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Archive for the ‘Experimental Cinema’ Category

50th Anniversary Screening of The Chelsea Girls at Anthology

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Fifty years ago today, Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls had its first public screening.

Tonight at Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas will introduce the 50th anniversary screening of this indelible, inexhaustible masterpiece, which is a very difficult film to project, requiring two 16mm projectors, stereo sound, and a great deal of patience on the part of the projectionist.

Starring nearly the entire gallery of Warhol 60s superstars, including Nico, Ondine, Marie Menken, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar, Mario Montez, Eric Emerson, and Brigid Berlin, the film runs a mammoth 210 minutes, but is worth every second of your time.

As Anthology’s website notes, “Warhol’s double-screen masterpiece – consisting of 12 unedited reels, shown side-by-side, with only one soundtrack audible at a time – depicts the Chelsea Hotel as a teeming hive of Superstars, junkies, prostitutes, and generally out-sized personalities.

An underground sensation upon its release, it ultimately broke out of the underground cinema circuit, invading a ‘respectable’ uptown theater and leading uptight New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to declare, ‘now that [the] underground has surfaced on West 57th Street and taken over a theater with carpets…it is time for permissive adults to stop winking at their too-precious pranks….’

Before having the gall to blow uptown minds, however, The Chelsea Girls premiered in 1966 at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque at 125 West 41st Street (apparently far enough downtown for Crowther), where it sold out many of its initial screenings and enjoyed several return engagements, before moving to the Cinema Rendezvous on 57th.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we present this special screening (safely downtown), hosted by Jonas Mekas himself, who will share stories of how The Chelsea Girls was let loose on the world.”

The original projectionists were Jerome Hiler and Bob Cowan; the Cinemathque in this particular iteration was run by the late Greg Sharits; and as the notes above indicate, it was an instant smash, with ads running in The New York Times, and nearly universal critical acclaim.

More than any other film, with the exception of La Dolce Vita, The Chelsea Girls holds a mirror up to the culture of the 1960s; it is at all surprising that the late chanteuse and actor Nico is in both films?

So, if you’re in New York City tonight, this is a must see – of course, there’s also a great new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde playing at The Metropolitan Opera this week, so that’s something – just something – of a toss up. But that should give you some idea of just how important The Chelsea Girls is as a cultural landmark – it’s an absolutely brilliant, merciless, and altogether stunning experience, of equally epic stature.

The Chelsea Girls is on my “top ten” list – which has 250 films in it – see it if you can.

Agnès Varda – “From Here to There”

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

Agnès Varda walking down the street with Chris Marker, behind his signature “cat symbol.”

Agnès Varda has a relatively new documentary out – it was actually completed in 2011, and shot over several years before that – which in five roughly hour long parts examines the creative process inherent in her own work, and the work of her friends and colleagues, which is at once playful, experimental, deeply personal, and imbued with the joy of life and creating art for the sake of art.

Though, as she points out, now that he is older, everywhere she goes people give her medals and retrospective screenings, Varda is still very much alive as a filmmaker and video artist, and one is struck not only be her relaxed and assured embrace of video technology, but also her multifaceted persona as an artist: a still photographer, environmental creator, sculptor, filmmaker, painter – you name it.

Many of her friends are colleagues with whom she has been working since the 1950s, and now are extremely successful artists in a variety of mediums, but Varda seems not at all affected by her hard-won fame and the new – and richly deserved – level of respect her work is now experiencing. While contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, wildly prolific in the 1960s, but merely a shadow of his former self now – as he himself put it in an interview, “I’m on my last legs” – seem to drift off into the past, Varda keeps looking forward to future, and finding endless possibilities and new directions in her work.

As Fernando F. Croce wrote in Film Comment in 2014, “early in the marvelously fluid, five-part cine-essay Agnès Varda: From Here to There, the eponymous veteran auteur briefly pauses to ponder the difference between cinema and photography. Legendary French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson is Varda’s subject in this mini-digression, yet her comments on stillness and movement as captured through a camera lens clearly apply to her own art, particularly in light of her eccentric and deeply personal recent documentaries.

Like The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008), this miniseries (shot for French television roughly over the course of one year) envisions a form of portraiture that is forever on the move, its brisk, airy images darting and rippling like the frank, fearless filmmaker’s memories and emotions.

That feeling of emotional mobility is something Varda has always shared with her late husband, the great director Jacques Demy, whose benevolent specter is never far. Visiting Brazil—in the first of the various global travels she documents in Here and There—Varda shares some of the home movies Demy shot in the country many years earlier. (‘Jacques was known for his tracking shots, but here his camera stood still,’ she muses over the grainy, flickering footage.)

While in Demy’s hometown of Nantes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his feature debut Lola, Varda captures the aged Anouk Aimée abstractedly repeating a coquettish gesture from the young heroine she once portrayed. That tinge of continuity is further enforced in a heartening moment when Demy’s poetic manifesto on why he films is recited by his son Mathieu over a montage of pictures depicting his cinema as well as his family life.

Agnes Varda From Here to There

Indeed, renewal and continuity are recurring themes. Each of the segments is prefaced with glimpses of Varda’s backyard, where wild foliage has sprouted on previously bare trees. It’s a spiritual metaphor that, like the key image of mirrors on a beach, would feel heavy-handed if it weren’t worn in such a fleet and open-hearted manner, its transparency an integral part of the film’s dizzying array of friends and events. Now in her mid-eighties, the director savors playfully childlike artifice.

In The Beaches of Agnès, sand is poured in a Parisian street as clerks in a mock-office lounge in bathing suits, and former child actors from Varda’s neorealist early effort La Pointe Courte (1955) enact one of their scenes as old men. From Here to There doesn’t have as many tableaux, but it retains that same impish, analog spirit as she makes her way across the continents, omnivorously searching for ‘fragments, moments, people.’” The series is now available on DVD, or for the moment on Amazon streaming; you should take the time to see it if you possibly can.

Varda’s work should be an inspiration to us all; this is simply essential viewing.

Jean Cocteau in 1963: “I Hope You Have Not Become Robots”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

In August 1963, just a few months before his death, Jean Cocteau recorded a message for the year 2000.

As Josh Jones perceptively writes in Open Culture, “Jean Cocteau was a great many things to a great many people—writer, filmmaker, painter, friend, and lover. In the latter two categories he could count among his acquaintances such modernist giants as Pablo Picasso, Kenneth Anger, Erik Satie, Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf, Jean Marais, Marcel Proust, André Gide, and a number of other famous names . . .

As you’ll see in the short film above, Cocteau Addresses the Year 2000, the great 20th century artist considered the many awards bestowed upon him naught but ‘transcendent punishment.’ What Cocteau cared for most was poetry; for him it was the ‘basis of all art, a religion without hope.’

Cocteau began his career as a poet, publishing his first collection, Aladdin’s Lamp, at the age of 19. By 1963, at the age of 73, he had lived one of the richest artistic lives imaginable [though he was materially poor, and relied upon the generosity of others for his daily needs], transforming every genre he touched.

Deciding to leave one last artifact to posterity, Cocteau sat down and recorded the film above, a message to the year 2000, intending it as a time capsule only to be opened in that year (though it was discovered, and viewed a few years earlier). Biographer James S. Williams describes the documentary testament as ‘Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings.’

He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising…

Portraying himself as ‘a living anachronism’ in a ‘phantom-like state,’ Cocteau, seated before his own artwork, quotes St. Augustine, makes parables of events in his life, and addresses, primarily, the youth of the future.

The uses and misuses of technology comprise a central theme of his discourse: ‘I certainly hope that you have not become robots,’ Cocteau says, ‘but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.’ The people of his time, he claims, ‘remain apprentice robots.’

