CCA Wattis, San Francisco

Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts / 360 Kansas Street
CA 94103-5130 San Francisco

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artist / participant

press release

The French artist Valérie Mréjen is both a published writer (her books include Mon grand-père [1999] and L'agrume [2001]) and an established filmmaker, although both media often overlap and interrelate in her work. Short blocks of text that read as playlets or anecdotes characterize her writing, and they also inform her videos, which typically involve a fixed camera on a single subject who is relating a story. Mréjen is most interested in the banal, minute details of the everyday. Her films often seem intimate, featuring universal conversations or monologues. In Jocelyne (1998) a young woman recounts the story of one of her sexual experiences; in Tears of Blood (2000) a wife complains about her husband; and in Maïté and Philippe (1998) a father asks his daughter how she is. But the familiarity of these scenes, their mundaneness, takes on a curious artificiality. Each has been carefully crafted, scripted, and staged, thereby undermining any real emotional content.

Storytelling By Jens Hoffmann

Valérie Mréjen's films are full of both emotional distress and cruelty. Her autobiographically- influenced fictional shorts can be characterized by their aesthetically rigorous style, intensity, and thought-provoking dark humor. Depicting the everyday horrors, anxieties, and despairs of the urban middle class, the artist's films typically present an entirely unsentimental worldview.

Many of Mréjen's early works derived from personal memories and childhood experiences. In A Walnut (1997), we see a woman and her young grandchild trying to rehearse and record the lyrics of a children's song. Every time the child begins to sing, the grandmother interrupts either by singing along, clapping her hands, or making distracting comments. After a short while, the child loses patience and begins yelling at her grandmother. The delicate cruelty of the relationship between the two characters delivered in a deadpan fashion is one of Mréjen's master tropes.

In Michele and Aurore (1997), we see an ambitious mother telling her daughter how unhappy she is with the teenager's appearance. She has got nothing right, from the way the daughter dresses and the style she wears her hair, to her body weight and the friends she chooses. The film is an endless chain of insults thrown at the young girl. At the end of the film, after not responding to the continuous horrific verbal abuse of her mother, the daughter seems ready to kill herself.

Mréjen's films are undeniably influenced by other filmmakers who have observed the dark spaces inherent in the relationships between couples, lovers, parents and their children. Chantal Akerman is perhaps the most obvious point of reference, but the work of Jean Eustache and Maurice Pialat with their combination of fictional elements and unsettling personal anecdotes, also comes to mind as precedents to many of Mréjen's concerns. It is here that Mréjen perhaps connects to the larger history of French cinema, particularly in the way that Eustache focuses on dialogue that is strongly based on his personal memories and private (often intimate) experiences.

While most of Mréjen's films are based on autobiographical fragments, these have been carefully scripted and thoroughly rehearsed and directed. The female characters are of particular importance to the artist. Although they take center stage, the women in her films often behave passively, proposing a separation between the charged content of the dialogue and their physical actions. Not unlike the way Jean Renoir worked with Gisèle Braunberger in the short film La Direction d'acteurs par Jean Renoir (1968), in which the director asked the actress to read a text from a novel as if reading a phone book. Mréjen is similarly interested in the point of neutrality within her actors' play. The artist creates unique and original characters by directing her actors to occupy an indifferent position in relation to the content of a text. Mréjen describes this way of filmmaking "like looking into a mirror in order to see oneself from a distance." Perhaps it is a distance that allows us to laugh about our own shortcomings and, as the artist suggests, the potentially "pathetic and cruel nature of our existences."

The solo presentation of the artist's work at the Wattis Institute includes four new films, of which Capri and Hors Saison (Vacancy) (both 2008) are the two central pieces. Capri confronts us with a young couple in the middle of a fight. A disconnect between the dialogue and the couple's actions is particularly evident in this work and it becomes quickly understood that the film's script is based entirely on fragments of other films and TV shows, playing out a predictable lover's quarrel. Here the artist acknowledges the existence of thousands of similar scenes recorded on celluloid throughout the history of film, with all their clichés and worn-out dialogues, by deciding not to write the lines herself anymore. Hors Saison (Vacancy) however, does not present a set of actors but consists rather of a slideshow of postcards that depict various hotel interiors in France. A male voiceover tells the story of a vacationing couple and quietly describes the insidious way his marriage is falling apart.

Valérie Mréjen's participation in Passengers is made possible in part with assistance from the Cultural Services, French Consulate General in San Francisco.

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Valerie Mrejen