Sunday, 23 June 2013

It Means Nothing

He’s not Fassbinder.  Oh no!  Chabrol does not have his feel for left wing politics.  He is an outsider in this game, and this film shows it; Nada a cool satire on a subject that is more idea (and other people’s at that) than lived experience.  This is a thesis not a movie.  Keep to what you know, and make it immaculately… but no!  Like all great artists his ambition extends way beyond his reach; his own perspective, limited but exquisite, is not enough for his ambition, which is outrageous.  He wants to go beyond the horizon of his own talent!  So he walks to the fence at the bottom of his garden, and imagines the metropolis he believes he can glimpse in the hazy distance.  He turns the water tower into a thin skyscraper with a protruding restaurant and imagines a political rally, journalists, and the guest speaker whom he crowds out with cabinet ministers, waitresses, and an assassin.  Once triggered his imagination follows its own logic producing a gun, a dead body, and three characters clambering along the high roof; while the TV channels report the death of a great liberal hero.  He sees a body fall…  It is a symbol of futility.  He smiles at the quality of his metaphorical mind.  Then he looks in a different direction and sees a telegraph pole.  He ponders this for a long time before he turns it into a totem; shifting his eye line so that it hides the water tower.  He smiles to himself: “The games I play!”  Then he stops.  He is amazed.  Then he laughs out loud.  “It’s Alan’s ...  Mercy!  I’m stealing his film!”   Abashed at his foolishness, he remembers Paris, thinks of a local farmhouse, and imagines terrorists breaking into a fancy brothel.

Always the great artist thinks he can encompass all of life, others as well as his own; research and his own imagination making up for his own experiences.  Knowledge and fantasy thus replace empirical facts and their effects; although they are materials too insipid to generate the vitality the imagination needs; unless, miracle of miracles, they can be absorbed and integrated into the artist’s own creative personality.  Fancy and other people’s ideas generally too mechanical to exist independently of our consciousness; made by the mind they behave like puppets whose strings we are not meant to see.

Chabrol thought he could overcome these problems…

One day he visits Berlin.  He walks to the Wall and clambers up it; touching the top with his fingertips.  How close they are!  They manoeuvre, clasp and claw, and slowly slide, slipping over two large eyes, scraping down the enormous V of an outsize bust…  He falls.  Above him in pink and aubergine a tart whom the sun has faded, though a crowd of fresh graffiti ogles her on her right hand side.  “Freiheit” “Old Melons for Sale” “Kommst du nicht?”  His head lies underneath the woman’s high-heeled shoes, whose cartoon smile suggests she is pleased: “Oh!  He finds me attractive!”  His comatose body looking up the short skirt she pulls tight against her well-spread hips.  Later, an ambulance takes him to the hospital, where the nurses are incredulous: “You want to escape from the West?”  He tries to tell them, but they do not understand.  “You wish to leave us: ja?”  “Yes yes, I do.” “But why not drive through the gates, like everyone else…”

Nada is not a bad film.  It’s just not good enough.

We know what it is about.  Its theme is obvious.  This is its problem.  Too much is culled from the newspapers, and not enough dug up from the artist’s own subconscious; although his usual themes meander in and out of the story line.

A small terrorist group kidnaps the American ambassador.  Their only aims: to acquire a ransom and to embarrass the authorities by exposing his visit to a high-class brothel.  It is all about money and media attention.  The group lacks any kind of serious commitment.  One member is apolitical, disillusioned with the leftist movements of the Sixties, but persuaded to be involved because of an old friendship; D’Arey is a drunk, and blames society for all his woes; while the waiter just wants to escape to his own personal El Dorado - Algiers with a large retirement fund.  Then there is Veronique Cash.  What does she want?  It is hard to say, though we suspect a little underground activity is something interesting to do.  Diaz is an idealist, the only one who believes in the cause; although he has no idea what it is; relying on Treuffais to provide the ideas; which are banal and defeatist – all actions are pointless because ultimately they increase state power.  Treuffais, it should be needless to say, opts out: too scared to act, though he justifies this on political lines - Marxists are not terrorists, he informs his friend when forced to make the crucial decision.

This scenario captures the confusion of a Left that was breaking up at the end of the 1960s; its big narratives of class struggle and world revolution showing their age as changes to capitalism made them redundant; the students and activists beginning to realise that they were an extremist minority that no longer represented the workers, who resented them.  Here is a Left that had started divorce proceedings with the white working classes they had been married to for so long.  Free at last they party! party! party! and then suffer the long hangover…

For the terrorists the kidnap is the central act of their lives.  For the authorities it is just one more event in a busy schedule, though clearly an important on; the ministers using this action as an opportunity to play politics. It is here that Chabrol’s obsessions emerge.  For once again a seemingly major event in the life of a community is treated as only part of the daily background; the kidnapping less important that the effects it generates in the routine lives of the state’s officials.  However, this time the director has failed to create the right atmosphere.  Spending too much time with the terrorist group we are engulfed in the action, so that the film becomes mostly plot, and the theme, which could have been presented very interestingly in this context, is poorly developed, and is lost amongst the raids and shoot outs.  The focus is on the wrong place: it should be inside the state bureaucracy and not on Nada.

On reflection I think I must qualify this statement: Chabrol should have chosen one side or the other; but not given us both, as he does here.

For years this group has been thinking about some terrorist spectacular.  For months they have been planning the capture of the American ambassador; and yet on the threshold of their action they realise they need an “expert” to actually organise it.  They find one but he rejects the proposal as insane.  To make sure that he won’t talk Diaz visits him and discovers he’s an old revolutionary friend.  Épaulard agrees to join the group for old times sake, after he rejects suicide – out of ennui.  

Terrorism lives in the interstices of life, and fails to radically affect it.  Indeed, according to Chabrol, it is the other way round: life shapes and manipulates the terrorists, who are at its mercy.  This is nicely symbolised by their lack of a political plan or coherent ideology; their actions little more than habit and inertia.  Inevitably they will fail; their defeat used by others more professional and dedicated than themselves; such as the bureaucrats and ministers of the French state; members of an institution that has the stability to structure the society, and which can absorb contingent events relatively easily.  Thus its officers can turn even the worst crimes to their advantage; although they have to be aware of their own arrogance and clumsiness.

Terrorist groups are too small and ephemeral to destroy such institutions.  They are also politically ignorant; Nada unaware that another radical group is filming the brothel which the ambassador visits – to put the squeeze on VIPs.  They record the kidnap.  Everyone in this film is on film!  This information is leaked to the counter-espionage section that agrees to release this group’s leader in return for the footage.  Unbeknownst to Nada they have become an instrument in someone else’s politics.  They are short-sighted and naïve, and know little of the sophistication and flexibility of the French state, which can outmanoeuvre them every time.  They are amateurs amongst professionals.

The police raid the waiter’s house, and his mad wife, made even crazier by the forced entry, inadvertently kills herself…

Whilst hiding out in the farmhouse with the America ambassador Cash and Épaulard start an affair…

D’Arey is drinking himself into oblivion…

The waiter is dreaming…

Diaz reads a lot.

The minister of the interior wants to discredit all of the Left.  He thus intimates to his chief of police that it might be a good thing if the ambassador died during an assault on the farm.  This would turn polite opinion against all of his political opponents, and reduce their influence in national politics.  The hint is taken up, and the army raid rather than siege the farmhouse, which results in a massacre.  Nada’s single action has taken a strange turn.  Its effects so feeble that the French state can easily manipulate them to serve their own political and administrative purposes.  A relatively small event now escalated by the government into a national attempt at authoritarian control.  Nada, it seems, has created the conditions for their own abolition.

But life is not so simple. Too many soldiers saw the group trying to surrender; and the word gets out into the public realm.  There are violent demonstrations in Paris and the chief of police is suspended from duty. The state has lost control of the situation.

Nada have achieved their aim!  They have exposed the authoritarianism of the state (this was the big idea of particularly the German Left in the Seventies), although at the time they committed the act this was not their intention.  The miscalculations of high politics have fortuitously produced a reaction; although it will lead nowhere: the chief of police takes the blame and is to be hidden way in French West Africa for a few years; accused of mistakes and poor judgement. The message is clear: it has been a cock-up, for of course there are no conspiracies in high politics.

The last few scenes are a little silly, but their intention is equally satirical.  To capture the one remaining terrorist Goemond falsely tells the press that Treuffais informed on his colleagues; the reason for their discovery.  He expects Diaz to murder his old friend; who he will then kill during this attempt.  But like nearly everyone else in the film Goemond is out of his depth.  He doesn’t realise that what binds these two men together is friendship not ideology, and that Diaz knows that Treuffais would never betray him.  The chief of police is yet another amateur playing politics, and as with everyone else his error proves fatal. It is the professionals who will survive in this modern world of specialists and bureaucrats.  And the intellectuals: Treuffais on the phone telling the story of Nada to a journalist.

Only words and images remain.  A few moments amongst the TV news, a passing reference on the wireless, and some column inches in the newspapers…  Though how many will pay attention?  The batteries that suddenly die on the group’s radio remind us of the uncertainties of fame.  Oblivion waits for them all. 

Chabrol has captured something of the celebrity nature of terrorist politics: to act is really a desire only to be seen and heard.  These guys, and that strange girl Cash, the most interesting character in the film, are, we realise, disciples not of Karl Marx but Andy Warhol.  A few minutes on our cinematic screens until we forget them forever.

(Review of Nada)

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