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Cannes (1) Body and genre

Grigris by Mahamet Saleh Haroun

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Grigris plays out a singular battle between the (actor’s) body and (film) genre. The first part of Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s film seems almost like a documentary about the extraordinary body of Souleymane Démé: the dancer’s potential bursts into view from the very first frame and determines the mise en scène. Filming a body in action functions more as a summons to contemplation, so it is not that useful in terms of developing a story. The body imposes a mode of operation on the film that plays on accumulation and repetition. The fascinating scenes that centre on Grigris and his dancing necessitated a distinctive shooting style (abandoning close-ups) and a more traditional internal montage that reduces the scope for ellipsis (so crucial in Haroun’s films). Even the lighting tends to highlight this body that seems split into two parts: the very thin legs contrasting with the torso whose muscles evidence a tough training regime. What is fascinating about Souleymane Démé’s body is how much it looks like CG: his dancing produces movements and choreography that no human being could achieve. With this – ethical more than aesthetic – action, Souleymane transforms reverses his disabled body (which the story attributes to his stepfather) into that of superman/performer. The presence of a such an imposing body, however, ends up blocking off any other option, to the extent that in terms of a developing narrative it leaves the director with little other to fall back on than the levers of genre. Rather than constructing a story around this awkward body that, to put a mad passion (dance) to use, has submitted itself to iron discipline, the film maker ends up relying on stereotyped characters (the gangster, the babe, the boss’s henchman…) and scenes that connect to them. The film seems to slot its cast of characters and the development of the action into an obvious schema; thus the move into crime on the part of a positive character can only lead to a tragic conclusion, which the film resolves with a nice little coup de théâtre. The finale with the village saved by the women who function as a form of  “deus ex machina” is both a somewhat schematic and a happy ending – but even this derives from a documentary matrix, if it is true that such a village really exists and is the result of a social inclusion project run by a cultural association. This restores the most powerful tension in Haroun’s cinema, that which addresses what reality offers and a singular correspondence with a cinematic imaginary. If his first film (Bye Bye Africa) was an excursion into a form of cinema that is dying out, here it is as though he wanted to bring new life to that same beloved genre cinema, using Souleymane Démé’s extraordinary body as  a “pre-text“.

Alain Guiraudie also ventures onto similar shifting sands, overlapping the body and film genre. L’inconnu du lac locates a detective story in an unusual scenario, a quiet beach which becomes a “cruising” area in summer. The body is no longer singular: performance is replaced by the presence of various naked men, with more or less well-sculpted physiques. The lumbering presence of sex is central, and is addressed in no short order: an extreme close-up shot of ejaculation removes any ambiguity about the director’s stance towards his subject, and makes it clear he has no intention of falling prey to voyeurism. The only scene in which Guiraudie uses the point of view of a man watching without being seen is that of the murder. Franck, attracted by Michel’s body, observes him playing with his lover in the water and, even when he realises the game is no longer playful, remains as if paralysed at the sight. Protected by the woods surrounding the lakeshore, Franck embodies a very “Fassbinderian” dilemma that runs throughout the film: to wit, the insoluble mismatch between that which dictates an ethical position and that which is dictated by passion. Guiraudie’s mise en scène is exemplary in this respect: by restricting the entire story to one location he highlights the creative power of film. Impossible to convey in words alone, L’inconnu du lac is a film that exists in the relationship between its every frame, in the spatial organisation that maps the precise trajectories of tension, with the beach serving as a threshold between lake and woods, two potentially dangerous places, and thus linked to sex as much as to death. Guiraudie’s film is quite classical in form in this respect, eschewing any detours or purely ornamental pauses: characters (with the sacrificial figure of the confidante and that of the oddball-cum-comic inspector), the use of light (the splendid transitions from dusk to night), the play with camera focal length, all contribute to defining the crux of the story that envelops the intersection of danger/pleasure. But contrary to what might happen in a Hitchcock film, here the (male) body remains the site of the story; in other words it is never instrumentalised by the mise en scène to raise the level of tension, but is the balancing element that establishes a subtle equilibrium, the power of the sheer work of mise en scène.

Carlo Chatrian
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