À la recherche de Luc Moullet: 25 Propositions

I had to retype this longish position paper  — published in the November-December 1977 issue of Film Comment — in order to digitize it for the manuscript of my  collection, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2010.  Going over every word of it again made me painfully aware of how many typos and other errors it had in its previous appearance. [8/14 postscript: My deepest thanks to Andy Rector at Kino Slang for adding the grubby still that originally ran with this article in Film Comment, thereby allowing me to add it here myself.]

This essay has a literal sequel, “Moullet retrouvé”, also on this site.  –J.R.

À la recherche de Luc Moullet: 25 Propositions

1. “Every film by Gerd Oswald deserves a long review.” — LM, 1958.

2. Many of you, perhaps most, have never heard of the man. So much the better. Not all news gets into newspapers, and not all movies get into theaters. The sculptor Paul Thek once proposed an interesting solution to the newspaper problem to me: Get rid of all of them, except for one edition of one daily paper (any would do), and pass this precious object from hand to hand for the next hundred years –- then the news might mean something.

Living, as we do, in a time and culture where cinema is becoming an increasingly occupied and colonized country — a state of affairs in which a few privileged marshmallows get saturation bookings all over creation while a host of challenging alternative choices languish in obscurity –- the need for legends has seldom been quite so pressing. Such are the established channels nowadays that even avant-garde films come to the viewer, if at all, in a form that is almost invariably pre-selected and pre-defined, with all the price tags and catalogue descriptions neatly in place. Given the need for legends that might gnaw at the superstructures of these official edifices, the adventurous filmgoer has few places to turn. Even in specialized magazines, one is most often prone to find duplications of the choices available elsewhere; and unless one lives in a megalopolis, the mere existence of most interesting films today is bound to seem almost fanciful and irrelevant.

Within this impossible setup, one is obliged to construct a pantheon largely out of rumor and hearsay: at one big state university, stories still circulate about the one time that a few students got to see half an hour of Rivette’s 252-minute Out 1: Spectre.

Needing an emblem, agent provocateur, and exemplary scapegoat for a legendary cinema that by all rights should be infinite and expanding, I nominate the figure of Luc Moullet, patron saint of the avant-garde B film. Whether or not anyone chooses to second the motion is beside the point.

3. In the packet of press materials that LM sent me last May is one still of Les contrebandières showing Brigitte (Françoise Vatel) scaling a bolder over a waterfall that is possibly the grubbiest I’ve ever seen — even grubbier than what the film looks like. Most people would call it “substandard,” and they’d be right. This is the unfettered register that LM’s films occupy, breathe, and thrive in, a happy legion of the damned. Not even the $22 million spent on making Friedkin’s Sorceror look as impoverished and boring and artfully godforsaken and xenophobically unpleasant as possible could buy that sort of freedom and enlightenment.

4. LM on The Tarnished Angels: “One of the multiple styles of Douglas Sirk is marked by the filling out of nothingness, the higher bid, the incantation, yielding Summer Storm or Written on the Wind, which one could call filmed on the wind. When one has nothing to start with, all excess, all forms of expression are good. The effects of The Tarnished Angels are totally gratuitous. Faulkner’s technique [in Pylon] presents and refines this same behavior, with inspiration alone dictating the tone. One couldn’t care less about verisimilitude. Attempts, variations, disparate efforts: The Tarnished Angels is basically a faithful adaptation through the utilization of the camera and the direction of actors. The whole film is made up of short tracks, usually lateral, almost invisible, the camera perpetually strolling five or six meters above the ground. Why? No reason. Just Sirk’s pleasure in making his camera move….In art, there is only artifice. Let us therefore praise an artifice that is cultivated without remorse, which consequently acquires a greater sincerity rather than artifice masked by itself as by others under hypocritical pretexts. The true is as false as the false; only the archi-false becomes true.” (Cahiers du cinéma no. 87, septembre 1958.) (1)

5. BIOFILMOGRAPHY: Born October 14, 1937, son of a mail sorter and a typist. Zellidja scholarship, 1954 (“Human Aspects of the Southern Préalpes”). An uncompleted degree in English. often lists his profession as habilleur de charbonnier [dresser of coalminers] and helps his father run a tiny clothing factory. Film critic (1956-1966) for Cahiers du cinéma, Arts, Télérama, etc., championing the causes of Buñuel, Cottafavi, Godard, Hawks, Mizoguchi, Sirk, Solntseva, Ulmer, Vidor, and above all Fuller, timing the long takes of Verboten! with his waterproof, anti-magnetic Reglia wristwatch; wrote Fritz Lang for the Seghers series, 1963, a book that Brigitte Bardot can be seen reading in the bathtub in Godard’s Contempt. Apart from producing forty shorts and features (e.g., several by Eustache, Duras’ Nathalie Granger, all his own films) and acting in his own films and others (e.g., Pollet’s L’amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste), has scripted and directed the following films (the genre classifications are his own):

1960 –- Un steack trop cuit (Overdone Steak), burlesque sketch (short).  1961 — Terres noires (Black Lands), social documentary (short). 1962 — Capito?, travelogue (short). 1966 — Brigitte et Brigitte, comic film (feature). 1967 — Les contrebandières (The Smugglers), adventure film (feature). 1970 — Une aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl is a Gun), western (feature). 1975 — Anatomie d’un rapport (Farther Than Sex), codirected and coscripted by Antoinetta Pizzorno, sex film (feature). Projects: Genesis of a Meal (1977), social documentary, and “The Ninth Curve Under Pordoi, a film of no kind”.

6. In all, I’ve seen one of the shorts and two and a quarter of the features, over a five-year period in three countries. In this lifetime, at least, I don’t expect to have a chance to see many more. On May 18, 1972, I stumbled into the last twenty minutes or so of A Girl is a Gun, dubbed into English, at a Marché du Film screening at Cannes; my records report that I saw at least portions of six other films that day, and about all I can recall, correctly or not, is Jean-Pierre Léaud’s protracted skirmishes with Rachel Kesterber on some obscure mountain ridge, in color — somewhat reminiscent of the finale of Duel in the Sun (2), but pushed to the level of excruciating lunatic farce, with a touch of Fuller’s madness. Then, last year in London, I saw the only LM film distributed in England, Un steack trop cuit, and since then I’ve seen The Smugglers and Farther Than Sex, both in the U.S. All three of these are in black and white, and The Smugglers is the only LM film I’ve seen more than once. That’s the extent of my exposure to his movies, and I am a lot luckier than most.

7. (LM, after complaining about the overbearing luxury hotel service accorded to critics at the San Sebastian Film Festival): “Writing, writing, always writing. I think, therefore I am…or rather, I think therefore I don’t mop up, because there’s nothing to mop up. I turn my sink faucet all the way, hoping in the depths of my being that it will explode and that I’ll have to repair it, choke off a flood. There’s running water in my sink, even hot water. But I’d rather be in the mountains where a liter of cold water costs a hundred francs, because then at least it’s fun to calculate how much water I can consume. There’s a bed in my room, even sheets, but I’d have preferred hay and a downy quilt, first of all because one’s better off that way, and secondly because it permits amusing involuntary nocturnal slips and unexpected awakenings, where am I? What are my bearings? Dear God, how could I have lost my bearings? I want to take the stairs, but the zealous lift-attendant forces me into his elevator: he doesn’t know that, as a Touch of Evil enthusiast, I don’t ever draw upon my resources to struggle with him.” (“Le Martyre de San Sebastian,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 99, septembre 1959.)

8. Just for the record, it was LM and not Godard who first observed that morality is a matter of tracking shots (“La morale est affaire de travellings”), in the course of his remarkable “Sam Fuller sur les brisées de Marlowe” [“Sam Fuller in the Footsteps of Marlowe”] (Christopher, not Philip) in Cahiers du cinéma no. 93. When Godard picked up the idea and injected it into a Cahiers discussion of Hiroshima, mon amour four months later (no. 97), he gave the phrase more currency by standing it on its head: “Les travellings sont affaire de morale.”

