Veteran experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s newest docu, “Lover Other: The Story of Claude Cahun and Marvel Moore,” focuses on two Jewish stepsisters living together as lovers, artists and resisters on the Channel Islands off of Normandy during the German Occupation. Intermingling the surrealist photographic self-portraits of Cahun, texts and illustrations by Moore, interviews with their contemporaries and accounts of the stepsisters’ arrest and trial, docu shows their jointly created lesbian identity, lifestyle and activism. Weaving together more hooks than a drunken angler, docu could lure the entire spectrum of specialized fests.
Part of the extraordinary flowering of avant-garde art in Paris in the ’20s, the self-styled Claude and Marcel virtually interiorized that milieu in their villa on the isle of Jersey. Though they were certainly judged to be eccentric, what with Claude’s shaved head and Marcel’s masculine attire, the stepsisters seemed to have been accepted by the locals, and even to have enjoyed a certain cachet, later enhanced by their anti-Nazi activities.
Though many Jews on the Islands were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, the stepsisters were largely left alone, for reasons that Hammer never fully makes clear.
But, this uneasy tolerance stopped cold once the duo started writing subversive, often illustrated pamphlets in German and Croatian encouraging the Axis soldiers to mutiny.
The sisters were condemned to death by the Gestapo, a sentence later commuted through the intervention of the local authorities. Liberated in 1945, Cahun never fully recovered and died in 1954, almost two decades before her partner/sister.
In “Lover,” Hammer reprises the question of the artist’s political role posed in her 2003 “Resisting Paradise,” also about French artists during the Occupation, but here she gives it photographic (and lesbian) specificity.
The context of the war provides pic with a satisfying dramatic curve, as former fellow-resisters, neighbors and cellmates fondly bear witness to the pair’s courage and uniqueness. But, it is the women’s artwork (only some of which survived the Nazis’ confiscatory ravages) that gives shape to Hammer’s more lyrical imagery.
Cahun’s startling black-and-white still photography, shown straight on or fancifully kaleidoscopic, dominates the film, strangely echoed in segments of a thinly disguised autobiographical text written by Moore and performed by look-alike actors Kathleen Chalfant and Marty Pottenger.