toute allure

(Full Speed Ahead, Robert Kramer, France, 1982)



I am forever fascinated by what is less a coherent movement than a fortuitous constellation in (particularly European) cinema of the late 1970s and early ‘80s: what was tagged at the time as the gradual, careful return to fiction by filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, Chantal Akerman, Wim Wenders (his The American Friend in 1977 in is an early omen), Raúl Ruiz, Benoît Jacquot, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Philippe Garrel, Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen … The return to fiction was a preoccupation of critics such as Serge Daney and Jean Narboni in Cahiers du cinéma – itself trying to regain some ground in relation to a type of cinema it had more-or-less ignored for much of the preceding decade. I speculate on this fertile period in my book Mysteries of Cinema (2018/2020).

Return to fiction – but return from where? Various places: political, experimental, documentary cinema; video and/or TV production; more-or-less plotless and minimalist (later rebranded ‘slow’) cinema; film theory and criticism. Many varieties of scorched earth, often very removed from even the semblance of popular cinema and its forms. Jacques Rivette and Eduardo de Gregorio led the way with their explorations of magical, fantastic fiction throughout the ‘70s … and Leos Carax launched his first, wonderful feature (Boy Meets Girl, 1984) right on the end of this wave, bottling its nervous fragility and delicacy.

One actor, Patrick Bauchau (son of writer-psychoanalyst Henry Bauchau), and one director, Robert Kramer are, for me at least, at the centre of this early ‘80s constellation. Bauchau appears in Kramer’s Guns (1980), Wenders’ The State of Things (1982) co-written by Kramer, and Mulvey-Wollen’s Crystal Gazing (1982) – having hung out with Wollen, two decades earlier, in a Parisian cinephile cabal alongside Barbet Schroeder and American critic-screenwriter Eugene Archer (1930-1973). Both Archer and Bauchau appear in Éric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse (1967), and they separately collaborated on Schroeder’s directorial career on various occasions.

Once you start tracing all the interconnections of this tight, temporary network of the early ‘80s, it becomes dizzying: cast and crew members cross over (and swap these roles of cast and crew) in key features including de Gregorio’s Short Memory (1979), Ruiz’s The Territory (1981) and Jean-Henri Roger & Berto’s Neige (1981), in Luc Moullet’s shorts, in the editing assignments of Valeria Sarmiento, in Richard Copans’ company Les Films d’Ici, in the various production duties of Pierre & Edith Cottrell … the constellation arrives at another, grim sort of terminus in ’84 with the double-punch of Kramer’s devastating document-essay Our Nazi generated from the filming of writer-filmmaker Thomas Harlan’s Wundkanal.

In Guns, The State of Things and À toute allure, Kramer made the act and process of returning to fiction his very subject. All these films concern, at some level, a story (fiction or reportage) to be written, or a film to be made, or (more grandly) a dream to be lived … and all of these plans dissolve – a sad ending that would later become an arthouse cliché, long after Kramer had moved on from it to other terrains.

What is the story in this phase of Kramer’s cinema? (Remember, Godard’s early ‘80s Bugsy Siegel project with Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope was titled The Story.) The story is, basically, where you happen to be, in the course of looking for it (In the Course of Time, the proper title for Wenders’ Kings of the Road [1976]). At some crossroads of time, place, criss-crossed and serendipitous encounters. The characters’ eyes, minds and hearts are fixed on some other horizon – where the reputed story is to happen, where it will be completed, where it will make sense, where the dream will be fully experienced – but the story is right here, where they are, and the experience is there to be grasped, at full speed (à toute allure), by the film, if not by the people inside it. This was already the structure and form of Kramer’s American masterpiece, Milestones (1975, co-director John Douglas).

À toute allure is an extraordinary tele-film shot quickly (12 days) on 16mm (by Copans, a frequent collaborator) for the INA (Institut national de l’audiovisuel) in a series devoted to ‘chamber TV’ (Akerman’s great Man with a Suitcase [1984] is a late entry, and Luc Moullet’s delightful Les Sièges de l’Alcazar [1989] recalls the ambience). It follows strict rules imposed by the commission: just under an hour in running time, and the action must be contained in one site – here, a garish entertainment centre/shopping mall, Les Quatre Temps, in La Défense (since 2019 renamed Westfield Les 4 Temps).

