Thursday, March 30, 2017

Interview: Albert Serra on The Death of Louis XIV and His Beautiful Method

I saw Albert Serra's new film The Death of Louis XIV at New York Film Festival last year. The French New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the title chracter which is unusual for Serra, who mostly works with non-actors in his previous films. As part of FSLC's 20 film Léaud retrospective: From Antoine Doinel to Louis XIV (which runs from 3/29 - 4/6), the film opens this friday 3/31.

Serra is batshit crazy. Once he starts talking, there is no stopping him. As an admirer of his singular artistry, it was a pleasure talking to him at length, even though he did most of the talking. Fair warning. He might sound a tad bit arrogant or non-sensical in this interview. Bear in mind the English is not his first language. But he is a true artist and very passionate about his goal to create something that is truly different and original. He is a searcher and explorer of the cinematic realm. And I respect that.

I’ve been enjoying your work over the years. Bird Song was about the story of Magi, History of My Death was about Casanova & Dracula and now you have The Death of Louis IV. You take inspirations from literary and historical figures both imagined and real. I’ve read about your filmmaking approach where you said ‘Living the present through the past’. What does that mean?

That’s a beautiful quote.

Well, that’s your quote.

It's beautiful. This is true in The Death of Louis IV. You start by asking questions - how the Thirty Years’ War was, what happened or I don’t know, the problems of the state… all these things are like information or clichés. The point is that these meanings are created in front of you when you are shooting the film - OK, you have obviously have to dress an actor like Louis XIV. But then who was really Louis XIV? How did real Louis XIV move? How did he look at people? I don’t know. This has to be created within… I don’t have any idea about that. So the idea that the past can be lived with the same kind of mystery as if it were in present times without any kind of information about the future. So now we are living the past but as we know the future of the past is our present so we can use this.

But to come back and try to live this past in present time with all the innocence and all the mystery of living in the present… this was the point.

So in this sense Jean-Pierre was very good to do that in the film because he keeps the mystery alive. It doesn’t matter how much information you have on Louis XIV. You have the real Louis XIV. Because you never had a moving image of Louis XIV.

This is true.

The only true Louis XIV in cinema is he. Not anything we have in our minds. It was also because of my methodology of using 3 cameras because he (Jean-Pierre) has a really deep relationship with the camera. Since the very beginning we didn’t talk about the subject of the film or even about his character. We didn’t do any rehearsal. It was him realizing facts on set- three cameras, very long takes- chaotic because cameras are moving independently during the shots. So he really couldn’t establish relationship with the camera. As an actor, with one camera you establish relationship and you know what the camera is doing. You want to offer something to it. You want to give something. With all the experiences you have as an actor, you might want to fall back on that relationship you had before because you want to give something concrete. Then it’s quite easy to you fall into cliché to something you already know.

Jean-Pierre was so used to shoot with one camera set up, and suddenly he discovered that there were three cameras- he didn’t know which camera we were rolling, the cameras had freedom to move for the best positions because it’s impossible to move the position with one camera because of the lighting.

So it’s very dark and sometimes I don’t say anything- it was like a performance in some sense. Because there was no previous meaning that he could think about. There was no meaning he can build something around with.

So those two things: Not being able to establish relationship with the camera and not being able to give something made him introspective. Yet all the connections, his link to Louis XIV physically and spiritually was there within him. I imagine he was obsessed playing that role and he gave us all these peripheral, off the frame content that was not cliché, more interesting. He created new gesture for anything. Everything was new. And it’s not even linked with his persona as an actor.

Just one single time or two I allow him to give some of his traces, but in general he was living and breathing the past in present time.

Was Jean-Pierre you only choice for this role?


I am wondering how the project came about, because I heard that it was an on going process for four five years.

Yes because it was a commissioned by the Pompidou museum to do it as a performance with Jean-Pierre as Louis XIV dying live in front of the visitors of the museum and we were there shooting also. In a crystal cage with the bed blahblahblah.

But then it was canceled five years ago and we forgot it a little bit and then a producer said two years ago, 'OK why don’t we do it in cinema?' But the idea was a live performance. You know, death and life live. So the film was by chance. It was done in fifteen days. So it was more like performance. I mean it wasn’t shot chronologically obviously because of practical reasons but also I prefer not to shoot chronologically.

I don’t know it was really ambitious spirit of a performance. To look at the history as it was, I don’t know, opaque, no? All the information regarding the death of Louis XIV was opaque. There was nothing really relevant on the subject. Only relevant thing there was was in front of us: Jean-Pierre himself, his body, the decor… there was no meaning, just some three or four facts but without meaning, to have something to do, to shoot--

Medical facts?

Medical facts, you know it’s quite historical. But… So Okay, we will fulfill all this traces of history not as transparent offering as meanings but we will create. We will put volume on it in a very spontaneous way.

Got it.

It’s a historical film. A brilliant film but it’s much more interesting than typical historical dramas. People, not cultivated people who are not specially cinephile are there and really, really into it. I don’t know, It’s the mystery of the performance itself. What is the meaning of everything - the movement, the gesture, every sentence, everything. He gradually moves less and less into total immobility.

