Seen at Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, Montreal (Canada) Format: Cinema Release date: 27 September 2017 (France) Distributor: Océan Films Distribution Director: Géla Babluani Writers: Géla Babluani Cast: George Babluani, Vincent Rottiers, Charlotte Van Bervesseles, Benoît Magimel
On the release of his tense new thriller, the French-Georgian director best known for 13 (Tzameti) talks about unlikely bungled burglaries, fragile criminals and the prisons we build for ourselves.
Over 10 years ago, French-Georgian director Géla Babluani made a memorable directorial debut with 13 (Tzameti), a stylised black and white tale of greed, desperation and dangerous games. He is back with a taut crime thriller that recombines the main ingredients of his debut, namely money and suicide, into a mature, tense study of human nature punctuated by flashes of absurdist dark humour. Set in the grim port city of Le Havre, the story revolves around three friends who break into a politician’s mansion to steal a suitcase full of money. But from the moment they enter the house, things go wildly off plan. As the characters are faced with a situation they could not have foreseen, each decision they make leads them inexorably down an increasingly perilous path.
Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Marilyn Lima, Daisy Broom
Original title:Bang Gang (Une histoire d’amour moderne)
French director Eva Husson talks about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.
One of the great surprises of last year’s London Film Festival, Eva Husson’s bracing debut Bang Gang paints a frank, uninhibited and nuanced portrait of modern youth. Based on a real-life case, the film follows a group of teenage friends who engage in sex parties in a small French seaside town. Experimenting in this way will lead each of them to find their own limits and work out their own singular relationship to sex and love.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Eva Husson at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2015 about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.
Virginie Sélavy: Bang Gang goes against all the clichés about today’s youth and the panic about the internet. Although you integrate things such as posting photos online in the story you show that the characters’ exploration of sexuality is just part of growing up.
Eva Husson: I’m interested in the exploration of limits. I think that’s the job of teenagers, and the characters just do their job. Some are more confused than others, and some go further. A number of people asked if I thought the film represented youth. No, I don’t think that young people are constantly having intense group sex. But I think that it is very likely that similar excessive behaviour goes on, and it reveals archetypes and issues that are common to everyone. I think it’s much more interesting to choose an excessive type of story to approach that than a more traditional little love story that no one would have cared about.
It is based on a real event, is that right?
Yes, it was inspired by something that happened in 1996 when three hundred kids got syphilis in a small town. That’s what caught the attention of the hospital. They started to think it was a little strange, all these kids coming to them with that same problem. They questioned the kids and they realised there was something a little off. So it’s not something that is recent, and at the time you didn’t have all these issues of videos and photos. I included that in the film because I felt I couldn’t ignore it.
The way you portray the parents is very nuanced. They are quite sympathetic, they’re not repressive, they just don’t really understand what is going on.
I felt it was important that the parents shouldn’t be repressive caricatures because that’s often the way they are represented. I was touched by the fact that the parents try their best but fail, they’re a little clueless. They are quite open-minded and could understand their children if they talked but of course adolescents don’t talk. So I was looking back with sympathy at my parents and my friends’ parents, who were middle class and well-intentioned but got so much wrong. I was angry with them for a while and then I realised that they just did what they could.
You play an adult in the film, the maths teacher.
Yes, because even though in my head I was a teenager until I was 35 it was impossible to continue being a teenager. I love acting because I started as an actress, and I liked the idea of having a small role. Due to the intensity of the shooting I didn’t feel able to play a bigger role. And my husband plays the chemistry teacher, my mother plays the Spanish teacher, my brother is the disabled father and my cousin plays Alex’s mother. It’s a family affair.
What was the shooting like?
It was hard, because of the financial situation. We had limited means compared to our ambitions and so it was difficult to do all the things we wanted to do with the quality we wanted. Also we shot in some isolated places. All the scenes in the house were shot in the country and it was hard to be all crammed together in one place, day and night. The kids were fed up with each other, they were at each other’s throats. It was a bit like a holiday camp, it was drama after drama. To be honest I found it all quite funny. But there was also a lot of enthusiasm. The creative team was really close, there were many happy moments. I’d just had my baby and so I felt a little like a warrior: I’ve just given birth, I can do anything now, all problems have solutions. But I was scared, it’s not like I went in thinking, ‘great, I’ve just had a baby and now I’m making a film, that’s so cool’. I went in thinking, ‘oh shit…’ It actually gave me a strength I didn’t suspect I had.
Was it the first time you made something so explicitly sexual?
For a long time I was worried about the project for that reason. I found the story fascinating, I found the exploration of the extreme fascinating, but as for the sexual aspect of it… I’d shot one or two sex scenes before and I knew they weren’t the most pleasant scenes to film. Everyone is uncomfortable, watching people pretend to moan is not great to be honest… And so I wasn’t too happy about that, but at one point I said to my actors, ‘look, it’s very simple, your bodies are tools, you think of it as dancing, we’ll think about bodies in space, we’ll choreograph them, we’ll do it as a physical relationship to space. Don’t let yourselves get overwhelmed by your own emotions, it’s not about you, it’s about the characters’. And that’s the guiding principle that we all followed. When the actors talk about it they don’t seem traumatised. The other thing is that I kept the sex scenes to a minimum. I wanted it to be about the trajectories of the characters and for those scenes to exist only in relation to their emotions.
Those scenes feel very frank, very sensual, and never empty.
We spent a lot of time thinking about why we were filming each scene, what needed to be shown, in fact what was the minimum we could show, without overdoing it because others have done that, and I wasn’t really interested in that as a filmmaker. We thought a lot about what it meant for the character, which made a lot of decisions easier. When it came to nudity, I wanted it to be something simple. That’s why I had a couple of scenes where you see them naked early on so that afterwards you know that they can be naked, it doesn’t need to be all frontal. I didn’t want to focus on the genitals because people don’t really want to see that.
You’ve created great female characters that are very complex and different. They do what they want to do without compromising and they don’t get punished for it.
That was very important to me. As a woman I was thinking about how women and female sexuality are represented. I thought that a full-blown teenage female sexuality can be explored in a way that doesn’t necessarily end badly. Of course, if you shag lots of people, there is the risk of sexually transmissible diseases. For me that’s not punishment, that’s a fact. But at that age there is also that extreme malleability that means that you learn the lesson of what didn’t work, of what was a little too much, and you carry on, and you construct your identity. The construction of female sexual identity fascinated me, that’s something I really wanted to explore. I think there will be viewers who will find it hard going because it goes against the patriarchal view of things – even in films I love like Breaking the Waves, the female character really suffers, it’s punishment after punishment after punishment.
It’s interesting that syphilis is what happened in the real story because today the big STD threat is AIDS. That’s something that would change your life because there is no treatment, whereas now you can treat syphilis, which removes the potentially tragic element of STD.
Well, I did wonder if I should keep that in, so it was a real narrative choice, because a lot of people were saying to me, syphilis is over. It’s not common, that’s for sure, but it does happen. And it’s precisely no longer a lethal disease these days so the kids can move on, and that’s what’s interesting. I had a fairly wild youth, not in terms of orgies, but drugs, and people around me took lots too, and we all turned out OK. So it’s possible to explore your limits without it destroying your adult life. For me it’s a lie to say that if you mess up as a teenager you’ll ruin your life. It’s the only moment in life when you can go very far and make a full U-turn without any real consequences. I liked the idea of exploring that.
The film also dynamites all the clichés about girls, sex and love, the idea that girls are romantic and boys are not.
