A gallery of images of Luc Moullet and friends follows this article.
Luc Moullet is the only burlesque filmmaker of the New Wave.
– Jacques Lourcelles
Les Sièges de l’Alcazar, like so many other films by Moullet – from the unexpected feature-length film to the unforeseen short – proves the modest and remarkable genius of a strange filmmaker, the only filmmaker of the past thirty years (with Jean-Claude Brisseau) worthy of the appellation of filmmaker, which is a controlled appellation. […] I am not talking about an auteur, a grim distinction that for a long time has had no meaning. I am just talking about a filmmaker.
- Louis Skorecki (1)
Luc Moullet is what the French call “un original”; his is an offbeat, quirky talent. In the French audiovisual landscape, there is no one else quite like him. Along with Jean Eustache and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, he belongs to the second wave of the French New Wave. Of that second wave, he was the first to start making films. But, of the three, he is probably the least well known, even in France. Over a nearly fifty-year period, he has forged a unique filmography, with, as Jean Narboni rightly notes, many memorable titles. Working mostly in the comic vein, Moullet has flouted traditional wisdom by alternating short and longer films and working in a variety of genres. Still, his films have not always exported easily, perhaps in part because he’s a sociologist of contemporary France and his films often remain very “franco-français”. Fortunately, Blaq Out in Paris (2) has published a DVD box set of his films, with English subtitles, which is helping Moullet reach a wider audience outside of France.
Here in Paris, thanks to the recent retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou, “Luc Moullet: Le Comique en contrebande” (Luc Moullet: A Bootleg Comic), organized by Sylvie Pras, there was the opportunity to see all of his work, 38 films of varying lengths, with introductions by Moullet and many of his collaborators and admirers, including Jeanne Balibar, Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Catherine Breillat, Jean Collet, Gérard Courant, Antoine de Baecque, Claire Denis, Sabine Haudepin, Pascal Kané, the Larrieu Brothers, Iliana Lolic, Jean Narboni, Dominique Païni, Marie-Christine Questerbert and Jean-Marie Straub. The retrospective was so successful that most of the screenings were held in the Pompidou’s large theatre with more than 300 seats.
The title of the retrospective seems to have been inspired by Moullet himself and recalls the title of the 1993 retrospective of his work, “Luc Moullet: Le contrebandier” (Luc Moullet: the Smuggler), organized by the Cinémathèque Française. (3) In 1967, Moullet titled his second feature, Les Contrebandières (The Smugglers): he thinks of a smuggler as a metaphor for a filmmaker. As an example, Moullet cites his film, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl is a Gun, 1971), which was sold to various countries under the illusion it was a real Western. (4) Another example, mentioned by Moullet, is Eric Rohmer’s first feature, Le Signe de Lion (The Sign of the Lion, 1959): initially, distributors in Africa eagerly bought the film because they thought it was a safari film! This metaphor of contraband smuggling works on another level too: Moullet very often smuggles in documentary elements in his fiction films. Brigitte et Brigitte (Brigitte and Brigitte, 1966), for example, draws a caricature of the inanities and sclerosis of the French university system in the mid-1960s, while La Comédie du travail (The Comedy of Work, 1987) is a veritable (and hilarious) exposé of the ins and outs of the French unemployment system. Likewise, his documentaries invariably traffic in his idiosyncratic humour. From the outset, it has been impossible to class Moullet in either the traditional ranks of commercial filmmakers or in the more rarefied air of film auteurs.
During the retrospective, Jean Collet’s introduction was particularly noteworthy. Readers of Senses of Cinema will remember Collet as the author of the first book on Godard, published by Seghers in 1963, which still holds up today. Collet spoke of Moullet’s courage, honesty and humility. Characterizing him as having “taking the most risks” among his contemporaries, Collet applauded Moullet for constructing “an artisanal career in an industrial universe”.
The Centre Georges Pompidou also hosted a four-hour round-table on the director and his films, where critics Fabrice Revault d’Allonnes, Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni joined with Moullet’s long-time director of photography and occasional producer, Richard Copans (les Films d’Ici), and actress Marie-Christine Questerbert to comment on his films. The Pompidou’s retrospective of Jacques Rivette a few years ago sparked tributes to that filmmaker around the world and, hopefully, the same will happen with Moullet.
