The career trajectory of Philippe Grandrieux has in some respects come full circle in the last ten years. International acclaim came to the director with his signature narrative film Sombre (1998) in part due to its loose association with the so-called French New Extremity movement of the late-1990s and early 2000s, and he has cultivated a devoted following among certain audiences, critics, and critical theorists with the features A New Life (2002), Un Lac (2008), and Despite the Night (2015). His work originates, however, in video installation, photography, and documentaries—media that he has worked in consistently from the mid-1970s through today. While their subject matter is diverse, a “thesis” of sorts running through nearly all of his works can be distilled into a statement by Grandrieux himself: “Le cinéma est l’art de la sensation” (“cinema is the art of sensation”). Grandrieux’s approach to the film subject has been distinguished by his privileging of sensory impressions through the tactile qualities of the film-as-object itself, specifically darkness and sound, and he has emerged as a singular cinematic voice because of it.
Over the last decade, Grandrieux had been at work on what is known colloquially as the “unrest” or “anxiety” trio: White Epilepsy (2012), Meurtrière (2015), and Unrest (2017). These films are stripped of narrative entirely and extrapolate the sense impressions found in the film-as-object. Rather than directing actors, Grandrieux began working with interpretive dancers in order to arrive at the particular corporeal sensations seen only in occasional digressions in his earlier narrative films. A new film installation, “The Bare Life”—its name a quotation (“la vie nue") from Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer—opens at the end of September at the Empty Gallery in Tin Wan, Hong Kong, and features the three films that comprise the de facto “unrest” trio, as well as his most recent film, The Scream, a 63-minute sequence depicting nude bodies engaged in variations of cathartic experience, projected on eleven separate channels across five walls, with a three-second delay for each channel. I spoke with the director about his recent works, to be seen together for the first time this year.
NOTEBOOK: The films in “The Bare Life” indicate a gradual departure from your earlier narrative films and into more abstract “landscapes” of pure sensation. The show necessitates that the viewer move across two floors through installations of various projected images. What role might one’s body play in experiencing the show, vis-à-vis a more "passive" experience of sitting in a cinema?
PHILIPPE GRANDRIEUX: The main difference maybe is that in a cinema you are totally under the control of the film, you are totally in front of the film. The narrative question in cinema is very important, but for a gallery space, the body moves, and you can decide if you want to stay or if you want to leave. It is not the same way of being confronted with images. The fact that you don’t move in the cinema, your body is still, is more or less more connected to the “dreaming” aspect. You are much more active in a gallery, in a way. I was very interested in this possibility of putting somebody in front of the images, but you have a much more active possibility for the viewer. The dimension of the pictures is very important—for the screen, the pictures are more or less two meters high, so it’s a little bit too high. You are really in front of these images, and the repetition constructs another space, another time. I mean, cinema is a very powerful dispositif [visual device], it’s very strong—the dark, you are sitting, you are in front, the sound—it’s a very strong way to be confronted with the images. In the gallery it is something different. The apparition is a more plastic one.
NOTEBOOK: The immediate experience is obviously a tremendous factor with your works. The kind of experience one has come to expect from them were at first often connected to narrative elements, while the films in “A Bare Life” portray in Deleuze’s words a “break with representation”—there is no “identifiable” world, just bodies set against a void or otherwise non-descript setting. Could you speak to the intention behind this?
GRANDRIEUX: Cinema is really connected to this possibility of a story and narration through the images. In this work I was much more interested by the question of the “event.“ It’s totally different in that there’s something much more concentrated [about it]. For instance, in White Epilepsy, this event could be an impression of the body. It could be a very archaic event, very deep inside of us. It’s more of how one thing is explored by the images and the sound. It’s the same for Meurtrière and for Unrest: each film is constructed around this strong block of energy. It’s another way of trying to do this with images.
NOTEBOOK: Those three films that comprise the “anxiety” trio you had originally conceived as a triptych of sorts, to be seen side by side and running simultaneously. They were made over the course of about seven years, though, so each could be viewed by anyone who had seen them as a standalone work. Could you tell us about how the films in the trio might work together here?
GRANDRIEUX: Well, I had this idea of the trio or trilogy at the beginning. I began with White Epilepsy but I did not know so much how it would expand. Each movement [in the show] is separated and is its own experience. But my original idea was to have these three things in front of you, like a classical painting.
NOTEBOOK: Like an altarpiece with the doors open.
GRANDRIEUX: That’s right. I had this idea of working vertically for two films and horizontally for the piece in the center, and to project it like that. But it’s not going to be like that in Hong Kong, because the more and more I experiment, I would like the audience to be free to be in front of only one object like White Epilepsy, and maybe seeing five minutes of Meurtrière. So I did not want to use it to make this triptych anymore, for the moment. In Hong Kong, it is separated but in the same space. We worked a lot on this question of separation, and the proximity of these images of Meurtrière, White Epilepsy. Unrest is going to be between the two levels of the gallery. So, I think it’s going to be something completely different, but also allow people to see one thing if they want. Which each piece, you have a movement inside of the piece. When you project three things together, you have another type of movement. I like the idea that you can make the experience [about] one movement totally if you want. If you want to stay long in the gallery you can see one and see the other one, and it builds.
NOTEBOOK: Sound of course has always been an important—some might argue the most important—component in your films. Figures yelping or screaming are found throughout your works—last year Michel Rubin published an article on the function of the scream in your narrative films. How does voice and sound function in your new work, The Scream?
