|The Witches (Chimera?) / danièle to J.-M. S. / out of friendship for the Cahiers|
EYES DO NOT WANT TO
CLOSE AT ALL TIMES
"Don't be stupid, go see Othon"
FROM THE DEPTHS OF A SHIPWRECK
Othon, by Jean-Marie Straub
by Marguerite Duras
Let's take the risk of plunging into film without asking permission. Let's invent our own standards and trust only in spontaneous criticism, which does exist. There are quite a few of us who believe in nothing else. Quite a few of us see the names Carl Theodor Dreyer or Jean-Marie Straub on a poster or a flyer and go to see their films. They are filmmakers whose films the professional critics forbid us to see. That alone is reason enough to go and see them.
In 1964 one of the great film masterpieces, Dreyer's Gertrud, was killed and buried by the critics (it played in Paris for one week). Who was responsible? You, who believed the critics. Too late.
Attention! Othon,* the fifth and latest film of Jean-Marie Straub**, opened on 13 January in Paris. You have two weeks to see it. When that time is up, if the box office receipts aren't high enough, Othon will close. Attention! It is difficult to believe that professional critics are capable of judging Othon. Very likely they can neither see nor hear nor perceive in any way the nature of Straub's project and work. This is a kind of film they will not recognize. A text of pure intelligence that they will not recognize. The choice is theirs, and from their judgment there is no appeal. But they shun the freedom they've been given. Don't be stupid, go see Othon.
I am speaking to you, people I don't know. I do not know how you will respond to Straub's film. My only reason for speaking to you about Othon is to do what I can to make sure it won't suffer the same fate as Gertrud.
What I, Marguerite Duras, see is this: Othon has been exhumed from the tomb in which it has lain since 1708; Straub has traveled back in time to restore it to its nascent state. Miraculously I see the man from Rouen [Pierre Corneille] in a rage against the authorities as he writes his play. I understand why it was no accident that, between 1682 and 1708, the Comédie Française performed the play only thirty times; I understand that it is a play about power and its internal contradictions. I did not know this. I used to think that Corneille, Shakespeare, and Racine (excepting Planchon's [version of Racine's] Bérénice) slept covered with dust, drowned out by the sempiternal maunder of "culture", so that their voices could no longer be heard, their dramas no longer seen. When I saw Othon, the violence of the play was such that I forgot Corneille and Straub. That's the first time such a thing has happened to me.
To call a work obscure is just as disastrous as to call it a masterpiece of clarity: the text becomes burdened with a prejudice that prevents the reader from relating to it directly. The work is imprisoned. Straub has opened the doors of both prisons. Othon appears liberated from all visions prior to your own. Corneille's spectators are not accustomed to such freedom. Some will mistake it for a difficulty of Straub's work. Here the text is not recited to please the spectator. It is spoken neither well nor badly: it is the inner voice that speaks. Here the versification does not serve to puff up or intoxicate the actors; they do not use the words as mouthwash.
The text is a dialectical development, a respiratory rhythm, a white space. This suggests that theatre is everywhere where there is speech. And that beneath the surface of the political texts that seem least poetic — Saint-Just or Marx, for example — there lies the beat of the Cornelian contrabass. All accents are allowed except that of the Comédie Française, that accent of camouflaged meaning, of authority. The framing here is done by words. The ceremonial inherited from tragedy, the emphatic gestures, have all been eliminated: here there is nothing useless, everything is to the point. The universality of the meaning is recaptured. Straub has traveled through time to rediscover Corneille. He has broken the link between tragedy and its literal historical meaning, established once and for all by rationalist culture.
In other words, he has restored tragedy's subversive dimension. His work is an extraordinary work of healing, of resurrection. For three centuries Othon has been the victim of a crime. Here is Othon restored to youth. Subversion there is, outside as well as inside. Now that the film is finished, one can see this. On the Palatine hill in Rome in the year 69. This high ground plays a part in space and time. The scenic space is circumscribed by the automobile traffic of contemporary Rome: an imperturbable flow that gradually comes to seem a pure movement, like a river or lava flow. We hear this heavy traffic. Is there any place where one could read the text and not hear it? It would be a mistake not to hear the traffic in parallel with the text. Timeless, sacred space no longer exists. Corneille must be read now or not at all.
The power denounced here exists, just like the automobiles. As Lacus says, as men of government always say: "Let's make ourselves secure and laugh at the rest. There's no public good if things go against us. Let's live only for ourselves and think only of ourselves."
Beneath the leaden mantle of power, one free man has read Corneille: Straub.
* The full title of the film, which is directly inspired by Pierre Corneille's play, is Les yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer ou Peut-être qu'un jour Rome se permettra de choisir à son tour (Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times, or Perhaps One Day Rome Will Permit Herself to Choose in Her Turn).
** Jean-Marie Straub is French. His films (including Chronique d'Anna Magdalena Bach, released in Paris), are German. Because Straub refused to fight in Algeria, he was forced into exile. The army still dogs his footsteps. He is thirty-eight years old. Such is the situation of the man whom many of us regard as today's leading filmmaker.
Originally published in Politique-Hébdo on January 14, 1971
Translation: Art Goldhammer
"What also interests us in the films we make is to leave the various layers, not eliminating anything. This is the contrary of a whole Western artistic tradition, bourgeois of course, which consists in destroying, in effacing the traces and destroying these layers. There are other traditions. Western civilization is only a little drop in the whole. For example the Bible, of which Brecht said when asked what had marked him most: 'Don't laugh, it was the Bible' and he of course meant the Lutheran tradition. It's a question of epochs--instead of taking away one adds; the things written five hundred years earlier are not removed, they're left. In a film what interests us is the stratification, like in geology."