"Lover Other"

Matt Sussman June 26, 2007

"Under the mask is another mask, I will never finish lifting all these faces," wrote French Surrealist artist, lesbian, author and political agitator Claude Cahun. Masks appear frequently in the startling portraits she and her half-sister and lover Marcel Moore took of themselves and each other dressed in a variety of personas, costumes and genders.

Veteran lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer ("Nitrate Kisses") knows better than to try and look behind the mask to find some "real" Cahun. (Editor’s note: The film plays Wed/27 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, courtesy SF Jewish Film Festival and SF Cinematheque.)

As the academic among the polyphony of narrating voices in Hammer’s Cahun documentary "Lover Other" states, as if reading a cue card, "Cahun’s work suggests that identity can only be performed; it cannot be revealed." So Hammer gives us a play of images and quotations (the script incorporates Cahun’s writings, while Broadway actress Kathleen Chalfant and performance artist Marty Pottenger appear as the two women), that patch together Cahun and Moore’s life during wartime on their adoptive Isle of Jersey — focusing, in particular, on their acts of creative resistance to the occupying German forces that almost cost them their lives.

Hammer’s occasional editing missteps make the film, at times, feel less like a collage and more like a PowerPoint presentation. Indeed, Cahun’s work trembles with an anxiety and instability that’s almost too punk for the film’s laconic pace. There are some unexpectedly affecting moments — mostly in the vague yet admiring recollections of former village neighbors, who recall their childhood encounters with the "off beat" French sisters they hardly knew, but were no doubt captivated by and saw as almost otherwordly heroines. Undoubtedly, Hammer sees them much in the same way. The footage she splices between the end credits of one of Cahun’s self-portraits being bid upon at an auction house, however, suggests somewhat woefully that Cahun’s importance as an aesthetic, sexual, and political radical will be eclipsed by the monetary value ascribed to her by an ever-rapacious art market.