2015 | TBD mins | Colour | theoretical fiction
By Mieke Bal
Genre: Theoretical Fiction
Multi-lingual with English subtitles
“If the universe is so vast as you say, then Man himself can be of no great importance within it”
Queen Christina to Descartes
René is wide awake due to his sister Jeanne’s harp music.
The great French philosopher René Descartes died in Stockholm, as a consequence of the insistence of young Swedish Queen Kristina that he visit her, a bit against his will. Once there, they didn’t see each other much. Although Kristina’s philosophical interest was genuine enough, he was more or less there in a decorative function, as an honorific presence to adorn Christina’s ambitious project of creating an Academy that would put Sweden’s intellectual elite on the European map. But in the chilly palace he caught a flu that deteriorated into pneumonia, and he passed away. He left Western thought with a burden and a treasure. The burden: a misconstrued dualistic tradition that he really cannot be blamed for. The treasure: a decisive advance in rational thought that, precisely, did not excise the body; nor religion for that matter, as later Enlightenment thought would carry it on. The dialectical relationship between reason and a certain kind of madness was not enough recognized.
Both Kristina and Descartes caused a lot of waves during their lifetime. They both had a rather tough beginning in life. Christina became a queen at age 5, after her father’s death on the battlefield, with a mother in desolate mourning for the rest of her life, who didn’t care much for the daughter who should have been a son. René lost his mother at age 1 and barely saw his father, who was too busy pursuing his career elsewhere. These childhood situations of orphan-like loneliness predict adult turmoil. And so it happened. For more about the content, see Reasonable Doubt
Concept of the work
I aim to make a five-screen installation, in which episodes, thoughts, monologues and encounters in the life of each, alternate, without really, or barely crossing. I am currently thinking the duration will probably be about 90 minutes, but it may be much longer; or, two different versions may come about. The challenge is to avoid sensational fictions, even a linear narrative, yet compose gripping image sequences and especially for Descartes, engaging monologues and/or performances based on quotations from his work. Instead of having the usual voice-over reading the quotes, we stage the thinker in the process of thinking, without actually uttering the quote. For Kristina, much of the imagery will be performances of memories of major events of her life. I want to decline the historicist approach of the biopic and instead bring the thoughts and resistances of both that remain valid, into the present. Showing behavioral moments that converge without bringing them together more than fleetingly, the two people don’t meet “really” – there is no follow-up togetherness that could have alleviated their respective isolation. Their intelligence was not enough. Once an affection-orphan, you remain so, whatever the gifts and talents, riches and friends you have.
Instead of reconstructing a remote history, I want to sketch portraits of two characters that are both extraordinary enough to be considered eccentric, even slightly “mad”, and that leave a deep impression, perhaps because we all know such people or recognize them in ourselves. They each have a specific kind of power over the other, and over their surroundings – Kristina, the power of her royalty, hence, of class; and René, the power of his mind and the respect it received. But they don’t have that much power over themselves. At the heart of their personality and life is a profound insecurity; but then, this can also be creative of invention and originality. Both have lots of opportunities and talents, but suffer from a tendency to passivity, restlessness, fits of anger, aggression, arrogance, and escapism. They will both be “interesting people” yet very lonely and fearful, always. Descartes will die in desolation, shivering with cold and fever, at Kristina’s castle, while she is more preoccupied with her own pursuits. The comfort of others fleetingly helps, but they are incapable of responding in way that make it endure. For Descartes the performance will be future-oriented; for Kristina, past-oriented. So, the actual meeting in Kristina’s palace is also a crossing of two timelines.
For Kristina as a child I cast Astrid Törneroos. This has already been shot and provisionally edited (5 minutes). For Descartes as a child and his sister Jeanne, Ambroise and Olympe Lefèbvre have played. For the older Kristina looking back at her life and her missed encounters, I cast the Finnish actress Marja Skaffari. She is older than Christina, and her enactments will work like memories, not “real time” acting. French actor Thomas Gemaine plays Descartes. His performance foregrounds the process of thinking. Symmetrical to Kristina’s looking back, he will perform the stage before the ideas take the shape we know. I have worked with both before; they are brilliant.
For Kristina’s primary location I got permission to film in Nieborów Palace, Poland. Descartes comes there, and dies, supported by a member of the palace’s staff who offers his friendship, but too late. For Descartes, I have sought out several places, both modest and a bit pompous, wavering between historical and contemporary, in the Netherlands. The small living room in the Maison Descartes in Amsterdam is available to us. I also found a garden where he conducted his botanical experiments, and sought to be alone to think, experience his body as connected to nature, and use his microscope.
