Yoana Pavlova checked in from Sofia to see the French world premiere Par exemple, Electre.
While preparing for the entrance exams at the National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts almost a decade ago, I read a book by Jean-Claude Carrière, whose title was translated into Bulgarian as The Invisible Film. The opening of the book struck me with an amazing story which turned out to be my first lesson on cinema. Jean-Claude Carrière tells about a screening somewhere in Africa for a small audience, that has never been exposed to the seventh art before. And instead of the expected bewilderedness, the film caused total incomprehension of the plot and indignation by the chopped humans parts as shown on the white screen among the spectators. Though we tend to forget it, due to our everyday experience with audiovisual media, our minds are fully equipped to make sense of complicated narrative structures, to attribute significance to the most bizarre collages of words, images, sounds, ideas, quotations, quotations of quotations etc.
Par exemple, Electre, directed by Jeanne Balibar and Pierre Léon, is exactly such an elaborate work that jiggles with Sophocles’ play Electra, the intimate frame of French cinema, the language of cultural institutions and details from the the real life of both authors. The film can be easily labeled as ‘DIY’, ‘work in progress’ or ‘too French’, but the most important about it is the fact that it can be perceived and interpreted on many levels, depending on the viewer’s background knowledge and concentration.
Additional levels can be discovered with the help of internet, as Jeanne Balibar’s initiative ‘Théâtre à emporter’ or ‘Take Away Theatre’, that inspired the film, is still new and quite indie even for the French cultural landscape. Nevertheless, equipped with basic tools and almost no budget, the directors managed to create a huge labyrinth of episodes, connected with multiple red threads. Yet this eclectic collection or ‘souk’ (if we stick to the film’s vocabulary) does not impose as pompous — its tone is so playful, that the result is funny and enjoyable to watch.
With all that meanders in the script, two main themes can be distinguished — key scenes of Sophocles’ Electra are mixed with drama re-creation of actual meetings Jeanne Balibar and Pierre Léon had with representatives of NGO organizations or art centers in order to fund their project (all of these personages performed with tongue-in-cheek pathos by Marléne Saldana). Jeanne Balibar plays Electra, the rebelling child striving for justice but evidently fulfilling what gods have already predestined and also an innovative artist who tries to experiment with new communication channels or technologies, but is actually being turned into a medium by the status quo of the cultural politics. Pierre Léon on the other hand stands for an old man, rather traditionalist, confiding to words — he can be as well considered a man of linear narrative, trying to soften up the clash of standpoints, thus shaping and giving meaning to history. These two universes and their characters meet in one single climax scene by the end of the film thanks to a a blood-stained sheet, however, the catharsis is absent — the spirit is somewhat satirical.
Usually, by the mentioning of hypertext in film or the idea of blending cinema and theatre, one tends to imagine Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000) or early Lars von Trier. Instead of employing cutting edge technology and constructing perplexing sets, though, Jeanne Balibar and Pierre Léon rely on the good old magic of fantasy — when three people dressed up eccentrically appear in an empty hall, reading cues from a piece of paper in their hands, the audience gets immediately involved into the game. Besides, the visual style of Par exemple, Electre is modest — with almost no additional lighting, the cinematography is ascetic and consistent in the various parts. The camera is mostly fixed, close enough to focus on the characters’ faces and sufficiently distant to show parts of their reality. The editing by Pierre Léon, can also be described as calm and classical. The only revolting element is the music with its clash of styles, zigzagging between Scarlatti and the trivial words of Jeanne’s lightly sung emails. As expected, this rhetorical confrontation is the one of the Greek chorus and the perky tune of ‘Je suis libre’, which can be safely decoded as the conflict between society and individual, high and low, tragedy and comedy, but with no apparent winner.
On account of this moderation in style and form, in Par exemple, Electre stands out the main artistic invention of the authors — the presentation of places as a group protagonist and the staging of an actor as a topos. The main geographical setting is Paris, but this is not the same city where Chris Marker roams with his camera looking for cats. The film begins with shots of carefully chosen buildings such as Arte, Canal+, Fnac, BNP — all of them embodying the contemporary cultural establishment, the chorus of common sense and institutional success. Furthermore, the script combines multiple locations where actors are trapped, pronouncing their monologues — the beaches of Deauville, the red carpet of the American Film Festival, the Odeon subway station, the Cartier Foundation and even Yahoo mail.
As a result of the wonderful Kuleshov Effect, components of the plot assemble in our heads, leaving us with the impression that the personages are dramatically isolated and bound to repeat their words as video game characters. At the same time pieces of French film and theatre history take shape in the gestures of Barbet Schroeder, Edith Scob, Emmanuelle Béart or the excerpt of Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou (1969). Behind this choice hides a long past of factual influences and collaborations, hence transforming all involved into a huge family, just like the one in Sophocles’ play.
Anyway, why Electra, even as an example? The story is familiar but actually so complicated and deeply rooted in the modern culture, so it seems like the perfect occasion to open Wikipedia and the original tragedy and continue reading…
Par exemple, Electre (Jeanne Balibar and Pierre Léon, France 2012, 80′)