Manuela Morgaine’s film Lightning is both an electrifying story and a totally original audio-visual experience. In two parts and four seasons, Lightning presents us with a finished quest, yet its mystery remains intact. An undulating epic of sound and fury, it is fascinating and hypnotic. Like a flash of lightning illuminates the darkness, the deafening roars and blinding crackles of Manuela Morgaine’s directing reveal the surrealism that suffuses our lives.
I’ll tell you the storms of the human mind. (Pathos Mathos, Winter Season of Lightning)
In 2004, Manuela Morgaine made a radio documentary about lightning victims and storm chasers for France Culture. She immersed herself in that world. She embarked on a quest to find the source of the images these stories generated in her mind. Like a rock split in two by lightning, the world parted and let her through. In much the same way, Lightning shows us cracks in the monolith of reality, revealing the polymorphic genealogy of the real. It is this realm of the “imaginal,” so cherished by Henry Corbin, or of Blake’s creative imagination, that the film allows us to access.
In Lightning, everything is swept up into poetic experience: science, consciousness, mythology, dreams and nightmares, illusions and knowledge. This is the very essence of kinematographe, the visible and manifest image (ikon) of the invisible. In the end, Manuela Morgaine doesn’t deliver a chaotic maelstrom. To film things is to arrange them according to the secret coordinates of a unique, singular conception of space-time. That is Lightning, A legend, a shimmering, zigzagging film in Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The fruit of nine years of work, research, meetings and journeys.
From France to Syria, ancient gods in fragile and uncertain human form reign with their pale presence over everything. The musician Rodolphe Burger (ex-lead of Kat Onoma) plays the lightning-hunter. Alex Hermant (a photography and lightning professional) is associated with the Syrian god Baal and presides over the film’s finale as DJ Baal. The French psychiatrist William de Carvalho personifies Saturn. Through these characters, the spectator navigates between the experiences of the lightning-struck and the therapeutic uses of electricity in the treatment of melancholy. Over verdant fields, across the ocean, through scorching deserts, the spectator follows the golden arrows, forever strangers to the lightning-bolt.
Just as the storm plays with obstacles, so the film plays with places and borders. Sometimes the fertile narration pushes the spectator out of the depths of the black light of melancholy and into the gentle and radiant madness of the stylites, those desert ascetics and human lightning-rods. The film as a whole is reflected in the last season—Summer—the story of two love-struck bodies inspired by Marivaux’s The Dispute and musically magnified by a reimagined version of Haydn—a whirling choreography that connects several different levels of existence.
Just as lightning can pass through anything, with varying consequences, Lightning passes through all genres. Documentary, docufiction, realistic fiction, mythologized reality, transcendent or choreographed narrative, the film’s cohesiveness comes from lightning’s magnetism, from a synergy between the poetic and the human whose memory is “the longest.”
Unfortunately this demanding work by Manuela Morgaine is in danger of being robbed of public visibility. Despite an enthusiastic reception by several international festivals, a (very) French form of squeamishness and incomprehension has been directed at this film, which is radically different and proud of it. May this chronicle add to that radicalism.
Lightning, A Legend in Four Seasons,
A Manuela Morgaine Film, A Mezzanine Films (Mathieu Bompoint) and Envers Compagnie (Manuela Morgaine) Production, France. Runtime: 3’ 50”, 2012
An evolving site has been created to support this cinematic opera.
Interview with Manuela Morgaine
Thierry Jolif: Pathos Mathos in 2007, The Legend of Symeon in 2008, Baal in 2009, Atoms in 2011—the four seasons of LIGHTNING were practically made as stand-alone films. Why bring them together? Was this cohesiveness, this unity, present from the start of the project? Did you divide the film up this way because of technical or economic constraints?
I wrote LIGHTNING slowly, but from start to finish, with the legend in four seasons laid out from the start. I hadn’t planned on dividing up the shoot on a year-by-year basis but, because of budget constraints, my producer Mathieu Bompoint and I were forced to completely rethink the film in seasons, both in terms of directing and producing it. We started with winter, even though the film begins with autumn, meaning it wasn’t shot in order. But I already had the idea that, later on, I could use this lack of means to the advantage of the film by making two versions. A complete version for the cinema—the full two-part 3’50” legend for theatrical release—and a version with the four separate seasons for the DVD box-set and for TV, a bit like Krzysztof Kieslowski imagined The Three Colors Trilogy. So we edited two versions of the film, which was a mammoth undertaking because, for the first version, there was just one set of opening and closing credits, whereas in the second version, there were opening and closing credits for each season. The constraints allowed us to use the editing process to search for solutions, to reinvent everything—and I’m referring both to the overall unity of each of the seasons and to the film that contains them, as soon as all the elements were finally assembled. It’s important for the spectator to have the sense of watching an epic and not a series of four tableaux. To that end, many elements recur from one season to the next: the cars, the watches, the faces in extreme close-up, the slow-motion sequences, the torpedo fish, the white lightning creatures, the stormy skies.
T.J.: Lightning opens with sound: that of a voice, a musician, Rodolphe Burger playing Alex Hermant, a real-life storm chaser. Rodolphe also closes the film as DJ Baal, another contemporary, audible presence, of the ancient god. A storm is always accompanied by sound of course, but the way you use it in your film is quite unusual. Aren’t the “human treasures saved from the end, by the image just before the end” also saved by the sound?
Lightning opens with a prologue combining Rodolphe Burger’s voice with my own, almost like the first scene of an opera, a duet that lays out the “Ten Commandments” of escaping lightning.
Rodolphe Burger plays Baal, the god of the storm, but also Alex Hermant, the lightning hunter who only appears in the film through his photographs and video footage. My voice sets the film and each of the four seasons in motion like a narrative thread, the narrator of a book or, more specifically, a legend, which is the chosen genre of LIGHTNING and lies somewhere between documentary and fiction. Baal (Rodolphe Burger) becomes DJBaal at the end of the film because the film starts at the dawn of time and ends with the current day. So it made sense to finish with an electric guitar… Just as there is an overture, a prologue, LIGHTNING ends with an epilogue in which all the characters assemble into a sort of chorus on the dance floor of what I call “The Club of the Night,” and which ramifies them. I built LIGHTNING like a tetralogy. Its musical construction is as structured as the four seasons, it even determined how we cut the film. We always edited using the sound and almost all the music, even at the earliest stages. Occasionally the two composers, Emmanuel Hosseyn During and Philippe Langlois, would send me blocks of several minutes of music so that I could structure a scene around it. The music and sound design was a very elaborate process. The sounds of the storm were almost all transformed, especially for the autumn season, where the idea was to reenact the experiences of the lightning-struck years after the event. We had to create an intense foundation of sound, a kind of persistent soundscape in order to give the spectator the sense that the sensations, the trauma, had never gone away. The same was true for trying to make melancholy palpable: we found continuous bass sounds to evoke a sense of floating, we created false silences in order to extract something, to give a sense that the melancholics are on the other side of the looking glass, in a completely impenetrable world. Hence the ballet of seahorses at the aquarium and the muffled quality of the score. For ATOMS, the summer season, I asked Philippe Langlois to reimagine Haydn and we altered it to such a degree that certain viewers thought there was a technical problem because the music sounded so scratchy. This was to suggest the end of a love affair, when everything falls apart and you dwell endlessly on past happiness. It was the fruit of lot of discussion and experimentation, and we tried to get as close as we could to a cinematic climatology, to something organic, something earthy, something spectral, something like the irruption of the lightning-bolt.
T.J.: Manuela, after nine years of work, LIGHTNING, a legend, is now finished. It has been presented in several European and international festivals, and has been well-received, very well-received, actually… Why can’t we go see it in France? How is the situation looking today, in late 2013?
As hard as it is to accept, it was clear from the start that the film would be hard to distribute in France, since we were unable to find the means to produce the film, despite our best attempts to finance it through traditional French film channels. Distribution is part of a film’s production. LIGHTNING stood apart in the French cinematic world, in terms of its conception and its independence. It did its own thing, stubbornly, and was true to itself in the end. Even if it was made on a shoestring budget, with a skeleton crew; even though there were locations in Guinea-Bissau, Libya and Syria; even if represents nine years of working against all odds, the film found its form and its length. It came into its own. It made no compromises. It had time to mature. But it doesn’t correspond to what French theaters program. One by one, the distributors, like the French festivals we sent it to again and again, turned a blind eye. Most of them didn’t even bother seeing the film when they learned it was neither a true documentary nor a true fiction film, or when they saw the runtime. And yet at 4’30” Raoul Ruiz’s MYSTERIES OF LISBON found an audience and, even more recently Edgar Reitz’s HEIMAT, with a runtime close to that of LIGHTNING, has opened in French theaters in two parts, drawing the audience into a uniquely overwhelming space-time experience.
We have to convince theater owners that LIGHTNING is a cinematic experience, a tetralogy, like a cinematic opera, and that it should be given special screenings, maybe not every day, and maybe in just one theater per city. The effort it would take to come up with a new distribution strategy has made it difficult to find a distributor who’s ready to take the plunge for this zigzagging film. But the energy is still there ten years later and too much work has gone into keeping the film afloat to abandon it so close to the finish line. What’s been happening internationally, the warm welcome the film has received at Festivals in Rotterdam, Wroclaw, Poland, and, most recently, in Russia, where many critics wrote about it, has strengthened my conviction that, with passion and determination, it’s always possible to achieve the impossible.