“For a start, Straub and Huillet’s relationship is far from an image of perfect union. It seems to thrive on a combination of disagreement and respect, a dialectical tussle worthy of the logic of their own films. Love here is an encounter, at the very least a sort of love triangle involving not just Straub and Huillet but also Costa himself.”
In the final scene of Pedro Costa’s documentary, Where Does Your Secret Smile Lie?, we see the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet standing outside the doors of a cinema, peering in through two round windows that resemble ship’s portals. They seem anxious. Having come this far, having laboured over every frame and every cut — often scrutinising a 10-second sequence for 10 minutes, so that time, in the editing booth, is stretched by a factor of 60 — after all this, it is still possible that something will go wrong. From actor and location, to camera, to canister, to editing deck, and then finally the screen itself, film retains, in the last instant, that element of resistance characteristic of matter in its “raw” state. This is how Straub puts it early on in the film: first there is the idea, then there is matter. Matter resists the idea; one cannot just cut wherever one wants. Only out of the struggle and eventual synthesis of the two does form appear. “I hate those people who talk about form without idea . . . What is this form? It is formless.”
So much for “your infamous formless form” (vôtre forme infâme informe)! So quips Straub. The two of them — Jean-Marie and Danièle — would seem to be polar opposites. His way of talking launches itself forward, capturing new ground at every turn and demolishing obstacles with a swipe to one side. While he runs ahead she returns to the starting point. This is not to say her expression is any way hesitant or plodding. In many ways it is quicker than his. But it is a quickness without athleticism — the quickness of a sharpshooter. Their relationship is certainly an odd one:
“Why will you never learn, I need concentration in order to work!” she rails at him, as he darts off again, following the train of another anecdote.
“You know those exercises where one person stands behind another and the one in front falls backwards? You’re the kind of person who could never be relied on to catch their partner.”
“What if we were acrobats?”
“If we were acrobats, we’d be doomed.”
He changes the subject: “It’s you who gave me this cough, no?”
“You’ve had that cough for forty years.”
There are as many enemies as devotees of Straub and Huillet’s work. However, one thing Straub and Huillet have never courted is appreciation. At the Venice Film Festival in 2006 the pair issued a series of letters, distributed in the form of photocopied handbills and read out at a press conference in their absence. The reason for their non-attendance: “I couldn’t be festive at a festival where there are so many private and public police searching for a terrorist. I am that terrorist . . . So long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world.” The ensuing controversy almost (but almost) led to the retraction of their award for “innovation in the language of cinema.”
It was a rare moment, not so much for the controversy but rather because up until that point Straub and Huillet had more or less been shunned in mainstream circles. The critical interpretation of their work has largely encouraged this view. Detractors have accused them of “aesthetic sadism,” “elitism,” and “anti-cinema.” Fans have praised them for “deconstructing” cinematic convention, developing an aesthetic of “distanciation” and “mathematical” rigour. Without wanting to soften any of the sharp edges, the fact that a more sympathetic understanding is making headway is something to be welcomed. Where Does Your Secret Smile Lie? fits into this context. If Venice wasn’t quite the recognition Straub and Huillet were looking for, then perhaps Costa’s film provides an alternative.
The premise might not sound so promising: we follow Straub and Huillet in the editing studio working on their 1998 feature Sicilia! Almost the entirety of the action takes place within the confines of this little black box. At a glance, then, Secret Smile would appear to simply reiterate the deconstructive interpretation of its subjects: the content is highly mediated and referential (a film about a film), the mise-en-scène predetermined and axiomatic (the black box and the fixed camera). At another level, though, the film is simply a great love story.
Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub met in 1954 while taking a film course at the Lycée Voltaire in Paris. They began working together almost immediately. Their 50 years of collaboration came to an end when Huillet died in 2006, three years after the release of Costa’s documentary, commissioned for the French TV series Filmmakers of Our Time. Straub is 81 years old and continues to make films.
