The Refuge: Interview with Francois Ozon

The Refuge

Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 August 2010

Venues: Curzon Mayfair, Renoir, Richmond, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: François Ozon

Writers: Matthieu Hippeau, François Ozon

Cast: Isabelle Carré, Louis-Ronan Choisy, Pierre Louis-Calixte, Melvil Poupaud

France 2009

88 mins

Having made his name with perverse tales of strange relationships in Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003) and dazzled audiences with the all-star 8 Women (2002), French director François Ozon is back with The Refuge, a low-key, meditative story that follows Mousse (Isabelle Carré), a drug addict who finds she’s pregnant after her lover Louis (Melvil Poupaud) dies of an overdose. Against the wishes of Louis’s mother, Mousse decides to keep the child and goes away to a house by the seaside for the duration of her pregnancy. There, she is briefly joined by Louis’s brother Paul (played by the singer Louis-Ronan Choisy), a fragile-looking homosexual man, who stops by to visit her on his way to Spain. The Refuge originated from Ozon’s desire to film a pregnant actress and became possible when Isabelle Carré, pregnant with her first child, agreed to play the part of Mousse.

Virginie Sélavy talks to François Ozon about wanting to challenge preconceptions about maternity, his interest in identity, and the unexpected reaction of the French right-wing press to the film.

VS: The Refuge seems much more luminous than your previous films. Do you feel your work has evolved in some way?

FO: There is necessarily an evolution, but it’s not something I’m aware of and that I control. Each story calls for a different treatment. What I wanted to do here was to start with darkness, violence, cruelty, and go towards light. I wanted all the narrative elements to be there at the start, almost to get rid of them, to go towards something that would be more about sensations and emotions, something more contemplative.

Your work is often concerned with fluid, ambiguous sexual identities and this is present again here in the relationship that develops between Mousse and Paul. But here it seems to have a more tender aspect than in your previous films.

I’m interested in identities that are not defined yet, that are gestating. That’s what I want to do in films, I want to show things that are not finished, that are being constructed, and to participate in, or rather follow, the construction of that identity. Here it’s the intimate as much as sexual identity of a young woman whose pregnancy has absolutely nothing to do with the desire to have a child, but is a means to survive an intense emotional shock after the man she loved dies.

Why did you choose to focus on a pregnant woman?

I was interested in going against the dominant idea of maternity today. I wanted to link pregnancy to a survival instinct, but not to the desire to have a child. Mousse decides to keep the child, and you could wonder whether it’s a gesture of opposition against Louis’s family. But for me, it was more about the idea of preserving life. It’s a bit like in Under the Sand, a woman who is in an extremely painful situation and finds a slightly twisted way, an oblique way, of coping with the pain of the loved one’s absence. In Under the Sand, Charlotte Rampling’s character imagined that she was living with a ghost, that he was still there, to the extent that other people thought she was mad. Here, the character of Mousse decides to keep Louis inside her through this child. It’s about continuity.

Your previous film, Ricky (2009), also revolved around the evolution of a couple after the birth of a child.

In Ricky, it’s the second phase. The Refuge ends with the birth of the child whereas Ricky starts with the arrival of the child. Ricky looks at how everyone finds their place after the appearance of an exterior element. But it wasn’t just the child, it was also the character of Sergi López. It was about how the family unit can be disturbed when you add a new person.

Was it difficult for you to make a film about an experience that is exclusively feminine?

Sadly, it’s something that I will never experience in my own body, so it’s very mysterious. In the film, I feel close to the character of the man who picks Mousse up, who is attracted to her sexually, but finds himself cradling her like a child in a hotel room, unable to understand what is going on.

Did Isabelle Carré contribute to the script?

She gave her opinion. She was a source of inspiration. For instance, I wanted the scene with the man who picks her up to end in a strange way. I asked Isabelle if she had an idea about what her character could ask the man to do that would have nothing to do with sexuality. She had just returned from a haptonomy session and her consultant had said that she should ask her husband to cradle her, so that’s what we did. What’s funny is that Isabelle was so tired that day that she fell asleep, and I filmed her, so it was a bit accidental.

There is a very interesting relationship between fiction and reality in this film.

That’s what interested me. I set it all up so that at one point the film would become a documentary on Isabelle Carré. Even though Isabelle was going through her pregnancy in a completely different way, I think there are things that I managed to steal from her, even just physically, because a pregnant woman goes through changes, her skin, her hair, her weight change. The film captures that moment, which is very precious because it’s not something that we usually see in a film.

Did the fact that Isabelle Carré was eight months pregnant cause problems during the making of the film?

It was a real risk for the production because the insurers did not want to insure us, so we had to make the film with a very low budget, in HD, with a small crew,, for three weeks over the summer, and we made the rest of the film after she had given birth.

Was it difficult for her psychologically to play a character who is going through a traumatic pregnancy?

Quite the contrary. Isabelle said that she was so completely different from Mousse that there couldn’t be any confusion between what she was experiencing and what her character was going through. The only thing she asked for was that the child she gives birth to at the end of the film should not be a boy because she was going to have a boy in real life and she didn’t want the film to create any confusion later and for her son to think that that was his story. The only scene where we cheated is the one where she dances in the club because she couldn’t do it and we couldn’t take the risk of her being hit in the stomach.

Why did you choose to focus on drug addicts?

I wanted to challenge clichés about drugs. I wanted to show it in a very realistic way, to go against idealised views of it, but also to show the well-being it can give and the love that can exist between two people who take drugs together. It’s a sort of refuge, they live in a closed space, cut off from the world and reality. And Mousse goes from one refuge to another in the film.

How was the film received in France?

Fairly well. But the right-wing press attacked it in a way that we really didn’t expect. The Figaro said that it advocated homosexual adoption. I had to re-read the article several times… If people want to interpret the film in this manner, why not, I have nothing against homosexual adoption, but it was absolutely not the aim of the film! They reacted as if the end of the film was a political message, which was not the case at all. But a film escapes you once you’ve released it, and everybody can interpret it as they wish.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy

London International Animation Festival

The Man in the Blue Gordini

Date: 27 August-5 September 2010

Venue: Renoir Cinema, the Horse Hospital, Rio Cinema (London)

LIAF website

We are looking forward to the London International Animation Festival (LIAF), which returns for the 7th time with an exciting, intriguing, inspiring, sometimes controversial, thoroughly comprehensive collection of animation from 27 August to 5 September. This is the UK’s largest festival of its kind in the UK, screening the best, new animation from every corner of the world to London audiences with 250 films, most of them British premieres, represented in a series of amazing programmes and satellite events.

With films from 30 countries LIAF will proudly showcase the whole spectrum of creative animation, showing that animation is so much more than slick blockbusters and special effects. As well as 9 competitive programmes of the best, recently released animated shorts from every corner of the globe there are many especially curated sessions such as the technique focus (scratch animation), Felix the Cat, the Autour de Minuit (France) showcase, the British panorama, the best of Siggraph Festival, animated documentaries, guests, Q and A’s and seminars.

The whole week wraps up with the Best of the Festival on Sunday night with a collection of films chosen by panels of judges and audience votes.

The full programme is available online at the LIAF website. Tickets available from the Renoir box-office in early August.

No Politics: The New US War Film

The Hurt Locker

In the nine years since the launch of George W Bush’s ‘War Against Terror’ in Afghanistan, a number of war movies have been made in and out of the Hollywood system, from the little-known 2006 film Home of the Brave, directed by Henry Winkler and starring Samuel L Jackson, to the 2009 Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker by Point Break director Katherine Bigelow. But despite the various storylines and locations, there’s something that almost every recent American war film has in common – a virtual absence of politics and/or propaganda. With the exception of a handful of documentaries (like 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side), few of these films have been overtly critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the flip side, pro-war; they have instead focused their lenses entirely on the lives of American soldiers, often excluding the ‘enemy’ from the picture altogether. Some, like In the Valley of Elah (2007), The Messenger (2009) and Brothers (2009) are melodramas that have dramatised the often-traumatic return home. But others have focused more squarely on the troops, with directors almost battling each other to present the truest, most honest depiction of life in a war zone, elevating the soldier to mythical status while avoiding any thorny foreign policy issues (soldiers barely seem to know or care why they’re over there), or any accurate depiction of life in wartime for civilians.

It’s a far cry from the Vietnam days, when returning soldiers were met at airbases by protesters demanding an end to the war; controversial films like Winter Soldier (1972) documented hearings where soldiers denounced their participation in the war and confessed to war crimes, and Hanoi Jane hung out with communists in North Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma (whose 2007 film Redacted is perhaps an exception to the new rule) made films about the horrors of war; soldiers were dehumanised, unleashing pain on civilians under orders from the American government; war was hell; the US had no business being there.

The current fashion seems to have started in another desert arena with Black Hawk Down (2001), based on the book by the journalist Mark Bowden and set in Somalia during the disastrous UN humanitarian mission in 1992. In October of that year, a botched mission by elite soldiers in Delta Force and Rangers resulted in the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter over Mogadishu, prompting a disastrous rescue attempt (‘we will leave no man behind’) that led to the deaths of 19 troops and about 1000 Somalis. But produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down is not tragedy, but war as adrenaline-fuelled action adventure: two hours of almost non-stop videogame-style warfare as the troops fight for their survival in the crowded slums of the Somali capital. There’s a cursory explanation about why the troops were there in the first place (war-induced famine), but little in the way of politics. Instead, the film is all about honouring the cult of the soldier – it’s about the men’s bravery, their heroism, their respect and love for one another. As a character played by Eric Bana says: ‘Once that first bullet goes flying past your head, politics and all that shit goes out the window… We fight because there’s a guy next to us.’

A thriller with a smaller budget and fewer troops, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which was the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Oscar for best picture, drops the audience straight into Iraq, with little in the way of introduction. A bomb disposal unit sends a robot to check out a pile of rubble believed to be hiding an IED (Improvised Explosive Device); when the robot takes a tumble and loses a wheel, the team leader approaches to set it back on track – but an insurgent is ready and waiting. A violent, slow-motion explosion, an easily missed smattering of blood as the force hits the fleeing team leader, and his life is extinguished. His replacement is reckless, egotistical, arrogant; he endangers the lives of his two team mates, but he gets the job done, defusing bombs with an obsessive passion. There are plenty of confrontations between Sergeant First Class William James and the more responsible Sergeant Sanborn, who doesn’t enjoy needlessly putting his life on the line, and the obligatory, drunken homoerotic wrestling match, to prove who’s craziest and toughest. But apart from a gruesome scene when a young boy is used as a body-bomb, there’s little in the way of blood, or politics, or Iraqis. When the team stumbles upon gunmen in the desert, they are seen only in the sights of a sniper rifle. Later, a car bomb explodes in the middle of the night, the horrific aftermath completely obscured from view by smoke and darkness; the team flee the scene in a mad chase to track down the insurgents responsible, and the audience is spared from having to witness a semblance of reality. Again, it’s the relationship between the men in the unit that’s important; the war is little more than a sideshow.

Although not made for the big screen, HBO Film’s seven-part Generation Kill (2008), written by David Simon and Ed Burns, is possibly one of the most intense pieces of drama made about the war in Iraq. But like Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker, its focus is on the troops. Based on the book by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, who was embedded with the 1st Recon Marines during the initial assault on Iraq in 2003, the film’s story ends after the first three months of the invasion, before the suicide bombings, insurgency and sectarian warfare plunged the country into the abyss. Admittedly more politically aware than either Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker (Sgt Antonio Espero rails against the White Man and imperialism, and at least the Geneva Convention gets a mention, while the troops are in the middle of breaking it), it’s first a drama about life in the Marine Corps, and secondly a drama about the war itself (it’s only really in the final episode, when they reach Baghdad, that the Marines fully realise the impact that the invasion is going to have on civilians).

A lot of the talk surrounding Generation Kill is about how realistic it is; about how real Marines can identify with what they see on screen; about how the drama captures war as it is, untouched by propaganda (for examples, see the comments on IMDB). The marines are desperate to ‘get some’, frustrated by the lack of supplies, frustrated by the lack of combat, frustrated by the chain of command; some are rednecks, racists; some are bright, intelligent, sensitive, dismayed by the deaths of civilians. And while it might be war as it is, and in a lot of ways Generation Kill is a truly great television series, with a lot of the sharp writing that made The Wire such an excellent series, it’s war as it is for Marines, not for civilians or anyone else (and certainly not for women, who aren’t allowed to serve in Recon – in fact, women are nowhere to be seen in any of these films).

