Cécile Fontaine's films do not tell stories in the traditional sense. Rather, they form spiraling involutions around an idea or a theme. Hers is a cinema of layers, encrustations, and material and plastic experimentation. It is a colorful and aquatic cinema that investigates—through stripping down and subsequent reconstruction—the material from which the images are made: the film strip itself. This essay investigates the poetics and the practice of Fontaine's found footage cinema, a cinema rigorously made without a movie camera, beginning with her first experiments with dry and wet techniques in the 1980s up to her more complex operations at the end of the 1990s. It is a cinema that, by fishing in the stream of abandoned images, reflects on the nature of the image, of memory and history, all rolled onto the vertical axis of the film.

“I never say that I am a filmmaker, but that I make films.”

With this sentence, Cécile Fontaine summarizes her decadelong cinematographic practice, her poetics, and her editing technique. Her films are born of discarded material—reels recovered by chance in flea markets and rubbish bins, ephemeral films, educational documentaries, travel reports, commercials, home movies, and more—to sum it up, found footage. From these films, which she physically manipulates with aggressive techniques, Fontaine constructs an imaginary world, a phantasmagoria of colors and shapes that transports the spectator to a parallel visual universe.

Besides, I do not consider myself a maker of cinema so much as one who works on films and with films. I never say that I am a filmmaker, but that I make films. And perhaps there is a difference. Although now I say also that I make collage with film, I still don't like to say that I make cinema. I know nothing about cinematographic technique. You could say I am a visual artist who works on film. Besides, I use methods that have nothing to do with cinema, such as the painter's tools (the knife), or the engraver's, or the housewife's.1 


Like so many other artists in the experimental scene, Fontaine is profoundly fascinated by cinema as a dispositif, by the film reel as a physical device that enables the flow of images on the screen, and she tries to “excavate” into the interior of the film matter in order to extrapolate and expose its singular components. Hers is a cinema that rigorously refuses the movie camera. As Nicole Brenez observes, Fontaine is one of those artists who questions the dispositif and refuses to use industrial instruments to create images, favoring instead constant technical and plastic experimentation.2 

In fact, Fontaine places herself in an enduring tradition that goes from Man Ray's rayographs to the cinema of Stan Brakhage, in which all the operations that lead to the realization of a film are carried out off-camera.3 Fontaine not only uses material mostly filmed by others, like so many other artists who practice the art of found footage, but she only on very rare occasions uses instruments such as the optical printer that are so dear to many experimental filmmakers (as she did to make her 1984 film Home Movie). Her education in the plastic arts places her close to the legacy of American Pop art and French New Realism of the 1960s, as Fontaine adapts these movements' prerogatives to the demands of her work. Her appropriation of common products from mass consumer culture—from Western television series to commercials to educational documentaries—in order to turn their meanings inside out using otherwise-ordinary instruments can therefore be read as an attempt to use the material of film exactly as the creator of a collage uses colors and materials from everyday life:

I had my education in the plastic arts, studying a little bit of everything without ever really specializing in something specific. In my pictorial works I was already integrating the collage of images or other materials. I had a tendency to love the colors and the effects of texture. … With cinema the same problem arose: What to film? … With the discovery of found footage the problem resolved itself. The inspiration, the subject arises from the collected images. The images are already there, I can work starting from them, on color, on forms, on material and more and more on their meaning … and the story emerges on its own.4 

Fontaine's films do not tell stories in the traditional sense; rather they are spiraling involutions around an idea or a theme that can be as abstract as the exploration of lines and colors typical of her first films (such as La fissure [1984]), or it can be as concrete as the reflections on violence and weapons that gave life to The Last Lost Shot (1999), a film inspired by the infamous bloodshed at Columbine High School in the United States.

