Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Jacques Duron | Une histoire sans importance (A History of No Importance) a.k.a A History Without Importance

repeat performance

by Douglas Messerli

Jacques Duron (screenwriter and director) Une histoire sans importance (History of No Importance) a.k.a. A History Without Importance / 1980

Une histoire sans importance (History of No Importance), a rarely seen film from 1980 by French director Jacques Duron, begins like so many later films in the “coming of age” category—a genre with did not yet fully exist when this film premiered—with schoolboys between classes, in this case mostly older boys who first speak disparagingly of their teachers before deciding to use their free time by playing cards. One of the boys, Philippe (Philippe Bories), immediately notices a younger boy, Claude (Bernard Flamain), sitting nearby, and if it isn’t precisely love at first sight, it is surely a distraction as he quickly abandons the game to join Claude.

      Evidently the two have had previous connections since the first words from Claude’s mouth are “You could have stayed with me, really.” Philippe’s answer, without any context provided, is vague: “I’m not going to be with you all the time. Jean is cool. I did not want to let him down.” Philippe sitting on the ground literally at Claude’s feet, pushes against his knee, calling him “Little idiot.”

      But we recognize in that interchange that something has already transpired between the two that hints at a close friendship if not a closer bond, particularly later that afternoon, as we watch Philippe, making his way to the local train which takes these boys and others back and forth day from and back to their homes, being carefully Claude through the train window and the elder converses girl who clearly helps him with his math. Claude moves closer to the window to allow Philippe the opportunity to sit next to him, but Philippe choses instead to sit in the next row with his back to the clearly disappointed boy.

      A short while later, while Claude either appears to have fallen to sleep or is merely pretending, Philippe turns back to look at his friend’s face, turning away again with an open smile.

      If this attention to the placement, glances, and reactions of the two boys in regard of one another may seem a bit disproportionate, I must protest that throughout much of this richly textured black-and-white film this is almost all Duron shows us. The work is presented literally in fragments of encounters as they move in and out one another’s lives in a way that we might expect from a serious adult “romance” in the manner of directors such as Bresson, Antonioni, Chabrol, or Losey in whose works figures framed by distinctive landscapes tell us almost everything through their bodies—through the movement of hands, eyes, feet, knees, heads, and finally lips. And it is this fact that ultimately transforms this work of cinema from a portrait of two attracted adolescents into a far more serious exploration of deep passion, something we simply do not expect in movies about young boys or girls coming to terms with their sexuality.

      From Phillipe’s early fear that Claude “doesn’t really give a shit about me,” his belief that they “have nothing in common,” their friendship quite quickly develops into a kind of mentorship-like relationship between him and the younger Claude. By the second day, it is Philippe who has saved a seat for the other on the train, Claude resting his head against Philippe’s shoulder as their voyage continues into the inky darkness of night.

      Soon they are climbing, swinging from, and clinging to metallic towers and staircases as the score by Jean Duron alternates with dark, discordant strains and wistful fragments of what sound like Claude Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, the boys taking joy not only in their own bodies but in one another’s. And almost immediately we see them in Philippe’s bed together, talking about masturbation, the younger boy clearly interested in it since, as he admits to the elder, he is not quite able to do it yet; only in his sleep does it happen. 

      In short, it is the same game many young males play, talking about sex, wanting sex without truly being able to ask for it. They tussle for a few moments, Claude on top of Philippe, as they gently rub noses before being interrupted by the elder boy’s father checking in on them, suggesting it is time for Claude to return home.

     So far, Claude’s interest in sexuality seems to be more one of curiosity, almost a game, and perhaps, even a demonstration of appreciation that Philippe has allowed him entry into an a lightly more mature world than it is an actual desire for sexual involvement. We already know that for Philippe is far more serious, and for that very reason he is far more hesitant.

     On a camping outing soon after, we begin to see Claude’s reticence for sexual contact. As he begins hesitantly to play his guitar, Philippe attempts to interrupt, stroking the other boy’s arm, which Claude rejects with “Stop it, I’m not a girl.”

     Yet the next night in Philippe’s home they play with each other’s hands behind his mother and father’s back. Without blankets they must share Philippe’s bed, the elder gently stroking Claude’s back, and greeted finally with his hand to signify his willingness, the two consummate their love with sex.

      From almost the beginning of this narrative, however, we might have predicted the result. As Claude bicycle’s away to his home, his journey will take him in a different direction from the one Philippe has just explores and treasured, the last glimmers of the Debussy song fading away, By the next scene Claude is already feeling changes taking place inside him, hiding himself away, as Philippe puts it, “like a glass bell. I can see you but I can’t reach you.”

      After some attempts to repair the growing distance between them, it becomes apparent that Claude is now not only attracted to women but prefers them to Philippe’s company. And it is not long before he finds a serious girlfriend (Jeanne Barthélémy), leaving Philippe behind as a seeming insignificant part of his history, “a history,” as Philippe describes it “without importance.”

      What we have not been prepared for is the despair that Philippe feels for their parting. In the now long tradition of such works, we observe young men and women temporarily suffering the end of first love, but because of their youth quickly coming to terms with it, managing to realize that they have long lives before them in which to find someone else. Usually, in fact, the young lover’s loss of love is embedded with his or her own sense of being an outsider, and when she or he to terms with that issue new possibilities rise up to replace the former object of desire. The later models of this genre such as Simon Shore’s Get Real (1998) and David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen of that same year both solve their youth’s loss of a love with their awakening to the new world they now face. Even in the earlier ur-version of the “coming of age” film, Lasse Nielsen and Ernst Johanssen’s You Are Not Alone (1978) left it’s somewhat younger hero Kim with the perception that, at least politically speaking, he is part of a much larger community made up of both homosexual and heterosexual men and women who gather to protect one another.

     Duron’s young Philippe, however, plays it with all the dramatic intensity of a spurned heroine in an adult film, not only growing obsessed with his Claude, unable to eat or sleep, having imaginary conversations with him, and describing the former 14 or 15 year old boy as an “asshole,” “egoist,” and “whore,” but stalking him, hiding in the shadows as Claude’s passes by with his girl, and telephoning him only to quickly hang up. Philippe’s mother fears for his well-being, as does his audience.

      But Duron quite astonishingly takes it even further, foretelling what might be described as a “coming of age revenge tale” that we witness in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2004 absurdist comedy Bad Education. To remind my readers, in that film two very young boys, Ignacio and Enrique fall in love only to be discovered and broken up, Enrique being expelled from school by their priest. Later, when Ignacio—now the transvestite hooker, Zahara—accidentally discovers that her current customer is her long ago beloved Enrique, she determines to and succeeds in seeking revenge on the ancient priest.*

       In the last scene of An History of No Importance, we observe Claude sitting in from of his mirror re-adjusting his shirt before pocketing a large of wad of money laid out on the bureau; he speaks to the mirror, “I hope you got you’re money’s worth,” as the camera pans left to show Philippe looking out of the room through the slants of a blind.

      This 44-minute film, mostly because of its beauty and remarkable originality, but also because of the difficulty aficionados had for many years in finding a copy to view (it is now available on both YouTube and Vimeo), has become almost a legendary work. Since it is now available, let us hope this audacious movie is never again forgotten.

*One might argue that another example of this genre, although played out in reverse, the lover distraught lover killed by one who originally spurned him, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In einen Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons) (1978).

Los Angeles, January 20, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).

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