For Erika Mueller
The following article was written at the request of Angela dalle Vacche, who asked me to speak on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s two films on Paul Cézanne, Cézanne (1989) and Une Visite au Louvre (2004), for the international symposium (“Image and Movement: Film Studies and the History of Art”) that she organized for the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in March 2009. Ultimately, because of the time constraints of the symposium, I decided to focus on the first of these two films.
I wrote this essay in two ideal locations, Paris and Williamstown, where I worked in the superb library of the Clark Art Institute. A few days before leaving Paris on 22 September 2008, I spent the morning at the Bibliothèque du Film at the Cinémathèque Française reading and making photocopies on the two filmmakers. Later that day, I took a walk from my studio in the 18th arrondissement down to the 17th, where I liked to visit the Jardin des Batignolles. Cézanne and his childhood friend from Aix-en-Provence, Emile Zola, would both have known it, since they lived in the neighbourhood. As I approached the Place de Clichy, across the street from the nondescript Ibis Hotel on the Boulevard de Clichy, I saw an older man in front of me – slightly stooped, with nearly white hair and a cigar stub in his mouth. Having just been thinking about the filmmaker, I wondered if indeed it could be him. The last time I had seen him, three years before, he still had his marvellous strawberry-blonde hair. Finally, plucking up my courage, I asked if he were Monsieur Straub. “Yes”, he said and invited me for a drink. We chatted for a bit and then he walked me to Cézanne’s last studio in Paris, a few minutes away.
* * *
Life is a series of encounters and chance meetings, and this holds true for our work; otherwise, it’s worth nothing.
– Jean-Marie Straub (1)
It is true that there is hardly one modern artist of importance to whom Cézanne is not father or grandfather, and that no other influence is comparable with his.
– Clive Bell, 1922
The work of some filmmakers seems regularly nourished and sustained by painting and art history. In the immediate post–war period, there was a flush of films about artists, including several by the young Alain Resnais, in an attempt, so it is thought, to bolster belief in the eternal value of great works of art. Starting with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1975, a new era in cinema-painting relations began as filmmakers increasingly referred to painting – Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982), Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), and Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence (1997), to name a few. The filmmakers, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, although long interested in the painter Cézanne, never cited an overriding interest in the cinema-painting dialogue. In a 1987 interview with Jacques Aumont and Anne-Marie Faux, Jean-Marie Straub commented:
Today you can’t read a shooting script without finding things like: ‘I would like a light like in a Vermeer painting,’ But it’s not possible: no filmmaker can make films under these conditions! […] This perpetual reference to painting is frightening. (2)
The French word Straub used for frightening is effrayant. His long-time collaborator, Danièle Huillet, goes even further, calling cinema’s referencing to painting a sign of film’s decadence. (3) Nor are these filmmakers particularly interested in exhibiting in a museum, as Godard, Agnès Varda and Chris Marker have all done, even though the first of their Cézanne films was commissioned by the Musée d’Orsay and the second was inspired by Cézanne’s visit to the Louvre. (4) In fact, Jean-Marie Straub has said that he doesn’t even like museums and that he wants to flee after half an hour in one. (5) What then is the source of their interest in Cézanne?
What is at stake for them in their film, Cézanne, is their encounter, as Straub would put it, with the painter, whom they’ve admired for many years. (6) In fact, the entire filmography of this filmmaking couple can be read as a series of encounters that Straub describes as veritable coups de foudre and shocks. (7) Straub often quotes François Truffaut’s dictum about there being two kinds of filmmakers: those who want to make films in general and those who want to make one film in particular. (8) If Truffaut falls into the former category, it is clear that Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet fall into the latter.
Before turning specifically to Straub and Huillet’s encounter with Cézanne, I would like to point out another, also between a filmmaker and a painter. In 1968, the British filmmaker Peter Watkins was in Oslo for a conference and there for the first time he discovered the paintings of Edvard Munch. So taken was Watkins with Munch’s work that he decided to do a film on the painter. Like the Straubs, Watkins has what the French call “une personalité entière”, an uncompromising character, and, at the beginning of the 1970s, he moved his family to Oslo to be closer to his subject. His film, Edvard Munch (1974), is one of the most moving and personal films ever done about an artist. It is also very different from the Straub-Huillet film on Cézanne.
Jean-Marie Straub was born in 1933 and Danièle Huillet in 1936, close to a century after Cézanne’s birth in 1839. By his own admission, as a young man growing up in the eastern French city of Metz, Straub was not particularly focused on becoming a filmmaker. Straub and Huillet first met in 1954 at the Voltaire high school in Paris. (9) That same year, Straub came up with an idea for a film on Johann-Sebastian Bach and Straub offered it to the filmmaker, Robert Bresson, whose work he esteemed. Bresson advised him that he should make the film himself. By 1958, the year that Straub left his homeland as a conscientious objector to the Algerian conflict, he already had a script. It would, however, take ten more years to make this film. In between, he and Huillet made two other films, both based on their encounter with the fiction of Heinrich Böll: Machorka-Muff (1962) and Nicht Versöhnt ode Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht (Not Reconciled, 1965).
