Alberto Giacometti (2001) - PopMatters Film Review )

[23 May 2002]

By Lesley Smith

Including these two documentaries:
What Is a Head?
Director: Michel Van Zele, France, 2000, 64 mins.
A Man Among Men: Alberto Giacometti
Director: Jean-Marie Drot, France, 1963, 52 mins.

by Lesley Smith

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Resistance against space

The remarkable DVD Alberto Giacometti marries two documentaries, shot almost forty years apart, into an intellectually dazzling investigation of the art and inspiration of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Most famous for his fragile, elongated human figures (which range from the matchbox-sized to the monumental) and emaciated heads, he flirted both with cubism and surrealism before refocusing on the mystery of human existence, perhaps even human survival, through a passionate, 30-year meditation on the human body. In the process of investigating that passion, this compilation also contrasts two genres of documentary filmmaking, the lean, ideas-intoxicated odysseys of the ‘60s and the restless, multi-perspective investigations of the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

The coup on this disk is the sustained interview with Giacometti in the earlier film, A Man Among Men: Alberto Giacometti (Jean-Marie Drot, 1963). Sometimes we see the interviewer. Sometimes we hear him. Sometimes we even see a wide shot of the studio that reveals the simple, face-to-face architecture of the encounter. But most of all, we see Giacometti in mid-shot, extemporizing on his obsessions, assiduously working the damp clay of an as-yet inchoate figure. As his fingers probe and tear, he wryly pooh-poohs the interviewer’s anxieties about disrupting his creativity: “The filming draws me to the work… it’s a chance to work…” And so Giacometti, the charming, witty unrepentant workaholic emerges, reliving in what the poet Jacques Dupin called an “intense, rasping voice,” the cathartic moments of his artistic career.

Giacometti located his creative epiphany in 1945 when he emerged from a Montparnasse cinema and saw the world as if for the first time, unclouded by the veil of the real. From that moment, he felt the need to account for what he saw, knowing that all the time he would fail, but that only failure itself would lead to the truth. As he later noted, “The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and—instead of giving up—you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling—be it an illusion or not—that something new has opened up.”

As the interview progresses Giacometti cracks open artistic inspiration as the frenzied pursuit of such illusions. Even three years before his death, when he was internationally recognized, the artist worked frenetically, as if a lifetime of grasping for, but never quite capturing, enlightenment could be reversed with just one more sculpture.

According to Dupin, interviewed extensively in Michel van Zele’s What is a Head?, Giacometti was so convinced that only his newest work scraped close to truth that he would want to pack and dispatch solely sculptures, still dripping water and clay, to any exhibition. Only the interventions of his brother, his wife, and his friends filled galleries with his finished, haunting recreations of human persistence.

For Giacometti, drawing and sculpting did not represent what he saw; instead he sought, through his art, to understand what he saw. He perceived, that day in Montparnasse, a void that isolated everyone and everything, leaving all “floating in emptiness, separated by an immense distance.” But isolation also held within it courage and determination. Giacometti traced the vulnerability of his figures, those slender trajectories of resistance against space, to his perception of human endeavor: “I always feel that there’s a fragility in living creatures, as if at every moment they needed an incredible drive to remain standing, always at risk of collapsing.” More than fragility, too, he saw imminent extinction, knowing that death inhabited the living and quickly abandoned the dead.As his fingers drew presence out of the void, he saw his work as “testing a talent to find a fact.”

While Drot’s film is itself rich in “fact,” prowling slowly from one masterwork to the next, often accompanied by the artist’s own recollections of its genesis and fruition (no small accomplishment in a television documentary), it’s van Zele who focuses on one key element of the works themselves—the representation of the human head. In so doing, he casts his net widely, drawing in close friends of Giacometti’s such as Dupin, Roger Montandon, and Ernst Scheidegger, a young German soldier who met Giacometti while vacationing in a Swiss hotel.

Giacometti’s fascination with the head began in the early 1930s. In 1934, André Breton, contemptuous of Giacometti’s return to the human body as subject after his cubist and surrealist work, scoffed that everyone knows “what a head is now.” Giacometti snapped back, “I don’t,” and abandoned the surrealists forever. According to Scheidegger, who later shot his own film about the artist, Giacometti found in the human head “an insoluble mystery,” perpetually drawing him towards truth and into despair. Giacometti himself said, “The first time that I saw the head I was looking at become fixed, immobilized definitively in a moment in time, I shook with terror as never before in my life and a cold sweat ran down my back. What I was looking at was an object like any other, no, different, not like any other object, but like something which was alive and dead at the same time.”

Unusually, van Zele begins with Giacometti’s drawings and paintings, using precisely shot (and exquisitely color-controlled) close-ups to reveal the intensity of Giacometti’s assault on the head, especially at the point where the eye socket and the nose meet. According to the artist, that point encapsulated the “meaning” of the entire head. In one of the most illuminating interviews in this film, the radical artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest calls Giacometti’s two-dimensional works drawings that “refute drawing.” For Pignon-Ernest, the drawing embodies both the thought and the gaze, imparting a “trembling of life,” in which each fixed line interrogated the next. Whether Giacometti drew or sculpted, he created not only the subject, but also the space around the subject, a shimmering liminal zone where the pressures of skin and air meet.

As van Zele’s film unfolds, its returns to this crux of the face, however important to an appreciation of Giacometti’s nvestigations, turn into something of a stylistic quirk. For example, new interviewees are introduced visually in two ways. The shot begins either with a tight close-up of the inside corner of the eye and the bridge of the nose from which the camera pulls back, or with a wide shot of each person, seated in the characteristic knees apart, eyes straight ahead pose of Giacometti’s portraits of his brother, Diego, while the camera moves (slowly, and to be honest, portentously) into the nose-eye nexus. Once could be witty: more than twice is a tic.

Van Zele, like many contemporary documentary makers, doesn’t seem able to judge when visual business is distracting rather than entrancing. And this disk, perhaps inadvertently, also offers a striking contrast between his method of documentary and that of Drot. For van Zele’s generation, the seductiveness of raw ideas has vanished, unless “prettied up” with visual symbolism. He regularly indulges in tricks to keep the audience’s eyes occupied. At one point, anonymous, spotlit hands appear, pasting sketches of Giacometti onto rough walls. At another, the viewer encounters an ominously shadowed night shot of his Geneva studio, rubbish-strewn and deserted. Nice in noir, no doubt, but crude here.

By contrast, Drot’s 40-year-old film requires less padding, for it possesses the inestimable advantage of the artist himself. Even so, it is less patronizing of its audience. The takes are longer, assuming the audience’s willingness to watch a talking head for minutes at a time, assuming that talking head can stimulate, challenge, and amuse all at the same time. Drot allows ideas to evolve, instead ofsummarizing them in memorable shorthand nuggets, so that the film evokes less certainty, but more thought than van Zele’s piece.

Partnered on disc, though, the films’ very differences complement each other extremely well. Van Zele’s visual affectations can’t detract from the imaginatively chosen and well interviewed dramatis personae of his film and Drot’s footage of Giacometti at work and in full intellectual flow (illustrating as he manipulated the clay his own dictum that the eye follows the hand) creates a rare sense of privilege.

Although the DVD plays the later film first, this reviewer would suggest the reverse order, wherein one would first encounter the man and artist, energetic and intellectually commanding. Then one would move on to the dissection of the art, accompanied by nostalgia for the flesh and the consolations of memory and art. Finally, this other order would allow the viewer to end on the one visual motif of van Zele’s opus that does create a genuine frisson, the glacial pans across stacked skulls crammed into rows in mediaeval ossuary which close the film. They form a chilling glimpse into the indifference of the universe against which Giacometti worked.

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