by Aimee Israel-Pelletier
According to Jacques Rancière, we are in the midst of a seminal aesthetic regime. The paradigm of this new regime is hybridity. Everywhere we look, Rancière explains, we witness continuous and unfettered border-crossings between genres, between high and low art, art and non-art, art and commodity. These border-crossings are not evidence that differences have been reduced to sameness, but are the sign of a capacity to maintain identities at the heart of pluralism. What appears paradoxical is not. Pluralism is manifest in aesthetics as well as in the larger cultural and political spheres. Jürgen Habermas writes, “la reconnaissance des différences, la reconnaissance mutuelle de l’autre dans son altérité peut aussi devenir la marque d’une identité commune.”‘ And Izvetan Todorov, writing in praise of a united Europe, states in Le Nouveau Désordre mondial,
On pourrait se demander dans c contexte si l’unification de l’Europe, se produisant de surcroît à l’âge de la mondialisation, ne menace pas cette diversité culturelle. Je crois pour ma part que le danger est surestimé. Les êtres bumains ont su de tout temps faire la différence entre identité civique, ou administrative, et identité culturelle; à cet égard, l’Etat-nation est plutôt l’exception que la règle. Posséder un passport européen ne vous empêche nullement de vous sentir espagnol de coeur, et même andalou. (133)
Rancière argues that the work of contemporary artists, without being indifferent to distinctions, reflects the collapse of difference we perceive in the world at large. The new aesthetics acknowledges and celebrates multiplicity without reducing it to sameness. It undermines homogeneity and similarities while asserting consensus, diversity, and hybridity. In Le Destin des images, Rancière observes that contemporary art forms, like installation art and conceptual art, are sites where the new paradigm is expressed and promoted. These works may not always be recognized as art because they seem (and often are) random and makeshift constructions. But this is only because we are in a period of transition when both paradigms exist side by side.
Rancière reminds us that the new paradigm explains the collapse of distance between words and images. He points out that although we have long recognized the tight relationship between them, we generally do not grasp how thoroughly words and images have become integrated. We understand, for example, their relationship as one of resemblance and equivalence, based on the notion that words conjure up images and, as the saying goes, an image is worth a thousand words. But this understanding does not go far enough; to use the terms word and image betrays the fact that we are still thinking of their separate and distinct attributes. By their collapse, Rancière suggests that artists no longer see a difference between images and words. He writes,
…I’ image n’est pas une exclusivité du visible. Il y a du visible qui ne fait pas image, il y a des images qui sont toutes en mots. Mais le régime le plus courant de ‘image est celui qui met en scène un rapport du dicible au visible, un rapport qui joue en même temps sur leur analogie et sur leur dissemblance. Ce rapport n’exige aucunement que les deux termes soient matériellement présents. Le visible se laisse disposer en tropes significatifs, la parole déploie une visibilité qui peut être aveuglante. I pourrait sembler superflu de rappeler des choses aussi simples. S’il faut le faire, pourtant, ‘est que ces choses simples ne cessent de se brouiller, que l’altérité identitaire de la resemblance a toujours interféré avec le jeu des relations constitutives des images de l’art. (15-16, italics in original)
To identify and to explain how the collapse of difference works in aesthetics, Rancière introduces the term phrase-image, an expression that implies more than the joining of words and image. The phrase-image is a rhetorical figure, something like Flaubert’s orchestration. It is formed when heterogeneous elements reach the point of greatest expression. The phrase-image is the orchestration and representation of potential chaos – that is, of multiplicity, dissimilarity, paradox, and contradiction. Images, words, and sounds have expressive potential when they coexist. The phrase-image is the unit of expression that evokes their confluence, their cohesion and commonality, their commune mesure. (44) By phrase-image, Rancière is also suggesting the coming together of more than words and images; he is suggesting the convergence of an array of genres and styles. He writes in Le Destin des images,
La phrase n’est pas le dicible, ‘image n’est pas le visible. Par phrase-image j’entends ‘union de deux fonctions à définir esthétiquement, cest-à-dire par la manière dont elles défont le rapport représentatif du texte à ‘image. Dans le schéma représentatif, la part du texte était celle de l’enchanement idéel des actions, la part de ‘image celle du supplément de présence qui lui donne chair et consistance. La phrase-image bouleverse cette logique. La fonction-phrase y est toujours celle de l’enchaînement. Mais la phrase enchaîne désormais pour autant qu’elle donne chair. Et cette chair ou cette consistance est paradoxalement, celle de la grande passivité des choses sans raison.
