Wet stain

Michael Ayrton, Greek Landscape III, 1960–1


Commentary on the Book of Jean-Claude Bernardet

It is no longer simple to say that Jean-Claude Bernardet wrote a book. Because on the cover of Wet stain (2023) appears, in a size slightly smaller than yours, the name of Sabina Anzuategui. The difference sparks the imagination, sparked by the title page, in which the edition project is attributed to Heloisa Jahn, who died during the course of the work. The three appear in the description “About the authors”, which clarifies that Heloisa Jahn “wrote” the book and that Sabina Anzuategui “inherited” the project “alongside Jean-Claude Bernardet”.

Co-authorship, therefore, but graphically weighted – each name on its page and dimension. As a reader, I confess to being disturbed, because what brought me here was my interest in the physiognomy of modern Brazilian cinema and the singular figure of Jean-Claude Bernardet. And what I have in my hands is a book that – for lack of a more precise word – is about his memories.

The dilution of authorship corresponds to the two-faced genre stamped in the subtitle: memory/rhapsody. The book contains, in short, a series of interviews with Jean-Claude Bernardet, carried out, transcribed and edited by Jahn and Anzuategui. The reader is presented with fragments that repeatedly address certain memories of Jean-Claude Bernardet. The book – inspired by Vivian Gornick's memoirs, translated by Jahn – juxtaposes different perspectives on the same events, so that Jean-Claude Bernardet not only remembers, but gradually embraces his memories. This is, of course, a very private confrontation, since the memories are evoked by a witness who barely sees his interlocutors and scribes. Wet stain refers to this physical condition, which suggests the performance of evocation by the blind rhapsode.

It is not new that Jean-Claude Bernardet – it suits me to take him as an author – structures his writing based on his body. It was recently published The critical body (2021), a book based on his experiences with cancer, AIDS and meningitis. Well before that, The disease (1996) gave vent – ​​on the threshold between fiction and experience, juxtaposed subtitles – to the centrality acquired by Jean-Claude Bernardet's body following his HIV diagnosis. The repeated reflection on the disease, therefore, gave rise to the understanding of the body as its own intellectual instance, a “critical body”, which manifests itself in the movie theater in front of a film like Scene game (2007)

The wandering of Jean-Claude Bernardet's body through Brazilian cinema is well known. In Anuska, mannequin and woman (1968), he wanders around a newspaper office until finally coming to the fore to harass Francisco Cuoco. At a certain point, his presence in the cinema becomes visceral. Thus, we see Bernardet naked, feeding on book pages, in Orgy, or The man who gave birth (1970); or drinking from the reflecting pool at Praça João Mendes, in the center of São Paulo, in Hunger (2015)

In a way, this visceral performance incorporates a program already outlined in the script. The Case of the Naves Brothers (1967), written in partnership with Luiz Sérgio Person, where the treatment given to the torture inflicted on Raul Cortez and Juca de Oliveira stands out. Another antecedent may be the article “I love cinema”, from 1960, whose closing defines the spectator's position through the metaphor – always at hand among male intellectuals – of rape, of the body crushed by the film. Script and article are cited in Wet stain.

Nor does Jean-Claude Bernardet's insistence, in this and other books, on his experience with dance, which perhaps gives aesthetic yield to this increasingly open intensity of his gestures, seem secondary. A dance of death, enunciated in The destruction of Bernardet (2016) and gradually registered in films directed by Cristiano Burlan, such as Hunger e Before the end (2017). It is not surprising, therefore, that Bernardet chose to cut his own body into pieces. #and now what (2020), a gesture consistent with the choreography of deterioration that by now had already been consolidated in texts and films.

Jean-Claude Bernardet's path acquires a broader meaning when related to the collective trauma imposed on Brazilian filmmakers in the early 1990s, when the coup armed on the left and right by a paralyzing economism struck them. The extinction of Embrafilme (1990) during the government of Fernando Collor de Mello, supported by the country's major liberal newspapers, signifies a new era in the world for more than one generation of filmmakers.

Hence, for example, the destruction of the collective meaning of the expression “Cinema Novo”, even if part of its members continued to be active. Shortly before his death, Glauber Rocha records the meaning of this collective degradation in New Cinema Revolution (1981), when documenting the unusual question posed by journalist Reali Júnior de The State of S. Paul: “Do you consider yourself crazy?” (p. 472).

The artistic yield of this degradation varies according to individual trajectories. With his nose for trends that has characterized him since the 1950s, Carlos Diegues directs Orpheus (1999), reinterpretation of the exploration foreigner carnival and poverty in Rio Orfeu da Conceição (1959); but the reply now brings poverty closer to resentful violence, just as Fernando Meirelles, Walter and João Moreira Salles and Hector Babenco would do. In turn, cinema of tears (1995) also supposes a reckoning on the part of Nelson Pereira dos Santos, although the criticism focuses on himself and on the elements traditionally repressed by Cinema Novo, such as melodrama – more precisely, the Mexican dramas, which also formed his generation .

Another symptom that corresponds to a response to this sense of degradation is the tendency towards memorialization, implicit, at the turn of the 1980s, in the defense of a certain historical narrative of Brazilian cinema in the aforementioned new cinema revolution, by Glauber Rocha. But the remembrance broth thickens with the end of Embrafilme and the publication of Paulo César Saraceni's memoirs, Inside the new cinema (1993), and the writing-refuge of David Neves, Letters from my bar (1993)

Jean-Claude Bernardet's change of direction, therefore, is not unique at this moment. Nor does his tendency towards memory, which now leads to Wet stain. But the set of experiences opened by the triptych is very particular. That boy (1990, on the threshold of memory and fiction), The hysterics (1993, written in partnership with Teixeira Coelho) and The disease (1996, also between fiction and personal report).

In them, Jean-Claude Bernardet returns to the bed of literature, which in a certain way was repressed by the cinematographic option at the beginning of the 1960s. Thus, if the sense of political-aesthetic vertigo contributed to attracting young writers to cinema (Glauber Rocha, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade), the rationed democracy reached at the end of this journey suggests to some a return to safer areas of intellectual production – Arnaldo Jabor, then, definitively returns to the journalistic chronicle.

But the case of Jean-Claude Bernardet is not typical in this periodization. After all, the experiences that took place in the early 1990s precipitated trends that regularly manifested themselves in his previous production. Thus, he comments in the dedication of Brazil in movie time (1967): “This book – almost an autobiography – is dedicated to Antônio das Mortes” (p. 19). A decade later, the retrospective look at the work itself registers in critical trajectory (1978), where the confrontation has its first expression with the comment on its production. In Piranha in the sea of ​​roses (1982), when approaching the theme of ultimate madness in Glauber Rocha (“Glauber’s (alleged) madness was our own contradictions. Glauber’s madness was us.” [p. 11]), the presiding point of view his most recent interventions threaten to come to light: “Statements I made about Cinema Novo, or my sexual behavior were only – in the interpretation he [Glauber Rocha] attributed to them – so violently rejected, so violently distressing for him, to the extent that they represented elements of himself that he did not give vent to” (p. 14).

It is significant that the tendency towards first-person reporting and the reckoning with the past emerged in the 1980s, when we witnessed a widespread change in the historiographic record. In other coordinates, it is possible to witness a change in the authorial diction existing between the works of historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, of The Age of Revolutions (1962) to The Age of Empires (1987) and age of extremes (1994). It turns out that these last two books touch on the author's personal relationship with the period narrated. The problem is addressed in the “Introduction” of The Age of Empires, where the historian finds himself needing to justify himself in the face of the twilight zone between memory and history of this period (1875-1914), decisive for the settlement of his British family in Egypt. In this way, adds Hobsbawm, it is a time in which we no longer live, although it is not clear how much it still lives in us.

Hobsbawm's evocation serves here as a parameter for the case of Jean-Claude Bernardet. In common, both present questions surrounding authorship and memories in a similar period. But the comparison becomes a little more pertinent when we remember that, in 1995, Jean-Claude Bernardet published his Classical historiography of Brazilian cinema.

Now, it appears in this book that the presentation of new research perspectives on the history of Brazilian cinema is linked to a historiographical agenda that can be seen throughout the text. From the occurrence to quotes from authors such as Paul Veyne (“Do Brazilians believe in their myths?” [p. 19]) and Jacques Le Goff (the problem of the “golden age” [p. 33-34]), the author presents the limits of classical historiography, drawing attention to the circularity of the creation of historical contexts depending on the project of certain groups. This is the case of Cinema Novo, for example, which would have based a reading centered on the figure of the producer, appropriate to its own position. Memory and history, therefore, overlap.

