Skip to content

Serra's subversion

At first glance, it might seem difficult to detect a thread running through the programme of films to be screened in the Eye cinemas over the coming months to accompany the exhibition Liberté. The programme ranges from the political thriller Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981) to the sentimental Hollywood film I've Always Loved You (Frank Borzage, 1946), and from the experimental horror film Cuadecuc, vampir (Pere Portabello, 1971) to the raw, darkly comedic Chinese documentary Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, 2007).

By Thijs Havens30 May 2024

still from Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

still Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

One thread is, of course, Albert Serra himself (born in 1975 in Banyoles), whose exhibition opens at Eye on 7 June. Over the coming months, we are screening most of the rebellious body of work by this idiosyncratic Catalan film auteur in the cinemas. We also invited him to compile a programme of films that have been important for his artistic development. After immersing himself in film history and in the Eye collection, Serra came up with a highly surprising and interesting programme, which reveals all sorts of links with the exhibition and with his films.

“Films are not about the subject anyway, they are about something else – cinematographic things”

Albert Serra in Dazed (Why hating filmmakers makes for great films, 2015)

The exhibition Liberté is based on the play (2018) and film (2019) of the same name that examine the moral ambivalence of (sexual) freedom and the role of power relationships, control and self-control in human interaction and contemporary society in general.

still from Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

still Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

still from Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

still Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

Modern developments have radically changed this society, and it is difficult not to link the historical setting of many of Serra’s early feature films, such as Birdsong (2008), Story of My Death (2013) and La Mort de Louis XIV (2016), with his critical attitude towards the contemporary zeitgeist. Perhaps the discomfort that his films can evoke is precisely down to his focus on the unresolved paradoxes of our time. To name a few: more than ever before, we are connected to one another in countless ways, yet we are increasingly unable to cope with the pleasure and discomfort of physical contact. We are living in the most democratic period in the history of humankind, yet political power structures and money flows are more diffuse than ever before. We loudly campaign in all sorts of ways for the right to self-expression, yet strange forms of (self)censorship appear and restrict that same self-expression.

A 'committed artist of our day'

These are big and complex issues for which conclusive analyses and answers will prove inadequate. Which is why Serra does not offer any. Instead, he approaches such themes indirectly with defiant films that question the status quo by experimenting radically with the formal possibilities of the medium. Serra's ideas about the subversive function of cinema are strongly influenced by the book Film as a Subversive Art (1974) by the legendary film critic and programmer Amos Vogel. In addition to what is still an inspiring viewing list, this book contains a number of essays in which Vogel convincingly argues that cinema is the ultimate modern art form because it is in the medium of film alone that total artistic control of time and space is possible. Accordingly, of all forms of art, cinema is best suited to question the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the modern age:

Time and space are telescoped or destroyed: memory, reality, and illusion are fused, until, in a flash of frightful revelation, we realize that the totality of these uncertainties and discontinuities reflects nothing less than the modern world view. (…) The enormity of chaos has necessitated enormity of artistic means to portray and dissolve it. The ugly, the grotesque, the brutal and the absurd provide the truths of a society in decline. Those who depict these truths are the "committed" artists of our day. Far from withdrawing into empty aestheticism, they are themselves anguished configurations of the alienation and deeper wisdom they portray.'

Vogel emphasizes that just a very small portion of the films being made fulfil the subversive potential of film. Apart from that, we must make do with what Vogel calls 'the homogenization of culture: a universal leveling down, an anesthetizing, pernicious blandness.'

Following the example of Vogel, Serra believes that the only films that matter are those that, in one way or another, are subversive. In other words, films that challenge the status quo. This is possible in countless ways in terms of form and content (theme, scenario, mise-en-scène, montage, cinematography, sound design, actor direction and so on). What matters is taking risks and venturing off the beaten track.

