Thursday 25 June 2020

À rebours: "Just Don't Think I'll Scream"

The French essay film Just Don't Think I'll Scream opens with a caption bearing quite the claim: what we're about to watch will apparently be made up of images taken from the 400 films director Frank Beauvais watched between April and October 2016. The claim will likely occasion a brisk bout of cinephile maths. 400 movies in six months? That's between sixty and seventy movies per month, so two-and-a-bit per day, three if you wanted time off for good behaviour. It's certainly doable (and Beauvais brings the receipts: you'll find a complete filmography unfurled at length amid the closing credits), but it may also be dependent on having nothing else to do. The terse, in places outright harried monologue layered over this visual pick-'n'-mix provides the explanation we need. Fortysomething Beauvais spent most of that period living in virtual isolation in the Alsace, recovering from a break-up, friendless, insomniac, and faced with a dearth of cultural options. These movies - these fragments of movies - were, in the end, all he had to cling onto at this time. The plight he describes is more universal than it perhaps first sounds. What Beauvais is getting to is the experience of living in a small, conservative town and longing for an escape, even if it involves no more than escaping into dreams and fantasies; the film shapes up as a Diary of a Country Recluse, setting the rapid flow of those images against the weighty doubts and fears tumbling out of the director's mind and onto the soundtrack. There will be those of us who've knocked off a hundred more films than usual during our time in Covid lockdown, and those titles would have provided perhaps the only variation in our daily routine. Like it or not, we are all Frank Beauvais now.

Possibly it sounds depressive or film bro-ish, and there are undeniably elements of both in Just Don't Think...'s DNA. What makes the film such a jolt, though, are those images, and how they've been assembled. By his own account, Beauvais used seclusion to become a whizz at tracking down those obscure and leftfield titles lurking in the Internet's furthest corners. (Presumably these would be easier to excerpt than the bigger blockbusters: individual copyrights may have lapsed, or the texts been passed back and forth digitally so often that everybody involved has forgotten whose property they are.) Either way, it shows. Writing as someone who's seen a lot of films in my lifetime, I doubt I could place more than 5% of the snapshots that flash before us here. Even as the Beauvais heard on the soundtrack becomes mired in the deepest woes - what he labels, with not untypical self-awareness, "introspective onanism" - the visuals keep catching, holding, dazzling the eye; he illustrates why these films comforted, consoled or simply distracted him. How could you not be amazed by the sight of a live cockroach sitting upright in a tiny chair made of paperclips wired up to the mains? Wouldn't that make you forget about a broken heart, diminishing career prospects, the encroaching spectre of one's own mortality etc., if only to make you think: well, where did that come from? (Answers on a postcard, please.) From Beauvais' smartly phrased, passionately spoken testimony, meanwhile, two realisations begin to emerge.

One is that 2016 was a formidably crapulent year, wherever you were; something thick, heavy and unavoidably toxic - be that populism or some other form of man-made pollution - was in the air, compounding the day-to-day worries we were all working through. The film's a Brexit and Trump-free zone (some relief), but Beauvais notes the passing of Prince, the Florida nightclub shooting, and the Nice terror attack. In so doing, he captures a very modern sensation - doubtless exacerbated by the rise of social media - that the news from without is now as dire as the news from within, that our news and mood cycles have become inextricably linked. Two bulletins a day used to be enough - now it's as relentless as Beauvais' imagery, 24/7, unfair and unbalanced, crushing if you let it be. The second thought - backed up by a cursory glimpse at that viewing list - is that the filmmaker wasn't watching anywhere near enough comedies. M. Beauvais, in brief, n'est pas un happy-chappy, and his narration reflects this, rarely deviating from that formidable loftiness typically associated with the French intellectual class. He sneers at a crowd of football fans ("triumphant idiocy"), seeing in them none of the solidarity he admits to swooning over in Soviet Bloc melodramas. If this were a movie movie, our hero would likely be played by a malcontent like Louis Garrel; in reality, there are spells Beauvais records when you might say it was for the best that he wasn't getting out much. We leave him in a healthier, happier place, thankfully, but over these 75 minutes, he does a fine job of explaining where this loftiness and huffiness - a loftiness and huffiness common to critics of any stripe - comes from, and even this struck me as understandable, relatable. It comes, I think, from a feeling that society as a whole could do better in its choices, and that until we do, we will be denied lives that match the beauty, rapture and stimulation that the best movies set before us. A lot of us felt that way back in 2016; suffice to say the feeling hasn't diminished notably in the years since. 

Just Don't Think I'll Scream is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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