Yes, for instance, for Gabriel, a boy, and I know many boys like him, intimacy is something that is very strong and intense and he can’t do collective sex. However, he’s enough of a freak, in a good sense, to think that it doesn’t matter what this special girl who means so much to him does with her sexuality, because he’s someone who sees what really matters. George, on the other hand, is a romantic girl, but for her that’s not connected to sex. So she can sleep with boys without it being in contradiction with her sentimental side. And Alex may initially seem like a little bastard, but through him I was looking back with tenderness at teenage boys, realising that they were just a bit dazed, they didn’t understand everything. At the time I thought they were obnoxious, but in fact they were a little lost because learning about love and relationships is actually not easy – now, 20 years ago or 2000 years ago.
Cast: Max Brebant, Roxane Duran, Julie-Marie Parmentier
Lucile Hadžihalilovic explains how she created her oneiric exploration of birth and matter in an elusive, disquieting female world.
Evolution, Lucile Hadžihalilovic’s masterful follow-up to her 2004 debut Innocence revolves around a little boy living on an island peopled only by women and other young boys. After a disturbing discovery while swimming in the sea, the boy becomes suspicious of the women’s behaviour. He soon falls mysteriously ill and is sent to the hospital, where he is subjected to a no less mysterious treatment.
Virginie Sélavy met Lucile Hadžihalilovic at the London Film Festival in October 2015 where the director explained how she created her oneiric exploration of birth and matter in an elusive, disquieting female world.
Virginie Sélavy: You made Innocence 10 years ago. Why did it take you so long to make another film?
Lucile Hadžihalilovic: What took so long was the financing of the film. It wasn’t quick to write, and it went through many drafts, but that wasn’t the reason. It was really difficult for people to understand the project on paper. I thought it’d be easier, because unlike Innocence, Evolution is more narrative and more of a genre film. But even though it is connected to horror, science fiction and the fantastique, it’s not completely a genre film, it’s also an auteur film. People who finance auteur films in France are not used to dealing with the fantastique, it’s a little too close to exploitation and not serious enough for them maybe. The other problem, even if no one said it explicitly but it seems obvious to me, is the fact that it is about children who are subjected to unpleasant things, and on paper people could imagine things that were even more terrible than what I intended to show.
To straddle art and genre film is very difficult for filmmakers, and maybe especially for French filmmakers. A clear example of that was Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day.
That’s true, and when she made Trouble Every Day she had already made a number of films, she was a name. The theatrical release of Innocence was more successful in countries like Britain and the USA than it was in France. It wasn’t a big release but we got press and people understood the film. I think there is a cultural problem with what is imaginary, metaphorical, people don’t get it in France. I think that people here understand it better because there’s a literature and a cinema that are closer to it, and they don’t look down on the fantastique so much, as though it were only for children or teenagers.
What’s your relationship to horror?
I saw a lot of horror films when I was 20. When I started going to the cinema on my own around the age of 13, it was a time when there were a lot of Italian horror films coming out, Argento, etc. It was fascinating because at the same time they were very seductive, very beautiful, and at the same time rather horrible, and I didn’t understand that combination or the adult world they depicted very well. Until I was about 25 I watched a lot of those films and then I stopped. Now I’m not focused on horror film, but it was important to me at a certain age, and I think it’s something that remains with you. It seems natural to me to watch horror on the screen even though I’m easily scared in real life. It’s like a catharsis and it evokes a lot of things for me.
Despite the fact that nearly 10 years elapsed between the two projects, Innocence and Evolution are very close in terms of theme and atmosphere.
I’d started working on Evolution before Innocence but I wasn’t aware that they were so close. Obviously Evolution was about children again but I wanted to get away from Innocence in the sense that I wanted to make something more narrative, more within genre, whereas in Innocence that was more in the background, it was more abstract. But I didn’t think, ‘right now I’m going to make a film with boys’, rather I thought that for this story it wasn’t interesting if it was a little girl.
Yes, even though the story seems to be about a little boy, the film seems to really be about the feminine again, but from a different angle compared to Innocence.
Yes, it’s a feminine world once more, seen from a more disquieting, more threatening angle. But it’s also about a boy who is not separated from his mother, who is still in his mother’s belly and cannot come out, and what it would be like to give birth. It’s the nightmare of maternity or pregnancy, which is a girl’s anxiety. The relationship to society was also stronger in Innocence, the fact that it’s set in a school means that it’s about a certain form of education with specific aims. Evolution is a more intimate story of this child’s fears, rather than a reflection about society. In this sense, it is not a science fiction film and that’s why I wasn’t interested in saying who these women are exactly, and what the hospital is. It’s more the internal theatre of this child.
Evolution also features much more horrific imagery than Innocence, and the most shocking of all is the documentary footage on a Cesarean birth that you include.
Yes, I liked the idea of horror coming from reality, and that’s because a Cesarean is not a natural birth, it’s surgery, so it’s another abnormal way of depicting birth, another fear of it. Before making the film we had to look for those images and I had seen some videos, and they are really difficult to watch. I liked the idea that there would be some gore at some point in the story, you have to have some gory elements.
Evolution evokes a number of literary, cinematographic and mythical figures, Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the siren for instance. Did you deliberately want to evoke those figures?
Yes, absolutely. I think that we have this whole shared mythology, classical mythology but also science fiction literature, more recent things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also Philip K. Dick. Theodore Sturgeon, H.P. Lovecraft. Those references are now so much part of culture that I thought I had to be very careful not to say too much because it seemed so obvious. It’s better to guess.
Your film very much functions like a myth, it is built from very simple elements that recur throughout, the village, the red colour, the starfish.
I like to start with something very real, and for the mystery or the strangeness to come from very simple, familiar things. The image of a child playing with a starfish on a beach is incredibly familiar but if you look closely at the starfish you think, ‘what is this monster?’
You seem fascinated by organic matter, the starfish, the strange creature that the children bury, or the body of the women for instance.
The intention with the film was to explore the organic, because it’s this archaic thing that is part of us but at the same time is really odd. It can be disquieting as well as attractive. So we tried to have that throughout the film, to fabricate the film with it. It was upsetting to be forced to shoot on digital rather than celluloid, I thought it was such a shame not to be able to have the material of film. But we tried to work differently to create texture.
The village where you filmed looks dilapidated, the paint on the walls is chipped, everything looks a little decrepit.
It was to give it a reality, a patina. Locations were a key issue, including the interiors. It was out of the question to shoot in a clean setting, in a studio, regardless of what it would have cost, precisely to render the materiality of the walls. As the film is a little abstract, it had to have a very concrete aspect to counterbalance that, and for me that was the setting. That village was great because there’s the humidity from the sea, the saltpetre. It was used as a holiday place and people didn’t live there all year round so it wasn’t all freshly painted. We even added to the decrepitude, to avoid smooth white surfaces and have a sense of reality, of materiality, the sense of time that had passed.
Where did you shoot the film?
We shot in Lanzarote, and the hospital was near Barcelona, it’s an abandoned hospital that has been often used in Spanish horror cinema. It’s very big, and you have the structure, the operating theatres, the tiling, all of that is there, in a state of more or less disrepair, so we had something real to start from, but we could also paint things how we wanted.
Was it important for you to use those two places specifically?
Yes, I thought the most important thing was to find the locations. Early on in the project we found the village in the Canaries. I thought, ‘that’s incredible, it exists’, and it really helped me to think that the film was possible, that we wouldn’t have to create everything from scratch, that there was a very strong place that carried a lot of emotions and mythology. It was a little more difficult with the hospital because some of the ones we saw were too derelict, others were too new, and we had to find something in between.
How did you approach the sound?
I would have liked the sound editing to be done together with the image editing but because the film was a co-production, the sound was done in Spain and the image in France, so it ended up being more separated than I would have liked. We knew from the start that we’d have to create a lot of sounds because there wasn’t much dialogue. I wanted the sound to reflect the feelings of the child, and not to be realistic, but rather emotional, internal and oneiric. We worked in this way using natural sounds from the location such as the wind and the noise from the sea – which we had to rework because it’s difficult to record the sea, you have to recreate the waves one by one.
In the mixing I wanted to create something very specific and not use effects like the ones you have in horror films, to create tension using the sound but not through the usual means. I didn’t think I’d use so much music – there isn’t that much, but it’s quite a lot for me – but as we didn’t have sound when we were editing the editor asked for music, and it led me to use more than I had intended. I wanted something with an instrument that wouldn’t be recognizable, something a little strange. I heard pieces by Messiaen that used the Ondes Martenot and I thought that was exactly what was needed. I couldn’t get the Messiaen piece unfortunately but we were able to do something with the Ondes Martenot on some of the recurring tracks. They bring a certain melancholy, almost a human voice, and it instantly creates a particular atmosphere.
You’ve worked a lot on the sounds, textures and colours of the film, and like Innocence, Evolution is an intense sensory experience. Is that how you view cinema, as an immersive, sensory experience?
Absolutely, and I’d say that’s why you have to see the film in a cinema, it’s like dreaming awake, with other people, in the dark. That’s also why it was so difficult to explain the script even though we tried to describe it in an expressive manner, because it’s an emotional, even physical, experience, with sound and image, and so you have to go through it to understand it, for something to happen.
Writers: Fabrice du Welz, Romain Protat, Vincent Tavier
Cast: Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Héléna Noguerra
Belgium, France 2014
Fabrice du Welz made his directorial debut with the stunningly uncompromising Calvaire in 2004. With Alleluia, he returns to the location and the star of his first feature film, as well as its emotional intensity, this time revisiting the story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, which was also the subject of Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Andrew Lane’s Lonely Hearts (1991) and Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996). Gloria (Lola Dueñas) meets Michel (Laurent Lucas) through a dating site. Michel is a small-time conman who preys on lonely women, but Gloria is different from his previous marks. Madly in love with Michel, Gloria passes herself off as his sister so that she never has to leave him, but soon her uncontrollable jealousy takes them down a murderous path. Exploring the extremes love can lead to, du Welz’s take on the story is carnal and visceral, set against the background of a bleak, desolate Belgian landscape.
Virginie Sélavy met Fabrice du Welz at Film4 FrightFest in August where the director talked about mad love, his abhorrence of realism, and Bogart and the hippopotamus.
Virginie Sélavy: Alleluia is the second film in your Ardennes trilogy.
Fabrice du Welz: Yes, the idea is to do a trilogy about the theme of ‘mad love’ around Laurent Lucas in the Belgian Ardennes. Calvaire was the first one, now there’s Alleluia, and there’ll be a third part.
Why did you choose the Ardennes as a location?
I spent part of my youth in the Ardennes, it’s a place that is very singular and has always terrified me. I spent a little while in a boarding school there and I was quite troubled by the hostile nature, the perplexing people and the baffling weather. With Calvaire, the idea was to make a film that would play with horror film conventions, but located in Europe, which produced this slightly surprising melange of genres. I didn’t want to make a would-be American horror film. It was the same thing with Alleluia. I play with some thriller and film noir conventions of American cinema, but at the same time I’m very attached to my Francophone culture. And the third film will do a similar thing.
Why is the trilogy based around Laurent Lucas?
Because I think that he’s an under-used actor. He has an incredible range, a terrible ambiguity, he can be very beautiful and very ugly, he can be troubling, unfathomable, difficult to capture. There’s a mystery in Laurent that really fascinates me.
What do you think the effect is of placing an American story in a French context?
The original story of the Honeymoon Killers took place in the United States, even if Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin, but I don’t want to justify the context. The French have this terrible disease, which is, justifying violence through social context. Since the nouvelle vague, French cinema has consecrated realism above all. But before the nouvelle vague there were great filmmakers like Cocteau and Franju, who made films that were on the frontier of dreams, or at least that developed a fantastical universe – not horror, fantastical. The inventor of fantastical cinema was Méliès, he was French. In American cinema, in Japanese cinema, in Almodóvar’s films, you can talk about violence without justifying everything through the mother, the alcoholic father, etc. I’m exaggerating but it is something that is deeply troubling. The CNC [National Centre of Cinematography and the Moving Image, the public body responsible for the production and the promotion of French films] is dominated by this. With the CNC you always have to justify violence through the context. Some people do this divinely well – Jacques Audiard – others not so well. I absolutely don’t want to be part of this, I want to make a kind of cinema that is transgressive and poetic. And that’s what I’m looking for in the context too. Context is as important as actors to me. I look for a fascinating context that I can play with as I would with an actor, and through that try to achieve – modestly; I’m not saying I succeed – some kind of macabre poetry.
Were you inspired more by the real-life story or by the films that have been made about it?
I was inspired by Yolande Moreau. I met her at a festival and I’ve been fascinated by her for a long time. She’s a very impressive actress. I said, ‘I’d like to make a film with you in which you’d play a total bitch’. She said, ‘yes, great, go ahead’. That same week I re-watched Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson, the story of the Honeymoon Killers adapted in Ripstein’s country, Mexico. And I thought that was the perfect role for Yolande, she’d make a hell of a Martha Beck. I started working on the script, but it was very violent and very sexual, and Yolande said she couldn’t do it. So I was hired to make Colt 45, which was hell, it was the worst experience of my life. After that, I returned to Alleluia because the film had funding, and it was really vital to me on a personal level. It was almost an existential thing because the experience of Colt 45 had been so harrowing. But I had no actress. I was ready to abandon the film if I couldn’t find an actress. The producers asked me to pick a reasonably well-known French actress, but French cinema is so bourgeois these days that it’s difficult with French actors. I’d seen Lola [Dueñas] in Yo, también and I thought it could work. When I met her she said, ‘I’m the one you’re looking for, you can stop looking, I’ll do it 100%.’ But then I had to sell Lola to my producers and that was hard. They were saying, the script is difficult, and now you’ve picked a Spanish actress that no one knows. I fought for it and now everyone’s very happy.
It’s also an interesting choice because it plays with the fact that Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin. And it adds something to her character, she’s an outsider in a foreign society.
I saw that after. It was the life and death urges that deeply fascinated me in the story, the attraction between them, like magnets, and the character arcs. At first, Michel is presented as the predator and Gloria as the victim, you’re scared for her. And in the end it’s completely the opposite, she’s become an ogress and he’s a scared little boy. The whole journey, with the fetishism of one and the jealousy of the other, was a very joyous and fun thing to build.
Watch the trailer:
Gloria is a great character, both monstrous and very human, but in the end you get the impression that she’s very simply a force of nature, beyond any moral codes.
