Lawrence Russell

My Life & Times With Antonin Artaud (En Compagnie D'Antonin Artaud) (1993) dir. Gerard Mordillat writ. Mordillat and Jerome Prieur cine. Francois Catonne edt. Sophie Rouffio music Jean-Claude Petit star Sami Frey (Artaud), Marc Barbe (Prevost), Julie Jezequel, Valerie Jeannet, Clotilde de Bayber, Charlotte Volandrey, Alain Broissard et. al.

Fox Lorber

"...a patient breaking into a nuthouse"

Theatre of Cruelty -- what is it? "Everything that acts is a cruelty" says Artaud in his essay on the subject. "It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theatre must be rebuilt." If you look at his subjects -- the Marquis de Sade, Bluebeard, the Fall of Jerusalem, the Conquest of Mexico -- you get some idea of the crypto-fascist cosmologies that run behind the revolutionary expression of this French poet, actor, medium and madman who advocated the artist as a Creator rather than as a writer or director. Visionary... or just another ass with an act? Gerard Mordillat's black comedy on the subject gives you some idea.

The narrative frame for the action is an unrecognized poet's journal which records his meeting and later enslavement to the great man. If masochists exist in order for sadists to express themselves, then Jacques Prevel (Marc Barbe) must be a masochist. In a sense this poet who says he writes "for people who will be alive when I'm dead" is Artaud's understudy, and ironically a sadist by default to his suffering wife and superbly suffering mistress.

Prevel has sent some of his poems to Artaud in the asylum at Rodez (outside Paris) and receives a polite letter back. It's a measure of Prevel's desperation or delusion that he thinks that if he could publish this letter, this in turn will help him get recognized as the sensitive genius he knows he is. Crazy? That's French literature in the post-war climes, folks. And this Left-Bank mentality is far from dead, as you can find it on nearly any campus in North America today. For this reason, My Life & Times is likely to be seen as hip rather than tragic, a model rather than a moral.

There's no question that despite the immediate squalor of madness, there's also something attractive about it, especially for the poet as savant. It's like reverse language therapy, an occultic means of breaking through the spectral walls that enclose our reality. As this involves an assault on the senses, drugs are nearly always involved. It was true for Nerval and Alfred Jarry, both obvious precursors of Artaud. They say Jarry was found dead on a bed of straw, a cylinder of ether nearby. For Artaud -- the man who looks like a fresh cadaver in a stale bistro -- his death might've been accelerated by any one of the different drugs Prevel delivers to him. Once, during one of their many transits of the Charrenton bridge, Artaud says to Prevel, "All the opium in Paris must be at Artaud's disposal... so he can finish his work."

Thus spake the Master. And such is Prevel's sycophantic desperation, he continues to supply Artaud (Sami Frey) with laudanum -- that ancient staple of the visionary poet i.e. Francis Thompson, City of Dreadful Night -- or nearly anything else that will give the man a buzz. Artaud wants ham -- Prevel gets it for him. Artaud needs woman -- Prevel's wife might do. Artaud needs his visions recorded -- Prevel will write them down. Artaud needs an audience for his theatre -- Prevel will be that audience.

"make it vibrate til the fibre of life squeals"

In a delineating scene, Prevel approaches through the asylum garden, hears the pained voice of the actress that Artaud is rehearsing in his room. "There once was a King of Thule," she recites... over and over. "No!" shouts Artaud. "Louder... louder...!" She stands stiffly like a truant schoolgirl, accepting her humiliation from the Master like the slave she is. "There once was a King of Thule," she shrieks, "whose faithful courtesan gave him a talisman!" "No!" shouts Artaud. "The sound must squirt out! Make it vibrate 'til the fibre of life squeals!" Tears stream down her face, her body trembles... and the madman circles. Avant-garde? Yes. Theatre of Cruelty? You bet.

Artaud's relationship with Colette the actress is left ambiguous, like much of the metaphoric language that the poet excels at. He tells Prevel that Colette was brutally raped and that he will slit the man's throat "if (he) can find him." You wonder if Artaud is the assailant, as he frequently refers to himself in the 3rd person... the mind-body dualism of a spiritual coward? Yet his immersion within his own act of self-destruction is so complete, a certain integrity prevails. For example, he's not too far gone to suggest to Prevel that he's treating his wife badly and that Jany his mistress "is an evil influence".

Prevel's situation is so absurd that it can only exist by omission of detail. His wife and children live in apartment while he lives down the street in a hotel with his mistress. There never seems to be any money... and why would there be? Prevel never works. When she's not stoned, Jany is out "trying to sell (Prevel's) poems". Somehow Prevel seems to be able to keep this menage trois going between writing in cafes and running dope to the madman. All the while only one thing matters: recognition that he, Prevel, is a significant poet. While Artaud is evasive, a publisher is not -- he says Prevel's poetry reveals a certain "laziness". Funny? We think so.

Prevel is ostracized by the literary disciples who await the sporadic visits of their Christ in one of the many smoky cafes they hang around in like hyenas. They resent his relationship with Artaud, the fact that he supplies the maestro with drugs. Prevel is killing Artaud, they feel.

Meanwhile Prevel continues to walk the walk with Artaud, listen to his stream-of-consciousness (or is it vomit) with the dead-pan rapture of a nicotine zombie. "Everytime a man and a woman have sex, I feel it," intones Artaud. "They deprive me of something." He advises Prevel to give up sex. "Avoid it. One day it will no longer be desired or necessary, or exist anymore."

Prevel: Drugs do that to you?

Artaud: I take drugs to rid myself of sexual obsessions! (Prevel demurs) Only a hermaphrodite knows what love should be, the rest just saps energy.

One night they return to the asylum but Artaud has lost his keys. When Prevel is giving him a "leg up" onto the wall, two gendarmes come by, demand to know what's going on. "A patient breaking into the nuthouse!" one exclaims. They help Artaud climb the wall in an act that symbolizes the absurd modus operandi of the modern poet in search of understanding.

The film is in black and white, no doubt to help lock it into history and the bleak cultural confusion of forties France. It works, as Paris looks like an industrial nightmare, a perpetual shunting yard of locomotives and Metro transit. Cafes, streets, buildings, even nature, are drained of color, reduced to shades of gray and black as if filtered by the smoke from the endless cigarettes everyone is smoking.

The principals are excellent in their roles. Sami Frey is so within the character of Antonin Artaud you think this is a documentary. Mordillat's film isn't that funny if you have no sympathy for transcendental language, and indeed many will find its self-indulgent characters tiresome. But for the curious with no previous knowledge of Artaud, it might draw attention to his brilliant collection of "essays" collected as Theatre And Its Double. Here you will find such interesting gems as "No More Masterpieces" and "Towards a Theatre of Cruelty".

Artaud died in 1948, a month after his war-guilt radio play To Have Done With The Judgement of God was broadcast to an indifferent public, his manisfestos misunderstood, his exorcism withheld.

LR 10/98


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