A film in two parts. At first, in Mamoushka (2012), we hear a voice but we do not see a body. The voice tells us about the body — it is a body, we learn, that is marked by race and gender, but it is also desirous, resilient, human. “There’s always been anger inside of me because no one told me about my body, or what to do with it, because my sex had no name.” We understand something of the weight of this body from the voice itself: the voice emerges from the body of an older woman, an aging body (“my faltering body”). And this body also exists in a network of bodies: a “you” that is her husband; a “she” that is her child; a “they” that is sometimes the neighbours, sometimes a racist and unwelcoming community; a “we” that is always her family. It is only after four full minutes of black screen and this voice in our ears that we have visual confirmation of what we have been listening to: in black-and-white still photographs  – recalling Chris Marker’s La Jetée or Nan Goldin’s slideshow performances – an older woman sits in a graveyard, walks down a country lane, pauses in the woods, arrives at a house, lights a fire, warms her feet, ascends the stairs, lays in a bathtub, looks over old photographs, works in her garden, walks through a field of wheat, laughs uncontrollably.

Another film in two parts. In America (2013), too, a voice and then a body. This is the voice of an American boy. This voice is young, but gruff, weathered and stressed, the way the voice of an adolescent boy can be. The camera pans across a tangle of ancient-looking trees and branches swallowed in moss and ferns in Hoh Forest in Olympic National Park, Western Washington state. The voice reads a kind of prayer – unattributed in the credits, but apparently derived from a poem by the Native poet Lee “Little Fawn” Moquin – that is addressed to the “Great Spirit”. The voice of the boy reads a poem that speaks of a weariness of the body, a loss of direction, a failure of the senses (the eyes, the ears) to sense beauty in an unfamiliar landscape. “Am I to wander forever in darkness?” the voice asks, expressing a desire for the powers of animals – the eagle’s sight and speed, the buffalo’s wisdom – to help him find his way. After four minutes of this voice and the camera’s pan across this landscape, the boy materialises, emerging from the wood and looks into the camera for two minutes without speaking – standing before us, as he has stated in the poem’s text, “with a pure heart, straight eyes and unashamed.”

Narrative cinema is built around a vast, rambling universe of faces, voices, hands and habits. Most films use these elements in the service of representation, as components that serve in the construction of mimetic veil: a screen on which the real is externalised and reassembled. In both of these films, these mini-portraits, the voice does not quite frame or determine the body’s image, but announces it. Perhaps we could say that the voice prepares us for the body: in Mamoushka, the voice of Christiane Famer – the filmmaker’s mother – articulates a set of feelings and ideas that are then registered in the still photographs that depict her; in America, the voice of Solomon Calvert-Adera seems to stand in for something much larger – an ancient civilisational consciousness – that is only given body, surprisingly, in the form of a very young man. These two short films, then, foreground the ways in which the body, its voice, and its performed and instinctual gestures are important, even central features across all of Valérie Massadian’s films — shorts and features.

America (2013) © Valérie Massadian – Gaïjin

Massadian’s films do not frame the body as a vehicle for the expression of ideas or emotions, but function in the opposite manner: returning consciousness, feeling and thought to the site from which they have emerged. Her work extends and improvises upon a set of radical ideas about cinematic performance that originate, perhaps, with Robert Bresson, who locates a crucial distinction between the actor and what he terms the model. For Bresson, the actor represents, puts forth, simulates; the model simply is, as a tree is. Cinema in its ideal form is, for Bresson, a “‘visible parlance’ of bodies, objects, houses, roads, trees, fields” in which the performer is simply one component.1 In this world, there can be “[n]o possible relation between an actor and a tree.”2 In Bresson’s formulation, the model is defined by a flow of energies, one that moves in an opposite direction than that which governs the actor. “Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)”3 It is important in Massadian’s films, then, that the sound of speech, the voice, precedes the image of the body. The revelation of the body is like the resolution of a mystery: this is the source from which the voice emerges, the place where intelligence resides. The sensuous is not opposed to the intellectual, and speech becomes not an index of interiority or of a mind that is detached from the body. It is rather an extension of the body — another of its gestures or emanations.

In taking up Bresson’s radical approach, Massadian creates a zone of interrelation among the bodies of her actors, human and nonhuman. In Nana, fouryear-old Kelyna Lecomte can be said to be acting – to be playing, perhaps – but there is a fundamental lack of distinction between this performance and that of the pig slaughtered in the film’s first sequence, or of the hysterical, squealing drift of piglets that swamps Nana and her grandfather in the next. “Why he screams?” Nana asks of the wriggling piglet in her hands, and one might just as well ask the same of her laughter as she plays with her mother later in the film, or of her curious solitary actions and monologues: “You think you’re so smart?… I’m tired of your bullshit…What a fucking mess”.

In Milla, too, the body is a fact. Seventeen year-old Milla (Séverine Jonckeere) runs away with Léo (Luc Chessel), and we see them sleeping in a car, laughing, eating in bed, smoking, brushing their teeth, squabbling over money. And we see things, too, which we might doubt. Léo’s body, after his death, is first reduced to a sack, a bundle of clothes. But then it reappears, suddenly, by her side. The physical body (of the actor), the metaphysical body (of the lover): are simple facts.

Another possible hallucination, the wrenching cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” in an empty, airless room in the hotel in which Milla finds work. The guitar’s rhythms propel the singer’s vocal performance over currents of rage, desperation: this, too, testifies to the body’s status between the reality and fiction of the cinema. All that the camera records is real, just like the baby Ethan’s tantrums. 

Massadian doesn’t enlist reality to create fiction; instead her work entails a complex negotiation of real bodies and fictionalised worlds and personas — one that relies on a certain affinity, a family resemblance, between the two. “I don’t work with actors, I work with people,” she states, speaking about her casting of the leads in Nana and Milla. “So as with Kelyna in Nana, it is Séverine’s gestures, her mannerisms, her body, her way of talking that informs the character. Even if Séverine is not Milla, it’s important to me that the essence remains.”4 Séverine’s body is therefore essentially linked to the fictional Milla, and not just the adequate representation of it: “It was really clear. To me, she has a body that is everything but bourgeois…she has a proletarian body, a real body of a real person.”5

Here the body, in this way, serves as a bridge between the real and fiction — the body is a structure in which the reality of the fiction, its relation to the world, its politics, can be recognised. (“I’m not doing social or political films, but it’s there, that’s where they belong…The people that know, know, and the others? Fuck them, basically. I don’t give a shit.”6) If these films fictionalise real, corporeal forms, they nonetheless rely on a kind of recognition, an understanding between her and her actors. Here, the film itself becomes one link in a chain of correspondences between director and performer. It is fitting, perhaps, that, following Nana, Massadian wrote a self-interview which took the form of a letter to her young star, Kelyna. Here, she writes, “To make a film with you was like dancing with you.” The film is a dance that becomes a letter, which becomes a record: “I’m an old lady compared to the little one you are, and I don’t want to forget this moment of life tangled in cinema.”7 The entanglement of life and cinema takes hold of the body in ways that are powerful and multiple.

There is a crucial distinction between Bresson’s approach and Massadian’s. Whereas Bresson dissects the body, his close-ups fragmenting the body into parcelled out limbs and micro-gestures, Massadian takes the body as a whole, irreducible, usually in wide or medium compositions and long takes. In Massadian’s films, we watch as actions unfold, taking their time as discrete events: Nana makes breakfast; Ethan brushes his teeth; Milla vacuums the floor. Describing Mamoushka, Massadian writes that she conceives of films as “gestures,” in the sense that they are actions that produce consequences. “To me the most important is that it gives something back. To the ones you make it with, and maybe to others.”8 A film captures the body and its gestures, and it serves as a gesture, too: a gift in return. And this exchange, seems to be at the heart of Massadian’s films — an economy of gestures, of trust. Bresson, too, spoke of this exchange: “A secret and sacred trust.” He writes, “To an actor, the camera is the eye of the public…. Models. It is to you, not to the public that they give those things which it, perhaps, would not see (which you glimpse only).”9 Massadian’s films, then, fix this exchange of confidences. “If I make a film, it has to be for them. Every time I finish an edit, I cry like an idiot because I’m a girl, and then I think, ‘I didn’t fuck them up. I didn’t betray them.’”10

Endnotes:

  1. Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, tr. Jonathan Griffin, Urizen Books, New York, n.d., p. 7.
  2. Bresson p. 4.
  3. Bresson p. 2.
  4. Matt Turner, “People Should Be Taken Care Of: Valérie Massadian Discusses Milla”, Mubi Notebook, 28 August 2017.
  5. Turner.
  6. Turner.
  7. Massadian, “Nana interview”, 2011; also published as part of this dossier here.
  8. Valérie Massadian, “Mamoushka + Precious”, published on the website of Tabakalera International Centre for Contemporary Culture, 2018.
  9. Bresson p. 48.
  10. Turner.

About The Author

Leo Goldsmith is a writer, curator and teacher based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Artforum, art-agenda, Cinema Scope, Frieze and The Brooklyn Rail, where he was the film editor from 2011 to 2018. He is a co-author of Keywords in Subversive Film/Media Aesthetics (Wiley 2015), and is currently writing a book about the filmmaker Peter Watkins, with Rachael Rakes.