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A Bright Darkness: Masao Adachi   




Always lines, never forms! But where do they find these lines in Nature? For my part, I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not. There is only light and shadow.

Francisco de Goya


The Desire to Make a Film

The film opens with the hypnotic cadence of the oscillation of two bodies, of which we perceive only parts. A man swings a little girl; we listen to the swing’s squeak and a child’s voice, whispering. The camera gets closer and closer to the bodies – we can feel this shaky camera, and the vibration of the body holding it. Afternoon light gives the image an atmosphere of intimacy, like the first words of the filmmaker, emerging with the same luminous tone of the bright darkness that embraces the bodies of the man – Masao Adachi – and the child.

The first images of Masao Adachi immerse the spectator in a tactile space. A space that returns us to another video-film made by Philippe Grandrieux with Thierry Kuntzel in 1981: Cubist Painting. Based on the text of the same name by Jean Paulhan, its narration is built by alternating video (Kuntzel) with film (Grandrieux) images. In this work, the protagonist, after observing a room bathed in blinding light, enters into the darkness and conceives a new sensorial perception of his everyday space. ‘It would thus seem […] that touching takes precedence over seeing, tactile space over visual space; as if our gaze was to become an extension of our body’. (1) This is rather like the transmutation of filmic space that occurs in the first sequence of Masao Adachi. Watching the images of the encounter between Adachi and the child, we feel the sense of touch replacing that of sight, tactility predominating over the visual space. We experience the gaze as an extension of the body, our retinas reborn as fingertips.

We swim into a touchable, liquid darkness, an intimate space analogous to Adachi’s exercise of introspection in the opening scene. In Masao Adachi, the spectator makes a trip into the interiority of a body, through the streams of consciousness of Adachi’s memories. In ‘The Painting Before Painting’, a chapter from Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze describes the moment prior to what he calls the ‘act of painting’ – that moment when the painter, hypothetically, stands before the blank canvas.







1. For an extract in English from Jean Paulhan’s La peinture cubiste (Paris: Denoël, 1970), see here.


It would be a mistake to think that the painter works on a white and virgin surface. (…) The painter has many things in his head, or around him, or in his studio. Now everything he has in his head or around him is already in the canvas, more or less virtually, more or less actually, before he begins his work. They are all present in the canvas as so many images, actual or virtual, so that the painter does not have to cover a blank surface, but rather would have to empty it out, clear it, clean it. (…) he paints on images that are already there. (2)



2. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation ( London : Continuum, 2003), p. 86.

In that sense, we can read the film’s opening sequence as the mise en scène of all the things that Masao Adachi ‘has in his head’, as if we were witnessing the ‘filming before filming’ of the Japanese director.

If Masao Adachi opens with a journey into its subject’s consciousness and desires, making us think specifically about his work, we shall soon discover, after seeing the selection of fragments of his cinema spread throughout, that it also constitutes a powerful document of Grandrieux’s own work and processes. In fact, the selection of Adachi’s scenes not only illustrate his words, but also stage some of Grandrieux’s filmic sources, inspirations and references.

In the film, Adachi remarks:



The film must be returned to the world of sensations. Since we filmed with our sensations, we must finish the film with sensations and not as a prisoner of our ideas. To go on, a sensation is something that flows, it’s very fluid, while ideas are fragments of thoughts. This goes back to what I said earlier in the film. Actually, what are filmed are just fragments of thoughts. The film is only visible once it is returned to the world of sensations. It's a question I would like to pursue, and it provokes in me the desire to experiment. That’s it, Philippe. I think that's the essence of cinema. (…) The world of ideas is made up of fragments of thought. The world of sensations is linked to that of ideas, and we just need to return to the world of sensations. I say this because I think that Philippe does the same.


Adachi’s thoughts place his images – and Grandrieux’s, too – in the ‘way of sensation’ that was formulated by Deleuze in his analysis of Bacon’s painting.

The Way of Sensation: Filming a Face Marked by Time

In his analysis of Bacon’s works, Deleuze defines a third way of bodily figuration, neither figurative nor abstract. ‘There are two ways of going beyond figuration (that is, beyond both the illustrative and the figurative): either toward abstract form or toward the Figure. Cézanne gave a simple name to this way of the Figure: sensation. The Figure is the sensible form related to a sensation’. (3) Grandrieux, in his text ‘The Insane Horizon of Cinema’, traces the major characteristics of his cinema. One is the research of the transmission of sensations through filmic images; this is how cinema becomes a ‘sensorial experience of the world’.







