La Vie Nouvelle (2002)

WARNING: BELOW CONTAINS FRANK DISCUSSIONS OF A FILM CONCERNED WITH MATURE THEMES: SEXUALITY, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, HUMAN TRAFFICKING, BODY HORROR AND EXISTENTIAL HORROR. PLEASE PROCEED WITH CAUTION AND AT YOUR OWN RISK.

It is difficult to start any discussion of La Vie Nouvelle (2002, Dir. Philippe Grandieux), because it is difficult to even begin comprehending it. Often in writing for this site, I have earnestly sought to seek out cinema which reaches for the boundaries of artistic thought, but also cinema which is unique to its’ own medium, where my words about the work are the jumping off point into the film’s experience. Cinema is a unique visual language, which can be explained and partially translated through words, but I have found myself comfortable writing about films which I felt were at the limits of language and the powers of written explanations. In short, films which need to be seen to be believed but also seen to be understood.

In a way, La Vie Nouvelle is a manifestation of this ethos, and walks well beyond the boundary gates of even conventional visual language. It is a film so beyond the confines of normal experiences found in cinema that the experience of watching it fills you with a tremendous perception of the void or a void, of an internal abyss filled with answers we cannot understand the questions to. To bring your film to such a place, to allow it’s own internal mechanics to become so subterranean raises questions of perception which are mostly kept out of view of cinema’s conversations. To make a film so lost in an exploration of the unconscious elements of the human elemental experience; it splits open cracks in the psyche on how a film is watched, what a film gives to you, what interpretations to draw from its’ own source. To craft a journey through experiential means, especially one which could be interpreted as a hellish descent into the moral pools of evil, requires tools and a frame of understanding which we rarely have need to sharpen.

So consider this, for better and for worse, an attempt to sharpen those skills. Beyond that I just don’t think I’m qualified to say any more.


“My perception of the film was physical and intimate, like for a shaman. I just had to be a conductor for the flux, the music, the rhythms— the body exists to transmit all this.” – Philippe Grandieux, interview with Nicole Brenez.

It’s hard for me to remember La Vie Nouvelle, and yet it seems impossible to forget. The actual experience of watching the film presents you with a piercing and vivid clarity, and when I had finished my first watch I was left with a monstrous flood of impressions to try and seek some kind of meaning in. I wanted to write about it the moment I had finished it, desperate to capture and distill some of the feeling of the film’s immediate presence. There is a whole dedicated industry both academic and hobbyist dedicated to discussing what a film may mean, but it is a lot harder in a sense to convey what a film can make you feel. A film may have a separation from our world, but the real-time presence of watching a film is meant to evoke our senses, our empathy, connect us to an imagined world or representation of our own. Films activate our eyes, our ears, our minds, while the rest of the senses are taking up with the experience of what it is to watch a film in your living room/bedroom/cinema (these days?) etc.

Life flowed on unfortunately, and what most likely would have flowed would have been a torrential stream of thoughts purely trying to piece together any fragmentary sense of understanding about what I had just watched. For La Vie Nouvelle is often beyond the normal visual identifiers and signposts we use to help guide us through these emotive experiences. The dialogue is extremely minimal, the location is undisclosed, the characters are drawn in ways to allow precious little access to them or their internal states. Exposition, one of cinemas oldest allies in allowing audiences to understand what is happening, is all but abandoned. There is no frame of a written/spoken language boundary to help “make sense” of this cinema, you can read the visual language on display as both more abstracted and more primal.

So upon reading about the film, in a search for understanding, I came to access a clearer picture of what the film was made for. The viewing of the film was so overwhelming that I had lost any ability to “find” or locate myself in this world, I was lost in it without anchor. The guidance of the literature, of other far more intelligent writers offering perspectives and provoking ideas on what a cinema like this exists for, helped ground my understanding of the film and allowed me to reach a point where I was no longer reckoning with the chasm of confused darkness unguided. But in doing so, my experience of the film was expanded beyond those initial impressions, a profound sense of being lost. What is even more curious however, was that even though this information had helped me contextualise the film, understand some of its guiding motivations, exploring its’ relation to a film environment which has rarely ventured into this territory; none of that helped me remember what happened in the film.

