Body Shots
Michael Sicinski on Philippe Grandrieux’s Meurtrière

Meurtrière plays Sunday, January 24, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2016.

I sometimes think I put my credibility as a cinephile at risk by acknowledging that I don’t despise the cinema of Gaspar Noé. In certain respects he’s the world’s greatest BFA film student, his formal chops outstripping his intellectual mettle to an unfailingly embarrassing degree. So it’s no surprise that his early, “immature” films, Carne and Irreversible, are far and away his best. Despite their dexterity and busywork, they are simple, elemental even. As he gains in both resources and unearned confidence (Enter the Void, Love), Noé’s films become markedly dumber, strutting across the screen with half-baked Buddhist ideas and adolescent sex. (His finest film to date, the avant-garde soccer short Shoot, is pure kineticism and free of narrative, showing that Noé makes a better Michael Snow manqué than a Kubrick Jr.)

But then, if those of us in the film world were made of sterner stuff, we wouldn’t be talking about Noé at all, would we? Film-dude one-upmanship (or dick-measuring, as the case may be) seldom offers such a perfect cool-and-cooler comparison as Gaspar Noé and Philippe Grandrieux, two French edge-walkers variously associated with the “New French Extremity” or the “artsploitation” pseudo-genre. But Grandrieux, who has barely made inroads in the American market (his debut feature Sombre is available on domestic DVD, and that’s it), is in every respect the tougher artist, the Scott Walker to Noé’s Trent Reznor, the Hannibal to American Horror Story. To judge from his mystique, Grandrieux is that awesome band nobody likes yet, and you secretly hope nobody discovers.

This sounds like I am accusing these two filmmakers, and their supporters, of posturing, but let me be clear. Everyone is sincere in this equation, and while I remain on the fence about Grandrieux at this point, he is undoubtedly a fascinating and original artist, a “subject for future research” in the parlance of Sarrisian auteurism. But the comparison is worth making because it clarifies how the two men stake their claim on similar areas of inquiry—the female body, shock and horror, human iniquity, tactile sensation, and the transmutation of fear into grace. Whereas Noé wraps his experiments in (thin) stories, and uses his formal explorations (flash frames, flicker, roving camera, extremes of dark and light, buzzing and grinding audio) to convey the psychological states of his characters, Grandrieux uses his methods (near blackness, extreme close-ups, lack of focus, swish pans, pure movement, buzzing and grinding audio) for a related but notably different end.

In Grandrieux’s narrative films—Sombre (1998), A New Life (2002), and especially A Lake (2008), his most extreme, attenuated narrative workthe sound and image are used to withhold information from the viewer, partly as an analogue to the mindscape of his characters, but primarily as a sculptural means for placing the viewer at a disadvantage with respect to denotative information. Instead we experience the scenes as shape, form, or as shapelessness and formlessness, a sense of being lost and overwhelmed. Grandrieux asks us either to submit to an exploration of a situation as it is literally coming into focus, or to kindly get off the bus.

Given that A Lake pushed the filmmaker ever closer into abstraction—it resembles a mix of Brakhage and Sokurov funneled through the godforsaken woods of von Trier’s Antichrist—perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that Grandrieux would move away from narrative, at least for a while. Meurtrière is the second part of a triptych focusing exclusively on the undulating movements of the human body. Like the first film in the series, White Epilepsy (2012), Meurtrière uses near-complete darkness and slow motion as its dominant motifs. (For its part, White Epilepsy switches from darkness to searing white in its final third, with a bloody-mouthed wraith lunging at the camera like a fugitive from a Matthew Barney opus.)

Perhaps most importantly, both films crop the frame into a vertical, 2:1 aspect ratio, giving the image a distinctly anti-cinematic ambiance. With naked bodies slowly twisting and writhing in a thick, inky chiaroscuro, a hazy but unidirectional light giving definition only to the rounded forms and flexing musculature of the women onscreen, it’s clear that Grandrieux has painting on his mind. Meurtrière (the title variously translates as “murderous” or “murderess,” depending on context) begins with a solo torso arched toward the screen, head obscured, breasts stretched back, stomach taut, and a thick thatch of dark pubic hair forming a vertical stripe, connecting the woman’s form to the background void.

This is something both more and less than a classical nude. The slow, staggered motion and wind tunnel soundtrack create an atmosphere of vague menace not possible in an unadulterated work of painting. To control the sonic environment, the media must be mixed. At the same time, Rembrandt or Edvard Munch (whose work Meurtrière sometimes superficially resembles) would not be so scrupulous about effacing the visage of nearly every woman we see. The gesture is clearly purposeful, even perhaps vaguely argumentative, although exactly what purpose Grandrieux has in mind is unclear.

From there, Grandrieux fades slowly into the next set of images. Three women climbing and writhing atop one another in a horizontal stacking, their stomach convulsions and roaming limbs ambiguous in their diegetic purpose, as per Grandrieux’s formalist aims. With the eerie feel of motion-smoothed epileptic seizure—and it’s obvious that involuntary body movement is a major preoccupation for Grandrieux, given that his production company is called Epileptic Films—this and many other passages of Meurtrière straddle the uncanny border between pain response and sexual spasm.

Since we are watching naked bodies moving without a narrative context, Grandrieux is of course asking us to study the movements as formal events—light and shadow—but to also consider the unstable fluctuations of the body’s micro-responses. This is a common enough preoccupation of Western painting, French philosophy, photographic motion study, and of course pornography. Grandrieux’s jumbled, orgiastic compositions resemble the anguished bodies in Caravaggio’s crucifixions, emblematic of the Baroque tendency to compel devotion by making the Word into succulent Flesh. At the 13-minute mark, an uncharacteristically distant shot of a woman’s spread legs directly invokes Courbet’s Origin of the World, with all the beauty, wonder, seduction, and fear that image strikes in its (presumed male) viewer. And many scenes in Meurtrière recall not only Bernini’s statue of St. Theresa, but Jacques Lacan’s succinct visual analysis of the same in Seminar XX: “She’s coming, no doubt about it.”

As Meurtrière continues over its very gradual one-hour run time, Grandrieux arranges his four performers into various groups and different poses, many of which recall the forms and bodily assemblages of modern dance. But there is also a fairly direct interest in the female body as a sexual actor, particularly in the second half of the film. In two sections, a white, inverted ass dominates the central axis of the frame, a rounded form cloven and flexing atop other women’s backs. More dramatically, the sequence at the 43-minute mark shows a woman (seen as usual from the breasts down) riding another woman on all fours, grinding on her well-defined back in what is legible as “abstraction” only in the context that Meurtrière has heretofore asked us to afford it. Otherwise, it is a rather obvious sex act.

The slowing of these movements, of course, does turn them into “something else,” a visual examination that employs the potentials of cinema to render knowledge unavailable to the naked eye. As with White Epilepsy, Meurtrière finds Grandrieux working in the area of motion study, which has its own grand tradition. It is a scientific impulse, to subject the body to ever-greater increments of knowledge. Of course, thanks to scholars such as Lisa Cartwright and Linda Williams, we can now recognize that this tradition, from the photographs of convulsing “hysterics” in the clinic of Jean-Martin Charcot to the coy female photo series of Eadweard Muybridge, frequently entailed more than a bit of unconscious sexual desire.

Much like White Epilepsy, and not unlike Charcot’s images of hysteria, Meurtrière ends with a close-up of the face of one of the performers. Considering that up to this point, Grandrieux has kept the women shrouded in an anonymity as dark as night, the appearance of the face is a major event. And, keeping with his vague theme of epilepsy, the woman is shown convulsing, throwing her naked body forward and back in the face of the camera. Her eyes are wide open yet blank, as if she were under the thrall of an outside force, be it hysteria, a petit mal seizure, overpowering violence, or extreme sexual pleasure. (Her movements are in keeping with the possibility that she is being fucked from behind by an unseen partner, or by the darkness itself.)

The fascination with using cinematic technique to reveal the “truth” of the female body is a complex discourse into which Grandrieux plugs his filmmaking, without necessarily adding to that discourse or commenting critically upon it. High art and science, philosophy and theory, engage this pursuit only intermittently; pornographers explore it for a living. Watching Meurtrière, I was reminded of the “Beautiful Agony” series of porn videos (produced in France, of course), which focus only on the faces of their subjects—mostly women, but sometimes men—as they masturbate to orgasm. The premise is that the subtle shifts in expression, breathing, tension, and release can provide an erotic art of near-Warholian documentary.

But then, these videos are nothing if not “narrative,” and blatantly instrumentalist to boot. Grandrieux’s film, with its slow fades and ambiguous forms, abstracts these liminal bodies, offering them as glimpses of arousal within an overall field of aesthetic maneuvering. In this way, Grandrieux not only teases the viewer, implying that any prurient gaze lay solely in the eye of the beholder, but also disguises the degree to which the distanced, abstract gaze he more directly proffers is always implicated with the power to subsume the cinematic body-object with our desire.

Image courtesy Epileptic Films