Gone to Earth: The Cinema of Patricia Mazuy

A retrospective in New York gives audiences a chance to discover one of the great contemporary French directors along with her new film.
Evan Morgan
"Rebel Spirit: The Films of Patricia Mazuy" is showing November 15–17, 2019 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.
Above: Patricia Mazuy
When, in 1984, Agnès Varda began preparing the film that would eventually become Vagabond, she hired an untested young woman to work in her employ as an editorial assistant, a twenty-four year old business school dropout whose sole professional credit to that point was a brief apprenticeship in the cutting room of Jacques Demy’s Un chambre en ville (1982). Hardly a momentous hiring decision by most standards. Even a small production company can probably afford to dole out one or two glorified go-fer jobs to friends of the family. But given Varda’s working methods during this period, in which she established only a thin scenario at the outset, discovered the script daily with the cast, the crew, and the local community, and constructed the decoupage each evening on a flatbed back at the hotel—allowing the movie to take shape organically in real time—this assistant role would prove more significant than the diminutive job title might suggest. And so, with almost no résumé to speak of, a full five years before she would step behind the camera herself, future director Patricia Mazuy was suddenly invited to act as a kind of co-author on the newest work by the most prominent woman filmmaker in France. To the best of my knowledge, Varda never spoke in detail about her motivations for offering Mazuy this rather unique opportunity, though Occam's razor would suggest that Mazuy was simply looking for work, the job was open, and the Demy connection proved useful—these things are usually about who you know, really. Still, Varda’s silence on the matter allows for some productive conjecture, and if Mazuy was brought on for any reason other than the track record of a job well done for Jacques, I suspect that it had something to do with Varda’s stated intention for the project: She was to film “what freedom and dirt meant.”
Patrica Mazuy grew up in Dijon, the daughter of working class bakers and the granddaughter of peasant farmers hailing from Bresse, a small agricultural commune in eastern France known for its prosperous livestock trade, in poultry and in cattle. They grow wine grapes in Languedoc-Roussillon, where Vagabond was shot, but the barren winter fields through which Sandrine Bonnaire’s Mona hikes, crawls, and eventually collapses, might have looked familiar to Mazuy: after a reaping, when the unforgiving winter frost sets in, all farmlands look very much the same. That might also be said of the native inhabitants, the local farmers, foremen, and wayfarers who recount their brushes with Mona directly to the camera, and who Mazuy helped find on location. More than a few of the non-professional actors appear caked in a week’s worth of gray mud grime, an ancient badge still awarded to those who live—as Mazuy’s grandparents did—in perpetual proximity to the land, even when the land ceases to offer up much that’s living. Mazuy, it might be said, knew the dirt.
And the freedom? Bonnaire’s drifter demands unfettered liberty; Vagabond dismisses her open road ideology before she’s even given a chance to enunciate it. The film begins at a brutal terminus, and only then moves backwards to detail the trajectory that will lead Mona to this unfortunate end. The structure is pure determinism. Vagabond’s coldness—in both the literal and figurative sense—is not entirely atypical for Varda, though she was always careful to tend to the warm flame of humanism, stoking it and letting it radiate through the cracks if things started looking too frigid. There is, however, precious little warmth here: the film’s lacerating contrasts—between the past and the present, the soft and the hard, the living and the dead—land with a bitter, icy smack thanks to the film’s precise cutting, for which Varda and Mazuy shared a co-credit. It seems plausible that Mazuy’s own wanderings (she initially entered the Varda-Demy orbit while loafing around Los Angeles in the early 1980s) helped sharpen the scalpel. In the very least, it’s not hard to imagine that Varda—knowing where Mona would end up, frozen in a ditch—envisioned Vagabond as a kind of alternate future for her young friend Patricia, too bleak to be literally true, of course,but nevertheless an honest prognosis of the limits of freedom. 
Above: Peaux de vaches
As if picking up right where Vagabond leaves off, the first Mazuy character that enters the world does so already on the ground. That is, unless we take the proemial cow—whose terrifying, pustular eye stares at us from behind the opening credits of Mazuy’s debut feature—as the filmmaker's prime creation. But Peaux de vaches (1989), despite its title (literally “The Skin of Cows” or “Cowhide,” but expressing a meaning more like “Thick Skinned”), deals less with the relations between man and beast, and more the beastly relations between men. Gérard, the younger of two middle-aged brothers, is on the kitchen floor after having consumed three or four more bottles of rotgut wine than is medically advisable. He’s blind-drunk and barely coherent, though still capable of pulling his equally crapulent brother, Roland, down to earth with him. With some effort, they manage to get up off the cheap linoleum—in retrospect, maybe they should have kept low: their drunken evening ends with a trip to the family barn, where they too are confronted by that glaucous bovine stare, and knowing not what else to do with their sickly beast of burden, they set the barn on fire. Unfortunately, a drifter catching a few winks in one of the unused stables goes up with the place, and the elder brother, shouldering the blame, heads to prison.
