by Philip Cartelli
published in Senses of Cinema, issue 65
Cinephiles around the world mourned Chris Marker’s passing earlier this year, while the death of another avant-garde filmmaker and former countryman of Marker’s has largely gone unnoticed aside from a few announcements and obituaries. Born in Tunisia, Marcel Hanoun produced a wholly individual body of work, largely financed outside of any mainstream production network. His work was occasionally lauded in English—in 1970 Jonas Mekas wrote, “I have not a drop of doubt that Marcel Hanoun is the most important and the most interesting French filmmaker since Bresson.” (1) The film Mekas had just seen was a belated arrival from across the Atlantic, Hanoun’s Une simple histoire (A Simple Story, 1959), which won the Eurovision prize at Cannes the year of its release. In a review that was never published, Jonathan Rosenbaum presciently stated, “There is little chance of a masterpiece like Une simple histoire receiving the kind of attention it deserves.” (2) This film stands both as an important early work and as an intimation of what was to come from a singular and under discussed filmmaker.
Marcel Hanoun’s career—a word I use cautiously—was marked by a concern that little in life is so simple that it is not deserving of sustained attention. Much of what Hanoun believed and articulated in film throughout his career is arguably contained in kernel form in Une simple histoire, his first feature. In this assessment of Hanoun through his first major work, I don’t mean to occlude the value or variation of his subsequent films, many of which challenge convention in much more subversive ways, including their increasing formal experimentation. Instead, I see in Une simple histoire a mood, a belief, and an engagement that Hanoun gradually elaborated in various forms over the subsequent sixty-three years. One could claim that Hanoun’s most representative film was his fourth feature, L’authentique procès de Carl Emmanuel Jung (1966), certainly a more radical display of formal innovation and political engagement. But if Hanoun sympathized with radical politics and was himself on the political left, he was always more of a filmmaker than an activist. Une simple histoire was his first feature and his earliest attempt at demonstrating how film can reveal a poetic cruelty and vindication of the human condition.
An elderly woman looks out her window and sees another woman sleeping in a nearby field with her young daughter. The older woman invites them both into her apartment. The mother mulls the last few days of her life—we hear her narration while watching and sometimes hearing the events she describes. Nothing particularly terrible has occurred; her tale even contains a Good Samaritan or two, including the woman who’s taken her in. More than boredom in the everyday encounters that comprise the narrative is a languid, inescapable melancholy. As its title indicates, the film is a simple tale, which is precisely what makes it so powerful and so impossible to distill the specific causes of the woman’s plight.
The woman (Micheline Bezançon), whose name we never learn, and her daughter, Sylvie (Elizabeth Huart), end up in the field because their meager savings have dwindled to nothing. Having come to Paris in search of a job, the mother spends a few days at her friend Solange’s house. Solange is accommodating at first, suggesting where her friend might look for work and offering to watch Sylvie. But this takes a turn at the end of the first day, when the mother returns and Solange, pulling her aside, informs her that Sylvie has broken a vase, a gift from her new boyfriend, Georges. We read in the mother’s expression the beginnings of a pervasively dull despair. It comes as no surprise a day later when Solange informs her that Georges has returned and that mother and daughter need to be on their way. Thus begins a spiral of boarding houses with unsympathetic owners and job advertisements that don’t pan out, a downward trajectory leading inexorably to the night spent in the field.
The mother’s methodical narration rarely changes in pitch, even as we see her visibly exhausted and worn down. As she continues to recount her activities in a monotone voice, their combined gravity more than any single incident causes her to slowly recognize that her options are increasingly limited. The mother’s desultory attempts to seek work and lodging continue, while she almost imperceptibly begins to accept that she will run out of money and that she and her daughter will have nowhere to sleep.
Once or twice it appears that the mother may prostitute herself—one night she walks the streets alone before abruptly returning to the boarding house. The last night—when she knows that she has no more money to pay for lodging—she prepares to go outdoors again once Sylvie has fallen asleep, but changes her mind when she hears a group of men arguing outside the window.
The next day she walks the streets, Sylvie in tow, while her distraction becomes overwhelming. Seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she gazes vacantly and walks, no longer conscious of where she’s going. By the time they’ve arrived at the field, night has fallen. She wraps Sylvie in her raincoat and rocks her to sleep—she notices that lights still blaze from windows in the nearby housing development until late in the night. As the woman’s story ends, so does the film, which nonetheless resonates beyond the final credits’ reminder that “It was a simple story.”
Hanoun’s work, beginning with this film’s spare style, has earned him comparisons with Robert Bresson, a formative influence. Both directors’ works show a detailed interest in their characters’ decline, though Bresson’s approach is more rigorously, and, arguably, more morally restrained. Hanoun is likewise spare in his economy of shots, but is repeatedly willing to break his own mold. A view of Sylvie and her mother from a moving car, for example, provides a brief shift in perspective, a nudge to viewers. Bresson’s films are frequently based on literary texts; Hanoun, by way of contrast, begins Une simple histoire with a title card that signals his concern with narrative film’s documentary possibilities:
I imagined nothing, invented nothing. I am only repeating a TRUE story in its most minute details, as it was told to me by its heroine who at one time found herself lost, blinded, without lucidity, imprisoned in her anguish and her solitude, as could happen anytime to you, to me, to anyone.
It is difficult to ignore how the pathos in this text imbues the everyday interactions of Sylvie and her mother with emotional and personal weight.
Jean-Luc Godard is another filmmaker with whom Hanoun is sometimes compared, but their conceptions of film widely diverge. Hanoun is deeply invested in the narrative capabilities of film, in an ostensibly antiquated yet original manner. Rather than following the approach of semiotic film theory—film-as-language—for Hanoun, filmmaking is a form of writing. Hanoun’s pronouncements on the “written image” are collected in a book entitled Cinéma cinéaste (2001). One aphorism calls for “composing a calligraphy of images until meaning appears beyond the sign, at which point the sign signifies itself.” (3) Hanoun demands what seems impossible in a world where the written word reigns supreme. His argument ultimately depends on a filmmaker’s ability to construct a narrative that presents rather than represents a reality. While other filmmakers share this ideal, what sets Hanoun apart is that he also engages with his non-written work through writing. On his personal website, Hanoun proclaimed, “I am a worker of the ephemeral and the perennial.” (4) Both a committed writer and a documentarian of the human condition, his tools included a camera as well as a pen.
Hanoun’s work strove for a kind of ontological humanistic socialism, a democracy of production values and distribution. Unfortunately for his potential non-Francophone spectators, this has resulted in an effect of non-distribution; Hanoun’s films have rarely, if ever, been distributed across the Atlantic and when they are, little to no coverage exists. Hanoun claimed a certain pride in this condition, which he attributed partly to what he referred to as “the propaganda of a certain critical intelligentsia.” (5) In recent years he produced work with the aid of a collective called “Produisez Marcel Hanoun,” comprised of friends and collaborators; Hanoun’s final filmCello (2010) features members of this collective along with the film’s crew appearing on screen where they identify themselves. This film appears to be a farewell but also a demonstration of the limits of democratic filmmaking. Cello reveals a faith in the material value of film, even when its material has been incontrovertibly altered by digital video. Hanoun did not avoid topical films either—his La femme de chambre, un corps sans visage (The Cleaning Lady, A Body Without a Face, 2009) was inspired by the accusations of rape against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In his unwillingness and seeming inability to compromise himself and his filmmaking, Hanoun condemned himself to relative obscurity; he was also quite possibly one of the few filmmakers to sustain a political-moral code aside from the original critic of the “spectacle”, Guy Debord.
Une simple histoire shows Hanoun already considering the issues that would drive the rest of his career and his engagement with cinema a half-century before his passing. It reveals him in dialogue with his contemporaries Bresson and Godard, as well as with Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, and Agnès Varda, among others. Hanoun was consistently aware of changing possibilities for accessing media, particularly those that precluded commercial exchange. Beginning in 2008, he began uploading his films to his personal website and YouTube, a process that ceased with his passing, but will continue on a Vimeo account. Many of his early and recent works, including Une simple histoire, are now available for free online viewing (although without English subtitles), an effective way for Hanoun to ensure that his work continues to be seen by a more expanded audience than ever before. A simple link to his personal cinémathèque seems the most appropriate way to close this appreciation, but it may be better yet to let Hanoun, himself, have the last word: “The beauty of the cinematographic image takes wing and climbs higher, flying over death.” (6)
My thanks are due to Laurent Aït Benalla, filmmaker, and a friend and collaborator of Marcel Hanoun’s for his assistance with details of Hanoun’s life and films.