Brechtian effect and Mourir à tue-tête

Brechtian techniques are originated from theatrical practice and are designed to disrupt a prevailing illusionism associated with a bourgeois ideology at the time. The cinematic equivalent to illusionism can be found in Bazin’s notion of realism where cinema seeks to reproduce reality in its highest fidelity. This kind of cinema, although hypnotic and emotionally rewarding, lacks obviously an analytical power (as we often witness in Italian Neorealists). In order to generate this power, a certain degree of detachment is needed. The most frequently used cinematic Brechtian techniques are:

1. Overt discussion of the plot and often followed by manipulated variation.

2. Characters address directly to the audience, or their presumed author.

3. The denial of emotional climax : premonition, ellipsis, disproportional magnification and denegation.

4. Actions happening in a setup reminiscent of a stage.

5. Break up of a continuous absorbing narrative into loosely connected episodes.[1]

All these techniques can be found in Anne-Claire Poirier’s Mourir à tue-tête. The film starts with a series of male characters froze in action, accompanied by various female voice-over identifying them as rapists, thus eliminates the narrative suspense at the very beginning. These opening sequences set up the tone of the film: a didactic approach to the issue of rape. The process of identification also acts as a foreboding to the reenactment of rape immediately followed and seeks to diminish its emotional effect. Although the scene in the truck uses extensively POV editing, a technique which is the complete opposite of Brechtian effect, the overt comments by the presumed authors (the woman director and her editor) that immediately follows establish again a narrative distance. Through the use of POV, the process of evaluating the actor’s appearance and its possible effect on the audience makes us even more aware of this distance between the reenactment and the real position of the film’s narrative. The complete suppression of distance and its abrupt recall at the very moment of emotional climax (again the fixed frame of the rapist’s distorted face) construct effectively a contrast which amounts to shock.

The same pattern is repeated later near the end of the film, where immediately after the desperate scene in the bedroom, the authors commented on the credibility of such a desperation. The fixed frame of the heroine looking at the bathroom mirror is a visual metaphor of this Brechtian setup. We are persuaded into a contemplative mood where the emotional response generated by the previous scene is rationalized and sublimed. Although we can by no means sure that the heroine did commit suicide, as the director character tries solemnly to affirm, this interrogatory does effectively affirm the credibility of the horrible aftermath of rape.

The technique 2 and 4 are also presented in the film, especially in the “court room” scene, which is entirely theatrical. The trial is conducted in the visual absence of the judge and the jury. The setting subverts the judge’s dominant position above everybody else and abstracts him into a bass male voice full of empty authority. The jury is understandably supposed to be the audience to whom our female accusers (victim and plaintiff à la fois) plead their causes. The debate around justice and insufficient law is carried with typical theatrical gestures and mise-en-scène and is strengthened often by close-ups in monologues, where the attempt is made clear that the speech is destined to the audience.

In terms of Brechtian method, Godard’s early films, especially Les Carabiniers and 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle are probably the extreme example. But one often feels that in Godard’s treatment of social criticism the emotional response of spectator is totally dismissed. Mourir à tue-tête is still a model for analytical films in which emotional involvement is required (certain social issues demand sympathy rather than identification) but must be contained in order to generate serious thinking.

[1] The other cinematic Brechtian techniques not employed in this film are: interspersing titles, incongruence between cinematic elements; explicit quoting or acting; apparent artificiality in décor, special effects, etc. See any Godard film to find them all.


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