Fontaine's films create a multilayered cinema, a cinema that begins with a double movement, the two aspects of which are contrary yet complementary. On the one side, there is the need to explore the primary components of the image, considered first of all as an object, therefore as film strip, frames, emulsion, base, perforations: a sort of dissection of the cinematic apparatus with regard to its technology, mechanics, and chemistry. It is a dissection that is so ferocious as to obstruct any possible recognition of the referential dimension of the images: as Brenez points out, in Fontaine's films “the image is less visible than it is perceptible, it imposes itself more by its oscillating and fragile character than by its analogical dimension.”5 

On the other hand, Fontaine's cinema follows in the footsteps of collage and assemblage, and is founded on the progressive layering of elements that go on to form a unified, organic whole whose meaning is generated exactly by this accumulation and by the chosen juxtapositions. These two moments enclose the essence of Fontaine's filmmaking: to give life to a dynamic and constant dialogue between form and content. Because her practice is founded above all on a plastic exploration of film itself as physical material, it is appropriate to examine the technical details she adopts to manipulate it.


Fontaine's filmmaking practice could be said to resemble that of the pioneers of cinema, and her experiments recall the discoveries they made in their craft. We could define it as an everyday and manual practice, because it is brought about with everyday instruments and often in the artist's own home. Stefano Masi, the author of the only monograph about Fontaine, asserts that there is something extremely intimate and feminine in the way she works on her films, bent over her kitchen sink, using instruments such as Scotch tape, kitchen knives, and soap.6 The relation between the artist and the films she uses is profound and concrete, tactile.

Fontaine describes her methodology in detail, with respect to both the dry technique and the wet technique, in an essay in the anthology on experimental cinema La poétique de la couleur. Une histoire du cinéma experimental (The Poetics of Color: An Experimental Cinema History).7 In this essay she tells how the discovery of both techniques occurred in a completely fortuitous manner: in the case of the dry technique, while she was trying to remove some old traces of Scotch tape from a film strip, and in the case of the wet technique, while she was trying to lighten a piece of underexposed film. The results obtained were so surprising as to make her abandon her experiments with other procedures and dedicate herself in the following years to the perfection of these two discoveries. The dry technique, the more straightforward of the two, consists of applying some Scotch tape onto the film to pick out, thanks to the tear, the most superficial part of the emulsion. The torn-out part is then repositioned onto another point of the film strip, or on another film. In this way the part with a greater chromatic dominance becomes disjointed and the layers of film that remain vivify the compositions of tenuous pastel colors. One example of this is the very delicate tones of blue and violet that we can admire in Japon Series (1991). The disjointed parts, reapplied in other places thanks to the Scotch tape used to remove them, form the brightest chromatic alterations.

The wet technique involves washing the whole film, or part of the film, in soaps or acid, so that one or more layers of emulsion become unstuck and can be removed with a knife or another similar instrument and reapplied elsewhere. Fontaine has conducted experiments with different chemical agents to develop this operation: the soaps are less aggressive and can remove the top layers of the emulsion without creating particular effects, while more corrosive agents such as bleach produce stains or clots on single frames and require precise washing to halt the deterioration of the film. The most corrosive effects can be observed, for example, in the segments of Stories (1989) created by using images from a Western movie. Even the knife or other instruments used for the removal of the “unglued bit” leaves traces on the frame in the form of long streaks that cross the image, like marks left by a comb. Along with these two main techniques, Fontaine sometimes also uses grattage and scratching, that is, incisions made frame by frame on the film, serving either to heighten certain effects of chemical manipulation, or more commonly to cut ending titles or text into the film, as can be observed in many of her works, from Home Movie to the more recent Holy Woods (2008).


“Color acts as a non-image,” says Brenez, “as the less figurative possible instance, which maintains to a minimal extent the togetherness of the other dimensions of the image as a whole, and not as a purely abnormal mass unified only by its own irregular rhythm … : formless and mute, color serves as a glue.”8 According to Brenez this is the function of color in the triple structure of the editing of Cruises (1989, fig. 1): glue, formless and mute. Most of Fontaine's commentators stress the importance of the chromatic element in her editing style. Yann Beauvais compares her films to the stained glass of cathedrals through whose colors we see filtered the light of day; Stefano Masi even maintains that for Fontaine cinema is nothing other than a transparent base, destined to color the light of the projector and produce graphic and chromatic patterns on the screen.9 Fontaine herself reaffirms that “color prevails over the final editing of the sequences: it creates a new wholeness, not planned but improvised little by little, during its development before the naked eye, based on visual and plastic relations of colors and forms.” And again, “Color serves not only to structure, but also to give a rhythm to the whole, reinforcing the alternation of images. … With the aim of reconstructing a coherent whole, color is one of the leading threads in the construction of a coherent whole.”10 The sequences created using portions of film from the most diverse cinematographic sources, treated with different techniques, are leveled out by color, which facilitates their assembly.


Frame enlargement from Cécile Fontaine's Cruises (1989). (© Light Cone)


Frame enlargement from Cécile Fontaine's Cruises (1989). (© Light Cone)

Fontaine's artistic journey, from her beginnings in the early 1980s to her most recent work, has undergone a decisive evolution. A plastic fascination with film matter and its relationship to light that led her to choose film as her privileged expressive medium has progressively given ground to greater attention to composition, thematic levels, and content. As she herself affirms, this is in part due to the control she exerts over the results of her technical manipulation of the film strip—which she has acquired over the years thanks to her experimentations—a control that has allowed her to focus on new aspects.11 

As with a collage or assemblage, the film-as-object is no longer relevant just for its plastic qualities, but is also a symbol and herald of much more. The cinematographic dispositif that Fontaine puts on display in her works is indeed what allows the flow of frames, and then ultimately vision itself, transforming the film strip into a base for images. The choice of images is always influential, and their content is not arbitrary, however arbitrary their finding may be. In fact, Fontaine rarely looks for her source materials with a specific purpose, or an already defined idea, and instead prefers to allow herself to be inspired by the materials that she finds by chance.

Fontaine says that her techniques “lead to a plastic détournement of conventional and banal sequences, supposed to reflect the real, in order to change them into visual representations with arbitrary colors, and trying above all to lay bare the material composition of the film, and then essentially to create an imaginary world thanks to a design of a pictorial nature.”12 


By moving into this theoretical framework, we can single out Fontaine's central reflection on cinema in the metaphor of water. The aquatic metaphor is not exclusively activated by the implementation of the wet and dry techniques, which gives the spectator the impression of standing in front of an aquarium in which he or she observes pieces of images passing by and bunching together in incessant movement. Rather, the water metaphor is above all connected with Fontaine's special relationship with images. For example, the artist believes that, nowadays, we live submerged in a constant flow of images that become commonplace and are therefore taken for granted. These conventional images have become such a normal part of our landscape that they have come close to the point of being invisible in spite of their persistence. Therefore it is necessary to “fish” deep into this current to retrieve certain images, even the most ordinary and mediocre, and make an effort to modify them until they become visible again.

Tom Gunning suggests that found footage cinema attempts to trigger an experience similar to that of the Surrealist trouvaille, which by evoking “that infantile desire to collect magic objects, even if in the eyes of others they seem to be nothing but junk,” generates the sensation, whether in the artist or in the viewer, that “the creative act comes from the reign of chance,” thus vivifying a “new modality of experience, that offers a road to the marvelous, where reality and dream combine.”13 

Fontaine dedicates herself to this very effect through her techniques of manipulation: the everyday images that she reuses acquire a new importance and a new richness thanks to her treatment of them, and her matching of them with other lost images. In other words, in her artistic practice, Fontaine decides to take on the role of a “fisher of images” to restore viewers' necessary sense of fascination and make them see the world through different eyes.

To the other “fishers of images” who help her to gather these lost objects, Fontaine dedicated a film, La pêche miraculeuse (Miracle Fishing, 1995, fig. 2), that we might consider a sort of manifesto of her poetics. Completed in 16mm using 16mm and Super8 film, Miracle Fishing unifies, among others, a documentary produced by the foreign ministry and ministry of tourism of the Seychelles islands, topographic maps, travel advertisements for coastal zones, and educational slides and films about the maritime wildlife of the South Seas.


Frame enlargement from Cécile Fontaine's Miracle Fishing (1995). (© Light Cone)


Frame enlargement from Cécile Fontaine's Miracle Fishing (1995). (© Light Cone)

Fontaine's entire cinematographic practice—her recovery of forgotten images, their consequent re-elaboration and their being poured back into the “sea of images”—is here made figurative through images that not only are related to the sea and its inhabitants underwater, on boats, and on beaches, but also seem to fluctuate one on top of the other, embedding and weaving themselves into one another, in particular thanks to the effect generated by the wet technique, and to a patient grattage applied to a few of the frames.

In certain exceptional sequences, achieved by transplanting the emulsion from one frame to the middle of another frame showing animals such as fish or turtles, we see these figures transform into undulating silhouettes, templates in movement through which other marine animals, aquatic plants, and boats fluctuate in a game of reflexes and multiplications that constantly refers back to the incessant flow of running water (this effect is repeated in other films, for example on the bodies of butoh dancers in Japon Series). Some sequences of the film also present an interesting split-screen effect, created by taping together pairs of Super8 film strips onto a 16mm film base.14 

This fluctuation of fragments inside the frame, the constant rupture of images thanks to the physical insertion of other expressive planes, and the meanings generated by this multiplication provoke the reversal of another often-ignored element of the cinematographic apparatus, that is, the flickering of images. Fontaine insistently troubles this flickering, the linear and uniform scrolling of frames underlying the alternating images—which the viewer implicitly assumes to be horizontal.

Most of her chemical interventions in fact create a surface layer of bubbles, clots, lines, and forms that vivify a sort of net, or veil, that glides over the image and from which the image itself emerges sometimes only for a brief moment. This totality of visual elements tends to float upward—as bubbles would float toward the surface of water, to return to the maritime metaphor—disturbing our vision. We see the streaks of film, glued together in their entirety, always heading upward, with the film lines and perforations in between them visible. The repeated jumps and flickering to which Fontaine submits the film also help to underline this twisting of the sequence of the frames. In some works she is even able to give the streaks a sense of rotation around themselves while glued to a base of a different format.

The verticalness that derives from the natural flickering of the film strip in the projector that throws the content on the screen thanks to light is therefore made explicit on a formal level. Fontaine materially creates a short circuit in the experience of vision. The brief moments in which we observe the fluid images flowing at a constant velocity and frequency are often interrupted by heterogeneous elements, or altered by loops, jumps, and flickering. Inside the frame, the movements of the subject filmed echo the movements of the fragments of emulsion that contain them.

Some scenes in Golf-Entretien (Golf Conversation, 1984) show an exceptional example of this recovered verticalness in which the gestures of the golf players (detournés from an obscure documentary), such as the raising of golf clubs, the movement of their bodies, and their swings at the ball, are infinitely multiplied by the jumps, repetitions, and movements of the emulsion that Fontaine has separated into predominantly green layers and predominantly violet layers, graphically reproducing what is occurring in the image.

In Fontaine's cinema, the film strip itself is constantly exposed as an essential component of the cinematographic apparatus in all of its elements and functions, and in this way is made constantly present to itself and to the spectator.


All the graphic, chromatic, and mechanical expedients inevitably highlight the content of every single frame and focus the attention of the spectator on it: the flow of images in Fontaine's films in reality appears to be a constant, as well as problematic, freeze on the image. Given the nature of the materials employed, each of the fragments exposed to these continual arrests also constitutes an arrest of the past, a moment summoned from another time to recall something forgotten, a past otherwise invisible. A further dimension is installed on the film as a material object, insofar as it becomes a bearer of imagination and, above all, a space over which memories and experiences are and have been inscribed.

The film strip brings with itself images that are the fruit of a historical context, of a specific mode of production, and that preserve the traces of events and people whose passing they have voluntarily or involuntarily witnessed. This union of the material and the ideal, the mechanical and the documental, makes the found films and the images inscribed in them complex artifacts, from which Fontaine makes her own films.

A film such as Histoires parallèles (Parallel Histories, 1990)—an extremely significant title—can perhaps serve as an example to illustrate the central role that the concepts of past and memory play in Fontaine's cinema.15 The film is built on materials from various sources, among them a newsreel from the Indian Film Review and an amateur film by a Nazi soldier, that Fontaine found by chance at a flea market. The amateur film alternates scenes of family life with images of the Nazi occupation of Europe. The materials show military parades and meetings between politicians and heads of state of “exotic” countries—alternating with the European landscape filmed by the Nazi soldier—and they are a clear reference to the recent story of Western colonialism. The theme of colonialism, of its present consequences on the countries it once subjugated, and its obliteration in the countries that practiced it, is very dear to Fontaine, particularly because of her personal history. Fontaine's family came from Réunion, an ex-colony of France, today an overseas department of France, and Fontaine experienced firsthand not only life in a tropical paradise whose history seems to have been forgotten, but also the migrant experience, first by moving with her family from Réunion to France, and then from her own move to the United States, where she went at a very young age to attend a school of fine arts.

It would be appropriate, therefore, to place Fontaine's cinema, or at least a part of it, in the more general category of postcolonial cinema or postcolonial memory, or, rather, using an expression coined by Hamid Naficy, accented cinema. In fact, in Fontaine's filmography we find many characteristics typical of the cinema that Naficy defines as “post-colonial, identity based and ethnic”: the attempt to find an equilibrium between her own origins (types of spaces, places, languages, and traditions) and the country in which she is living; disorientation and dislocation; and feelings of in-betweenness.16 Historical memory and private memory become layered in the precious craftsmanship of Fontaine's films, often accompanying a further layer, the layer of images and their memory, that the artist tries to make reemerge in every piece of unglued emulsion.

Parallel Histories displays military vehicles, soldiers in uniform, heads of state disembarking from planes, public speeches, a crowd that watches from the streets—moments that pertain to different countries, different historical time periods and situations, and different films. Fontaine assembles these materials by putting one on top of the other and again creating the manual split-screen as she had already done in Miracle Fishing. At first, the source images are all treated with different techniques to distinguish one from the other by the type of technical intervention and by the contrasting dominant colors used, in the tones of green, red, and white. As the film goes on, however, the images become progressively more uniform on a formal level, all of them taking on red tones and showing the effects of more aggressive acid baths. A fast and obsessive alternating editing becomes a counterpoint to the coloristic and plastic treatment, an editing that becomes almost dizzying, composed of very brief sequences that follow and tumble on top of each other faster and faster until they lead the viewer to progressively lose consciousness of the origin of what he or she is observing. Fontaine constructs her account of these parallel stories through the editing and assemblage of the emulsions: the movements of different figures are identical. Identical also is the style of filming adopted by those—whether amateur or professional filmmakers—who recorded these military parades, crowds, and handshakes; the ceremonies are identical, as are the angles of the shots.

According to Raphael Millet, although Parallel Histories seems “not be willing to leave even a little space for words (public), verbalization (symbolic) and enunciation (problematic), or to open itself up except on a formal level, it manages to achieve a visual discourse of immense political worth.”17 Fontaine does not show any of the violent moments of Nazi occupation; she chooses instead to show the everyday glorification, only apparently nonviolent, of power over a territory that should not belong to its occupiers. The stories of these territories, Fontaine suggests, are parallel all the same. The evidence of this similarity, of this apparently inevitable repetition of the horrors of the past, is expressed by the artist by unifying the memories in a single take, condensing them into a few seconds, and placing them on top of one another.

The flow of history, whether it be social, political, or personal, is as problematic as the flickering of images. The images sink downward and are forgotten, and it is the same with the errors of humans, conveniently erased from the majority's memory. History is made of elements that inevitably weave together. Their consequent comparison is indispensable if one is to reach a profound understanding of them. History cannot flow in an orderly manner before the eyes of spectators: it can only halt in front of them, like a ghost, fragmented and in rags, accompanied by other fragments that exalt, modify, or overturn its initial meaning, or the meaning that has been officially attributed to it. This is an inevitable complexity that finds a perfect parallel in Fontaine's choice to use found footage as a starting point in her exploration of a submerged past.


