TOO EARLY, TOO LATE (Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, 1981)

“If the [1871 Paris] Commune with its aspirations for fraternity came too early, [socialistic* French Revolutionary agitator François-Noël] Babeuf in his turn came too late.” — Frederick Engels in a letter to Karl Kautsky, Feb. 20, 1889

* Babeuf: “Nature has given to every man the right to the enjoyment of an equal share in all property.”

From France and Egypt comes one of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s most beautiful works: the two-part Trop tôt, trop tard. The film opens in Paris, Huillet’s birth city, with the camera invisibly peering out the window of an invisible car that makes one revolution after another, catching other traffic in the Place de la Bastille, and by this location invoking the storming of the medieval prison, associated with royal authority, that was an early trigger, in 1789, of revolution. The spousal team thus launch their film with thoroughly visual wordplay.
     Huillet herself provides voiceover for this first segment, which consists mainly of panned rural landscapes. One of the texts from which Huillet reads is the letter by Engels that is quoted at the head of my blog entry. What is left of the French revolutions? (Such a question in 1980, when shooting began, necessarily refers also to the events of May 1968.) Tranquil Nature, sparsely populated and filmed with contemplative calm, is brightened by the sound of chirping birds until a redundancy of this cacophony, enjoined with text that dwells on human poverty and class inequality, pierces the idyllic impression.
     The second, longer segment shifts to Egypt. Now a male voice is the unseen reader; the text, a journalistic essay by Mahmoud Hussein referring to the revolt by peasants against British occupation and the subsequent 1952 Egyptian Revolution, which resulted in military dictatorship. Again the camera pans rural scenes—here, a tad more populated, for instance, in extreme long-shots of children at play, and closer-in shots of solitary individuals transporting loads of one kind or another in animal-driven carts. Two astounding set-pieces—two exceptionally long takes: the emptying of a Cairo factory for the day—humanity “imprisoned” in the open air, in open space; a forward-moving shot, from the point of view of an invisible vehicle, down a country road—simultaneously, purposeful and aimless, expectant and resigned.
     Each segment of this land-set film has a striking scene in water: delivering on promises, where might it take one? Is there hope down the road?

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