Uranus, mourning for mourning
Given the group portrait of a rotten period in the history of France, can this portrait be drawn without thinking a little bit about how it should be drawn? Answer: no. Did Claude Berri think of anything at all while filming Uranus? Answer: it doesn’t seem so. Subsidiary question: isn’t it a bit late to aim a camera at this old landscape (1945)? No comment.
Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on. In a scene where she is reading in bed, the actress Danièle Lebrun is leafing through the pages of a film magazine of the time, probably Cinémonde. So far nothing wrong, except that it’s a real Cinémonde from that time, a collector’s piece with tattered pages and yellowed paper. In this choice of a period-Cinémonde over a copy of a Cinémonde from the period, there lies somewhere, halfway between second-hand shop and telefilm, the aesthetic principle of Uranus. And when the past has become that decorative, it has stopped making an impact on our present.
Let’s now imagine what might have been the realist solution to this problem. It was enough to make a facsimile of this Cinémonde and obtain a duplicate with fresh pages and white paper, to choose a fake new over a true old, to position oneself on the side of the character and not on the side of the actress (or the props manager). Then we would have had the feeling that the character played by Danièle Lebrun had just bought Cinémonde, a logically brand new Cinémonde. Thanks to this tiny detail we would have had, for a second or two, the feeling of the present of 1945, i.e. of history without a capital H, a history that is still arbitrary and has not yet become a tribunal, with characters who have not yet become a gallery of friendly actors composing in 1990 the not so friendly roles of yesterday. And here is how a movie that is supposed to run on vitriol turns rapidly into museum pomade.
Some would say that this is not what interests Berri and that he only wants to make us laugh (mirthlessly) thanks to the anti-heroes he has found in Marcel Aymé’s novel. Some would even say that it is not fair to pretend to discover that Berri the filmmaker is not up there with the likes of Renoir or Guitry for whom a cinema evocative of the past has never depended on a period-Cinémonde. Uranus is indeed an addition to the rather short list of films attempting to present on screen a France that is not presentable: the France of 1940-1945. A difficult gamble since it implies interesting the audience in a sample of rather uninteresting, fundamentally spineless and despairingly mediocre characters. This is no small task and the surprise is not that Berri failed where even Brecht didn’t always succeed (although Losey did, in the Brechtian Monsieur Klein) but that, ready to take on the challenge and to jump into the unknown, he has failed to reach the bar by such a margin that – probably carried away by consensual and tepid hurrahs - he didn’t even suspect that there was a bar (1).
Let’s take another example. There is one great scene in Uranus, where the Monglat son confronts his father and where the father, wonderfully interpreted by the intense Gallabru, becomes, in the midst of evil, nothing less than Shakespearian. For Berri, who wants to make us laugh about the honest (or dishonest) mediocrity of his Franco-fauna, it’s a failure since Monglat is grandiose. This is because, since Diderot, mediocrity is not a topic available to anyone. Marcel Aymé approached it head on (in Le confort intellectuel) but not with fictional characters. As soon as there is at least one character, the most elementary morals consist in giving him every chance (first to the character, then to the actor’s body and finally to the profession of acting). And if he’s really given his chances, then inevitably, he will interest us. This is the iron law of fiction. Fiction, despite itself, tends to redeem characters. Barthes, who was fascinated by stupidity, didn’t write novels and probably suffered as a result. Even Flaubert admitted in the end that he had developed some sympathy for Bouvard and Pécuchet. Average humanity is a very bad conductor of fiction, especially in cinema.
Since apparently none of this occurred to Berri, he was happy to merely record the frequently lazy work of a group of popular actors trying to save their characters from lack of interest and stale folklore. In French cinema’s tradition of quality, it is always up to the famous actor (and to his tirades) to exorcise the dubious, cowardly and mediocre character he embodies. Thus in Uranus, the collaborator inspires respect, the good stubborn communist empathy and the intellectual communist pity. The engineer is courageous (he hides the collaborator), the professor is far-sighted (he helps the engineer) and if the suspicious barman is a brute, he is saved by his discovery of poetry (he loves Racine). Overall, this is a rather positive appraisal of a France which, having rather hastily taken its spinelessness for a refusal of Manichaeism, smiles to discover itself, despite everything, very likeable in the two-way mirror of the past (“only human after all!”). In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why it is documentaries, like The Sorrow and the pity, that, much better than fiction, have resuscitated France’s past, have been under attack by the censors and generated unease. Uranus does not disturb anyone and pleases everybody.
There again, some would say that this is asking too much of Berri who, after all, is not at the origin of the scandal. He is too busy being the illustrator paying his respect to the most Franco-French regional writers (Pagnol, Aymé, who were not exactly progressives) and too admiring of the other arts (painting) and not enough of cinema – albeit the only art which, impure, oscillates by nature between past and present, between the age of the objects filmed and the hic et nunc of the camera. And then, isn’t there an expiration date for collective mourning – like for yogurt? Aren’t there moments in the life of a people, like in an artist’s career, when something like grief work (Freud’s Trauerarbeit) can happen before fiction redeems everything, albeit cheaply? Shouldn’t the example of the Germans – Fassbinder, Harlan or Syberberg – be meditated upon? Questions. Important and often abstruse questions which some will say Berri didn’t think of. OK, let’s stop demanding too much of Berri and move on to something else. To French cinema for instance.