Much of LM’s work can be seen in the shadow of pre-1968 Godard: use of Hollywood genres, along with a dismemberment of many of the parti pris of Hollywood narrative; an anarchist thrust often involving a flight from civilization; a deadpan, often boorish kind of humor in handling male actors that always makes one aware of the presence of mug in smug (Belmondo and Szabo in all their Godard appearances, Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless, the louts in Les carabiniers, etc.); self-reflexive references to the film you’re watching. Yet whether by design or default, most of LM’s echoes of Godard tend to come as rather devastating critiques of his mentor, perhaps because LM is a light-hearted humanist and Godard is not, so that, for example, Les contrebandières can be read as a “deconstruction” of Les carabiniers, just as Les carabiniers “deconstructs” the war film. LM has also alluded to an important class difference between them — Godard’s bourgeois background versus his own peasant origins — which helps to distinguish their styles and attitudes.

It is characteristic of LM’s quasi-invisible status that some of his wilder pronouncements — that Rio Bravo expresses “the finest of morals: that a man should earn his daily bread and not care about the rest”; that the moral of the story in The Ten Commandments “is extraordinarily Manicheistic. Just a straight line, no dialectics: Ramses stands for Mao Tse Tung, and Moses for De Mille himself” — have sometimes been ascribed to Godard, as in Gérard Gozlan’s memorable attack on the Cahiers writers, “In Praise of André Bazin” (translated in Peter Graham’s The New Wave). And when Godard’s celebrated lengthy interview on La chinoise (Cahiers no. 194) was translated and abridged in the Winter 1968-69 Film Quarterly, it seems only natural that his praise for Brigitte et Brigitte was omitted: “Here is a revolutionary film, and if it isn’t one, I don’t see what could be. It’s Moullet and others like him who should be entrusted with the movies that people like Quine or the Gaumont company are currently shooting. It’s Moullet who should be making `commercial’ films.”

9. LM: “I won’t go on about the advantages that the richness of a budget can bring, these generally being rather well known. What are recognized less are the advantages of poverty. I think for instance that if The Smugglers had cost twenty percent less, the result would have been better because there would have been something in the film that emphasized this austerity….One of the great advantages of poverty is to develop a sense of responsibility on the part of the director.” (Interview in Cahiers du cinéma no. 216, octobre 1968.)

10. “Our Jarry,” Rivette calls him. And when I asked Straub in Edinburgh two years ago which contemporary filmmakers he admired, he cited Mizoguchi, Ford, Renoir, Lang, Godard…and then LM: “I am willing to defend him until next year — things can change — even against all those who accuse him of being a fascist, which he is not. He’s the most important filmmaker of the French post-Godard generation…especially for Les contrebandières more than for the other two.”

11. Noël Burch: “Taking  for his features grossly stereotyped subject material…Moullet then proceeds to subvert these platitudes through techniques which, though they have evolved perceptibly since his first feature, are still basically the same: a deliberately `feeble,’ almost vulgar humor; a disjointed, `rickety’ narrative, bristling with ellipses that generally don’t quite `come off’; a very personal contrast between a profilmic action which is almost trivial pastiche and landscape imagery which is often really grandiose (especially in Billy). His first two features, shot in black and white on something less than a shoestring, had a very special, pseudo-amateurish quality about them — the acting, , in particular, was especially  ‘weak’ — which endeared him to a few sophisticates — justifiably so to the extent that there had never been any films quite like them! — and quickly discouraged the bulk of art-film goers with their worshipful attitude towards glossiness. For Billy, Moullet had enough money to modify some of his basic options: production values are no longer `symbolized,’ they are actually there…yet of course in a derisive way.” (From notes prepared for Cinema Rising on French independent cinema.)

12. INVOCATION: Dear readers, help us to deliver ourselves from our enslavement to production values, our ridiculous attachment to slickness which makes filmgoing in most sectors an exclusive subscription to the puerile pastimes and philosophies of stupid, vulgar millionaires. Help save us from the disease of wasted, useless wads of money heaped upon “projects” that never get scripted, or scripted but never cast, cast but never started, started but never finished, finished but never shown, shown but never seen, or seen but to no conceivable purpose, pleasure, edification, or profit to anyone. Help us to liberate ourselves from millions spent on awful movies designed to prevent us from seeing better movies, like The Smugglers, which cost next to nothing to make. Awaken with us to the profound truth of LM’s statement to Roland Barthes in Pesaro in 1966 that “Language is theft” — language meaning the corporate studio styles and their decadent derivatives which have preempted the forms of reality and representation made available to us, which a consortium of investors, distributors, exhibitors, and “distinguished critics” have done their best to cram down our throats, making it our exclusive diets. Help us to understand, on one level, how the superiority of a cut-rate delight like Dark Star to Star Wars is a demonstrable fact that never had a chance to be demonstrated; or, on another, how an enforced gloss — not only on the screen, but on the mind — has kept the genius of a filmmaker like Michael Snow inaccessible to most spectators, perhaps even to you who’s reading this….

