I began keeping a journal when I was 17, since then it has become a companion of sorts. Risking that no one will find it interesting, I venture to publish a few excerpts. People and places, events and situations, all of which have their place.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely were a legendary couple, and somewhat unique in the history of art. In light of the magnificent retrospective of Niki’s work currently on display at the Grand Palais in Paris, I present one of my journal entries, along with personal photographs, connected to her film “A Dream Longer Than the Night,” in which my wife Marina and I were honored to take part. The film was shot in La Tête, a gigantic sculpture, the product of a collaboration between Niki and Jean, in the forest of Fontainebleau. Later, Niki offered it to the French State; François Mitterrand accepted it in person.
Saturday, August 30, 1975 – Dannemois, France
I left with Eric in the evening for the filming of Niki de Saint Phalle’s “A Dream Longer Than the Night.” We entered the Commanderie; it was deserted, with every door open and full of light. We raided the fridge and ate in the dining room, illuminated by the glow of Tinguely, in the midst of omnipresent yet amicable ghosts.
Then we made our way to La Tête. I could already see the bright light of the gigantic machine through the trees of the forest; the hammering of the mechanisms in the silence of the night… and closer still… I gasped. This extraordinary heap of scrap iron and gears, bright as daylight in this setting of shadows, caressed by the smoke of the burning wood fire lit “like that” by Tinguely. A rusting pyramid, a gratuitous monument, a triumphant arc of inutility… yet from all this emerged a beauty and terrifying power.
The participants of the film moved about between the floors of La Tête on iron stairs suspended above the emptiness. Niki dominated her menagerie like a great royal lady. Tinguely, poorly shaven, eyes red with exhaustion, looking like a Corsican bandit; a Cardinal cloaked in his cappa magna, played by the fine and charming lawyer Sam Mercer; Laura Condominas, the pure heroine, blond and pink; and I, with a crown atop my head, playing the king.
The enormous Luginbuhl, head shaven, with a Viking’s mustache and an aggressive and protruding stomach, sported a fascist jacket exposing his bare legs, covered with bulging varicose veins.
Tinguely’s aides, built like tanks, were dressed in leather and wearing driver’s caps. The fanfare of Bâle (fifes and rums) was comprised of the city bourgeois dressed in Gestapo trench coats. There was so much more, the machinists, the electricians, the photographers, Marina, Laurent.
Roger, disguised as hoodlum from le Zoutte, chewed on his eucalyptus cigarette without missing a beat. The scenes we filmed were visually enchanting, amazing, inconceivable, possessing something splendid, violent, kitsch, and original, all the trappings of a stupefying film.
Towards three o’clock in the morning, I found myself on the first floor of La Tête while the technicians and the stage director prepared the scene on the floor above. All the Swiss were with me, sprawled out and exhausted. Suddenly, a fife began to play, then another, then a drum, then the fanfare in its entirety. Soon others began to tap their feet in rhythm against iron pillars, bells, and pans.
It was a battle song, immensely powerful and irresistible. The colossal Luginbuhl rose and began, all alone, to dance a type of samba, a cancan, the dance of the Sioux, wobbling and twisting, swinging his enormous backside while tapping his feet… It was the dance of the pagans in Germanic forests, barbarous, sublime.
From above fell the harsh light of the stage lamp upon the jacket and bald head of the dancer. Roger, beside me, gave me a pinch, “Michel, I’m dreaming, this cannot be real.” I went mute with shock, with enthusiasm, with terror before this show drawn from a most distant past, a fury of brute and terrestrial force. I ran to tell Niki to film the scene.
We began again, all of us, dressed in grand costumes. However, in the interim, bottles of schnapps had flowed freely, and the ballet had degenerated a bit. The Jew from the ghetto danced the paso doble with Luginbuhl and one of Tinguely’s henchmen grabbed hold of the Cardinal, cape to the wind, in a wild and frenzied rumba. In short, it was truly the “Wahlala Follies.”