Labyrinth of Passion
By Leo Goldsmith
Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream
Dir. Frank Beauvais, France, KimStim
“[F]or a collector,” Walter Benjamin explains, “ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” Benjamin is, as the title of his essay tells us, “Unpacking My Library,” and so he is of course talking about books, actual objects. Many of us are still surrounded, bunkered by books, records, Blu-rays, and the occasional videotape, even with the increased virtualization of media.
Don’t call it a dematerialization—perhaps a diminution? In any case, media collection as it is today no longer seems to require so much furniture. Nevertheless, this general outsourcing of physical media to hard drives and remote servers hasn’t changed the nature of collection as Benjamin envisioned it. If anything, it’s expanded this condition to include the even larger reserves of vague digital objects—.pdf’s and .mkv’s and .ogg’s, hoarded and organized and shared and migrated (and often otherwise ignored). At the end of his essay, Benjamin erects a dwelling in his precious library and disappears inside it. At this point, wittingly or otherwise, hasn’t everybody? Even streaming queues, playlists, favorites, and the like, which may seem rather impersonal dwelling places by comparison (time-shares, perhaps?), are no less easy to get lost in. The dreamer dreams—and lives inside the dream.
There’s something more than a little perverse about the release—virtual, obviously—of Frank Beauvais’s 2019 film Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream at this particular moment. One needn’t lean too hard on its resonances in a year of sheltering in place, alone or in small numbers, accompanied only by a networked set of machines promising connection to a vast collection of media. Beauvais’s film relates events from the filmmaker’s life that took place between April and October 2016, not 2020—and, indeed, the large and small events of that year, many of which surface in Beauvais’s narration, are monumental and traumatizing enough without being recast as pandemic premonitions. Nevertheless, the film’s method of construction might only now be recognizable to many of us: it is composed entirely of images taken from the more than 400 films he watched during that time, a period of deep isolation and depression. It is the work of a collector lost in the labyrinth of his own collection.
The viewer may have something similar to this experience while watching Beauvais’s dizzying film. Edited by Thomas Marchand, Just Don’t Think quickly finds and then sustains a steady momentum of brief images, most of them only a few seconds. These excerpts are stripped of their original context and even their soundtracks—the only sound we hear before the final credits is the voiceover narration, written and spoken by Beauvais in dry, clipped cadences. The combination occasionally seems overwhelming: a torrent of images and words. Those who don’t speak French well will find themselves rushing to keep up with reading subtitles, watching clips, and listening for nuances in Beauvais’s cadences. But the effect is singular, mesmeric in its rhythmic intensity.
The short, precise sentences of the narration, along with the cool monotone of his voice, have a literary quality. (The film’s text has been published as a book in France by Capricci.) Many critics have placed Beauvais’s authorial voice within a tradition of queer belles lettres: Beauvais himself twice references Virginie Despentes; others have cited the memoirs of the prolific writer and photographer Hervé Guibert. Beauvais has inherited some of Guibert’s style, with its odd mix of tenderness, bitterness, insouciance, and desolation—always elegant, always candid, and always ready with a wonderfully petty remark for a nemesis or family member.
Beauvais largely reserves this venom for the inhabitants of the small Alsatian village where, he tells us at the start of the film, he finds himself marooned at 45. Having recently broken up with the partner he’d moved there with, 50 km from the nearest city, penniless and without a driver’s license, he finds himself at once close to nature and surrounded by a rural conservative culture he loathes. A local culture marked by “tribal atavism,” “obscene family reunions” at Easter, and a “Protestant, almost always right-wing stiffness”—a phrase Beauvais pairs with a close-up shot of a gloved hand menacingly brandishing a wooden dildo. “Obviously,” Beauvais remarks, “the election results are chilling.” His only consolations are weekly meals with his mother, who lives nearby with Beauvais’s stepfather and drives him to the shops.
And movies. Lots and lots of movies. “Three, four, or even five films a day,” which he watches all evening while drinking beer and smoking weed: “a drunken solitude which gradually turned into vertigo.” Haunted by the scene of his semi-estranged father’s death three years earlier during a home viewing of a Jean Grémillon film, Beauvais assumes he’ll die soon too, and yet this routine continues. During the day he tends to minimal chores and earns money eBay-ing some of the thousands of records, DVDs, and books that crowd the corners of his house. At night he indulges his cinephile obsessions. Like Benjamin’s collector, it is a reality constructed out of the media that surrounds him, alternately a nest and a prison:
Illegal downloading has no secrets for me, from warez sites to YouTube channels, I pick out whatever intrigues me, films I never had access to and always wanted to see, the most improbable discoveries: silent movies out of copyright, pre-Code Hollywood gems, incunabula of Soviet cinema, Scandinavian erotic films, gialli, pink films, German dramas, ’70s Euro-thrillers. Anything goes, and I can’t stop. I manage my downloads, I archive, I go to bed, and I start again the next day. I literally sink into others’ films, lose all desire to write, film, do anything other than watch others’ films. The nest becomes a niche, the refuge a prison. And others’ films are no more than mirrors, not windows.
A question for the cinephile: is the activity of watching movies an escape from reality, or a way of dealing with the mess of real life indirectly, from a safe distance? Beauvais’s film ruminates on this question at length, and the complex braiding of its images and narration seems to suggest that these two options are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, if films are the ways that Beauvais retreats from life, they also seem to serve as a means to return to it, to make it visible again, and as a medium for reconnecting with his friends, his family, the world, even his neighbors. “The films, of course: outlet, escape, recovery.”
This reinforces the film’s sense of paralysis, but also its hopefulness. The rhythms of the voiceover curiously suggest both a kind of numbing repetition and a careening forward momentum, as if Beauvais needs to play out his obsessions to vanquish them—the only way out is through. The film’s strategically coy use of images moves us in this direction as well: by using excerpts entirely without sound, rarely allowing sequential shots from the same film, and removing nearly all conventional markers (e.g., recognizable actors) that might ground the attentive viewer in a particular film, the film constantly directs our attention to the text. The result is possibly bewildering for the film junkie expecting a tour of cinematic high-points—a personal journey with Frank Beauvais through torrented movies. Indeed, part of what is especially unsettling to a certain kind of cinephile is the way in which the film abstracts these images from their linkage to an aesthetic lineage. They become, for Beauvais, objects that belong and point back to him, even as he continually tells us how much he feels like he’s losing himself in them.
In this, Just Don’t Think becomes difficult to classify, even amid the very long and varied history of films that use other films. Beauvais’s previous works include a number of films in the experimental found footage genre. But the footage in this film, to borrow the filmmaker Jen Proctor’s distinction, is more searched than found, and it’s measured in bites rather than feet. It’s tempting, too, to think of it as an essay film or even a video essay, but it’s neither as meandering as the former nor as programmatic as the latter. Other points of reference might include Godard’s found footage works, such as The Image Book, but the latter seems too gimmicky by comparison—a cinephilic guessing game in which the viewer is supposed to feel rewarded for spotting the reference, fan service for the movie buffs.
Christian Marclay’s The Clock also bears superficial similarities. But where Marclay’s device bends cinematic history—and a limited one—to its purpose, yoking images to a chronometric mechanism, Beauvais’s conceit moves, as it were, anti-clockwise, refracting meanings into a wider universe of metaphors and associations. In Marclay’s installation, images illustrate and enumerate; here, they generate new interpretive networks between the viewer and the films (including Beauvais’s own). The image is not a component of a larger system, nor is its surface content necessarily legible, in the way that digital images are analyzed and described by AI engines, which in turn generate automatic descriptions of their content. (A hand picking up a grenade. A man’s body lying face down on a beach.) The images in Beauvais’s film function precisely in their seemingly limitless dimensionality, not—or not only—in their connection to a chronology of movie references, or even to the filmmaker’s own life impressions.
Throughout, Beauvais and Marchand work playfully with—and occasionally against—text and image associations. Sometimes there is a more or less graphically similar correlation: reference to his pet rabbit, Sarah Jane, is accompanied by a shot of a kitschy clock with cartoon rabbits. Others are symbolic: in the voiceover Beauvais likens his situation to a midlife crisis suffered by a tragicomic Blake Edwards character, and shows us a cockroach trapped in a tiny metal chair and Charlie Chaplin in The Idle Class (1921), locked in a knight’s suit of armor (and thus not immediately identifiable). Prince’s death is illustrated with a shot of a character dropping a crown at their feet; Beauvais’s recognition of the Purple One’s influence on his sexual self-understanding is accompanied by a shot of a group of runners, one of which is trying to conceal a very noticeable boner. Still others are more oblique, suggestive of personal associations or in-jokes, as in a sequence in which he recounts records, books, and films from his vast and overwhelming media collection, which he gave away to friends: baroque music, a swan; Marguerite Duras, a bottle of wine pouring into a glass; Cecil B. DeMille, a slightly plastic-looking icon of Jesus.
Among the most complex sequences in this regard is one devoted to his father—“mon père”—in which Beauvais relates his deep ambivalence about their relationship through a series of verbal associations, which are then matched with images, each becoming increasingly oblique. Here is a condensed version:
“Mon père. Tour de France. Miroir du cyclisme [a French cycling magazine].” High-angle shot of legs cycling.
“Mon père. La vie du rail [a magazine about trains].” Shot of a railroad signal changing.
“Mon père. Parades.” Shot of carnival puppets.
“The accordion.” Close-up of a carbuncular old man wearing a paper hat at a party.
“Mon père. ‘Que será será.’” Close-up of a man’s feet sliding across the floor on little mats, possibly to cover up footprints.
“‘The Priest’s Maid Song.’” Crotch-level shot of a burlesque dancer.
“Mon père. Sport." Close-up of a man’s hand holding a glass of brandy.
“His obsolete idea of virility, conjugality, paternity.” Shot of a white cardboard cut-out of a woman’s body on a gaudy red crushed-velvet bedspread.
“Animal TV shows.” Wide shot of a dog sniffing another dog’s butt.
“The fear of what people will say if you step out of line.” Shot of a man’s silhouette as he walks in the shadow of a building.
“Of not making ends meet.” Close-up of a clump of hair falling to the floor.
There is a density to the images’ level of detail that resonates within each of Beauvais’s associations, but the film withholds the codex, constantly ping-ponging us between screen and voice. Even this verbal attempt to capture the complexities of these text-image alignments fails to capture the particular textures of these images—different colors, historical periods, cultural markers, cinematic styles and genres—which no doubt informed Beauvais’s selection, excited his interest, or sparked the association in the first place.
Just Don’t Think plays a game of its own, then, candidly revealing one moment and slyly obscuring the next. This is part of the complex push-and-pull between the private and the public, inside and outside, that torments Beauvais’s film. On the one hand, a quiet hermeticism, the exile of body and mind to a small terrain and a set of obsessions. (“My desires are cryogenized.” Shot of a severed cock in a glass cube on a scientist’s desk.) On the other, a hyperconnectivity of hard drives and images and emotions. Beauvais’s solipsism is pierced by news from outside: a “flashback” to the 2015attacks in Paris; the peak of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. His disgust with his neighbors, his fellow countrymen, his friends, and the hordes of tourists that descend on his village in summertime—“a human tide… a torrent roaring with chatter, interjections, and loud cries”—is coupled with an agony, a rage at his own passivity in the face of the horrors of the world. He longs to be like the dialectical heroes of communist cinema he loves so much—always questioning their place in society and proving themselves useful, productive members of a collective utopia—rather than their counterparts in capitalist cinema, driven only by pleasure and a deluded sense of his own individualism and exceptionalism. “One dreams and produces; the other consumes.”
Films are an escape, but not always in the obvious way. They allow us to disappear into mindless fantasy, but also mobilize a more active liberation, a rejection of an intolerable set of conditions. Benjamin’s collector seems to vanish into his own reverie, but there is a potential for a more critical disappearance. Beauvais’s lengthy enumeration of the ways that his films allow him to flee from his life, then, emphasizes the very necessity of escape—an escape from a reality that is insupportable, unbearable, but mostly, fundamentally, unacceptable. The challenge is to escape to somewhere else, to make something better—and materially so—on the other side. In the end, we don’t follow Beauvais to this somewhere else, but at least he gets out. “In the end, I’m leaving.”