Maldoror: the neglected masterpiece

 Isidore Ducasse (“Comte de Lautreaumont”)

Cinema history is full of neglected masterpieces, that get rediscovered years after they were made, rescued from obscurity by a sensitive critic or a new generation of fans.

For years I laboured as a vehement advocate of Alejandro Jodorowsky, subjecting friends, family and acquaintances to impromptu screenings of poor quality VHS tapes, until one day the master’s films were restored and re-released, and he was fêted with appearances at the ICA and BFI.

The other evening I was permitted a frisson of the kind of excitement that happens when you know you’ve stumbled upon something truly fascinating, wonderful, and inexplicably obscure. It is Maldoror the film; yes a film adaptation of one of the most curious and compelling collection of words that ever sat on a page: Les Chants de Maldoror, an extended prose-poem by the Franco-Uruguayan writer Isidore Ducasse (“Comte de Lautreaumont”). Les Chants de Maldoror is an essay and meditation about evil, rendered with sparkling wit and striking, strongly visual imagery.

Maldoror the film is the legendary, yet little-seen, feature-length super-8 adaptation of this remarkable book. I had heard of the film, but never seen it, despite the fact that much of it was made in the UK by UK based film-makers, but it was never officially released. The British film system has been guilty of many crimes against cinema, but not insisting on releasing Maldoror as a triumph of underground art film, must be one of the most heinous. The film was made around 2000, was screened in Germany and New York and a few times in London and then – nothing.

So I was excited to see that the film was going to be shown in an obscure arty space in New Cross. This turned out to be a rather nice little cinema in an artists studio complex, but to say the event was under-attended is an exaggeration. I thought of all the people in London who must have been sitting down at cinemas to watch something godawful, and missing this amazing film!

Maldoror is really cinema, not that odd and lame category “artists film and video” that means nothing. It is a movie, and it is what used to be called “underground” – a term not much used anymore in favour of the more polite “alternative” (to what? Nothing, in most cases). Maldoror is a movie in the best sense of the word: it is coherent, cohesive and sustained, while at the same time being wildly inventive, creative, bizarre and deeply philosophical. Not a description I’d use for most “artists film and video.” This cohesion totally belies the film’s mode of creation: different film makers or groups took on the job of filming different chapters of the book. However it is knitted together by I suppose a shared aesthetic (very strong imagery, as befits the book) and a consistency of vision.

The film is gorgeous, beautiful, even on the DVD screening I saw. This is partly because of the sheer lusciousness of the super-8 footage (S-8 to S-16 transfer); super-8 has a quality unsurpassed by any other medium. You just cannot get that look with digital; no plug in in the world can do what S-8 achieves. And the film makers have a skill in the medium that would be hard to find today, only 10 years later. The collective process itself is interesting; it is not an “authored” artwork, yet it is a great auteur film. Collective auteurism.

So what about the text? Speaking as a fierce acolyte of Lautreaumont since my teens, ready to be hypercritical of any betrayal of the beloved book, yet unable to imagine how the it may be filmed, Maldoror didn’t disappoint. In fact, as a translation from the original French, the film is richer and better than the book in its various published translations: translation through images in this case works better than pure prose; the deliciously bitter-sharp flavour of the book comes through more profoundly.

Maldoror was made 10 years ago and has pretty much languished in obscurity since then. This is all the better. Because its time has come. We need this film now, need it more than we did then. We have had ten years now of increasingly sterile “artist cinema” and tedious gallery fartings. We need to restore the blood and guts to non-mainstream film making. We need to see a film made on a shoestring of cash and a bushel of talent. We need to see what hand made can mean, not just button-pushing. We need to re-inspire ourselves and to inspire new generations of film makers. Maldoror will do all of that. The film also fits into the revived interest in surrealism, and the darker side of psychology. It’s time for the Songs of Maldoror to ring out once again.

Specific information about the film can be found here:

And, zeitgeist or what?!

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