Friday, May 6, 2011

Director Profile: Bertrand Bonello

by Eliza Rosenberry

Despite Bertrand Bonello's regular invitations to present his controversial films at Cannes (first in 2001 with The Pornographer, then in 2003 for Tiresia and again in 2005 with a short film), he has remained consistently unembraced by international audiences.  This year, he is invited again to present his new film, L'apollonide (translated as House of Tolerance). This piece is a profile of Bonello's previous work in preparation for Cannes 2011.

Throughout his films, particularly in his features The Pornographer and Tiresia, Bonello struggles to balance his cinematic expression of sexuality, characterized by excess of physical sensation.  This line of transgression is notoriously difficult to navigate in film. There are certainly effective films which attempt to explore sex as art (one that comes to mind is Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies and Videotape), but most filmmakers tread lightly around such subject matter.  Visual metaphors are often substituted, while evasive dialogue and strategic editing allow the viewer to feel more comfortable with socially inappropriate subject matter.

In its rejection of such conventions, and its affiliation with the New French Extremism (read more about this film movement in James Quandt's excellent ArtForum article- you have to register to read, but it's free and totally worth it), Bonello’s The Pornographer did not succeed critically, nor should it have expected to.  The film is pretty raunchy and relies heavily on shock rather than substance.  Tiresia, too, is more shocking than effective in its reinterpretation of the mythological Tiresia as a transsexual Brazilian expat-turned-prophet.  However, Bonello did redeem himself in his 2008 film De la guerre (On War).  The clip below--in French with Spanish subtitles, but the dialogue is minimal--shows what seems to be Bonello's most careful and thoughtful work yet.  

As in his other films, the body plays a significant role in De la guerre, but to a much more effectively subdued extent.  Strange and haunting, these scenes in particular are evidence for Bonello as a Cannes-worthy filmmaker.  Actors, including the remarkable Mathieu Amalric (Diving Bell and the Butterfly) respond to one another intimately and yet blankly, emphasizing the nature of the institution in which they are imprisoned.  Patients crawl along the beach and perform trust falls into one another's arms as though in a trance, and this half-consciousness is echoed superbly in Bonello's direction.  The explicitness from Bonello's earlier films seems to have been translated into spiritual dance-like rituals, certainly dark and inaccessible in their own way but also beautiful.

Coming off De la guerre, Bonello may be well-positioned to show what could be his first internationally-distributed film at Cannes this year.  (His other films have shown in the US at festivals, but apparently never released in distribution.)  L'appollonide will show in competition.
The Cannes Film Festival takes place between the 11th and the 22nd of May.

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