This Sweet Sickness: Frank Beauvais On His Obsessive, Archival-Based Memoir, Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream
In 2016, filmmaker Frank Beauvais was rudderless, living in a remote village in the French countryside without a driver’s license and riding out the wake of a breakup in rural isolation. Over the course of a few difficult months, he watched more than 400 movies at home, a torrential—and torrented—flood of film that both sustained and corroded him.
Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is a portrait of that time told through silent excerpts from Beauvais’s cinematic compendium. The films wildly span genre, nationality and time period, and are paired with a spoken first-person memoir narration track from Beauvais. The pairings are associative; the images beguiling, fleeting and unceasing. The consistent clip of the pacing is interrupted only by periodic cuts to black, allowing for a brief intake of air before plunging back into the depths.
Beauvais’s intimate prose is sharp and poetic. It laughs at itself when it can manage to, drips adjectives as it searches for meaning and delivers cutting descriptions of his townspeople compatriots. The form is hyperpersonal, hermetic, confessional and also global. Like Peter Watkins’s narrator in Edvard Munch, Beauvais pauses from the emotional torment to situate himself among the larger political meltdowns: the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, bombings in Syria, the state of emergency imposed upon France, the “Nuit Debout” activist movement. His father, with whom he has a complicated relationship, dies while they’re watching Jean Grémillon’s 1944 drama Le Ciel est à Vous (The Sky is Yours) together, which tips the depressive tenor of his previous screening habits over into true despair: “This spectator’s place is now linked to death.”
It’s an affective portrait of the historical present—what Lauren Berlant would describe as “a scene of constant bargaining with normalcy in the face of conditions that can barely support even the memory of the fantasy.” Personal hopelessness is inextricable from political hopelessness, and the question of this film is how to exist in this world. It’s situated firmly in the present tense; it captures, unlike any work I’ve seen, the anxiety of our current era.
In an interview conducted via email, Beauvais describes the filmmaking process of Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream as being “like taking cuttings from a plant,” an apt metaphor for an art that is both violently destructive and massively generative. The film opens in limited release from KimStim on April 22.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the context this came about in? How long after the period that it covers did you start working on it? Did you decide on this particular form right away or did it evolve into this?
Beauvais: The idea of the film appeared while France was plunged into a state of emergency, following the November 2015 terrorist attacks. The police and army were everywhere, and politicians and state ideologues were, as usual in such a context, taking advantage of the situation to legitimize stronger surveillance of the population, justify questionable identity controls or searches, and distill and infuse fear amongst citizens. At that time, I was living all by myself, in a small village in Alsace not far from the German border. I had broken up a few months before and was expecting a vacancy in a friend’s flat to move back to Paris. I kept fighting with a fiction script I felt less and less inclined to develop, being tired of readjusting and reshaping ideas to fit a market I wasn’t interested in. Feeling depressed, I indulged in severe binge-watching of movies, trying frantically to escape my anguish. At one point, the necessity of stopping this stream of images I submitted myself to became obvious—I needed to get out of the position of passive, mesmerized viewer I shut myself into and try to build something out of it. I then decided to recycle those images I stuffed myself with and go back to the found- (or, rather, “stolen-”) footage form I had formerly explored on two short works, and to rely on this form to give an account of my experience of the last six months I was to live in the village before my planned departure. This account connected a worldwide state of emergency, a national one and my own distress.
Filmmaker: Did the narration writing and selects of the clips come together simultaneously? How did you work with the editor?
Pettengill: Once the general shape of the project was drawn, I started working on my own before even leaving the village. I began by rewatching every single fiction film I had seen since April 2016 and extracting segments that would constitute a sort of pictorial database I knew I had to establish before taking any further step. Right after my arrival in Paris, we got together with Thomas Marchand, the editor, and started watching, sorting and indexing thematically the 60 hours of snippets I had brought back with me. I was convinced I had to get familiar with all the images we decided to keep before starting to write any kind of narration. So, we spent almost four months filing extracts and watching them over and over. It was only afterwards, while Thomas was working on another movie, that I actually began writing the text and opted for a retrospective chronological approach. I recorded that narration on a small dictaphone, and we used that rough and unpolished recording to start the second stage of editing, the “puzzle phase” as I call it, which consisted of testing systematically and ordering all of the shots we had selected over the voice, knowing we were looking for a dynamic between sound and image that could hold the time of a feature. We constantly searched [for] a balance between counterpoints, free associations, metaphorical hints, poetical hunches, homophonic nods and, on the other hand, more illustrative parts. For instance, the apartment I was living in and the countryside behind my windows would be incarnated as to convey to the viewers a tangible and realistic insight [into] my physical environment.
Filmmaker: How did you make the film selections? Were there any limiting criteria for choosing shots? Did you not want anything overtly recognizable? (At the end, I realized I’ve seen a lot of the films you used but couldn’t identify any of them by the shots you chose.)
Pettengill: All the excerpts used in the film stem from the circa 450 fiction movies I watched during the six months evoked in the narration. It was plain, from the beginning, I wouldn’t use material coming from experimental works, animations or documentaries, the idea being to try to explore the polysemous quality shots acquire once they’re discovered out of their original context—when they’re not linked anymore to a classical efficient grammar of fiction, once they’re stripped bare of their first functional identity.
As for the nature of the extracts themselves and what drives me toward some rather than others, it is very subjective. I made a rule of not using faces of professional actors, for two reasons. First, they symbolize the industry, money, capital and, as such, I feel I can’t include them in an intimate first-person account nourished by my disgust [with] what they stand for. And, using the face of a recognizable actor or actress could drive the viewer to the quiz mode, a danger the editor and I constantly fought against. If the spectator steps into the film trying to identify the origin of each shot, wondering if he guessed right, I fear he’ll become unable to connect to the narration. The shots I’m sensitive to would actually be the “lost” ones, the ones one wouldn’t first remember after watching a film: introducing shots, inserts, stock shots, parts of the bodies, objects, incidental landscapes. They have their own poetry that just asks to resurface in another arrangement, out of their initial, often conventional place.