Most of all, the two characters will be seen walking. Kristina on the grounds of the Palace, René in a private garden, woods, beaches. Music is important, and eclectically selected; music of all times. Some of it baroque, but I staged Kristina imagining future musical styles. She will assign to Descartes the task of composing an opera. He declines but did write a libretto. I had the collaboration of a quartet of musicians from Kraków, Con Affetto, thanks to a brilliant co-producer in Kraków, cultural theorist Roma Sendyka.
A young violinist who appears in the images as Descartes’ friend, Reinier Schouten. One of the members of Con affetto will be Kristina’s young companion Ebba/Bella. Contemporary composer Raj Hoogland participates on Descartes’ side, along with singer Dzifa Kusenuh. Abel Streefland, who plays young Spinoza, doubles as a household cellist. Ilja Nieuwland plays Descartes’ friend of his younger years, Isaac Beeckman. The cast is reduced to a minimum; the main point is the portraits of the two main characters. Both will be surrounded by people: René by men, Kristina by women. As both main characters suffer from a “complexe d’abandon”, the relationships with these people wavers between friend, enemy, rival, object of jealousy, lover. The performance of their own bodily existence as well as of their relationships to others, to their immediate surroundings, and to nature is the most important part of the work.
I have shot it all; now I must edit.
My recent film project with Michelle Williams Gamaker explores the unspeakable but tenacious remnants of romantic sensibility that still hold back women today, combined with the emotional tentacles of capitalism that bring families to bankruptcy. The film is barely finished. We are currently producing a beautiful DVD package, consisting of the DVD with the film, another DVD with lots of extras, and a book with explanatory text and lots of photographs.
Inspired by Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary, the unspoken cultural politics of the cultivation of craving compels us to pursue our search for what in contemporary society is still being silenced. Having made films on issues around migration, such as the status of “illegal” immigrants, enforced identities, unnoticed cultural transformations and the loss of domestic life, we have turned to “madness” as the last frontier that separates people living in the same social environment.
All along, the films were motivated by a strong sense of implication. We established a relationship of trust with our subjects, so that the films thrived on intimacy and emanated a sense of collaboration, a feeling of being in the situations together. Now, we feel, the next step is to examine how social silencing affects us all, so that no groups exist exempt from negative social pressures. All emancipation movements in the world cannot fight the constant pressure to believe in those forces that keep society normalised. The forces of romantic love that continuously reformats lives into nuclear families, go hand in hand with those of late capitalism that pushes people towards the purchase of unnecessary goods and in the end, unsolvable debt. The two conspire to make especially women vulnerable to this relentless road to frustration, leading to the endangerment of their lives, or at least, their wellbeing. One hundred and fifty years ago, Flaubert prophetically described that current crux of disillusionment and financial crisis in exact detail.
There is a long list of Madame Bovary films, and it is not our goal to add to that list. Instead, we reconsider Flaubert’s prophetic vision of the tenacity of this conspiracy of forces, of the complicity between religiously informed family ideology and capitalist cultivation of desire for luxury, to understand how it still works today. We firmly position it in the present Western world, in our own environment. We aim to probe the way this works, without leaving anyone aloof from such pressures as do damage to individual lives as well as to society.
The project is already being exhibited, and we had a successful Première at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. We were dreaming of a very visual film, with as little dialogue as possible, and so we did. We wanted to repeat the pleasure of working with two fantastic actors, Marja Skaffari (Finland) and Thomas Germaine (France). Marja, who is such a brilliant Sissi in A Long History of Madness, enacts the constantly increasing frustration generated by the lures of unattainable bliss in the life of Emma. Thomas, who has enacted three different men in A Long History of Madness, here plays another triplet, the husband and the two lovers, in other words, all those disappointing men in Madame B.’s life. Mathieu Montanier, one of the Fools in the Madness film, plays the nasty, but also frustrated pharmacist Homais. The three are here in a press photograph taken on Åland, Summer 2012.
In order to fund this and other projects, such as the one presented her on the left, now in production, I request donations. For donations of €25 or more, you receive a copy of the special DVD package, consisting of a DVD with the film, another one with lots of extras, and in-between a small book with text and photographs. For 40 or more you receive in addition a copy of the DVD box of A Long History of Madness. This box contains the 120-minutes film, and a second disc with 140 minutes of various bonus items, including a serious introduction to the film, a hilarious “Making of” segment, interviews between the main actors, and scenes that didn’t make it into the film.
How to become an official supporter of Madame B.:
1) Make a donation by bank transfer to our project account at the University of Amsterdam:
UvA-Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen
Reference: WBS element “C.2022.0056.1: Mieke Bal” (very
important to add this!)
IBAN Code : NL17 ABNA 0446 6074 60
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2) Send us an e-mail detailing your support (date of transfer, reference and amount), so that we know to send you the DVD. Please include your postal address in your message, which can be sent to: Margreet.Vermeulen@uva.nl
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