Michael Lonsdale (1931-2020)

Elyeser Szturm, from the Heavens series


Commentary on the career of the French actor

In 2013 I was passing through Gare du Nord, Paris. It was a damp spring and a little cold for someone who had gotten used to the tropics. The sun was slow to come up and set since he arrived, which wasn't exactly a problem, but admittedly caused some discomfort. He was staying at a friend's house, Faubourg la Poissonière, towards the north of the city. I usually walked from Gare du Nord to home, passing by Boulevard Magenta.

O Boulevard Magenta already has something of touristy Paris and thanks to – a little everywhere, let's face it – but I didn't dislike it. Going up the street, we were all more alike: foreigners, Capulets and Montagues, passers-by of different origins. On the way, depending on which detour you took, you would pass through an old market (an old hall) of the Parisian age of iron architecture. I entered that market twice, if I remember correctly. Only once. Once accompanied.

Among the various outputs of Gare du Nord, I always opted for the longest one, naturally, despite these measurements being relative and variable according to time, mode and place. The longest one always seemed the most natural to me. It is a vocation that I preserve and cultivate.

On one of those trips, I met Michael Lonsdale. The name may not immediately convey a lot. He is an exceptional actor. Of the films I watched, he was usually in a supporting role, but a remarkable supporting role. The exception is The Day of the Jackal (from 1973), an exceptionally well-filmed film, in which action and psychological plot intertwine. Added to this is the important economy of the dialogues: everything is in the action, the action itself and its meaning, making any discourse that is not there, in the core of the action itself, dispensable and accessory. In its own way, it is an anti-moralist film.

It could be paired, oddly enough, with Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976), another summary dialogue film, an impressive silent interpretation of Alain Delon, the protagonist, in which Michel Lonsdale plays the part of a very polite scoundrel, with the essential difference that in this second case there is a clear moral sense in the mise-en-scène. It was not, however, these notable films that I would remember, if I were to remember only a single Michael Lonsdale film.

He was in wheelchairs, at the foot of the platform, at that unusual meeting in 2013, waiting for the next Paris-London, I presume, accompanied by a friend or assistant. At first I didn't recognize him, despite being a good physiognomist. I already saw him familiar in the second instant. In the third instant, his placid look, his meticulous and restrained game infected me. He reminded me of other times, not his. More recently he made Ronin (1998) and Munich (2005). I wouldn't recognize him from any of those films, though.

In 1968, a little reluctantly, Trauffaut decided to film a sequel to four cents coupons (1959). The adventures of Antoine Doinel, alias Jean Pierre Léaud, would continue. It is the second feature film about the self and biographical character of Trauffaut, and the third film of what would become the Antoine Doinel cycle. Between the first (1959) and the second feature (1968), there is a medium length, L'amour à vint ans (1962)

Traufaut had serious doubts about the fate of this film and even about its making, and it was, in its own way, the answer he intended to give to the relative failure of the previous film, La marrie était en noir, (1968), a film made with and for Jeanne Moreau, who much later would answer about the nature of her relationship with Trauffaut, with the expression “loving friendship”. What was and was strictly true.

Baiser Volées was a surprising success with the public and critics, and gave unexpected financial impetus to the Les films du Carrosse, Trauffaut's semi-craft producer. Third film in the series about Antoine Doinel, there was, as there is, in this film of modest expectation (a cheap film shot almost in a hurry, quite classic in conception) a timid enigma, today a fifty-year-old enigma: where would that Antoine Doinel be, young job seeker, hotel receptionist and future ex-detective, in a permanent love dispute with Cristine Darbon, in that remarkable spring of 1968?

No one is farther from the choleric student, marching through the city streets, the unusual mixture of The capital (the book, naturally) and Coca-cola, in Godard's involuntarily accurate definition, than this clumsy, somewhat timid, anachronistic hero from another time. It was the disconcerting sincerity of François Trauffaut, who had never been a student, as he himself addressed those students in 1968, during and after the frond in defense of the French Cinematheque, anticipation of what would come with spring, in a modest and true self-definition , he who had been fighting for life, left and right, since the ill-fated fourteen years.

Trauffaut kept – without knowing whether to his will or not – in the past of that year, spring of 1968, at least one foot outside that time, outside that history, or, perhaps, inside another time, inside another history, still that a thousand light years from The chinese (1967), by Godard. Among the many and many findings of that film, a kind of “theater of boulevard” In appearance, only in appearance, are Claude Jade as Cristine Darbon, embodying a youthful freshness, tactile, soft and intense, slightly Stendhalian; the memorable mirror and pneumatic sequences (discover young people); Léaud to the natural and spontaneous, to the full test; the song of Charles Trenet, Que rest-il de nos amours?; Delphine Seryg, classic as a Helen of Troy who would never need to be kidnapped by the Trojans to sleep with Paris; and, of course, Michel Lonsdale.

Between truths and lies, Antoine Doinel's days are a whole school of soul passions, at the modest price of a measly movie ticket. To each his mirror, his love letters, his secret passions, his modest or great disappointments, and let no one shy away from asking, sooner or later, for whom the bell tolls. They fold for someone or the memory of that someone who wakes us up early in the morning, between sleep and wakefulness, a hot night, disparate thoughts and the imminent need for some poorly worded lines.

Antoine does this, as we learn to do, and he does it with the charm of cinema added to the charm of someone who loves cinema. The invincible freshness of that film, between tact and politeness, extremely unpretentious, remains – whether we have grown up or not – for the simple reason that not only does it leave a little of everything, but above all because, of some things, it remains a little more. Not everything changes, not everything remains. Some things just stay.

