La Vie Nouvelle (A New Life, 2002)
Philippe Grandrieux offers a multilayered dream-like filmic experience through the most radical experimental film of the recent years.
Philippe Grandrieux is known for his detailed provocative experimental films. Through the past years he has been recognized as one of the leading auteurs of experimental cinema. The new approach and the innovative way that he is expressing himself through his films have always driven the attention of the cinephiles. Philippe Grandrieux has directed three fictional films but probably the one that usually introduces the viewer to his world could be his second feature, La Vie Nouvelle (A New Life). The film premiered in 2002 and is also a key work for the French cinematic wave Cinéma du Corps (Cinema of the Body/Cadaver).
The plot is set in an unknown East European city, sometime after the Yugoslavian civil war. Boyan (Zsolt Nagy), a human trafficker is selecting young beautiful women in order to turn them into prostitution. Among them there is Mélania (Anna Mouglalis) who becomes his favorite girl his precious object. He cuts her hair off and then she is transformed in a commodity, just another piece of meat. Mélania works for him in a strip-club when she meets a new customer the young American soldier Seymour (Zachary Knighton). After a passionate and awkward sexual intercourse that they have in a brothel hotel, Seymour can’t forget her. He needs to be with Mélania and wants to free her from her slavery, despite the advices of his friend Roscoe (Marc Barbé). For that reason he tries to buy her from her master Boyan. The price would be high and the procedure difficult. Mélania and Seymour need a New Life.
La Vie Nouvelle is the most complicated film by Grandrieux and that is the reason why it could have multiple interpretations and could be seen in different levels. Judging by the first obvious layer it is a bleak unorthodox love story but not in the common sense of romances. It follows the archetypical legend of Orpheus. Seymour needs his Mélania/Eurydice in any possible way; even if that means that he should spend his life in her living hell even if he should be another object for her. His love is so unconventional even when the feelings of Mélania are still hidden. The title of the film La Vie Nouvelle is a direct reference to Dante Alighieri’s text “La Vita Nuova” which is a work that expresses the courtly love of the Middle Ages. Also the title of the text is explained as a renewed and purified life by the power of love. It is an obvious referral to these young lovers that need that cleanse of love and they are living in a modern Medieval period. The soldier should forget the war and the girl should leave behind prostitution.
In contradistinction to the romance, Grandrieux offers another meaning to the film’s title and this time is highly political. The countries of the former Eastern Bloc are now dealing with their New Life. After the sudden and abrupt collapse of their communist or socialist existence now they have to fall in love with the extreme capitalism in its worst form. They should be purified by this new system and forget their sinful past. Everything and especially everyone is for sale, everyone has a price and there is always someone willing to pay this price. It is a painful and unprecedented procedure that these countries should face, after covering up the wounds of their wars, either real or sentimental. The profane and excessive amorality of this so-called New Life intrigues and creates the more introvert and philosophical third layer of the film. What are the limits of a human creature to preserve his noetic status which could distinct him from his animal instincts and characteristics. The human psyche in that turn moiled era is more chaotic than ever. There is no real explanation and nobody can be judged by anyone. In this New Life it’s really vague to understand where the human logic still exists and where is the point that it is transformed into primitive survival urge. There is no clear winner in this new battle; this is just the initial procedure.
La Vie Nouvelle is one of the most radical and innovative experimental films of our period. Grandrieux uses a variety of forms and techniques in order to depict his ideas. The film has scattered images, nonlinear storyline and is filled with emotions, everything is in extremis. The director uses any possible visual technique from full blurriness to explosive overexposure, from black and white to blown out colors, from claustrophobic shadows to sunlight figures, from digital high definition to infrared graininess. The palette is wide open, every shot is unique and nothing will be used again, even when you feel that this story revolves around you in circles. The sound haunts the viewer, electronic music blended with silence’s pauses and dogs’ barks, you should not just watch it you should feel it, you should become a part of it. The story succeeds to be utterly minimalistic with no real dialogues and full of whispers and at the same time maximizes all the sentiments. There is no real equilibrium and even though it is a vastly balanced film in every aspect. If we take into consideration that Grandrieux didn’t even watch the rushes of his film it is remarkable the rigorousness of his direction. Fractions of events are blended, reformed and mixed together to offer an unmatched filmic experience. Each part of the story could replace another and yet the result could be the same. It’s a never-ending chaotic puzzle and the viewer could also feel a piece of it.
Philippe Grandrieux co-wrote the screenplay with his friend and collaborator Eric Vuillard. They worked together even when they were in a great distance or even in different continents. As the director has already explained, in an interview with Nicole Brenez, they wanted to create a vibrant yet fragile movie and this is true for La Vie Nouvelle. Everything moves smoothly and even when the cruelest things happen the viewer gets the feeling that the thin string which holds everything together could easily break, but this is their subtle trick. Like Orpheus’ harp every string looks fragile but needs pressure and force in order to produce music. Likewise every hero’s movement or decision changes the story immensely but never destroys it. Everything is moving forward with the freedom and accuracy the music demands. La Vie Nouvelle could be an experimental musical based on an unwritten score and with a surprising tempo that changes any moment. This feeling was achieved through the exemplary work of Grandrieux’s editor, Françoise Tourmen, who turned all that liberty into a real movie and gave the pace that every scene needed. Since Grandrieux was fully indulged in his film, because he didn’t want any distance from it, Tourmen gave the necessary breath to the final result with her artistic match cuts. This is a precise symmetry of logic and emotions.
There is no doubt that La Vie Nouvelle is a challenging and highly controversial experience for any viewer. It becomes even more difficult when someone needs to forget all his previous education, all his knowledge and learn from scratch a new filmic language. Grandrieux world is radically experimental but at the same time tremendously realistic. It is our reality as we have never seen it before. Quoting Grandrieux: “My dream is to create a completely ‘Spinoza-ist’ film, built upon ethical categories: rage, joy, pride… So the film would be a constant vibration of emotions and affects, and all that would reunite us, reinscribe us into the material in which we’re formed: the perceptual material of our first years, our first moments, our childhood. Before speech. That’s the impulse – the desire – which led to the film.”