Où gît votre sourire enfoui? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001, Pedro Costa)

It’s true. It’s hard for me to think of a film from the 2000s that’s as worthy of carrying the mantle of The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby, much less one that’s as intimate and perceptive a depiction of married life, as this deceptively simple and often surprisingly funny documentary which chronicles the edit sessions of the world’s most renowned directorial couple. I’d like to claim to be the first person to make this clever connection, but Ryland Walker Knight has already pointed it out in his thorough write-up of the film:

This is a film about film, of course, but it understands film as a conversation—about searching, about understanding—as an opportunity for philosophy, we might say—and how all these elements build a working picture of marriage, too. It’s Costa’s version of the romantic comedy. And it works.

Ryland would probably know better than I would, since he’s all up on Stanley Cavell. It’s not that the film is structured as a Cavellian comedy of remarriage. Even better, it may be the first film structured around the rhythms of film editing sessions, both on micro and macro levels: the contentious back-and forth debates from shot to shot, leading to breaks tuned either to relief at the completion of the scene or frustration at a momentary impasse, then reconvening to the editing deck for more cuts and conversations among illuminated images in the swallowing darkness. Love and film as endless conversations (which brings to mind Before Sunset, another favorite I plan to revisit).

At the risk of inviting embarrassment, I dare say that following the rhythms of this film invites comparison between editing and multiple rounds of love-making: two people in the dark, working out their technique, giving and taking, breaking off and starting again.  This observation is less embarrassing than some I made upon my initial viewing of the film. I can’t believe I didn’t give this film its full due back then; it probably had something to do with my general ambivalence towards the films of Straub-Huillet, only one of which, The Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, I truly love. I couldn’t begin to comprehend their most famous work, Not Reconciled, were it not for the video I made with Richard Brody, aka the badass of neo-realist theory. He also has a lucid brief review on Costa’s film.

When I first watched this film, I had problems with Straub’s long-winded, far-ranging monologues on film theory, especially as the mostly silent Huillet was slaving away at the Steenbeck. This certainly does not follow the 30s screwball model for dialogue that equipoises male and female voices and verbal wit. But, again, old models may need to be set aside to appreciate what’s special about this dynamic. Huillet’s power lies in her general silence, which makes the moments that she does speak amount to explosions of forceful necessity. (Particularly memorable is the second round of editing, when Huillet lashes out at Straub: “After all this time we’ve been editing films together, how come you still don’t have the discipline? An acrobat relying on you to jump would fall on his face at every attempt!” (I also love how Huillet calls her husband out by his last name, as if they were together on a sports team or military unit.)

Straub’s talk-talk-talking is one half of the equation, the other being Huillet’s rigorous embodiment of practice. It’s no surprise that Straub makes the assertion in the clip embedded above, that “First there is the idea, then there is form,” since he is stuffed with ideas. But it’s Huillet who takes these ideas (as well as her own) and applies them to every cut with her own hands. And as tempting as it is to separate the two (and by this I mean both the two concepts and the two practicioners), they are inextricably linked. Regardless of which comes first, ideas and forms need each other. And in over 40 years of working together Straub and Huillet developed such a unique approach to fusing ideas with forms that I have to wonder how much of it is exclusively understood between just the two of them. The film subtly brings up this feeling of isolation wrought by a fierce commitment to one’s artistic ideals: we see them present their films to an audience of roughly a dozen people scattered in a sea of empty chairs. They are seen in two shots, the only two shots that show people other than Straub and Huillet.  Their art is a solitary world, and, in Costa’s film, one that dwells mostly in darkness, but forcefully asserting itself into the void with Straub’s philosophical pronouncements and Huillet’s decisive cutting. The rigor and conviction they demonstrate is what I find extremely humbling as I consider my own practicies and principals as an editor, filmmaker, even a critic.