A Brief History of Luc Moullet
A consideration of a filmmaker’s name is often a good place to start for a consideration of his or her life. Moullet’s given name comes from the evangelist, thought to have been a painter. As for his surname, after the screening of Les Naufragés de la D 17 (2002), Jean-Christophe Bouvet, a frequent actor in Moullet’s films, asked him if it meant “little mule”, by analogy with Bouvet’s own name, which means “little cow”. Moullet responded with his well-rehearsed repartee: that his name means “chief” in Arabic and that he is a descendant of an Arab killed in the Battle of Poitiers (732 CE)! My knowledge of Arabic is extremely limited, but I think Moullet is referring to the word, “mullah”, a male religious teacher or leader, a word often used as a form of address for such a man, as in Mullah Omar. This story is an example of one of the filmmaker’s famous “Moulleteries”, a tall tale with about as much credence as my saying the Shaftos are descendants of William the Conqueror! Like Godard, Moullet is fond of the self-made legend. (5) Although Moullet frequently appears in his own films as himself, it would be a mistake to completely identify him with his comic on-screen alter ego.
While we don’t know the exact etymological origins of his surname, we do know that Luc Moullet, like his slightly older comrades-in-arms (François Truffaut, Godard, Claude Chabrol, Rohmer, Jacques Rivette), began his career as a film critic. In an interview in 1962, Godard noted that writing about films was already a way of making them. But of all those critics-turned-filmmakers, it seems worth emphasizing that Moullet is the only one that has regularly continued writing criticism. French film critic Louis Skorecki, who for years wrote for the newspaper Libération, maintains that Moullet was and remains one of the most important film critics today. (6) Moullet attained immortality in film circles around the world with his famous phrase, “Morality is an affair of travelling shots” (written in reference to the films of Sam Fuller (7)), but the breadth of his criticism remains little known outside of France.
In 1966, he created a scandal at the Festival of Pesaro with his talk deriding a semiological approach to writing about film, “De la nocivité du langage cinématographique, de son inutilité, ainsi que des moyens de lutter contrer lui” (On the Harmfulness of Film Language, its Uselessness, and How to Fight Against It). (8) Moullet the comic was as usual playing to his audience: he knew that Roland Barthes and Christian Metz would be among his auditors. Still, if it is possible to discern in that talk’s title his desire to épater les intellectuels, Moullet has also consistently striven in his writings for a Cartesian clarity, liberally peppered with humour to amuse the reader. It is a winning combination and, thanks to the volume, Piges choisies, co-published by the Centre Georges Pompidou and Capricci Editions, we now have the opportunity to become better acquainted with Moullet the critic: the volume is a selection of thirty of his critical writings (including six previously unpublished) spanning more than fifty years. The title, Piges choisies, meaning selected articles that were written freelance (piges), suggests Moullet’s particular modesty. Readers of Senses of Cinema know already from his excellent appreciation of Charles Bitsch that his best texts are nuanced, well-written and often very funny.
Born in 1937 in Paris, Moullet was a confirmed cinéphile before he hit adolescence. According to the legend, it was a viewing of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vredens dag (Day of Wrath, 1943) at the age of nine that sealed his fate. (9) Moullet has not been shy about mentioning the fact that his father was an ardent supporter of Adolf Hitler and it seems possible that the young Moullet’s appreciation of the Dreyer film touched a nerve: in 1944, during the purge following the Liberation of France, Moullet père was condemned to death as a collaborationist, only to be acquitted in 1946. By this time, Moullet was a regular at Rohmer’s cinema-club in the Latin Quarter and his preferred reading was L’Ecran français. By the early 1950s, he had switched over to the newly founded Cahiers du Cinéma and soon was writing pastiches in the style of Truffaut, Rivette and Georges Sadoul. Fairly quickly, there were several epigones in the orbit of the Cahiers’ young Turks, including Moullet and Straub. Apparently, they made Truffaut, in particular, uncomfortable and their first submissions were rejected. As a teenager, Moullet who attended the prestigious Henri IV high school, where he was a student of the legendary professor Henri Agel, was a talented bibliophile as well as connoisseur of Parisian libraries: he excelled at composing the filmographies for American directors not very well known in France and his first break came in 1956 with the publication of his bio-filmography of Edgar G. Ulmer in Cahiers.
