Thursday, 25 July 2013

Claude Chabrol: The Art of Suspense

Les Bonnes Femmes (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Born in Paris in 1930, into a comfortable middle-class family, Chabrol was evacuated during the war to the isolated rural village of Sardent in central France. Already a film enthusiast, he set up a makeshift cinema in a barn where he projected German genre films, which he advertised as American ‘super-productions’.

After the Liberation, he returned to Paris, where he studied first pharmacology, then Law, while, at the same time, immersing himself in the thriving cine-club scene. At the Cinematheque Francais, he met Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and was soon invited to write articles for Cahiers du Cinema. A devoted fan of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, he collaborated on a book about Hitchcock with Rohmer which became the first serious study of ‘the master of suspense’.

Backed with money inherited by his wife, Chabrol wrote, produced and directed Le Beau Serge in 1958, a film often cited as the first New Wave feature. Shot over nine weeks in Sardent, using natural light and real locations, the film portrays a detailed picture of working class life in a bleak provincial village. Reflecting the influence of both Rossellini and Hitchcock, the film plays on the theme of ‘the double’, with it’s two young protagonists, Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) and Serge (Gerard Blain), mirror opposites locked in a power struggle. Le Beau Serge was well-received, winning an award at the Locarno film festival, and a lump sum of money from the Film Aid board, which enabled Chabrol to start production on his next film before the first had been released to the public.

Les Cousins (1959) again featured actors Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy, as a pair of polar opposites, in a plot that effectively reverses the action of the earlier film. This time Blain plays the outsider, a visitor from the country to Paris, who struggles to find a place in his cousin’s social set, just as Brialy found it difficult to re-enter the closed world of the village in Le Beau Serge. Otherwise, however, it is hard to believe that the two films came from the same director. In contrast to the long takes and lyrical landscapes of his first film, Les Cousins is brash, fast-paced and urbane, with an undercurrent of biting satire.

Les Cousins was another critical and commercial success, earning a Best Film award at the Berlin Film Festival, and becoming France’s fifth largest box office success of 1959. Chabrol’s innovative approach to financing became a blueprint for other filmmakers to follow. Meanwhile, the production company he had set up, AJYM, was now able to support the debut films of Jacques Rivette (Paris Nous Appartient) and Eric Rohmer (Le Signe Du Lion). He also served as a technical advisor for Godard on A Bout De Souffle (1960). By using his success in this way, Chabrol was instrumental in getting the New Wave up and running; which in turn contributed to the press reports of unselfish interdependence and collaboration within the movement.

Chabrol’s next film, A Double Tour (1959), was a first excursion into the thriller genre, and displayed many of the concerns – murder, deception and obsession – that would dominate his later work. For his next film, Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Chabrol assembled a strong female cast including Bernadette Lafont and Stephane Audran. The film, which follows the lives of four young women working in a shop in Paris, again combined documentary realism with Hitchcockian suspense. On the surface, an easy-going comedy/drama about the love-lives of four working girls, the humorous tone is soon offset by an undertone of tension. Its detailed depiction of Paris and memorably enigmatic ending, make this one of the masterworks of the Nouvelle Vague. 

Chabrol’s subsequent releases, Les Godelureaux (1960), L’Oeil Du Malin (1961), Ophelia (1962), and Landru (1962) failed to recapture his earlier success – until the release of Les Biches in 1968 inaugurated a series of film classics which established Chabrol’s reputation. (

In the following extact, Claude Chabrol discusses his early films with Mark Shivas for an article first published in 1963:

Le Beau Serge (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
Mark Shivas: What do you think of your first film, ‘Le Beau Serge’, these days?

Claude Chabrol: I still quite like the opening, and I quite like the village, La Creuse, where I stayed during the war. I hate the film’s ending.

MS: It was symbolic, though, wasn’t it?

CC: But it didn’t come out very honest. In my mind it corresponded to something quite precise, something one often comes across in the world, but...

MS: What were the things that mainly interested you in the making of the film?

CC: First of all, there was the village which I knew well, and I liked the people there very much. That part of it I enjoyed doing a lot. But at the same time I was learning the technical side, and that lost us lots of time!

