Dedicated to the memory of Lesley Stern (1950-2021)
The integrity of the body was vital.
In 1982, the year that she began work on In This Life’s Body, Australian experimental filmmaker Corinne Cantrill experienced a health emergency and feared she was soon to die. This gave a poignant urgency to the project, which began as a live work-in-progress performance with screened images (titled Journey Through a Face) and ended as a 16mm film in 1984. Almost four decades later, Corinne is still with us. The film she made under the impetus of that sombre crisis has fair claim to be the greatest film in the entire history of Australian cinema. It has a power and a gravity that is matched only by the film medium’s finest masterpieces.
Let us note the specialness – the peculiarity, even – of In This Life’s Body in the context of the overall body of work by Corinne and her husband, Arthur Cantrill. First, it is the only film signed by one of them alone – all their many other films are collaborative efforts (he helped out only technically on this one). Second, in the midst of an œuvre devoted largely to abstract and non-narrative cinema, this is the only one that approaches, in a full-blooded way, the narration of a story; indeed, a life story. Third, although there is much of the Cantrills’ experience reflected in their films – their travels, encounters, residencies in cities around the world – this is, by any reckoning, the most personal, intimate and revealing.
And yet In This Life’s Body is not a conventional biopic, nor a re-enactment of Corinne’s life. It might be considered a documentary but, if so, it is a documentary in the very purest sense: constructed strictly from the surviving documents of still photographs and some select pieces of moving film. There are no slick televisual techniques used to ‘animate’ the photographs, no pans or zooms; likewise, there is no musical score to punctuate or underline the single human voice (Corinne’s) reading her testamentary text.
Faced with 147 minutes of (mainly) still photos and a bare voice, cinephiles will free-associate to precedents in film history including Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) or Raúl Ruiz’s Colloque de chiens (1977). In its severe, anti-sensational approach to archival documentation and the patient re-presentation of its materials, In This Life’s Body might also be aligned with the cinema of Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub or, more recently, John Gianvito.
But Corinne is not a cinephile of that sort. She was likely not even thinking of precedents within her own field of the avant-garde, such as Hollis Frampton’s (nostalgia) (1971) with its progressively burning still photos set against a de-phased vocal narration. The 1980s theoretical concerns of what Peter Wollen called the “new talkies” of America (the independent feature work of Yvonne Rainer, Mark Rappaport, Bette Gordon, James Benning and others) have never much been Corinne’s own concerns as an artist.
Her “supports”, insofar as she needed recourse to any, came from contemporary literature: the experimental image-and-text book Prodigal Daughters (1981) by Sheila Steinberg and filmmaker Laleen Jayamanne; the work of Australian writers Ania Walwicz (who died in 2020) and Valerie Kirwan (The Will to Fall, 1984); and, further back, the diaries of Anaïs Nin or the novels of Marguerite Duras. What these literary references share with the radical cinema of the 1980s is the constant shift in pronoun: from “I” to “she”, “you” to “we”.
The life story recounted by Corinne is, in many respects, remarkable. Like Ulrike Ottinger’s film-memoir Paris Calligrammes (2019), In This Life’s Body passes through various milestones of innovative culture during the 20th century: the sculpture of Robert Klippel, the art-photography of Bernard Poinssot, the poetry of the visionary Harry Hooton (whom the Cantrills knew and worked with, before devoting a major film to his memory), the open-minded curating of Jacques Ledoux, the music circle of Nadia Boulanger, the liberatory pedagogy of Fanny Cohen. Traces of many big cities flick by – Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, London.
This life-story also reflects opposing currents of culture, ideology and lifestyle: Jewishness, theosophy, Communism, bohemianism, mysticism. As Freda Freiberg has astutely observed, there is a “contradictory tension between the romance of technology and the romance of nature” in the work of the Cantrills.
I am a child of mixed race, destined to be a marginal person, caught in the push and pull of conflicting values.
The film offers a broad history of photography as simultaneously art, industry and everyday habit; as Corinne remarked, “Many genres of photography are represented: snapshots, studio portraits, school photos, candid camera shots and street photos, studies by aspiring amateurs, press photos and work by other professionals, film stills and mirror self-portraits”. However, these many types of photo are not used simply as transparent, trace evidence. In This Life’s Body is powered by a healthy suspicion of the photographic medium: what it does not reveal, what it evades or papers over, what it lies about, what it idealises or trivialises. The pose for the camera often does not reflect the subject’s own lived, internal story; sometimes it is a mere imposition of the photographer’s fantasy, this determining and defining gaze of the Other.
Rarely has such a minimalist dispositif of image and sound wielded such a maximal emotional effect. In This Life’s Body builds a powerfully resonant metaphor, wherein the most basic properties of the celluloid film strip – its grain, its duration, its ephemerality and fragility – reflect a particular conception of existence as something lived materially, bodily. The human body is complex and solid, a thing of many layers – and yet it may pass into nothingness and vanish at any moment. Just like a film.
Corinne Cantrill has long been resistant – like many avant-garde artists including Maya Deren and Jean Epstein – to the reductive use of Freudian psychoanalysis as a fixed, airtight interpretive grill. Not to mention her pragmatic distaste for modish, in-grown, obsessive, bourgeois self-introspection. So do not go looking for any tidy Oedipus or Elektra complexes in here. Likewise, do not hunt in In This Life’s Body for the metaphors, symbols and allegories and myths of the Jungian collective unconscious. There is spirituality in the work of the Cantrills, but it is of another type, in a different dimension, working on a more immanent plane.
On the other hand, the film is a minefield – one perhaps not entirely under the control of its maker – of interpersonal psychic projections, idealisations and displacements (just as photographs are), especially as these work themselves out through the generations of family relationships, and in the erotic attachments of love. No person is an island, and the Self is always formed in and against a network of pertinent Others. Corinne’s mother, we learn, “idealised her dead mother”. Her own father remains a shadowy figure. The celebrated filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux, on seeing the film in Buenos Aires in 2003, speculated about the relative absence of photos of Corinne’s own children, and the subtle dissonance this creates in her individual life-accounting. For her part, Corinne wonders whether, in past incarnations, she has been a man, and what kinds of relationships (whether a sibling, parent, child, lover or friend) she has previously engaged in, helping to create the volatile person she became.
Corinne, as an artist, has perhaps come to feel, over time, that there is an inordinate emphasis on In This Life’s Body over and above the more evidently challenging, abstract and exploratory landscape work of Arthur and herself. Is its appeal too obvious, too accessible, too “sentimental” for this life-long avant-gardist? I vividly recall her disdain, at the live performances of Journey Through a Face and the first screenings of the finished film, over people thinking they immediately “knew” her intimately as a human being – the risk run by all “confessional”, autobiographical art. But a confession is also a mask, and is no less a fiction, a presentation of the self as one wants it to be seen.
In This Life’s Body makes for sobering and fascinating viewing in our Age of the Selfie, when people are more than ever in command of their self-imaging – and yet ever more unknowingly mired in clichés and stereotypes that inject alienation and neurosis into every gaze into the lens (even one’s own mobile phone lens). Corinne Cantrill offers us another way, from another time, of thinking-through and acting-out the process of self-portraiture. The vessel of ‘life’s body’ is not bound to a single identity or destiny; rather, it is discontinuous, relative, forever open to possibilities of transformation. It is a stream that (as Lesley Stern suggested) is “holey rather than wholesome”. There may be one death for each of us, but there are so many lives along the way.
I feel it is still possible to remake myself … in this life’s body.
Note: All italicised quotations are from the soundtrack of In This Life’s Body; a copy of the script was kindly supplied to me by Corinne & Arthur Cantrill in 2003. I am indebted to previous writing on the film by Freda Freiberg, Anna Dzenis, Kris Hemensley and Lesley Stern.