What bond then unites these three women of the XVIIIe century? The first, Madame du Deffand, little known to the general public, has gone down in history for its qualities as a salt shaker. The second, Mrs. Roland, owes her notoriety to the fact of having exclaimed, it is said, in front of the scaffold: “Freedom, what crimes we commit in your name!” and his talent as a painter immortalized the third, Madame Vigée Le Brun. It is the relationship to the letter writing of each that is the source of this book, while none, says historian Cécile Berly, plans to become a writer, out of respect for the gender norms that make them unthinkable this ambition. However, the work shows that if writing is not only part of their daily lives – like that of most bourgeois women, who are required to maintain family and social relationships – this activity is, for them, essential, linked to their personality and their inscription to the world.
For Madame du Deffand, the letter is a remedy for boredom, whose conversations in her living room are not enough to protect it; moreover, oral and written complement each other, because it is not uncommon for his correspondence – the very rich correspondence with Voltaire – to be read aloud, during the afternoons and evenings on rue Saint-Dominique. The hostess embodies the “Pure French spirit” alongside its regulars, the biggest names in the Age of Enlightenment. The decline in the reputation of her meetings, competed by those of Julie de Lespinasse, so long close to her because responsible for palliating the blindness of the elderly letter writer, increases her melancholy; only the letter saves her from despair, especially if she becomes in love in exchanges with a young English aristocrat.
Quite different is the character of Madame Roland, who, from her childhood, amazed with her intellectual capacities and her taste for freedom which would keep her from her monastic temptation. The emotional letters to her friends from her youth are followed by political letters: it is through writing that she engages in the Revolution. Therefore, in love with ancient culture, admiring the Romans, it “See the letter as a forum” ; tracts, petitions, newspapers are added to inform and influence his fellow citizens. The exacerbation of her patriotism even leads her to present herself as “The wife of Cato”. The author sees it as proof that, outside of the Revolution, Manon Roland no longer exists. However, the era was surprisingly respectful of the genre: in the living room of the couple who, from 1791, united the radical left, she was the only woman admitted but remained silent there! So, until the dawn of her execution, she wrote against the bloodthirsty madness of the Revolution.
Because her art entirely inhabits her, Madame Vigée Le Brun only takes up her pen in moments of doubt or anger; exile transforms his writing practice into an astonishing extension of his painting. Supporting sources, this study confirms that the letter is then the major form of female writing.
Let’s prefer the French title, red lips (evocative metonymy and glam fetishism), to that of the original version. Daughters of Darkness, by Belgian Harry Kümel, being an international co-production, the film was originally shot in English. Yes, let’s forget the Gothic mythology of the infernal succubi, to stick to the mysterious radiance of a scarlet mouth emerging from the darkness, the opalescent smile of the one whose face we cannot yet distinguish, which is concealed by a veil, but whose voice we already recognize, this indolent and caressing timbre like no other that seemed to tame the silence. In 1971, Delphine Seyrig, dreamy and floating shadow at Resnais, bewitching appearance at Truffaut, invited herself into this jewel of arty fantasy cinema to resuscitate a flagship figure of the vampire film: the Countess Báthory, Hungarian aristocrat who lived in the XVIIe century, accused in its time of the massacre of hundreds of virgins, whose blood watering its ritual baths was supposed to keep it an eternal youth.
This legend will inspire Sapphic vampirism, Carmilla from Sheridan Le Fanu to Vampyros Lesbos by Jess Franco, and Kümel’s film only remembers a distant kinship, nowadays transposed into a chilly Flanders of off-season. Two newlyweds, Stefan and Valérie, stranded in Ostend, reside in a palace with old-fashioned charm, where the enigmatic countess with a supernatural youth settles down and her mistress Ilona, pulpy double of Louise Brooks. The two women set their sights on the couple, while girls are murdered in the region, their corpse found bloodless…
Like any vampire movie, red lips unfolds the story of a hold, the prey of which, succumbing to the rapture from which it cannot escape, is revealed by impulses, which were already dormant in them – the sadistic violence of Stefan, the lesbian attraction of Valérie. At the center of all the spells, Delphine Seyrig and her feline magnetism, her notched blondness like Marlene Dietrich, her flexible body, magnified by the anachronistic extravagance of her dresses – closer to the Hollywood glamor of the 30s than of the 70s -, her voice melodious carried by shadows and this bushy air of strolling casually over the texts … A game that seems to rest entirely on the divinatory art of seduction – and in this sense, the film can also be seen as a documentary about its main actress .