For Serra, this cinematic non-conformism forms the sine qua non of his artistic thinking. In his early films Honour of the Knights (2006) and Birdsong, he reinterpreted familiar classic stories – those of Don Quixote and the Three Wise Men from the East, respectively – that he sheds of almost all narrative elements. What remains is a stylized, plotless sketch of how historical characters engage with one another, which creates space for an abstract philosophical exploration of the ideas that embody these canonical stories. Serra's film Story of My Death can be seen as a precursor to Liberté, because in it he also reflects candidly on the paradoxes of sexual freedom and how rational thought fails in the context of complete surrender to sexual ecstasy.

still from Honour of the Knights (Albert Serra, ES 2006)

still Honour of the Knights (Albert Serra, ES 2006)

still from Birdsong (El cant dels ocells) (Albert Serra, ES 2008)

still Birdsong (El cant dels ocells) (Albert Serra, ES 2008)

still from Story of My Death (Albert Serra, ES/FR/RO 2013)

still Story of My Death (Albert Serra, ES/FR/RO 2013)

still from Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

still Liberté (Albert Serra, FR/DE/PT/ES 2019)

One of the tactics that Serra often employs to ensure his films remain unpredictable and exciting (also for himself) is the use of non-professional actors (more on that later). For La Mort de Louis XIV, he abandoned that approach for the first time to work with the legendary French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud as the dying Louis XIV. Almost the entire film takes place in just one space, and by meticulously capturing the process of dying in combination with the ludicrous 17th-century attire and the intrigue within the royal household of Louis XIV, Serra highlights wonderfully the futility of power in light of the mercilessness of death.

With his recent film Pacifiction (2022), he made the ultimate film about the elusiveness of political power and how it can slip unnoticed through the fingers. Although Serra again worked with a professional actor (a smooth Benoît Magimel), he pushed the boundaries of the medium of film again by shooting more than 500 hours of largely improvised material, making use of earphones to pass instructions to the actors during the filming. This unorthodox approach in Pacifction creates a slow tension that creeps under your skin and a casual, probing sort of realism that continues to enthral. Ambiguous, and for some viewers perhaps demanding, yet unmistakeably daring and enriching for those receptive to it.

still from La mort de Louis XIV (Albert Serra, FR 2016)

still La mort de Louis XIV (Albert Serra, FR 2016)

still from Pacifiction (Albert Serra, FR 2022)
still from Pacifiction (Albert Serra, FR 2022)

Serra's selection

The same can also be said of the 13 films chosen, in consultation with Serra, to be screened alongside his own films. It is an exciting and eclectic selection of works, some of which come from the Eye collection on 35mm, and most of which are rarely seen. Just as in Serra's own films, there is an element to discover in each of these films that can be termed radical or defiant, and worth viewing for that reason alone. Varied as they are, all films display courage in one way or another. Some reveal a clear link with Serra’s work, while others appear to be situated further away from him. Despite their great diversity, one can nonetheless detect a number of threads in the selection.

Dark political satire

It was recently announced that Serra's next film, Out of This World (planned for 2025), examines the political rivalry between Russian and the US. With this, Serra seems to be continuing on the path he took with Pacifiction, in which he investigated the shadowy world of diplomacy where nothing is quite what it seems and power relationships are hypocritical, opaque and unjust.

still from Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, US 1981)

still Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, US 1981)

The oppressive Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer, 1981) directly influenced Pacifiction in its subtle, unforgettable depiction of paranoia and loss of control. What the films share is that both viewers and characters are left with nothing but an abstract, uncomfortable feeling about the unattainability and inviolability of power, and of those in power.

still from Bulworth (Warren Beatty, US 1998)

still Bulworth (Warren Beatty, US 1998)

Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998) is more comical but also dives into the world of politics to comment on it in an extreme and sometimes subversive way. The film is uncomfortable (a rapping Warren Beatty trying to impress a young Halle Berry, anyone?) but fictional films that tackle politics so explicitly and jump in with both feet are no longer made, which makes one think.

still from Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, CN 2007)

still Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, CN 2007)

Crime and Punishment (Zhao Liang, 2007) offers us a satirical, mocking look at those in positions of power. Director Zhao Liang succeeded in getting permission to film a documentary about a Chinese military post on the border with North Korea. It’s a miracle that the film made it past the censors at all, because we see soldiers maintain order in an extremely tough yet erratic manner even though local residents hardly seem to take them seriously. An astonishing, darkly comic documentary masterpiece.

still from Electra Glide in Blue (James Guercio, US 1973)

still Electra Glide in Blue (James Guercio, US 1973)

The forgotten cult classic Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio, 1973) also slots easily into this line-up, because it, too, pours scorn on the powers that be. You see the film through your eyelashes as a sort of twisted, darker, noir version of Police Academy, but the theme is deadly serious: it sketches a grim, cynical picture of America just after the hippy era. Electra Glide in Blue is therefore often mentioned in one breath with Easy Rider (1969) but has stood the test of time much better.

Form experiments

A number of the other films selected by Serra stand out largely on account of their unorthodox, experimental form.

still from Cuadecuc, vampir (Pere Portabella, ES 1971)

still Cuadecuc, vampir (Pere Portabella, ES 1971)

There’s a reason by Amos Vogel called Cuadecuc, vampir (Pere Portabello, 1971) a 'most original work'. It is a making-of documentary of the 1970s B vampire film Count Dracula (with Christopher Lee) that, owing to its experimental sound design, image editing and radical montage, is a sort of abstract meta vampire film that ultimately creeps under the skin in a way that the fictional film whose creative process it reveals does not. Inimitable and unforgettable.

still from Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, FR 1977)

still Baxter, Vera Baxter (Marguerite Duras, FR 1977)

Marguerite Duras also makes uncompromising aesthetic choices in Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977). While the leading character Vera Baxter explains to strangers (including Delphine Seyrig) the disturbing history of her collapsing marriage, we hear a pan flute orchestra the entire film (!) playing the same tune. This almost maddening, alienating effect lends the fragments of dialogue a surrealist, almost ominous undertone that aligns surprisingly well with a theme that centres on the dark edges of marital faithfulness and unfaithfulness.

still from Quei loro incontri (Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub, IT/FR 2006)

still Quei loro incontri (Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub, IT/FR 2006)

Quei loro incontri (Straub & Huillet, 2006) questions conventional ideas about film realism and dialogue processing. For over an hour, we watch non-professional actors in nature recite lines from Dialoghi con Leucò by Cesar Pavese about how humanity deals with Death, Love and Fate. In combination with the sleekly edited shots of the hilly landscape around Pisa, the result is an enchanting atmosphere that lends the dialogue, images and actors a unique dimension.

Character and actor

Just as the line between ‘actor’ and character blurs in Quei loro incontri, other films in the Serra programme reveal an interaction between actor and character. In the above-mentioned Cuadecuc, vampir we initially see actor Christopher Lee mostly in his almost camp role as Dracula. Gradually, however, we see him playing around with the camera and casually smoking a cigarette. Tension arises because the ominous sound design continues relentlessly; the 'real' Christopher Lee acquires something sinister, possessed. The viewer almost gets the impression that an even bigger, darker force exerts power over all actors, long after the director has shouted 'cut'. The illusion, the trick by which we become accustomed, while watching films, to actors simply being one with their role, disappears completely, and this unlocks new artistic possibilities.

“The great actor does not represent, nor even express; he simply is.”

Albert Serra in his speech/book A Toast to St. Martiria (2024)

Cuadecuc, vampir magnificently shows how relatively simple means can be deployed in cinema to open up new paths, and there’s a good reason why Serra, at the end of his Story of My Death, seems to pay homage to this film by showing Dracula in combination with an ominous electronic soundtrack.

The 'game' between actor and character also comes to the fore in Serra's choice for the atypical western One-Eyed Jacks (1961). It was the only film that Marlon Brando ever directed, and he also plays the lead role. And this seems exactly what interests Serra:

'Of course, this is what is totally fascinating about the character in the film, because he himself is directing. There is a confusion that goes to a high level (...) He knows what he knows as an actor, but he’s controlling everything as a director (...) This film is very interesting because of this (...) you can’t have these two perspectives in the same body, the same consciousness', as he says in an interview for The Seventh Art in 2019.