13. Un steack trop cuit is nineteen minutes long, and not very much happens in it. Although a second-unit director, cameraman, and editor are listed in the credits, virtually the entire action takes place in a small urban family flat when the parents are away, where Nicole (Françoise Vatel) fixes a steak for herself and her kid brother Georges (Albert Juross), which he loudly declares is inedible. He borrows sausages from a neighbor and gets Nicole to cook them, teases and flirts with her while she prepares to go out on a date, then goes into the kitchen after she leaves and methodically proceeds to smash the dishes. The curious thing about this plug-ugly effort with its diverse New Wave tropes and vulgar jokes (a copy of Cahiers used offscreen as toilet paper combines these categories) is its unexpectedly sweet and poignant aftertaste. After the adolescent hero’s obnoxious treatment of his sister and his revolting table manners (loud sucking noises, spitting out pieces of food, picking strands of spaghetti off the floor and putting them on her plate, declaring that, “At the sound of the third belch, it’ll be precisely 7:49”), it eventually becomes apparent that the undercurrent of affection and complicity between these siblings is the film’s true subject. The overall effect of this 1960 termite sitcom is to show up the bêtise of Godard’s 1958 Charlotte et son Jules as pure coquettishness.

14. LM: “I contest a certain manner of reasoning which is founded on oppositions, like ugly and beautiful, human and inhuman, etc. I believe this manner of thinking is perhaps inherited from a certain materialism, but in spite of that it doesn’t correspond to reality.. It should first be subject to verification. For my part, I simply verify…that there are filmmakers who have a position on the human and those who don’t. There are also those, like me, who have a position on intelligence and stupidity….For me, there isn’t intelligence and stupidity, but intelligence-stupidity….My films are very much oriented around the problem of intelligence-stupidity (and there are a certain  number of other problems around which they aren’t oriented at all, such as sincerity and insincerity), so there is a sort of identification which is engendered, and in the final analysis, I don’t know – can’t know, don’t want to know — if what I’m doing is a matter of intelligence, but when that’s pushed pretty far, extreme intelligence rejoins stupidity. But stupidity derived from intelligence — that becomes a quality because it’s something that one tries for. It’s an effort. Thus, starting from the moment that one supposes one’s self to be intelligent, the search for stupidity is an effort of intelligence, whereas if one is content to remain inside intelligence itself, that reverts to stupidity because there’s an absence of progression.

“…It is Chabrol who inaugurated at the start of the Sixties a sort of critique of stupidity which represented at the same time that effort I spoke of to move toward it….What I like in La ligne de demarcation, for instance, is precisely the absence of a line of demarcation. One is in a perpetual uncertainty and that’s what interests us: we don’t know what the true direction of the film is, and we obviously can’t know because there isn’t one.” (Interview in Cahiers du cinéma no. 216, op. cit.)

15. Distribution rights to A Girl is a Gun were sold to forty small countries, although LM was unable to get the film distributed anywhere in France. There’s a gag about this in Farther Than Sex when LM receives a phone call complaining that lions are keeping audiences away from his films. In America, the situation is even funnier: The Smugglers has been available for distribution from New Yorker Films for eight years, ever since it had a brief, disastrous New York premiere. But Dan Talbot is so gloomy about its prospects that it hasn’t even been listed in any of his recent catalogs. To the best of my knowledge, Peter Wollen and I are the only ones who’ve ever booked the film for college courses.

16. LM: “There are films which reproduce life in a matter-of-fact way and try to hook the spectator through their plots. There have been so many films like this that one wound up believing that they all had to be like that, without any reason but force of habit. Like certain [other] recent films, The Smugglers marks a reaction against scrupulous reproduction and the plot full of interest, which has seemed to me to furnish an opening on life that’s too limited and partial: it’s a film that insists on the ridiculous value of all affirmation, and thus also this habitual aesthetic of cinema. The only criteria which presided over the film’s conception and which should make it lovable or detestable are (a) the variety and breadth of the means of ridicule and of the objects submitted to ridicule; and (b) the sharpness and the suppleness of the ridicule.

“Such as it is, The Smugglers is presented as an attempt at a full, warm, and serene restoration of the playful potential inherent in the unanimity of deeds and thoughts.

“For me, The Smugglers is the best film of Robbe-Grillet.” (Cahiers du cinéma no. 206, novembre 1968.)

17. “Man is a creature of habit, and the task of the artist is to try to break these habits.”—Jean Renoir

“Who goes to the Music Hall? Communists!” –-movie producer in Sullivan’s Travels

The Smugglers is a movie about borders and barriers and how people live in relation to them – a movie about how to work within limits that sees filmmaking itself as a form of smuggling. It’s no accident that Brigitte and Francesca (Monique Thiriet) smuggle Kodak Plus film in their packs along with food, LSD, and other staples; or that they go into a village at one point to shoot a documentary “about local problems, for distribution in China.” Filmed in the High Alps with a Cameflex camera and Kodak Plus X film and inventively post-dubbed, The Smugglers takes place in two adjacent countries which remain nameless.

The adolescent hero (Johnny Montheillet) enlists Brigitte and Francesca in smuggling, although from where to where is never apparent, apart from elliptical bits of offscreen narration furnished by all three. Over a shot of a rushing stream, the boy says, “Look closely: this used to be a totalitarian state,” while the camera pans to the right over the ground, then stops. “Now it was to know freedom and democracy. All at once, everything would change.” The camera pans back to the left, stopping at the self-same stream as one hears church bells and the boy again: “Look at it now!”

Much of the time, the klutzy trio are in flight from both customs officials and the Smugglers’ Union, except for odd moments of repose, such as when Brigitte does housework. (She washes and scrubs everything in the kitchen in a basin, soapbox included, then carries the basin to a craggy precipice and throws the objects down on the rocks. Shortly after a meal eaten awkwardly out of shells on the same spot, dubbed with Tatiesque noises of sucking and slurping and subsequent kissing, LM appears in a suit and with a briefcase, and calls a meeting to order with a cowbell. After sipping discreetly from a glass of water, he announces that “We’ve bought a helicopter to track down Union smugglers,” and a cut to a helicopter in the vicinity confirms this.)

As narration and a panning camera both shift between the three heroes at a picnic table, the boy starts to pop grapes into his mouth as rapidly as possible – continuing incessantly at something like the speed that Sacha Piteoff deals out cards to Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad. “I had to act naturally,” he says offscreen. “My gluttony cowed and impressed them.” In flight, one of the girls ignites a few weeds with a match and rum: “The Customs were met with a wall of fire.” The boy, after trying repeatedly to mount a bike on another chase, eventually throws it down in disgust; he becomes bound, blindfolded, and gagged, and wanders around the rocks interminably:”They were hoping I’d fall into a ravine. They forgot how well I knew the area.”

There’s no question of how well LM knows the terrain of the Hollywood adventure film  — every shot testifies to this knowledge – but he contrives to be diffident, leisurely, and honest about it, shrugging off the genre’s heroic postures every time the physical effort becomes too tiresome. If Godard’s characters in the Sixties always come off a bit like retarded adolescents, they’re never fully acknowledged as such; he treats them like heroes. LM treats his adolescents as something better, as people.

I could tell you more, but I won’t. The last time I saw The Smugglers was seven weeks ago; I took copious notes, but memories are fast-fading, and anyway I lost over half these notes while house-cleaning last month. I don’t have very much of this film now, and by the time this appears in print, I expect to have a great deal less. I want it back, but I don’t know how to get it. In ten years’ time, I doubt I’ll have many fragments left, apart from the few peeks provided here, some of which may well be incorrect.

18. LM on Jet Pilot: “It is indeed remarkable that the ruses of Furthman and Sternberg would be in the same style, that they would apply to political or philosophical signification or eroticism. It seems that erotic verve would be indissociable from contempt for every collectivity, from the frenzied exaltation of individuality within the framework of traditional social and moral principles….The two highest summits of the genre are Jet Pilot and The Fountainhead.” (“Sainte Janet,” Cahiers du cinéma no. 86, août 1958.)

