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World’s Best Cinematheque – Claire Denis at the Vienna Film Museum

The world’s best cinemathèque – although not the biggest – is found here in the Vienna Film Museum. The variety and quality of its programming is unparalleled. Their recent extended program of Film Noir was incredible mixing Orson Welle’s The Touch of Evil with François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

The physical premises are ideally located on the lower floor of the Albertina Museum with street level access, just across from the Staatsoper at the heart of Vienna at the end of Kärntner Strassse. The screen is large and new – neither too reflective or too matte. The seating goes up in a stark vertical saving you the backs of people’s heads from most rows. The seats are comfortable if not ideal. The decor is charcoal with nothing to distract from the screen when the lights go down. The sound is adequate if not earth-shaking (probably intentional).

Unlike other cinemathèque programmers, Alexander Horwoth the director of the Film Museum in Vienna does not wear out his themes. He sees film in a broader perspective and is capable of putting two totally different yet entirely complementary films on the same program. Vintage French cinema like Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine with David Lynch’s Mulhulland Drive for example or Blade Runner in the second Noir program for example. In contrast, I am thinking of the dogmatic Godard retrospective at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. Jean-Luc Godard’s films are mostly bad. Badly shot, poorly acted, lousy scripts, terrible production values.

No matter, you say, it is Godard. No, not really. Undergoing a month of incoherent scripts shot in a dark bathroom is very painful. On the other hand, some of his films – Le Petit Soldat, for example or Le Mépris are magnificent – not to mention the classic Breathless. But it goes downhill quickly from there passing by Prénom Carmen. A retrospective of Godard’s better films together with films heavily influenced by his work would have been much more interesting, Toronto.

As in Vienna, where we are granted a Claire Denis retrospective with her full oeuvre, with the odd Jean-Luc Godard film appropriately introduced into the program (in this case Le Petit Soldat, as it serves as introduction to Beau Travail, and to the actor Michel Sabor who is so important in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail and later her L’Intrus). Claire Denis herself was allowed to choose a certain number of films which had a strong influence on her own work, giving us the chance to see her further into her creative process.

Not only do we get the retrospective from May 2 to May 19, we get Claire Denis herself for about four or five days.

Some of Claire Denis’s films have been seminal. Beau Travail, although I saw it for the first time here. For me, Vendredi Soir, perhaps one of the most ethereal and loving portraits of interaction between a man and a woman. Vendredi Soir is a portrait of the city as well, Paris.

The emotionally-charged and intimate visuals Vendredi Soir has a strong influence on the camerawork in Lapinthrope, particularly the night sequence.

I had tried to see more of Claire Denis’s work afterwords but her films are visual poems which should be seen at the cinema on a large screen. In particular, I was never able to digest Trouble Every Day which I have on DVD.

Seeing a block of her oeuvre together, her rare talent defines itself – and also reveals its limits.

Her fundamental view of the world is stark. J’ai pas sommeil takes us through the underworld of Paris and into the lives of the human flotsam who smash up against the rock of a city which demands too much (money and energy) and gives too little to too many (tiny apartments, debts, terrible jobs). Ostensibly the story of a serial killer (the Granny Killer), J’ai pas sommeil makes the everyday dreadful through the lives of its ensemble cast of about ten.

Beau Travail is the story of a seargent in the French Foreign Legion who loves his work and loves his men, but out of envy sets up one of his soldiers to die in the desert. Afterwards, Galoup’s crime is revealed and he is sent back to France and returned to a civilian life for which he is not ready and without a pension. A life ruined.

Trouble Every Day is a bloodbath. I can’t watch it all the way through as Beatrice Dalle rolling in buckets of human blood next to Vincent Gallo is too brutal a shock for me after the exquisite opening love scene of 37 degrès le matin. In her rendition of Betty, a lifelong love for a certain France was created. In any case, Trouble Every Day is as dark as films come.

L’Intrus which showed tonight follows a man (Michel Subor) on the cusp of a heart transplant, arranged in Geneva. He has a lot of money which he keeps for himself, while his young son (Gregoire Colin) struggles with two children. He goes on to abandon his two dogs. Apparently his heart comes from refugees murdered along the Swiss border. The donar is arranged by a mysterious Russian woman (Katerina Golubeva). Subsequently, Louis Trebor leaves for Polynesia via South Korea, where he orders a ship for his second son. Unable to find his second son in Polynesia, his replacement heart starts to fail him and Trebor’s world collapses into visions of Golubeva haunting him, drunk Korean riff-raff and worst of all Gregoire Colin’s corpse with a gash all the way down the chest. Golubeva apparently offered him his own son’s heart for the money.

The short Keep it for Yourself was as close to uplifting as any of her work. A French girl comes to New York where she is abandoned by her boyfriend. She copes well with the situation in an empty apartment, eventually meeting another guy who is fleeing the police when he stumbles into her apartment. A fresh love is born while the American army rolls into Iraq (Gulf War 1, 1982).

All in all, perhaps the blackest body of work by a major director. I would never have thought so having seen only Vendredi Soir and encountering the lovely Claire Denis there at the Toronto premier.

But a riveting visual oeuvre. L’Intrus in particular – despite or perhaps because of its nonsensical plot. Just fabulous image after fabulous image. But much the same could be said of J’ai pas sommeil and certainly Beau Travail.

Claire Denis’s worldview is too dark to buy into – but her eyes are wonderful eyes to see through, even for a few hours.

Thank you, Alexander Horwath. Thank you, Claire Denis. Thank you, Agnès Godard and Nelly Quettier (camera and editor respectively for all of the above).

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