Columns | FILM/ART: This Time Tomorrow: The Zanzibar Films

By Andréa Picard

“One of the notable events in the art-world in the last few years is that Mannerism has again become fashionable…It is, in a phrase, the stylish style.”—John Sherman, 1965

Even Mannerism, the 16th century visual, literary, and musical style—that ne plus ultra of all bêtes noires—has bobbed in and out of vogue. Part of the problem with Mannerism was the lack of an agreed upon definition or manifesto proclaiming its unique tenets, resulting in an unrestrained pool of varying styles that, despite their sometimes motley constitution, were lumped together, tarnishing the period’s renown. The17th century theorist Bellori declaimed Mannerism as ruinous, essentially identifying it as a vice, responsible for the destruction of painting between Raphael and Rubens. Which, of course, is nonsense. (His love of Rubens alone makes him suspect.) Whether right or wrong, Mannerism has also been applied to certain works of cinema. Can we argue that Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975) and Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) are deliciously mannerist, as opposed to the often pejorative “mannered?” The high style of these two works, their extreme elegance, their ornate, cloistered mise en scène, and the meticulous technique of their directors arguably transcend a mere mannered appliqué. Their ersatz is sublime rather than stale. As Susan Sontag famously pointed out, “a sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about.”

The application of the term mannerist in fact has been arbitrary and distressed since its genesis, perhaps more so than any other historical style. Unsurprisingly, Rococo has resurfaced as a chic successor to High Modernism, ignoring the equally shifty existence of Postmodernism and its bespectacled pasticheurs. Rococo and the Baroque have in some ways been most outwardly intermittently reviled and venerated over time. This is less the case for Mannerism. Deriving from the Italian maniera, Mannerism largely means “style,” though it originally had a double meaning, by invoking the French mannières, or manners. Thus, an expression of unabashed aesthetics, with a certain savoir-faire (for the French) and bella figura (for the Italians) in all circumstances complied with the amorphous definition. (Noteworthy is the analogously loose term sprezzatura, which categorically escaped all disdain despite its untranslatable definition. Even those who have no clue what it means know that the word signifies something good, damned good.) Mannerism’s critics decried what they perceived as perversion and, most objectionable of all, decadence.

A befitting segue to all this, is none other than le dandysme, a notion that initially stirs swirls of aristocratic locks, walking sticks, top hats and coat-tails, but upon its second coming, thanks to Baudelaire, took on more metaphysical airs. The French poet notoriously advanced a theory of innate snobbism based on an honest selfishness that countered the unnatural impulse for restraint. According to Baudelaire, an aesthete is a superior being whose main ambition is to lead a purposeless existence. A dour proposition, indeed; its cachet remained in the land of poetry and the maudit, while out on the streets, its later incarnation bristled with an anti-establishment wrecking ball. Herein lies the paradox, as can be exemplified in Daniel Pommereulle’s character in Eric Rohmer’s La collectioneuse (1967). Pommereulle plays an artist who has perfected the art of doing nothing, which includes sleeping until mid-afternoon, smoking pot, lounging in the grass under the hot Saint-Tropez sun, etc… Yet, it is not his only art. When faced with an offer to sell his artwork, the self-appointed dandy rebuffs the crusty collector, disgusted by his undisguised objectification of art. Daniel’s outburst is severe and the act a political one. The dandy may be aloof, but he has principles, and will, if necessary, fight for them.

La collectioneuse can be considered, along with Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) and Weekend (1968) (which also featured Pommereulle), as prophetic films whose anti-bourgeois credo foreshadowed the Maoist mayhem of May ‘68. But unlike La Chinoise, the hot-tempered, high velocity equivalent of a brilliant Kurt Schwitters visual and sound collage all in one, La collectioneuse has often passed as a typical Rohmerian treatise on love and desire, its subtext and place in history less significant. But these are films on the cusp, as Jean-Pierre Gorin would no doubt say, in which the stirrings of something to come can be profoundly perceived. The disdain and contempt in Rohmer and Godard’s prophetic films can barely be contained within the frame—Daniel’s incessant, almost violent toe-tapping and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s infantile full-bodied outbursts and knee-jerk tics of disapproval and self-righteousness in La Chinoise are as jolting as their threatening diatribes. The famous (and sublimely beautiful) scene on the train in La Chinoise when Anne Wiazemsky and Francis Jeanson debate the merits of blowing up institutions and their unsuspecting inhabitants, served as (direct?) fodder for a renegade film shot in April 1968, a mere month before the riots broke out at Nanterre University where, incidentally, Wiazemsky studied under Jeanson.

That film is Détruisez-vous (1968). Directed by Nanterre drop-out Serge Bard, it’s one of the first films made under the Zanzibar banner (it stars British fashion model Caroline de Bendern and Juliet Berto, who played La Chinoise’s philosophizing prostitute). The Zanzibar films are currently experiencing a second coming thanks in great part to Jackie Raynal  (editor of La collectioneuse), who has financed a number of stunning new prints, and who aided Sally Shafto in her research for the recently published bilingual book, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968 put out by Paris Expérimental. The DVD label Re:Voir have done their bit, too, and many of the films, including Philippe Garrel’s landmark passion plays, Le révélateur (1968) and Le lit de la vierge (1968) are now available on DVD, complete with a cheeky sticker warning the purchaser that “Digital compression tarnishes one’s taste for cinema.”

Détruisez-vous reprises La Chinoise’s idea of a revolutionary cell.  In this case it’s led by art critic Alain Jouffroy who proselytizes, with unwavering conviction, a new world order to a near-empty classroom of unresponsive, anonymous students. Seated in the back of the hall, with her signature long mane, is Sylvina Boissonnas, the hippie heiress who single-handedly funded the Zanzibar films, 15 or so (with some films lost and others not concretely labelled as Zanzibar, the number varies) experimental films all shot on 35mm mainly during 1968. These so-called dandies included a young, dapper Philippe Garrel, who, at 20, already boasted an impressive four films to his name; Daniel Pommereulle whose 30-minute Vite (1969) is the movement’s most expensive work; Jackie Raynal, who quit editing to direct her first feature, Deux fois (1968); Serge Bard, who eventually led the troupe to Zanzibar (though they never got there on account of dissension and Bard’s sudden conversion to Islam). Other members included Patrick Deval, painter Olivier Mosset, Tina Aumont (daughter of Maria Montez), Frédéric Pardo, Caroline de Bendern, and constellation players like pouty Pierre Clémenti, Juliet Berto, Bernadette Lafont, and Zouzou—all of whom would have been at home on the cover of Vogue Italia as much as they would have the barricades. In fact, when Bard’s muse de Bendern was shouting at a rally and was photographed by a newspaper reporter, her fists in the air and hoisted up on a friend’s shoulders, the fashion model assumed the image could enhance her portfolio. Like the buxom babe in Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People, de Bendern was captured in a revolutionary pose, a symbol of chic insurgence. Ultimately, the photograph hurt her, as doors closed and her patrician grandfather struck her from his will for what he saw as the ultimate gesture of disobedience. In Shafto’s book, de Bendern confides she was uncertain about what she was protesting. Her character in Détruisez-vous undergoes a similar apoplexy and takes up the Wiazemsky-Jeanson debate, but does so by invoking the Black Panther riots in the US. Her fragile state—her confusion and ignorance—is blatantly captured in her look.

