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Alain Cavalier
France, 1993

With the closing of 92Y Tribeca in March, and the (temporary?) end of this website’s nearly four-year monthly screening series1, it was easy to feel a bit jaded about the state of repertory cinema in 2013. Even with the wealth of major retrospectives in New York, programs devoted to Allan Dwan, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Jacques Demy, among many others, I still found it difficult to shake the feeling that the old had few truly new things to offer. My own extracurricular repertory efforts, including a weekend-long program of early computer movies I co-curated with Gregory Zinman, sought to show some seldom-seen material, but I still found it hard to shake that morbid cinephilic cynicism that there were few real gems left to unearth.

This made my encounter with the works of Alain Cavalier during Doc Lisboa’s retrospective especially salutary. The only Cavalier film I had known of in advance was his Pierre Lhomme-shot 1962 film Le combat dans l’île, a noirish take on love and right-wing terrorism featuring a bazooka-wielding Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider as his exquisitely patient girlfriend. Doc Lisboa’s program focused, not surprisingly, on his non-fiction work, which has often documented occupations and avocations that are, historically or technologically, on the outs. But the real revelation was Cavalier’s 1993 film Libera me, a wordless fable of political occupation and resistance that is somehow both utterly alien and piercingly intimate all at once.

Shot somewhat in the style of his 1987 Thérèse, Libera me is composed as a series of tableaux, each an achingly precise image: a slab of meat tied up with string; makeshift coffins numbered with black paint; a handkerchief; a bundle of bedding; a head doused with blood. No words are spoken, but the soundtrack is rich with the faint sounds of bodies breathing, moving, writhing, touching. Its low-key lighting and palette of dim blues and greys and browns give it an eerily outdated look that is virtually impossible to associate with the early 1990s. Bresson’s 1970s films are perhaps the closest aesthetic precursors – in their framing and hues, in their formal delicacy – and this is especially evident in the way Cavalier’s film depicts the body as the locus of all political action.

The image is certainly important, but almost more so for its physicality – used in the forging of passports, as a memento or an incriminating document - than for its compositional elements. And Cavalier’s images suggest an uncanny, timeless present, inscribing itself in concrete forms, mass and texture, and gestures of flesh and struggle.

  1. * And an extra-special thanks to Cristina Cacioppo for those four years!