With its painterly rendering of times past (aptly framed in a vintage 4:3 ratio), and reliance on the uniqueness of its characters instead of a dense script, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is an austere affair. Set in 1882, the sparse narrative follows a Danish army captain (Viggo Mortensen) on his journey through the desolate expanses of Patagonia in search of his eloped daughter (Mallin Agger). Few words are spoken as faces full of aspiration, anger and despair gaze out across the intensely beautiful landscape; a harsh, elusive landscape in a world that appears to be as magical as it is threatening. Elaborately choreographed, hauntingly scored and channelling the transcendental work of Jodorowsky, Tarkovsky and Kubrick, Jauja is very much a film that demands your attention from the outset, and pays dividends as it reaches its mysterious, otherworldly conclusion.
Pamela Jahn spoke with leading actor Viggo Mortensen, who also co-produced the film, at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014, where Jauja premiered in the Un Certain Regard section.
Pamela Jahn: In addition to taking the lead in Jauja, you also acted as a producer and co-composed its original score. What made you want to get involved in the film on so many different levels?
Viggo Mortensen: On a purely personal level, the project seemed very appealing from the start, because I am doing a movie in Danish – finally. But I am also speaking Spanish with an accent like my father’s, whereas the Danish sounds more like my grandfather’s, more old-fashioned, which was fun. And those landscapes you see in the film, I know them from when I was a boy in Argentina. That’s where I learned to ride horses and so on, which was a bit strange but intriguing at the time, because it brought back lots of memories: the place, the smell, the landscape, the weather – all this was very familiar. But the real challenge was that I am playing a man who is in a place that feels very strange to him and he doesn’t like it very much. He’s looking forward to going back to Denmark soon, but then his daughter goes missing and he sets out to find her.
Did you know Lisandro Alonso’s work before you got on board?
I had seen all but one of his films before we started working together on this project, and the one film that I liked in particular was Los Muertos. There is something in that story in terms of the visual poetry and his use of time, the simplicity of his shot selection… all that reminded me of Tarkovsky’s movies, which I like a lot. Not just him, but it was that specific director that I thought of when I watched Lisandro’s films. And I really liked the idea that he initially proposed together with Fabian [Casas, screenwriter], which we then worked on together to get the Danish elements of it correct, and to make sure it’s specific. If you want something existential and universal too, you need to be specific and detailed, you need to give it weight. As an actor, the more specific you are, the more you can make a leap. And personally, I like to tell stories that at least have a chance to be really interesting movies, whether they are big budget or low budget. That doesn’t really matter to me, because the relationship with the camera, with the director and the crew is always the same. It’s the same job to prepare, the same job to shoot, it takes the same time and, in the end, you have to promote it, so you might as well do something you like. Something you want to go see in the cinema yourself. That’s more or less how I guide myself: I am looking for projects that I can still learn from and that I might want to see myself. It doesn’t always work, of course, but at least you have a good blueprint.
You mentioned the landscape, which looks somewhat artificial but breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Did you get involved in the ‘look’ of the film, too?
I am a photographer myself and I could see that we were using certain lights that we didn’t need to use, but that was Lisandro’s idea, because he wanted to shoot it in this old-school, artificial way, almost like they did in old Westerns. There is something really appealing about that. But what I liked about it the most was that [the cinematographer] Timo Salminen, who is originally from Finland and had never been to Argentina, had more of a Nordic look at the landscape, which fits in well with the characters – it’s very different to the way an Argentine photographer would have shot it. But it’s not just the lighting, it’s the framing also. So you have two different angles, really: the look is sometimes hard and strange, which could be the father’s point of view, who never really accepts being in this landscape; for him it’s just a job and he regrets even being there. But it’s also at times incredibly beautiful, and that’s more like the daughter’s point of view, because she loves it there.
How did you approach your character? Who is Gunnar Dinesen and what is he to you?
There are things in the film that I suggested we should do when I was reading the book. I am someone who, until recently, has lived in the woods and who is very happy being and living in wild places. Part of the reason why I was comfortable doing this movie with Lisandro was because there were certain elements, even from a different character’s point of view, that I am familiar with, although my character is actually quite clumsy. Dinesen is a surveyor and scientist, very northern European, very rational, everything has to have a logical explanation. But then he is also a guy who wears a sword and boots with heels and furs while walking through rocks, which is ridiculous – a bit like Don Quixote. Don Quixote is also both serious and specific. And in that way my character is very determined – like if you are going to do a job, you might as well do it correctly, and in a timely fashion. And if someone says, ‘Well, we’re having tea at 4.30pm on Tuesday’, you say, ‘Well, I’ll be there’. But it’s Argentina, so whoever you were going to meet might turn up on Wednesday, or maybe he doesn’t.
The film has a very dreamy feel to it, much like a mind’s landscape, a travel through space and time.
Exactly, and that’s the beauty about it. Lisandro makes these leaps, which most directors would not be able to make, but he makes you feel that they are organic. Suddenly it’s dark, suddenly there is an electric guitar, suddenly there is a cave… and somehow he makes that work, he makes you believe it because he grounds it in details, in real behaviour. Like my character, who is always trying to find a logic within everything. His evolution lies in the very fact that, by the end of the film, he is asking that question: ‘What makes a life function and move forward?’ And he says: ‘I don’t know’, and smiles. He accepts that he cannot control it. It’s almost a relief for him to realise that you cannot understand everything. And at the end of this movie, it’s the same for you. You don’t know if it was all just a dream, and if so, whose dream? The dream of a young girl in Denmark today? Or, the dream of some strange captain? Or, it could be very much the dream of a dog or of a wooden soldier. But luckily, it doesn’t matter.
What’s your guess? Whose dream is it for you?
Often I tend to think that it’s the girl’s dream, but I don’t know. And again, it doesn’t matter. If you pick one option, then you are stuck in a linear thinking, just like Dinesen. So even though I lean towards that, next time I watch the film, it’s different and it makes me smile. It’s a rare movie in the sense that it reveals more layers, more humour every time you look at it. For example, Dinesen is a spectator, he is constantly trying to make sense of what the hell is going on. He’s not really in love with the landscape, he’s just practical. And he gets lost, so by the end, he doesn’t know what else to do, he just keeps going. But is he still looking for his daughter? Probably. Whatever it is, he keeps looking.
But he finds ‘Jauja’.
And that’s interesting because Jauja is not a place, it’s more than that, it’s an idea. It’s an impossible idea or feeling of contentment, satisfaction, tranquillity. It could be anything and, trust me, in Spanish it’s a weird word too. It’s a word that comes from the Arabic and in the old Arabic it meant something like a doorway or a passageway, like a transition.
That idea of transition is also intensified by the music, which is very peculiar. How did you get involved with the score?
If you know Lisandro, you know that he doesn’t usually use music in his films, but suddenly you hear this electric guitar and organs and piano notes and you are like, wow. But it’s not like, wow, that’s wrong – it’s great. It’s another one of these jumps he takes, but it comes from an organic, sincere place that’s not saying ‘look at me’ as a director. It’s not pretentious. He said to me: ‘I want this transition, where one time in space is going to start twisting things a bit for the character and for the audience. And I think I want to try and use music in that moment when you go to sleep that night under the stars, so if you have any ideas then let me know’.’ And I said: ‘Well, there is that guitar player I know who I have also worked with. Some of it is very harsh but some of it is more lyrical.’ So I sent him some pieces and he chose those two, which you hear in the film. And that moment of music works really well, I think, because of the way it pushes you into another space.
Do you think your involvement as a producer and actor will help the film find a bigger audience?
I hope so. I do think it is a big jump for Lisandro creatively, in terms of narrative through line, and photography – on a lot of levels. It’s a more sophisticated type of filmmaking. I did it because I liked it, but the reason why I got involved as a producer is because I wanted to help him get a bigger audience because he really deserves it.
Interview by Pamela Jahn
Watch the trailer: