France, Caméra One Télévision, Pyramide Films, 1978, DCP, 65 minutes
Scriptwriter, director, and editor: Alain Cavalier
Director of photography: Jean-François Robin
Cast: Alain Cavalier
At the beginning of his career, Alain Cavalier was a director of conventional genre films, but even then, he was keenly interested in the documentary nature of cinema and its possibilities in displaying current events. The first two of his films - "Fire and Ice" (“Le combat dans l'île”, 1962) and "The Unvanquishes" (1964) - were associated with the recently ended Algerian War. However, although they were noticed by critics, they did not have serious commercial success. The same can be said about the classic detective story "Pillaged" (1967) that followed and even about the melodrama "Heartbeat" with Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli (1968), after which Cavalier stopped directing. Only eight years later, he returned to the cinema to make low-budget experimental films.
In 1972, his wife, French actress and model Irène Tunc, died in a car crash. In an attempt to cope with this deep trauma, the director decides to turn the camera onto himself and creates a dark performance film "This Answering Service Takes No Messages". Alone with his memories, the main character, with his face covered with bandages, locks himself in the apartment and reads aloud his wife’s letters that show the emotional distress that killed her.
This mournful film follows the traditions of Robert Bresson with his ascetic "transcendental" style: close-ups of objects, walls, furniture, and hands of the protagonist. All of the objects in the frame that carry the memory of living together with a departed person, are shot in such a way as to serve as an instrument for reaching a more serious level of conversation about the most intimate, allowing the viewer to fill each image with associations. In addition to his attention to things, their materiality and symbolic meaning, Cavalier here demonstrates another creative strategy, which will later become key for him. Almost the entire textual part of the film is presented in the form of a voiceover, or rather two voices – the male and female ones. The first one functions in citation mode, when Cavalier transmits the words of his beloved: "She told me... She wrote..." The second one tells the story of the most traumatic, for the director, minutes in the hospital, where his wife died in his arms. There is also a third voice in the film: the diegetic one, the voice of Cavalier’s lyrical hero in the shot. Thus, the film contains an incredibly complex authorial speech. In this case, this is not surprising, because it is impossible to speak directly and simply about such a difficult and deep experience as the death of the person closest to you. Ultimately, all that remains for the director is the bodily performative gesture of despair, which becomes central to the film. Having got rid of all the things in the apartment where they had lived with Irène Tunc, Cavalier conducted a session of shock film therapy. Having painted all the walls, doors, and windows black, he literally shot his personal film noir, corresponding to his inner darkness, and was able to move on to the next stage of his life.
The first autobiographical film by Cavalier, which became for him an experience of shock film therapy. After the death of his wife in a car accident, he was forced to search again for the meaning of existence through a formal exercise. For seven days, the director filmed himself with a bandaged face in an apartment - always in one take and without subsequent editing. Gradually getting rid of painfully familiar things that remind him of his loss, he “buries” the familiar world under layers of black paint, which he paints over the entire space, and says goodbye to his past.