In life, one’s birth year is an incontestable determinant. Moullet has said that, while his immediate elders got to critique and sing the praises of major filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, he got to write about second-tier directors like Edgar G. Ulmer, Vittorio Cottafavi, Cecil B. De Mille, and Sam Fuller. Perhaps more importantly in this period, Moullet ardently defended Luis Buñuel, whose films were initially dismissed by his Cahiers’ colleagues for their left-wing anti-clericalism. In 1957, Moullet published a pamphlet in Brussels on Buñuel.
Moullet has a penchant for statistics, and his articles and his films are often liberally seasoned with precise details, which lend them a scientific air as well a feeling of a Wunderkammer. His modus operandi, adopted from Truffaut, is to start from the particular and to move out to the general. Thus, in his fascinating essay that opens Piges choisies, “Les douze façons d’être cineaste”, Moullet tells us that “astrology determines the evolution of filmmakers.” (10) Moullet, born on October 14, is a Libra. We learn that Librans, or at least filmmakers born under this sign, are most often comics: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Leo McCarey and Groucho Marx were all Librans. Although Moullet is, of course, not a trained astrologer and his conclusions are hardly scientific, his essay is nonetheless thought-provoking. More incongruously, he reminds us that Robert Bresson was also a Libra, which suggests both that his first short film, Les Affaires publiques (1934) starring the clown Beby, was not the anomaly it might initially seem and that it must have been a terrible struggle for him in later years to repress his innate sense of comedy … Such was not the case for Moullet, whose films are more often than not an excuse for a good laugh, while also offering a lucid look at society. Of the many epithets circulating about Moullet, the one coined by Jean-Marie Straub may be closest to the mark: “Luc Moullet is undoubtedly the only heir of both Buñuel and Jacques Tati.”
A Few Words on Economics
In filmmaking, it is hard to escape talking about money. Economically, Moullet comes from a more modest background than his New Wave peers. His father sold a special uniform for the coalman, while his grandparents and great-grandparents were peasants in a beautiful but highly remote area called the Baronnies, a relatively low range in the Southern Alps (Hautes Alpes de Provence). But if Moullet was ambitious from an early age, he was also never a Rastignac. His social background is part of the very fabric of his films and explains no doubt his parsimonious approach to film production. It is worth noting that, in his interviews from 1960s and 1970s, Moullet spends more time discussing the economics than the æsthetics of his films. In a 1968 interview, when asked about his production methods, Moullet replied:
When I wanted to produce my first feature-length film, I didn’t have any money. So I was forced to rethink the economic system of production. In the end, it’s something fascinating. It’s generally thought that the economic side of filmmaking is a bloody nuisance for a filmmaker and that it doesn’t correspond to his ‘vocation.’ […] I think that finance is something too important to entrust to financiers. (11)
Moullet never aspired to be a filmmaker of big-budget films (he says his greatest fear was to become another Claude Berri or Marin Karmitz … (12)). Most of his films were made on budgets in extremis. Anatomie d’un rapport (Anatomy of a Relationship, 1975), for example, was made for FF70,000 (about 50,000€ in today’s money) and grossed FF140,000. In the profession, he says he is known as “Moullet bout de ficelle”, which means he can make a film on a shoestring. In L’Homme des roubines (The Man of the Badlands, Gérard Courant, 2000), he proudly describes his cost-saving measures. His cinema is rightly often considered an heir to Tati’s, but, while he certainly shares Tati’s taste for the burlesque, their affiliation from a production standpoint is non-existent. Tati was a maniacal perfectionist who went bankrupt on Playtime (1967): nothing could be more antithetical to Moullet’s praxis. Moullet maintains that his financial prudence was also encouraged by the fact that for a number of years, from Brigitte et Brigitte to Génèse d’un Repas (Genesis of a Meal, 1977-80), he produced his own films. (13) His films often have a rough and ready aspect to them and it is rare for him to do multiple takes.