What I take away from the film is that everyone dies at the end. Even the king of France who rule the kingdom for more than 70 years dies a horrible death that could have been prevented with modern medicine.


This film is very different from your other films. Your two films I’ve seen, the bird song and the History of My death both take place in mostly outdoors. This one is very confined.

The nature is another character isn’t it? I think as my methodology evolved and matured, I thought I could do different things. It’s the same chaos and same craziness if you think about it. The nature helped in previous films. And there was some kind of spiritual approach. But as my methodology evolved and became more sophisticated, I felt confident that I can do the same kind of things here. Maybe it feels different because it’s a little bit more controlled because the subject demands you more control. If it was Casanova, it doesn’t matter what you do, you can always apply ‘Casanova’ to him- he can do almost everything and get away with it. You can’t do that with Louis XIV. For French people, that would be a sacrilege. Not because it’s not historically accurate, but it’s not…

(I started to laugh)

You know what I mean.


You can’t show Louis XIV using toilet.

No no.

I could’ve done something a little crazy and unexpected way, like my other films, more ironical and more physical, more lyrical to break the narrative. But it seemed too risky on this project to do that. Without that, film has some unity of space-time and action. So this is more coherent and calm and sensitive.

It is more coherent.

But it’s wild. (laughs) Shooting with Jean-Pierre was wild. The edit was very well done and it’s very smooth. All the crazy things and the irony are on the side of the doctors.

Irony. Yes.

But I love what was said about the film. The originality of the film is in the clinical approach to death, but the death of very important and dramatic historical figure. It’s quite uncommon to apply clinical approach to human. I like what the New York Film Festival’s catalog said about the movie - there was a beautiful sentence that said it’s a film about the banality of the court and the final moment of the king, but also a film about the banality of death itself.

That’s right.

It’s not something that is applied to Louis XIV.

Tell me about Vicenç Ataio. He is not only hilarious in this but he was great as Casanova in History of My Death. I hear he’s not an actor. He is a scholar, poet and the director of a museum. How did you get him act in your films?

Well because of the physical likeness: I saw some drawings of Casanova. Physically with his face and his nose and everything, he looks a little bit like Casanova. I do like working with non-professional actors because their lack of knowledge of methodology in cinema. It was important to use actors who don’t know how the film was done.

I do have a good intuition for that I think. I never make big mistakes in casting: maybe with secondary actors but never with the leading roles. It’s more challenging. The problem working with professional actors is that they always put some images they already have in their minds between you and them. With unprofessional actors, that doesn’t exist. It’s very beautiful. You work with them without and barriers in a very artificial environment, so you have to be very precise but the end result is very, how to say, it’s more. These characters are born in front of your eyes. It’s really something.

He is really fantastic.

Yeah, yeah. He is the best Casanova ever and probably the best libertine ever in the history of cinema. First or second best. But the best Casanova for sure. This is because of speed. I’ve read Memoirs of Casanova. He is always doing four things at the same time - I’m thinking about this - moving and controlling some women and eating, telling anecdotes and filling categories and going back to anecdotes all at the same time. Living this bright sensation of the moment, mixing great ideas and transforming everything...and this is gorgeous stuff.

You can have this only with actors who have no preconceived ideas, then you can deal with his body and his mind directly.

Was it a lot different directing such an iconic movie legend, Jean-Pierre Léaud?

There was a lot of respect. Even though I didn’t have a lot of authority but to Jean-Pierre, a director is like myth, a god. Because he was born in the era auteur cinema, of the New Wave. For him, the director really creates style of the film. So for him, director is god. But even with that, out of respect I have for him, I couldn’t push him as much as I wanted to. With other professional actors and such, he wasn’t there just because of me. Me but also for himself- because of his career. I mean he worked with the greatest filmmakers in cinema history.

If there were some mistakes in the film, if there was, it was not because I didn’t push him hard enough. It’s just because, I don’t know, chance or something else. And with this methodology I told you- shooting with three cameras, long takes, not telling him exactly what we are shooting, never repeating the same shot again, always mixing the content of different scenes and making variations. It was a fluid atmosphere. Blurring psychologically, blurring narrative, blurring movement, no?

The force of this methodology is so messy. But even an actor with previous experience and knowledge can’t go against that. You can stand up but can’t go against it or you fall down. It’s just a matter of time. He resists. And his resistance becomes the form of the film. He tries something different, yet he doesn’t know what.

In my point of view this film is very deep, very mysterious and very original. He was opposed to that. He couldn’t be in the same exact direction with me. But I hate when they go on same direction as me in the film. It’s a lot more interesting when people go against me. Growls. They give you much more interesting, subtle performances when that happens. But it’s not possible to win for the actors with me.

Are you going to use the same methodology in your next film? I don’t know what you are planning…

Every time it will be evolved, more sophisticated. That is my goal to create something new that’s never been seen before. There are several scenes like that in History of My Death: atmosphere was known because you have seen some of that same atmosphere in other films. Subject wise it shares with other films too. It’s beautiful and well done but it’s not completely new. There are scenes in that film that is completely new, that is not tethered to anything- the acting, the atmosphere, everything.

