By Jean-Claude Biette
Audio: Straub, Biette, Othon, Pasolini
We know that in Straub’s films the spoken text is the essential element. He’s said it himself in interviews, and until now he had to be taken on his word because neither the Bachfilm – where the commentary collided with the pieces of music and their overwhelming lengths – nor Not Reconciled – where the unavoidable reference to a relatively familiar and rather directly discernable reality confronted the text with its echoes, outside of the film, in us, but at a distance too weak to allow for the development of a free play between the layers of the past recorded in the film and the shifting depths of the present – had a text as a unit of measurement. Now, the material of Straub’s latest film, Eyes Do Not Want To Close At All Times, Or Perhaps One Day Rome Will Choose In Her Turn, is nothing other than the complete text – and that alone – of one of Corneille’s final tragedies: Othon.
The layers of the past are separated and diversified more than ever. At its core there is distant and unfamiliar imperial Rome – the conflicts and plots – from which comes Tacitus’ original story about power struggles and which serves as the area of investigation, reference, and questioning for this Othon, about which Corneille informs the reader: “The subject is taken from Tacitus, who begins his Histories with it; and I have not yet put anything on the stage to which I have been more faithful and borrowed as much invention. The characteristics of those that I make speak here are the same as in this incomparable author that I have translated as much as has been possible,” and, further on, “I did not want to go further than history.”
What will Straub’s updating of this text named Othon involve? Choosing to have Corneille’s alexandrines spoken with the greatest possible diversity of accents, perhaps to shatter the great unity of classical speech and so that the systematic and voluntary poverty of Corneille’s vocabulary is redistributed among voices as different and individualized as possible from one another. The entirety of the text will be performed like this: not in a uniform style of diction that refers back to a performance theory that Straub imposed on the actors, Corneille’s text and the film, but in a complete refusal of all style that allows the most varied and unplanned cross-section of the cultures included in the film to be captured in the most tangible manner. This operation is produced under certain conditions, conditions that carry contradictions: the most relentlessly hard work on the text. There were three months of daily rehearsals for the actors, and then as the text was known scene by scene, the rehearsals focused on the shots (as they are also blocks of unity for the actors), then the rehearsals were done at the locations: the balcony of the Palatine towering over Rome for the first three acts, a baroque garden with a fountain for the fourth act, and a stone wall in the Palatine’s thermal baths for the fifth act. From the beginning, the directions concerning the actors’ positions in the frame were determined (quasi-immobility allowing for the maximum amount of concentration on the text during the shoot) as well as their movements within the shots (which allowed, during the shoot, for the text to almost be forgotten when they were walking or – as we’ll return to – an obstacle for the other person or persons in the shot). The different accents are distributed so that Plautine has a very light Swiss accent, Camille, a Florentine accent, Othon, a slightly Roman accent, Albin, an Italian-Canadian accent, Vinius, an English accent, Lacus, a Lorraine accent, Martian, a Parisian accent, Albiane, a Roman accent, Flavie, a Cremonese accent, Galba, an accent that is difficult to pinpoint, Atticus, an Argentinean accent, and Rutile, a strong Roman accent. The necessity of reciting the text in front of the camera without changing a syllable – most of the (non-French) actors had to bend their accent until the correct emission of the sounds written by Corneille was achieved (according to total literality) with, as a guide, directions on tempo and not intensity (andante and allegro being the norm, adagio the exception) – still left to each actor a personal contribution that cannot be reduced to identification with the character, as an impulse coming from a necessarily limited interpretive idea (words as tempting as “soul” or “disaster” will be piteously ground down), but that escape in spite of them. In short, one might fear the intrusion of spontaneity, of naturalism, or of depth that might be expressed. But the obstacles of memory, nervous tension (the majority were non-actors, to the next viewer to discover, if he can, who was and who was not a professional actor), of the positions held continuously under the late-August sun, and especially the rhythmic tension to maintain at all cost against the possible bursts from one language to another, stopped every psychological manifestation, every fixed, individualized intervention, to let only rhythmic accidents occur. What is manifested in the actors in the film is not an explosive freedom like, for example, in Marc’O’s film Les Idoles or in Chytilova’s Daisies. It is, on the contrary – because of the microcosmic, methodical rehearsal of a repressive structure, a structure freely accepted as a job by the actors – the unveiling of what is most buried in each person. Not, of course, the mannerisms dear to naturalists and post-neo-realists, but anonymous, multiple traces: gazes – their directions once fixed, diversely distributed – the musical and tonal hierarchy of words in the sentence (the verse constituting an obstacle as well), all of this overturning bourgeois expressivity, therefore visible and audible traces of the freedom/oppression couple, reconstituted here from elements borrowed from a historically analyzable culture (our own, today), but traces that are above all bothersome and indecipherable because, far from illustrating Corneille’s text or making it more accessible, or proposing explanations or clarifications about it once and for all, they level out the mystery, re-distribute it everywhere, break the learned logic about verse, and blur the reference points by prevailing over, without warning, the text.