To be present when faced with horror, our minds seem to take part in a curious trick. We must be more present than ever when faced with something dangerous, our natural ideal for our own preservation battles between fight and flight. But we cannot live in the space of horror, of fear, we would go mad. The impressions of horror carve deep lines into our minds, and in turn we repress some of that cognitive load; file it away under “Do Not Touch”. We cannot rid our minds of the potential of fear, of horror, but it seems we also cannot live with it either in it’s unbearable true presence. In the experience of the film, in this formless and near shapeless world, the psychological boundaries of cinema are stripped back even more so than usual. And the presence of these images is so shocking, so violently intense in comparison to the conventional current of film production and exhibition, that a confrontation with a sense of abject horror left me unable to even understand or remember what had happened.

I do not want to tell you reader, “what happens” in the film. There are plenty of places and plenty of ways to spoil/prepare yourself for the unknown of a filmic world. If I give form, the boundaries of words to what I saw, you will engage with it through a lens of information that the film is uninterested in providing to you. It is a world filled with deathly, guttural reflections of the human condition. Images here are of an almost physical nature, reflecting a language which speaks from body to turbulent minds. Bodies and characters and events climb and writhe all over your experience, emeshing you in a web which burns through your moral frames of reckoning with the world. Judgement has fled from the confines of the screen, turned its back on a world which seeks only to pull you down and through its’ own darkness. Time is stretched beyond our recognition, and such violent pressure is applied to it when encountering dread, encountering horror. Moments of eternity seem to almost become actualised here, as the witnessing of the film makes you unable to turn away from it’s seemingly malovent power.

The malovence of the film’s intent darkly cuts through the experience, but that is also a testament to our current use and understanding of film. A book asks you to imagine events, but a film often represents them; has the power to show them back to us. Perhaps it is only my fatigue with current cultural practices, but the sanitisation and infantilisation of violence on-screen has been one of my long-standing upsets. Sex and violence have sold so well for so long, that it is easier than ever to create a psychological distance and numbing between violence we permit on screen and violence we perpetrate in real life. To normalise the effects of violence creates a numbing to it, even if done to make stories more palatable.

There is something profoundly devastating then, in creating an experience where violence is not only brutally depicted in a form closer to a real understanding of its’ actions and consequences, but also in having that film’s morality cut and torn away from the cloth of conventional piety. Maybe the good guys fight, but they do it to defend our honour, protect and serve. Humble servants of slaughter. But in La Vie Nouvelle, we are not protected because the characters are not protected. The moral shield of “good” is limp, pathetic in the face of its’ own hypocrisy regarding this world. Here violence is not just heroic goodies and nameless, near- faceless baddies designed for the cultural grinder. Here violence parades nakedly across the faces of its’ victims, its’ perpetrators, its’ witnesses and intermediaries. If films have commonly existed and been seen as cultural escapism, are we escaping the real evil we can’t bear to look at in the world? Do we take flight into our films, our private reveries where the vanquishing of evil is not only easy but cheap?

As a culture, as human beings what does it mean for us to be continually running from the glare of evil’s dark presence, because as awful and degrading and horrifying the events are in La Vie Nouvelle, they can only be so because of their relation to the real world we live in. How could they scare us if we did not think there was a chance they could happen to us? Or worse, because we know somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, that they are already happening, continue to happen, and have already happened in the world we live in? To philosophically investigate evil through film, creates an inversion of its’ common effects. To be validated by lies feels fulfilling in the moment, and that might only come from us feeling unfulfilled, discontented by the truth. If that gap, that disconnect is not addressed, it can only grow larger and more looming, a void to become lost in without end; without a light at the end of the tunnel.


Perhaps reader, this has done nothing to reveal much concerning the film. If that is true, then it speaks to the astounding depths of our unconscious lives and minds, as well as my own failure to communicate. Who knows what might have been if I had written this at a different time, in a different place, in a different state. If what is said regarding the film’s nature is forever unknown, forever lost among it’s blurred shadows and distorted figures, then I would not be surprised; especially due to its’ highly experiential features this is precisely what I was trying to communicate about it. It is a film which lives in its own moment, own momentum. To even begin to grip it’s amorphous edges, requires looking with eyes beyond language, beyond any words I could string together here to make sense of them.

Our perceptions of the world can be so fragile, and to spin them out of control only takes just a few turns of the dancer centred on stage in front of us. With the right combination of sensory impressions, a film can crash and whip against your knowledge of the world, its’ tide dragging you under whatever inky waters it may contain. It may even sweep it away entirely, leaving only the shattered debris of your understandings in its wake. Maybe that is good. Maybe that is bad. Maybe that is beyond good and evil, in a colossal realm of conscious and unconscious experience, reverberating throughout our own lives and something we can, maybe even should reckon with.