After their Böll and Bach films, the directors subsequently encountered the works of the composer Arnold Schönberg, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin, and the Italian authors Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese. Straub recalls the electrifying effect his viewing of Schönberg’s opera, Moses and Aaron, had on him in Berlin in 1958. It would be no understatement to say that their entire life’s work seems built on such pivotal encounters. Their choice of Cézanne is hardly accidental: the filmmakers had an encounter with Cézanne. For Straub and Huillet, all of western painting can be summed up with just two painters: Giotto di Bondone and Cézanne. Often, they have presented their films in cities just to see a painting by Cézanne, who is, according to Straub, the greatest “French painter” (10). After seeing their film, Fortini/Cani (1976), Jacques Rivette told the filmmakers it had made him think of Cézanne and urged them to read C. F. Ramuz’s study of the painter. (11)
The first of their two Cézanne films, entitled Cézanne, was commissioned by Virginie Herbin of the Musée d’Orsay, who initially proposed that they do a film on early Cézanne to coincide with the museum’s 1988 exhibit. (12) Herbin attended a presentation in Avignon where the filmmakers spoke “so much about Cézanne that the idea seemed obvious to me” (13). But the couple who were then at work on Schwarze Sünde (Black Sin, 1988) – the last of their films on the Greek philosopher Empedocles – initially turned down the invitation and told her to ask Godard instead. Finally recognizing that they had been thinking about Cézanne for the past twenty years, the filmmakers agreed to do the film. (14)
Their Cézanne is at great pains to avoid falling into the category of a documentary or a film about an artist. There is no biographical information given, nor is any historical overview proffered. Because of what Jacques Aumont has termed “the Straubian hatred of inflation”, the filmmakers rigorously avoid showing Cézanne’s most iconic works” (15), just as in their films they have generally chosen not to use professional actors with well-known faces.
What Straub-Huillet offer us is a highly personal encounter with the painter’s œuvre in much the same way that Cézanne’s pictures of Mont Sainte-Victoire, for example, are recognizable but highly individual interpretation of the mountain. Just as Cézanne’s paintings challenged viewers in his day, so too Straub-Huillet’s films are regularly termed difficult by those with no prior knowledge of their work. Cézanne lasts 51 minutes, an unconventional length for a film. It includes a mere 10 works by the artist, with only one in the first half an hour and, aside from three lateral tracking shots, no camera movement. All the paintings are carefully shown with their frames. The fact that the paintings are often slightly off-kilter in the film frame seems to evoke Cézanne’s own occasionally self-consciously awkward framings. Even the voice-over is unusual: read by Danièle Huillet, it frequently does not observe the punctuation of the original text, and breaks and pauses occur in unexpected places. Their Cézanne self-consciously breaks with tradition and convention.
The filmmakers focus not on Cézanne’s early period, but on the last decade of the painter’s life between the spring of 1896, when he first met the young writer, Joachim Gasquet (16), whose memoir the film is based on (17), and 1906 when he died. Art historians widely regard this late period as having “special importance” in the Cézanne corpus because of the extraordinary developments in his work. (18) Although the filmmakers confine themselves to the painter’s last decade, they do not show the works in strict chronological order.
The choice of the Gasquet text is critical to understanding how the filmmakers organized their film, and in fact it cues the images that are shown. In their filmography, the film closest to this one is surely their Bach film, Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1967), which is based on historical documents from the period. Although their Cézanne, unlike Chronicle, is not a costume film, it nonetheless reveals a profound understanding of the painter, just as the Johann Sebastian Bach film does of the musician.
The Gasquet text has the advantage of providing one of the fullest accounts of the painter by a contemporary. Cézanne himself never wrote a treatise on painting, and there are few important primary documents on his life prior to 1894. (19)
It is well known that the novelist Emile Zola who had been an intimate of Cézanne’s in their youth first in Aix-en-Provence and later in their early years in Paris, based his novel L’Œuvre, on Cézanne and the Impressionists. But the main character of L’Œuvre, the painter Claude Lantier, while owing much to Zola’s childhood friend, owes even more to his fictional lineage. (20) Lantier’s suicide is seen as the natural and unopposable result of unfortunate hereditary forces. Ultimately, the Zola novel is a roman à these, illustrating its creator’s ideas and in no way illuminating Cézanne’s artistic process. According to the Cézanne scholar, John Rewald, Cézanne identified more with the painter Frenhofer, in Balzac’s “Le Chef d’œuvre inconnu” (21) than he did with Zola’s Claude Lantier. (22) By all accounts Cézanne was secretive and very sensitive and easily took offense: shortly following the publication of L’Œuvre in 1886, he unequivocally broke with the novelist.
Joachim Gasquet was the son of another childhood friend from Aix, Henri Gasquet, John Rewald reminds us that we know very little about Cézanne’s relationship with the younger Gasquet, who was one of Cézanne’s last friends and one of his first biographers. Most of what we do know about their friendship comes from Gasquet himself. (23) It is important to note here that Gasquet’s book was first published in 1921, thus fifteen years after the painter’s death. (24) When they met, Cézanne was fifty-seven and Gasquet twenty-three. After 1900, their friendship cooled: apparently, Cézanne came to feel that the younger man was interested in his work for purely speculative purposes. (25) Thereafter, they rarely saw each other before their definitive break in 1904. Rewald observes that Gasquet’s “imaginary conversations” with the painter do not closely rely on Cézanne’s letters and therefore should be considered as occasionally owing more to Gasquet’s imagination than might originally be thought. (26)
Aware that the text is sometimes fanciful, the filmmakers carefully strip it of all excess and topical references deemed un-Cézannian. The entire voice-over of the Cézanne film consists of Danièle Huillet reading Cézanne’s passages in the text, with Jean-Marie Straub, as Gasquet, occasionally interjecting. Gasquet’s book is divided into two parts: the first consists of his biography of the painter, and the second, entitled, “Ce qu’il m’a dit” (“What He told Me”), provides the basis for the two Cézanne films done by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. The second half of Gasquet’s book is divided into three parts: “The Motif”, “The Louvre” and “The Workshop”. The dialogue from their first Cézanne film is drawn primarily from “The Motif”, while the film’s final dialogue is drawn from the end of “The Workshop”. Their second Cézanne film, Une Visite au Louvre, is based on “The Louvre” chapter of the Gasquet book.