MS: Haven't a lot of documentary things about the village been cut out during the montage?

CC: At the outset, the film was at least two and a half hours long. Luckily I showed it to some people and they said, ‘Aië, aië!’ so I cut three quarters of an hour. And in comparison with the original scenario I’d already cut half an hour. So it could have lasted three hours. It was cut mainly in the transitions, and then there were two things which took up a hell of a lot of time. The cutting was done so that the film could be more successful commercially, but I took care to make sure that the topography of the village was respected. So in order to get from one place to another, even if it meant going right across the village, one went right across following the guy or whoever it might be. That took plenty of time!

Then there were things like the baking of bread and scenes in the bistro with people talking among themselves that had nothing to do with the subject of the film but seemed to me to be indispensable at the time. You see, even the tables of the bistro were of very old wood, and so much wine had been spilt on them that they had a unique color. Henri (Decaë) had rendered this color so well that I would have liked to have it in the film. But then everything would have been interminable.

Le Beau Serge (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: Had you ever worked with actors before? Rivette began, for instance, with actors in a short film.

CC: No, I hadn’t done anything interesting. Short films aren’t really the same. But for Le Beau Serge I mainly chose friends and old hams. In using these people, I realized that I liked barnstormers and actors who exaggerated a little. I always encourage them to grimace. If you are afraid you go (makes expression of horror by shrinking back with eyes popping), if you are happy you go (throws up hands in glee)! It’s because of this taste of mine that from time to time actors grimace. The ones I used in Le Beau Serge were good, but not good at that.

MS: Do you prefer to use their natural mannerisms?

CC: Yes, there was the way in which Jean-Claude (Brialy) runs. That was very useful to me. It was when I saw him run like that I made him wear the scarf, because it suited him. Gerard Blain rolls his shoulders like this…when he walks, so I told him to walk faster to accentuate the fact. Little guys with complexes about their size often do things like this to make them look bigger. Hawks must have noticed this too in Hatari! On top of all this rolling motion, he was often supposed to be drunk as well, seeming to lean on one leg first and then the other.

MS: Did you have more technical than acting problems?

CC: I had my main problems with that infernal device they call the camera-blimp! That was dreadful. All the same, there are one or two things I like. In the camera movements there are some that don't serve any purpose: when a man walks across the main square, I put down all the tracking rails I had, maybe four hundred, five hundred meters of rail! I had already intended to do lots of camera movement – travelings which started here and ended there, crossing the main square, ending by going through a door into a house! Fantastic! As the camera followed the actor through the door, he was obliged to walk on the rails – clack, clack, and you could see them too! Then we had to go through little doors inside which there was no room for anything much more than the camera. Poor (Jean) Rabier, he had a hell of a time working on the framing.

Les Cousins (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: What was it about the subject of ‘Les Cousins’ that interested you particularly?

CC: I had both Les Cousins and Le Beau Serge prepared at the same time, in fact; I had the idea for Les Cousins but I couldn’t do it because it would have been too expensive. Construction-wise Le Beau Serge was at once too long and without enough incident for its length. The pieces about the father-in-law were added later. Les Cousins was just three pages long when written down. The situations were more compact. It has more construction. Le Beau Serge was economical, and it was good on the village, but the story was rather tricked up. The people in Les Cousins are real.

MS: What do you like especially in ‘Les Cousins’?

CC: I’m very fond of the tomatoes à la Provencale, and I quite like the second surprise party. The man who breaks the chains... things like that. The background to the party... nothing quite like it on the screen for twenty years... I think I broke all records there! Madness. There’s everything there – Wagner, girls with bare feet, the lot!

MS: Weren’t there repercussions from that film?

CC: Not particularly. There was a little. People didn’t think there were any Fascists in France then: they were that stupid. Now they can see that it was true.

MS: The characters?

CC: I like the character played by Brialy, and Carolus (Blain), quite well. It’s sad that a chap as frank as he ends up a victim of his own foolishness.

Les Cousins (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: Is (Paul) Gégauff’s part in it mainly concerned with the characters or with the construction of the script?