3. Ibid., p. 34.


We are won over and forget ourselves and we forget what we carry, and what we don’t know, what we can’t know, although it fascinates us and brings us to life, to a life that is lived, and so it unfolds. This rhythm, this way of framing, of lighting the body, of interrupting the take, it comes, it’s there, and cinema closely touches its essence, a sensorial experience of the world, whose destiny is to transmit through sensations, the only means which are its own, to convey a fraction of the passing world, the sensible world, soon dissipated, lost, carried away by time, a part of time, and that feeling of ‘inevitable solidarity’ may resound in each one of us. (4)



4. Translation by Maria Palacios Cruz at Diagonal Thoughts. Originally published as ‘L’horizon insensé du cinéma’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 551 (November 2000).

Following this line of thought, Grandrieux’s desire in Masao Adachi is not only to build a portrait of this artist’s life and work but, above all, to continue developing the obsessive issue that appears in all his cinema: how to film a living body, marked and affected by time. The same question relates to the Figure, ‘a sensible form related to a sensation’, as expressed by Deleuze. ‘The portrait of a man, his hands, his face, shaped by the time in which he has lived’: Grandrieux’s words accompany the images of Adachi’s wrinkled hands, filmed so, so close, abolishing all possible distance between subject and camera. ‘Does the beauty of the hands, the face, express the truth with which life passes through us?

This is the same question of ‘painting time’ enunciated by Goya in his famous declaration: ‘Time also paints’. Painting time is a research also embodied in Francis Bacon’s portraits and their figuration of bodies; in some sense, Goya is situated in the same ‘way of sensation’ as Bacon, and that Adachi and Grandrieux express in their cinema. Deleuze on Bacon:



There is a great force of time in Bacon, time itself is being painted. The variation of texture and color on a body, a head, or a back (…) is actually a temporal variation regulated down to the tenth of a second. Hence the chromatic treatment of the body, which is very different from the treatment of the fields of color: the chronochromatism of the body is opposed to the monochromatism of the flat fields. To put time inside the Figure – this is the force of bodies in Bacon. (5)




5. Deleuze, Logic of Sensation, p. 48.

We can find in Grandrieux’s filmed images, in his bodily figurations, the same ‘variation of texture and color on a body (...) putting time inside the Figure’ – especially as Grandrieux is himself the camera operator, ‘imprinting’, in this sense, his own moments of living, his bodily traces, in the skin and body of the film, just as a painter does with a brush in the living surface of the canvas. Grandrieux films Adachi and whispers about his search for some images in which we can feel the beat of life; while the camera searches for the traces of a lifetime in its journey across Adachi’s hands and face. The portrait of the Japanese filmmaker is chiselled or drawn by the filmmaker over a background of darkness – sending us back to Goya’s black paintings and, above all, to the figuration of bodies and faces in Grandrieux’s own filmmaking career.

In his films we find faces emerging from darkness, in the cabin where the characters of Un lac (2008) live; faces discovered as scraps of light in the hotel room where Jean (Marc Barbé) kills one of his victims in Sombre (1998); virginal faces like that of Claire (Elina Löwensohn) in Sombre or Hege (Natalie Rehorova) in Un lac that remind us of Renaissance Madonnas; disfigured faces, transformed into animal visages, with jaws instead of teeth, like Jean or some other male characters in Grandrieux’s films. And mirror faces, reflecting Goya’s and Bacon’s desire for painting – or Adachi’s and Grandrieux’s desire for filming – the beauty of time and of life.

It’s Possible that Beauty …

In one of the Adachi extracts selected by Grandrieux, one guerrilla rebel, after talking about his hard training conditions, declares: ‘The landscape was very beautiful. Everything was so lovely. It’s possible that beauty has strengthened our resolve’. After his speech, over a shot of the blue sky crossed by the white line traced by a plane – a shot reminiscent of one in Sombre – the phrase is spoken again, but this time by the French filmmaker, who adds: ‘I’m reminded of Dostoevsky: beauty will save the world’.

Beauty will save the world: and so we return to the opening sequence, where Adachi explored the nature of his desire to make films – ‘No, it’s not a question of logic. It’s a question of taste’. Something that language can hardly express.

The sensible world, the beauty of Nature that inspires the guerrilla fighter to keep fighting – this is a central subject of the film. It comes back at the end when Adachi, questioned by Grandrieux about the relation between the worlds of ideas and sensations, answers: The film is only visible once it is returned to the world of sensations. It's a question I would like to pursue, and it provokes in me the desire to experiment. That’s it, Philippe. I think that's the essence of cinema’.

With these words Adachi is, rather than closing the film, reopening it: the spectator returns to the first shots, within a bright darkness that lights up two bodies. A bright darkness where a man swings a little girl, and we listen to the swing’s squeak and a child’s whispering voice. The camera gets closer and closer to the bodies – we can feel this shaky camera, and the vibration of the body holding it. Then, the filmmaker will start to speak his thoughts aloud, trying to explain his desire for filmmaking … And then …


from Issue 2: Devils


© Cloe Masotta Lijtmaer and LOLA June 2012
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.