Thursday, 18 November 2010

Dimitri Kirsanoff

Dimitri Kirsanoff is probably one of the most contradictory mixtures of the traditional (often in the conservative sense of the word) and the radical avant-gardist I can think of right now. His subject matter is drawn from the archetypes of the XIXth century, the plethora of nostalgic recreations of rural figures designed for the consumption of those who left the country-side to go to the city. The myth of their iconicity, of the timeless nature of what they represent, is in itself a symptom of the tensions in which these archetypes arise: the need, when faced with the ferocious change represented by the city, to set against it an "eternal" countryside which, in fact, was of course itself changing due to the same influences that made XIXth century cities what they were (urban migration being only one of the ways in which this change expressed itself).
Yet Kirsanoff, at the same times, is profoundly aware, not of the historicity of his figures (they seem to belong to a different age, something before Griffith, or even Zola, let alone Gance), but of the historicity of the world they move in. Maybe that's what gives his films such a schizophrenic aspect: Kirsanoff as an artist pays enormous attention to "the world" as an abstraction and as something to be presented formally. Many of the montage sequences in Ménilmontant are breath-taking in the understanding they show of the modern world as speed, as alienation from processes now too vast to be grasped by a single individual. Whenever the world intervenes in the story, however, it is as an icon (see, for example, the quasi-complete parataxis used in presenting the maternity hospital in the same film).
It's also important to point out that for all his formal beauty and the breath-taking audacity of some of his sequences (not only the montage sequences already mentioned, but also, for example, the flirting scene by the river, again in Ménilmontant; or the river pouring into the window in Les Berceaux), his archetypes are actively conservative ones, and any case to be made for Kirsanoff would have to take this into account. Women seem hardly to be seen as anything other than victims or mothers, or both (Ménilmontant again, the mother rocking the child in Les Berceaux). When they take action that goes against social norms (L'Arrière-Saison, which not coincidentally takes place in a timeless environment completely isolated from the outside world), it is only as the diturbing element, the solving of which will be a return to the traditional familial order (with nothing hinting towards change). For all this, Kirsanoff seems completely uninterested in men: they are just as equally archetypes, whether absent (the sailor-father-husband of Les Berceaux, or the wood-cutter husband in L'Arrière-Saison, even though he's on screen about half of the time) or engaging in harmful conduct (the charismatic no-good charmer in Ménilmontant). Which again, makes that eye-in-the-eye sequence by the river in Ménilmontant (again, is it a coincidence that this could only happen, implausibly, somewhere rural, obviously removed from the Parisian quartier that gives the film its name?) so refreshing: for a few seconds, Kirsanoff lets his actors just breathe, look at each other, touch themselves. They are free of expectations, free of any narrative stakes, giving themselves completely to the other and the camera (which, for a few moments, are one and the same).

I haven't seen Rapt yet, but intend to soon, so more thoughts on Kirsanoff may follow.