983 (115). Le signe du lion / The Sign of Leo (1959, Eric Rohmer)

Screened November 7 2009 on Artificial Eye DVD TSPDT rank #939  IMDb Wiki

Eric Rohmer's debut feature suggests that there were many Eric Rohmers vying for the man's artistic identity, informed by the cinephilic breadth of influences one would expect of a Cahiers du Cinema critic having his turn behind the camera. In this film, the approaches threaten to partition the movie like a post-war European city. The first part, where American expat Pierre throws a party celebrating his inheritance, dances around the room with dolly shots, snatching pieces of conversation in the tradition of Renoir/Ophuls. When Pierre's inheritance proves bogus and he's turned on the street, the film goes Neo-Realist, tracing his demise first in shades of DeSican social pathos before confronting a Rossellinian existential void. An 11th hour force majeure feels more like Preston Sturges than Robert Bresson, in terms of feeling less emotionally invested in the forces of transcendence and more like a self-reflexive act of writerly intervention that brings attention to mechanism of the plot. This is something Rohmer tries on more than once throughout the film, peppering it with seemingly incongruous digressive moments (a reporter's trip to Africa, a car wreck in the French countryside), only to tie them back into the main storyline. It's a film that, in more than one sense, is all over the map.

Perhaps it took the film's unequivocal flop with critics and audiences for Rohmer to resolve this multivocal struggle over the years that followed, leading to his unmistakable way of looking and listening to people, so compositionally controlled, yet so light and in the moment, that's been with us for for over four decades. There are traces of that Rohmer throughout The Sign of Leo, like his documentarian's way of looking at things with an eye for lived-in detail. Or the moral preoccupations of the parable-like plot; in this case it verges on the predictable or the pathetic more than once, but is saved by the ever-shifting perspective (social realist? existentialist? metafictional farce?) Or how characters project their persona through their words; Pierre lives large so long as he talks large. When his assertion of impending wealth is proven false, he retreats into a increasingly wordless state, and the indomitable city, pulsing with life in an August swelter, looms so much over him it threatens to swallow him whole. This antagonism between people and their environments always seemed secondary to the interpersonal tensions that dominate Rohmer's films, but here it's so present that you want to rewatch all of his other films to see if it's been there throughout his career, and more than just a background to human characters.

The city of Paris is the most fascinating character in The Sign of Leo; the metropolitan equivalent of Fred Astaire, it takes a slobbery lout of a main character and makes him tread with divine grace down its streets and canals. The end finds Pierre financially redeemed, though with the sense that he hasn't learned a thing from his suffering. It's as if Rohmer posed him as a negative example of what path he as an artist should take, learning from his failure and coming out with a more singular sense of self.

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HISTORICAL REVIEWS

Rohmer, the former Cahiers du Cinema critic and one of the principal intelligences of the old New Wave, is now to be recognized as one of the most interesting filmmaking talents to emerge from that long-ago period. Interesting and, in the context of that time, original. For Rohmer is a comparatively classical director who makes films about people of a certain worth and moral awareness, about people who talk well and respect each other's privacy, and who have within them the vestiges of now almost forgotten, established social orders.

In much the same way, Rohmer reflects these things in the manner in which he tells stories, with a civilized wit and style that come close to seeming austere. Pierre is really a bit of a bore (a major fault of the film), but he's basically decent, as are his friends, and Rohmer respects them by avoiding tricks, narnative or visual.

The last third of "The Sign of Leo" is one of the most effective, though unhysterical, depictions of emotional breakdown ever put on film. Pierre doesn't cry, or get drunk, or have hunger visions. Instead, he loses the sole of one shoe, which he has to tie with a string, and the world around him simply becomes increasingly clear and distant, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, May 6 1970 (New York Film Festival)

Le signe du lion, with Pierre's long slide into misery and final redemption, in many ways fits the structure of a parable more than the later films of his Six Moral Tales series. The sense of fate, which often influences Rohmer's stories, is dominant and heavy-handed here. Moreover, while later Rohmer male characters spend much of their time thinking and debating, Pierre seems to have no real mind of his own. The first private screenings of Le signe du lion were very disappointing, and its distribution was further complicated by financial problems at Chabrol's AYJM. Completed in October 1959, though later recut and rescored, it was not shown commercially until 1962 at the Pagoda in Paris, selling only five thousand tickets. Le signe du lion never earned any money, though it garnered a few sympathetic reviews. Magny points out that the biggest problems for the film were that it offered a thin story line, an unappealing protagonist, repetitive music, and insignificant details that were nonetheless granted excessive screen time. Magny does acknowledge that Rohmer's first feature fits the New Wave spirit in many ways, however, especially in its documentation of a Paris that is very different from the commercial cinema's stereotypical city of romance and monuments. Here, Paris in August is presented as a hostile place, and many images preserve Pierre's heavy boredom and emptiness via the aimless duration of time and cavernous deep space in striking long takes. Jean Collet praises Rohmer's city, arguing that Rohmer's first feature proves right away that he is as much an architect as a director: "Le signe du lion is nothing if not a meditation on the city, the indifference its inhabitants show for one another and the distance established, as in Rear Window, between the characters and the spectator-tourists."

Certainly Le signe du lion should be seen today as an interesting but failed experiment; some of its traits, such as the connection between appearances, setting, and character, will be worked out more elegantly in Rohmer's later Moral Tales. Here, the obsessive documentary-like observance of the decline of Pierre and the hard, cruel space of the unforgiving Paris around him become a bit too obvious and even preachy. Frodon, however, praises Rohmer's fascination with the concrete: "The mise-en-scene belongs firmly to the material side, granting a striking physical presence to the building walls, pavement, and cobblestones that surround this character, who could not have been named anything other than Pierre [stone]." But Crisp effectively sums up the problems: "The New Wave had accustomed the public to all sorts of frenzied and unpredictable outbursts, but not to the austerity and understatement of this film... [much less to] being told that men were drab, slack and uninteresting."

- Richard John Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2007. Pages 253-254.

RECENT REVIEWS

The Sign of Leo is a fascinating film that both anticipates Rohmer’s later work and in other respects is quite unlike it. Made at the height of the New Wave, it shares with the films made by Rohmer’s comrades its intense naturalism: lightweight cameras enabled filming on real streets. The film gives a palpable sense of Paris in a heatwave, crowded with tourists: it’s not hard to imagine Pierre getting filthier and sweatier and more unshaven and unkempt as the hour-long central section depicting his decline and fall progresses. Then, in a very un-Rohmerian camera flourish (a combination of a crane shot and a model shot seeming to send the camera soaring into space), fate takes a hand. The somewhat ironic workings of fate feature in later Rohmer works such as The Green Ray and A Winter’s Tale, but here Rohmer leaves it open-ended as to whether Pierre has learned from his experience – the final line of dialogue pointedly leaves us to decide that. The film is a moral tale before Rohmer embarked on the series of that name, and differs from those films by not framing its story as a love story between men and women.

The film is rather less dependent on its characters’ talk than many of Rohmer’s later films, partly explained by the presence of a co-writer, Paul Gégauff, who is specifically credited with the film’s dialogue. It also depends on a superb performance from Jess Hahn. Hahn was a genuine American (born in Terre Haute, Indiana) who never made a film in the country of his birth but had a lengthy career in Europe. Sadly, many of the ninety-odd films he made were undistinguished, because his work here shows that there was much more to him. He makes Pierre’s desperation quite tangible, and hard to shake off. In a small role is Stéphane Audran, later to be Claude Chabrol’s regular leading lady and also his wife. Jean-Luc Godard appears in a brief role, uncredited. Nicolas Hayer’s black-and-white camerawork and Louis Saguer’s score, dominated by a solo violin, are also very effective.

Gary CouzensDVD Times

Eric Rohmer’s first full length film is this tragicomic tale of one man’s spiral descent into poverty and isolation.  Whilst the film shows Rohmer’s inexperience as a filmmaker too clearly and also suffers from some quite obvious flaws – most notably the awkward references to astrology and preordained fate – it is a compelling and, on balance, poignant work which makes some valid statements about human nature.

Any film which broaches the issue of homeliness is unlikely to do justice to the subject and to capture fully the tragedy of this predicament, but this film goes some way towards achieving this aim.  Pierre’s increasingly desperate attempts to find food and to hold his shoes together are simultaneously funny and agonisingly moving – as in many of Rohmer’s later films, it is these small details which can have a big effect on the audience.

The film certainly lacks the playful spontaneity and realism of Rohmer’s more recent film - the contrived happy ending being a particular disappointment.  Despite the jarring artificiality of the narrative, the cinematography is quite impressive, almost as mesmerising as in Rohmer’s better known films.  The eloquent location filming in Paris manages to match very well the mood of the central character – vibrant and fun when Pierre is celebrating his assumed inheritance, melancholic when he realises he has inherited nothing after all, and cruel when he finds himself alone and penniless.  The photography is distinctively Nouvelle Vague, and, appropriately, one of Rohmer’s contemporaries, Jean-Luc Godard, makes a silent cameo appearance near the start of the film.

- James Travers, Films de France

With its depiction of one man's long physical and spiritual decline, Le Signe Du Lion recalls the great naturalist novels of Emile Zola as well as the works of American realists such as Theodore Dreiser. It marks Rohmer out as one of the most literary of New Wave directors - always devoting particular attention to his characters' complex emotions and inner thoughts. Later films, though usually lighter in tone, would adopt a similar approach.

- Chris Wiegand, kamera.co.uk

ABOUT THE ARTIFICIAL EYE EARLY WORKS OF ERIC ROHMER DVD

Eric Rohmer's Le Signe du Lion sees the light of DVD for the first time (English friendly). The transfer is much better than I anticipated. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this DVD is far from what it could be, but still a decent one! The most problematic thing is that overall it's a little bit soft, and the non anamorphic picture makes some low level noise visible. Some minor moire effects can be seen on the window shutter's and on the front of cars, but there is no reason why Eric Rohmer fans shouldn't pickup this title.