Not unlike the deconstructive film-about-a-film, the image of love we are usually given to believe is insular and compensatory. But of course Secret Smile is not a typical romantic comedy. For a start, Straub and Huillet’s relationship is far from an image of perfect union. It seems to thrive on a combination of disagreement and respect, a dialectical tussle worthy of the logic of their own films. Love here is an encounter, at the very least a sort of love triangle involving not just Straub and Huillet but also Costa himself. Beyond the triangle there are all the other filmmakers that Straub (mostly Straub) tosses about in the editing studio (although Huillet often clarifies the choices): the names Tati, Mizoguchi, Buñuel, Bresson form a constellation of cinematic loves.
Less lofty than a love story even, what the film shows us is work — quite simply what it looks like and what it sounds like when two people are pouring their energy into the manipulation of a kind of matter. And it’s funny, at times hilarious: the repetition, the absurd lengths they go to, as well as the enforced periods of idleness and the conversations that accompany this process.
At one point we see Huillet watching the same bit of footage over and over again. A fluttering palm leaf in the top corner of the frame has caught her attention. She curses and mutters as she rewinds the film, as if hoping to dislodge the little grey ribbons of light by force of repetition (like rubbing an eye irritated by a grain of sand). “Yes, but you want to keep that dashing-hero look he’s got there,” says Straub, indicating the wind playing with a man’s tuft of hair. You see, in any sizable production they would pay someone to look after these things, to tie back the branches, but then of course the film no longer shows you the wind moving in the trees (as D. W . Griffith might have put it).
Despite the references to great directors, what emerges in Costa’s film is a portrait of Straub and Huillet a million miles away from the legends of cinema’s maestros and tyrants. As if to stress the point, Costa has even found time to insert a Hitchcockian profile of Straub: there he is, cigar poking out of the corner of his mouth, silhouetted against the light of a desk lamp. Except he looks scruffy and emaciated by comparison. More like the Monsieur Hulot of Mon Oncle perhaps, an embarrassment to his bourgeois relatives.
For Huillet it is not the face that stays with us but the hands: the hand on the wheel winding the film back and forth, and the gloved hand hanging under the desk, curled and ready for whatever it has to grapple with next. The movement of the shoulders and the elbows are extensions of these hands. While Straub’s body is reduced to an outline (an outline filled by a voice), Huillet’s physical presence grows in proportion to her movements.
Secret Smile should be claustrophobic but it isn’t. The image is mostly black, but puncturing it like windows are two rectangles of light: the viewing monitor visible over Huillet’s shoulder, and the open door with Straub hovering on the threshold. Both the monitor and the door are portals to another world — just like a screen in a cinema.
* * *
If we contrast Straub and Huillet with Hollywood, or Hitchcock for that matter, their approach could be summed up by the formula that Straub uses when asking an overly keen actor to slow down: “Time is not money.”. What does this mean? Take the reverse statement, time is money. Directors and industrialists alike are supposed to be fond of this phrase. Capital — cameras, lights, post-production facilities — must not be allowed to stand idle. The spaces secured for their deployment must be used effectively, and the actors and crew must be pushed to a certain limit during their time on set. Moreover the rule of capital doesn’t stop with the shoot, it continues in the editing studio. Watch a cunningly edited sequence from a successful blockbuster. Time does not belong to the bodies on screen. It belongs rather to the atmosphere of the film, its emotional colouring. Time becomes tempo, a generalised dynamic or rhythm. Hence “matter” no longer resists; it has been subjugated.
In opposition to a cinema that manipulates and exploits, Straub and Huillet propose, quite simply, a cinema of respect; a cinema that respects the time of an actor, or indeed of a landscape, or a text, or a piece of music.