Among Cocteau’s concerns is the dominance of an ‘architectural Esperanto, which remains our time’s great mistake.’ By this phrase he means that ‘the same house is being built everywhere and no attention is paid to climate, atmospherical conditions or landscape.’

Whether we take this as a literal statement or a metaphor for social engineering, or both, Cocteau sees the condition as one in which these monotonous repeating houses are ‘prisons which lock you up or barracks which fence you in.’ The modern condition, as he frames it, is one ’straddling contradictions’ between humanity and machinery. Nonetheless, he is impressed with scientific advancement, a realm of ‘men who do extraordinary things.’

And yet, ‘the real man of genius,’ for Cocteau, is the poet, and he hopes for us that the genius of poetry ‘hasn’t become something like a shameful and contagious sickness against which you wish to be immunized.’ He has very much more of interest to communicate, about his own time, and his hopes for ours.

Cocteau recorded this transmission from the past in August of 1963. On October 11 of that same year, he died of a heart attack, supposedly shocked to death by news of his friend Edith Piaf’s death that same day in the same manner.

His final film, and final communication to a public yet to be born, accords with one of the great themes of his life’s work—’the tug of war between the old and the new and the paradoxical disparities that surface because of that tension.’

Should we attend to his messages to our time, we may find that he anticipated many of our 21st century dilemmas between technology and humanity, and between history and myth. It’s interesting to imagine how we might describe our own age to a later generation, and, like Cocteau, what we might hope for them.”

It’s also remarkable that even in his last months, Cocteau remained dedicated to the future of humanity, and the humanities, and the need for poetry in the modern world, and that he created this last film entirely extemporaneously, speaking from the heart without notes or preparation, with a desperate urgency to communicate one last time with the youth of the future – albeit from beyond the grave. On his tomb, it says simply “I stay with you,” and so he does, more important now than ever, as one of the foremost humanists of the modern era.

This is an invaluable document; a real call for humanity to a future that desperately needs it.

Werner Herzog Explores The Internet in “Lo and Behold”

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

Werner Herzog – who doesn’t own a cellphone – is tackling the history and mystery of the Internet.

As Hayley Tsukayama writes in The Washington Post, “filmmaker Warner Herzog didn’t make his first phone call until he was 17, and still doesn’t ever use a cellphone. That may make him seem like an odd guide to take a hyper-connected society through an examination of how the Internet has affected society.

But, in truth, it makes him an almost ideal observer — one of the few who can step back with some impartiality — to look at the effect this technology has had on the world. Released Friday, Herzog’s new film, Lo and Behold, looks at development of the Internet — something Herzog calls as ‘momentous as the introduction of electricity into our civilization.’

He spoke with The Washington Post last month ahead of the film’s debut; Magnolia Pictures provided me with a copy of the film ahead of its release. Here are a few snippets from our discussion of the film, which strings together vignettes examining the good and bad of the Internet. On his own tech use:

Werner Herzog: I have to say, right away, that I hardly ever use the Internet.

Hayley Tsukayama: Really?

WH: I do have a laptop and I do emails. Sometimes I do Skyping with family. But I don’t use a cellphone.

HT: Not at all?

WH: No.

HT: Why don’t you use a cellphone?

WH: For cultural reasons. I’m not nostalgic, but I like to maintain contact, like, with you, directly sitting across a table.  I’m not delegating my examination of the world to, let’s say, applications. I like not being available all of the time.

And, at the same time, I like knowing that no hacker or no hostile government could track me down. Now I’m sitting in this hotel in this room for how long. And they would know with whom I’m speaking and how many minutes. Nobody knows where I’m sitting, with the exception of you.

HT: That’s somewhat dark. One thing I liked about the film was that it shifted often between looking at the dark side and the benefits of the Internet. It doesn’t draw its own conclusion — why did you do it that way?

WH: It would be a silly approach to say the Internet is bad or the Internet is good. It would be too shallow. It is too complex. And besides, it’s a very American obsession to see movies that way — it makes sense in westerns, which have to do with a definition of basic justice, of good and bad.

You can see the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

Saturday, August 13th, 2016

Here’s a fascinating, troubling book about the problems inherent in archiving digital work.

Ever since I switched to working in digital HD for making my experimental movies, the problem of long term storage of the films has become more and more important to me everyday. When I was working in 16mm, it was – and still is – a simple matter to archive the original materials in a “cold vault,” where they will last hundreds of years, provided that the temperature and humidity conditions are optimal.

No such “file it and forget it” method applies to digital archiving, as this fascinating book by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito aptly demonstrates.

As the description for Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory asks, “how will our increasingly digital civilization persist beyond our lifetimes? Audio and videotapes demagnetize; CDs delaminate; Internet art links to websites that no longer exist; Amiga software doesn’t run on iMacs.

In Re-collection, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito argue that the vulnerability of new media art illustrates a larger crisis for social memory. They describe a variable media approach to rescuing new media, distributed across producers and consumers who can choose appropriate strategies for each endangered work.

New media art poses novel preservation and conservation dilemmas. Given the ephemerality of their mediums, software art, installation art, and interactive games may be heading to obsolescence and oblivion.

Rinehart and Ippolito, both museum professionals, examine the preservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives, offering concrete examples that range from Nam June Paik to Danger Mouse.

They investigate three threats to twenty-first-century creativity: technology, because much new media art depends on rapidly changing software or hardware; institutions, which may rely on preservation methods developed for older mediums; and law, which complicates access with intellectual property constraints such as copyright and licensing.

Technology, institutions, and law, however, can be enlisted as allies rather than enemies of ephemeral artifacts and their preservation. The variable media approach that Rinehart and Ippolito propose asks to what extent works to be preserved might be medium-independent, translatable into new mediums when their original formats are obsolete.”

This is a question – perhaps the question – in archival studies today. What will ultimately be done, other than backing up three or four times for all media, and then trying constantly to keep abreast of changing platforms?

The “rule of three” pretty much sums up the current approach – back it up on your computer, an external hard drive, and somewhere in long term storage with something like Amazon Glacier, and then hope for the best. But that’s still a pretty thin comfort zone. This is an excellent study on this important question, and deserves the widest possible audience.

I’d like to thank video artist Bill Domonkos for recommending this; it’s on his mind, too.

Wheeler Winston Dixon – New Films Posted on Vimeo

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

I have a number of new films posted on Vimeo, all in digital HD.

The titles include An American Dream, Real and UnrealStill Life, Light and ShadowCaptive AudienceClosed Circuit, The Shapes of Things, Summer Storm, CityLago di Garda and Acceleration and many more. You can check them all out by clicking on the image above, or the individual links for each title. I’ve been working on these films for the past couple of years, but all were released in 2016. They range in length from a half an hour to two minutes, and cover a number of different topics and approaches. They’re ”cinepoems” in the tradition of Man Ray, gathering widely disparate images together into an often conflicting, sometimes coherent whole.

An American Dream traces the rise of late-stage capitalism in the United States, and the decline of personal interaction. Money, violence, and consumerism dominate the images here, as befits a society in which 1% of the populace control 99% of the nation’s wealth, leaving the rest of us as mere spectators. In the final analysis, An American Dream is a requiem for a society in which inequality is the new norm.

Of An American Dream, critic Peter Monaghan noted that “the film’s theme is the rise of late-stage American capitalism, and the decline of personal interaction amidst increasing attachment to money, violence, and consumerism,” while David Finkelstein wrote that “watching An American Dream, hypnotized by the beautiful motion of slowly flying fragments of glass accompanied by heavenly voices, is like washing down several Valium pills with a martini, and musing on the state of American life as you drift off into a long, imperturbable sleep.”

Of the much more optimistic Still Life, critic Jorge Orduna wrote that “the world turns. The oceans give and take their power. The trees grow, the sun rises and sets, and we all go through it daily, and yet we don’t think about it. In this collection of images, you’re forced to think about it, even if it’s only for a brief time. For 30 minutes, you see both the stillness and motion of life. Watching the film without interruption, with headphones on, you feel as though you’re in your own cocoon, and by the end, you’ll have a new appreciation for the world around you.”

I have a show coming up this Fall at the Amos Eno Gallery in New York, but you can see the films now, right here on Vimeo. But they do look better on a large screen. So if you’ve got a video projector lying around the house, try one of the longer ones, like An American Dream, Real and UnrealStill Life, or The Shapes of Things, and see what you think. Those are perhaps my favorites of the group of films, and The Shapes of Things, especially, looks fabulous when projected in a theatrical setting. So get a blanket, some lawn chairs, and set it up in the backyard, or on the rooftop – after all, they’re free – something else I like about them.

Click on the various links or the image above, and have a look.

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Homo Sapiens” (2016) Opens in New York

Saturday, July 30th, 2016

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s haunting new film Homo Sapiens is a truly mesmerizing experience.

As the notes for the film make clear, “the images could be taken from a science fiction film set on planet Earth after it’s become uninhabitable. Abandoned buildings – housing estates, shops, cinemas, hospitals, offices, schools, a library, amusement parks and prisons. Places and areas being reclaimed by nature, such as a moss-covered bar with ferns growing between the stools, a still stocked soft drinks machine now covered with vegetation, an overgrown rubbish dump, or tanks in the forest.

Tall grass sprouts from cracks in the asphalt. Birds circle in the dome of a decommissioned reactor, a gust of wind makes window blinds clatter or scraps of paper float around, the noise of the rain: sounds entirely without words, plenty of room for contemplation.

All these locations carry the traces of erstwhile human existence and bear witness to a civilisation that brought forth architecture, art, the entertainment industry, technologies, ideologies, wars and environmental disasters. In precisely framed wide shots, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s static camera shows us the present post-apocalypse. There are no people in his film, and yet – as the title pointedly suggests – he has his eye on nothing less than the future of humanity.”

As Glenn Kenny wrote in The New York Times, “the latest film from the meticulous, provocative Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter could be described as an environmental documentary. Its form is as simple as death. A stationary camera takes in, one after the other, a single image of a space constructed (or simply scarred) by humankind, and subsequently abandoned. In the first minutes of Homo Sapiens we see railroad tracks, a bicycle rack and the rudiments of a train station.

No image repeats or magnifies; while a series of shots may be clustered in the same general area, each image is discrete and none are subject to further examination. Although the film’s credits include a foley artist and a rerecording technician, its soundtrack comes across as entirely vérité; the wind whispers, birds chirp and the people who built the settings we’re seeing are far, far away, if they’re even around at all.

The first section of the movie has vending machines with Japanese characters on them. While Mr. Geyrhalter did not, as it happens, bring cameras to the vicinity of Fukushima, where an earthquake and tsunami led to a nuclear disaster that precipitated mass evacuations in 2011, it’s probable he wishes the viewer to make a connection. Next stop is an abandoned shopping mall in Ohio.

In a way, the images are reminiscent of the empty, haunted spaces associated with the art cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr. But Mr. Geyrhalter’s method is more austere, and the effect produced is subtly different. Each individual shot creates a frisson of desolation that resonates far beyond the facile irony suggested by the movie’s title.” This is must see viewing – not that it will come to a theater near you, sad to say; nevertheless, this is the sort of film that should have at least one slot in a 24 screen multiplex, as some sort of respite from the mayhem in the 23 other theaters.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief trailer for this astonishing film.

Bill Domonkos and The Archive of Dreams

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

A still from Domonkos’ Beyond The Blue Horizonclick here, or on the image above, to view this short video.

The video work of Bill Domonkos is at once mysterious and sublime, mixing 1940s and 50s pop culture with 21st century surrealism. As Michael Hardy notes in The Boston Globe, “Spooky. Hypnotic. Lush. Witty. Sublime. The extraordinary films of San Francisco-based artist Bill Domonkos call up a descriptive vocabulary that never seems to capture the fluidity, the aesthetic metamorphoses, of the director’s vision.” That’s a fitting enough description for starters, but what Domonkos does with found footage and editorial techniques is truly remarkable, creating an entirely new world in which the unreal is real, and the most extraordinary images and juxtapositions seem entirely natural.

Of his work, Domonkos himself notes, “I view my work as a collision and recombination of ideas. My process unfolds gradually and spontaneously—using found materials such as archive film footage, photographs, and the internet. I experiment by combining, altering, editing and reassembling using digital technology, special effects and animation to create a new kind of experience. I am interested in the poetics of time and space—to renew and transform materials, experiences and ideas. The extraordinary thing about cinema is its ability to suggest the ineffable—it is this elusive, dreamlike quality that informs my work.”

A regular figure on the gallery circuit, one can thankfully see a great of Domonkos’ work on Vimeo, by clicking here, although a certain amount of discretion is advised, as some of his work can be quite dark indeed. In general, I favor his lighter, more accessible work, gently playful in some instances, slightly sinister in others. Most of the videos are in the two to three minute range, and his works covers a wide ranges of themes and approaches.

My favorites are such videos as Sisyphus, in which a nondescript executive in a 1950s elevator is suddenly illuminated with a celestial light from above, as a mysterious rock descends through the elevator shaft to cover his face, intercut with an elderly workman clambering up and down the interior of the building, inspecting the elevator’s exterior with a flashlight. There’s no real reason for any of the images here, which is entirely the point; these things just happen in Domonkos’ world, and that’s all there is to it.

Another favorite is Dinah Soar, in which a young woman is first seen putting on makeup with the aid of a rather unusual machine, and then drives a sports car with a distinctly odd gearshift around a race track, only to be pursued by a group of racing car drivers, even as her face, at first possessed of the flawless beauty of a fashion model, gradually changes into a smoking death’s head, while mechanical wind up toys parade across the screen with childish abandon. Again, the precise meaning of these images, as well as the syntactical structure that unites them, is absolutely left up to the viewer; Domonkos creates a world in which anything is possible.

But I think that of all of Domonkos’ work, I’m drawn to those films in which the past and the present gently collide, such as Beyond The Blue Horizon. In this brief video, a 1940s Soundie (a short, pre-MTV music video) by The Three Suns is transformed into a jam session between a human space helmeted organist / vocalist, singing the title song, while two Martian (or alien) sidemen accompany him on guitar and accordion, all of which is being recorded by an unobtrusive sound man in the rear of the shot.

Domonkos’ skill is such that the entire scene seems oddly realistic, even down to the three-second “cigarette burn” cue in the upper right hand corner of the frame as the video comes to an end. All in all, it’s a very unusual world indeed, a recombinant vision that in which the past and present meld together to create a world that is at once accessible, but which operates entirely according to its own lights – a peek into a modern day Twilight Zone of found footage and digital mastery.

Bill Domonkos’ videos are unique, bizarre and deeply surreal – check them on out Vimeo.

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link here, or on the image above.

Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice (2016)

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

Denis Côté’s new film Boris sans Béatrice (2016) is a stripped-down, sharp tale of moral redemption.

As Brendan Kelly writes in the Montreal Gazette, “Denis Côté’s films may not make bazillions at the box office, but the Montreal auteur’s original, highly stylized offerings travel the world as much as the work of almost any other Canadian director this side of David Cronenberg. [You can watch an interview with the director by clicking here, or on the image above.]