The DD 2.0 sound in mono is flawless and fairly clean. I appreciate the small subtitle font AE has used on these box-set.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

The Sign of Leo has an inbuilt qualitative advantage over everything else in this set by having been originated in 35mm. It’s transferred in 1.66:1 – a ratio that Rohmer would abandon in favour of Academy Ratio (1.37:1) until the early 1980s – and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s a generally good transfer, given the film’s age: there is a general softness and some artefacting which may well have been avoided with anamorphic enhancement.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times

ABOUT ERIC ROHMER

IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are included in the TSPDT Director page for Eric Rohmer:

"All the literary content is peripheral to Rohmer's eye. It is in the quality of his imagery that we feel the intellectual appeal of experience. The camera style is classically simple, but Rohmer adores the effects of natural light, whether the reflections from snow in Maud, the rainy day in Claire, or the Côte d'Azur interiors in La Collectionneuse." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"Emerging from the crucible of the French New Wave, Rohmer has forged a style that combines the best qualities of Bresson and Renoir with distinctive traits of the Hollywood masters. And though he was never as flamboyant as Godard or Truffaut, Rohmer's appeal has proved much hardier." - Dennis Nastav (International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991)

"In their own world, Rohmer's films are guaranteed to run and run. This may be because, although they are more or less conversation pieces, they are also cleverly constructed (he always writes his own screenplays) in such a way as to keep an audience's interest alive until matters dovetail at the end, by which time most of Rohmer's characters know more about themselves than when the film began." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"An important figure in the French new wave, Rohmer is known primarily for his "moral tales," which leisurely speak of men and women, and the things they do to each other." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Biography on NewWaveFilm.com

By virtue of a tenure shared at Cahiers du Cinéma during the 1950s and early 1960s, Eric Rohmer is usually classified with Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, and Rivette as a member of the French New Wave. Yet, except for three early shorts made with Godard, Rohmer's films seem to share more with the traditional values of such directors as Renoir and Bresson than with the youthful flamboyance of his contemporaries. Much of this divergence is owed to an accident of birth. Born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer in 1920, Rohmer was at least ten years older than any of the other critic/filmmakers in the Cahiers group. By the time he arrived in Paris in 1948, he was an established teacher of literature at the lycée in Nancy and had published a novel, Elizabeth (1946), under the pseudonym Gilbert Cordier. When he joined the Cahiers staff in 1951 Rohmer had already spent three years as a film critic with such prestigious journals as La Revue du Cinéma and Sartre's Les Temps modernes. Thus Rohmer's aesthetic preferences were more or less determined before he began writing for Cahiers. Still, the move proved decisive. At Cahiers he encountered an environment in which film critics and filmmaking were thought of as merely two aspects of the same activity. Consequently, the critics who wrote for Cahiers never doubted that they would become film directors. As it turned out, Rohmer was one of the first to realize this ambition. In 1951 he wrote and directed a short 16mm film called Charlotte and Her Steak in which Godard, the sole performer, plays a young man who tries to seduce a pair of offscreen women. Two of his next three films were experiments in literary adaptation. These inaugurated his long association with Barbet Schroeder, who produced or co-produced all of Rohmer's subsequent film projects.

Dennis Nastav, Film Reference.com

In 1948, two years before making his first film, in a piece for Les Temps modernes, arguing “For a Talking Cinema” Rohmer writes:

If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element, which, though privileged as compared with others, is but of secondary importance as compared with the visual element.

In this early article, Rohmer set out the manifesto he followed throughout his career. He sees speech as an integral part of both life and cinema. In his work the word is not used to impart information, but rather as a revelation of world and character—that is, it is used in exactly the same way as the image is used. The dialogue that fills Rohmer's films—its banalities, intricacies and lies, reveal the interior of his characters as much as their silent glances and physical hesitations. Words are never forced—he writes for the specific voice of each actor—they are used cinematically rather than literally.

It is through writing that Rohmer's films consistently question the nature of the cinematic. It is shocking sometimes to see these long conversations and not be bored by their simple, often static representation. How can so much talk be cinematic? But these conversations are more than just talk. This isn't radio. Neither is it an interview or televised debate. This is talk visually represented. Word and image work together to create a third thing, cinema. But cinema is a vague term (silent films are, of course, cinema) bringing up the idea of moving images rather than this sound/image combination. Defending his Contes moreaux Rohmer writes:

…neither the text of these commentaries, nor that of my dialogues, is my film: Rather, they are things that I film, just like the landscapes, faces, behavior and gesture….I do not say, I show. I show people who move and speak.

The concept of total cinema is often seen as one of pure image, the meaning so completely contained within that image that words are unnecessary. In his quiet way—within what he describes as “self imposed limitations” —Rohmer is one of the few directors who has managed to arrive at a cinema that is doubly total. His is a cinema where the word is more than a signal post in the plot or a neat catchphrase, but something integrated into the cinematic world. He writes, “a means must be found to integrate words not into the filmed world but into the film…” His work is a concerted and successful attempt to do this.

- Tamara Tracz, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

In terms of consistency of both the content and form of his films, Eric Rohmer is without a doubt one of the most distinctive auteurs in the history of cinema. As with Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu, within min utes—seconds, even—of starting to watch one of his movies, it’s clear who made it. Not that his visual style is even remotely flashy; like Howard Hawks—one of the Hollywood directors Rohmer greatly admired when he was critic and editor, in the 1950s and early ’60s, for Cahiers du cinéma—Rohmer prefers to keep technology and technique invisible. Indeed, so decep tively simple and straightforward is his work that some dismiss it as “talking heads.” Such an assessment is right (but not particularly bright) to point to his love of conversation, and accurate insofar as it alludes— accidentally—to his fascination and skill in terms of exploring feelings, opinions, and thoughts, rather than depicting the kinds of actions (catching crooks, killing enemies, saving the world, seeing the light) favored by most directors. But it fatally ignores the remarkable emotional, intellectual, and dramaturgic subtlety of his work. A Rohmer movie is not simply a drama or a comedy, a love story or an exercise in suspense, a psychological study or a philosophical disquisition; it’s all these and considerably more. Whether an original piece or an adaptation, be it set in the present or the past, the city or the country, it’s always first and foremost a Rohmer film. In essence, he invented his own genre.

- Geoff Andrew, The Criterion Collection

Even more than Truffaut or Chabrol, Rohmer has always believed in the power of stories and storytelling. In his early "Moral Tales," the carefully calibrated narratives pushed his gallery of intellectuals toward a melancholy self-realization. As the director became more interested in young people at the beginning of the '80s, his focus shifted to the spiritual. Like Rossellini, one of his role models, the devoutly Catholic Rohmer tends to leave his heroes and heroines in a state of grace, framed within the most ordinary circumstances and settings (it's hard to imagine a more subtly enacted miracle than the climax of Tale of Winter). And, of course, they talk their way right up the spiritual ladder. Many people are driven around the bend by Rohmer's "dialogue-heavy" movies, which supposedly approach cinematic danger level. But in his case, talk always equals action: a form of therapeutic inquiry for the heroes of My Night at Maud's or Claire's Knee, a restless search for clarity in Pauline at the Beach or Le Beau Mariage, a wayward path toward enlightenment in the latest films. Moreover, Rohmer's talking cures are always firmly rooted in their settings: It's the pre-Christmas snowstorm in Clermont-Ferrand that keeps the skittish Jean-Louis Trintignant holed up with Françoise Fabian's game divorcée in Maud's, and it's the golden, sunlit southern countryside that fillsMarie Rivière with the knowledge of her own mature beauty in Autumn Tale.

With his three long series spanning six decades, broken up by excursions into documentaries, literary adaptations, and omnibus films, has Rohmer realized his ambition to be the Balzac of cinema? Maybe. It has to be said that his conservatism borders on nationalism: Unlike Pialat or Téchiné or even Rivette, he's never risen to the challenge of portraying the racial diversity of modern France. But for all its neatness and moral self-containment, his is a remarkable (and often remarkably funny) body of work, rich in natural wonders, bewitching interactions, and emotional passages. Maud's is still his meatiest film: Trintignant's wary self-exposure is perfectly matched by Fabian's seductive frankness, and Nestor Almendros never got a crisper black-and-white image. Depending on your tolerance for Jean-Claude Brialy, even at his least preening, Claire's Knee remains an intricately suspenseful movie: The buildup to that nonlecherous caress is one of the neatest inventions of the '70s. The "Comedies and Proverbs" of the '80s are more diaphanous, with the soulful exceptions of The Aviator's Wifeand the largely improvised Summer. But even the insubstantial Full Moon in Paris vibrates with the delicate beauty of the late Pascale OgierAutumn and Winter (his most purely Christian film) are the most vaunted of the later movies. My personal favorite is the undervalued Tale of Springtime, which works up a lively romantic intrigue against a background of suburban greenery under overcast skies. Also not to be missed: the painterly adaptation of Kleist's Marquise of O, with a devastating lead performance by the great Edith Clever; the early short The Baker of Monceau, the first of the moral tales, filled with new wave exuberance and featuring a young, handsome Barbet Schroeder; and the largely unknown feature debut, The Sign of Leo. A favorite of Fassbinder's, this beautifully elaborated tall tale offers a wonderful portrait of Paris in the late '50s. And, during a nicely detailed bohemian party scene, it features an unforgettable cameo. The young man in dark glasses sitting at a table, endlessly lifting the needle off a record to play and replay his favorite piece of music, is none other than Rohmer's opposite number, Jean-Luc Godard.

- Kent Jones, The Village Voice, February 6 2001

946 (88). Prima della rivoluzione / Before the Revolution (1964, Bernardo Bertolucci)

Screened December 28, 2008 on New Yorker VHS in Weehawken NJ TSPDT #988 IMDb

We have Bernardo Bertolucci's second feature to thank for serving a vivid analogy to the flaws of communism: like sleeping with your hot aunt, it's a utopian fantasy that, once achieved, goes downhill in a hurry.  This semi-autobiographical account of a doomed love affair between a young bourgeois leftist (Francesco Barilli) dallying and diddling with his disaffected aunt (Bertolucci's then-wife, the delectable Adriana Asti) is filmed with genuine emotional conviction towards its ideological confusion, trying its damnedest to articulate its ambivalence through a barrage of stylistic conceits openly borrowed from New Wave contemporaries (even Asti is a mash-up of Anna Karina kitten-cute and Vitti-Moreau-nioni neurosis). The jump cuts, poetic monologues and musical interludes are alternately impressive in their omnivorous ambitions and overbearing in their bombast (especially when Ennio Morricone's music swells to overkill levels). The most memorable stylistic elements are those that would become the touchstones for Bertolucci's career: a camera that moves like a dancer through time and space, wishing to brush its gaze against everything in sight; and a darkly sensuous knack for depicting forbidden sex as a form of self-knowledge, an inescapable vortex at the heart of existence. Few filmmakers have been able to channel the cinema to evoke their all-consuming libido; the catch is that the leftist sentiments depicted in this film (which, upon its spring '68 release in Paris, helped incite the May Riots) amount to just another dalliance for this quintessentially bourgeois superconsumer of life experience.  It amounts to an international arthouse version of The Graduate [TSPDT #215], as clever as that film in fashionably tweaking middle-class boredom with cougar sex and hip filmmaking to compensate for a muddled, reactionary critique of society.  As far as movies depicting scandalous intercourse leading to social revolutions go, Harold and Maude [TSPDT #493] reads like Das Kapital compared to this defeatist tract.