Huillet described this approach as follows: “We take care with the people we work with, and with the places we film in. We pay people before shooting and clean up the mess ourselves, and credit everyone equally.” Really what is at stake is a working method. Often it comes down to banalities, the kinds of things that Secret Smile is made out of. Still, recalling some of the stories surrounding Straub and Huillet’s films, you might think that Costa could have made a more “exciting” documentary. Certainly the Arte producers wished he had, and it was only Janine Bazin’s intervention that prevented the film from being shelved or rehashed. One imagines that the producers would have liked him, for example, to tell the story of the goats in Moses and Aron (1974):
Having discovered the desert landscapes of Egypt three years earlier, when they finally secured funding for the film Straub and Huillet arrived with their camera to find something missing: the village goats. In the intervening years a new environmental law had been passed. Inadvertently or deliberately, it effectively criminalised the goatherds. The villagers sold their animals. The only ones left were up in the mountains. Transporting them would require care because unlike sheep, if a goat breaks its hoof, it doesn’t grow back. All this took time, days and weeks to-ing and fro-ing between herders and farmers. Gradually the filmmakers became intimate with the landscape and the people who lived there.
This story is worth telling because it’s the same kind of intimacy that Costa captures in the editing studio in Secret Smile. One begins to understand why he made the film that he did: in order to become intimate with the work it was necessary to make time for banality. Anything less would be a road movie — full of adventure, perhaps, but without intimacy.
This method is something that Costa himself abides by. Following it has taken him from Portugal to Cape Verde (a former Portuguese colony) and back, via a bundle of letters entrusted to him by the people he met there, to the slums of Lisbon. Since the late 1990s he has focused his camera on a handful of people living in Fontainhas, a run-down neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital. Asked about his relationship to Brecht and the use of non-professional actors, Costa does not talk about alienation effects or political theatre. What interests him is Brecht’s method, his attitude to production: worry first of all about paying your cast a decent wage, about introducing a bit of democracy, and only then about artistic matters. What makes him anxious about the future? Not the growing aesthetic conservatism of the film world, but how the people he works with will survive this so-called “crisis.”
* * *
Respect becomes a method when it governs the totality of a film’s making. It begins with production and carries on down to the level of the cut. Take the exceptionally long pan in Sicilia!, cut according to the barely audible tweeting of a distant bird. Huillet’s reasoning was that she did not want to “assassinate” the bird. In her opinion, such an act of carelessness was only a finite number of steps away from barbarism.
This sequence raises a number of questions — questions that are both technical and philosophical. The camera’s survey of the landscape is determined by a simple mechanical ratio: the speed at which we can comfortably take in all this visual information, versus the distance separating the two high points of the valley. Moreover, the technical solution is grounded in the film’s narrative: this landscape, unremarkable as it might seem, is the setting of the protagonist’s homecoming. The tweeting bird is a less obvious factor, but with close attention we can still detect it. But what about things that are neither simply measurable (distance) nor strictly digital (bird song, no bird song)? What about a gesture, a slight movement of the hand, for example, or a smile?
Costa’s film begins with precisely this question: how do you cut a smile? We see Huillet winding the shot backwards and forwards in slow motion. “There,” says Straub, “there is the beginning of a smile in his face.” But as Huillet is quick to point out, a smile has no beginning and equally no end. And yet it exists, it is not illusory. It is a veritable and verifiable event. At one moment there was a smile, at a later moment no smile. One has to cut somewhere, the question is where? The filmmaker must try to define the smile by cutting into time’s continuum, by making an incision in matter.
This isn’t naturalism, nor is it abstraction. The correct term, if we need one, is dialectics: matter, the way things are; ideas, the way we want things to be, or a notion of how they might turn out; and form, the outcome of the two. The whole process governed by time.
Eventually Huillet pauses, stilling the image at a particular point. “This is you . . . and this is me.” A barely perceptible wince makes the image jerk forward by a fraction of a second. “One frame apart.”
* * *
Outside the cinema with the round windows we can hear one of Beethoven’s late string quartets playing on the soundtrack — a piece of music written when the composer was completely deaf and shortly after his recovery from a near-fatal illness. Straub retreats to the staircase. He sits on the steps playing with his lighter. Eventually Huillet also moves away from the doors. She climbs the stairs. Where is she going? To another world? In a sense, yes. She is going to the projection booth to check on the film, because the work is not yet done.
Note: Where Does Your Secret Smile Lie? was screened at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts on January 10, 2014. Unfortunately, it is still not available on general release at this writing (February 18, 2014).