The filmmakers have carefully chosen passages in the text that seem in synch with the images they have chosen.
In this example from their script of Une Visite au Louvre, we see how Danièle Huillet has appropriated the original text, truncating the sentences and transforming it into a kind of musical partition. Interestingly, in the passages selected from Gasquet, there are numerous references to the painter as a “sensitive plate” or as a “receptacle of sensations, a brain, a recording machine” (27). What better metaphor for a filmmaker?
Just as the filmmakers were at pains in their Bach film to include examples of all the composer’s musical genres, so here too their careful selection of just ten works encompasses the painter’s various motifs: Mont Sainte-Victoire, still lifes, portraits and bathers. Cézanne is today recognized exceptional among great artists for his ability to divide his attention between such different genres. (28) Likewise, the film is careful to include at least one example of the principal media Cézanne worked in: oil, watercolour and drawing.
Shortly before meeting Gasquet, Cézanne had ended his friendship with another man of letters, Gustave Geffroy (29), who wrote in 1894 the first serious appreciation of Cézanne. (30) The two men, Geffroy and Gasquet, could not have been more different. While Geffroy was a Parisian man of the left, an atheist, and a contributor to the review La Justice, edited by Georges Clemenceau, and whose major work was devoted to the revolutionary Louis Blanqui (1896), Gasquet was a Catholic chauvinist from Aix, who in 1917 published a book entitled, Bienfaits de la Guerre (The Benefits of War). (31) While Geffroy’s ideas were clearly more in line with those of Zola, the mature Cézanne, a Catholic and an anti-Dreyfussard, found himself more naturally in sympathy with Gasquet. Cézanne gave at least five paintings to his young friend, including one of Mont Sainte-Victoire and “The Old Woman with a Rosary”.
The Straub-Huillet film begins with a view of Aix-en-Provence with a travelling shot to the left followed by another travelling shot to the right, ending on Mont Sainte-Victoire, a leitmotif in the painter’s final years.
These two contemporary shots are then followed by two photos taken in 1906 by the artist K. X. Roussel of Cézanne painting from the hill of Les Lauves, where he could see Mont Sainte-Victoire. (32) In 1901, the painter bought property in the area of Les Lauves, just north of Aix-en-Provence, and built a studio built to his specifications. On the crest of Les Lauves, Cézanne discovered a new exhilarating vista. Suddenly, the Sainte-Victoire was no longer the “chopped off cone that he had earlier contemplated but an irregular triangle” (33). The first 33 minutes of the film show several shots of the landscape surrounding Aix from the Lauves area, today heavily industrialized; in fact, these shots mirror the beginning of Gasquet’s text, “What He Told Me”, where Gasquet describes Cézanne painting Mont Sainte-Victoire.
The first half an hour of the film consists of the following: several filmed shots in and around Mont Sainte-Victoire, one painting, three photos of Cézanne that include the previously mentioned two by K. X. Roussel and one by Emile Bernard, and three film clips. Given the emphasis on nature in the film and its importance for Cézanne, whose early years were associated with the birth of Impressionism and plein air painting, it is no accident that the photos chosen all show the painter outdoors.
Cézanne painted “Old Woman with a Rosary” in 1896 (34), right before undertaking Gasquet’s portrait. In the film, this painting is introduced by the following passage from Gasquet’s book that quotes the painter:
When I was painting my Old Woman with a Rosary, I saw a Flaubert color, an atmosphere, something indefinable, a bluish russet color that seemed to me to come from Madame Bovary. I was afraid for a while that it might be too literary, and therefore dangerous, so I tried to get rid of my obsession by reading Apuleius, but it didn’t help. That wonderful blue and russet color had a hold on me. It struck a chord in my heart. It was flowing all around me. […] I carefully examined all the details of the woman’s clothes – her cap, the folds of her apron – and I deciphered her sly expression. Only later did I register that the face was russet, and the apron bluish, just as it was not until after the picture was finished that I remembered the description of the old servant at the agricultural show. (35)
Since Gasquet owned “Old Woman with a Rosary”, it is not surprising that he should mention it in his imagined conversations with Cézanne. The words he attributes to him are in accordance with what we know about the painter who abhorred literary influences and struggled throughout his career to be true to nature. The reference to Cézanne re-reading Gustave Flaubert comes from a letter the painter wrote to Gasquet on 29 September 1896. (36) The image-track then immediately cuts to the scene of the “Comices agricultures” (the agricultural fair) in Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1933). Given the fact that the Cézanne film lasts just 51 minutes, this clip from the Renoir film, lasting 7’30”, seems astonishingly long, even troubling. Understanding the filmmakers’ singular use of it will bring us closer to understanding their methodology.
