When Pierre Clémenti’s character in Wheel of Ashes (1968) locks himself away from the world and fleshly desires, it’s inevitably a lost cause—he’s too damn pretty to be left alone. Clémenti, ethereal libertine, was a pillar of the post–New Wave, post-’68 European cinema that exiled itself into the wilderness of difficult art. His dark eyes shone from a damp and luminous wastrel’s face. His spare, angular frame suggested a diet of opiates and kisses. A consummate full-body actor, directors—Clémenti included—often stripped him bare, to martyr-like vulnerability.
Clémenti was born in Paris, 1942, unwanted, fatherless, to a penniless Corsican mother. The teenaged Clémenti went from reformatory to theatrical training. He appeared on film as early as 1960, but Anthology Film Archives’ retrospective begins with Clémenti’s performance as Marcel, Catherine Deneuve’s gangster lover in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), from which the actor’s louche cruelty glints like Marcel’s mouthful of silver teeth.
Wheel of Ashes‘ primary attraction today is the vintage Saint-Germain-des-Prés nightlife. Clémenti’s life-allergic urban monk is the sort of protagonist more often associated with another French actor/director, Philippe Garrel—whose own collaboration with Clémenti is represented at Anthology by Le lit de la vierge (1969), a drone of black-and-white ‘Scope tracking shots through house-of-horrors Roman catacombs and the Moroccan badlands in which Clémenti’s Christ wanders. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner (1968) is likewise awed with its own images (and righteousness). As both meek-squirrely drama teacher and his doppelgänger, Clémenti recites dictums from playwright Antonin Artaud—the actor’s own inspiration—and rehearses his class for a timely public performance of anarchy. As Partner shot in Rome, Clémenti hopped up to Paris during breaks, and was there to furtively film the May riots.
Under the influence of Franco-Canadian experimentalist Etienne O’Leary, Clémenti had already begun shooting his own 16mm experimental short. His Visa de censure, no. X is a face-melting rush of superimpositions, mandalas, pagan convocations, and freakout flashes of wriggling vomited spiders. Sections of Visa were shown as early as 1967—aptly titled Psychedelic—but the final version is dated 1975, when it was synched with a 40-odd-minute multi-movement jam by French psych-prog rockers Clearlight Symphony.
Clémenti’s New old (1979—subtitled Chronicles of the Present Times) flows together footage from more than a decade of his wandering between scenes, sets, and drugs, an accelerated world tour through various iterations of the “counterculture.” There are fragments of Clémenti on film and stage, a pilgrimage to Warhol’s New York and scrambled jamming . . . until the soundtrack tightens up guttural punk guitars from Les Lou’s.
That urgency becomes tweaked anxiety in Clémenti’s one semi-plotted film: “I wake up very old, and my loved ones had put on black leather jackets,” purrs the narration of In the Shadow of the Blue Scoundrel (1987), a handheld tour through prison cells, basements, bathrooms, squats, and “a dodgy bar in Bastille” in the surveillance state Necropolis, wracked by civil war and junkie plague, where the dead are carried off by garbage trucks.
Come Clémenti’s last film, Soleil (1988), he’s looking back: to his mother, and his journals kept while serving 18 months on drug charges in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, beginning in 1973. Clémenti maintained that he was framed for his radical associations—and nothing should be put past the Italian justice system—though a devilish satyr-with-a-syringe capering among the poppies in New old (is it Clémenti?) and the junky-divey Blue Scoundrel suggest he wasn’t inexperienced. Clémenti died of liver cancer in 1999. Few actors encourage more speculation as to the state of their eternal soul.