CC: It’s not the construction which is Paul’s part, but the dialogue, which is real Gégauff dialogue. It succeeds in saying in two pages what would have taken me four to say. That’s very useful because it allows you to do a lot more in the same amount of time. And also by Gégauff are one or two little things such as the scene where they talk about the erotic quality of their skin. The whole story depends on this, he would say: it’s a story about skin texture. He wrote that scene in about half an hour.

MS: Didn’t he have any ideas as a scenarist?

CC: No, no, no ideas of construction.

MS: So the symmetrical construction of the film is your work?

CC: Yes, I like symmetry. I like it when everything comes together at the end, but one mustn’t strive for symmetry. It annoys me to strive for ‘rhymes.’ It’s good working with Gégauff because he takes a delight in destroying casuistry. I like what Paul does.

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: What was it that appealed in the subject of ‘A Double Tour’?

CC: I read Stanley Ellin’s book when I was doing my military service and there was one thing which I found very remarkable then: a chap who’s very conformist and then suddenly takes off rejoicing into nature. The subject was impossible. There was one thing in it about a key which locks a granary. I have never understood whether the important thing was that it was locked or that it was unlocked! So I cut that out. And I amused myself with the mythological aspects of the story: Leda, and there were swan references in the house! Then there was the scene of the row between the man, Dacqumine, and his wife, the first version of which was refused by the Hakims who were producing the film: it was much more horrible than the scene we eventually shot. It was entirely physical with the bloke saying to his wife, ‘You look a mess, your armpits smell bad,’ and other nasty things. Finally there was the character of the Hungarian, Laszlo (Jean-Paul Belmondo). He interested me. But at the same time, this was a mistake because the film would have done better at the box-office without him. It didn’t do badly, but without this bizarre guy, spectators would have been less upset by the film. He was a worrying element, spending his time saying and doing outrageous things to offend people.

MS: In ‘A Double Tour’ André Jocelyn plays the role of a person who excludes or destroys beauty, a person who seems to crop up quite a lot in your films – ‘L’Oeil Du Malin’ and ‘Ophelia’ as well.

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
CC: Joselyn represents a certain type in French society — the son of a good family, rather degenerate, a bit queer. Jocelyn is good at portraying that kind of character.

But let’s imagine a young chap who’s intelligent, sensitive, kind, handsome, who lives in a milieu which is unintelligent, insensitive, ugly, hard, and yet he cannot abandon the milieu because his roots, his family are in it. When he comes face to face with something that contradicts what he has been brought up to, it’s inevitable and normal that he will try to destroy it. In L’Oeil Du Malin it’s a bit different: the wish for destruction comes more from the man’s mediocrity than from anything else. The reaction is to turn their destruction outwards, preferring to fire on others. One finds the same sort of thing in present day politics – the young people who have become plastiqueurs. I’m sure their origins aren’t so different from those of the Jocelyn character in A Double Tour: they’re people who have problems inside themselves, inside their families. That sort of character interests me a great deal.

MS: It’s the opposite in ‘Ophelia’, isn’t it, a bit like ‘Vertigo’, where the character wants to make his dream concrete and thus destroys the real thing?

CC: It’s very much like Vertigo, and that’s a film I admire very much. I saw it again when I was making Ophelia and I found it totally unbearable. I found ridiculous arguments so that I could say to myself, ‘What is all this driveling nonsense?’! But the arguments that I used to myself when I was making Ophelia were ridiculous.

MS: ‘Vertigo’ certainly had its influence, because there were things in ‘L’Oeil Du Malin’; there were very similar shots.

CC: Oh yes.

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: And the color in ‘A Double Tour’... the field of poppies. You said that the main problems were Decaë’s.

CC: There’s one thing which I hate about color films... people who use up a lot of their despairing producer’s money by working in the laboratory to bring out the dominant hues, or to make color films where there isn’t any color. The hell with that! I like to have the screen full of color, twenty colors on the screen at once, fifty colors. There are no dominants despite what people have said.

MS: It must have been awful for Decaë...

CC: Yes, but the result was very faithful... and it was horribly complicated. I mean the golds and the interiors, with the windows with the colored glass giving the faces three colors at once. The relationship between the interiors and the Provence exteriors was very important, and coordinating the ideas of the decorator and costumier, the cameraman and the director, are specially important in color movies, and much more difficult than for a black and white film. I like making black and white films in natural surroundings, but I much prefer shooting a color film inside a studio where the colors are easier to control. Some colors are very difficult to render, and you must compensate to get the color you want on the screen. It’s pretty complicated, but not so much for me as for the cameraman. I say to him, ‘You see this, you see that. I want that exactly rendered as it is. Is that possible?’ In the studio there are no troubles about the sun going in!

A Double Tour (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: ‘A Double Tour’ is very exact on the colorings of the south of France.

CC: It was also very important to get the decors right for the South. There were family photos in the house we used, and the paternal grandfather of the house looked exactly like Dacqmine.

MS: Were you happy with the actors there?

CC: That was rather complicated. Everything was prepared, the locations were chosen and all that. My first choice for Leda was Suzy Parker but she didn’t fit in with the decor at all. So Antonella Luaidi was chosen. The plot had to be modified a bit... she became an Italian who had known a Hungarian in Japan. Rather remarkable! I also wanted Charles Boyer for the Dacqmine part. On the other hand Madeleine (Robinson) was just what I had wanted.

MS: Jean-Paul Belmondo’s gastronomic orgy was quite something...

CC: Yes, I’ve often noticed that in films people don’t really stuff themselves full when they’re eating. So now I work on the principle of having at least one meal in all my films. After all, one must eat. And after all, again, it’s very scenic. It’s difficult to put across on film, to get everyone in the shot without cutting to and fro. I’ve often thought of having a table made with a hole in the middle for the camera to film meal scenes!

Les Bonnes Femmes (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: ‘Les Bonnes Femmes’ is perhaps your most ‘symmetrical’ film.

CC: Symmetrical? From the symmetrical point of view it’s symmetrical!

MS: In the montage or what?

CC: In my last version there was a final quarter of an hour of flashes of people in the street leaving their work between six and seven. That was cut. At the outset it was more symmetrical. The whole thing came full circle.

MS: Most people either think that ‘Les Bonnes Femmes’ is a masterpiece, or they’re violently against it.

CC: I wanted to make a film about stupid people that was very vulgar and deeply stupid. From that moment on I can hardly be reproached for making a film that is about stupid people. I don’t think that it’s a pessimistic film. I’m not pessimistic about people in general, but only about the way they live. When we wrote the film the people were, for Gégauff, fools. It was a film about fools. But at the same time we could see little by little that if they were foolish, it was mainly because they were unable to express themselves, establish contact with each other. The result of naïvety, or a too great vulgarity.

People have said that I didn’t like the people I was showing, because they believe that you have to ennoble them to like them. That’s not true. Quite the opposite: only the types who don’t like their fellows have to ennoble them.

Les Bonnes Femmes (Directed by Claude Chabrol)
MS: But the cinema is an art of identification and that makes it annoying for the spectator. And that is perhaps the reason for the film’s failure commercially.

CC: As the film shows vulgar people, who explain themselves instinctively without any kind of mask, so spectators and critics talk about ‘excess.’ But the girls aren’t shown as idiots. They’re just brutalized by the way they live. They’re simple girls who are impressed by savior-faire, by people who do things, tricks and conjurors for example. Maids and shop girls love this sort of thing. The poetical side doesn’t really interest them. You see much more grotesque things going on every day than you do in Les Bonnes Femmes. Actually it wasn’t a group of girls in the film. In effect it was one.

Les Bonnes Femmes is the one I like best of all my films. I like Ophelia too, but I prefer Les Bonnes Femmes.

Ophelia was not quite what we wanted. I think it was shot too late. It should have been made sooner and nearer the time when I had the idea. And then it wasn’t shot just where I would have liked: the chateau I had wanted had been sold and that was annoying. And we had changed the scenario around too much by the time the film was made. But I like Ophelia very much...

MS: What is the difference between the projected version of ‘Ophelia’ and the present one when finally made?