Ostensibly, this long scene interests the filmmakers for the moment when the pious, old woman goes to receive her medal: Cézanne had thought of the Flaubert character while painting his “Old Woman with a Rosary”. The old woman, however, doesn’t appear until five minutes after the beginning of the clip. Most first-time viewers don’t necessarily grasp the analogy, having been caught up in the conversations between Emma Bovary and her maid, between Dr. Bovary and Homais on the virtues of surgery, and later between Emma Bovary and her lover-to-be, Rodolphe. Along with Bresson, Jean Renoir is one of a handful of filmmakers whose work has been important for Straub-Huillet and they felt it was impossible to cut the scene; that the scene had to be respected in its entirety. This block-like style, notwithstanding its potential for mis-directing the spectator, seems particularly characteristic of the Straub-Huillet modus operandi and their materialist approach (37) seems very akin to Cézanne’s. For Adrian Martin, Straub-Huillet are “materialists in every sense”, because they are dealing with “material history, material world, material of film” (38). It’s worth adding, too, that Renoir was of course the son of the painter, Pierre-Auguste, a colleague and friend of Cézanne’s.
The length of this scene also suggests a correspondence between the provincialism of Dr. Bovary with that of Cézanne, who despite having lived many years in Paris never lost his solitary, small-town nature. (39) Cézanne, like his fictional counterpart, was particularly maladroit with members of the opposite sex. It seems likely that Cézanne himself recognized this affinity, and the scene in turn highlights an analogy between Flaubert and Cézanne, and, by correlation, with Straub and Huillet themselves. In his search for perfection and his devotion to work, Cézanne was to painting what Flaubert (1821-1880) was to literature and, some might say, what Straub-Huillet are to film. The filmmakers here follow Gasquet who wrote of Cézanne:
He worked. That is the motto of his whole life, its summing-up. He went on painting. His whole existence depended on it. He worked, as only he and Flaubert did, to the point of ecstasy or anguish. (40)
Throughout his text, Gasquet emphasizes the similarity between Flaubert and Cézanne and even prefaces the second half of his book, “What He Told Me”, by calling the painter’s life “the life of a saint”, a clear reference both to Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and to Cézanne’s painting of the same title. Frequently not content, Cézanne often reworked the same painting over many years, occasionally even destroying his work. Flaubert began The Temptation of Saint Anthony and, dissatisfied, put it aside, finally publishing a third version in 1874 at the end of his life, the year that Cézanne finished his painting of the same topic.
Besides the clip from Renoir’s Madame Bovary, the first half hour includes two other film clips, which are both from the Straub-Huillet film, Der Tod des Empedokles, oder Wenn dann der Erde grün von neuem euch erglänzt (The Death of Empedocles, 1986) (41), which is based on the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin. As with the Renoir, the Gasquet text cues these clips:
And then this element in which we habitually move […] this sunshine, here’s another thing […] This chance fashion in which its rays fall, the way it moves, infiltrates things, becomes part of the earth’s fabric – who will ever paint that? Who will ever tell that story? The physical history of the earth, its psychology. (42)
What, we may well wonder, is Hölderlin’s romantic interpretation of the Greek natural philosopher doing in a film on the father of modern painting? The filmmakers point out that Cézanne, who received a classical education, had read Titus Lucretius in Latin, and in the Gasquet text, Cézanne does in fact refer to Lucretius. Lucretius, like Empedocles, narrated a cosmogony and the filmmakers have simply substituted the Greek poet and philosopher for the Roman poet and philosopher. Having just finished several films on Empedocles, Straub and Huillet were clearly still thinking of him when they undertook their film on Cézanne. These two figures were so closely associated in the their minds that they originally distributed Cézanne together with their last film on Empedocles, Black Sin, as a kind of diptych.
To fully apprehend their use of these two clips on Empedocles in their Cézanne film, we need an understanding not just of Empedocles but also of Hölderlin whom Straub has called the “greatest European poet” (43). Once again, the filmmakers’ artistic encounter is profoundly intertextual: they present us Gasquet’s vision of Cézanne, Renoir’s of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Hölderlin’s of Empedocles. In each case, we are dealing with artists who succeeded in redefining the frontiers of their respective arts: Cézanne as a painter, Flaubert as a novelist, Renoir as a filmmaker and Hölderlin as a poet.
Dominique Païni notes that it was in Hölderlin’s day in the early 19th century that a modern understanding of nature first arose. This new attitude toward nature, dispensing with a religious, philosophical or poetic justification, culminated in Cézanne’s work at the end of the century. (44) The abstraction of late Hölderlin corresponds not just to Cézanne’s painting but also to Straub-Huillet’s filmmaking. (45) Just as the filmmakers’ use of the long clip from Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary goes beyond obvious correspondence between the old woman and Cézanne’s painting, so here too what is at stake goes beyond the simple verbal evocation. Empedocles, the radical pre-Socratic philosopher, who was ostracized by his peers from the community of Agrigentum, suggests in turn both Cézanne’s years in the wilderness – between 1877 and 1895, Cézanne’s work was shown in only two minor exhibitions – and the incomprehension with which the filmmakers’ own work has so often been received. In the first clip from The Death of Empedocles, Empedocles is accompanied by his young disciple, Pausanias, who joined him in exile. It is easy to see herein an analogy between Empedocles’ relationship with Pausanias and Cézanne’s own relationship with a group of younger men – Gasquet for a time and later the painters K. X. Roussel, Emile Bernard and Maurice Denis – who all revered the painter in the final years of his life. (46)
Following the first Empedocles’ clip, we see a filmed image of Mont Sainte-Victoire while Danièle Huillet reads the line: “Ces roc étaient du feu. Il y a du feu encore en eux.” (“These rocks were made of fire. There is still fire in them”), while on the image track we see their filmed image of Mont Sainte-Victoire. According to Straub, Mont Sainte-Victoire, once the greatest reservoir for dinosaurs in Europe, was originally a volcano. Cézanne was famous for saying, “I don’t paint anything I don’t see” (47), and Straub believes that “to show something, one must have seen something. And to see something, one must have looked at it for years.” (48) Straub maintains that Cézanne’s long, patient study of Mont Sainte-Victoire gave him a profound insight into it. (49)
The first clip from Empedocles lasts 4’ 30”, while the second, lasting five minutes, ends the first part of the film (28:43-33:42); it, too, is cued by the preceding passage from Gasquet read by Huillet: “By tilling my field, I would start to grow a lovely landscape […].” The image track then cuts to show us a lovely landscape that Empedocles would have known: Mount Ætna surrounded by a cloud. It is thought that Empedocles died by throwing himself into the volcano.
