The Long Road: LIBERTÉ ET PATRIE

“Here we should use the great phrase of Kleist’s: ‘The only way to innocence is the long road via knowledge.’ That’s our only chance.”

—Jacques Rivette [1]

Liberté et Patrie (2002) is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, a collage of visual and musical sources built over a narration—itself a mélange of quotes—performed by two voices. The film tells the story of Swiss painter Aimé Pache and unfolds as a poetic, essayistic, very affecting meditation about the apprenticeship and struggles of the artist. I’ve come to call Liberté et Patrie my favourite film (partly as a provocation, since it’s considered a minor work by two major filmmakers, and partly because it’s true). Here, I’ve written at length about the film (but I have said nothing yet). And, here, you can watch it with English subtitles.

Recently, reading James Hillman’s discussion of the senex (wise man) and puer (child) archetypes [2], I was struck by a beautiful passage that made me think again of the ending of Liberté et Patrie. In trying to counteract the dominion of one archetype over the other—which happens when they are regarded disjunctively and lived as irreconcilable polarities—Hillman examines senex and puer (or puer and senex) as two sides of a single archetype, therefore emphasising the ‘and’. He offers a series of positive examples (including one derived from alchemy) that might aid us in overcoming the split of the archetype by keeping its ambivalence alive (“living in ambivalence is living where yea and nay, light and darkness, right action and wrong, are held closely together and are difficult to distinguish”). These examples are meant to mediate, helping us grasp or imagine, a “rapprochement” between the poles, so “we can understand the necessity of seeing in terms of opposites: they are made for the sake of the between”.

The ‘and’ is also crucial in Liberté et Patrie. In an interview about Six Times Two (1976), Gilles Deleuze called Jean-Luc Godard a filmmaker of the ‘and’ (and I’ll take the liberty to add Miéville here since both that and this film are co-directed by the couple). Deleuze saw the conjuction ‘and’ as a way of upsetting identity, and as the true carrier of multiplicity (which is not to be found either in the terms or in the whole, but precisely in the ‘and’). In particular, he praised Godard for the novel way in which he lived, thought, and put this ‘and’ to work actively: “‘And’ is neither one thing nor the other, it’s always in between, between two things; it’s the borderline, there’s always a border, a line of flight or flow, only we don’t see it, because it’s the least perceptible of things. And yet it’s along this line of flight that things come to pass, becomings evolve, revolutions take shape.” [3]

LP1

Liberté et Patrie follows a method (it would not be disregarded by archetypal psychology) that I’d like to call relational amplification. The notions freedom and fatherland trigger two chains as they are variously associated with countries (France and Switzerland, and their landscapes, histories, roles), figures (mother and father, and their beliefs, personalities, teachings), body parts (eyes and hands/feet), spatial relations (distance and proximity), sense impressions (sight and touch), emotional states (longing and grounding), modernity and tradition, city and country, art and nature, form and content, and I could go on …

The ‘and’ functions to always carry the links forward—but it also operates across each pair (“freedom and fatherland, fatherland and freedom”: the visual and aural back-and-forth is a constant in the film). It’s the movement effected by the ‘and’ that frees the terms from themselves, and frees the pairs from themselves—threading relations that multiply and amplify, that give substance, background and meaning, that constellate a veritable cosmos out of those two initial notions (inscribed in the flag of the painter’s birthplace, and giving a title to both the film and Aimé’s final painting).

Now, I’d like to put face to face, as it were, the end of the film—the making of the painting—and the alchemical example provided by Hillman, referring to the paradoxes of the lapis or philosophers’ stone: the substance sought by alchemists for its transmutative powers:

The stone is not only hard as the senex face might view it, not only a jade of longevity, a diamond body of immortality. The lapis, as Erwin Rousselle  and Henry Corbin  have carefully elaborated, is the puer aeternus. The end of the via longissima is the child. But the child begins in the realm of Saturn, in lead or rock, ashes or blackness, and it is there the child is realised. It is warmed to life in a bath of cinders, for only when a problem is finally worn to nothing, wasted and dry, can it reveal a wholly unexpected essence. Out of the darkest, coldest, most remote burnt-out state of the complex the phoenix arises. Petra genetrix; out of the stone a child is born, laughing, tender, unable.

When looking and reviewing an artist’s trajectory there is, consciously (or most often unconsciously), an evolutionary model at play that informs what we see and how we see it. So we tend to perceive juvenile impulses at the beginnings of a career, a middle period of maturation and depuration, and a late stage with a late style exhibiting typically crepuscular characteristics. Rarely are these issues so clear-cut and straight, but the model weighs in heavily. The ending of Liberté et Patrie challenges this view.

