Philippe Grandrieux's "Sombre" (1998)
Philippe Grandrieux is one of my favorite filmmakers alive. His films are a new voice, almost a shriek, that could have only been expressed through a rediscovery of the medium it's using. Every new vision, like Sombre, requires its own form of expression, and therefore redefines, and expands the cinematic language. It frees thinking, embellishes our experience of the world.
Here's what Adrian Martin says in his article about La Vie Nouvelle:
"The films of Philippe Grandrieux pulsate. They pulsate microcosmically: in the images, the camera trembles and flickers so violently that, even within a single, continuous shot, no photogram resembles another. And they pulsate macrocosmically: the soundtrack is constructed globally upon unidentifiable, layered, synthesised, ambient noises of breath or wind, sucked in and expelled, which underlie the entire film and constitute its disturbed heartbeat, returning to our ear when all other sounds have disappeared."
Sombre, as Grandrieux's first feature film, establishes some of the important characteristics of his art: An insistence on vision, with characters beyond psychologies, driven by biology or metaphysical forces.
Love (a mix of brotherly and sexual Love, a true awareness of the other, a communion) mostly overrules all, and its discovery by Jean creates waves that emanate in every shot, every cut and every sound in the rest of Sombre.
While the movement in Un Lac is from perfect love (a paradise communion) to the loss of innocence, here the movement is reversed, not in the sense that the film has a happy ending, there are no clear conclusions (nor clear beginnings) in Grandrieux... The discovery of the other (an other?) disturbs the existing rules of behaviour.
This is also true for Claire, who have a face to face conversation with a stranger, something completely unexpected in a film of such few words. A scene that would have been ordinary in another film (except the abusively frontal camera) acquires a huge force by its contrast to the rest of the work.
What is truly impossible to describe in words is the sense of rhythm, and Grandrieux's Brakhage-like belief in the transformative powers of vision and perception. It's a sombre film alright, content-wise, but Grandrieux also shoots in extremely low-light situations, abstracting bodies, faces, expressions. He teaches us to care less about what's happening, and this increases in every new film of his. Instead, we learn to care about the how, and the way, the feeling, the sense of the presence, not of the actual happenings, because the films are not realistic, but the presence of the director, filtering, flirting and dancing with the events that are taking place.
Important to note that he is the cameraman in all his films, he says there wouldn't be a point making films otherwise. Here's something from an interview with him in Balthazar (first in original French, then my English translation):
"Je ne pourrais pas imaginer, même avec le plus grand cadreur du monde avec qui je m’entendrais parfaitement bien… C’est le regard, c’est la vision… C’est le regard : comment moi je vous regarde là maintenant, je ne peux le dire à personne. C’est vraiment une question sur l’altérité, c’est la limite."
"I could not imagine, even with the greatest cameraman in the world with whom I get on very well... It's the look, it's the vision... It's the look: how I look at you here and now, I cannot describe anyone. It's really a question of otherness, it's the limit."
The art of cinema only speaks strongly when every cut matters. In Sombre, every cut is an event, a comment about the rest of the film. Every formal choice, or everything that happens storywise have meanings that constantly expand. Grandrieux never chews on the same idea, the same feeling, he constantly looks for new ways to perceive the rest. And he doesn't stop doing it even after everything is over.
It's unfortunate that I had to see it in a terrible .avi version, but I would call Sombre sublime simply because I felt missing so much by not experiencing it in its true medium. It's a film that asks us to be aware of the film grain. There lies the true expression in Un Lac. And seemingly in Sombre.