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Friday, May 12, 2006

Legendary lensman plays it straight

Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Heinz Butler
Running time: 72 minutes
Language: French
Opens May 20
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson died at the age of 95 in 2004, it was as if he had taken a chunk off the 20th century and laid it beside him in the coffin.

News photo
Henri Cartier-Bresson

As the father of photojournalism he taught his viewers not only to see, but experience moments that defined modern history. Take, for example, the way in which he framed two black men looking at the White House in the late 1950s: They were a part of America, but cut off from its privileges, wealth and liberty. No other photographer had quite the detached precision of Cartier-Bresson -- his was an art that needed no interpretation, but at the same time evoked excess passion.

Like a boy with a butterfly net, he captured the moment, pinned it down and framed it within the neat, stark contrasting scheme of a black-and-white print. And then he strolled off to hunt more butterflies.

Cartier-Bresson's career spanned some 70-plus years -- that's a lot of butterflies. And though his work is famed worldwide, his personality and private life have always been closely guarded. Until the making of this movie he staunchly refused to sit in front of a camera and avoided interviews as much as possible. Which is why "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye" is such a precious piece of filmmaking, despite the fact that Swiss documentarian Heinz Butler does little else besides place a rigidly upright camera right in front of Cartier-Bresson, have him thumb through his own work and recall the anecdotes attached to this print or that. In this way, the film is as placid and restrained as a Cartier-Bresson photo.

When Butler first rolled the camera the master photographer was 93, and died just around the time the film was completed. As far as epitaphs go, the utter unpretentiousness and streamlined simplicity of this work would probably have been very much to his liking. The work is less a documentary than a tribute by a fan whose primary concern was to empathize with and protect his idol, to be as inoffensive and unobtrusive as possible.

The approach is in marked contrast to "Arakimentari," the documentary of photographer Nobuyoshi Araki released last year, which showed Araki in various degrees of mirth and gaiety fueled by his seemingly insatiable sex drive. Cartier-Bresson seems positively priestlike in comparison, not just because of his age, but because, as a photographer, his motivation lay elsewhere.

While detachment was his signature style, Cartier-Bresson never ceased to be surprised by the world and the particular moments it yielded. There's an innocence to Cartier-Bresson that belies the brilliance and range of his work; he traveled all over the world and shot photos of eunuchs in China, whores in Mexico, Mahatma Ghandi on a hospital bed and yet none of it seems to have left even the slightest dent on his perky, boyish face.

At times, Butler pulls the camera off Cartier-Bresson and focuses it on others who talk about him, among them Eliot Erwitt, Josef Koudelka and French actress Isabelle Huppert. She talks of how posing for Cartier-Bresson differed from any other photographer she had known, how he was interested in the essence of her, which transcended her profession and even her gender. Arthur Miller reminisces about his wife Marilyn Monroe, and how Cartier-Bresson had captured her in a rare moment of solitary pensiveness when her glamorous celebrity side vanished and the very core of a little-seen, introverted personality surfaced for one magical moment.

The master is perhaps prouder of a portrait of Coco Chanel, when he captured her in a rare moment of cheerfulness ("She smiled!"), all the more priceless because the smile was gone the second he happened to mention the name of a hated archrival.

In the end, however, Madame Chanel's photographic worth is on the exact same level as a pair of Mexican prostitutes, protruding their chests from a small window, as well as the geometrical beauty of a staircase lit by a late afternoon sun. To look at a Cartier-Bresson photo is to have a heightened awareness of what one is seeing, and at the same time to cultivate a singular, clinical disinterest. The world is extraordinary, he seems to be saying, but at the same time it's nothing that warrants a big fuss.

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