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Entries in French Cinema (4)

Thursday
Apr132017

IN THE FLESH: THE JULIA DUCOURNAU INTERVIEW.

It was the film that became the cause célèbre at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, driven by a wave of glowing trade reviews and the passionate response from audience members, as they emerged ashen-faced from crowded screenings. Raw tells a contemporary tale of sibling rivalry and familial tradition, of a young woman (Garance Marillier) struggling to embrace a destiny forged in blood…literally. For writer/director Julia Ducournau, whose coming-of-age horror/drama earned her the Festival’s FIPRESCI 'Parallel Sections' Prize, it was a challenge to humanize her characters, even as they performed the most inhuman of acts. “Cannibals are usually the bad guys,” the French auteur told SCREEN-SPACE during her visit to Melbourne in November, where Raw earned Best Film honours at MonsterFest 2016

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the great joys of my 2016 Cannes experience was watching Raw with a receptive, energised audience. There was a point – let’s call it the ‘finger scene’ – when we all realised the nature of the journey we’d undertaken…

JULIA: That is so good to hear, because that is so much about what I am aiming at in my film. You would know that, since you started watching horror movies behind your parents back, you do it with your friends or your sister or your cousin. You do it under a blanket or behind cushions on the couch, bonding with that other person over whatever is happening on the screen. It is a scary but also a joyous aspect of watching horror and I love working within a genre that inspires that sense of community, of complicity.

SCREEN-SPACE: What conventions of the cannibal genre did you want to embrace and explore and what tropes were you determined to avoid?

JULIA: I researched a lot of books, but I did not go back to the movies I had seen about cannibalism. I wanted to keep focussed on the ideas that had inspired my story and not over analyse the movies that had come before, so I was not thinking in terms of conventions. I love horror because it has its codes and it is interesting to subvert them, especially with body horror. The one thing I really wanted to adhere was a super realism. My main fear was that people would compare it to vampire or werewolf movies. I wanted people to really identify with this girl, and her needs and desires. I did not want to make it easy for the audience by putting a fantastic veil on it, by giving them some fantasy element that keeps them distant. I didn’t want anyone thinking, “Well, I can’t really identify with these girls because they don’t exist, so I am safe.” I want the audience to be vulnerable to Justine’s developing humanity and to draw comparisons to their own. If you find yourself identifying with a cannibal, you start questioning yourself as a person. The cannibals of such films as Cannibal Holocaust or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre exist in some perverted version of the world. In Raw, I wanted it to be the opposite. (Pictured, above; Garance Marillier as Justine, in Raw)

SCREEN-SPACE: The film is unique in its depiction of sisterhood, both within the narrative and with reference to the often-constrictive boundaries the horror genre can place upon female characters.

JULIA: I wanted to talk about the love they share. It was important that, at the end of their story, there is heartbreak. They have to be separated, not because they want to but because it is deemed that they have to. Their paths are forever intertwined yet completely irreconcilable. This dynamic of love/hate, of rivalry, without ever being able to explain why they change moods from one scene to another is the (essence of) sisterhood, of a bond that every girl understands. I didn’t want any of those boring scenes where sisters spell out their issues to each other. I was trying to create a relationship where you didn’t have to have these explanatory scenes, but instead just go straight to the core of the bond they share.

SCREEN-SPACE: The themes also embrace that dark heart at the core of even the most seemingly pleasant family environment.

JULIA: That’s right, especially in the light of how family politics have been portrayed since the dawn of humanity in all the myths we have created. Back to the days of the pharaohs, through Shakespeare and right up until today, the dark side of the family unit is portrayed as incestuous, cannibalistic, as a rivalry exposed. It is always portrayed in very violent ways. So we are prepared for the family horrors in my film, because we have read Greek tragedy and we have read the Bible. It works in all languages, especially cinematically. (Pictured, left; Marillier and Ella Rumpf, as Alexia, in Raw)

SCREEN-SPACE: In terms of your national cinema, your strong female leads fit well with the great films of the French Extreme movement, like Martyrs and Haute Tension.

JULIA: There is no French Extreme movement. What are we talking about exactly? There are, maybe, seven films that have been made over the course of 20 years. Do you call that a ‘New Wave’, a ‘Movement’?

