Sound and Fury: Surreal Wet Dream, Apocalyptic Tragedy, Cartoon Gallows Comedy, Earnest Social Problem Picture…

04/02/2010 8:52 AM |

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Jean-Claude Brisseau is mostly known to American moviegoers for 2002’s Choses Secretes and its offspring,Les Anges Exterminateurs and A l’aventure, noteworthy for their Nicolson Baker-grade fascination with female masturbation. There is a perverse imp in Brisseau’s nature. The legal censure for harassment that resulted from intimate “readings” when casting Choses Secrètes—charges were filed by unsuccessful auditioners who had, yes, masturbated in front of the director—seems not to have chastened him, but to have driven him deeper into his monomania, until one wonders if he’ll ever return from his crusade to record female orgasm on film.

Even those inclined to regard all this, in their discomfiture, as a sad pervert’s El Dorado can’t be too dense to appreciate the majesty of Brisseau’s first scandal, 1988’s De bruit et de fureur (The Sound and the Fury), which this afternoon plays New York for the first time since Lincoln Center’s 2004 J-CB retrospective.

The backstory: Brisseau taught school for twenty years in the Parisian banlieues, in Clichy, Bagnolet, and Aubervilliers, a professeur des Lettres at the now-defunct C.E.S. Diderot (Collège d’enseignement secondaire—age range 11-14, roughly equivalent to American Junior High and likewise a quarantine for hormonal anarchy). Another schoolteacher-turned-filmmaker, Eric Rohmer, had become a sort-of mentor after viewing Brisseau’s Super-8 Hitchcock homage in 1975. After a decade scrabbling together projects in obscurity and subsisting on a thin gruel of acclaim, Brisseau roared into Cannes, 1988—about as fallow year for films as you’ll find—with a feral, outlandish movie that purged his suburban experiences, De bruit et de fureur.

Frederic Bonnaud, apprising Brisseau some years later, called it “the first French film to depict the youth of the suburban housing projects and the gangs they formed in those zones of exclusion.” The setting is Seine-Saint-Denis, the suburbs Northeast of Paris proper. At the Galliéni Metro, Bruno Scamperlé (Vincent Gasperitsch) disembarks, travelling alone. He is a babyfat-soft fourteen, wearing a small crucifix and itchy-looking off-the-rack blazer, carrying a valise and an oversized cage housing a canary named Superman. He has directions to a new home in the cités HLM, “Cité de Noue,” one of those poured concrete warrens of humanity called a “Grand ensemble.” The elevators are out, so he starts up toward the 15th floor. On the 10th, he exchanges a glance with a young punk in disintegrating denim, Jean-Roger Roffi (François Négret), who’s setting door mats on fire. Following right behind Bruno, the janitor drags a captured Jean-Roger upstairs, presenting him for punishment to his ogre-ish father (Bruno Cremer). Instead, Dad beats the janitor to the ground before a mute audience and a laughing Jean-Roger—then he turns and drops the kid with a slap (“No one hits my son… Except me”). Bruno, meanwhile, comes home to find that his mother has arranged him a welcome party with everything provided—crepe paper decorations, snack cakes, Christmas lights, and a note explaining she couldn’t get away from work. “Retour à Paris” is cued on the tapedeck; Charles Trenet sings about a homecoming 40 years ago to these same Eastern suburbs. Bruno, looking for his new room down the hall, is unastonished to encounter a strange, silent woman with protuberant eyes, wearing 17th century dress and carrying Superman—transformed into a bird of prey—like a falconer (this is Lisa Hérédia, Brisseau’s collaborator and wife—it’s undoubtedly a fascinating marriage). Suddenly she’s kneeling nude on the bed, her quantity of dark hair undone, guiding Bruno’s hands slowly down her torso until the silent spell is broken with a snap of wings as the bird scratches the boy’s cheek.

In eight minutes of runtime, Brisseau introduces the major characters, the major absences, the milieu, the dreamy parentheses, the air of neglect, the comic-tragic swing of violence based in failure of empathy (comedy when it’s someone else, tragedy when it’s you). “I wanted to prevent the audience from becoming stuck in one kind of film,” he has explained; though we may broadly define De bruit… as a “slum picture,” moment-to-moment it can be a surreal wet-dream, an apocalyptic tragedy, a cartooned gallows comedy, or an earnest social problem movie. He owes something to fluidity of Surrealism—Paul Delvaux might’ve painted these icewater nudes, and Brisseau has acknowledged his film’s kinship with Buñuel’s 1950 Los Olvidados, though the division of child’s fantasy and reality are more permeable here. Bruno’s cheek is scratched in a “dream,” but the mark is still visible once we’ve returned to ostensible reality.

Perhaps another comparison is more helpful: Bruno’s arrival at Cité de Noue is the beginning of a stranger-rides-into-town Western. The roving adolescents are as much tribes or posses as gangs; the hand-smashing they’ll administer to a rival is a warning out of One-Eyed Jacks or The Shooting. But Brisseau has re-shuffled the tropes. Bruno is too weak and passive to play Gary Cooper and clean things up. The job should go to Cremer, a swaggering Gaul-cowboy, an authoritative Jean Wayne type with gut and aquiline profile—but he’s a career criminal, content to down Heinekins and practice in his bedroom hall shooting gallery, where he unloads his Winchester at Sioux targets (his brother, a shrimpy sight gag, wears a buckskin jacket).

Finally, Bruno’s dilemma, the dilemma of De bruit…, is the presently unfashionable dilemma of the Western: Civilization or Barbarity? (Or, as Brisseau has put it “Culture or death”) It’s established in the epigraph, taken, like the title, from Macbeth: “Blood hath been shed ere now, I’ the olden time ere human statute purged the gentle weal.” Brisseau knew these suburbs; we must presume he saw blood shed there, for he shows them as a border territory, threatened by war drums or a new Völkerwanderung. Bruno, a sweet-spirited booby raised by the state, hangs in the balance.

The Roffis are vandal-kings, their faded patriarch the mute, bedridden grandfather who’s consigned to the extra room with the contraband pinball machine. Jean-Roger’s walls are a shrine to degraded popular culture, Stallone and Bronson. He entertains Bruno with tapes of Dawn of the Dead (the Section-8 shootout scene, which Brisseau must have appreciated) and lesbian porn (with better lighting, it might be Brisseau’s A l’aventure). In the same exaggerated register of the eye-popping, garish wallpaper, Brisseau gets down the atmosphere of certain dodgy after-school hang-outs, the houses where you could leaf through scummy porno mags with titles like Genesis while N.W.A.’s “Just Don’t Bite It” plays; read Soldier of Fortune while your friend digs an AK-47 out of his older brother’s bedroom closet. Hyena-grinning Négret, with the complexion and dark-circled eyes of a compulsive masturbator, is in the grand tradition of miniature French film actors—he’s twenty here, playing a held-back pubescent, and you never question him. He has a wonderful Vigo-esque scene where he flies out the classroom window to caper over the ledges and roofs of his Collège—what endorsement of culture has been so eloquent on the ecstasy of its absence?

The bulwark against the Rossis’ decline and fall is the classroom’s mistress, played by Fabienne Babe, who takes to giving Bruno after-school tutoring—any boy’s dream, given the skirts she wears. In the movie’s loveliest respite, Bruno and teacher dance a waltz to Nana Mouskouri’s recording of “Aux marches du Palais,” a traditional Bretagne song whose origins date back at least to the 18th century—everyone from Piaf to Laforêt has recorded it at one time or another (there’s no non-diagetic music, so it’s something like the film’s theme). For Brisseau, to transfer culture is always to create a sense of continuity, and so an idea of future, and so to alleviate isolation. Lessons plans include an absurdly complicated globe toy to illustrate gravity, the poems of Jacques Prevert—Brisseau’s favorite teaching aid—and Verlaine’s Gaspard Hauser chant, the subject of which is the same 19th century German wild child from which Werner Herzog improvised his film. This idealized acculturation, based in that “Matthew Arnold idea of culture” that Susan Sontag liked to disdain, contrasts the lowered bar in François Bégaudeau and Laurent Cantet’s 2008 The Class.

One might conclude that for Brisseau, womanly wiles are what transmits culture—though what about the lesbian teenage gang debs? Papa Cremer is principal sole masculine authority, anyways, and his credo is nihilism. Cremer, lugging around the same massive carriage as his director, was working with Brisseau for the second of three times here, and Brisseau made him an icon (in a bit of clairvoyance, Bruno’s class is reading Maigret and the Tramp—Cremer would become famous for playing Georges Simenon’s Inspector starting in 1991). When Jean-Roger’s older brother (Theirry Helene) gets a job and starts talking about moving in with a dreaded girlfriend, Dad tries to talk him out of abandoning the family tradition of deadbeat scumbaggery. He recalls witnessing the massacres in Algeria—he might have been part of the pied noir French population whose mass repatriation built the HLMs—that forged his personal philosophy: “There no God, no hell, nothing… Just a big black hole at the end. It’s all a war that never ends.”

As this conversation occurs, the Mortmarte funicular is visible behind them, one car sliding up, another down. In shorthard, it’s the visual schemata of the movie, a tension between ascent (the recurrent images of birds, the rooftops) and descent (the cave-like basements where the gangs convene), Heaven and Hell.

Though word is out that Brisseau is too French for his own good, he is an avowed disciple of Anthony Mann and John Ford, has learned a great deal about the spiritually evocative properties of landscape from the great San Diegan, while Ford’s use of landscape “at the edge of mysticism and poetry,” Brisseau has said, has “been my guide throughout my life.” In interview, Brisseau talks about Ford, Mann, Hitchcock, Bresson—whose supernaturally precise editing he approaches here—not as influences, but as peers, co-workers he’d just seen over lunch. He shares this manner with Libération “critic” Louis Skorecki, his friend, early champion, and career-long defender, who has called Brisseau one of only two filmmakers of the last thirty years “worthy of the appellation ‘director’” (The other? Yes, you guessed it: Luc Moullet.)

This may all seem like a ridiculous presumption, but in De bruit… it allowed Brisseau to become the equal of his models. In a hostile country of stained concrete surrounded by bare trees, planted all at once and too close together, he discovered an ineffable moral landscape, his own Monument Valley.