Before I Forget
Avant que j'oublie

Strand Releasing,

Jacques Nolot

Jacques Nolot, Jean-Pol Dubois,
Marc Rioufol, Bastien d'Asnieres Gaetano Weysen-Volli Bruno Moneglia David Kessler

Unrated, 108 minutes

Nocturne In Blue
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, November, 2008
A shorter version appeared in abOUT, November, 2008


Somewhere around 1980, a friend and I went to the movie theater to see a new Jean Luc Godard film entitled Every Man For Himself. It was not one of Godard's more memorable efforts but there was one odd detail that always stuck in my head. The last of the opening titles read "A film composed by Jean Luc Godard." My friend, whose patience was often tested by my cinematic choices, called the credit "pretentious."

Perhaps he was right, but I found myself recalling that credit as I watched Before I Forget, a new French film written and directed by Jacques Nolot. This is a film without much of a discernible plot - it certainly has no beginning, middle and end. Instead, it seems to be a series of simple, yet emotionally resonating, moments arranged as a musician might orchestrate a symphony or as a painter composes a canvas; making it more akin to a poem than a movie.

Nolot, himself, stars as Pierre, an unhappy gay man of 60 with thoughts of suicide. We learn some of the details of his life through snippets of conversation. He is an aging gigolo whose wealthy benefactor, a former lover named Toutoune, dies and leaves him a pair of life insurance indemnities. His will, in which he left a considerable part of his fortune to Pierre, has "mysteriously" vanished and the family treats him as a non-entity, shutting him out from any further inheritance. Adding insult to injury, they auction off two valuable paintings that Pierre insists belong to him.

In a more conventional film, this would be the engine that drives the plot. There might even be a courtroom drama. But not here. Instead, we watch the often banal details of Pierre's day-to-day life. Pierre is an author who seems unable to overcome his writer's block except when he experiences tragedy. He sits at his desk, smokes one cigarette after another, and stares at a blank page. He resists his doctor's advice to go on the cocktail, saying that he's been positive for 24 years and he's still doing okay. He hires hustlers for anonymous sex, visits an analyst three times a week, discusses the indignities of growing old with his friends, and sits at his desk smoking one cigarette after another while staring at a blank page. And that, basically, is the film in a nutshell.

I'll be honest. This film isn't for everyone. Let me once again invoke the poem analogy. Consider the opening. A large black dot wavers in the center of a white background and then grows in size until it engulfs the screen. The filmmaker's way of saying that we have entered an abyss? Two old men stand at a grave. One kisses the other on the cheek. The camera does a long circular pan around the cemetery. Cut to Pierre, tossing and turning and crying in his bed. It is very dark. He gets up. He is naked. He goes into the bathroom and vomits. He takes a pill and goes back to bed. The next four minutes are captured in one, long, unbroken camera take. He gets up and walks into the kitchen, turns on the light, and makes coffee. He is still naked. In the light we can now see him clearly. He is still a handsome man - undoubtedly a stud in his youth - but now his large gut sticks out past what was once probably a very muscular chest. He couldn't be more naked to the viewer.
The camera follows as he goes into his study but stays back, framing Pierre at his desk through a doorway from across the room. He puts on a shirt, lights a cigarette, stares at the paper on his desk. gets up and makes more coffee and returns to the desk. The camera follows him and the shot still hasn't changed. Not a word has been uttered. No background music to cue the heartstrings. And yet one feels as if one knows the man from these small moments. In the morning, he answers his doorbell. It is a bailiff, looking for his former lover. Something about parking tickets. Pierre tells the bailiff that he's gone, went to Switzerland, and that he's "very unhappy." His droll comment is funny and pathetic. That night, he calls a hustler. He talks about him the next day with an elderly friend and, like two old ladies discussing supermarket bargains, they compare the rates charged by their various rent boys. Later he meets an old acquaintance and they reminisce about the sugar daddies from their youth.
This is one of those films where you really have to pay attention. Details are not spoon-fed to the audience. We learn that Pierre was a rent boy, himself, in his youth and that he met Toutoune 35 years ago. Thinking that he may have found love, he gave up turning tricks. He left Toutoune when he turned 40 but they remained uneasy friends while the older man continued to support him financially. Roles have been reversed and now Pierre hires hustlers but seems to get little joy from the encounters. His analyst tells him he should find a younger man in his circle but Pierre calls them "bourgeois brats with nothing to say." His anxiety over getting back out into the scene, coupled with his illness, catches up with him when, standing outside a porn theater, he soils himself.

Such a scene would probably be played for laughs in American cinema; here it is presented matter-of-factly but without being milked for every drop of pathos either. One gets the impression that Pierre was once a dashing gentleman and an old photograph in an album confirms this. He continues to dress fashionably in clothes tailored to hide his weight; he looks dapper with slicked back hair and a thin moustache that he refuses to shave when a hustler invites him to go clubbing with him in drag. He is still vain and, when he reads the side effects to his new AIDS medicine, he is more concerned by the possibility of hair loss than he is by liver damage. His apartment, probably once quite stylish, sports leather furniture repaired with colored duct tape. When, late in the film, he leans out his open window, you wonder if he is about to jump.

So... the film is confusing, some of the night photography is too dark, there is no abundant eye candy and its plot makes August Strindberg look cheerful. Yet I was hypnotized by the film's glacial pace and by its many haunting images. Life is messy and doesn't usually follow a script. Is there any escape from such a downward spiral? At one point, Pierre remarks that gay filmmaker Pasolini's violent death at the hands of a hustler must have been "beautiful." It is, if nothing else, one of the most devastating films about the sadness of aging that this reviewer has seen.

A director's note was included in the press that came with my screener. This is the fifth partially autobiographical film that Director Nolot has written about the same character, always named either Pierre or Jacques. The first two were made with noted director Andre Techine (Wild Reeds), 1983's La Matioette with Jacques aged 30 and 1991's I Don't Kiss with Pierre as a hustler at 17. Nolet directed his own scripts in The Hinterland (1998) with Jacques at 50 and then Pierre at 55 in Porn Theatre (2002). Seeing these films is not a pre-requisite; I have only, myself, seen Porn Theatre and that film details Pierre's (and other's) wanderings and trysts through a porn movie house. It shares, with Before I Forget, a rambling structure that focuses on the minutiae of a situation rather than developing a conventional plot. It would appear that Nolot may be an un-sung pioneer of queer screenplays, carrying on the tradition of mavericks like Fassbinder when few others were doing the same. That Techine directed one of his scripts in 1983 speaks volumes about how far Hollywood has always lagged behind European cinema.

This is a very depressing film - not quite approaching Ingmar Bergman territory, but close. Nolot remembers to sprinkle a bit of wry humor here and there, like the incongruent image of an X rated movie house next door to a McDonalds or Pierre's philosophical musing that "stupidity has the last word, it is always right." For some it will be an endurance test but I found it to be a refreshing change of pace from the more youth-orientated films that dominate queer cinema. Film, in the right hands, is an artform and great art challlenges without always being "entertaining." There is no denying that Before I Forget demands a lot from its audience but the rewards, I feel, are worth it.


Jacques Nolot also appears in:
Wild Reeds
The Witnesses