To hear Straub talk about it, with fierce eloquence, to the handful of people in front of him at a screening, is genuinely moving:

I’ve survived in a world in which the life of the artist in the open air was somewhat difficult, especially when you wanted to do what Cocteau described as: “Nourish that for which you are criticized, it’s your real self.” We see ourselves as privileged all the same. Because in a world in which 90% of the people have a job they’re not interested in, we’ve been able to do a job we’re interested in, and to do it the way we wanted to, and not the way others wanted us to do it, thus changing it.

Huillet, in possibly her longest monologue in the film, makes the same point with even more anecdotal eloquence, in accounting for why they made the film whose editing sessions Costa is documenting:

Sicilia!, it was love at first sight and we wanted to do it. Because in ’72 when we were looking for locations for Moses and Aron, which we shot in ’74, we travelled 30,000 km at a snail’s pace. And during the search, one day, we were on a bridge and we said to each other: “What a strange smell, not unpleasant but very strong. What is it?” And so we had a look around and saw hundreds of kilos of oranges lying in the riverbed below. That stuck in our minds, and when we read the beginning of Conversazione in Sicilia, it came back to us as an extremely strong memory… It was also worth it for the oranges!

Then there’s the story of how they met, which makes for the single warmest moment in the film, a dialogue truly worthy of a romantic comedy:

JMS: When we met in 1954, I was attending the Lycee Voltaire, but only for eight days.
DH: Three weeks.
JMS: Was I? Well, three weeks. Then I left…
DH: You didn’t. You were told it would be better to leave…
JMS: I was kicked out. I was even told why. I knew too much about Hitchcock and that disturbed the class. I was watching her from a distance. We weren’t sitting that close to each other. I didn’t know her. I was just watching her. And every time she uttered something, the others would ask me – why me? – what she’d said. I had to translate. It was taken for granted that I understood.
DH: And did you understand?
JMS: Ah! That’s a mystery! One will never know. They must have noticed that I had fallen madly in love at first sight, and so they thought: he must understand what she says.

Another thing that struck me watching the film this time around, that made it all the more personally poignant, is how much Straub and Huillet remind me of my grandparents, at least how they used to be: my grandfather’s love for talking and telling stories, while my grandmother would interject some clarifications or annotations, call and response style, while busily doing housework, peeling vegetables or cooking dinner at the stove, her own version of Huillet’s Steenbeck. I last visited them in January, when I took this photo.

That’s my younger uncle in the middle, and on the right my grandfather, who turns 90 this July. He spends his entire day in that chair by the front door as he has for the last 15 years – if you dimmed the lights his stoic pose would fit perfectly in a Pedro Costa movie. My grandmother on the left, setting dishes at the table, one of the few things she can do these days.  I was shocked to find my grandmother already in a mild stage of Alzheimer’s, a development that no-one in my family had informed me of. Unable to remember how to cook, or do any of the household activities, she paces around the room in the same workaholic housewife state as she has for decades, only now she forgets what she was pacing for. But even though my grandmother no longer recognizes me or remembers my name, she can still interject her own details to my grandfather’s stories; those behaviors are hard-wired after so many decades of telling the same stories.

My grandfather now does the cooking and cleaning for my grandmother; I wonder if Straub now does his own editing since Huillet passed away from cancer three years ago. After first watching Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? I was amazed to think that Straub is continuing to make films on his own – looking at this film you would wonder if it were possible. Maybe Straub was right after all: it starts with having the idea, and with that the form more or less takes care of itself.

It’s not a stretch to call Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? the most illuminating film on editing I’ve ever seen. I admit I haven’t seen many other such films; I’m sure Murch would be especially valuable. But I doubt that there are other films that really give you a sense of what it’s like to be editing a film, putting you through the full duration of the editing process, how it’s a mix of grueling tedium peppered with brilliant revelations, and when it’s really good, you get to understand your own thought process, deeply and intimately, especially in relation to your editing partner. It is very much like a love relationship, full of conversations, effusive proclamations, all out arguments and conciliatory compromises. And in the end, there may be as much or as little to show for it other than that you’ve been through something. In this regard, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is one of the great love movies of our time.