In the late 1950s, as the first wave of the New Wave exchanged their pens for camera, Moullet was able to fill in for them and, by 1959, he was writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, Radio-Cinéma-Télévision (14) and Arts. His next break came when he published the first serious essay on Godard in March 1960. Thanks to that, Godard’s producer, Georges de Beauregard, produced his first short, Un Steack trop court, later that year.
Rejecting the typical New Wave topic of boy meets girl, or boy wants to meet girl, Un Steack trop cuit is about a meal cooked by a young bourgeoise for herself and her adolescent brother, Jojo, who relishes in his bad table manners. The film stars Françoise Vatel, who appears in seven of Moullet’s films, and his younger brother, Patrice (b. 1947); Moullet has said that the film was practically a documentary on him at the time. Jojo is the kid brother of Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in À bout de soufflé (Godard, 1960), who, shockingly in 1960, asks his girlfriend if he can “pisser dans le lavabo” (piss in the sink). (15) And Jojo himself makes clear this kinship when, quoting Poiccard’s dying words, he tells his sister: “Tu es vraiment dégueulasse!” (“You’re really a bitch!”) The dialogue is filled with Parisian argot from the period and Jojo’s speech is often hard to understand.
Originally, Un Steack trop cuit was to have been released with Godard’s Le Petit soldat (1963). When the Godard film was censured, de Beauregard abandoned Moullet’s film. It was ultimately released twenty years later with another film about food and Moullet’s magnum opus, Génèse d’un repas (1980). It is Moullet’s serious investigation into the origins of the eggs, tuna and banana he had for dinner and an indictment of French capitalism.
Moullet: A Geographer of the Roubines and the Southern Alps
I have always had an attraction for places: to define a place, to show it. That’s the fundamental drive of my cinema. Human beings come afterwards, certain human beings. My films are women and places; women in places. That has been my point of departure. (16)
Thirty square kilometres or a little more are sufficient for knowing the entire world, to have all the keys. You shouldn’t disperse yourself too much. This principle is true for filmmakers and writers but also for painters, like Paul Cézanne, who need a place to paint. Pierre-Auguste Renoir too had his favourite places. (17)
Moullet says that as a child he learned how to read maps before books and, for a time, studied geography. Geography and a sense of place are, in fact, critical for understanding his films: besides Raymond Depardon, there is no one else in France devoted to filming la France profonde, although it could be argued that what interests Moullet in la France profonde is less its inhabitants than its landscape. After his first short, Un Steack trop cuit, Moullet shot a strange documentary in 16mm and colour entitled Terres noires, about two remote, underdeveloped villages, one in the Alps and one in the Pyrenees. It is Moullet’s version of Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (Land without Bread, 1932) and it is hard to imagine the film being distributed by Unifrance! (18) In fact, Terres noires was not released until 1966, in tandem with Brigitte et Brigitte, about two young women, one from a village in the Pyrenees and the other the Alps, both named Brigitte, as they try to make their way in the Paris university system. Shot slightly in advance of Godard’s Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966), Moullet’s film should be seen not least of all for Rohmer’s travesty as the Professor Schérer.
Included in the retrospective were several films on the filmmaker, including Gérard Courant’s excellent L’Homme des roubines. Courant’s film focuses on the geographical area in the Southern Alps that has played such a large part in Moullet’s filmography from his second film, Terres noires, to his most recent, La Terre de la folie (2009), and is a veritable stage set for his films. Courant’s documentary is punctuated by the marvellous comic actor Jean Abeillé (19), reading off the various summits that appear in Moullet’s films. Moullet himself likens the “roubines”, an undulating landscape with crumbling rock, to the American Badlands in South Dakota. This area is to Moullet what Monument Valley was to John Ford. (20) And, indeed, Moullet even shot a Western there, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid, which should be particularly appreciated for the novelty of putting Jean-Pierre Léaud, a city boy par excellence, in this austere, mountainous landscape.