Jean-Claude Bernardet thus documents a moment in historiographical production marked by the recessive condition of history. The gains of this review, I think, are clear and have already been incorporated into the historiography of Brazilian cinema. What seems to me to deserve attention, however, are the side effects that have been little addressed since then. It is in this sense that the perspective offered by Hobsbawm seems to me to highlight some delicate issues present in Wet stain.

It is not the intention of the book to present itself in the field of history. The title, as we have seen, makes this clear: memory/rhapsody. The combination is linked not only to a general retreat from historical diction – today, a currency – but to an intensification of subjective performance in the dialogues that form the book's material. Note the difference: Hobsbawm often uses jokes in age of extremes, but the procedure is controlled by the modes of operation sedimented by historiographical, intersubjective practice.

In Jean-Claude Bernardet, on the contrary, the individual performance is intensified by a series of editorial decisions that are linked together: first, the carrying out of interviews between old acquaintances; then, the interviewer's resistance to Jean-Claude Bernardet's speeches (and vice versa); then, the editing of the interviews and their serialization into comments that deal with the same events, which triggers an effect of self-confrontation; finally, an emphasis on the quirks of memory, which highlight the fragility of the remembrance exercise. The book, therefore, not only remembers Bernardet's trajectory but also criticizes his efforts to remember it.

In the case of the reference to the father's participation in the resistance to the Nazi occupation in France, we are facing an intuited fact, based on a set of impressions. This uncertainty contrasts with the clarity with which the fact is narrated: the father is a central figure, he dominates the memory of his early life in São Paulo, of his relationships with his mother; it also provides a recurring framework to assess Jean-Claude Bernardet's position in the Brazilian dictatorship. It seems to me that the narration presents undeniable gains here, since it deals with events that are barely verifiable. The recurring appeal to the twilight zone of first impressions combines, in this case, a narrative strongly linked to the tension of the limits of memory.

On the other hand, the reference to life under the dictatorship is marked by some problems. These are not factual inaccuracies, although the absence of captions attached to the images and clear identification of the characters mentioned sometimes takes the report to the limit of intelligibility. The central problem, it seems to me, is of a properly historiographical nature: we are facing a narration in which there are no – despite the resistance of the interlocution – mechanisms for controlling the relationships between the story that emerges before the reader and the positions taken by Jean-Claude Bernardet, who surreptitiously stitch together this story.

In other words, Jean-Claude Bernardet produces a strongly linked narrative about his own trajectory and, even though the fragmentation of the format suggests a process of continual resumption and revision, it is a case of looking carefully at the “critical” dimension. so suggested. Because what crystallizes in this way is the image of Jean-Claude Bernardet as a persistent critic, a vision that comes up against the candid continuity of positions assumed in the 1960s in his work in recent years. This is the case, for example, of the proximity of positions regarding the relationship between intellectuals and the people between Brazil in movie time e #and now what, in a span of fifty years.

There is, therefore, alongside self-criticism, an “inertial movement” that provides the background for the comings and goings, while the formal option of the book ends up suggesting an image of change, which makes permanence opaque. The dilution of authorship reinforces this mechanism, due to the absence of a clear indication of the different editorial responsibilities of the “authors” and, in short, due to the weak resistance that, in the end, is provided in the face of central aspects of Jean-Claude Bernardet's narration .

At this point, it is impossible to consider whether the confession of shame (when Jean-Claude Bernardet realizes his ridiculous criticism of the elitism of earth in trance [1967]) or the involuntary exposure to ridicule (the two moments in which he deals with his nudity, but is not aware of his classist or sexist character) is a sign of the strength or weakness of the book. This, it seems to me, is the main merit of the edition. This is not about reclaiming the historiographic narrative as it exists in its traditional diction – because in Hobsbawm there is also a crisis.

But maybe Wet stain offers us the opportunity to think about whether the subjective derepression operated since the end of the 1970s reveals a creative power (an exposed subject, whose singularity is freed from the alleged universality of knowledge) or an emergency exit (an impotent reaction to the ruin of the promise of civilizational consortium broken in the Coups of 1964 and 1968 and blocked in the Political Opening).

In short, Wet stain expresses our difficulty in seeing and, at the same time, helps us to understand the causes that took us from engagement to performance. From all bodies, to this body.

*Victor Santos Vigneron He has a PhD in social history from USP.


Jean-Claude Bernardet. Wet Mácula: Memory/rhapsody. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2023. [https://amzn.to/3QZIyvL]

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