Credit: Jean-Claude Rousseau/Cinéma du Réel
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Souvenir d’Athènes — Jean-Claude Rousseau [Cinéma du Réel ’23 Review]

March 31, 2023

Jean-Claude Rousseau may be one of the best-kept secrets in world cinema. But fortunately, in recent years, the word seems to be getting out. Although he’s made a number of features, most prominently his 1995 film The Enclosed Valley and 2021’s A Floating World, he has been focused on short-form filmmaking for a while, producing work that operates within a recognizable vernacular but is at the same time wholly unique. His two films from last year, Welcome and The Tomb of Kafka, are simple interior studies that examine the light relationships between objects in a room and shifting conditions out the window. The films exhibit a certain kinship with North American structural film, especially the work of Ernie Gehr and Michael Snow. But Rousseau’s interest in the seductive aspects of European classicism also suggests a connection to the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Robert Beavers.

Rousseau’s latest film, Souvenir d’Athènes, finds the filmmaker operating in a Straubian mode, but with decidedly Beaversesque fillips. In the first several shots, we see a young man seated on a rock, his head in his hands as he looks down. Perhaps he is reading a book. We see the Parthenon in the distance, imposing against a mostly clear blue sky. Rousseau provides a number of shots of the man on the rock, all taken from the same camera angle. His motion is so limited that we initially think we are looking at still images. Only the movement of people in the far distance informs us otherwise. On the soundtrack, we hear the song “Souvenir D’Atin” by Greek singer Sofia Vembo. Near the end of the five-minute film, we see the man get up and walk out of the frame. Vembo’s song continues over a brief interval of black leader — a separation of sound and image reminiscent of later Straub. He reappears once again in the same spot, but this time is fidgety, displaying a discomfort with the stillness demanded of him. In the final seconds, Rousseau offers a sort of reverse-shot of the Parthenon near dusk, seen from another angle, shot from a different hilltop clearing. A dog wanders into the frame and looks out across the distance, at a fragment of human history it cannot comprehend. In its elegant simplicity, Souvenir d’Athènes establishes a fortuitous relationship with antiquity, using cinema to casually bridge the centuries. 

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.