I can provide some complimentary information on Straub’s film and evoke what happens in it by citing these lines of Flavia’s from the second act:
Othon addressed his compliments to the Princess
More as a courtier would than a real lover.
His artful eloquence, linking gracefully
Excuses for his silence with his boldness,
In too-well chosen words blamed his respect
For her as having so delayed his homage.
His studied gestures and his well-weighed manner
Left naught to chance. One could see planned effect
In all his utterance. Appropriateness
Ruled even his very sighs and marked throughout
His speech, which sounded as though memorized
And which ‘twas easier to admire than credit.
Camilla herself seemed of this opinion.
She better would have liked less polished phrases.
I saw this in her eyes, but her distrust
Too little was in harmony with her heart.
Her wishes, outraged by her just suspicions,
Immediately destroyed them or disdained them.
She fain would believe all, and if some caution
Had managed to restrain the love which swayed her,
‘Twas evident, from the little she let slip,
That she enjoyed allowing him to deceive her;
And if sometimes his horror at being forced
To act thus, made poor Othon sigh in earnest,
At once her eagerness to reign o’er his heart
Imputed to his love these sighs of grief.*
* Othon à la princesse a fait un compliment/ Plus en homme de cour qu'en véritable amant./ Son éloquence accorte enchaînant avec grâce/ L'excuse du silence à celle de l'audace,/ En termes trop choisis accusait le respect/ D'avoir tant retardé cet hommage suspect./ Ses gestes concertés, ses regards de mesure/ N'y laissaient aucun mot aller à l'aventure,/ On ne voyait que pompe en tout ce qu'il peignait,/ Jusque dans ses soupirs la justesse régnait,/ Et suivait pas à pas un effort de mémoire,/ Qu'il était plus aisé d'admirer que de croire./ Camille semblait même assez de cet avis,/ Elle aurait mieux goûté des discours moins suivis,/ Je l'ai vu dans ses yeux, mais cette défiance/ Avait avec son coeur trop peu d'intelligence./ De ses justes soupçons ses souhaits indignés/ Les ont tout aussitôt détruits, ou dédaignés./ Elle a voulu tout croire, et quelque retenue/ Qu'ait su garder l'amour dont elle est prévenue,/ On a vu par ce peu qu'il laissait échapper/ Qu'elle prenait plaisir à se laisser tromper,/ Et que si quelquefois l'horreur de la contrainte/ Forçait le triste Othon à soupirer sans feinte,/ Soudain l'avidité de régner sur son coeur/ Imputait à l'amour ces soupirs de douleur. (NdT.)
Jean-Claude Biette played Martian in Les yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu'un jour Rome se permettra de choisir à son tour ou Othon
Translation by Ted Fendt, 2011. Othon excerpt translated by Lacy Lockert, 1959