Within this tightly composed spiral of compounding blackmail, which implicates a high-ranking South American diplomat and resembles the byzantine schemes in Merry-Go-Round, de Gregorio catalogues a litany of sins: lust, greed, power, corruption, and murder are all on display, a bitter negation of the Peruvian delegate’s idealistic declaration that opens the film: “We are human beings, and we have a sense of morals. We’re not animals.” It is one of many instances where the film suggests the gulf between the “official” narratives articulated by those in power or seen on television and the nauseating truths buried underneath them.
* * *
In the American cinema, the 1970s are heralded as the golden age of the conspiracy thriller, a decade when the darkening New Hollywood rose to meet audiences roiling with post-60s disillusionment and Watergate paranoia to produce such varied and lasting works as Chinatown (1974), The Parallax View (1974), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). If the phenomenon was largely concentrated locally, there were also occasional signs (as there were with its antecedent genre, film noir) that a similar malaise was bubbling underneath the surface around the world. One of these signs was Eduardo de Gregorio’s eerie and plangent Short Memory (1979). De Gregorio was one of Jacques Rivette’s key collaborators in the ’70s, having co-scripted Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and the incomplete four-film Les Filles du Feu cycle,1 Short Memory is the film in de Gregorio’s sparse body of solo work with the most cross-pollination from Rivette’s cinema. Its icy, Langian images, at once stately and foreboding, come courtesy of Rivette’s regular cinematographer William Lubtchansky and editor Nicole Lubtchansky, and along with a few of Rivette’s regular players the film features the director himself in his only extensive screen performance. Although Short Memory manages to uncannily evoke and anticipate2 Rivette at regular intervals (in its ambient drone of paranoia, its narcotic drift), its effect is altogether distinct. Short Memory’s more compact runtime has a narrative density comparable to an airport novel, and de Gregorio’s global vision extends beyond the politics of the day or even decade, reaching back through time to suggest a conspiracy of history and a modern world haunted by the specter of the Holocaust.
Short Memory’s heroine is Judith Mesnil (Nathalie Baye), a UNESCO translator whom we first encounter in a glass booth above an assembly hall, working diligently and with some strain to translate into French the Peruvian delegate’s live address at a regional conference. Her position places her quite near to a nexus of global political power – in fact she will often occupy elevated positions, which paradoxically offer her less information and perspective – and her role as an interpreter prefigures her eventual detective work, though she is crucially unable to interfere with the dealings. To propitiate her boss and hopefully obtain a much-needed advance, she accepts an assignment to visit Irène Jaucourt (Hermine Karagheuz), the widow of recently deceased novelist Marcel (Rivette), who spent a good deal of time in South America near the end of his life. She is to collect and organize Marcel’s materials for a book on cultural relations between France and South America. This fraught link is one of the film’s key motifs, and it is not incidental; at the time Short Memory was made, de Gregorio and co-writer Edgardo Cozarinsky were operating in France at the height of the Dirty War raging in their home of Argentina, a campaign of state terrorism now known to have had covert support from the French government under Giscard d’Estaing.
After this sober opening, the inclination toward the fantastique that de Gregorio brought to bear with Rivette begins to rear its head. The bridge leading to the Jaucourts’ country manor seems to possess an enchanted quality (it bears the markings of the “entry ritual” so common in Rivette’s work); and once across it, Judith has left the cool, steely blues and grays of her ordered workplace and entered an off-kilter world marked with red (Morrey and Smith 114-115). A scarlet moving van sits incongruously outside the front door; flower petals are scattered across the floor inside, trampled underfoot by a pair of rose-colored shoes belonging to Irène’s niece, who informs Judith that Irène died three days ago (there are indications of suicide). And rummaging around in a room inexplicably flooded with lurid red light is a shifty man named Frank (Philippe Léotard), the White Rabbit that will lead Judith further down the sordid rabbit hole.
Having retrieved the Jaucourts’ papers, Judith retreats to what a scorned ex-boyfriend mockingly calls her “rabbit hutch,” a high-rise apartment overlooking a vast metropolitan expanse that recalls Juliet Berto’s lonely garret apartment in Out 1 (1971) taken to an even more vertiginous height. Here, safe above the outside world, time seems to slow down, and Judith becomes engrossed in Irène’s rigorously detailed diary entries, a ghostly breadcrumb trail that slowly draws her into a conspiracy. Marcel had recognized a pattern of assassinations among former war criminals, and his investigations led him to a network of ratlines for Nazis fleeing to South America, a discovery that led to his murder. The sequence de Gregorio weaves here is remarkable for what it emphasizes: Karaghuez’s penetrating stare, which senses the impending doom her husband is circling; Rivette’s hushed voice and severe, troubled countenance (there is no doubting here is the man who conjured some of the most mysterious and exquisitely fragile works known to cinema); the faded, sepia film stock in the South America portions, which flash like memories slipping away. There’s a perceptible frailty in these scenes of a couple bearing the weight of the world and of history. When Marcel and his wife gaze up at the stars on the eve of his trip to South America, the image of the night sky is a fantastique touch startling in its artificiality that nevertheless indicates a divine grace, coldly punctured by a paranoid match cut to the constellation of city lights outside Judith’s apartment.
The conspiracy has its hooks in Judith, and her investigation leads her back to Frank, who is working for a Geneviève Derhode mentioned in Irène’s journal. Geneviève is a kind of Ghislaine Maxwell figure (played by Bulle Ogier with all requisite haughtiness and agitation), a madam who runs a ballet studio where she offers up her (often underage) girls to diplomats and businessmen passing through the city. Her illicit activities draw the attention of a mysterious figure calling himself Andros, who under threat of blackmail enlists her as a partner in an operation laundering documents of former Nazis and war criminals of all stripes for reintegration into the EEC. After some time at it, the two realize they can double their money by extorting their desperate clientele with the threat of being turned in, a scheme that is successful up until it is violently derailed by a pair of chemists who cannot pay. Within this tightly composed spiral of compounding blackmail, which implicates a high-ranking South American diplomat and resembles the byzantine schemes in Merry-Go-Round, de Gregorio catalogues a litany of sins: lust, greed, power, corruption, and murder are all on display, a bitter negation of the Peruvian delegate’s idealistic declaration that opens the film: “We are human beings, and we have a sense of morals. We’re not animals.” It is one of many instances where the film suggests the gulf between the “official” narratives articulated by those in power or seen on television and the nauseating truths buried underneath them.
Whether or not Judith can trust Frank provides the film some of its strange, languid tension. (There’s truth to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s observation that the film is “one of the only true successors to Paris nous appartient (1961)” with the fraught pair here, who resemble the tenuous trio at the center of Rivette’s earlier film,). The unease is bolstered by an uncanny doubling strategy in which Léotard himself portrays many of the shadowy men in the flashbacks illustrating the conspiracy. Over time the meaning of this doubling shifts so that it isn’t so much a question of Frank’s complicity as it is representative of a queasier moral culpability he feels. In a flashback to his childhood, Frank recalls when Andros arranged for his fascist sympathizer parents3 to escape Europe only to betray and murder them for profit, which now fuels his revenge quest. (This traumatic flashback, punctuated with jagged cuts to black, echoes the narcoleptic cutting in Emilie’s breakdown in the final episode of Out 1). Judith too feels a sticky link to the past, revealing that her family earned a living from a pharmacy that had been seized during Vichy France’s Aryanization process. For the powerless, guilt is pervasive, stifling, and painfully atomizing.
De Gregorio continues Rivette’s preoccupation with “variously large, rambling and mysterious houses,” staging grounds for sinister revelations (Morrey and Smith 69). His debut, Sérail (1976) riffs on the haunted house portion of Céline and Julie, and there are a number in Short Memory, including the expansive country estate where the mastermind Mr. Mann resides as a wealthy, respected citizen, insinuating his involvement in crimes while reveling in Frank and Judith’s impotence in exposing them. Short Memory’s houses are empty spaces, yawning voids that isolate the characters and threaten to swallow them up: the Jaucourts’ newly vacant home, Geneviève’s mod weekend house that Judith wanders alone before being suddenly ensnared, Frank’s desolate and dilapidated childhood house4 where the two briefly fight and exhaust themselves. Objects and buildings possess hidden histories or false meaning: the scratched photograph of Geneviève and Andros (echoed perhaps in the hook in Secret Défense (1998), the Rivette film that most resembles Short Memory), the Auschwitz tattoo used to lure Marcel to his death, the car door stained with the dried blood from a desperate war criminal about to be gunned down in the street. A clandestine meeting that occurs in the darkened halls of the UN building is a particularly loaded bit of symbolism – history is made at night indeed.
The film’s title is uttered once in dialog, when Judith tells the go-between working for Mr. Mann, “I see that your boss is very sure of himself, he didn’t even try to change his name this time. I suppose he must think that everybody has a pretty short memory.” It is significant that the memory she refers to is collective, for what de Gregorio’s film adumbrates is a collective amnesia brought about by how easily history is obscured or washed away with the inexorable flow of time. (De Gregorio ensures we are always acutely aware of this flux on a micro level by the ever-changing light outside Judith’s window.) Mr. Mann too speaks with a long view of history, when he counters Frank’s aspersions over his monstrous past: “I am not any of those names because I am here with you, this fine day in autumn, 1978,” already three decades after the end of the war.
What Short Memory finally so painfully conveys is the futility of confronting entrenched, recondite power from the margins, which is often the only place the contours of such power can be grasped in the first place. Frustrated and abortive gestures accumulate in the film’s final stretch. After secretly recording the meeting with Mr. Mann’s secretary, Judith yanks the tape out of the cassette upon realizing it contains no incriminating information. And when left alone in Mann’s home with a cache of hunting rifles, Frank and Judith find themselves unable to pull the trigger on any of the guests outside. Unlike Céline and Julie, the pair cannot alter or fundamentally affect the narrative they uncover. When their car careens home through rain-slicked streets, their loss of control is total, and the full, tragic irony of the Peruvian delegate’s words that Judith left dangling at the beginning of the film hits: “Not being mere playthings of fate means human beings must.…” The cyclical nature of the narrative and of history reveals itself as yet another couple is chewed up and obliterated.
Short Memory’s final scene is the most chilling instance of a woman confronting a surveillance image of herself this side of Edward Yang’s Terrorizers (1986), a film with a kindred air of pestilence and ruthlessly cold logic of modernity. Frank lies bloodied in the hospital while the evening news identifies him as a terrorist and Judith as his accomplice – the speed of this message dissemination evinces a surreality that has only intensified in the decades since the film was made. The shrill, unrelenting screech of the telecopy printer that plays as Judith backs away from the screen toward her window recalls the incessant typewriter clacks outside her boss’s UN office before her fateful assignment (throbbing mechanical menace as a symptom of our modern affliction), and de Gregorio lets it play out over the final cut to black and into the end credits, a tortured howl into the void. There’s no way out, and it’s a long way down.
Morrey, Douglas, and Alison Smith. Jacques Rivette. Manchester University Press, 2009.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Eduardo de Gregorio, 1942-2012.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, 14 October 2012, https://jonathanrosenbaum.net/2012/10/eduardo-de-gregorio-1942-2012/. Accessed 19 May 2021.
Wiles, Mary M. Jacques Rivette. University of Illinois Press, 2012.
- De Gregorio co-scripted Duelle (1976), Noroît (1976) (the basis for which also originated in a suggestion from de Gregorio to adapt The Revenger’s Tragedy), the aborted original Marie et Julien, and the offshoot Merry-Go-Round (1981) (Wiles 142). [↩]
- Specifically, his return to more overtly political filmmaking in the ’80s with Le Pont du Nord (1981) and La Bande des Quatre (1989). [↩]
- Here we note a parallel to the recurrence in Rivette of “the micro-community of the family, and the secret around which the community obsessively turns […] buried deep in the family history” (Morrey and Smith 95). [↩]
- The visit to this house precipitates Frank’s traumatic memory of his father’s dealings, and we can draw another parallel to the recurring “father’s house” in Rivette: “The shadowy father being absent from the screen but rarely from the story.… The house may become not so much the possession as the representation of the father, standing in for him and affirming his influence” (Morrey and Smith 74). [↩]