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57–68 Intellect Limited 2010
Studies in French Cinema Volume 10 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sfc.10.1.57/1
SARAH COOPER King’s College London
Looking back, looking onwards: selflessness, ethics, and French documentary
This article considers questions of documentary ethics in relation to the most recent films of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda and Raymond Depardon. I revisit my own arguments in Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French Documentary (Cooper 2006), in order to show how these directors continue to flesh out an approach to alterity that was already discernible in their earlier work, and that is still compatible with Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics, albeit with a slight expansion of focus. In their late work – most notably, Marker’s Chats perchés/The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004), Varda’s Les Plages d’Agnès/The Beaches of Agnès (2008), and Depardon’s Profils paysans/Country Profiles (1998−2008) – these film-makers seem concerned ever more poignantly with matters of mortality, their own and that of other people, along with the survival of the planet and its other inhabitants. While their future-directed anxieties connect with memories of the past to suggest that an exploration of time is key to an understanding of their filmic ethics, the most striking facet of these films is to be found in the intimate, spatial geographies that they construct. Crafted essentially on the basis of interaction with or observation of others, as well as the film-makers’ own reflections on matters of life, death and the future, these films create vivid emotional landscapes of mortality and loss
documentary ethics mortality loss temporality emotional geography
1. Since Selfless Cinema?, I have explored the relation between Levinas and cinema in two further publications. See Cooper (2007) for an edited collection of articles on this subject, and for my own reading of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s debt to Levinas in their film-making. See also Cooper (2008) for a Levinasian approach to time in the work of Chris Marker.
that unite interior and exterior worlds in a deeply subjective and personal vision that is also ethical. In the concluding plenary talk of the 2007 ‘Visible Evidence’ conference, documentary theorist Michael Renov posited ethics as one of the most important concerns for documentary film-making and scholarship today. Renov’s encouragement to put ethics first was the latest in a series of calls to register its importance in the field of documentary enquiry. Indeed, my own book, Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French Documentary (Cooper 2006), was focused on precisely this issue, and the philosopher whose work I, like Renov, drew upon was Emmanuel Levinas. In this article, four years on, I look back first to the philosophical underpinning of my argument in my earlier text in order then to revisit my theorization of documentary ethics in a more recent filmic context. Focusing here on two films by Chris Marker and Agnès Varda, and on a trilogy by Raymond Depardon, I show how each contends with mortality in their late work – their own mortality and that of other people – in a manner that chimes with, but also extends, the sense of what, in my previous publication, I characterized as ‘selfless cinema’. In Selfless Cinema?, I sought to read Levinas’s work against, and in spite of, his own suspicion of the visual image, while remaining sensitive to his negative early views on the artwork, and the absence of cinema from his philosophy.1 Fleshing out an understanding of an ethical cinematic encounter in terms of the Levinasian visage, as defined in Totalité et infini/Totality and Infinity (Levinas 1961), I explored asymmetrical relations between self and Other that did not reduce the latter to an entity that could be known fully, and therefore contained or constrained by the sentient, perceiving subject. This Levinasian approach was voiced in contrast to psychoanalytic theories of identification in which the self is still separate from others, but is involved more fully in relations of similarity than Levinas’s thinking permits. I set out to demonstrate how, in keeping with Levinasian philosophy, certain films within a particular tendency in French documentary were questioning this logic of resemblance and articulating a non-reductive relation to alterity. An ability to ‘let the Other be’ suggested the registering of distance from others, yet such distance did not correlate with indifference; on the contrary, in Levinasian philosophy, as in my selected films from the corpus of the late Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, Raymond Depardon and Agnès Varda, such distance emerged from within relations of extreme proximity, a proximity without which ethics would be impossible. The development in Levinas’s philosophy in his text, Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence/Otherwise