We can also view Pier Paolo's Pasolini's Medea (1969) in a similar light; the viewer cannot avoid the magnetic presence of the 'real' Maria Callas, in her only film role ever. In his version of Medea, Pasolini chose for a minimum of dialogue, so there was hardly any traditional acting required from Callas. Her appearance alone, and everything that the audience projects onto her, seems enough to make the role a success. Too much dialogue, too much 'role', would only have detracted from the layered impression that Callas makes as a tragic Medea.

still from One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, US 1961)

still One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, US 1961)

still from Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, IT 1969)
still from Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, IT 1969)

The above-mentioned films align well with Serra's ideas about directing actors. By disrupting actors, getting them to improvise and be themselves, letting the cameras record all the time and working with non-professional actors, Serra tinkers with the unwritten rule that nothing should get between the actor and the role being played. We are used to the actor, 'as a person' so to speak, to be kept out of the frame at all costs, but Serra turns this around to actively involve 'the person' in creating something new, which can no longer be defined as pure fiction.

Crossing boundaries

Finally, a number of films are perhaps less provocative in terms of form but, instead, push, defy and even cross the boundaries of the genre in terms of content. In a comparable way to Gone to Earth (Powell & Pressburger, 1950), the fantastic I've Always Loved You (Frank Borzage, 1946) is a perfect example of this. The film – screened at Eye in the 35mm version from the collection – tells the story of an ambitious concert pianist who falls in love with her mentor and calls to mind in some respects the over-sentimental The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger, 1948). However, through a number of excessively long concert scenes with lots of yearning gazes, I've Always Loved You achieves a sort of over-the-top sentimentality that somehow manages to ‘work’. As Luc Mollet noted in Cahiers du cinéma no. 135 (1969):

'I've Always Loved You is perhaps Borzage's masterpiece...The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.'

still from Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, GB 1950)

still Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, GB 1950) (© Disney / BFI / Fremantle)

still from I've Always Loved You (Frank Borzage, US 1946)

still I've Always Loved You (Frank Borzage, US 1946)

La prima notte di quiete (Valerio Zurlini, 1972) goes much further in a totally different way to what you might expect. A handsome, somewhat mature Alain Delon shines as a depressed, down-and-out writer in Rimini. He starts a relationship with one of his pupils, the stunningly beautiful Vanina (Sonia Petrovna). So far so good. However, in films of this kind, the Pandora’s box that Delon then opens rarely opens as far as it does here, and the combination of oppressive social control and sexual perversion that he encounters can still be considered shocking (or has it become shocking today?).

Last but not least, one of the masters of transgression: Abel Ferrara. His seldom-screened Go Go Tales (2007) seems at first rather tame compared to some of his better-known films (Bad Lieutenant, Mrs. 45) but he is trying something new here; it is, in his own words, his 'first comedy intended as such'. In Go Go Tales, we see Willem Dafoe as nightclub owner Ray Ruby, who tries to ensure his club’s survival by reckless gambling. With a sort of maniacal, speedy lack of plot, the film rumbles towards the final scene, as cynical as it is comical, which leaves you chuckling and asking yourself: What exactly was that? Were the limits of good taste visible there in the distance? Was that precisely the intention, given Dafoe's theatrical display of acting?

still from La prima notte di quiete (Valerio Zurlini, IT/FR 1972)

still La prima notte di quiete (Valerio Zurlini, IT/FR 1972)

still from Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara, IT/US 2007)

still Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara, IT/US 2007)

Full scope

It should hopefully be clear that there are plenty of reasons to visit Eye this summer. First, to immerse yourself in the provocative world of Albert Serra in the exhibition Liberté, and second, to watch his feature films that we will screen extensively in our cinemas. And third, on account of all these other films. They demonstrate Serra's broad cinematic interests and reveal a wide spectrum of influences whose traces can be detected throughout his body of work.

What Serra's work shares with his selection of films is that he seldom takes the beaten track, and never settles for clichéd convention in what is still a young medium. The artistic boundaries of cinema do not expand automatically; this often-thankless task falls to filmmakers with courage, who are not afraid to fail occasionally or to make films that might cause some people to walk out of the cinema. So be it. The eventual artistic merit is too big and perhaps too important for film as an art form to be intimidated by that prospect. Serra himself, and all the directors he chose, are aware of this, and no doubt Amos Vogel has them in mind when he speaks full of admiration about:

'...those true iconoclasts and independents-feature, avant-garde or documentary filmmakers who even under today's bleak circumstances audaciously continue to 'transgress' (i.e. subvert) narrative modes, themes, structures, and the visual / aural conventions of mainstream cinema.'

poster Albert Serra  – Liberté

Films, Talks & Events