25 novembre 2009

Backstabbing French Commission

Tsai Ming-liang's Visage (2009) was a film commissioned by Le Louvre, world famous museum (currently developing a franchise in Abu Dhabi!). Its production met some problems and delays... most notably the defection of its title star, Maggie Cheng, who put aside her cinema career after falling in love with a Hong-Kong billionaire. This incident is actually integrated to the narrative of the film, like a palimpsest where the auteur traces over his original project to tell the story of his own self-included sequel-remake. Like every great auteur, Tsai incorporates elements of his autobiographical working hours, more or less fantasised or transcended, to turn life into art. This is fascinating to witness and learn from.
The Louvre's "patrons of the art" wanted to hire a critically-acclaimed festival-darling to direct a feature-length infomercial on their museum... they wanted someone to film their historical collection, the sumptuous rooms, the former royal castle exteriors, the gardens à la française, the postcard perspectives, the touristic sightseeing... and this you could tell by the commentaries of the representatives speaking about the "difficult" production anecdotes and the "surprising" final result. They imposed a celebrity (Laetitia Casta) to replace Maggie Cheng, in order to convince other co-producers, French and Taiwanese.
But Tsai is a humble man and a stubborn artist. Intelligently, he didn't want to measure up with La Joconde, la Vénus de Milo, la victoire de Samothrace, or the contemporary glass pyramid added by Chinese architect Pei Leoh Ming. What caught his eyes after a VIP visit of the premises were windowless corridors, low-ceiling attics, steel ladders, fluid pipes, underground water reservoirs for fire emergency, dark bushes... to the dismay of the public relation team, you can imagine. The only vaguely scenic view he immortalised was the majestic basin of the Tuileries gardens that ends his previous film : What Time is it There? (2001); a film containing back then the key articulations of his latest project : a brief cameo appearance of Jean-Pierre Léaud and this ending image of a wild stag in the Tuileries.

What annoys me here is not Tsai's film, which I loved (even if it's not among his most successful), but the French co-production and reception.

France can pride itself for being a safe haven of auteurs, domestic or international. I doubt filmmakers benefit from a greater liberty and protection anywhere else. This said, we would expect the highest artistic standards from a French commissioned project and above all from an art-friendly museum like Le Louvre... this is far from the truth, unfortunately.
I thought the Louvre commission was only a fund granted to an artist, for an opportunity with no strings attached. Who could think themselves in a position to give directions to a seasoned artist with a solid œuvre under his belt? Who cares for profits and commercial appeal when you're a wealthy state-owned museum? When you get the chance to work with one of the greatest film artist of our generation, you don't ask questions, you just give him money, provide all he asks for and wait for the finished piece without pressuring him. Who would better understand that than the greatest museum in a auteurist paradise like France?

I'm appalled to see that this "philanthropic" commission only showed the typical Hollywood system behaviour instead...

Of course, the final film is far from a commercial movie, but as an obscure artfilm it is treated like in Hollywood with a confidential release. And I'm offended by the reception of the French market, and above all the Parisian arthouses circuit. Visage premièred the 4th of November 2009, on only 15 screens nationwide (6 in Paris). And today, on 4th week, is only continued by 7 theatres (2 in Paris : one is one show/day, the other is 1 show/week)... I've never seen such a poor enthusiasm for an artfilm that has everything to please the cinephile-friendly Parisian arthouses. For instance, this week, Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch (2009), also slow and challenging, is given a more reasonable, decent release on 54 screens (10 in Paris), which is closer to the usual treatment for the hard-to-please niche.

Visage was selected in Cannes in official competition. Le Louvre was its godfather. Tsai Ming-liang has always been cherished by French cinephiles more than anywhere else in the world. It is an homage to François Truffaut, with 4 of his actors (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Baye, Fanny Ardant). Laetitia Casta is featured prominently dressed by a flurry of haute couture costumes by French designer Christian Lacroix. Choreographed by Philippe Découflé. Its scenario was developed at the Cannes festival residence. It is shot on location in Paris. How more French could a foreign film be? It is a French co-production that should be supported by state subsidies and domestic exhibitors.
So if this kind of project is not embraced by the French market, where else will it be???

There is an artfilm "niche" in Paris too, like everywhere else, for "challenging" films like Visage, meaning that they will never get the sweeping coverage of a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, even in Paris of course! But there is always a base of art-friendly arthouses that support this kind of auteurs, whether the film is good or not, to give it a chance, to give the audience a chance to discover it before being taken down by the 2-week turnover release schedule. Usually there are at least a (couple of) dozen Parisian screens to champion this kind of films! I don't know what happened.
Les Inrockuptibles, Libération, Le Monde, Télérama praised it. OK, the snobbish Cahiers and Positif bashed it... but still.

It was already quite pretentious to "invite" an international auteur like Tsai Ming-liang to make a film in France... but given this ungrateful reception, he won't come back for sure.

We can tell the film was hard to make and struggled to come together under contradictory influences... too many ideas, not enough coherence. I agree it's not a clean achievement. I think Tsai is essentialy happy he could work with Léaud to make an homage to his mentor Truffaut. That's his main satisfaction. For the rest he filled with what he knows best, lip-synch choreographies and lavish compositions. And even from an admittedly "failed" project, I believe he pulled off a beautiful film that is nothing to be ashamed of, contrary to what detractors think.

Cinephiles celebrate Tsai when he makes sense, when he recycles pop culture, when he's provocative... but they abandon him when his contemplative aesthetic is too abstract, too experimental, to discontinuous. His adaptation of the story of the Salomé myth is what deconstructive cuisine is to fine gastronomie : a quintessential rendition of its dissociated elements. And on this level, it is amazing to observe how Tsai tailors this clever patchwork with precision and a very personal inspiration.

I command Tsai for not falling back on facile clichés and conventional narratives. He walked away from all incentives (by the production) to pigeon-hole him into a cliché of a "French auteur".

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I was already disappointed by Hou Hsiao-hsien's "French film" : Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (2007); and Rithy Panh's eponymous adaptation of Marguerite Duras : Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique (2008). Both mishandled French co-productions because it was too heavy on the Frenchisation.

The 2006 Viennale Mozart homage : New Crowned Hope, was also a product placement failure bribing auteurs to promote Mozart in projects that were already almost finished. As if contributing funds to a film gave any right for artistic inputs or suggestions... maybe in Hollywood, but not in Europe!
Rich people bring in the money and get the eventual profits (or honorific credits to help the art scene) from a (risky) investment.
Art people bring in the artistic ideas because they don't need to be told how it works.
That's how it works as far as I'm concerned. When the roles are inverted it is disastrous, both for the art and for the industry.
Though, at least, the New Crowned Hope series didn't suffer from the commission requirements (to include Mozart music), and each film is wholesome and fully coherent with its auteur's identity. Because the Viennale co-production didn't intervene from the start of the project, like the French did in the 3 aforementioned examples.

Usually French co-productions are more discreet and sensible, leaving the auteur they fund and champion in control of their work. All the reason why I'm shocked by what happened with Tsai (and HHH and Rithy Panh) which was meant to be a film less commercial than the others from the get go.

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