SCREEN-SPACE: Those films, and films like Inside and Frontieres, reflect a very specific point in French genre cinema when your peers explored undeniably extreme depictions of horror…

JULIA: Those films are totally unrelated works, made by directors who barely know each, over the course of 20 years. For me, a ‘New Wave’ is when a small group of directors talk between themselves, establish a dogma that dictates the direction their collective works will take, like we had in France in the 60s. I am kind of sick of talking about this French Extreme movement that does not exist. I have talked about it with Alexandre Aja, who totally agrees with me. His movie that you mentioned, Haute tension, came out in the 90s! It is so old (Ed: Haute tension was released in France in June, 2003). How can you relate a movie that is 25 years old to what I am doing today? So much has changed. The context in which they are made has changed. I am sick of being put in the same bag just because we are French and we make genre movies.

SCREEN-SPACE: I wasn’t trying to imply that, but I would say that a direct line could be drawn between those films and the portrayal of violence that your film employs. There is a lineage, don’t you agree…?

JULIA: No, I don’t, not at all. And it is not that I don’t like these movies, some of them I like very much. But I am waiting for the writer or the journalist who writes the powerful essay that convinces me that any of what you say is true. You should do it!

(Pictured, above: l-r, Rabah Nait Oufella, Ella Rumpf, Ducournau, Marillier and Joana Preiss, Cannes 2016) 

SCREEN-SPACE: Maybe. Let’s talk specifically about your attitude to and use of gore.

JULIA: Well, I hate gratuitous violence. I always feel used, then I feel annoyed, then I am bored (laughs). If a movie starts with extreme violence, and ends exactly the same way, there has been no evolution. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has very intense action but very little blood, at least before you meet the family. That film achieves a remarkable sense of balance, which is important for me. Any violence that I portray is really the violence that is internal for my characters. Let me say that my problem is not that we are desensitized to violence, but more that violence is completely taken for granted. That is a terrible shame. One of the main reasons we make horror movies is so that we can explore and express our relationship with violence in the most channelled, precise and intelligent way we can. The opportunity to express one’s sense of violence in this way is not given to everyone, so it is more often repressed. Horror movies exist to help those people, and if you use them for no reason at all you are denying the viewer this act of catharsis. Horror movies have always been the true underground cinema, because we talk about what is repressed.

SCREEN-SPACE: You show an unflinching dedication to that principle in Raw…

JULIA: In my own small way, I was determined to show things that must be shown. And when I show it, it will be revealed in the most confrontational, full-frontal way possible, in a manner that stops you from looking away. Just like Cronenberg does in The Fly; very little camera movements, still shots, frontal, centre-of-frame, so that you cannot avert your gaze. This kind of cinema demands that you confront your own mortality. Then your film starts to work in the crevices between scenes, where the moments you don’t show add to the impact of what you eventually do show.

READ The SCREEN-SPACE review of Raw here.

Sunday
Mar052017

FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON: THE NICOLE GARCIA INTERVIEW

Reworking Milena Agus’ novel Mal di pietre for the big screen was always going to be a daunting task. The setting of 1950s rural France demanded all the period trappings; the narrative unfolds as an extended flashback; the troubled heroine, Gabrielle, spends much of the film in a mental health sanatorium, where her free will and passion faces prejudice and ignorance. Yet in the hands of director Nicole Garcia and her leading lady, Marion Cotillard, the adaptation Mal de Pierres (From the Land of the Moon) becomes a soaring, moving melodrama; the film screened in Official Selection at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where Screen International lauded it as “an old-fashioned romantic weepie given class and conviction.”

Nicole Garcia is one of the grand doyennes of European cinema. A beloved actress (she has 13 César nominations to her name), Garcia turned to directing with the acclaimed 1986 short, 15 août, a personal slice-of-life drama that featured her husband Jean-Louis Tritignant. It has led to collaborations with Nathalie Baye (Un week-end sur deux, 1990), Jean-Marc Barr (Le fils préféré, 1994), Catherine Deneuve (Place Vendôme, 1998), Daniel Auteuil (The Adversary, 2002), Jean Dujardin (Un balcon sur lamer, 2010) and her son, Pierre Rochfort (Un beau dimanche, 2013). Following the Cannes Premiere of From the Land of the Moon at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, Garcia (pictured, above) sat with SCREEN-SPACE in the Alliance Française tents to talk about her latest film….

SCREEN-SPACE: How did you become aware of the novel? What aspects of Gabrielle most enthused you?

NICOLE GARCIA: A friend of mine told me, “You have to read this book.” So I read most of it travelling between Paris and Marseilles, and when I arrived I rang my producer and told him, “You have to find out if the rights are available.” Maybe I was waiting for this sort of character. Maybe she represents a part of me, or a maybe because she represents a fascinating part of all women. Maybe because the character foreshadows what is happening with the women of today. What I like is that she dared to express the desire that she has. It is not a dark desire; she is not a nymphomaniac or a sex addict, but it is live, real sexual drive. It is also something that is very mystical. But hers is a life in two parts and she doesn’t want to give up on either part. It is her dream to have both elements. (Pictured, above: Marion Cotillard and co-star Alex Brendemuhl).