I really love that film.

I would say 6 or 7 scenes in that film. In Louis XIV maybe two or three.

What’s next for you?

It’s called I am an Artist. It’s about a young artist in present day. It’s the portrait of the contemporary art world.

Wow, OK.

It deals with important subjects - what’s the role of art in our society. Sometimes it’s grotesque but sometime we have frankness of true artist? So I don’t know. It’s tricky.

The Death of Louis XIV opens on Friday, March 31 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center concurrent with Léaud Retrospective.

My review of The Death of Louis XIV

My review of History of My Death

My Review of Bird Song

Monday, March 27, 2017

Collective Hypnosis

Get Out (2017) - Peele
It's a long overdue to point out and verbalize awkward race relations in this country. The Obama presidency was supposed to be a pivoting moment to usher us into more harmonious, color-blind society (or so we wished). Now we find out that the racism and bigotry hasn't diminished since the Civil Rights era by one iota, but now with the hate-filled orange blob as our prez, that show of racism and bigotry is more out in the open than ever before - just over last week, I saw a news that a white man from North Carolina came up to New York to kill black men.

Get Out seems to be coming out at the right time and place to visualize this awkward, shaky race relationship almost at a tipping point of all out civil war we have got going. Success of it at the box office is completely justified. This is not some Wayans Bros' buffoonery of the 90s. Jordan Peele is a little more sophisticated than that. He wisely taps into horror genre where he can be more subversive (more like Romero's Night of the Living Dead and less like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) and get away with killing white people in various ways. His comedic sensibility helps too. Loved Peele rehashing the idea of a generation collectively hypnotized by TV screen (think of Halloween II, Poltergeist, They Live, Videodrome, etc). Definitely the scariest part of the movie is the scene pictured above.

Not perfect or complete by any means, but Get Out touches upon a lot of issues this country is suffering and give them a voice. Unfortunately, it remains urban/Northeast movie that would never make an impact in flyover states.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Dancing Lights

White Ash (2013) - Pierce
White ash 2
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white ash 6
Leighton Pierce's long exposed vivid images go from familiar cityscapes (subway platform, lighting fixtures, neon streets at night) to nature - trees, clouds, night sky and water. Everything is heightened with the help of appropriate location sound - the moon and the stars dance around making squiggly lines across the sky. Distant car headlights leave multi-color trail-marks in the dark forest. The images become more and more dizzing and impressionistic. White Ash is a beautiful study in different lights and the effects of long exposure: soft lights, like indoor household lights and the daytime sky, flourescent lights in the subway make vivid squares, harder lights make trails. Besides scapes and nature, we have sketches of human bodies in water and cloud formations from the plane. Gorgeous stuff.

Honoré's Metamorphoses is Dirty, Playful Romp

Metamorphoses (2014) - Honoré
Christophe Honoré (Love Songs, The Beautiful Person, Making Plans for Lena)'s interpretation of Roman poet Ovid's Greco-Roman mythic tales of god and demigods starts out with a modern day hunter in the forest, running into a flame haired nude transgender person who graces him with pixie dust and turns him into a deer. The hunter becomes the hunted. From the get-go, Metamorphoses promises to be a very playful, dirty fantasy where anything can happen.

Filled to the brim with young nude bodies (usually full frontal), the film tells a high school girl, Europa (Amira Akili), skipping school and being kidnapped by Jupiter in the form of a charming truck driver. It's a sexual, spiritual awakening for Europa, as she mingles in turn with Jupiter, Bacchus and Orpheus.

Story within a story within a story plays out, some funny, some dark, but all enjoyable, putting emphasis on sexual ambiguity and transformation in human beings. The film is something like a dream of a horny teenager who has fallen asleep in a literature class.

As Honoré told me in an interview before that he is not the type of director who'd want to make nice movies to be remembered fondly by the next generation of film-goers. He's the sort of a filmmaker/dad who'd rather make things which his own daughter would be a little ashamed of. Working with mostly non-actors, he charges on bravely, with lots of nudity, challenging today's ridgid, conservative society and reminds us that, ironically, things were much more transgressive and open, more than two thousand years ago, when Ovid first wrote those poems.

Shot in widescreen and vivid colors by André Chemetoff (Our Day Will Come), featuring many salacious images, Metamorphoses is a great visual feast. It also includes a breathtakingly gorgeous under-water scene where Orpheus attempts to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld.

There are many idyllic nature settings, most of them near the water which is the running theme of the film. These ordinary settings take on a heavenly significance as young gods and demigods christening themselves in the torquois water. Diverse cast of young non-actors engage in tug-and-pull rituals of love and physical, feral courtship. One such dance-like courtship on a river bank involves the rising French star/circus trained actress Vimala Pons and it's a sight to see.

In death of the skateboarding Narcissus (Arthur Jacquin) chapter, you can see the same theme coursing through many of Honoré's films: a love-sick character's self-destructive demise (as the case in Love Songs, Beautiful Person and so on).

Playful, dirty, edgy, organic and beautiful in its micro-budget way, the film has a lot in common with Gomes's Arabian Nights Trilogy which came out a year after. Honoré doesn't bother with elaborate mise-en-scene or special effects. Human to Animal transformations are usually done in simple edits.

Honoré delved into many different genres over the years, working with who's-who in French cinema as well as non-actors, dipping back, from time to time, to his indepedent roots. I saw his adorable new film Sophie's Misfortunes at this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema. Given that it's a straight up children's film right after Metamorphoses, it shows Honoré's dexterity as a filmmaker.

Metamorphoses works as a dreamy poetry. It's an ode to youth and an abashed celebration of amorphous nature of human sexuality. I am so glad it is getting a theatrical run here in the States. It's an absolute blast!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Human Warmth

Montparnasse (2009) - Hers
Monparnasse 1
Montparnasse 2
Montparnasse 3
There is something genuinely beautiful about how Mikhaël Hers draws these human interactions: its downplayed characters- imperfect, shy, introverted- finding themselves somehow connecting together in whatever the circumstances. Its massively underlit interiors and exteriors can't undermine the human warmth emanating from the film. Watching Montparnasse gives you that euphoric feeling that you are not alone in this world, not from some misplaced sense of nostalgia but rather from the possibilities of real human connections with someone you already know or someone new. And that someone doesn't have to be striking looking or extremely clever or funny or well-educated. Even though most of the characters are twenty-something, there is no movie-ness about Montparnasse, just guilelessness and honesty, but fleeting enough not to get bogged down and becoming faux-serious docu-drama. The mood is just right, the music's great and the night is short. And after watching it, you can take that beautiful feeling with you to last at least all through the night.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Frantz is Ozon's Best Film to Date

Frantz (2016) - Ozon
The year is 1918. The Great War has just ended and Germany and France were licking their wounds, hopped up on their respective national fervor. Anna (Paula Beer), a young German woman who lost her 23-year old fiancé, Frantz in the trenches, is living in a mountainous rural German town with his parents, the Hoffmeisters, out of love and duty. One day she notices a frail looking stranger putting roses on Frantz's grave.

Soon the stranger knocks on the doorstep. His name is Rivoire (Pierre Niney), a French soldier who claims to be a friend of Frantz from their school days in Paris. At first apprehensive with anti-France sentiments around the country - 'any Frenchman could have killed my son', but the Hoffmeisters soon open their arms to the charming, tall and melancholic man. Young Anna too, ignoring other suitors, gets smitten by the long eye-lashed, sexy mustachioed Frenchman.

Rivoire confesses to Anna that it was he, who killed her Frantz and learned about Anna and the Hoffmeisters through a letter in the dead man's pocket- that he lied to them. His intention of coming to Germany was to ask for forgiveness. Heartbroken, Anna takes ill right after Rivoire leaves and doesn't have the hearts to tell the Hoffmeisters the truth.

Ok. The synopsis for the first half of the film sounds very much like an old overblown melodrama. Based on an old French play The Man I killed by Maurice Rostand which was adapted by Ernst Lubitch in 1932 as Broken Lullaby. But Ozon, the master of a twisty narrative, packs much more interesting development in store in the second half- part detective story, part romance and part reflecting the current climate of the rise of nationalism where the relationship between two old neighbors - France and Germany and Europe as a whole is being tested.

Frantz is as usual for Ozon, a seductive concoction. Disguised as period costumes and sumptuous monochrome cinematography that bursts in to color in pivotal moments, but the film holds some sinister undertones of lost innocence and pain/joy of growing up.

Beer, a young German actress is marvelous here to carry the whole movie on her shoulder. It's perfectly natural to see the film from a female perspective in Ozon's films, and obviously he flirts with sexual attraction and sensuality (albeit very subtly). But Anna being a German lost in unforgiving world of its enemy gives another layer to this delicious concoction.

As a provincial country girl discovering the world in Paris, a bustling, decadent culture capital of the world, heartbroken but wiser and more world weary, Anna is a thoroughly a modern woman. As the last shot suggests that now she is accustomed to the city living, comfortable in her cosmopolitan surroundings. We feel for Anna. But we all know that wouldn’t last long, as we are aware of the world history of what comes next to France and Germany and she doesn’t.

Beautifully nuanced and poignant and still encompassing all the Ozon film characteristics – secrets, sexuality, twisty genre conventions and its searing political undertones, Frantz is Ozon’s most accomplished film to date.

Frantz is scheduled to open in New York on Wed, 3/15 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a national roll out.

Monday, March 13, 2017

François Ozon Interview: Secrets and Lies and the Rise of Nationalism

One of the France's most prolific writer-filmmakers, François Ozon (Sitcom, Swimming Pool, 8 Women) has been delighting movie-goers while exploring and subverting many genres for almost three decades with 30 features and shorts. His new film Frantz, a sumptuously shot period piece, just might turn out to be his best film. I had a chance to sit down with him during Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Series here in New York.