Wanna go deeper?

Last night, Philharmonic Hall presented "Before the Revolution," an unheralded Italian feature by an unknown writer-director named Bernardo Bertolucci. He is 23 years old, and his film is a beauty.

So is its star, Adriana Asti, a large-eyed brunette making her celluloid debut, appeared onstage with the director to take a modest bow before the screening. Her unfamiliar face meant little to the audience at the time. Before the evening was over, it had become a face that discerning filmgoers are unlikely to forget.

She is the focal point of a poignant love story epitomizing a young man's growth through the dense, chaotic jungle of contemporary civilization. Like many of the best modern films, the drama is difficult, subtle and extraordinarily complex in its imagery.

It is a moving story on the most immediate level, and the director has given it sweeping connotations. When the boy, unable to cope with the extraordinary young woman, abandons his struggles and lets her drift away, the drama reverberates with evocations of loss. His failure at love symbolizes a death of the past, an angst-ridden sense of futility in any kind of revolutionary striving, whether emotional, political or merely intellectual, amid the defeat of contemporary society.

Viewing life in such romantic terms is the special province of a very young director, but Mr. Bertolucci has approached his story with such deep feeling that its full implications are communicated. This is a young man's film, but it has large social references.

Cinematically, it is also filled with references, to the best modern directors in Italy and France. Knowledgeable viewers can detect strong influences from Roberto Rossellini and Alain Resnais in Mr. Bertolucci's sophisticated style.

Astonishingly, he has managed to assimilate a high degree of filmic and literary erudition into a distinctively personal visual approach. Technically, he displays authoritative control. Here is a new talent of outstanding promise.

A boyish nonprofessional, Francesco Barilli, is ideally cast as the groping Fabrizio, but Miss Asti is so stunning as the aunt that her character takes over the film. Amid a cast of inexperienced actors, she displays a stage-trained skill and an impressive presence that mark her for an impressive future on the screen.

"Before the Revolution" will be released in this country by Angelo Rizzoli. It is the revelation of the festival.

- Eugene Archer, The New York Times, September 25, 1964

The contrary attractions of sensuality and politics have been the subject of many of Bertolucci's films, but the conflict is presented most passionately and personally here, through the figure of a young bourgeois revolutionary (Francesco Barilli) involved in a tortured relationship with his aunt (Adriana Asti). The visual style suggests Minnelli in its lush subjectivity, particularly when the black and white gives way to color for a brief lyrical sequence.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

In all of Bertolucci's movies, there's a central conflict between the 'radical' impulses and a pessimistic (and/or willing) capitulation to the mainstream of bourgeois society and culture. It's a contradiction that takes on juggernaut proportions in '1900', but it stands as a major source of tension and interest in many of the earlier films. Both Before the Revolution (Bertolucci's second feature) and Partner try to examine it head-on. Revolution is about a middle-class 20-year-old who 'discovers' Marxism and tries - for a while - to change his life; Partner is an exuberant response to the student riots of '68, with Pierre Clémenti as a timid drama student confronting his own anarchic revolutionary alter ego. The first is mostly 'classical' in style, while the second is aggressively 'new wave', but both are full of interruptions and digressions: they throw out ideas and allusions (usually to other movies) with reckless enthusiasm, and they remain invaluable aids to an understanding of the '60s.

- Time Out

In Before the Revolution, Bertolucci first presents the theme which will become foremost in his work: the conflict between freedom and conformity. Fabrizio, the leading character, is obliged to decide between radical political commitment and an alluring marriage into the bourgeoisie. In this reworking of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Bertolucci expressly delineates the connection between politics and sexuality. The film also establishes the Freudian theme of the totemic father, which will recur throughout Bertolucci's work, here emblematized in the figure of Fabrizio's communist mentor, whom Fabrizio must renounce as a precondition to his entry into moneyed society.

- Robert Burgoyne, Film Reference.com

A must for Bertolucci afficianados is Before the Revolution, made, in wide-screen black-and-white, when he was an extraordinarily precocious 23. Understandably, it's autobiographical. The protagonist, Fabrizio (furrow-browed Francisco Barilli), is, like the youthful filmmaker, girl-and-movie crazy, and Marx-and-Freud obsessed, a tie-and-coat high bourgeoisie trying to be a renegade and relate to the historic struggles of the masses...

Though Farbizio orders a suicide-prone friend to a screening of Hawks's Red River, and though Farbizio takes a quick break to see Godard's A Woman is a Woman, mostly he is too stressed and distracted by love and political concerns to benefit from film going. So Bertolucci provides him with a hilarious cinephile friend, who spends his whole sentient life at the altar of movies (he sees them twice in a row). Afterward, he smokes and philosophizes about them. "I remember the 360 degree dolly shot of Nicholas Ray, I swear, one of the highest moral facts in the history of cinema," this friend says, and, "Remember, one can't live without Rossellini!"

Bertolucci, the film geek, is all over his shooting, as Before the Revolution is a perpetual homage to his cinema masters, old and new. Gina, alienated in fashionable clothes and photographed against architecture, comes from Antonioni, Gina in a telephone monologue from Rossellini, Gina framed formally with bare legs from Godard, Gina making faces in granny glasses from Truffaut. (It's interesting to see Bertolucci in 1963 quoting A Woman is a Woman and Truffaut's Jules and Jim, both of 1961, as if they are already canonic texts.)

Bertolucci's other source: Stendhal's early 19th century novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. Thank you, Bernardo, for affording me an excuse to spend several long plane rides reading Stendhal's fabulous 500-page Machiavellian melodrama about the post-Napoleon political maneuverings in the city of Parma. What does it have to do with Before the Revolution? The names of the three main characters are the same--Fabrizio, Gina, and Clelia--and, in each case, Farbizio bypasses the love of his flashy aunt for that of a pious, straightlaced younger girl. And there's stifling Parma, and there's a common setting for high drama of the opera.

But the contrasts are far more telling. Gina of the book is the most conniving belle at court, almost as obsessed by power and riches as she is by conquering Fabrizio. Gina of the movie is a little lost rich girl, panicked and neurotic, a walking nervous breakdown with no aspirations except getting men to love her. (At times, she is a drag, and her multi-moods are the most tiresome part of the movie.) Fabrizio of the book is a soldier (he fights at Waterloo), an adventurer, a nobleman, an autocrat, a political opportunist with little worry of conscience. Bertolucci's Fabrizio is a person of acute self-consciousness, pained by his political ineffectuality (that of the bourgeois class) and agonized that the promised Marxist paradise will never come.

- Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix

Apart from Pasolini, who cited the movie in a famous essay, “The Cinema of Poetry,” in 1965, the Italians hated “Before the Revolution.” The French adored it. The movie was screened during the Critics’ Week at Cannes in 1964, where it won prizes and was identified by French critics as “an homage to the school of the Cahiers,” which it certainly was. Bertolucci had been a regular reader of the Cahiers almost since he was a child—he was introduced to the magazine by his father, who wrote movie reviews as well as poetry—and he was an acolyte of Godard, whose stylistic fingerprints are all over the movie. Bertolucci became the New Wave’s adopted Italian. He went to Paris and met Godard, Langlois, Agnès Varda. Though no one could see his movie, because it lacked a distributor, it became a critical touchstone at the Cahiers. (The movie also played a role in the so-called Hollywood New Wave; it is an influence on Martin Scorsese’s first major picture, “Mean Streets,” which came out in 1973.) For his part, Bertolucci used to say that he preferred to give interviews in French, on the ground that French is the true language of cinema. [Henri] Langlois himself was responsible for the French release of “Before the Revolution,” which finally happened in 1968. The Cahiers critics all awarded it four stars, their highest rating—“chef d’oeuvre.” By 1968, student radicals were citing it as explanation and inspiration, and the phrase “before the revolution” appeared in accounts of the events of May in the French press.

The words are taken from a remark of Talleyrand’s: “He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is.” Bertolucci insisted that he meant the title ironically, that life “before the revolution” is agony; he has his protagonist mutter, despairingly, “It’s always ‘before the revolution’ if you’re like me.” But with movies you believe the camera—what the camera loves cannot be all bad—and the camera tells us that although Talleyrand was undoubtedly on the wrong side, he was not wrong. “At first my story was a modern ‘Charterhouse,’ ” Bertolucci explained in an interview in the Cahiers in 1965, “but then it gradually developed into ‘Sentimental Education.’ ” Fabrizio is not a revolutionary; he is playing at being a revolutionary, because that is what young people in the postwar middle class do. His kind of revolution is just a chapter in the bourgeois family romance (thus the incest: it violates the norms of the nuclear family). If “Before the Revolution” is a prophecy of the rebellion of May ’68, in which students from the Sorbonne marched in solidarity with workers from the Renault auto plants, it is also a prophecy of its failure.