Côté’s ninth feature, Boris sans Béatrice, had its world première in official competition at the Berlin International Film Festival [in February 2016], and then opened the recent Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. James Hyndman stars as a successful Quebec businessman who enters a moral crisis after his wife (Simone-Élise Girard), a federal cabinet minister, falls into a coma-like state. It opens in cinemas Friday, including a version with English subtitles. [I asked the filmmaker a few questions] . . .

Q: There has been a debate here for a while about whether we should be making popular films or more artsy films. What do you think of this whole discussion?

A: Look, I’m 42 years old. I’ve made nine features. At a certain moment, I’m allowed to get up in the morning and just be Denis Côté, no? I’m not capable of making a commercial film. It’s not that I don’t want to do it — I’m not able to do it. If you ask me to film a bank robbery, I’m sorry, but I’m allergic to conventional filmmaking. I can’t make a film for M. or Madame Tout le Monde. I’m a cinephile, I was a film critic, and I’ve seen loads of films. I’m a bit obsessed with being different and having my own signature. So by definition, you lose a certain audience because of that.

And I’ve been encouraged to keep my signature. People in the business said, ‘Wow, you made Carcasses [a strange, low-budget 2009 film about a man who has a bunch of burnt-out cars on his land] and you went to Cannes.’ They said, ‘Wow, you filmed animals in Bestiaire [a 2012 film shot at Parc Safari] and you went to 100 festivals around the world and it was sold in seven or eight countries. So at a certain moment you start to believe in Denis Côté. You don’t think of la madame in Verdun.

And the business continues to support me. I didn’t need to fight for four years to make Boris sans Béatrice. I had one meeting at [Canadian provincial film funding agency] SODEC, and it was supported right away by [federal film agency] Telefilm. The agencies are sensitive to two things: box office and international exposure. With me, everyone knows I’m the guy who represents Canada internationally. They like that and they need that. And they don’t expect me to blow up at the box office. So if you ask me if Boris sans Béatrice is an art-house film, I’d answer, ‘Yes it is, and I’m proud of it.’”

The film marks something of a departure, at least for me, from Côté’s other films, in that it’s much more human, and humane, and also about human fallibility, than some of his darker films, like Vic and Flo Saw A Bear, a minimalist masterpiece with a heavenly happy ending, but only after the characters in the film go through all sorts of earthly Hell.

In Boris sans Béatrice, the protagonist’s Hell is of his own making; neglecting his wife for his hyper-successful business, tumbling from one meaningless affair into the next, and most of all behaving with an overpowering sense of arrogant entitlement for most of the film, Boris is clearly headed straight for the wall, in one sense or another.

This all changes when he receives a mysterious summons in his mailbox from a mysterious, otherworldly judge, billed appropriately as “l’Inconnu” in the film’s credits, played superbly by Denis Lavant, who calls Boris to account for his hubris, neglect, and his failure to take care of his wife, his mother, or even his daughter, other than bailing her out of jail after she’s arrested during a protest action.

In a sense, Lavant’s character resembles a more severe version of the character Heurtebise (as played by François Périer) in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), who aids but also chastises the poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) when he similarly neglects his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa).

Immaculately photographed, superbly acted, and entirely the work of someone who – for once – wants to please himself and no one else, Boris sans Béatrice gives us a indelible portrait of an utterly selfish, self-involved man who finally, through the agency of some supernatural guidance, is restored to the ones he truly loves, after realizing that the rest of his life, without love, is meaningless.

In this, the film is perhaps Côté’s most accessible work, despite his protestations to the contrary. Unlike the fashionably death-obsessed and self-conciously brutal allegories offered up by, for example, Michael Haneke, Boris sans Béatrice – which starts out with an unrelenting coldness – shifts gradually into a film that exudes a palpable sense of realistic hope, becoming a study of a life examined, found wanting, and reclaimed – a spectacle all too rare these days.

My thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for introducing me to this beautiful, thoughtful film.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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