In the film that bears her name, Countess Dolingen is on screen for less than a minute. She lies dead on a slab; then, as thunder rumbles and lightning flares, she rises and begins to sing. What we see in this scene is a more or less direct translation of a sequence from Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest – the ‘lost’ first chapter of Dracula, excised from the manuscript at the editor’s suggestion – in which Jonathan Harker chances upon a graveyard near Munich and has his first encounter with the supernatural world. But what we hear does not come from Stoker; rather, it is a German nursery rhyme, delivered eerily in coloratura soprano.

“Here am I, a hapless maid
Alone in the wide world
No-one loves me
For there is no-one to love me”

Stoker’s countess has become an avatar, thrice over: she has the face and body, here, of the au pair, Lucy Splitter (Marilù Marini), who is recounting the story to the little girl (Katia Wastchenko); but it is the latter whose doomed romanticism seems to be manifesting in the song, the lyrics and melody of which – much like the memory or imagining of the aforementioned pair, who have been transformed into mere characters in a story within a story – belong in turn to a real person, the surrealist author and artist Unica Zürn.

This fluidity of characters and narratives is one of the key features of the filmic work of Catherine Binet. Diverse source texts are moulded together, reflected, slipping underneath and through each other. If all art is metaphor, the communication of an idea, or feeling, through the materials of a given form – in the case of cinema, with images, sounds and the associations between them, capable as they are of replacing or embellishing upon words – then Binet’s magnum opus, Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, 1981), is a film that commits wholly to its mission. But it is also one that is neither celebrated nor discussed, taking its place among the vast, greyish hordes that make up the most remote areas of non-canonical cinema. To even say that the film is a cult obscurity with scattered admirers might be putting it generously; when considering the notable names in its cast and crew, its critical support in the French film press at the time of its release and its exposure at major film festivals in juxtaposition with its current invisibility, a better way of describing The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz might be as a black hole, a culmination and negation of French post-New Wave cinema that happens to be located somewhere near the movement’s tail end.

Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, 1981)

In September 1981, following its debut in a Cannes Film Festival sidebar, The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz was France’s sole representative in the main competition of the Venice Film Festival. If its director was an unknown quantity, its cast and crew were anything but: the film was shot by legendary cinematographer William Lubtchansky, it featured music by Carlos D’Alessio and its stars included Michael Lonsdale, Carol Kane and Marina Vlady (along with a brief appearance from Emmanuelle Riva); its producer, meanwhile, was the great French experimental writer Georges Perec. While the Venice jury sent the film home empty-handed, it was enthusiastically received in French film journals including Positif, which dedicated thirteen pages of its January 1982 issue to the film, and declared in its opening editorial that it “combines, in our opinion, audacity, mastery and originality more adeptly than any other French film of the [previous] year”.1 Overseas, the film also found at least measured praise in the pages of publications such as Film Comment,2 The New York Times3 and Variety.4 But all of this acclaim and exposure would come to naught: The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz was a commercial failure, and Binet would strive in vain to raise the funds to realise her next major project, doors increasingly shutting in her face, institutional gatekeepers proving as resistant to her work as the cinema-going public had been. Like her film, she would soon all but disappear from public life, passing away in obscurity in 2006 at the age of sixty-one, her death marked only by a couple of perfunctory obituaries in the French press.

Born on 12 March 1944 in Tours, France, Binet was the daughter of an obstetrician and a surgeon, and the eldest of seven children. Raised in the nearby township of Bressuire, she also spent some time in Paris as a child before returning to the provinces in her early adolescence – “a difficult and lonely time for her,” her cousin Claudia tells me.5 While her own upper-middle class family was relatively open-minded for the time, Binet found her conservative small-town surroundings and religious schooling suffocating; regarding sex, Claudia says, Binet “suffered greatly from the silence of the society of those times on those subjects”,6 an experience that might perhaps help to explain some of her later artistic preoccupations.