than Being, or, Beyond Essence (Levinas 1974) led me to emphasize the discomfort and suffering that lies at the heart of responsibility for the Other, who becomes my neighbour, my prochain, in the later work. Yet the questioning of the subject that occurs in Totalité et infini reveals that this discomfort has been at the centre of the ethical relation from the outset. In fact, it is the fundamental starting point for the rupture of totalizing thinking that takes us beyond ourselves, by opening to the infinite and, therefore, to others. What interested me then, as now, is what happens to subjectivity within documentary films that negotiate the relationship between the film-maker/ camera operator and his/her filmed subjects in a manner that refuses totalizing gestures in favour of this Levinasian opening to infinity. As Renov acknowledges in his Levinasian-inspired The Subject of Documentary (Renov 2004) – which turns attention to the self, rather than the Other, as the privileged
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ethical subject of filming – the subject was involved in several major battles in the twentieth century. Most notably, it was derided in favour of the collective (Marxism); seen as an effect of broader systems, such as language or ideology (Structuralism; Lacanian psychoanalysis); or decentred and dissolved (poststructuralism) (Renov 2004: xiii). In contrast, Levinas preserved his belief in a subject who is brought into being through an originary ethical demand to which it cannot fail to respond. The sense of infinity to which Totalité et infini refers, builds on insights already apparent in embryonic form in the earlier Le Temps et l’autre/Time and the Other, a lecture series first delivered in 1947 (Levinas 1947). In Le Temps et l’autre, death is given as a supreme example of an encounter that brings the subject into contact with the unknown. This opening out to the mystery that is future time and absolute alterity is the foundation of his ethics. Following this strand of his thinking that links Le Temps et l’autre to Totalité et infini and his later work, Dieu, la mort et le temps/ God, Death, and Time (Levinas 1993), we confront death finally as an opening to the infinite and the Other, and the subject is rendered human and mortal through this relation. In this, Levinas’s understanding of infinity contrasts notably with the idea of an infinite universe or infinite mental life explored by Temenuga Trifonova when considering the revival of metaphysics in the work of a range of twentieth-century French philosophers and viewing this with reference to recent film (Trifonova 2007: 261–304). Whereas the philosophical movement that Trifonova sums up using Deleuze’s fantasy of ‘getting rid of ourselves’ (Trifonova 2007: 9) bears a significant relation to Levinasian thinking in its aversion of the philosophical gaze away from a discourse of vision and the image, and in its opening up and questioning of the subject, this happens the better to rework and preserve that very subject. Levinas’s philosophy could be said, then, to ‘reinstate ourselves’ but in a way that makes the subject unthinkable without an Other. In keeping with this philosophical vision, each of the films I consider in this article interrogates subjectivity in ways that can be identified as distinctly Levinasian, through their unsettling displacement of totalizing, selfcentred vision, even when the film-maker’s lifetime forms the main subject matter of the film. In this regard, there are strong continuities between the recent work of Marker, Varda and Depardon and the non-reductive approach to filming others that was apparent to me in their earlier work. But there is also a notable difference. At the heart of an admission of the film-making subject’s importance in these films, is a concern with vulnerability and contingency – in short, the very things that the assertion of film as an impersonal consciousness or infinite mental space would not admit. These qualities are particularly associated with documentary. Yet if subjectivity is not abandoned, neither is a connection to something that stretches infinitely beyond the human subject, and this does not only pertain to time, or, indeed, to other human beings. While the Levinasian bond between subjectivity and infinity still emerges through an encounter with alterity here, these documentaries also place emphasis on spatial location as vital to the possibility of the film-maker’s being able to access his/her own narrative, however disjunctive, as well as that of other people. Crafted essentially on the basis of interaction with, or observation, of others, as well as the filmmakers’ own reflections on matters of life, death and the future, these films construct vivid emotional landscapes of mortality and loss that unite interior and exterior worlds in a vision that is not only deeply subjective and personal, but that is also ethical.
Figure 1: The yellow cat graffiti in Chats perchés (Courtesy of Films du jeudi).
