***Hanoun’s work, beginning with this film’s spare style, has earned him comparisons with Robert Bresson, a formative influence. Both directors’ works show a detailed interest in their characters’ decline, though Bresson’s approach is more rigorously, and, arguably, more morally restrained. Hanoun is likewise spare in his economy of shots, but is repeatedly willing to break his own mold. A view of Sylvie and her mother from a moving car, for example, provides a brief shift in perspective, a nudge to viewers. Bresson’s films are frequently based on literary texts; Hanoun, by way of contrast, begins Une simple histoire with a title card that signals his concern with narrative film’s documentary possibilities: I imagined nothing, invented nothing. I am only repeating a TRUE story in its most minute details, as it was told to me by its heroine who at one time found herself lost, blinded, without lucidity, imprisoned in her anguish and her solitude, as could happen anytime to you, to me, to anyone. It is difficult to ignore how the pathos in this text imbues the everyday interactions of Sylvie and her mother with emotional and personal weight. Jean-Luc Godard is another filmmaker with whom Hanoun is sometimes compared, but their conceptions of film widely diverge. Hanoun is deeply invested in the narrative capabilities of film, in an ostensibly antiquated yet original manner. Rather than following the approach of semiotic film theory—film-as-language—for Hanoun, filmmaking is a form of writing. Hanoun’s pronouncements on the “written image” are collected in a book entitled Cinéma cinéaste (2001). One aphorism calls for “composing a calligraphy of images until meaning appears beyond the sign, at which point the sign signifies itself.” (3) Hanoun demands what seems impossible in a world where the written word reigns supreme. His argument ultimately depends on a filmmaker’s ability to construct a narrative that presents rather than represents a reality. While other filmmakers share this ideal, what sets Hanoun apart is that he also engages with his non-written work through writing. On his personal website, Hanoun proclaimed, “I am a worker of the ephemeral and the perennial.” (4) Both a committed writer and a documentarian of the human condition, his tools included a camera as well as a pen. Hanoun’s work strove for a kind of ontological humanistic socialism, a democracy of production values and distribution. Unfortunately for his potential non-Francophone spectators, this has resulted in an effect of non-distribution; Hanoun’s films have rarely, if ever, been distributed across the Atlantic and when they are, little to no coverage exists. Hanoun claimed a certain pride in this condition, which he attributed partly to what he referred to as “the propaganda of a certain critical intelligentsia.” (5) In recent years he produced work with the aid of a collective called “Produisez Marcel Hanoun,” comprised of friends and collaborators; Hanoun’s final film Cello (2010) features members of this collective along with the film’s crew appearing on screen where they identify themselves. This film appears to be a farewell but also a demonstration of the limits of democratic filmmaking. Cello reveals a faith in the material value of film, even when its material has been incontrovertibly altered by digital video. Hanoun did not avoid topical films either—his La femme de chambre, un corps sans visage (The Cleaning Lady, A Body Without a Face, 2009) was inspired by the accusations of rape against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In his unwillingness and seeming inability to compromise himself and his filmmaking, Hanoun condemned himself to relative obscurity; he was also quite possibly one of the few filmmakers to sustain a political-moral code aside from the original critic of the “spectacle”, Guy Debord.
***Une simple histoire shows Hanoun already considering the issues that would drive the rest of his career and his engagement with cinema a half-century before his passing. It reveals him in dialogue with his contemporaries Bresson and Godard, as well as with Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, and Agnès Varda, among others. Hanoun was consistently aware of changing possibilities for accessing media, particularly those that precluded commercial exchange. Beginning in 2008, he began uploading his films to his personal website and YouTube, a process that ceased with his passing, but will continue on a Vimeo account. Many of his early and recent works, including Une simple histoire, are now available for free online viewing (although without English subtitles), an effective way for Hanoun to ensure that his work continues to be seen by a more expanded audience than ever before. A simple link to his personal cinémathèque seems the most appropriate way to close this appreciation, but it may be better yet to let Hanoun, himself, have the last word: “The beauty of the cinematographic image takes wing and climbs higher, flying over death.” (6) My thanks are due to Laurent Aït Benalla, filmmaker, and a friend and collaborator of Marcel Hanoun’s for his assistance with details of Hanoun’s life and films.
- Jonas Mekas, “An Unscheduled Film Event: Marcel Hanoun”, Program notes, Museum of Modern Art, January 1970.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Une simple histoire (Previously unpublished)”, 1970. http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=28170
- Marcel Hanoun, Cinéma Cinéaste (Crisnée: Yellow Now-Côté Cinéma, 2001), p.31
- Marcel Hanoun, “Cinécriture,” Le cinéma de Marcel Hanoun, http://www.marcel-hanoun.com/pages_light/cinecriture2.html
- Marcel Hanoun, Le cinéma de Marcel Hanoun, http://www.marcel-hanoun.com/pages_light/accueil2.html
- Hanoun, Cinéma Cinéaste, p.46