October 2020, arsenal cinema

Walk on the Wild Side – The Films of Bertrand Bonello

Bertrand Bonello (*1968) is a central figure of contemporary French cinema and internationally known as an unconventional maker of auteur films. His films tell of pornography, prostitution, fashion, terror, decadence, failed utopias, youthful rebellion – and of filmmaking. They take a wide variety of forms: relationship drama, period picture, portrait, thriller, concert documentary, zombie movie. Again and again, Bonello reinvents himself and surprises from film to film, never tying himself down, leaving behind the tried and true in favor of seeking contrast and taking risks. An overview of his widely differing films nonetheless reveals a cohesive oeuvre. A trained musician, Bonello not only writes and directs, he also creates the scores for each his films. Music plays an immense role in all of his works, and is often used anachronistically. On the narrative level, there are repeated jumps in time, between past and present and between parts of a story, or in the achronological arrangement of scenes. His frequent use of split screens also testifies to an unusual handling of temporality and brings with it an impressive aesthetic effect, as does the recurring insertion of dates in the image. Narratively, an interest in the unfathomable in people and relationships can be recognized in his films, as well as an increasing affinity for genre cinema, both of which can result in disturbing elements at times. The fact that his films often depict a closed world or hermetic places, if not situated fully indoors like a chamber drama, does not mean that the outside is irrelevant; on the contrary, social conditions are always negotiated. All of this is done with great elegance. Arsenal will show a retrospective of nine feature-length and six short films made by Bonello between 1998 and 2020, including a short made during the recent pandemic lockdown titled OÙ EN ÊTES-VOUS? NUMÉRO 2. Bonello himself also appears in a role in Antoine Barraud’s LE DOS ROUGE. Due to travel restrictions, Bertrand Bonello won't be able to join the opening weekend in person. Instead Q&As will be held via skype after both screenings.

ZOMBI CHILD (F 2019, 2.10., followed by Q&A with Bertrand Bonello via Skype) Overlays in pink – Haiti 1962, 1980, the present day – are superimposed over the (supposedly) true story of Clairvius Narcisse, a man who is transformed by voodoo into an enslaved zombie that roams the forests of Haiti. His granddaughter Mélissa, a survivor of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, attends an elite boarding school for girls in Paris, all of them clad in blue-white-red uniforms. She attracts the attention of her classmates with her strange growl. Mélissa’s traumatic past contrasts with the heartache of Fanny, who suffers so intensely that she puts her hope for healing in a voodoo ritual. The school curriculum includes Michelet and Rihanna, the rap music of Damso is ubiquitous and one of the girls has green sauce running from her mouth. Borrowing from horror and teen films, Bonello works both narrative strands to weave a constellation encompassing the Legion of Honour, French colonial history, cultural traditions from Haiti and their pop-cultural effects.
As footnotes of a kind, our online arsenal 3 theater (www.arsenal-3-berlin.de) will show two films from the Arsenal collection that concern voodoo rituals in Haiti: Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (USA 1985) and Chants and Dances for Hand (USA/Haiti 1991-2017) by Larry Gottheim. (See here)
OÙ EN ÊTES-VOUS, BERTRAND BONELLO? (Where Are You, Bertrand Bonello?, F 2014, 2.10., followed by Q&A with Bertrand Bonello via Skype & 22.10.) A self-portrait in the form of a letter to his daughter. Bonello collects the first and last settings of his films, visits shoot locations, listens to songs he once used, identifies flops and successes and lost innocence. A thoughtful reckoning and a look into the future: It’s finally time to make a horror film.

L’APOLLONIDE (SOUVENIRS DE LA MAISON CLOSE) (House of Tolerance, F 2011 | 3.10., followed by Q&A with Bertrand Bonello via Skype & 25.10.) Every evening, wealthy regulars arrive at the splendid salon of the Apollonide, a refined Parisian bordello on the threshold of the 20th century. Each has their own particular preferences in their choice of playmates. The days of the young women are filled with exhaustion, boredom, escape fantasies, fastidious hygiene, medical examinations, exploitation, addiction and debts, which turn the house into a prison. There is also violence, as shown by a fragmented scene to which the film returns multiple times. Far from exploitation or nostalgia, Bonello depicts the closed world of the brothel as a social place of intimate friendship among women, without ignoring the destructive consequences of prostitution. A period film with fin-de-siècle décor, featuring split screens, anachronistic 1960s music (including “Nights in White Satin”), dream sequences with sperm tears and a final leap in time to the street prostitution of today.

