Spirits Rebel: On Julius-Amédée Laou’s Cinema of Revenants

by Ruairí McCann

In his poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939), Aimé Césaire, through the painful, rocky passage back and forth between Africa, Martinique and France, arrives at the following commitment. 

“And I should say to myself: 

<< And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear… >>”

Easy, passive spectatorship holds no place within the cinema of Julius-Amédée Laou. In his films, the scars and the active open wounds inflicted by colonialism past and present don’t just manifest as an individual, inner struggle. Conveniently discrete for those who benefit from these systems of racist segregation and exploitation. Laou spills the struggle out into the open, into the streets, dragging film form and complacent viewers into the fight. 

Mélodie de brumes à Paris (1985)

Mélodie de brumes à Paris (1985) follows Richard (Greg Germain) and his attempt to exorcise his demons and bonds, to address personal and collective injustice through a tear across a rheumy, catatonic Paris. Introduced railing against a racist, unequal society from his apartment window, wishing to blow all it up, “bars, banks and toilets first”. Richard soon ventures out, a stormy revenant roaming the streets, squares, parks and the mire of his own trauma, embracing his ‘madness’ as a means of defence against an inhuman status quo. 

The city around him seems to be in a state of shell shock. Its white denizens acting as enabling “sleeping sheep’ with the energy and nuances of Germain’s performance contrasting with their mannequin-like presences. His clarity of feeling and sense of justice bouncing off their steely passivity. This painful disjunct is seen right at the beginning, when his declamations from the window are not met with sympathy or even anger, but by gawking automatons. At one point, he stops off at a café to rest. The only other occupants are a single white patron (Daniel Léger) and the white owner (Jean-Marie Retby) who, despite Richard being right there, staring at them, natter away inanely, completely inured to his presence. That is until Richard’s white wife (Christine Amat) appears—suddenly he then becomes visible, but only as a gross, dehumanised stereotype of an invader, a parasite. Their conditioning kicks in and like clockwork unleash a racist tirade. 

Mélodie de brumes à Paris (1985)

Richard’s turmoil takes a specific shape, and the form radically shifts, when he is faced with the spectre of his late father (Cyril Edouard). A deeply moving reunion and confessional, where Richard lays bare his traumatic experiences of serving in the Algerian war, including his hand in the killing of children, is laid out as a call and response, where Richard’s verse-like recount of his tortured memories, his pan and longing for his father to live again, are mourned and echoed by the father’s soft, sorrowful intoning of “my son” over and over. Laou sets and stages the scene in long shot, tracking the two, but then intercuts with close-ups of father and son, face to face but with the camera and viewer lodged firmly, inescapably between them, in the whited-out space which reminded me of Dave Kehr’s description of the snowy landscapes of On Dangerous Ground (1951), as the blindingly white fields of moral regeneration. 

Whiteness though is the obstacle towards regeneration, an impasse the film acknowledges by careening towards a metatextual combustion. It’s not enough to write, film and watch the life and mind of this one man launch in a state of desperate rebellion. The apparatus of filmmaking, of viewing and receiving,  must strike out as well.

La vieille quimboiseuse et le majordome (1987)

Richard’s rendezvous with the phantom of his father was perhaps the germ of Laou’s first feature-length film, La vieille quimboiseuse et le majordome (1987). The film is a bitter elegy, following a Martinican-born, elderly couple, Eugénia (Jenny Alpha) and Armand (Robert Liensol) living in genteel poverty and an accumulated cloud of hostilities in a Parisian apartment. Eugénia keeps busy as a quimboiseuse, offering up curses, charms and a shoulder to cry on to the lovelorn and the vengeful. When she tells one silent customer that she needs them as much as they do her, it seems then that she has become a mystic of the old world in order to salvage the frissons of another, modern kind of sorcery, showbiz. For in her youth she was a beloved dancer, performing on the nightclub scene with the likes of Josephine Baker. Like Eugénia, Armand arrived in Paris in the flush of youth but unlike her and her brush with fame, stayed near the bottom of the social ladder as a manservant. This class difference is one ingredient in their late-life bitterness, which quietly erupts into a long, perambulating argument, winding its way across Paris. Triggered by Armand claiming to have spotted his long dead ‘Master’ and dredging up an old affair between his former employer and Eugénia. Arm in arm, these lovebirds visit their old haunts, while they needle each other into a state of disorientation, teetering on the edge of oblivion.

Compared to the blazing, bolt-out-of-the-gate energy of Laou’s previous two shorts, La vieille quimboiseuse et le majordome seems to drift by at a somnambulist pace which becomes increasingly dreamlike. The cinematography is also considerably more claustrophobic, focused on details of place—such as the storied photographs and ornaments which adorn their apartment—and performance:a pained evil look or hands trembling with frustration and an eagerness to hurt. It’s perhaps Laou’s funniest film, with its gentle exterior clashing with the couple’s enormous reserves of bile, regret and their state of decline. The ebullient saxophone and piano score dances around Armand’s ruthlessly prurient descriptions of his master’s lust for Eugénia and the curve of her arse and Eugénia retorting with insults like “flabby, servile slug”.

Servility is the fear that strikes both the hearts of the Armand and Eugénia and drives their animosity. Since they live in a country where black people are systematically viewed and treated as servants, regardless of their profession, for the couple it becomes a useful weapon with which to attack each other because it gets to the heart of their insecurities as Martinicans, as black people, living in the den of the colonising dragon.  

The casting is potently reflexive, especially Jenny Alpha as Eugénia. Like her character, Alpha brushed shoulders with Josephine Baker, and Duke Ellington. Arriving in Paris in 1929 at the age of 18, her studies to be a schoolteacher were quickly eclipsed by her love of the jazz club scene, on which she performed as a much lauded dancer and singer. Unlike Eugénia, her fame wasn’t a relatively brief spark receding further and further into the tomb of memory. She led a storied life with frequent music tours, but also an acting career on both the screen and on the stage, which was where she first met Laou, starring in his breakout play La folie ordinaire d’une fille de Cham (1984) and the Jean Rouch directed screen adaptation of the same name, two years later. In many of her tours, she played a personification of the Antilles, of ‘creole culture’, but her life in general is one of a remarkable transpontine, pan-Africanist modernism, a figure who made direct and indirect contributions to the jazz age, modernist painting and the Négritude movement, as a friend of writers such as fellow Martinican, Césaire.

Jenny Alpha by Francis Picabia

Eugénia and Armand are of the same generation as Alpha. They lived through the same waves of migration and of cultural exchange and invention but, like a great many of their coevals, they have been essentially forgotten rather than iconized. Laou seeks to embody the memories of that generation, of his old relatives, but also mourn that passing, through a tale of two will-o-the-wisps, once living but now fading as they float between the converging netherworlds of memories past and a sterile, neocolonial present. 

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer, curator, illustrator and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He has contributed to various publications, such as photogénie, aemi online, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook, Documentary Magazine, Film Hub NI and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]

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