- Louis Menard, The New Yorker, October 20, 2003

Bertolucci used Before the Revolution to explore the nature of political doubt: Fabrizio abandons one type of patriarchy (his conservative family) for another (the ideological demands of Marxism). As in most of the director's films, this dichotomy is accompanied by sexual tension: While left-wing politics and haute bourgeois surroundings provide the milieu for Revolution, the main narrative (a very loose adaptation of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma) concerns Fabrizio's affair with his aunt Gina (Adriana Asti). But unlike in his later works, Bertolucci doesn't quite manage to reconcile the film's sexual politics with its more overt ideological content. Try as we might, it's hard to read Gina as a symbol for anything – she simultaneously represents sexual freedom and Fabrizio's stuffy family relations; it's hard to divorce her from the rest of the world, even though she is clearly an outcast in her own surroundings. (It's also possible to read the incest taboo as a sublimation of homoerotic desire; several early scenes are devoted to Fabrizio's clearly gay, suicidal young friend Agostino [Allen Midgette], whose death is one of the centerpieces of the film.) Ultimately, what emerges from Before the Revolution is not a coherent vision but a brilliant, highly kinetic portrait of a very confused young man – made, perhaps, by a brilliant and very confused young man. Bertolucci even throws in a beautifully filmed, lushly scored ode to the environment, in which a minor character delivers a lyrical monologue to the decaying Po River, right near the end – a gorgeous sequence that almost feels like it deserves to be its own short work.

- Bilge Ebiri, Senses of Cinema

Bertolucci’s film is gorgeously written and acted – it’s Asti’s film all the way though – and it paves the way for The Conformist, a film whose protagonist is on the opposite side of the ideological fence from Fabrizio. If there’s any complaint, it’s with some of the montages that look a bit too much like Godard lite (complete with jump cuts), but that is a small complaint. Most of the film has a visual elegance that prefigures Bertloucci’s better known works such as The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. (This film’s beautiful black and white photography is by Aldo Scavarda, who shot Antonioni’s great L’Avventura.) Some of the film’s later scenes, where we see Fabrzio and his fiancée meet Gina at a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth are almost elegiac in their melancholy beauty. Rough going for some viewers, no doubt, but particularly rewarding of second and third viewings, Before the Revolution is a brilliant social document and masterful filmmaking.

- Nick Burton, Pif Magazine

Inspired by Godard and Resnais’s Marienbad (1961), Bertolucci tries everything: zooms; a moving car camera, attached either to the front or the side; dissolves within a scene—if you will, “soft” jump-cuts; hard jump-cuts; misty lyrical poetry by a lake. This movie is in love with movies and movie-making.

It is also one of the most important films for understanding the sixties. Its lovely incest (seven years before Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart) reaches for a synthesis derived from thesis (family, structure, order) and antithesis (the pleasure of doing one’s own thing). In the States we knew on the basis of this reconciliation that revolution would never happen here.

Or, perhaps, anywhere else in the postwar West. A schoolteacher tells Fabrizio, “[Y]ou can argue only with people who have the same ideas.”

Devastating; irreplaceable; phenomenal.

- Dennis Grunes

Michael Guillen re-organizes a number of the above citations in his own essay on the film for Twitch

Deeper Readings

Attilio Bertolucci called his son's films from the 1960s "autobiographical in a symbolic sense." "We are all Catholics," he said, "Bernardo was baptized and all that. There is a contradiction in Bernardo. I think that at the same time he hates and loves his background, his life, his class. Therefore the heroes of his autobiographical films always try to break loose but fail in the end." Bertolucci himself contended: "More than just being autobiographical, it was a way to exorcise my own fears. Because to be like that character is almost a destiny for all bourgeois young Europeans."  When asked about the origins of his Marxist sympathies, Bertolucci said: "I was always like that. Marxism in Italy is very common."

While the more immediate Grim Reaper has retained most of its original freshness, the impact of Before the Revolution has gradually weakened with the passage of time because so many of its stylistic elements are characteristic of the 1960s search for a new language. This reflective first-person film testimony is, in a way, an anthology of the efforts by 1960s filmmakers to renovate film narrative by, among other things, basing it on present-tense stream of consciousness. Bertolucci's restless camera uses many components cherished by various New Waves, which, in retrospect, appear outdated: high-angle shots culminating in frozen compositions, repetitions of the same shot from a slightly different perspective, freeze frames, unexpected and unmotivated changing of distance between camera and object, subjective tracking shots and pans, etc. Bertolucci's style is based on insistent, extremely seductive takes reminiscent of the language of Romantic poetry with its highly personal sets of signs.

In its time, Before the Revolution was hailed as a major achievement of the New Italian Cinema, equaled only by Fists in the Pocket. The film amassed many awards and strengthened Bertolucci's image as a prodigy. But its box-office results were rather poor, and the producers labeled Bertolucci "noncommercial." He had to wait another four years before he could embark on his next feature film, Partner (1968), which reconfirmed both his exceptional talent and his avowed eclecticism.

- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Published by University of California Press, 1986. Pages 194-195

If there is a single subject in the film, it is the existence and future of the individual within an ephemeral moment, and the future of that moment itself within a larger historical process. Bertolucci uses the conventional set-up – romance and revolution – but disguises it in a strikingly novel manner. It seems unfortunate that over the years, the critical dialogue on Before the Revolution seems to have overlooked (or at least undermined) the love story in the film. I assume that this is because it is a puzzling romance, doomed from the beginning and consistently fraught with doubt and disorder. But watching Gina and Fabrizio is like looking upon parallel rail-tracks from the window of a moving train – they come together, collide, move apart, and all at a speed that makes the spectacle hypnotic and their inevitable separation so abrupt. From the familial warmth of their first encounter, to the innocent gaiety as they shop in the streets of Parma and the painful solemnity of their separation at the opera house, their relationship morphs unpredictably from one state to another. Their utterances stretch from the intimate (“I exist because you exist”) to the banal (the endless talk of rain). Their first love-scene is as erotic as anything Bertolucci has subsequently fashioned, reaching a height of sensuality even as Fabrizio and Gina lie on separate beds. It is difficult to imagine the realisation of such a moment in the cinema of today, with the common perversity attached to acts of self-gratification. Sensibly, the film is also not completely devoid of a romantic idyll. In what could be considered the centrepiece of the film – a single 3-minute long take – Bertolucci’s camera circles Fabrizio’s living-room to almost magically transform a dull bourgeois conversation about eating, into a picture of the lovers dancing to an evocative song on the radio. The father exits, the grandmother is asleep, and we are left alone with a frame that closes in to reveal the geographies of mouths and necklines.

The most remarkable aspect in the presentation of this love affair however, is that the incestuous underpinnings that appear to be the most obvious reason for its termination are not necessarily suggested as being entirely responsible for its failure. Gina and Fabrizio are depicted as fundamentally different individuals. She idealises the present and would like nothing to move; “everything still like a picture with us in the middle, motionless”. She also questions the significance of time and the idea that the world has order that can be manipulated. For Fabrizio, time is everything – the key to historical progress and structure. His relationship with the present is more nostalgic because with every passing moment his future becomes his past. The relationship seems hopelessly self-destructive and both characters riddle themselves with guilt. Gina is prone to bouts of madness and cries out that every war, storm and fire is her fault. Fabrizio’s ideological preoccupations leave him cold, and he later admits that he wanted to fill Gina with vitality but gave her anguish instead. Finally, the lovers are never ready to confront the possibility that their affair is more than just a satisfaction of curiosities or a remedy for boredom. To use Gina’s allegory, “clouds pursue clouds”. She pursues him pursuing her.

The centrality of Fabrizio’s political “disarmament” in Before the Revolution has elicited several responses to Bertolucci’s intent in this film. Was he exploring the nature of his own political doubt? This seems likely in view of the proximity between Bertolucci and his protagonist, and he has claimed that the film served as an exorcism of his Marxist fears of being sucked back into the “milieu”. Some even suggest that the film prophesises the failure of the May ’68 uprising. In essence, not unlike the love story that runs parallel to it, the political narrative of Bertolucci’s film highlights the vagaries in following a nebulous idea. Fabrizio presents himself as a staunch Marxist; he sees activism as ennobling and a source for meaning (like poetry). But he is merely a pretender to the cause. He brandishes a bookish rhetoric but this is only to sound convincing. Towards the end he chokes while chanting a Marxist slogan. This is the realisation that he will never be the “new kind of man” that he believes in – one that is “wise enough to educate his parents”. So there is some irony in Bertolucci’s appropriation of Talleyrand’s remark. For Fabrizio there is little “sweetness” in this time “before the revolution”; it is filled instead with agony and despair.

Is it surprising then that people criticise the film for being intangible? Bertolucci claims that at the time he sought out a cinema that did not engage the audience on an obvious sensual level. Like the directors of the nouvelle vague, he was keen to challenge the fascist model of the passive spectator exercised by popular cinema. This involved a deliberate distanciation of the audience through an unconventional employment of narrative and style. But there was always the fear of being ignored, of completely alienating the spectator to the point where the art became incomprehensible. Fortunately, in Before the Revolution, the amorphous structure of the film becomes inextricably linked to the ambiguities of the subject. A shapeless figure (the spectator) pursues a shapeless form with shapeless substance. 40 years after its release, Bertolucci’s film continues to demand that we suspend our traditional habits of viewing. It remains inconsumable in the conventional sense but it is hardly incoherent.

- Neel Chaudhuri, Senses of Cinema

Bertolucci's artistic 'piece de resistance', Before The Revolution, is an intangible and anti-narrative experiment in film cohesion. The film progresses seamlessly towards an enigmatic conclusion, while charging indoctrination with corruption and utilizing propaganda as style. Bertolucci responds to dogma by replacing media with medium. Textually the signified here becomes the signified. Characters in the film are meaningless, and vacant icons; they become the images (the shadows on the wall) that they 'act' upon. However, this style and deconstructionist meta-theatricality make the film unabsorbable. Where Pasolini's intention of creating an un-consumable film worked in Salo, Bertolucci's Before The Revolution spreads itself too far and too thinly. The plot revolves around Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli), a melancholy man in a disintegrating world, who, after the death of his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette), falls in love with the esoteric Gina (Adriana Asti), his aunt. Love blossoms between the two, then fails in a final act of desperation. The film covers many themes, from alienation to sex, from cinematic history to understanding. Collage-like in structure, the film begins with a premise of monumental grandeur, shot in striking B&W and magnificently filmed by Aldo Scavarda (who filmed the earlier L'avventura of Michelangelo Antonioni), the film exudes an artistic quality that attempts poetic lyricism. Via repetitious zooms, and varying editing, the viewer is dislocated from the 'light-show' and is deadened by the phlegmatic momentum. (A momentum that is so overbearing the film almost becomes parodic.) As Fabrizio meanders through city-scapes, falling in and out of love with Gina and endlessly searching for an existential meaning, his encounters with political forces are too conspicuous and diverting. The viewer simply cannot care for both Fabrizio's search and the heavy-handing statements about 'thought-control'. While we, the consumers, become so easily pleased with the sugar-coated beauty of the film, its caustic message is lost.