French cinema – this has been repeated ad nauseam – suffers from an exceptional memory deficit. This is why, since the war, it is more about moralist auteurs (New Wave) than artisan-narrators (Tradition of quality). This is why French cinema is absolutely not American, not very Italian and wears its very own ball and chain: a script crisis which is nothing but a part of French history that hasn’t been well digested. The past (collaboration, purges, colonial wars) hasn’t passed (2).
Certainly there have been many score-settling movies, from Le corbeau to Uranus via a few made by Autant-Lara such as La traversée de Paris and the little-known Patates (with Pierre Perret). If mourning was about conducting and revising trials, finding new suspects and denying everyone any responsibility, all these movies with their satisfied masochism and their decorative darkness would have been adequate to the task. But mourning is something else altogether: not a way to disqualify the past but a way to untie oneself, slowly, from a past that is loved in spite of everything, loved even despite its general condemnation by History.
Aesthetically, mourning is an ambiguous work-in-progress which begins by giving to the past the fresh frivolity of its status as ex-present and to characters that freedom of choice which often, too young or too ignorant, they haven’t used. When it is solely ideological, mourning doesn’t work well and loses itself in the bitterness of infinite denouncement (“All rotten!”).
Non-ideological mourning is, more concretely, what separates parents and children. It is the question from the latter to the former (“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”), i.e. the poorly transmitted burden of the hesitating beliefs of the 20th century as it comes to a close. The communist creed for instance – obviously one of the biggest issues of the century – is worth much more than the rapid, ecumenical reconstruction in Uranus. The stubborn refusal of French cinema to transform a pure communist into a character of pure fiction explains in part the amazing, contemporary brain death of the French Communist Party. A refusal so stubborn that a figure like Georges Marchais end up being recycled as a female pig on a televised puppet show! The story of a communist father and of his children who can no longer be communist is one of the stories that French cinema should have made it a priority to tell. But it hasn’t. Italians have done it, with difficulties, and that has allowed them to produce one filmmaker (Nanni Moretti) and to move on to other things (not cinema).
Hence the question: is it too late? And aren’t the limits of mourning biological, assuming the coexistence of two generations still in conflict and, as Straub said, completely nicht versöhnt (not reconciled)? Does this mean that real mourning is not about mourning my beliefs (this would only generate disillusion which generates nothing), but mourning the beliefs of the previous generation, when they were my age? And what if the true scandal of mourning wasn’t only that there are innocents and guilty ones (even unpunished) but also that there has been, in every period and in every sense, people too young not to have been innocent? For instance because the Vichy years were the years of their youth and of their discovery of the world – the world as it was, i.e. not brilliant. The scandal is not only the guilt of old actors, it is also their innocence (“You’re not serious, when you’re seventeen”) – even the innocence of a housewife and mother who buys her brand new Cinémonde and gets a lot of pleasure out of turning its pages.
PS: At a recent “Special evening of cinema” on television – a charitable operation mounted by Canal Plus in support of cinema – Les enfants du paradis was voted the most beautiful French movie since the advent of the talkies. Old Marcel Carné came to thank the jury whereas the least the television broadcasters could have done was to thank – through Carné – cinema for helping them make ends meet in the absence of good programmes. Les enfants du paradis is not a bad movie but it is merely the best that an occupied country can produce, fleeing into the decor, into the past, into the gallery of actors and into the beautiful craftsmanship of movie making. Fleeing into a collective art dedicated to the group portrait and unspeakable nostalgia (what could be more innocent than children and paradise?). As long as the good cinephile and the decent folk prefer the golden hideaway of Les enfants du paradis to the dry account of La règle du jeu, we can be sure that a form of occupation, somewhere, continues.
(1) This is no longer probable; it’s now certain.
(2) It is not impossible after all that the typical situation of French cinema is the one of the prisoner. There would then be two ways out: either by adjusting to prison, by making it human, by surviving with alliances and know-how, or by refusing it, even if it means a chance to discover oneself in a newly found freedom (through spiritual or physical escape). Long held as the greatest French film, Renoir’s La grande illusion (like later Le caporal épinglé) shows both paths. But if Renoir plays this game, Bresson (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket, Procès de Jeanne d’Arc) is the one choosing the escape route. See also Cocteau (La belle et la bête), Grémillion (La petite Lise), Becker (Le Trou) and many others. For the New Wave, it was enough to escape from the studios to have access to a certain freedom. This freedom however is never the theme of the movie: even in Rohmer’s movies, one is only prisoner of his social being.First published in Libération, 8 January 1991. Reprinted in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997, pp. 153-6. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt.