In her videos, Éléonore de Montesquiou fans the flame of bleak lights soaked through by diaphanous figures. This hazy relief noticeable in the filmmaker’s successive works de-realizes all takes and makes an indefinite atmosphere loom over the horizon. Though each movie opens up in a definite context, the image quality deliberately adds a kind of timelessness while delocalizing the initial geographical space, though it has already been spotted. Most of Éléonore de Montesquiou’s films are rooted in an investigation. In a very intimate setting imposed by the artist, individuals open themselves up to an emotional discussion on a specific topic. Those priceless recordings – because of their value as testimonies and also of the many different voices – participate in the preliminary sound matter. Words, fragments taken from those interviews, sentences sometimes written again and passed on to another voice, ambient sound recording, musical arrangements converse with each other. A way for the artist to constantly keep on the lookout, whether at home or when traveling. A way to consider other places without being blinded by the interrogations at work here. Then the images are put up against this soundtrack. And, as bewitching as they may be, they are rarely of prime importance to the artist. After the editing, not a single participant makes his/her testimony facing the camera. Voices and appearances on-screen are no longer synchronized. On the one hand, this slight time-lag casts light on the vocal intonations and, on the other hand, it shapes an enthralling speechless portrait. Bodily presence carved in duration. By applying this discrepancy between sound and image so systematically, Éléonore de Montesquiou borrows from Johan van der Keuken. She does not deny this influence nor the epiphany she had when discovering his films. Thus, she reveals on which documentary bedrock hers are seated. However, she did not aim at making reports about witnesses but rather at understanding a situation thanks to their intervention in a stack of desynchronized situations. Although the artist asks herself questions, she leaves it up to others to express their point of view. Thus the personal blends with the collective, replaced by a widened historical or societal context.
Compared to the immediacy of the situations giving birth to her films, Éléonore de Montesquiou can be said to act through successive withdrawals. Her logic is not based on the event. Directed in 2005, Olga, Olga, Helena* is an excellent example of this distance between her work and reality. This film takes root in Helena Zinovieff’s relating to the artist her flight from Saint-Petersburg in 1918 at age six with her mother, Olga and her sister, Olga. This family tale, which has the quality of a historical testimony, is transcribed here. If the scenario seems to be based upon this storyline, the artist decides to confront this plot with current-day takes of the city and, above all, to the monotonous pace of life there. Éléonore de Montesquiou does not intend to illustrate an individual narrative and is wary of excessive closeness. If sticking to reality, she could end up abiding by its requirements. From the beginning, she has rejected the remembrance process and instead she chose to favor generalization and to put into perspective a “vision in progress”. Time carries on. Three young Russian women read the initial text aloud in French with a single – more tragic – chord. Taking this beyond the generation gap – Helena Zinovieff’s voice is that of an old lady – is a means to reject the belittling effect of an autobiographical narrative. Drawing its inspiration from one specific exile, the movie is imbued by the generic notion of exile. On the first and last images is written the mystical poem by Alexandre Blok, The Girl Was Singing in a Church Choir. A strong symbol of pre-revolutionary literary Saint Petersburg, it proves to be the only historical concession to this future-oriented cinematic narrative. When) seeking locations for the first time for this movie, the artist notices this little girl dressed in red, engrossed in her game, absent from reality; dwarfed by the hugeness of the pillars she walks around. This surprising vision of the child appearing and disappearing acts as a catalyst and will become the red thread of the movie construction. Wandering randomly, the camera captures any red sign, a figure, a clothing detail, an accessory… These unfathomable appearances sensed without their knowing become the contemporary voices of a narrative that wants to avoid falling into oblivion. The unexpected apparition of the little girl gave shape to the chromatic compilation. The red of desire, the red of blood at the moment when remembering the retaliation of the revolutionary Russian army. The film becomes blurry because no image can evoke this on-screen. During the entire narrative, Éléonore de Montesquiou spreads out lascivious figures, womanly curves, curvatures traced with a Vespa, bride floating atop a pedestal, trotting amazons. A very feminine world hit and abruptly brought back to reality by the apparition of soldiers. The film never gives way to pity. The entrance in the city and the exit, closely linked to Alexandre Blok’s thoughts, occur at twilight. In between, the urban crossing stretches out into the light of a peculiar clearing. The artist is skeptical of color and uses it only when needed. Most of her feature films are projected in black and white although they were shot in color. When doing the takes – she shoots randomly while taking walks – she does not necessarily know how she is going to use which image. Black and white shots strive to break free from time and space. Only her shorter films, often projected in a loop, are in color. Though Olga, Olga, Helena is outstanding because made in color – but how could one render red if not by using color? –, the images are overexposed. Besides, the artist’s choosing to shoot during Saint Petersburg’s sleepless nights is not a mere coincidence.
Delta, 2004, inscribed in duration is, quite logically, made in black and white. The video has freed itself from the usual elaboration process. This night stroll is a reply to Estonian composer, Helena Tulve, who asked Montesquiou to illustrate her sound piece recorded and arranged after a trip to an undefined Southern country. Drums, bird singing, chirring fill the air. Surface noises, domestic noises or hustle and bustle of the street, children shouting, cars roaring, honks and whistling noises grow increasingly intense. And then the water flow gradually drowns everything. The river reaches the sea. This sound composition is particularly sensitive and Éléonore de Montesquiou focuses on this. It’s the first time she has responded to existing sounds which do not belong to her. She never goes out without her camera and shoots freely, without second thought, especially at night. The use of a light camera makes recording images and grasping ambiances without a premeditated intention easier, as if the filmmaker were taking notes when indistinct impressions popped out of the dark in a novel and porous context. Helena Tulve’s sounds were gathered under a glaring sun and here they, quite oddly, bounce against Éléonore de Montesquiou’s night shots. Indeed, she combined consecutive trips and kept only the brightest and most dream-like ones. Images and sounds fuse together unlike Olga, Olga, Helena in which images came to complement the sound. The accurate identity of the places gone through has been erased. As the night is stretching it gets lit up by the artist’s visions. No breakthrough into the landscape; the closest to it would be soil tread upon by busy people, bocce ball or soccer players’ feet. Commotion is in the air. From the very beginning, she sees an all-ages crowd take shape. The movie begins with a deserted airport runway. Drums and chants hang in the air as if calling us. The rhythm speeds up. The camera takes us to a busy urban setting and zooms in on a few faces by reducing the focal length. One lingers on a little bit, striking up eye contact, and the pace is resumed. Slow motions and real time blend in. A young girl dances and stands out from) the crowd. Sensual) wreaths are outlined until the climax, when the white horse and the tightrope walker appear in a low angle shot. The video falls into the realm of dreams, the image fades to white, slows down and dissolves into a nearly subliminal kiss. The sound of the water isolates the bodies. And the film is back to square one, to the deserted airport runway. Pending landing or take-off that could nearly make us doubt this fantastic journey even occurred.
All Eleonore de Montesquiou’s movies do not revel in such abstraction. In 2005-2006, she lived in Tallinn, Estonia, and this gave her the opportunity to develop a broad-scoped and detailed project. Atom Cities: Paldiski - Sillamäe is rooted in the country’s recent history. Indeed, from 1944 to 1991, Estonia found itself under the yoke of the Soviet Union. The seaside cities, Paldiski and Sillamäe, developed around an economy entirely dedicated to nuclear research and exploitation. The former congregated Soviet scientists and labor workers specializing in uranium extraction with a view to developing an atom bomb. The latter, a base for nuclear submarines, was occupied by Soviet soldiers. Sillamäe and Paldiski were entirely closed cities that not a soul could enter, not even the Estonian people. They did not even appear on the ever-falsified maps of the country. In 1991, when Estonia gained independence, the two cities’ economical situation shifted dramatically. Without any transition, they opened up to the capitalistic way of life. The Russian army withdrew from Paldiski and the Sillamäe factory was shut down. Overnight, the Russians who had, up to this day, outnumbered the Estonians and benefited from a life standard superior to theirs and to that of their counterparts in their native country, suddenly lost their jobs. Depending on their passport, they did not all have the same status. Those who had kept the Russian nationality bore a red passport. Those who had learned Estonian and had obtained the nationality bore a blue passport. But most of them, bearing a grey passport, were stateless. They did not speak the official language of the country and were, consequently, not or barely integrated to the new socio-economic deal. Though their parents come from all over the Soviet Union, Estonia was their birthplace, and therefore, their country. Eléonore de Montesquiou set out to shed light upon this extremely complex sociological context. She planned to make a portrait of Paldiski and Sillamäe through their inhabitants’ narratives. Long interviews were conducted and transcribed with a view to be published. Two black and white films tuned in to these takes a soundtrack ordered from women composers. In Olga, Olga, Helena, Éléonore de Montesquiou followed a red thread that imposed a form upon her. Paldiski, 2006, grasps the way people go about in the city, their motions and habits. As if she intended to harvest traces and indulged in digressions, thus making it impossible to come to any kind of conclusion. In this temporal multiplication, composer Liis Jürgens, managed to take advantage of the disconnect between the inner voice (ceremony to celebrate the first day of school in Russian and Estonian schools, for instance) and outer images (children walking up and down…). While the camera dwells upon passers-by, crystal-like sounds, water vibrations, a clarinet, words spoken in Russian and Estonian linger on. In this gropingly urbanized city of nowhere, delocalization and a-temporality are omnipresent. Where are we in Paldiski?
Éléonore de Montesquiou is perfectly aware that she launches a controversy in Estonia by giving directly or indirectly the floor to the Russians; that is to say, to the former occupants. Shorter color videos – as sophisticated as the previous ones, though – act as fleeting, even more unstable moments. Single portraits favor a kind of immediacy. Katrin, 2006; a teenage girl born in Tallinn from a Russian father and an Estonian mother tells about her pain and sorrow when her mother was put in jail, her identity torn apart and eventually her moving in with her mother in Sillamäe where she finds the familiar Russian community again. Katrin does not appear on-screen. An arm, a hand fleetingly punctuate, accompany her breathing, her hesitation. Her melodious and doleful voice emerges from the dark. In a bluish undergrowth, trees slowly scroll by in backward motion. In this discrepancy with the immediate context, the trees’ inconspicuous inversion contributes to a bewitching confusion with regards to anchorage points. The slow motion and the unaltered testimony come together in the impalpable fusion of two parallels. The vegetal and the voice join together in a correspondence, a continuous image shift. The thin transmutation of this testimony floating about in a temporal and spatial distortion confirms that poetry arises from a loss it endeavors to transform into a consoling complaint. Alone, without any other witness than the artist, Katrin can let out her emotions. In Kesk, 2006, the teenagers have a quite a different approach. (Kesk – meaning “center” in Estonian – because Sillamäe has but one single central street). First filmed all together in a group, they show a certain defiance. Some step out and speak out – in a univocal testimony – about their idleness and withdrawal into their own community. Kept aside by the Estonians, they isolate themselves and claim, not without showing off a bit, to drink and smoke all day long. A young Russian calls an Estonian “kurat” (devil) while he also feels Estonian, too. There lies the whole dilemma of their identity. The filmmaker chose to slightly desynchronize the moment when faces appear and the moment when one hears their speeches. This minimal discrepancy is a means to give even more flesh to individuals usually reduced to mere statistics. Though Éléonore de Montesquiou leads an investigation and collects information before starting her movies, no indiscretion nor directive come to the forefront. The reality of a context, as bitter as it may be, inexorably falls into another more indecisive, irresolute and less consensual one. As if her non-distorting preliminary investigations in real life vanished into an unreal dimension.
* Olga, Olga, Helena (2004) was produced by l’Espace Croisé. Along with this film comes a book: Olga, Olga, Helena, Roubaix: Editions Espace Croisé, 2005, 48 p., 17 x 24 cm, after Alexandre Blok’s texts, a conversation with Helena Zinovieff, French/Russian, 19 colored illustrations.