All it took was for the repertoire sector to take a look at the buried history of women directors for a host of nuggets that had been put away until then to reappear, like, recently, the films of Kinuyo Tanaka, or, the latest find in date, Variety, a choice piece in the cine-mapping of New York. Shot in 1983, presented at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight the following year, this first feature film by Bette Gordon will therefore have taken almost forty years to find its way to French cinemas.
Born in 1955 in Boston (Massachusetts), Gordon trained in the 1970s. A year of study spent in France at the Sorbonne, and especially at the Cinematheque of Henri Langlois, familiarized her with the momentum sprung from the New Wave. , Jean-Luc Godard in the lead. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, she shot her first shorts alongside James Benning, an experimental structuralist filmmaker. In 1979, she moved to New York, melted into the artistic effervescence of downtown Manhattan (on the Lower East Side), where punk was then overwhelmed by its radical and noisy branch, contrary to any mythological posture, called “no wave “.
This is precisely where Variety comes from, a passage to Gordon’s fiction, in which the fine flower of the movement collaborates: on the screenplay the feminist writer Kathy Acker (1947-1997), on the music the saxophonist John Lurie (member of the punk jazz group The Lounge Lizards), like cinematographer Tom DiCillo, from Jim Jarmusch’s first films, and, in a supporting role, photographer Nan Goldin, who was documenting this little world at the time in a series of slides about to become famous, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
The film consists of an adventure of the gaze. Christine (Sandy McLeod), a broke young woman, finds a small job at the cash desk of a porn cinema in Times Square, the Variety, where a furtive fauna transits. During her breaks, Christine smokes in the hall, where the wet and hyperbolic groans of the tapes that take place next door rise. Sometimes, from the projectionist’s cabin, she risks an eye on the screen. The place seems like a strange portal to who knows what world. The click occurs at the counter, in the person of a customer, Louie (Richard Davidson), three-piece suit, receding hairline and leather jacket. The attention of the usherette is fixed so well on him that she begins to follow him, taking him in spinning in a maze of shady places (sex shops, fish market, shabby hotel), which let her guess place of mafia activities. Like Alice through the mirror, Christine, following in her footsteps, falls into the nocturnal side of existence, where unconscious desires emerge.
The question of desire is indeed that of the film. She first strikes the usher by her outward manifestations: it is the little merry-go-round of porn movie viewers or sex shop customers that first puts a flea in her ear. What is this masculine restlessness all about? In the evening, at the local bar (the Tin Pan Alley, haunt of underworld society), the stories of a stripper spur him on just as much. Pornography, modeled on the desire of men, opens a fantasy breach for her, where she can recover the initiative of looking. It is up to her, then, to occupy the desiring posture, that which consists in becoming impregnated with her object, in pursuing it to the point of obsession, in fulfilling it from a distance – the man here being only this haloed silhouette of mystery that stirs in the distance.
Little by little, reality bends and seems to change under Christine’s gaze. Like when she invents “dirty” scenes in the ear of her boyfriend Mark (Will Patton), a confused journalist. Or, in this vertiginous scene, when, in front of the big Variety screen, it is her face that emerges in the middle of a porn film.
With its “indie” production economy, Variety shines with its syncopated wanderings, sailing on the swell of the New York night, between its traffic lights, dodgy lights and neon signs. Wandering and drifting coincide here with a certain sinuous writing of the city, surveyed in its equivocal recesses, and even in its confines. Through its long takes, its scenes inscribed in the present, its abrasive jazzy soundtrack, its point-blank discussions and its purely silent staring games, the film sometimes rubs shoulders with a kind of urban dreamlikeness, akin to Taxi Driver.
In the end, Christine turns into a creature of the night, a fetish princess, mistress of her desire. And Variety to stop at the threshold of the “film noir” that it will never be, for having reversed the codes and drowned the program. His release is accompanied by an exhibition “Nan Goldin”, devoted to his photographs on set, inaugurating, from June 3, the Galerie Paris Cinéma Club, a new exhibition space for film lovers.