19. Suggested title for a hypothetical article in Screen about LM: Suture/Self”. (Ia, i) A special dividend: this pun would be comprehensible only to those who pronounce suture the English way, thus leaving the Francophiles out in the cold for a change.

(II) It’s highly unlikely that Screen would ever publish an article about LM because (IIa, i) none of his features is available in England and (IIa, ii) despite Screen’s professed aim of interrogating cinema as an institution, it has usually avoided the question of distribution; (IIb, i) The Smugglers is an anarchist film, and (IIb, ii) in Europe, unlike America, anarchy is nearly always assumed to have right-wing connotations, thus implying that (IIb, iii) as a right-wing director LM wouldn’t qualify as representative or exemplary or relevant. Anyway, (IIc, i) comedy presupposes a loosening of mental corsets not very much in keeping with Screen’s practice, despite the welcome accorded in its pages to such jokesters as the Russian formalists and Roland Barthes.

20. THE CASE AGAINST LM: (1) Let’s face it, he hasn’t much of an eye, (2) he’s lazy, (3) people never say intelligent things in his movies (although they sometimes try, e.g. LM himself in Farther Than Sex: “Film cans and sewer holes are always the same shape; this always frightens me”), (4) they make stupid faces, and (5) some of his actresses walk around in bikinis.

And oh yes, one more thing: (6) He makes movies.

21. Near the end of The Smugglers, after Francesca has gone off on a train (the other two on a hillside wave at a receding train: how long did they have to wait around for that shot?), the boy goes to work at a quarry while Brigitte holds down an office job at a big company in Boulogne. Then the company computer goes haywire — paying the wrong people, if I remember correctly (I try to ignore plots, like all other vehicles, unless I’m driving: why miss all the scenery?) –- and the couple returns happily to the mountains and smuggling and a variation on the film’s opening shot, with the same odd electronic warble on the soundtrack.

A curious prophecy: Farther Than Sex was financed by a real bank computer going haywire and accidentally sending LM a check for seven million francs — he tells you all about it in the movie. Or would tell you, if you could see it.

22. Farther Than Sex is a collaborative film, although I don’t see it as contradicting LM’s earlier work; as Jean-Pierre Oudart says of The Smugglers, “Moullet’s film doesn’t speak to us about the world, it is the world that speaks there; and the mechanism of subversion to which it submits itself functions without an author.” Yet insofar as it can be considered half an LM movie, I would call it his Scenes from a Marriage, that is, a practical, modest work, not a breast-beating declaration of self-important anguish. Antoinetta Pizzorno and LM simply made an apparently straightforward movie about their relationship, with the glamour of neither Bergman’s suffering nor their own — just the mundane sorrows and clumsy embarrassments of sexual problems as they’re lived, re-enacted, wrestled with. (LM: “I feel like I’m taking an exam.” AP: “I’ll whisper the answers.”) Christine Herbert (our old friend Rachel Kesterber) plays AP and LM plays himself, but this doesn’t become fully clear until AP herself appears in the final scene to demand another ending — like a character in one of Tex Avery’s Screwy Squirrel cartoons — and LM mutters resentfully that “A guy’s gotta make a movie in order to fuck the way he wants.”



Here are excerpts from the only two American reviews I’ve read of the film, in Soho News and Film Comment, respectively, after it showed in the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/New Films series last spring: (1) “Luc Moullet, who has been an interesting film critic in the past, shares that fallacy which seems to afflict the recent work of Jean-Luc Godard: he assumes that his rather simplistic notions of the dichotomy of life and art are new flashes from the outer limits.” (2) “The script is puerile, the acting clumsy, the sound and lighting pre-Edisonian; and the sex, despite the blurb’s contention [that the sexual revolution has not had an emotional equivalent], is non-existent — unless you’re into blankets, which the actors go to great lengths to cover themselves with even during the throes of passion.”

In response to (1), leaving aside what “recent Godard” could mean in this up-to-date New York context (Pierrot le fou, perhaps?), what LM assumes is not clear to me, but my own assumption is that his and AP’s “rather simplistic notions” are more like old flickers from the inner limits, and ones that efface themselves out of existence through their relative nonchalance, leaving a very warm and human residue. (New York, New York, which must have cost a good thousand times as much to make, has even more simplistic notions, and leaves much less of a residue, whatever its other merits.)