- Keith Breese

Obsessive still shots are also characteristic of Bertolucci's film, Before the Revolution. However, they have a different meaning than for Antonioni. However, they have a different meaning than for Antonioni. The world-fragment, imprisoned in the frame and transformed by it into a fragment of autonomous beauty which refers only to itself, does not interest Bertolucci as it interests, in return, Antonioni. Bertolucci's formalism is infinitely less pictorial: his frame does not intervene metaphorically upon reality, sectioning it into so many mysteriously autonomous places, like pictures. Bertolucci's frame adheres to reality, according to the canon of a certain realist manner (according to a technique of poetic language, followed by the classics from Charlie Chaplin to Bergman): the stillness of a shot upon a portion of reality (the river, Parma, the streets of Parma, etc.) reveals the grace of a profound and confused love precisely for that portion of reality.

Practically, the whole stylistic of Before the Revolution is a long "free indirect subjective" based on the dominant state of mind of the protagonist, the neurotic young aunt. Whereas there was, in Antonioni, a whole substitution of the sick woman's vision for that (of febrile formalism) of the author, in Bertolucci such a substitution does not take place. What there has been is a contamination between the vision the neurotic woman has of the world and that of the author, which are inevitably analogous, but difficult to perceive, being closely intermixed, having the same style.

The intense moments of expression in the film are, precisely, those "insistences" of the framing and the montage-rhythms, whose structural realism (derived from Rossellinian neo-realism and the mythic realism of some younger master) is charged, throughout the uncommon duration of a shot or a montage-rhythm, till it explodes in a sort of technical scandal. Such an insistence on details, particularly on certain details in the digressions, is a deviation in relation to the system of the film: it is the temptation to make another film. It is, in sum, the presence of the author, who, in a measureless liberty, goes beyond the film and threatens continually to abandon it for the sake of an unforeseen inspiration which is that - latent - of the author's love for the poetic world of his own life-experiences. A moment of a naked and raw subjectivity, entirely natural, in a film in which - as in Antonioni's - subjectivity is mystified by a method of false objectivism, the result of a pretextual "free indirect subjective."

Beneath the style generated by the disoriented, disorganized, beset-by-details state of mind of the protagonist, is the level of the world as seen by an author no less neurotic, dominated by an elegiac, elegant, but never "classicist" spirit.

- Pier Paolo Pasolini, "The Cinema of Poetry." Published in Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Edited by Bill Nichols. Published by University of California Press, 1976. Pages 553-554

Fabrizio epitomizes the contradiction between the power of the bourgeois past and the felt need for the revolution to be carried out by the Communist party. Fabrizio's conflicts with the other characters, each representing another segment of Italian society, turn the film into an analytic metamovie. The major conflict between Cesare (representing the political aspect) and Gina (representing the sexual apolitical aspect) is resolved only in Bertolucci's following films which synthesize Freud with Marx. Before the Revolution is a film "before the analysis" (the beginning of Bertolucci's analysis was in 1969) in which both the political and the sexual are betrayed by the young, immature protagonist. And, indeed, the film not only identifies with Fabrizio but also criticizes him on every level. Fabrizio is criticized by both Gina and Cesare. Gina criticizes Fabrizio for capitulating to bourgeois morality while Cesare criticizes him for being incapable of acting correctly on either the personal or political level. Gina in Before the Revolution (giving voice to the reactionary position from a leftist point of view) argues with Cesare that people cannot change. To support her argument she quotes Oscar Wilde's dictum, "You can't change even one person." In The Last Emperor, however, (which coincides with the end of Bertolucci's first analysis) Bertolucci based his thesis on the belief that man can change.  If we take Bertolucci as representing the authorial position of Before the Revolution, then we can take Fabrizio's capitulation to bourgeois filmmaking. Although the film, through its shifting narrative and character focalization, privileges Gina's and Cesare's positions, Bertolucci's career has followed Fabrizio's path.

- Yosefa Loshitzky. The Radical Faces of Godard and Bertolucci. Published by Wayne State University Press, 1995. Page 198.

About the RHV Region 2 DVD

How Does the DVD Look?

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's Before the Revolution has undergone substantial restoration and the results are stunning! With an exceptional degree of detail, spectacular contrast, a flawless progressive transfer, no print damage, and an image that sparkles with its beautiful black and white gradation this DVD presentation by RHV is without a doubt a collector's dream. I can hardly think what else the Italian distribs could have improved on this presentation as just about every aspect that is typically scrutinized by film buffs has been treated with enormous care. Quite frankly this is as good as this film has ever looked. Region 2, PAL.

Extras:

There have been some heavy speculations that Criterion might release Before the Revolution as part of their collection and I most certainly hope that this is not just a rumor started by those who like to play with possibilities. With this said however unless such release materializes with a lengthy commentary by the director of the film sharing his thoughts and memories I believe that English-speakers need not wait for a better release. Why? I can hardly see how this all-English friendly DVD could be topped by anything the R1 distribs may or may not release. Indeed, ALL of the extras on this double DVD set have been subbed in English:

On disc one you would fine the theatrical trailer for the film as well as a nicely done gallery of stills. There is also the short "Cinema D'Oggi" extract where Bernardo Bertolucci comments on the film while selected footage is being shown. Next, there is the "Effetti Personali" segment where selected dialogs and lines are being recited by the cast (approx. twenty years later) throughout locations from Before the Revolution with the original footage from the film being inserted as well.

On disc two you will find the remaining extras from this spectacular release. First there is a short segment titled "Traveling Companions" where Enzo Siciliano, and Adriano Apra are being interviewed. Much of what is being said is recollections pertaining to film's history so there is plenty that fans of Bertolucci will find intriguing. Next, there is a massive interview with Bernardo Bertolucci where he goes into great detail talking about his film and practically touching upon just about all that one might be curious about (I consider this to be the strongest extra from the DVD as I am most certain if a R1 release actually happens it is likely that RHV will not license it). "Gina and Fabrizio" is the next interview provided for this release where Adriana Asti and Francesco Barilli share their thoughts on the roles they were given in Before the Revolution. Unlike the previous interview with Bernardo Bertolucci however I was not as impressed as I thought I would be. "The Workshop of the Young Masters" provides another set of interviews with Ennio Morricone, Roberto Perpignani, and Vittorio Storaro where they discuss their involvement with the film. Morricone's comments were particularly interesting given his enormous reputation between Italian film directors. Next, we have "Re-Readings" with Francesco Casetti, Lucilla Albano, and Giovanna Grignaffini where everyone once again shares their thoughts and recollections on Before the Revolution while highlighting their involvement with the film. Next, there is the "After the Revolution" segment where directors Marco Tullio Giordana (The Best of Youth) and Marco Bellocchio talk about the impact Bernardo Bertolucci and his film had on Italian cinema. Last but not least we have a special documentary that follows the restoration process of this film while highlighting the success which the producers were able to achieve spending thousands and thousands of hours working for the best possible quality.

Final Words:

Quite frankly this is the most spectacular R2 presentation of an Italian film I have ever seen!! RHV truly have delivered a package that is without a doubt the definitive version of Before the Revolution (both in terms of technical presentation and in terms of supplemental material). I would go on record here and reconfirm my opinion that a Criterion release will NOT surpass the wealth of extras as well as the stunning audio/video restoration work the Italian distribs have provided. Unless somehow Criterion manage to convince Bertolucci to record a commentary for this film (and I wonder what else he could contribute as practically ALL he has to say could be found in his interviews provided for this double Italian set) there is no reason for you to wait!! This is one of the all-time BEST R2 English-friendly releases I have seen, all cinema considered: DVDTALK Collector's Series.

- Svet Atanasov, DVD Talk

Rarely does a DVD come along that deserves the title definitive version and in the case of RHV’s Before the Revolution DVD they have put together an impressive release that truly deserves the title of definitive edition, highly recommended.

- Michael Den Boer, 10,000 Bullets

About Bernardo Bertolucci

IMDb Wiki

Biography at Film Reference.com

Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Bertolucci:

"At the age of twenty-one, Bernardo Bertolucci established himself as a major artist in two distinct art forms, winning a prestigious award in poetry and receiving high critical acclaim for his initial film, La commare secca. This combination of talents is evident in all of his films, which have a lyric but exceptionally concrete style." -   Robert Burgoyne (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)

"One of the cinema's greatest masters of visual beauty, especially when assisted by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Bertolucci's films are also dramatically naive and pretentious far too often, even addled at times, resulting in risible scenes even when respected actors are used. But at least the nine Oscars won by The Last Emperor, one of his three near-masterpieces, have assured that Bertolucci will not simply go down in history as the man who made Last Tango in Paris." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"One of the most accomplished directors of the contemporary Italian cinema...Bertolucci, who believes that "cinema is the true poetic language", had applied his celluloid poesy mostly to political-human themes, but with Last Tango in Paris (1972) he moved into the realm of the purely human. It established Bertolucci as a commercially viable director as well as a highly gifted one." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"The psychological and intellectual man in society has been brilliantly explored by Bertolucci." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I'm no longer interested in making political films. There's something old-fashioned about them. Young people now don't care for politics. It isn't present in life as it used to be. And increasingly I like films which reflect present-day reality." - Bernardo Bertolucci (1999)

Biographical Entry from Ephraim Katz' The Film Encyclopedia

Interview with Bertolucci by Nathan Rabin, The Onion A/V Club, 2004

An even better interview by David Thompson at the BFI National Film Theater, 2003

Very few international directors in the past four decades have managed to remain at the “critically successful” as consistently as Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, whose career has straddled three generations of filmmaking, four continents, and several movie industries. Alongside his provocative explorations of sexuality and ideology, his highly kinetic visual style – often characterised by elaborate camera moves, meticulous lighting, symbolic use of colour, and inventive editing – has influenced several generations of filmmakers, from the American “movie brats” of the 1970s to the music video auteurs of the '80s and '90s. Perhaps the most important reason for Bertolucci's continuing relevance has been the intensely personal nature of his movies: although he makes narrative features, very often based (albeit loosely) on outside literary sources, Bertolucci's films over the decades reveal distinct connections to their creator's private dilemmas and the vagaries of his creative and intellectual life. In other words, he has been able to fulfill his dream of being able “to live films” and “to think cinematographically” – to lay bare his inner life through his work.