Meanwhile, the latest talked-about film, out now in the US and awaiting a UK release, is the documentary Restrepo. The journalist Sebastien Junger and the photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington spent months embedded with a platoon in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Their ‘Directors’ Statement’ is worth quoting: ‘The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.’ Well, it’s one version of reality anyway. It certainly typifies the current trend: explore the lives of soldiers, in as realistic a way as possible; ignore the rights and wrongs; ignore the civilians, ignore everything but the men.

There seems to be an ambivalence on the part of both filmmakers and audiences towards the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; audiences have largely stayed away, and filmmakers have mostly kept away from the politics (with sometimes surprising exceptions from Hollywood directors, like Paul Greengrass’s thriller Green Zone, 2010) and the George Clooney-produced Syriana (2005). Even Standard Operating Procedure (2008), by the esteemed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, refused to judge either the conflict or the soldiers at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, dissecting the controversial and downright disturbing photographs in a clinical, almost scientific manner.

There are no conclusions in these films, no judgements – just soldiers living and dying out on the battlefield. Naturally, it is easier to focus on the (all masculine, all American) experience of war than to engage with its grey moral and political areas. But this general reluctance among filmmakers to adopt a strong standpoint is troubling. Have directors been paralysed by the fear of being accused of ‘anti-patriotism’? Or is it simply indifference?

Sarah Cronin

Mother: Interview with Bong Joon-ho


Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 August 2010

Venue: ICA, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: ICO/Optimum

Director: Bong Jonn-ho

Writers: Park Eun-kyo, Park Wun-kyo, Bong Joon-ho

Original title: Madeo

Cast: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin

South Korea 2009

128 mins

A dark tale about a mother who will go to extreme lengths to save her son, and a stunning blend of bewildering intensity, daring artistry and storytelling magic, Bong Joon-ho’s Mother was one of the highlights at the London Film Festival in October 2009 and screened in London again a month later as part of the London Korean Film Festival. Mother features a striking central performance from Korean TV actress Kim Hye-ja as the vigilant mother whose 28-year-old son, a shy and mentally impaired young man, finds himself framed for murder. Although there is no real evidence against him, the police are eager to close the case, and his mother has no alternative but to get involved to prove his innocence. But how far will a mother go to save her son? And how did one of South Korea’s most promising young filmmakers, who recently smashed Korean box office records with monster movie The Host (2006) approach such a topic?

Pamela Jahn had the pleasure to take part in a round table interview of Bong Joon-ho at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where Mother had its world premiere in the non-competitive Un Certain Regard section.

Q: You’ve been working on this film for almost five years, yet it seems fuelled with burning passion from beginning to end.
Bong Joon-ho: Yes, I had the general idea for the story even before The Host and I wrote a first synopsis in early 2004. That was also when I first met the main actress, Kim Hye-ja. And the fact that we could finally work together as director and actress was an unbelievable experience for me. So even while I was working on The Host and on the episode I contributed to Tokyo! (2008), in the back of my head I was already working on Mother too.

When did you make the decision to cast Kim Hye-ja in the lead role?
It was not like the usual procedure where after writing the script I start looking for an actress who might fit the role. It’s this actress who really inspired me and got me to write the story in the first place. She is not very well known abroad, but in Korea she is an almost mythical actress, like the ‘mother of the nation’, and I had been a fan of hers since I was little. The first time I met Hye-ja it was a little surreal actually, she was almost like a dreamer. She was completely different from what I had seen on TV. So in reaction to this I wanted to show her in a role that is completely the opposite of her TV appearances and express her personality from a different point of view, looking at the hysteria and madness that lie beneath the surface of her great gentleness and warmth.

How much influence did Kim Hye-ja have in the development of her character in the film?
I met her on a regular basis while writing the script, often several times a month, and I took some pictures that helped me a lot writing the story and developing her role.

Did you also have Won Bin in mind for the role of the son while working on the story?
No, it was only after I finished the script that I started looking for an actor to play the son. For this character I wanted someone who would fit with her, but also someone who could make her completely mad, and Won Bin turned out to be the perfect match.

In both its tone and narrative structure, Mother is very different from the films you directed before, like Memories of Murder (2003) or The Host. Why this shift in direction?
In Memories of Murder, I wanted to represent Korean society in the 80s when it was under military dictatorship, and I liked the fact that I was dealing with a number of different themes like the family and the system, and I was exposing Korean society and the military regime by looking into the serial killings. But I got a bit tired of what was mainly a stylistic exercise and a general denunciation. So in Mother, I wanted to tell a story that could be seen almost as if through a magnifying glass where the light is so concentrated that it can burn paper. I wanted to find the essence of the story. So the relationship between mother and son is the focus, and every element in the story, from the murder in the village to some other minor incidents, is there to explore this relationship in its entirety. But if you look at the film on the whole, it is not just about motherhood and their relationship, it also hints at something greater again.