CC: I pushed it more towards having fun. And then the original version was more serious. I had the film Hamlet interposed in it. I put the guards back in and a bit where they chase Jocelyn, who puts on a cap and scarf to make them think he’s breaking into the grounds of the chateau. I was obliged to change some of the scenes between Ivan (Jocelyn) and the girl (Mayniel). I’m very fond of Juliette, but she wasn’t quite what I had in mind at the outset for the part. I wanted a girl with a sort of angelic quality, more ethereal, so that one should understand the impossibility of any erotic quality there. I like the little film within the film and the reception that goes with it because it’s more normal than the rest of the film. The hero is normal in comparison with the rest of them. He’s not at all mad. In the context of all the other monstrous people around, the relationship of Jocelyn and Mayniel is not at all strange.

– Mark Shivas interviewed Chabrol for Movie, No. 10, published in June 1963. Text copyright © Mark Shivas.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Bertrand Tavernier: Crime and the Surreal

Clean Slate (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
 ‘I always try to show social consequences in my films. This is a challenge, of course, but consequences are always more important than the action itself.’ 
One of France’s premiere directors, screenwriters, and producers, Bertrand Tavernier is renowned for making dramas encompassing themes as diverse as familial relationships, World War I, and contemporary social ills. Regardless of the subjects they explore, Tavernier lends his films great introspection and humanity, something that has established him as one of the French cinema’s more progressive and compassionate figures.

Born in Lyon on April 25, 1941, Tavernier grew up with a love of film and wanted to be a director from the age of 13. He was particularly influenced by such American directors as Joseph Losey, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and William Wellman, and – during a spell at the Sorbonne, where he studied law – he became involved in the film industry as an assistant director for Jean-Pierre Melville. Tavernier became then a film critic and worked for prestigious publications as Positif and Cahiers du Cinema. His first feature film, L’Horloger de St. Paul (1974), received international acclaim and a Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It also featured a starring turn by Philippe Noiret, whom Tavernier featured often in subsequent projects. Many of his films – from Le Juge et l’Assassin to Un Dimanche à la Campagne from Une Semaine de Vacances to La Passion Béatrice gained great critical success and earned a number of awards – (World Cinema Foundation).

In an interview with Michael Carlson in 2008 for the Crimetime website Bertrand Tavernier discussed his fondness for the crime genre and his early embrace of American crime movies:

BT: Well, I was interested in all kinds of film in those days, but perhaps because everyone wanted to write about Visconti and no one was writing about westerns, or musicals, or film noir, I was drawn to that. I was attracted by style; these crime films were saying much more than what they were supposed to say; they were full of information about the American way of life, there was lots of social context, and they were written or directed largely by progressive people, or people forced to leave their own country...

MC: So many of the great noir directors are immigrants.

Yes, they brought things that were not existing, so much, a sense of doubt or skepticism...well, this is too simple but American cinema tends to be about affirmation, and the European was more about doubt. Directors like Siodmak, Preminger, Lubitsch, Wilder, bring this with them.

You could argue film noir was European sensibility meeting the American gangster film.

Oh yes, but even in France at the end of the 1930s, you had Carne, and films written by Prevert.

‘Quai des brumes’?

Of course.

You were a critic before you started as an assistant director with Jean-Pierre Melville.

I never considered myself a critic; I did it merely out of passion because I wanted to be a film director. But I was not a good AD working with Melville; it was a bad experience, and he was not an easy man to work with, very intimidating to people on the set. But he knew I was not suited, so he suggested I might be better as a press agent, and that proved perfect: I could learn about films without the problems of being an AD, sit in on every stage of the process, and as I became more successful in PR it was special because I could work only on films I liked: so I did PR for Ford, Walsh, Henry Hathaway, and also for Godard, Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda... the second thing I did as a press agent was to make a trailer for the Godard film.

The Watchmaker of St Paul (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
And for your first feature, you adapted Simenon.

Because I loved him. I had already written one screenplay, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach Of Falesa, and I’d got James Mason and Jacques Brel to agree to be in it, but I couldn’t get the finance. I tried to write another screenplay, about the French Gestapo, but when I showed it to (the screenwriter) Pierre Bost he said ‘these people were scumbags, to make them into heroes is dangerous’, well, not heroes, he meant they become interesting by being the main characters.

