Benoît Jacquot: Documentary Films, Part 1

A theme that emerges from the first four documentary films presented at the Benoît Jacquot retrospective at the Walter Reade – Merce Cunningham and Co., Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, Louis René de Fôrets, and Elvire-Jouvet 40 – is the filmmaker’s recurring preoccupation with documenting the artistic process. For Jacquot, intrinsic in this process of documentation is not solely the artist’s consciousness of real-time in the repetition of performance or attention to the authenticity of recreating the essence of the source of inspiration, but also to attempt to capture a certain open-endedness – an unresolved ambiguity – that perhaps suggests the elusiveness of the ideal performance. In this respect, Jacquot’s aesthetic can be seen, not as attempts to record the culmination of the subject’s craft, but the mundane, almost ritualistic process and indefinable alchemy of creativity, where the nature of art is not an achieved ideal, but rather, a pure representation of the quotidian in all its idiosyncratic imperfections and chance coincidences – a transfiguration of the self – a transcendence through erasure.


Merce Cunningham and Co., 1982

Composed of real-time dance company rehearsals and one-on-one interviews with avant-garde dancer turned choreographer and Martha Graham disciple, Merce Cunningham, Merce Cunningham and Co. is a reverent portrait of an aging artist who, even in the twilight of his career as a performer, remains a passionate and innovative force in modern dance. Perhaps best known for his collaborative work and partnership with seminal experimental music composer John Cage, what is revealed in Cunningham’s grueling and elaborate, but illuminating rehearsals is an artist acutely in tune with each dancer’s internal sense of rhythm and space – an intuitive perception of the human body’s integral “musicality” where the individuality of motion is akin to uniqueness of an instrument’s voice. Within this framework, the dynamics of Cunningham’s avant-garde choreography can be seen, not as the movement of bodies in relation to one another, but rather, as the art of bodies moving within the kinetic spheres of their own natural state – where perturbations from a dancer’s native frequency define a kind of quantum physics paradigm for the dynamic molecular interaction of organic bodies within their spheres of influence.


Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice, 1976

One of my favorite films in the Jacquot retrospective, Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice is a fascinating portrait of renowned English contra-tenor, Alfred Deller, an incomparable artist who ushered the modern day renaissance of the medieval-era contra-tenor, a high male vocal range often associated with the falsetti and castrati that, with the advent of Romanticism (as Deller postulates), fell increasingly out of favor, and was gradually replaced by the creation of a more emotionally “expressive” female contralto that better suited the nineteenth century artistic movement. Intercutting a series of interviews and performances by Deller and his vocal chamber group, the Deller Consort, Jacquot’s camera is probing, yet unobtrusive, allowing Deller’s intelligence, charisma, and talent to articulate the uniqueness of the role of the contra-tenor in medieval music – a role that best captured the compositional intent of the human voice as a musical instrument in its uninflected clarity and enunciated grammatical rhythm. In essence, rather than using the voice to interpret the music, the role of the contra-tenor was to articulate the music exactly – without embellishment, without the introduction of personality – a faithful “reproduction” of the music that sublimates the individuality of the artist – the performance – for the creation of the art itself. As in Merce Cunningham and Co., Jacquot presents a thoughtful and persuasive illustration of the artist as an instrument of art.


Louis René des Fôrets, 1988

In Louis René des Fôrets, Jacquot transforms a rare interview with reclusive and intensely private postwar novelist, Resistance fighter, poet, and anti-war activist Louis René des Fôrets (author of Les Mendiants, Le Bavard, and the experimental autobiography Ostinato) into a broader meditation on familiar themes that resonate throughout the author’s body of work: the creative process, silence, memory, and the trauma of history. Perhaps the most illuminating conversations with interviewer Jean-Benoit Puetsch in the film occur during des Fôrets’ description of the silence that pervades his work as subconscious (or perhaps, intentional) acts of cognitive auto-destruction as a result of personal trauma, where the thought is intercepted and erased before the act of articulation, resulting in conscious, alienated silence. Juxtaposed against des Fôrets’ admission that he had earlier burned manuscripts of works that he had found personally unsatisfying, what emerges is a portrait of an artist who, despite personal success, continues to struggle with self-doubt and the consciousness of imperfection. Within the context of des Fôrets’ revelation, his recurring preoccupation with the cognitive process of auto-destruction can also be seen as an autobiographical reflection of an artist’s profound humility in his systematic distillation and self-erasure of an “author’s imprint” during the process of creation, leaving only the inconcrete traces of impression and memory as the art itself.


Elvire-Jouvet 40, 1986

Composed of a series of re-enactments based on influential stage actor Louis Jouvet’s transcribed lectures at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Paris during World War II and Joviet’s manuscript, Molière et la comédie classique, Elvire-Jouvet 40 chronicles Jouvet’s (Philippe Clévenot) demanding (if not emotionally brutal), yet enlightening class rehearsals for Molière’s Dom Juan, and in particular, a pivotal scene involving the reappearance of Dom Juan’s spurned lover, an emotionally transformed Elvire to warn him of impending danger. In playing the role of Elvire, Jouvet’s student Claudia (Maria de Madeiros) attempts to apprehend the essence of Elvire’s character through exhaustive repetitions that, rather than increasing her confidence in her performance, instead brings her into a state of constant uncertainty and self-doubt. At the heart of Jouvet’s abrasive and seemingly divergent method of instruction is the fundamental idea that the nature of performance does not lie in an actor’s ability to conform the role through a personally accessible range of convenient, ready-made affectation, but rather, to sublimate the self entirely within the character – to perform a selfless act of empathetic self-erasure. In establishing the notion of transparent, “direct” performance, Elvire-Jouvet 40 thematically converges with Jacquot’s earlier documentaries Merce Cunningham and Co. and Alfred Deller: Portrait of a Voice in presenting the philosophical ideal of the role of the artist, not as the center of creation, but as the integral medium of pure aesthetic transmission.

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