Plotwise, this is as simple as those early cinematic experiments entitled Tennis Match or The Motorcar Departs: A man is pursued, endlessly, across borders. We pick up our sympathies from the details: small habits and clothing tell us that he is a member of the resistance and his assailant is a Nazi spyhunter. His name is M. Jainet, and he will run and run and run. The Nazi, trapped in hopeless caricature, has no name. Even as the film begins, we are clued in to what they both know: that this chase does not end when the war does. This is their own private battlefield, a psychic chess, and it knows no international law or politick. Their situations could be reversed, and they would behave in the same manner. Like Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle, a mutual suicide, keeping alive only to spite the other, clueless as to what death to either would mean.
Eziot takes a simple stylistic concept and holds it for 85 minutes, a captain clinging to his mast through a storm. An exercise in repetition, each scene is made up of a single shot, usually with an unmoving camera. Sometimes, a scene can sit empty for minutes: an abandoned market at night, a doorway outside a glowing bar, a towpath along a canal at dusk. But always, it seems, stairs are present, lifting through the darkness hopefully, to who knows where. Frequently, we have a three-quarter view, slightly elevated, a privileged angle on these cityspaces as smoky, desperate Eschers, cold geometries which our pair pass through. Diagrams freshly-built but anciently anatomical. Tension is never relieved, as every revelation is followed by a mind-wiped new scene. As soon as one man spots another (his body stiffening ecstatically out of the jetlag for a moment), his actions are quick and decisive, but ultimately mean nothing. Not unless we see capture and an end to the cycle, and we do not. For a new scene, in a new part of town, will surely follow. Sometimes Jainet finds the stairs, and our hopes are lifted. But he has only escaped to the next screen, to begin again.
In some scenes, nothing happens; there is no-one. In others, we might only see the pursuer or the pursued (perhaps searching eagerly, or hiding, or even, on occasion, relaxing, putting the danger aside for a moment (the latter of which is frequently the most affecting)); in at least one, both pass each other without noticing. Every time, we look for those faces: the twitchy, hopeful Jainet (played by Serge Reggiani, the popular French-Italian singer) and the lumbering never-tiring Nazi (Gaston Modot, who played another angry German in Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (1939)).
At first, Eziot's espionaged theatricals seem like a game for the viewer, and each scene a mystery puzzle, a Where's Waldo? in frosty greys and blacks. But soon, the beautiful complexity of an eternally repeating screen (with the water-torture tension of infernal Pong) affects us, as does the knowledge that when Jainet ricochets himself into the edge of the screen, that is the end of it, but only for now.
Eziot tinkered repeatedly with his film, and the most widely seen cut from 1949 is by no means the most definitive. In 1972, He toured a 72-hour version entitled M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag '72, with reels replayed in random orders; a stiffening, endless, Spy vs Spy, zen warfare, perpetual fear.
Francois Truffaut wrote about the experience of watching this version for Cahiers du Cinema: (1)
'In the theatre, the fans celebrated this event in various ways: there were poetry recitals at the back, and a drinking game near the front that fell away by the halfway point of the film. One group began to cheer the Nazi, perhaps finding in him the perennial despair of Wile E. Coyote, perhaps just yearning for a conclusion. Near me, a couple slept in each other's arms for the entire weekend, not looking up once. At one point, I became convinced that the roles had been reversed, and that Jainet was tracking his pursuer; Eziot had hypnotised me, or perhaps Jainet had realised that the best way to avoid capture was to follow... Despite the singular pacing of the film, the overall mood ebbed and flowed throughout: at one point, almost everybody cheered each carefully created scene, at another they were slow-clapping, and at others it seemed like it didn't matter what we were watching... after about eighteen hours, the backgrounds through which the two men move become less like Vichy France and more like other wartime outposts- Morocco, Stalingrad, Cyprus. By the fiftieth hour, I recognised nowhere. The longer one watches, the further away from the original place we are. One comes to feel that if one were to watch Jainet running for several weeks, he might end up leading his pursuer into the sun, or the outer rings of heaven; similarly, the viewer would leave the cinema to find themselves in a completely different city, on another planet, or in another body entirely.'
The film was homaged in Rick Marving's home computer games for the ZX Spectrum in those glorious early-1980s years of quick inspiration, bedroom programming and whimsical in-jokes. Monsieur Janney's Eternal Zig-Zag '82 and Monsieur Janney's Still Running, were both famous for being never-ending, self-generating puzzles, with no game over or prize screen.
M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag Directed by Francois Lepin Eziot Produced by Jean Eziot Written by Francois Lepin Eziot Starring Serge Reggiani, Gaston Modot DisCina Films 99 mins Release Date UK/US: March 1949 'How long can you avoid yourself?'
1. July, 1972