- Bilge Ebiri, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Bertolucci's films exude a stylishness and filmic beauty that has rarely been captured by the artifice of cinema, yet the substance of Bertolucci's films, and indeed his primary point, remains quite confused and vague. While Bertolucci openly criticises and 'mocks' the conventions of Western cinema, his films tend to resemble collages or aglomerations of well-designed set-pieces that do not coalesce into a unified form. Perhaps, this was Bertolucci's intent, to create a cinema that defies categorization and elucidation. The interrogations in The Grim Reaper resonate with self-reflective examinations of film; as Bertolucci queries the form and substance of cinema. However, Bertolucci's interrogations manifest themselves in extremely varied and uncomfortable constructions, as he cannot seem to fully devote himself to an interpretation.

This lack of coherence and the inconsistency reaches its height in Before the Revolution, which, although being quite breathtakingly beautiful, is absurdly self- engrossed. Bertolucci's later Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist engage in a self-reflexive hyper-realism that borders on visual genius. Bertolucci's critique of the spectator and fascism gives breathtaking insight into the apparatus of 'propaganda' and the emotional usurping of the individual within the web of 'cinema.' Bertolucci challenges the 'authority' of film by holding images and viewers hostage (willingly, of course) with a political and ideological blitzkrieg.

- Keith Breese

BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI is a true child of the cinema. His father, a poet and teacher of art history in Parma and Rome, was also a film critic, and little Bernardo tagged along with him to two or three films a day. Bertolucci made his first film—a ten-minute short—when he was 15, his first feature when he was 20. By that time, he had also published a prizewinning book of poetry, In Search of Mystery, and worked as an assistant to Pier Paolo Pasolini on Accattone! "He was just as virgin to the cinema as I was," Bertolucci recalls. "So I didn't watch a director at work. I watched a director being born."

Bertolucci was born as a director with his second feature, Before the Revolution, which brought him, at 23, the sort of critical tributes once lavished on the youthful Orson Welles. The film's title recalls Marx, but it is actually taken from Talleyrand: "He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is." The film is about a young man's struggle to reconcile radical politics with an almost lavish romanticism, to fuse Marx and Talleyrand in his lofty, poetic soul. Revolution has the intimate feeling of a personal memoir, of experience hardly assimilated and still freshly felt.

Revolution also set the pattern of Bertolucci's lush, visual style, a kind of free-flowing flamboyance that seems to be a celebration of the act of filmmaking. There were references to movies, countless movies, everything from early Godard to Red River. Bertolucci continues this tradition of paying homage to his mentors: In The Spider's Stratagem, made in 1969, the camera lingers briefly over a poster for Robert Aldrich's Wagnerian western The Last Sunset; in Tango there is a scene aboard a barge, between Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud, that is meant to evoke Jean Vigo's classic L'Atalante.

- Time Magazine, January 22, 1973

Bertolucci made his first film after years of apprenticeship with some of the greatest personalities of the Italian artistic scene. Introduced by his father, Attilio, the famous Italian poet and literary critic, Bertolucci started attending regular discussion meetings of an artistic group that included Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani, the brothers Sergio and Franco Citti, and P.P. Pasolini, the host. Two women, both aspiring actresses, belonged as regular guests at Pasolini's house: Laura Betti and Adriana Asti. But soon there was a rift, caused by Bertolucci, at the time an extremely attractive young man. Betti wanted to influence his life and career, but he preferred the less explosive Asti, choosing her for the leading female role of his second film Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964) and eventually marrying her. Betti, who became one of Italy's best actresses, did not speak to them for years. The encounters at Pasolini's place went on (after 1963 in his modern duplex at Via Eufrate), but Bertolucci and Asti were rarely among the guests. In retrospect, it seems that it was not Asti who caused the split. Rather, Bertolucci wanted to free himself from the influence of Pasolini, whom he first met at the age of fifteen.

Yet it took many years for Bertolucci to liberate himself from his "spiritual father." In 1975, he contended: "Pier Paolo Pasolini has always been a father figure to me. When he spoke badly about Last Tango in Paris, I felt a kind of liberation. The more he insisted on the film's poor qualities, the more he was destroying his image of the father figure."

- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Published by University of California Press, 1986. Page 191

932 (73). Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt wo Gewalt herrscht / Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where it Rules (1965, Jean-Marie Straub)

* SPECIAL NOTE: Not Reconciled is playing Sunday 11/23 and Wednesday 11/25 as part of the Manny Farber Tribute at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit filmlinc.com for more info Screened November 14 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Media Study Center, New York NY

TSPDT rank #612 IMDb

Only 50 minutes long but requiring at least two or three viewings to grasp, the debut feature of cinema's most dynamic husband and wife directing duo is quite possibly the most daunting and demanding work of the 60s New Wave. Adapting a novel by Nobel laureate and post-war German critic Heinrich Boll, Straub and Huillet radically reinvent conventional expository devices such as voiceover narration and scene transitions, transmogrifying D.W. Griffith's innovations with cinematic time (cf. Intolerance) to reflect a frightening state of national and political shell-shock. Upon initial viewings, half the time one doesn't know whether a scene is happening in the contemporary West Germany of the 1960s, the 1930s Third Reich, or the First World War. This disorientation reflects the haunted mental state of a family comprised of three generations of political outsiders, perpetually living under traumas suffered by their nation's history that those around them are eager to repress.  What keeps this film from being dismissed as a pretentious high-brow aesthetic exercise is the sinuous mystery to its rhythms, made clean by a near-merciless precision to the film's Bresson-inspired cutting and framing schemes, and weighted with the emotional accumulation of oblique expressions of rage and cruelty, Teutonic blue notes played with cool ferocity. This is a puzzle film with jigs as sharp as shark's teeth, now as much as ever.

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The subtitle of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s first feature, from 1965, “Only Violence Helps Where Violence Reigns,” suggests the fierce political program evoked by their rigorous aesthetic. The pretext of the film, set in Cologne, is Heinrich Böll’s novel “Billiards at Half Past Nine,” which they strip down to a handful of stark events and film with a confrontational angularity akin to Bartók’s music that adorns the soundtrack. The subtlest of cues accompany the story’s complex flashbacks. The middle-aged Robert Fähmel tells a young hotel bellhop of persecutions under the Third Reich; his elderly father, Heinrich, an architect famed for a local abbey, recalls the militarism of the First World War, when his wife, Johanna, incurred trouble for insulting the Kaiser. A third-generation Fähmel is considering architecture, just as the exiled brother of Robert’s late wife, returns, only to be met by their former torturer, now a West German official taking part in a celebratory parade of war veterans. Straub and Huillet make the layers of history live in the present tense, which they judge severely. The tamped-down acting and the spare, tense visual rhetoric suggest a state of moral crisis as well as the response—as much in style as in substance—that it demands.

- Richard Brody, The New Yorker

The least that can be said to explain why the films of Straub and Huillet are so important is that they embody the most rigorous practice in cinema of playing fair with one's materials: texts, actors, elements, landscapes, buildings. That means: letting the living live, letting what once lived, speak. What once lived: what was once intended, what was once thought within a network of links with its own time and with the more or less distant past (the connections from Brecht to Caesar, from Hölderlin to Empedocles, from Pavese to the ancient gods of Italy, from Schönberg to Moses and Aaron). Letting what once lived, speak and appear, somewhere. People and things may not be in their place, but they are in a place...

In Not Reconciled (1965), it's already clear, this attitude, or discipline, that makes it happen that the filmmakers place themselves in front of people, in the midst of reality, in such a way that people and reality do not give up to the camera. The people are always looking out of the frame, they are always escaping, out of allegiance to this system that Straub-Huillet's Brechtian cinema constructs and displays, whereby the actor remains in his/her own skin even while adopting the garb of another: without claiming, falsely, to be at home in this garb. (No pretended intimacy in their films, no false traffic with the inner life of people; what is discussed is public life, politics, work, genetic life, the activity of peoples and races....) What Straub-Huillet add to Brecht is cinema: the route through the real or the escape of the real through the real, at the moment of being filmed.

- Chris Fujiwara, FIPRESCI Undercurrent

Evoking such intricately interwoven allusive images as religious rigidity, blind faith, false idolatry, and passive complicity, the seemingly perfunctory episode distills the essence of Heinrich Böll's, radical, anti-militarist postwar novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, an indicting examination of the collective psyche of the German people that contributed to rise of Nazism and its insidious perpetuation in contemporary society. Unfolding in disorientingly elliptical vignettes that eschew dramatic action in favor of oppressively distended temp morts, autonomic ritual (most notably, in the recurring image of Robert Fähmel (Henning Harmssen) playing a lone game of billiards), and decontextualized, uninflected monologues (that recall the dedramatized, pensive recitation of Robert Bresson's equally spare and austere cinema), the film chronicles three generations of architects and their personal association with - and ancestral legacy through - St. Anthony's Abbey and, in the process, presents an incisive and relevant portrait of a traumatized nation's culturally fostered (but publicly unarticulated) xenophobia, suppressed memory, deliberate inaction, and tacit support for (and therefore, condoned harboring of) war criminals into positions of power, authority, and influence in postwar Germany. Filming in stark black and white, Straub and Huillet also set the somber atmosphere of figurative, unreconciled ghosts of souls (and histories) passed through the opening image of otherworldly forms and shadows cast by a bleak and desolate winter forest. Straub and Huillet further underscore the film's recurring theme of alienation and distance through non-confronting dialogue, incongruous narration, and isolated and occluded character framing. Similarly, the film's asequential structure conflates past and present in order to create a pervasive sentimental inertia - a metaphoric existential vicious circle for a national soul that is still haunted by its own past, even as it continues to steadfastly cling to its self-destructive behaviors - obfuscating moral complicity through delusive self-denial and perverted, hollow rituals. It is this inextricable sense of moribund transcendence that is captured in the Fähmel family's intertwined destinies with the wartime-sabotaged cathedral, the tragic and tortuous course of human history that reveals only a shell of irredeemably lost grandeur and inevitable fall from grace.

