We Like Shorts, Shorts is a new column in which we single out impressive short films which are easily accessible online. The full shorts will always be embedded in the articles for easy access.
A lot of modern experimental shorts rely on non-manual repetition and alteration, of both time and image, made possible as a result of computer generation. Sometimes mind-numbing loops become delirious comedy, as in recent Tropfest winner Animal Beatbox. Other times, though, as in the case of Nicolas Provost’s masterful Papillon d’amour (Butterfly of Love), repetition and image alteration becomes something utterly terrifying, merging familiarity with the unknown. In short, Provost takes a sequence from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon and alters it through a kind of mirroring effect. The frame is split in half and mirrored, yet it is narrowed and shifts in the exact center, creating a warping of the image in the middle of the frame, whilst a stasis of normality and familiarity exists on either side.
The original Kurosawa scene involves the testimony of the newly widowed woman, played by Machiko Kyo, who tells the judge that she witnessed the murder of her husband at the hand of a bandit (played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune). In Rashômon, though, nothing is what it seems, and the power of that film derives from the conflicting perspectives in each piece of testimony, as the viewer we’re forced to interpret, and as the woman begs to the judge so too is she begging to the audience to believe her. What Provost does in his short, though, is totally strip away the surface level narrative, whilst still toying with some of its underlying meaning. In Papillon d’amour, what we see does not concern murder or confession, specifics removed as all dialogue is drowned out by music. Provost instead shifts our focus to movement and rhythm, the transformation of the female figure an effort to escape from the all-seeing eye of the judge, presented here as a floating head in the center of the frame. The transformation to butterfly and thereafter nothingness is a slow-burning dance of death. Kurosawa’s film is clearly a major influence on Provost’s process, he screened Papillon d’amour the same year as Bataille, which takes the fight scene from Rashômon and turns it into a near incomprehensible battle of form and shadow.1
Papillon d’amour is Provost’s second foray into this mirroring technique following 2001’s Pommes d’amour, in which he repurposed footage from Hiroshima mon amour and Bergman’s Summer Interlude to convey haunting notions of self-love and dependency. Both shorts, though, owe a clear debt to Ken Jacobs’ Nervous System screening series, which involved altering early silent footage to disorient the viewer.2 The short The Georgetown Loop, in which Jacobs took Billy Blitzer’s 1904 short of the same name and then mirrors and flips the image, is the clearest precursor to Provost’s work, and both filmmakers are able to achieve stunning visual impact with seeming simplicity. The age of computer technology has greatly assisted the ability to alter footage in this manner. In an interview with the Flanders Arts Institute, Provost noted that “the digital revolution made it possible to upload films on your computer or laptop and easily re-edit them yourself, just at home. So I started sculpting existing material almost by accident.” It’s as much about re-creation as discovery. 3
Where Jacobs’ short is as silent as the original footage it manipulates, Provost uses music is great effect in Papillon d’amour. The track “The Wrath of Köhn”, by Belgian musician Jürgen De Blonde (working under the alias Köhn), opens on a hypnotic repetition of strings, only to suddenly roar to life with what sounds like distorted screams. At the exact moment this shift occurs, the woman in Provost’s film drops to the floor, and the shapeshifting that occurs through the mirroring effect picks up speed, the transformation to butterfly becomes paradoxically clearer to see yet more abstract in imagery.4 Suddenly it’s not just the woman who moves, it’s the surrounding area. What was once static now disappears, the image zoomed in closer, as the shrine she bows to whips back and forth in the frame. It’s a terrifying and beautiful thing to witness, the shock primarily instilled through the perfect mesh of sound and image.
Further reading: Papillon d’amour first came to my attention through this fantastic found and re-purposed footage Tumblr from Brazil, called “Cinema Reciclado”. You can also watch more of Provost’s work, including the half-hour short Exoticore, on his Vimeo page.