LE PORNOGRAPHE (F/CDN 2001, 4. & 15.10.) Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud), an aging filmmaker, is short on money. He decides to return to his former work as a porn director, with which he set standards in the 1970s. Now the demands of the author and the old master’s unwavering artistic will when shooting sex scenes don’t exactly find favor with the producer, who summarily takes over as director himself. Jacques seems lost and tired. At the same time, he reconciles with his 17-year-old son Joseph (Jérémie Renier), a political activist with revolutionary ideas, who for his part has to deal with conflicts between individual demands and ideological superstructures. A cinematic reflection on the failure of utopias and alternative life plans, commitment, sex, business, art and politics.

QUELQUE CHOSE D’ORGANIQUE (Something Organic, F/CDN 1998, 6. & 14.10.) After a few years, love is no longer a matter of the heart but the head, or else it disappears completely, Marguerite states with utter calm. A Frenchwoman, she’s been married to the Greek Paul for five years, living together in Montreal. Paul hides his father from the immigration authorities in the basement and visits his terminally ill son in hospital. At night he works as a guard at the zoo. Marguerite roams around aimlessly, thrusting herself onto others and giving herself over. The first two scenes of Bonello’s debut feature film mark the beginning and the dramatic end of a relationship, but the process in between is told in a different way than one might expect: with stoic voiceover and less drastic than it is sober, restrained and calm.

THE ADVENTURES OF JAMES AND DAVID (F 2002, 6. & 14.10.) James visits younger brother David’s newly opened hair salon on a street corner in Montreal. David likes things classic; James prefers it hip. They can agree on the music of Dean Martin, but not on what a good haircut is...

TIRESIA (F/CDN 2003, 7. & 21.10.) Tiresia, an immigrant from Brazil, is a transsexual prostitute working on the street. An obsessive aesthete in search of perfect beauty takes her home with him and won’t let her go. However, due to a lack of hormones, Tiresia begins to take on male characteristics during her captivity. The punishment is brutal: She is blinded and abandoned in the forest. A girl takes in Tiresia and nurses him back to health. As time goes on, he develops visionary abilities and attracts the attention of the village priest, who puts an end to his activities. A pulsating stream of lava and Beethoven’s 7th Symphony run through this update of the story of Tiresias from Greek mythology, whose two parts are reminiscent of Pasolini and Bresson respectively. In the first Tiresia is played by Clara Choveaux, in the second by Thiago Telès.

DE LA GUERRE (On War, F 2008, 8. & 16. & 24.10.) A filmmaker named Bertrand is in a creative crisis. While conducting research in a funeral home, a mishap leads to him spending the night in a coffin. What he felt there, he yearns to find again. He follows an unknown man into a remote castle, where Uma (Asia Argento) preaches joy, ecstasy and lust to her followers by military means and reads from Clausewitz’s “On War.” Bertrand lets himself go and rethinks his life, his artistic work, his relationships. The search for a place where radical utopias are possible is at the center of this audacious, downright anarchic film. Featuring an all-star lineup headed by Mathieu Amalric as the alter ego of Bonello, it includes trancelike dance scenes in the forest as well as a collection of plastinated bodies, Bob Dylan references and a remake of a scene from Apocalypse Now.

NOCTURAMA (F/D/B 2016, 9. & 17.10.) The clock is ticking. Parisian youths of different social and ethnic backgrounds traverse the city in the Metro, united by a diffuse sense of unease with the prevailing status quo. The concerted, conspiratorial actions they take run like clockwork, a choreography of bodies in motion. After attacks on a ministry, the stock exchange, a bank tower and a statue of Joan of Arc, they congregate in an evacuated luxury department store that is to serve as their hideout for the night. Here, certainty and momentum fade away. Time stretches out; the scope narrows to a chamber play in a glittering consumer world to which the teenagers surrender themselves and of which they are a part: One of them meets a mannequin wearing an identical outfit. Radical chic. It becomes a night of the living dead. Bonello combines his idea of a youth revolt with genre cinema – with a self-composed electro score and musical accents from Berlioz to Blondie.

OÙ EN ÊTES-VOUS? NUMÉRO 2 (Where Are You? Number 2, F 2020, 9. & 17. & 22.10.) Bonello’s most recent work, made during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, is a continuation of his earlier OÙ EN ÊTES-VOUS, BERTRAND BONELLO? (F 2014). He again uses the form of a letter to his daughter to reflect, this time on newly assembled claustrophobic night scenes from NOCTURAMA, about stagnancy, loss, the end of things, the uncertain future and dreamed-of film projects. In the end, there’s always the music!

SAINT LAURENT (F/B 2014, 10. & 23.10.) His name is Swann, Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) tells the reception desk at the hotel, and no, he’s not traveling for business, but has come there to sleep. The reference to Proust and the passage of time permeate the fabric of this film, a portrait of the fashion designer with a focus on the decade from 1967-1976. The dates are displayed in red, but not arranged chronologically. The viewer watches the already famous couturier drawing, cruising, at fittings with models, at wild drug parties, with his female muses and male lovers, with his business and life partner Pierre Bergé and Moujik the dog. He lives a life on the edge as the world slips away from him. News images from demonstrations (May ‘68, Algeria, Prague) are juxtaposed via a split-screen montage with scenes of a fashion show. Pop culture. Velvet Underground. Maria Callas. And Helmut Berger, in the role of an old Saint Laurent.  

INGRID CAVEN, MUSIQUE ET VOIX (Ingrid Caven: Music and Voice, F 2012, 11. & 20.10.) Ingrid Caven, who became known as a member of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s entourage, has two careers: as an actress and a singer. In France in particular, she is famous as a chansonnette. Bonello filmed an entire concert given by Ingrid Caven in May 2006 at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. The program, sung in German, French and English, includes songs by Peer Raben, Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Fassbinder, Joyce, Cage, Brecht and Weill, Schönberg and Brahms. This concert film focuses entirely on the music and the voice of the diva: no pans into the audience, no backstage scenes, no intercut interview clips. The camera never leaves the stage, on which Caven appears like a dream image out of the dark.

LE DOS ROUGE (Portrait of the Artist, Antoine Barraud, F 2014, 13. & 18.10.) A famous filmmaker, played by Bertrand Bonello, is searching for a painting to represent the central theme of eeriness in his next film. An eccentric art historian accompanies him through museums, where they view and discuss works of art by Francis Bacon, Caravaggio and others. Strangely, the appearance of the art historian changes from one meeting to the next (first Jeanne Balibar, then Géraldine Pailhas). The filmmaker himself begins to experience a transformation, with red spots appearing on his back. It seems that his obsessive search for monstrousness is contaminating and leaving traces on his own body...

CINDY, THE DOLL IS MINE (F 2005, 22.10.) A homage to Cindy Sherman, with Asia Argento in a double role. During a session at a photo studio, she plays both the photographer, famed for her self-portrayals, and the model posing in a girl’s dress. A song from the New York band Blonde Redhead leads to an emotional outburst – from both of them.

WHERE THE BOYS ARE (F 2010, 22.10.) The Connie Francis song of the title is translated, verse by verse, into French at the beginning of the film by one of four teenage girls. They go on to listen to music together, smoke, drink, kiss – brash, insecure and full of expectations. Within view, a mass of young men work on the construction site of the Gennevilliers mosque.

SARAH WINCHESTER, OPÉRA FANTÔME (Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera, F 2016, 22.10.) The choir, the director and the ballerina rehearse an opera that doesn’t exist, inspired by the life of Sarah Winchester, the rich widow of a 19th-century arms manufacturer. Moved by grief over the early death of her daughter, she has built a labyrinthine house for the spirits of the dead. The music swells – and the Paris Opera becomes a haunted house, too. (bik)

With support from the DFFB, Grandfilm and the Institut français.

arsenal cinema: Forum 50

08:00 pm Cinema 1


Tropici

*Tropici Gianni Amico Italy 1968
35 mm Portuguese OV/GeS 87 min

Introduced by Cristina Nord