Yes, that’s right. My films have always been a little at odds with the audience, I’ve often been criticised for my lack of empathy with the characters. Vinyan was particularly badly received for that reason. And it was my fault because I really wanted to keep the characters at a distance, at least in the first part. So with Alleluia I was wondering how to make it resonate with the viewers. And I thought it had to be through mad love, because that’s something in which we can all recognize ourselves, even if Michel and Gloria are serial killers, lunatics with no morals, children who never think of good and evil. After the first murder, you understand that they’ve really found each other. They are polymorphous perverts. They have freed themselves from moral rules. And at the same time they reflect something of ourselves, in particular the dichotomy between that unquenchable thirst for this ideal passionate love, which we all want, and the basic urge for the destruction, the annihilation, the crushing of the other. The couple can be the nest of fascism, there is always one who will enslave the other.
Michel tells Gloria about his past, which may or may not be true, but we never get any explanation as to what happened to Gloria with her husband. Why did you treat the characters differently in that respect?
Because Gloria was also a response to Gloria in Calvaire. In Calvaire, Gloria is a character who doesn’t exist, or rather that you never see but that people talk about all the time. Calvaire is the story of a lonely, desperate innkeeper and a travelling singer, played by Laurent, who arrives at the inn. The innkeeper tells him that he’s lost his wife, she was called Gloria and she was a singer. And he transfers his affection onto Laurent, turns him into his wife and starts calling him Gloria. This is something that will be in the whole trilogy. The films can be seen separately but there will be a Gloria in the third part too. I like creating connections between the characters. And I thought that in Alleluia Gloria didn’t need a story.
Was the witchcraft element in the real-life story or did you add it?
It was in the real-life story but it was never used in Kastle’s film, or Ripstein’s, or the one by Lane. Raymond Fernandez practised black magic, it was a way for him to condition his libido. He was convinced that it helped his sexuality, he thought it made him an amazing lover. I found that very funny.
Why did you choose to film in 16mm?
It seemed to me the most appropriate format for the story. There’s an old-school aspect to it with the smoke, the grain, it had what I was looking for, something olfactory, sensual, because digital is very cold and clinical. It’s like porn today, it’s horrible, it’s surgical. The porn I used to watch as a teenager was sensual, curvy, warm, grainy. And film allows that. I was looking for a sensual experience. I love cinema and I regret that it’s so sanitised today. So, very modestly, I wanted to go back to something where you have smells, bodies, skin, breaths.
That love of cinema appears in the reference to Humphrey Bogart in African Queen. Why that film specifically?
I’m a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and I’ve always thought it was insane to see this big star imitate a hippopotamus in African Queen, especially as he was ill. The story of the film’s making is mythical. John Huston, a great man of a type that doesn’t exist anymore, didn’t give a damn about the film, all he wanted was to go hunting with the Maasai. And I was looking for something that would be funny but would also function as a sort of symbol for their love. The hippopotamus scene, replayed by Laurent at the cinema, makes Gloria laugh the first time, it’s the most sumptuous moment, the peak of their love. Then there’s the scene in the bedroom where he does it and eventually she laughs. And then there’s the moment when she doesn’t laugh anymore. I was looking for something that would indicate the state of their love throughout the film, and to use Bogart imitating a hippopotamus as a referent really amused me.
And you end with a dreamlike scene in a cinema.
It seemed coherent to me in the sense that cinema is the place where they fantasized about their love. Many people live their lives vicariously through film and I think that there is a dichotomy between aspirations that are typically feminine and masculine – without making stupid generalisations. Some women tend to idealise things while men often accept reality more readily. There’s something like that going on with Michel and Gloria. I chose to end the story in a cinema because cinema is heaven – or hell, I don’t know.
Why call the film Alleluia?
I really liked this title, it sounds like a prayer. People have said to me that it’s a very cynical title. But there is no cynicism involved. It really is a prayer, a prayer to love, to God, and then the story goes another way. We all want love so desperately in our lives, but are we capable of it? What are we capable of? As Celine says, ‘it’s within the reach of poodles’, and yet… That’s what accompanied me throughout the film and I pass no judgement on anything. So the title, this sort of call to something, I see no cynicism in it.
I distinctly recall the melody of that legendary folk ditty filtering through my head as I first staggered out of a cinema that had been showing Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc, a chilling, dystopian science-fiction thriller unveiled in the Vanguard series during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It seemed, at the time, and now even in retrospect, a perfectly reasonable piece of music to dance across my cerebellum – on loop, no less.
The classic song, first written in 1955 and slightly rewritten about 10 years later to include additional lyrics to comment specifically on the Vietnam War, is a piece imbued with both sentiment and the sadness of longing. It laments the loss of flowers; young girls, young boys, soldiers and graveyards – with the latter, of course, giving way to the flowers that appeared to have gone missing in the first place.
With apologies to Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, the writers of the much-covered/adapted folk song, I recall my own added verse that asked the following question:
‘Where have all the people gone?’
It seemed something worth lamenting after seeing Léonetti’s film, which conjures up a world as bereft of people in a literal sense, as in the figurative, since ‘the people’ are either being interrogated or desperately going about their business in the fervent hope that they will not be interrogated.
Such is the world of Carré blanc, the tale of Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet), a couple who grew up together in a state orphanage and who eventually married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for state-controlled procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport.
Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state. He is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe transforms into indifference. In this world, hatred, sadness or any manner of bitterness are luxuries. They’re tangible feelings that the rulers would never tolerate, and are punished with death.
The goal of the Brave New World that Léonetti presents appears to be little more than indifference, and as such it’s especially important to make note of the astounding score by Evgueni Galperine – one that has none of the sentiment of songs like the aforementioned Seeger folk song, nor is it like the horrendously bombastic ‘action’ scores so prevalent in contemporary science fiction films, with Michael Giacchino’s pounding notes in the J. J. Abrams reboots of Star Trek, or the wham-bam-in-your-face styling of Ryan Amon’s Elysium score and, lest we forget, any of John Williams’s sweeping orchestral noodlings in George Lucas’s Star Wars space operas.
Watch the trailer for Carré blanc:
If anything, Galperine successfully roots his music in a spare blend of electronic soundscape, eerie source music and very light orchestral background. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between score and sound design – something that was so integral to dystopian science fiction films of the 1970s, most notably, the creepy crawly work of Denny Zeitlin in Philip Kaufman’s immortal remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both the Galperine score and the movie itself hark back to great 1970s’ science-fiction film classics, like The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges), Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent), A Boy and His Dog (L. Q. Jones) and THX 1138 (George Lucas), in addition to Kaufman’s terrific picture – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut – when it was actually about something.
Galperine’s score, however, does not – in any way, shape or form – contribute to a retro quality. If anything, the film feels rooted firmly in a future not all that removed from our current existence. Every so often, Galperine will hit in an extended synth note, which will subtly blend into another and yet another and symbiotically blend with both the narrative and visuals to etch the emotional lives of the characters. This use of music to reflect emotion on screen rather than as a tool to yank emotion from the audience is completely and wholly modern. If there’s a connection between the scores of yore and Galperine’s work, it’s that it creates under- and overtones that are as universal as the 70s pictures.
The aforementioned Hodges, Sargent, Jones, Lucas and Kaufman pictures have not actually dated – certainly not in terms of the sophistication of the filmmaking and the fact that any single one of them feels as ‘modern’ as Carré blanc. In that sense, Léonetti’s film could easily have been made – as is – in the 1970s. Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, though there is nothing at all retro about the picture – no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself. Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital – certainly as much as the pictures noted above were and most importantly are.
A great deal of the picture’s success is, I think, owing to Galperine’s score. The electronic score proper, the pieces of music that feel like soundscape and, most evocatively, the horrendously, sickeningly and mind alteringly vapid Muzak that is constantly piped in through loudspeakers (reminiscent of the very thing that keeps A Boy and His Dog so universal) contribute to the all-important timeless quality of great science fiction in the cinema. I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick and Norman Jewison kept 2001 and Rollerball universal by using classical music. They used an aural underscore from the past to create timelessness. Galperine and the various composers of the 1970s sci-fi classics create electronic beds that are as contemporary as they are ‘futuristic’.
