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Danièlle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub and John Ford: Between Bodies and Words

by Dalila Camargo Martins



            In The sensitive word: regarding "Workers, Peasants," a transcription of his communication made in November 2001, at the invitation of the association La vie est à nous, in the framework of the Escales philosophiques of the city of Nantes, dedicated on that occasion to the theme of sensitivity, the French philosopher Jacques Ranciére explains that "the dramatic or dialectical word attests, in an agonistic register, the essential nature of the community, namely, its divided character," while "the lyrical word attests to what could be called the fundamental tone of the community," that is, the capacity to argue its own division on the basis of a common affirmation, of a common power of the word.

           About the film Workers, Peasants (2001), by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Ranciére argues that the dramatic speech or word prevails in a mise-en-scène that is organized in such a way as to concretely show "the contradiction within the people," which manifests itself in "three figures." The author says: "first, workers and peasants, that is, the worker action of construction, cement and electricity against the peasant obedience to the laws of nature; second, masses and vanguards: the masses, who resist the daily suffering and needs, and the vanguards who are concerned with the future of the community; third, men and women: women claim their intellectual and sexual autonomy in front of or next to men who make them objects of desire, when they are not mirrors to admire their own image.

          Workers, Peasants is an adaptation of The Women of Messina, a novel by Elio Vittorini that portrays the profound changes that led Italy to an economic boom in the 1960s, through three narrative threads: the journey of Uncle Agrippa, an emblematic figure of the new bourgeois order, who travels the country by train in search of his daughter, then united with the allied troops in Sicily; the love story between two young men, Syracuse and Ventura, tainted by the boy's criminal fascist past; and the attempt of a group of workers (convict laborers and peasants, among whom are the energetic women of Messina, rooted in the cause) to implement, soon after the Liberation, in a village located in the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines partially ruined by the war, a community where the collectivization of the means of production and a direct democracy are in force. Of the 82 chapters of the book, Workers, Peasants focuses on only four, the only ones without a narrator and woven through the testimonies of the participants of the community in formation, who, "in a counterpoint of voices, recall and evaluate episodes lived together", presenting the quarrels arising from different views about life and work.

            The amateur actors of the Teatro Comunale Francesco di Bartolo, in the commune of Buti, do not act out the situations described, but read Vittorini's text, diegetically explicit on the pages of the notebooks they hold - it is often possible to see the colored markings on the phrases, like a "score for multiple voices" (according to Professor Paulo Faria's analysis), elaborated over countless rehearsals, by distinguishing the rhythm of breathing of each one. In the article Straub-Huillet: The Smallest Planet in the World, critic Alain Bergala talks about the relationship between actors and text and points out: "It is true that in Straub's films the text must be interpreted by the actors with the precision of a musical score. The definitive version of the text, the one the actors rehearse before the shooting, is organized in free verses, according to the rhythmic cuts imposed by Straub, in which the intonations, the tonic syllables, and the pauses - that is, everything that makes the musicality of the language - are given by annotations with colored pens". 

          In this light, the impact of the selection performed on the literary matrix is clear. For, although there is no addition to the original text, Huillet-Straub suppresses the part of the novel that tells of the dispersion of the community and its causes. In Workers, Peasants, the fate of the community remains open, dependent on its participants. The filmic structure itself, by being exonerated from the duty of convincing viewers of this or that, actually makes them all the more responsible, since it entrusts them with the exercise of free will, refuting the idea that cinema could provide a finished representation of history and upholding the very dominance of history as fatality. Ranciére writes that "one could say that this is a communist film that presents communist moments whose reality is never confronted with any other reality that would serve as an external reference.

         The overall potency of community is manifested, precisely, through the sensitive word. For, although the film refers to past events, to the first winter of the community, it is not a matter of a record for later authentication, but of making things vibrate, of animating the things said.

