The Future is Now: Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)

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To view Remembrance of Things to Come click here.

“Gone and never to return
and being for myself alone
a remembrance of things to come
who fancied being a human”
– From a poem by Claude Roy, quoted in Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)

Remembrance of Things to Come aka Le Souvenir d’un avenir (2001) opens at the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which has been described as “the culminating avant-garde celebration in Europe before the devastating events leading to World War II” (Ubu Gallery). The exhibit outraged critics at the time and featured works of art by Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, René Magritte, Lenora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst among many others. We tour the dense galleries through the embracing and investigative eyes of Denise Bellon, a pioneering photojournalist who became one of the surrealists most ardent supporters and collaborators. Bellon is the subject of this fascinating documentary made by Chris Maker in association with Bellon’s daughter (filmmaker Yannick Bellon) and the film is now streaming on FilmStruck until July 28th. As is the case with many women who created work within the surrealist movement, Denise Bellon’s name is not as recognizable as her male counterparts but she was arguably one of the most innovative, daring and accomplished photographers of the period. Remembrance of Things to Come moves Bellon out of the shadows and into the spotlight where she belongs.

Much like Marker’s acclaimed experimental science fiction film La jetée (1963), Remembrance of Things to Come forgoes conventional narrative methods and uses a selection of photographs taken by Bellon to tell her story. The film relies on montage, dissolves and pans as well as other cinematic techniques borrowed from La jetée to animate Belon’s still images and bring them to life. Besides sharing a similar aesthetic, both films also share an obsession with time, history and memory although one is grounded in fiction and the other in fact.

Bellon’s photos depict the world in a transitory state before, during and after WWII. Working with Alliance-Photo in Paris under the stewardship of Maria Eisner (Eisner was also one of the founders of the renowned Magnum Photos in New York), she traveled extensively with her camera and photographed Spain, Southeast Europe, Scandinavia as well as Africa including Morocco, Algeria, Guinea and Tunisia. While many of her photos encapsulate the profound beauty of France and the exotic faraway locations she visited, Bellon did not shy away from the bleaker aspects of society. Her work exposed the worst aspects of French colonization and some of her most provocative photos include a series on child poverty consisting of pictures of desperate children who stare into her camera with hungry eyes and dirt encrusted smiles. Bellon also regularly photographed prostitutes capturing them while they seductively pose and primp in anticipation of their next client. Along with portraits of the renowned artists and writers she befriended such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Miller, André Breton and Simone de Beauvoir, she was also photographing disfigured veterans of WWI, circus contortionists, clowns, magicians and patients at a French psychiatric hospital. Surrealism frequently infused her work and Bellon’s artistic tendencies are apparent in her best photographs, which contain numerous depictions of masked figures and demonstrate her ability to make ordinary items such as a child’s toy airplane look grotesque and strange.

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In a few standout sequences that should appeal to cinephiles, we’re shown photos of the silent film actress Musidora (Les Vampires [1915-1916], Judex [1916], La Vagabond [1918]) along with photos Bellon took during the occupation of France. In them, she immortalizes the clandestine tactics Henri Langlois (co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française) was forced to use in order to safeguard classic nitrate film reels from the Nazis. In one photo film canisters are stacked precariously in a bathtub and seem ready to spill their precious contents at any moment. In another Bellon captures the transportation of film canisters in a baby carriage disguised to look inconspicuous to passersby. These remarkable images are the only photos we have to commemorate this historic moment in film history.

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The ambiguous nature of Bellon’s output makes it difficult to define and in Remembrance of Things to Come the filmmakers use that to their advantage. Bellon’s photographs are compiled like a collage of ephemeral and constantly shifting memories. There is no rigid timeline that connects them although we’re reminded again and again of the looming war they seem to allude to. In the book Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, author Catherine Lupton quotes the director describing Bellon’s work and he suggests that it “shows a past, but deciphers a future.” During one example that illuminates Marker’s idea, the film juxtaposes Bellon’s pre-war photo of a reclining nude basking in the sun with a voiceover (provided by actress Alexandra Stewart) commenting on how it resembles the dead bodies that will soon litter the ground following a Luftwaffe bombing raid. Is it a reach to see the connection? Are artists, composers, writers and filmmakers soothsayers? Are they the conduits of the collective unconsciousness? The prophets of things to come? The film asks us to contemplate this curious idea as we get to know Denise Bellon through her photographs that seem to illuminate and foreshadow the times in which she lived. To quote Marker in La jetée, “Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. Later on they do claim remembrance when they show their scars.”

Kimberly Lindbergs

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