Timecrimes: Interview with Nacho Vigalondo


Format: DVD

Date: 4 May 2009

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Writer Nacho Vigalondo

Original title: Los Cronocrímenes

Cast: Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernández, Bárbara Goenaga, Nacho Vigalondo, Juan Inciarte

Spain 2007

92 mins

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrí­;menes) combines elements of science fiction and psycho thrillers to create a film full of intriguing ideas and imagery. Alex Fitch spoke to director, writer and star of the film Nacho Vigalondo about his influences and love of genre movies. [WARNING: SPOILERS]

Alex Fitch: What was the genesis of this film? Had you been a fan of time travel movies or did the idea come to you as a short story?

Nacho Vigalondo: I’ve been a science fiction lover all my life. I spent my childhood reading sci-fi and I’ve always dreamt of becoming a science fiction filmmaker. But because Spain doesn’t have a sci-fi tradition, it’s very difficult to convince the business people and the industry people here to make that kind of film. It’s easier to make comedies or drama. But in 2005 I became this little celebrity in Spain because one of my films was nominated for an Oscar for best short. At that time, I decided that if I had an opportunity to make a feature film because of my Oscar situation, that out of all my projects, I’d make the crazy, complicated, science fiction one! So that’s why I insisted on making Timecrimes.

AF: The film has a complex plot, but it involves only five actors, and even though it’s science fiction it doesn’t require any special effects.

NV: I think that powerful science fiction comes from ideas, and it isn’t related to big concepts in terms of production but in terms of script-writing. For example, this movie seems very cheap but even a cheap film is expensive to make here. It wasn’t easy to sell this idea because you’re dealing with a time travel device that twists the reality of the character again and again. I tried to make a movie that is easy to watch on the screen, but you can figure out how complicated the script was. Here in Spain, if you want to raise money, you have to go to these commissions related to public funds and the TV industry, and it’s pretty complicated if you want to convince these guys to invest based only on the script. As a result, it took me many years to finish the film.

AF: Still, in some respects, it’s a relatively simple premise: a man observes what he thinks is a murder and then inadvertently becomes the murderer himself.

NV: Yes, of course. But the genesis of the idea for me was this: what if I make a time travel story that becomes a crime story, and in that crime story, what if the innocent guy and the villain and the guy who pulls the strings from the darkness are all the same? What if we push the ambiguity of crime stories like The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example, by putting in a time machine that makes the good guy the villain at the same time.

AF: I don’t know if you’re a fan of classic thrillers like Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage?

NV: Yes, of course! The Italian giallo is one of my favourite genres! I wanted to join my two passions in one film – one of my passions is sci-fi and the other is the kind of thriller that combines a specific point of view, bizarre killers and this kind of erotic stuff. Argento is one of my favourites, but other thrillers I have in mind are Body Double by De Palma, and of course Alfred Hitchcock.

AF: A recurring theme in a lot of these thrillers is the idea of the doppelgänger and you’ve taken that to its logical conclusion.

NV: Yes. There were several drafts of the story – it was maybe draft four or five when the girl entered the story, and her appearance became the heart of the film. It’s similar to the theme of the doppelgänger and the simulacra because we are dealing with the point of view of a certain character. Later we learn that the point of view belongs to someone hidden from the view of the audience. I love those kinds of games!

AF: The look of the film, the aesthetics, was that influenced by films like Se7en, which have a high contrast ratio? Did you use the bleach bypass/silver retention method to get that look?

NV: I love the look of Se7en, I’m really in love with David Fincher! Se7en became known as a very 1990s film, but the strategy for that film was to make it look like a 1970s picture, like The French Connection, for example. In Timecrimes, we tried to make a film that didn’t feel like any particular decade. Imagine someone watching this film in 50 years – we wanted that audience of the future to feel confused about the age of our film: is it the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s or the 21st century? Some of the elements of the film look contemporary, but at the same time other elements feel like Doctor Who from the 70s or the 80s. Some of the creepy material from Se7en doesn’t feel contemporary, but I feel that if you don’t stick to the aesthetics of your time, you’ll stop the movie from dating.

AF: In a way, watching any movie is a kind of time travel because as a viewer, you’re travelling back in time to the period it was made, so in Timecrimes, you’re playing with that in a way.

NV: Yes, the fact that you have time travel in a movie reflects the fact that a movie itself is something that travels back in time. That’s the nature of filmmaking.

AF: You play the role of the scientist in the film. Was it important for you to play that part? In a way, you have cast yourself as some kind of Deus ex machina, you’re ‘God’ within the story.

NV: I’ve been working as an actor since the 90s, in commercials, short films, in some feature films working with models, but I would never play an important role in one of my films. In this case, it felt funny to me to direct the film from inside it, experiencing all the contradictions related to filmmaking. When you’re a director, you’re like a god, you are pulling the strings, but at the same time you are the first victim of everything. The movie itself is pulling the strings and controlling you. It’s funny because that’s more or less what’s happening to the character in the movie. Some of the promotional stills from the movie are labelled as: ‘This is Nacho Vigalondo directing the main actor, Karra Elejalde’. But those stills actually show me acting in the movie – it was my character directing Karra’s character, and that is funny.

AF: What other time travel films are you a fan of? Inevitably that scene where you draw an arrow on the wall, to explain the path of time, brings up images of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future?

NV: When we were making the movie, Primer came out, as well as Tony Scott’s Dé;jà Vu and the time travel episode in Lost. But at the time when I was writing the film, it wasn’t common to find time travel plots on the screen. Obviously, some of my big influences are Back to the Future and Twelve Monkeys, but the kind of time travel I wanted to bring to the screen were the short stories of Philip K. Dick, writers like Robert Heinlein or Stanislaw Lem, who wrote Solaris, which is one of my favourites. These writers deal with this kind of twisted time travel in which you’re not travelling far from home, but you are making a trip where you’re multiplying your past. There’s a short story by Heinlein called ‘All You Zombies’, and in this tale the guy becomes his own mother and father! I love those kinds of quirks!

AF: Do you think free will is possible in a time travel story? It seems from the moment that Hector observes the girl, he’s trapped in his own fate. It seems like a mix of the consequences of voyeurism and also quantum mechanics – when you observe something, it’s fixed in its state and cannot change.

NV: The quantum mechanics aspect is the girl. We put an image of Schrö;inger’s cat on the girl’s shirt – there’s a point in the movie where she’s dead and alive at the same time; it depends on what Hector sees, he defines whether she’s dead or alive. The theory of this film is that you only have free will within the limits of your perception. If you haven’t seen what happens inside a room, you can change what happens there, but if you have seen inside the room, you cannot change anything. When I was writing the script it was something that came to me. It’s a quantum physics conclusion. For me, that seemed fairer than giving the character the freedom to change everything.

AF: I suppose that, maybe more so than in other films, the actors must have had a lot of questions about what they were doing in each scene, particularly when there were three different Hectors acting simultaneously! How difficult was that to direct?

NV: It was pretty difficult. There were moments while we were shooting when we had to stop everything, because suddenly there’d be a question. We’re shooting in the middle of the night, in a forest, and suddenly a member of the crew says: ‘Wait, if Hector 2 is here, which tone of the lights are we using?’ And we’d have to stop filming and try and solve the problem! Until that moment, you think you have the film under control. The worst thing is when you go back to the hotel at the end of shooting each day and you can’t avoid thinking that nothing fits in with anything and everything’s a disaster. When it comes to editing the results, you come back to life again and realise that somehow everything fits. For me, it’s a nightmare until you see the finished material.

AF: The film has been marketed as a horror film to a certain extent. How do you feel about that? Is it because the plot is quite difficult, so if you introduce it to people as a sort of psycho thriller, you can ease them into the idea that it’s about time travel later on?

NV: There are many sci-fi festivals around the world, but very few festivals where the richness of the genre is not restricted. There are not many mixed genre festivals. There are two kinds of horror festivals: the ones where there are only ‘pure’ horror films and the more open horror festivals that have become fantastic genre festivals. So your film will be seen next to a gore fest or a psycho-killer thriller there. I’m not worried about people seeing my film as a horror film, because while I have this time travel device, I put in a lot of giallo iconography. As I said before, my inspirations for the script were mainly sci-fi, but my inspirations for the filmmaking were closer to Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, Dario Argento.

