Bathed in a purplish pink glow, as if lit by leftover Giallo set lights, Ingrid Caven — actress, fashion muse and, here, chanteuse — sashays about the stage, her hips sliding left to right like a metronome: side, side, side, side. At Paris’ Cité de la Musique in 2012, Betrand Bonello, compelled to make a concert film after attending a prior production, affixes his camera on Caven’s glossolalic performance. What became of it is an enchanting object — Ingrid Caven: Music and Voice — that continues Bonello’s momentous auteurist project: the search for the search for the sublime. Only here, Caven’s ensorcelling act stupefies the filmmaker’s usual formal brio, impasto camera movements and split-screens. These are pruned down to a tinge, slow zooms and axial pans, so as to never blurry the singer’s direct charm.
The film begins and ends with Ingrid Caven. Other than a few pans to the musical accompaniment, who don’t enjoy the same mysterious lighting, Bonello continuously tracks the subject’s movements: the unlit sips of water, her strange glissandos, the thumbing through a music sheet, her nonlinguistic bleats. The audience, forming a black band at the bottom of the image (essentially augmenting the aspect ratio), and the camera are transfixed on the singer’s every gesture and note. The aesthetic ordainment is Bonello’s simplest by a margin. He cuts only between two cameras, on each side of the hall, and edits the film to play in real time. In 2021, after a year of Zoom concerts, it may be difficult to see the artistry at play, of what the film adds to a live performance, but Bonello, by including a darkened audience, captures the interplay between Caven and crowd. Like watching someone smile at their book on the bus, the concert film takes on an ekphrastic mode.
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The singer is likely most known as a former troupe member (and spouse) of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s corybantic and incestuous company. On screen, Caven had roles in many of his early films, particularly from 1970-1972, which corresponded with the years of their marriage. The roles still were offered after the divorce; no love was ever lost for Fassbinder through breakups, only through slights of ego. If Fassbinder felt an actress had eclipsed his own stardom, they often stopped getting roles, as was the case for his most famous lead, Hanna Schygulla. But he seemed to hold a tender spot for Caven, who toggled in and out of the inner circle with more ease than most. Fassbinder, as the writer Robert Katz spins it, had the gravitational pull of a planet. After his death, many were sucked into that black hole of antimatter, either failing to reach the same artistic heights or embroiled in the many legal battles Fassbinder left in his wake. A few had enough of their own propulsion to escape the pull. Schygulla, Udo Kier, Michael Ballhaus and, of course, Caven went on to have expansive careers outside of Germany. During the Fassbinder era, Caven acted for other arthouse luminaries like Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Jean Eustache. Post-Fassbinder, Caven acted less, but still appeared in films by André Techiné, Claire Denis and Luca Guadagnino’s recent Suspiria remake. As she acted less, she sang more. Those unfamiliar with Caven’s nightclub act will likely revel in an artistry thought nearly extinct. She flits between songs and languages with an alluring casualness. The numbers range from the Razzie nominated “Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves,” from Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle (1982), to the most bizarre rendition of “Ave Maria” I’ve ever encountered. Caven’s recitations seem at once the product of lifelong practice and complete improvisation.
Her skills as a singer and her skills as an actress form a tightly woven fabric, interlacing and matted on the edges; to split them up is near impossible. In a Los Angeles Times article from 1992, Caven said she felt her stage persona was an assemblage of countless women passing through her, thus she’s able to alter her persona to fit a song. One of the film’s great accomplishments, which limns the major difference between her acting and singing careers, is making the most diminutive actor of the Fassbinder company feel like the sole presence in a crowded concert hall. In Caven’s last Fassbinder role, In a Year of 13 Moons, she looks lilliputian next to Volker Spengler’s transgendered Elvira. But at Cité de la Musique, some 30 years later, she occupies both stage and image like the Colossus of Rhodes, cooing and beckoning to the audience, the fishhook tendrils of her hair forming upside-down hearts.
Ingrid Caven: Music and Voice slots into Bonello’s fascinating minor works that abut his essential films: House of Pleasures (2011), Saint Laurent (2014) and Nocturama (2016). The marginalia, which are no less inquisitive or formally audacious, include short films like Cindy, the Doll is Mine (2005) and Sarah Winchester: Ghost Opera (2016), early works like The Pornographer (2001) and Tiresia (2003), plus his acting turn in Antoine Barraud’s intriguing and underseen Los Dos Rouge (both versions from 2014), where Bonello plays a filmmaker looking for the perfect painting to capture the essence of monstrosity at the thematic heart of his next film. That role isn’t too far from the force of the filmmaker’s artistic habitus. In nearly every work, someone searches for the sublime, the auratic, some escape or artistic afflatus. In On War (2008), Mathieu Amalric plays a filmmaker who gets locked in a casket while researching his next film. He later joins a porcine-mask-wearing cult. Others include: a pornographer prone to visual abstractions over prurience (The Pornographer); Cindy Sherman sizing up her model for the right image (Cindy, the Doll is Mine); churchgoers that look to a transgendered person with the gift of premonition (Tiresia) — the oeuvre is shot through with artists and others seeking something outside the realm of perfunctory perception. Even in Bonello’s recent Zombi Child (2019) a boarding school teen looks to Haitian voodoo to cheat the dolor of lost love. This struggle can be summed up in the director’s most salient image: a young radical terrorist in Nocturama stares at a mall mannequin dressed in the selfsame clothes — what he thought was unique was preordained. Corporate capitalism threatens homogeny and programmed desire on the world. The Bonellian project depicts the struggle in briefly liberating oneself from this structure. In Paris on a night in 2012, or from a screen in 2021, one may see in Ingrid Caven’s ecstatic performance something that touches the raptures.
Thomas Quist (@ThomasQuist) is a writer and filmmaker from the Midwest.