Essay: Thierry Garrel - A Certain Art of the Portrait

Essay: Thierry Garrel - A Certain Art of the Portrait

A Certain Art of the Portrait program was curated by Thierry Garrel. Read his essay below and learn more about the screenings and events here.

For centuries, the tradition of court painters reserved portraiture for the powerful aristocracy, and later the rich bourgeois. Still, from Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid to Vermeer’s Lacemaker, and Van Gogh’s Postman, portraits of simple people provide one of the richest chapters in art history. Cinema, through documentary, has continued this tradition of depicting real human beings, their uniqueness, their idiosyncrasies, and their secret tragedies.

To some extent, all the films presented in FRENCH FRENCH this year are portraits. Time plays a peculiar and important role, adding a third dimension: time passing over a character and revealing their evolution; the ravages of time; restricted shooting time which allows only for the truest snapshot; and, finally time travel, which brings back memories, sometimes fond, and sometimes painful.

What is most at stake in auteur-driven documentaries is the unwritten contract, the powerful pact between the filmmaker and the person who agrees to become a character. And, by that same token, between the filmmaker and the viewer, allowing complex and risky situations to be shot and shared, going beyond the surface, without voyeurism, to something far deeper.

In Belinda, Marie Dumora filmed the same character at ages 9, 16, and 24 in a daring close-up vérité style. Belinda is a member of Yeniche people—travellers ostracized in France for centuries as gypsies. But despite struggling with a difficult life of foster homes, separations and prison, Belinda maintains her tremendous energy for survival.

Michèle Smolkin accompanies her 102-year-old uncle Sam in her deeply affectionate and charming film If You’re Hungry, Sing. If You Ache, Laugh (Si tu as faim, chante. Si tu as mal, ris). Rich archives, poetic animation, and gentle humour interlace as Sam recounts a century of political, social, and personal turmoil.

In her film Secret Nest (Maternité secrète) Sophie Bredier, born in Korea and adopted by French parents, invites women to remember their time in a Normandy chateau for unwed mothers, where they would give birth and often abandon their babies. Through honest accounts and a capella songs, mothers, daughters, and nurses remember the deeply moving tragedies that shaped them.

Ruth Zylberman spent three years reconstructing and portraying the entire population of a Parisian apartment building in a working class district before WWII. The Neighbours (Les Enfants du 209 rue Saint Maur, Paris Xe) confronts family memories and slowly reveals the tragic destiny that befell many of the building’s Jewish residents during the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis. While the faces of the disappeared persons are screened on the building’s facade, the survivors and their children gather in the courtyard to bear witness.

Thirty years ago, Alain Cavalier declared “Enough with ‘films de maquillage’ (make-up movies)!” and began a completely different career. With this legendary series of Portraits, each no longer than 13 minutes, Cavalier, a renowned cineaste of the Nouvelle Vague and awarded a Palme d’Or in Cannes, shifted to documentary and a style of poetic diary.* Cavalier’s films of elderly women working in small disappearing trades were shot in one day and focused on the faces, hands, gestures, and the specific tools used by his subjects. Peaceful, sublimely elegant, and intriguing, this collection brought the film portrait to a new level of artistic excellence.

FRENCH FRENCH will include six of these original portraits, alongside Six Portraits XL, which saw Cavalier anointed Maître du Réel (Master of the Real) at Visions du Réel Film Festival last year. This new series of Portraits combines the filmic material Cavalier took of his friends, some famous, like writer-journalist Philippe Labro preparing his filmed interviews, but mostly little-known people— an old cobbler who is the secret soul of his neighbourhood, an ambitious baker, a compulsive lottery player, a woman in mourning, and an actor/playwright. Filmed over the course of many years, each individual is captured partaking of the same rituals that have marked their lives. Through meticulous and delicate observation, Cavalier allows us to share the intimacy of six of his friends, as if he was peeking backstage to capture the hidden secret of real life.

“For us, the most entertaining surface on earth is that of the human face,” wrote Lichtenberg 250 years ago. In a world dominated by the market, documentaries are painting a family portrait of our society. They mirror our common soul, and offer us a redemptive portrait of our true ourselves.

In celebrating real life, documentary filmmakers pursue a passionate and persistent interest toward the other. Their films refresh our spirit, reassure us about our own struggle with personal difficulties and suffering, and fuel our desire to invent new forces to overcome them. One is never happier as when caught by a strong feeling of living only in this world, or as Dominique Dubosc wrote in Le documentariste, “There is but one world and I belong to it.”