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Anti-Social Realism: Jean-Claude Brisseau

Like his other films, Secret Things combines elements of melodrama, fantasy, and social realism, investigates questions of power, class, and sexual politics, and evades clear-cut classification. Welcome to the twisted universe of Jean-Claude Brisseau, one of French cinema’s best-kept secrets.

Jean-Claude Brisseau is the most atypical of great French filmmakers. His themes, his career, his influences, his personality all conspire to make him truly marginal. He belongs to none of French cinema’s “families.” He’s a lone wolf, and pays a high price for his independence. His integrity and meticulousness scare off producers, and each of his 10 films was the result of a fierce struggle. His nonprofessional debut, La Croisée des chemins (75), has never been seen; he only became known following the 1987 Cannes premiere of Sound and Fury (De bruit et de fureur) and the film’s subsequent critical and box-office success. During the long years in between, Brisseau relied on the friendship and support of Eric Rohmer, who encouraged this schoolteacher and part-time filmmaker (a double life that Rohmer himself led 20 years earlier).

Sound and Fury was the first French film to depict the youth of the suburban housing projects and the gangs they formed in those zones of exclusion. At the time, gang culture was just beginning to alarm mainstream society—years before the triumph of Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate and the subsequent wave of banlieue films. But even as Sound and Fury marked the emergence of a singular cinéaste, it also laid the groundwork for the misunderstandings that have continued to dog him. For the PC leftist critics, Brisseau was simply a “socially concerned filmmaker,” committed to revealing the violence and exclusionary politics at work in the projects and the dead-end life of the underclass. But that perception ignored the fantasy elements, surreal touches, and strong sense of the grotesque that constantly disturb the film’s apparent naturalism, much as in Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, Brisseau’s acknowledged model. Brisseau was thereafter doomed to live with the reductive, burdensome label of “realist.” As a result, he has consistently disappointed those critics who believed they had finally found a filmmaker capable of tackling the country’s big issues and social evils—for which he paid a very high price.

During the release of his previous film, Workers for the Good Lord (Les Savates du Bon Dieu, 99), Brisseau told me, “None of my films are realistic, and certainly not naturalistic, including Sound and Fury, even though it touched on a certain social reality. They all contain a shadow zone. I do like to come back to social reality, but I do it through the mixing of genres and the insertion of surrealist elements. When the Cinémathèque Française asked me to select some films that had influenced me to accompany a retrospective of my work, I realized that I’d chosen movies that all assumed an air of realism while completely evading it. Take Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est finie: the film seems to deal with the political reality of the time, and yet that isn’t what Resnais filmed. In my own work, the subject is never naturalism but a certain kind of relation to reality. With each film, I try to find a new way to confront these complex relations. Watching one of my movies, you always have to ask yourself if you’re reading it correctly—for instance, should you be laughing at a film that began in such a somber way. During the first screening of Sound and Fury, the younger audience members laughed, and I was more or less with them. Meanwhile, the more serious viewers felt the kids had no right to make fun of such things.”

Sound and Fury

The American viewer, encountering Brisseau for the first time via his most recent film, Secret Things (02), won’t have to deal with the thorny—and very French—issue of naturalism. From the opening strip-club scene, the tenuousness of the film’s attachment to realism is apparent, and this first impression is confirmed by the fanciful job-interview sequence, in which two ambitious young women instantly land secretarial positions simply by crossing and uncrossing their legs—despite the fact that they’re absolutely unqualified and France has three million unemployed!

Secret Things is an amalgam of genres bringing together an apprenticeship narrative à la Balzac (Lost Illusions is an explicit citation), softcore porn, a conte cruelle, and Hitchcockian suspense. The film describes the rapid social rise of Sandrine and Nathalie, two young women of now (and forever) who set out on a quest for power using sexuality as their principal weapon. They learn to arouse themselves, to control and simulate pleasure as needed, and to guard against love with a capital L, the main obstacle for aspiring femmes fatales. It may be the product of naiveté, and it certainly leads to a bloody catastrophe, but their program of political resistance is directly related to the imaginary.

In essence, Sandrine and Nathalie are actresses both playing the roles of maneater. But above all, they are spectators, the kind of people who voraciously consume imagery both high and low, from melodramas to soaps. The basis of Brisseau’s film isn’t social reality but reality as deformed by the society of the spectacle. He’s not trying to film the real world but rather a world haunted by the phantasms its inhabitants have created, a world in which everyone turns their lives into their own movies or novels, in which everyone gorges on clichés that could be titles of shallow, mass-market fiction: Sex in the Subway, Love at the Office, How to Seduce Your Boss, Fatal Passion. Sandrine and Nathalie realize their own threadbare phantasms with complete success—until they encounter a figure who could have stepped straight out of a tragedy, whose family history includes destruction and sacrifice. At this point the film takes on a true grandeur.

