Sonic Cinema (cover)In the first book-length study of French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux, Greg Hainge meticulously outlines and details the director’s œuvre, in a study that is structured both chronologically and by media. Hainge begins with Grandrieux’s installations in the 1970s, followed by his television and documentary work, his feature filmmaking and, finally, an examination of his recent documentary and experimental films. The book is not a study in auteurism, but an effort to reshape and reorient Deleuze-inspired film-philosophy. For Hainge, it is not the Cinema books that incited his study; rather, Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981) is seen as a suitable text to assist in an assessment of Grandrieux’s art.

How is it possible to study a single director without falling victim to the criticisms of auteur theory? On the one hand, as Hainge argues, from the start of his practice Grandrieux has often collaborated with others on projects, whether filmmaker or performer; thus, to insist upon a film that is solely authored by Grandrieux would simply be incorrect (p. 23). On the other hand, Grandrieux’s practice “instigates semi-determined relations between its various components […] to the point that the distinction between form and process is eradicated entirely.” (p. 6) If this is the case, the stakes for film spectatorship and film-philosophy are clear: Grandrieux reconfigures “the status and ontological modality of the image” (p. 188), which, in turn, alters the “sensory regime through which we apprehend the world” (p. 158). Hainge works within the tradition of phenomenology and affect theory, but he counters theorists such as Laura U. Marks and Vivian Sobchack with the notion of “sonic cinema”, a concept that emphasises the entire sensorium and so is not reducible to visuality alone.

In developing this concept, Hainge offers an alternative to Marks’ haptic cinema.1 The sonic encompasses an immersive experience – recalling here Mary Ann Doane’s observation that “In a sense, [cinematic sound in the theatre] envelops the spectator” – spilling over borders and boundaries, unable to be contained.2 For Hainge, then, sonic cinema is not limited to sound, but is a conceptualisation of a form and process of filmmaking that stresses the sensory quality of the film experience, its materiality, and the ties that bind the two together. Hainge makes his case for the sonic quality of Grandrieux’s films “in a musical mode”, deploying terms such as “accompaniment”, “harmony”, and “resonance” (pp. 6, 15), and invoking the use of metaphor in a productive manner.3 With a musical vocabulary and the notion of sonic cinema in hand, Philippe Grandrieux assesses a body of work that asks us to see and hear differently and, as a result of this spectatorial challenge, opens up “a political and ethical dimension” (p. 9).

Assessments of the political and ethical dimensions of Grandrieux’s oeuvre appear in large and small ways in every chapter. Yet the exemplary theoretical chapter is the seventh, bringing together a number of key insights up to that point. Hainge unpacks Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s dynamic account of experience in his late work The Visible and the Invisible (1964). The author then demonstrates the means by which Grandrieux’s experimental films Grenoble (2006), Met (2006), and L’Arrière-saison (2005) evoke the philosopher’s conceptualisation of “the flesh of the world.” It is here that Hainge is at his most philosophical: if Grandrieux eradicates the distinction between form and process, both form – in these experimental films’ play of light and shadow, time and distance, nature and violence, and the axes of perception – and process are equal parts in the articulation of “a world that exists only as the dialectical relations between elements.” (p. 173) Against accounts of the haptic quality of Grandrieux’s films, Hainge argues that such formulations inevitably “fail to account for the relational mode” enacted by his practice and further, misunderstand the value of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. For the philosopher and the filmmaker, what is at stake is an account of the world against the logic of scopic primacy. Grandrieux’s filmmaking situates the spectator in an “immersive space in which the porosity between inside and outside is so complete that these very terms no longer remain operational”, challenging viewers to alter their mode of engagement, approaching a film not as text but as a relationship between self and world (pp. 193-194).

The earlier chapters are less theoretical but essential for a book-length study of the director. While Hainge presents and details Grandrieux’s early video, television, and documentary work with aplomb, and without discounting the merits of such productions, it is difficult not to read these chapters, which discuss inaccessible materials, as evidence of Grandrieux honing his craft and developing a body of work with consistent themes and artistic processes. From the start, he was keen to explore the relational qualities of light and movement, colour and hue, camera and filmed objects, screen and spectator, and Hainge outlines exactly how his early collaborations came to be, their influences, and their aesthetics. Yet, with the 1998 film Sombre and subsequent feature films, Grandrieux really made his mark on an international scale. Prior to the chapters on the feature films, Hainge appropriately provides an “Intermezzo” between the early and later work, and more fully introduces the philosophical bent to his study.

Sombre (Grandrieux, 1998)

Sombre (Grandrieux, 1998)

Sombre, Grandrieux’s tale of a serial killer, is, according to Hainge, secondary to his exploration of film form and its sensory effects on spectators. Indeed, given the production history, the minimal resemblance between the final product and the original script, and the film’s narrative incoherence and lack of dialogue, a different sort of logic is evidently at work here, which Hainge identifies as “an abstract painting in motion” or the forces of “chaos and anarchy” playing out in the visual and aural realm (p. 98). Critiques of the film – mainly, a lack of narrative momentum, the banality of the tale, and aestheticising violence against women (p. 107-108) – are moot once we approach it without a desire to comprehend a narrative arc or character psychology. Jean is deployed as a “conduit through which the relations that constitute cinema pass” (p. 104). Put differently, story and character are the means by which Grandrieux establishes cinematic relations between the diegetic bodies and those in the theatre seats: we are asked to accept Jean just as his lover Claire does, and “to be swept along by intoxicating forces both terrifying yet potentially beautiful…, capable of inspiring ecstasy.” (p. 94)

La Vie nouvelle (2002) received equally negative criticism from certain quarters. As was the case with Sombre, Hainge argues, many critics of La Vie nouvelle missed the point. The critics’ claims that their inability to decipher the narrative was evidence for the film’s lack of artistic merit is indeed invalid. Instead, for Hainge, just as we are invited to accompany Sombre’s Jean and Claire into the depths of serial killings, La Vie nouvelle drags its viewers down to another kind of “hell and, what is more, to consider this a good thing.” (p. 110)

La Vie nouvelle (Grandrieux, 2002)

La Vie nouvelle (Grandrieux, 2002)

Again with minimal narrative, sparse dialogue, and visual and aural extremities such as brutality, violence, and sexual violence, this film follows Seymour and his fragmented encounters with a sex worker named Mélania. Hainge likens this relationship to the one Dante describes between himself and Beatrice in La Vita Nuova. Like Beatrice, “Mélania […] exists only as an icon, an unattainable figure existing in an entirely different sphere and who exerts incredible power over those who worship her.” (p. 113) By taking this comparative approach and establishing the non-narrative and experimental tactics of Grandrieux’s filmmaking, Hainge discusses the director on his own terms, i.e., with an alternative filmmaking and spectatorial logic. Through rhythmic editing, thermographic cameras, and character-figures in primal states (in the midst of screams, agony, physical pleasures), Grandrieux intensifies the affective dimension of filmmaking and, correspondingly, our everyday lives. At the pre-linguistic level, our bodies need to adjust to minor and major sensory-motor engagements and this film articulates an ontological truth: “every moment of life [may be] experienced as an incessant confrontation with the new.” (p. 123)

Un lac (Grandrieux, 2008)

Un lac (Grandrieux, 2008)

Hainge’s analysis of Un lac (2008) covers familiar territory. Un lac is another film with “weak narration” and Hainge again provides close readings of images and sounds. As in the previous films, Un lac presents the image and sound tracks “in a relational space where there is no privileged term, no dominant perspective or subjectivity.” (p. 191) The camera shoots extreme close ups of Alexi in the midst of epileptic fits, track absent-mindedly amongst the heavily wooded areas, or show us bodies in chiaroscuro style. Moreover, Grandrieux’s deployment of non-synchronous sounds render the phenomenological subject’s division of inside and outside incompatible with a strictly visual engagement of the film proper. The sounds of the film are sometimes too loud and at others too quiet for us to distinctly place their source in space. There is a resonance here with our bodies outside the moment of representation and character identification. Though it is beyond the scope of the chapter, Hainge could have engaged with notions of the philosophical sublime, having earlier glossed over the concept while discussing Sombre (p. 99). Due to the intensity of the film’s sounds and visuals, and the pathos we may experience with Alexi’s fits, an “affective sublime” may be of great use to film-philosophers.4

Finally, Hainge ends the body of the book with Grandrieux’s Unrest trilogy (2012, 2015, 2017).5 The detailed descriptions of the shots, movements, and edits in these films bore the reader, and this is partially the point. Hainge outlines Martin Heidegger’s account of boredom and links it to these films’ attempts to make viewers aware “of one’s own relation to time” (p. 242). Hainge provides a positive interpretation of these works in relation to boredom, but when I recently viewed the final installment of the trilogy, titled Unrest, two of the three parts of the 46-minute film were simply boring, far from the phenomenological sense of the term. In the first part, Grandrieux again explores filming nature, e.g., flowers and trees, this time superimposing the image of a masturbating woman. In the second and most interesting part, in collaboration with performer Nathalie Remadi, a nude female figure enacts various movements and spasms in a dark space, often resulting in fascinating bodily contortions. Her performance is said to be a channeling of the affects of La Vie nouvelle. The final part of the film features Lilas Nagoya in nature, moving in slow motion and narrating in French. While I was struck by the second part, Hainge’s chapter on this trilogy did not necessarily assist me in approaching or understanding the totality of Unrest. Hainge does unveil the interesting production history and collaboration process, but this raises the question of whether the film can be appreciated without such knowledge.6

In sum, the central tenet of Philippe Grandrieux is the director’s reconfiguration of the ontology of the image and, through such work, of the way we view films. Much of what Hainge writes details and tabulates Grandrieux’s output, sometimes shot for shot. The dominance of a shot by shot analysis increases as one reads the book, perhaps because the nature of experimental film warrants such meticulous accounts of the visuals and sounds. Further, the book, against the intentions of the writer, wanders into “Grandrieux as auteur” territory. For example, Hainge declares that the director does have an “idiosyncratic style and aesthetic” as well as a “trademark” (p. 43). As I observed above, the first few chapters read the early work as pre-empting the feature filmmaking and then, the later chapters note the similarities amongst Grandrieux’s output on the whole. This reading demonstrates a consistency amongst the director’s creative output as well as articulating Grandrieux’s theory of art. Moreover, Hainge never strays far from the director’s words, providing them as evidentiary forces that rally behind his reading of a film or the conceptualisation of sonic cinema. Simply put, Grandrieux is the author of the films and perhaps Hainge’s brief argument against auteur theory could have been omitted.

Any scholar writing on a single filmmaker inevitably wrestles with auteur theory, so this fairly minor methodological quandary does not detract from an original contribution to Deleuzian film-philosophy. “Sonic cinema”, as Hainge notes, is not unique to Grandrieux’s oeuvre and could be put to use in other areas of film studies and theory (p. 14).7

Greg Hainge, Philippe Grandrieux: Sonic Cinema (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

Endnotes:

  1. See Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. xi: “vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes: I term this haptic visuality.”
  2. Mary Ann Doane, “The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space,” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 339.
  3. See Susanna Paasonen, Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011). Although working with different media, some reference and use of Paasonen’s development and deployment of “resonance” may have clarified and improved upon Hainge’s choice of a musical vocabulary.
  4. See Sarah French and Zoë Shacklock, “The affective sublime in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life,” New Review of Film and Television Studies 12:4 (2014): 339-356.
  5. At the time of Hainge’s writing, only two of the three parts of the Unrest trilogy had been completed, White Epilepsy (2012) and Meurtrière (2015).
  6. For another reading of a contemporary experimental filmmaker collaborating with artists, and read through the lens of Deleuze’s writings on Francis Bacon, see Kim Knowles, “Film, Performance, and the Spaces Between: The Collaborative Works of Mara Mattuschka and Chris Haring,” Cinema Journal 57:2 (2018): 89-112.
  7. See my review “Films for the Senses: Realism of the Senses in World Cinema: The Experience of Physical Reality, by Tiago de Luca”, Senses of Cinema 73 (2014). A productive comparison might be between Un lac and Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (Silent Light, 2007) and Post Tenebras Lux (2013), to name just one example.

About The Author

Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. His Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema (Palgrave MacMillan) was published in 2017, and his recent publications can be found on the sex and culture website Slutever, and in Off-screen and Porn Studies (forthcoming in June). Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. His Genre Trouble and Extreme Cinema: Film Theory at the Fringes of Contemporary Art Cinema (Palgrave MacMillan) was published in 2017, and his recent publications can be found on the sex and culture website Slutever, and in Off-screen and Porn Studies (forthcoming in June).