FROM MARKER TO VARDA, CITY TO BEACH
In spite of his age, there is no sign as yet that Marker is ready to retire from any of his pursuits, film-making included. His most recent one-minute short in which a rat chases a cat, is titled Leila Attacks! (2006), and is now included in the DVD release of the English-language version of his latest feature, Chats perchés/The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004). In Chats perchés, Marker tracks the appearance of yellow cat graffiti across Paris from November 2001, just after the attack on the twin towers in New York, through to 2003. These cats and their furry, fleshedout equivalents are seen as signs of hope amidst the more disquieting political situation in France and on the world stage at the turn of the millennium. It is suggested that without the cats, the human race has no future, and an inter-title towards the end of the film confirms that we need them with us wherever we are going. There are constant reminders of the potential for an apocalyptic ending of the planet; for example, deaths caused by AIDS are highlighted in one sequence which segues into the memory of Hiroshima, as recalled through the music and form of Alain Resnais’s masterpiece of 1959. The film also isolates the loss of individuals as the deaths of cancer specialist Léon Schwartzenberg and actress Marie Trintignant are also commemorated. Such collective and individual tragedy is registered on a meandering temporal and spatial journey through Paris, as the film searches for the cats. It moves from Left to Right Bank, between past and present, and scales the city from the underground tunnels of the metro to the heights of its rooftops and through its waterways. Hope is thus painted into
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the very texture, the bricks and mortar of the city, and the intricacy of this film’s interrogation of relations between subjectivity and alterity, along with a relation to the future, is encapsulated in the figure of the elusive cat. The graffiti cats are both separate from the film-maker’s signature and closely linked to it. The cat Guillaume en Égypte features within the film and is one of Marker’s well-known mouthpieces. Indeed, the feline character speaks as and for Marker in Varda’s most recent film, Les Plages d’Agnès/The Beaches of Agnès (2008), confirming the directors’ shared love of cats. The graffiti cats thereby challenge any identification of the all-seeing eye of this film with an impersonal consciousness, even though Marker’s characteristic absence from his films makes the possibility of delineating his subjectivity somewhat like a game of hide-and-seek. But the whole film works subtly to unsettle, rather than dissolve, the centrality of the human subject, the film-maker’s own position included. Marker is connected with the desire to preserve the lives of humans and animals, through the presence of the cats across the geography of Paris. Yet he is also discernible in formal terms (his montage techniques) and in some familiar passions and characteristics (his love of beautiful women; his militancy; his intelligence and humour). Marker’s Sans soleil/Sunless (1982) presented us with a film-making subject – Sandor Krasna, another stand-in for Marker – who became the very skin of the film, fashioned in celluloid through his many and varied encounters with those he filmed. Chats perchés, in contrast, uses mixed media to produce a portrait of Paris from 2001−2003, its politics and people, in which a subjective vision is revealed through the political and ethical import of the cats. The Levinasian opening to infinity extends here well beyond the human subject, not only in temporal terms after its death and to the future lives of others, but also in the present, by referring to creatures other than humans alone, and by incorporating the geography of Paris. Subject to time and part of an intimate cartography of Paris, Marker’s cats continue to confirm a belief in a human subject, turned hopefully, but not without anxiety, towards the future. In contrast to Marker’s apparently open-ended commitment to making films, Varda has declared that her latest film will be her last. Les Plages d’Agnès is a deeply moving memorial film that looks back over her life and work. It is her most autobiographical yet, but it also takes up a strand of her film-making that was already visible in her earlier ‘auto-portraits’ of others, in Jane B. par Agnès V./Jane B. by Agnes V. (1988) and in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse/The Gleaners and I (2000), which I wrote about in 2006 (Cooper 2006: 77–90). I understood these films to turn an inwardly directed gaze outwards, to question the self-reflective status of the autobiographical mode and to film others using the mirror of the self, while preserving a Levinasian asymmetrical relation between the two. Although different in ways that will