Early documentation via photography and the animation thereof – primarily when discussing the origins of cinema through Eadweard Muybridge’s legendary The Horse in Motion (1878, Muybridge), or the various studies put forth by Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s – was primed on the study of kinesthetics. The aforementioned project by Muybridge, twelve images strung along in rapid succession in order to confirm the simultaneous flight of all four legs of a horse, evinces an aspect of film unreplicable by any other medium at the time. Documentation and empirical study remains a motivation of the lens, though it appears as if it has been pushed to the background in favor of more cheap thrills, with the consistent punctuation of technological advances driving the medium towards entertainment, informing a growth towards esthetics of excess and spectacle.
The concept of simulating settings in order to create illusions of reality that is practiced widely in most mainstream cinema is not without a tension: the more easily the mechanism is able to reproduce reality, the farther away it removes us from it, whether it be the result of the uncanny sense of the hyperreal, “evil appearances” or by the sheer ambition of studios in, for example, creating science fiction that is so far out of our experiences that it becomes inherently difficult to comprehend (Baudrillard 12). Whereas once, nascent visual effects or motion-capture would place fake characters in “real” environments, with clear distinctions separating the two entities, now exists a sort of perversion of the real – fake images that “play at appearances” (Baudrillard 12). The interests of offering up fantastical visions have always been somewhat muddled by the difficulties of making them reflect reality.
French experimental director Philippe Grandrieux separates himself from these technological “progresses”. Active since the early ‘70s, Grandrieux dabbled in video art and the short-form, but it is his recent work in the new millennium that defines him most as a kinetic filmmaker. Though his interests lie in the past with those early photographers that worked nearly a century before his career began – he describes his debut feature Sombre (Grandrieux, 1999) as “a movement”, crediting “Marey and Muybridge… for the architecture of the cinema” – he consistently manages to push the medium’s capabilities, striving to utilize the physical entity of the body to depict the signification of a single individual; interiority expressed through style. (Grandrieux 1999).
His feature films tend to reference French iconography, if only as a diversion tactic: in Sombre, a serial killer follows the path of the Tour de France for no discernable narrative reason, while in Malgré La Nuit (Grandrieux, 2015), a Brit journeys through Paris for a lost love. These simplistic plot summaries are only a starting point, however, and his scripts are generally few pages long; critic Nicole Brenez mentions in an interview that “they look more like a prose poem than a standard scenario” (Brenez). His work is far more idiosyncratic, utilizing the medium to deprive the viewer of an expected relationship to character psychology and physical space to capture the most fundamental, basest human desires. Most of his runtime is devoted to a sort of cinematic ellipses – within the context of his films these may be nightmares – that allow us to glimpse inside our characters’ psyches. These occur in the form of long takes that generally feature – in stifling close-up – nude bodies interacting with each other in settings that exist displaced from reality: in some cases, the settings are real, but made anonymous through filming mechanisms – a forest at night, for example, is severed from reality by harsh lights and overexposure that bring the forefront into blinding clarity, or a seedy motel room, superimposed on itself multiple times, becomes a mesh of the two bodies intertwined in an otherwise nondescript background; in the most egregious cases, the background, though still a physical setting, is an indecipherable null-space. When regressed to their primal states, the characters are ripped out of comfortable society, transposed to voids or vacuums for their bodies to exist within.
This motif is most clear when viewing his triptych of anxiety, a series of three, one-hour long experimental works. All three focus on bodies in motion, mutating human form into something wholly alien and frightening, relying on casts comprised mostly of dancers and ballerinas for their raw physicality. The first, White Epilepsy (Grandrieux, 2011), begins only with one nude body, male (Jean-Nicolas Dafflon) as if it were floating in a septic tank (Figure 1-1). Another body, this time female, (Hélène Rocheteau) enters the scene, and the two, lifeless, slowly entangle with one another (Figure 1-2). Finally, a shot of a bloody woman (Anja Röttgerkamp) lunges at the camera over the span of a few minutes, in a frenzied slow motion (Figure 1-3). Here, Grandrieux invokes sensory deprivation effects, creating his sense of anxiousness from the simultaneous alienation and assumption of the form. The bodies’ strange lifeless collisions compromise the audience’s understanding of their own bodies, and the long duration of the scene, which does not cut for about 51 minutes, forces a confrontation with every minute detail. Seemingly unmotivated, this dance – described as a choreography – brings the two figures together and apart, as if exercising a base, carnal need to conjoin. They are presented in a purely vulnerable fashion – naked and lifeless, unable to repress its urges and thereby consigned to the fates. The final moments are more traditionally horrifying as if confirming this inescapability from primal desire and the detriment thereof.
