Dir. Alain Cavalier. France. 2009. 85 mins.
French New Wave cinema was founded on the idea of the camera as a pen, through which film-makers could channel their perceptions directly onto the screen. This concept has rarely been born out so thoroughly as in the recent work of veteran director Alain Cavalier. Using minimal resources, Irène is an example of pure first-person film-making. All we get is one man, his camera, a few places and objects – and Cavalier’s memories and thoughts, brought to the screen with intense but restrained intimacy.
The film – a memorial to the director’s wife, who died after a car accident in 1972 – is a spare but moving work, and while commercial prospects will be limited, Irène will be appreciated by the type of buyers who in recent years might have taken a chance on similar DV minimalist enterprises by Abbas Kiarostami and Agnès Varda.
The film takes the form of a first-person discourse in which Cavalier contemplates his marriage, Irène’s death and its repercussions, both short- and long-term. After the death of Cavalier’s mother, the film-maker unearths his diaries from the early 70s. Reading them, he muses on his former callow self, then starts to unravel the complexities of his marriage – touching on such thorny topics as his late wife’s gynaecological problems, their disputes and their sex life. He visits various places that were important in the couple’s life, and wonders how best to evoke Irene’s presence on screen, briefly contemplating using actress Sophie Marceau, for whom he admits to having a secret passion.
All this is conveyed in near-continuous voice-over that sounds sometimes pre-scripted, more often improvised, and always – so far as one can tell – recorded directly by Cavalier while he films, giving the film a remarkable immediacy, sometimes startlingly so. At one point, the image is interrupted as Cavalier has a sudden fall while filming in the Metro: he then cuts to his own bruised hands and his face, seen in a mirror. Cavalier never seeks to make himself likeable: he is quite simply a thinking, feeling presence, almost at one with his camera. When the 78-year-old director appears, it is to reveal himself in all his vulnerability, even down to shots of his gout-swollen feet.
Ultimately, the film is interested more in conveying thought than in producing pictures: hence the deliberately rough, anti-poetic quality of Cavalier’s images. This director requires remarkably few resources, sometimes just the odd object on a table – a lamp, his diaries, or a watermelon and an egg, which he uses to evoke the circumstances of his own birth.
Such film-making can easily come across as narcissistic. That’s not the case with Cavalier, whose work echoes a French literary tradition of soul-searching that goes back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As a film-maker, Cavalier’s closest affinities are with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and latter-day Agnès Varda, as well as some of the spare recent works (eg. Five) of Abbas Kiarostami. Irène doesn’t aim for easy catharsis, and doesn’t have the feelgood payoff of Varda’s recent memoir The Beaches of Agnes, but it makes the viewer feel rather privileged to be so confided in.
Arte France Cinéma
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