Magnetism can only be exercised in a “field”, an environment, an “arrangement” would say Deleuze, Kümel immerses his film in an atmospheric bath, a diffuse eroticism, a feverish languor, which underlines the heady music of François de Roubaix . There is a fantastic funeral where decorations, deserted colonnades and bluish night evoke the worried symbolism of the paintings of Léon Spilliaert, Giorgio De Chirico and Paul Delvaux. An icy aesthetic, bordering on mannerism, as the film multiplies cinephile quotes, from the bat cape Vampires of Red fade in Feuillade inherited from Bergman, up to the shower scene of Psychosis that he revisits plan by plan with dazzling thoroughness.
Now that the prize list has fallen, the time has come for a final review of this successful 70e Berlinale, to evoke a few films that have been able to float in the memory of the festival critic exhausted by an overflow of images, German coffee and stuffy pretzels.
Siberia of Abel Ferrara. Vivo film. Maze pictures. Piano
Let’s start with an aberration, which we cannot say whether we like it or not, one of the most awaited films of the competition which created an almost general perplexity: Siberia by Abel Ferrara. It is a series of enigmatic visions and encounters experienced by an American, Clint (Willem Dafoe), running a bar in the middle of Siberia. Memories, dreams, nightmarish or mystical apparitions are linked together in this trip where we guess the clear influence of Andrei Tarkovski. Many critics found the film grotesque, and most of the spectators in the very large room of the Friedrichstadt-Palast, where we saw it, had apparently chosen to consider that they were facing a comedy. We do not hide the fact that certain situations or ideas made us smile and that it is quite difficult to genuinely adhere to this mystical-psychoanalytic peregrination in which Ferrara immerses us in the obscure depths of his imagination. But, in addition to the fact that the film arouses in us the sympathy of unclassifiable and netless objects, it is undeniable that the one who produced it is a real filmmaker, who knows how to create singular images, invent a complex mental space or seize us by a simple connection between two planes. And in a festival where there are so many films in one day, sometimes of great platitude or shapeless blistering, this Siberia so mocked at least had the audacity to explore in its own way nothing less than the twists and turns of cinematic time and space, through those of dream and memory.
Malmkrog by Cristi Puiu. Mandragora
It is in a completely different way that we recognize a strong sense of duration and framework in the long, complex and sometimes sumptuous shots that constitute Malmkrog (presented in the Encounters section), the new film by Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu (discovered in 2005 with the extraordinary the Death of Dante Lazarescu). Shots that are not just the result of a skill in framing and photographing, but that are constantly tended by life and the words that unfold therein. Adapting texts from the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev, this 3:20 am film takes place in a unique place: a mansion in Transylvania where Nikolai, a large landowner, welcomes Christmas friends of aristocrat friends, of different nationalities. Between meals and board games, their main activity consists in sharing their visions of the world, essentially in French, around subjects as big as death, progress, religion, morals. We think of Manoel de Oliveira, with less humor although the film is not devoid of fantasy and strangeness. You can get lost in conversations but it is the very word that matters, the need to keep talking, to think out loud even if it turns out to be increasingly complex and perilous.