There is a lot of talks on Frantz being the remake of Broken Lullaby, an old film by Ernst Lubitch. Was that the starting point for your film when you first conceived the idea for the film?

No, the starting point was the play. Broken Lullaby was a play that was written just after the WWI. I discovered the play first because a friend of mine told me about it. The play was very successful in France at that time but forgotten today. And it’s author Maurice Rostand wrote Cirano de Berzerac which was a huge success. Rostand is also totally forgotten.

For a long time I wanted to make a film about secrets and lies and a friend told me that there is a good play so I went to see the play and I really loved it. I thought it was very touching you know. This French soldier goes to Germany and put some flowers on the grave of a German soldier. And so I decided to make and adaptation then I realized that another director already did it before me and it was Lubitch, so I was destroyed you know, totally depressed. How can I make a film after Lubitch? (Laughs)

Finding Broken Lullaby was a challenge. It was quite unknown, forgotten Lubitch: it was a drama and it wasn’t successful at all. After seeing that, I realized that like the play it was based on, the film was from the point of view of a French soldier. My idea was to tell the point of view of the loser of the war- from the Germans point of view: especially the point of view of Anna. From the moment they start, you know what the main character has done. So I changed totally from the play and Lubitch. I turned that around to concentrate on the German girl, there is suspense of unknown - no one knows why this French guy is in Germany.

The challenge of writing the script was how to create suspense until the twist in the middle and how it will turn out the next half of the film. So it was quite a challenge to write it. It was good to know what Lubitch did with the same material and because he made the film in the 30s, he didn’t know the coming of WWII. So his film was more optimistic than mine. After the WWI, everyone was a pacifist and nobody thought nothing like that would happen again. What’s the expression? ‘Never Again!’ Lubitch’s film was about the true reconciliation between France and germany. But I knew, for me it was impossible to have the film like that with an optimistic ending. Well, my film has a happy ending too, but quite different.

The film was shot in black and white. I don’t recall any of your films shot like that.

No. It’s the first time.

It was still shot on film, no? So how did it come about?

The film was supposed to be shot in color. But two weeks before the shoot I decided to put everything in black and white. My producers were very nervous. (laughs) But I had a feeling it would be stronger for the story that it would involve audience into the film more and to believe in this small city. Because of all the memories of this period is in black and white: there are a lot of documents in the archives- films shot in black and white. I had a feeling that it would be more realistic.

My natural tendency is shooting in color of course. I love technicolor and all that. It was impossible to give up color totally. So I decided to put some moments in color when things get emotional.

Like that music scene?


A lot of shots in Germany resemble the German Romanticism era paintings.

You know it’s very strange when you shoot in black and white. Because I shot everything in color on film. It’s during color correction that you make the footage black and white. So when I was looking through the viewfinder, I saw everything in colors. But after the take, I’d go and take a look at the monitor to see my shot in black and white and I had a totally different vision - it looked like some 30s Max Ophüles movies. It was not my goal! But seeing the black and white imagery wakes the cinephilia in you. Despite what I wanted to make, black and white adds something that you didn’t anticipate. It was quite strange.

Paula Beer, a young German actress who plays Anna, is wonderful in this. How did you cast her in the role?

I didn’t know her. I’m not familiar with young German actresses that well these days. So we did a big casting. I had this version of young German actress in mind who was very popular in France in the 70s, Romy Schneider.

Oh, of course.

She was the favorite actress of the French at the time. And when I met Paula, she was just 20 years old. She’s quite different than Schneider obviously. But very mature and beautiful and clever and able to speak in French so it was a miracle. I was very happy to find her because the whole film is on her shoulder. It was important to have someone strong to play Anna and she was perfect.

I don’t think I saw any of your films where characters speaking in German. Was it the first time also?

Yes, it was the first time also. I can speak German. I travelled a lot in Germany when I was young. I did the Fassbinder adaptation of Water Drops on Burning Rocks, but the play was in German, which I translated it to French. It was very stylized because these French actors are playing Germans. There were very short lines spoken in German but that was about it.

Was it difficult for you to direct in German?

Not so much. I was very lucky because actors were very good you know. The actors who play the parents, they both are from theater background and involved in German film industry for a long time. I think they were very happy to be in a French movie, because German film industry is (comparably) smaller. But they do a lot of television and a lot of theater. But they really loved the story. Usually Germans in French movies are not well portrayed - they are usually the bad guys, you know. This time they are the nice guys of the story. So they were very involved and happy.

Actually it was easier for me to direct them in German than English. Accent in English language is quite difficult for French people. We don’t really know where to put the accent in an English word. German and French are (rhythm-wise) closer that way. Usually French don’t like German language. They think it’s aggressive. But to me when girls speak German, it’s very sexy and very charming.

As you told me that there is a revelation in the middle, but what’s more interesting about the film is what happens after. It becomes kind of a detective story about this naive young country girl going to this big unknown city and everything. And she finds that her presence is not welcome and as uncomfortable as Rivoire has been when he was in Germany and how he was treated there. Also noticed that when Anna first arrives in Paris and she finds out that her young husband was staying in this kind of a sleazy area full of prostitutes and vice. I found that interesting.

Yes. I think Frantz is about disillusionment and facing the truth: do you want to face the truth or stay and live in lies forever? It’s the big conflict for Anna. Does she want to know who Frantz was exactly? Maybe Frantz wasn’t as ‘prince charming’ as she thought. So the idea was to make Anna face the reality. So she suffers a lot. But at the end she finds peace within herself. She finds that Adrien wasn’t for her and she might find another man in France. We just don’t know. But for me, she learns a lot. This film is really about an emancipation of a woman.

Because Adrien was played by Pierre Niney, who played Yves Saint Laurant among other things and is a very handsome with very effeminate features, and since I didn’t know much about the play or Lubitch film the premise was based on, and since because it is your film, I thought, ‘oh maybe Adrien’s presence is a stand-in for repressed homosexuality, especially with the setting and time and everything. Am I stretching it too far?

No not at all. I play with that of course. I knew that my audience would expect me to put a red herring in my film, so I play with that. Actually, we have revelation in the middle, maybe it wasn’t what you as an audience had in mind, but at the end, maybe it was. Because we see this guy is totally lost. With his identity, his sexuality, he doesn’t know what he wants.


He prefers to stay with his mother, with the girl he’s known from his childhood. So life is ambiguity, you know.

But I think it comes from today’s perspective. In the original play and even in Lubitch’s films, that subtext at that time, people didn’t see that. Today we know and think about homosexuality more openly. I don’t think Lubitch was aware when he was making Broken Lullaby. But in the play, it lies underneath and between the lines because when I was doing the research I found out the writer was gay and he lived with his mother until the death of his mother. That’s why I created that part of Rivoire in the later part of the film.

It makes sense.

Frantz also reflects what’s going on in the world -especially Europe and here in the States. I mean there has always been tension and friendship between the two countries. But the rise of nationalism is really visible in France and Germany.

I didn’t know my film would become political. It wasn’t my goal. But I realize it echoes what you just talked about. I didn’t know that Brexit would happen in Europe, I didn’t know Trump would be elected. I didn’t have all that in mind. But I felt something. We had a lot of attacks in France. You could feel all the tensions. Some politicians are asking drawing up new borders based on old boarders, the fear of foreigners, all that’s happening now. It was interesting making this film with all these in mind. We know that history repeats itself. To understand it, we need to ask ourselves what happened before.

I realized showing the film to many different audiences, that people were very touched, both old and young. And they were quite concerned about what’s been going on. I was quite surprised because it was quite difficult to finance the film - my producer, especially shooting in black and white, the fact it was taking place right after WWI, it wasn’t quite easy. But I had the feeling that it could touch people. The history would prove me right. But I’m afraid my film will change anything.

I mean, let’s hope so. (laugh)

It’s a great film. This is the prime time for artists to rise up. no?

Yes absolutely.

And reflect the society we are living in and do something about it.


So I think it’s a good time for you to make more films to touch people. I’m a big fan and thank you very much for talking to me today.

Thank you.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hyper Capitalism vs. Spirituality

Personal Shopper (2016) - Assayas
Loved it. With a lucid, flowing script, Assayas lets out the best in Kristen Stewart. The film's more Demon Lover or Irma Vep than Summer Hours. Assayas sketches out the general framework of the film in broad strokes - Maureen (Stewart), a girl who can't let go of her twin brother's death, comes to Paris where he died and waits for his signal (they were both mediums). In the mean time, she works as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten), who can't do normal things for herself because of her celebrity status. The result is a delicious, genre bending whatsit that highlights Stewart's best assets - her nonchalance and youthful physical beauty. Added on here is her vulnerability. She is pretty much the same character here as she was in Clouds of Sils Maria or anything she's ever done that I saw her in, except here she is a fully flesh and blood, a young woman unsure of her judgment and emotion.

After determining the presence who vomits ectoplasm in her brother's house is not her brother and giving up the hopes of contacting her brother again, Maureen starts getting text messages from an unknown caller. He is watching her every move, and making her do things. Things turn darker and scarier for Maureen.

Assayas is operating on his top form with Personal Shopper. Forget about his penchant for portraying flash subjects and celebdom. No other European filmmaker better keeps balance in catering toward box office appeal while not compromising his/her artistic vision than he (Lars von Trier is the other I'm thinking of, but to lesser extent). As usual for Assayas standards, there are many international actors showing up - von Waldstättten (October November), Lars Eidinger (Everyone Else, Sils Maria), Anders Danielson Lie of Joachim Trier films. And of course in the middle of it all is Stewart. She plays her character with so much disdain. She doesn't need a man to be sexy (no pun intended). Her eyes reading the text message, "you are afraid because it's forbidden?" alone makes her sexy. And where else would you see her changing clothes and putting on expensive dresses so casually? One of the year's best.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Interview: Olivier Assayas on Kristen Stewart and Breaking the Boundaries of Filmmaking in Personal Shopper

Assayas Stewart1
French writer/director Olivier Assayas, turned 62 this year. He doesn't look it though. He is an ultimate cinema geek- when he talks about filmmaking, you can easily be overpowered by his enthusiasm and fast talking. He hasn't lost twinkle in his eyes. Only giveaway of his age might be his short graying hair.

