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March 7, 2006

Empty Quarter: A Woman in Africa, 1985

empty_quarter.gifThe untranslated, partial English title of French photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon's first feature film, Empty Quarter: Une femme en Afrique provides an early clue into the nature of its indirect structure. Serving as a silent, but perceptive, omniscient, and inalterable translator for the unseen filmmaker's retrospection, the camera functions as a voyeur as well as a subjective filter through which he searches the residual aftermath of a failed relationship in the resigned desire to make sense of it. Proceeding in voiceover commentary, the film chronicles the journey of a displaced, globe-trotting filmmaker who offers a spare bed in his hotel room to an aimless, jilted young woman (Fran├žoise Prenant) - a shared accommodation and co-dependency (if not emotional intimacy) that would inevitably lead her to become his constant companion, erstwhile muse, and eventual lover as they travel on an extended road trip from Djibouty to Alexandria. Hiding behind a perpetually recording camera, the unseen filmmaker becomes an existential paradox of presence and absence, directness and evasiveness, estrangement and intimacy, as the young woman begins to fill the empty silence with mundane, passing thoughts, attempting - often in frustration - to communicate with him through the opaque veil of a refracting camera lens (note the recurring images of her silhouette through translucent muslin curtains and mosquito netting). Rather than using the camera as an instrument of direct truth, the object serves as a safe obstruction for the silent filmmaker. But can the camera conceal the implication of his gaze? Perhaps the key lies in his filming of the young woman at a zoological exhibition where her image is captured, not directly, but through her reflections on a series of glass enclosures. Indeed, Depardon's theme of perspective and reflection can be seen in both the temporal and psychological framework for the film, as the cumulative footage of the trip not only serves as a visual chronicle for the failed love affair, but also as a translating mirror for the enigmatic filmmaker's unarticulated desire - where lingering shots of the contours of the young woman's body, her sleeping form, the nape of her neck, and her disembodied legs wading in the water reveal an intrinsic sensuality, melancholic wanderlust, and ache of longing within the intranscendable, empty spaces of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 07, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Raymond Depardon


First time I read about this film, thanks for the nice rendering! So the camera POV embodies the missing counterpart character, and makes the audience self-conscious of the cameraman behind the lens as a human presence. I like that.
I wonder how dialogue is dealt with in such structure? No dialogue at all, no interaction?
I need to see this film, I'm going to love it I think.
A good companion would be the 2005 Cavalier's Le Filmeur, another film journal incarnating the filmmaker's gaze in the small things of mundanity.

Franssou Prenant's own film Paris, mon petit corps est bien las de ce grand monde is a personal favorite of mine, where she edits old footage of herself as a young girl. Did you see it?

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Mar 07, 2006 7:02 PM | Permalink

There is more of a monologue, I guess, the woman address him constantly, but he doesn't respond back, although at times, he comments in voiceover the implication of her comment. Other times, he "interrupts" her "conversation" in the voiceover, so you lose track of what she was saying. They're screening Le Filmeur at the French Documentaries week that precedes Rendez-vous with French Cinema, and I'm still pretty torqued that they separated this film from Rendez-vous which pretty much relegated it to poorer attendance and less efficient program scheduling.

I haven't seen Prenant's film, cool! She also edited this film, so there was that fiction versus reality interplay going on in the film...very Kiarostami, but sexier. :)

Posted by: acquarello on Mar 08, 2006 2:50 AM | Permalink

Probably because Le Filmeur is non-fiction, and too jump-cut, non-narrative, abstract to appeal a wide audience. The distribution in France was very small. It's closer to something like Tarnation (very sobre stylistically tho) in a way, and only interesting to cinephiles.

Posted by: HarryTuttle on Mar 08, 2006 12:48 PM | Permalink

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