Claire Simon

Primera retrospectiva española

When Claire Simon came to BAFICI to participate in the jury in 2007, we also invited her to take part in a roundtable session on documentaries and fiction. During this session, Simon repeatedly made the point that she was not a “documentarian”, implicitly pointing to the fact that her films lie on the boundary between the two fields. And that way of thinking about her work hits the nail squarely on the head.

In Claire Simon’s films, there is always some material which in some way or other originates from the field of the real. It may be a space which excludes and defines the area out of shot (the playground in Récréations, the station seen from two different perspectives in Gare du Nord and Géographie humaine), or an overwhelming character (Mimi Chiola, in Mimi), or people retelling their experiences (Les bureaux de dieu). But that material reality is just the beginning, the starting point which arouses Simon’s curiosity, not an end in itself: it is the clay she uses to model her gaze, searching for the thread of a fictional tale based on the stories of passionate women or characters whose fragility is only apparent – be they children, immigrants or the dispossessed – because they are determined to survive in the face of the pitiless logic of capitalism, or the limits and limitations of so-called institutions.

One might think then that the very title Ça brûle is a reference to a particular passion, even if we understand that that which burns is the love which the fifteen year-old with the Viscontian name, Livia, feels for the fireman, Jean, who helped her after she had fallen while riding her beautiful horse, while on holiday in the south of France. And that that which burns keeps on doing so, slowly but continually, raising her temperature until it makes her do the most unbelievable and most final of things, just so that she can be with him. But that which burns is the desire of Claire Simon to portray herself in her intense protagonist, and not for nothing do we see that Livia is more than just a character but a force of nature – as often happens with Claire Simon’s women, even the girls who imitate adult attitudes in Récréations. But that potential for the dam to break which is written into her women is made up of impulses and desires, and that is what sets the limits for the narrative fields Simon chooses. Although it might appear that Simon has moved from documentary to fictional filmmaking, suggesting different stages in her career, in fact the path she has chosen has obliterated those boundaries, almost as if her work were the result of feeling uncomfortable in being on one side or the other.

The real provides material which fiction expands on and liberates. We do not just see this in Mimi, where Mimi Chiola herself is a storyteller who no scriptwriter could have imagined, but also in Récréations, where the expectancy created by the situations acted out by the children reveals the fictional power that the children themselves make use of in each of the regular breaks in their school day. This can also take the form of the systems used in Ça brûle, where information is provided only bit by bit, while still being able to reach the dramatic heights which Truffaut’s Adele H. would have loved. Or it might also consist of the logic of dédoublement, of cinema doubling back on itself, reflecting on the relationship between the real and fiction – almost as if this relationship were the theme of her films, as if Simon has been able not just to illustrate a theoretical problem in contemporary cinema but has made that theoretical problem into the standpoint from which she has selected her stories, and which defines her way of setting up each scene. It is no accident that she has often used ensemble and dédoublement as means of moving from one field to another. This dédoublement is tangible in Les bureaux de dieu, for which Simon chose a variety of real-life cases concerned with the issue of contraception. These were then recounted to some of the most recognizable actresses in France – Nathalie Baye and Nicole Garcia – who played social workers, fulfilling their roles as both actresses but also as people concerned with social issues. But this dédoublement is also tangible in another sense, when she made the twin and yet contrasting films Gare du Nord and Géographie humaine, which were released together. The reality of the station, which in Gare… was the background or “stage” on which the main story about Ismael and Mathilde was set, becomes the centrepiece in Géographie…, revealing all the stories which the other film only allowed glimpses of. This mass of narratives, which is just a rumour, ambient noise or mere potential in one film, becomes central to the other, with attention turning to this multiplicity of sound. In Gare du Nord, out of all the stories that could have been chosen from the swarm possible, one was chosen to be the main focus and this was then played out again, it was “performed”, but, in Géographie humaine, that diversity was included unfiltered, but this time with the inclusion of Simon Merabet, bringing fiction with him as he was brought into the process. Thus was Simon reunited with the protagonist of Mon cher Simon, one of her first documentary short films.

The fact that Claire Simon is uncomfortable with being defined as a documentarian is not surprising when one considers that this “discomfort” arises from not feeling at home in only one of her two fields. Her cinema is what becomes uncomfortable when it is pigeonholed in a single territory, when its natural impulse is movement – a crucial word which explains the director’s propensity for spaces such as the multicultural tension of break-time in Récréations, the bustling train station of the two films jumeaux, and the hectic office in Les bureaux de dieu. Moving between worlds and different spaces – physical or theoretical – seems to be the most provocative antidote that art can come up with to counteract the catastrophe of being labelled and the creation of cultural and political ghettos.