Which is interesting, because that’s one of the themes of Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct).

Yes, and the French critics called that picture an attack on the New Wave, and they didn’t know I’d worked on pictures like Pierrot Le Fou or fought for him on Le Mepris. I saw Godard at his tribute at the Institute Lumiere, and he was very nice to me. But Laissez-Passer is about the spirit of resistance, and the behaviour of people under occupation.

I think of someone like Soderbergh today, and wonder if the crime film helps provide a structure for film makers.

Yes, it does, and it’s a structure that you can break or destroy – but you must have a basis. Dexter Gordon said to me once ‘before trying to break all the barriers, learn how to play Laura. When you know Laura in the right mood, then you can expand.’ John Boorman once said he only needed the shot of someone putting a rifle in a suitcase. After that, you can go in a lot of innovative ways, because you have that moment of danger and conflict. And in film noir they found thousands of ways, flashbacks, false flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks.

Yes, I just saw ‘The Locket’ again.

Exactly. Resnais called film noir the best school for telling a story in the most modern way, and it’s amazing how they are still very much alive and not dated. Pitfall, The Big Clock, as interesting as they were, maybe moreso. They give the opportunity for the writer to write different dialogue, always interesting. Out Of The Past has wonderful dialogue, it’s not one note, and you have the literary, very sparse, like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave. The people doing the writing knew they could smuggle ideas in.

The Watchmaker of St Paul (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Which brings us back to ‘The Watchmaker of St Paul’.

Yes, because Simenon is on of the most important writers in France – at least thirty masterpieces, plus all the great Maigrets. He’s often reduced to atmosphere, but suddenly he gets the essence of something, the naked man: we had this wonderful scene, when Noiret lies down on his son’s bed, after learning he’s a killer, and he’s a man deprived of what society has made of him.

Noiret conveys an amazingly lonely man, which I associate with Simenon’s characters

Yes, he is alone. My early films are always broken families, people are always lonely. Perhaps because my parents never got along, so I was raised that way.

And it’s odd to see Simenon set in the summer, in Lyon.

He’s always done in fog and rain, but I wanted to shoot the film in summer, in great light, because the foggy atmosphere is merely superficial. In fact, about 80 per cent of the screenplay is original, but when you add, when it’s good, it’s what Jean Aurenche called a gift inspired by the love you have for the book.

The Judge and the Assassin (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Your third film, ‘The Judge And The Assassin,’ combined crime, like your first one, with a period piece, like your second, ‘Que La Fete Commence’.

I was doing a trilogy with Noiret, dealing with issues of justice, and this was based on a very famous case at the time. I was looking for the texture behind the crime story; the time of Dreyfus, the battle between religion and the state. It’s set between the death of Van Gogh and the birth of Freud. As the killer, we cast an actor who’d done only low class bad comedy films, but he was very good, and brought the uncertainty to the role.

It’s in Cinemascope.

We shot in the Ardeche, and tried to integrate the landscape. I was influenced by Delmer Daves and he saw that and loved the film. The early films I loved, of John Ford especially, rooted the heroes in their environment, and with wide screen you can show them close up with the landscape still there behind them. I love Anthony Mann, how he gets the landscape into the film, and Cinemascope lets me do that.

You mention Daves; what did you think of the remake of ‘3:10 To Yuma’?

Oh I hated it! Hated it! They take a shortcut through the Apaches and discover a town full of Chinese the sheriff had no idea existed there! Really. In the original, two men are killed in the opening, and those deaths mean something; the first reverberates throughout the picture.

His funeral in Contention that morning...

Exactly. But in the remake, they kill dozens, randomly. The town, everyone is shooting. It makes no sense.

It seemed to me they deliberately inverted the most crucial things about the film. The son is now the hero, not the father...

Yes, perhaps because of the audience. They make films for children, so the big choices in this film are made by a child. And the father must die, not triumph.

Clean Slate (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Then we move to 1981, and ‘Coup De Torchon’ (Clean Slate), which is many people’s favourite of your films and favourite Jim Thompson adaptation.

It took me five years to adapt. At first I wanted to set it in Lyon, my native city, but it didn’t work. You can’t kill someone in France without someone else noticing, the body turning up. I asked Perec, Blier, to help, but nothing worked. Then I was re-reading Celine, and I thought ‘Ah ha’! I wanted to ask Jean Aurenche to write it, because he had lived in Africa, and he brought that surreal sense of irony – his sister was married to Max Ernst, by the way – the paying of the workers in cinema tickets for example. Though the scene of the pigs and the dead bodies, that we took from Gide.

But the surreal is there in the original too.

Oh yes. But when the Americans adapt Jim they wipe that out, they lose the metaphysical. There is always something strange going on, you’re not walking on solid ground, that’s why I used the stedicam so much; things are not stable, you can suddenly fall into a pit, that’s what Jim’s books are about. It leaves no way out for the audience, and I decided to keep that. There is no character who the audience can embrace at the end.

Which is true of ‘The Grifters’, to an extent, as well.

Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, said he thought Coup de Torchon was the best Jim Thompson, and Westlake is a very very great writer.

L. 627 (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
It would be another decade before ‘L.627’, which was very different for you.

It’s a story about someone trying to do what he’s been asked to do, in this case a cop on the drug squad, but he becomes a pain in the ass because he tries, and he’s told not to think about results.

I worked with a real detective in his office, his boss left me completely free, he showed me people dealing, explained the situation. But I made that film out of anger, because I’d had lunch with Laurent Fabius, who was Minister of the Interior, and he asked me for an example of something he could work on. So I told him my son had been a drug addict, and had taken me in the Metro, at Chatelet, where you could walk through an open drug market, to schools where people were selling, so I said, you could do something about that. And he said he wanted something important! I was speechless! The film created a big controversy in France, the Minister of Interior was angry, and said their policy was against drug-dealing, but they actually did nothing, so the film was supported by the cops who understood. And it became a racial issue, because many, if not most, of the dealers were black. That was simply a fact. But by avoiding a crackdown, they opened the door for the likes of Le Pen, because it allowed him to then damn all blacks as dealers.

There is a documentary feel, less lyrical, and you’ve done many documentaries.

Maybe it reflects the change in the social situation, the generation. My films seem to take on the energies of their main characters. All the actors were unknowns, Didier Bezace, Phillipe Torreton, Milo, and my son actually plays a young cop. But I wanted to show a hero who is sometimes doing things that are wrong, beating up suspects, because he has grown so frustrated with the so-called correct way, because it doesn’t work. My films are about people who are passionate, and that can lead him over the line, into doing things that are evil. In all my films people make mistakes.

Fresh Bait (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
Which is the sense one gets from The Bait (L’Appat, aka Fresh Bait) that it is the culture, perhaps, which has let down these three killers.

I felt it was an uncomfortable subject, how three people who would not harm anyone, but are ignorant, and dream of becoming rich in America, how could they kill people.

It’s as if it’s the easy way out?

They are lazy, too. And the pressure eventually turns them into killers. It was released in France on DVD, and I’m sorry it wasn’t in cinemas. The New York Times called it a French Natural Born Killers, the same subject but opposite in treatment.

Which brings us to ‘In The Electric Mist’, with Tommy Lee Jones and based on the novel by James Lee Burke. Is there a connection with ‘Coup de Torchon’, with the American South, the original setting of Thompson’s ‘Pop. 1280’?

Not intentionally, but as you say it, I think there is a similarity. I adore Burke, and his books present something different, and like Thompson there is a surreal element to them.

Especially in ‘Electric Mist’...

Yes, with the dreams. So I tried to shoot the dream sequences very straight-forwardly, very very realistically, with no distorted lenses or bizarre angles. He’s like Thompson too, in that his books have long sequences written in italics, because they are different from the real, and how do you film italics? In Thompson crime is explained by prejudice, intolerance, humilation. And the other element is Burke’s great sensitivity to social context, his sense of place. The past is always there, it’s his obsession, it explains the crimes of the present: it all goes back to slavery and the Civil War, things kept under the blanket and not dealt with.

