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The View from Inside Her Rectangle

Chris Fletcher explores Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal, Jean-Pierre Melville’s films policier, and Guy Casaril’s L’astragale.

In May 2013, at the urging of Patti Smith, New Directions released a new English edition of Albertine Sarrazin’s 1965 novel, Astragal. It is the story of Anne, a 19-year-old in jail for robbery who breaks her ankle (her astragalus, specifically) in a night-time escape. The novel begins with that break, and recounts Anne’s impressions as she is bundled from hiding place to hiding place by Julien, a convict with a heart of gold, who finds her that first lame night on the lam.

In her preface to the new edition, Smith recalls the circumstances surrounding her discovery of Astragal. She tells of the artist boyfriend who would disappear for long stretches and return unexpectedly, a pattern echoed in the novel as Anne waits in various rooms for Julien to return. It is not hard to see why the book became a touchstone that helped determine the shape of Smith’s life and art. When you are sitting alone waiting for a specific someone to come through the door, perhaps it is better to see a kindred soul who understands the ache, rather than the beloved who understands nothing.

In her short review of Astragal in The Paris Review, Sadie Stein opines that she’s probably too old for it; that it’s one of those books one must read before a certain age in order for it to gain its full import. I suppose if we are to take Smith’s experience with the novel as our baseline, then being of a certain age and situation is preferable. After all, the 21-year-old Smith was able to look at the cover bearing a “striking, remote face—rendered violet on black” and see herself in Sarrazin.

Being able to see Sarrazin has always been important; a fact that was not lost on her publishers. According to the original 1967 jacket flap for Patty Southgate’s English translation of Astragal, the fact “that Albertine Sarrazin herself spent nine years in prison; that, like her heroine, she escaped one night, broke her ankle in the fall, and spent several months clinging precariously to her freedom with the help of man named Julien, is immaterial.”

The violet face of Sarrazin on the cover of Astragal is also the face of Anne. And it is also the face of the protagonist of Sarrazin’s other two novels, which form a trilogy of sorts with Astragal. In La Cavale (1965), Anick is an imprisoned convict writing about prison life. In La Traversière (1966), Albertine is an ex-con adjusting to life on the outside while writing a novel. Each of these names—Anne, Anick, Albertine—are names Sarrazin bore at different times.

Albertine Sarrazin was born as Albertine Damien in Algiers. Left by her 15-year-old mother at the Assistance Publique, adopted, and renamed Anne R. (last name unknown), Sarrazin was eventually disowned by her adoptive parents, who ostensibly could not handle being the parents of a thief and prostitute. On many occasions, Sarrazin emphasized the connection between herself and the convict-characters of her three novels, saying, “Anick, c’est moi.”

After providing the reader with the “immaterial” autobiographical information mentioned above, the flap copy for Astragal goes on to tell us “what does matter are the dirt-stained, blue-lined notebook pages which survived the vicissitudes of so many cells and which, smuggled out of prison to a French publisher, turned a nineteen-year-old prisoner into the writer you are about to discover.”

Sarrazin’s discoverers must have been mostly fickle: despite an initial rush to read her work, which led to close to one million copies of Astragal being sold by 1973, and a hard core of fans like Patti Smith, the novel has spent many years out of print in English. But maybe young Albertine was doomed from the outset, what with her publisher simultaneously highlighting and downplaying the autobiographical nature of her work, while pushing the reader to view her as a prison writer, a female Genet.

In contrast, the jacket copy of the New Directions edition does not ask the reader to think of the similarities between Sarrazin and Anne. Neither does it ask us to picture Anick-Anne-Albertine Sarrazin in her cell, scribbling her story. It trusts us to connect the dots between a précis of Anne’s story on the front flap and a mention of Sarrazin’s “life of crime and prostitution” mentioned on the back flap.

This edition also eschews Sarrazin’s face for a drawing of a foot:

And so I’m proud to say that even without a violet on black image of Sarrazin on the cover, I was attracted to Astragal.

But the copy on the New Directions website does say that Astragal is “alive as a Godard movie,” so that may have something to do with my initial attraction.

***

I try very hard not to read Astragal as the script of some lost New Wave film, or a novel in need of adaptation. At first, it seems that I will not have too hard a time avoiding this impulse. The first line of the book reads: “The sky had lifted at least thirty feet.”

The sky lifting? We’re in metaphorical territory here. No way to film that.

I keep reading, but my mind wanders back to the film of Astragal.

In the end, I decide that we can begin the film with a full shot of Anne on top of the wall looking up at the stars; cut to her POV; and then cut to her POV at the bottom of the wall. As long as the wall rises up on the side of the frame, it’ll be clear where we are and what has happened—after a period of disorientation, of course. This disorientation of the viewer will match the disorientation of Anne, who goes on to say that she “sat there, not moving. The shock must have cracked the pavement, my right hand fumbled in the rubble.”

Then I wonder whether we can hold off showing Anne in full until after she falls. That way we can build her through a series of close ups.

