MUBI's retrospective Bertrand Mandico's Cinema is showing July 26 - October 7, 2017 in many countries around the world.
The cinema of French filmmaker and animator Bertrand Mandico is unique in its approach to depicting the human body. For Mandico, the body’s status as a film subject is comparable to and interchangeable with that of any other film subject. That is, ‘animate objects’—such as human characters or animals—occupy the same cinematic roles as ‘inanimate’ ones—such as housewares or artificial structures, collapsing the binary that exists between the two. Mandico’s films time and again blur the line between binaries—animate and inanimate, male and female—and in doing so demonstrate their arbitrary nature as film subjects.
Bodies and objects in Mandico’s cinema often appear abstracted and juxtaposed vis-a-vis each other, such as when women portray lamps and men portray statues in Our Lady of Hormones (2014). At first glance, the use of bodies in this way suggests the works of Jean Cocteau (such as the candlesticks in his Beauty and the Beast from 1946), though it’s necessary to view Mandico in light of the connective tissue—thematically and structurally—that exists between himself and the Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk. The subjects of both directors’ films include the emulation of the Middle Ages, burlesque, antiquarianism, and frank depiction of sex and sexuality. Like Borowczyk’s oeuvre, one might view Mandico's similarly in that his live action films form a part of a larger corpus of work, including still photography and animation, and like his predecessor, Mandico trained originally as an animator, studying at the École de l’image Gobelins. Mandico also wrote and directed a biopic of sorts on Borowczyk, Boro in the Box (2011), which is arguably his best-known film.
But what distinguishes Mandico’s cinema from Borowczyk’s or from the work of other mixed media artists? While his approach to the portrayal of bodies is not unlike Borowczyk’s—the body forms part of a larger landscape of forms—one of several distinguishing characteristics of Mandico’s films is his recurring conflation of the biological sex of bodies. To this end, it is also necessary to view Mandico’s oeuvre as inseparable from the onscreen persona of the Romanian actress Elina Löwensohn, who appears in and occasionally co-writes nearly all of Mandico’s films. In Souvenirs d’un montreur des seins (2014), Löwensohn portrays a man, informing the audience directly that she the actress—and, the viewer discovers, he the character—is “not the type that you think I am.” In addition to her role as Borowczyk's mother in Boro in the Box, Löwensohn narrates the film as Walerian Borowczyk, referring to “la mère” in the third person. Further, the names of characters in Mandico’s films are often arbitrary: Lune and Lautre in Our Lady of Hormones are a French play on words of “l’une” (one) and “l’autre” (other), and Löwensohn’s character in Prehistoric Cabaret (2013), while not referred to by name, is credited as “the earth.”
The viewer will notice the spectrum of bodies and objects and of biological sex reflected in the mechanics of the filmmaking itself. Consider Mandico’s use of rear projection images, which can be diegetic, extradiegetic, or both at once. In Prehistoric Cabaret, a camera is inserted into the body of a figure whose insides are then projected onto a screen, which functions as part of a stage performance. In Our Lady of Hormones, the viewer sees rear projection used to convey the movement of figures through a forest. In Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante? (2015), the viewer sees a figure standing in front of a rear projection image of a man’s mouth periodically sticking his tongue out, as if to hit the back of the figure’s head, conflating the literal and the figurative in one image. Like these diegetic and extradiegetic images, the distinction between animate and inanimate and between male and female are binaries that Mandico will often undermine.
BODIES AND OBJECTS
Mandico’s Living Still Life (2008) provides the viewer with a ‘thesis’ for cinema’s interchangeability between bodies that move and objects that remain still. The film’s protagonist photographs animal carcasses and arranges the photographs in stop-motion animation reels, recalling Eadweard Muybridge’s photography and early animation techniques, being in a sense an animator who ‘brings objects to life.’ In viewing cinematic images in this way, one might also recall Amos Vogel’s opening statement from Film as a Subversive Art, wherein he insists that there is no discrepancy between still images and moving images, as the latter are merely a collection of the former arranged in a certain order.
The implicit portrayal of sex and sexuality in Mandico’s films often alludes to taboo subjects, specifically incest and bestiality. Our Lady of Hormones opens with a shot of the elderly figure of Oedipus being pummeled with mud from off-screen, which recalls one of Catherine Deneuve’s sexual fantasies in Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967). Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante? depicts an imagined life of Joan of Arc where, instead of having been executed, was blinded. The film uses iconography similar to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in showing Löwensohn’s face with two bloody eye sockets, a buried conceit of Sophocles’ play being a male character carving out a cavity in his body in response to entering his mother’s cavity. Y a-t-il une vierge encore vivante is in certain ways distilled from Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975) in its portrayal of bestiality using many of the conventions of erotica. The narration in Mandico’s film blithely refers to Joan of Arc having been “deflowered by an English stallion, ever so gently,” while Joan discovers a virgin woman bound to a tree. It is revealed a moment later that the tree raped the woman, revealing a phallus covered in tree bark. Trees do not reproduce sexually of course, and therefore have no sex organs, yet here Mandico views the human figure and the tree as interchangeable: The tree copulates as humans do, and the virgin is kept as a personal possession by Joan—she never speaks and moves only when Joan controls her, as if she were her horse or face mask.