Among the films that make up this history that brings together generations, we also find some films given to the artist by her father, Pierre Fontaine. Pierre, a passionate amateur filmmaker, filmed the life of his own family through the years in various formats, from 16mm to Super8. When the artist moved to the United States, her father, who in the meantime had moved back to Réunion, began to mail her some film reels, among them a few that he had shot during the second half of the 1960s. The films contain family memories such as outings and birthday parties, and also images of Réunion, and the main protagonists are his children (Cécile as a child and her brothers) and his wife. This unique epistolary correspondence through film was celebrated by the artist in a 1985 film, Correspondance, in which she uses some of the frames of her father filming himself in front of a mirror, undoubtedly a topos of amateur films.

Fontaine uses her personal films on other occasions as well: footage filmed by her father can be recognized for example in Sans titre: Mai 1988 (Untitled: May 1988, 1988) and Stories. The use of home movies in Parallel Histories, as in other films, opens new perspectives on Fontaine's work. Home movies form a part of that invisible flow of images from which Fontaine draws her materials, above all because they were originally made for private viewing only, and so are even more hidden than other kinds of sources she uses. Moreover, for those involved in the films, they belong to a dimension that is so commonplace as to be considered banal, without any wider importance than as a repository for emotions and personal memories. Nonetheless, in Fontaine's view, even these movies are testimonies that deserve to be brought to light, furnished with vital new energy obtained through her material treatments. The film as a material object and dispositif, the pivot around which Fontaine's reasoning and practice turn, becomes in the case of home movies also an artifact, a work in the hands of someone who—with different eyes from he or she who exposed the images used in the montage, who decided to film his or her surroundings—becomes the bearer of a memory that is, above all, private. This different way of seeing and filming things, this tangible evidence of lived experience, is therefore incorporated into the collective history.

Untitled: May 1988, for example, starts with a home movie filmed during a Fontaine family outing near the Cormoran waterfall in Réunion. Many heterogeneous materials were added to this first piece, including images that represent a crowd, buildings, a soccer match, and a colorful procession of children dressed up for their first communion. At the beginning of the film, after some photographs portraying malnourished children and what appears to be a child's corpse in the arms of an adult, Fontaine appears as a baby along with her brothers walking in the woods behind their mother, who is wearing a floral dress and is recognizable at various moments during the film. The following sequence alternates between images of the children and mother walking, and images of vegetation, waterfalls, and flowers. Fontaine's experiments with décollage—obtained through her wet and dry techniques—as well as her ability to create superimposed images by scratching off portions of the emulsion from one frame and layering them on top of another, have achieved in this work a great degree of sophistication. This treatment, for example, is set aside for her mother's floral dress, which is often confused with the thick vegetation. While the first part of the film flows by slowly, following the hypothetical rhythm of the Fontaines' walk, in the following segments the rhythm gradually increases until pieces from another source intervene to “disturb” the quietude of the memory: a parade of children with red communion dresses installs itself over the family images, breaking its cadence and opening the floodgates for the entry of “alien” images. A crowd gathered over the waterfall seems to observe the fall of the water, but the waterfall is soon replaced by a building, and the people become witnesses to its collapse. More buildings and images of a city are superimposed on the waterfall, which nonetheless continues to appear on the screen, almost as if trying to submerge everything without ever achieving its goal. In the end, a military parade is replaced by the children in their dresses at a party. These final images are also extrapolated from a film by Pierre Fontaine, and are reused in Parallel Histories. With Untitled: May 1988, Fontaine begins to deal with another theme dear to her, mass tourism, a theme she will return to in Cruises. Tourism for Fontaine is closely associated with the idea of colonial aggression and cultural invasion carried out by Westerners who are apparently unaware of their actions.

Thus the innocuous outing of the Fontaines, amid the rich and untouched island vegetation, undergoes a progressive alteration: nature gives way to the city, and the city inevitably brings with it the military parade, a symbol of that occupation of space that doesn't leave undisturbed even the memory of a family outing. Fontaine says:

These images were effaced with bleach in an irregular manner, then encrusted with the collage of fragments of emulsion detached from various sequences, in order to reach the final editing of a slow march (perhaps literally represented) and a transformation toward death and destruction. It passes therefore from virgin nature to nature despoiled by humanity. It happens the same way to human beings, from the communicants to the old soldiers, from birth to annihilation. A spectacle for the bit players in the background.18 

