On Monday, April 24, the Wasserman Cinematheque was filled with professors, students and other members of the community excited to attend the screening of the French film “Louis-Ferdinand Céline.”
Director Emmanuel Bourdieu flew in from Paris to present the film amid a highly publicized election happening in France. The night began with an introduction of Bourdieu and the film, presented by Prof. Alice Kelikian, chair of the Program in Film, Television and Interactive Media as well as the event organizer. Following his introduction, Bourdieu spoke about the film.
“Louis-Ferdinand Céline” is an interesting film that also has ties to Brandeis. The story is based on an encounter between French author Louis-Ferdinand Déline (Denis Lavant) and Prof. Milton Hindus (Philip Desmeules). Hindus, an English professor, was one of Brandeis’ original 13 faculty members. The film takes place after World War II when Céline, who supported the Nazi occupation and published many anti-Semitic pamphlets, was exiled to Denmark. Hindus admires Céline for his writing rather than his politics and visits him in order to write a book about him.
At first, Hindus and viewers do not suspect anything hostile from Céline; we just know that he is hated in France. It is about a half-hour into the film that Céline first uses anti-Semitic language toward Hindus. The rest of the film focuses on how Hindus wants to observe and learn more about Céline and his craft but must tolerate the awkwardness of knowing about Céline’s hatred of Jews. Celine’s wife Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) acts as the angel on his shoulder for the most part, telling him to be grateful to Hindus for getting him out of prison. Because of her influence, Céline pretends to like Hindus. One thing that was incongruous was the fact that Céline, a supporter of Nazism, would constantly call Hitler a clown and speak negatively about Hitler, even though he once supported him.
The more Hindus tries to learn more about writing from Céline, the more irritated Céline becomes. As Céline behaves more obnoxiously, Hindus starts to question why he left his pregnant wife and risked his career to defend and work with Céline. Hindus’ tipping point is when he, Céline and Lucette get drunk, and Céline mocks Jews by offensively performing a Jewish dance. This prompts Hindus to leave, with both Lucette and Céline begging him to stay and help them. The film ends with a Danish man asking Hindus if he is American. Hindus, who earlier presented himself as an “American Jew” when Céline asked him if he was Jewish, replies to the Dane by saying, “I’m a Jew.”
After the film, Bourdieu spoke to the audience about his film. The discussion was moderated by graduate instructor Drew Flanagan. Bourdieu quickly explained that he does not idolize Céline in any way. “I prefer Proust to Céline,” Bourdieu joked. Bourdieu’s producer suggested that he write a film about Céline’s life, and he worked with his co-writer, Marcia Romano, to explore the topic. “It’s a very adventurous life,” Bourdieu said. “His life did not have a structure. It was a collection of facts and fascinating episodes. We could have written about Céline writing his novel during the first World War or his love affair with an American dancer, Elizabeth Craig,” he added.
Bourdieu said he did not want to make a biopic or a word-for-word adaptation of a novel. When Romano found Hindus’ 1950 memoir, “The Crippled Giant,” they were inspired to write about the three weeks where Hindus and Céline meet. Bourdieu explained that this chapter of Céline’s life felt “very condensed,” and he could focus on Céline’s anti-Semitism.
Bourdieu touched on the movie’s main theme: Can an artist be separated from their politics? This sparked a lot of insight, not only from Bourdieu, but also from Flanagan and the audience. “To understand a novel, you have to read it and nothing around it,” Bourdieu said. An audience member and Brandeis alumnus recalled a time when he had to read Ezra Pound for a class. He approached his professor, asking him why they were reading Pound, who was a fascist and anti-Semite. His professor told him to “separate the art from the person.”
Flanagan mentioned the rise in prejudice rhetoric in politics and asked Bourdieu about Marine Le Pen, a member of the National Front, a nationalist party and a candidate for the presidency in France. Bourdieu expressed that he was “very much ashamed about the French elections” and described the election as a race between “two clowns,” a reference to the subtitle of his film. On the topic of prejudice, Bourdieu pointed out how Céline’s inability to hide his anti-Semitism resulted in his ultimate downfall.
Bourdieu and his film received a positive reaction from the audience. The film succeeded in portraying the harmful effects of ignorance. Céline went from being one of France’s most beloved writers to being severely hated and exiled from his country. In an era where unabashed prejudice still exists, this movie shows how, despite one’s talent, one’s rhetoric can destroy a legacy.