And that look is straight out of Warhol. Détruisez-vous begins with an extreme close-up of Bendern’s comely face, a blank screen test stare, announcing its referent. A cross between Twiggy and Edie, she exudes a girl-woman innocence-affectation. Perhaps Bard had read some of the over-zealous American critics who saw the violence in Warhol—the riots, Vietnam, the blood, the anger—splattered all over Chelsea Girls (1966) and the ensemble’s narcissistic angst. But more likely Bard was seduced by the Factory look, those beautiful, floaty gazes, the incoherence of their pseudo-fictions, in other words, their “stylish style.” There was definitely a correspondence between the Factory and la France, and many of the Zanzibar members had spent time in the tin-foiled Manhattan loft, Caroline included. After the screen-test prelude, Bard cuts to a gel-lit silent static shot of de Bendern naked on a bed embracing a naked man (probably Olivier Mosset) in a seemingly stark reference to Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969). The dates are so close here, one wonders who influenced who. What is clear, however, is Warhol’s far-reaching imprint all over the Zanzibar films, from the screen test close-ups and Andy-like poses, the strobe effects and use of gels and filters in Pierre Clémenti’s hilariously impudent and exhilarating La révolution n’est qu’un début, continuous le combat (1968), the sudden interest in Super 8 (especially by Frédéric Pardo, who began hosting Super 8 nights in his apartment), ubiquitous zooms, the hallucinogenic exchanges, their vignette nature, and, of course Nico, who became Philippe Garrel’s lifelong Teutonic muse. Her haunting “The Falconer” plays as a Jacobean-looking Garrel wanders lost in Le lit de la vierge, in an expansive field that could envelop them all.

Father Child

Angels of the Night
Silverframe my candlelight

Those three lines impart an awful lot about the Zanzibar films, and the scene is one of the most arresting in all of Garrel’s cinema.

What began from a mutual didactic desire to “return cinema to zero,” to provoke, sever, begin anew, radicalize, affront, etc. swiftly developed into an aesthetic revolution, not only one of narrative squeamishness but of astonishing cinematographic experimentation. Warhol’s greatness, on the contrary, lies in his conceptual nature, his quiet ruse, his knowing how the camera transforms reality and can be a tool for provocation and outburst, for acting out. From that inherent quality Jean Rouch built an entire career, and in this sense, Warhol’s cinema is more ethnographic than the Zanzibar films. Poor Little Rich Girl (1965) and Chelsea Girls rely on the rawness of collapse, induced by a prescribed claustrophobia. The camera patiently pines for entropy. Not so for the French. Their films bear the weight of history—a painterly, literary and political one. Even when they dispense with politics (though never the politics of the image), their textual nature is learned. On the whole, the Zanzibar films display virtuosic camera movements (none surpassing Michel Fournier’s work), plein air compositions with landscapes that engulf the characters (the best example of which is in Bard’s maddening and mysterious Ici et maintenant (1968), in which the elements—ocean, wind, rocky terrain—dominate the scenes), allegory in a Pre-Raphealite-Mannerist sense (especially in Deux fois and Le lit de la vierge), and an aestheticized use of black and white. One of the major revelations to emerge from the resurgence of the Zanzibar films is Bard’s Fun and Game for Everyone (a.k.a Fun and Games for Everyone), a velveteen, chiaroscuro boogie-woogie chess match of a film, which documents a vernissage for an Olivier Mosset exhibition. The new print practically drips inky blacks and blinding whites as art circle dandies dissolve in and out of view, as if melting into the background and morphing into a Mosset diachromatic tableau.

But in some ways, Ici et maintenant is even more radical, employing the same high contrast black-and-white technique to film the ocean off the coast of Normandy. With no script and very little game plan, the haphazard film stars then-lovers Caroline de Bendern and Olivier Mosset, and includes a very sweet and very stylized motel breakfast scene, complete with pain et confiture.  Her face outlined in positive, Caroline adjusts her bangs like a toned-down version of Nico’s obsessive primping in Chelsea Girls. While the film is pretty incoherent and devoid of a decipherable narrative thrust, it oozes style, astonishing with extremely long takes in disorienting semi-darkness, with the howling wind threatening oblivion. It’s more mood than anything else. And it feels slightly unhinged, like the contorted bodies in a Bronzino. Self-conscious artistry in the extreme and a healthy dose of artifizio, Ici et maintenant may just be a manifestation of ‘60s Mannerism; at least, it makes a convincing case for “the stylish style.”

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