Fontaine's spatial dislocation appears in all its clarity: no longer as the product of a distance between past and present, but rather as the product of the destruction of places and of memories by alien bodies that have invaded them. History repeats itself for everyone. In Parallel Histories as in other works, violence is part of the past, remote or recent, and part of our everyday lives (as Fontaine explores in her films on the use of firearms The Last Lost Shot and Boy's Best Friend [2002]). Nonetheless, or perhaps for that very reason, this film is composed of varying images, coming from very different contexts, the products of different hands and eyes. The interweaving of both personal and collective events, represented by the mix of different images—and on a material and tangible level by the roll of film itself—is the only way to coherently show the complexity of history. The materials Fontaine uses are never indifferent; she dissects, isolates, and exposes the layers of meaning in every fragment in exactly the same way she works with the emulsions of the film. In Fontaine's films, the thematic, figurative, and symbolic levels of the images share the same space in the construction of every single frame.

With regard to the complex relationship that the home movies maintain with the concept of history, we can conclude, recalling the words of Patricia Zimmermann: “A historiographic theory of amateur film must map localized microhistories rather than nationalized, phantasmatic representations. These microhistories hybridize the local with the global, the psychic with the political. Amateur films do not simply absorb history. Instead, they mobilize an active historical process of reimagining and reinvention.”19 

We recognize therefore the richness of the practice of found footage in its ability to activate such a process by inserting fragments of old footage in a new work, a process that gives life to a particularly complex layering of meaning when the microhistories recounted by the images belong to private memories—memories that, in Fontaine's case, are directly engraved into the body of the film. Invoking Stefano Masi, one could say that Fontaine has discovered another dimension that allows her to explore on the vertical axis a matter—the film's own matter—that is ordinarily only manipulated on a horizontal axis by filmmakers. The verticality that Masi is referring to is clearly not associated with the classical concept of vertical montage, first introduced by Sergei Eisenstein and destined to play a major role in later film history and theory. Nevertheless, the idea of the presence of a vertical axis in Fontaine's cinema can provide an interesting and effective starting point to understand her filmmaking practice. The verticality that is at stake here has to do with a totally different concept of montage, whereby meaning is not seen as the product of a juxtaposition of images, or as the joining together of frames that produce a natural flow of one sequence to the following one.

In her writings on filmmaking, Maya Deren offered her own concept of vertical editing. Deren considered cinema to be similar to poetry, as a form that is not worried about the depiction of an event, “but about the sensations it provokes and their meaning.”20 Similarly, in her concept of cinematographic editing,

One action does not necessarily lead to another (as it does in what I would call “horizontal development”), but all of them, even if they are different, end up connected together, brought back together, reunited around a common emotion. On the contrary, in the horizontal development of narration, the logic comes from the actions themselves. In vertical development it is the logic of an emotion or an idea that acts as a center point and attracts even the most disparate images to itself.21 

In Fontaine's cinema, the vertical axis is the palimpsest created by the different layers of film. Only by the dissection and layering of the elements along this axis is it possible to convoke and activate the whole potential contained in the single fragments of film matter. In fact, multiple levels of meaning are inscribed in each one of these fragments, which are forms, colors, and signs, but they are also the bearers of memories, recollections, and “artifacts of the culture that produced them,” to quote Chick Strand, another experimental filmmaker who like Fontaine has worked with found footage.22 

The vertical axis does not exclusively coincide with the image stripped of the layers of emulsion covering the celluloid. Although Fontaine's editing practice starts off with precisely this act of desquamation—because it is through this act that all the single fragments are isolated and assigned new values—her filmmaking practice is not limited to this. It is important in fact to stress how this action is always accompanied by physical modifications committed on the film strip itself, interventions that subvert formal arrangements, and vivify progressive transformations above all from a chromatic perspective. These transformations are at the heart of the following phases of accumulation and layering of the fragments that Fontaine sets on top of one another, basing her positioning in the first place on chromatic affinities or chromatic dissonances that she has created chemically or mechanically. Color, says Fontaine, is the connecting thread that leads to the construction of a coherent whole. Color provides a connection between two elements that were at first distant. It is through color that Fontaine weaves together the texture and the threads of this complicated net made of fragments—this construction that, as we have seen, assails viewers by telling them a different kind of history, a history in which every single particle is allowed to participate in a shared story.


