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le photographe

22 july 2016

Le photographe is a tense, superbly focused political thriller – perhaps I should say artistic thriller, because though it's set in the world of politics, political ideas (narrowly considered) are of no interest to its protagonist. Like Pierre Boulle's other novels, Le photographe manages to be an intellectual page-turner, never sacrificing thought for action or action for thought.

The novel is set close to its publication date of 1967. Martial Gaur has spent thirty years as a photographer, specializing in war and violence; but the loss of a leg during action in Algeria has confined him to doing glamour shots of aspiring starlets. He has never lost the dream of taking the one perfect, incomparable news photograph. And he's learned from his mentor Tournette that the perfect news photograph is never just caught and snapped. It takes as much creativity as a perfect painting: the artist must choose, plan, stage, even directly intervene in, the making of his image.

The extent to which photographers shape their images, and the extent to which photojournalists' interventions in their material should be allowable, is still the focus of much debate. Boulle dramatizes the debate by setting up a contrived, emotionally claustrophobic situation. Gaur, despite age and disability, has acquired a beautiful young lover, Olga. He quickly realizes (appropriately because his eye for his surroundings is so good, and he spots a bug she's planted) that Olga has no interest in him per se; she's interested in spying on Gaur's conversations with Herst, chief bodyguard to the young, controversial President of the French republic.

Olga wants to kill the President (she doesn't tell Gaur this, naturally, but he figures it out quickly enough). Meanwhile Gaur's old radical pal Verveuil also wants to kill the President, but for different reasons. Verveuil is ideologically motivated, while Olga wants to kill the leader for executing her gangster father,

un but qu'il n'approuvait ni ne désapprouvait, mais qu'il jugeait d'une classe intellectuelle bien supérieure aux ridicules motives politiques de Verveuil. (124)

[a goal he neither approved nor disapproved of, but which he rated as intellectually much superior to Verveuil's silly political motives]
Gaur, naturally, rushes right to his friend Herst when he learns of the conspiracy, and derails it. But not out of patriotism or loyalty to the President. Gaur foils the initial assassination plot because it wouldn't provide good enough access to a unique enough photo opportunity.

The rest of the novel sets up a high-tension mousetrap in which Gaur tries to pull all the strings (he frequently compares himself to a puppeteer) in order to get the President in line to take a bullet at the perfect moment, photographically speaking. I'll stop spoiling the plot at this point, because there's still much to come. The ideas in the text are paramount, anyway, and they come to no resolution, even as the plot must.

Gaur is caught in a paradox. The news photographer must be neutral, a mere recorder of events: that's the prime directive of photojournalism. (And of course a camera always seems more neutral than the print journalist's recourse to language.) Therefore, to intervene politically – to save or doom a President – is to betray journalistic objectivity. But by giving each side an equal chance to succeed, and setting up only the artistic frame for the outcome, Gaur inexorably makes choices that imbalance the field.

You really do have to make up your own mind; Boulle stays within Gaur's consciousness and doesn't tell you how to think. You're struck by the drive that Gaur exhibits and you want him to succeed – then, you realize how insane the consequences of his actions are getting, and you cringe at the absurdity of it all. But then, if things are going to happen anyway, shouldn't they align to form the possibility of a great artistic moment? No! Or, maybe …

Written in the late '60s (it was filmed as Le point de mire in 1977, though with a much-altered plot), Le photographe fits in well with a number of political and artistic thrillers of its period: The Manchurian Candidate, Blow-Up, Z, The Conversation (which, like Le photographe, uses the device of a hyper-sensitive long-range microphone), The Day of the Jackal, The Parallax View. Boulle was able to take concerns that were in the air and distill a pointed, chilling artwork from them – in ways, of course, that track the efforts of Martial Gaur, though thankfully in a purely fictional realm.

Boulle, Pierre. Le photographe. 1967. Paris: Julliard, 1974.