Conceived and directed by Isidore Isou, the founder of the proto-Situationist art movement Lettrisme, Traité de bave et d’éternité (Venom and Eternity, 1951) is an extraordinarily antagonistic, 58-year-old, avant-garde, anti-cinema relic. A howling, white hot, meteor of resistance.
Although seldom seen in cinemas or galleries, Isou’s film appears to these eyes to be a keystone of 20th- and early 21st-century artists’ film, and an antecedent of the nouvelle vague – specifically Godard.
Over the course of a relentless two hours and three minutes we see footage of Daniel, a tedious character – a narcissist, or dandy if you prefer, played by Isou himself – strutting around boulevard Saint-Germain, expounding nineteen to the dozen on his radical theories for a new form of art cinema. These shots are intercut with every conceivable technique and gimmick now associated with avant-garde film but then suggestive of laboratory mishap or amateurism rather than auteurism. By way of example, Isou plumps for the use of found or appropriated footage – military and gymnastic exercises, fishing boats at work, skiing, naval pomp; direct film – scratching, bleaching of celluloid; asynchronous audio; interruptive bursts in the time-space continuum, more akin to haphazard quantum leaps than jump cuts; total blackness; mind-numbing repetition; upside down camera shots and so on.
It is also a film unafraid to shift its monocular vision onto nothingness and to momentarily hold back the dynamism. There are crisp and stern shots of the mundane – the interior of an apartment, quotidian life. Semi-static portrait shots of miscellaneous sound poets like François Dufrêne and other post-war avant-garde bad boys are completely reminiscent of Warhol in their exquisite blandness.
Despite the constant presence of speech on the audio track this is not a literary film, or at least if it is, it is the equivalent of the frenzied defacement of a literary object. Much like Guy Debord and the Situationist International’s détournement of magazine imagery. This is of course a physical film, a crackpot, yet nonetheless strategic exercise in testing the materiality of cinema; the mutability of cameras, celluloid, editing block and razor blade. It is also an exercise in negation, but as much as it’s a negation of cinematic convention it is also a negation of normative art film technique and it is certainly a composed affront to the slime in the bourgeois eyes and ears of cinephiles circa 1950, and possibly to cinephiles circa 2009. It would appear Isou and cohorts simply didn’t care and the film is all the more refreshing for this insouciance. However, perhaps on a more sombre level, Traité de bave et d’éternité could be perceived as a rather melancholy film ruminating on the torturously irreconcilable schism between the aural and the optical, between the spoken and the seen, a film, perhaps, about the confounding milky weakness of language. Either way it is a must-see cinematic object.