Review: Living and Knowing You’re Alive
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: In his characteristic style of a filmed private diary, Alain Cavalier puts his name to a subtle, sensitive and moving documentary which pays tribute to Emmanuèle Bernheim
"Us directors, us filmmakers: we’re primitive people, like those little Romandy churches you’d see in the countryside, a thousand years ago". This response given by Alain Cavalier to a question fired at him during a debate around the notion that “cinema has said everything there is to say and done everything there is to do, and is simply repeating itself" also summarises to perfection the introspective style of the French director; a style which is wonderfully illustrated once again by his new documentary, Living and Knowing You’re Alive, unveiled in a Special Screening in the Official Selection of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Armed with his small camera and a huge talent for homing in on the micro details of his day-to-day life with intensity, simplicity, humour and modest emotion, the filmmaker is now offering up a new chapter of his life: a private diary in the form of a mosaic of fragmented scenes, cemented together by one common thread, much along the same lines as Le Filmeur [+see also:
film profile] and Irène [+see also:
film profile], which were both very well received in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2005 and 2009. But this time, the highly personal creative process embarked upon by the director is inspired by a film which should have been, and the impossibility of its existence has resulted in this other film.
Alain Cavalier set out to adapt a book written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, Tout s’est bien passé, in his own, particular way; in fact, this is how Living and Knowing You’re Alive begins. The text tells the author’s story of how she accompanied her father to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland after he’d lost all movement down one side of his body at the age of 89. Alain Cavalier’s idea was to play the part of the father opposite the writer (the filmmaker’s friend for some 30 years) who would be playing herself in the film. Their collaborative work on the script had barely begun when Emmanuèle Bernheim was forced to press pause on the project to undergo chemotherapy. At which point, the filmmaker remarked: "We’ll make the film when we can, however we can ". He was determined to wait and, in the meantime, continued work on his own filmed diary. This in-built mirror, which he appears to carry everywhere with him, allows for a meditative exploration of the microcosm of his life, which is in turn inspired by the vulnerability he feels at the prospect of his own demise (the story begins with the loss of a female friend, to whom he has just said his final farewells). But if the shadow of death looms large in this film whose narrative is punctuated by the various stages involved in Emmanuèle Bernheim’s battle against illness – an illness which will eventually claim her life - Alain Cavalier’s distinctive cinematographic style transforms it into a work where faith in life wins out, despite it all.
Train journeys, a sojourn in the sun on the Île aux Moines and time spent in the apartments of one or the other, where the filmmaker’s lens lingers on the most surprising (the painting intitled "la jeune morte" [“the dead girl”] dating back to 1621, pictures of handguns collected by Emmanuèle Bernheim, photos from their younger days, etc.), and the most mundane objects (there’s a predilection for vegetables, notably), as well as the very many animals (cat, birds, mice, etc.)… All this and more, conveyed by way of a formal inventiveness which is both rich and minimalist and which is enhanced further still by the “real-time” commentary delivered by the filmmaker, often in the form of meditative monologues on life, time and death. Poignant at times, these thoughts are always accompanied by a healthy helping of offbeat humour. "Film a few frames, put them all together, one after the other": this was the attitude taken by Alain Cavalier towards this film which he refers to as "a lesson on the loss of life"; a film which, despite its bric-a-brac appearance is a real, composite work of art and a new opus worthy of film school attention.
Living and Knowing You’re Alive is produced by Camera One and co-produced by Arte France Cinéma in association with the society and culture division of ARTE France, with international sales managed by Pathé.
(Translated from French)
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