Credit: Rousseau Films
by Andrew Reichel Featured Film

Où sont tous mes amants? — Jean-Claude Rousseau [Cinéma du Réel ’24 Review]

April 3, 2024

Master French experimental filmmaker Jean-Claude Rousseau plays with pop music in Où sont tous mes amants?, a title borrowed from a 1935 tune that translates to Where Are My Lovers? The singer in question is the mononymous Fréhel, a chanson best known to cinephiles for her supporting roles in two French classics: Sacha Guitry’s Story of a Cheat (1936) and Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937). Cinéma du Réel’s page for Rousseau’s film inaccurately claims that Fréhel’s songs were “last heard on screen in the films of Jean Eustache,” but the titular song only appears in Où sont… in a cover version: Rousseau himself whistling it.

Rousseau is summoning associations of the 1930s “poetic realism” that defines Fréhel and the classical movies she lent her voice to in order to twist it into abstraction, but Larry Gottheim’s early classic of experimental film Harmonica (1971) is what Rousseau’s final product resembles: a homemade musical, with a still camera’s subject affected by the elements. Gottheim’s film found a friend using both his own whistling and the wind blowing past a moving car window to create a lively improvisation on the harmonica over the course of a 10-minute reel of 16mm film, while Rousseau goes for stasis and permits himself the occasional edit. He walks out of a clearing where the camera is fixed and is swallowed up by the woods that surround it, whistling Fréhel all the while. (The title of his most famous film, The Enclosed Valley, could be used as a descriptor for this location’s isolated appearance.) Gravel underfoot adds a steady rhythm, birds provide a call-and-response of sorts, and the song’s volume fluctuates as Rousseau seems to disappear into the void of the trees and then returns. His tune carries us into a fade to black before dissolving back into the scene, and the whistling concludes as we stare into the darkening, vacant woods — perhaps the fade to black hasn’t quite worn off. A final fade and return transitions us into the curious finale: a slightly different angle on the same scene, with Rousseau reappearing. There is no more musical accompaniment, but sounds of people offscreen can be faintly heard. If playing someone else’s pop tune could attract people, we’d all be sirens, and Rousseau’s miniature shivers with the anticipation and longing of such a fantasy.

Published as part of Cinéma du Réel 2024.