The penultimate film by Jean Eustache, the French director famed for The Mother and the Whore (1973), is Les Photos d’Alix (1980). It’s an 18-minute, 35-mm color film in which we see a photographer—Alix Cléo Roubaud—showing her photographs to a young man (Eustache’s 20-year-old son Boris). As they work their way through a stack of black-and-white prints, the young man asks brief questions and Roubaud tells him where and how each photograph was made and what her intentions were, what interested her about the images. The photos often feature double exposures and other darkroom techniques (solarizing, masking, dodging, burning). In one of a man lying on a bed, the photographer has used a supplemental exposure to stretch the curving, old-fashioned headboard into a strange sinuous shadow. Another dreamlike images shows a bare-chested man floating in an expanse of milky white light. Later we see a landscape divided by nested rectangular zones of light and darkness created during the printing process.
About halfway through the film, something strange begins to happen as Roubaud’s descriptions of her photographs cease to match the images we see when the camera cuts to close-ups of the prints. Eustache, who was a close friend of Roubaud’s, stages this disconnection with great subtlety: the photographer’s hands pointing out details on one of the prints seem perfectly synched to the rhythms of her verbal descriptions, even though she is describing an altogether different image. At one point, Boris Eustache asks Roubaud if the woman in a photo is her. After telling him that he shouldn’t ask such questions, she says, “All the photographs are me.” Eustache underscores her point by matching this exchange to a blurry image of an empty room in which Roubaud is pointedly absent.
An economical treatise on the gulf between verbal and visual descriptions, Les Photos d’Alix is also an invaluable record of an artist who passed away far too soon: Roubaud died in 1983 at the age of 31 from a pulmonary embolism. We also are given glimpses of her in many of the photographs that she left behind. She often posed nude for her own camera, and frequently, thanks to multiple exposures, more than once in a single photograph. Si quelque chose noir (If Something Black) is a 1980 series shot in a nearly empty room into which light penetrates from a single window, illuminating the naked artist, standing or prone on the stone floor. In several pictures Roubaud is joined by a ghostly vignette of a young girl seated underneath the sun-blinded window. In her posthumously published journals, she bluntly describes what’s happening: “myself as a laughing child in front of my dead body.”
Death pervades Roubaud’s work, and also her journals (recently published in the U.S. by Dalkey Archive), which present a heart-breaking chronicle of a young artist struggling to hold on to her creative vision amid extreme psychological and physiological pressures. But her journals are also filled with profoundly intelligent observations about photography. (Roubaud’s meditations on death and photography have striking parallels with a contemporaneous investigation of the same themes, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida.) Yet amid the encroaching shadows, her writing and photography are permeated by empathy and love, for troubled friends like Jean Eustache, who killed himself the year after he made Photos d’Alix, and, above all, for her husband, poet and scholar Jacques Roubaud. Anyone interested in the aftermath of Alix Cléo Roubaud’s death, and brave enough to read a harrowing chronicle of grief, should search out Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black (also published by Dalkey Archive).
Outside of France, it’s been hard to see Alix Cléo Roubaud’s work. Believing that “the negative is the palette,” she made it clear that she didn’t want any posthumous prints made, and because she died before her public career took off, there are relatively few existing prints. Her images were so dependent on darkroom magic that she sometimes worked from negatives shot by other people. Happily, both the journals and Some Thing Black include reproductions of her work.
Although Eustache’s film warns us against identifying photographic images with the words we apply to them, a 1980 photograph of some barely recognizable cypress trees titled Fifteen Minutes Night to the Rhythm of Breathing is, for me, inseparable from Alix Cléo Roubaud’s journal entry about printing it and Jacques Roubaud’s poem “The Art of Seeing” (in Some Thing Black), which concludes:
“Image engulfed by breath
No trace of fear in this attention”