Portrait - Partrice Duhamel
On March 22, 2012, the International Festival of Films on Art presented an entire program of videos by Patrice Duhamel in the section Experimental FIFA. One of the three people introducing this program, Pierre Brault, wrote the following text of great sensitivity about his involvement in the work of this fully engaged artist.
I met Patrice when I worked at Vidéographe. He arrived to do a six-month internship. It was my job to find him things to do, and the first was to familiarise him with the place. In the end, we set out to do a major re-ordering of Vidéographe’s spaces. This was our way of putting down roots in this place. Patrice liked everything to be in order. He hated disorder. And yet his work shows only strategies of disorder, which is just one of its many paradoxes.
My first contact with his work was with La vie concrète , part of an abecedary initiated by Josette Bélanger for Vidéographe and for which he was finishing the editing when we met. This whimsical, colourful single-channel video turned me off at first. I should point out that a series of circumstances led me to Vidéographe and that I thought I would find there an environment of political and social dissidence like there had been when it was founded. But a new generation had taken over, one with a different sensibility and way of looking at the world.
I had no conception of the concerns that artists such as Patrice could have. The first time I watched this video, I didn’t grasp the import of its metaphors or mise en scène. I saw it as a hermetic object, a bizarre and badly-put together sketch that didn’t speak to me. But the more I watched it, and the more I learned who Patrice was, the more of itself it revealed to me. What I had seen as clumsiness became intention. His life and romantic experiences metamorphosed into this video, and I was fascinated by the process.
How He Came to Choose Us
Patrice was constantly looking for participants for his video projects. I think that one of his first criteria was comfort, meaning that he needed to feel at ease with his collaborators, to trust them. To have a personal or professional connection seemed to be very important, because he was going to bare his soul in front of us.
Every face you see in his work is that of someone with whom he had a relationship – romantic, amicable or professional.
When Patrice suggested I act in one of his projects, it was fairly brief:
- (Pointing his finger at me.) Brault, what are you doing this weekend?
- Nothing special, I replied.
- You’re going to act in my next film.
- I immediately explained that I’m a very bad actor and that I don’t know how to improvise without hamming it up. At first I refused.
But none of that discouraged him. He insisted that I be a part of it. He could be a real charmer when he got an idea into his head. In the end, out of curiosity and to put an end to his illusions about me as an actor, I agreed.
A Day on the Set
My first day on the set took place one spring day on a vacant lot. It was stifling hot and Patrice dressed us in the sort of paper outfits used by painters. This scene became a part of his project De l’âme Four characters dressed as if we were in a contaminated zone. We had to simulate a state of weightlessness and float about aimlessly, with no sound recording and Patrice behind the camera.
Everything was written down. He followed a very well-defined plan, but sometimes he’d scratch out a line and would think for a moment, looking around him, seeking in the surroundings a place or object that would serve his purpose. Without realising it, I had just put become caught up in his world. Some days on the set were highly charged. He liked to work and his objectives always demanded a lot of energy. We often had to remind him that it was time to eat or take a break.
In some scenes, he gave us very literal instructions, such as “a man meets a woman, who stares at him”, then placed us in the decor and gave us an area within which we could move.
At first, in keeping with my experiences, I expected him to provide more context. To my great distress, I always found myself uncomfortably in the midst of bare sets, without any bearings; stripped down places, an overload of props and disconcerting instructions. Not knowing what sort of gesture to make (he gave us minimal information on the meaning of a scene) or how to deliver in a way that would appear natural a text that seemed to me to be too literary. Installed behind his camera, he said nothing. He observed us like a predator on the watch for malaise.
Yannick Pilon, who often shot with Patrice, made a few attempts at shooting with sound. Patrice wanted him to speak naturally and with a slight French accent, taking his inspiration from parts of a book by Cioran. Yannick never managed to hear himself speaking like a Parisian without laughing. After several attempts, Patrice resolved to go back to filming silent like the rest of us. Sometimes, Patrice seemed content with our chaotic acting. It seemed to serve his demonstrations. But later, he began to demand more fluid and natural acting. He encouraged us to improvise. Yannick told me that Patrick put him in a decor with a sentence and gave him directions like:
- OK Pilon, you’re somewhere you’re unfamiliar with and you see objects, but you don’t know what they’re for. OK, is that clear? We’re rolling
Yannick would then launch into an improvisation, not knowing how long he had or where it would all end up. One he was done, if the take was what Patrice was looking for, you had to do it all over again for the insert shots. He could shoot for hours and hours, working tirelessly late into the night.
So Close to Madness
The more destabilised we were, the happier Patrice was. He was delighted. He wasn’t looking for emotion, but for engagement with his world. When I worked on his project Comment bricoler votre ruine A + B , I first worked with him alone for a day. He made me spit on objects, tame a plastic fly hanging from a thread, stick dozens of photos of the same woman to the wall with saliva, lick practically everything, hit myself on the head with a ball of paper as if I was trying to break it open, blow up a balloon until I hyperventilated and cut up a piece of paper to no end. At the end of the day, I had no modesty left, I was ready for anything. He had reduced my defence mechanisms to ashes.
For me that day was like a moment of delirium. Sometimes I felt like a psychiatric patient being observed by that camera, which for me became a mirror with no silvering. I also experienced a few examples of being in synch with Patrice, making me realise his ability to see emotional states in my life, which he then used in his projects. I imagine that he used this faculty with all his collaborators.
The most explicit experience was when we were shooting his project Les incidents. I and Anne, my companion at the time, invited to act in a scene, showed up at his studio one Easter Saturday in the midst of a snowstorm. We were standing on the set, face to face, while Patrice got ready. Lighting check, camera position, focus, framing; then Patrice glanced at his shooting plan, put it aside and looked at us. He then asked us to kiss passionately like great lovers and to pull apart with disgust on our faces as if we had just kissed a stranger.
Anne and I, troubled by his request, didn’t say a word. Because the strange thing was, a few hours before shooting this scene we had decided to separate after eighteen years together. That was the last time we kissed. How had Patrice guessed what we were going through? He never told me. I experienced two similar moments on Patrice’s sets, convincing me that this was not a matter of chance.
A very good technician, a perfectionist, extremely concerned with the final quality of his work, Patrice took on every role, rarely delegating a task. From preparing the set to the editing by way of scouting locations, writing the script, casting the parts and planning the technical side. Often broke, he created out of bits and pieces, ever more simply. Determined and with a built-in stopwatch, for him losing time was intolerable.
In the second part of the program, three videos will be shown: La vie concrète , Lettre sur le son (de ta voix) and Comment bricoler votre ruine (A + B) . They form part of a body of work that is remarkable for where Patrice Duhamel shot – mostly on rudimentary sets he built himself. Places which became spaces where the filmmaker confined his subjects and separated them from their surroundings to create a vast off-screen space, a place of unknowns, mystery and danger, but also of desire.
In the three single-channel videos we will screen, we can see an evolution of the site where Patrice has his characters act their roles. In La vie concrète and Lettre sur le son (de ta voix) the set consists only in a wall used as a backdrop. It functions to give a sense of there being no depth. Later, he would build two walls at right angles to the floor, where he shot the projects De l’âme and Les incidents . Here perspective and an exploration of depth of field became possible.
Then, in Comment bricoler votre ruine (A + B) , he built a cube, which enabled him, by changing the props on his set, to situate his characters in spaces on top of or beside each other, thereby making possible new co-habitations. He even imagined making someone, a sort of street person, live between these walls, but the project never took shape. In those days, Patrice created short scenes, something like surreal sketches, as well as improvisations.
The vibrations of his life permeate his work. Patrice’s path fused his art and his loves. For me, what best illustrates this engagement was the time he lived on one of his sets. At the time he was in a state of wandering, no longer having an apartment. He decided to move into his studio, and for a while his set, that of La Séance, became his private space. He once told me how strange it was to wake up in that space. Living on a set gave his life a whiff of fleetingness, similar to that of a stage performance. Who was fusing with what? The boundary between his life and his work was blurring more and more
For me, coming to terms with Patrice was something like having a pebble in your shoe; not in a pejorative sense, but as an object for making you aware through discomfort. Patrice’s ideas could be so compact, so inclusive, so resolved in his desire to accomplish something that he calcified.
When you have a pebble in your shoe you become more aware of your foot, but it isn’t necessarily comfortable. Patrice was a part of my life, and his presence throughout those years was not always tranquil, but he helped me to become aware of our limits, our blind spots, of the space of conventions which govern our lives, but especially of the extraordinary power of passion and commitment.