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Le Panoptique

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From Words to Gestures

By Mathieu Li-Goyette

The first time I saw Olivier Godin’s work in public was at a cine-club, Le Phosphène, held at Eastern Bloc on April 27th 2011. At the time, the filmmaker was a prominent figure at la Boîte noire, the mythical video club and he had just completed his first feature, unbeknownst to almost everyone. My mission was to mediate a post-screening discussion between Godin and a distributor boasting an admirable critical success. While the film certainly appealed to the small audience gathered for the occasion – the keenest film students always enjoy Godin’s films, probably because so few filmmakers make you want to write and shoot so bad – it wasn’t the case for the distributor, who hardly managed to conceal her unease under the guise of courtesy. She had been invited for her knack to sell films without an audience on the Quebec market, and the cine-club was well-intentioned in showing her the work of an author in which we already believed even though it clashed so much with the landscape as to be practically “unsellable”. A few weeks later, the Festival du nouveau cinéma told Godin that they had selected his films and that it would receive two live screenings during the Fall of 2011.




The impetus behind this program is two-fold: first the sheer pleasure of showcasing with a single bouquet the trajectory of a filmmaker we affection since the beginning. Then, to reframe Olivier Godin’s cinema away from such considerations as speech and a form of alienating, but not almighty orality. Not because his cinema eludes such categorization – he is certainly one of the most talented and singular dialogists of our cinema – but because he is often confined to this verbose posture by the public and the critics alike, such a reflex eventually obscuring the plastic and nimble qualities of his work, which we shouldn’t take for granted nor limit to its obvious literariness.

And so, this program, by delving into his more obscure films, aims to restore our relationship to the idea of surprise, which we find so intrinsic to his style. Surprised by his ingenuity, surprised by his singular ambitions, they are tied to a constantly spellbinding form of speech. In his films, we talk to invite, to summon, to make things happen. We also talk to prefigure the shifts in their joyfully unsettling editing, to distinguish the ritual from its consequences, to allow cinema to fulfill the promises made by dialogues comprised of magic words. 




“Believe so that you may understand,” said Saint-Augustine, and this remains the best advice when following Godin’s cinema down the imaginary rabbit hole. You must believe in magic formulas, hidden vials and curses. Believe that, by rubbing your hands over a piece of paper, Morgan le Fay will appear. Believe that phone calls, plentiful in his work, can endow speech with the authority necessary to transport us to other spaces and times, to imagine secret firemen, daunting depopulaters, park bench detectives and sword-wielding vagrants. You’ll never see them onscreen – you will, in their most pedestrian, acceptable form – but you’ll certainly see them in your mind, insofar as you heed Godin’s myths and legends.    

That’s not to say that it’s all mindlessly explanatory or that nobody lies in his films; on the contrary, deceit is manifold, including many lies and scams meant to rob hearts and cigarettes. This program is called “From Words to Gestures”, but it could have been called “Phones and cigarettes,” given how inseparable these two accessories are to such a cinema of self-deconstructing speech and self-defeating postures. And so, when watching Godin’s films, you must keep in mind that every pose of the body is chosen for its aesthetic value, but also for the access it allows to the hands and faces of his characters (played by Ève Duranceau, Rose-Maïté Erkoreka or Étienne Pilon), whose refinement ensures their capacity to perform all the magic that these films discuss and feed upon. Furthermore, it seems perfectly natural that his latest film concerns a troupe of dancers, artists with elegant postures who continue to show how speech beckons gestures and how, in turn, gestures must prove themselves worthy of speech.  

We could explain in detail the origin of such reciprocity between words and deeds (by evoking a clever mix between Raúl Ruiz’s baroque sensibility, Conan of Cimmeria’s artifact-filled adventures and the evocative power of Yves Thériault), but these discussions already took place and it’s not our role to continue compiling his many influences (about which he has written at length, in our pages but mostly in Hors Champ). We could obviously add more, especially with the actual blue book under our elbow, which the filmmaker graciously lent us in order to provide you with an integral digital version thereof, but at this point, it suffices to showcase his work and tell you that it requires attention and curiosity that you will get back three-fold. 




Godin’s stories unfold in fantastic settings that materialize onscreen thanks to a p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-i-o-n for which he has the secret, under the guise of a mise-en-scène perfectly attuned to his performers and the mind-freeing agenda that he delivers film after film. Godin’s cinema offers a glimpse into a singular universe that our selection aims to retrace by including his early works alongside his two latest opuses, and this universe seems to be increasingly active, reactive. Since the northerly tableaux of his first films, he has developed a liking for movement, an alliance with gestures, an espousal of brash motions that might have originated in the backward tracking shot of Dracula Sex Tape (2021), embodied in Irlande cahier bleu (2023)’s athletic camera, or even in La suite canadienne (2023)’s quick comedic pans on the swings. No motion seems gratuitous, resulting from careful preparation and a craftmanship that often enquired about its own constituency while hanging on to its assets, to its amazing potentialities, allowing it now to toy with its appearances, to transform its orality from a completist endeavor to a stepping stone into other things, a follow-up that is yet to come, making his last two films to ideal break-point from which to address the first major chapter of his work.




Today, Olivier Godin’s films are released in regular theatres; they are selected by international festivals, whereas the company of the distributor who was present at his inception has now sunk into the sands of time. This anecdote tells us nothing about the fate of this company, but serves merely to recall the passage of time and all the perseverance of this filmmaker whose imaginary journeys have sustained a quest to reconnect that he has relentlessly fostered and broadened throughout the years: to return from reality and burrow into fantasy while simultaneously giving back all the strength necessary for speech to produce the gestures we need to dream and the hands we need to witness.