Joseph Losey’s penultimate film, La Truite, is no earth-shaking masterpiece, but I return to it occasionally to remind myself what film can do. Dancing around an enigmatic young Frenchwoman, Fréderique (Isabelle Huppert) and her friends, La Truite is structurally similar to some of Robert Altman’s 1970s films, with greater emphasis on group dynamics than on a forward moving story. It is also perhaps the most fluid movie I have ever seen, and as such foregrounds a quality largely absent in contemporary films. While it was not the director’s final film, La Truite serves as a fitting cap to Losey’s career, for much of his work moves with similarly sinuous, insidious complicity.
Fluidity—the ability to move with seemingly effortless ease from one moment to another—is one of the most obvious differentiators between professional and amateur work in any time-based medium. This ability is especially important in film because of the dislocations caused by cuts. In the silent era, directors and editors honed the act of moving from one image to another to a fine art, so that the viewer was rarely aware of the disruption each cut involved. Since the 1980s, however, as film cutting has shifted to moving as quickly as possible, sound has become both the primary source of exposition and the chief means of moving a viewer over visual dislocations. (If you doubt this, try watching a contemporary film with the sound off.)
When continuity editing is enhanced by camera movement, the results can possess an irresistible precisionist glitter. In the hands of a master, the camera moves with expressive independence, teasing both space and viewer in a seductive embrace. In La Truite, the camera flows with the sparkling fascination of the mountain streams in which Fréderique harvests trout roe. Nearly all of Losey’s films possess elegant, often quite complicated camera moves. In La Truite, he exercises this gift with complete insouciance, as if the complex and difficult movements executed by veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan were simplicity itself.
While today’s filmmakers use both cutting and camera movement to excess, such feline finesse does not exist. Cuts are smothered by the sound, while the camera movements are conceived like production numbers (think of the famous move through the restaurant in Goodfellas, for example). Editing and camera movement do not complement the content, they distract the viewer from the emptiness of the material in a specious equation between display and style. Losey, one of the most distinctive stylists in film history, didn’t have to scream “Look at me!” to be noticed. It is that need to impress and overwhelm, to accentuate expense and hard work, to expect admiration and recompense for limited achievement that reveals contemporary film for the amateur hour it is. Mastery, distinction, style have to be coaxed from the deceptively pellucid, for modesty and casual brilliance are the true mark of the professional, not being paid.