Contentment and Chris Marker’s Chat écoutant la musique (1988)

I remember before I first watched Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea (2011) that a certain review quote about the film caught my eye.  It was suggested by a Time Out reviewer that Rivers’ film was “A rare thing in cinema: a vision of true happiness”.  At the time, this idea framed my viewing of Rivers’ film as it rang true; not only was the film a genuine portrayal of a beautiful and calm sense of contentment with life but it was refreshing to find it achieved so purely and be able to share it with the film’s main character.  Recently, with the current situations of world politics being as they are, I’ve been seeking out more examples of this rare type of cinema – not a cinema of a tawdry happiness I hasten to add but one of a quiet moment of contentment which is not quite the same thing – and I don’t think that there’s a better example of this than Chris Marker’s short film Chat écoutant la musique (1988).  Such is the quietude of the moment in Marker’s film that, in spite of having no dialogue, context or dramatic event taking place, it rarely fails in moving me to tears.

Chat écoutant la musique or “A cat listening to music” is part of a short trilogy of films that Marker described as “haikus”.  They were made for his Bestiaire, consisting of two other films, An owl is an owl is an owl and Zoo Piece; highlighting the trilogy of Marker’s interests in cats, owls and people.  This was part of a video installation called Zapping Zone displayed at the Pompidou Centre in 1990. The pieces were shot and edited two years before the installation and are incredibly homemade, almost like short home movies but about quintessential Marker subjects.  In Chat écoutant, Marker’s cat, Guillaume-en-Egypte, is shown in a short video clip listening to a piece of piano music.  Marker shows the visual effect of music upon his sound level equipment whilst cutting between his cat sleepily listening.  On paper, the film sounds incredibly normal, the sort of thing that could shot on a phone by a child.  But this is where the film’s beauty lies.  Its simplicity belies how rare and complex such moments are and, more surprisingly, how few there appear to be in cinema as a whole.

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In its attempt at a haiku form, Marker is saying much with just a handful of images and ideas; the cat, the music and the moment.  The viewer must do the rest but, really, there is little to do because further meaning isn’t especially required; Marker gives us the moment and that moment is the privilege.  Guillaume-en-Egypte is gently awoken by the music, notices that Marker is filming, and then returns to sleep.  His ears twitch occasionally with recognition of the sound as he lies on the dusty keyboard, happily using the musical instrument as a place for a catnap.  This moment is beyond profound, the cat being one of the most content and relaxed presences to have ever been filmed in short or feature length film.  It’s in the way that Marker frames it where the poignancy really lies.  The sound levels of the piano rise and fall on the meter, the cat’s eyes slowly close again; a quiet moment of waking before dreaming again.  On the biggest Chris Marker website, the writer known as Blind Librarian ties this particular shot to Sans Soliel‘s most famous moment, the capturing of the children from Iceland in a similar moment of knowing contentment:

“For me, this priceless gem of a video (a lightly edited recording leaning, like a cat’s paw on a keyboard, on the playback of another recording) takes us, as the image of the three children in Iceland that commences Sans Soleil, into another moment of happiness, or more than a moment – a lazy, timeless dream-stretch of happiness. Happiness here is stretched out over the length of a treasured song, the unclockable duration of a catnap, the extent without end of a loving gaze that could go on forever and yet is somehow captured in time.” (2008).

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Marker appears to have a knack for capturing such moments though it must be stated that the other form of moment that seems to be permanently on his radar is the awkward moments of chaos found in modern life.  But, for me, Chat écoutant is a perfect capture of something far more precious now than when he first captured it almost thirty years ago.  It’s an antidote to the hyper-active chaos of our news cycles, our clickbait driven obsessions and our need for explicit meaning and being told of such rigid readings.  If the days are feeling long, the news is feeling ever depressing to the point of stress and the interactivity between people online is causing high blood pressure, join Marker and Guillaume-en-Egypte for a quiet few moments where genuine happiness is proven to still exist in the world; communicated through a wordlessness, infinitely at ease.

Adam Scovell

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