Like in another parameter-bound, French TV series that has become the stuff of legend, All the Boys and Girls of Their Time (1994), a further constraint – namely, severely limited music copyright – has, presumably, all but banished À toute allure (with its soundtrack full of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Tom Club and The Rolling Stones, amidst many other tubes as they say in French) from any subsequent commercial exhibition or distribution beyond its debut at Cannes, and its few TV broadcasts in 1983 and 1985. Lesson: seize À toute allure wherever and however you can!

After the neon-style title card and the introductory shot, we plunge into a dark space with two teen characters: Nelly (Laure Duthilleul, a revelation, who later became a director) and Serge (William Cherino who, as far as I know, never appeared in another film). Perhaps they even, somehow, live inside the unreal space of this complex – no other type of home is seen or even implied for them. From almost the first glimpse we get, they are on their rollers and moving – whether inside or outside the rink, at rest or transiting from spot to spot. This not only allows a fantastic, unusual, eccentric grace to the performers, but simultaneously liberates Kramer’s camera: the framings, stagings and displacements in every shot, close or distant, are wonderfully inventive, varied and vibrant. There is even a breathtaking crane shot at the beginning, outside the centre … As well as an astonishing vision, late in the piece, where Nelly (followed by the camera) just keeps obsessively darting left and right of the hapless Serge, looking right through and past him … And the stupendous panning shots that accompany Nelly (at top speed) as she shoves her away around the rink put Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009) to shame!

Plot-wise, À toute allure hangs on a single hook: Nelly (enthusiastic) and Serge (more pragmatic, but nonetheless excitable) who share a dream of getting to Chicago – very soon – for a roller derby competition. As always in Kramer, the question of money offers both a crushing barrier and ambiguous opportunity. In 1985, Kramer described the project to André S. Labarthe (for a TV screening intro) as the beginning of his meditation on the theme of prostitution, Godard-style – not literally (although that arises as a potential intrigue) but metaphorically, as a way of understanding all capitalistic social exchanges of personal dreams for services rendered. Nelly seemingly half-accepts this compromise in principle, but the energy of her very being kicks against it all the way. The film’s concentration on Nelly – her expressions, postures, moods, reactions and moves – is absolutely hypnotic; Kramer referred to Duthilleul in retrospect (2001) as “the first genuine person” he had encountered in France! “She had a kind of energy I recognised straight away, a sort of bodily freedom, an openness to performance, a sort of strength, a desire, which usually does not characterise an actor. Instead, it characterises a person”. (There is a terrific interview with Duthilleul in the 2006 Magic Cinéma publication Robert Kramer.)

Into the basic narrative situation steps Félix (Bernard Ballet, died 2022, who had a long film & TV career), a journalist – or is he? – who promises the pair return tickets to Chicago on the condition that he be a ‘participant observer’ and write ‘with them’ a reportage on the trip … that is, if his editor/publisher agrees to fund the story. We shall return to the intriguing ambiguity of Félix’s motives. More significant than his individual presence or psychology is the character-constellation he signals: two teenagers, two adults, and an ever-watching child, Natacha (Natacha Jeanneau), deposited beside the rink by her parents. Kramer constantly weaves the mosaic – of relays, looks, comparisons, mirroring reflections – between all these figures.

Where the youthful bodies are hopeful and full of zest – and the child merely a blank receptacle of a dim, unwritten future – the adults are predatory, sinister, always hanging about (usually up a flight), listening in and looking on. Like the aspiring tough guy Carlo (Pierre Hurel), they are pimps of a kind – at least in their heads, since they boast, inflatedly, about being lords of the Roller Rink. Manu (Manuelle Lidsky, another screen comet of the time who appeared in Guns and crossed paths also with Ruiz and Berto) is a spooky portent of the sci-fi element that will increasingly subtend Kramer’s cinema: glacial, naked in the toilet, forever cruising the space with her enigmatic smile affixed, and ever-ready with her skillfully concealed razor blade, she evokes the alien Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin (2013), except 31 years early.