While Chabrol in his first feature, Le Beau Serge (1959), filmed the poor village of Sardent in the Creuse, where he lived during the Occupation, he has never returned there to shoot. In the early 1970s, Godard abandoned Paris, first for Grenoble and then later for Rolle, near where he grew up in Switzerland. Notwithstanding his occasional shots of the Lake Léman, Godard doesn’t seem to delight in showing off his local Swiss landscape. Moullet, on the other hand, takes particular pride in exhibiting an area of France whose unusual geographical morphology (in the areas called “les roubines”, there is virtually no vegetation and the landscape appears moonlike) and breathtaking vistas is little known, even to the French. Although in the Alps, there are no ski resorts there and it is unconnected by the French railway system: tourism is non-existent. Its only real city is Digne, with a population of 17,600; the rest of the area is populated with small hamlets like Majastres, population 70. After one of the screenings, one French friend commented that he was so intrigued by this landscape he now wants to go there! Luc Moullet may or may not have single-handedly boosted tourism in this remote and under-populated area, but one thing is for sure: it is a terrain not without certain risks to which several of his actors, in particular Marie-Christine Questerbert, can well attest. While filming Une Aventure de Billy le Kid, she fell some forty feet and only by some miracle was not killed.
Over the years, Moullet has continued to return to this terrain and, in Les Naufragés de la D 17, he shows us 35km of the region: a madcap film, set during the first Gulf War, about a Formula 1 race-car driver (starring popular actor Patrick Bouchitey), who, with his female co-pilot, gets stuck on an unfinished road in the Alps. If filmmaking is like cooking, Moullet sometimes gives the impression of throwing all the kitchen spices into the pot, in order to maximize the laughs. Thus, the film shows the hilarious encounters of the two drivers with various other colourful characters, including two astrophysicists (Sabine Haudepin and Mathieu Amalric) working at the Observatory, one of whom has taken a liking for the local shepherd whose little hut sees lot of action, a film crew in the middle of shooting a Western, a commando of the French army on reconnaissance who think they’ve discovered Saddam Hussein, et al. While his early films centred around two or three characters – Un Steack trop cuit, Capito? (1962), Brigitte et Brigitte, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid, Anatomie d’un rapport – Moullet’s most recent films – La Comédie du travail, Les Naufragés de la D 17, Le Prestige de la Mort (2006) – like those of Jean-Pierre Mocky, deploy a large number of actors. Les Naufragés de la D 17 is one of Moullet’s funniest films and his pleasure in filming all these diverse, zany characters, in an area that is normally deserted, is palpable.
Another undisputed high point in Moullet’s filmography is Anatomie d’un rapport, co-directed with his wife, Antonietta Pizzorno. Shot in 1975, during the waning days of the French women’s movement, the film remains fresh and relevant. Moullet and Pizzorno originally wrote the script in 1973 and it reflects the problems at that time within their couple. Pizzorno, an experimental filmmaker, had no experience as an actor and she preferred to stay behind the camera. The filmmakers offered the role to Marie-Christine Questerbert, who had already proven in Une Aventure de Billy le Kid that she could hold her own against a seasoned actor. Just as she played the straight man to Léaud’s artificially induced antics in the earlier film (he was on amphetamines during the shoot), so here too she successfully plays the straight man to Moullet’s comic, hangdog exhibitionist – no mean feat. Like Godard’s Numéro Deux (1975), made with his companion Anne-Marie Miéville, Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore, 1973) and Marco Fererri’s L’Ultima donna (The Last Woman, 1976), Anatomie d’un rapport offers a radiography on the contemporary heterosexual couple. But, while those other filmmakers mask their own concerns in fiction, Moullet talks about himself. The film is rendered even more authentic because Pizzorno left blanks in the scripts for Questerbert to fill in. The punch line that follows Questerbert’s story about why she no longer wants to travel after a trip to Mexico is very funny, while her account of going to London for an abortion is a moving reminder of just what young women went through before the Simon Veil law legalizing abortion went into practice in 1975.
