Dubious Returns to Nature

Silvia Fagarasan

»Nature« is also »strange«, and we exist there; we
exist in it in the mode of a constantly renewed singularity, whether
the singularity of the diversity and disparity of our senses or that
of the disconcerting profusion of nature's species or its various
metamorphoses into »technology«. Then again, we say »strange«,
»odd«, »curious«, »disconcerting« about all of being.

Jean-Luc Nancy

Bertrand Bonello's Le Pornographe (2001) brings into attention the figure of an uncommon filmmaker. He is a self-described pornographer, a man who »makes pornos«. The problem is, he reflects all the time, drinks only coffee, smokes a lot of cigarettes and, generally speaking, refuses to do the things usually required from a person in this business. It is transparent however that Le Pornographe is primarily interested in presenting the story of a filmmaker challenged by existential and philosophical questions. The nature at the core of all earthly or artificial matters, of social relationships or artistic pursuits is vehemently searched for in almost every scene of the film. Not accidentally then, the protagonist and his iconoclastic adventure are captured in multiple shots of natural nature: images of trees in a forest, leaves on a lake, parks in the city, a pasture and its corresponding flock of sheep. It seems as though the explicitness of the pornographic genre cannot exist in the absence of bits of landscape chosen as the background for these inquiries over the nature of art and of genuine living. There has been no other pornographer in the recent history of film taking so many walks in nature and discussing so systematically about life and its heartfelt, though emotionless, undertaking, than Jacques Laurent.
His positioning as a pornographer quickly turns out to be a vastly disappointing experience for a viewer misled by the title in nurturing too intense expectations of explicitness. Instead of the sexual innuendo characterising the genre, one can grasp the careful articulation of an intellectually demanding body of introspection. It is not an aleatory proposal, because the corporeality of the actors and their characters seems strangely intertwined with their quest for the authentic living of the right ideas. Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the role of the pornographer, Jacques Laurent, already draws the attention to issues of identity because his body has meanwhile turned into an historical figure, while at the same time, it substantiates an aging protagonist within the narrative of the film. Consequently, one may detect a short way from corporeality to self-analysis, or rather, it can be understood that the two spheres interact exclusively through paths of negotiation. More precisely, how much consciousness is allowed to negotiate with the body as a vessel for the thinking being and to what extent ideas themselves bring to life the desensitized body. Perhaps this has always been one of the fundamental principles of philosophical cinema. In Bonello's case, the background against which these negotiations are projected in Le Pornographe is represented by forms of nature: gardens, lakes, parks, forests. The nature of acceptance, resistance, rebellion or transgression engaging the individual is chased out in the real nature, whether it is at the countryside or in a city park. The impulse feels romantic; the ambiguity suspends it abruptly.
The protagonist, Jacques Laurent, started to work as a director of pornographic movies in the late '60s. He made around forty films until 1984, then he stopped. A female voice-over provides access to these details, while the screen projects reflections of leaves on the water as well as the image of a male figure, slowly driving his boat on a lake surrounded by gut-wrenching vegetation. His last film was named L'animal, depicting a long hunting scene where the animal was replaced with a young woman, running to save herself from ruthless huntsmen and their dogs. At the end, a very violent and dynamic scene occurred, simultaneously at the limit of abstraction. Due to financing issues the film could not be finished, and the failure marked the director, pushing him to end his activity as a filmmaker of pornography. Moreover, we learn later on that there is no coincidence between this decision and a particular family event. His son Joseph, whose mother committed suicide by jumping out of a window, having been deeply disturbed to learn about his father's nature of activity, decided to cut off all communication with him. Almost a couple of decades later, Jacques decides to go back to film-making and pornography, but the rules of the game and the premises of his own engagement have been drastically altered. The work on his new film endangers his domestic life with his partner Jeanne, leading him to unceremoniously leave her. The relationship with his son is however restored: both equally caught in the political articulation of their existence, they find themselves back in empathetic dialogue. While Joseph plans breaking out of the system by marrying his girlfriend Monika and making love to her surrounded by nature, Jacques rejects his private love relationship and focuses on a solitary journey of self-rediscovery. Throughout the entire film, very few scenes involving the pornographic set are present. There are only two explicit scenes, but their appearance feels almost erroneous, despite the title of the film and the profession of its protagonist.
