Rarely in the history of cinema has a film approximated the impact of a great poem, but Jean-Daniel Pollet’s mesmeric Mediterranée is one of the few exceptions. Drawing on mythology, history and a rhythmic montage of evocative imagery, the film calls to mind such works as Shelley’s Ozymandias and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Broken down into its constituent parts it wouldn’t have the same effect; it’s the juxtaposition of one scene with the next, the underlying cadence, the sombre disquiet of the score and the meditative voice over, that, in combination, give it such resonance.
Filming took place over the course of a four-month road trip undertaken by Pollet and collaborator Volker Schlondorff in 1962–3. Their journey took them to Italy, Egypt, Spain and Greece. Wherever they went they filmed only what fascinated them. Returning home, Pollet systematically assembled and reassembled the footage over six months “spent alone in an editing-room without windows, where I slept. One day, the film seemed to edit itself.” Pollet took what he had to avant-garde writer Philippe Sollers who responded to what he saw with a poetically abstract narration. Finally Antoine Duhamel composed an emotionally charged score that tied all the elements together.
But what are we to make of these ancient relics? This house of flies? This wounded bull? This comatose girl? “We wanted to reclaim something of the fervour of magic operating through myth,” Sollers explained years later. But like any successful magic trick, the mystery must remain a secret. We can speculate but in the end it’s just fumbling in the dark. In this sense, this cine-poem, this journey through time, this meditation on life and death, this Hitchcockian daydream, is perhaps a more accurate history lesson than the more traditional variety we see so often on our screens. After all what do we really know of the past? Aren’t we just like the girl on the trolley – oblivious to our fate, dreaming about being somewhere else? Meanwhile, the cycle of life, work, marriage and death goes on endlessly like the waves of the sea rolling in on the shore. Jean-Daniel Pollet may not have had a clear idea in his mind of what kind of film he would end up with when he set off on his journey around the Mediterranean, but what resulted is nothing short of a masterpiece.