Did you feel a lot of pressure while making the film given that it was your follow-up feature to The Host, which was the biggest box office hit in Korean film history?
To be honest, I am a little bit uncomfortable with that, and I really hope that there will be a Korean movie coming up soon to break the record. But it didn’t bother me while I was making Mother because I started working on the project way before The Host came out in Korea, so I could maintain the tone that I had intended for this film in the first place.

Mother is very distinctive in style, especially in the way attention is paid to colour and locations, but there are also these wonderful moments when the mother somehow becomes isolated from the background. What was the main focus in terms of the aesthetics of the film?
I wanted to put the character in an extreme situation and find out how she would react. That was the most important thing for me, so everything had to fully focus on the mother character, including the style and look of the film but also the music. We had some wild discussions with the art director about the clothes that she wears and what colour could best describe her character and her thoughts. I think that the opening scene shows this very well – her madness and the feeling that she is completely out of this world. She is wearing these weird purple clothes and she is hiding her hand in her pocket. Then we hear the sound of her cutting herbs and we see blood on her finger… so, basically, it’s all in there: the fate, the tragedy and the madness. These are the main elements I tried to express in that first scene, but they also stand for the film as a whole.

How is your relationship to your own mother? Did she serve as an inspiration here?
Well, she didn’t kill anybody [laughs]. Actually, she hasn’t seen the movie yet, and I am very excited but also a little bit worried because she also has a tendency to obsession. I mean, I am 40 years old and she is still constantly worried about me. So, yes, in some way my mother also inspired me in making the film I guess, but not primarily. And don’t tell her I said that.

The Illusionist: Interview with Sylvain Chomet

The Illusionist

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 August 2010

Venue: Key cities

Distributor: Warner Bros/Pathe

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Writer: Sylvain Chomet

Based on a screenplay by: Jacques Tati

Original title: L’illusionniste

UK/France 2010

80 mins

Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is based on a script written by Jacques Tati, which he had kept in a drawer until his death in 1982. It tells the story of a past-his-prime stage performer, who is forced to accept questionable engagements in dubious venues in order to make a living. When he performs in a remote Scottish village, he meets little girl Alice, who is convinced that his tricks are truly the result of magic, and she follows him to Edinburgh. Delighted by her enthusiasm for his art, he rewards her by ‘conjuring up’ ever more generous presents, ultimately allowing himself to be bankrupted by the constant giving. But while The Illusionist is stunning to look at, it is a little more unkempt when it comes to the story it wants to tell and the story that’s behind this quite remarkable pairing of Tati and Chomet.

Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview with Sylvain Chomet at the Berlin Film Festival in February, where the film had its world premiere before opening the Edinburgh Film Festival in June.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got hold of the script, because there seems to be some controversy over it.
Sylvain Chomet: No, there has been no controversy at all, but some very bad journalism was done in the UK. When I was working on Belleville Rendezvous I contacted Jacques Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatisheff, to seek permission to use a segment of Jour de F&#234te in the film. To get her authorisation we showed her the material, small clips we had ready at the time and the script of Belleville Rendez-Vous, and she really liked it. All this rang a bell, and she remembered she had this script from her father. She knew that it was connected to her, because it is obvious that it is a letter from a father to his daughter. Tati wrote the script over quite a long period, three or four years, and Sophie was 13 when he started working on it, so he saw her change into a woman. She gave us permission to use the clip from Jour de F&#234te and she mentioned the script, but that was it. She died shortly after our conversation and so, unfortunately, we never met her. One day I contacted the estate of Jacques Tati, Jerome Deschamps and Mikall Micheff at Les Films de Mon Oncle, and they passed me the script – and I fell in love with it. I really loved the simplicity of the story and this very strong, beautiful relationship between father and daughter. It also felt very close to my relationship with my own daughter, who was five years old when we started the film and who is now 17. We bought the rights to make the film and Deschamps and Micheff were both very happy with it, so there is no controversy.

But as you mentioned before, there has been some discussion in the media about the script and your film.
I received a letter from a man called Richard MacDonald, who said he was the grandson of Jacques Tati. He told me the story that Tati had met someone at the Lido in Paris during the war and she became pregnant with a little girl. But Tati was married at the time, and he didn’t want to take responsibility. After I received this letter I decided to meet with this man, because I was interested in the details of this story. But when we met he became very aggressive and accused me of provocation and all that, and I said: ‘Look, if you are telling such a strong, emotional story about a father and a daughter you have to live with your daughter, you have to experience that. And that’s why I don’t see any reason why this script should have been dedicated to this girl he never lived with and who he didn’t see growing up.’ So I told him that if he had any problem with that, he should go speak to the estate of Jacques Tati. And he went off and I never saw him again. Then one day, there was this article in The Guardian saying all these terrible things about the film by a person who had never actually seen it.

[Note from the editors: Vanessa Thorpe at The Guardian quotes Tati’s grandson, Richard McDonald, as saying: ‘The sabotaging of Tati’s original L’illusionniste script, without recognising his troubled intentions, so that it resembles little more than a grotesque, eclectic, nostalgic homage to its author is the most disrespectful act.’]

Was there a moment when you worried about adapting this script because of the pressure of using the work of a distinguished director like Tati to make your own film?
There were two driving forces for me. One was Sophie, his daughter, but not because the script was all about her, rather because the story is about this father figure who is seeing this girl growing up like his daughter and who is trying to tell her something about life. When I read the script for the first time, I thought I should do something with it because otherwise it would have not gone anywhere, because Sophie Taticheff didn’t want this to be filmed in live action. She didn’t want somebody else to play her dad’s role in the film. And the other thing that was very important to me was that it was a very different film compared to Jacques Tati’s other work. I think if he had made the film at the time his career would have taken a completely different direction. The film takes place over a long period of time and in many different locations, and there’s a lot of travelling, which is all very unusual for Tati. So for that reason, because it wasn’t another Monsieur Hulot, I thought it would be really nice to do it. And the challenge for me was to make the script and all the emotion that’s in it work in animation.

Do you think Tati would have approved of an animated film?
I don’t know. I knew he was fascinated by drawings, and I think he was quite frustrated that he couldn’t draw himself. And in his films there is always a strong connection to childhood. If you look at the end of Play Time, for example, the world he describes in the film is very ugly. It’s sad, it’s grey, it’s uniform, almost robot-like. But at the end, you have this beautiful scene with the carousel of cars and it all becomes very childish. I think that is a beautiful way of looking at life. He’s got a lot of this in his films, like the relationship with the little boy in Mon Oncle. That’s why for me the ending in The Illusionist is not sad. It’s an evolution, I’d say. Father and daughter are both going their separate ways. She’s young, from a different generation, so she’s going to live her own life within her own culture. And he is an old man, but he’s also going to carry on and do something else. And I think it’s actually very redemptive when they meet in the end. But to answer your question, I don’t even know if I would have wanted to meet Tati to get his approval. Because most of the time when you have heroes like that it’s actually better not to meet them!

Why did you decide to include a live action scene with Tati in the film again, as you did in Belleville Rendezvous?
I felt I needed to put it in there so he could have a little look into the film. So you have the animated Tati and then you have the real Tati, like a mirror, and they look at each other and say ‘Do you want to stay?’, but they say ‘no, no, no’ and they leave. I think he needed to be there, if only for a moment.

The film is very different to your previous work.
Yes, exactly. Belleville Rendezvous went extremely well and a lot of people came to me and said: ‘Oh, are you going to make another one like this, this was really nice’, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something completely different. And here was the challenge, because this script wasn’t made for animation, it was made for live action, but I was convinced that it could work. I read the script when I was on the train to Cannes. The film is a voyage also, and I felt that it had something to do with the gentle balance of the train. I think I needed Jacques Tati to help me be a bit simpler in the way I use the camera and things like this. But that said, it was amazingly difficult, because nothing is more complicated than trying to do things very simply, and to make them look simple.

Was it also a challenge, or rather an attraction, for you to do something in 2D at a time when everything is going 3D?
Yes, but this was also a problem for us, because most of the really good animators are into 3D at the moment. And a 2D animator needs to know so many more things than 3D animators, because 3D basically means you have puppets without the strings, it’s a virtual world, so you have to be good in volumes and sketches and make them move. But a 2D animator is someone who can draw ‘classically’, who can draw fast, and someone who knows anatomy. You need to know the motion of animals and humans to make it work, and you need to know how to act as well.

How do you think children see your films?
I’ve never aimed my films at children as the main audience. I think you restrict yourself when you do that. But on the other hand, I was very surprised that a lot of kids actually watched Belleville Rendezvous, and they all loved it. My own daughter, for example, was never forced to watch the film. She actually has a lot of Pixar movies at home. But one day she saw the DVD and asked if she could watch it and she loved it too. For kids, I think, it’s all real… A lot of people are still fascinated when they see animation. It’s magic.

Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts

Terrorism Considered as one of the Fine Arts

Go to Peter Whitehead’s website and the Nohzone website for more details.

Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts marks the welcome return to filmmaking of Peter Whitehead, the documentarian who captured the historic first meeting of American and English beat poets with Wholly Communion (1965) and the 1968 student rebellion at Columbia University that occurred in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King shooting with The Fall (1969). In recent years, Whitehead has been active as a cyber-novelist, and through his website has published the Nohzone trilogy, of which Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the first instalment. After attending a tribute to his career at the 2006 Viennale Festival, the director decided to shoot the self-financed film version on location in Vienna and developed a fragmented narrative that follows the attempts of Michael Schlieman, an MI6 agent who has gone rogue, to make contact with the elusive Maria Lenoir, an eco-terrorist who is wanted by the British government. Schlieman has come to identify with Lenoir, but finds it difficult to navigate the elaborate network of contacts that surrounds her, even with the assistance of Sophie, the alluring archivist at Vienna’s Third Man Museum. Although this summary suggests a relatively straightforward conspiracy thriller, Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is a defiantly non-linear experience as voice-over, imagery and on-screen quotations serve to deconstruct cinematic time and narrative form in a disorientating manner. Peter Whitehead spoke to John Berra about the development of the film and the multiple readings that are presented by his unorthodox approach.

Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts is the first film you have made in 32 years. How had the landscape of independent filmmaking changed in that period?
I knew absolutely nothing. I had not paid any attention to independent filmmaking since 1973; I have no idea about what has been done, I never watch films, I only write novels. The film is based on my novel, and that is the only reason I decided to make it. I was already starting to think about making a film, I was going to finance it myself and it was going to be based on my three novels that are on the web, the Nohzone trilogy. I attended the Viennale, where I had some fantastic dialogues, and I met Samantha Berger; she was sort of a Peruvian anarchist filmmaker, and I decided to take the first of my three novels and make it in Vienna with Samantha.

How did the narrative and themes develop in collaboration?
The film is clearly a homage to my great hero Jean-Luc Godard, who is a very difficult person to have as your hero; I had a publishing company in the 60s and I published all of his screenplays. I didn’t set out to do a ‘Godard’, that was provoked as much by the people who I became involved with to make the film. A lot of my films are made in collaboration with actresses, which is very Godardian. I made Daddy with Niki de Saint Phalle, and I made Fire in the Water with Nathalie Delon, so I like to be inspired by creative females, it energises me in the sense that I can make a documentary or semi-documentary. It is documentary in that it is about the person, but it’s more often about their fantasies, their ideas, their relationships. So I started making the film with Samantha, who was a correspondent for a magazine in Peru called Godard. I told her that I was making a film of my novel Terrorism Considered as One of the Fine Arts and that it has a character who becomes a terrorist and it’s about an assassination. I then met Nina Erber, who is the bass player in Who Killed Bambi, and I thought she would be great as Maria Lenoir and I thought I had the perfect situation because, as I got close to Nina, I discovered that she was also a total Godard freak. Unfortunately, I have a bad gene that leaves me prone to an auto-immune disease, which I had in 1968, and I was struck down for a second time in Vienna, so I had to get back to England and it took six to nine months for me to get better. When I went back to Vienna, I found Sophie Stroemer, who I had met at the Viennale, and discovered that she was working in the Third Man Museum, and she gave me what I needed, which was the narrative of a disappearing Maria Lenoir. The film became entirely what it is due to my relationship with these three different girls.

