As much an elegy to film as it is a dissolution of romantic myth, Jon Jost’s Paris-set digital feature, Oui Non hews closely to the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard’s late period, mixed media essay films – a reflection on the city and the cinema through conventional images of the present as preconceived, idealized evocations of the past. Prefaced by a montage of Eugène Atget’s diffused, long-exposure photographs at the turn of the century – desolate spaces, cobblestone streets, solitary figures, and shop window mannequins – the image of Paris as distant and ethereal continues through the delayed, somber, motion-blurred shots of the present day, overcast city (culminating with an abstract, dreamlike view of the cityscape from a train window): the haberdashery windows now replaced by runway fashion shows and sculpture gardens by museum installations. This alternation between intersecting (and colliding) dual realities is reinforced in the instances of split-screen and mirroring images that occur throughout the film, as idiosyncratically composed snapshots of everyday life interweave with episodes of performance and improvisations that tell a mundane tale of boy meets girl, further creating layers of ambiguity within the filmed reality (a blurring of bounds that is also suggested in an interstitial note that reveals the actors’ short-lived, off-screen relationship).
In one diptych, lead actress Hélène Fillières discusses her background and acting experience (having previously worked with her sister, Sophie Fillières) before describing her character, George, an office assistant at Magnum Photos who sorts through the agency’s vast archives in search of the perfect photograph to match client requests. For George, each photograph represents a ghost, a moment suspended between life and death. In a sense, her character also takes on the role of a pseudo-filmmaker, manipulating images by creating blow-ups or enhancing contrast to suit the request. Similarly, James Thiérrée’s character, Gerome, an actor and acrobat whose ambition is to elevate circus performance into the realm of theatrical art, also articulates a filmmaker’s (and more broadly, an artist’s) aesthetic and paradoxical dislocation from the real world in pursuit of the art of illusion: “Construct a universe. Construct a folding tent, a folding life.”
Using the prefiguring idea of Paris as a city of “four million souls”, Jost creates his own visual play on words to illustrate this association, as anonymous, real-life “characters” alternately become spectator and spectacle within the observer’s gaze (an interconnection between filmed reality and performance that is reflected in an early shot of the audience at a fashion show in which a man repeatedly exchanges brusque, disapproving glances towards Jost and his camera). Moreover, in describing the streets as being marked by the abrasions and scars of past stories, Jost also converges towards a recurring theme in José Luis Guerín’s cinema (as well as Pedro Costa’s Fonthainas films) in the idea of architecture as palimpsest of covalent, layered histories. Juxtaposed against the image of Georges Méliès’s grave, Jost revisits the intrinsic dichotomy of cinema as both a medium for creative imagination, and as a documentation of reality: a rupture that is reflected in the ironic embrace of familiar conventions that conclude the film – relegating the images of eternal love, happy ending, and tragedy to the art of the spectacle, and consequently, to the death of cinema.
© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved.
First published in The Auteurs Notebook, 06/11/08.