L’image, elle, est devenue puissance active, disruptive, du saut, celle du changement de regime entre deux ordres sensoriels. La phrase-image est l’union de ces deux fonctions. (56, my italics)
The phrase-image is not a simple equation or relationship between words and images. By collapsing their traditional distinctions, the expressive potential of the work of art expands. This is because their interaction produces a surplus, des choses sans raison -what Rancière calls elsewhere la démesure. The phrase-image is in a position to generate new ideas, new relationships.
In this new regime, differences are not erased or flattened. The individual and the particular have no priority and no set place. In a sense, they do not know their place, are free to occupy any place and are, therefore, apt at border-crossing. This border-crossing is at work in the phrase-image and the force (imaginative and stylistic) that conjoins things, both different and similar, is what Rancière refers to as le commun de la démesure, the unleashing of heterogeneous elements, of surplus – the source of art’s power over reality. (55) Importantly for Rancière, the phrase-image represents a vigorous and timely response to the flattening of individuality, of language, and of images that have made their way in the dominant culture through the mass media and through the commercialization of human activity. Rancière suggests that the only way artists retain their subversive effect on culture is by creating and disseminating forms of aesthetic expression that cannot be readily co-opted and homogenized by inevitable globalization. Therefore, to be effective, these newly created forms need to incorporate disorder, heterogeneity and inclusiveness, as well as a sense of community, all of which are attributes not easily co-opted. The phrase-image is a measure of the desire of individuals, “des corps ivres de communauté,” to resist “la grande égalité marchande et langagière” in order to force a response in the heart of “la torpeur du grand consentement.” (56)
For Rancière, Jean-Luc Godard’s films represent an excellent example of the phrase-image at the core of the new paradigm. This is not surprising. Godard’s work displays a predilection for mixing categories, media, registers, experiences, communities, languages, and histories. Deleuze writes, “Godard is constantly creating categories: hence the very special role of discourse in many of his films where …one genre of discourse always leads to a discourse of another genre” (185). In Godard’s early films, montage and mise-en-scène were preeminent conveyers of narrative; in the 1970s, as Jacques Aumont has put it, “le verbal étouffe le visuel…. C’est la période de grande défiance envers l’image comme inadéquation ou tricherie” (45). From Passion (1981) to Notre musique (2004), Godard returns to montage -extreme montage. These later films can be described as a series of lengthy fragments of significant events and experiences pulled together by images, words, and music in montages that evoke a unified vision of events and experiences – a narrative not so much obscure as irreducible.
Godard’s films as a whole, the early and more recent films, celebrate diversity, heterogeneity and inclusion without losing sight of the singular. In Passion (1981), to take one example, advertising messages and television images coexist with images from high art; characters who are factory workers pose as characters from paintings by Rembrandt, Delacroix, Ingres, and Goya; the world outside the studio is different from the fictional and lush interior world of the studio. Godard underscores these differences but does not measure one against the other. Quotidian reality is neither more nor less banal than the painterly posing. If anything, Passion appears to invite a kind of silent dialogue with painting; suggesting that by virtue of their inclusive nature and their interest in the human and social subject, both painting and film communicate facets of character and of society. Aumont points out, “Godard suggère donc que l’invention du scénario de Passion a reposé sur ‘exploitation délibérée des impressions procurées par des oeuvres visuelles, contenant déjà de l’histoire et du germe narratif et aussi sur l’accueil de l’imprévu” (47). Godard seems to suggest, further, that film welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with painting, to acknowledge it and transport it to cinematic life-that is, to make painting enter the field of movement. But at no moment do we get the sense that Godard vaunts cinematic language at the expense of painting. Neither does he seem to be saying that film completes painting, by, say, adding movement. If we think he does, this is only a factor of our point of view. Kaja Silverman remarks about the scenes of posed paintings, that
Godard is less interested in duplicating this painting [Rembrandt’s Nightwatch] than in reconceiving it in filmic terms. The fixed vantage point of the painter gives way to the mobile camera, which can adopt multiple positions, pan across the surface of the image, and even invade the spectacle itself. Rembrandt’s figures are released from their frozen poses, and begin to move and breathe, and the banner draped in the background blows in the studio wind. Passion also cuts back and forth between the Rembrandt scene, and shots of Isabelle performing factory work, reminding us that montage is another feature of cinema which distinguishes it from painting. (173)
Yet Jean-Luc Godard’s and Eric Rohmer’s painterly scenes -for example, Rohmer’s use of painterly images in La Marquise de O-act more like homage than reconceptions, contrary to what Silverman suggests. Film and painting both focus attention (and art) on human forms, on color, and on the lives of individuals both in the present and in history. One might say of Godard and Rohmer that their desire is like Christo’s wrapping projects- the desire to pull together in one gesture and in one glance things intensely seen and loved. As with painting, Godard’s references to language and literature are akin to homage–to the desire to include and explore affinities. Again, they are not acts of one-upmanship, but an invitation to dialogue and collaboration. Characters in Godard read Baudelaire, Poe, Chateaubriand, and others. References are made to German, Danish, English, Italian, American and Greek languages and cultures. In Le Mépris (1963), a film with Brigitte Bardot about the filming of the Odyssey, Godard follows the plot of Moravia’s A Ghost at Noon. He does so not to rewrite Moravia or Homer, nor to ask that we compare them. As with the paintings in Passion, Godard seems to want to celebrate their art and his own side by side–to bridge the distance between artists. Translation is an apt metaphor for that type of relationship. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit write, “What does seem to interest Gocard is the possibility of a non-interpretive way of relating to The Odyssey. In Contempt, this means subordinating the truth
about The Odyssey to an interest in the kind of relations we can have to it’ (57, original italics). Throughout Le Mépris, characters speak in several languages; translations are given for most, but some are untranslated or incorrectly translated, without any obvious consequences. Godard celebrates contact between cultures, cinemas, and languages. Yet he is not all-embracing. Pluralism is not indiscriminate; his treatment of American culture, manner, and accent, and of Hollywood films is caricatural and negative.
To be sure, Godard is sensitive to the interplay of images and words; his narratives are dense. It is in moments when the phrase-image is at its most saturated, most rich with connections, that we are able to see just how expressive his work can be. One of the best examples of what Rancière calls the new regime–inclusive, expressive and open–is Godard’s extraordinary Eloge de ‘amour (2001). As the title indicates, the film is about love. It is about two holocaust survivors who sell the rights to their story to Hollywood, but who also propose it to the film’s main character, who searches for the right actors, then looks for ways to write and produce the film. To relate the story of Eloge de l’amour this way is really to say little about the film. It is to reduce it to its least interesting aspect, to a narrative that is anything but clear. The film has many characters, many scenes, time-frames, and spaces, so that to summarize the plot is to miss the real point. More accurately, Eloge is made up of a series of tightly constructed phrase-im and narrative drive create in the viewer a sense of bewilderment and wonder accompanied by only fleeting moments of intelligibility. What makes this film remarkable is the impact it makes both on the mind and the senses. The phrase-image is the net effect of a scene, its impact on the mind, on the imagination, and on the senses. In Godard, the phrase-image is montage taken a notch above the capacity of our mind and our senses to process meaning in accustomed ways.
Writing about Godard, Rancière points out that “Le cinéma qu’il nous raconte apparait comme une série d’appropriations des autres arts. Et il nous la présente dans un entrelacs de mots, de phrases et de textes, de peintures métamorphosées, de plans cinématographiques mélangés à des photographies ou bandes d’actualité, éventuellement reliés par des citations musicales.” (52) Rancière is describing Histoire(s) du cinéma, but could just as easily be talking about Eloge and other recent Godard films. Godard’s work is special because it appears experimental and anarchic and yet, at the same time, it brings meaning to and humanizes lived experience. What makes Eloge a masterpiece is that the film’s montage (its radical look, its visual and verbal density) takes nothing away from its characters and their histories, but on the contrary heightens the expression of love between Perceval and Eglantine and that of the Bayards for each other. It also heightens the ideological stance of the film. It tells us about history and politics; it tells us a great deal about the film business and about the art of film; it tells us as much about Godard’s attachment to individuals, to characters, and to community as any of his nouvelle vague films do, or as much as any nineteenth-century realist narrative does.
For Rancière, cinema lost something when it quickly gave way to nineteenth-century narrative interests instead of capitalizing on the potential of a language of images. In saying this, Rancière imagines a kind of cinema described by Jean Epstein as moving images that not only replace the art of imitating the visible, but make the sensory and the invisible visible (“l’accés overt à une vérité intérieure du sensible ‘où s’abolira’ toute opposition entre les apparences trompeuses et la réalité substantielle.”).