Peaux de vaches then cuts ahead some years, picking up with Roland upon his release from the slammer. As he rolls back into town, the film introduces a number of core Mazuyian concerns: there is the homecoming itself, a primordial narrative form, and therefore particularly well suited to this story of brotherly resentments as old and as unconquerable as the elements. (“Blood is thicker than love,” as Theo Hakola warbles on the soundtrack, the first of many strange alt-rock cuts in the Mazuy oeuvre). Naturally, Roland is initially greeted by a splash of mud: he may no longer be on the ground, but the earth rises up to meet him. Shortly thereafter he’s thrust into a situation that reads like a Biblical tale—or, perhaps even more elemental than that, a Western scenario: the fraternal farmstead is now watched over by a lonely wife and her young daughter, who wait up one evening for papa to come home. Instead, they find the unknown brother in the dining room. Thanks to Roland’s sudden appearance, the toddler takes a dive from the dinner table on which she’s been perched, landing hard on the floor and sending the mother into a fit of anger. That might be enough to get Roland expelled from the premises permanently, but only if he were played by someone other than Jean-François Stévenin, whose shiny bald pate and lumbering frame enhance—rather than diminish—his persuasive sexual aura, and Bonnaire, as the wife, slowly accedes to her animal instincts. Perhaps the world of men and the world of beasts are not so far apart, after all.
Another recurring Mazuy move: Peaux de vaches deploys a modified form of social realism in order to conjure the desperation of this small town—which is barely surviving on the remaining scraps of a once-thriving agricultural industry—while simultaneously dodging anything that smacks of a prescriptive ideological position. The forces that apply pressure on this family are, to some extent, ascribable to economic hardships, but not neatly so, and their responses to the environment are not especially readable from a psychological point of view. (“The cows were sick,” seems insufficient, as motive or metaphor, to explain the film’s self-destructive air and its repeated invocations of suicide). Mazuy, in addition to Stévenin, imports from Jacques Rivette’s movies a psychological fog to match the pallid scrim that hangs perpetually over the French countryside. The space between people is clouded, dense, and given to sudden change in shape and volume. Ever the eagle-eyed cinephile, the Night Watchman himself took notice: at one point during Claire Denis’s feature-length interview with the director, Rivette describes trekking out to the cinema to see Mazuy’s debut for the second time, drawn back by the feeling “that the film was leading somewhere, and the more it goes on...the more the relationships become both more intense and more mysterious.” When Gérard and Roland end up fighting in a pool of clay-like sludge outside the farmhouse, simmering sexual jealousy seems only a partial explanation for their brutish behavior. The mud that covers them points to a more essential, more primeval force at play. “I don’t want my daughter to crawl around in the mud, even if you like that,” Gérard tells Roland. But they are farmers and—whether they like it or not—the film leads them, always, back to the muck.
Despite the praise that met Peaux de vaches upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Mazuy—like many women filmmakers—found herself unable to bring new projects to fruition. Like any bonne fille of the working classes, she wasted no time in finding a job to make ends meet, and promptly took a detour into television, where she would remain for a decade—even in France, cinema doesn’t always pay the bills. Mazuy’s first small screen credit was a directorial stint on the Twilight Zone-inspired anthology series The Hitchhiker (1991). The episode that bears her name (titled, not inappropriately, “A Whole New You”) contains nary a trace of her personality, save for a brief recreation of the title shot from Peaux de vaches, the infected cow’s eye now replaced by the bulging peeper of one Elliott Gould, who here acts the part of unrepentant ham. It certainly wasn’t lost on Mazuy that, in taking this job, she simply swapped one species of livestock for another. This characteristic joke notwithstanding, French television proved a far better breeding ground for Mazuy’s interests: Des taureaux et des vaches (1992), a documentary commissioned by France’s Ministry of Agriculture, returned the director to the bovine world of her first feature. Not long thereafter, Chantal Poupaud, who was prepping a series of ten TV movies focused on the lives of adolescents, each to be directed by one of France’s brightest film talents, and set at the time of each filmmaker’s budding maturity, gave Patricia Mazuy a ring.
Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge (1993) offered total freedom within a few strict boundaries: the films in the series could not last much more than an hour; Super 16 was the prescribed shooting format; every film had to feature a party scene scored to the popular rock music of the era. Mazuy’s contribution, Travolta et moi, follows Christine—the teenage daughter of boulangers eking out a life in the provinces—over the course of one eventful weekend. After agreeing to an ice-rink rendezvous with Nicholas, a hunky, floppy-haired, and very self-serious young man (he proudly lugs around a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and proves his Übermensch bonafides by agreeing to seduce this poor girl in order to win a bet),Christine’s parents shackle her with the ultimate working class albatross: they’re going away, and she’s got to mind the store.
Above: Travolta et moi
This being the tail end of the 1970s, Saturday Night Fever has yet to break; Christine has John Travolta to keep her company, at least. A shrine to Tony Manero—located in the back room of the bakery—acts as a totem, calling forth the self-assured, sexualized physicality that is elsewhere inaccessible to Christine, much to her chagrin. Mazuy grants her young woman a few flights of fancy, which recreate Saturday Night Fever’s disco sequences, but they ultimately prove unsatisfying. Indeed, the arc of Travolta et moi carries Christine away from the abstracted pop infatuations that so commonly afflict adolescents and pushes her towards the more tangible, earthier, and, yes, more mundane world of adult sexuality. But let’s be clear: Mazuy, as usual, never fully commits to realism. The space of the film—initially confined to the family pâtisserie and circumscribed by cinematographer Éric Gautier’s tight close-ups—quite literally explodes: beleaguered by the demands of the shopkeeper's life, and recognizing that movie daydreams are an increasingly useless balm, Christine sets her little shrine on fire, and—like Roland before her—burns down the homestead in the process. Blow up my town, as another Tous les garçons contributor once put it.
Travolta et moi culminates with the requisite party scene: Christine arrives at the ice-rink, where at least a dozen peripheral characters have gathered to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and their various couplings and decouplings, on and off the ice, liberate Mazuy’s camera, which now moves across multiple levels of action, dances to the rhythm of Bob Dylan and Joe Dassin, and scales the imposing statue that looms over the rink, a huge female skater rendered in sheet metal, apparently inspired—according to Mazuy—by the monumental structures of Soviet Socialist Realism. The sequence, as remarkably constructed as any of the more famous fêtes in the series (the usual finishers: win to Assayas’s Cold Water; place to Denis’s U.S. Go Home; show to Techine’s Wild Reeds, if only by default), benefits from Mazuy’s tendency to turn simple, unassuming gestures into subtle fantasies of escape. That’s nowhere more evident than an unexpected duet between Christine and a svelte Russian skater, who picks her out from the crowd and shows her some moves, almost literally sweeping her off her feet. But, as is ever the case for Mazuy’s people, gravity is destiny: Christine ends up on the ground, fucking Nicolas on the rink’s cold, concrete floor. She is, however, spared his crueler fate. After climbing onto the statue, Nicolas—like many a failed Nietzschean—throws himself into the abyss. The camera falls with him, smashing into the ice after a woozy, elongated plunge—the literal height of the film’s late-blooming directorial flourishes. Everyone and everything is, invariably, brought back to earth.
Mazuy was herself grounded, once again, after Travolta et moi, which premiered first on TV and then at the Locarno Film Festival. The dual distinction of a competition slot and a jury prize failed to relaunch her theatrical prospects, and it wasn’t until 2000, seven years later, that Mazuy wound her way back to Cannes.
Above: Saint-Cyr
In retrospect, Saint-Cyr (The King’s Daughters, 2000)—though only her second feature—seems like a significant break. Mazuy’s TV years codified an interest in roughly contemporary blue-collar milieus and the work that attends to such spaces, and yet here she was marshaling significant production resources to mount a costume drama about Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon—infamous consort to Louis XIV—and the establishment of the Maison Royale de Saint-Louis. The school, which was the Marquise’s pet project, attempted a radical reorientation of the Ancien Regime’s educational system, shunning the dogmas of the convent in favor of the increasingly secular interests of the state. In 1686, in the twilight of the Sun King’s reign, just before the dawn of the Enlightenment, Madame de Maintenon gathered two-hundred young noblewomen fallen on hard times, boarded them in a house built atop a swamp, and set out to provide them “all the educations suited to their birth and their sex.”