At the age of 18, while undertaking post-baccalauréat literature studies, Binet discovered a passion for cinema, which soon took her back to Paris. There, she sought work as a monteuse, cutting her teeth at the national television broadcaster before finding work editing the fly-on-the-wall documentary footage William Klein was shooting on the May 1968 protests, which would later be collated into the feature film Grands soirs et petits mains (Great Evenings and Little Mornings, 1978). While she harboured her own auteurist ambitions from the beginning, Binet continued to take editing jobs throughout her directorial career. Her first of two collaborations with Marcel Hanoun, L’hiver (Winter, 1969), is a particularly extraordinary work: a film “in the form of a fugue”, as the opening voiceover declares; a stream-of-consciousness travelogue through the canals and interiors of Bruges, within which a romance between an indecisive documentarian (Michael Lonsdale) and his muse (Tiziana Siffi) emerges. Though much of the film had already been picture-edited by the time Binet came on board, the film’s sophisticated interplay of image and sound – baroque classical music, snatches of dialogue and the noise of whirring cameras alike set over a restless barrage of alternating black-and-white and colour sequences – bears her mark, and serves to indicate that she was by this point already highly adept in the art of montage. Her exchanges with Hanoun in Winter’s cutting room, meanwhile, which were apparently later restaged in L’automne (Autumn, Marcel Hanoun, 1972),7 led to the pair’s second and – for Binet – most important collaboration, Le printemps (Spring, 1970).

Le printemps (Spring, 1970)

Spring

Spring should, rightfully, be considered Binet’s first feature, having been conceived of from the beginning as a purely collaborative endeavour with Hanoun. An informal agreement was made between the pair to not include any directorial credit so as to avoid advantaging one creative partner over the other; otherwise, as Binet put it in a later interview, “this film was a co-realisation, in the sense that it certainly would not have been the same film if one of us had [at any point during the shoot] left the presence of the other”.8 But, to her dismay, Hanoun would later renege on this arrangement and claim sole directorial credit.9 To this day, nearly all analysis of the film treats it as his and his alone – which, if nothing else, serves as an unfortunate example of the marginalisation of creative figures by auteur theory.

Much like The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, Spring functions as a dual narrative: a young girl, Anne (Véronique Andriès), who lives with her grandmother (Raymonde Godeau) in a small village, experiences various mundane events in the days leading up to menarche; meanwhile, an unidentified man (Lonsdale), implied to be a murderer on the lam, seeks to evade pursuers, traipsing through forests and fields, sleeping on the ground and living off fish. The film alternates between its two narratives frequently, but they never intersect; as the man reaches the threshold of the town in which the little girl lives, he is killed, his death juxtaposed with the morning of her first menstruation. As in Winter, the film shifts frequently between colour and monochrome, with Binet’s distinctive editing evident from the first post-credits scene: the introduction of the grandmother’s cottage through a series of objects – a vase of flowers on a desk; pots and pans; a rifle above a mantelpiece – set to the ticking of a grandfather clock pendulum.

Spring is, in regard to the scenes featuring the little girl, more or less an autobiographical work. The film was shot in Échiré, the town in which Binet’s maternal grandmother lived, and the latter’s residence was used for all of the domestic scenes;10 the script, meanwhile, emerged from what Binet described as “an exercise comparable, perhaps, to psychoanalysis”:11 “At first I was forced to relate, through [Hanoun], my childhood stories,” Binet said. “These percolated, and we moved on from simple stories to memories.”12 These memories are mostly quotidian, but, as the film progresses, gradually become laden with signifiers of encroaching adolescence.

Spring is as devoted to the unnamed man’s narrative as it is to Anne’s, though the meaning of these sequences seems far more opaque (Binet stated that she saw him as a paternal character dreamed up by the girl13); Lonsdale is mostly seen either running or crouching wordlessly through deserted locations, desperation writ on his face as dogs and helicopters occasionally enter the frame. In what is presumably a flashback sequence, we are shown what may be the cause of his flight: in a car at a petrol station, following a heated argument with his passenger (Binet, in one of three incarnations in the film), he attempts to kiss her and is rebuffed; she is subsequently seen lying by the side of the road, perhaps dead. Elsewhere, Binet is seen as a kind of avatar of Anne, appearing in stories that she tells her grandmother: first, as a bride who leaves her groom at the altar, eventually drowning herself to escape the crowd at her heels; and second, as a marquise on horseback.

