Apr 16, 2015

Tristan et Iseult (1972)

Undoubtedly, my favorite cinematic adaptation of Tristan and Iseult aka Tristan und Isolde is Jean Delannoy’s L'éternel retour (1943) aka The Eternal Return aka Love Eternal, which is based on a Nietzschean reworking of the myth penned by none other than Jean Cocteau. Certainly Delannoy’s narrative-driven adaptation could not be more different from Yvan Lagrange’s exceedingly rare and sometimes esoteric work Tristan and Isolde (1972) aka Tristan et Iseult, which, not unlike the films of Peter Emanuel Goldman (Echoes of Silence, Wheel of Ashes) until they were released on DVD a couple years back, has managed to earn a sort of mythical status among certain cinephiles, which is largely the result of its complete and utter lack of availability. Due to the efforts of a rather altruistic cinephile on the internet, I managed to see Lagrange’s lost masterpiece and while I have to say that it is not exactly a work that lives up to its singular reputation, I cannot say I did not enjoy it. Not unlike Richard Wagner’s famous 1865 epic musical drama poem, albeit in a quasi-counterculture-flavored and all the more archetypical and allegorical way, Lagrange’s film reduces the Tristan and Isolde myth to its simplest themes and details it as a piece of cinematic poetry from the “Zanzibar Films” (Philippe Garrel, Patrick Deval, Jackie Raynal, Pierre Clémenti, Daniel Pommereulle, Serge Bard, etc.) school of filmmaking. Indeed, Lagrange’s film is like Garrel’s La cicatrice intérieure aka The Internal Scar (1972) sans Teutonic diva Nico and readapted as the Tristan and Isolde story as a largely plotless and abstract hermetic work set in an exotic land that trumps the most fantastic of Hollywood sets. Indeed, Lagrange’s film is a ‘magical’ marriage between ancient myth and the most avant-garde of the French avant-garde.  Ostensibly the tale of a warrior who is sent to Ireland from Cornwall to fetch the bride of the king, only to fall mutually in love with said bride after the two drink a love potion, Lagrange's Tristan and Isolde is more of an aesthetically romantic experience than a tragic love story as certainly no one will feel sorry for the doomed lovers when the film ends.

 A somewhat cryptically personalized adaptation of the myth, the film stars the director and his Walloon wife Claire Wauthion as the doomed eponymous leads in what is ultimately a darkly romantic cinematic work that brings some much needed testosterone and masculinity to the exceedingly effete realm of early 1970s French art faggotry. Indeed, shot in both Iceland and Morocco, Tristan and Isolde features an otherworldly yet paradoxically totally organic realm with an atmosphere of foreboding melancholia where warriors not only battle to death with their swords, but also the bladed antlers of their helmets. Featuring an oftentimes unintentionally goofy operatic prog-rock score by classically trained drummer Christian Vander—a man who invented his own fictional planet of ‘Kobaïa’ for a ten album “space opera” with its own lyrical language called ‘Kobaïan'—of the French progressive rock/jazz fusion group Magma, Lagrange’s Tristan and Isolde has certainly aged less than gracefully in some respects. Indeed, featuring a neo-medieval world where knights wear rather aesthetically vulgar uniforms of the quasi-hippie robe sort and helmets that seem inspired by the the horned Gaulish god ‘Cernunnos’ aka ‘Hern the Hunter’ of Celtic polytheism, Lagrange’s film is shockingly violent and gory for a frog art fag flick yet the brutal imagery is somewhat unintentionally undermined by the flamboyant costumes to the point where Tristan and Isolde feels like a campy hippie take on the Pieter Bruegel the Elder masterpiece The Triumph of Death (1562). Innately anti-war to the core in a sort of post-Aktionist fashion, Lagrange’s film is practically flooded with mutilated animal corpses and decapitated cow heads to the point where the end seems like a sort of surrealist slaughterhouse. Indeed, Lagrange’s film is not so much a tribute or reworking of Tristan and Isolde as it is a mockery where the titular hero practically worships death and where the heroine does not do much more than cry and mourn when not fingering her flesh flower in a forest. 

