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... SAW THE ANGEL

Above is a link to the first nine minutes of Patrick Bokanowski's The Angel (L'ange), a 70-minute French experimental film from 1982. Of course, YouTube isn't exactly "kind" to a film which relies for much of its effect on tiny grain-fluctuations in the projected celluloid image, but it gives more than a general gist of what's going on. Also, if you use headphones you'll get a decent reproduction of the score, by Madame (Michele) Bokanowski.

I have to confess that I hadn't heard of either Bokanowski before arriving in Rotterdam a couple weeks back for the start of the IFFR (International Film Festival Rotterdam), the second under the stewardship of Rutger Wolfson. I saw 20 films during my five days at the festival, and while I didn't encounter any masterpieces (Alicia Scherson's Turistas, Christian Petzold's Jerichow, Yu Guangyi's Survival Song and [against all expectation] Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson are all very much worth seeking out), the pick of the bunch was definitely L'ange.

Indeed, the two opening sequences, both contained in the YouTube clip - the latter featuring an individual helpfully identified in the end-credits as L'homme du sabre - had me searching through my fast-eroding memory-banks in search of a more sublime, beautiful, transcendent (and genuinely nightmarish [in a good way]) - start to any feature-film I had previously seen. The remaining 61 minutes, perhaps inevitably, aren't up to this kind of level, though certain passages in the film (a narrativeless, episodic adventure in light, repetition, texture, model-making, repetition, mask-wearing, and repetition) do get pretty close.

As far as I know, L'Ange isn't available on DVD - but the IFFR screening (which provoked a large number of walkouts at the public screening I attended, and which also included Bokanowski's latest piece, the 20-minute Solar Beats [Battement Solaires]), might hopefully bring this delightful prospect a stage closer. Canyon Cinema have a 16mm print available, and their online catalogue does a fair job of describing a film which resists and eludes description. The Canyoneers certainly do a better job than Cahiers du Cinema, which august rag reportedly reckoned that this is "2001: A Space Odyssey, produced under the same conditions as Eraserhead." The 2001 comparison is especially misleading. If anything, this is Bokanowski's Barry Lyndon...

"During the seventy minutes of The Angel, viewers see a series of distinct sequences arranged upward along a staircase that seems more mythic than literal. Each of the sequences has its own mood and type of action. Early in the film, a fencer thrusts, over and over, at a doll hanging from the ceiling of a bare room. At first, he is seen in the room at the end of a narrow hallway off the staircase, and later from within the room. He fences, sits in a chair, fences - his movements filmed with a technique that lies somewhere between live action and still photographs. At times, Bokanowski's imagery is reminiscent of Etienne-Jules Marey's chronophotographs. Further up the stairs, we find ourselves in a room where a maid brings a jug of milk to a man without hands, over and over. Still later, we are in a room where there seems to be a movie projector pointing at us. Then, in a sequence reminiscent of Melies and early Chaplin, a man frolics in a bathtub, and in a subsequent sequence gets up, dresses in reverse motion, and leaves for work. The film's most elaborate sequence takes place in a library in which nine identical librarians work busily in choreographed, slightly fast motion. When the librarians leave work, they are seen in extreme long shot, running in what appears to be a two-dimensional space, ultimately toward a naked woman trapped in a box, which they enter with a battering ram. Then, back in the room with the projector, we are presented with an artist and model in a composition that, at first, declares itself two-dimensional until the artist and model move, revealing that this "obviously" flat space is fact three-dimensional. Finally, a visually stunning passage of projected light reflecting off a series of mirrors introduces The Angel's final sequence, of beings on a huge staircase filmed from below; the beings seem to be ascending toward some higher realm. Bokanowski's consistently distinctive visuals are accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick Bokanowski's wife and collaborator. Like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Bokanowski's The Angel creates a world that is visually quite distinct from what we consider "reality," while providing a wide range of implicit references to it and to the history of representing those levels of reality that lie beneath and beyond the conventional surfaces of things."


No DVD, but there is a VHS. It’s available for online purchase at re:voir, costs 27 (+ shipping) Euros.
L’Ange is available on DVD from britishanimationawards.com (£17.99 + postage). DVD includes bonus footage. ‘Patrick Bokanowski: Short Films’ including Battements Solaires (Solar Beats) & La Plage. Also £17.99 + postage. This DVD also includes bonus footage including interview with Bokanowski himself.

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