Galperine creates two important and subtle beds of music that recur throughout the film. One is a two-note hit (one low, one high – and occasionally, one high and one low) which, amid the other sounds and music layered underneath (or on top), creates a portent that reflects the emotional states of the characters. Even more evocative is the use of three notes signalling a lullaby either cut short or gone wrong, to reflect a long-lost childhood innocence, which, most importantly reflects long-lost innocence – period.
It’s this subtle and intelligent use of music that goes so far in assisting Léonetti in making what is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since the 1970s. I’d go so far as to suggest that one could programme a film series entitled ‘Science Fiction of the 70s’ and just slip in Carré blanc, or, for that matter, a series entitled ‘Science Fiction: Contemporary Visions of Dystopia’ with the 1970s titles slipped in with Carré blanc, and audiences (most of them, frankly, and perhaps even sadly) would swallow it hook, line and sinker.
Thematically and/or emotionally, the thing that ties all of these films together is the notion of love being threatened by the state and/or a New World Order. God knows, in the case of Carré blanc, there can be little doubt that a romantic mood would indeed be at peril from the Muzak, along with monotone appeals from an announcer reminding the couples of the world that procreation is a privilege, not a right, but that some have indeed earned the right to procreate and as such, have a duty to do so.
Where, oh where, have all the flowers gone, indeed. Or, in the words of another timeless folk song from Zager and Evans: ‘In the year 2525, if Man is still alive…’
Beatrice Hitchman was born in London, studied in Edinburgh, lived in Paris for a year and then headed back to the UK to work as a documentary film editor. Her debut novel, Petite Mort, is set in the languorous Deep South and Belle Epoque Paris, and features a mysterious silent movie, with a missing scene, an ambitious seamstress, a starry actress and an illusionist husband. Petite Mort (Serpent’s Tail) is out now at £12.99 (ebook/hardback). Beatrice Hitchman’s filmic alter ego is Irma Vep from Les vampires. Eithne Farry
Paris, 1915: the city is in the grip of a deadly band of criminals, Les vampires. A severed head is found in an air duct! A stage performer is murdered with a poisoned ring! A hundred aristocrats are sent to sleep with gas and their jewels stolen! And at the epicentre of this dizzying crime spree is anagrammatic mistress of disguise, ringleader Irma Vep.
In an early scene, Irma’s dressed as a Breton maid, complete with lacy head-dress – a look that takes guts, I’m sure you’ll agree, to pull off. In this outfit she infiltrates the apartment of the useless journalist who’s trying to unmask her, Philippe Guérande, and then makes a midnight escape out of his bedroom window. He’s too frightened to follow, and stands shaking his fist at her as she retreats. Later, she’ll expand her costume repertoire to include: exotic dancer, secretary, cat-suited sneak thief and – in a too-brief scene that set my cold heart racing – 1915 men’s lounge wear. But through it all, Vep is instantly recognisable – the eyes have it, flashing at the camera, utterly distinctive, utterly threatening, defying us to outwit her.
But it isn’t about the fabulous outfits. It’s not even about the enviable way Paris becomes Irma’s personal playground: a world of sliding bookcases, vertical climbing and operatic hideouts. It’s that, although Vep is a woman surrounded by men, she doesn’t seem to notice, or care. She’ll just keep on doing what she’s going to do – stealing, cheating, upsetting people – indifferent to who’s watching, and with complete conviction. When she creeps away from Guérande’s apartment across the rooftops, Breton headgear shining in the light of the moon, she doesn’t look down once.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival, which ran from 25 October to 7 November. Under the direction of Hans Hurch, it was a terrifically eclectic festival, very much aimed at audiences rather than the film industry. And as a city, Vienna is hard to beat for film, with a surprising number of excellent independent cinemas.
To commemorate the anniversary, this year’s retrospective was dedicated to the Vienna-born director Fritz Lang, offering an opportunity to watch both the highs (1955’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) and lows (1942’s Hangmen Always Die! ) of his staggering career. There was also a tribute to Michael Caine, and a very special evening with the experimental director Peter Kubelka, who presented his new work, Monumenta, in front of a home audience.
Five female filmmakers were also honoured with a programme devoted to their films, which included the debut from actress Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), as well as rare films by the experimental filmmakers Colleen Fitzgibbon and Narcisca Hirsh, Mati Diop and shorts by Kurdwin Ayub. There was also a special focus on horror, ‘They Wanted to See Something Different’ (a line taken from The Hills Have Eyes, 2006), which saw double bills of The Thing (1982) and The Thing from Another World (1951), plus a host of midnight screenings, including Alien (1979) and Deliverance (1972).
Although it was impossible to see even a fraction of the movies screening at the festival, three new features stood out, based in large part on some excellent performances.
Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s The Shine of Day (Der Glanz des Tages), which won the prize for best Austrian film, blurs the line between documentary and fiction to cast a light on an intimately revealing encounter between two very different men. Philipp Hochmair (both performers essentially play themselves) is a well-known theatre actor, his life consumed by the demanding roles that he adopts on stages in Hamburg and Vienna; the audience is given a glimpse of a life spent learning lines, rehearsing, performing. For Philipp, acting is a compulsion that overshadows the realities of everyday life. But the arrival of his estranged uncle, played by Walter Saabel – circus performer, knife thrower and bear wrestler – who is trying to reconnect with his family and his own difficult past, and his sudden involvement with a desperate neighbour force Philipp to engage with the real world. There’s a terrific chemistry between the two very charismatic actors, and with much of the dialogue improvised, the film feels like a rare, touchingly honest human drama.
Elie Wajeman’s impressive debut, Alyah, stars Pio Marmaï as Alex, who sells drugs in the Parisian suburbs to make money, mostly used to pay off his brother’s debts. Isaac, fucked up but still charming (perfectly played by the writer/director Cédric Kahn) is a burden, and Alex discovers an opportunity to escape when he hears about a cousin who’s opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv. But first, he has to confront painful family ties and rediscover his neglected heritage in order to pass the ‘alyah’ and move to Israel. It’s a brooding, compelling film that charts its own path between the two poles of French cinema – the gritty, banlieue-set realism and the fairy-tale world of the Parisian elite – to conjure up something surprisingly original.
Rebecca Thomas’s Electrick Children stars Julia Garner as a 15-year-old who has spent her life living in a fundamental religious community in Utah. Her world is turned upside down when she finds a hidden music cassette, with only one song – a cover of ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ – shortly before she discovers that she’s pregnant. Either too traumatised or too naive to acknowledge who abused her, she convinces herself that the singer on the tape must be the father of her child, and runs away to Las Vegas to find him. It’s a compelling film that perfectly captures that moment in your adolescence when you heard that song, or saw that film, that suddenly seemed to change everything. And while the plot might seem a little absurd, Thomas does a brilliant job mixing humour with something much deeper, while Garner beautifully portrays Rachel’s wide-eyed innocence, and growing self-awareness.
