Nicole Brenez is an essential figure in film criticism and contemporary cinema studies. Her analytical and passionate approach to cinema, emerging from her extraordinary creative freedom, has earned her the respect and admiration of critics all over the world. Her widely followed work has never ceased to highlight the exciting challenges of engaged cinema, the kind that commits to artistic investigation as well as to the urgent social and political issues that concern us all.
In an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, Jacques Rivette explained how, throughout the 1970s, the cinema made in the margins or from the need to express itself from the most profound creative freedom benefitted from the impetus of May 1968. In the years following the protests, some very audacious projects have come to light, such as Out 1, Céline et Julie vont en bateau, and the tetralogy first named Les filles du feu and later Scènes de la vie parallèle, all films by Rivette himself. It was in that same decade that Jean Eustache filmed one of the most striking works of French cinema, La maman et la putain, and that Philippe Garrel returned to the origins of cinema by means of the singer Nico’s face. A little later, at the beginning of the 1980s, this momentum of possibilities had reached its end, leaving behind some of the most prosperous years in French cinema and the most extraordinary phase in the oeuvre of Rivette.
In Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (the correspondence between a group of critics and film writers of diverse backgrounds, between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the years 2000), Nicole Brenez contested a fellow critic’s letter invoking this splendour of French cinema in the 1970s. “After the New Wave came the essential,” she wrote, “a cinematography which, in its totality, was permeated by a vital need to experiment[.]” And finally, she pointed out: “I could never call [the cinema of the 70s] ‘post-New Wave.’” For the French professor and critic, that period could not be named after another one, since it had sufficient importance of its own. This reappraisal reminds me of a previous urge to avoid the description “primitive cinema” for the first decades in the history of filmmaking, because such a label would imply an idea of a cinema still unformed, still awaiting narrative development. Or that phrase by Richard Koszarski, to whom it seemed more fair to consider the decade of the 1920s as an autonomous era in the history of cinema, instead of tying it to classicism.
It is worth recalling that, when Brenez asserts this in Movie Mutations, the twentieth century is coming to its end. In her reappraisal of the 1970s, Brenez makes reference to two other decades, the last one of the nineteenth and the second one of the twentieth century, in a statement coherent with the kind of cinema she has defended (and which she has thoroughly investigated with as much cinephile passion as perseverant study), always close to the avant-garde. It is no surprise then that this first decade was an era clearly determined by the impulse of trial, attempt, liberty, experiment – wherein there is luckily still no trace of narrative cinema. The second decade contemplates the heyday of the avant-garde and its experiments with the cinematographic possibilities of speed (which is very relevant in the work of an author like Jean Epstein, whom Brenez also discussed in a book together with Ralph Eue).
One of Nicole Brenez’s texts that I always return to is the one she wrote for the monograph dedicated to Philippe Garrel, on the occasion of his retrospective at the San Sebastián festival. The article delves into a decisive moment in the filmography of the director: the transition from a phase that revolves around the figure of Nico and dispenses with storytelling to a narrative cinema with defined characters, dialogues, and obvious conflicts. By discussing Garrel’s oeuvre, Brenez basically explains the transition from the 1970s cinema into the cinema of the following decades. She exposes her perspective on cinema, which always carries an encounter between liberty, experiment, and creative viscerality.
Brenez wrote that the encounter with Nico allowed Garrel to “concentrate in a single figure the archetypes that were until then only explored in a scattered manner – poetess, muse, archangel, sphinx, doll, priestess, goddess. Nico embodies the primitive idol that causes figurative declines, the Ur-Idol of an exclusive but pantheistic pagan cult.” She exposes a fundamental break in the work of Garrel. Le bleu des origines was Garrel’s last film with Nico. The singer, actress, and lover would subsequently become a phantasm whose absence is constantly present. At the same time, the filmmaker would embrace a narrativity that, as Brenez puts it, had been foreign to him until that moment.
Brenez exposes the connection between Nico’s face in Garrel’s cinema, and her music. Similarly, she has called attention to the cinema of Jean-François Richet (a director she has vindicated despite the silence of a good part of French criticism) for its connection with reality, established through the editing and through rap. Yet again, music. And, fundamentally, the political act: Richet’s Ma 6-t va crack-er anticipates the uproars in the banlieue, but does so from its very own perspective and from an approach so close to reality that its strength lies as much in the rhythm of rap as in documentary ethics. What Brenez encounters in Richet’s cinema (I realise we could find an equivalent of a filmmaker linked to Spanish film history, such as Kikol Grau), reveals another axis of her critical view: a political positioning clearly related to her engagement with the kind of cinema that, if it does not emerge out of the margins of society, at least emanates from the depths.
In Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara clearly shows the continuous tension between the familiar and the abyss. If there is a line between the two, it diffuses rapidly. As a matter of fact, there is not that much distance between the first scene, in which the policeman (Harvey Keitel) takes his children to school to end up sniffing cocaine at the school gate, and the final part, where the lieutenant sits down beside two rapists to smoke crack and later accompanies them to the bus, exactly as if they were his sons. In her book on Ferrara, Brenez delves into this idea of duality. Entitled Le mal mais sans fleurs, the volume begins by showing her interest for one of the themes she has most insisted on studying: the figurative, the bodies. Brenez writes, in relation to Body Snatchers (Ferrara, 1993): “The ‘snatching’ principle (replacing a human being by its clone, drained of its emotions and therefore controllable) lends itself, in Ferrara’s own terms, to an infinite play of metaphors.” From the visual figure to deeper layers: “The destruction of intimacy by collective evil.”
Thinking of the body leads us to the films of John Cassavetes, whose The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Brenez fervently advocates for. She also wrote a book dedicated to Shadows, in which she states: “Cassavetes defends ‘the individual expression,’ which radically distinguishes itself from the ‘point-of-view film’ or the ‘thought-provoking film.’ That is because ‘individual expression’ means much more than aesthetic orientation: it is based on a civil understanding of the artist’s role in society. In that sense, ‘individual’ is not to be confused with ‘subjective’ and positions the artist, not as a private person but as a citizen.” Once more, this is as much an aesthetic as a political stance.
As for the avant-garde, Brenez reinstates some of the filmmakers who contributed to a new dawn of French cinema at the turn of the millennium, gravitating towards experimentation. As she puts it in Movie Mutations: “It started with the release of Sombre, the magnum opus of Philippe Grandieux, who has masterfully reinvigorated the great avant-garde tradition that had disappeared with Jean Epstein.”
For many people, the discovery of Grandieux’s work occurred during one of the strangest screenings in the context of a festival: when La vie nouvelle was screened in Sitges, in 2002. That revealing experience would however lead to another: the immersion into Brenez’s texts that accompanied the film, up to the point where, at times, text and images seemed to become one.
Brenez studied literature, and has affirmed that she had to study cinema on her own. As a professor at Université Paris-III, her career balances between film criticism in journals and monographs and the academic world. In fact, she has embodied – from the position of the sniper – one of film criticism’s defining traits: the rehabilitation of those filmmakers who are essential to understand contemporary cinema, creators who sometimes go unnoticed by the eyes of mainstream press.
She also features in some recent films. With that same Grandrieux she participated in the making of the collection It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, which starts with an episode directed by Grandrieux and is dedicated to the filmmaker Masao Adachi. Recently, Brenez contributed to Le Livre d’image, in which she carried out a job of filmic archaeology for the director of the film, Jean-Luc Godard. The film opens with the image of a hand with a raised finger. The idea of manipulation through editing (a beautiful interest of Godard ever since his younger years as a critic) imposes itself firmly. Almost none of the images are what they appear to be, since Godard saturates the colours and maximizes the textures. He has turned the digital image into a canvas that can seem like an oil painting. The film is assembled from fragments of films, paintings and internet clips.
That is where Brenez’s influence shines through. Already in her text in Movie Mutations, she had predicted the death of VHS in favour of other formats that enable sharing moving images. In Le livre d’image, the director’s voice echoes in the background every once in a while, as if it were a whisper. As he says goodbye, delving into a present determined by a lack of knowledge of the Arab world, Godard retakes one of his favourite themes: film language. In the style of Aby Warburg, who created an atlas of images that spark thought by their interconnection, Godard proposes shots that rhyme: from the arrival of a train to a body that falls in the water. The gesture in space, the organisms, the physicality of bodies as well as images,…. are all present throughout the entire film – and they are Brenez’s points of attention as well.
In one of the most famous passages of her text in Movie Mutations, Brenez shared an anecdote of a student asking her what you need to do to analyse a film. The answer starts by pointing to films that are not fully understandable at first viewing, or those that invite us to make an effort (among them, Mission: Impossible, a film that invites you to rewatch and reconsider it before it is forever engraved in your memory). She goes on to recount other categories, defined by her cinephile passion: “There are also appetizing films […] which allow you to unexpectedly uncover a new world,” others that “accompany you through your life,” the film “to which you instinctively compare all the others,” the one that “runs through your head like a popular song,” “those you can’t watch again because you’ve loved them too much” (a beautiful category: Brenez mentions Godard’s Le mépris), the ones “you hope to understand one day,” those that you hope “will strengthen you,” or those that “suddenly offer you everything you needed.” After giving away a little quiz that generated cheerfulness and joy among the cinephiles, she concludes on an affectionate note: “Cinema seems to me above all inexhaustibly generous.”
Joyful words from someone who, by sharing her singular gaze, invites us to discover, to think through, to submerge ourselves into the depths – in a gesture that is just as generous.
Originally published as ‘Nicole Brenez. Investigar el movimiento’ in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, nº 100 (151), January 2021.
Thanks to Violeta Kovacsics and Carlos F. Heredero