Gérard Courant (b. 1951)

Living is a Solution (1980)

Gérard Courant is likely the most radical figure of conceptual cinema in France. An important section of his filmography consists of series dealing with otherness (in places, in people) through the same aesthetic options applied to different subjects. Courant is one of the purest descendants of Lumière Brothers: every date, place and title always corresponds strictly to reality – of characters (and their functions,) of places, and the moment of shooting.

Born in Lyon, Gérard Courant moved after a few months to Valence with his parents. To this city he would dedicate one of his most remarkable late works: Inventaire filmé des rues de la croix-rousse à Lyon (Film Inventory of the Red Cross streets in Lyon, 2002). He settles in Paris in 1975. Once there, he takes part in the turbulent lifestyle of the experimental film-maker, firstly writing for the critic revue Cinéma as well as for the avant-garde journal Cinéma Différent, and later on becoming a film-maker himself.

His cinematic debut was clearly influenced by both Dada and Pop Art movements, as you can see in his short film Marilyn, Guy Lux et les Nonnes (Marilyn, Guy Lux and the Nuns, 1976).

In his first feature, Urgent ou à quoi bon exécuter des projets puisque le projet est en lui-meme une jouissance suffisante (Urgent aka why carry out any project when the project in itself offers sufficient enjoyment, 1977), he frees himself through a kind of exorcism, of integration and rejection of a particular culture and its myths, of a working method typical of the avant-garde.

All these collages of things falling, film perforations, scratching and coloring, addition of texts and music, seem to represent for him a more or less direct homage to Marcel Duchamp and the spirit he was driven by throughout his life.

Thus, Courant doesn’t find his way through the use of found footage – as in the case of the Lettrists – but within the serial cinema partly inherited from Andy Warhol (The 13 most beautiful women, 1964) as well as by his attraction for the series, most present in his filmography and in his life and philosophy.

The Cinématons series began in February 1978, first on 16mm film and later with the simpler super8. Now after 32 years it includes today more than 2300 portraits. Started with avant-garde film-makers and supporter of experimental cinema – Dominique Noguez, Katerina Thomadaki, Joseph Morder, Raphael Bassan, Stéphane Marti and others – the series expands quickly to the world of cinema, art and society. So, also Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Nagisa Oshima and Sandrine Bonnaire got to have their own Cinématon.

Since the first year of shooting, Courant has fixed the structural rules: a camera on a stand, still, a silent close-up of the face, no change of focus or framing during the 3 minutes 25 seconds, only one take, no editing. Within the frame, everyone can control his/her own image as well as choose the background.

What at the beginning seemed to be only a provocation, after more than a quarter of a century has become an essential work, impossible to stop, producing also a chain of deviations ( Couple, Trio, Portrait de Groupe, Lire, Mes Lieux d’Habitation). It is the result of a deep understanding of the notion of series – so popular among the American artists of the 60′s – an osmosis of the realm of serial music (Steven Reich, Philip Glass).

The minimal, serial aspect is coupled with a strong documentary potential: you can see how everybody reacts to these constraints. The professional actors are usually less at ease than the others, because they are used to being directed. The way of posing, dressing, behaving of people change along the years and decades, showing an interesting social and anthropologic variation.

Cinématons represent a very singular panorama on the artistic ‘milieu’ between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, and they are at the same time a work of highly formal coherence.

A great admirer of Werner Schroeter and Philippe Garrel’s films (he wrote a book on each of them), Gérard Courant has himself realized very lyrical and hypnotic films around the presence and beauty of certain women, stars of the modern underground, in parallel with the icons of Hollywood cinema. The most ambitious example of this inspiration can be found in the tetralogy Le Jardin des Abymes (The Garden of the Abysses) which includes Aditya (with Martine Elzingre, 1980), Coeur Bleu (Blue Heart, with Gina Lola Benzina, 1980), Vivre est une Solution (Living is a Solution, 1980) and She’s a Very Nice Lady (1982). In this last work, Courant goes back to his old practice of working on found footage, in order to compare the image of the legendary Gene Tierney with those of two actress friends, Kristin Kirkconnel and Doreen Canto, whom he films live.

“My tetralogy Le Jardin Des Abymes – the filmmaker makes clear – is like a nostalgic collection of a lost time. The project – ambitious – dealt with this idea: if you want to do something new, you can’t erase your past. In the last movement of the tetralogy She’s a Very Nice Lady, when I place as epitaph the maxim Bunuel was fond of – ‘all that is not tradition, is plagiarism’ – I’m just resuming the subject of all 4 films”.

This lyrical tendency can also be found in two more recent feature films, able to expand the notion of series into a wider philosophical domain. 24 Passions (2003) is an edited sequence made of 24 takes that Courant shot between 1980 and 2003, of the ritual ‘path to the cross’ executed on the Holy Friday by the inhabitants of Burzet, in Ardèche: from one year to the other, you can notice the same people getting old. The series stopped when he decided to complete the feature.

The approach of Inventaire Filmé des Rues de la Croix-Rousse à Lyon (2002) is different, though, or even the opposite. Here, the practice of serialism is completely changed. Located in the northern part of Lyon, in the neighborhood of the Red Cross, which is elevated above the rest of the town, this film presents all the 195 streets existing in the neighborhood, as well as alleys, paths, avenues, boulevards, routes… Every street is filmed in a single 16-second-long shot. Courant built this feature as he would do with a serial work. Except for the fact that here every fragment is not independent of itself – as for instance in Cinématons – but it’s conceived as an ‘ensemble’ from the very beginning. -- by Film Critic & Journalist Raphaël Bassan, for Encylopaedia Universalis 2005