Saturday, January 25, 2014

The "Berri affair" 3: the Berri affair

Libération front page - 28 February 1991

Serge Daney's review of Uranus (see: Uranus, mourning for mourning) incensed the film director - the French producer and filmmaker Claude Berri, best known for Jean de Florette - so much, that he sought to obtain a right to reply to be published in the newspaper. French law makes the right to reply an absolute right, open to anyone named in a periodic publication. However the custom is that art criticism, when not defamatory, does not warrant a response from the artist. Berri's persistence made him go to court twice before a judgement forced Libération to publish the text below. It was such an extraordinary event that it is considered jurisprudence and is now used as a reference in law studies on the possible abuse of the right to reply.
Claude Berri replies to Serge Daney
Serge Daney, 
I “may not think” – and that’s what you’re saying – but I sometimes reflect, especially at night.
At first I thought I was angry with you. But after sleeping over it, I read your article again, calmly. Here and there, I even understand a sentence or two. It’s a shame that the article lacks coherence. A detail makes you “rebound”*. A four-seconds shot where the actress Danièle Lebrun leafs through a film magazine of that time, probably Cinémonde. I quote you: “Let’s take one of those small details that still inspire one to do film criticism, in other words to ramble on.” There, you wrote it.
I don’t have to flag much more than this. For the rest, I refer the reader to your article dated Tuesday 8 January 1991 (even though Uranus was released on Wednesday 12 December, with a review in your paper on that day). If I, in turn, rebound, Serge Daney – as the right to reply allows me – it’s in the memory of my father who often said to me: “if someone spits in your face, don’t say it’s the rain”. It’s not the first time you’ve been after me. Already, for Jean de Florette, I had forgotten that you had asked the question: so why is BERRI going through all this trouble?
Your interest in me is touching. Few people posed the question in those terms. But after all, it’s not a bad question. And if you haven’t understood, let me answer it for you: I go through all this trouble, Serge Daney, since the age of seventeen – I’m nearly fifty-seven – to make films rather than fur. You know that my father was a furrier. At first, I remind you, I wanted to be an actor. Then, over time, I became a director, producer, distributor and an art lover. You know all that. As for me, I know nothing about you. Where do you come from? Surely, to write like this, you must be educated. What does your face look like? Someday, we must have a drink together. You’re so interested in me, it feels natural we should get acquainted. 
So, I went through a lot of trouble, and I’ve done really well. My father would be proud. The only thing that could annoy me would be take too badly what you write about me. But no – re-thinking and re-reading – I don’t take it badly at all. I won’t hide that my first reaction was to want to box your ears. Now that I’m over this first fit of temper, let it be known that, on the contrary, I cannot wait to read again and again the inevitable ramblings that you will surely produce for my next film.
A few years ago, you would have hurt me. I prefered when François Truffaut wrote about my films. It was clear, magnificent. Articles are like films, they resemble their authors. You must be a strange guy. Are you nasty? I’m not. I’ve only had successes, abroad too. Florette played for three years in London. In four weeks, nearly two million French people have seen Uranus. Overall, the media reception has been good. Uranus will represent France at the Berlin Film Festival. Why would I get angry with someone who rambles on? One must watch one’s temper. I prefer to leave that to the professionals. I’d like to see the film that you may make someday. 
Ok, no hard feelings. I’m an insomniac. And I’ve had a good time writing to you. And know that, if I didn’t think about anything while making Uranus, I just spent two hours thinking about you. Do you know that Jewish story? Moshe can’t sleep because he owes money to his neighbour. He gets up, opens the window and starts shouting: “Yantel! Yantel!” Yantel, who’s asleep, wakes up and opens the window. And Moshe shouts: “I will never pay you back.” Then Moshe goes back to bed and tells his wife: “Now, he’s the one who won’t sleep.” 
There you go, Serge Daney, do continue. Be sure that I will mention you in my memoirs. I’ll include this letter. When I made The two of us with Michel Simon, I immediately and instinctively knew that I’d have my place in history, at least because of that film. Be reassured, you will have your place in history thanks to me. Now, I’m going back to bed…
As my friend Coluche used to say: “So long, babe!”**
Claude Berri
* Daney’s article was published in the Op-ed section of Libération called “Rebonds” (Rebound).
** “Allez, salut ma Poule !” A “poule” is a colloquial term which can be used in a friendly way (honey, babe) but also to designate a mistress, or a women of easy virtue. In any case, it must have come across as extremely offending to Daney who was gay.   
[Libération, 28 February 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Ted Fendt]
From the testimonies I have found, Serge Daney was extremely hurt by the publication of this insulting reply. Here's his account, in the last months of his life (Daney died of AIDS in June 1992, less than two years after the Berri affair):
There were two moments in my life where I was ashamed to belong to something idiotic (…) The second was the Berri affair last year, concerning Uranus. I have to say that the idea of “one for all and all for one” took a serious blow. I hoped that, just like in the movies, friends would come out from everywhere, dropping everything else, and saying “What the hell is going on here? We’re going to pummel the guy who’s hassling our friend.” It wasn’t all that important, but no one came out. 
[Serge Daney, Postcards from the cinema, Berg, 2007, p.124]
And here's Daney's reaction, in an interview he gave for his last book (Recrudescence), soon after the events:
When I surprised myself writing again good things about Fritz Lang and always bad things about René Clair, I was less amazed by my loyalty to the traditional tastes of Cahiers than by the vehemence with which I refused all reconciliation. (...) When a televised film ceremony elected Les Enfants du paradis the finest French film since the talkies, I had the feeling that we hadn’t won. Who is this we? Those for whom French cinema is rather La règle du jeu, Pickpocket, Playtime, L’enfance nue or La maman et la putain. And then I argue it out with myself and tell myself that if we loved those films for their minority violence, it is to be expected that in this period of renewed bourgeois hypocrisy (I prefer this expression to soft consensus, which is now a dull cliché), violence should be ill-regarded, the critical sense devalued and the minority quickly put in the wrong.
So I ought not to be surprised that between the raw and the cooked the war goes on. A culinary war (this is France after all) where, opposing raw naturalism (Renoir), raw impressionism (Bresson) or raw modern art (Godard) we still find Tavernier’s stew or Berri’s fry-up. And I’m not surprised that Berri should hound me through the courts like some wounded big shot. It’s the legacy of Delannoy’s mush or L’Herbier’s boiled beef (he was a dead loss and no mistake). Taking this into account, everything tells me that there is something like a franco-French civil war, which is about this country and its history, which goes beyond the cinema and which will never be over. Someone wrote to me at Libération accusing me of doing a Truffaut thirty years on. He was right. We are thirty years back.
[Serge Daney, Cinema in transit, unpublished]   
It's not clear what hurt Daney most: Berri's response, that it got published in Libération, what it meant for French cinema (and the state of France as a whole) or the fact that "no one came out" to support him. On the spot, Daney himself was close to a pretty silly reaction (as told by Jean-Claude Biette):
I owe to Daney’s memory to tell that he had the intention, following the controversy over Uranus, to send Claude Berri a copy of Devant la recrudescence, with a dedication mimicking the words Berri had used to salute Daney “Here’s some reading, babe!” and that he had abandoned the idea because of the effort of finding Berri’s address and eventually admitting – in front of this obvious waste of time – the he didn’t hold that much against Berri.
[Cahiers du cinéma, issue 458, July-August 1992, special issue on Serge Daney, pp. 51-53, my translation]
It's perhaps with Serge July - the editor of Libération - that Daney was most upset with. According to Jean Guisnel, in his  history of Libération, July had committed himself to write a text next to Berri's reply - a promise he failed to fulfill. Here's the text that July wrote when Daney passed away:
"The question of our cowardly times really is: what is resisting? What is resisting to markets, media, fear, cynicism, idiocy, indignity?" He founded Trafic with this resistance in mind. Daney opened the first issue with a "Diary of the past year" from which this - almost gaullist - quote is from. He rightly blamed me for not having resisted - when I should have done so - to one occurence of the dominant indignity. 
I must begin with this: Claude Berri’s indignity. Berri had just made Uranus and Serge Daney, in the Rebound section of Libération, had written an article worthy to feature in an anthology. Its object? An abject side of France in this stinky cinema. Claude Berri subpoenaed Libération, a court agreed and imposed the publication of a right to reply which I steadfastly refused to publish. But I had no choice. The court had chosen the date. It coincided with the most dramatic hours of the Gulf war*: Berri’s text would appear without me defending Serge Daney, publicly at least. That day, I wrote about the war. He never forgave me for not being present at a battle that he judged fundamental. I had - as some used to say - let Berri pass. Daney was right. It remained an incurable wound for him.
* The day Berri's right of reply was published (28 February 1991) was the day George Bush announced the end of the first Gulf war (see image above).
[Libération, 13 June 1992, my translation]
Berri himself (who passed away in 2009) came to "regret" his response, albeit not for the best reasons. Here's the interview he gave to Cahiers in 2003:
When you react to Serge Daney’s text in Libération against Uranus, you actually demand a right to reply and you obtain it via the courts. What did upset you so much that you took such a drastic measure?
[Berri gets up and goes to his desk, looking for the article in a folder]: We talked more about this, this conflict with Serge Daney - whom I didn’t know - than about what Henri Langlois wrote about Le Cinéma de papa. [Claude Berri has found the article and reads it outloud] You’ve never read it?
Yes, I did, at the time. I remember what he said about a film magazine in your film, which was a collector’s piece where it should have been new.
When I read the article, I didn’t write to Daney or call him, I only asked for a right to reply. The reply was scathing. At the time, I didn’t know that Daney was sick, I didn’t even know who he was. Especially since three weeks or a month before Libération had printed five pages on the film. The review wasn’t amazing but the film was considered a real event. When I read Daney’s article, I couldn’t contain myself.
There was a sentence, an idea which had shocked you.
When I read it now, not really [laughs]. I didn’t take stock. But it was especially contemptuous. [He reads an extract]. “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.”
It’s a good remark, no?
Yes, yes… Well, no, honestly, with hindsight, re-reading it, I wouldn’t have replied. I had no idea that he was a cult critic, that he was gay and that he was sick, and if I had known...
What would it have changed?
I wouldn’t have replied. I was shooting at an ambulance. I take no pride in having replied.
Serge Daney was more upset with Serge July who didn’t support him than with you.
But my reply was mean. Thierry Levy, my lawyer, went to see July two or three times and we obtained the reply via the decision of a tribunal. It was imposed onto them. They published my reply – a real turn of luck for them – the day of a strike in the press printing industry, which means it wasn’t read by many but clearly left its mark on a few minds. In one’s life, there's a lot, good moments, dramas and moments of stupidity. I didn’t realise how much grief it was going to cause in the eyes of some people. I can even regret to have replied because it wasn’t worth it. Perhaps it came after quite a number of humiliations which I had to suffer in my life.
[Cahiers du cinéma, issue 580, June 2003, pp. 60-69, my translation]

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