Still from Pierre Huyghe’s The Host and the Cloud (2010) (image courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

If The Host and the Cloud — a perplexing film by French multimedia artist Pierre Huyghe that has played in various contexts since its debut in 2010 at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Manhattan — concerns itself with anything specifically, it is with preparation. Its characters are forever assembling, arranging, moving into place across frames and rooms, making ready for events. These events include a terrorism trial, a hypnosis session, and an address by a state leader speaking to a mostly empty hall, but they captivate less than scenes of people rustling them up: donning costumes and headwear, hauling bodies and props into position. All this arranging and getting set produces a surprising sense of solemnity and importance.

The latest public screening of The Host and the Cloud came by way of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival; the film played on a loop at the organization’s gallery throughout the festival, through October 12. Owing to the room’s small number of seats and the film’s fractured narrative — it unfolds over three holidays, the Day of the Dead, Valentine’s Day, and May Day — most visitors will likely stay for less than the film’s full two-plus hours. Still, even small segments function like a thesis for a festival whose name declares it is transcending boundaries. Critical moments, Huyghe seems to argue, happen offstage, on the other side of the border separating performance from life.

Still from Pierre Huyghe’s The Host and the Cloud (2010) (image courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

These actions transpire in a largely empty former ethnographic museum at the edge of Paris, all high ceilings and echoing corridors, which lend the film an eeriness and expectant mood. The building’s history dovetails with the film’s aesthetic as well; Huyghe’s camera puts his subjects at a remove, less characters than objects for cultural study. The film’s themes, ephemeral and inexact, broadly align with each holiday’s concerns: death (the terrorism trial, vaguely occult chanting), sex (observers circling a naked woman), and labor (dancers, models, stage setters at work). But everything is far too dreamy for allegory. The viewer can’t quite track who is in what room, and the spare dialogue doesn’t clarify. Huyghe favors the hard corner and the context-obscuring close-up. Scenes drift away almost as quickly as they offer grounding.

What power the film accrues comes from a number of lingering images: among them, lighted masks some people wear, wedged over their faces, shining outward, but seeming not to impede their vision. These people conduct the trial, circle bodies, and glow through a smoky and cavernous room. Elsewhere, a puppeteer walks a marionette down a back hallway, the puppet fully in frame and the person visible only up to the knees. Hands cut pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns, the camera fixing on rough edges.

Still from Pierre Huyghe’s The Host and the Cloud (2010) (image courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

Recognizable cultural artifacts intrude. At one point, a dancer works through Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with no music in the background. Later, strains from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” play. The context of the ethnographic museum asserts their lasting importance: they have progressed from pieces of entertainment to foundational stuff of the contemporary world. Nobody watches the dancer, but he works with gusto, his limbs locking into full extension and swinging in tempo, his shoes supplying the rhythm.

In his work — objects, films, installations, sculptures, drawings — Huyghe has long been interested in various media’s construction and misrepresentation of reality. His 2000 film The Third Memory, for instance, features the real-life person played by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, John Wojtowicz, stepping into the actor’s role and playing out the fictionalized version of his own life. When The Host and the Cloud screened at MoMA in 2015, Huyghe also displayed a sculpture that juxtaposed a classical reclining form with a colony of bees, combining a piece of artifice representing life with the real thing.

On its own, The Host and the Cloud adds to Huyghe’s attack on conventional limits, beginnings and endings. Preparation is as important as performance — in fact, is performance. In one scene, an observer of a Ronald McDonald-themed photo shoot retreats to a dressing room, where she herself dons the red wig and applies the clown makeup. The sequence is striking, the woman painting her face white and putting on bright red lipstick in widening circles. Then she scrubs it all off. She needs no audience but the mirror; getting ready is the whole show. The makeup is still faintly visible when she leaves the room.

The Host and the Cloud was on view at the FIAF Gallery (22 E 60th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) between September 12, 2019, and October 12, 2019.

Julia Shipley is a student in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.