A springtime satellite to the Locarno Film Festival in August, L’immagine e la parola was inaugurated in 2013 with the intention of exploring the relationship between the moving image and the written word. The four-day event, overseen by Locarno Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian, consists of workshops, discussions, and screenings, all of them open to the public and many of them free of charge, with the programming shaped by the work and ideas of a special guest co-curator. Previous editions of L’immagine featured cinematic heavyweights—Aleksandr Sokurov gave a masterclass about the making of Russian Ark in the first year, while Edgar Reitz helmed a similar session discussing the development of his most recent installment of Heimat in the second. But what lured me down to this sleepy Swiss lakeside town near the Italian border in the middle of a chilly, rainy March was a special guest whose career has a vital but more peripheral relationship to movies.

La Moustache

La Moustache

To be sure, Emmanuel Carrère has worked extensively as a scenarist and has directed two very good features, though it’s notable that Retour à Kotelnitch, his 2003 documentary rumination on a harrowing double-homicide in rural Russia, began its life as television reportage, and La Moustache (05) was a well-made, perfectly faithful adaptation of Carrère’s own 1986 breakthrough novel of the same name. It’s Carrère’s literary legacy that really matters here. He began writing film criticism for Télérama and Positif following his military service in Indonesia, and published a monograph on Werner Herzog. He found fame as a novelist—among his best-regarded novels is Class Trip, also adapted into a feature (in 1998)—but it was his biography of Philip K. Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, published in 1993, that looked forward to the sort of category-resistant work through which Carrère would distinguish himself. I Am Alive fuses events from Dick’s life with elements of his fiction, and also features Carrère as something of a character in the narrative. This drawing upon novelistic techniques and foregrounding of a first-person perspective found its first full expression in 2000’s The Adversary, a “nonfiction novel” about the infamous Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who spent years lying to everyone in his life about his career and then murdered his wife, children, and parents when he realized the game was up. Romand, it turned out, admired Class Trip and was willing to cooperate with Carrère on the project, but the writer struggled with Romand’s story for years before landing on an entry point that involved contrasting his own life with that of his subject. Carrère describes the first sentences of The Adversary as marking “my exit from my writer’s adolescence, which was steeped in influences and inhibitions.”

This literary adulthood bloomed with My Life as a Russian Novel, a 2010 work in which Carrère unearths the story of his grandfather, a translator for the Nazis who disappeared after the war; Lives Other Than My Own (11), in which Carrère witnesses catastrophic loss following the tsunami in Sri Lanka and investigates the lives of a pair of crusading French lawyers; and also from 2011 but published here in 2014, Limonov, which chronicles the wild and sometimes grotesque picaresque that was the life of Russian poet, memoirist and “professional revolutionary” Eduard Limonov. The Adversary and Lives Other Than My Own were adapted to the screen, in films directed by Nicole Garcia and Philippe Lioret respectively, with varying degrees of formal or thematic fidelity, but both features were conspicuously absent from the L’immagine programme, otherwise loaded with films connected to Carrère, including the first episode of the French television series Les Revenants (12), which he co-scripted. Instead, a suitable substitute came in the form of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (82) and People on Sunday (29), the latter screened with sublime live musical accompaniment by Michael Jaeger Kerouac, who somehow made a humming, celestial, Joe Zawinul–inspired groove for keys, bass, drums, tenor sax, and clarinet sound completely attuned to interwar images of people streaming through summery Berlin streets or picnicking by the lake. These landmark hybrid works are closer in spirit to Carrère’s late work as a writer than any of the films directly inspired by his books, suspended as they are in the liminal pace between fiction and nonfiction cinema, appropriating tropes from both while adhering to the tenets of neither. As Chatrian put it to me: “Carrère doesn’t hesitate to combine different sources, inspirations and subjects in order to portray a prismatic reality.”

Dostoevsky's Travels

Dostoevsky’s Travels

A more contemporary cinematic corollary to Carrère’s late writings can be found in an early work by Pawel Pawlikowski, who readers of Limonov will know is an old friend of Carrère’s and who was also in attendance at L’immagine—the two participated in an onstage conversation aptly tilted “Fictionalizing Reality.” Pawlikowski’s Academy Award winner Ida was guaranteed to fill Locarno’s Teatro Kursaal, but the screening that struck me as more cogent was his mischievous, funny, and inventive 1991 mid-length Dostoevsky’s Travels, in which Dimitri Dostoevsky—the Russian author’s trolley driver great-grandson—is whisked across sundry Western European capitals to speak at the comically stuffy gatherings of the Dostoevsky Society. Reminiscent of certain stories by Bruce Chatwin and made for the BBC’s Bookmark series, Pawlikowski’s 52-minute work is an enigmatic hybrid of documentary coverage and obviously staged reenactments, following Dostoevsky on his journey—his first beyond the frontiers of the USSR—and relaying through voiceover his inner thoughts. These thoughts are almost entirely given over to the pursuit of purchasing a Mercedes and bringing it back to Russia to show off to his compatriots, who are all stuck driving dreary, rundown Ladas. Not unlike My Life as a Russian Novel or Limonov, Dostoevsky’s Travels is a playful consideration of how the burden of history renders the present into something akin to black comedy.

Dostoevsky’s Travels was for me a remarkable discovery, a film I’m not likely to have seen otherwise. But nothing at L’immagine this year felt quite as revelatory as finally being able to see Retour à Kotelnitch, which to my knowledge never received any sort of distribution in North America. Deemed a cinematic “twin” to Russian Novel, Retour only reveals its relationship to Carrère’s dark familial legacy very late in its 135-minute run-time. Kotelnitch is a town some 800 kilometers from Moscow, a place where outsiders are regarded with tremendous unease—even locals who have ventured into the outside world are regarded as suspicious. Carrère initially visited the town to report on the discovery of András Toma, a Hungarian POW, still thought to be the last WWII POW to be repatriated, who was living in a local psychiatric hospital. On that trip Carrère befriended a translator named Ania, a Kotelnitch native who had been abroad, learned other languages, then came home and started a family with a member of the FSB. Between Carrère’s first and second visits Ania and her young son were both brutally murdered. The case was dismissed as a random act of violence by a mentally deranged man, but from the start of Retour there are intimations of conspiracy. What initially seems a detective story becomes something stranger and more immersive, a portrait of people living in fear on the edge of a transfigured empire, mourning without closure, and drinking, drinking, drinking. It is a film drenched in grief and vodka.

Retour à Kotelnitch

“You ought to write a book,” one of Carrère’s subjects suggests early in Retour, and we in the audience may, for a moment, be inclined to agree: Carrère exudes such mesmerizing control of his material when able to render whole worlds into prose, whereas the sometimes very gauzy, sometimes haphazard coverage gathered by his skeleton crew cannot aspire to any comparable formal elegance. But as the film becomes increasingly unmoored from its original intentions, and grows more deeply invested in allowing this place to speak for itself, Carrère makes discoveries about Kotelnitch and its citizenry. Long, rambling, captivating scenes unfold, with Carrère himself often spied at the edge of the frame, struggling to know when to interfere and when to stand aside and simply bear witness. Retour is a remarkable film because, in a way that is indeed akin to Carrère’s later books yet is also entirely native to cinema, it retains a sense of propulsion while remaining open to figuring out what its true subject is as it goes along.

José Teodoro is a Toronto-based critic and playwright.