Le printemps (Spring, 1970)

These suggestions of violence provide a darker undertone to the film’s coming-of-age narrative. Towards the end of the film, wearing lipstick and puffing on a cigarette, Anne stands in front of a mirror in the attic and recites swear words. In this scene, we see a talisman that will re-emerge in Binet’s second and last feature: a fragment of a Bellmer doll, held up, here, as a mask.

Film sur Hans Bellmer

In 1966, before embarking on her career as an editor, Binet had met a young doctor, Jean-François Rabain, while skiing in the French Alps; Rabain, now a renowned psychoanalyst who has written extensively on surrealist art, tells me that they bonded after he noticed she was reading André Breton’s Nadja. The pair married later that year; in the intervening months, Rabain would introduce Binet to two key members of the twentieth century surrealist movement: Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer.

Rabain had met Zürn during his traineeship at St Anne’s Hospital, where the latter was interned, suffering from schizophrenia-induced psychosis. A poet and visual artist, Zürn was most famous in her lifetime as Bellmer’s companion and muse, but she had been creating her own distinctive work since the late 1940s; her poetry and short stories, claims biographer Esra Plumer, “can be seen as predecessors” to the work of Perec and fellow members of the experimental literary movement Oulipo.14 In 1967, she began to write a novella, Dark Spring, in which she melded her own memories and fantasies from pubescence. It is a beautiful but confronting work, written in “short, declarative sentences”15 dealing with a 12-year-old girl’s experiences of incest, masturbation and erotomania, and culminates in the protagonist jumping out of a window to her death – a foreshadowing of Zürn’s own suicide in the same manner in 1970.

Developing a brief but close friendship with Zürn, Binet was also fascinated by the work of Bellmer, one of the German modern artists whose works had been described as “degenerate” by the Nazis.16 Bellmer conceived of the human body as being “comparable to a sentence that invites you to disarticulate it, for the purpose of recombining its actual contents through a series of endless anagrams”;17 accordingly, his drawings and sculptures dismantle and reconfigure the (generally female) body in unsettling and insistently sexualised ways, calling to mind images from later works such as the Silent Hill video games and the films of David Cronenberg. In 1968, with the assistance of Rabain, Binet began to develop what would become her first credited directorial work, a 36-minute short on Bellmer that she would dedicate to the memory of Zürn.

Film sur Hans Bellmer (1973)

Film sur Hans Bellmer (1973) – which would later screen as part of the “Perspectives” sidebar at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival – is a film in two parts. The first, six minutes long, opens with a series of photographs of the doll that Bellmer constructed in 1935, in different anatomical configurations, while, over the soundtrack, alternating voices are heard: Michel Bouquet, quoting from Bellmer; a twelve-year-old girl, Catherine Favret, reading out various poems that Paul Éluard wrote for Bellmer’s 1949 book The Games of the Doll; and a recording of Zürn singing “Ich Bin Allein”. This latter song – about a poor girl who falls in love with a count and is later spurned by him, left to give birth to his child by the side of a road – is the longer version of the aforementioned one sung by the title character of The Games of Countess Dolingen; except that, where that later rendition has a haunting air to it, here, Zürn seems playful, amused, poking fun at the melodramatic quality of the lyrics.

