Eaux d’Artifice, the 13-minute short movie made by American avant- garde director Kenneth Anger in 1953, occupies a unique place within his body of work. Whilst Anger is best known for his experimental, transgressing work like the homoerotic reverie Fireworks – way ahead of its time when you consider that it was made in 1947 – Eaux d’Artifice has a deliberate anachronistic feel to it. Filmed in the baroque park of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli (30kms south of Rome), the silent film follows a woman dressed in an extravagantly intricate dress, suggestively gliding down staircases amongst cascading waterfalls. The gushing water has a certain subdued eroticism to it, which comes as no surprise from a director who used spilled milk and fireworks to evocate an orgasm. The sole protagonist in Eaux d’Artifice is a midget – an actress called Carmilla Salvatorelli Anger recruited from Federico Fellini’s motley crew of actors – which is a smart play as it amplifies the imposing presence of the water fountains. Though the subject matter is very classic – not unlike a Pre-Raphaelite painting brought to life – it really is the visual technique that gives the movie its tone. Shot in blue-tinted monochrome, Anger’s ability to present a mesmerizingly beautiful play of light on bubbling and cascading water defines the short movie’s nostalgic mood, further emphasised by its musical backdrop – Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto from the Four Seasons. To get to that luminescent visual effect, Anger shot the film in black and white through a red filter and then lined up each frame so it would set of the water drops. Camera speeds and shutter angles were also used to great effect. Eaux d’Artifice – which was selected back in 1993 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – is a visual poem that has no clear narrative direction, although that is where its beauty lies. It is pure form and a study of movement and colour. Its remarkable beauty (the word comes up a lot when discussing Anger’s work) charmed many writers and directors, including Jean Cocteau, Tennessee Williams (“the most exciting use of cinema I’ve seen”) and Martin Scorsese, who admitted it made him realise the importance of music in film for the first time. Not bad for a short with a jumping midget in the main role.
Written by Sam Steverlynck