- Acquarello, Strictly Film School

If I were asked to name the most difficult great filmmaker(s) in the world, the team of the late Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub would undoubtedly top my list. (In fact, that might make in interesting exercise, so you can probably expect to see such a list posted here soon.) At the beginning of their shared career, the husband-wife team were making severe, austere black-and-white films with dark, brooding political content. The best of these early films, Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, boiled down Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half Past Nine, to a jagged 45 minutes in which the book’s multiple plot lines were jumbled and its chronology obliterated. It is a stunning film that rewards multiple viewings. It is a film that requires multiple viewings.

- George Robinson, Cine-Journal

A "lacunary" film is what Straub called Not Reconciled and what every film by him and Huillet may be called, a film in which the gaps cannot be filled in to make a world, the parts missing cannot be put in place to make a whole. It is not that we are called upon to complete the work ourselves: how can we, if its makers cannot? It is that the gaps, the parts missing, are to become ours as well as the work's: the work of putting the parts together, the parts without a whole, is one in which we must take part...

In Not Reconciled the remnants of the past, of the various pasts, are not clearly placed in those pasts; with disconcerting abruptness the film shifts between diffferent periods, between different actors playing the same characters in different periods, and so the things from the past are not experienced as past but as things with the same claim as anything else to belonging in the present. Precisely the point: the German past is not over and done with, it continues in the present. But in Not Reconciled things do not exist in a world of the present either. They are things without a world, things the German people must make into a world. Easy to make them into a false world, but this the film will not do: it breaks [novelist Heinrich] Boll's narrative into pieces that are purposely difficult to put together."Tell what, boy?" asks Robert Fahmel in the abrupt opening line: tell what about his experience under the Nazis, when he was about as old as the adolescent boy he is addressing? Tell what about the German past, in what connection to the concerns of the present? asks the film tacitly throughout; the question is built into the fragmentary, dislocated arrangement of the largely retrospective narrative. Out of a long story spanning half a century we get a tangled agglomerate of fragments, bits and pieces of the past recounted by the characters or reenacted in flashbacks to Nazi and to Kaiser Germany, with no connections made, no cohesion established among the different pieces that can be readily grasped. Hence the missing pieces carry as much weight as the things included, the weight, the feel, of all in the past that has been forgotten or repressed and yet continues to bear upon the present.

- Gilberto Perez, from "History Lessons," in The Material Ghost, JHU Press, 2000. Pages 324, 325

Straub’s oblique approach to the problem of Germany’s Nazi past resulted in NOT RECONCILED, which was adapted from Heinrich Böll’s novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. However, the film’s source is not a particularly helpful place to commence a critical analysis (“pace” Richard Roud) since the best it can do is attempt to unravel a singularly difficult cinematic experience. Straub, indeed, would prefer us to forget the novelistic source:

“I believe one can't make a film of any book—because one films something about a book or with a book, but never of a book—one films always from one’s own experience. A film lives and exists only when it is based on the experiences of the so-called director.”

Straub takes as his starting point the principle that film is “a perceptual present.” There is, in our experience of watching a film, no past tense. He then transfers this idea to the narrative organization, eliding all the connectives that were present in Böll’s novels, thereby formally underling the historical principle that present and past are indivisible. Again we note Straub’s proximity to Marxist theory. Marx noted, “Not only the result, but the road to it also, is a part of the truth.” Straub’s maieutic endeavor in NOT RECONCILED, to objectify the latent tendencies of the German nation, is predicated on this principle. The process of our struggle to come to terms with the film runs parallel with the protagonist Robert Fahmel’s attempt to come to terms with his past.

As he had earlier done with MACHORKA-MUFF, Straub attacked his subject from an oblique angle:

“The fact which interested me was to make a film about Nazism without mentioning the word Hitler or concentration camps and such things that a middle class family did not suspect or want to suspect.”

In its individual elements, the film is congruent with the characteristic constituents of Straub’s style: the documentary mode, the flat monotony of the actors’ dialogue, an ascetic camera style. Eliding Böll’s transitional statements reinforces the generalized image of the nation, rather than the intimacies of family relations. Everything in the film pushes beyond the boundaries of the personal to the national. One might even say that impersonality is a central motif. Like Machorka-Muff’s solitariness (eating alone, walking alone) the characters in NOT RECONCILED are alone, set in a hostilely impersonal environment. One shot that clinches this mood of pessimism is a 360-degree panning shot around a suburban desert. It culminates on a young man standing at a door; a child informs him that the person he seeks has never been there. Straub consistently uses empty spaces—often to create a sense that it is a space that has been vacated by those that don't “fit in”—like Robert’s mother, who has been committed to an insane asylum because she called the Kaiser a “fool.” Straub seems to suggest that the barren nature of the environment is perhaps due to the fact that Nazism’s eliminative principles have rendered it spiritually sterile.

- Martin Walsh, "Jean-Marie Straub," published in Jump Cut no. 4, 1974

"Many of [Straub-Huillet's] films address themselves to the problem of the text and its performance, to the fact that in general text and performance are fused within a film. Nearly all the Straub-Huillet films are in some way concerned with establishing a distance between the cinematic presentation of a text and that text, and this is the source of much of their success and interest. In films like Machorka Muff and Nicht Versohnt this is already the case, though less explicitly than later. Not Reconciled is an extremely difficult film to cope with as a film in the sense of the standard cinema, because it does not have in itself the power to substitute for and therefore abolish the text of which it is an adaptation. You cannot understand the story of Not Reconciled in the ordinary way you understand the story of a film, unless you know the novel on which it is based, with the result that there is a tension with the film between the Heinrich Boll novel which is being adapted and the particular filmic presentation. Of course the same thing is much more explicit in films such as Othon and History Lessons, where a text is recited or presented in a relation which completely contradicts any possibility of that text assuming its simple fictional place. This is one way to reestablish that separation between a text and a film performance which is a presentation of that text, which Brecht insisted was so important a part of the epic theater.

- Ron Burnett, from Explorations in Film Theory, Published by Indiana University Press, 1991. Page 198.

The placement of the fictional narrative of the novel within a context of documentary elements and the freedom created by the filmmakers' formal decisions are important aspects of Not Reconciled as well as of the films to be examined in following chapters. For Straub/Huillet, documentary is fundamental to all film art.[38] Even the fictional drama contained In Not Reconciled is documentary on one level: a documentary of its (re)enactment, its quotation from the novel. Just as the words of the novel do not openly express emotion, neither does the style with which Straub/Huillet present them. The texts are offered as documents, facts—placed in a context but not interpreted.

Composition, editing, camera movement, and motion within the shots all have an effect on the narrative and the emotions it can stimulate. Critics have often noted Straub/Huillet's preference for diagonals, for instance, but have underestimated the aesthetic and thematic significance of the contrast with more symmetrical composition. Scenes in Not Reconciled involving the characters' inability to reconcile past and present are most often shot in diagonals. In addition to making a simple set "vibrate with life,"[40] Straub/Huillet's diagonal shots keep the viewer from relaxing at the point of a perspective triangle in relation to the screen. In this way they are able to vary the sense of narrative space inherent in all three-dimensional pictorial representations. Not only is the viewer not at rest as the subject for whom the composition is created but the composition itself, devoid of a vanishing point or balanced perspective focus, contains lines of visual interest that come back into the frame rather than seek to escape to another triangular point opposite the viewer on the other side. The restlessness thus created makes it possible for the viewer to feel a new sensation when, for a good thematic reason, balanced perspective returns...

- Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. University of California Press. Pages 113, 115.

For Thomas Elsaesser, Not Reconciled can be identified even as a "terrorist film" because it offers a violent "solution" to the failures of effective de-Nazification: the female protagonist of Not Reconciled attempts to shoot one of the official politicians, a former Nazi who is now the Minister for Rearmament... Not Reconciled... seems to anticipate the later forms of terrorism aimed at radically protesting the reconstruction and remilitarization of the German nation-state after the war.

- Robert Stam, Alessandra Raengo, Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Page 150.

About Jean-Marie Strab and Danielle Huillet

IMDb Wiki

There are more important things to write about than films. This alone is a good reason for writing about films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. In their art they have taken to heart Kafka's advice: "In the battle between yourself and the world, second the world." In films that are simple in their visual construction, restrained in their camera movement, and precise in their editing, there are always brief points at which the reality of the world outside the film explodes with a violent, utopian force. In Not Reconciled , for instance, a tragic love affair is summed up in a single two-second shot of a young woman turning her head as she says, "They're going to kill you." An old woman shoots a Nazi sympathizer at the end of the same film, and another avenging woman shoots a gangster at the end of The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp , yet in each case the camera looks away. The "action" is always elsewhere, spilling out of the film. And in most Straub/Huillet films, sound separates itself from the image for the first time at the end of the final reel, impelling us out of the dream of the cinema and into the world again: Bach's organ music, the air horn of an Amtrak train, the thunder of an approaching storm, the Carabinieri's helicopter.

When one begins to think about a Straub/Huillet film, one inevitably confronts subjects outside the film itself—questions of reality and history, of the "look of the world" that has become so vulnerable. since the political changes in Europe in the 1990s raise issues of the role of Germany as a world power and the future of a leftist cultural critique, the films of Straub/Huillet become all the more pertinent. Although most of their films are "German," Huillet and Straub are not. They moved to Germany from France at the end of the 1950s, then to Rome, where they have lived since 1969. Their vantage point as outsiders has allowed them to engage with German culture with a combination of critical distance and affection inaccessible to most German artists.

- Barton Byg, Landscapes of Resistance: The German Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. University of California Press. Pages 1-2.

The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet (Straub-Huillet) draw on post-structuralist, political modernist and Brechtian repudiations of illusionism and emotional identification in order to depict an often alienated and corrupt political context. Films such as [Not Reconciled and Chronical of Anna Magdalena Bach] also employ the Brechtian technique of affording the elements of sound, image, language and acting a degree of autonomy from each other. However, the films of Straub-Huillet differ from the plays of Brecht in the extent to which they eliminate unessential elements from the diegesis. The result is an austere and ascetic style of film-making, from which all expressive emotion is purged. This kind of 'materialist' cinema is indebted to Althusserian post-structuralism, and predates the Althusserian inspired cinema and film theory which developed in France after 1968.