 Tristan and Isolde begins simply enough with the two eponymous lovers staring straight at the viewer for no less than four minutes after the title screen appears in flames. Tristan seems to die about a thousand times during the film and Isolde naturally mourns him in the most hysterical and histrionic ways, but somehow he ends up always coming back and demonstrating his ambivalence to his lover any time she attempts to keep him around. Undoubtedly, the film creates a potent dichotomy between the active aggressive brutality of man and the passive and empathic sensitivity of woman, with Tristan’s quenchable thirst for blood and glory of total war being the major problem that will destroy the two lovers and their somewhat dubious romance. Indeed, while Tristan inhabits a sort of metaphysical abattoir of perpetual death and destruction, Isolde is a born sensualist who masturbates in an almost ritualistic fashion whilst the sun beams over her body in a forest. When Tristan is wounded during the beginning of the film during battle, Isolde takes him back to a cave and nurses him back to health. In a bizarre scene that seems to be an allegorical reflection of woman’s lowly position in life and man’s ignorance and apathy toward said lowly position, Isolde washes a floor by hand while Tristan lays face down on a small set of stairs. In a ‘large’ battle between the hero’s army and a rival group, every single person is seemingly killed, including Tristan, thus leaving Isolde to mourn all by her lonesome. In an undeniably beauteous scene set during the blue hour, Tristan’s lifeless corpse hangs from a horse that is pulled by Isolde. 

 After Tristan dies (for the first time), the film begins making even less sense than it did before and delightfully degenerates into a sort of surrealist nightmare that seems to mix German Romanticism with the Viennese Aktionists and the early films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Indeed, in one particularly perversely potent scene, Tristan carries Isolde through a room full of animal corpses. During this deranged dream-sequence, Tristan also poses with a series of religious statues. In a scene that may or may not be a blasphemous reference to ichthys, Tristan grabs and bites into a fish that Isolde was admiring and practically salivating over. Out of nowhere, the film switches from being set into a phantasmagoric church to a small shitty shack where Tristan senselessly slits his wrist and abruptly leaves while Isolde cries hysterically. In a scene that starts initially rather romantically but devolves into abject heartbreak, Tristan and Isolde embrace in an Icelandic lake, but the former eventually becomes disgusted and leaves, but not before violently fighting with his beloved, who tries in vain to keep her boy toy with her and is ultimately knocked flat on her ass when attempting to restrain him. In the end, Tristan lies dead with a camel corpse while his intestines literally rot in the son and Isolde lies on a rocky bed of flames. 

 Indubitably, “eternal return” has a much different meaning in Yvan Lagrange’s film than it did in Delannoy’s 1943 Cocteau reworking of the same name. Indeed, while Delannoy’s film begins with the words, “The Eternal Return […] borrowed from Nietzsche, means here that even legends can be reborn unbeknown to their heroes. An eternal return of the very simple circumstances which comprised the most famous of all great love stories” and depicts the lovers’ downfall as a result of a series of unfortunate circumstances related to family and money, Lagrange’s depicts the ‘eternal return’ as Tristan’s unwavering bloodlust and self-destructive love of war. Indeed, Tristan dies multiple times in Lagrange’s film but what all these deaths have in common is a sort of nihilistic (self)destruction. Undoubtedly Lagrange’s Tristan is a sort of archetype of the innate warrior character of pre-liberalized man. Of course, Europe, especially France, is now full of spiritual eunuchs who take orders from homos, Hebrews, and third world untermenschen, so one could argue that the sort of ‘eternal return’ depicted in Lagrange’s work has proven to be less than perennial. As the rise of miscegenation and the dearth of indigenous French birthrates demonstrate, women are not attracted to pacified men that lack the will to fight. Indeed, ultimately the most tragic thing about Yvan Lagrange’s Tristan and Isolde is his effeminazed view of masculinity, but of course such thinking was a cliche of French filmmakers of that type. Ultimately, the film’s brilliance lies in poetic imagery as a sort of operatic piece of the cinematically grotesque that somehow manages to make dismembered animal corpses seem quite beautiful. While the film may bask in making a mockery of classic Occidental myth, it still manages to be aesthetically exquisite enough to not seem like a putrid piece of postmodern posturing, but instead stands as a landmark work of its particularly misguided zeitgeist that certainly deserves to be remastered and rereleased so that future generations can savor its sullen sensuality and beauteous brutality. As his later film Dérive 'Le naufrage de Vénus' (1974)—a work that features arguably the most erotic depiction of a pregnant woman ever committed to celluloid—certainly demonstrates, Lagrange certainly had an eye for a sort of esoteric and sometimes eccentric eroticism that made him standout among his contemporaries, with Tristan and Isolde certainly being his amorous magnum opus.  Indeed, in terms of the best idiosyncratic Tristan and Isolde adaptations, Lagrange's wonderfully wayward work is king.

-Ty E

No comments: