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Faraway Letter: Close-Up on Jean-Claude Brisseau's "Céline"

The director often classified as a social realist reveals his metaphysical side in this portrait of a soulful connection between two women.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean-Claude Brisseau's Céline (1992) is showing July 20 - August 18, 2019 in the United States.
Early in his career, once his ambitious, feature-length debut made on Super 8 had been discovered by Éric Rohmer and Maurice Pialat, Jean-Claude Brisseau (1944-2019) attracted the tag of being a social realist, a “poet of suburbia.” From Life the Way It Is (1978) to Sound and Fury (1988), the jagged, often violent plots reflected his life experience as a committed teacher to troubled, working-class kids.
But other, less-heralded aspects of these films, as well as of A Brutal Game (1983) and White Wedding (1989), were already pointing in a different, more holistic direction: dreams and visions, intimating the presence of some broadly defined “other world.” Brisseau declared in 2002: “My films are all about the problem of our relation to reality—whatever that reality may be. I’ve always been fascinated by the fantastique or, more exactly, the relationship between fantasy and reality.  I hate separating them …”
Twice in Céline (1992)—which marked the revelation, in Brisseau’s career, of this total picture of his art—the hand of a phantom appears in the course of an otherwise perfectly ordinary, realistic shot. In the first case, Céline (Isabelle Pasco), finally on the road to recovery from traumatic grief, lies down in bed; the hand of her ex-boyfriend then enters the frame and begins caressing her leg as a prelude to lovemaking. Near the end of the film, Céline’s former nurse, Geneviève (Lisa Hérédia), is suffering severe heart pains, and sees a black figure (clearly, it’s Death) gliding toward her. Suddenly, Céline’s hand appears and touches Geneviève’s forehead, reassuring and protecting her, and—as in the classic supernatural romance, Peter Ibbetson (1935)—leaving her with a ring to wear on her finger.
In both cases, the intervening hand belongs to a person who is not physically present in the house, this “Old Mill” in north-central France where most of the film is set. By the same token, the nature of these apparitions is gently ambiguous: it could be a fantasy projection in the former, and a genuine spirit visitation in the latter—but who can say, exactly? It is the way of Brisseau’s cinema to allow a porousness between all these realms: everyday life, desires, and the “other side” beyond what is strictly visible and material. “I always had the feeling,” said Brisseau of his admiration for the “very great director” Alain Resnais, “that his films were an attempt to see into the other side of reality”—while being firmly grounded in a “glacial dramatization of an even, flat reality.” In a 2012 issue of the French magazine Trafic, Pierre Gabaston agreed with the director: Brisseau defines “a supernatural relationship ontologically. Cinema, art of the visible, renders the invisible evident. Or, at least, palpable.”
Céline is a very grounded film, reminding us of the realist baseline that is always present in Brisseau’s work. At each moment, the director and his collaborators (including his long-time partner Hérédia, credited under her family name of María Luisa García for both editing and set decoration) pay strict attention to details of weather (rain, wind, sun), light (direct, reflected, masked), and décor (props, windows, door frames). The marvellous, plangent music score—composed by Georges Delerue (and reminiscent of his themes for Godard’s Contempt), but recycled from a French TV documentary series—is used in an often understated way, accompanying not the grand emotional swirls of events but their daily, “glacially” montaged eddies. As in the 1930s work of Jean Renoir that Brisseau so loved, there is a strong sense here of routine and ritual, the changing seasons, the passing days and nights—powerfully interrupted, however, by the occasional vision of a burning car, a luminous desert, or a body slumped helplessly in the grass. Brisseau’s extremely integrated directorial style aims (as Hérédia has testified) for both a limpid clarity of action and a sometimes lightning-fast speed of unfolding events: like those classical masters he studied closely (Hitchcock in particular), Brisseau is always telescoping off-screen occurrences and flying forward to their consequences, which gives another kind of dreamlike air to proceedings.
As in every Brisseau film, Céline’s narrative premise—just like its mise en scène and editing—constantly and surprisingly moves up another notch, to an entirely different level. During its first half, the film seems to adhere to a master/disciple template (although it is less usual to see such a story involving women): with Geneviève being not just the nurse, but also the spiritual counsellor of Céline, introducing her to a series of practices (a strict routine of domestic tasks, diet, yoga, and meditation) that had been helpful when Geneviève herself experienced similar ills. For those elements, the film was both praised and mocked on its release as a veritable “New Age” manifesto. But the story soon takes us to some unexpected places, wonderfully dismantling the idea that the characters hold any rigid role or stable position. What Céline ultimately demonstrates is that life is always in motion, that it is not made of fixed identities, but of encounters—encounters that have the capacity to reconstitute us differently, tearing us apart anew.
Entering into contact with a sphere that we could call metaphysical, supernatural or, simply, unknown: this is the crucial experience portrayed in several Brisseau films. This gives his cinema some of its recurrent motifs: dreams, ghosts, and visions; scenes of levitation, near-death episodes, and an awestruck contemplation of the natural world. For the characters, this experience is intertwined with an exploration that can be intellectual, artistic, erotic, or spiritual; it involves different conjunctions and readjustments of body, mind, and psyche. Brisseau's cinema is one of vital inquiry, not reassuring answers. To live is always to risk; it is to be—to cite the title of his great 2008 film—à l'aventure, ready for adventure.
The touching portrait of the growing friendship and soulful connection between these two women—a more platonic version of the erotic and incendiary female partnerships in Brisseau’s later work, such as Secret Things (2002) and The Exterminating Angels (2006)—increasingly strays into realms of the paranormal, the miraculous, the mythic, and the divine. A minor character—a teenage boy to whom Geneviève tends—serves to introduce pertinent, associative references to ancient Egypt, a lyrical poem dedicated to “the beauties,” and an Erich von Däniken-style, Chariots of the Gods reverie on aliens and predestined civilization. That's the double edge of Brisseau's Céline: the personal adventure—despite feeling sometimes lonely, despite possibly demanding physical separation—is never truly isolating: it transcends our most immediate space and reality, our moment in time and history, to embrace the cosmic.
While Céline's path takes her outside herself (cutting off every identifying, sentimental, and material attachment), Geneviève will experience a return to mundane feelings of pain, disequilibrium, fear, and abandonment. Brisseau keeps these two versions of “forever” in a delicate equilibrium: while Geneviève comes to terms with a possible life-long commitment to her lover, Céline confronts a different kind of eternity—and hence addresses to her friend, in the film’s unforgettable finale, a “letter from far away …”. Like any worthy union, the partnership of Céline and Geneviève is at the mercy of a personal and untransferable journey, a quest that is unique to each character.

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