Lisandro Alonso – Adrien-Gabriel Bouché (2020)

It’s been six years that Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso released a film. In 2014, he released Jauja, which, when I saw it, I considered as a break from his previous films. Jauja felt like a new beginning after Los Muertos and La Libertad, but I’m unsure as to what he is currently working on. I’m not worried though because long breaks are not at all unusual in this field of cinema. Roy Andersson takes between five and seven years, and it’s always worth waiting.

I haven’t written much about Alonso. Here, on my blog, you find short texts about Jauja, but I never really took the time to write about the director and his films. It seems as though I never took the time to really write about those directors I came across at the beginning: Béla Tarr is a notable absence in my writing, even though I absolutely adore the man and his films. I was reminded of those “lost” first films, which I watched many years ago, when I saw (thanks to the wonderful people of Sabzian) that there was a new book (quite possibly the first, at least in French) about Lisandro Alonso, published just this year by Warm. I was immediately reminded of the nature in Alonso’s films, of the human silence and the natural sounds: birds chirping, the wind in the leaves. I still remember the long journey of Vargas in a boat, down a river, flanked by lush green trees. Vargas, the protagonist of Los Muertos, which I was fortunate enough to see on a big screen in 2012…

Not so very long ago, I wrote about a new (French-language) book on Wang Bing by Antony Fiant, also published by Warm. It turns out that Fiant and Adrien-Gabriel Bouché, author of the book on Alonso, both teach at the university here in my city, in Rennes. It feels like there is quite a bit of Slow Cinema going on here, Fiant already having written a great book on what he called “le cinéma soustractif”, essentially a French treatise on Slow Cinema. It looks as though I moved to the right place three years ago without even knowing!

Lisandro Alonso is a journey back in time for me. I had forgotten about Alonso, and it felt wonderful to rediscover the director’s work through the eyes of someone else. “Habiter la nature, rêver le cinéma” – to live in nature and to dream cinema – a fitting subtitle for the films of Alonso. Are they not hypnotic, dream-like journeys? Are they not a strange push-and-pull between reality and something otherworldly? It is fascinating to see what’s in those films once you have a bit of distance to them. Bouché focuses on what’s inside the films, not what’s on the surface. He follows an approach I have always appreciated in French writing on slow-film directors: authors do not write dry, theoretical analyses but they actually go with the flow of the films, which has always been essential to me. Literature from anglo-saxon regions still haven’t reached this non-academic stage, the stage in which you, as writer, allow yourself to feel the film and let yourself be guided by it. English-language writers always guide the films to where they want them to be, they want to be in control, which is why they often misinterpret the films or simply don’t get to the bottom of them. Or frankly bore the reader by stating theories.

In Bouché’s book, Alonso is considered as part of the New Argentinian Cinema (NAC) and not so much as a slow film director, even though there are several arguments about this esthétique soustractif throughout the book. However, Alonso is, first and foremost, an Argentinian director whose films show a constant shift between settlement (stable) and nomadism (movement). This is one major argument in Bouché’s book: there are several forms of time, not only in Alonso’s films, of course, but in life in general. Bouché distinguishes between two rhythms: the one described by Plato and the one described by Héraclite, both of which can be found in Alonso’s films.

“une confrontation entre un rythme platonicien, associé aux gestes; aux actions du personnage, et le rythme héraclitéen de la nature, en perpétuel mouvement.”

Adrien-Gabriel Bouché – Lisandro Alonso (2020: 48)

There is the rhythm created by montage, a rhythm created from the outside (which, according to Bouché, corresponds to Plato’s idea of rhythm). And then there is the rhythm inside the frame, inside the long-take, a circular rhythm, a continuous movement (Héraclite). Even though Bouché writes clearly about Alonso, he inevitably makes a statement on many other slow films, too. Indeed, the vast majority of slow films is governed by this interaction between the two rhythms. In Alonso’s films, as Bouché shows clearly, this interaction is particularly powerful, because the director’s films are always set in a natural environment; woods, jungles, plains. Alonso’s characters are often alone. Misael in La Libertad is living in harmony with nature, but he also tries to use it to make money and, perhaps, one day return home.

There is something else that stands out. Once more, Bouché looks at La Libertad in detail. Misael cuts wood for a living. He lives in the woods, and, with his tools, clearly dominates nature. He is able to raze the woods to the ground over time. But in dominating nature, he will never really be able to live there. He will never become one, he will never find peace. La libertad – liberty – is an illusion, nothing more than a dream because hierarchies at work and repetitive daily work cycles have nothing liberating about them. It’s a prison, which Alonso’s characters try to break out of. Freedom is what they seek, but they never really succeed fully.

“Dans chacun de ces films, le personnage tend à s’extraire, avec plus ou moins de succès, de ces cadres englobants et souvent collectifs, pour se lancer dans une quête solitaire dont la liberté (réelle ou ressentie) constitue un but plus qu’incertain.”

Adrien-Gabriel Bouché – Lisandro Alonso (2020: 74)

This quest for freedom is often expressed by what Bouché calls by a “vision dromoscopique”. It comes from the Greek for run/journey and observation. In several scenes across Alonso’s oeuvre, the camera is positioned on top of a car, a pick up, filming the protagonist on his journey. For Bouché, these dromoscopic takes show the internal desire to flee, to escape the shackles and to finally find freedom. But freedom is fragile and, in fact, unattainable. What remains are attempts, futile, yes, but nevertheless essential for the continuation of life, for the pursuit of dreams and hopes.

Bouché’s study of Alonso continues the tradition of excellent writing on Slow Cinema in France. It is perhaps not quite as strong as Fiant’s Wang Bing, but it is a genuinely interesting look at the works of the Argentinian director, who, I feel, has overall been overlooked. I myself am guilty of that. Perhaps, I got to know his films at the wrong time. It was the very beginning of my interest in Slow Cinema and I didn’t see much in Alonso’s films. With years of distance and Bouché’s book on my desk, it feels as though I missed a lot of things at the time, simply because I wasn’t well versed in slowness on screen back then. Today, Lisandro Alonso helps me to go back and to relive Alonso’s films. For those of you who speak or can read French, I strongly recommend this book.

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