Saint-Cyr is a film of unusual pedagogical intensity: it never strays from the Maison’s barrack-like bunkrooms and mess halls, where the girls march around to the beat of John Cale’s martial score, and it concerns itself almost exclusively with the instruction—one might even say indoctrination—of unformed, malleable minds. I can’t improve on Mazuy’s own summation: “Full Metal Jacket in petticoats.” The invocation of Kubrick seems especially astute given Mazuy’s stylistic shift: once the girls settle into the school—after a quick bath to wash off years of accumulated poverty—Mazuy opts for a controlled, analytic approach that stands in contrast to the more organic forms that define her earlier work. And there is, of course, Mazuy’s lead actress. Isabelle Huppert animates Madame de Maintenon with her usual calculated intensity, though her cold exterior is under constant threat from the sulphuric fires of damnation, which lick at the Marquise’s heels from the jump. “Too great a fear of hell will be your undoing,” Louis tells her. He’s quite right: the secular mission of the school, which initially promises to loot a bit of liberty from the men who jealously “reserve freedom for themselves,” eventually succumbs to Huppert’s increasing hadephobia and religious fervor. A brigade of black-frocked priests arrives to turn the girls away from their newfound passions and back towards God, lest the young women come to enjoy their earthly emancipation a touch too much.
But the earth persists. The world of beasts is never far away: an ostrich flock inexplicably floods the foyer; a stuffed bear watches over a classroom; horses are omnipresent. And the dominion of mud is even closer: a key subplot—woven into the film at the margins, but crucial to Mazuy’s overall design—concerns the weak architectural foundations of the school, which are waterlogged, rotting, and threatening to drive the entire edifice back into the swamp. Madame de Maintenon orders countless reinforcements, but, in the film’s penultimate image, water once again seeps through, and she is forced to confront a core Mauzyian truth, articulated by the chief priest in a moment of accidental clarity, between fits of fire and brimstone sermonizing: “The field is the world.”
Above: Sport de filles
The final shot of Saint-Cyr finds one of the young women in a pasture just beyond the school, where she mounts a horse and rides off; whatever awaits her out there, it’s unlikely to be a promise of enduring liberation. But she has, for the moment, broken free. She might also be riding into the next phase of Mazuy’s career. Basse Normandie and Sport de filles (Of Women and Horses) form a neat pair within the Mazuy oeuvre, two minor films steeped in the world of professional dressage. The former—made in 2004 with her then-partner Simon Reggiani—wears the now-cliched garb of the “documentary-fiction hybrid,” though the film’s melange of diverse digital formats, scrupulously detailed horse training exercises, and one extended solo performance of the first half of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (recited on horseback, naturally) probably appeared more liberated from convention at the time of its release. The latter film is a less familiar beast: Mazuy spent years researching and developing Sport de filles—even writing a regular sports column in Le Monde as prep work—before completing the film in 2011. But whatever meaning this material holds for Mazuy, it remains resolutely private. The narrative, in which a woman, Gracieuse, attempts to break into dressage despite her peasant background, contains only faint connections to Mazuy’s other work, and I’ve more or less articulated them in one word: peasant. Visually, Sport de filles is closer to the Doric stillness of Saint-Cyr than it is to the hectic movement of Travolta et moi or the rough-hewn DV textures of Basse Normandie, but here, the precision generates no energy. Control slips into stasis. Likely the most intriguing avenue into Sport de filles is the one suggested by French critic, filmmaker, and raconteur Louis Skorecki, who draws a straight line from Mazuy’s film to Howard Hawks’s Man’s Favorite Sport. Or, as it’s known in French, Le Sport favori de l'homme. Gracieuse displays a certain severe professionalism, that much is true. (The film’s best moment—and one of the stranger surrealist intrusions in the Mazuy oeuvre—is a dreamy nighttime drive in which our aspiring rider obsessively recites the principal movements of dressage, while diegetically impossible lights pulsate across her face, like she’s suddenly entered the Star Gate Sequence.) But is professionalism sans pleasure ever truly Hawksian? Mazuy’s people might work hard, they might even perform well, but they are rarely content doing so. They keep an eye always on the horizon, scanning for an escape route.
