Alexandre Larose: The Lost Steps
by Stephen Broomer
In the past half-century of Canadian avant-garde cinema, the nation’s filmmakers have often used the camera apparatus and its paraphernalia as tools for visual construction. At a time when avantgarde cinema was elsewhere developing an overtly romantic sense of the eye of the operator, Canadian artists such as Michael Snow and David Rimmer were using the same tools to explore uncharted territories, in an adventure of perception built upon the mechanistic properties of the camera. Once the camera lens is divorced from the artist’s eye, it can approach freer operations—operations beyond the subjective barriers of perceptual memory. And even by that emancipation, the camera remains, like all machines, under the rule of the systems and carriages that bear it: the method-language of the engineer. Alexandre Larose has approached the film camera as an instrument for machined vision. He works in pursuit of the possible image, albeit one of unlikely and unfamiliar variations on vision as we know it.
With his first films, several made with the collaboration of engineer Ludovic Boily, Larose began to establish the aesthetic themes and technological strategies that would form his central preoccupations; namely those of symmetrical and blinking forms, the elasticization of time, and the willful separation of artist from instrument. In 930 (2004-2006) Larose transforms a CP train tunnel in Quebec City into a dynamic, morphing Rorschach inkblot. Symmetrical waves of light course over arpeggiated piano chords and gradually assume silhouettes. A portal—presumably the train tunnel—rapidly flashes between black and white. This gives way to a burst of light along a train track, which fluctuates like a great flame emanating out from a nearing horizon. The symmetrical distortions of 930 remind of the American filmmaker Pat O’Neill’s 7362 (1967) a classic work of both structural and psychedelic filmmaking, named for the code number of the high-contrast film stock that O’Neill used. Larose is likewise using high-contrast film in his optical printing distortions and ruptures. Through its increased granularity, his printed images take on the aesthetics of ink-on-paper, and as the image departs into abstraction, the viewer’s imagination is left to frame its fearful symmetries. A film of repeating parts, 930 is structured like a train track to return to its mysterious, blinking portal.
Larose’s interests in symmetry and pattern persist even in films of vastly different technique, such as La Grande Dame (2005-2011) a film with no discernible image manipulation in which skyscrapers, shot from fixed points on the ground, seem to become elastic and flexible even as they remain an inescapable pattern. Likewise, the aspiration to abstraction persists in Artifices #1 (2007) in which Larose’s camera immediately establishes a clockwise rotation as it aims out onto a city at night, zooming toward a distant, unclear horizon. This legible vista alternates with violent abstraction, composed in lines of light that are linked to the city view by colour and thickness, therefore recognizable as motion blurs; a smearing of light shaped by the curved surface of the lens captured by speeding the camera’s rotation. The blurs give symmetries: fully-formed circles, lines of fine vibration, not unlike the Rorschach forms that had emerged from the abstract passages of 930. In the final sequence of Artifices #1, the camera’s carriage is partly revealed as the camera is aimed into a mirror and performs 360-degree rotations.
Even as it continues these themes, Ville Marie (2006-2009), represents a departure from purely structural themes. In it, strips of coloured light recede to give perspective and flash across black. These give way to black and white images of spinning forms that suggest skyscrapers, seen from ground level, spinning up toward a man perched at the precipice of a rooftop (the man is Larose). As these images are recycled, they are tinted in heavily saturated colours which, by creasing each other, combine into new colours. The film passes through a series of variations: the image of the man reappears as a tiled mosaic; the skyscrapers coagulate as a simmering, granular, monochromatic field; and finally, Larose’s image combines in series of rich pulsating colours. At the end of the film, Larose reveals the root image. He has dropped a camera from the roof of a building, but he does so in reverse with the camera scaling up the building into his hands and ending in self-portrait as he looks into the lens.
Larose’s first films were marked by a transparency of gesture. In Artifices #1 and Ville Marie, the machining act behind his imagery is, in a sense, revealed. In both films, these acts remain strange: the mechanism is still unclear (as in the distant reflection that closes Artifices #1) or has been further obscured by form (as in the temporal reversal that ends Ville Marie). The presence of the artist in Ville Marie would announce an increasingly humanistic bent to Larose’s films, and with his next major work, he would begin to shift toward bodily rhythms of breathing and walking rather than airborne or purely technologized rhythms.
With the “brouillard” series, begun in 2008, Larose would begin a long-term project that elaborated upon a deceptively simple act of passing down a pathway at Larose’s family cottage on Lac Saint- Charles, flanked by bushes and trees, leading to a pier. For each film, Larose photographed the same journey many times over itself in multiple exposures directly to the same roll of film prior to processing. The titular fog is produced through slight variations in both the environment and Larose’s actions, such as his speed and consistency of composition. The earliest piece in the series, brouillard #1, is a prototype for what would follow it. Shot on Super 8, brouillard #1 is made of fewer exposures and has not yet settled fully in the familiar environment of the rest of the series; it is instead shot mostly on a paved road, the headlights of passing cars appearing in rounds. Like the latter parts of the series, the same journey is travelled as to give the landscape an echo. As with the rest of the series, it ends at the edge of a lake.
Throughout the remainder of the series, the journey becomes consistent as Larose travels along the path to the pier. This landscape varies in saturations of light and colour. By his multiple exposures, Larose deepens the shadows cast by the trees and bushes while the blue of the sky and water pales to the lush green of the path. The work is spectral in its effect, the landscape taking on incorporeal aspects, phantom traces of itself, an insistent reminder of the adage that one cannot cross the same river twice; but it is also an absolute vision of physical reality, an illustration of the wide spectrum of light and time upon this landscape in an accumulation of brief intervals. Each time the pier is approached, Lac Saint-Charles opens up before the camera; the camera leans down to the water, and with it the distant hills seem to collapse, the landscape cast down upon itself in multiple exposures. This is particularly pronounced in brouillard #6 as light refracted on water shimmers over the descending hillsides. In more recent parts, such as brouillard #12 through 15, the density of exposures has gone further to embrace the spectral effect on the landscape and the blurring of the trees, and the land begins to distort them into new dimensions. In brouillard #14, Larose begins to integrate the human figure in the form of a girl who runs ahead on the path and who will be seen again when the camera reaches its destination. This environment, now revealed in extremely slow motion, has surrendered the presentness of earlier journeys and is now fully realized as a monument to time.
While Larose has developed an overall program that emphasizes technological inquiry that clearly distinguishes human from machined vision and sight from construct, his brouillard series does evince a romantic sensibility underlying these gestures. The series has its nearest relative in the final iterations of French Impressionist plein-air painter Claude Monet’s The Water Lilies (1899-1926). On the surface, both brouillard and the Water Lilies are pitched between the consolation of naturalism and the agitation of a romantic, abstracting formalism.
But the similarity between the two projects also lies with each artist’s relation to time and vision. Monet’s series was developed over time from his estate in Giverny, and in his final decade the paintings became increasingly disconnected from their subject. They began to reflect the artist’s failing eyesight, and he even began to repaint earlier stations of the series with his newly ruptured vision; colour and form changed by his cataracts. Like Monet, whose Water Lilies had been painted within the same environment and over a long course of time, Alexandre Larose has forged these walks in all of their repetitions and variations into a holy and singular act—a grand rumination on the rule of time which rustles leaves and melts grass and blurs the memory of our steps.
Stephen Broomer is a filmmaker, film historian and preservationist based in Toronto, Ontario.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash Issue 33.1.