Films of Ruin and Rapture: In Search of Jean-Daniel PolletSub rosa, sui generis, and ripe for posthumous rediscovery
Written by Chris Darke
The opening night of Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Jour après jour in a Latin Quarter cinema this February was hardly packed. A meager quartet of cinephiles was all that le tout Paris could muster for the last film by one of the most wayward and least known sons of the New Wave. A bucolic vanitas, Jour après jour was the filmmaker’s final lingering look from his Provençal home onto a well-appointed garden, the seasons logged in a reverie of still photographs taken between 2002 and 2003, before his death in September the following year. The film has a curious provenance, more posthumous than strictly valedictory. The editing was entrusted to Françoise Geissler, Pollet’s partner in life and work, and the commentary to another trusted collaborator, the critic and vidéaste Jean-Paul Fargier; the pair fashioned the finished work together. At a little over an hour, Jour après jour is far from being a mournful letter of farewell. Rendered almost immobile by injuries sustained in a terrible accident he suffered in 1989, Pollet was unable to handle a film camera, but the strikingly beautiful and strangely alien stills he was able to produce demonstrated that, while his body was ailing, Pollet’s “eye” was intact to the end.
It was this quality of vision that first brought him to critical attention. In December 1962, Cahiers du cinéma produced a dictionary of “162 New French Filmmakers” in which Pollet was compared to Vigo: “He possesses that gift which only the greatest are endowed with, quite simply to transfigure everything that falls under the eye of his camera.” Pollet’s debut short, Pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse (57), was a study of loneliness set in the dance halls of suburban Paris starring Claude Melki, a young unknown non-actor whom Pollet discovered and who would become the director’s acteur fétiche. The film won prizes and attracted plaudits. Jean-Pierre Melville told the 21-year-old filmmaker, “Perhaps you’ll make something as good as this again, but never anything better.” (“Very encouraging,” Pollet remarked.) Melville asked him to be his assistant on the American shoot of Deux hommes dans Manhattan, an offer Pollet declined. He worked briefly as an assistant on Duvivier’s L’Homme à l’imperméable—an experience that “showed me what not to do,” he recalled—as well as on Bresson’s Pickpocket and Trial of Joan of Arc.
Born in 1936 to an haut bourgeois family, Pollet studied political science in the mid-Fifties in Paris, where he frequented the Cinémathèque Française and fell in with two groups of Young Turks: the Cahiers crowd and those attached to the avant-garde literary journal Tel Quel. Friendships and creative alliances were forged, most notably with writers Jean Thibaudeau and Philippe Sollers, and Pollet would describe himself as “the younger brother of the New Wave.” The link between the worlds of literature and film would become a constant feature of his work. “All that remains is for this New Wave extremist to learn how to tell stories or to get by without them,” Cahiers observed. “In any case, Pollet is certainly the one whose future orientation seems the least predictable.”
The morning after the sparsely attended screening of Jour après jour, I returned to the same cinema to see a pair of Pollet’s earlier films: L’Ordre (74) and Méditerranée (64), the latter considered something of a legend and the centerpiece of his career. As if to honor the Cahiers assessment of him as “the least predictable” of the New Wave filmmakers, in Méditerranée Pollet made a work that is the very definition of what French critics like to call an ovni or ufo (as in “unidentified filmic object”). This time around, the house was packed with those keen to catch a glimpse of this magnificently strange vessel of sound and image. Méditerranée has been described as being “like a comet in the sky of French cinema,” an “unknown masterpiece,” and an “unprecedented” work that refuses interpretation even as it has provoked reams of critical writing. Its rhythmic collage of images—a girl on a gurney, a fisherman, Greek ruins, a Sicilian garden, a Spanish corrida—is accompanied by an abstract commentary written by Sollers, and only the somber lyricism of Antoine Duhamel’s score holds the film’s elements together. At first viewing, you fear that Méditerranée might fly apart into incoherent fragments. Instead, over the course of its 45 minutes it invents its own rules, and you realize you’re watching something like the filmic channeling of an ancient ritual. The experience is mesmerizing.
While the unsettling camera movements irresistibly recall Resnais’s tracking shots and the film’s repetition of its object-like images seems to relate to the structuralist avant-garde, Méditerranée escapes any obvious references. When the film screened at the 1963 Knokke-le-Zoute film festival, what Sollers describes as its “aggressive modernity” provoked scandalized rejection. But the film might also be seen as something of a road movie, its footage mostly derived from a 35,000-kilometer journey around the Mediterranean that Pollet took with Volker Schlöndorff over four months in 1962–3. A modernist ruin of a road movie, though—one that seeks to travel in time rather than space and that, with proper dialectical balance, has antiquity as its impossible destination. In the last extended interview he gave, two years before his death, Pollet described how he systematically assembled and reassembled the footage (having observed a rule of “one thing per shot” while shooting) over six months “spent alone in an editing-room without windows, where I slept. One day, the film seemed to edit itself.” While he was preparing Contempt, Godard saw Méditerranée and wrote a short piece in Cahiers in which he described “smooth, round shots abandoned on the screen like a pebble on the shore,” and sequences inspired by Pollet’s film found their way into the multiple intertextual weave of Godard’s own modernist take on the ancients.
Jean-Paul Fargier says of Pollet that he “took four or five of his films and ruined them. Or, rather, he made ruins of them by dismantling the sequences, separating music and image.” It’s tempting to see this aesthetic of “the ruin” as a consequence of Pollet’s obsession with Greece, born of Méditerranée and to which he returned time and time again, making a number of shorts and features about the country throughout his career. But it’s also a way of understanding Pollet’s own relationship to Méditerranée, a film he would later describe as deserving “some kind of posterity, I just wasn’t sure what kind.” And so he went on to insert parts of the film into later works, obsessively returning to it as if it continued to exert the same mysterious pull on him as it did on its admirers. This film about objects became an object in its own right because, as Pollet often claimed, “it’s easier for me to film things rather than people.”
This division between things and people in his work discloses the two Pollets: the auteur of poetically “ruined” works and the director of fictional features. These latter were predominantly the product of Pollet’s long relationship with the actor Claude Melki, who, in his role as the stone-faced tragicomic character Léon, starred in three shorts (Pourvu qu’on ait l’ivresse, Gala, 61, and Rue Saint-Denis, 64, part of the portmanteau film Paris vu par . . . ) and two features (L’Amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste, 69, and L’Acrobate, 75).
Or consider L’Ordre. This film—let’s call it one of Pollet’s “ruined” documentaries—concerns an abandoned leper colony on the Cretan island of Spinalonga and alternates between extraordinary sequences of traveling shots that swoop with ghostly fury through ruins, and an extended interview with a leper named Raimondakis. The man, ravaged by his disease and completely blind, looks straight into Pollet’s lens and, smoking elegantly, talks with clarity and lucid anger about his life. His presence is mesmerizing, the interview a tour de force of human sympathy, and, later in his life, Pollet said he considered Raimondakis to be “one of my masters.”
Pollet’s ability to alternate these two forms of filmmaking was severely curtailed by the accident he suffered while filming on a railway track in 1989. Struck by a train, Pollet sustained injuries from which he was never fully to recover. From then on, he made films solely in and around his house in the Vaucluse, one of which was provoked by his convalescent reading of the poet Francis Ponge. As someone who professed a fascination with the “essay” form and admitted that he would have rather been a writer than a filmmaker, Pollet had often collaborated successfully with writers and now turned his attention to the much-loved author of Taking the Side of Things (Le Parti pris des choses), who died in 1988. Ponge himself had written a fulsome appreciation of Méditerranée, calling the film “better than any other, I could watch it endlessly.” Some 30 years later, Pollet returned the compliment with Dieu sait quoi (94), a beautiful feature-length film poem featuring excerpts from Ponge’s work and starring snails, candles, lanterns, flowers—all filmed by a camera whose movement had not lost its ability to evoke fascination, rapture, and a sense of melancholy solitude. Philippe Sollers described Méditerranée as having a “magical power,” and all these years later it—and the films Pollet made in its thrall—still casts a mysterious spell.