Nearing his death, popular French painter Edouard Manet wrote to his friend,”I beg of you… if I die, don’t let me go piecemeal into the public collections, my work would not be fairly judged… never let my work go into a museum piecemeal”. Manet was part of a new variety of painters who liked to concentrate on trivial scenes played out mostly in the suburbs with the dramatic potential of large classical narratives. In the rough commercial world of the Salon painters of late 19th century Paris, epic narratives were dying out. It was being replaced by intimate scenes that attracted our attention to newer facets of human existence- the rare moments of happiness, ennui, uncertainty and an overall punch-sodden decadence that was one with the depraved imaginations of Baudelaire and Zola.
In spite of their insistence on local stories, Manet baulked at the prospect of a disappearing grand narrative of his art. His art is one indivisible body, he seems to suggest; breaking it up would mean a clean disconnect with the possibility of his unified aesthetic universe. When the art pieces collected lovingly by the fictional impressionist painter Paul Berthier and his niece is auctioned off to the Musee d’Orsay, after their deaths, Frederic (played by Charles Berling) observes how ‘disenchanted’ they look in the artificial light of the museum space.
The last few are characters in Olivier Assayas’ film Summer Hours (L'heure d'été, 2008).
In Assayas’ film, precious art objects transition from being the carriers of pleasant personal memories to being stuffed into public space with the added responsibility of grafting on its body the cultural vein of the nation. The odd assortment of tables, sketch pads and Viennese cabinets may recall another era- removed from what the kids in the film can only begin to imagine- but it’s the way in which they become involved in the lives of the protagonists that they assume larger meanings. They are invested with emotions, barely understood family secrets and ‘major drama’ as Frederic recalls the episode when they broke a Degas sculpture as kids. Art clearly represents here the cultural body of France (maybe even Europe) that resists dismemberment. It becomes the reservoir of memory and the soil in which their identities take root.
Assayas’ narrative seems to imply a golden age that has come to an end with the death of the matriarch who lived out in the suburbs as her children went all across the world, looking for growing markets. The eldest, Frederic, is the only one who lives in Paris and he is visibly hurt and dejected when his brother and sister (played by Jérémie Renier and Juliette Binoche, respectively) propose to sell off the suburban house and auction off the pieces. It’s not a proposition that drops out of the blue; but one that is rationally explained and debated. Summer Hours is not the kind of drama that thrives on noise. Instead it’s as if the film is apologetic about the very nature of its dramatic potential. It doesn’t take long to start feeling that the film is mourning the end of a grand tradition of European boudoir dramas made famous by the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni (along with Eric Rohmer and others). The very essence of European art house cinema, stretching down from the 1960s, thrives on people discussing, dissing, struggling to come to terms with and sometimes symbolically wiggling their backsides at the ideas that have sought to keep art alive in Europe. By tapping into this rich tradition, Assayas contrives his narrative to suggest several ways in which the past has been rejected, bundled up and consigned to the dustbins of weekend retrospective shows at empty theatres. Continuing a strain from most of his movies, at least since Irma Vep (1996), Assayas’ valedictory tone is complemented with an almost rushed summary camerawork that tries to make the mourning and tremendous sadness seem matter-of-fact. The emotions have been invested in constructing the histories of the characters.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s film The Father of my Children (Le père de mes enfants, 2009) can easily be looked at as a companion piece. It concerns itself with similar issues and the tragic rupture that divides the film into two halves makes the same tonal impact as the death of the matriarch in Assayas’ film. Actors like Eric Elmosnino and Alice de Lencquesaing appear in both movies.
The Father of my Children narrates what in retrospect one must call a downward spiral as Gregoire Canvel, a charismatic film producer, struggles to secure funding for his films, defaults on repayments and eventually forces himself into a sudden and unexpected end. We watch as he drives busily through Paris, juggling cell phones and negotiating hotel room rates for visiting Korean film executives and returns home (to the suburbs again- the epicenter of the French Impressionist imagination) to his wife and three daughters. On a day like any other day he takes them to a Templar chapel and tells them about the brave ‘soldier monks’ who were eventually dispossessed. Then he goes and performs a decidedly unchristian ritual by shooting himself in a deserted street. The faith that Canvel crusades for and tries to protect from extinction is the vision of filmmakers who dedicate their passion to their craft, like Stig Janson whose film is running dangerously over-budget with cast and crew-members on the verge of striking out. Stig is the kind of director who ”does not usually interest television networks”, as Canvel drily observes. When a more practical producer-friend asks him, “Why do you produce stuff like that?” He replies by saying, “Because I like his stuff and nobody was willing to produce it… (Stig) is a genius. He has vision. His film is an epic, a saga”. Stig is an obvious representative of the moody auteur with an innate disrespect for commercial considerations and one could imagine his character being modeled on anyone from Bergman to Lars von Trier.
Following Canvel’s death, his prized catalogue of films is sold off much like the way the artworks were sold off in Assayas’ film. They register the same sense of loss and dismemberment. There is no direct pointing of fingers, but it is obvious that part of the ‘blame’ lies with the changed body of the world market, at least for films, where tastes are regulated and formulated by the big bad studios.
It is important to note here that there is no attempt to trivialize any kind of filmmaking (Irma Vep itself was an homage to vampire B-movies). Even an intractable critic like Jean-Luc Godard sought to beat Hollywood at its own game, so to speak, by freestyling Hollywood movies and re-directing the audience’s gaze at the process of film consumption itself. Instead, Mia Hansen-Løve’s film works as a plea against the quickly shrinking imagination that popular cinema has created for itself and the audience. With all the formal challenges innovated by European filmmakers in the past having been masticated into an unrecognizable cud by mechanical studio films, one can truly understand the significance of the death of European art house giants over the past few years. It’s the end of something akin to Jean-Louis Trintignant discussing Pascal in black and white or Liv Ullman negotiating her way through another marital arts (mis)adventure.
You could look at the two movies as homage to a vanished tradition of filmmaking, or you could feel that Assayas and Hansen-Løve’s requiems come as a terrible blow.
The Private Lives of the Impressionists; Roe, Sue; Harper Collins, 2006.