Although the film uses a third-person narration, it also plays with aspects of first-person filmmaking as it is shot largely from Schielman’s point of view. He encounters several physically similar femme fatale characters, and it is suggested that they all could be Maria Lenoir because he is capturing aspects of their personalities that he believes to be facets of the woman he is pursuing.
All the girls in the film are Maria Lenoir; as far as I’m concerned, there are only two people in the film, one is Maria Lenoir, and the other is Michael Schlieman. If you start talking to me about ‘characters’ in a film you’re talking about Hollywood; I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in the archetypal. The two archetypes are the man and the woman and the archetype of the female, which I’ve called ‘Maria Lenoir’, is the modern female, and she and Schlieman have a dialogue about technology and the rape of nature and God knows what else. It’s about that total split between the male vision and the female vision. For the female it is all about revenge and rejection, self-sacrifice and suicide. I hope it’s clear that Michael Schielman identifies with these females; there is a mention at one point that he identifies so much with Maria that he too might be Maria. In other words, there is an archetypal yin and yang in all of us; the yang is that male thing, which is to do with technology, and that is why I have the sequence that says ‘Welcome to the machine’. The female thing is the development of this virtual web of total connecting, gossipy little fragmented bits of communication; the world of the female is a conspiracy.

The film keeps returning to the two tram lines in Vienna, and the possibility of an overlap, or collision, between related forces or events. At times, the film itself plays like a collision between your real-world concerns and an evident enthusiasm for classic narrative cinema, as exemplified by The Third Man, and literary pulp fiction. It seems to be deconstructing narrative and space.
It is totally and deliberately doing that. Part of that is the deconstruction of the single character because only a single character can give you that linear line from A to Z, and I’ve just disintegrated it. I’m fascinated by the Ringstrasse because it’s a circular thing, you go right around the city and you see the entire history of Vienna. Tram number one goes one way, and tram number two goes the other way, they just go around constantly, and they’ve been doing that for 40 years. I thought that was perfect for me because the film is about entanglement; I imagined all these characters linking like a cyclotron, one going one way and the other going the other way, so the narrative is a double circle. Entanglement is where you split a proton and it goes off into two halves, and they go round two circles, and then they collide. I like the idea that he is reflecting on his past, because he is about to die, and she is trying to look to the future. One is the past and one is the future, one is memory and the other is imagination.

When discussing the production of The Third Man, Sophie observes that, ‘Film doesn’t play by the rules of space. It makes quantum leaps’. It’s interesting that film can capture a city to some extent, but it is also always cheating the audience by jumping to other locations of studio sets.
That’s the reason that I wanted her in the movie. I went to the Third Man Museum and she started to explain how she was taking people around the city to show them how the film was a complete lie because half of it was shot in London, and half of it was shot in Vienna, and that’s what fascinates her; how time and space in film can become something totally different. The idea was hers, she brought it in at that moment, but I had already talked to her about entanglement and physics, so I had encouraged it.

Interview by John Berra

Triumph of the Will: Feeble Bombast

Triumph of the Will

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Writers: Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann

Original title: Triumph des Willens

Germany 1935

114 mins

The ghost of Tannhäuser haunts the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s hyper-real document of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. The surging rhythms and melodic leaps from Wagner’s great overture are intertwined within Herbert Windt’s blustery score. Ironic, perhaps, that the theme for the Goddess of Love should here soundtrack the entrance of the high priest of hate. Shortly afterwards, we hear something that at first we might mistake for the Internationale – of course, it’s not. But the resemblance is typical of the way the National Socialist regime appropriated motifs from the International Socialist Movement. Later on, the manner in which the front ranks of the crowd will speak in unison was, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, an ‘outright imitation of communist propaganda methods’.

It is tempting to see in Herbert Windt’s diffuse and oleaginous appropriation of popular themes and classical allusions some sort of articulation of a distinctly Nazi aesthetic – the analogue in many respects to their rhetoric. But Wagnerian motifs and Straussian harmonies were as common to pre-Nazi German cinema as they were to Hollywood films before and after the war. What Triumph of the Will‘s music lacks, of course, is the element of doubt and uncertainty introduced by the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system on many Hollywood composers. Nonetheless, in its jingoistic heroism, and the peculiarly thin, under-composed feel much of the music reveals on closer examination, Windt’s style finally recalls none other than John Williams. It is a fact remarked on by Mervyn Cooke in his recent History of Film Music, that many of Windt’s themes and fanfares would not sound out of place in Star Wars.

Robert Barry