The second half of the film, lasting fifteen minutes, shows us nine additional images by Cézanne. The second painting, “Apples and Oranges”, c. 1899 (50), is similarly in synch with the spoken text, and was carefully chosen for what it reveals about Cézanne’s approach:
“I mean that on this orange I’m peeling or, indeed, on an apple, a ball, or a head, there is a culminating point, and despite tremendous effects – light, shade, colour sensations – this point is always the one nearest our eye. The edges of objects recede towards another placed on your horizon […].”
It is during this disquisition that Cézanne tells Gasquet something he had written in a letter to Emile Bernard and that has become one of the most famous dicta in modern art (51):
“I’ve written to a painter who came to see me, [….] who does a bit of theorizing himself. I’ll sum up what I said to him in my letter. ‘Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, the whole put into perspective so that each side of an object, or of a plane, leads towards a central point.’”
The third painting is the first of three shown of Mont Sainte-Victoire (from 1900-02) (52), without a doubt Cézanne’s most famous motif in his later years. This painting, delicately coloured in predominantly blue tones, reveals its under drawing, particularly in the tree in the left of the landscape. Once again, the image is evoked by the accompanying text read by Huillet:
“Colours are the expression, on this surface, of this depth. They rise up out of the earth’s roots: they’re its life, the life of ideas. Drawing, on the other hand, is a complete abstraction. So that it must never be separated from colour. […] As soon as life breathes into it, and it is dealing with sensations, it becomes coloured. Fullness of drawing always corresponds with fullness of colour. When you come down to it, where in nature do you ever find anything drawn?”
Here Cézanne indicates that the long-standing academic opposition between colourists and draftsmen, followers of Peter-Paul Rubens versus followers of Nicolas Poussin, is irrelevant in his own work: he is occasionally a colourist and at other times a draftsman, and sometimes both, as in this work. (53) This opposition will play an important role in the second Straub-Huillet Cézanne film, Une Visite au Louvre.
The fourth painting shown is another of Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Les Lauves, from 1904-6. (54) It is one of Cézanne’s most beautiful portraits of the mountain. With no under-drawing visible but shimmering in abstract prisms of green and blue, the voice-over reads the following passage:
“Planes in colour, planes! The coloured place where the heart of the planes is fused, where prismatic warmth is created, the encounter of planes in sunlight. I produce my planes with the colours of my palette, do you follow me? […] You have to see the planes […] Clearly […] but fit them together, blend them. They must turn and interlock at the same time. Only volumes matter. Let air circulate between objects if you want to paint well.”
This last phrase, “Let air circulate between objects if you want to paint well”, points up the fact that several of the works chosen by the filmmakers are either unfinished or suggest that they are unfinished because of the amount of white space left on the canvas. In this approach among others, Cézanne is rightly considered the father of modern painting.
The cue for the fifth painting, “Rocks and Branches at Bibémus”, from 1900-4 (55), begins in the dialogue heard at the end of the fourth painting:
“When I get up from painting, I feel a sort of intoxication, a sort of ecstasy; it’s as if I were stumbling around in a fog [. . .] I’d like to lose myself in nature, grow again with nature, like nature, have the stubborn shades of the rocks, the rational obstinacy of the mountain, the fluidity of the air, and the warmth of the sun.”
Here the fifth painting is introduced as the Huillet/Cézanne voice-over continues without stopping: “In a green my whole brain would flow in unison with the sap rising through a tree’s veins.”
The sixth painting shows a third painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire also seen from Les Lauves. (56) Here Cézanne has thinned his oil paint so much that it resembles watercolour and reveals a lot of white space. Despite its summary nature, it perfectly conjures up the mountain. Shown for only six seconds, this image is unaccompanied by the Gasquet text and the silence here suggests that it is meant as an auditory equivalent of the white space called for by Cézanne in his paintings.