We’ll start with her hand, fumbling in the rubble, then follow her instructions: “…my hand left the ground, felt up my left arm, up to my shoulder, back down my ribs to my hips: nothing, I was intact, I could go on.”

As it turns out, a lot of Astragal is the accretion of images spliced together by punctuation: “I pass the house, whose light is still shining; I go on along the wall, on the grassy path, elbow, knee, elbow . . . there is the road, gleaming, divided by the yellow line.”

Sarrazin also uses colons to create jump cuts: “There is a metal sign on the sidewalk advertising a brand of gas: I hang onto it, the panel clangs, I will start hitchhiking here. . . . No, Paris is in the other direction, let’s go across.”

Do you see it? The sudden appearance of Anne on the sign? More importantly, do you feel it? Anne’s inner toughness?

Listen to this:

The first step is a white-hot poker, the second jelly, I pitch forward across the yellow line, the first car will run over me. …Here it comes, it’s a truck: it’s going my way and will take shreds of me to Paris sticking to its wheels. I stare at it, into its huge yellow eyes. It bears down on me.

“White-hot poker” is a hardboiled metaphor if ever I heard one, and “jelly” is a pretty good follow-up. I’d say that Sarrazin made Anne sound Chandleresque, but Anne’s more French, more elliptical in her literalness. Similes are in short supply. Anne is the Philip Marlowe of metaphors.

After Julien finds Anne in the road, he deposits her in the woods and tells her not to move. Upon his return, she gives us this image to see in our mind’s eye: “A match striking. A shooting star, a searchlight.” As it is night-time, any one of these things is possible, and the reader sees them, if only for a millisecond, before Anne tells us what is really going on: “No, it’s the forge in my ankle illuminating the whole crossroad: the sparks whirl around for a moment….”

By giving us moment-by-moment sensations filtered through figurative language, Anne (and, consequently, Sarrazin) not only constructs herself as a perceptive and creative character, but she also acts as a sort of film editor, building effects out of montage.

She goes on to tell us that the whirling sparks

…gather and freeze into a brilliant circle of light, a huge torch whose beam passes through the base of my head and lands, without striking me, on the tree trunk. It also seems to me that the brief, dying sound of an engine has swelled the night; but I must have been dreaming, only the cold grates on my ears. All the same, the headlight is still there, I can make out the details of the tree’s bark, and now a second one lights up, tiny and wavering, which searches rapidly, close to the ground. It’s all over, I’ve been found.

So the original searchlight was really a searchlight but also, at the same time, Anne’s ankle forge. It is this oscillation of language that will make me return to Astragal in the future.

At this point, it’s far from over. For the duration of the novel, Anne is moved from room to room, and with each move she is brought closer to the kind of behavior that landed her in jail in the first place. There is no escape.

In the first room, in the home of Julien’s family, Anne lies in her bed, already aware that she has traded one kind of confinement for another:

I was lying inside a rectangle, with, attached to me, an unfamiliar weight that prevented my escape; a weight of extraordinary inertia and rigidity, an obstinate, dead member, a piece of living wood with no regard for me or the efforts of my head and muscles to force it to obey.

***

Astragal feels less like a Godard film than an extension of the world of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime thrillers. Melville is often referred to as the godfather of the French New Wave, having used handheld cameras and a jump-cut in Bob le flambeur, four years before  À bout de souffle (a film in which he also had a small on-screen role). Like Sarrazin, Melville was a fiercely independent artist, more interested in the individual than in the societal forces around them. Unlike Sarrazin, he did not often depict women with rich inner lives. Most of Melville’s crime films are homo-social affairs, depicting men in intense relationships with each other. In these films, women play a decidedly small role, usually confined a few lines of dialogue in a room or two.

In Le Doulos (1962), the first woman we see, Thérèse (Monique Hennessy), is slapped, hogtied, belted to a radiator, and gagged by Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Manouche (Christine Fabréga) plays a larger role in Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) than many of her sisters do in other Melville crime films, but her lover, the protagonist Gustave, still chooses the honour of thieves over a life with her. In addition, when Gu is confined to a room in much the same way as Anne is confined in Astragal, he is clear that he is still in control of his situation in a way that she is not.

In Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), the protagonist’s girlfriend/alibi, Jane (Nathalie Delon), is only ever seen in two places: her apartment and the police station, and it is easy to imagine that she only exists in those two places. At one point, a policeman comes to her apartment and sits on her bed, blurring the line between the two:

The woman with the most bearing on the plot of Le Cercle Rouge (1970) is seen only twice, both times in the bedroom and both times naked. Her name in the credits? “L’ancienne amie de Corey.” Her name in real life? Anna Douking.

Un Flic (1972) has the greatest number of somewhat substantial roles for women out of Melville’s crime films. In it Catherine Deneuve is caught in a love triangle, but gets limited screen time. She mostly acts as a bonding agent for the two male leads. The other prominent woman in the film ends up being revealed as a man.

As I read Astragal (I almost wrote watch), I envision it as the story of Thérèse or Jane or Manouche, and I wonder whether a film of the novel could balance out the male-dominated crime films I’ve seen.

I decide to find out.

***

Guy Casaril’s L’astragale was released in 1968, and I had a heck of time finding it. At first I tried to get it through a library, only to find that there was only one copy listed on WorldCat—and it happened to be in Germany. The odds of getting it through inter-library loan were not good. I looked online in all of the reputable places for a copy for sale. Amazon.fr had one used copy on VHS for £40.00. As I am not in habit of watching video cassettes or paying £40.00 for movies, I kept looking.

L’astragale has never been released on DVD. This means that for all intents and purposes, it does not exist. Through channels Anne herself may have resorted to, I acquired a copy of the film.

I did not have high hopes for it; Guy Casaril is best known for directing Emilienne (1975), an exploitation film created to cash in on the success of Emmanuelle, which had been released the year before. While looking around for a copy of L’astragale, I found an AVI file of the film on a website touting itself as a one-stop-shop for “women in prison” films. This information, coupled with the opening sequence of women being marched through a cellblock, gave me pause. If Casaril had made an exploitation film out of Astragal, I was ready to blast him for it.

After the intro and a sequence showing Anne getting into bed with her lover, Rolande, and shooting up with a drug in order to be sent to the infirmary, I was pretty sure that Casaril had gone down the exploitation route. The fact that Anne uses drugs and “has learned to love girls, to gauge them” is explained by the second chapter of the novel, but putting these scenes first in the film highlights them in a way that seems calculated for maximum titillation.

The escape sequence is rather pedestrian from a directorial standpoint, but there are some nice angles in it.

Casaril does not follow my advice about how to depict Anne after she breaks her ankle: she gets up and stumbles. (We do get a nice shot of her trailing leg, for what it’s worth.) What is missing is the montage that Sarrazin provides the reader of her novel. Even if it would be difficult for Casaril to connect the montage with the thoughts of Anne, I think the audience would have attributed the thought process they would have to go through to decode what they were seeing to Anne herself.

What Jobert does throughout the sequence is act disoriented. Anne makes an awful racket, yelping and moaning and getting her hair caught in barbed wire, none of which happens in the novel. Now, I understand that filmmakers have to adapt books for the screen, but it seems that the choices Casaril makes in L’astragale push the story toward a surface realism. It winds up being something other than exploitation, but it doesn’t communicate the reality of the character, either.

There are parts that work well when rendered using continuity editing. The visual impact of the truck with “yellow eyes” is almost as strong as in the original text. For a moment I thought the truck would actually run her over.

Marléne Jobert’s Anne is not a close-cropped Sarrazin or Seberg or Smith, so she does not exude “cool” as easily when she smokes her Gauloises. Neither does she project defiance in the face of long odds. Overall, I was disappointed by Jobert’s portrayal of Anne, a character I read as exuding a kind of inner toughness, as evidenced by her thoughts about her dependence on Julien:

At any rate, it’s thanks to the loot he picks up at night over perilous garden walls that my leg has been healed. Surgery, if you’re not insured, is thirty or forty bucks a day, and then there was my board at Pierre’s, all kinds of expenses . . . Julien is making me a golden leg. Just the same, I refuse to be sanctimoniously grateful: I’m sure that I myself would have been able, I would have even been obliged to do the same, if I had spotted in my headlights, one freezing spring night, a man who needed me to complete his liberation.

I suppose that Jobert’s Anne could be thinking all of those wonderful things; there’s just no way of knowing.

Actually, that isn’t quite right: she is thinking all of those things—I know; I’ve read the novel. But there is something about watching Marlene Jobert going through the travails of Anne which sets off alarms in my head. Maybe it’s all the gasping and crying, maybe it’s the Marlo Thomas squeak in her voice, but I can’t help but feel contempt for this Anne.

But then again, maybe it’s my male gaze at work, unable to process a woman as anything other than a surface upon which to project my thoughts and expectations.

***

As much as I do not want to admit it, I see now the casual sexism of my feminism. Sure, I think that directors like Melville ought not to put women on display as objects, but maybe part of the problem lies with me. Maybe a first-person point-of-view (like Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of Marlowe’s The Lady in the Lake) is the answer to the male gaze. Don’t let the camera lens record a woman—rather; have it record what she experiences.

There is something hackneyed and disturbing about such a prescription, however. Maybe I ought to go back to reading novels like Astragal until I can watch a film with a female protagonist without judging her, or at least until I can give her the benefit of the doubt.

But that is no escape, either. When I read a novel, I am projecting myself into the text. Maybe I feel no contempt for Anne in Sarrazin’s novel because she is me.

I think I may need Sarrazin’s face on the cover of Astragal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Fletcher’s work has appeared in the Quarterly Conversation and elsewhere. He lives in the gap between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 17th, 2013.