AF: It’s interesting to think of Hitchcock, because Timecrimes is like a reversal of Rear Window, where the middle-class voyeur becomes the killer. Do you think there is this tension with the middle classes that they have their new houses and their Ikea kitchens but all it takes is some encounter with the uncanny and they’ll become unhinged?

NV: Yeah. At the beginning of the story, we have this Hitchcock element: we have a woman, who is working and building a table, and all the time she is thinking about putting the table inside the house. And then there is a man looking through binoculars at the forest. This is a real Hitchcock opening: you have a great house in a great forest, you have this great life, but you are looking through binoculars far from home. Why? What is he trying to find? Once he finds this fantasy of a naked girl in the middle of nowhere, he becomes a Hitchcockian character because he’s dealing with his own fantasies.

AF: Just like Norman Bates in Psycho, he’s a victim as well as a criminal?

NV: Karra, me and Jon, the other actor,we watched Psycho together and we tried to Norman Batesify the characters! This is one of the things we brought to the film: we copied some of Norman Bates’s gestures for Hector. While I love the shower scene, my favourite sequence in Psycho is the one after the shower, when Norman is taking the corpse of the girl to the car, and sinks the car in a swamp. All of those scenes where he’s cleaning the bathroom, putting the plastic around the corpse, I love that part of the movie, that’s one of my biggest influences. You’re not dealing with suspense, it’s almost something else; it’s like a musical and dancing. There’s this kind of sinister beauty in the sequence and we watched it again and again!

AF: Like Psycho, your film has a twist in the ending that makes you want to see it again.

NV: We’re in the DVD age, and you have to face the fact that people are not going to watch your film just once, so you have to be prepared to put enough ‘hidden’ elements in, which you might miss the first time, but see the second time. In the Spanish DVD, we added an extra cut of the film from a chronological point of view. Instead of following one Hector, we watch the actions of the three Hectors at the same time. Watching the film again – it lasts 30 minutes – it turns into this kind of gracious filming with a lot of Hectors at the same time! It doesn’t work as a real film because it’s too confusing, but if you’ve just seen the normal version, it shows you how things really work in the story. I feel very proud because you can check that everything matches.

Interview by Alex Fitch



Format: DVD and BLu-ray

Release date: 24 May 2009

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Pascal Laugier

Writer: Pascal Laugier

Cast: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin

France/Canada 2008

97 mins

A story about the love between two damaged young women, their revenge against those who abused one of them, and, more generally, the intense pain of human life, Martyrs is a horror film, certainly, but one where the horror stems from a profound existential despair. Director Pascal Laugier takes his subject matter, his actresses and the audience’s preconceptions as far as they will go and beyond, and if the film does not always succeed, it is because it so fearlessly jumps into the unknown. Opinions have been fiercely divided and Martyrs has been beset by controversy ever since its screening at the Cannes festival last year. It was hit with a rare and prohibitive 18 certificate on its release in France, and although the decision was quickly reversed and the certificate downgraded to 16, in the UK it only had a limited theatrical release at the ICA in London in March.

Virginie Sélavy: To describe Martyrs as a horror film seems too reductive, as it is so unusual and unpredictable. Was your intention to make a horror film?

Pascal Laugier: Yes, because I always liked the genre. In the 70s in particular, it produced very singular works, made by filmmakers who were using it to express very personal things and a certain vision of the world. We now see John Carpenter as an auteur, in the most European sense of the word. I modestly wanted to reconnect with that spirit and to make a film that, while using the codes and archetypes of the genre, would be as unexpected as possible. Horror film should be a space of freedom, a territory for experimentation. But what happens is often the opposite. I was fed up with formulaic movies that just copy the classics, I thought that the original meaning had been lost. The genre had become politically correct, as safe as any other genre, whereas its origin lies in fact in transgression. I tried to make an uncomfortable, unpredictable film. I don’t know if I succeeded but that was the intention.

VS: What motivated you to make such an extreme, excessive film?

PL: PL: I was going through a difficult time in my life. I was in a very sombre, pessimistic mood. Our epoch is not very glorious. There are no utopias, ideologies have collapsed and our faith in the future with them. I realise it’s not very original to say this, but I really believe that the Western world is sick. Individual anxieties are at their highest, everyone lives in a constant low-level fear, it feels like we’re going to crash into a wall, there’s something very deathly in our current society. Horror cinema allowed me to express this in a very direct way. Martyrs is almost a work of prospective fiction that shows a dying world, almost like a pre-apocalypse. It’s a world where evil triumphed a long time ago, where consciences have died out under the reign of money and where people spend their time hurting one another. It’s a metaphor, of course, but the film describes things that are not that far from what we’re experiencing today.

VS: At the heart of the film lies the definition of the word ‘martyr’, which explains the extreme suffering to which the characters are subjected. Can you tell us more about this?

PL: For me, the martyr represents the one who, having no other choice but to suffer, manages to do something with this pain. Of course it’s an extreme projection, entirely disenchanted, of what I was telling you about today’s world. Since we don’t believe in anything, since the world is increasingly divided between winners and losers, what is left to the losers but to do something with their pain? Deep down, it’s what the film is about.

VS: There seems to be a fascination for suffering in the film, whether physical or psychological, whether with those who inflict it or those who are subjected to it.

PL: It’s not really a fascination, but a questioning. The film is a personal reaction to the darkness of our world. And I like the paradox within horror film: take the worst of the human condition and transform it into art, into beauty. It’s the only genre that offers this kind of dialectic and I have always found this idea very moving – to create emotion with the saddest, most depressing things in existence. I’ve always felt that horror was a melancholy genre.

VS: There is also a lot of tenderness in the film between Lucie and Anna, who are very moving characters. How important is their relationship to the film?

PL: That was a crucial element for me. I didn’t enjoy making this film very much. Everything, from writing the script to editing, was, for different reasons, very difficult. What gave me the strength to tell this story, to spend two years of my life in such a dark world, was the love story between Anna and Lucie. It was what connected me viscerally to the film. It’s a love that is not shared. Anna loves Lucie unconditionally and this love will kill her. That’s something very real that we all experience: to fall in love with the wrong person, the one who, without consciously wanting to, will destroy you. Just because they are what they are. Anna loves in an absolute manner, and in that sense, she is a sort of modern saint. She gives all of herself and she will pay for it very dearly. The world and its trivial reality are fatal to people like her…

VS: Watching the film is a profoundly unsettling experience as we are led on the same journey of pain as the central characters. What sort of reaction did you want to provoke in the audience?

PL: I swear that to disgust audiences has never been my motivation. When critics describe the film as butchery, a display of guts and gore, it saddens me very much. I see my film as a rather reserved work, in fact. And I would like it to touch the viewers, to plunge them in a state of profound melancholy, just like mine when I was filming – because I think that Martyrs is really a melodrama. Hard, violent, very disturbing, but a melodrama all the same. I hope it will be a powerful experience for those who will see it because I put everything I had into it.

VS: What was the reaction of the public in France and elsewhere? Were you surprised?

PL: I knew that I was sending out such a blast of dark energy to the audience that I had to be ready for any reaction. It’s the rule of the game. I had some amazing experiences at festivals around the world. Some people insulted me and were angry with me; others reacted very warmly. Martyrs forces people to take a strong stand, and that suits me fine. Horror in my view shouldn’t be a unifying genre. It must divide, shock, make cracks in the certainties of the audience and their propensity to a certain conformism. Horror is inherently subversive. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

Terracotta Festival 2009

The Detective

Still from: The Detective

Terracotta Far East Film Festival

21-24 May 2009

Prince Charles Cinema, London

Terracotta website

Over just four days, Joey Leung hopes to dramatically change your perception of Asian cinema. With his specially selected program of 13 films from all over the Far East, Leung’s Terracotta Festival is an ambitious attempt at breaking the stereotype that Asian films are all just about extreme horror, guns and spooky ghosts.

One recognisable name in Terracotta’s program is Oxide Pang – the Hong Kong director responsible for The Eye (2002). But the film of his that is being screened isn’t yet another sequel to that notorious horror franchise. The Detective (2007) is a much more restrained film about a young gumshoe searching for a missing girl in Bangkok’s Chinatown and shows his strength as a director without having to rely on flashy visuals.

Similarly, Johnnie To is best known for his crime thrillers but Terracotta will give audiences the chance to see the director working on a different level in the light-hearted 60s-influenced crime caper Sparrow (2008): ‘Everyone keeps saying the end is like Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)’, says Leung, ‘It didn’t do well in Hong Kong but film fans can appreciate the stylistic and artistic picture he’s trying to paint. That’s the point of a festival – to unearth films that might not be commercial.’

As well as art-house ponderings – also showing are Kim Ki-duk’s surreal Dream (2008) from Korea and Taiwan’s Keeping Watch (2007) about the strange reconnection of two childhood friends – Leung is making sure that action fans are also provided for in his intriguing cross-section. The festival is set to open with a bang thanks to Korea’s heist thriller Eye for an Eye (2008), but Legendary Assassins (2008) should be the most entertaining film on offer: ‘Jacky Wu’s first film is a throwback to 80s Hong Kong B-movie action. Li Chung Chi from Jackie Chan’s stunt team co-directs.’

The Terracotta Festival will provide the one and only opportunity to see these films in the UK. In the case of High Kick Girl (2009) – the debut of real-life teenage karate champion Rina Takeda – it’s even showing before its release in Japan. ‘Terracotta is a big push for Asian titles’, Leung explains. ‘We’re getting together with distributors such as Manga and Third Window so we can pool our resources and target the market in one go – a shot in the arm to get Asian film to the forefront of people’s minds.’

Leung’s own Terracotta Distribution will release Singing Chen’s God Man Dog (2008), a drama examining the changing social classes of Taiwanese society. A much different, and much weirder, social statement can be seen in Malaysia’s Zombies from Banana Village (2007): a comedic insight into the country’s village life, ‘it has political overtones about Malaysia and it’s giving an insight into Islamic life and its strict hierarchies’.

Other comedies such as Thailand’s Me… Myself (2007) and Japan’s caper After School (2008) are also in the mix alongside the animé update Ghost in the Shell 2.0 (2008) and kick-boxing actioner Muay Thai Chaiya (2007). As Leung puts it, ‘I’m trying to tread a line between being commercial and putting on an event I’d like to go to’. Terracotta looks set to be a festival where film fans of all kinds will find something to enjoy.

Richard Badley

Interview with Ulrike Ottinger

Madame X

Still: Madame X – An Absolute Ruler

Screening at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival

25 March – 8 April 2009

BFI Soutbhank, London

Festival website

A nice surprise in the line-up of this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival was a mini-retrospective of German director Ulrike Ottinger’s extensive body of work. The three features and one documentary that were screened offered a brief insight into the fantastic, colourful and stylised universe she creates. One of the most important women filmmakers to emerge from the experimental fringe of New German Cinema in the late 1970s, Ottinger initially worked as a painter and photographer in Paris in the 60s before turning to film. In 1977, she made Madame X – An Absolute Ruler (Madame X – Eine absolute Herrscherin), a ferocious exploration of traditional role models that is often referred to as a ‘lesbian feminist pirate movie’. Ottinger used the pirate genre as an ironic framework for her distinctive visual style. The film stars underground icon Tabea Blumenschein as a spike-fisted, leather-clad dominatrix and caused a stir when it was first shown on German television.

Most of Ottinger’s subsequent narrative films also focus on exceptional female characters: from Orlando, a symbolic figure who changes sex and lives over several centuries (Freak Orlando, 1981) to Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia (1989) and Dorian Gray, played by the actress and model Veruschka von Lehndorff in Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse, 1984). However, the term ‘feminist film’ doesn’t suffice to describe the unique narrative blend of her futuristic fairy tales and sumptuous cinematic voyages. Vigorously independent, Ottinger acts as writer, director and producer of all her films, including documentaries in which she has explored her fascination with both the traditional and unusual aspects of contemporary culture, following the minorities and outcasts of Berlin as they crossed the newly fallen wall between East and West in Countdown (1990) or migrating with Mongolian nomads across the Taiga forest (Taiga, 1992). Pamela Jahn spoke to Ulrike Ottinger during the LLGFF in April 2009.

Pamela Jahn: Your films come out of a tradition of fantasy and surrealist filmmaking. What sparked your interest in the unreal?