            In this sense, it is important to qualify the speech of Workers, Peasants. Rancière accurately informs that it opposes not only the classical representational tradition, in which the languages are stipulated according to the dignity of the characters, that is, to the noble spirits, the cultured norm, and to the inferior ones, the slang, but also the counterradition, "which opposes to this hierarchy a cultural model (popular culture against high language)," or else, which overvalues the savoir-faire, the savoir-vivre, identified as popular, to the detriment of the arts of language, connoted to the dominant. Rather, Huillet-Straub provokes "a short circuit" between "the popular arts of living and the great art of the word." Vittorini's prose, once transposed into free verse by Huillet, creates veritable caesuras in the sentences, when not within the verses themselves. With a certain frequency, subjects and predicates are distanced, like "artistic disorder, which evades the logical hierarchy of subordinative syntax," functioning instead on the basis of serialization or alignment, which is reluctant to favor one element at the expense of another-similar to the paratactic procedure of Friedrich Hölderlin's late lyric, from whom Huillet-Straub adapted The Death of Empedocles (1791-1800) and the translation of Antigone (circa 442 BC. C.), a tragedy by Sophocles, in The Death of Empedocles; or: When the Earth Shines Green Again for You (1987), Black Sin (1988) and Sophocles' Antigone in Hölderlin's translation as adapted to the stage by Brecht 1948 (1992), just before Workers, Peasants, therefore. 

          Such a structure already shone in Sicily! (1999), the first Huillet-Straubian film based on Vittorini in his novel Conversations in Sicily (1941). Let us remember, for example, Silvestro's (Gianni Buscarino) encounter with the knife sharpener (Vittorio Vigneri) - an episode that became a stand-alone short film, entitled L'arrotino (2001). Silvestro, newly arrived from America and visiting his mother (Angela Nugara), spots the grinder in the village square at the foot of the church steps. In an astute spoken song that mixes denotation and suggestion - "Sometimes it seems to me that it would be enough if everyone had teeth and nails to sharpen" - they chat teasingly about how rare it is to find "a real blade," and do business, not without the grinder regretting having overcharged for taking Silvestro for an "outsider. As soon as a sort of ode to life erupts, they both name the things of the world with gusto - "Light, shadow, warmth, joy, not joy. Hope, charity. Childhood, youth, old age. Men, children, women. Beautiful women, ugly women, grace of God, rascality and honesty. Memory, fantasy." The grinder, in a reflective pause, asks if there would be any sense in it all. Silvestro's answer is negative, materialistic. 

         They continue to recite foods, animals, natural elements, facets of mortality, even the vowels of the alphabet. And the grinder closes: "Big bad, offending the world. Excuse me, but if a person meets another person and takes great pleasure in meeting him, and then takes him two pennies or two lire more for a service that should have been free, because of the great pleasure he took in meeting him, what is this person if not a man who offends the world? Sometimes you confuse the smallness of the world with offenses against the world."

         They say goodbye, gratefully. And the grinder intones, once again, the revolutionary aspiration - "Ah! If only there were knives and scissors, buris, kicks and arquebuses, mortars, scythes and hammers, cannons, cannons, dynamite!" -, before Ludwig van Beethoven's string quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132

         I would like, here, to make a bold digression - one that might please Huillet-Straub. In John Ford's cavalry trilogy, consisting of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), there are iconic scenes of encounters between army officers and Indian chiefs in which the fate of the plot is sealed. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for example, Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles (John Wayne) talks with the Arapaho chief, Pony-sanda (Chief John Big Tree), in the charge to avoid imminent conflict, because the tribe, which had been advancing confidently with the Cheyenne and Lakota since the battle of Little Bighorn, in which the seventh platoon of cavalry under General George Armstrong Custer was massacred, was to be contained and driven back to the reservation. The quarrel given as a motif makes mention of the true episode of the Great Sioux War in 1876, fought in the Montana territory. In the film's sequence, Brittles, accompanied by Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson), arrives at the Arapaho camp to the hypnotic sound of war drums. He is greeted with hostility by the warriors, to which he reacts with symmetrical violence, while Tyree stands guard, frightened. 

         So the old captain, one day away from retirement, greets the elder Pony-who-goes-away, in a kind of enunciation ritual, in which they strut their stuff, take a pipe, and eat salt from the same gourd. Long acquaintances, they share war-weariness and lament its inevitability - "We are too old for war," says Pony; "Old men should stop them," adds Brittles; "But it's too late, Nathan," retorts the chief. Their communication is by gestures and staggered pronunciation, so as to facilitate understanding of the English language between native and non-native speakers. Throughout, the ceremony, filmed in american and close-up shots, with few cuts and no camera movements, is observed by the Indians profiled around them, who remain silent, attentive and impassive. The atmosphere is at once moving and eerie, more like an entreaty that holds the narrative in place, forecasting a catastrophic future, but also dreaming of a peaceful, communal horizon - in which, together, they hunt buffalo, fish and drink.

            Now, isn't there a connection between this meeting in Fort Apache and the one in Sicily! First of all, there is a similar arrangement of bodies in space, facing each other but slightly apart, which the static, open framing emphasizes, even though there are also medium and close-up, individual shots. And the Huillet-Straubian chant of haughty gestures, when paired with the pony's loud mimes, underscores the Fordian architecture, its mise-en-scéne of "particular signs", as Serge Daney wrote, which is built on the traces of a rhetorical battle. Certainly, however, the augury intoned when the grinder repeatedly calls for sharp objects plays a different role from the prophecy announced by the Arapaho chief, because it seeks to instigate a voluntary movement where there is inertia, rather than to confirm a combative inexorability. Nevertheless, there is a range of contradictions in the scene of Fort Apache, something recurrent in Sicily!

            One perceives, by his facial expression, that Brittles condemns Pony-anda for not convincing his tribe to end the war, as if the opposite, that is, the interruption of the persecution of the natives by the American army was out of the question. In his turn, Pony-Band, appealing to what they have in common, old age, confesses that the younger ones stubbornly refuse to listen to him, only to the medicine man, and invites Brittles to abstain together. The captain, however, declines vehemently, letting his ambiguous feelings toward pressing retirement show, in a kind of mirroring that cancels out Manichaeism, at least for a moment. Nevertheless, more disparities emerge between the sequences. The Straubian ode to the things of the world directs the viewer's imagination out of the frame, in the resonance of the names uttered in a living present, while the recordings undertaken by Ford capture the indigenous people in their sad "inflexibility," fixing their "last jolt," "in a 'postcard' aesthetic," as Daney again pointed out. Huillet-Straub throws the viewer into the incommensurability of the present tense, freeing signifiers from their meanings to reach, not without effort, the zero degree of experience, full of multiple possibilities. Ford, on the other hand, focuses on the production of the folkloric, the orchestration of images immediately memorable to the viewer.

          However - and herein lies the elective affinity between the filmmakers -, this Fordian interest in caricature is the reverse of the mythification themed in his films, for it counterposes to the identification with uncorrupted heroes the compassionate gaze to any and all degrading minorities, on the verge of anachronism and, therefore, conditioned by history. Straub is convinced that "no man had more sympathy for Indians than Ford. You can't make a film like Cheyenne Autumn (1964) by being racist," as he has said. And Huillet elucidates that "the irrational that arises with Indians is the unassimilable. In other words, in narrating, Ford did not seek to suck the vitality of the other, the alternate, but to respect the unknown, preserved in minimal and decisive traits, no matter the dimension of its evanescence. Hence, there is a strong parallel between Ford's prolific character construction and the mix of professional actors, amateurs, authors, critics, neighbors, foreigners, etc., in the huillet-straubian films. 

         Therefore, for Ford, "a sailor or a sergeant of cavalry were as important as an admiral", as critic Miguel Marías wrote, just as, in huillet-straubian films, the landscape is eloquent and the internalized texts retain their autonomy. Another point of convergence between the filmmakers is that narcissistic wound, designated by Serge Daney, in the case of Huillet-Straub, as a "symptom" in a Freudian sense, a place of resistance, which "is the only index that does not deceive, that proves some reality, a knot of contradictions." For everything that is inscribed on film, whether an object of culture, a work of art, or a locality saturated with history, although it testifies to human labor, extrapolates this scope, denoting the limits of an anthropocentric conception of the world.

April, 2023

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