For Ranciere, Godard represents the finest example of the contemporary artist who, using the phrase-image, expresses modern experience freely, densely and movingly. I want to argue that Eric Rohmer is another good example. Rohmer’s films exemplify the notion expressed by Epstein of an art that makes the sensory and the invisible visible. He achieves this by evoking the quotidian as the multi-layered experience of events-what Rohmer refers to as ambiance. In Rohmer, the act of speaking plays a significant role. But often at important moments in his films, speech is but one of many elements. Talking only appears to be the main attraction; so much happens in scenes where nothing but talking seems to be taking place. Many of his films are inhabited by a massive agitation and an instability positioned alongside the verbal sparring. It is only thanks to the rolling din of words that his films maintain an appearance of continuity and coherence.
In an interview taped in 1993 and published in 2005 by Andre Bazin and Andre Labarthe, Rohmer tells Jean Douchet that before writing the scenario of a film, he decides on its dominant colors- the overall visual tonality. He warns us in the same interview not to focus too much on the literary aspects of his films, saying that he is less and less interested in dramatic effects and more interested in ambiance-the presence of all that surrounds the narrative.3 To the suggestion that his work is un cinema bavard, Rohmer responds testily that his work is influenced by German music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He asserts, “Pour moi et pour les cinéastes de la nouvelle vague, ça passe moins par la littérature que par la musique.” He is careful to explain that by music he is not referring to background or accompaniment music. The music he has in mind is an organizing system, a structural concept, une harmonie, that orchestrates the visual and the narrative. It sets the nouvelle vague filmmakers apart from films influenced by jazz or rock, Rohmer points out. In the same taped interview he suggests, “Je suis un cineaste du muet.” Whether this is meant to be provocative or not, he is in effect asking critics to correct the dominant view of his work as heavily reliant on words, since to continue to focus on the verbal side of Rohmer’s art is to neglect the films’ other significant aspects. Unquestionably, conversations are important moments. But they must not be allowed to eclipse other cinematic qualities.
If we only momentarily stop listening to the characters’ words, Rohmer’s films reveal themselves to be inhabited by a rich and edgy sensibility. Rohmer’s vision of reality is that of a tumultuous and all but unhinged world. An example is the long scene between François and Lucie at the Butte de Chaumont in La Femme de l’aviateur (1980). This is a scene of veritable movement and variety. Like much of the film, it is a noisy scene. In the foreground, François and Lucie are talking. They’ve just met; and we’ve just met them. Yet they speak as if they’ve known each other for a long time.He an anxious lover, is spying on a couple, and she assists him, playfully. He cannot be bothered by her; he nervous attention is elsewhere. As they walk and talk, the camera, not content to follow François’s obsession, pursues the many visitors in the park. When it is not framing the beautiful face of Lucie alongside lush trees, the camera often moves away to give us a lengthy look at various pedestrains–a woman pushing a baby car with canes, an old woman with a dog, school children running, a young girl jogging, an amusing Asian-American man and his Canadian friend taking photos, a group of school children, and a variety of other people who traverse the park. These characters are potentially as interesting–if not more so-than François, as is Lucie, left largely unexplored. We would be happy to follow Lucie and a number of these anonymous passers-by if we could; and that’s the point. Rohmer in no way undermines the narrative or the words that his characters cannot seem to live without, and that we enjoy.
Yet, the narrative and the moral that this and other Rohmer films offer are a side-show to various interests on the part of Rohmer and the camera. The phrase-image captures that variety, that overflow, thereby representing the fullness of the real. By side-show, I do not mean a minor show, playing second-billing to the main interest, but rather that in Rohmer, as in Godard, there is no hierarchy established among elements of interest; so much happens on the screen, so many related and unrelated things occur, that the side show is one of several shows all equally compelling because all equally attended to by the camera, and consequently, duly noted by the viewer. The narrative serves to reveal character. But, alongside the words, there are spaces, sounds, and poses so strongly emphasized that they can–and frequently do–command sustained interest and at least temporarily dominate the show. We have for example Paris and its streets, lush and busy parks, seaside towns, intimate interiors, gestures and faces. Rohmer’s films are filled with sound and movement and, with the possible exception of Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), are packed with characters, both anonymous and identified–the faces that make up reality. All these features are not the backdrop to the narrative, but constitute the very fabric of social discourse and Rohmer’s vision of contemporary life, the illusion of the real. The phrase-imageThe phrase-image communicates this abundance and this surplus. Ranciere’s term for dimesure, and Rohmer’s is ambiance.
Images, words, and music work together to help establish the characters’ identity and the film’s moral lesson. One cannot imagine Ma nuit chez Maud in the summer instead of the dead of winter. The winter landscape contributes to the austerity of the philosophical discussion. In Le Genou de Claire (1970), what better setting than the Lac d’Annecy, with its connection to Rousseau, to accentuate Gérôme’s fetish, his perversity? What better setting to expose this fetish than in summer when, heavily clothed, he contrasts with the bare young bodies around him?
Rohmer is a great creator of characters. The characters have a penchant for using words to understand themselves–they are great talkers-but they are not all versions of the same character. This individuality is a factor of how closely they fit in or fail to fit specific spaces. The Paris of L’amour l’après-midi (1972) is not the Paris of La Femme de l’aviateur or of Les Nuits de la pleine lune (1982). Characters in these films are different, and approach their problems differently. The words that Rohmer’s characters cannot seem to live without are a constitutive part of their identity and of the spaces they inhabit; we see how the intricate web of words and images tightens around them throughout the film. But paradoxically, we also see, especially when the seduction by words weakens (as in repeated viewings), that when characters are speaking, the camera often lingers on other features of the surroundings, on ambient things that do not necessarily serve narrative ends, that seem to have little to do with advancing our knowledge of the characters.
Rohmer has a penchant for characters whose emotional register and self-knowledge can be gauged not only by what they say, what they do, and what others say about them, but also and especially by what they hide–what others generally do not suspect, but which we do, by virtue of the fact that we follow the camera’s eye. As viewers, we see the characters in all their contradictions, all their blindness, and all their banality. The ambiance created in Rohmer’s films imparts the knowledge we have of the characters, but ultimately we are only slightly interested in their dilemmas; their concerns are narrow and often commonplace. Like the tourist and the happy few in Stendhal, we are distant from them, and are merely amused by them. This position parallels the position of the camera, busy showing us much more than what interests the character, or what they themselves see. This is true even in tight and closed spaces, like apartments, where the wallpaper or a mirror might draw more attention than the person speaking.
In Le Rayon vert (1986), for example, Delphine’s anxieties about spending her summer vacation alone are heightened by scenes of bantering and pleasure that we know she is too anxious to notice, let alone enjoy. These scenes are made up of phrase-images, cinematic moments filled with activity and affect. The scenes tell us as much about Delphine’s dissociation from those around her as they underscore, through the camera’s eye, the beauty of a certain moment and place- moments and places that are noted and enjoyed by others (her Swedish acquaintance, the children at play, the hosts at the table, etc.). And we are invited to find pleasure in the flow of words, the musical phrases, the sounds all around, and the density of visual moments. The impact of Delphine’s sentiments, her anxiety tinged with boredom and loneliness, would be sad for us were we not kept delighted by these places (the streets of Paris, lunch and conversations in the outdoors, seascapes like Cherbourg and Biarritz, the slopes, and even moments spent in dreary private apartments). So here the phrase-image serves as a kind of rhetorical figure expressing the totality of Delphine’s experience. It is made up of what we know Delphine is unaware of, as well as what we know she feels.
Another example of the phrase-image is the scene in Cherbourg when Delphine goes for a walk. The sea is at a distance, barely visible, but we hear the waves distinctly and we hear and see the trees in the foreground tossed by the wind. Delphine is caught by the thorns of a branch. When the camera zooms in on her face, the script describes what we see, “Elle ne peut retenir les larmes qui lui brûlent les yeux. Elle regarde le ciel, baisse les paupières, pleure en silence.” We know Delphine and we feel pity for her. But not much, considering how difficult she has been to please. When, at the end of the film, only days before the end of her vacation, she meets a man she likes at the train station and decides to spend her remaining time with him, we are pleased for her, but this encounter does not mean very much, since it does not change our feelings or understanding of her. Though she occupies cinematic space and is the central character, she has not been central to us; at the same time we were following her, we were preoccupied by the many other rich moments made available by the camera. This way of positioning the character between her own self-importance and our general indifference to her is prevalent in Rohmer, and explains our feeling of detachment from many of his characters. We are not meant to like them, because they are flawed and morally weak.
The phrase-image works on a different level as well. Rohmer’s films are traversed by movement. For all their talking, his characters are almost always on the move, criss-crossing space and visually agitated. Train rides and car rides, common in his work, evoke the mobility of characters who talk their way in and out of situations, ever seeking to find themselves (Les Nuits de la pleine lune, is an excellent example). Characters stroll, pace, drive cars, ride trains, buses, bicycles; they cover a lot of ground. Rohmer is not subtle about this. This movement, at times enjoyable and at times edgy, is an evocative, recurring phrase-image. The scene between Anne and François outside the café in La Femme de l’aviateur is a typical example. Characters travel, but always come back to one particular place. That revisiting of places mirrors the characters’ equally persistent return to fixed ideas. Rohmer’s characters are obsessive and
tenacious. The phrase-image underlines this all-consuming trait,
intensifying it in conversations, images and music.
Sabine in Le Beau mariage (1982) is a case in point. Throughout the film, she relentlessly pursues Edmond, whom she wants to marry. This desire is expressed visually through space, by a crossing of his and her spaces (by car and by train), by her words, which are always hurrying to complete or replace his, as well as by her irritating variations on the phrase “je vais me marier.” This criss-crossing and insistence reflect Sabine’s determination to bridge the two distinct spaces, the flat and dreary landscape that surrounds her family home, on one hand, and, on the other, the warm and hilly homes of the old French bourgeoisie into which she aspires to marry. There is a great deal one can say about how spaces here- both visual and social -impart meaning, reflect character, articulate goals and histories.
We learn through Sabine’s words, gestures, and her past who she is and why she wants Edmond. We also understand in many ways who Edmond is and why her persistence will not work. The decision to marry Edmond was initially not her own, but devised by Clarisse, who perversely orchestrates this unlikely match. We watch their plan insinuate itself both innocently and not so innocently. We see this slippery slope visually (literally the slope of the old quartier where Clarisse and Sabine discuss the plot); we see it in the cars that at times seem to float on air and at others to grind their way noisily through streets); we catch it in the screeching theme music of the film; and we hear it in the phrases that characters say to each other (as in the impeccably rendered meeting in Edmond’s office, where we suspect an awakening of Edmond’s interest in Sabine just as she is gradually detaching herself).
Rohmer is a master of nuance and of ambiance; many of the scenes, in this and other films, appear at once staged (seemingly calculated to suggest a meaning) and innocently casual (suggesting none). In Ma Nuit chez Maud, we have an example in the scene at the end of the film when, after many years, Maud and Jean-Louis run across each other at the beach. Winter scenes in Clermont-Ferrand at the beginning of the film have made way for the concluding summer scene, snowy slopes have been replaced by sandy slopes, as the characters assess the changes in their lives in a flash of recognition- and certainly of curiosity and of confusion. What are they thinking? What is Rohmer thinking? What are we to think? It is not clear. Yet, we are struck by a profusion of signs. The phrase-image is a dense expression which, like metaphor, suggests connections and creates effects. But, perhaps unlike metaphor, it cannot conceivably account for and connect all the signs.
Elusive Meaning: “Il faut donc entendre”
Rancière traces the phrase-image all the way back to Flaubert. He writes, “Si Flaubert ‘n’y voit pas’ dans ses phrases, cest qu’il écrit à l’âge de la voyance et que l’âge de la voyance est précisément celui où une certaine “‘vue’ s’est perdue, où le dire et le voir sont entrés dans un espace de communauté sans distance et sans correspondance” (58, original italics). And so, Flaubert uses the gueuloir, “il faut donc entendre,” and the montage. As an example of montage, Rancière offers the famous scene of the Comice in Madame Bovary, “comme mesure du sans-mesure ou discipline du chaos.” (58) The phrase-image is not a phrase that allows us to visualize a meaning; it is not an image that carries meaning, but something closer to, but not exactly the same as cinematic montage–words, sounds, and images set up in such a way as to create an impact and/or a meaning.
Though Rohmer, unlike Godard, is not known for stylized cinematic montages, his films have many moments where meaning, or the effect of meaning, manifests itself by means of montage. “Je veux brûler d’amour” says the sensuous Marion in Pauline à la plage (1983), and at that very moment, Pauline gets up calmly and sits by the cold fireplace. It is as if in this montage Rohmer were offering us a glimpse of Pauline’s desire, or her disposition- her curiosity or lack thereof to experience what Marion means by these words. It is open to interpretation. We cannot even be sure that Rohmer is pointing us in the direction of meaning, let alone that he is directing this or that interpretation, and it does not really matter.