Ulrike Ottinger: It is true that my films are often set in futuristic landscapes and create a surreal imagery, but my inspirations often come from reality, from observing the world, the people, their different cultures and traditional role patterns. In film, however, you can’t show things just ‘as they are’, you have to do something with it, you have to condense reality. When I first started making films, I soon became very fascinated with the idea of using fragments of reality in a collage process, including my personal experiences, often related to my travels, but also references to literature, art and art history. The viewer then has to add his or her own imagination to make it all work. I’m interested in so many things and I like to show this in my films. I’m playing with genres and with citations but what is most important in the end is how these things come together. So in a way, fiction and fantasy are always frighteningly close to reality in my films, and vice versa.

PJ: How did your experience as an artist, especially in Paris in the 1960s, influence your work as a filmmaker?

UO: Of course, this was the time of the Structuralists in France. So I saw a lot of films, not only the nouvelle vague, but the older German Expressionist cinema, which I liked a lot, and also some early American independent cinema. It was all a bit like ‘learning by seeing’, and I don’t think I would have developed this strong desire to make films if I had only been able to see the so-called ‘commercial cinema’. On the other hand, through my work as an artist, I have become extremely sensitised to visual images. I construct my films with images. Before I started shooting Freak Orlando, for example, I took hundreds of photographs with the actress Magdalena Montezuma, who I’ve done several films with. She’s also worked with Fassbinder and Werner Schroeter. I always make a lot of photographic studies to work around a certain theme and to find interesting images.

PJ: Another connection between your films seems to be a fascination for excessive female characters, as in Madame X in particular, where the crew on the pirate ship is composed of a very bizarre collection of extreme women. Did you have a set concept in mind before you started making the film or did it ultimately develop out of the collaboration with the female cast?

UO: When I started working on the film, I actually wanted to use completely different women. But then Yvonne Rainer, who plays Josephine de College in the film, happened to have a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship in Berlin at the time and when I met her, I thought she was perfect to play the part of the artist. Then there was this very famous prostitute from Zurich, Irene von Lichtenstein, who had worked with many artists before. I got to know her through Schroeter, and so I used her as the photo model character ‘Blow Up’. Lutze is another artist, who was living in the Lower East Side in New York at the time, and she was just wonderful in her role as the American housewife; there was also the woman who looked like she was from Tahiti – she wasn’t actually from there, but it was great to have her in the film as the ‘native’ character. So we got together all these different kinds of women, but there was an enormous amount of stylisation. It was an unbelievable coming together and it was perfect in its character composition.

PJ: It was bound to create controversy.

UO: Oh, yes, I think people today can no longer understand the kind of shock this film was for the public. I never again had such an extreme reaction from the audience to a film.

PJ: Did you expect that kind of reaction? Did you intend to provoke people with your films at the time?

UO: Absolutely not, I was completely shocked myself, you know, because for me it was a very playful film with a lot of sympathy but also a lot of humour in it. Although I was confronting something that was not talked about openly until then, it was the form more than the theme that was so shocking, and that made people have such strong feelings about it. The film was first shown at prime time on German television and I received thousands of letters afterwards. And people from all over the country turned up in front of my house in a tiny street in Berlin to speak with me because they went crazy after seeing the film. I was absolutely amazed by this, it was a huge surprise for me.

PJ: What is so striking in Madame X is the contradiction of the role itself, Madame X as a master but also as a promise of freedom.

UO: When I returned from Paris in 1969 it was the height of the student movement and the women’s movement, and my theory about feminism was to find alternatives, and not to be caught again in a cage. However, I found some of the new figureheads or leaders of the movement just built new cages by setting new rules and limits, like Madame X in a way. This is why some women said that the film was against the feminists’ movement, but, of course, it wasn’t, quite the contrary. But although I find the movement itself very important, I think we need to be aware of the power of traditional patterns, and this is what Madame X is about too. It took a while for people to understand that there was an artistic freedom in my films. In the beginning, some of the women in the movement only wanted a film that would clearly and ideologically fit into their line like a political slogan, but this is not the way I make films.

PJ: Your latest documentary, The Korean Wedding Chest, just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, but I believe you’re already in the middle of shooting your next film called The Blood Countess, a vampire story.

UO: Yes, I’m very excited about this film. I wrote it a long time ago, but never had enough money to make it and so I made other things in between. As often in my films, it is very inspired by location, by the history of these locations, which, in this case, is already so crazy that it makes for a great film. And, yes, it’s a vampire film set in Vienna, which depicts a dark part of the history of the royal Habsburg family. It will also include some documentary elements, but of course it’s a fantasy fiction story.

Interview by Pamela Jahn


Top Girl

Still from Top Girl

Birds Eye View Film Festival

March 5-13, 2009

Various venues, London

Festival Website.

‘I can’t imagine this talk happening anywhere else but Britain’, said Mike Figgis at the conclusion of Bird’s Eye View Festival’s Sex on Screen panel discussion. He had a point, for although the debate had touched on subjects such as sexual taboos, pornography and masturbation, this was executed ever so politely.

Talking about how gay porn had influenced mainstream cinema, the event’s chair, former Erotic Review editor Rowan Pelling, said: ‘The flipside of that is that it makes you think, “if I don’t like it up the back entrance then there’s something wrong with me and I should go and live on a desert island somewhere”’.’

Under The Skin director Carine Adler, who didn’t seem keen to talk about anything – let alone sex – before the debate was in full swing said to fellow panellist pornographer Petra Joy: ‘I would not have the courage to do what you do, I avoided any nudity, I don’t have the guts to do it, I want to stay ‘artsy’. My mother! Oh my god.’

A similar reaction came from the audience, who burst into embarrassed giggles when Joy described the misogynistic sexual acts depicted in mainstream porn – leaving her to joke that she was used to talking at erotic film festivals and hadn’t perhaps prepared herself for this altogether more polite affair.

But thank god for Joy who spoke loudly and proudly about sex on screen, from her unique viewpoint as a female pornographer, and well done to Bird’s Eye View for enlisting her. She raised the night’s most interesting point; distribution of her films, she said, was hindered by a censorship process that made no sense. Both she and Figgis (suitably attired, some might say, in a long, navy Mac) argued that arbitrary censorship meant that graphic violence slipped through the net, while graphic – read realistic – sex, with orgasms and erections, was not able to. ‘What’s the problem with making a film to arouse people? We see lots of violence in films, like Baise-Moi, and [that’s allowed because] they say, “well the sex wasn’t made to arouse”. But that’s the problem because you can’t control what’s going to arouse people’, she said. Pelling summed it up well, saying: ‘Surely the least harmful form of sex on screen is that which is specifically designed to arouse rather than repel or horrify?’

The problem was compounded, Joy said, by porn shops who balk at supplying films that have no big-name stars and no male ‘money shots’ or other such clichés. What’s more, cinemas need licenses to show hardcore porn – her films shown that night at the ICA were cut to comply with censorship regulations – which puts up yet another barrier between the films and their target audience.

Sam Roddick, founder of upmarket sex shop Coco De Mer, said she too had been restricted by licensing laws, which control the percentage of ‘directly sexual’ products she sells in the shop and subject each item to a permissibility audit. ‘They were very very vague about it’, she said, ‘so I had to get a bit more explicit. I said, ‘I’m carrying 18th-century prints, and they’re of two bridesmaids and a bride and they’re going down on her, and they said fine’. She defined erotic cinema as ‘a lot more emotional, more abstract’ than pornography, which she sees as ‘functional’: ‘When people watch porn they are either doing it to have sex or to wank. There is an outcome.’

Joy called for more films to show female pleasure – ‘women are multi-orgasmic and they can keep on coming after the man has but we never see that’ – gay men who weren’t suicidal, positive sexual role models, and the crucial matter of contraception: ‘it’s sex education as well as entertainment’.

It remains true that most films gloss over the use of contraception, unless the matter is overblown into a comedy sequence. Are viewers to believe so many people don’t give it a thought? Or do filmmakers have the right not to be realistic? Possibly, contraception is inherently unsexy and therefore an unwanted distraction to big screen sex scenes.

Realistic sex is not what Adler finds titillating. Discussing the much praised sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, she said: ‘A married couple having great sex is not something I find exciting. Maybe if they’d had sex with the murderous dwarf I would have found it more so’.

For his part, Figgis declared all pornography ‘boring’ and said what really excited him was unexpected erotica cropping up in non-erotic films: ‘I like it in The Misfits when they suddenly start smacking Marilyn Monroe, it’s one of the sexiest things I’ve seen. You can’t keep that woman down, she is so sexy – maybe she insisted on that scene.’

While he praised Joy’s positive outlook, he admitted that he liked miserable things to happen in films, so dysfunctional sex was no problem for him. Looking at his own body of work, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Leaving Las Vegas, for instance, is a doomed and tragic love story with scenes in which sex is brutal, forced or impossible.

The short films shown after the discussion were nothing like that. A combination of Joy’s own work and Coco De Mer’s collection of erotic shorts, the films were light-hearted, beautiful and – dare I say it – sexy. Joy’s In Her Wildest Dreams was most definitely a porn film. With no plot or dialogue, the film showed a woman being indulged in many sensual ways by an ensemble of men and women. Following the principles the filmmaker had outlined during the talk, it showed the female orgasm, a positive, sexual, female role model, and as Joy put it, plenty of ‘guy candy’. The action took place behind various layers: part of the film was shot underwater, another part was shot through a beaded curtain across the doorway and mainstream porno’s procession of body parts gave way to more holistic shots taking in clothes, setting and some very contented-looking faces.

Clothes also played a big part in Eva Midgley’s Honey and Bunny, which consisted in a series of cheeky vignettes in which the two actors played out various fantasies. Kitted out in lustrous fabrics and beautiful shoes, the women were not passive sex objects but agents of their sophisticated sexuality. Similarly, Midgley’s Erotic Moments showed gentle, loving, consensual contact, such as the striking Footsie, which depicted a man being pleasured by a woman’s foot.

But nothing was more honest or more moving than the sex scene in Top Girl, a film by Rebecca Johnson that screened as part of another shorts programme during the festival. In the coming-of-age tale, a teenage girl, in her effort to become a rapper, finds herself being led to the bathroom of a DJ’s flat where he encourages her to fellate him. Full of adolescent feistiness, she delights in the encounter until she gets taunted for it at school. It succinctly expressed the joy, secrecy, awkwardness and taboo of sex.

Particularly British sex.

Lisa Williams

Watch the trailer for Top Girl.


Theoretical Girl

Photo by Pavla Kopecna

Chic chanteuse Theoretical Girl pens elegant 60s-inspired pop gems. Her album ‘Rivals’ is out on May 25 on Memphis Industries. She plays in store at Pure Groove (London) on May 29, at the Borderline (London) on June 17 and at Glastonbury Festival on June 27. For more information, visit her MySpace. Below, she tells us about her favourite films.

1- Historias Mínimas (2002)
This has to be my favourite film of all time. It’s a road movie set in Patagonia and follows three beautifully simple and profound characters whose stories interweave as the film progresses. All of the actors are amateurs. It’s just a really moving and intimate film that gets you rooting for all of the characters!

2- The Harry Potter Films (2001-2005)
I love the way these films suck you into a whole new world. I want to go to school at Hogwarts, but only if I’m in Gryffindor!

3- Three Colours: Blue (1993)
On this list simply for the most amazing portrayal of grief I’ve ever seen, by Juliette Binoche. The scene where she scrapes her knuckles along the wall is so powerful.

4- The Vanishing (1988 version)
The most chilling plot of any film I’ve ever seen. Everybody’s worst nightmare!

5- The Sound Of Music (1965)
I was so scared thinking about The Vanishing that I needed a bit of cheering up. And there’s nothing better for that than The Sound of Music!

6- The Piano Teacher (2001)
I do like a dark and twisted love story!

7- The Seventh Seal (1957)
I’m sure that everybody picks this! At one time I was going to project it behind me while I played at gigs, but then realised that everyone would end up watching it instead of me!

8- Period Dramas
There’s nothing I like better than curling up on the sofa, Earl Grey tea, chocolate and a period drama. It’s the only time I can ever get a fix of romance in these un-romantic times! And I do like a man in boots and britches! Doesn’t really matter which one, any period drama will do! How girly of me!

9- Educating Rita (1983)
Julie Walters is genius in this film. She’s so brilliant at portraying characters’ sadness and humour. I love her.

10- Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
An odd choice, I know, but I think it’s the funniest animated film there is. Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julien is amazing and I saw it at the IMAX, which always makes a film seem a little better than it actually is!.