As previously mentioned, it is not ideas at random that galvanize the mind of the filmmaker, just the peculiarly right ones. Searching for the right ideas is often externalized through visible signals of muscular pain or discomfort, thus outlining the thesis that only an authentic quest of the mind deserves to be made visible, or rather that only the pain experienced in finding the right ideas (about the self, the father/son, man/wife, individual/society relationships) justifies a departure from portraying the usual absent-minded, abstract faces we see on the screen. This stands in sharp contrast with what is conventionally required from porn actors and actresses: Jacques Laurent instructs them not to show, not to move a facial muscle, not to express, not to moan – not even at a minimum level –, even though this is the premise of the genre, a genre he himself is said to have revolutionized (in the '70s and '80s). What their faces are instructed to avoid conveying, his own face renders transparent. It is Jacques' visage completing a pornographic turn. The agony, desperation or melancholy are prominently shown, they remain unhidden; but there is more to it than the apparent irritation he causes for the producer of the film. The predictable, artificial ensemble of forced, exaggerated, over-the-top visual or sound expressions handled by the pornographic actress is in Jacques' vision a necessary avoidance – he refuses to follow the rules, he himself might have previously set. A process of reversal seems to be activated. Its implication may reflect Bonello's belief that only the pain induced by intellectual struggle around issues of identity or life choices is eligible for representation, for being turned into a product of visibility. Everything else, including the porn actors' faces caught in artificially induced moments of lust, are worthless, representation-wise.
To avoid showing emotion, within the pornographic exercise, remains of utter importance for the filmmaker. Without much debating, emotion must be cultivated mostly as an ambition on the part of the beholder. A refusal to the pedagogical dimension of jouissance marks the filmmaker's vision. It is not something to be taught, but to be recreated by the audience. Never moving the camera, privileging the static view, adding no music, these constitute the grounds for the formal laboratory of the director. Shockingly enough, he even turns his back to the final scene between the porn actors, as if his gaze does not want to meet a climax that is not natural, but rather aggressively pursued and codified in an expected visuality. The final scene, he instructs, has to be experienced by the actress as a scene when she has to be »absolutely in love«. Jacques Laurent refuses to direct the sexual intercourse, leaving nature to follow its whims. The producer interferes however and asks the actress to moan louder and louder. »I don't hear you, Jenny«, he keeps on repeating, while music is turned on. At this point, the director is visibly distressed. One witnesses his uneasiness around these interferences from the conventional side of the industry, all the while, a sculptural scene of rape occupies the upper right corner of the image. The classical sculpture represents The Rape of the Sabine Women, but one is tempted to reflect on the correspondence with the filmmaker's situation. After all, who is raped? The character of the actress engaged in sexual intercourse is not. But it is Jacques Laurent's vision itself caught in an act of aggression, as the producer attempts and succeeds at blocking its genuine flow, in order to impose his own rule, devoid of vital authenticity. The director cannot understand his producer's demands, as much as the latter fails to comprehend the reasoning behind Jacques' refusal to follow the expectations of the genre. The filmmaker consciously aims at committing genre hubris, unwilling therefore to sacrifice his quest for the creative ideal for the sake of commercial standards. The producer accuses him of being too old for film-making. By contrast, he's very animated to return to a justified, virtuous practice, able to redeem him from a lackluster existence.
Since the Renaissance, physiognomists like G.B. della Porta, Charles Le Brun and J.C. Lavater, attempted to codify the facial expressions of emotion and character. Eighteenth-century manuals for the actor are known for having provided a double-sided form of advice. The artificial carriage of the body and voice, led by the principle of analyzing and organizing the set of postures able to signify the passions of the character represented one of the main functions. But this alone could not suffice. The actor was equally asked to bring enough genuine emotional identification with the role, because only then the correct gestural emphasis would automatically follow. The danger is for an actor to imitate the external signs of passion, without actually feeling an individual connection to his material of representation. A remarkable actor was the only one who could execute gestures truthfully related to the passions of the mind. Betterton is supposed to have said, »The Stage ought to be the seat of passion in its various kinds, and therefore the actors ought to be thoroughly acquainted with the whole nature of the affections, and habits of the mind, or else they will never be able to express them justly in their looks and gestures, as well as in the tone of their voice, and manner of utterance«. Steele left the following advice to the actor: »In the general I observed to him, that tho' action was his business, the way to that action was not to study gesture, for the behavior would follow the sentiments of the mind … if the actor is well possessed of the nature of his part, a proper action will necessarily follow«. Similarly, in Le Pornographe, the filmmaker tells his actors to execute the climactic scenes »with 1ove« and to behave as naturally as possible, without giving in the requirements of the industry for excessive moaning and erotic embellishment. The expressionless intercourse is meant to reflect the trajectory to the land of the passions of the mind which manifests no need for artificial marketing. So the genre is present only as a reason to elope into the nature of subjectivity, and not to celebrate the triumph of artificially codified sex.
The emotionless faces, the gestural silence and the annihilation of organicity are all familiar ideas for a certain tradition which associates immobility with the potential for communicating an intangible content. In Jacques Laurent's film, the actors are delegated with the responsibility of keeping their expressions at a minimum, which makes one recall the association between immobility and the state of trance, where the body serves as masking the existence of several inner subjectivities and forces. Gordon Craig claimed the necessity for replacing the actor with the Über-Marionette which »will not compete with life – but rather will move away from it. Its ideal won't rely in the flesh and blood, but in the body in trance«. Certainly, a face without expression and a body that does not move brings the set in the vicinity of tragedy; but as Yeats noted, only the true tragic art may bring the spectator closer to the intensity of a trance. In Le Pornographe, the filmmaker is also busy living this inner journey so intensely which shows no visible marks on the outside, and yet, resembles the state of trance. Maeterlinck was one of the first dramatists of the Symbolist theatre who fought for rethinking the physical theatre in order to serve a spiritual, poetic vision. He went further than Craig and even suggested the possibility for the vital to be entirely banned from the performance stage: »Will the day arrive when sculpture will be used on stage? When the human being will be replaced with a shadow? A reflection? A projection of symbolical forms or a being which will appear to breathe live while being lifeless?.« Jacques Laurent's actors, as well as his friends and acquaintances, all seem devoid of visible emotion while carrying their dialogues, no matter how pornographic or not their lifestyle is. The film's characters are reunited into a homogeneous zone of impassive expressiveness, despite their belonging to different social or professional classes. There is little to no difference between their appearances, pornography-wise. If the genre is expected to exhibit an overabundance of gestural and expressive content on a basis of sexual acts, then one may conclude that Jacques' actors are as far from pornography as the other characters are close to the genre. The source of this apparent democratization is to be found in the core of the protagonist's journey: he plans not to revitalize a genre but to trace himself back to the nature of genuine living. There is no expression, no emotion transparent on any character's face, so one may even fantasize that all faces are pornographic. Or that there is no palpable transition from a pornographic living of emotions to a natural state of misery or bliss.
Nature and classicism represent the most significant background themes in Le Pornographe. Classicism in its more or less noble, or decrepit appearances, is accountable for many scenes of the film: the interiors of the house where the new film is shot feature pieces of furniture in Second Empire style; the gardens are populated with classical statues; discussions take place on a balcony with classical features; the soundtrack heavily relies on pieces by Bach, Händel, Wagner and Mahler. At the same time, such emphasis on classical elements placed in the proximity of pornography could be seen as a vulgarization of the former and as the elevation of status in the latter case. The play on possibilities of reversing canonized roles confers a specific rhythm to the film. Pornography in its explicit dimension is almost entirely absent, except for two hard-core scenes visibly alienated from the rest of the film's aesthetics. Devoid of its explicitness, the genre itself takes on the allure of simplicity conspicuous to classicism. The elements of classicism may enter a time of trivialization because they are too closely intertwined with the class of the bourgeoisie, object of criticism both for the filmmaker in his younger days and for his son, profoundly discontent with his contemporary society. Their presence may also point to a preference in Bonello's case to question the nature of artistic self-containment and survival in an ambiance of cultural safety. There is something inherently safe in the display of classical statues, in the calmness of image echoed in the tranquil gestures of the film characters, while sipping their red wine. Such elegant stillness, however, does not diminish the tension Jacques goes through in returning to a genre failing to satisfy his philosophical needs.
The portrayal of the filmmaker's artistic struggle is seen as the real nature of pornography, in its connotation of authenticity, of showing things as they really are. Jacques seems unmotivated to pursue pornography in the spirit of aesthetic artificiality. He even rejects the nail polish on his actress's fingers, he seems disinterested in the dress she's supposed to wear in her scenes. Being so caught up in finding the right ideas, he even mistakes the make-up artist for an actress, thus proving his total detachment from respecting the conventions. For a viewer minimally trained in the pornographic visuality, such confusion is decidedly dubious. The female make-up artist possesses rather ordinary looks, far from the voluptuousness associated with the pornographic female profile. For Jacques, pornography is less or almost not at all about autonomizing the aesthetic in its sexual appearance, but about returning to the original impetus, to the source of vitality sustaining the artistic process. Because the filmmaker is deeply concerned with the existential implications occasioned by his return to pornography, philosophical cinema par excellence, he enters the zone of abstraction. As the viewer is informed in the first minutes of the film, Jacques' unfinished film L'Animal too was »at the limit of abstraction«. The second occurrence of the word takes place in a dialogue sequence between him and the producer: the latter accuses Jacques of abstract thinking, privileging abstract pictures. This may lead us to assume that the departure from sexual narratives translates into an absorption of metaphysical concerns. Bonello's case for philosophical cinema is so focused and determined, it seems to make us believe there is no pornography without theory or that ultimately all pornography is pure theory or resigned abstraction.
Pornography never fails courting a political agenda, consequently it is not accidental that Jacques breaks through as a filmmaker in the milieu of the '68 activists and revolutionizes the genre. The social agitation organically attracts a reformation of the moving image tradition. Jacques employs as actors and actresses his own friends or people whom he meets outside, in the bars or on the streets and who share similar euphoric social instincts. His gesture of rebellion is however incomplete. A couple of decades afterwards, we witness Jacques caught in a bourgeois lifestyle. He leaves his seemingly devoted partner Jeanne, even abandoning their flat, as he no longer has any use of conventional domesticity. Jacques' refuge is supposed to be nature. His plan is to build there a small house for himself, but we never see him concretely engaged with this activity. He only sits around, draws some lines on the ground, places some laughable measurement devices, inspiring little trust regarding his abilities as a constructor. He reflects a lot – on himself, the government, pornography or aging. Interestingly, his body placed against the natural background, inhabiting the vaguely sketched contours of the future house, hints to a theatrical design, as if he would be meant to deliver his monologue on the spectral stage provided by the regulated nature. The piece of land he decides to build his house on is not out in the wilderness. His piece of land is itself part of a bourgeois domain, belonging to Jacques' friend, to be used upon his agreement. It becomes difficult to extract a pure affiliation to romanticism, because the gesture of rebellion seems caught in suspension: never entirely orchestrated until the last consequences, never satisfied solely with its theoretical consistence. Somehow, the road between theory and practice is spread with melancholic interruptions. The entire film contains hints at issues of political determinism. While having lunch on the terrace of the castle where the shooting for the new film takes place, Jacques reveals the play on misplaced identities when he refers to one of the film's characters: Igor, the driver who allegedly seduces the young woman, may well be »part of the Government«. Even though the rest of the cast is laughing the idea off, we get a sense of seriousness around this remark. Strangely, the political gesture of the director skips the consciousness of his audience, or at least it is seriously misunderstood: praised for the changes he introduced in the format and visuality of the cinematic pornography, he couldn't show more dismay. At last, Jacques feels equally alienated from the social revolution as from the artistic one. He pendulates constantly between states of debilitating introspection and radiant support for political engagement.
The rebellious nature of the father is reenacted in the figure of the son. Together with two friends, he is seen inside an apartment betraying a liberal lifestyle, carefully disorganized and erratic. Joseph is busy articulating a social manifesto, trying to select the best order of the phrases and introduce the most fitting expressions. The questions of style veil the necessity for a proper logic of rebellion. Jacques' son participates in a heated discussion between young people, during a seminar focused on social issues. They are nervous due to being labeled part of a privileged generation, since they feel unhappy with the current order and consequently attempt at consolidating an accurate form a resistance. The material privilege translates into inner misery for the younger generation. As a matter of fact, circling obsessively around the compulsion for a proper construction of insurrection mirrors once again Jacques' own struggle with the right ideas concerning pornography. In 1968, to make a porno, it meant simply, to engage in a political gesture. In the present, the impetus seems to elude any clearly marked borders between a politically engaged existence or its lack thereof. The city with its disillusioned youth remains the space for political realization or failure. In leaving the urban ground, the industry, and by going back to nature, Jacques also expresses his disregard where it concerns perpetuating a political existence. The city is the place of history, be it of social or cinematic substance. It hosts social interaction, domestic boredom, revolutions of all styles, paternal love and filial ingratitude. In contrast, nature is the location for self-criticism, pornography, and dissolution of the revolutionary imagination. Natural rhythm is not accepted by the standardized contemporary pornographic practice, nature is the ultimate horror or threat posed to the escapist scenarios established by the genre. This is why there is no way for the return to nature to be assumed by the filmmaker other than as a straightforward restoration of a natural lifestyle, in the middle of the natural landscape.
Father and son fight against expectations, driven by the need for genuine self-articulation and they both seek refuge for harboring their needs in the middle of nature. Jacques in the proximity of a forest, on the property of his friend. Joseph, together with his lover Monika, on the pastures at the countryside. Nature features in its oddly regulated modes: it is not the wilderness where the hermits bring their search for God, it is always in the proximity of the bourgeois or of the social order; it's either a city park, or the forest included in a private property. It is framed by walls and fences. It does not contain the promise for a full rejection of previous lives. It can also be observed that what the filmmaker is prevented to achieve, due to the producer's line of constraints, is transferred onto the son's shoulders: he is the one to freely make love to his girlfriend outside on a pasture, surrounded by a flock of sheep, he is the one to value the sexual intercourse as a sermon of love. While for many years, the son refused to speak to the father due to his discovering his father's real nature of filmmaking, the moment of reencounter years later shows the two of them bonding over similar pornographic concerns. They both search for an authentic positioning within the self and the society. A transfer of truth-value in regards to the functions of pornography occurs: the false pornography imposed on Jacques Laurent, twenty years later when he took the decision to come back to filmmaking, is sublimated into the authentic pornography enacted through the son's actions. Jacques wants his porn actress to climax only when she is absolutely in love. Monika gets eventually pregnant with Joseph's child. In short, the son becomes the true pornographer.
All questions regarding the activity, means of existence and morality of a pornographer's life are considered to be obscene, according to Jacques Laurent's statement. The final scenes of the film bring together the filmmaker and a journalist, who attempted previously unsuccessfully to get an interview with him. »You speak to me about career and I tell you about my life«, Jacques tells her. The viewer's curiosity into the existence of the pornographer is deemed obscene. The director also manifests irritation when his good friend, the one who agreed to lend him a small piece of land to build his house on, inquires about his former life as a pornographer in a series of questions that characterize the ordinary, predictable curiosity of non-pornographers regarding the genre and its benefits. Jacques has no patience left to respond to familiarity. He politely asks his friend to leave back to his house. His rejection once again reinforces the film's thesis: pornography is nothing less than the veritable pursuit of one own's vital core – a series of survivals and revivals. The key words of the film seem to be the ones associated with the filmmaker's last picture, before his first abandon of the genre: L'animal, left unfinished »at the limit of abstraction«. Because abstraction is only called upon in order to serve the mission of self-introspection, one could think that ultimately Jacques himself is the animal, just like the young woman trying to escape the threat brought by the huntsmen. Her desperate running away from their obscene intentions is Jacques' attempted flight from the vulgarity of an audience who has the wrong idea about what pornography represents. In this particular stance, pornography is nothing less than life itself, so any curiosity exercised upon the particulars of the genre directly dismisses the logic of a purely driven need for being alive. The girl running in the woods, followed by huntsmen and their dogs could well be seen as a metaphor for the hunt towards artistic integrity and authentic living, with all dangers involved.
»I know there are the Bergman, the Antonioni films and even a certain modernity. But I make pornos«, states the filmmaker. One is led to comprehend that such a statement has different implications. Eventually, one grasps very little from Jacques' pornographic practice and vision, except for the hatred he harbors towards being reminded over and over again that he has revolutionized the genre. It is not genre or category he searches for, but the nature of all vital pursuit, in life as well as in art. In contrast to his wife who cut her life short, Jacques decides to live, which is the same as choosing the pornographic path.»I use all penetrations authorized by censorship«, he affirms modestly in the end of Bonello's film.