Moullet’s Short and Medium-Length Films
Moullet is unusual for continuing to create films of varying lengths. After beginning his career with three shorts (Un Steak trop cuit, Terres noires and Capito?), he abandoned this format for fifteen years, preferring to follow the traditional wisdom of concentrating on feature-length films (Brigitte et Brigitte, Les Contrebandières, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid, Anatomie d’un rapport, Génèse d’un Repas), where he was forced to wait several years between films to put together the necessary financing. From Ma première brasse (1981), he decided to revert to films of different lengths and to make films more regularly, instead of every three or four years. For this viewer at least, Ma première brasse, which recounts Moullet’s attempt to learn to swim, is one of his least successful films: the “real” Moullet has often said he’s proud of the fact he can’t swim and ultimately the jokes in the film seem rather forced. More interesting under this heading are Moullet’s films on various cities and towns: Les Havres (1983), Foix (1994), Le Ventre de l’Amérique (1996) and Imphy, capitale de la France (1995). Thanks to Chalet Pointu, these films are now available on DVD.
Foix is a pseudo-documentary on an out-of-date town, located in the French Pyrénées, in a France that Moullet first discovered in the 1970s. The voice-over of the film belies the images, giving us a brilliant example of Moullet’s use of counterpoint. Le Ventre de l’Amérique is Moullet’s film about Des Moines, Iowa. It was Jean Seberg who first told Moullet about the Iowa capital, but he could have an American version of Foix about Seberg’s own hometown, Marshalltown, Iowa, which seemed, when I visited it in the late 1990s, stuck in a strange time-warp from the 1950s.
One of my favourites, among Moullet’s short and medium-length films, is Les Sièges d’Alcazar (1989). Jean Narboni, during his presentation before the film, usefully pointed out that Les Sièges d’Alcazar refers to a momentous battle at the outset of the Spanish Civil War where the Nationalists managed to hang onto the Alcazar in Toledo against a Republican onslaught. Moullet’s Alcazar tells the story of a Cahiers du Cinéma critic, Guy Moscardo (Olivier Maltinti), who, with his friends, always buys a seat in one of the front rows of the Alcazar cinema. (21) These seats, normally reserved for children, were the cheapest in the theatre. While on duty watching the films of the Italian director, Vittorio Cottafavi, whose work he champions, Guy becomes smitten with a young female critic, Jeanne Cavalero (Elizabeth Moreau) – inspired by the critic-subsequently-turned-revolutionary, Michèle Firk – who writes for the adversary, Positif, and detests Cottafavi. One of the few films about French cinéphilia, it is very droll. One particularly funny moment is when Jeanne corrects Guy’s Italian pronunciation. Because of the perennial tonic accent in French, often such a stumbling for students of French (for instance, in French my name is pronounced thus: Sa LEE Shaf TO), Guy invariably says Co ta fa VI, instead of Cot ta FA vi. Thrown off balance by Jeanne’s better Italian and his attraction to her, Guy wonders if perhaps the director Cot ta FA vi might be altogether different from Co ta fa VI.
Moullet, the Sportsman
If I couldn’t walk, there would be something broken in the machine. The cinema is a hobby. Walking occupies me much than my films. My real profession is hiker. (22)
Another constant in Moullet’s cinema, besides his strong sense of place, is his love of sports, particularly mountain climbing, hiking and cycling. In the 19th century, many were the thinkers or philosophers (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Søren Kierkegaard) and writers and poets (the English Lake poets, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne) who were inveterate walkers but what other filmmaker today talks about the joys of walking? Moullet has said he has often worked out his scripts while on a hike. For Moullet, it’s a matter of common sense: when you engage in an intellectual activity, you need to have a compensatory physical activity.
In 1992, he did a film on a fictional bike race, Parpaillon, situated in the Alps on a road that is not completely paved. Antoine de Baecque, who introduced the film, told us that Godard had originally engaged Moullet with his bicycle as an extra in Breathless. The film is a series of vignettes of various amateur cyclists as they try to make it to the finish line. Funded by a French television channel (La Sept, which subsequently became Arte), prior to the Pompidou retrospective, the film had never been shown on a big screen before. Unlike the screening of Le Prestige de la mort, which produced uniform, substantial guffaws, the audience reaction to Parpaillon was characterized by intermittent pockets of gentle laughter. It was wonderful to hear.