In Prehistoric Cabaret, Löwensohn performs a sex show for an audience of men in a nightclub. This show involves her inserting a novelty camera probe inside her and photographing her insides. The camera itself straddles the line between animate and inanimate in that it seems to move on its own without Löwensohn’s manipulation. There is an obvious sexual connotation where the probe functions as a phallus, and, according to dialogue, the camera is able to photograph what cannot be seen: “This camera is a unique model. Its development was cut short because it is much too dangerous. This camera lets you see the inside of things even beyond the organs. It lets you plunge into the individual’s original stratum. It goes all the way back to the cradle of humanity.” After the show, the probe writhes on the floor between her legs, as if alive.
In Souvenirs, Löwensohn delivers the same monologue twice. On the first delivery, she speaks directly to the camera. On the second, the viewer hears it in voiceover while images become more and more abstracted: false teeth, jewelry, fishnet stockings, photographs, and other objects that recall Borowczyk’s stop-motion animated works such as The Museum and Renaissance (both 1964). While the monologue remains, Mandico eventually supplants the human figure of Löwensohn—very much animate in that she scowls at the camera, drinks, and so on—with inanimate objects that at once imply the human figure and extrapolate its arbitrary status as a film subject.
There is often little distinction between the sexes in Mandico films, as he routinely conflates the binary between male and female characters. This not only extends to the conventional portrayal of male and female by actors and actresses, but also confounds the very appearance of biological sex, effectively portraying bodies as intersex objects. In Souvenirs, Löwensohn plays a man who suddenly grows breasts “…like sap in spring time,” delivering a monologue describing his and others’ fixation on them as objects that seem to have been superimposed on another object arbitrarily. As in Souvenirs, an actress in Hormones portrays a male character. The director (Agnès Berthon) arrives on a motorcycle in a leather jacket and boots—in a shot that recalls one in Robbe-Grillet’s La belle captive (1983)—and is dubbed in a man's voice. The film also suggests that the director is homosexual, as Lune refers to him later as a ‘faggot.’
Our Lady of Hormones depicts two actresses, Lune (Löwensohn) and Lautre (Nathalie Richard). The film implies that the two are a romantic couple (they share a bed, and a scene reveals Lune reading Les sociétés secrètes féminines by lesbian author and playwright Marianne Monestier) and the narrative involves jealousy between the two women over third parties, namely an anamorphic organism of ambiguous sex which they call ‘the thing’ and the homosexual male film director. Early in the film, the two women discover an organism with a visible phallus. Because the organism is largely amorphic with neither ‘masculine’ nor ‘feminine’ traits, the phallus doesn’t necessarily register as such until Lune tells Lautre to lick it, implying the act of fellatio. The two later dress the thing in costume jewelry and throughout the film refer to it as ‘her,’ ‘him,’ and ‘it’ interchangeably.
Even in scenes where Mandico does not use principal performers, he will use several objects—such as flowers, ripening fruit, blood, and saliva—or invert the image of the human body to create visual allusions to biological sex, and by extension, human sexuality. Consider a shot from Our Lady of Hormones, which frames Löwensohn’s head sideways and focuses on her closed mouth, visually suggesting a vagina. Two shots appearing later in the film suggest the thing’s intersex status: one where it sprouts flowers and draws the attention of the male statues, suggesting puberty or a metaphorical ‘blossoming,’ and another where its phallus appears superimposed in front of a woman’s spread legs.
Mandico draws the viewer’s attention to the bearing of hormonal change on both physical appearance and its relation to standards of physical beauty. Lautre in Hormones stands in front of a mirror, watching a patch of hair move across her arm. The figure of Oedipus bookends the film, where he appears first with elongated nipples, and later with the actresses’ faces supplanting them, suggesting the development of breasts. Finally, Mandico’s characters allude to the intersexual spectrum through dialogue. Hormones and Souvenirs both feature descriptions of reproductive organs as either a “hormonal euphoric landscape” or an “intoxicating hormonal landscape,” the use of ‘euphoric’ and ‘intoxicating’ here denoting a liberation of the body from a biological binary.
Such an interpretation of Mandico suggests that his cinema exists merely to be deconstructed by the viewer. This is possible, but not by necessity, given that his own simultaneous construction and deconstruction of binaries and film elements together are, rather than being an interpretive exercise for the viewer, done to explore the subject of biological sex. Making no distinction between live action and animation, as Borowczyk did, Mandico approaches subjects as one working in collage might: it is through juxtaposition and conflation that new forms emerge. Like the probe in Prehistoric Cabaret, the images “move beyond the organs, to the source of all origins, deeper and deeper into the meanderings of life.”