Although he is sometimes associated with the nouvelle vague (he was one of the six filmmakers Barbet Schroeder chose to produce for his 1965 omnibus film Paris Vu Par . . .), Jean-Daniel Pollet was both older and more independent from mainstream cinema than Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, et al. A native of the industrial north of France, he had family money and could sometimes self-finance his films. He also owned his own post-production company. That helps to explain the singular output of this filmmaker, who may be just as little known in his home country as he surely is abroad, despite the efforts by Jonathan Rosenbaum and others to herald his works.
This makes the five programs offered by Anthology Film Archives’ “Unidentified Filmic Objects: The Films of Jean-Daniel Pollet” all the more compelling. Pollet made his debut in 1958, at 22, with Pourvu qu’on ait l’Ivresse . . . , an ironic, yet tender short film on loneliness in dance halls, already featuring Claude Melki, who would become Pollet’s signature actor. Melki, a sad-sack of North African descent who resembles Droopy and Cantinflas, would later star in most of Pollet’s comedies. But Pollet’s first try at a feature film, La Ligne de Mire (1960), became for years the most anticipated and talked-about subject among film buffs in Paris. This was the film that would define those to come, they said. Pollet, however, remained dissatisfied with the film all his life and never released it (only a few friends saw it, enough to attest to its existence).
Instead, he made Gala (1961), a more polished version of Pourvu, set in a black cha-cha nightclub. Relying more upon looks, faces, and unease, rather than gags or dialogue, Pollet sets the cool elegance of the club’s manager against the decidedly uncool Melki and his sartorial inadequacies. Then, without warning, Pollet detonated his bomb, Méditerranée (1963), a 45-minute film so radical that it still stuns today. A meditation on the south and its character, it was written by Philippe Sollers, which may explain why, when structuralism later coalesced around Sollers’s avant-garde review Tel Quel, Pollet was about the only one saved from those intellectuals’ invectives against cinema in general. In a totally unexpected way, Méditerranée mixes barbed wire and blades of grass, Egyptian gods and Arab weddings, bullfights and Greek ruins, crickets and the buzz of flies with a properly halting score by Antoine Duhamel (Pierrot le Fou). It is a must-see tour de force.
Pollet continued to alternate his “commercial” sex comedies with his more abstract, challenging nonfiction works. Of the former, L’Acrobate (1976) may have been his most popular film, but the one on offer at Anthology, L’Amour C’est Gai, l’Amour C’est Triste (1971), is of the same mold—a very Gallic take on Irma la Douce, with a swaggering pimp played by Jean-Pierre Marielle whose obsession with “L’Indochine” makes him an unlikely precursor of John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Pollet also made use of yé-yé culture, hiring popster Jean Jacques Debout for the score, and Chantal Goya to play a rather chaste young whore—chaster than Bernadette Laffont anyway, but then, who isn’t? Melki plays Laffont’s innocent and timid brother, a tailor who makes atrocious and never finished meatsacks “in the Carnaby Street style.”
Then, in the spring of 1989, Pollet suffered a horrendous accident while filming a train from the railroad embankment. He was facing the head of the train, but the last wagon was much wider than the others, and it hit him, leaving him with 27 fractures. He survived and lived another 15 years, but his output was very different from his earlier work. Ceux d’en Face (2000) is one of these late works.
Pollet’s masterpiece, though, is L’Ordre, a documentary he made in 1973 about a leper colony on an island off Crete. Sandoz, the Swiss pharmaceutical company that originally commissioned the work, was understandably appalled by Pollet’s virulent anti-medicine stance and swiftly pulled the film from circulation—but it remained somehow visible through the years. Focusing on Spinalonga, where the Greek government had for decades isolated and imprisoned the nation’s lepers, it tells of the way-station where patients ended up after being released in the mid 1950s, when modern drugs made it possible to, if not cure, at least stave off the illness. But villages refused to receive their own sons and daughters, even when it was proven their plight wasn’t catching.
In L’Ordre, Pollet doesn’t use a lofty or gloomy-voiced narrator, but a down-to-earth, almost jocular interior dialogue. It’s most probably his own voice, too. And what is he saying? That maybe health is a condition, just like illness. That by opposing illness to health, as Western medicine is inclined, we’re bound to find more and more illnesses and give them names (and costly pills to keep them at bay), health becoming ever narrower a window. In this provocation (even more resonant today), he is vastly aided by a Spinalonga veteran, an extraordinary blind and disfigured man named Raimondakis. If you see this film, you will never forget him. With articulate violence, he indicts us for our pity but lack of compassion, “votre insolence“: “One day, you will be eaten away like us, you will live on landfills and filth. We pity you.”