Assayas diverse filmography (including Irma Vep, Summer Hours, Demon Lover, Carlos) reflects his tireless exploration of film as a medium. Clouds of Sils Maria, a delicious hall of mirrors meta-film, made an international splash two years ago and made its young American actress, Kristen Stewart a darling of French movie goers. Assayas and Stewart, an unlikely pair, hit it off and now we have Personal Shopper, a delicious whatisit, that is 100 percent Assayas (for me, as of now, the hard to beat movie of the year). I met him in blustery snowy day in March in New York for a brief chat. Honestly, I could listen to him for days.

There is always this fluidity in your films but especially in Personal Shopper, there seems to be surprises in every turn. It was really fun to watch the film! How did this particular script developed?

I think I’ve been experimenting more and more in terms of screenwriting. I’m just trying things. I've kind of lost interest in the classic dynamics of the narrative, of linear narrative, I would say. For some reason there is something frustrating about it for me, so I’m just trying to see by twists and turns and putting on layers, whatever, so I can come up with something that’s more exciting for me. I always have this notion that if I’m having fun writing it, quite possibly the audience will have fun watching it.

I can’t deal any more with ‘traditional steps’ when you are telling the story. I just want to go straight to moments - I need to write cinematic moments that would make sense once connected together. It feels somehow stronger. I need to feel that because there is so much of corporate industrial filmmaking going on, movies have become totally predictable. Because you have to adopt to standards and if you don’t they will think it will have problems with the audiences.

I think it’s important to move on because filmmaking has so much potential. So I have been describing this movie as a collage which in a way it is - I’m using mixed materials to tell my story.

You know when people say ‘cut to the chase’ and I’m constantly cutting to the chase. I am constantly moving to the next exciting moment. But I don’t really deal with the connection, I just, (hitting his hands together) hit the two things together. It would be like hitting two stones together to create a spark or something like that.

I think that’s the best kind of cinema.

Kristen Stewart is obviously the main character in this and you’ve made her a big French star now with two back to back films. In our previous conversation when you were presenting Clouds of Sils Maria, you said that Stewart’s biggest assets are her youth and her power to go against a legend like Juliette Binoche in that film. How did this continued working collaboration come about?

I think so much of filmmaking is about grabbing opportunities when they come to you. I’m not sure why— well I kind of know why. Connecting with Kristen has been an inspiration in a sense that, I would not have imagined that we would click the way we clicked. I mean we met and talked. I liked her work and she’d seen couple of my films that she liked. I thought that it was interesting that this young American actress is interested in my work. I thought if we were gonna work together, something interesting would come out of it. But then I realized that we connected way beyond that. There was something deeper- how we approach filmmaking, how we idealize filmmaking in a certain way, how we live for movies.

There is something very genuine in her in approaching filmmaking. And she is very ambitious in the best sense of the word. She always wants to go beyond whatever she knows how to do or have been doing. She has this feeling that filmmaking is an open space for her.

I’ve been trying to break the boundaries of French filmmaking. I always felt trapped, not as much as limited. I am a product of French independent filmmaking in many ways. But simultaneously, it’s been frustrating to see that there are certain things you can do and can’t do in any film culture. At some point there is this framework and I’m always excited by what’s beyond the framework.

Kristen brings another dimension which is youth. It’s essential. It’s vital. Independent filmmaking is kind of losing touch with the young audience.


You know I think it’s happening all over the world - the indie film crowd is aging. But I think filmmaking has so much to do with youth because the youth is the real audience for cinema. It’s a medium for young people so you don't want to lose that audience. You just hope that you connect with it. Beyond anything we do together, Kristen brings me that.

And as a director and an actor, it goes both ways right? And what I can give her is space, time and freedom. Like my movies, indie European films- often we create then while we are doing it. It’s not always possible to do that in American indie framework, unless you are Malick or someone who has been doing that for all his life.

What did she first think about the Personal Shopper script?

She was in Paris for couple of days. And we were like 'lets have a drink together'. We kind of sat down and she asked me what I’m up to and I said I was working on a screenplay and she was like, 'oh can I read it?' 'well, yeah sure.' (laughs) And she sent me the document saying that she loved it and would love to do it. And that was pretty much it. I supposed we had couple of short conversations afterwords but nothing much.

What I love about Kristen is that she doesn’t ask questions. Most actors, including most interesting, great actors I’ve worked with, wants me to discuss the psychology of the characters and why this and why that. Kristen doesn’t function like that. She connects physically with a character and she considers making sense of it as an actor which is their job. Other actors would take it as that they ‘should somehow contribute’. Because I’m the director and writer, they want to please me and want to go in my direction. But I don’t want that. I want them to bring their own imagination to bring the spark of life to my screenplay. When I finish writing a screenplay, I already went as far as I can go. I need someone to take over the character.