SCREEN-SPACE: The setting provides an historical framework, but it is in many regards a very contemporary work…

NICOLE GARCIA: (Cannes artistic director) Thierry Frémaux believes that if you set a film in the past, you are foreshadowing what contemporary women will become. Gabrielle is in this very restrictive 1950s society, yet she has this wilful yearning for freedom, which was scandalous at the time. She was accused of being mad. But she represents movement towards the freedom and independence that women have today, sort of the ‘first step on the ladder,’ if you will. But above and beyond the modern interpretation of the text, is that there is something universal in the story, in Gabrielle, and that is the universal strength of feminine desire, which can be frightening. It is something that can overflow, can take over, that can wash away the very person from whom it generates. To this day, it is still viewed as very suspicious.

SCREEN-SPACE: I sensed that the soulfulness of her character comes from a yearning for a truthful connection, whether that is physically or intellectually…

NICOLE GARCIA: Gabrielle says something that is very important. At one point, she says, “I want somebody to talk to me, I want somebody to talk to.” She wants somebody that she can express herself to in meaningful words, which is what she most often wanted to do with this very taciturn, rough Spanish builder. The modern woman has so many outlets, so many opportunities to express and validate and explore her many desires. But Gabrielle does not.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you immediately share an understanding and common goal with Marion about how Gabrielle should be played?

NICOLE GARCIA: During the shoot, there was very little need to explain things. She saw things in the script and in my discussions about the character and just pulled them out, when required. It was two communicating vessels. We didn’t rehearse; the only things we did before hand were costume and hair. So when we got to the set, I’d show her the scene and she’d say, “Ok, got it.” It was just she and I and, with very little need to speak, we formed this character. For me, Marion creates a Gabrielle who is the geography of the film. She is the lavender fields, the Mediterranean, the Alps. In my vision, she emerges from the backdrop of the film. I wrote the role, so it was always within me. She was always the first choice for the role. She is the best actress in Europe at the moment. (Pictured, above; l-r, Louis Garrel, Cotillard and Garcia at the Cannes press conference).

SCREEN-SPACE: The sex between Marion and Louis Garrel, as Andre, is physically raw but also one of the most deeply emotional depictions of lovemaking I can recall…

NICOLE GARCIA: Thank you, yes. I was very worried about this scene. We shot it just before we left The Swiss Alps, so I had to count on the actors just letting themselves go. In the script, it’s very easy; the actors lay down together and their bodies…engage (laughs). Marion knew (the passion) had to shown, had to be externalised. Personally, I find sex scenes in films rather boring, so I watched sex scenes in films from directors I admire, like Ang Lee. Then it dawned on me that the way into this scene is through her eyes. When you realise that she is seeing what she has always been looking for, and that she’s achieved it, is deeply moving. And when you realise it is a dream…well, the force, the power of the imagination is beautiful.

From the Land of the Moon will be screening at the 28th annual Alliance Française French Film Festival. Session and ticket information can be found at the official event website.

Thursday
May262016

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES: THE BRUNO DUMONT INTERVIEW.

The words 'Bruno Dumont' and ‘comedy’ are not often spoken in the same sentence. The French auteur’s films have largely been bleak, desperate studies of flawed characters struggling with tragic lives (The Life of Jesus, 1997; L'Humanite, 1999; Twentynine Palms, 2003; Flanders, 2006; Hadejwich, 2009; Camille Claudel 1915, 2013). But the 58 year-old plunges into the blackly ridiculous with Ma Loute (Slack Bay, in English territories), a Monty-Python-meets-Downtown-Abbey slice of magical surrealism in which he dissects the Gallic class divide as it existed in the summer of 1910. Set amidst the dunes and estuaries of his beloved northern French coastline, Dumont constructs a murder mystery that pits the vacationing upper class and clearly inbred Van Petegham clan (amongst them, Fabrice Luchini and a gloriously over-the-top Juliette Binoche) in conflict with local river-folk/cannibal peasants, The Bruforts (led by the titular teenager, played by Brandon Lavieville). “I always had comedy in me but I couldn’t find the right place to express it,” the director told SCREEN-SPACE (via an interpreter), while snacking on pistachios at the UniFrance tent as the Cannes Film Festival buzzed around us…

SCREEN-SPACE: Does this new willingness to explore comedy suggest a change in your own perspective of the world? Why a comedy now?

