Justine Smith


Can a movie exist without images?

A new ‘sound movie’ called Le Brasier Shelley represents a curious development in post-image cinema.

Le Brasier Shelley (or Shelley’s Blaze) is a pictureless film which recently made its international premiere at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal. In the small Cinéma Moderne, equipped with 27 speakers, audiences sat in a dark room listening to a film based on the poetry and diaries of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Directed by Céline Ters and Ludovic Chavarot, the project challenges our basic perception of the medium itself.

In 2016 Ters and Chavarot began a radio collaboration with filmmaker Bertrand Bonello for France Culture called ‘Films fantômes’, creating highly textured sound versions of unmade films. “What happens to a film you never make?” Bonello wondered. “You dream of them until they become a nightmare, night after night you are haunted by images that should have been.” These phantom films were ‘screened’ for a live audience in a darkened room and also played on the radio.

You can listen to some of their projects here (they are in French) and it is recommended that you use 3D headphones for the full effect. While not performed in a cinema, their connection to the medium through Bonello’s involvement makes it so that these projects exist, at the very least, in conversation with cinema. But are they films? The filmmakers would argue yes, “these are films of the imagination.”

Le Brasier Shelley represents their first original story. Inspired by the diaries of the famed English Romantic poet, the film features a multi-lingual narration and a rich dream-like soundtrack. Without images, there is freedom in escaping from traditional narrative storytelling, and the project adopts a non-linear structure. As Shelley died in 1822, around the time photographic cameras are first being experimented with, there is a certain poetry in representing the pre-cinema world in darkness.

Peter Greenaway has argued that cinema will die because unlike the other fine arts, it is heavily reliant on a mechanised apparatus. In a way, the makers of Le Brasier Shelley attempt to challenge that notion. Ultimately, Le Brasier Shelley is only considered a film because the filmmakers call it one. Yet, what happens when the experience is transferred to the home? What differentiates this project from a podcast or a radio play?

As a communal experience, the film has the rich sensual impact of collective dreaming. More so than cinema, which guides your consciousness through pre-selected images, here you fall prey to the imagination as you share a unique experience in a darkened room (they do not project any light, there is no projection at all). You also become acutely aware of each little light, every time someone shifts in a seat and you wonder if the people around you are listening with their eyes open or closed. While often distracting, there is something humbling and intimate about the experience as well.

Yet, while there is certainly a conceptual aspect to the project, this feels more like an electroacoustic performance than it does cinema. Compared to previous filmmakers who challenged the form by featuring blank screens, the engagement here is purely aesthetic.

When Marguerite Duras featured extended sequences of a blank screen in her 1981 film, L’homme atlantique, it served as a poignant reminder of absence. As cinema is a medium that holds on to life long after death, endlessly looping and forever echoing ghosts of the past, removing images evokes true feelings of loss and heartbreak. Duras’ film, which does include images as well, anticipates the viewer’s discomfort with blankness and uses it to create a heightened experience of longing as the director reflects on her relationship with the French novelist Yann Andréa.

Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue similarly fits into the realm of a post-image cinema. The experimental British filmmaker’s final work depicts his experience of AIDS through the various meanings and conventions surrounding the colour blue. Jarman, who was nearly blind at the time the film was made, conveys a profoundly moving and somewhat confrontational view of death. The blue screen, more so than a black one, is rather jarring and forces the audience to reflect on uncomfortable truths about the world we live in.

In 2000, Portuguese director João César Monteiro created Branca de Neve, a film that has a few images of the sky but is mostly comprised of a blank screen. According to crew members, on the first day of shooting Monteiro arrived on set and placed his jacket on the camera lens. He then proceeded to read from an ancient Portuguese text of ‘Snow White’. Monteiro was consciously commenting on the relationship of art, government funding and audiences. He made a spectacle of the film’s release, lambasting peers and producers who were abusing the public funding system (crucially, he returned nearly half the rewarded budget to the government, much to the displeasure of producer Paulo Branco who was humiliated by project).

These three films are actively engaging with the mechanics of cinema. They are also politically loaded, using the conventions of the medium to challenge and comment on the world we live in. Le Brasier Shelley lacks that impetus. It is a curious artistic exercise but has no real relationship to the cinematic medium aside from the fact it was presented in a cinema space. The ‘filmmakers’ plan on initiating even more projects in the form and while certainly a worthwhile experience, only time will tell if the definition of cinema can and should be expanded to include them.

For more info on this year’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema visit nouveaucinema.ca

Published 16 Oct 2018

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