Above: Paul Sanchez Is Back
That’s where Paul Sanchez is looking, anyways. He scales the craggy face of the rock of Roquebrune, a huge red-clay butte that looms over the Var (the southern French department where the film is set) and stares out past the town below, like a John Ford character contemplating the distant homestead that he is forever leaving behind. Sanchez, though, is not departing. He is—as the title announces—returning. Paul Sanchez Is Back! And so is Mazuy. The premise of her fifth and most recent feature echoes, rather explicitly, the outline of her first: a notorious outlaw figure, long since disappeared, winds his way back home and disrupts the stable, battened down existence of those who've remained behind. Western iconography, subterranean and subtextual in Peaux de vaches, is here promoted to text. Mazuy consciously locates Paul Sanchez Is Back! in a long tradition of French reclamations of that most American of genres, a practice which reaches as far back as the silent era, when Joë Hamman was recreating the Wild West in a forest outside of Paris, and which runs on through to the Cahiers critics, who declaimed the genre’s virtues in the pages of their film magazine, prompting one of them, Luc Moullet, to crank out an oater of his own. Paul Sanchez Is Back! shares with A Girl is a Gun a fetish for dangling city-slicking French actors on dangerous sheer rock cliffs. (Moullet repeatedly hurls Jean-Pierre Léaud’s wiry, bohemian frame down hillsides as if he’s a tumbleweed. Sanchez is played by the comparatively burly Laurent Lafitte, who is clearly too big to throw around; Mazuy has him burrow into the hillsides instead, like a bear gone to ground, though—as was the case for Léaud—this is hardly the actor’s natural environment: Laffite is a born and bred Parisian, and a member of the Comédie-Française to boot—as cosmopolitan as they come.) The difference between Moullet and Mazuy is that Moullet, from the title on down, delights in taking the piss; Mazuy, though not a humorless filmmaker by any means, finds precariousness no laughing matter at all.
The man introduced as Sanchez, the storied criminal supposedly roused from hibernation, is, in fact, Didier Gérard, a working stiff nobody fed up with life in the provinces, sick and tired of his family, and anxious to get out. He is, unfortunately, trapped. More than once the film compares him to a hunted animal, hemmed in on all sides. (The region’s vast landscapes, which provide sweeping vistas, magnify rather than minimize the sense of entrapment: their limitless geographical boundaries seem to mock our narrow human ones). Didier adopts the outlaw’s persona because—as local lore has it—Paul burned down hearth and home, murdered his family (“I didn’t kill them. I released them from their shitty lives”), and successfully slipped away. Sanchez is, thus, the quintessential Mazuy figure: like Roland, like Christine, he sets the world aflame as a desperate means to escape it. But he is also, necessarily, a myth: unlike Mazuy’s living, breathing people, the legendary outlaw manages to keep his freedom—though at a terrible cost. Didier, on the other hand, learns the hard lesson and ends up dead in the dirt. The return promised by the title is, then, more metaphysical than material, a phase in the eternal Mazuyian cycle, which her people, try as they might, cannot break. To prove the point, the film ends with a Rivettian transference—another revolving of the cycle—as a new escapee once again tries to take flight. “We are all Sanchez.”
Last year, after Paul Sanchez is Back! had its theatrical release in France, Cahiers du cinéma gave Mazuy her biggest boost in nearly two decades when they placed the film on their annual top 10 list (right in the middle, at number 5). And now, a year later, Film at Lincoln Center is running a near-complete retrospective of Mazuy’s work, the first such series in the United States, surely among the most essential film programs of the year. And yet it seems likely that, once again, the Mazuyian cycle will repeat: the director has a number of promising works in development, but that’s always been the case, and hard work is clearly no guarantee of freedom, financial or otherwise. Why Mazuy suffers from erratic funding streams while her peers—some of them fellow Tous les garçons alumni—can now put together multi-million dollar co-production packages to launch their sci-fi movies is a nagging question. So, if I may offer one last bit of conjecture, I’ll try and venture an answer: Mazuy’s cinema possesses a certain heaviness, a literal gravity, which seems less and less in vogue these days, particularly as members of her cohort turn, one by one, to the stars. Even the more marginal figures in contemporary French cinema—who could not mount a space mission if they tried—offer her little quarter: Mazuy played a small part in Pierre Leon’s 2015 film Deux Rémi, Deux, which might suggest an alignment with the La lettre du cinéma crowd and their antecedents (Jean-Claude Biette—the subject of a different Pierre Leon film—Paul Vecchiali, and Marie-Claude Treilhou come to mind), but they are urbane and often queer, and therefore rather far afield. There is, of course, Varda, without whom Mazuy might never have gotten a start. But the further Varda journeyed from Vagabond, into self-reflection and—through no fault of her own—towards cuddly meme-ification, the further she drifted from Mazuy. No, in all likelihood, it is not French cinema, but French literature that offers Mazuy her closest kin: the peasant modernism of Pierre Michon, who published his first novel in 1984–the same year that Mazuy first stepped onto those frozen fields in Languedoc-Roussillon—is as close to the heart of her project as anything. And though he was long ago ensconced in France’s literary firmament, Michon is never more than a few degrees removed from the rigid, hardscrabble, mud-caked poverty of small lives. He knows, as does Mazuy, that those born close to the dirt “are quick to fall back to it once again.” And so, if gravity is destiny, and freedom just that moment of suspension before we inevitably collide with the cold ground, then we might say that Mazuy’s cinema—to borrow from Biette—is a cinema nearer to the earth.

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