Secret Things

Having exhausted its heroines’ trajectory and swept away all the sentimental images and erotic clichés, Secret Things rises above these shreds and tatters and reveals itself for what it is: a melodrama of today, of the here and now, with an eye on the crumbling state of our colonized imaginations, before re-establishing itself on the side of pure lyricism, finally purged of everything that has stood in the way of its expression, finally cleansed of impurities. Fundamentally, Secret Things is about redemption, in the Catholic sense of the term: redemption of the characters, redemption of the images. But it goes down a long, painful road only to rediscover the original purity of classic melodrama. A brilliant reflection upon the degraded state of the contemporary imagination, Secret Things is difficult to grasp. Difficult because Brisseau treats, in a resolutely classical fashion, the postmodern condition in which images mediate our relationship with reality and the world. Working with hackneyed material—a tale of social climbing with a heavy erotic charge—Brisseau refuses to play to highbrow viewers by adopting an ironic or detached stance. He tackles the clichés head-on, without winking. As he says: “I like to play with the iconography because it allows you to make yourself understood faster, to speed up the story. And all of us live in an imaginary space that we can never completely escape.” But Brisseau doesn’t condescend to the popular types he uses. His method is to gradually exhaust them, until others take their place. He sets his sights more on the neighborhood movie theater than the cinémathèque, and dreams of reaching a mass audience—speaking to them through an only slightly skewed imitation of current pop-culture forms. The great subject of all his films is communication—at heart he’s still a teacher, always hoping for a final catharsis. Brisseau is a filmmaker in search of transcendence.

For he is a profoundly religious artist. Which is to say, he practices cinema as if it were a religion of which he is the last devoted priest. He claims to have learned how to make movies by taking apart Psycho innumerable times. Even today, he still enjoys inviting friends to his home to show and then analyze his pet films. Brisseau is a great connoisseur of classic American cinema (and a hopeless admirer of Gary Cooper), and his imagination is filled with dark plots, femmes fatales holding both the secrets of sex and the workings of social class, and naive heroes forced to confront the world’s horrors head-on. Brisseau’s project consists of applying the plots and codes of American film noir to the reality of French society, not unlike Claude Chabrol under the influence of Fritz Lang. The difference is that, like Lang, Chabrol always positions himself as the omniscient demiurge, even if he is careful to disguise his despotism under the appearance of a gentle and comprehending acceptance of human foibles. Brisseau, however, is more profoundly Hitchcockian. He projects himself willingly onto his damaged protagonists and allows the spectator to empathize and identify with them.

Five years after the huge public success of White Wedding (Noce blanche, 89), with Bruno Cremer and Vanessa Paradis—yet another pure melodrama dealing with the difficulty of communication and the impossibility of achieving true romantic fusion between a man and a woman—Brisseau (for once with a comfortable budget) threw himself into the film of his cinephile dreams: The Black Angel (L’Ange noir, 94). François Mauriac’s novel, set in Bordeaux and France’s prosperous Southwest, enters new territory: the haute bourgeoisie. And of course, he shows everything he believes to be wrong with this luxurious vipers’ nest of hidden horrors. But he moves beyond this somewhat banal discourse to focus on the opaque Stéphane (played by the singer Sylvie Vartan), an exterminating angel as well as a black one, an ice block of hatred inhabiting the film’s plush interiors. She is the worm in the apple, the envoy of a world of suffering and humiliation, sent to subvert the tranquility of the rich from within. She’s waging a covert war against respectable society, mimicking bourgeois propriety the better to destroy it, using sex as the ultimate weapon. Retracing the course of her life by way of a police investigation, which becomes a fascinating interplay of clues and suggestions, the film conveys the hopelessness of revolt and the inevitability of romantic betrayal. Like its main character, The Black Angel walks the razor’s edge, running the risk of ridiculousness and camp as it twists a classic Hitchcockian melodrama (Rebecca, The Paradine Case, and Vertigo are cited) into an incendiary political declaration. This explosive cocktail produces a proudly unique film, a grand slam from a filmmaker still hanging on to the cinema of his masters and his own fantasies on the one hand and his anger toward an all-too-well-established social order on the other, the former shaping and illuminating the latter. One scene repeats word for word the famous exchange between the lovers in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar: “Lie to me. . . . Tell me you still love me like I love you.” But this is a scene in which a young woman masturbates in front of her lover while he videotapes her—a typical deviation of the “project Brisseau.”

The Black Angel

The Black Angel found only a handful of defenders, among them Cahiers du cinéma, which did a cover story. The film, a commercial catastrophe, was widely ridiculed. Following this serious and undeserved setback, Brisseau found it difficult to get his projects off the ground and endured a five-year silence, which ended with Workers for the Good Lord, an apparent return to the proletarian atmosphere of Sound and Fury that becomes a delirious philosophical fable. This epic film, with its abrupt shifts in rhythm and tone, featuring an African shaman who performs miracles, enabled Brisseau to finally shake off his reputation as a socially themed, naturalistic filmmaker. But it proved to be another commercial misstep. And so it was only with reduced means and inadequate distribution that he was able to make Secret Things. Boosted by almost unanimously enthusiastic reviews, the film was relatively successful—a nice surprise for a man who would rather be a working filmmaker than a professional bad boy.