Straub-Huillet adopted this minimalist style of film-making out of a determination to create a form of cinematic practice which would be radically different from both the emotion-saturated cinema of the national socialist period, and the normative manouevres of the classical Hollywood film. Consequently, and in accordance with the political modernist tenets that the language of dominant cinema reinforces bourgeois ideology, and that early film language proferred a more authentic articulation of popular and working-class experience, Straub-Huillet sought to echo the greater narrative and visual simplicity of early cinema. In addition to this quest for a more authentic simplicity of style, Straub-Huillet also attempted to emulate the ability of early cinema to express symbolic meaning. This concern for the poetic, symbolic power of the image tempers the austere minimalism in the films of Straub-Huillet, and gives them what could be described as an almost transcendent quality.

- Ian Aitken, from European Film Theory and Cinema, Published by Indiana University Press, 2001. Pages 143-144.

“We want people to lose themselves in our films”, the Straubs told me. “All this talk about 'distanciation' is bullshit.”

- Tag Gallagher, from "Lacrimae Rerum Materialized" his amazing, thoroughly illustrated appreciation of Straub-Huillet's filmmaking. Particularly good is the passage that discusses framing and movement in The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. Published in Senses of Cinema.

For more than 30 years, Danielle Huillet, who has died aged 70, and her husband, Jean Marie Straub, worked as an indivisible entity, directing, writing and editing some of the most personal, rigorous, challenging and ultimately rewarding films in cinema history. Their films resembled no others. Now, with Huillet's death, we will probably not see anything like them again.

Straub and Huillet were faithful to each other, to their audiences and to their art, never compromising. Together they reinvented cinema, not only in style - the voiceovers, the unartificial performances, the treatment of texts, the use of extremely long takes, either with a fixed camera or in complex tracking shots - but in the way they made thought visible. As Marxist dialecticians, they created severe cinematic critiques of capitalism in a manner that paralleled the works of Bertolt Brecht in the theatre.

Although it is almost impossible to indicate which one of the couple did what on any of their films, it is likely that Huillet did most of the editing. As seen in the 2003 television documentary by Pedro Costa, Huillet is trying to cut Sicilia (1998), based on Elio Vittorini's 1939 novel, while Straub keeps pacing up and down in the corridor, smoking cigars, and occasionally interrupting his wife to make a comment, only to disappear again. She was the calmer of the two, Straub's rock to cling to. She was also much the more practical, handling any money matters and dealing with distributors and festival directors.

She was born on May Day in Paris, and met Straub (pronounced Strobe), who came from Alsace, in 1954 at the Lycée Voltaire in Paris during preparatory courses for a competition to enter Idhec (Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques). Huillet immediately showed her independent spirit when she refused to analyse Yves Allégret's Manéges for the entrance exam because she felt the film unworthy.

In the early 1960s, Straub, in order to escape having to serve in Algeria, went with Huillet to live in Munich. There they made Not Reconciled (1965), their first feature. Taking an episode from Heinrich Böll's radical, anti-militarist postwar novel, Billiards at Half-Past Nine, it is an elliptical examination, in stark black and white, of the collective psyche of the German people that led to the rise of Nazism and its insidious existence in contemporary Germany. It not only launched Straub-Huillet (as they became to be known), but was a landmark film of the decade...

People who dealt with the Straubs often spoke of how they were the most stimulating couple, but also the most exasperating. This was probably due to their refusal to compromise on any issue. For example, when their meditative documentary, Une Visite au Louvre (2004), was shown at the London Film Festival, they not only insisted that there should be no English subtitles nor earphone commentary, but that there should not be any synopsis of the film given in the catalogue or flyers.

They courted controversy right until the end, when their latest film, Ces Rencontres avec Eux (These Encounters of Theirs), based on Pavese, was shown in competition at this year's Venice film festival. Explaining their non-attendance at the festival, they sent a message that said they would be "unable to be festive at a festival where there are so many public and private police looking for a terrorist ... but so long as there's American imperialistic capitalism, there'll never be enough terrorists in the world." Nevertheless, the jury gave them a special prize "for invention of cinematic language in the ensemble of their work". They replied that it was "too late for their lives, but too early for their deaths".

- Obituary of Daniele Huillet for The Guardian, October 12 2006

Another obituary by Dave Kehr for the New York Times

The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are best understood in the context of contemporary developments in radical, materialist cinema. They offer what many people see as a genuine alternative to both dominant narrative cinema and conventional art movies. Their work is formally austere and demands attentive, intellectual participation from audiences. However, it must be acknowledged that many people find their films nearly impenetrable and absolutely boring. This is explained in part by the fact that the films do not rely on standard narrative construction or conventional characters. While the films of Straub and Huillet are by no means "abstract" it is nearly impossible to (re)construct a unified, imaginary, referential "world" through them.

In a sense their work might be explained in terms of strategies of displeasure, a wilful refusal to captivate audiences with a coherent fictional world. Instead they promote a distanced, intellectual interaction between viewer and film. Because of this insistence on critical distance, audiences must work with the film in a dialectical process of meaning construction. (In fact, Straub is notoriously critical of "lazy" viewers who are unwilling to engage in this activity.)

Straub and Huillet's films directly address the nature of cinematic signification and its political implications. This includes breaking away from conventional assumptions and practices of dominant narrative cinema. Their films exploit all channels of the medium—music, sounds, words, and images—as equivalent carriers of meaning, rather than privileging the "visual" or relegating music and sound effects to the task of support material. Thus, there are times when extremely long, static shots accompany lengthy, complex verbal passages (a singularly "uncinematic" practice according to conventional canons of film aesthetics). Sequences may be developed along the lines of montage construction, juxtaposing graphic material, verbal material, and moving images.

Straub and Huillet will probably never be as well known to cineastes as fellow New German filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog, or Wim Wenders. But their minimalist films remain important contributions to the New German cinema, and they have been a meaningful voice for the art crowd in Germany. As with all gifted and dedicated film artists whose works are unconventionally structured, their cinematic output remains worthy of study by serious film students and equally worthy of viewing by discerning audiences.

—M.B. White, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com

On the set, [Danièle Huillet] will have been, not exclusively, but more than Straub, the one who directed with sound — he assuming more what we will call for convenience the direction of actors. The sound of voices, that of the wind if there is wind, that of cars if there are any, in that place and at that moment which are those of the filming, are the firmest imprint of the real world as it is, there where cinema is made. Near to and far from this labor of sound: the work, this time entirely assumed by Danièle Huillet, of the dialogues in their diverse languages. The Straubs filmed in German, in French, in Italian: Danièle Huillet knew all the nuances and requirements of these three languages. She will also have, well beyond "translation for subtitles," worked to approach as well as possible the presence of words of another language inscribed at the bottom of images in which a certain language is spoken. And who else, in the history of world cinema, has done such a work, which is first respect for the languages that humans speak, respect for the voices of actors, for the meanings of words, and for the identify of spectators? The answer is simple: no one. A clear line links this relation to words, to their arrangement and their enunciation, to the "operational" role played by Danièle Huillet at the editing table. Its process is known, at least as Pedro Costa recorded it in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), on the editing of Sicilia! (1998) — neither she nor he ever made it known that what was seen of it was different from their practice before or after. Straub, his voice ample, his body heavy, digresses widely, even reduced to an editing room; immobile at the table, Danièle H. cuts, measures, specifies. And argues there, holding her own. Of course the result is theirs, the division of labor also is theirs, and in the service of no one, it's not economic or even intellectual; it's a matter of sensibility. For at the end of what it will have been possible to say, with prudence, of what la Huillet did in the cinema Straub-Huillet, it's necessary to return, and with what sadness, to the ineffable unity of what, on the screens, was born from this companionship…. What could be seen of the Straubs' life — the films, the affirmed choices of existence, in the Roman suburbs or in the 18th arrondissement in Paris — will have been its translation, uncompromising. Let's add one more adjective: generous, immensely generous. With her time, with her work, with her energy, with her listening, with her knowledge. What Jean-Luc Godard called one day an art of living, and that made films.

– Editors, Cahiers du cinema, cited at Redcat

For what makes Straub an inherently political filmmaker is not his choice of subject matter, but his approach to that subject matter, his respect for the integrity of his materials. The search for truth is at the root of all his films. This truth can only rise out of documentarism, a documentarism that reflects on the degree of its truth: this for Straub is the root of political thinking:

“The revolution is like God’s grace, it has to be made anew each day, it becomes new every day, a revolution is not made once and for all. And it’s exactly like that in daily life. There is no division between politics and life, art and politics. I think one has no other choice, if one is making films that can stand on their own feet, they must become documentary, or in any case they must have documentary roots. Everything must be correct, and only from then on can one rise above, reach higher.”

- Martin Walsh, "Jean-Marie Straub," published in Jump Cut no. 4, 1974

Joel Rogers interviews Straub and Huillet upon the release of Moses and Aaron, Jump Cut, 1976

About Heinrich Boll

Straub and Huillet were not the only filmmakers who turned to the work of Heinrich Boll... and it is certainly not a coincidence that writer and essayist Boll became such a decisive public figure in the intellectual life of Germany's culture after 1945. Born in 1917 in Cologne, Boll lived through the Second World War as a common soldier who could assume the role of moral consciousness in postwar Germany. Unlike other writers of his generation, such as Martin Walser or Siegfried Lenz, Boll never bracketed the fascist past from his own writing, but established a clear connection between German guilt and German literature. The authenticity of Boll's novels, in other words, were derived from their direct engagement with issues otherwise glossed over in the material blooming of the economic miracle. After all, postwar German society granted affluence for everybody on the basis of letting the past be the past. But even though Boll identified with the common German soldier as just another victim of Nazism, he displayed the utmost honesty and self-criticism in negotiating his historical guilt. As such, Boll was recognized not only as a "decent man" but also as the "most important witness of his time" (Marcel Reich-Ranicky). His literature is commonly characterized as simple, black and white, and rather didactic, depicting a polarized, not very complicated world through moral exempla. Throughout his life he was deeply devoted to Catholicism, but at the same time he relentlessly pointed to the shortcomings of the Catholic Church which he left in protest in 1976. When Boll died in 1985, his books had sold 31 million copies and had been translated into 45 languages. Although he incarnated the image of the "good German" outside his own country, his patriotic "public relations" work did not always meet with gratitude.

- Robert Stam, Alessandra Raengo, Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Page 150.