GRANDRIEUX: The scream is a very particular expression. It’s very old. When you are a little baby, it’s the first thing that you are doing. You don’t speak, you scream. It’s pure energy, a pure moment of energy. The human voice is organized by speech, but a scream is like, I don’t know…like animals, like a cat’s meow. Each animal has a particular kind of sound. The scream is the sound of the human being. It’s the first sound we are able to do, and there is no language in it, no possibility of putting any kind of symbolism or any kind of distance, a moral distance. It’s pure expression of passion itself. I’m very interested in the possibility of the body to reach this point where the person is totally naked in that way.
NOTEBOOK: Moving toward a denuded expression of a mental or emotional state.
GRANDRIEUX: Yes, and in The Scream, there is screaming, but there is also the sound of singing—this singing, to make the baby asleep?
NOTEBOOK: A lullaby.
GRANDRIEUX: Yes. It was this tension that I liked a lot. A scream, and then this little voice trying to put you asleep.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned singing. Each performer has a nice moment where the action stops and she sings, and it’s here where I think the film gets a lot of mileage out of being shown on multiple channels. In a sense, the viewer hears a chorus—via the delay—singing almost in a round. The composition of The Scream also suggests an early zoopraxograph. Was the multi-channel composition intentional from the beginning, and did that factor into the performers’ actions or your direction?
GRANDRIEUX: It came from the editing. Through the editing I saw the repetition of the same movement with a little gap of two or three seconds. You have a feeling of knowing and not knowing, and the repetition, the pure repetition, gives you an access to another type of sensation, another way of hearing the scene. It comes from music, like a repetitive music part, with the scream, with the sound, with the breath. So it totally changed everything to repeat [the image]. So, it’s not exactly the same as with a zoopraxograph because it’s a decomposition of the movement—a woman dancing, a horse. It’s not a decomposition of the movement, it’s a repetition of the movement. Repetition is very strong, I think. It’s something we should work more with.
NOTEBOOK: Vilma Pitrinaitė, who was in Meurtrière, and Lilas Nagoya, who was in Unrest, both appear again in The Scream. Each is a choreographer and dancer in her own right. We also know that Unrest was a collaboration between yourself and Nathalie Remadi from the Institut Choréographique International in Montpellier. Could you tell us about how interpretive dance intersects with what’s happening with the bodies onscreen?
GRANDRIEUX: It’s very important for me to have a strong relationship with the people I work with. It takes time for me to be able to work with somebody, and with these dancers I’ve built a very strong possibility of going deeply inside of the world that we want to produce, because we are really close and have beaucoup confiance together, and it’s possible to go very, very, very deep and very far, without any kind of judgment. I never judge them, they never judge me, so we’re just working, trying to find the path, to reach the point where we want to go even if we don’t know what this point is. We are able to go together, so it was very important for me to work with these dancers. I’m going to work again with them. And it’s very important, this question of judgment—to be totally open to what’s happening, and what we’re feeling at the moment. They are very strong people, very human, very strong women, and very beautiful human beings. And I feel free to work with them. That is very important for me.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like there is an improvisational aspect to the film.
GRANDRIEUX: Improvisational, I don’t know—but it’s like waves. You go to a certain point and then boom, you go again, and then you arrive to another point, and then you go again. It’s like waves. So it’s not improvisation in the sense that I’m looking at what they’re doing, but I am inside of this process with them. We reach this point and we are tired, and okay, we go, we go, and we are tired, and we go again. It’s the possibility to go and to go and to go. This is very important. And after a certain moment you reach a point where the framing, dancing, screaming, singing—it is the same. There is no more distinction between the elements that you work with. There is no more light, no more sun, no more body. It’s one world, and you have the feeling that this world is like moving in space, and you are inside of this movement.
NOTEBOOK: Your films have always appealed to people interested in theory, or at least people who might apply critical theory heuristically to cinema. Your recent works, at least in my mind, lend themselves to the notion of Julia Kristeva’s coenesthesia—a kind of awareness of the body as being diffuse with its environment, and a feeling of repulsion or abjection to that awareness, expressed as pre-linguistic terror. The sequence in The Scream where Nagoya grabs and pulls at her torso as if trying and tear her chest open, for instance. Were there any kinds of theoretical underpinnings for the new work? That’s a bit of loaded question, but it’s something I know many people are interested in.
GRANDRIEUX: The theoretical part of the work is…I mean, in my mind, when I work, I love to read philosophy and also poetry, look at paintings. Filming is not concerning film. Filming is much more concerning paintings, theory. When I read for instance this question of the “bare life,” as Agamben is talking about in Homo Sacer, for me, it’s very strong. It gives me access to the object. It’s no more a subject. It becomes an object, and this object could be explored by this different perspective of the theory, of the light, of the color, of the sound. The theory is on the same level. This question of the bare life, la vie nue, is “how can I reach this point?” How can I approach this body under the control of the life itself, without any social, moral or political perspective, but only the life itself? And [Gilles] Deleuze, of course. A lot of Deleuze, and it feeds me with a strong possibility for cinema, but it’s not an application of the idea. It’s not about how I can illustrate or explain this theory by the film. It’s totally different. The film is a very strong machine, and this machine grabs things, grabs from thought, from dreams, and after that it is inside of the hand, it is in the gesture. It gives you the possibility to have the good movement with your hand. It’s very concrete, very sensual in fact, very sensitive. It’s not an intellectual process. I need all of these elements even if they are very intellectual, but in the end it’s not a question of this intellectual dimension, it’s something else. Everything is mixed in a way, and these mixed things give me the possibility to lose myself inside of the movie, inside of the process of making the piece. I need to be lost to be able to work.
Philippe Grandrieux's "The Bare Life" is running September 27 – November 30, 2019 at Empty Gallery in Hong Kong.