“Filmman” is a delicately observed, no-budget autobiography by 74-year-old Alain Cavalier, a French cult director whose maverick indies have struck a chord with the most refined festival audiences. Viewers should be warned to leave all expectations behind, however, because instead of recounting anecdotes and events, Cavalier wryly crafts an artistic jumble of fleeting impressions, profound thoughts and just plain silly moments, many of which manage to be fascinating. This connoisseur’s cornucopia should segue naturally from fests to DVD.
This is actually the filmmaker’s third go at autobiography after “This Machine Does Not Accept Messages” (1978) and “The Encounter” (1996), but it marks the first time he has filmed himself. Here he shows his own handsome face as it suffers the torments of three surgical operations to remove a small skin cancer. Since the film was shot over 11 years, viewers watch his face heal over and over again in a beautiful illustration of passing time.
Both of Cavalier’s aged parents die during the film, but these milestones are given no more weight than the birds, cats and squirrels who eat the food that the director and his wife Francoise Widhoff put out.
Editing down a huge mass of material, Cavalier uses seemingly unimportant details to construct a mosaic about himself. Nothing seems too trivial to attract his interest; for example, ads in a men’s room.
Human beings open up for him. Some are friends; others are complete strangers.
Most impressively, he shares the most intimate details of his private life. Both his and his wife’s bodies come in for uncomfortably close inspection, and Francoise is game enough to allow him to film her naked. Yet such is the spirit of honesty that there is not a vulgar or over-indulged moment in the film. Instead, what comes across is great tenderness.
Young filmmakers can draw an inspiring lesson from the mileage Cavalier gets out of a simple mini-DV camera, visible in some of the mirror shots. In his hands — without lighting, sound equipment or crew — it becomes a versatile artist’s brush. All the fragments are edited together very rapidly, though the lack of apparent structure does cause viewer’s attention to wander at times.