Phillipe Grandrieux is a French film-maker and academic. Taking the lead from by Pier Pasolini and Jean Epstein amongst others, he is attempting to expand the possibilities of cinema, using archetypes and ideas supplied by horror cinema and psychoanalysis. La Nouvelle Vie (A New Day) is is his second feature film. I found the film challenging and unsettling and was gobsmacked at moments by a couple of blasts of real cinematic power. I also take issue with a number of specific points based on my own biases/practices, which I intend to explore in this review.
The full film is here for those who’d like to view it unspoilt.
Firstly, the film’s structure – well, it’s completely off the map compared to normal cinematic concerns. It’s one hour forty minutes with about 30 words of dialogue uttered, minimal exposition and an array of experimental cinematic techniques. The nominal story is that of a guy (Seymour – Zachary Knighton) falling for a prostitute ( Melania – Anna Mouglalis) and trying to buy or rescue her. The clichéd and sexist nature of the plot would be my only real criticism – Grandreiux has nothing really to say about women’s experience, and the women in the film are just ciphers for male desire, like a million other films. I do feel he offers some insight into male pathology but are these insights enough? I leave it for the viewer to decide. He’s exposing the brutality behind the sex trade, but more besides. A scene where Melania’s pimp cuts her hair is charged with the cruelty of power, but for many, the exercise of power in itself is titillating. I felt that Grandrieux is playing games here with the eroticism of power, and deliberately making the male viewer complicit, much as we can be complicit in many other elements of the sex trade and exploitation.
With these criticisms in mind, I’d like to explore some of the film’s themes and intentions. Grandrieux, with a refreshing absence of the English fear of pretension has stated that his concerns are “to open the body’s night, its opaque mass, the flesh with which we think – and present it to the light, to our faces, the enigma of our lives”. What does this mean in practice?
What we have on screen is endless acres of skin, cameras and bodies shaking and writhing with agitation, passion and hatred, the human form squeezed, pushed, cut and beaten. The film blog Esotika has stated the: “The catalog of techniques of affect present in La Vie Nouvelle is astounding” and I concur. The Director seems to throw every technique he can at you, to try to almost yank you physically into the frame. The intensity peels off the screen like a scent.
And there are levels of meaning that congeal and reveal here. The film opens with a shot of an anonymous crowd, faces blurred out, unseeable, like the masks worn by a thousand cinematic serial killers. This blurring of identity, literal loss of face, returns later in the film, but in the opening sequence, we move from these anonymised blurs to extreme close-ups. Vast, craggy displays of features speak to a life’s history, staring blankly into the camera. When one learns that the film is set in Sarajevo, these faces begin to speak of displacement and war. Jason gives way to Abu Ghraib.
The film shift registers towards the end. Brutal contemporary realities have been shown, but the film’s core is literally an Orphic trip into the Underworld. Contemporary meanings fall away and only the timeless world of the psyche is left. For this scene, Grandrieux switches to using a thermal imaging camera, which throws the images into black and white and previously stable forms began to rupture, veering into the animal or abstraction, reminiscent of the cave walls at Lascaux. Screams echo through the dark.
And then our Hero returns. After the descent, we see him emerge, shellshocked and lost, into a forest. He returns to a bar that prompted the film’s opening reveries and picks up a dancer. He withdraws with her to a back room and fucks her with increasing violence. It’s as if he’s trying to fuck his way through a wall – but this brings him no respite. The film’s closing shot is of him screaming, unable to achieve the catharsis that he’d hoped for. I read this as showing that the transformative encounter shown earlier hadn’t worked. The alchemical wedding in the depths of the psyche has resulted more in a bitter divorce and he’s desperately trying to fuck his way back to it.
This obvious lack of sexual satisfaction as a driver behind brutality reminds me, inevitably, of Wilhem Reich. Reich’s model of health was “orgiastic potency”. Reich defines orgiastic potency as “the capacity to surrender to the flow of biological energy, free of any inhibitions; the capacity to discharge completely the dammed-up sexual excitation through involuntary, pleasurable convulsions of the body”. What holds us back from achieving orgiastic potentcy is our muscular armour, tensions and fear of pleasure held in our very flesh. Reich writes movingly of how learned sexual fear becomes trapped in our muscles. Spontaneous movement can bring out this fear and this suppression of something so fundamental to our selves can lead to rage and aggression:
Orgiastic impotence produces secondary impulses which achieve sexual gratification by force… since the armour does not permit the development of involuntary movement i.e it does not permit involuntary convulsions to pass through this segment, the pleasures sensations are turned into sensations of rage. The result is a tortuous feeling of having to get through which cannot be called anything but sadistic. In the pelvis, inhibited pleasure is turned into rage and rage is turned into muscular spasms. This can be confirmed clinically. (Reich, Character Analysis, p. 389)
And indeed, the work of Reich and his successors is full of case studies demonstrating this process. It’s profound work which cuts to the core of our cultural ambivalence about sex. Sex is the core of human psychic life but is still something hidden and dirty. A source of fear and discomfort yet always desired. Grandrieux is unwittingly demonstrating Reich’s perspective here. He shows a man unable to achieve satisfaction as he’s trapped inside his own muscular armour and this leading to rage, hatred and violence. Seymour’s reddened, tense, sinewy body highlights this for me. His very musculature is his prision.
To go further, it seems to me here the film shows an essential difference between Freudian and Reichian programes. Freud proposes that libidinal desire must essentially come under the rule of the “reality principle”. One must fit in, despite dissatisfaction. Reich on the other hand proposes that true satisfaction is indeed possible. “Orgaistic potentcy” can be realised and on a grand enough scale, this will transform the world. Grandreieux’s film to me seems to ally with the former view while the latter lurks beneath the surface. One can achieve something approaching freedom through relaxation and yielding, surrender to the body. There is a way out of the Underworld.