In Trauffaut's film, Michael Lonsdale is Georges Tabard, Monsieur Tabard among us, successful merchant of women's shoes, married to Madame Tabard, naturally, Delphine Seryig.

1 – Tabard has an objective problem, one of those that terrify us in everyday life: nobody loves him, and it goes beyond that, maybe there is someone who definitely doesn't like him. Who knows, maybe fatally hate him, a somewhat logical consequence of the universal feeling of lack of appreciation. As a direct and practical man, a businessman, he does not accept not knowing who he is and what this dangerous and diffuse contempt that this impertinent Other feels for him, here and there, is all about.

He goes to a detective agency to look for the help he needs to find that hidden person disturbing the wonderful order of his life. At first glance, the evidence is not very clear, although conclusive. There aren't many traits of this impertinent fellow around, but it's undeniable that someone doesn't like me (doesn't like him, I correct myself and borrow, in a near-failure, for my personal economy, the benign and endearing paranoia of M. Tabard). Thus, at second sight, these indications become decisive: they come from an absolute certainty, almost as intimate as it is incommunicable. There is no way not to take this into account.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud and vice versa) works at the agency, and given his exceptional lack of quality as a detective, he is assigned to investigate someone that everyone believes does not exist, except M. Tabard's conviction.

The revelation of this problem produces one of the film's most memorable, funny, and lighthearted sequences. And I take an unlikely detour. There are in Posthumous memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Machado de Assis, the famous dialogue between Brás Cubas and Virgília. Someone has already said (I have the impression that it was Carlos Heitor Cony) that this would be the most implicit explicit dialogue in Brazilian literature. It's not just that, maybe it's a little more. The sequence in the detective agency could claim this unlikely kinship in the order of composition, taking into account that, in the agency, the explicit implicit is of another explicit nature.

The specific scene is a masterpiece, pardon the adjective. Oscillating between faces and divergent meanings, in a perfectly adjusted montage and a little lighter than the average film, shot and reverse shot at the service of a comedy of errors, M. Tabard's narrative is intersected by M. Blady's reticence ( alias André Falcon) owner of the agency, who needs to believe what he hears, despite what he hears.

There is a permanent misunderstanding between both parties, which no one dares to fill in, for different reasons, naturally. M. Blady, so as not to lose the client, M. Tabard, for not thinking he was crazy. What for one is an evident certainty, for the other is almost delirium, but they need to communicate as if one does not assume what the other thinks, despite assuming. What Trauffaut does, with an uncompromising mastery, is to film this, and he films well and very well.

Michel Lonsdale and his peculiar interpretation, his unique game of scene, between contention and enigma, incorporates this state of mind equally to the mastery, and imprints a verisimilitude to the situation allowing the absurd to slide smoothly into the prosaic, almost without any shocks. He's there, as always, intrepid successful shoe salesman, filling the scene with his magnetic presence.

The conclusion is the golden closure of the sequence: M. Tabard, very aware of his extravagance, anticipates possible reproaches: between the psychoanalyst and the detective, he sticks with the latter, what he says textually, which would mean, in free interpretation of ours, that your “unconscious” is objective and not psychological or psychoanalytical or psychic. In this case, virtually all problems would have a solution, it would suffice to find it, which is an undeniable truth of detectives: the mystery is that there are no mysteries that cannot be solved. It is necessary to consider the additional complication of the psychoanalytical unconscious, taking into account this last pocket truth that M. Tabard makes use of: it, the so-called unconscious, would be the place where one can find neither problems nor solutions , just discomfort.

I remembered the joke for reasons that reason does not know: let me remember. The conversation came to this because I had met a friend on the subway, and when I remembered that present meeting, I remembered that other one, from the past, of having met Michael Lonsdale, years ago, at a train station, in Paris, between rains and sun of an unstable spring. And I don't know how much I miss that meeting and the time of that meeting: Michael Longsdale had acted, involuntarily, in my sentimental theater, in his own way, placid, an ironic note, monumental, perfect.

Between hates and loves, between psychoanalysts and detectives, between 1968 and today, M. Tabard's restrained and serene emphasis perhaps teaches something about acting, Michael Lonsdale's lesson, and about the passions of the soul, Trauffaut's lesson: to to act one has to hate and love from a distance, to live with one's passions, too.

The truths of cinema are not valid, however, for life. They teach what life would not be if it were cinema. Cinema replaces, through the look, a hostile world with a world that agrees with our desires – pseudo André Bazin at the opening of the contempt, Godard (1963). The history of the world, which is not filmed, is the history of what is not cinema.

 Post scriptum

On September 21, 2020, the credits go up and the lights go on for Michel Longsdale (May 24, 1931 – September 21, 2020), with a lavish career, including international and commercial successes, with a stint in the 007 franchise, as well as cinematographic experiences in the great post-war European cinema of invention and even in avant-garde cinema.

He worked with practically all the great directors of the cycle: Brunel, Orson Wells, Trauffaut, Alain Renais, Duras, Eustache with Une sale histoire (Jean Eustache, 1977), whose eccentricity deserves explicit mention. He acted until the last years of his life. It gives us the impression that, despite the fact that all lives end invariably, some end up better than others, even if these measures are the most relative they can be. The good exit from the scene is due to the great performances. Let's keep that hope.

*Alexandre de Oliveira Torres Carrasco is professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).

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