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Captures the feeling of resignation following a tragic love story
This ten-minute short follows the story of Berenice, queen of the Jews, although she is never mentioned by name.
Suetonius records in his "Lives of the Caesars" that Emperor Titus had fallen in love with Queen Berenice, but against both of their wills he had found it necessary to expel her from Rome. "Répudié, chassée, pour raison d'état" (quote from the film).
Titus is described in the movie as "le criminel du Temple", in reference to the fact that, before he became emperor, he led the Fifteenth Legion (Legio XV Apollinaris) to Jerusalem to suppress the Jewish Revolt, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple. The Second Temple was built on the site of the First Temple, or The Temple of Solomon (which had housed the Ark of the Covenant), after it was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Very little is known about the story, which is why the tiny fragment from Suetonius is so suggestive, particularly to Jean Racine who made it into a play. Cassius Dio mentions that Romans were not happy with the prospect of a marriage between Titus and Berenice, he records in his chronicle "Roman History":
"...Diogenes, entering the theatre when it was full, denounced the pair in a long, abusive speech, for which he was flogged; and after him Heras, expecting no harsher punishment, gave vent to many senseless yelpings in true Cynic fashion, and for this was beheaded."
The term yelpings comes on account of Cynics generally being likened to dogs. This was actually the first of two times Titus was forced to expel her, Suetonius recording the second. It's been speculated that he always meant for her to return to him, however he died two years later.
Maguerite Duras chose Ceasarea Maritima as the location of Berenice's exile (she dropped out of the historical record following her expulsion, so this had to be a guess). Prior to the events mentioned the Bible records Berenice as being at Caesarea for the judgement of Paul of Tarsus where she co-presided as a judge, finding Paul not guilty of any crimes. It is perhaps a likely spot as it was made the capital of Judaea following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Duras travelled to Israel in the 1970s and was moved by the ruins. She mentioned in her voice-over during the film the idea of the marble dust mixing with the sand on the beach, and imagines columns of blue marble. Much of the beauty of the film lies in images that the viewer sees in their mind's eye, there's an almost anti-cinematic call for imagination in both this film and more explicitly in L'Homme Atlantique
The actual images in the film are shots from different locations in Paris, including the Seine river, the Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, and (mostly) Aristide Malliol sculptures in the Tuileries gardens. These shots were assembled from unused footage from the Duras film Le navire Night (The Ship Night) (1979), which is known to some as a failure. Duras' production was collapsing and so she decided to turn the film into a film about the impossibility of making the film, for example including shots of the actors being made up before the commencement of shooting. Les Mains Negatives is another short made from unused shots from the same movie.
A statue representing Berenice is shot through scaffolding so that she appears trapped, her freedom to love taken away from her. She may well have been one of history's great lovers, prior to Titus there were a number of failed marriages, and she was rumoured to have had an incestuous relationship with her brother.
The film is accompanied by the ecstatic violin solo of Amy Flamer, who does not seem to have become a big name, judging from the extreme difficulty of finding any information out about her.
Shots in the movie are often sensually divided by short shots of black screen, which look more significant when, in context, you see Duras extend these black screen moments for very large amounts of time in L'Homme Atlantique. They've been described as apocalyptic, or dark orgasmic zones, zones of plenitude, or of absence.
The voice-over by Maguerite Duras is clearly very heartfelt, she is enraptured at points, capturing the cruelty and emotion of the story, almost speaking with the voice of Berenice.
"The place is called Caesarea, and there is nothing left to see except everything".
Cesarée appears in high quality on YouTube, but without subtitles.
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