become apparent, Les Plages d’Agnès is also aligned with this Levinasian perspective. It begins with shots of beaches in Belgium, and with Varda walking and filming from within the midst of members of her crew arranging mirrors along the small stretch of coastline. As her scarf is caught by gusts of wind and covers her face, she welcomes this selfeffacing moment, which is also replicated in the installation of mirrors on the beach. The mirrors present us with multiple images, in which she and her crew are fragmented and dispersed. Within this fluid and shifting realm of the image, Varda reveals the beach to be her favourite landscape. She explains that were she to be cut open, her interior would reveal a series of beaches: ‘If you opened me up, you would find beaches’. From Belgium to Sète, through California to Noirmoutier, Varda’s inner landscape is defined through the principal geographical spaces of the film. In addition to this spatialization of her current feelings and
memories, she turns the mirror outwards to include others within the frame; her interior is thus exteriorized as we move from beach to beach, and she looks back through her encounters, experiences and films, many of which feature in the form of extracts. Spread across the globe, her life and memories are there on the beaches, and such an external, relational construction of her portrait broadens any solipsistic focus. As Franck Kausch puts it: Les Plages d’Agnès indeed proffers an autobiography, but stripped of all interiority […] The portrait here is hollow, always concealing what it reveals by drawing attention not to an identity but to her relations and, therefore, transformations: such that within herself eternity changes her. (Kausch 2008: 15; original emphasis) The ever-shifting terrain of the beach is utterly in keeping with such a vision of eternal change. Like the changing tides that wash up their sandy shores, the filmic portrait that Varda offers us with characteristically ludic poignancy is also withdrawn, as what is being retracted here is the very act of film-making. Unlike her earlier portraits of herself and others, this is a film about the withdrawal from film-making, one of the very activities that have made Varda who she is. Varda is unravelled in two senses, cinematically and emotionally, and, of course, the two necessarily merge in this film: at one moment her image dissolves into an earlier film, and at another moment she dissolves into tears. In one scene as she walks backwards through the courtyard of her workshop on the rue Daguerre, the travelling shot is superimposed with images from Cléo de 5 à 7/Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) before the disjointed narrative of Varda’s life resumes. Here her life and work, mediated through images that overlay one another, share the same frame, but as she takes her leave in the present, backing down her courtyard that will then be filled by Corinne Marchand, leaping a temporal gap of over forty years, it is as if she is saying goodbye, ceding place to the films that will outlive her. Yet her voice-over from the present time of filming suggests implicitly that this is not yet the end. Les Plages d’Agnès commemorates a life still being lived, while also pre-empting its future as a film that will outlive its subject. The awareness of her own mortality runs through the film to culminate in a celebration of her eightieth birthday, included in conclusion. However, it is a scene staged earlier that catches her unawares and reveals the heightened emotion of confronting the mortality of others. Sitting in an exhibition space in Avignon where she staged a scene that involved distributing pink roses and begonias among black and white photographs she had taken of great theatre actors, she breaks down and explains that all she sees when she looks at these photographs is that their subjects are dead. These deaths return her to her greatest loss of all, the dearly departed Jacques Demy, and it is this loss, among others, that remain with her always. As she comments in interview: ‘In Les Demoiselles ont eu 25 ans, I said: “To remember happiness, is still a bit of happiness!” But I think that to remember the dead is still to be with them. Even if, at times […] it jars a little’ (Domenach and Rouyer 2008: 19). The flowers she holds in this scene are bound to a commemoration of death and loss, but still come from the land of the living. She is never unravelled or dissolved completely. As Varda’s final words of the film remind us, she continues to remember, as long as she lives, and whether these memories are bitter or sweet, they form the film of her life, that is located between, and that stretches infinitely beyond, her birth and death, like the timeless shores that turn her inside out.
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Figure 2: Mirrors in Les Plages d’Agnès (Courtesy of Ciné-Tamaris and Cinema Guild).
