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The Pleasures of Crisis: "Amoureuse" (Doillon, France, 1992)

Photo courtesy of Helene Bamberger.

New York theatergoers have had opportunity to see eleven rare films by French director Jacques Doillon in the last twelve months: mostly due to the tireless efforts of Marie Losier at the French Institute/Alliance Française, with a few assists from the programming team at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It's clear at this point that English-language film scholarship is completely in the dark about Doillon: the films with some small American reputation or distribution are no better or worse than the ones we've never heard of. The latest case in point is Doillon's dazzling 1992 Amoureuse, which screened at FIAF on February 9 in an ongoing series devoted to Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The basic idea of Amoureuse couldn't be simpler: a love triangle, period. Marie (Gainsbourg), committed to her boyfriend Antoine (Thomas Langmann), does a 95%-effective job of resisting the ardent courtship of a filmmaker (Yvan Attal). But Antoine sniffs out the 5% and reacts with an anger and jealousy that drives Marie into an uncertain balancing act between the two men.

Doillon, working with his frequent co-writer Jean-Francois Goyet, uses this simple story as a springboard for his imagination, and crams the film's 99 minutes with as many elaborations and offshoots of the situation as he can think up. And he can think up a lot of them. Amoureuse feels in different ways like both a minor and major work: minor in the slightness of the central concept and the seeming sense of writer's improvisation in filling out the corners of the story; major in that the concentration of emotion and behavioral surprise is astonishing. In some sense all Doillon films, no matter how realistic or socially aware, are fantasies, in that the flow of inspiration comes from Doillon's pleasure in imagining people as he loves them and wants them to be. Even more than with the father-daughter sparring in the great La vie de famille (1985), Doillon inhabits and inspires all of the characters in this triangle: the distinctions among them correspond more to Doillon's different aspects than to true character differentiation. And, despite the film's evident formal command, its brilliance stems directly from Doillon's qualities as a person.

The talk in Amoureuse is non-stop, usually about the film's big issues, and full of self-observations, observations about others, jokes. Verbal inspiration is in the air, and it descends upon everyone: on secondary characters like Marie's sister Juliette (Stéphanie Cotta), who is introduced offhandedly in mid-film and gradually gets more and more of the smartest lines; on bit players like the pickup artist at a club Marie visits, to whom Doillon amazingly gives a second, more considered shot at Marie before his exit; even to off-screen characters like Antoine's mother, whose insight about Marie is relayed to us via a telephone conversation with Antoine: "She says you out-pious the Pope."

Heading straight into the emotional extremity that he loves, Doillon is already pouring out the details of Paul's aggressive/desperate play for Marie on the soundtrack under the opening credit cards. No sooner does the sprinting story take up a character than he or she is plunged into deep emotional waters. Doillon's people generally start shedding tears or storming out of apartments early in our acquaintance with them; and they almost always make a certain number of moves out of powerful motivations that they do not completely understand. Yet, though half victims of love, they are also half script strategists: Doillon loves the part of them that thinks through and around their turmoil, coming up with ideas to change their lives, sooner or later finding moments of detachment and wit. The many shifts of the story are impelled by the characters' need for a new or different perspective, a need that suits the riffing filmmaker well. The rival guys will meet and form an uneasy but real connection (the comic high point of the film is Paul's demonstration to the jealous Antoine that it's not always easy to avoid a kiss); Juliette is first a confidante for Marie, then a sexual outlet for Paul, and eventually a source of droll humor. Everyone plays multiple roles that reflect their own conflicts between action and detachment: Paul grimly takes on the job of patching up Antoine's quarrel with Marie, even as he courts her; Juliette falls for Paul and allows herself to be used by him, all the while helping her sister connect with him. The total adds up to Doillon's unruly yet coherent ideal: of life emotionally charged to the point of destabilization, yet considered enough to be lived with affection and intelligence.

The ever-evolving story threatens to spin out of control in its final stages, as an increasingly erratic and distraught Marie is driven to extreme gestures. But the center somehow holds: one of the characters will always be clear-headed, detached from his or her own crisis, and standing by to orient the others. In the last scene, Doillon and Marie allow themselves a bit of symbolic fun: as the three protagonists walk on the street, she takes the arm of one boy, then both, and uses their support to kick her feet in the air, with a smile that tries to summarize and dispel all the pain that the three have suffered. But Doillon will not permit himself a simple ending, and the film lasts long enough to dissipate Marie's hopeful gesture in a maze of graceful, solemn reverse tracking shots that reckon up the characters' gains and losses.

Dan, this piece makes me want to look at the movie again: you make it sound like an early 30s/mid 60s Hawks! I think you’re convincing me of virtues things that I found baffling: the not-even warbling but totally hypothetical nature of the dialogues and reactions as though each scene were presenting a catalog of potential responses to the situation at hand–a description that makes it sound closer to a nouveau roman and Resnais posed in naturalistic terms. The film reminded me (and the few people I talked to) of Rohmer, but Rohmer always undercuts the short-circuit web of talk and reason with single, minute, precise gestures through which the characters express themselves against all odds; what was strangest to me about Amoureuse was that nobody expresses him/herself physically or otherwise, that there was no sense (to me) of any deeper character or intuition ruling their reactions–I wonder if you’d disagree. Formally strange as well: that crisp vibrant color, and the extremely rare use of 35mm deep space (cars can be seen half a mile down the road in detail) that Doillon made actually no attempt to use. The movie remains a cipher to me, all the more because I completely agree with your positive reaction. Thanks for the piece.
David – so I don’t know if I can get at your reservations about Amoureuse perhaps lacking physicality and organic motivation, but maybe I can say a few words about your Rohmer comparison, and see if they bear on the subject. My strong feeling is that the Doillon universe is essentially interior, a projection of the artist’s wishes and desires. It’s as if Doillon lay in bed one afternoon and spun a beautiful, painful fantasy of being in love with a girl – a girl not unlike his once/sort-of stepdaughter Charlotte – who couldn’t quite be had, and filled out all the corners of the canvas with dreams of what insightful things he might say, and what perfect responses might come back to him, ad infinitum. The film has a manner of physicality: the funny violence of the boys’ kiss, the startling sex scenes where Antoine comes in the unwilling Marie’s mouth, and when he carries her around the room like a doll. But it’s all a projection of emotions, emotions made manifest. I think Doillon’s camera style is stunning and just right for the film: for instance, I love the smooth little camera pull-back, the lens long enough to mess with our sense of space, that moves with Marie as she changes her position in bed with Paul. But, again, these camera flourishes do not locate us outside of Doillon’s authorial focus on the pain/pleasure of his own fantasy. Rohmer may seem similar at first glance, but I think he’s really completely different. All that dialogue in Doillon’s film is crucial: it bears all the film’s feeling. With Rohmer, the effect is more indirect. What the characters say in a Rohmer film isn’t really the film: the film doesn’t emerge until the idea-world that the characters construct is juxtaposed with the too too solid reality of Rohmer’s spaces, of the soundtrack, of the documentary he’s always making about the world around his people. I’m never confident that anyone in a Rohmer film is really Rohmer, neither the men nor the women – if he sneaks himself in there, he doesn’t tip us off. Whereas Doillon is everyone in his films, the men and women both. The elegant little camera readjustments that Doillon is so good at, or the tracking shots at film’s end, wouldn’t be right for Rohmer, because Doillon’s visual gestures are enhancements of his feelings. Rohmer loves the impassive beauty of a world that doesn’t have any truck with his people’s ideas about it, a world that exists outside of and apart from them. I see your point about Hawks and Doillon both populating their worlds with people out of their imaginations. There are assorted differences, of course. There’s no equivalent in Doillon for Hawks’ play with genre, his setting up of genre expectations in order to trick us into accepting his actors’ informality as more real than a movie. Doillon is speaking to us directly out of his own mind, almost bypassing cinema in the process. Nouveau roman – I like it! Anything could have happened in this movie.

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