The supernatural element of the film reminded me of Irma Vep. Despite all the glamorous settings, there is something sweet about Maureen being a medium and waiting for her brother to give her a sign. I’d call it sweet spirituality. Is it what you were exploring? Some kind of spiritualism against this rather vacuous materialism?

That’s what I was aiming at, I suppose. I wanted to make a movie that dealt with invisible, whatever that invisible is - you can call it spirituality, you can call it ghosts, parallel reality, alternative facts! (laughs). The thing is, there is the material world and there is our inner world however we project ourselves -longing, imagination, into this outside world. All through the ages, every culture in the world, people have had visions, heard voices or projected some of these tendencies to the outside world. So I wanted to deal with that. I was always convinced that cinema was a way of capturing things that are ultimately beyond perception.

Something intangible.

Intangible. And I wanted to explore that. Once you decide to go in that direction, you will be using genre element because cinema had invented the ways of dealing with that dimension of human experience which is genre filmmaking. I’m saying that in terms of films like Vampyr by Dreyer or Nosferatu by Murnau would be considered horror movies today but they are not horror movies. They are films by those directors who tried to cross the dimensions of reality through those specific stories.

So there is Nora Von Wal--


Who is an Austrian actress, there is Lars Eidinger--


Anderson Danielson Lie who is Norwegian in that group as well. Once again, you have this whole international cast working for you. How do you come up with such great actors from all over? Do you cultivate relationships over the years?

You know, I love working with people that I love. Nora has been a friend since we did Carlos together. I've known Lars since Sils Maria and I hope to keep working with those guys. I think it’s so precious to establish those kind of friendship with your actors. And they happen to be great actors.

When I was talking about opening the boundaries of french filmmaking, it mostly involves working with the actors I love. And making my films in English helps me with that. It’s because I’ve done few films in English, all of sudden I can work with German actors and I can work with Anders Danielson Lie whom I think is an amazing actor.


You know, I saw him in Oslo, August 31. I thought he was amazing. He has something specifically modern about him that fascinates me. I can’t imagine a French actor who would’ve brought the same vibe to that role. So shooting in English opens the possibilities of working with the broad range of actors and in that sense broad range of colors that I can use it in my film.

We talked about this before but you were always on the forefront of pushing and discovering film culture from other parts of the world and I still feel you are the only one as a French director who continue to do so.

One thing I found interesting thinking about your filmography - Demon Lover, Boarding Gate and now Personal Shopper. There is this hyper-capitalist element in the background. And I can't help myself thinking that oh Assayas perhaps is satirizing the highly advanced capitalist society. Is that the case?

Ha ha. Yes. I think it’s totally over the top ridiculous about fashion world or celebrity worshiping culture but I wouldn’t say I am satirizing them. I am presenting them as reality. That there is the side of the world that actually exists.

Personal Shopper is now playing in New York and LA. National roll out will follow next week.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river...

Suzanne (2013) - Quillévéré
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Gritty and succinct in its presentation, the film paints about 20 some years of a woman and her immediate family and friends in a fleeting style. Suzanne (Sarah Forestier) is a daughter of a blue color 18 wheeler driver Nicolas (beautifully played by François Damiens) and an older sister of Maria (Adéle Haenel). You can only tell a passage of time by Nicolas's thinning hair on top. Main attraction here is of course, Forestier. As a young woman who makes some really bad choices early on, her Suzanne is an ordinary girl who has no luck in life.

With co-screenwriter Mariette Désert, Quillévéré moves the film briskly, jumping time forward in major way, leaving the audience to catch up both narratively and emotionally. We never get to see a botched home invasion/robbery that sends Suzanne to prison, we never get to see her young son growing up in foster care, we never get to see Maria's social life. We only get the glimpse of Suzanne's life every 5 or so years, not in a calculated, 'the super hit medley of my life' but more fleeting, observing someone's life with a sense of melancholy. This way, Quillévéré eliminates a sense of that false expectation/manipulation that comes with moviemaking. We see excellent actors portraying beautiful characters and we share their regrets, loves and their sadnesses together. Suzanne is a massively affecting film, much more so than any of Dardenne Bros. films.

Soft Touch

Love Like Poison (2016) - Quillévéré
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14 year old Anna (Clara Augarde) comes home from the boarding school for the Summer. With her parents being separated, she has to contend with being with her depressed mother and a bedridden grandpa. But she is generally a good girl. She hangs with a local choir boy Pierre. Her confirmation at the church is approaching but she is having doubts, struggling with her body changing and earthly desires. Quietly being repulsed by adults' behaviors, she and perhaps us audiences learn that the line between childhood and adulthood is pretty thin.

Quilévéré's strength is in her paying attention to every character in the film, from Anna to the conflicted local priest to Ana's deadbeat father to the dirty grandpa. Also I do like Quillévéré's gentle approach. Let's face it, coming of age story is a dime a dozen in French cinema. But she has perhaps the gentlest touch in all female directors of her generation (Mia Hansen-Løve, Rebecca Zlotowski and Alice Rohrwacher come to mind).