The collection’s first piece, a 1977 profile of Buñuel, shows Gilliatt’s philosophy at work. It begins abruptly, as if the reader were interrupting a private conversation between the director and Gilliatt. He wants her opinion on aging, but the subject is dropped almost immediately. We then learn that the two of them are in Seville, on set. Buñuel is shooting in his home country for the first time since 1969. He reminisces about history. Gilliatt muses on Buñuel’s archetypal characters. She tells him he looks like he’s dreaming, then tells a funny story about Buñuel and a taxi cab. The piece is sometimes hurried, sometimes extravagantly slow. Later:
He gets up and walks off, and comes back with an orange for me, picked from a tree. “You weren’t lonely?” he says.
“I was thinking.”
“Film is the complement of conversation. As a cat is. I keep a cat in the half-open drawer of my workroom in Mexico. Many a tale we have spun together. Insects are one thing, cats another.”
We go on talking, and then he abruptly gets up and asks me to forgive him if he has a siesta. As he says this, straight-backed, leaning forward from the hips, he looks like a sail in the wind.
Yes, Buñuel is on display, but Gilliatt is, too. Or, to put it another way, Gilliatt isn’t there to translate or provide order. She is part of the creative ferment even as she tries to articulate it for an audience. This technique—this sense of journalist and subject working in tandem—can certainly be abused; one might argue that Gilliatt’s work occasionally strays too far in this direction. But it also gives her best pieces a real sense of presence, whether she’s profiling a director or reviewing a film.
Her first profile of Jean-Luc Godard is like a staring contest between two master aphorists, in their interactions and then in her interpretation of his films. Three-Quarter Face features three pieces on Godard, and they are possibly less helpful than more straightforward stories; you don’t learn anything about the brand of socks Godard wears, or what he thinks about his leading ladies. Rather than presenting her own impression of Godard, Gilliatt seems to try very hard to capture Godard’s impression of himself. This makes for a piece that is at once instinctual and collaborative; a wholly accurate portrait of an elusive subject. Gilliatt doesn’t simply tell us that Godard is mysterious, or show that he is. She creates an air of mystery around him:
[Godard] has a cleft chin, good hands, and a wary look of being about to spring away from dangerous situations. His expression is less implacable than he probably imagines, this peculiarly convivial and questing hermit. His friends (“I have very few friends,” he asserts firmly, in a typical style of testing intimacy by keeping it at bay) tend to say of him fondly that he is impossible. His medium is not violence, and they know it.
Gilliatt may understand Godard, but she has no interest in unpacking his riddles. Instead, she responds in kind, offering up journalism that makes no effort at what she might derisively refer to as “translation.” After being reminded that Gilliatt is profiling one of the day’s most celebrated filmmakers, the piece again retreats:
He seems to despair of himself daily. He presents himself as being severe. But he will make dead-eyed concessions to funny truths, as his friends and allies find. He tries very hard to laugh, but he has a sense of the ludicrous which equals his capacity for being bored. He also owns up to the pressure of feelings which is characteristic of his piercing company.
Gilliatt has pulled from their encounter enough material to masterfully evoke the enigmatic filmmaker. She would argue that the creative world does not reveal itself in an orderly fashion, nor does life unfold this way. Prose like hers, then, is both more alive and truer to life.