As for (2), yes, the script is puerile and the acting clumsy — so are we all — and yes, I’m into blankets, I use them every night. “Pre-Edisonian” is hyperbole, of course, but if it were true, what could be more exciting? And so what if you don’t see a lot of clinical, over-the-blanket sex — isn’t that already available on every street corner? [3] What’s so obligatory about it, much less interesting? If vulnerability has anything to do with sex or eroticism, a few shots of an embarrassed LM in his underpants adds up to a lot more exposure than anything waved about by anyone in, say, Deep Throat.

Not that I’d argue that Farther Than Sex is anything more than a minor appealing film — isn’t that a rare enough commodity these days? So I’d quarrel, too, with the hyperbole of Rivette’s remark in the English pressbook (“One can’t go farther than Farther Than Sex“: how do you say that in French?), and would tend to go along more with Eustache’s blurb: “We can bet that this film will be a flop. That’s the best for me: I’ll plunder it more easily.”

23. SELECTED SUPPLEMENTARY BIBLIOGRAPHY: Alfred Jarry, “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race”; LM, “Le Cinéma n’est pas qu’un reflet de la lutte des classes” (Cahiers du cinéma no. 187, février 1967), “Jean-Luc Godard” (translated in Toby Mussman’s 1968 Dutton anthology on Godard); Jean Narboni, “Luc Moullet, Notre alpin quotidien” (Cahiers du cinéma no. 180, juillet 1966); Jean-Pierre Oudart, review of Les contrebandières (Cahiers du cinéma no. 208, janvier 1969); Richard Roud, “The French Line” (Sight and Sound, Autumn 1960).

24. Manny Farber — whose termite category could have been invented for LM — asked me a couple of months ago how formal analysis could account for the tenderness Straub displays towards the young waiter in Not Reconciled; I asked in turn how a proper formal analysis could avoid it. It would seem, from the available evidence, that LM has shown a comparable tenderness towards everyone he’s ever filmed, and yes, Virginia, this is “work on the signifier”. It’s the signified of commercial cinema that gets short-changed in The Smugglers — not its production of meaning, which is indicated in virtually every shot. This makes some people angry because they want to forget they’re at the movies. LM starts with the assumption that you want to be there.

25. Nevertheless, at one time or another, LM’s films have defeated distributors, exhibitors, spectators, even projectors. At Filmex in Los Angeles last March, people who arrived to see Anatomie d’un rapport — not very many — were essentially informed that the 16 mm projector refused to contend with the film, and those who wanted to see it had to come back the following day. When I returned, along with an even smaller group of people, the projector grudgingly complied this time, but not without a couple of spiteful breakdowns. Every time I’ve seen Les contrebandières, the projector has obstinately refused to keep all of the image in focus at the same time; the gate usually seems to shudder and flinch at the very prospect.

Maybe cameras rebel against LM’s cinema too; consider the awfulness of that still I cited from Les contrebandières. I wonder if the breakdown in representation implied by it may, after all, be a fair indication of what his films are all about: not a breakdown of the people and things represented, but of the sort of guff that money and idealism dress them up with. All I know is that the longer I look at that still, the more it inspires me. Like the best of LM’s cinema, it is priceless — language that isn’t theft, because it takes nothing from anyone, but offers, rather, a  gift that anyone can have. If anyone will let us have it.


1. David Ehrenstein, T. Leo French [Bill Krohn], and John Hughes have all helped to nourish this article in various ways, for which I’m grateful. But for better or worse, all the translations are mine. Some of these are freer and hastier than others, and I apologize to LM and his compatriots if I’ve inadvertently stepped on any of their meanings.

2. Before making this film, LM described it as “a mélange of Duel in the Sun and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, or, more precisely, The Shanghai Gesture and [José Giovanni’s] La loi du survivant.”

3. In The World of Nations, Christopher Lasch aptly notes that a recent “development, widely mistaken for a `revolution in morals’,  is a growing literal-mindedness about sex,  an inability to recognize as sexual anything other than the genitals.”

Film Comment, November-December 1977; corrected and slightly revised, July 2009; typos corrected, May 2023

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