DEPARDON’S RURAL PAST INTERIOR
Employing different strategies from those undertaken by Varda, Depardon’s most recent film was nonetheless a means for him to reconnect with his past, and to gain a sense of peace and closure. Released in 2008, La Vie moderne/ Modern Life completes the trilogy Profils paysans/Country Profiles (made over a period of ten years, and researched over a period of fifteen), and as Lætitia Mikles argues, ‘in spite of the film-maker’s promises that he will return, the third section of his triptych sounds like a farewell’ (Mikles 2008: 20). Depardon’s emotional landscape is landlocked, but is just as highly charged as that of Varda’s beaches, while contrasting with Marker’s predominant city focus. Historically the city has had far more attention in cinema and film scholarship than have rural areas, partly due to the kinship between cinema, the city and modernity. Without defining Profils paysans specifically against such work, Depardon turns here nevertheless to those who have been sidelined or forgotten, in cinema as in life: rural dwellers and their farms. In an interview with Cahiers du cinéma in 2008, Depardon and Claudine Nougaret (his sound operator and wife) explain that the first two films were originally meant to be trials towards a third that would be about Depardon’s childhood (Frodon 2008: 10). But this was what the entire triptych was to become, even though the third part still differs in its relative self-sufficiency, and in its status as a ‘film de cinéma’ rather than a ‘film audiovisuel’ (Frodon 2008: 10). Their
original plan was to make three 16mm films, but given changing attitudes to rural life in France in the lengthy period of the trilogy’s making, they felt that the third film would find a public in the cinema, whereas the first two, although on exactly the same subject, fell somewhere between the television and cinema (Frodon 2008: 11). The first film, L’Approche/The Approach (2001), shares its title with a key term of Levinas’s Autrement qu’être. Correspondingly, Depardon attempts to gain ethical proximity to those he films, which transcends geographical or spatial closeness. The pain attached to the substitutive logic at the heart of Autrement qu’être, which involves an exorbitant assumption of responsibility for others, is evident in Depardon’s approach, and is entwined with the loss of human life as well as the impact it has on the communities scattered widely across the plateaux and valleys of rural France. An elegiac mood is established from the very outset through the choice of Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Élégie Opus 24’. The music suggests an emotive connection to something deeper than that which can be expressed linguistically, and that the images may not reveal, but by which they are haunted. Its minor key is in tune not only with a loss that lies in Depardon’s past too, and which still traverses him, but also with the pervasive sense of decline and future loss that already marks these rural communities. For, over the course of ten years, and despite an influx of new life, a generation to which the film-maker is clearly attached is pictured as dying slowly before his eyes. Depardon introduces each of the people he films, as if we as spectators have become guests in their homes, permitted to cross the threshold on the basis of the trust won by Depardon and Nougaret over the years. In voice-over, Depardon gives us the necessary details to follow each scene, sometimes the date, the season, and the time. The first exchange we witness in L’Approche is filmed in Depardon’s recognizable style, which also predominates across the trilogy: he uses fixed-frame cinematography patiently to record scenes in their full duration, never getting too close to those he films, and holding his position even if they leave the frame. This style of filming helps him to maintain a respectful distance that the rural dwellers reinforce in other ways. The first scene presents two key figures of the older generation – Marcelle Brès and Raymond Privat – who actually reveal very little to Depardon and to most viewers beyond their outer appearance in this encounter, since they speak Occitan, enabling them to retain their intimacy in front of the camera. This preservation of a space that is their own recurs in other ways with other people through the films. When we first meet Louis Brès, and later Paul Argaud, Depardon says it took him a long time to gain their confidence, and with Paul in particular, it was only after a ten-year period of acquaintance that he was allowed into his home. The first time that Depardon films Paul, in L’Approche, we see a fixed-frame, long take of him in his kitchen, eating his breakfast at 8am, and this is succeeded by a further shot of him from a more oblique angle as he finishes eating and leaves the frame to wash up. The final shot of him in this first encounter takes us outside his house. Depardon thus takes us from the interior to the exterior, across a very small space and in a matter of minutes, on the inverse trajectory of the journey that took him years to make across an ethical distance of respect. Both Louis and Marcelle Brès die within the course of the trilogy, and, at the end of the third film, Depardon dedicates his work to them. While never raised to the status of the loss of a person, the death of an animal is also treated with sensitivity, as is apparent in La Vie moderne, when Raymond