Compared to Haneke’s earlier works, Amour stands out for its astounding sensitivity and subtle tenderness, but ultimately, the story, which centres around 80-year-old retired music teachers George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is no less hard-hitting. As the couple are faced with Anne’s physical and mental deterioration after two successive strokes, the film scrutinises, in a profoundly intelligent and unsettling way, the consequences of life and death, and the role that long-standing love plays when one half of an ageing couple is facing the end. As one would expect from a filmmaker as precise and skilful as Haneke, Amour is finely scripted, superbly composed, and often hauntingly beautiful and desperately sad. The quiet grandeur of the film, however, would be lost without its two main actors, whose astonishing, disarmingly honest performances breathe life into Haneke’s formal perfection in capturing the realities of terminal illness in meticulous detail. Crafted with passionate conviction and a mastery of film language, Amour is that rare work of genius: an acute philosophical inquiry that’s highly emotionally charged, but also dramatically gripping, incredibly discreet and utterly credible in its depiction of human behaviour.
Pamela Jahn talked to Michael Haneke after the premiere of Amour at the 65th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in May to find out more about one of the most exciting films this year, and what makes a great director.
Pamela Jahn: Amour is essentially a chamber play, and the apartment where the film is set feels very much like its own character. What role did the premises play for you in the story?
Michael Haneke: The apartment in the film is based on my parents’ apartment in Vienna, which I had rebuilt in a French studio. We gave it a French atmosphere but the layout is the same. When you’re writing a film it’s easier to use a geography that you know so intimately.
The film describes in a very sensible but precise way how an elderly couple deals with the ravages of old age and looming death. What made you explore that subject matter?
Like I think all of us do, at some point in our lives, I knew someone in my family who I felt very close to and who I loved very deeply. But this person had to suffer for a long time and went through a lot of pain while I had to look on helplessly. This was a very difficult and disturbing experience for me and so it motivated me to write the script. But please don’t think that because it is the apartment of my parents this is also the story of my parents. It’s not.
Was it difficult to get Jean-Louis Trintignant involved in the project? Amour is the first film he has made in years.
Yes, that’s true, but it was not difficult to get him involved. I wrote the part for him, in fact, I wrote the script for him. And he had seen my previous film, The White Ribbon, which he liked, so it was actually quite easy for me to get him for this film.
It seems like you wanted to work with him for a long time?
Yes, I always admired his work. But the problem is always in finding the right part for an actor. I know many actors I’d like to work with, but I haven’t had the occasion to offer them what I think is the right part for them. In Jean-Louis’s case, because of the theme and the fact that you are dealing with elderly characters, he was the only person I wanted to work with in this film. In fact, if he hadn’t been available, I wouldn’t have made it. Hidden, for example, was a very similar situation for me. I wrote the film for Daniel Auteuil because I wanted to work with him.
Why did you choose to make George and Anne music teachers, who have a very particular place in society?
I wanted to avoid the danger of the film coming across as a social drama. I wanted to set aside any financial constraints, because if the film had been set in the working-class environment, people would probably have thought: oh, if they only had enough money, things wouldn’t be all that bad. But that’s not true, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, the situation, the tragedy is the same. Another reason why I wrote the film for a musical couple is because my stepfather was a conductor and composer, so again, it’s a milieu that I am familiar with and it is easier for me to describe the setting with the most precision and detail.
You are widely recognised as a master of film language and the different aspects of filmmaking. What do you find most difficult as a director?
Good question… The hardest part is probably not to feel nervous in the morning when you wake up.
What do you do to avoid that?
Nothing, unfortunately. The difficult thing is getting ready before the shoot. It’s similar to being an actor just before a theatre performance. Usually, the actor is terribly nervous while waiting in the wings but, as soon as the curtain goes up, he’s totally concentrated. It’s that constant stress that you feel on a daily basis and the fear that you are not going to be able to succeed and achieve what you are looking for. But unlike in theatre, where, if you’re rehearsing and something doesn’t work out one day, you can come back to it the next day and try again, you don’t have that luxury in film. You just shoot a scene on one day and if it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it, then it’s lost, because you have to move on to the next scene. That’s one of the disadvantages of making films compared to theatre and opera.
There is also this great story about Ingmar Bergman, that whenever he was shooting a film there had to be a bathroom nearby because he was so nervous that he needed to go to the bathroom frequently. I don’t know whether the story is really true or not but I can certainly empathise with this.
You said elsewhere that you work better with your ears than with your eyes. How do you explain this?
It’s because your ears are more sensitive than your eyes, or at least that’s the case for me. Sometimes when I look at a scene, I get too easily distracted by thousands of details. But when I don’t look, I hear immediately if there is something wrong with the sound or if somebody said something that is not quite right. There is also a simple example: if you need to loop a scene, which means if you are asking an actor to come back to the sound studio and re=record a sentence, that for some reason didn’t work out the first time around, people always think that synchronising the lip movement is the hardest part. But actually that’s the easiest part, because, as long as the lip movements match, it is credible for the audience. It’s the scenes that are off-camera, like voice-overs, that are the tricky ones because you immediately hear if the tone is wrong. In the many years I have been directing for theatre, I have often gazed to the ground while my actors were rehearsing on stage, not for the entire time of the rehearsal, but for parts of it, because I thought I could better comment on their performances that way.
You mentioned Bergman before. How much of an influence was he on you, in particular in this film?
I am influenced by Bergman in the same way that I am influenced by a number of different directors. In fact, I think it’s very important for a filmmaker to try not to be influenced by other people and rather find your own language. As an artist, your artistic equation is ultimately the result of all the other films you have seen, all the books that you have read, all the personal experiences in your life, everything really. And you should just try and do what you feel you have to do instead of asking yourself all the time what Mr X or Mrs Y would have done in that situation. But nonetheless, I think it is true that what my films have in common with Bergman’s is that they all focus on the actors, because that’s what interests me most.
When was the moment you decided to become a director?
Well, let’s say when I was 15 I was hoping to become an actor like my mother, when I was 14 I wanted to be a pianist and when I was 13 I wanted to be a priest. But as an actor, I wasn’t accepted at the academy, so I studied philosophy instead and did a lot of writing, short stories and a bit of film criticism. I was a terrible student though because I was in the cinema three times a day. Then, I went to television and became a story editor. I also worked in theatre for 20-odd years and at the same time directed films for television. And then, at the age of 46, I decided to make my first feature film. With hindsight, I think it is almost always very easy to draw some sort of red line through your biography, but I believe that in your life most things are determined by luck and coincidence, and the goals you set for yourself develop, just as you do along the way.
Why do you refuse so vehemently to offer an interpretation to your films?
If I were to explain things myself and offer an interpretation then this would automatically reduce the spectator’s ability to find their own answers. My films are offerings, I invite the audience to deal with them, think about them and reflect upon them and, ultimately, to find their own answers. I also think that an author doesn’t always necessarily know what he intends and what the meaning is behind his work. For example, I am always amazed by the many theses and books I read about myself, all of which reveal what I supposedly wanted to express in my films or was supposed to have dealt with. I strongly believe it would be very counterproductive for the audience if I were to answer the questions I am raising in my films, because then no one would have to think about them.
Have you ever been disappointed by the reception of a film you made?
Would you generally consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist?
I don’t think I am a pessimist or that I have ever been a pessimistic person. If this was the case, I would only make entertainment films because I wouldn’t think that people actually care, and are intelligent enough, to want to deal with the questions I raise in my films. In that sense, I believe every so-called artist can only be an optimist, because otherwise they wouldn’t be motivated to try and ask questions and to communicate with their audience. A pessimist would simply say: it’s pointless, so I am not doing anything.
Has your motivation to make films changed over the years?
No, but that may be because I can’t really say why I am making films in the first place. Probably it’s because that’s all I know how to do.