Back to Félix for a moment. He’s no doubt a pathetic, somewhat sleazy figure (he has a disconcerting habit of constantly staring into his drinking glass), and we duly wonder (as does Nelly) what scam he’s attempting to fiddle. But, for starters, he’s honest (as far as can be ascertained, he never lies about his intentions): when Nelly bluntly asks whether he wants to sleep with her, he replies: “No more than anything else”! What’s strangely endearing about him, moreover, is that with his various, announced tics – his longing to “share an experience” (or ‘situation’ in the Debordian sense) with Nelly and Serge, his audio-recording of every conversation – he seems (according to all reliable accounts) a great deal like Kramer himself in the process of making his films. A seeker, but also, inescapably, ‘structurally’ as it were, a purveyor in flesh … How often one finds tales of the filmmaker’s chance encounters (at film festivals, for instance) that led to instant, fruitful collaborations – such as on Lou Castel’s excellent, little-known short Just in Time (1998), where Kramer is among the main actors.

We need to project ourselves into Kramer’s fairly precarious situation as a filmmaker in the late ‘70s. After an initial post-USA ‘exile’ period spent in Portugal (co-making with Philip Spinelli the documentary Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, 1978), he begins to make his home in France with his family (daughter Keja’s birth was captured in Milestones), learning the language and, for a time, trying to establish a production company with Ruiz and Harlan. It cannot have been easy; one senses a typically French disdain in the way even a critic as astute as Alain Bergala faults Guns in the following terms: “As an American working in France, Kramer is not always at ease … France, let’s say, is part of the problem: as décor, as language, and as narrative tradition” (Cahiers du cinéma Cannes report, no. 338, July-August 1982). That’s quite a bundle of problems to overcome! But overcome them, À toute allure most assuredly does.

In Francophone cinema, it anticipates many freestyle aspects of Claire Denis’ work, and two other films especially: Patricia Mazuy’s Travolta et moi (1994, from the aforementioned Boys and Girls … series) – it was Duthilleul’s cinephilic class- and flat-mate Mazuy who pushed her into attending the audition for the part – for the sport-and-energy teen angle; and Akerman’s Golden Eighties (1986) for the interpenetrative mall setting. The latter link pinpoints a remarkable aspect of Kramer’s style in general: the genial flotation of certain narrative ‘givens’ like night and day (as in Akerman’s mall, or any mall, it can be impossible to tell these time-zones apart) and overall story duration (does À toute allure really all unfold within the single day on which the little girl is left to fend for herself?). Such artful ambiguity will come to mark his later experiments in fiction, such as Doc’s Kingdom (1987).

We can safely presume that the roller derby rink that was such a prominent fixture of Les Quatre Temps in 1982 didn’t last much beyond that point of cultural history. Already, as characters in the film (and Kramer outside it, in interviews) tell us, roller skating was outmoded, a decade out of phase – a pathetic longing, among youth, for things exotically and brutally American (a gazed-at poster aces the precise glory-date: Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber of 1972, not to mention the amazing, Scorsese-edited Unholy Rollers of the same year). Disco – a word which Nellie spits out contemptuously – is fast outrunning roller games, as indeed we see literally happening on the sporting floor.

À toute allure is among the great films of the 1980s; personally, I’m only 42 years late in discovering that fact. Another Lesson: you’re never done with cinema’s past, and that past is never done with you! And what an ending it has: the camera moving in a circle around the now leather-covered Nelly (the character will ‘reappear’, after a fashion, 14 years later in Kramer’s Walk the Walk), smouldering and resentful as hell, before she dives, rolling, right out of the space … While, on the soundtrack, we experience a hallucinatory, disquieting mix (not the first to which we’ve been treated), this time between Springsteen’s “Point Blank” and the electric-jazz combo of Barre Phillips (another frequent collaborator) … And wait, isn’t that the same piece ("A-i-a" from Three Day Moon, 1978) William Friedkin used (more minimally than Kramer) in Cruising (1980)? It sure is.

© Adrian Martin 23 & 24 May 2024

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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