The second part begins with grainy, black-and-white photographs (taken by Binet and collaborator Julien Etcheverry) of people in a gallery, young and old, their faces seen in close-up, the objects of their gaze obscured. Soon, we are shown what they are looking at: Binet presents a series of Bellmer’s etchings and engravings, shocking in their violence and perverse eroticism, in their fetishistic portrayal and contortion of bodies. Sexual organs abound, amid ambiguous, superimposed anatomical shapes: body parts, exterior and interior, unite to form monstrous figures; an eye doubles as a vulva; buttocks become the head of a penis; fleshy masses are kneaded and penetrated. Over these images, we hear lengthy excerpts from Bellmer’s Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious, alternatingly read out by Bouquet and Lonsdale. Binet describes the genesis of this work as follows:

“One day, I was at a private viewing of Bellmer’s work; I was looking at the pictures and, suddenly, realised that I wouldn’t like someone with a camera in that wall […] I then thought it would be interesting to take photographs of these people who are both so attentive and, at the same time, so afraid to plunge completely into these images.”18

Film sur Hans Bellmer (1973)

Binet is not merely seeking to disturb us as viewers, but reminding us of the active and participatory process of viewing itself; as she puts it, “A film is a voyeuristic business […] This is the work of a voyeur (me), watching voyeurs (visitors) looking at the work of a voyeur (Bellmer), being seen by voyeurs (the film’s audience).”19

While this is, as the title baldly states, a film about Hans Bellmer, it is also about his lover and muse: the film is, as previously mentioned, dedicated to Zürn; her voice dominates the first segment; and her physical form is, if only occasionally recognisable, strewn throughout the images that follow. Bellmer’s work, that of a male artist fetishistically dismantling and reconfiguring the female form, is so inextricably gendered that it does not seem facile to note that it is being surveyed here by a female artist, who is choosing to foreground the presence of the woman who inspired much of this work – but in such a way that the male artist’s images and explanations are expressed cut up and rearranged but effectively verbatim, unchallenged.

While Binet’s short film is entirely mounted on the work of another artist and his collaborators, the images shown here bluntly emblematise her as well as Bellmer’s preoccupation with eros and thanatos in their most extreme representations, remaining as unspeakable as they are evocative of humankind’s “unmentionable dreams”.20

The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz

In 1973, Binet and Rabain divorced, and Binet began work on a screenplay based on Zürn’s Dark Spring. During this time, she made several important personal connections: the first was the Argentinian TSE theatre group, several members of which stayed in her apartment for a time in the mid 1970s,21 and many of whom would later take key roles in front of and behind the camera in The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz. The other was the master of experimental literature Georges Perec, who would go on to become her romantic companion and artistic collaborator; they lived together from 1975 until Perec’s death in 1982, and Binet served as editor on Perec’s short film Les lieux d’une fugue (1978).

Binet encountered a range of setbacks in her attempt to film The Games of Countess Dolingen. First, she was unable to gain sufficient funding for the project, meaning that the Advance on Receipts she had received back in 1976 lapsed; then, later, just before shooting, Dominique Sanda, who had agreed to play the character of Louise, dropped out of the project at the insistence of Benoît Jacquot, who wanted her to act in his adaptation of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.22 Industry figures showed little interest in the project: one producer remarked that “this is a subject for a second film”, and another advised her that she get the technicians and actors to work for free.23 Finally, with no other way forward, Perec devoted his own funds, including the prize money he had received for his magnum opus, Life: A User’s Manual, along with loans from family and friends. Filmed over the course of six weeks from August to October 1980,24 The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz premiered at Cannes Film Festival (in the Perspectives sidebar) in May 1981, before going on to be selected for the Venice Film Festival’s main competition slate in September and commencing its French theatrical run in March 1982.

Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, 1981)

In the film’s first image, a tree with a white “X” painted on its trunk is felled; this is followed by a tracking shot through a forest, passing more trees marked for destruction. The soundtrack to this ghostly camera movement is a patchwork of sounds: the rhythmic blows of axe head on wood; the repetitive intonations of a male voice; and the squeals and laughs of a baby, which morph into an anguished cry, unsettlingly joined on the audio track by a dog’s whine and what might be a man’s dying scream – an early foreshadowing and distillation of all of the pain contained in the film. Amongst this, a young girl’s voice, mid-sentence: “… just before the awful fall.”

“This film is designed to function like a machine,” wrote Binet. “Each piece is arranged to play a vital role vis-à-vis the whole.”25 Perec wrote a similar explanation for the film’s press kit, describing the film’s two main narrative threads as entwined by “a network or system of alternately transparent and obscure, tenuous and arbitrary correspondences … one enters this film as one enters a labyrinth”.26 So it is that we see these different strands of narrative take shape: in the first, Louise (Carol Kane) catches a train home to her apartment in Paris. She greets her husband, Bertrand (Michael Lonsdale), and they talk, but their figures are absent; only the empty rooms of their palatial apartment appear on screen, the building’s exteriors and then interiors presented as a series of fetish objects, much like the household items in the post-credits sequence of Spring. When their bodies finally manifest, Bertrand’s back is turned – an orientation towards the camera that he maintains for nearly the entire film. While Kane’s Louise is the ostensible protagonist of The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, and functions as a proxy for the director – she is also a filmmaker, and elements of her narrative resemble events from Binet’s own life and relationship with Rabain – this section of the film is dominated by Bertrand, and his discovery that his country villa has been burgled. The film spends a significant part of its running time stalking his movements as he purchases antiques, discovers the theft, lies in wait for the intruder in the dark (brandishing a gun that will remain unused) and, eventually, makes a phone call that doubles as a bloodless execution – his face obscured throughout all of these scenes, the camera instead lingering on his hands, or on the back of his neck. Only in the film’s final sequence, as he recounts this story at a dinner party, do we finally see his face.

Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, 1981)

This bold, unconventional decision is one of The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz’s many remarkable features, but undoubtedly also one that contributed to audiences’ indifference; it would later, the director would allege, be mockingly cited by the then-chairman of the Advance on Receipts Commission as a reason to deny her funding for her follow-up film.27 For Binet, though, this was a decision that evoked the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and sought to make the viewer complicit in Bertrand’s actions: “What I wanted to show was, above all, his gestures […] I wanted this man’s gestures to be endearing, almost sensual.”28

The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz’s second narrative strand is a more or less direct adaptation of Dark Spring, which is presented in the film as a memoir written by Louise’s friend Nena (Marucha Bo). In these scenes, we see various episodes in the life of an unnamed young girl (Katia Wastchenko) as she longs for an absent father, is neglected by a cruel mother (Marina Vlady) and becomes infatuated with a man (Roberto Plate, who also plays the burglar) at a local swimming pool. Much as Bertrand’s face is never seen, the girl almost never speaks, her thoughts instead conveyed through a steady stream of narration from Zürn’s text. Throughout these scenes, as in Dark Spring, a libidinous and perverse atmosphere prevails.

Binet was adamant that the film should not cross the line into exploitation, and was aware that a literal interpretation of the book was impossible.29 Nonetheless, the film subjects the protagonist of its second narrative to a series of moments that might well make contemporary audiences flinch: an implied incestuous rape; a scene of urination in a classroom; and a sequence, discreetly shot, in which the girl slips naked down a banister at night.

Wastchenko was attached to the project after Binet met her mother, Belgian poet and biographical writer Françoise Lalande, at a conference in Brussels; she saw a resemblance between the girl and Sanda.30 Lalande describes the filmmaker as “a difficult woman, but a true artist”, whose approach on set was “obsessive, demanding, attentive to every detail”.31 Nonetheless, Wastchenko remembers the making of the film as “an enjoyable experience”, and describes Binet and the rest of the crew as “very kind”.32 Although she had not read Dark Spring and was, at the age of 12, “too young to be curious [or] interested about Unica Zürn’s life”, Wastchenko tells me that Binet “took the time to explain to [her] the context of the most ‘sensual’ scenes”, and helped her to approach the role by confiding some of her own childhood memories.33

Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, 1981)

The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz culminates with at least three deaths: enraged by the constant burglaries, Bertrand asks for a fence to be erected around the fireplace – the thief’s preferred method of entry – so that his nemesis will be trapped and starve to death; the girl, having had her unrequited love for the man at the pool thwarted, kills herself by jumping out of the window; and we hear at a dinner party that Nena, like Zürn, has done the same. As Bertrand tells the story of the burglar’s demise, Louise – implied to be pregnant – plunges a knife into her own hand and flees the table, locating a gun in Bertrand’s drawer and firing it at a Bellmer drawing.