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
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 LÃ³pez. 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.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Black and White Reality: a Sermon and Review – Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’Ã®le
While ‘love’ is an overused word, even by yours truly, I must proclaim wholeheartedly:
I LOVE black and white movies.
I’m not saying I prefer black and white to colour, or that it’s superior in any way.
As a matta uh fakt, I shorley dew luvs a great color pitcher as much as the next fella’.
For me, however, black and white photography – when used in movies – forces the deep examination (or at least acknowledgement) of various shades of grey with respect to the political, thematic and/or emotional qualities of the work itself. While it might be argued that my preference for cinema in b/w is purely subjective and relates strictly to preferring the ‘look’, I’d counter that the visual qualities take a back seat to cinematic storytelling elements, which indeed go far deeper than mere surface.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a picture that details the grimy nightlife of New York press agents and gossip columnists. It is a world where Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent, will pimp out a young woman he genuinely likes to a foul-minded sleaze ball who has the power to grant a very special favour; a world where JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist, delights in wielding his power to destroy people just because he can; a world where, in spite of endless acts of dishonesty and cruelty, redemption – even for the most fetid – might be just around the corner.
Finally, there is the character of the city itself – a city seen mostly at night, from dusk to dawn – full of violence, excitement, electricity, deception and despair. It is a city where the gossip columnist Hunsecker, upon witnessing a violent drunken altercation outside a nightclub, literally salutes the swill around him and declares, ‘I love this dirty town’.
Seen through the b/w lens of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the atmosphere of Sweet Smell of Success and its setting – both exhilarating and rank with people and places of the most odious variety – would, if filmed in colour, make a completely different film. It would be as different as the New York of the 1950s was compared to the sadly gussied-up New York of today. The world of Sweet Smell of Success can only exist in monochrome – a world replete with multi-layered emotions, desires and intentions. In a contemporary context, colour is often seen as ‘reality’ whereas anyone consciously choosing b/w is seen as applying a heavy brush of artifice and mediating the vision in some impure, unreal fashion.
If anything, b/w can often reveal a world that is all too real.
As a filmmaker, I always found myself drawn to the properties and magic of b/w. In fact, I still do. God help me for this, but depending on the property, I have, for the past 12 or so years, suggested b/w to many of my filmmakers at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre. And of the 10 independent films I produced from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, five of them were in b/w (two of which were directed by Guy Maddin). B/W was employed in both Maddin pictures to recreate an earlier cusp-period of cinema, and also because monochrome seemed to be the best way of capturing that dreamlike, hallucinogenic atmosphere the films were deeply rooted in. Surreal, but imbued with logic, or if you will, dream logic (not unlike, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead).
As the producer of Maddin’s third feature Careful, I was heartbroken to be the arm-twister who had to convince him to shoot in colour rather than b/w. The making of a tough artistic decision (based, alas, on the exigencies of financing) led to a process comprised of pain, rumination, exploration and lovers’ quarrels – intense break-up-then-make-up gymnastics that yielded the important yet delightfully insane post-coital (as it were) idea of shooting in b/w for theatrical release and then using the cheesy early-90s colorisation process for video and television release.
Realising that some colorised b/w classics had a rather quaint aura and were vaguely reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor is what led to the final decision of shooting with colour stock since the cost of colorisation technology at the time was prohibitive and it wouldn’t have provided firmer control over the final look.
Using a combination of (now-defunct, at least in Canada) AGFA colour stock and Kodak b/w (that would eventually be colour-tinted), Guy created an archaic duo-chromatic mise en scÃ¨ne where each scene would have no more than two dominant colours. This was not only a visually cool approach, but thematically and emotionally it made perfect sense within the context of the George Toles and Maddin-penned tale of repression that explodes in shame, guilt and depravity. In a sense, I still feel that Careful is a b/wmovie, or rather, a black and white picture in colour.
As producer of Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s experimental feature narrative City of Dark, my obsession with b/w led to importing 16mm b/w Ilford film stock from the UK (16mm in order to run and gun like Godard and his ilk since we had literally hundreds of locations to cover with a tiny documentary-sized crew), getting the footage processed by one of the best b/w 16mm timers in Canada (an amazing old hand at this, Mr Geoff Bottomley, who ran a tiny, grotty little lab in the bowels of the Ryerson University film department in Toronto) and finally, having the elements blown up to 35mm at NYC’s legendary DuArt Laboratory with many of the same technicians who had worked on the b/w timing of Woody Allen’s forays into monochrome. All this was to create a somewhat contemporary, yet vaguely retro dystopian world where dreams are stolen via technology. Again, the literal shades of grey were rendered to allow the viewer to delve even further into the thematic and emotional shades of grey.
In the end, though, all cinematic art involves the application of artifice – hence my guilt-free preference for b/w. The use of black and white might seem more artificial, but ultimately, it is no less ‘real’ than colour.
* * *
I discovered the great Alain Cavalier picture Le Combat dans l’Ã®le (1962) in the days leading up to Dominion Day (sadly renamed Canada Day in the 1980s) – a magnificent celebration instituted by Mother England among Commonwealth nations to celebrate their official status as dominions under the watchful eye of the greatest colonial power in the world.
I viewed Le Combat dans l’Ã®le on high-def in my hideaway on the extreme northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a piece of land that was colonised not once, but twice – first, rather benignly by the French and secondly, less benignly by the British. In both cases, the Peninsula’s Native Indians got screwed while everyone else got rich and powerful.
The first colonisation resulted in the Huron Nation helping the French kick Iroquois butt for explorer Samuel D Champlain and institute a fur monopoly. Once the French buggered off, the Huron suffered a mass genocide at the hands of the Iroquois who, not surprisingly, came back for sweet revenge.
The Peninsula was re-populated with the Ojibwe who migrated from the northwestern regions of Upper Canada. They too were eventually fucked over, but this time, by the British, who brought pestilence along with scads of land-gobbling inbred miscreants from the northern reaches of the UK to ‘pioneer’ or tame, if you will, the wild land. The Dominion of Canada is, of course, still a colony of the UK, although it has maximum self-determination, unlike the aboriginal nations before it.
In any event, it seems utterly appropriate for me to have watched the fabulous new Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Le Combat dans l’Ã®le within the context of a colonial celebration in a region endlessly pillaged by the masters of colonisation. This was, after all, a picture made in the waning days of France’s Algerian War when le beau pays was fraught with division regarding its place as a colonial power.
This, of course, was not lost on the filmmakers. Reflecting those turbulent times, director Alain Cavalier crafted an intensely powerful film – passionate, boldly political, charged with violence, rife with betrayal and sexy as all get-out.
And get this – it’s in black and white!
And yes, the shades of grey within the narrative itself begin early on in the proceedings as we’re introduced to Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément (Jean-Louis Tritignant). Anne is a former actress who has abandoned her artistic calling to fulfil the role of dutiful wife to Clément. Her hedonistic qualities seem unfairly hemmed in by this arrangement and though she appears to love her husband, her happy-go-lucky nature in social situations wavers between innocent and overtly flirtatious.
Clément, clearly smitten with her charms when they’re alone, is less so in public. The magma jealously roiling in his head would be better served if it travelled to the head located in the southerly nether regions below his torso. With Romy Schneider as his wife – a catch if there ever were one – he’s a lucky fella indeed!