LP2

The big painting commissioned to Aimé is, in the end, closer to a child’s vision—an image that has been there from the beginning (or, if you want, an image of the beginnings), but that takes a whole life to reflect, project, realise. The big painting is a culmination and, therefore, associated with the senex; but the painting also contains the very impulse of newness that is the eternal child.

LP3

Across nine shots, intercut with black frames, we witness one of the most moving passages of the film: a condensed depiction of the painting’s composition, heightened by the sparse and poetic commentary, and by the music—the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “String Quartet n.15”. First, we see a black and white sketch, with the children, the landscape, the road. Afterwards, colour references are added: first some reds, then the blues and greens.

LP4

Night of the origins, blackness of the ink, primordial darkness from which children will be born. But the night is also Aimé’s very own night: his darkness, his chaos, his suffering, his paralysis. From Ludwig Hohl (who is quoted in the film, but not for this passage): “Night, which is good for nothing—or which, at least, has no visible action—possesses, however, its particular light: afterwards, in the good moments, the positive periods, one cannot find it again; one forgets it easily; easily it is confused with the pale glow of the past, which one then thinks is powerless. To take, from the night, the light.” [4]

“Three paces back, three paces forward”: there’s been nothing straight in Aimé’s struggle. A life made of doubts, attempts, mistakes, errancy, repetitions, stammering, flat periods … It’s after Aimé has lost his child and his wife, after he has abandoned painting, after he’s lived alone in the woods surrounded only by trees, that he can start living and painting again.

And, once his big painting seems in time to be finished, Aimé’s brush starts again covering the figures in black, spreading stains of colour as erasures—and, from these ruins, a new painting will be born: “The child begins in the realm of Saturn, in lead or rock, ashes or blackness. […] It is warmed to life in a bath of cinders” …

Like the alchemical lapis, the painting is soft and oily, malleable; and, yes, fecund.

LP5

What is it that moves me so much about this final painting? The roughness of the style, the pulse of the brushstrokes, the elementarity of the motifs, the very perspective that is itself a call; but, above all, the impossibility of separating the feeling of expectation from the state of reverence: aren’t those tree-children—grounded here but tending there, poised between earth and sky—worshipping (as in prayer or ritual) the horizon, the land, the clouds’ magical drunkenness? (Perhaps is worth noting that Beethoven’s third movement, used intermittently across the film and peaking in this final scene, was written after a long illness and is preceded by the inscription: Sacred Song of Thanksgiving from a Convalescent to the Deity”).

There’s something extremely childlike in this painting, but it is not a regression to childhood. Rather, this is the distillation of a primordial image that gives impulse to a life and contains it, rooting and projecting forward its mystery and meaning (aren’t those two the same thing?). And what gives this image its incredible depth is the very unfolding carried out by the film, which is none other than Aimé’s vital and artistic unfolding: “For only when a problem is finally worn to nothing, wasted and dry, can it reveal a wholly unexpected essence”. Eyes in freedom, feet in fatherland, and the road—what Hillman calls the via longissima and Rivette (re-writing Kleist) calls “the long road via knowledge”—accompanying them.

LP6

Indeed just as when the intersection of two lines, on the one side of a point, after passing through infinity, suddenly presents itself again on the other side, or the image made by a concave mirror, after disappearing into infinity, suddenly reappears complete before us; so, when knowledge has, as it were, passed through an infinity, grace returns; and in such a manner, that it, simultaneously, appears most purely in that form of the human body that has either absolutely none, or infinite consciousness; that is to say, either in the form of a puppet, or a god.

Consequently, I said a little absent-mindedly, we should have to partake once again of the Tree of Knowledge in order to fall back into a state of innocence?

Precisely so, he replied; that is the last chapter of the history of the world.

—Heinrich von Kleist [5]

 

[1] Jacques Rivette in Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (Claire Denis & Serge Daney, 1990).

[2] All quotations from James Hillman, Senex and Puer (James Hillman Uniform Edition 3), ed. Glen Slater, Spring Publications, 2005.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, “Three Questions on Six Times Two“, in Negotiations, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995.

[4] Ludwig Hohl, Notes ou de la réconciliation non-prématurée, L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 1989.

[5] Heinrich von Kleist, “On the History of the Marionette Theatre” (1810), translated by Kevin J M Keane (2012), with reference also to Roman Paska’s rendition in Zone.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, August 2020

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