Opening the Gates of Night: Jean-Claude Brisseau’s La fille du nulle part

By Boris Nelepo

“I love to watch the stars. It’s one of those simple things that give me at least a remote idea of infinity along with some great poetry,” the ghost philosopher says in Jean-Claude Brisseau’s À l’aventure (2008), and Brisseau shares with his characters that same longing for the ineffable, as well as a passion for science and love for literature. These words open a door into his universe: a world of holy vagabonds, noble thieves, femmes fatales, serial killers driven by supernatural forces, death-defying followers of Caligula, and angels and ghosts who seem to have leaped from the pages of Victor Hugo. (Brisseau’s passion for all things fantastic is announced in the name of his production company: La Sorcière Rouge.) It’s thus hardly surprising that it was Apichatpong Weerasethakul who, as head of this year’s Locarno jury, handed Brisseau the Golden Leopard for La fille de nulle part: mistaken for a pervy erotomaniac in the wake of his ’00s sex trilogy (Choses secrètes [2002], Les anges exterminateurs [2006], and À l’aventure) Brisseau is a fantasist and visionary whose unclassifiable talent has largely relegated him to a kind of critical twilight zone, one from which his first truly important festival prize will hopefully free him.

Brisseau’s eponymous fille (Virginie Legeay) really does come from nowhere: she is discovered, beaten and bloody, on the doorstep of an elderly math teacher, Michel (played by Brisseau himself). Retired and haunted by the memory of his long-dead wife, Michel spends his time writing a theoretical work designed to dispel the fallacies that have been plaguing mankind for ages: religion, politics, and art. At one point, Michel mentions in passing that he participated in the student protests of May 1968, which hints at one source of his disillusionment; but the fact that he ran a cine-club for years also attests to his interest in the world of illusion—a world which invades his apartment once he allows the mysterious girl to cross his threshold. Just like in Nosferatu (1922), “As soon as he crossed the bridge, the ghosts did not take long to present themselves”: as the girl recuperates in his apartment, and Michel continues to work on his book, he begins to hear strange sounds emanating from next door and to see spectral presences.

The Hitchcock films that line the bookshelves of Michel’s apartment are an open acknowledgment of Brisseau’s primary influence, as well as his big-movie ambitions. Brisseau has frequently tried to launch large projects about the Middle Ages or the Indochina war, but after the scandal over Choses secretès—three women who auditioned for roles in the film charged Brisseau with sexual harassment, which resulted in a one-year suspended sentence for the director; Brisseau would later fancifully replay this experience in Les anges exterminateurs—the scale of his films became increasingly modest, rarely again achieving anything resembling the operatic splendour of L’ange noir (1994). At the same time, however, Brisseau has never limited the fantastical imaginations of his characters (who have conjured past lives in Ancient Egypt and even the theft of the sun), and, from Noce blanche (1989) onward—and in Céline (1992) in particular—his epic sense of landscape creates a pantheistic dimension: filming his characters in long shot against natural backdrops, their faces and figures almost impossible to discern, it is almost as if Brisseau wishes to emphasize how lost a human being can become in this boundless world.

It’s thus painfully ironic that, as with Paul Vecchiali, who was forced to start making “home movies,” economic necessity caused Brisseau to shoot La fille du nulle part almost entirely within his own apartment—a neat refutation of the myth of France’s generous system of state support. (The bravest and most original auteurs have only themselves to rely on these days, it seems.) With Brisseau’s expansive vistas now confined to four walls, the only reminder of his epic-scale vocation is the star-strewn backdrops that, like an exiled magician or travelling circus performer, he seemingly ports from one film to another (see the painted stars in Les anges exterminateurs, À l’aventure, and La fille du nulle part), and, following those stars, the angels who continue to wander through Brisseau’s world; the only French filmmaker as persistent in his yen to film actors wearing paper wings is Adolfo Arrietta. (But whereas Arrieta’s angelic predilection owes everything to Cocteau, Brisseau’s is derived from Hugo; the only trace of Cocteau in Brisseau’s work is the doves drawn on a chalkboard in De bruit et de fureur [1988].)

So what can a filmmaker achieve with the absolute minimum at his disposal: a small camera (La fille is Brisseau’s first digitally shot film), a minimal space, and an amateur actress in the title role? As with the even more restricted Jafar Panahi, a filmmaker can proudly make a real movie, as if there were no production limitations at all. In La fille du nulle part, Brisseau has created a film of heavenly beauty, warmth, and tenderness, revealing and revelling in the Mélièsian essence of cinema. As with Philippe Garrel in La frontière de l’aube (2008) and Manoel de Oliveira in The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), Brisseau understands, and has long understood—witness the canary turning into an evil hawk in a single edit in De bruit et de fureur, or the cut-rate afterworld of Céline—that it is the most seemingly naïve, handcrafted effects that best reflect the innate illusionism of film. Indeed, for Brisseau film is itself a magical medium, a portal into a different world. From his earliest television films in the late ’70s, which are also his most explicitly “social” in subject matter, Brisseau regards cinema as a form of shelter: in a last attempt to keep his wife from leaving, the head of the broken family in Les ombres (1982) suggests they spend their last money on movie tickets. But the increasing surrealism of Brisseau’s following films, even as they seemed to hew to a generally (if rather grotesquely) realist template, would come to highlight an element of cinema that is considerably more complex than mere escapism.

As with such fellow cinéastes maudits Walerian Borowczyk and Andrzej Zulawski, Brisseau’s preoccupation with matters erotic has often obscured his more metaphysical inclinations. Like his early patron Eric Rohmer—who, after seeing Brisseau’s Super 8 debut at an amateur film festival, produced Brisseau’s first projects in the ’80s through his company Les Films de Losange, the two directors frequently and freely exchanging actors and crew members—Brisseau is an author of moral tales. But where Rohmer is an analyst, Brisseau—who, like Rohmer, worked as a teacher for some two decades—repudiates a materialistic perception of the world and takes his studies of human behaviour into mystical and otherworldly realms. While Brisseau was quickly affixed with a “social realist” tag following his pioneering banlieue drama De bruit et de fureur (which drew upon his experience teaching French in the poor suburbs of Paris), he has detailed in numerous interviews that his primary concern is with fundamental concepts of good, evil, and moral law.

It is this combination of mysticism and rationalism—many of his films include an “educational” episode where the young characters learn life lessons by analyzing poems by Prévert, Baudelaire, and Verlaine—that makes Brisseau’s work so bizarre. For Brisseau, the discoveries of science do not contradict the conception of a world suffused with mystical matter. (This was signalled as early as 1983’s Un jeu brutal, in which a young girl is taught to measure the distance between the stars.) Frequently drawing his protagonists from the world of science—a brilliant medical researcher working on a cancer vaccine in Un jeu brutal, a physics teacher in À l’aventure, a doctor in Céline, mathematician Michel in La fille du nulle part—Brisseau continually posits the existence of an intangible world, one invisible to their rationalist eyes until a sudden inspiration, granted by art, mystical epiphany, or physical ecstasy, reveals to them the essential incomprehensibility of the outside world and the limitations of man’s understanding thereof. Thus Un jeu brutal’s maniac scientist begins to read the signs sent to him by God, and Michel in La fille du nulle part suddenly decides to have a séance which re-enacts the famous experience of Victor Hugo, who claimed he could talk to the spirit of his deceased daughter Leopoldine through table-turning. (In Brisseau’s film, the table suddenly flies up into the air and breaks against the cabinet—levitation being another recurrent fantasy of Brisseau’s, viz. Céline and À l’aventure).

La fille du nulle part is introduced by an epigraph from Hugo’s poem “Veni, vidi, vixi” (which Hugo dedicated to Leopoldine), “O Lord! Now open me the gates of night”—a cinephilic invocation if ever there was one. While Brisseau has previously opened films with quotes from Shakespeare (De bruit et de fureur), Eluard (L’ange noir), and Dostoevsky (Un jeu brutal), Hugo remains the director’s crucial point of literary reference. (Another connection between Brisseau and Rohmer: Rohmer stated in interviews that Hugo was his favourite writer, and an influence on all his films.) Nathalie, the young daughter of the disintegrating “prefab people” family in Brisseau’s claustrophobic masterpiece Les ombres, recited Hugo’s poem “Apparition”(from the collection Les contemplations, about which Rohmer made a documentary) at the beginning of the film:

I saw a white angel passing over my head;
Its dazzling flight pacified the storm
And lulled from a distance the noisy sea.
“What have you come to do, angel, in this night?”
I asked. It answered, “I come to take your soul.”
And I was afraid, because I saw it was a woman;
And I said, trembling and holding out my arms,
“What will be left of me? Because you will fly away.”
The angel did not respond. The shadow-besieged sky
Was turning dark. “If you take my soul,” I cried,
“Where will you take it? Show me in what place.”
Still there was silence. “O traveller of the blue sky,
Are you death?” I said. “Or are you life?”
And the night was growing over my ravished soul,
And the angel became black, and said, “I am love.”
But its sombre brow was more charming than daylight,
And I saw, through the darkness where its eyes were shining,
The stars through the feathers of its wings.

It could be said that all of Brisseau’s subsequent work is a liberal screen adaptation of these lines. Hugo’s imagery became a driving force behind Brisseau’s filmmaking, as did the story of the poet’s mystical contact with his daughter’s ghost, which is first invoked in Les ombres: “So do you think his daughter’s soul was really there?” asks Nathalie of her father. “Do spirits really exist…or did Hugo just imagine this to make her live again?”

Nathalie’s question is left hovering, unanswered, through all of Brisseau’s films, and La fille du nulle part marks both his return to that question, and to the milieu of one of his earliest films: like La fille, the action in Les ombres does not move outside a single, cramped apartment. Brisseau’s Michel lives off memories of his past (his deceased wife); while debunking politics and art, he eventually surrenders himself to illusion after imagining—and then believing—that his unexpected guest is none other than the reincarnation of his wife. When Michel starts calculating how old his new girlfriend will be after his death and reincarnation in a different body, and realizes that for many lives to come their age will not match, La fille morphs into a most bitter love story; and it also becomes clear why the film’s title evokes that of La femme du nulle part (1922), the silent avant-garde classic by Louis Delluc, one of the first filmmakers to explore the poetic logic of memory.

Nathalie in Les ombres also asked another question that shadows Brisseau’s films. She could not understand the last words uttered by the main character of Bernanos’ Journal d’un curé de campagne before his death: “What does it matter? All is grace.” What does this grace mean? This is a critical issue for Brisseau, who continually sought to capture the passage from life into death and paid close attention to the deathbed experiences of his characters, as if comparing them to what Bernanos described. This motif resurfaces even in his relatively conventional melodrama Noce blanche, in which Vanessa Paradis’ character starves herself to death and leaves her lover a note saying that the mystical ocean seen by her suicidal mother really does exist. The ocean, the stars, the sky: Brisseau would find different images for this grace throughout his films, those words of Bernanos echoed in all of them. Now, in La fille du nulle part, Brisseau himself plays the main character (as opposed to the transparent onscreen vicar he employed in Les anges exterminateurs), and he himself undertakes that final passage in the film’s finale. What does it matter? All is illusion.

Victor Hugo’s “Apparition” translated from the French by Paul Berman.