A Must-See: The Last Films of Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

If I were asked to name the most difficult great filmmaker(s) in the world, the team of the late Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub would undoubtedly top my list. (In fact, that might make in interesting exercise, so you can probably expect to see such a list posted here soon.) At the beginning of their shared career, the husband-wife team were making severe, austere black-and-white films with dark, brooding political content. The best of these early films, Not Reconciled or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules, boiled down Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half Past Nine, to a jagged 45 minutes in which the book’s multiple plot lines were jumbled and its chronology obliterated. It is a stunning film that rewards multiple viewings. It is a film that requires multiple viewings.

Only their second film, Not Reconciled was made 42 years ago. Sixteen films later, Huillet is dead from cancer and their penultimate film together, These Encounters of Theirs, is playing in the “Film Comments Selects” series at Lincoln Center. (There are several other must-see films in the series, especially a new, apparently longer version of Robert Aldrich's last unalloyed masterpiece, Twilight's Last Gleaming, a film whose political message resonates more powerfully today than ever. You should also catch the two new films by James Benning, a master of the landscape film.) If you have any intentions of seeing These Encounters, you’d damned well better catch it there. It is playing on Sunday, February 25 at 8:15 p.m. and Monday, February 26 at 6:30 p.m. At 68 ferociously rigorous minutes, it is about as likely a commercial release as the home movies of your 16th birthday.

And you should see it. When Straub-Huillet (she is billed first in the film’s credits, but rhythmically I think it sounds slightly better the other way ‘round) began working in color, a certain lyricism worked its way into their films, perhaps the product of their long collaboration with cinematographer Renato Berta, who shot nine of their films. This lyricism, built around warm natural color and verdant landscapes tempers the minimalist rigor of their staging, with its emphasis on hieratic gesture, denaturalized line readings and stationery camera. (Actually, Berta is co-cinematographer on the new film, with Jean-Paul Toraille and Marion Befve.)

These Encounters is an unofficial sequel to Straub and Huillet’s 1979 film From a Cloud to the Resistance; like its predecessor the film’s text is drawn from Cesare Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucó. And like the earlier film, the driving force at work here is the blend of Pavese’s elaborately poetic meditations on a primeval pre-Abrahamic religiosity and the beauty of the Italian hillside country. (It has been more than twenty years since I saw Cloud and I have very little memory of it, beyond that basic structuring device.)

These Encounters has a relatively simple structure itself. The film consists of five dialogues between ancient gods and/or humans. Each takes place outdoors in bright sunlight or in a shadowed valley by a creek. The dialogues describe a progression. The first is between two humans pondering the behavior of one of “the lords;” the second involves two gods worrying about the sadness of the humans and their need for gods; the third is between two gods (and involves the film’s first camera movement, a beautiful pan of the landscape as the sunlight begins to flood the valley); the fourth is a dialogue between a goddess and Hesiod who discuss the importance of his storytelling; the fifth and final dialogue is between two mortal men, the first and only scene between two males, discussing the loss of the gods and “those encounters of theirs” with humans. The film ends with a shot of a modern Italian village perched on the side of a mountain, and a slow pan up to the sky, which is bifurcated by a power line, undoubtedly connected in some labyrinthine way to the high-tension power lines that festoon the distant mountaintop.

The use of natural settings underlines the film’s central concern, the cycles of life and death that humanity endures, and the importance of stories “to give meaning to their lives,” as the goddess Deo says in the second dialogue. The disappearance of the gods, intimated in the first scene, stated directly by Deo in the second, is integrally related to the ability of mankind to tell stories, to recapture and reconfigure the relationship to nature and deity. It is a fitting final theme for the last feature film that Huillet and Straub completed together. (There is one more collaboration, a short, “Europa 2005 – 27 Octubre,” that they made for a political project addressing the rioting in the banlieues last year. This twelve-minute short can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGU06JQ92lc. Straub-Huillet on YouTube? Imagine that.)


Steven said…
Thanks for reminding me to get my advance ticket to the last Straub/Huillet feature and for providing access to their final film. You do raise the interesting topic of difficult filmmakers and how do we determine this. Some people find the Straub/Huillet Too Little, Too Late difficult and some (moi) do not. I do have to consider them with Jansco, Akerman among the difficult filmmakers, but I do not know if I want to consider the groundbreaking work of Michael Snow , Stan Brakhage as difficult unlike conventional dominant cinema, sure.