In 2003, Moullet nearly died when a motorcyclist ran him over in his neighbourhood in Paris and it took him more than a year to recover. His response to this close call was to make a joke about it and, in 2005, he returned to the Southern Alps to film Le Prestige de la mort. He plays a down-and-out director named Luc Moullet, who, when he discovers an énarque’s (23) cadaver in the Southern Alps, decides to swap identities with the dead man. He reasons that, once the media has gotten hold of the news, there will be a rush for his films and, with his coffers freshly replenished, he’ll be able to revive his moribund career. This premise alone would have been enough to drive the film, but Moullet ups the ante by announcing the death of Jean-Luc Godard, which overshadows his own staged demise, and the result is mordantly funny.
In 2008, Moullet celebrated his full physical recovery by climbing in the Himalayas.
It could be argued that the weak link in Moullet’s film are his endings. Very often, they seem just to peter out with no real resolution. Given Moullet’s recognition of the importance of endings, at least when it comes to his written work, initially this seems odd. He says he often begins an article by writing its ending and then working backwards. But Brigitte et Brigitte, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid, La Comédie du travail, Parpaillon and le Prestige de la mort all end rather abruptly. In his films, Moullet is not so much interested in traditional dramaturgy with fleshed-out characters that undergo a transformation within the confines of the filmic narrative as he is in producing continuous laughs. Thus, eschewing a strictly linear trajectory, Moullet prefers a narration built on a series of gags and jokes.
The retrospective ended with Moullet’s new film, La Terre de la folie (2009), which Moullet presented at this year’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at Cannes. The film is his idiosyncratic investigation into the high incidence of lunatics and murderers in the Alpine region he knows so well. In everyday French, metropolitan France is referred to as “l’Hexagone”, and Moullet puns on this by mapping out what he calls a “pentagon” of lunatics and murderers surrounding the city of Digne, enumerating various cases and with a discussion of the regional psychiatric hospital. He begins the film with a description of the frequent thyroid problems of the inhabitants of this area, due to the lack of salt in their diet. Curiously, Moullet does not exploit the common expression, “un crétin des Alpes” (found, for instance, in the Tintin books by Hergé). (24) He also discusses radiation from Chernobyl as a possible source, which seems – as his wife points out in the film’s finale – at best far-fetched. As another possible explanation, he also mentions the extreme isolation of the local population.
Despite the various examples given and the vague attempt at understanding the “problem”, the film is not meant as a serious documentary. As is so often the case with Moullet, the film is an excuse for a self-portrait: the point of departure for the film is a distant relative of Moullet, who, in 1900, killed three people in his village with a pickaxe in a quarter of an hour. It was only in 1982 that Moullet learned of this family drama from a great uncle. Regardless of Moullet’s motives for making the film, it’s clear he is not a careful draughtsman like Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but rather a caricaturist à la Honoré Daumier, who exaggerates certain aspects in order to make a point. His natural tendency when dealing with tragedy is to respond with comedy and as inspiration, he points to Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator, 1940) and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not To Be, 1942).
During his presentation of Les Siéges de l’Alcazar, Jean Narboni invoked the old battle between the partisans of Cahiers du Cinéma and those of Positif. He reminded us that, while the war might be over, the feud still continued. Luc Moullet, who was beside him, did not offer his thoughts on the topic. But it could be that the war now to be waged is less one along ideological lines, a warfare that Moullet himself never seemed particularly engaged in, and more on practical terms. As several people suggested during the retrospective (Revault d’Allonnes, Copans, Collet), Moullet’s real value is that he may have been on the avant-garde of another battle, which only recently has come to seem an imperative. With his guerilla approach to film production, while still remaining in the commercial circuit in his desire to reach a large audience, Moullet could be what we might call an ecological filmmaker, the first filmmaker of sustainability. But now that sustainability seems to have become the new religion, Moullet’s other merit is perhaps even more valuable: his self-description as a smuggler or bootleg filmmaker might just be a more palatable way of saying he is a true non-conformist. Who else today dares suggest that Pedro Almodóvar is highly overrated? In these tiresome days of uniform, doctrinaire thinking (what the French call la pensée unique), he represents a real intellectual independence and a true breath of fresh air. Vive Luc Moullet!