“To appreciate the film, to savour its aestheticism, one must have a pictorial, literary, psychoanalytical, poetic culture,” Lalande tells me.34 Indeed, The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz is a film – like Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, 1961) or David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) – in which nearly every image, every cut, is laden with symbols, plumbing the subconscious. And it is in this respect that the film ultimately goes too far, depicting themes – madness; suicide; the sexual obsessions of pubescent children – that travel into the realm of the unspeakable. “If this film were made today,” Lalande concludes, “it would have even less reception […] ours is a time that excels in cretinism, ignorance, arrogance and puritanism.”35

Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz (The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, 1981)

In February 1982, at the age of 45, Perec was diagnosed with lung cancer. Less than a month later, just days before the premiere of The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, he was dead. “This immense loss for the world of letters, tragic for his friends, [was] irreparable for Catherine Binet,” writes Vlady. “She [had] just lost her alter ego, her collaborator, her twin, her producer, her tender love.”36

At the time of Perec’s death, Binet was in the middle of producing a 14-minute-long short film on the work of the painter Cuchi White, Trompe l’oeil (1982). The film, which was completed in the July of that year, is in many ways a mirror image of Film sur Hans Bellmer in its juxtaposition of still images and narration – in this case, texts by Perec and novelist Michel Butor read out by Lonsdale. In a move that is also reminiscent of that earlier film, a little girl (Binet’s niece Emmanuelle) is heard humming and singing on the soundtrack.

But Binet had a much more ambitious project in mind: in December 1982, she got in touch with Michel Foucault, seeking the rights to adapt a contemporaneous case study that he had previously discovered and published on a 19th-century androgyne, Herculine Barbin.37 This tragic real-life story – in which an intersex person who was assigned female at birth and raised in a convent chose to ‘become’ a man after falling in love with a woman, subsequently facing ostracisation and dying by their own hand – captivated Binet. Emboldened by the philosopher’s words of encouragement, she spent the next year developing the screenplay (which she tentatively titled Herculine Barbin, dite Alexina B.), but a major obstacle unexpectedly presented itself: a moderately established filmmaker and personal friend of Foucault’s, René Féret, was also writing a script based on the same historical incident.38

At first, Binet and Féret chose not to see each other as competitors, believing the projects to be substantially different: while Féret had opted to stage the film as a costume drama, Binet’s intention was to set her film in the modern day, “in a provincial setting, known to me”.39 In reality, then, as now, the hope of two parallel projects being funded simultaneously was a long shot, and Féret had both the slightly higher profile of the two and the more commercially friendly reputation. In the end, his film was accepted and Binet’s, rejected; Féret’s Mystère Alexina (The Mystery of Alexina), a capable but not particularly noteworthy melodrama, screened in the 1985 Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard category.

Binet never quite let go of her dream of realising her project – she continued to talk about it right up until her death, Vlady recalls40 – but her career as a filmmaker was, in this moment, effectively over. She still received the odd project, making bite-sized documentaries for the French foreign affairs ministry, but her distinctive, subversive vision had been lost to celluloid. Nonetheless, she would manage to create one more great screen work: a two-part, three-hour-long television homage to her former lover, Film sur Georges Perec (1990).

