Jean-Claude Brisseau in The Girl From Nowhere
Last Saturday night, the Jury of the Locarno Film Festival's International Competition awarded its Golden Leopard to French film The Girl From Nowhere directed by 68 year old Jean-Claude Brisseau. An important choice and significant recognition for French author cinema when this year's Cannes Film Festival Jury forgot to acknowledge the mastery of Leos Carax' Holy Motors. By the way, Carax was in Locarno to receive an Honorary Award alongside a retrospective of his work and an exceptional public talk. Probably one of the strongest cinephile moments of this year's edition.
Of course some fellow critics were surprised at this palmarès. Why pick the dean of the competition when this section is all about the new, upcoming, avant-garde talents of today's cinema? American director and juror Roger Avary replied: "Jean-Claude Brisseau is the youngest member of a new New Wave." And his President, the Thaï film maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul added: "He was the youngest director at heart of all the competition. His film shocked us in its innocence and its deep melancholy towards the memory of cinema one has. Not only Jean-Claude Brisseau is an experienced film maker, he has also remained a child since he didn't restrain himself." I would also argue that this Golden Leopard shines a bright light on the exciting and thought provoking works of two other "childish" French film makers. Alongside Brisseau, Daniel Odoul, poet and film maker, and HPG, aka Hervé-Pierre Gustave best known for his porn acting and directing, create a improbable, ephemeral and heterogeneous ensemble of maverick, daring and experimental authors that cherish themes and motives and most importantly the fantasy and poetry of cinema.
The Girl from Nowhere concentrates mainly on two characters: Michel the writer and Dora his muse. They are solitary and isolated beings, living secluded in Michel's apartment, struggling with their obsessions and themselves, like Hervé in Hip Moves (Concorso Cineasti del presente) directed by HPG or Olaf, the absent person portrayed in Rich is the Wolf (Fuori Concorso) by Daniel Odoul. Michel, Hervé and Olaf are outsiders, rejected by society or escaping it. Hence their spiritual and philosophical (Michel) and at times self destructive (Hervé and Olaf) quest to understand why and how they've had to leave the world, to define or get a sense of who they are and find reasons to live in times of relational, political and economic crisis. It comes as no surprise that the core material for these introspective films is directly inspired by their directors' personal lives. Not only do they portray the universal hardships of living in today's society, they highlight the endeavors faced by independent and marginal film makers today. In an interview HPG said: "I make films, not to control myself, but to lose myself and try to find a way to deal with, get through, things."
A philosophy, a state of mind, one feels and sees through the themes (isolation, disappearance, illusions) common to the three films and also reflective of the way they were made. Jean-Claude Brisseau, HPG, and Daniel Odoul funded their projects on a shoe string, wrote their scripts alone and were their own producers. Hence the total freedom but also the anxiety that permeates these features, melancholy too. But a referenced cinephile melancholy towards how films were made. Personal and cinematographic memories shape the beating heart of these three films. "One can compare Jean-Claude Brissau to Eric Rohmer or Maurice Pialat, he belongs the family of cinephile authors from the Nouvelle Vague, told Olivier Père the artistic director of the Festival. With his new film, Brisseau revisits his debuts when he used Super 8 cameras. And Père sees HPG as one of the last filmmakers "who have never made conventional films, such as Jean Eustache, Luc Moullet or Jean-Pierre Mocky." Just like HPG and Brisseau, Odoul solely relies on basic cinematographic means (digital home movies, a clever and creative montage) to convey meaning and emotions to his thwarted filmic autobiography.
Director Daniel Odoul
Analysing the common features of these three very different films, one does not want to give the impression they are solely depressive, tortured and narcissistic pieces of art. In a sense they are, but not only! They humorously mingle and play with certain genres, fantasy and horror for instance in The Girl from Nowhere, found footage movies in Rich is the Wolf. Odoul, Brisseau and HPG are introspective but not cerebral or psychological. Their love for moving images and sound is far too strong for such limited discourses. Watching and living these films, one experiences the tremendously exhilarating joy of independent film making, of thinking outside all conventional cinematographic systems and processes, of taking advantage of the opportunities the media offers, of what being a creative film maker really means. Odoul, Brisseau and HPG and also Véréna Paravel (Leviathan) or Antoine Barraud (The Sinkholes) films are cries and calls to express and not repress ideas of cinema, art and of life. That is probably what Locarno is all about; a unique moment of passionate, intense and mostly liberating celluloid experiences.
Marc Menichini is a freelance film journalist and regular arts contributor on World Radio Switzerland, an English speaking public broadcaster based in Geneva, Switzerland.