Rep Diary: Marcel Hanoun
Une simple histoire
The retrospective for Marcel Hanoun held at New York’s Anthology Film Archives this past spring represented a tremendous opportunity for those who have heard about the filmmaker’s elusive contributions to the history of French cinema but have been unable to experience it firsthand, save for his debut, Une simple histoire (59). The series marked the first dedicated survey of Hanoun’s work in the U.S. and benefited from a recent comprehensive retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française (for which a number of gorgeous 35mm and 16mm prints were struck) to bring a selection of Hanoun’s films to the city where Une simple histoire received its belated U.S. premiere at the 9th New York Film Festival in 1971.
Hanoun, who died in 2012, emerged on the scene as a peer of the Young Turks of Cahiers du cinéma and the Left Bank set. Indeed, Une simple histoire premiered at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival alongside Breathless and The 400 Blows. But while the arc and aspirations of Hanoun’s career superficially appear to resemble those of Godard, Hanoun was quicker to establish and uphold his underground bona fides. He produced an audacious body of work with decidedly modest means and displayed an aggressively iconoclastic formalism more or less from the start. The films that followed Une simple histoire—which was hailed shortly after its NYFF screening by Jonathan Rosenbaum as “a Bressonian analysis of an Italian Neorealist subject” and seized by Noël Burch as one of the key works of postwar European modernist cinema in 1968’s Praxis du cinéma—mostly acknowledged the conventions of narrative filmmaking only long enough to plot their destruction.
The Authentic Trial of Carl-Emmanuel Jung (66) presaged the stagey docufiction interrogations of collective trauma in films by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and, more recently, Joshua Oppenheimer. An opening text announcing that the trial is a total fabrication colors the jarring testimony regarding concentration camp atrocities that comprises most of the speech in the film. Hanoun’s “Seasons Cycle”—Summer (68), Winter (69), Fall (71), and Spring (72)—is a series of varyingly successful but uniformly fascinating investigations into whether filmmaking can serve as an adequate metaphor for thought itself. (Winter and Spring are especially superb on this front.) There’s also the willfully slight, sexually explicit curio The Gaze (77), which, per John Gianvito, endeavors to be a movie about sex that “would be perceived not as erotic nor pornographic,” but instead winds up being probably the most obtuse, self-consciously metaphysical porno ever made.
The Authentic Trial of Carl-Emmanuel Jung
But the film that left the strongest impression after Anthology’s retrospective, and the one that best encapsulates the sensibility manifest throughout these diverse works, is October in Madrid (67), which Hanoun (in voiceover) describes as the byproduct of “3000 meters of film and a borrowed camera.” It amounts to a radically personal record of failure in filmmaking, freely and movingly capturing the myriad impasses and missed opportunities that characterize life in any artistic vocation, let alone one as fundamentally industrial as cinema. A diary film, a travelogue, a 16mm mosaic of fragments of movies that could have been: October in Madrid is all of these things. If one is willing to indulge Hanoun’s monomania for metacinema, the film makes for provocative viewing, with beautiful, casually composed images all along the way.
The film’s opening shot establishes Hanoun’s aesthetic concerns and strategies: a long take of a woman applying makeup and taking a phone call within a tight close-up reminiscent of Warhol’s Screen Tests or his film portraits of Edie Sedgwick. Hanoun then goes on to outline the reason for his being in Madrid—namely, a passionless gig shooting a “commercial short” that thankfully falls apart upon his arrival in the Spanish capital. Hanoun parlays the production’s collapse into another project, a spendthrift portrait of a woman named Carmen—but again, it’s not long before Hanoun’s actress drops out of the project and the listless auteur finds himself out on the street searching for a new star. He pauses along the way to film a group of bandoleros (proto-hipsters if ever there were some), observe people strolling in the park, visit filmmaker Luis García Berlanga at his home (a remarkable sequence in which voice and image drift out of synch, as if wandering away from each other), take in an obligatory mod dance party, and check out the gargantuan sets left over from the production of Anthony Mann’s 1964 The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Hanoun also meets with actors and prospective crew members for the film(s) to come, including an interview with the young woman who serves as Hanoun’s assistant and spiritual guide, Nadia. She opines: “I don’t think a film can be linear . . . There’s simultaneity [in film as in the process of thought].” This notion captures something of Hanoun not just as a filmmaker but as a thinker. (And for Hanoun, these two roles are seldom if ever distinct, as with Michel Lonsdale’s pensive filmmakers in Winter and Fall, men for whom the minor obstacles of their profession serve to symbolize their tumultuous inner lives.) “We are not yet capable of introspection in cinema,” Hanoun declares at one point, and his filmmaking sought to discover the forms by which such a thing would be possible. Hanoun’s cinema is unapologetically lofty in its epistemological ambitions, but his best films juxtapose this impulse with openly personal content, warming up material that might otherwise have been too abstruse to take seriously. Such is the case with October in Madrid, where talk of subjectivity and the convolutions of thought is accompanied by rich documentation of the places and people that helped to generate them.
October in Madrid
Though Hanoun spent much of his career representing mental operations and psychic unrest as the practice of filmmaking, October in Madrid is singularly dense with traces of life outside the mind. It might best be characterized as “a film about making a film about one’s inability to make a film,” yet it nevertheless manages to touch upon something tangible and human amid its playful self-reflexivity. It is a near-masterpiece for anyone who is on intimate terms with the feeling of failure.
October in Madrid screened at Anthology Film Archives as part of its Marcel Hanoun retrospective from May 29 to June 5.