The next film in the series, Meurtriere (Grandrieux, 2015), filmed four years after White Epilepsy, is just as challenging, similarly shot in slow-motion and focused on the nude body in a void-like space. This time, he doubles the number of players, rearranging them in more intricate compositions, further abstracting them through entanglement or superimposition and in doing so, inviting the viewer to reconsider their understandings of the body (Figure 2-1). It finishes, again after 50 minutes, on another jarring edit of a woman (Vilma Pitrinaite) practically vibrating in slow motion, and it is ambiguous whether she is violently climaxing or having an epilepsy attack (Figure 2-2). In completely deconstructing the normalized understandings of bodies and their movements, he evokes the Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the “body without organs”, and the impossibility of a single understanding of what the human figure would entail.
The final film in the trilogy, titled Unrest, is comprised of three separate parts. In the first, a scene of a woman masturbating is superimposed onto images of pink flowers and trees, as a psychedelic score hums in the background (Figure 3-1). Exactly ten minutes into the scene, a fade to black immediately transitions to a different woman, the dancer Nathalie Remaldi, having a sort of panic attack or seizure, once again in the nude, back in the void of the first two films. She calms and then floats for a bit, legs spread wide open, the sexual implication still present (Figure 3-2). Finally, we return to the first woman, strangely wearing clothing. She whispers phrases in Japanese, her arms, always returning to some sort of prayer pose (Figure 3-3).
Without an overarching plot to motivate their images, these three short experiments are more abstract, if still vaguely interpretable and enjoyable through the plain form. A Sarris-ian reading, with the understanding of the narrative work that came before it would recognize a lot of similar themes: the destructive nature of unfettered love and desire, or the link between sexuality and violence. You also see a trifurcated experimentation with sound. White Epilepsy is entirely silent, Meurtriere is overloaded with background white noise, and Unrest has both, with the addition of a score. All three are overwhelmingly atmospheric. While working as a cipher for the understanding of the rest of his works, these also manage to be concise examples of the suffocating nature of his narrative oeuvre. The camera violates the audiences’ comfortability and appears to have the same effect on the characters, who breathe heavily and feel out of place.
These long-form features, with their threadbare plots, incorporate these ellipses as expressionist visualizations of their characters’ minds, calling their awareness of their innate desires into question. They are all ostensibly considered horror films; Grandrieux himself is commonly classified with the likes of the French New Extremist, though the term feels misused on him. His overwhelming excess in nudity – primarily female – and in the filming thereof – with disorienting close-ups that confuse the geography of the body – subjugates his more violent imagery. His films are rarely explicit in their violence; though there is physical pain, it is but a pittance compared to the psychological devastation unleashed on his characters. In visualizing the depth of his character’s torment in relation to the violence enacted towards them, he uses frenetic camera movements (the device always operated personally), assaultive sound cues, and close-ups of varied focus. Implicit and tied into sexual pleasure so inextricably, the violence feels almost perversely enjoyable, certainly masochistic in the ecstasy it derives from its transgressions.
The equivalency drawn between sex and violence recalls that primal desire that leaves bodies like charged atoms, compelled to each other but unable to stay together. Scenes of sex, even when consensual, are shot violently. Greg Hainge, in Sonic Cinema, the only book for the director available, identifies the inspiration for a final image of Jean, “like one of the many figures of El Greco’s paintings (including Christ as he carries the cross) who cast their eyes towards heaven”; this situation, he highlights a choice made: “This is not a moment of enlightenment or salvation, for he lowers his head, returning within, casting his face back into the shadows”(Figure 4-1) (Hainge 105). Malgré La Nuit, even though its subject matter is just as harsh if not more so, seems to take a more romantic route, and Grandrieux suggests immanence, focusing on faces, often female, mid-orgasm, looking up towards the skies or the sun, or his artificial bright lights in a similar Greco-esque fashion, as if sacrificing themselves or deriving pleasure from their pain (Figure 4-1, 4-2)
Though both films take on the perspective – or headspace – of the male protagonist, Grandrieux splits the screen-time in the favor of the female. Regardless, the male protagonists generally tend to be feminized. In Sombre, the serial killer Jean (Marc Barbé) picks up women but does not have sex with them; he keeps to himself, and in the presence of other men – here in the form of the two burly male clubbers who pick up the female lead Claire (Elina Löwensohn) – is meek, as if he were a victim. In Malgré La Nuit, Lenz (Kristian Marr) is not without his maternal frustrations, and Grandrieux remembers to emasculate him whenever he gets a chance, emphasizing the fragility of his skinny body, and contrasting him to the larger men who violate his lover Hélène (Ariane Labed). Violence is enacted upon them explicitly, only in both cases, other men enact their sexual frustrations on them. Both are shown to be gentle lovers, and the sex they respectively have with their lovers is bristling with a contrapuntal romance.
Linda Williams’s dissemination on the “female body genres” within Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess is extremely relevant, if not for defining Grandrieux’ style by one of Williams’ definitions, but for encapsulating all of them. Grandrieux’ films accurately are considered part of the “horror” genre, for even in their “implicitness”, the violence and atmosphere is strange and terrifying and always invokes some sort of castration anxiety. Though the sex is not shot in a way that would be at all traditionally arousing, the graphic nudity (and occasional literal pornography) would suggest that the films fall under the “pornography genre”. With the anti-romantic nature of the films in mind – remember that love is all-consuming and destructive – the film and its masochistic depictions of sexual violence, also fits snugly in Williams’ “melodrama” genre. The narrative films are all fairly effective in generating physical responses; Grandrieux himself is a bit of a provocateur to carnal, basest reactions: He actively will cut to bright, blinding scenes in order to force pupil dilations, and once requested that all other sources of light save for the screen be covered up, exit signs included (Hainge 236); furthermore, his genre acumen is clear, and he ensures to implicate the spectator by acknowledging the voyeurs of horror within his films, whether it be extended sequences of children screaming warnings to puppets in a puppet show (becoming complicit, active viewers), or shots of cheering audiences superimposed on a sobbing performer during an emotionally-charged concert (enjoying culpability of another’s pain).
The androgynous nature of Grandrieux’s characters is complicated by the depictions of their bodies in those more imagistic, evocative sequences. There is a constant revelation of the apparatus, as the lights, the over and underexposure of the handheld camera (which will even shift within takes), and the contre-jour, against the day shooting style all reveal the unreality of the scenes. Furthermore, his employment of dancers or actors and actresses for their physicality evinces that for him, performing is not simply recitation, but an embodiment. Labed is a trained dancer and double-jointed – a condition which Grandrieux exploits well and frequently, wringing every minute of discomfort from the stretching sequences, which resemble exorcisms. In the sex scenes that run prolific in his work, the geographies of bodies are distorted by close-ups, frenzied movements, and superimpositions, that place arms and legs in impossible places; bodies are entirely conjoined, almost inseparable, held together by harsh grips that hypertrophy the veins. This abstraction of form can be viewed from a psychological perspective that deconstructs the rigidity of gender. For his male characters, he emphasizes an obsession with the female genitalia and the flaccidness of the penis: Jean, in one of the opening scenes of the film, is shown enviously examining a prostitute’s covered genitals, while Lenz’s sex scenes feel ungendered. Both have mommy issues – in fact, incest is hinted at but never confirmed with most of the major characters in Malgré La Nuit. The unrepressed incestuous love between a father and daughter, mother and son exemplify the most drastic form of the self-destruction that love can bring about; perhaps the void is a sort of womb? Grandrieux emphasizes the sanctity of flesh, juxtaposing young bodies with older, wrinkled ones. Grandrieux does not deign to make the human form look beautiful, but rather focuses on the intricate imperfections of the musculature as if they were architecture – rib cages, jutted bones, veins are all strange components of the whole. Desire is expressed physically, but not necessarily motivated by physicality.
Just as “we cannot shake hands with ourselves, and it takes at least two to make a chase scene,” sex requires a partner, and is comprised of two different sets of movements that, “together create[s] an entity that is larger than the individual movements of either one alone” (Barker 72). Though we cannot replicate many of the complex movements that Grandrieux choreographs for his performers and as alienated as we are from the physicality of his depictions of sex, it is difficult not to be inexplicably moved. By seeing our own form distorted primarily, we bypass “haptic” responses, and focus on the more visceral reactions; in seeing lust and desire represented so intensely, one feels “there” psychologically if estranged physically. This is an escalation of the physical responses described in Williams’ piece; as established previously, Grandrieux is a sort of proto-director with more nuanced offerings than can be defined by a single genre.
His attention to sound also fragments the film from the spectator, as each scene will seem to employ entirely different aural dynamics. With meticulous sound design, he alternates freely between loud white noise and complete, impossible silence – sometimes voices will speak in hushed whispers, but the mechanism, any static, the faintest sound that would suggest a form of recording device would be absent. He focuses on specific sounds: much of his soundscape is comprised of deep breathing, or the emphasized noises of branches breaking under boots, or clothes fabrics rubbing together. Often, the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound is blurred. Occasionally, he will use a composed song – usually synth music – layered on top of other noises. He calls this a sonic structure or sculpture. Of this concept within his second feature La Nouvelle Vie (Grandrieux, 2002), he describes: “A sound design or sonic sculpture is constructed using direct sounds, sound effects, ambient sounds, and the sounds provided by Etant Donnés (the composed score)” (Brenez).
The result of this focus on granular details and the constructed soundscape is significant, forming the texture of each image that reveals the “materiality” of the films; though shot digitally his fidgeting with light creates a sort of filmic, “damaged” image. In depictions of sex, the pixels that comprise the image of the bodies are clearly visible, pulsating with little vibrations as if the image is also experiencing an orgasm; Barker invokes Fuses (Schneeman, 1967) as an example of this linkage between the materiality of the film and the bodily ecstasy of climax: “While its subjects are in the throes of orgasm, the film throws itself orgiastically into a world of materiality” (Barker 23). Here, the digital format severs the erotic engagement between viewer and image. Instead, this overall estrangement from the medium serves to further emphasize the disassemblage of a whole that leaves his characters unsatisfied by their loneliness.
These instances of mimetic empathy – what Barker refers to as musculature – bridge the link between more traditional narratives and experimental imaging. Instead of specific plot points – the results of many sequences are difficult to understand, and the films themselves are marked with an overarching ambiguity – the viewer is invited to focus on the expressionistic representation of feelings, atmospheres that are implied by his convoluted unions of bodies. Though we are not privy to character backstory or development, we can understand the feelings that motivate each composition.
This is primordial cinema, obsessed with the deconstruction of civility and set on regressing the viewer, as it does its characters, to a state long forgotten. The subconscious is acknowledged but hardly bothered with, “Grandrieux seems to be less interested in the effects of reverting to subconscious desires as the characters reverting to basic human desires,” John Bradburn writes, highlighting the extent to which Grandrieux’s transgressions are uniquely formulated. In this primal state, societal understandings of good and bad and right and wrong are foregone for sex, violence, hunger. In depicting this primal state, traditional understandings of filmmaking need to be shed and replaced. Simply put: Grandrieux’s cinema is of the indexicality of madness.
Barker, Jennifer. “The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience”. University of
California Press, May 2009.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulation and Simulacra”. University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Bradburn, John. 2008. ‘Nothing is True. Everything is Permissible’. Vertigo 18.
Brenez, Nicole. Interview with Philippe Grandrieux. “The Body’s Night”. Rouge, 23 Oct. 2002,
Fuses. Directd by Carolee Schneeman, 1967.
Hainge, Greg. Philippe Grandrieux: sonic cinema. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
La Nouvelle Vie. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, Mars Distribution, 2002.
Malgré La Nuit. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, Epileptic, 2015.
Meuretriere. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, Epileptic, 2015.
Sombre. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, Diaphana Films, 1999.
Unrest. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, Epileptic, 2017.
White Epilepsy. Directed by Philippe Grandrieux, Epileptic, 2012.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4
(Summer, 1991), pp. 2-13.