Watching a film about Claude Cahun.
When Alan Pierson conducts, he stands with his feet together, sometimes springing onto his toes and then plunging forward at the waist. Other times, he takes a step forward, only to return immediately to his original spot. He is tall and thin, and his reedy build exaggerates his movements: he could be one of Robert Longo’s flailing suited men, but he is poised, like an exclamation mark.
He is conducting Alarm Will Sound onstage at Merkin Concert Hall as part of the Sonic–Sounds of a New Century Festival. He is also onscreen at the back of the stage, in a short film in which he conducts the same composition but without orchestra or audience. The live Alan Pierson conducts with his back to the audience in the hall, but onscreen he frequently appears frontally and in close-up, and his expression—of delectation and wonder—is fed by his body’s exuberant movements.
The twenty musicians comprised by Alarm Will Sound move to the music the way rock musicians do. They generally play unlikely pieces for a chamber orchestra: works by Frank Zappa, Autechre, John Cage, and Aphex Twin. For an Edgard Varèse composition performed at Zankel Hall in 2006, the woodwinds and brass dispersed among the audience, percussionists moved in formation on the stage, and Pierson conducted from the middle of the hall. Movement is an essential part of their repertoire.
Onstage at Merkin, they are playing Charlie Piper’s eight-minute composition, Zoetrope, for which motion is the defining element. Piper, a young British composer, borrowed the concept of a zoetrope, a nineteenth-century device that creates the illusion of a moving picture out of a succession of still images, for the structure of his work. The music starts off slowly, and the sound, Piper says, “is essentially pixelated.” As the tempo increases, the melody coalesces.
He explains: “It begins with two percussions on metal percussions and piano—a very high pitch at the beginning and repeated, slightly mechanical patterns. Slow chiming—that’s what I meant by the pixelated quality. All the other instruments enter one by one, creating a sustained sound around it. It gets faster and faster, and all of that blurs as the other instruments enter, sustaining the sound, building it up into more like a sustained melody.” As the composition ends, its tempo slows, and it concludes at the same speed at which it began. It would be possible, Piper tells me, to play it in a loop, just as one would a zoetrope.
The film opens on a shot of a small folded card that contains the handwritten phrase “L’aventure invisible.” Pierson picks up a zoetrope next to the card and sets it spinning. As the images gain momentum, the woman inside begins to move. We see her in a succession of costumes—in men’s clothing, in a black dress with a yellow star, as a weight lifter, a Buddha, an angel; she postures and poses, thumbing her nose, crouching, bending on one knee. Though the short film, which is also titled Zoetrope, is silent and doesn’t tell us who the character is, I know that it is Claude Cahun, a little-known French Surrealist artist, writer, and provocateur who made work with her lover, Marcel Moore, both before and during World War II.
In the backyard of a coffee shop, I sit with Margaret Singer and Max Freeman, the filmmakers behind Zoetrope, which premiered the week before at Merkin. Margaret is a ringer for Claude: shaved head, fair complexion, rangy build. That resemblance is, in fact, how Margaret and Max first came to hear of Claude. “A friend from Jersey showed us portraits of her,” Margaret says, “and we were like, That’s me in a different life! The shaved head, the posturing—I connected to a lot of the things she was doing.”
They discovered Claude in 2013 and made the film the following spring. “We knew the imagery before we knew her writing or biography in detail,” Max says. He is referring to Claude’s photographs and collages, both of which form the basis for the film. The costumes Margaret wears and the poses she strikes are lifted from Claude’s photographs. “The portraits were our entrance. Sassy and difficult, a lot of attitude. There’s a lot coming through in those portraits,” Margaret says. “The way she positions herself, the way she looks at the camera—there’s so much poise, even from a young age.” Max elaborates:
The way she was dressing, in terms of gender—there were lots of women doing that in Paris in the thirties. Even though there was a law on the books that said women could not wear pants in public, women were violating it, and it had become fashion, not just for lesbians. But Claude was doing something slightly different, because it wasn’t glam. She was shaving her head as though she were a convict or an insane person. Her work was uncomfortable, she made people uncomfortable, her writing’s uncomfortable. She was interested in violating the standards of good behavior.
Claude, however, worked as part of a pair. Her lover, Marcel, was a fashion illustrator, and Singer and Freeman believe that it was she who took the photographs and pieced together the collages. But Claude was the writer, and, Max opines, “we place a higher value culturally on thinkers than we do on makers and people who work with their hands. So it’s easier to see Claude as the genius or the maker.” “That’s one of the biggest falsehoods about her,” Margaret adds, “that she was some lone genius. I think it’s easier, for whatever reason—she was in the photos, and she was more gregarious and outgoing. It seems like Marcel was very shy. So it’s always been about Claude.”
Max and Margaret listen attentively to one another, are deferential, and occasionally finish each other’s sentences. One friend has referred to them as a married couple. They live together in Brooklyn and work together on films and in their commercial photography studio, Unusually Fine. Max, who is the French speaker of the two, is bearded and looks somewhat Gallic. Where Margaret is more direct, Max is reserved.
Both are gay, and both are former Mormons. Max was raised in the church in Utah, but Margaret’s father worked for the World Bank, and her childhood was spent in Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Brazil. They met in Boston, in 2005, at church. They were introduced by a mutual friend, also a Mormon. “She thought we’d date and get married,” Max recalls, “and instead we chose … a different kind of life together.” Their meeting came at a crucial moment: Margaret was openly gay but still adhered to part of the Mormon faith—“halfway out the door,” as she puts it—and Max was closeted but chafing against the hypocrisies of the church:
I had been miserable about being closeted for a long time but I had chosen, because I believed that the church was true, that I would just be celibate forever and that was like a sacrifice and it was fine. It was at the beginning of the war in Iraq, and I was a staunch opponent, and at the yearly meeting of Mormons where the prophet gets up and speaks, he talked about the evils of gambling. And the silliness of that in the face of what the country was facing in the invasion of Iraq … I was just done. Margaret had come out but hadn’t left the church. She helped me to come out, and I think I helped her, because the moment I was done with the church, I was done. I went from full-on Boy Scout to atheist renegade—overnight.
Claude was born Lucie Schwob, in 1894, to a wealthy intellectual family in Nantes. Her father, Maurice Schwob, ran the large and influential regional newspaper Le Phare de la Loire. A great-uncle, Léon Cahun, was a conservator at the famed Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris and an “Orientalist” who wrote historical novels. Her uncle was Marcel Schwob, a Symbolist who most famously wrote Le livre de Monelle, a philosophical novel-in-stories that exerted great influence on Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Borges, Bolaño, and others. Claude and Marcel, who was born Suzanne Malherbe, met as girls in 1909. In a strange twist, Maurice Schwob married Marcel’s widowed mother in 1917; Claude and Marcel, already lovers, became stepsisters.
By the time they moved to Paris, in 1920, Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe had adopted the gender-ambiguous pseudonyms Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. They fell in with the Surrealists in the early thirties, and in 1934, Claude was encouraged by André Breton to pen a tract against Louis Aragon, who had sided with the Stalinists over the Surrealists. Though also a Marxist, Breton did not want to cede artistic autonomy to the communist party. Breton suggested to Claude that she critique Aragon’s poetic theories, and she wrote an attack called “Les Paris sont Ouverts,” or “The Bets Are Open.” “It’s a smart argument in favor of indirect action and poetry rather than propaganda,” Max explains. “She advocates for a kind of poetry that is not chained to strict ideology and political demands but that still has a sense of conscience.”
Among her major pieces of writing is Aveux non avenus, which was published in 1930 (it appeared in English as Disavowals in 2008). The book includes photo collages, fragmentary writings, and prose-poems. “She was friends with Adrienne Monnier, who was Sylvia Beach’s lover and who ran the most important artistic press for French literature in Paris,” Max explains. “She and Adrienne were friends, she worshipped Adrienne and wanted her to publish her book. They had a correspondence back and forth about it.” Adrienne wanted something in the line of women’s confessional writing, the journal intime, but Claude balked at the gendered implications of the genre and at the conventionality of the form. In 1928, she delivered a manuscript to Adrienne; it was highly experimental and abstract, a kind of anti-memoir. Adrienne turned it down.
“This was very sad for her,” Margaret says.
“It was devastating,” Max says.
Zoetrope was initially set to premiere in 2014, but too many venues were nervous about the film’s nudity. The premiere at Merkin is the first time Max and Margaret have seen the film with live musical accompaniment. “Alan is a friend of ours,” Max tells me, “and we’d shot a little behind-the-scenes footage when Alarm Will Sound did a kind of crossover with Medeski Martin & Wood. Alan wanted to collaborate with us, so he sent us some songs and had us brainstorm ideas.” Charlie Piper’s composition appealed most to them, and they had already decided to begin a project on Claude. “It’s not a music video,” Max is quick to point out. “It’s an experimental art film that we made in collaboration with them.” Margaret elaborates: “We wanted it to be its own piece. We wanted it to stand on its own. I thought about it for a little while, and then I dumped a bunch of incoherent ideas in Max’s lap. He was like, These are all crazy. But he picked a few of them … This is how we collaborate. We give each other a bunch of ideas, and then we go through them. It’s a very painful process.”
They made a short film for practical reasons—money chief among them—and shot it in only twelve hours, but the form isn’t ideal. “People don’t want short films,” Margaret says. “They’re for galleries or festivals,” Max adds. And then Margaret again: “We would like to have more broad appeal in our work, in general. I mean, this is amazing, but I don’t think I want to make a career of short films because there’s such limited engagement with it.”
At the Merkin, the music is still building. The costumed vignettes of Claude are intercut with bird’s-eye views of a second woman, in jeans and bare to the waist, who moves on hands and knees across a black floor as she cuts up large photographs of Margaret-as-Claude: of her mouth, her eyes, her hands, her face, her ears. This second woman is Casey Legler, a former Olympic swimmer and now a men’s-clothing model. She is lithe and lean, and as she reaches and crawls, the play of muscles on her shoulders and arms and her long spine make a kind of a separate composition. After dissecting the photographs of Claude, she begins to reconstitute her in a new, collaged image but can’t seem to find the right combination. The music reaches full swing. There is a proliferation of Claudes—stacked rows of costumed Claudes in motion are intercut with views of Casey amid multiple examples of ears and lips and faces. The photographed arms become real ones, reaching out from the collage on the floor, and she wipes them with paste, as if to add them to her creation. The zoetrope spins faster, and the mass of hands grasps at her, pulling her into the image itself. She then appears alongside Claude’s various characters, as the latter continues her playacting, and begins to mockingly imitate Claude’s movements and tear at her costumes. The behavior is perplexing: these may be incarnations she has created, yet she seems to feel antipathy toward them.
Because Max and Margaret have told me that they suspect Marcel made the collages, I wonder if Casey is meant to be a stand-in for Marcel. But what does it mean that she both creates and destroys the work? “There were several kinds of anxiety we were interested in,” Max explains, “both in the music, which is an anxious, jumpy piece of music, and in Claude’s work, which is edgy and nervous. And Casey stands in for the relationship between collaborators—artistic collaborators, like Claude and Marcel were. And they did have a kind of intense, codependent, insular relationship that was closed off to the rest of the world. And she also stands in for ourselves, as artists, interacting with the legacy of an artist we admire, which is part of what the movie dramatizes.”
Both Max and Margaret refer to Claude’s collages as montages, before correcting themselves. The mistake is revealing. The basis of the film is in still image, and their process involved imbuing still images with motion. “We were staring at these images for a long time,” Margaret says, “imagining the stories around them.” They enlisted dancer Mickey Mahar to help visualize the movement that might result if Claude’s poses in the photographs were set in motion; they also considered movement in terms of gender and sexuality. Margaret again: “We talked with Mickey a lot about him, his life, and how he moves and thinks about queerness, how he presents himself. We talked about me and how I present myself in relation to the portraits—how it would feel for me to be in a dress, how it must have felt for Claude. We did a lot of imagining exercises, and then he presented ideas about specific, choreographed movements for each of the characters.”
The portraits of Claude don’t look like what we expect art photographs to look like. Despite the costumes, they seem to have been made with little preparation. The framing of the images is often slightly askew, so that Claude’s foot or wing or fingertips are cut off or a corner of the wall is revealed at the edge of the curtains that are used as backdrops. Max tells me that Claude acted in a small theater in Paris, and many of these portraits show her in costumes used for performances. The outfit I think of as that of an angel—silver wings, white dress and shoes—is a Lucifer costume, whom Claude portrayed in a mystery play. The photographs may have been taken onstage or backstage, perhaps in anticipation of a performance.
The photograph of Claude in a checkered jacket—the one that has Margaret thumbing her nose and assuming a series of masculine poses—is of a different sort. In the photograph, Claude stands with her face next to a small mirror; she turns toward the camera, looking directly at us—“Hollywood, brazen,” as Max describes it—so that one side of her face is visible only in reflection. She is doubled but not twinned. This is among the best-known images of Claude. There exists, too, a far lesser-known one, of Marcel in the same pose, but she looks into the mirror, smiling, so that she is only looking at us through her reflection. Is it too much to propose this as a metaphor for the way Claude and Marcel worked? That Marcel sought expression indirectly, through the reflections she could make on camera? And that Claude was more at home in performance, in spinning out various guises?
When is a woman who dresses as man neither a man nor a woman? When she is both. Marcel and Claude dressed as men for many years. During World War II, they began dressing as women.
To escape mounting political tensions in France and anti-Jewish sentiment, they moved to the British isle of Jersey in 1937; the war eventually found them. The island was occupied in 1940, but Marcel and Claude remained. They had continued making art in Jersey and now merely shifted focus. The pair distributed some seven thousand political tracts over four years; the Nazis recovered perhaps three thousand of them, which means a majority stayed out in the world. “Which they considered a great success,” Margaret tells me. “They were really pleased when the Nazis recognized their ideas, because they had no idea if they were effective or not, and part of what was satisfying for them, when they were getting interrogated later, was realizing that it had had a great impact on the island.”
The tracts appealed to the German soldiers as fellow international workers. “She was trying to appeal to their humanity,” Margaret says. Claude and Marcel’s home was situated between a hotel used for German recreation and a Nazi cemetery; the pair worked in plain sight. “They broke into the cemetery one night,” Max explains, “and planted a cross in the grave of a recently deceased soldier—his funeral had been held that day—and the cross said, FOR YOU THE WAR HAS COME TO AN END. They also broke into a church nearby and hung a giant banner that said, JESUS IS GREAT BUT HITLER IS GREATER.”
Margaret: “And if the Nazis were going to a function or a funeral and left their car windows down, they’d stick their tracts through the windows. Or, even more ballsy, if soldiers left their jackets on the backs of chairs, they’d tuck them into the jacket pockets.”
Max: “The Nazis thought there was a large, organized resistance and that it was run by men. They were convinced that these women were secretaries in the resistance. Claude writes in her memoir, They were forced to condemn us without believing that we existed. They refused to believe that two women could have done this themselves. And when they were imprisoned, they met German soldiers who had been arrested for mutinous acts, who said that they were inspired by the tracts Claude had left and that they’d come to her for orders.”
Margaret: “They were little celebs in prison.”
Max: “There’s a certain level of political commitment that seems still in tune with Claude’s ideas of the autonomy of the artist.”
Margaret: “It’s moving to me that they stopped wearing men’s clothes, they started looking like old ladies. They wanted to blend in, and that’s a mask, that’s another one of Claude’s costumes. That’s her going incognito.”
Max: “It’s an act of resistance. It’s a very counterintuitive act of resistance. It’s brilliant. And they changed their names back to Suzanne Malherbe and Lucy Schwob.”
Marcel and Claude were imprisoned in 1944 and condemned to death, though their sentence was commuted. Claude’s health never recovered; she died nine years after the end of the war. Marcel never recovered from Claude’s death. “She was a total recluse after Claude died,” Margaret says. Marcel committed suicide in 1972.
Once you’ve seen a photograph come to life, can you ever again see it as a still moment?
Charlie Piper tells me that he thought of the ensemble “as one unit, one machine” and wanted “to find a homogenous sound world.” Claude described Marcel as “l’autre moi.” Suzanne and Lucie, Marcel and Claude.
As the film winds to a close at the Merkin, we see Alan Pierson holding the zoetrope and spinning it with his finger. He is watching Claude assume motion, but after a moment, he is substituted with Claude, and she stands spinning the zoetrope, watching herself in men’s clothing, in a black dress with a yellow star, as a weight lifter, a Buddha, an angel. She turns toward the camera, toward us, and the crisp crack of a flash bulb transforms her into a black-and-white photograph filling the screen. Casey strides in from the bottom of the screen, shears in hand, and begins cutting around the image of Claude. As she cuts, she reveals a black space underneath, and a small card that reads “L’aventure invisible.”
Nicole Rudick is managing editor of The Paris Review.