. For him, the arts in cinema are a question of relationship. First, it is about a relation to cinema and in a further and very important step about their relation to the world Bonello is looking at. In his superb Saint Laurent (2014), a split-screen sequence confronts Yves Saint Laurent’s latest collections of the 1960s and 70s with political events, while in the director’s amazing Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera he shows the work on a hypothetical performance/dance while onscreen texts give information on the life of the eponymous woman. Thus a distance between art and life is shown, one that is bridged by cinema because the gap transforms into an appearance. In Sarah Winchester, Bonello uses a mirror in a similar way as Spilliaert. The mesmerizing real-life ballet dancer Marie Agnès Gillot is practicing in the empty auditorium of the Opéra de Paris. With a simple and effective pan from the body of the dancer to her image in the mirror Bonello transform her work into a reflection. The dancer transforms into a reflection, her art looks back at the spectator. Like Sarah Winchester, who is haunted by guilt, the image of the dancer is haunted by herself. She becomes a phantom, an appearance. The same is true for the story of Winchester, which takes place in the bodies and voices of artists. Cinema may not enter those bodies and those bodies may not enter Sarah Winchester’s story. It is due to the impossibility of entering that a different view is possible, one that adds regimes of sensuality and aesthetics to the narration.
Approaching an art form through another art is also a step towards a possible closer understanding. Something is not quite in place, an unusual gaze, another element comes into play. It was Manoel de Oliveira who in his Visit or Memories and Confessions showed how the element of time can work with architecture, which is commonly related to space. In cinema one can show how time works in and with a building, how architecture can be transformed into a moving phantom. In Oliveira’s metaphor, cinema could be interpreted as a visitor coming to places and other arts, looking at them and thereby transforming or distorting them. It is not by accident that we never see the visitors in Oliveira’s house, because as good as cinema might be in invoking phantoms, much of it remains a phantom itself. In almost all cases, looking at another art with cinema tells more about cinema than the other art. The best example is one of the most beautiful and stunning films ever made on an artist, Van Gogh by Maurice Pialat. It is a film that goes so far in the director’s mixture of portrait and reflection, mirror and personality, that it could also be called Pialat by Van Gogh. The extraordinary thing is how the Pialat/Van Gogh mirroring isn’t of much importance as it is a film about life and death of human beings. It is between the living and the dead that cinema meets art, as it can capture only appearances and traces of other arts. Cinema seems to be in a constant struggle with other arts, imitating, claiming a difference, looking at them. There is no answer to Monteiro’s statement about filming poems. It is not about filming a poem, it is about looking at it, listening to it, approaching it from the perspective of cinema.