The seventh work is a watercolour, “Still Life with Apples, Bottle, and Back of Chair” (1902-6); executed in a predominately red colouring, it is shown for 54 seconds. Cézanne gave renewed importance to the still life genre. But, unlike many of his predecessors, he did not approach his still lifes as examples of domestic intimacy, but rather as examples of geometrical forms. He did not try to hide the contrived nature of his still lifes. (57) While the medium of watercolour lent itself perfectly to the Impresssionists’ attempts to capture fugitive visions, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Renoir only rarely employed it. Instead, it was Cézanne, wanting “to make something solid and lasting out of Impressionism, like the art in museums” (58), who took full advantage of its potential. In his final decade, Cézanne turned increasingly to watercolour, a medium that allowed him to experiment more easily and to perfect his oil technique. (59) On the voice-over, we hear a passage from the end of Gasquet’s text, “The Workshop”:
“I paint my still-lifes […] for my coachman who doesn’t want them; I paint them for children on their grandfathers’ knees to look at while they drink their soup and babble. I don’t paint them for the German Kaiser’s pride or the Chicago oil magnate’s vanity.”
Straub-Huillet’s choice of this passage evokes their own desire to have a following among the people, and not just among what Serge Daney called the “Straubian international”, even if the common man or woman – like Cézanne’s coachman – has difficulty understanding their films.
The eighth painting is an example from Cézanne’s Bathers’ series, one of three that the painter did in his final decade. (60) The Bathers represent the painter’s lifelong ambition to paint nude figures en plein air like the Old Masters, as in Giorgone’s “Fête champêtre” seen in Une Visite au Louvre. This life-size painting is shown for nearly two minutes, without dialogue, but is accompanied by the sound of wind blowing. (61) This sound calls to mind Straub’s frequent reference to D. W. Griffith’s statement: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty – the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms on the trees.” (62) Cézanne worked on this life-size painting for nearly ten years, and probably began it in his Paris studio on the rue Hégésippe Moreau in the 18th arrondissement. (63) Of all Cézanne’s motifs, the Bathers remain for many scholars the most controversial: their mise en scène is clearly imaginary and the female nudes incredibly awkward. (64) Nonetheless, Henri Matisse owned one and he and the English sculptor Henry Moore were both deeply inspired by them. (65) Danièle Huillet herself first encountered “Les Grandes Baigneuses” at the age of sixteen. (66)
The ninth picture is a painting of Cézanne’s gardener, Vallier (1905-6), one of his final paintings. (67) In his late period, the artist frequently painted simple folk – servants and peasants – with great respect. (68) According to John Rewald’s catalogue raisonné of the painter, Cézanne’s final seven paintings were all of Vallier, including this one. In his final years, when the artist painted neither his wife nor his son, he frequently used Vallier as a model, painting him a dozen times. This image is accompanied by Danièle Huillet reading from the end of the chapter, “The Workshop”:
“Painting is the devil […] you keep thinking you’ve got hold of it, but you never have. […] One never knows one’s method […] It seems to me that I wouldn’t know anything even if I painted a hundred years, a thousand years, without stopping. […] I devour myself, kill myself, in order to cover fifty centimetres of canvas … Never mind …That’s life.”
This last line is followed by a distinct pause before we then hear Huillet/Cézanne end the dialogue portion of the film with the well-known Cézanne refrain: “C’est effrayant, la vie” (“Life is terrifying!”)
This is followed by one final work by Cézanne, a drawing of a standing nude woman (1898-99), a study for the painting of the same title. (69) This drawing was executed seven to eight years prior to the previous painting of Vallier. No sound accompanies this image, which remains on screen for a tantalizingly short four seconds. Having reached the end of Cézanne’s output, why have the filmmakers now backtracked to this earlier work? Presumably, because Cézanne executed it after a model in his Paris studio, one of the few he did from a female model, possibly for another version of the Large Bathers. (70)
The filmmakers have backtracked to prepare us for the film’s final image, a generous two-minute shot of the entrance gate to Cézanne’s studio in Paris in the late 1890s, on the rue Hégésippe Moreau. Although there is a plaque outside the building, the filmmakers have chosen not to include it in the shot, just as none of the Cézanne works is accompanied by an identifying label. The film is thus bookended by the two geographical places central to Cézanne’s life: Aix-en-Provence and Paris. Still, it would have been easy for the filmmakers to have closed the film with a shot of Cézanne’s studio in Aix, since he spent the last six years of life exclusively there and it is worth asking why in fact they did not. The filmmakers’ rejection of a resolutely chronological order within the painter’s last decade underscores that they were not engaged in a scientific, art historical study. It also highlights Cézanne’s physical proximity to the filmmakers whose Paris apartment is literally just around the corner. (71)
In a 1968 interview after the release of Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Jean-Marie Straub said he would not be able to do a filmed biography of a modern person from someone too close to him in time, for example someone from the 19th century. (72) Twenty years later, he changed his mind, but, unlike in their Bach film, where Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and other musicians magically bring alive Bach’s music on period instruments, there is no physical enactment of the creative act in their Cézanne. While Peter Watkins in his film on Edvard Munch found an exact look-alike in a young Norwegian, Straub-Huillet undoubtedly felt that such an approach would have been grotesque in a film on Cézanne. While Watkins’ film, via its verisimilitude, succeeds in bringing us into the intellectual and emotional maelstrom of Edvard Munch’s life, Straub-Huillet offer us an abstraction of the painter’s life, just as Cézanne gave us abstractions of clearly recognizable elements in nature. Straub-Huillet have carefully juxtaposed ten works of art, three film clips, three photographs of the painter and several filmed images. For those who take the time, this modest juxtaposition of diverse elements without any connectors or filmic punctuation is an example of the literary technique parataxis and succeeds in giving us late Cézanne. The most famous example of parataxis in literature may be Julius Caesar’s laconic line: “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”), while Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett also frequently employed it. (73) If Straub-Huillet’s economic use of parataxis may initially seem incongruous – particularly in the inclusion of the three film clips – it ultimately creates artistic resonances that send us into continual mises en abyme: Cézanne and Gasquet; Cézanne and Dr. Bovary; Empedocles and Pausanias; Empedocles, Hölderlin and Cézanne; and Cézanne, Flaubert and Renoir. All of these couplings or triplings force us to consider in turn their relation to the filmmakers who evoked them.
In the end, this film is not a didactic exposition about Cézanne but a subtle appreciation of him, based on parataxis and the filmmakers’ profound understanding of him. Unfortunately, the Musée d’Orsay ultimately rejected the film and even refused to publicly screen it. Virginie Herbin, who commissioned it, deemed that the directors of the museum were ill-prepared for a film that was innovative in its very style. (74)
Interestingly, the voice-over of the film cuts the final phrase of Gasquet’s text, “Je veux mourir en peignant … mourir en peignant” (“I want to die painting … die painting”), preferring instead to close the film with a shot of Cézanne’s Parisian studio, thereby emphasizing his work and not his death. Cézanne’s last lines in the Gasquet text are, of course, premonitory because the painter did just that: he suffered an attack while painting on 15 October 1906 and died a week later. What the filmmakers could not have known while finishing their film was that their ending would also seem strangely prescient of Danièle Huillet’s own death. She died on 9 October 2006, thus a few days short of the centennial anniversary of Cézanne’s demise.
The author would like to extend special thanks to: Regina Quinn and Laurie Glover of the Clark Art Institute, Judith M. Raab, Marvin Zeman and Miguel Abreu.
- Rencontres avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet, édition établie par Jean-Louis Raymond (Paris-Mans: Beaux-Arts de Paris-les éditions, École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts du Mans, 2008), p. 104. Unless otherwise noted, translations from the French are by the author.
- Jacques Aumont and Anne-Marie Faux, “Entretien avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet”, in La Mort d’Empedocle (Studio 43 M.J.C. de Dunkerque, DOPA Films and École Regionale des Beaux Arts, 1987), p. 35.
- Ibid, p. 39.
- The idea for the second film came from Dominique Païni, then in charge of film programming at the Louvre.
- Straub quoted in Philippe Lafosse, L’Etrange cas de Madame Huillet et Monsieur Straub (Toulouse: Éditions Ombres, 2007), p. 171.
- It was Deleuze who first pointed this out. Deleuze quoted in Dominique Païni, “Straub, Hölderlin, Cézanne”, first published in Anne-Marie Faux (Ed.), Jean-Marie Straub-Danièle Huillet: Conversation en archipel (Milan: Mazzotta-Cinémathèque Française, 1999), pp. 96-9. English translation by Sally Shafto available online at miguelabreugallery.com and an abridged version in Senses of Cinema.
- Rencontres, p. 91.
- Quoted in Rencontres, p. 99.
- They were both enrolled in the l’IDHEC preparatory class where Straub spent two weeks.
- Straub quoted in Lafosse, p. 167.
- Aumont and Faux, p. 39. C. F. Ramuz, Cézanne: Formes (Lausanne: International Art Book, 1968).
- Cézanne: The Early Years 1859-1872, catalogue by Lawrence Gowing et al., exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts London, Musée d’Orsay and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1988-9.
- Thierry Jousse and Dominique Païni, “Cézanne à Orsay: Entretien avec Virginie Herbin”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 430 (April 1990), p. 530.
- Rencontres, p. 34.
- Jacques Aumont, “La Terre qui flambe”, in Jean-Marie Straub-Danièle Huillet (Editions Antigone, LASA and Dominique Païni, 1990), p. 99.
- John Rewald in collaboration with Walter Feilchenfledt and Jayne Warman, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 809, p. 280.
- Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne (Paris: Encre Marine, 2002; Bernheim-Jeune, 1921). An English translation exists: Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations, translated by Christopher Pemberton (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991). In the French edition, Gasquet discusses his meeting with painter on pp. 157-60. In the preface to the French edition, François Solesmes notes that the painter met the young Gasquet in 1895 (p. 10); John Rewald indicates that their meeting took place in the spring of 1896. See Rewald’s note in Cézanne’s Correspondance, recueillie, annotée et préfacée par John Rewald (Paris: Grasset, 1978), p. 311, footnote 1. See, too, Rewald’s comments in his “Preface” to the Pemberton translation, pp. 7-8.
- Theodore Reff, “Painting and Theory in the Final Decade”, in Cézanne: The Late Work (New York: MoMA, 1977), p. 13.
- Conversations avec Cézanne, edition établie par P. M. Doran (Paris: Macula, 1978), p. x.
- He is the son of Gervaise and Lantier in Zola’s novel, L’Assommoir.
- The Balzac novella inspired Jacques Rivette’s La Belle noiseuse (1991).
- John Rewald, Cézanne et Zola (Paris: A. Sedrowski, 1936), p. 166.
- John Rewald, Cézanne, Geffroy et Gasquet, suivi de souvenirs sur Cézanne de Louis Aurenche et de lettres inédites (Paris: Quatre Chemins-Éditart, 1959), p. 7.
- Gasquet died the same year he published his book on Cézanne, from his injuries in World War I.
