Headgames: Deco Dawson’s “Ne crane pas sois modeste (keep a modest head)”

The opening scene of Deco Dawson’s tribute film to Jean Benoît, who was the last surrealist, is a marvelous camp spectacle, brim-filled with psycho-sexual mystery, sonorous music and enough swirling black smoke to set off fire alarms in the imagination. A muscular, naked man stands in silhouette against a multi-paned window, and when he turns in profile we see that he is sporting an erection of Shunga proportion. He reaches for a branding iron that has been heating up in a fire and presses it to his chest. The result is more smoke from his burned flesh and then even more, black puff after black puff billowing from the end of his cock. In climaxing he is more industrial machine than human.

You would be excused for thinking this scene a dark fantasy but you would be wrong. It is Dawson’s recreation of an event that occurred on the evening of December 2, 1959, in the Paris apartment of the surrealist poet, Joyce Mansour. It was the staging of the Execution of the Testament of the Marquis de Sade, a performance by Jean Benoît, assisted by his wife, the artist Mimi Parent, and in the presence of a large number of Paris’s intelligentsia. When he came into the room, Benoît was wearing an eight-foot-tall costume constructed from multiple pieces, which Mimi peeled off and hung as a collage along one wall of the atelier. The sound in the room was a recording of André Breton reading a passage from Justine, de Sade’s notorious novel, as well as a tape of tramcars by Radovan Ivši´c, which were amplified to a volcanic intensity. Then Benoît, who had painted his body black with red arrows pointing to his heart, went to the fire pit in the centre of the room, picked up a white hot iron, which had the name SADE written on it, and branded himself over the heart.

The excess of this actual event is a perfect set piece for a film that chronicles an obsessive life. Benoît was a genuinely fascinating character (he died in 2010 at the age of 88). Born in Quebec City in 1922 and raised in a notable French Canadian family, he became a teacher at the school of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, from which he was fired for instigating a riot directed against Quebec’s conservative teaching and religion. He knew the artists associated with the Refus Global but left for Paris eight months before that explosive document was signed. In France, he became a close friend and collaborator of André Breton, the “pope of the surrealists.” Benoît picked up a nickname as well; called “the Enchanter of Serpents” his name was less a ranking inside an artistic movement than a sexual double entendre. Benoît’s enchantment was with the snakey phallus, a love affair that began when he was eight years old, improbably on the roofs of nine connected houses built in the Georgian style in Quebec City.

Dawson’s move from a smoke-filled Sadeian stage to the quaint domesticity of Benoît’s childhood is generative in that it gives him the pair of ideas that sit at the centre of his portrait: the entrancing perspective of the room within the room and the act of voyeurism. Throughout the film, we are always looking into something. As young Jean scampers along the dormered rooftops of his home, he comes across the bathing rituals of his neighbour, Isabelle Watson, a tall and lovely English woman. In a voiceover we hear Benoît say, “Having recently acquired the climbing skills of a monkey, I now began to masturbate like one.” He could be the poster boy for arrested development; from this moment on, he dedicates his life to the pursuit of what he calls “an insatiable curiosity for these worlds, these planets we call women.” Not content to objectify women and to use them as the subject of his intimate gaze, he aims much higher, making women orbiting planets in his cosmology of desire.

What follows is a collection of incidents, all narrated by Benoît himself, in which he recounts a series of childhood sexual activities. In one, he rolls around, erection intact, on a pile of fur coats that the sophisticated women who party downstairs have left on his parent’s bed. In another, he relates the time his mother asked him to stay home and watch the chicken after he refuses to go to church. Jean is attentive to the bird in ways his mother couldn’t have anticipated. “When the chicken was warm, I had my way with it,” he mischievously tells us. We see the actor who plays young Jean watching his aunts and uncles eat the holiday bird. Consistent with the religious theme that occasioned his staying home, Jean repeats the language of the Catholic sacrament of communion–“I thought to myself, this is my body, this is my blood”–but then adds a line not normally included in the liturgy: “they’re eating my sperm.” This is perhaps the most transgressive of the anecdotes included in the film. (It is interesting that the director calls this a “censored version” of the life; he claims to have been told stories he will never repeat).

Benoît admits that his first taste for outlandish acts came from the antics of Buster Keaton, an artist with whom he feels an impish kinship. Benoît has his own “repertoire of pranks.” At the Canadian Embassy in Paris in 1964, he becomes quite drunk and poses as an official who asks to see the passports of the guests, tearing out a page or two from each one before he returns it. The police are called and he would have been charged, except that a high-ranking woman managed to convince the authorities he was an invited guest who meant no harm. Dawson’s recreation of the embassy party is filmed in the style of Keaton and an actor playing Buster turns up at the party. The only problem is he looks like James Joyce during his Paris period.

It is a minor casting glitch in a film that pays meticulous attention to its storytelling. Dawson took eight years to complete the film and in the process shot a considerable amount of footage that was not used in Keep A Modest Head. On the evidence of what’s in this unconventional documentary, there is a whole other world of filmmaking that Dawson can enter when he has the time and the resources to make a feature-length documentary. What is not included is the art that Benoît made over the course of half a century. Different sculptures and drawings are tantalizingly introduced inside the picture frames of Benoît’s room, but they are seen only in passing. It’s clear that his style of art-making (he was an exquisite craftsman) influenced the dark turns of an artist like H R Giger. But Dawson is right in his understanding that life came before art in Benoît’s hierarchy, and the purpose of life was directly connected to a singular pursuit: “Every piece of work exists because of a sexual exploit he has had, or a seduction that he was in the middle of,” Dawson says. Women were so critical to Benoît’s imagination that in order to get him to tell his childhood anecdotes in an animated way, complete with “all the juicy details,” Dawson had to have a woman present so that the story could be told to her. “If a woman was there he would flirt to high heaven. Women were the animating thing for him. There is nothing else.” In another of his nocturnal dormer wanderings, young Jean sees his older self engaged in what he calls “my latest tour de force. Along comes a woman, I draw her vagina. Then the drawing goes for sale at the Hôtel Drouot; it appears in a reputable intellectual journal. To make a long story short, I set this little cycle in motion, and it just keeps going.” Benoît describes this procedure as “a project I’m working on for my libido.” One other area of Benoît’s art production involved Le Rouleau-manuscrit, hundreds of metres of love letters that are painted and adorned with feathers and then glued onto paper scrolls. Benoît’s compulsion to keep these souvenirs was personal in two ways: he knew that de Sade’s letters had been burned as part of his punishment and he didn’t want his talismans of intimate encounters to suffer a similar fate. “The scrolls were his way of capturing his lovers,” says Dawson. “It wasn’t just about sleeping with them, it was about continually seducing them.”

The artist’s obsessive desire for women also determined the film’s title. Ne crâne pas sois modeste is the name written on the skull we see in the film’s opening shot. The English translation is a caution to be level-headed, but with a man for whom anything to do with the word ‘head’ has a sexual connotation, the meaning shifts to something more like “always keep yourself at half mast, you always have to be ready to have a full erection.”

The last sequence in the film returns us to the room that stands in for Benoît’s imagination. This time, instead of either of the actors playing him at different stages of his life, Benoît himself is in the room. He is peering into a birdhouse-sized model of his Georgian childhood home and suddenly, without warning, he throws the model to the floor, stomping it into many pieces. He picks his pipe off the table, lights it and for a minute looks contemplatively out the casement window.

Finally, he turns his attention to us, moving forward so that his face fills the entire frame; because of the lens distortion his nose is huge, and he most resembles Le Bouledogue de Maldoror, 1965-66, his bronze sculpture of an aggressive bulldog that we have seen in one of the picture frames in the room. We also see smoke pouring from his pipe, a white version of the black swirl visible in the film’s opening branding performance.
Inescapably, you’re reminded of Magritte’s famous painting, La trahison des images, 1928-29, an image of a pipe, below which the Belgian surrealist has written, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” It’s not a pipe for Benoît, either. The unrepentant trickster, smoke issuing from his phallic device, is once again up to his old tricks.

Ne crâne pas sois modeste won the Best Canadian Short Film at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. ❚

Volume 31, Number 4: Made and unMade

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #124, published December 2012.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.