Other sets of rules applied might be more obvious to decipher: no sound, never use two shots from the same films that were already edited together, respect of the ratio and speed of the original source, no loops.
Filmmaker: I believe there’s only one film mentioned or cited specifically in the film, during the section with your dad. Can you talk about the experience of returning to Jean Grémillon’s The Sky Is Yours to choose and edit the clips? You said you’d never be able to watch it again—what was the process of working with that film within the edit like?
Beauvais: [There are] actually two other films mentioned at some point—Heaven’s Gate when I learn about Michael Cimino’s death, and Renoir’s Night at the Crossroads, which I discovered at the [Cinemateca Portuguesa]. As for the rest of the narrative, this evocation sticks to what actually happened: As conveniently ironical it might seem, The Sky Is Yours is the movie I chose to show [my father] that night and in front of which he departed. And it is, to this day, the only film I know I won’t be able to ever watch again. The episode of my father’s death was a flashback in the narration, a two-year-old episode I needed to partake with the viewer to express how this trauma overshadowed every instant spent in my flat afterwards. Grémillon’s film was not part of the movies I watched during the six-month span the narration covers. So, according to the rules I had set, I didn’t need to go back to it but only to find images elsewhere that would, by association, refer to it. For instance, the crash of a toy airplane extracted from a black and white German movie from the ’80s.
Filmmaker: There’s a staccato pacing to the editing—the clips are very similar in length throughout (until the very end, of course). Can you talk about that? To me, it came close to capturing what depression feels like: The images may change, but the monotony of the feelings continue. But there’s also a way that working with archival material, in my experience, sometimes forces this—it’s often only so long within a shot before something intervenes that you don’t want, a face or a body or a camera move.
Beauvais: The question of the perception of pace is a rather subjective one. I think the film [has] around 1,700 cuts, which is less than your average action blockbuster. We had two crucial factors to consider to work on that pace: the connection to the rhythm of the blank narrative voice, of course, and as you mention, the original length of the shots themselves. Most of the time, apart from more contemplative contemporary films, the shots are used in full length. By definition, traditional mainstream editing usually [doesn’t] linger on inserts or functional, informative shots, so we had to compose with snippets that rarely exceeded three or four seconds.
The film needed to find its own music, considering these two factors and our will not to impose too much of an optical strain on the viewer, not to turn the experience into a sadistic one or a stroboscopic takeover. Silences and black screens are scarce, but they were, I reckon looking backwards, the keystone to finding a rhythm that was the one I had in mind and wouldn’t abuse the spectator above the level of implication and focus the project itself already asked for.
Filmmaker; Was there any work you were looking at as a reference while making this—other films or books? (I just finished Annie Ernaux’s The Years, and it really reminded me of that work in its relationship to protest in France, and as a chronicling of cultural references.)
Beauvais: Concerning films, I tried to forget any references I had, either in the field of found footage or diaristic cinema. But of course, the films you’ve seen linger in your mind and leave imprints whether you want them to resurface or not. I could name lots of moviemakers whose works surely paved the way for what I came up with: Chantal Akerman, Jonas Mekas, Alain Cavalier, David Perlov, Joseph Morder, Eric Pauwels with their first-person narration approach, and artists like Matthias Müller, Christoph Girardet, Gustav Deutsch, Thomas Draschan, Arthur Lipsett with their found-footage works. Guy Debord’s cinematographic pieces were maybe more consciously present to my mind, as they left a lasting impression on me ever since I discovered them, especially In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, and I knew I wanted the narrative voice to sound close to his tone that rejects lyricism and comfort.
To write the text itself, as I’m always reluctant and terrorized at the idea of sitting in front of a blank screen, what I did was to warm myself up before hitting the keyboard by reading authors whose work would guide me on a thematic or structural level (and indeed, Annie Ernaux’s masterpieces La Place and Les Années, as well as Georges Perec’s I Remember, were among them) or whose use of language, in terms of rhythm, syntax or economy of words is close to what I yearned to reach, among them James Baldwin, Georges Simenon, Hervé Prudon. I also listened to a lot of contemporary French conscious rap artists (Zippo, Dooz Kawa, Lucio Bukowski) and immersed myself in their acute and inventive lyrics and their sharpened and uncompromising look upon French society.
Filmmaker: In general, I’m fascinated by this act of rewatching all the films to make the movie. I wonder about your emotional state in this rewatching—did it feel utterly professional the second time around?
Beauvais: I have to admit I had a very pragmatic and surgical approach [to] the films at the time I went through them to look for the parts I could extract. It was scanning, searching, dismembering, rather than actually rewatching. I fast-forwarded them on VLC, stopping only when shots I thought could be useful popped on. I’m inclined to watch movies I like over and over again and would probably have indulged at that stage if doing it wouldn’t have prevented me timewise from watching other unseen movies. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t moved or stricken by the reappearance of certain images, colors or framings I had forgotten or ignored at the first screening. I would jubilate stumbling upon a particular shade of red in a giallo flick or the shade of a tree in a silent Austrian movie, but that second approach was closer to frantic digging and poaching than to sound and proper film watching. Maybe this step is the one where through the operation of extricating, isolating shots, one begins some kind of grieving process toward the original material that will lead to the possibility of considering the singled-out shots for themselves and not as part of a whole anymore, like taking cuttings from a plant.