Days from Tsai Ming-liang. Homegreen Films
Days by Tsai Ming-liang (in competition) marks the return to fiction after seven years of absence (since stray dogs, in 2013) from another great filmmaker of the plan, of their slow deployment over time. He is equal to himself in his new film where, far from Puiu’s talks, almost no words are spoken. Again, he becomes attached to solitudes that will eventually intersect. In the countryside, a man (Lee Kang-sheng, the filmmaker’s favorite actor since his first film) with tired and slow gestures, seems to be bored and suffering physically, requiring baths, massages and acupuncture sessions; in the city, a younger man, on the contrary, is distinguished by the dexterity of his gestures, especially when he is washing food and cooking it. In the montage that shows them evolving in parallel, elements visible in almost every plane already unite them: water, fire, plants, present in many forms. The film is tied to the meeting of the two men where, for the time of a sensual and then sexual massage, the skillful hands of the first relieve the tired body of the second, until enjoyment. It is very clear and very beautiful, no offense to the impatient.
The Woman Who Ran from Hong Sang-soo. Jeonwonsa Film Co. Production
In Hong Sang-soo, the precision and rigor of the plans is not as obvious as in Puiu or Tsai. The Korean filmmaker, who claims Rohmer’s influence, again appears in The Woman Who Ran (presented in competition) a lightness and a simplicity that the frames, panoramas or zooms scrutinize with acuity but without will to artificially embellish their obviousness. A young woman (the magnificent filmmaker’s muse Kim Minhee) takes advantage of her husband’s business trip to visit three former friends. Through their conversations mixing very concrete and material subjects – the price of things, neighborhood problems, food, vegetarianism -, Hong deals in his own way with very contemporary questions, with a humor that gradually turns to melancholy . Ultimately, this film in which the few men who appear are troublesome and essentially filmed from behind, evokes a certain female solitude, chosen or suffered. To cold surveillance camera shots, Hong sets his gaze on the lookout, available to prodigious chances, such as this camera movement which reveals a perfectly placed and attentive cat at the end of a long shot where the stake of the conversation was precisely the presence of cats in the vicinity. A plan so miraculous that it sparked applause in an entire room of criticism in Berlin.
In the recesses of the parallel selections, a few films with modest means made, like Hong Sang-soo, of their economic poverty an engine of freshness and vitality. In Boarding (Panorama section), the new film by Guillaume Brac, declared admirer of the Korean filmmaker, we follow the summer getaway of two friends going to find in the Drôme the conquest of an evening of one of them. As in July tales (2018), Brac turns again with young actors from the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art, rediscovering something of the adventurous spirit of Jacques Rozier’s films but by matching it to the languages, cultures and customs of a very contemporary youth . As always with Brac, under his apparent humility the film is precise and dense, in addition to being funny and extremely endearing.
In Isabella (presented to Encounters), the Argentinian Matías Piñeiro films another friendly adventure, but coupled with an ambiguous rivalry. Two young theater actresses apply for the same role, that of Isabella in Measure for measure of William Shakespeare, while the brother of one is the lover of the other. It is a film about envy, in the double sense of the word – desire and jealousy – where the Rivetian play with the theater is made more complex (something new in Piñeiro) by a play with chronology and a formalism which sometimes leads to on an abstraction of colors and shapes. A captivating and confusing film that will perhaps be enjoyed above all by those who already know Piñeiro’s cinema, all the elements of which (theater, friendship, acting, speech) are here reorganized in a more free and mysterious way.
Finally, one of the great discoveries of the festival was A metamorfose dos pássaros, the first feature by Portuguese catarina Vasconcelos (presented at Encounters), shot for less than 100,000 euros. It is a biography of the filmmaker’s own family, of his grandparents and parents, reconstituted in beautiful fine-line shots essentially framing gestures, objects, photographs, and playing on materials, colors, simple visual effects (the recurrent use of a magnifying glass, for example) while voiceovers follow one another to evoke moments in the life of each. Imagine a Cavalier film filmed by Manoel de Oliveira (still him) to get an idea of the beauty and originality of this minimalist and poetic family novel. The kind of unexpected little pearls that we always hope to find in this clutter of films that is a film festival as bloated as the Berlinale.