Dumont: When I finally settled upon the story of Ma Loute, commissioned the actors and set about scouting for locations, it was very liberating as it felt like I was about to fulfil a long-held desire. It ultimately fulfilled something that was lacking in my body of work, something (of which) I had not been fully aware. Comedy allowed me to more fully cover the spectrum of human experience that I had been striving to depict. Humour, (that) ability to find comedy in our lives, is something that had been lacking in my films. Also, my nature is to be adventurous, to try things that I have not done before, and that is not always easy in an industry that wants you to stick to what has been successful in the past. My next film is going to be a musical*, because I’ve never done that before.

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you feel that you and ‘comedy’ were a natural fit?

Dumont: I add irony to make the drama at the heart of my work explode. (Just) changing my approach I make it more comedic. I also think I bring my own reputation down a peg by trying some comedy, too. So it feels good to have found an outlet. (Pictured, right; l-r, Juliette Binoche, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Fabrice Luchini in La Moute)

SCREEN-SPACE: Setting the film at the turn of the century recalls the beginning of cinema; much of the physical comedy recalls the great pratfalls of silent era comedians. Why this period?

Dumont: Setting the film in this period helped me deflect the question of ‘realism’ that always dogs me. Being in the past, made it easier to look more like a metaphor. The year of 1910 represents a poetic metaphor; a time and a place that does not exist anymore, so contemporary audiences can define it as an allegory. The advantage in recreating that period is that everything is very extreme; the difference between the poor and the rich is very visible. It is already comic, in a way. Comedy works on simplification and here the contrast is already simple. I am always looking for a means by which to use distortion and exaggeration, and this time can be easily represented as ridiculous. The costumes, for instance, and how the wealthy behave in each other’s company appears extreme and ridiculous by current standards.

SCREEN-SPACE: You pitch much of the dialogue very high, demand some very broad, boisterous performances from your cast, none more so than the wonderful Juliette Binoche. The film represents a fresh tonality in your work.

Dumont: Cinema is, by definition, something quite stiff. The frame and the mise en scene is something quite organised, necessitating structure. But once you have that structure, inside it you can let creativity and inspiration flow in. That’s what I did with the characters and with certain elements of the plot. I like having professional actors only if I can distort their performances. If I can’t there is no point taking them on. I don’t like them or need them for what they are. I would never take professional actors for the fisherman family, for example, because they would really piss me off, trying to ‘create’ fisherman characters. With the non-professionals, I don’t need to believe in their ‘normal’ acting, or in my asking them to do what they can’t do. I only take them if they are relevant to the subject matter, and here I had a bunch of crazy eccentrics. It was fun to work with them and to distort their performances. (Pictured, above; Juliette Binoche as Aude Van Petegham in La Moute).

SCREEN-SPACE: You find the grotesque in both the pompous Petegham family and the brutal Brufort household. But you don’t draw a conclusion on whose existence represents the better life.

Dumont: Cinema is not inherently a moral field. Cinema has to be above the good and the bad otherwise there is no way to reflect upon it. The clash of social classes in my film is so exaggerated, so grotesque, so beyond the limits, it is hard to take very seriously. On one side they are cannibals, on the other they are an inbred family, totally nuts and impossible to relate to either. But within the spectrum that audiences bring to a film, the characters represent a mirror of sorts to our self. We all have this primitive, rural human being in us, and we possess the potential to be a totally stupid bourgeoisie. I wouldn’t be stupid enough to take one side over the other. (And) these are cinematic characters, clearly not real people.

SCREEN-SPACE: Overnight, Variety published their review of Ma Loute and critic Peter Debruge called you ‘a grump’, the ‘misanthropic filmmaker’. How do you respond to that perception of you and your work?

Dumont: (Pause) I am absolutely the opposite of that. I wonder how they can see misanthropy, when I’m glorifying my characters cinematically. Some people say the opposite (to Variety’s opinion), that this director is not misanthropic and is a lover of human nature, so the problem is not with me but with the reviewer. (This is) an immediate reaction to what they saw, and fails to see the metaphor; it bases their understanding of the film on a first impression. When I film a jerk, my aim is to elevate him to a saint, but they just see the vehicle, the first layer of characterisation. While some say the character of Ma Loute is ugly, some say he is a beauty; interpretation does not depend on me but depends on the viewer. I am not a philanthropist but nor am I a misanthrope. I remain neutral, in creating my characters with my actors. I hear it, like you do, but what can I do? Cinema has nothing to do with reality, it is a representation, so all these moral questions and talk of misanthropy are meaningless for me. (Pictured, above; Dumont with his cast at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of La Moute)

*‘Jeanette,’ a musical drama based on Charles Peguy’s play Le Mystere de la charite de Jeanne d’Arc, will be produced for French television and play theatrically overseas.

Australian distribution of Ma Loute (Slack Bay) will be via Sharmill Films, who acquired the title in Cannes; it will screen at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Wednesday
Sep162015

ONE FROM THE HEART: THE GASPAR NOE INTERVIEW

‘Sentimental’ is not a word often bandied about when discussing the films of Gaspar Noe, but the director of such envelope-pushers as I Stand Alone, Irreversible and Enter the Void is out to change a few minds with his latest film, Love. “This is a movie that has made a lot of people cry,” he tells SCREEN-SPACE from his home in Paris, as the Sydney Underground Film Festival organisers brace themselves for reaction to the Opening Night screening of the latest from the ‘enfant terrible’ of international cinema...

I wanted to do a melodrama,” explains the 51 year-old Argentinian-born, French-based filmmaker, who premiered the long-in-development drama at Cannes 2015. “I envisioned the movie as both very arousing and also very sad, with the hope that people would cry at the end. It became much more melancholic than what I thought because image is so much more powerful than text. The movie is best described as being made up of my desires and fears.”

Drawing upon his days as a film school student cutting a swathe through the bars and bedrooms of 1980s Paris, the auteur’s narrative follows brash American expat Murphy (Karl Glusman) as he recalls the passionate details of a doomed love affair with the sexually energized Electra (Aomi Muyock; pictured, with Glusman), while coping with the corrosive resentment he has for his young wife, Omi (Klara Kristin). “‘Murphy’ is a mix of me and my film school mates, who I would hang out with and party with. And I know certain characters who [populate] the movie, people from the party scene in Paris and the art world,” explains Noe. “I wanted this guy to be cool but also a bit stupid; he’s not a ‘winner’ at all. He’s just a normal film student, sometimes driven by his brain cells and sometimes driven by his dick.”

Over a decade ago, the project was pitched to then husband-and-wife stars Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel when the pair worked with Noe on Irreversible, the 2002 revenge drama famous for Noe’s notorious single-shot rape scene. But the international stars baulked at the director’s intention to shoot full penetration intercourse. By 2015, Noe’s creative impulses were sated, with Glusman and first-time actors Muyock and Kristin portraying graphic, reportedly unchoreographed sexual acts (in 3D, no less). The film opens with an extended single-take scene of oral sex and mutual masturbation, from beginning to end.

“Erotic cinema has disappeared, and with it the erotic malady,” observes Noe. “The point of this movie, the reason it exists, was to portray the passion between two willful young people. I could not see how you could film that nowadays, after the sexual revolution and after the past 40 or so years of our western world, without portraying exactly how it is in real life. I decided that now is the time to film scenes with a truthfulness that the subject of my movie deserves. I’m surprised there are not more movies dealing with the subject like my film does”

It is the search for the blunt truths of existence that have driven Noe’s works to date; in his last film, Enter the Void, his first-person camera examined a body’s demise and the re-emergence of its soul. Love represents a similar pathway from the dual perspective of emotion and sensation. “These natural desires that we have, to have the faith to give our lives and share our journey with someone else, produce very human, powerful emotions,” says Noe. “Most people recognise much about themselves in the characters in the film and about the experience of being in love.”

Noe achieves his thematic goals by expanding upon the reverse-storytelling device that he employed in Irreversible (pictured, right; star, Monica Bellucci). Initially, Murphy’s present-day inner thoughts narrate small recollections; ultimately, the entire film is given over to his indulgences in the past. “The whole way [Love] was structured was to try to reproduce a memory. When you think about your own past, you do not do it in a linear way,” Noe explains. “In Irreversible, the backwards storytelling was very mechanical, in a clockwork way; in Enter The Void, the journey was very linear. In Love, it gets as close as I’ve gotten to that ‘stream of memory’ framework.”

As confronting as Gaspar Noe’s visions have been, each has represented a yearning to explore and further understand base elements inherent to the human experience. As shocking as scenes of frank sexuality may be to many, it is what the images represent that matters most to the director. “I wanted to make a sentimental film about what love is, how hard love is, to show that, even with the best intentions in the world, love can fail and ultimately destroy your mind,” he says. “To be addicted to passion means that you can suffer through passion and your life is over. I needed to find a way to portray this power, a power that can consume and destroy your life. What is the truest aim of our existence? I think it is to find love and to share the strongest physical love with someone, and my film explores that.”

LOVE screens as the Opening Night presentation of the 2015 Sydney Underground Film Festival. Full venue and session information can be found at the official website.