'Living and Knowing You are Alive' ('Etre vivant et le savoir'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
A scrappy but heartfelt tribute to absent friends.

Cannes veteran Alain Cavalier ruminates on death, art and friendship in this intimate first-person documentary.

A light treatment of a heavy subject, Alain Cavalier’s latest essay-film finds the 87-year-old French director musing on his own mortality while processing the untimely deaths of various close friends. Shot on hand-held digital camera, Living and Knowing You are Alive is essentially a sequel in style and theme to Cavalier’s first-person docu-memoir about his late wife, Irene (2009). Both are scrappy, minimalist, idiosyncratic home movies that blossom into something more poetic and universal.

Living and Knowing You are Alive has just world premiered in the Special Screenings section in Cannes, Cavalier’s sixth visit to the festival in a career spanning more than half a century. With backing from Arte France, this esoteric niche item is firmly targeted at an older generation of French cinema and literary connoisseurs. Although local powerhouse Pathe have already lined up a domestic release, theatrical potential overseas will be very slender. That said, documentary festivals and specialist Francophile distributors may appreciate the film’s rarefied Gallic flavor. But whatever its commercial fortunes, this highly personal project is primarily a fond memorial from one veteran artist to another, and possibly even a veiled farewell from Cavalier himself.

The opening sequence finds Cavalier on a train to Geneva to pay his last respects to a terminally ill friend he has known for 70 years, Anne, who has elected to commit assisted suicide. Anne only appears as an off-screen voice, sounding surprisingly cheerful. After she has passed, Cavalier's camera lingers on an old monochrome photo from her youth, a strikingly beautiful woman with the armor-plated chic of a French New Wave heroine. A small gesture, but quietly powerful.

Cavalier then meets up with another long-time friend, Emmanuele Bernheim, a feted author and screenwriter who worked with Francois Ozon among others. Back in 2016 the pair began planning a collaborative film based on Bernheim’s 2013 memoir Tout S’est Bien Passe, which chronicled her own father’s journey to assisted suicide. However, before they could start work in earnest, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Postponing the film plans, she began a series of treatments.

The bulk of Living and Knowing You are Alive is essentially an offbeat video diary of how Cavalier stays in touch with Bernheim during her illness: leaving phone messages, writing notes, summarizing hospital updates, even shooting her smiling through a chemotherapy session. He remains cheery and supportive at all times, even as her diagnosis goes from bad to worse.

When it finally becomes clear that Bernheim is dying, Cavalier’s free-associating ruminations take a more poetic turn, with recurring focus on religious iconography and still-life collections of apparently random motifs: curvaceous pumpkins, dead mice, crumbling wooden statues of Jesus. With mortality hanging in the air, these quotidian snapshots of domestic clutter suddenly take on a weighty symbolic significance. In the midst of these doleful events, Cavalier also attempts a “dress rehearsal” of his own death, which he coolly reasons can not be far away. There is absurd humor and life-affirming levity here, despite the bleak subject matter.

Cavalier shoots and edits Living and Knowing You are Alive in a wilfully disjointed lo-fi style, with scant trace of post-production finessing. He also peppers the film with visual art, poetry and music, plus fragments of Bernheim’s writing and his own. There are faint echoes of the late Agnes Varda’s hand-crafted, playfully naive screen grammar here, which is fitting for a Cannes festival where Varda’s memory is being celebrated. Cavalier's slight autumnal work is an unconventional, unpolished, frequently self-indulgent oddity made for a narrow niche audience. But it is also a gently moving meditation on friendship, grief and the strangely sensual beauty of pumpkins.

Venue: Cannes film festival (Special Screenings)
Production companies: Camera One, Arte France
Cast: Alain Cavalier, Emmanuele Bernheim
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor: Alain Cavalier
Producer: Michel Seydoux
Sales company: Pathe
82 minutes