ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
David Claerbout - 2010 - Comme une femme de ménage [FR, interview],
A Kind of Cleaning Lady
A concise conversation with David Claerbout
When watching a film, I love to lose myself in details, like the tenuous patch of light on the bushes in the opening scene of Sunrise: before we see the heroine appearing I a bend of the road, the light on her bicycle projects a dancing flame of light on the dark screen of reality. There is something androgynous about the heroine with her shoulder bag and trousers. However, a little later we see her appear, unrecognisable, in the traditional garb of a housemaid. She has become an image that is absorbed into the larger image of the architectural surroundings. The interior shots are filmed in colour, but they are almost grey. The final images, shot outdoors, are in colour: a landscape, the girl cycling home, a sunset and her illuminated face, which is reminiscent of the morning light that illuminates the face of Proust’s milkmaid. With music by Rachmaninov. The slavish activities in what appears to be a modern house, enveloped in semidarkness, turn into an ecstatic liberation. This is what it looks like. However, the minimal approach and the need for control that the house exudes also characterise the minimal, controlled way the films are created and which for example are evident in the consistent use of tracking shots. It is as if the film is showing us something that is not allowed to be shown. Something that is past, perhaps, or something that could have happened. Something which Platonically speaking should escape any form of recording, for reasons of decency. We are looking at an exercise in seeing in which as little as possible is shown. So that other things become visible, like the way in which the light can dissolve the world in grey veils, or the way grey veils and simple horizontal and vertical lines can meet.
Claerbout: Sunrise is a choreographic work lasting 17 minutes. In the last two minutes you hear Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. In most of the film you see a housekeeper cleaning a modernist house. I spent five months looking for that house. It had to be a building in which all the formal principles of Mies van der Rohe had been applied, but it was not to be a well-known building. In the end I found the private home of one of Norman Foster’s partners. Long ago I once made a film in Rem Koolhaas’ house (The Bordeaux Piece, 2003) and people still constantly criticize me for this. Why would I, like a fashionista, want to shoot a film in one of the ten best-known buildings of the last few decades (when I am not even particularly interested in Koolhaas’ architecture)? I wanted to avoid this by using an anonymous house which did however comply with all the standards of modernism. It is the sort of house that only the very rich can build, people who can afford Mies van der Rohe chic. In my view these houses demonstrate the bankruptcy of the social thinking which provided the foundations of modernism. The housekeeper we see working represents what remains of that social element. She has to do her work in the dark. There is no artificial light anywhere. She is working just before the break of dawn.
- The camera is on rails.
Claerbout: These are twenty-metre tracking shots aimed at converting the attention that might have been focused on the woman into dance. The camera work ennobles the work that she does. The film is a composition of vertical and horizontal lines.
- Does your film have anything to do with ‘Journal d’une femme de chambre’?
- Is a film like this based on personal memories?
Claerbout: No. Even though I do see myself as a kind of cleaning lady as well. I am also in that house and have to make a film on a minimum budget. The idea for the film is based on the music you hear at the end. I have a preference for music which, when I hear it for the first time, makes me feel that the hour that has just passed was filled with silence pregnant with meaning. The beginning of the film is extremely controlled. There is very little light, as if our eyes are operating at the very limit of their capacity. At the end of the film it is as if you are blinded by the light radiating from the huge fireball that appears above the horizon. The minimalist chic is swept aside by a romantic outburst of light. Perhaps real beauty, which today is still represented by Rachmaninov, actually lies in the reality of the Romanian housekeeper. In my view this film is a balancing act in which one does not choose sides.
Montagne de Miel, 30 maart 2010