8 June 2009: in unpacking my suitcases after coming back from the Moullet retrospective in Paris, I realize that my DVD copies of Moullet’s films, given to me my Blaq Out, were all confiscated by the customs office in Toronto (25) … Luc Moullet remains a bootleg filmmaker.
Photos by Sally Shafto. All rights reserved.
- Louis Skorecki, “Notes sur Luc Moullet”, in the brochure, Luc Moullet: le comique en contrebande (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 17 April–30 May 2009), p. 4. Unless otherwise noted, translations from the French are by Sally Shafto. Special thanks to: Raphaël Bassan, Jean-Claude Gaubert and Michel Pamart.
- Distributed in the U.S. by Facets Multimedia in Chicago.
- This retrospective was subsequently shown at the Ciné 104 in Pantin and the Cinémathèque Suisse in Lausanne. Much of the biographical information in this essay is drawn from the booklet produced in conjunction with this retrospective: Jean-Paul Combe and Hervé Guitton (Eds), Luc Moullet: Le contrebandier (2003). The author also relied on the following radio interview: Francesca Isidori, “Affinités électives: Luc Moullet”, France Culture, 14 May 2009.
- See Moullet’s remarks on this topic in Notre alpin quotidien: entretien avec Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni (Paris: Centre Pompidou–Capricci Editions, 2009), pp. 102-3.
- Could it nonetheless be telling that Moullet claims to be the descendant of an Arab who fought in the pivotal battle that stopped Muslim infiltration into Christian Europe? In any case, Moullet elsewhere claims to be of Kabylle or Berber origin, which invalidates his other claim of being a descendant of an 8th century Arab …
- Louis Skorecki, “Découvrez Moullet”, Libération, 12 July 1997, p. 3.
- On his website, Jonathan Rosenbaum gives the exact citation for the Moullet quote and discusses its origins: Cahiers du Cinéma (March 1959); reprinted in English in “Sam Fuller: In Marlowe’s Footsteps”, Jim Hillier (Ed.), Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 148.
- Included in Piges choisies, pp. 235-41.
- Moullet mentions this in his interview with Jacques Kermadon on the DVD, Luc Moullet en shorts: 10 court métrages (Chalet Pointu, 2008).
- First published Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 473 (November 1993); reprinted in Piges choisies, pp. 27-31.
- Luc Moullet quoted in Michel Delahaye and Jean Narboni, “Entretien avec Luc Moullet,” Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 216 (October 1968), p. 40.
- Moullet quoted in Notre alpin quotidien, p. 121.
- Moullet also finished production on his first three shorts and produced films by other filmmakers, most notably Marguérite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972), whose poster can be seen in Anatomie d’un rapport.
- Forerunner of Télérama.
- Under the pseudonym of Albert Juross, Patrice Moullet is one of the lead actors in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963).
- Moullet quoted in “Entretien avec Emmanuel Burdeau et Jean Narboni” in Notre alpin quotidien, p. 21.
- Moullet quoted in Notre alpin quotidien, p. 24.
- The French government agency that promotes French cinema worldwide.
- A fetish actor of both Moullet and Jean-Pierre Mocky.
- Remark made by Jean Narboni or Emmanuel Burdeau during their interview with Moullet, Notre alpin quotidien, p. 24.
- The Alcazar was a real cinema, near the Jourdain subway stop on the edge of the 19th and 20th arrondissements, torn down in the 1970s, according to Moullet. The Alcazar was one of the few cinemas in Paris that could project both 35mm and 16mm.
- Moullet quoted in Notre alpin quotidien, p. 35.
- A student or former student of the École nationale d’administration, an énarque is usually a civil servant assured of an income. Since World War II, many members of France’s political class have been graduates of l’ENA: thus, Jacques Chirac, Michel Rocard, Dominique de Villepin, Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, but not President Sarkozy.
- According to the Trésor de la Langue française, “Cretinism is a pathological state characterized by a diminution or a total absence of intellectual faculties […] and linked to a thyroid insufficiency […]”
- The copies given to me by Blaq Out were not commercially packaged and presumably Canadian customs thought they were illegal downloads.