"The telling of the story, the young woman's narrative, is imposed on the action in such a way as to deny each scene any ordinary dramatic interest and instead to substitute a counterpointing between the description (which is very flat) and the actual realization (also very flat—and with dialogue subdued beneath the narrative voice). At first this method seems pregnant with understated tension, but in time you come to realize that nothing more is happening than appears to be happening, and the method begins to seem silly. And at a certain not exceptional moment, when the young woman, very disconsolate, stands by a tunnel and says: "I found a tunnel—a place where cars went in. They came out a bit further on."—at that moment I began to find the simple story rather silly, too.
"There is an overwhelming temptation to compare Hanoun with Robert Bresson, whose work Une Simple Histoire greatly resembles. But Bresson, for all the spare severity of his style, has never professed to tell a simple story, and (for example, in Mouchette and Une Femme Douce) has often tended to make more complex the fictions upon which he bases his films.
"Hanoun's simplicity—like his almost stationary camera (which is just stationary enough to make for some very fancy corner-of-the-frame interior shots that might have been centered), like his depressed view of Paris, like his leading lady's eyebrows—seems finally less a matter artistic asceticism than of artful calculation. And in the midst of the many deprivations that constitute his style there is a kind of pretentiousness — ostentationsness, really — as if he were taking pride in poverty."
-- Roger Greenspun, NYTimes, 1970 (here)
In denunciations of 'the aestheticization of poverty'--it happens here to Hanoun, it happens frequently to Pedro Costa--the naysayers are the ones who spend so much time concentrating on the cheapness or the squalor depicted by the images. It is as though poverty itself were offensive, that to make beautiful work out of the lives of disempowered people in ugly settings--and let us remember that slums make up a massive portion of our current global situation--were somehow ethically wrong, and offensive. Hanoun's film is about stretching out food among meals, about walking on two feet, about the enforced necessities of a woman to take care of herself and her daughter. The class dimension against some kinds of 'aestheticized poverty' in art comes out strongest, I feel, not in art that actually aestheticizes immiseration and material lack, but rather in art that indicates the obscenity of people getting by despite it all. The woman in Une Simple histoire is a simple, direct, caring mother; she makes do; she slides down the straps of her slip each evening as she climbs into bed so as to be comfortable; when she beds with a friend the two of them rub elbows. The obscene thing is the "enforcement" of poverty; the "offensive" thing is that the crushingness of this poverty is kept at bay. The better-heeled viewer is offended because he will not approve of or identify with the means by which the poor characters do this. Walking around a de la Tour-lit room with a needle in your arm, like a character does in a scene from No Quarto da Vanda, is not something ah set dahz, mmy'know.
It is not as though poverty cannot be romanticized, or turned to beauty in order to peddle an ideological image. At the same time the objection to romanticized poverty can be used as a tool to rob the depiction of the impoverished of any beauty at all, as though all beauty itself were the rightful consequence of accumulation. Minimalisms are not, intrisically, counter-hegemonic. But sometimes the pared down can give us a glimpse of what we're missing, what we need not be missing.
(Taking a break from my break for May Day...)