Only in France, perhaps, could the intellectual reflections of a film critic become a theatrical success. But La loi du marcheur is just such a show, and its recent two-night performance at the French Institute Alliance Française proved why this monologue starring Nicolas Bouchaud has been such a critical and popular hit at home.
Performed for an American public as The Exercise Was Beneficial, Sir, the piece reproduces segments of the three-hour long interview that Serge Daney gave to the philosopher Régis Debray shortly before his death at age 48. In it, the respected former editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers du cinéma and the lead film critic for the Paris daily Libération roamed freely on topics ranging from his earliest childhood memories of Sunday afternoons at the local movie house to his prescient predictions, in 1992, regarding the sterile omnipotence of the “synthetic image,” and TV and social media’s responsibility in diffusing it.
The staging of this journalistic tête à tête relies equally on director Éric Didry’s visualization of Daney’s theories about cinema and Bouchaud’s high-strung delivery of the critic’s bullseye observations. In moccasins, jeans and a henley, disheveled and casual as if he’d just stumbled in off the street, Bouchaud doesn’t look as if he is there to channel Daney, who, in the interview with Debry, exudes the bohemian idealism and intellectual rigor of France’s soixante-huitard generation (the spirit of which explains the play’s title in French). Yet Bouchaud somehow does, with discrete gestures and Daney’s colloquial elisions.
The critic’s ideas stand on their own, however, even at a distance of over 20 years. Didry’s task was evidently to give them a larger audience, by illustrating them: a perhaps unnecessary “exercise” (to reference the play’s English title) but one that proves fascinating.
The experiment revolves around one of Daney’s favorite films: Howard Hawks’ 1959 western, Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne and an all-star cast. Rio Bravo, we learn, taught Daney a foundational lesson for his later theories about the power of cinema to tell stories. For the late great film critic, good cinema includes the viewer in its unique time-space frame through precise choices in perspective that bring the spectator to share so fully in the experience of the story that he makes it his own.
Didrey illustrates the idea by training Hawks’ lens on Bouchaud, as scenes from Rio Bravo are projected onto him and past him onto the angled white backdrop that looms up through the middle of the set. As Bouchaud wanders in and out of successive shots, imitating a young Dean Martin’s pistol slinging or watching with a mixture of timidity and awe as John Wayne struts in slow motion down Main Street at high noon, Daney’s theory comes strikingly into focus.
Just to prove how viscerally cinema can touch us, Didrey concludes with another lesson, this time in the form of a talkback. Bouchaud comes amongst the audience to engage his spectators in a spontaneous discussion about their favorite or most watched or essential films. On the night I attended, the interest lay in noting the number of times the same films were cited in different, often contradictory categories (Star Wars and Gone With the Wind getting the most nominations).
As for Daney’s recommendation for best film ever (and what’s more interesting, his reasons why – hint: Kubrick), the interview is online for the curious. Watching it would indeed prove beneficial, not only to hear firsthand Daney’s laser sharp cinematic observations but also for his broader interpretations of our image-crammed societies.
This rambling pseudo-lecture of a play gets a Siskel and Ebert style thumbs up for stimulating our minds as much as entertaining our emotions. Daney himself may have compared a good knowledge of cinema culture to a schoolboy’s Latin studies – neither being particularly useful in the real world – but this show makes a convincing argument for sitting in a darkened cinema, popcorn in hand, and the world in all its diversity at arms’ reach.