At the very least, it might darkly liberate us from the confines of our own collective demons. Maybe that is a good place to begin anew.

-Alex

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La Vie Nouvelle (2002)

Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


The Act Of Killing (2013, Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous) is one of those documentaries where its reputation precedes it. It’s a film which I’ve been considering for the site for a long time, mainly due to its content matter. Films can be many things, but more often than not they deal with the imaginary, the fictional, the made up. To hold the camera up as a mirror to the world rather than create a new one is not a choice which is pursued often. Documentaries on the whole craft narratives, piecing them together from the interviews and facts. It’s a far smaller niche for the film to fall into portraiture, to allow the interviewees themselves to tell their own stories, with as much subjectivity as possible. The human brain is continually reprinting its own memories, misremembering and imagining scenarios which fill in the gaps between our experiences of what “actually” happened.  It’s not hard to make the analogy that our brains work like micro-editing suites, constantly cutting and re-directing our own experiences to make them fall into the shape that we are happy with.

So what Joshua Oppenheimer did is turn that outwards, to allow the interviewees’ memories and their imaginations drive external recreations of the events in the real world. And the interviewees just so happen to be part of Indonesia’s dark blood soaked history. The men filmed in this documentary are executioners, who are hailed as national heroes. Anwar Congo and his compatriots are responsible for untold deaths, and they live in a world where they are praised, respected and secretly feared for it.  Oppenheimer gives them the opportunity to recreate their finest achievements, to show the audience how they killed hundreds of people, with themselves playing all the parts, both victims and perpetrators. They walk in the shoes of themselves from the past, and the victims they killed.

Why is this is a “Kino-Pravda” documentary? What truth does this show us that the real world cannot?

There’s a long running conflict in everyone, which contains how the world is and how the world should be. I believe every person deep down wants to re-model the world in some way according to their own desires. The strangeness of this film is to see what happens when the world is re-modelled alongside desires which I found to be alien to me. The actions they recreate in the image of film genres they liked, the gangster movie, the western etc. are actions that at once I would condone in real life and yet necessarily see as normal in films. If the number of people killed on-screen in all films was totalled up and put in front of me, I would probably balk. Witnessing these people take their inspirations from art and apply it to their real world, to mimic the ways these actors killed their on screen counterparts, is deeply disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is being witness to this darker side of the world.  The basic assumption that goes through human experience is that good acts are rewarded and bad acts are punished, in some way. Whether through hell or reincarnation or just the penal system, we always believe in some sort of assessment of acts, judgement. But when the judgement is inverted, the whole film acts as this strange perversion of what we deem justice, and these men walk around in reality being praised for the acts we’d condemn. If it was a fictional piece, you’d call it a black comedy. But there’s no humour to be found in this world because it’s real.  Because there’s no distance between the imagination, there’s no safety net of it only being a story, a play, a movie. The film is a historical record of a dangerous inverted world. One which continues to create horror.

It’s a deeply reflective and absorbing document, because it pushes you to grapple with something which can’t be resolved easily, which reveals how strange and how bizarre the truth can really be. Not only that, but it plumbs the depths of those uglier characteristics we might often keep suppressed. We see the opulence of these death squad warriors, the rich landscapes and environments they possess for themselves. We see the admiration and clamor they raise for themselves. We see that even those who are in control are still restrained by fear, over their image, over their attitudes, over the words they say. Everyone is restrained by the system, and in their very unique way the perpetrators do not come away unscathed.

The film refuses easy answers. It allows the subjects to speak for themselves, it doesn’t conform to the narrative expectations we’ve assumed over countless stories. There is no grandiose repentance, no reckoning with the moral complexities of their actions. Only Anwar shows any signs of reckoning, but the dark seas within him fail to find any resolution we might find satisfying. But then what this film does is not satisfying. The entire experience is anything but pleasant or entertaining.  But the film is so hard to bear, nearly three hours long in its Director’s Cut, and you simultaneously understand why people desire escapist, easy to consume stories but also the pain of people not confronting the real world around them.

The whole world is a continual blend of art and life integrating and mixing with each other, and the events which inspired this film are from both. By foregoing any rigid definitions, to only tell the facts or only tell the stories, Oppenheimer made a film which pushes the world around it in some form to confronting the darker side of human nature.  There are so many films that have been made to be enjoyed, but not everything on this world is enjoyable, or even those things which are can often not be “good” in the moral sense. The word that really captures it is “vision”, a word which means “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural”, but whose Latin root is in the word “videre”.

It means to see.

-Alex

For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #5 – The Act of Killing