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Privat is sad about the terminal illness of one of his cows. Although different from Marker’s combination of playfulness and seriousness when tracking cats across Paris, Depardon also bears witness to an expansive ethical vision here, which opens to animals as well as humans. Indeed, Depardon’s films lay bare the strong bond between livestock, farmers and land, whilst showing the threat it is under in the modern world. The question of how these rural areas will survive comes up frequently. Sometimes succession is assured by forceful persuasion. Daniel Jean Roy is the only one of six children who has stayed to run the family farm now that his parents are too old. Smiling all the while as he is interviewed by Depardon, he says that he is not happy, that he does not like agriculture, and that his parents have forced him to take on the farm. Although frank about their feelings when pressed by Depardon’s questions Daniel Jean Roy and others’ openness about their worries for the future conceals the tacit story that this film also tells. For Depardon was one of two sons born to farmers in Villefranche-sur-Saône, and he chose a career that involved travelling the globe rather than participating in ensuring the survival of the family farm. Although he never articulates it explicitly within the trilogy, the guilt that accompanied him on his travels is what he is attempting to lay to rest through filming the lives of others. The exorbitant and painful responsibility that is palpable here ties Depardon as closely to the landscape and loved ones of his childhood as it does to those he films in the present. The ethical proximity to those he films in Profils paysans emerges through this temporal connection, but also through the unearthing of an emotional geography that relates to, without supplanting, the actual landscapes of the trilogy. Yannick Lemarié writes aptly of Depardon’s unacknowledged return to his past in these films: Depardon gives the spectator the impression of returning home after a long absence, a long detour through far off lands […] In this sense, Profils paysans is first of all a landscape, a geography at once physical and human, an anterior space in Trassard’s beautiful expression. (Lemarié 2001: 122) The anterior space that Lemarié demarcates is also an intimate, interior space, blocked off initially in the same way that Depardon’s filmed subjects protect their privacy in full view of the camera, but which, as the films progress, becomes the other story that the film-maker is also seeking to tell. As Nougaret suggests in interview on the DVD for the second film, Le Quotidien/Daily Life (2004), it is as though he is filming his own mother and father in Profils paysans, and that everyone is actually engaged in telling the story of Raymond’s life without recounting it directly. Depardon’s earlier autobiography, Les Années déclic/The Declic Years (1983), is released on DVD with the first film of Profils paysans, suggesting a relationship between the autobiographical and the lives of these farmers. He explains in the earlier autobiography that his father died while he was away on one of his long trips. This trip was spent as a photojournalist in Chad where, among other political events, he covered the hostage taking of Françoise Claustre. A further, and initially less obvious, connection between the autobiographical and the French rural lives of others emerges through another trip to Africa, and confirms Nougaret’s observation in interview on the DVD of Le Quotidien
of a similar anxiety when filming the two apparently disparate subjects. Yet there is a recasting of this continent as one that brings him closer to his childhood, and to his father, in Afriques: comment ça va avec la douleur?/Africa, How Are You with Pain? (1996). From South Africa through to Egypt and then, in the final sequences, from Marseille to his parents’ farm, Afriques comprises 360-degree panoramic shots that position the film-making subject at the centre, audible yet invisible. The final sequence is a 360-degree shot of the farm in Villefranche-sur-Saône. His voice-over commentary notes that although the differences between Africa and France are flagrant, the proximity between them is to be found in their respective agriculturalists’ worries and wisdom. The return to his parents’ home is not included visually in Profils paysans, but imbues all three parts. In an interview after the release of La Vie moderne, Depardon declares that since 1998 he had changed, and that he had freed himself from the weight of regret of never having filmed his father, and of shame for having followed a profession that prevented him from taking on his parents’ farm (quoted in Frodon 2008: 11−12). In the film, he explains how, with time, he has gained the confidence of the people he has encountered, and how he is pleased to find them again some years on. The Privat brothers are the most striking instance of decline in this film, as Marcel, at a late point, declares that this is the end. There is a hint of optimism, however, that ties Depardon’s personal journey to that of the future of the region. At the end of the film, Depardon withdraws one autumn evening in golden light at 6pm with a travelling shot that reverses those he used at the start of
Figure 3: Profils paysans: L’Approche (Courtesy of Gémaci).
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the films, and throughout, to show his approach to each farm; his camera films where they have come from, rather than where they are going, along the winding country lanes. In voice-over, and in words very similar to those that appear at the end of his book, La Terre des paysans (Depardon 2008), which includes photographs of his parents and their farm, along with the various people in the trilogy, he declares: ‘I am no longer afraid to speak of my attachment to the land of the rural dwellers. Appeased, I will consequently return to the cold, high plateaux and the deep valleys of the Massif Central’. It is the gradual progression of these three films that has helped him to achieve peaceful closure and to leave open the possibility of his tranquil future return.
Each localized setting in the films discussed in this article is crucial to the tale the directors wish to tell, yet each registers their historical and geographical positioning clearly while also thinking relationally: whether this is Marker forging connections between events in Paris and New York in 2001, or across the globe and through time until 2003; Varda mapping the beaches of her life across Europe and America; or Depardon suggesting links between rural France and Africa, from his childhood to the present. Across their diverse projects, each looks back: Marker views traumas and losses of the past, as well as the present, while Varda’s and Depardon’s contemplative films grant emotional closure, to a unique career on the one hand, and, on the other, to past guilt at missing a final opportunity to say goodbye to a lost loved one. Yet they also look onwards: while they all give us their own vision of how the end may be nigh – through a concern with their own mortality and grief for loved ones; the demise of the human race and the planet; or the loss of communities – they also manifest a fervent desire to go on living. Marker, Varda and Depardon become one with their settings, losing themselves necessarily through their presentation of, and reactions to, the lives, and deaths, of others, but also imbuing their landscapes of loss, both actual and projected, with an indelible human presence that informs and interrogates, rather than dissolves, their subjectivity or subjective point of view. As a result, a more expansive view of an ethical approach to documentary filming becomes possible that continues to safeguard the human alterity without which subjectivity would be inconceivable for Levinas, but that opens out to the other creatures with which we share the planet, in addition to the geography of the globe itself – its cities, its rural areas and its coastlines. Still selfless in focus, these expanded contours of a Levinasianinspired vision of subjectivity and alterity within documentary film remind us of the complexity of our place in the world, our relation with and infinite responsibility to its landscapes and other inhabitants, without which we would not be who or where we are today.
Cooper, S. (2006), Selfless Cinema?: Ethics and French Documentary, Oxford: Legenda. Cooper, S. (2007), ‘The Occluded Relation: Levinas and Cinema’, FilmPhilosophy, special issue, 11:2, http://www.film-philosophy.com/2007v11n2/. Cooper, S. (2008), Chris Marker, Manchester: Manchester University Press. Depardon, R. (2008), La Terre des paysans, Paris: Seuil.
Domenach, E. and Rouyer, P. (2008), ‘Entretien avec Agnès Varda: passer sous le pont des Arts à la voile’, Positif, 574, pp. 17−21. Frodon, J.-M. (2008), ‘Entretien avec Raymond Depardon et Claudine Nougaret’, Cahiers du cinéma, 638, pp. 10−17. Kausch, F. (2008), ‘Les Plages d’Agnès: la mer, éternellement recommencée’, Positif, 574, pp. 15−16. Lemarié, Y. (2001), ‘Profils paysans: L’Approche: l’espace antérieur de Depardon’, Positif, 485/486, pp. 122−3. Levinas, E. (1947), Le Temps et l’autre, Montpellier: Fata Morgana. Levinas, E. (1961), Totalité et infini: essai sur l’extériorité, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Levinas, E. (1974), Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Levinas, E. (1993), Dieu, la mort et le temps, Paris: Grasset. Mikles, L. (2008), ‘La Vie moderne: à l’écart’, Positif, 572, pp. 19−20. Renov, M. (2004), The Subject of Documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Trifonova, T. (2007), The Image in French Philosophy, Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Cooper, S. (2010), ‘Looking back, looking onwards: selflessness, ethics, and French documentary’, Studies in French Cinema 10: 1, pp. 57–68, doi: 10.1386/ sfc.10.1.57/1
Sarah Cooper is Reader in Film Theory and Aesthetics at King’s College London. Her most recent books include Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French Documentary (Oxford: Legenda, 2006) and Chris Marker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008). She is currently writing a book on film and the soul. Contact: Film Studies Department, School of Arts and Humanities, King’s College London, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS, UK. E-mail: email@example.com
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