- When Gasquet met Cézanne in March or April 1896, he admired one of the artist’s paintings of the Mont Saint-Victoire. Cézanne was apparently so grateful to the young man for his appreciation of his work that he offered the painting to the young poet. Two years after the painter’s death in 1906, Gasquet sold it for the handsome sum of 12,000 Francs. The landscape (c. 1887), not included in the Straub-Huillet film, is today in the Courtauld Institute Galleries. See http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2008/cezanne/Cezanne_finfo.shtml
- Rewald, Cézanne, Geffroy et Gasquet, p. 8.
- Pemberton translation, p. 150. French original, pp. 237-8.
- Richard W. Murphy and the Editors of Time-Life Books, The World of Cézanne 1839-1906 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1968), p. 94.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 791, p. 273.
- Gustave Geffroy, Histoire de l’Impressionnisme, La vie artistique, 3e série, (Paris, 1894), p. 248ff.
- Writing in 1942, one mutual friend of both Cézanne and Gasquet observed that he regarded Gasquet as a precursor of Vichy. The friend in question was Edmond Jaloux. See Rewald, Cézanne, Geffroy et Gasquet, footnote 18, pp. 20-21.
- Ker-Xavier Roussel, a friend of the painter Maurice Denis, and a fellow Nabiste.
- John Rewald, “The Last Motifs at Aix”, Cézanne: The Late Work (New York: MoMA, 1977), p. 95.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 808, p. 279.
- Joachim Gasquet’s Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations, translated by Christopher Pemberton (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991).
- Paul Cézanne, Correspondance, p. 320.
- Rencontres, p. 83.
- Adrian Martin is in fact citing Jean-André Fieschi in his essay in Richard Roud’s A Critical Dictionary. Martin’s essay appears online as a tribute to Danièle Huillet in issue no. 3 of Fipresci (2006) [http://www.fipresci.org/undercurrent/issue_0306/huillet_martin.htm]. Fieschi’s essay provides eloquent reading: “Jean-Marie Straub”, Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-Makers, Volume 2 (New York: Viking Press, 1980), pp. 967-73.
- Conversation with Cézanne specialist, Lisa Florman, Columbus, Ohio, November 2008.
- In the Pemberton translation, p. 95. In the French original, p. 132.
- More precisely, the two clips are extra shots taken during the shoot of The Death of Empedocles but never used. See Philippe Lafosse’s comments in Philippe Lafosse, L’Etrange cas de Madame Huillet et Monsieur Straub, p. 31.
- Straub quoted in Lafosse, p. 87. Straub-Huillet have adapted Hölderlin’s texts on Empedocles five times.
- Dominique Païni, Jean-Marie Straub-Danièle Huillet (Éditions Antigone, LASA, and Dominique Païni, 1990), p. 19.
- Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (Berkeley-Los Angeles-London: University of California Press, 1995), p. 186.
- Straub-Huillet have their own international group of younger, ardent admirers, including Barton Byg, Pedro Costa, Miguel Abreu.
- Cézanne quoted in A. Götz, Cézanne Paintings, including an essay by Walter Feilchenfeldt on the early reception of Cézanne’s work, translated from the German by Russell Stockman (Cologne-New York: Dumont-Abrams, 1995), p. 12.
- Straub quoted in Byg, p. 21.
- Jacques Aumont and Anne-Marie Faux, “Entretien avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet”, in La Mort d’Empedocle, p. 52.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 847, p. 296.
- Richard W. Murphy and the Editors of Time-Life Books, The World of Cézanne 1839-1906 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1968), p. 77
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 901, p. 315.
- Theodore Reff, in Cézanne: The Late Work, p. 49.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 931, p. 325.
- Ibid, no. 881, p. 309.
- Ibid, no. 917, p. 321.
- Time-Life, p. 94-5.
- Cézanne quoted in Gasquet, Cézanne (Paris: Encre Marine, 2002), p. 267.
- Jack Lindsay, Cézanne: His Life and Art (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1969), p. 279.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 855, p. 300.
- There is no mention of the Bathers in either the “The Motif” or “The Workshop”, although Gasquet does mention elsewhere “Les Grandes Baigneuses” and even owned one version, but what he writes is so far off the mark that the filmmakers most likely boycotted it. Rewald, Cézanne, Geffroy et Gasquet, p. 52.
- Quoted in Byg, p. 21. See, too, John Gianvito’s article, “From Yesterday until Tomorrow”, available online at: http://www.fipresci.org/undercurrent/issue_0306/huillet_gianvito.htm
- According to Adriani Götz, Cézanne rented this studio from the summer of 1898 to the fall of 1899. A. Götz, Cézanne Paintings, p. 226.
- Fritz Novotny quoted in John Rewald in collaboration with Walter Feilchenfeldt and Jayne Warman, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, Volume 1: The Texts (New York: Abrams, 1996), p. 510.
- Ibid, p. 510.
- Straub quoted in Lafosse, p. 167.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 950, p. 332.
- Meyer Schapiro, Paul Cézanne, p. 126.
- Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, a Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2: The Plates, no. 897, p. 313.
- See John Rewald’s extensive comments, no. 897, “Femme nue debout, 1898-99”, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, Volume 1: The Texts, pp. 527-8.
- Their apartment first belonged to Danièle’s grandfather, who acquired it in 1910.
- Jean-Marie Straub, “Sur Chronique d’Anna Magdalena Bach”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 193 (September 1967), p. 57.
- These examples are drawn from the entry on parataxis in the English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parataxis).
- “Cézanne à Orsay: Entretien avec Virginie Herbin”, Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 430 (April 1990), p. 530.