Ulrich Seidl likes to go where it hurts and, over the last 35 years, he’s been there and back again many times in his relentless attempt to explore the murkier depths and chasms of Austrian society. Sometimes he digs deeper than anyone else would dare, as in his 1994 documentary Animal Love (Tierische Liebe), in which he portrayed a number of Viennese residents who turn to their animals for affection and more. At other times, such as in his most recent Paradise trilogy, he uses fictional settings and stories to sting, invade and undermine the human psyche and the terrifying obsessions and perversions it can nurture, fiercely drawing out patterns of social behaviour that range from the mundane to the extreme.
In his latest documentary, In the Basement, he sets out to investigate what’s happening in Austrian cellars and what kind of relationship the often dubious owners have with their precious spaces underground. And as one would expect from a Seidl film, what he finds is a bunch of rather obscure characters, framed and juxtaposed in carefully arranged single-take shots with non-judgemental compassion, who (at least partially) seem almost desperate to step out of the shade and into the spotlight of his honest, vigilant camera. Among the most memorable are a failed opera singer who has turned his cellar into a fully operational underground shooting range; a devoted Nazi and his memorabilia cabinet; the inhabitants of professional and private SM-studios; and the ‘mommy’ of shockingly natural-looking baby dolls stored in shoe boxes.
The portraits are filmed in typical, tableau-like perfection, mocking both the protagonists within the film and the act of documentary filmmaking itself. To some extent, In the Basement is crafted in the same way that John Waters created Shock Value, an often fascinating, frequently creepy, unashamedly funny compilation of oddities and curiosities that are occasionally hard to digest. And yet, over the course of the film you begin to wonder whether there is anything new, anything unique being said here that couldn’t be found elsewhere.
Still, what becomes clear after watching In the Basement is that even after more than three decades of arduous research, Seidl doesn’t seem to run short of impaired souls to explore and portray in his films, and his combination of grotesque rituals with tragic comedy is handled with an increasingly deft balance of wit, irony and candour in almost every work he produces. And even if the film makes no direct connection to the case of Joseph Fritzl – the Austrian who kept his daughter imprisoned in the cellar of their very own house, raped and abused her over nearly a quarter of a century, and fathered her seven children – the mere thought of his existence adds a layer of disconcerting reality to Seidl’s protagonists who merrily display and confirm that whatever is happening in some Austrian basements these days, it’s far from the ordinary.
If a psychedelic, sado-masochistic, decomposed narrative of feminist self-actualisation against a macho hegemony, improvised around mid-20th-century atonal music compositional techniques, sounds a little dry to you, then you’d be fully justified in giving Eden and After (L’éden et après) a miss.
But you’d be wrong.
‘All you need to make a movie…’ to famously mis-quote Jean-Luc Godard, ‘…is a girl and a gun’; if Catherine Jourdan’s performance in Eden and After proves anything, it’s that any prospective filmmaker could easily dispense with the firearm. However, Jourdan is only one of many successive, sliding, pleasures of the film.
As one of the leading literary luminaries (along with Georges Perec and Marguerite Duras) of the experimental nouveau roman, novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet had been confounding narrative and character expectations in print since the early 50s and in the early 60s turned to film to explore his provocative themes to equal acclaim.
After the relative commercial and critical disappointment of his 1968 feature, The Man Who Lies (L’homme qui ment), Alain Robbe-Grillet was prompted, taking note of the late 60s youthquake, to create something with a specific appeal to a younger audience. In this endeavour, Robbe-Grillet appears at times to be channelling the kaleidoscopic colour schemes of the Italian horror maestro Mario Bava and the slow, surreal sensuality of Jean Rollin and Jess Franco. The hallucinatory atmosphere, flat compositions and pop colours often bring to mind the 60s erotic comics published by Eric Losfield and drawn by Guy Peellaert, Guido Crepax, or more recently, Milo Manara.
Eden and After is certainly Robbe-Grillet’s most visually pleasurable film; red, white and blue dominate – though not, we are assured, for patriotic reasons. Due to a longstanding loathing for the colour green, Robbe-Grillet’s fourth film was only his first in colour. Although the resources were available to him, the verdant locale of The Man Who Lies had by its nature prohibited the process. However, the azure and whitewashed landscape viewed during a short lecture tour of Tunisia provided the chromatic inspiration for Robbe-Grillet’s thrust out of monochrome and into Eastman Color.
In a canny piece of budgetary manipulation, Robbe-Grillet endeavoured to finance Eden and After by using funding intended for a separate feature-length piece destined for French TV, thus requiring a process designed to create two distinct and unique productions, from the footage of a single movie shoot. Robbe-Grillet’s solution came via his fascination with the compositional techniques of mid-20th-century contemporary atonal music (Robbe-Grillet was pals with the Pierre Boulez set). For the improvisational structure of one film, he embraced the serialist theories of Arnold Schoenberg; and for the other, he drew on the aleatoric (literally, throwing a dice) compositional theories pioneered by Marcel Duchamp and John Cage. The result was Eden and After (1970) and the anagrammatical – in both title and content – N. Took the Dice (N. a pris les dès, made in 1971 but not broadcast until 1975).
The plot – and there definitely is one – involves university students at the Eden café – a mutable, Mondrian-gridded, mirrored maze – taking part in ritualized play-acting of various dark scenarios (a gang rape, a wake, a poisoning, an execution). A mysterious, older stranger arrives, disrupting their youthful routine and seemingly offering a passport to adulthood. A chase through a disused, Pompidou-hued factory follows and a mysterious death leads to an exotic North African adventure involving the search for a stolen painting.
The joy of Eden and After is in deciphering the many punning symbols (a key, a keyboard, a musical key, 88 keys, the looping symbol for infinity) and identifying the doubles and mirror images of characters, actions and events in what is, after all, intended as playful; an improvised game following the rules of serialism – 12 generating themes (prison, water, blood, labyrinth, death, sperm etc…) for each of the film’s five chapters, in sequence, with no theme repeated within that chapter.
We are invited to respond to it as we would to a painting or piece of music, and indeed there are many references to painters (another of Robbe-Grillet’s obsessions and occupations), the aforementioned Mondrian and Duchamp among others. It is a very painterly film: deliberately flat to echo the shadowless September noon of the Djerba medina quarter.
Joining the cast a mere three days before production began, Catherine Jourdan was a last-minute replacement when the original actress cast was made temporarily alopeciac due a botched henna-ed hair job. A nightclub acquaintance, Robbe-Grillet was struck by Jourdan’s Medusan locks, which in a typically bloody-minded act, Jourdan had chopped before arriving on set. Although she was not initially cast as the intended protagonist, Jourdan’s effulgent screen presence so dominated the improvisation process that it grew clear that she was the lead, and indeed it is her character that we follow in the second half of the film.
Eden and After is one of a rare handful of films (including Argento’s Profondo Rosso, and Godard’s Le petit soldat perhaps) where you are tangibly aware of the director falling in love with his main actress; Jourdan was never as commanding on screen before or after.
Eden and After, N. Took the Dice and The Man Who Lies are available on the BFI’s Alain Robbe-Grillet Six Films 1963-1974 Blu-ray/DVD box-sets, released on 30 June 2014. Also included are The Immortal One, Trans-Europ-Express and Successive Slidings of Pleasure.
– Eternally indebted to Tim Lucas’s (of Video Watchdog magazine) typically effusive and scholarly commentary on the BFI discs.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews