Pierre Clémenti, Rebel With a Cause

Pierre Clémenti was a movie star who rejected that role. Best known for playing Marcel, the darkly handsome bad-boy gangster in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, Clémenti, born in 1942, followed an unusual path to fame: after a tumultuous childhood, he wandered from job to job, engaging in brief stints as a telegram delivery boy, a hotel bellman, and a stonecutter, respectively. By the late 1950s, the young Clémenti was drifting around the Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Près, smoking discarded cigarette butts, when a stranger invited him to take part in a play on the Knights Templar; Clémenti agreed, discovered his passion, and with preternatural momentum went on to act in a number of highly regarded films, including Pasolini’s Porcile (1969), Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), and Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969). Clémenti was a true radical who held fast to his convictions, leading him to turn down a role in Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) because he didn’t want to take part in the director’s industrial-level production. “Either you sell yourself and thus empty out, or you stay on the fringes and fight for your ideas,” he once wrote about acting, leaving no ambiguity as to which path he chose. 

Clémenti’s refusal to conform may also have been his undoing. On July 24, 1971, Italian police raided the apartment where he was staying in Rome. As his five-year-old son, Balthazar, looked on, the actor was arrested on dubious drug charges (a possible result of his leftist politics and long-haired aesthetic) and thrown in jail without trial for 18 months. This harrowing experience became the subject of his memoir, A Few Personal Messages, which has just been expertly translated into English for the first time, by Claire Foster. The book is equal parts a manifesto and a reflection on the years leading up to his confinement; it decries the inhumanity of prisons, daring politicians, wardens, and religious leaders to create a better world. Foster’s rendition of the French is precise, tracking closely with Clémenti’s original sentences while maintaining a fluid, natural English cadence and the revolutionary power of his message. Clémenti’s is, essentially, an abolitionist narrative.

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Still from Positano, directed by Pierre Clémenti, 1969, France (courtesy the Cinémathèque française and the Estate of Pierre Clémenti)

The book’s publication coincides with a retrospective film series on his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which reveals that Clémenti was more than just an actor and a writer: he was a cutting-edge filmmaker, too, working within the flourishing avant-garde scene of the 1960s through ’80s. Documenting the swirling churn of his life around family, friends, movie sets, glimpses of Warhol’s factory, and the May ’68 uprisings in Paris, his film diaries possess a unified artistic vision; imagine marrying the poetically diaristic works of Jonas Mekas with the psychedelia of Jud Yalkut and the political fervor of a young revolutionary. These films were produced with his own earnings as an actor, made not for monetary gain or widespread recognition but as a form of self-realization. As Balthazar Clémenti describes them, they are a “work of life” as much as a work of art. 

When watching Clémenti’s films in a row, their beginnings and endings feel almost arbitrary. Nude figures embrace and frolic on the rocky shore of the Amalfi coast in Visa de censure n° X (1967-75), only to resurface in Positano (1969), and New Old, ou les chroniques du temps present (1979), like a recurring dream or parallel universe that exists eternally, alongside the action of his life. The same footage of a police officer hurling tear gas at protesters in May ’68 appears in La revolution n’est qu’un début, continuons le combat (1968) and again in New Old. An old, hunched woman pulls a cart along the curve of an avenue in black and white, her march rendered Sisyphean by the repetitions of the film; a guillotine drops again and again as the shot repeats; Balthazar plays endlessly in a field; the shimmering surface of water overlays a cacophony of images. 

Still from Les idoles, directed by Marc’o, 1968, France (courtesy Luna Park Films)

Time in these works is not linear, as images loop back on themselves and return from one film to the next. Like a sequence of memories or thoughts coming full circle, the films grow tangents that branch into a continuous fabric of life. New Old expands this sense of continuity across centuries, as Clémenti’s camera captures him as a 19th-century gentleman, a nude figure in a forest, and a medieval knight before the end credits transition to a modern-day punk band. 

In his early work, Clémenti overused certain visual techniques. The neon-colored, shimmering vignette was a particular favorite of his, while a frenetic tempo and near-constant double exposure is so jarring that viewers may occasionally struggle to keep their eyes on the screen. He hardly claimed perfection, though, and embraced an anarchist ethos: in La Révolution, flashes of text read (in French), “Art is crap. This film is crap. The person who made it is an idiot. The people who talk about it are idiots.” He develops a knack for pacing and rhythm in his later work, after his prison stint. In the 1980s, the filmmaker ventures into narrative with À l’ombre de la canaille bleue (1985), a dystopian, disjointed, Burroughs-inspired vision of a totalitarian Paris. 

Still from The Hips of J.W., directed by João César Monteiro, 1997, Portugal (courtesy the Cinemateca Portuguesa)

Clémenti’s last and favorite film, Soleil (1988), is his magnum opus: it both tells the story of his imprisonment and transcends it, erupting with memory and footage from throughout his life. His voiceover creates an eerie sense of interconnection, incorporating passages from A Few Personal Messages into a monologue both philosophical and poetic. The film ends with an iris-like image transposed over images of his son playing with a candle flame in the forest. The restoration and digitization of Clémenti’s films was a multigenerational effort led by this son, Balthazar, the last figure in his film, who has dedicated his life to their preservation.

The Films of Pierre Clémenti screen at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through October 31. The film series was organized by Sophie Cavoulacos, Associate Curator, Department of Film.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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