“…then they discovered cinema and slowly we became friends.” – Danièle Huillet
Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (2001), or in english Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, is a filmed record by Pedro Costa (with Thierry Lounas assisting) of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub completing a new edit of their film Sicilia! (1999). Of the team Straub–Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub was always the extrovert and the spokesperson for their work. Their collaboration and marriage was maintained by a careful balancing act of personalities and a mutual interest in cinema and politics.
So it’s no surprise that it is Straub’s voice that dominates the soundtrack of Où gît votre sourire enfoui?. He discusses their methods of editing and directing, relating the development of their style as well as the development of the cinema to key figures such as Sergei Eisenstein, Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson. As Straub becomes gradually more absorbed in what he is saying, Huillet simply carries on editing Sicilia!. That is until Huillet requires Straub’s input or simply wants to keep him from digressing. In a way Huillet is editing Straub’s performance for Costa’s camera at the same time she is editing Sicilia!.
The balancing act of personalities in the partnership of Straub-Huillet is one made of opposing extremes that cannot help but to check one another. Interestingly, the only time that Costa leaves the editing facility with his subjects is to follow them to a screening of their first feature film Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). The dichotomy of Straub-Huillet as persons is reflected in Où gît votre sourire enfoui? via the inclusion of both their first feature and what turned out to be their final feature together. As Straud introduces Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach with his usual intellectual charm, Huillet is running the projector above. His comments are philosophical while hers are definitive and visceral. From the time that Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach was made to the time that Sicilia! was released the two opposing personalities of Straub-Huillet became more and more ingrained and unified within their works.
For their entire careers Straub-Huillet have had this stigma to them as “overly intellectualized” filmmakers making “inaccessible” films for the intelligentsia. Of course this is a false characterization of their work that stems from a backlash to the French New Wave and the European Art film that occurred in the mid-seventies here in the United States. With his film Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, Pedro Costa looks too correct that misconception. Not only does he capture those moments where the couple is bent over the monitor trying to find emotional truth in a scene, but he captures a glimpse of Straub-Huillet as a married couple.
For a long time here in the states most of the information regarding Straub-Huillet that was available came in either the form of academic film criticism or as anecdotes by other filmmakers (my favorite example of the latter is Jim Jarmusch’s story of how Straub-Huillet donated some unexposed film stock leftover from one of their films to him so he could complete Permanent Vacation). Seeing a film like Où gît votre sourire enfoui? is like attending a special lecture. Not only is one there to absorb the genius of these two master filmmakers, but one gets to see them as the loving, bickering old couple. Huillet is always correcting Straub’s romanticized recollections with the more mundane truth though this never seems to stop him from doing it again a moment later. Their contribution to the cinema is monolithic but at the end of the day they were just a sweet and snarky old couple.