Then again, the picture itself is firmly rooted in a neo-noir world where seemingly lucky (or unlucky) guys can never properly see what’s staring them right in the face. This is certainly the deal with rock-headed Clément. He comes from a wealthy family, holds a cushy, work-free position with his Father, a powerful industrialist, and yet, seeks rather pathetically to become ‘political’. He chastises Daddy for kowtowing to Liberal sentiments, leaves the firm and allows himself to be duped by conservative extremists into assassinating a key left-wing political figure.
In spite of all this, Anne is devoted to him. While she leaves Clément after one of his upper-magma-head outbursts, she soon returns to be his loyal sex kitten. When he’s betrayed after a foiled assassination attempt, his mug plastered all over the newspapers and television screens, she turns into his faithful moll and heads on the lam with him.
Things go awry when they shack up with his old chum Paul (Henri Serre), a sensitive lefty who eventually cottons on to Clément’s right-wing terrorist shenanigans. When our not-so-clear-headed hero takes off on an odyssey of revenge, Anne falls in love with Paul, who rekindles her acting career and a belief in a life of gentle compassion. It is, however, just a matter of time before Clément returns and wants Anne back, and given his transformation from a misguided, somewhat inept terrorist into a cold-hearted killer, the proceedings inevitably point to a showdown. And what a showdown it is!
This is, if you haven’t guessed already, one terrific picture!
Given the state of the world at this point in time, Le Combat dans l’Ã®le seems as vibrantly relevant as it must have been upon its first release in 1962. We currently live in a world where America, purporting to be a saviour, is little more than a colonial power – using Band-Aid solutions to pacify its near-Third World domestic conditions and forcing itself upon Muslim nations in order to control their wealth. Equally, we live in a world where young men on the extremist Muslim side, some from desperate straits and others from positions of privilege, are duped into committing acts of violence in the name of God and ultimately, to maintain control of the wealth America seeks to steal from them.
The puppet masters in both cases have everything to gain, while the puppets have everything to lose. And this is why Clément is never fully reprehensible as a character, at least not during the first two-thirds of the picture. Jean-Louis Tritignant’s great performance allows us to empathise with Clément. Through a sexy, tough-as-nails exterior we see a character who thinks he is making active decisions, but is, more often than not, manipulated by those who are quick to take advantage of his need for political fulfilment. In a sense, Clément reminds me of Tom Neal’s hapless, hard-boiled oaf in Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour – so easily seduced, so easily duped, so easily abandoned – and we do feel for him in spite of all his miscalculations and failings.
I love how Cavalier’s script (with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) adds very subtle details to Clément’s character, which in turn force Tritignant to engage in the thespian callisthenics of subtle, delicate shading. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Tritignant conveys his relationship to his father and to his family’s money: there’s a sense that what he needs is not acceptance, coddling or an easy ride from his pÃ¨re, but love – pure and simple – a love that might have saved him from the arms of an evil seductress.
That seductress is not a nasty ice-blooded femme fatale as in Detour, where she is played by the late, great Ann Savage (whose final role was as Guy Maddin’s mother Herdis in My Winnipeg). Clément’s temptress in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is something far more insidious – the extreme right wing and its insatiable need for power through colonisation, exploitation and deadly terror tactics.
This is, after all, neo-noir as opposed to film noir – where misplaced idealism more than takes the place of a flesh-and-blood hottie.
If anything, the entity Clément admires most is what brings him down. He seeks acceptance from nobody other than himself – a worthy enough goal, but one that renders him irrevocably and tragically prostate to the whims of New World Order-styled power brokers.
Another fascinating element of Cavalier’s picture is the use of trinity within the narrative structure. This is manifested on a thematic and character level through the numerous triangles that stem from Clément himself. The first involves Clément, his wife Anne and his almost romantic obsession with the Bitch Goddess of the right wing. The second concerns his inability to bond with his father, his intense need to find his way in the world through politicisation of the most reprehensible kind and the fact that, ironically, his father is as much a part of the New World Order as the crackpots Clément is aligned with. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, is the literal love triangle between Clément, Anne and his old childhood pal Paul.
As played by the sensitive, aquiline-featured Henri Serre, Paul is Trintignant’s opposite in every way, and given Anne’s warmth and vibrancy, he becomes the left-wing White Knight (or, if you will, Red Knight) in Shining Armour. Serre, by the way, was certainly no neophyte when it came to love triangles, having played the role of Jim in the ultimate cinematic rendering of the ménage Ã trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’Ã®le.
Trinity is, of course, an extremely important element within the context of classical cinema, and Cavalier comes from a great tradition of French filmmakers who dazzled us with their commitment to traditional storytelling form while, at the same time, maintaining clear, individual voices. While Cavalier made this picture during the period of the nouvelle vague he is closer to the spirit of Jean Renoir, HG Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville (who delightfully makes a cameo appearance in the picture as un membre de l’organisation) than to the style-over-emotional-substance approach of Jean-Luc Godard.
Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scÃ¨ne with the assuredness of a master, in spite of the fact that this is his first film. This is especially astounding to me. When it comes to contemporary filmmakers and their debut work, so much emphasis is placed by reviewers on pure (albeit occasional brilliant) visual flourishes, or worse, Christopher ‘One Idea’ Nolan-like trick-pony approaches to rendering drama, that Cavalier’s mature, intelligent and genuinely emotional work in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le makes most of the aforementioned lot look like a playpen full of rank amateurs. Cavalier’s precision and attention to story detail is something that more young filmmakers should emulate, while those who should know better need to bestow fewer accolades upon masturbatory workouts.
And despite the claims of auteuristes and their apologists, movies are not made in a vacuum. With this debut feature, Cavalier was blessed to have as producer and mentor Louis Malle, a great classical filmmaker in his own right for whom Cavalier served previously as an assistant director. In addition to the co-authorship of Jean Paul Rappeneau (who would go on to direct Cyrano and The Horseman on the Roof, contemporary entries in the French classical cinema sweepstakes, though far less dazzling and more workmanlike than the works of Cavalier, Clouzot, Melville, et al), Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is stunningly shot in magnificent black and white by Pierre Lhomme, who went on to shoot, among many others, such classics as Melville’s Army of Shadows, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, Someone behind the Door, one of the great French Euro-trash thrillers starring Charles Bronson, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and mon préféré du bonbon pervers du cinéma, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie.
Cavalier’s most prominent collaborators, however, are his fabulous trio of central performers. Schneider, after many historical roles in form-wrenching period girdles, made her debut in this contemporary story and acquitted herself magnificently as Anne, the woman who acts as a deadly wedge between the two leading male characters. (With this film, Schneider also proves, that the girdles were, except for adherence to historical accuracy in her previous work, completely unnecessary.)
Serre as Anne’s lefty saviour has, without question, never been better (save, perhaps, for Jules et Jim). There is both peace and sadness in his eyes, yet his transformation from a gentle, lonely man to someone infused with both the passion of love and the requisite savagery needed for self-preservation makes him a more-than-perfect male counterpart to Trintignant.
All said and done, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who eventually gave an equally stunning performance (in a somewhat similar role) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, continually delivers the unexpected in the role of Clément. One aspect of his performance I have yet to mention is his eventual transformation into a major creep – from an empathetic dupe, he slowly morphs into something that is, frankly, skin-crawlingly malevolent. It’s here where one pines for his character’s redemption even more vigorously than before, all the while sensing futility in such an exercise.
Shades of grey, it would seem, never offer easy solutions or pat feelings. In Le Combat dans l’Ã®le, they offer a rich neo-noirpatisserie of the highest order, deliciously, thrillingly and densely layered.
Oh yes, and have I mentioned how great it looks in black and white?
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews