By Phil Coldiron
Published in Cinema Scope #79 (Summer 2019)
—I feel like prey.
—Perhaps soon you won’t anymore.
If there is a dialectical movement to be found in Albert Serra’s decidedly non-dialectical films, it is in the relationship they figure between movement and stasis. Firm in the belief, or delusion, that “chivalry is civilization,” Quixote in Honor of the Knights (2006) wanders in search of opportunities for action, which are always elsewhere; his gaze has no recourse but to land in heaven. In Birdsong (2008), the Magi dawdle toward an encounter with the origin of an eternal life, or, if you prefer a term closer to Christendom’s sources, a new form of life, abstract, indefinite, and unchanging. Story of My Death’s (2012) Casanova, in the boundless range of his appetite for the world, in his joyous, idiot desire to know it intimately through consumption and excretion, is finally drawn towards a force of nature at its most unnatural, an unholy terror which leaves him flat on his back. In La mort du Louis XIV (2016), Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Sun King expires as the court stands in idle witness, a comic foil to the mechanics of statecraft, which cannot wait; while, in this story’s comic transposition to the modern gallery, the contemporary courtiers, the public, return a literal sense of movement: they are, it seems, only fleetingly interested in the sight of death. And the dispersal throughout the gallery of the five screens of Singularity (2015) doubles the abstract movement of capital as it flows around speculators and whores whose decadence pins them into perfectly composed place, the audience forced, moment by moment, to choose how best to spend their time. These figures—and that word, as noun and verb, is, I believe, the correct one for Serra’s conception of both his characters and his audience—are, all of them, being hunted: by fate, by death, by desires which they cannot adequately conceive. And so, as prey does, they remain in motion, or at least they attempt to: in the end, they arrive only at obscurity, at obliterating darkness.
Serra’s willingness to follow this movement well past the point of legibility has led to a tendency to describe his visual style as “painterly.” He is, of course, hardly the first filmmaker to take an interest in extremes of darkness, in the seductiveness of deep shadow, in the productive capacity of the inscrutable image, but his use of digital photography’s ability to register the barest traces of activity in the absence of light has allowed him to arrive at the peculiar visual movement which gives form to the narrative situations described above. This relationship between movement and stasis is not transcendent: Serra does not leave the world behind. Rather, his films figure a gut sensation that is, it seems to me, typical of our moment: a feeling that constant activity, compulsive or compulsory, is only the material of a miserable sameness. And it is here—rather than in his ever increasing deftness with nuances of modelling in light and dark, and certainly rather than in his sense of composition, which is often wilfully slack—that Serra’s proximity to painting is richest. No one, I believe, has brought cinema quite so close to painting’s ability to render the proximity of process and inertia, to see moments which will go on happening at least as long as there is an audience. Perhaps longer.
And so we arrive at the wanderers of Serra’s most recent works, the theatrical feature Liberté and the double-screen installation Personalien (there is a third iteration of this material, a stage play also titled Liberté, which I have not seen). Here, the figures are a group of libertines in exile from the French court; the extent to which this exile is of their own choosing is, as with many things in these works, obscure. We come upon them in Prussian woods, “somewhere between Potsdam and Berlin,” according to the film’s official synopsis, though this information (along with the date of 1774) is absent from either iteration. With the exception of a brief prologue in Liberté and the uncanny appearance of dawn which closes both films, the setting is nocturnal, the only illumination the frigid light of the moon. Though it never descends to the depths of absolute obscurity reached by Serra’s first three features, it sustains a visual drone which transposes the brittle, blaring quality of the emergency-red Roi soleil (2018) luxuriated in to the succulent textures of pale skin and paler wigs picked out of velvet nature.
What is being picked out by these soft highlights is, largely, the slow process of libertine cruising. (There is a certain amount of plot present in Liberté, though it is essentially vestigial; there is nothing but erotic action in Personalien.) The night does not exactly hide what these men and women are up to, though it conspires with Serra’s fondness for long shots and his three-camera set-up’s capacity to bring forth consistently surprising angles, to render recognizable events—which range from the dullness of missionary sex to moderate heights of refined cruelty (more on which below)—on the verge of abstraction, and to create a series of images which militate against sustained psychology, collapsing this group of seven men and four women into essentially interchangeable roles. This sense is particularly strong in Personalien, where the absence of any traditional characterization renders who is doing what to whom irrelevant, a move which torques conceptions of sexual experimentation as the enactment of drives and desires which are fundamentally personal into a territory based rather on the effacement of coherent, individual taste.
At this point, it is perhaps necessary to say that I find Personalien to be by some distance the greater accomplishment of the two works, as what follows will deal largely with the ways in which each respectively shapes the same mass of material. The installation, by presenting us with wordless acts in an open space—I mean this both in terms of the gallery and in the world of the film—creates a context which contains indefinite possibilities: the film itself rhymes the act of these figures presenting themselves for delectation. In contrast, the insertion of fantasy as material in Liberté draws these acts closer to transactions, to instances in which the possibility of disappointment looms—a possibility that finds a particular, unsurprising location in the limp cocks that preside over so many scenes, as if echoes of Montaigne’s words: “On the power of the imagination.” In Personalien, this seems to me to register as the physical manifestation of absolute sexual refinement, an exquisite rendering of the tediousness of aristocracy. And yet to present one’s limp member is, of course, an equally self-effacing action, one which bespeaks an almost touching amount of trust and care amongst the individuals. Is such privilege, finally, available only to those who are assured of their position? Those who, put another way, are shameless? Such questions are political, not moral: they are what shapes Serra’s presentation of power in these films. And it is the presence of shame—or perhaps better to say, the way in which it is worked on—that marks the distance between Personalien and Liberté.
Before returning to what is in the films, I should now like to take a brief detour into the physical space in which Personalien was presented, as its role in the film’s mechanics was essential. The film was installed in a long, somewhat narrow gallery at the rear of Madrid’s Reina Sofia, with its two screens placed on opposite ends, creating a viewing context in which it was impossible to watch both at once. Given such a choice, one was left with, as far as I can see, three distinct options: breaking the film in two, committing to one screen for its full 45-minute duration and then turning to watch the other; swivelling at random between the two; or letting the sound, which pervaded the gallery (in contrast to the localized sound Serra used for Singularity, where the soundtracks to each of its five screens was audible within a limited proximity) draw one’s attention at certain moments from one screen to the other.
This activated, but essentially solitary, viewing position was further complicated by the installation’s insistence on the social aspect: the darkness of the images meant that the majority of the room remained a pitch-black void, which took many minutes to acclimate one’s eyes to. This social aspect was, in turn, further complicated by the presence of a spotlight on the point of entry, which created a miniature stage on which every member of the audience was obliged to perform their uncertainty when faced with such obscurity. One’s gift for sitting with the film, comically and alarmingly, was to be made into a voyeur, capable of seeing each entrant while remaining invisible oneself. To stay with this darkness then, as in the film, ultimately led to a context not so different from the cruising on screen: the darkness muddled the line between public and private space, carving out little eddies of potential encounter. Though I cannot say how often any of the film’s audience took advantage of such a situation, its possibility nonetheless added a gratifying vulgarity to this refined space.
The installation of Personalien had the additional benefit of offering an additional layer to this material’s fundamental operation: the exchange of glances. Though this tension, the slow drawing together of figures through looks, registers strongly enough in Liberté, the circuit of eyelines activated in the gallery was markedly more complex, as figures at times seemed to be looking across the space to what was happening on the opposite screen, forcing one to choose whether to side with the subject or object. Near the midpoint of both films, a sequence occurs in which the coy, extremely hetero whipping of one of the young women by the prettiest of the men gives way to the violent thrashing of one of the men by two of his companions, his screams of pleasure verging on the inhuman. In Liberté, this necessarily happens in sequence: one action runs its course, and then the next begins. In Personalien, by contrast, the former begins as one of the few instances where both screens are devoted to the same event—one screen showing the action in long shot, the other showing a reverse shot, seen through the window of the litter upon which the young woman presents herself, which offers her reactions—before pealing away, the sequence continuing on one screen as the other seems to show the young man catching sight of the more violent activity.
Though one might, in Liberté, fairly deduce the sense of inspiration that these scenes’ presentation in Personalien insists upon, the satisfaction of seeing this sense of group improvisation rendered so cleanly and inventively in the latter is, I find, substantially greater. Still, this sense of improvisation is nevertheless critical to the feature as well: it is, finally, where the freedom of the film’s title resides. Consider, for example, an early scene in which one of the men—his face badly disfigured, his left arm amputated at the elbow (he is identified in the credits as Capitaine Benjamin Hephie, and so we might assume he sustained these wounds in the Seven Years’ War)—lounges in a barrow as the others make preparations for the evening around him. With no particular emphasis, his gaze falls on a pronged object on the ground, a sort of fire poker which, nearly two hours later in the film, will come to be used as his amputated arm is bloodied into raw meat in the film’s most extreme bit of BDSM, recapitulating his sacrifice for the homeland as a sexual burlesque. In typical Serra fashion, we are not given the connecting material that would make this connection a given, but this material nonetheless abounds in such instances of looks leading to activity. Erotic collectivity comes to be the process of drawing inspiration in the moment from one’s surroundings, of suspending judgment to maintain possibility.
This scene of the Capitaine’s torture, which is accentuated with a fine bit of piss play, is present in Personalien as well, where it serves as the film’s climax. Curiously, there the torture is relegated to mere implication, a fleeting glimpse of the man’s bloodied arm; the urolagnia is instead focused on, to rhyme with the storm that occurs halfway through the installation, a decision which gives the work a clearly defined shape as opposed to Liberté’s erotic drift. The offering and withholding of this scene offers the most acute instance of what I take to be a basic concern of both works: the search for a refreshed vantage on the tired issue of the relationship between fact and fiction. Put plainly, does it matter if we assume that everyone is enjoying what they are doing, or if we assume that they are not? That this question would necessarily be formulated in the same way as one would ask it of a piece of unquestionable pornography should not be understood as carrying any concern with morality: if either of these works are pornography, they are no more or less art for it.
That Liberté is willing to put this question into direct proximity with the potential disappointment of fantasy is, as I said, something of a weakness: the scenes in which fantasy is called on directly—one in which it is disappointed, one in which it is satisfied—both occur in language, and as such drag the film away from its openness into an unsatisfying literalness. And that these fantasies, one that involves bestiality and the other scatophagia, are left in language further points to its odd prudishness. How should we take this decision? If Serra had filmed these scenes, he might indeed have approached something like his Sadean model, or, at the very least, John Waters at his most brash. And yet, perhaps in the end this disappointment might return us to where we began, with the question of stillness and motion, which now might be placed in the context of fact and fiction, document and illusion, reality and fantasy, and given a new charge: to show the pleasures and complications of absolute belief.