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At the Movies With Deleuze: Philippe Grandrieux

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by Piotr Tkacz


As for the distinction between subjective and objective, it also tends to lose its importance, to the extent that the optical situation or visual description replaces the motor action. We run in fact into a principle of indeterminability, of indiscernibility: we no longer know what is imaginary or real, physical or mental, in the situation, not because they are confused, but because we do not have to know and there is no longer even a place from which to ask.[1]
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I propose to begin with two suppositions which would allow us to regard three feature-length movies by Grandrieux as a whole whose parts are closely connected, and to think how those films work together. Firstly, the protagonists of the movies discussed here: Sombre (1998), La vie nouvelle (2002) and Un lac (2008), have a lot in common. So much in fact that one could see them as one character (whose life is presented in reverse chronology). Secondly, the world shown in them takes the viewer into account, and here I don’t mean tearing down of the fourth wall, but placing the spectators in it. In the first two movies they are even portrayed, although in an allegorical way, and in all three the filmic means and methods of depiction bring the viewer closer to the characters, forcing them to look with his eyes, to share his perception. Because of this superimposition, the spectator, in a way, becomes a protagonist, which turns out to be a difficult task because one can’t, for example, escape from a character, even if one wanted to when his actions are no longer acceptable. It mirrors what Deleuze described: „Hitchcock had begun the inversion of this point of view by including the viewer in the film. But it is now that the identification is actually inverted: the character has become a kind of viewer. He shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts.”[2]
In order to better demonstrate this specific relationship, which for me accounts for such a strong impact of Grandrieux’s cinema, I won’t give any synopsis here (also because in this case it would mean interpreting them at the same time) but will rather focus on certain aspects, excerpts and plots. Instead of recounting stories I offer stills.
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On the account of his feature-lenghts, Grandrieux is seen as a part of the trend of New French Extremity,[3] and while clearly it is possible to find similarities between his output and, let’s say, Catherine Breillat or Bruno Dumont, for me he stands apart because his work is clearly influenced by video art. Grandrieux, born in 1954, began working with film during his studies at INSAS in Brussels. He was especially interested in testing the limits of established forms, and it is there where he created his first installations. In the 80s he started to collaborate with french INA and later Arte television. For this channel he produced the Live series, a space for experiments, where he invited Stephen Dwoskin, Gary Hill and Thierry Kuntzel (with whom he had collaborated before). His oeuvre includes a few documentaries, two episodes in a series of cycling portraits – La roueRetour à Sarajevo which shows situtation in the city just after the Dayton Agreement, and Jogo do bicho  about illegal gambling in Brazil (all those themes return in some ways in the discussed feature movies).
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As I already remarked, the protagonists of the three movies are alike, and if one tried to establish a common denominator of plot here, it could go like this: a man tries/manages to posses a woman, and the Gordian knot of subjects tying them together comprises of violence, corporeality, sex, power. But the story and the usual way of dealing with it is, at most, of secondary importance for Grandrieux. His is the cinema of emotions, as he aims to impact, not to explain. Remnants of stories are easy to grasp in each case, but numerous elipses and inclusions of shots unconnected to the main plot force the viewer to pay close attention. On top of this, there are bold formal manouvers drawing from his experience gained in video art. However, what makes Grandrieux’s output so rewarding is his incredibly effective conjugation of form and content. They coalesce to such a degree that it is often hard to distinguish between them.
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Characters in the discussed movies have problems with reality, with finding their way in it, and because of that they cannot fit into the accepted “norms”. It is hard to identify with their ways of thinking and their counsciousness seems narrow. It might be because they focus totally on one certain thing, as is the case with Seymour in La vie nouvelle, who has the aim of excavating Mélanie from the hell of prostitution. Jean in Sombre has visible difficulties in relations with women if they don’t have a clearly defined ending – murder. Killing gives him pleasure akin to intoxication, especially when he delights in women’s bodies, inhaling their smells. Alexi in Un lac suffers from epilepsy whose attacks are not unrelated to the great love he has for his sisters – after a long break, his condition makes itself felt when Alexei feels endangered by the presence of another man.
The director doesn’t tell all of this through words or the actors’ actions. Instead he lets, or rather forces, us to feel directly with the images. When language is no longer an intermediary, it doesn’t separate, doesn’t offer a safe distance – we are immediately and dangerously close to illness, violence, madness. Grandrieux foists this upon us through a lot of close-ups (often on parts of bodies), framing that doesn’t give a whole image, trembling camera (he is his own DP), changes of focus and darkness. This last mean is most present, as could be expect from the title, in Sombre – at the beginning, eyes try to accomodate, a desire to discern what the image, blurry and bathed in obscurity, only suggests is very strong, leading to frustration caused by failure. Surely the artist would agree that seeing is knowing (that is also hinted at through the presence of light in his movies, a component which can be read metaphorically) and that is why he opts for such a critique of the power of seeing. His method was described as „film­ing with one’s eyes closed”[4] and that could be taken as an indication that there are things which can be perceived with the eyes and consequently grasped by the mind.
When commenting on Antonin Artaud (who has had a great influence on Grandrieux), Deleuze remarks: „[It] is no longer thought which confronts repression, the unconscious, dream, sexuality or death, as in expressionism (and also in surrealism), it is all these determinations which confront thought as a higher ‘problem’, or which enter into relation with the undeterminable, the unreferable.”[5] Also, seeing alone is not enough, because being too focused on it causes underappreciation of the other senses. On his quest for possibilities of a more complex and immersive impact, Grandrieux gives a lot of attention to sound, trying to restore balance to the notion of the ”audio-visual.” Soundtracks to the first two features were created respectively by Alan Vega (known from Suicide) and Étant Donnés. Especially in the second case it’s hard to describe it as straight “film music” because it is usually hard to ascertain what is a diegetic sound and what is added.
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Touch seems to be equally important. This leads to an idea of movies as a corporeal experience which is a good way to summarize this director’s outlook. “It’s terrific that cinema can have a place within experiences that are so concrete, so physical – in the presence of a body, this mass through which things are thought.”[6] For him a brain is not an autonomous center of control – it’s a whole body that influences the thoughts that are emerging in it. It is clear then that through various activities of the body, actions on the body, it is possible to shape and change consciousness. There are numerous examples in the movies – apart from the obvious use of alcohol, there are also attempts of perdition by exhaustion with physical efforts or atmospheric conditions, of losing oneself in the rush of a fast-driving vehicle or of entering a trance state while dancing.
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One of the last and most powerful scenes in La vie nouvelle questions a condition of the body seen in this way – a state where the mind no longer governs. Seymour, while looking for Mélanie, enters the lowest circle of hell, where sight is useless because darkness reigns there. Grandrieux again works with contours, but this time we can only see spots in shades of grey, detected by a termographic camera. If we actually had insight into how Seymour perceives, it would mean that bodies are not even individual in the sense of belonging to a certain person, and are not a basis for distinguishing. A body would be just some entity characterized by heat emission. Is it significant human warmth, or just a portion of energy which is needed? It seems that Seymour manages to find Mélanie walking on all fours. In the next shot, dogs track down his friend running through woods and fields, which only amplifies the feeling that a minute before we were witnessing a hunt as well. And it’s not about Grandrieux warning us against bestiality or falling again into a condition of animality. Rather, he forces us to acknowledge how close we still are, and always have been, to animals, and to probe all those illusions manufactured in order for usnot to see how insufficient and weak such precautions are. “[T]hought undergoes a strange fossilization, which is as it were its powerlessness to function, to be, its dispossession of itself and the world. For it is not in the name of a better or truer world that thought captures the intolerable in this world, but, on the contrary, it is because this world is intolerable that it can no longer think a world or think itself. The intolerable is no longer a serious injustice, but the permanent state of daily banality.”[7]
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All the stills from the official website
1, 4, 7, 9, 12, 16 Un lac
2, 3, 8, 11, 14, 17 La vie nouvelle
5, 6, 10, 13, 15, 16 Sombre

[1]   Gilles Deleuze, “Cinema 2. The Time-Image”, trans. H. Tomlinson, R. Galeta (The Athlone Press, 1989) 7.
[2]   Deleuze, p. 3.
[3]   <>.
[4]   R. Ramdas, “The Cin­ema of Philippe Grandrieux: On Un Lac” <>. It’s worth quoting Grandrieux here saying that “cinema is made (above all) with the hands, with the skin, with the entire body, by fatigue, by breath, by the pulsations of the blood, the rhythm of the heart, by the muscles.” “About the “insane horizon” of cinema” <>.
[5]   Deleuze, p. 167.
[6]   N. Brenez, „The Body’s Night. An Interview with Philippe Grandrieux”,
[7]   Deleuze, p. 169-170.

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