Cécile Fontaine, Ricard Colas, and Nathalie Curien, “Entretien avec Cécile Fontaine (décembre 1998 / juillet 2003),” Cineastes.net, January 8, 2003, accessed July 16, 2015, http://www.cineastes.net/ent/entretien-fontaine.html.
Nicole Brenez, Cinémas d'avant-garde (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2007), 30–36.
Her debt to Brakhage's work and his use of color is most clear in the films she made while at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston between 1980 and 1984, an example of which would be A Color Movie (1983).
Fontaine, Colas, and Curien, “Entretien avec Cécile Fontaine.”
Nicole Brenez, “Couleur critique (Expériences chromatiques dans le cinéma contemporain),” in La couleur au cinéma, ed. Jacques Aumont (Paris and Milan: Cinémathèque française-Mazzotta, 1995), 161.
Stefano Masi, Cécile Fontaine. Décoller le monde (Paris: Paris Expérimental, 2003), 5.
Cécile Fontaine, “Technique sèche et technique humide,” in La Poétique de la couleur. Une histoire du cinéma experimental, ed. Nicole Brenez and Miles McKane (Paris: Auditorium du Louvre and Institut de l'Image, 1995), 149–51.
Brenez, “Couleur critique,” 161.
Yann Beauvais, “Cécile Fontaine” in L'art du mouvement. Collection Cinématographique du Musée National d'Art Moderne, ed. Yann Beauvais and Jean-Michel Bouhours (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1996), 15; Masi, Cécile Fontaine, 7.
Fontaine, “Technique sèche et technique humide,” 151.
Masi, Cécile Fontaine, 5–6; Fontaine, “Technique sèche et technique humide,” 150.
Fontaine, “Technique sèche et technique humide,” 151.
Tom Gunning, “Finding the Way: Films Found on a Scrap Heap,” in Found Footage: Cinema Exposed, ed. Marente Bloemheuvel, Giovanna Fossati, and Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press—EYE Film Institute Netherlands, 2012), 50–51.
Fontaine describes her inspiration behind the creation of her manual split-screen effect, discovered for the first time in the work Arbre diagonal (Diagonal Tree, 1984): “One day I saw The Man with a Movie Camera by Vertov, where we see a woman cutting a piece of film strip with a big pair of scissors. This is more or less what gave me the idea to cut the film somewhere else, and not only on the interline spacing as you would do with a film splicer. Thus I decided to cut diagonally, and at the same time, two films that I'd shot about trees. Then I built up again the film strip, swapping what you could see on the right of the diagonal cut in the first movie with what was on the second, and vice versa. Therefore, we are not constrained to use the film splicer, because the film splicer is a barrier. And it's the same with the movie camera and its camera lenses; without them we are free to make different things.” Cécile Fontaine, “Filmographie Commentée,” in Jeune, Dure et Pure: une histoire du cinéma d'avant-garde et experimental, ed. Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat (Paris: Cinémathèque française, 2001), 476.
For a reflection on the concept of origin and its relationship to Fontaine's poetics and Walter Benjamin's theory of history, see my essay, Lucia Tralli, “L'origine plurale: il cinema di Cécile Fontaine,” Fata Morgana 16 (2012): 147–51.
Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 15–17.
Raphaël Millet, “Hitler n'est pas mort. Le cinéma politique de Cécile Fontaine,” in Jeune, Dure et Pure, 479.
Fontaine, “Filmographie Commentée,” 478.
Patricia R. Zimmermann, “Morphing History into Histories: From Amateur Film to the Archive of the Future,” in Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, ed. Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 275.
Maya Deren quoted in Paolo Bertetto, “Cinema e Poesia. Dibattito con M. Deren, W. Maas, A. Miller, D. Thomas e P. Tyler,” in Il grande occhio della note, ed. Paolo Bertetto (Turin: Lindau, 1992), 265.
Ibid., 268.
Chick Strand quoted in William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993), 94.