There is also an exquisite scene in Le Beau Mariage that joins meaning and effect so well that we are seduced both by the density of potential meaning and the innocence of the whole set up – the fact that it may not have an intended meaning. At the picturesque restaurant, a former mill in the country, where Sabine and Edmond lunch after they return from the château where he bought the Jersey pitcher, Edmond sits with his back to the tall window where a warm golden glow envelops him. This shot is strikingly different from the dark rich background that sets Sabine off in the same scene. They are both beautifully set and maybe even complementarily so. But they are worlds apart, and we see this. His look and words exude ease and calm, and her eyes and words are tense and eager. No words alone, no metaphors or images, could convey what is taking place in this scene with any degree of subtlety or truthfulness. These two scenes, and many others like them, work so well because the words and the images cannot be parsed; the variety and density of clues cannot be articulated, without crushing their artistry, undermining their power of suggestion, and ultimately, trivializing their meaning -if in fact meaning were offered as a possibility at all.
To illustrate the elusiveness and, at the same time, the power of the phrase-image, Rancière uses a film sequence from the Marx brother’s Une Nuit à Casablanca (1946),
… un policier regarde d’un air soupçonneux la singulière attitude d’Harpo, immobile et la main tendue contre un mur. Il lui demande donc de sortir de là. D’un signe de tête, Harpo indique qu’il ne le peut pas. “Vous allez peut-être me faire croire que c’est vous qui soutenez le mur”, ironise le policier. Par un nouveau signe de tête, Harpo indique que c’est exactement le cas. Furieux que le muet se moque ainsi de lui, le policier arrache Harpo à sa faction. Et, bien sûr, lemur s’éffondre à grand fracas. Ce gag du muet qui soutient le mur est la parabole la plus propre à nous faire sentir la puissance de la phrase-image qui sépare le tout se tient de l’art du tout se touche de la folie explosive ou de la bêtise consensuelle. (57)
Recall Rohmer’s assertion in the interview with Douchet, “Je suis un cinéaste du muet.” The illusion of the real is not created by words alone. Words are only a part of the effect of the real which is evoked by ambiance. A rhetorical figure, the phrase-image, is the opposite of a modernist art of impoverishment.” Rather, it is an example and a manifestation of the desire on the part of directors like Godard and Rohmer to celebrate the plenitude of life through arts of inclusion, arts that overload the senses and the mind, “C’est le commun de la démesure ou du chaos qui donne désormais sa puissance à l’art.” (55)
My juxtaposition of Godard and Rohmer is motivated by a sense that film, like video, television and, more generally, technologies that mix words, sounds, and images, are suited for a culture that, as Rancière points out, is already perhaps “after post-modernism”-that is, a culture of inclusion and of community busy reframing the relationships between the self and society by means of images, words and anything else that can produce the most impact, the most affect, and perhaps, advance the most meaning. Flaubert had started that project in literature. It remains to be seen if an upgraded version of the phrase-image will emerge in literature, enabling words on the page to offer new opportunities for generating expression without sacrificing intelligibility.
University of Texas at Arlington
1. Quoted in Todorov, 132.
2. Jean Epstein, Bonjour cinéma (Paris: Editions de la Sirène, 1921). Cited by Jacques Rancière in La fable cinématographique (Paris: Seuil, 2001), p.7.
3. André S. Labarthe, Eric Rohmer. Preuves à l’appui, (Paris: MK2. Cinéma de notre temps, 2005).
4. Eric Rohmer. Rayon vert in L’Avant scène cinéma, (Paris: Décembre 1986. Numéro 355), P. 28.
5. The expression is from Leo Bersani in his book, Arts of Impoverishment. Beckett, Rothko, Resnais, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
Aumont, Jacques. Les théories des cinéastes. Paris: Nathan Cinéma, 2004.
Bersani, Leo and Ulysse Dutoit. Forms of Being. Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity. London: British Film Institute, 2004.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2. The Time-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Rancière, Jacques. Le Destin des images. Paris: La Fabrique éditions, 2003. Silverman, Kaja, and Harun Farocki. Speaking About Godard. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Todorov, Tzvetan. Le Nouveau désordre mondial. Réflexions d’un Européen. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, S.A., 2003.