Film sur Georges Perec (1990)

Film sur Georges Perec is a work of pure montage, consisting of a range of famous actors and friends of Perec’s (Alain Cuny, Sami Frey, Harry Mathews, Edith Scob, Lonsdale and Vlady, among others) in close-up, reading out excerpts from the author’s texts against sometimes abstract backgrounds (a fish tank, a pub, a Parisian construction site), with footage of Perec from archival interviews occasionally interspersed. The critical response to the programs at the time was positive, but it was ultimately just another television program in a sea of small-screen detritus – as Vlady puts it, a “broadcast, late in the evening, between two commercials for yoghurts with laxative effects and television news updates announcing planetary disasters”.41

A little over two decades after Binet had first spliced together images of protesters at Sorbonne University for William Klein, Film sur Georges Perec marked her last screen credit of any kind. Late in the second episode, she can be seen briefly in a set of two grainy photographs with Perec. In the third, she is gone.

Film sur Georges Perec (1990)

Catherine Binet died on 20 February 2006 after a fall, having spent much of her previous decade fighting off cancer and heart problems. By then, her work as a director was already long-forgotten by most, her only output in later life an experimental and critically praised memoir about a liaison on a barge in the early 1980s, Les fleurs de la toussaint, which was released only in a “few dozen poorly edited, poorly printed” copies in 2004.42 The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz had long since departed from any kind of circulation by this stage, its only mark on the home-video realm an out-of-print English-subtitled VHS from the late 1980s. The curse under which this film was placed even seemingly extended to the physical world captured by it: a little over a decade after the film hit theatres, the Piscine Deligny – the century-old open-air pool in which key moments in the girl’s narrative take place – inexplicably fell into the Seine.43

In a recent tribute to Ingmar Bergman in Film Comment, director Olivier Assayas claimed that “there is a lack of psychoanalysis in cinema today”, attributing this to a collective urge to “move away from psychoanalysis […] both in society and on screen, not because we have something to hide but because we don’t know or see what we have to hide”.44 While many directors might make films ripe for psychoanalytical criticism, or play with subconscious association in their work, there are few who have managed to construct a psychoanalytical aesthetic quite as successfully as Binet did. In Film sur Hans Bellmer, she did so mostly through the conduit of another artist’s work; but in The Games of Countess Dolingen of Gratz, she peeled away the edifices that help us to function as human actors – that keep our shared violent and perverse impulses at bay – and found something unsettling, something obscene, something thoroughly unmarketable, something that must remain hidden.

Like many artists, Binet lived in the naïve hope that art would be enough; in her letter to then-minister of culture Jack Lang protesting her treatment at the hands of the Advance on Receipts Commission, she remarked that “a film is beautiful, or it is not”. But she lived in a world in which art has a price tag, and must, to some extent, justify its own existence in a marketplace, competing against products that are not made to trouble or unsettle viewers – films that are not, as Lars von Trier puts it, “like a rock in a shoe”.45 How many great films have been lost, or never made, because of that lopsided bargain between art and capital? Binet, at least, did something that so many never get the opportunity to do, and that was to create, in Vlady’s words, “a taste of the beautiful and the strange […] in the subconscious of a few thousand viewers”.46 For the fortunate few who have encountered it, it is a taste that lingers.

Acknowledgement:

The author wishes to thank Claudia Binet, Jean-Noël Delamarre, Paul & Karelle Duchesne, Françoise Lalande, Jean-François Rabain, Jérôme Samain and Katia Wastchenko for their generous assistance.

Endnotes:

  1. Isabelle Jordan, “La Rédaction,” Positif, issue 250, January 1982, p. 3.
  2. See Tom Allen, “New Directors / New Films: Smashed, Broken or Missing,” Film Comment, vol. 18, no. 4, July/August 1982, p. 4.
  3. See Vincent Canby, “Games of Countess Dolingen,” The New York Times, 20 April 1982.
  4. See Gene Moskowitz, “Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz,” Variety, 3 June 1981, p. 22.
  5. Claudia Binet, email correspondence with author, 17 April 2018.
  6. ibid.
  7. Although this is never explicitly stated, and Binet herself was not involved in the project, there are several suggestive references in the film’s script: for instance, the editor, Anne (played by the mononymous Tamia), expresses interest in making a film that sounds a great deal like Spring, and elsewhere echoes comments that Binet herself made about Hanoun’s work in an interview; see André Cornand & Abraham Segal, “Interview with Marcel Hanoun,” La Revue du Cinéma, no. 243, November 1970, reprinted and translated in Les Saisons – une tétralogie de Marcel Hanoun DVD box set booklet, p. 13.
  8. Catherine Binet, quoted in Gérard Frot-Coutaz & Jean-Claude Ruban, “A. naissance de l’idée conception et realisation du film,” Cinéma 74: Dossier du court-metrage français, supp. no. 187, May 1974, p. 13.
  9. ibid., p. 13
  10. ibid.
  11. ibid., p. 12.
  12. Catherine Binet, quoted in Cornand & Segal; Les Saisons, p. 17.
  13. ibid., pp. 18–19.
  14. Esra Plumer, Unica Zürn: Art, Writing and Post-War Surrealism (London & New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2016), p. 32.
  15. ibid., p. 175.
  16. Sue Taylor, Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000), p. 71.
  17. Hans Bellmer, Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious, or the Anatomy of the Image, trans. Jon Graham (Waterbury Center, VT: Dominion, 2004), pp. 37–38.
  18. Binet, quoted in Frot-Coutaz & Ruben, p. 14.
  19. ibid., p. 16.
  20. ibid., p. 14.
  21. Claudia Binet, op. cit.
  22. Claudia Binet, email correspondence with author, 23 April 2018. Jacquot’s film is explored in depth elsewhere in this issue; see David Melville, “A Ferocious Modesty: Benoît Jacquot’s The Wings of the Dove,” Senses of Cinema, issue 88, http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/after-the-french-new-wave/a-ferocious-modesty-benoit-jacquots-the-wings-of-the-dove/.
  23. Catherine Binet, quoted in Isabelle Jordan, “entretien avec Catherine Binet,” Positif, issue 250, pp. 25, 26.
  24. ibid., p. 26.
  25. Les jeux de la Comtesse Dolingen de Gratz press kit, p. 6.
  26. Georges Perec, quoted in David Bellos, Georges Perec: A Life in Words, revised edn (London: The Harvill Press, 1995), p. 684.
  27. “This girl has already made a film in which the world is filmed from behind” – Binet attributes this quote to chairman Adolphe Viezzi in an 18 December 1984 letter to French minister of culture Jack Lang.
  28. Binet, quoted in Jordan, “entretien avec Catherine Binet”, p. 22.
  29. See ibid., p. 21.
  30. ibid., p. 23.
  31. Françoise Lalande, email correspondence with author, 18 March 2018.
  32. Katia Wastchenko, email correspondence with author, 26 March 2018.
  33. ibid.
  34. Lalande, op. cit.
  35. ibid.
  36. Marina Vlady, C’etait Catherine B. (Paris: Fayard, 2013), p. 35.
  37. Binet, letter to Jack Lang, op. cit.
  38. ibid.
  39. ibid.; while she does not specify where she intended to set the film, her wording could only imply a return to Échiré, the town where Spring was shot, while the time period in which she intended to set it – “between the 1950s and 1984” – suggests that it would traverse similarly autobiographical territory.
  40. Vlady, op. cit., p. 110.
  41. ibid., p. 61.
  42. ibid., p. 91.
  43. See Adam Roberts, “The Swimming Pool That Sank and Other Watery Tales”, Invisible Paris, 27 January 2013, https://parisisinvisible.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-swimming-pool-that-sank-and-other.html
  44. Olivier Assayas, “Where Are We with Bergman?”, Film Comment, vol. 54, no. 4, July–August 2018, https://www.filmcomment.com/article/where-are-we-with-bergman/
  45. Lars von Trier, “The Lars Picture Show,” The Guardian, 25 August 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/aug/25/culture.features
  46. Vlady, op. cit.,

About The Author

David Heslin is an editor and film critic residing in Melbourne, Australia. He edits Screen Education and Senses of Cinema, and has been published in The Age, Overland and The Conversation. David was a participant in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2015 Critics Campus program.