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Jean-Daniel Pollet

L'OrdreJean-Daniel Pollet’s oeuvre is weirdly divided into chilly, precise art films and lowbrow sentimental comedies.  Hard to think offhand of another filmmaker with a similar split personality.

The art films have several marked characteristics:

-A large number of mathematical tracking shots, usually lateral tracks.

-Precise, stable compositions that generally contain their subject with a margin of space.

-A strong but disturbing use of primary colors, sometimes clashing with each other.

-A tendency to use poeticized voiceover that does not easily yield meaning.

-A thematic interest in pastness or memory.

-Most notably, an obsession with reusing and repeating images, settings, and text.  Sometimes Pollet will revisit the same visual field repeatedly within a single tracking shot; very often he will edit among a limited number of locations or visual themes; once in a while he will use the same locations or images in different movies.

A comparison to early Resnais does not seem to me superficial.  But Pollet lacks the underlying sense of melodrama that makes Resnais’s films relatively emotionally accessible.  And the repetitive motifs in Pollet seem less driven by story or character, and more purely structuralist.  The theme of memory is a particularly interesting point of comparison.  Pollet seems to crave a mental space where past and present coexist on equal terms – because of this disorienting tendency, none of the human beings in his films can truly occupy the emotional center of a movie.  Whereas the return of the past is generally an emotional challenge in Resnais’ films, a source of anxiety that he cultivates in his protagonists.  Pollet’s people – and his audience – all seem trapped in the malfunctioning time machine of Je t’aime, je t’aime, but without Resnais and Jacques Sternberg to coax a traditional structure out of the fragments.  The interesting Maupassant adaptation Le Horla (1966) was based on material that could easily lend itself to a more emotionally full-bodied approach, and so illustrates Pollet’s aversion all the more clearly: the story mandates viewer identification with its protagonist, but Pollet manipulates time, space and text until the effect is as emotionally removed as a point-of-view shot.

And then the comedies, all based on the character of Léon, played by Claude Melki, are built around the most direct emotional ploys that the cinema has to offer: a sad-sack protagonist, his chaste love for unattainable women, oppression by more aggressive and successful peers.  It’s as if Pollet can arrive at emotional directness only by leaping across a canyon.  The comedies seem artless and unfunny at first, but Pollet’ formal intervention, though somewhat more concealed than in the art films, is startling.  The feature-length comedy L’Amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste (1971) plays out mostly within a single apartment, and gradually one realizes that Pollet’s use of offscreen space is reflexive and quite bizarre: characters entering the frame from behind the camera are used to make theatrical scene changes and even to swallow chunks of story.  As the movie hurtles to a surprisingly unresolved conclusion, Pollet pushes his abstract use of space until he has turned the film into a bleak, rather Brechtian form of direct address that nonetheless stays close to its original populist ethos.

The key film in the series, standing at the uneasy juncture of Pollet’s different formal ideas, is L’Ordre (1973), a documentary about a leper colony that is no less stylized than Pollet’s other art films.  The voiceover expresses the anger and alienation of the lepers who were long ago forcibly removed to a Greek island, and then eventually moved again to a mainland managed-care facility that robbed the lepers of the societal bonds they had created on the island.  Oddly, Pollet interviews only one articulate, poetic, firebrand leper, and seems to feel an obligation to make the film in the shape of his protest, even though the political terms of the protest remain vague.  As peripatetic as ever, Pollet’s camera takes on an addition component of disorientation, in sympathy with its subject: it prowls like a trapped animal, wanders erratically through the island terrain, reframes violently along both vertical and horizontal axes.  And at the film’s center is the magic object of the leper, filmed in startling closeups that confront the audience with the ravages of his disease.  The man speaks of lepers being like other people, but Pollet seems to realize that he is incapable of humanizing his subjects.  The film remains a monster movie, remote and implacable, and its resources are devoted to making us feel monstrous as well, wandering an arid universe that feels like a dying dream.

Thanks for this beautiful article. I happy you liked his films!
One thing I really liked about “L’Ordre” was that for most of the film the only leper you see is the man being interviewed, and though Pollet’s close-up of him is jarring and disturbing, you eventually gain a level of comfort with him, as well as with the disease itself. And then suddenly he hits you with image after image of other shockingly deformed lepers, and you realize how far you are from understanding this horrifying condition of life. Also, don’t you think Resnais himself offers an interesting “split personality” parallel, with ridiculous and bland films like “Je veux renter a la maison” and “Pas sur la bouche”?
You may very well be right about latter-day Resnais Elizabeth. Though after reading Michael Sicinski’s reaction to NOT ON THE LIPS (found here) I’ve long wanted to revisit that film!
a “masterpiece”?? hmm. I am very skeptical, (and certainly not relishing the thought of ever rewatching that film) but also part of me doesn’t want to be able to dismiss it so easily…
I think it helps to look at films like Pas sur la bouche as being about the source material, rather than an attempt to use the play as the basis for a separate work of art. (The first films Resnais made were documentaries on artists and paintings, and Bazin’s commentary on how Resnais’ cinematic analysis served the paintings is surprisingly applicable to his late films as well.) And then, once one notices that Resnais’ cuts and camera movements are pointing up rather than covering up the theatrical experience, one wonders whether it’s possible to look at his early, funny films like Hiroshima and Marienbad in the same light….
Hiroshima is funny? Agree about Marienbad though…
Just joking about “funny” – that’s a line from Stardust Memories that I like to misappropriate.

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