The Cabal of Sea Urchins, in other words. Thanks to my schoolboy French, it took me a few viewings to realize Luc Moullet did mean sea urchins. They infest the maps around Oignies in the north of France, and inspire his hilarious 17-minute film, an unclassifiable jape on tourism, art, and piles of useless rock.
These urchins represent the unnamed mounds that pepper the landscape in what were once coal towns. The mines have closed, but the mounds remain, changing a landscape without so much as a proper hill. They have no names, no doubt due to a conspiracy. As Moullet reminds us, coal mining is underground work, so the heaps insult its discretion. Defiant, he aims to liberate, even elevate them.
To his eyes, the heaps look like his beloved mountains. While he has juggled a dual career as film critic and filmmaker in Paris, he is at heart a country boy and climber. Mountains appear throughout his films, as the backdrop in the anti-Western A Girl Is a Gun and the subject in Up and Down, about an absurd bicycle race in the Alps. In “La Cabale,” they appear almost as a pun. The heaps may have a more perfect form than Fuji, but they’re not exactly stable. Yet he climbs on, skidding down the side.
His deadpan humor– two lovers walking on crumbling mound, a cheeky crew, an argument over the most beautiful of all mounds ending with a monkey wrench– shares the tone of Agnes Varda’s masterpiece, The Gleaners and I. Both have a quotidian quirkiness, with a judge in a field or a hotel on a heap, that gets better with repeat viewings. Moullet might not be the most famous or prolific of the Nouvelle Vague, but he certainly is the funniest. And “La Cabale des oursins” is probably my favorite of his works. It translates this unique director’s wit into an intricate short, a perfect miniature.
A shame, then, that it’s so hard to see. One DVD exists, a part of the fine French journal Cinéma‘s 11th issue, and is French only. At least a box set of most of his features has been released, by Blaq Out in France and Facets in the US. And another hilarious short, “Essai d’ouverture” (“Essay on Opening”), about a bottle of Coke, can be seen online.