In the Electric Mist (Directed by Bertrand Tavernier)
It’s very Faulknerian.

Faulkner was a nightmare to interview; the critics were asking all sorts of intellectual questions, and he wanted to talk story specifics. Very American. If you ask is Burke intellectual, I don’t know how you answer. Raoul Walsh could quote any line from Shakespeare; Olivia de Haviland once said she walked in on him and he was reading Stendahl, and he hid the book lest she see it.

If not intellectual, Robichaux is a reflective character, the thinking man’s cop, and Tommy Lee Jones isn’t always seen that way.

Oh but for me he embodies everything about Robichaux, for me he is the best American actor. In No Country For Old Men and Three Burials he showed that side. He worked on our script, he’s very obsessive, even changing punctuation, and wrote some beautiful scenes, including one with Bootsie where he defines understanding by asking what salamanders understand, that won’t be in the finished film. But when you say ‘action’ there’s no fuss. He gives you the inside of Dave Robichaux, and I have never seen an actor who can express contempt for another character in such a restrained way; it couldn’t be more intense. Jacques Tourneur understood this: he had his actors speak very low all the time, shot them using only real light: there’s only one scream in I Walked With A Zombie, it plays like a confession.

That’s an interesting comparison, because the Creole culture is common to New Orleans and Haiti...

And the food! I used a lot of hot sauce there; I came back with a case of Bin Laden’s Most Devilish hot sauce. There is also a very Catholic element, very religious to Burke, but very progressive, very anti-Bush, with the post-Katrina setting...

– ‘Simenon and the Surreal: Bertrand Tavernier talks to Michael Carlson’.  
Original article here

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Jean-Luc Godard: Let’s Talk About Pierrot

Pierrot le Fou (Directed by Jean-Luc Godard)
In February 1964, while shooting Band of Outsiders, Jean-Luc Godard announced his plans for a film based on a crime novel, Obsession, by the American writer Lionel White (translated into French as Le démon d’onze heures – literally, ‘The Eleven O’Clock Demon’). In an interview that month, Godard described it as ‘the story of a guy who leaves his family to follow a girl much younger than he is. She is in cahoots with slightly shady people, and it leads to a series of adventures.’ Asked who would play the girl, Godard told France-Soir in 1964:
‘That depends on the age of the man. If I have, as I would like, Richard Burton, I will take my wife, Anna Karina. We would shoot the film in English. If I don’t have Burton, and I take Michel Piccoli, I could no longer have Anna as an actress; she would form with him a too “normal” couple. In that case, I would need a very young girl. I’m thinking of Sylvie Vartan.’
Both Burton and Vartan (a nineteen-year-old pop singer) were unavailable, and when financing proved difficult to obtain, Godard asked Jean-Paul Belmondo, whom he had made a star with Breathless, to step in. But Belmondo was, and looked, even younger than Piccoli. So when Godard announced in New York in September 1964, when he was in town for the New York Film Festival, that Karina, his wife, would star alongside Belmondo, he was in fact creating an even more ‘normal’ couple and definitively reorienting the tone of the film, as he subsequently explained in Cahiers du cinéma: ‘In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo. I thought about You Only Live Once, and instead of the Lolita or La chienne kind of couple, I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple, the last descendants of La nouvelle HéloïseWerther, and Hermann and Dorothea.’

The casting of a worldly actress in her mid-twenties and a handsome, vigorous leading man just over thirty did change the project – but not nearly as much as did the personal significance with which Godard invested the story. White’s novel, as its title suggested, was a story of obsessive desire – specifically, that of a middle-aged advertising man and failed writer for a teenage girl, his children’s babysitter. This girl has underworld connections and a feral aptitude for deception and manipulation; after he leaves his family for her, gets caught up with her in a murder, and goes on the lam with her, she uses, betrays, and abandons him. Desperate and humiliated, he catches up to her and kills both her longtime lover (who she had claimed was her brother) and the girl herself. Godard – who had told Belmondo that the film would be ‘something completely different’ from the book – turned the male lead into a failed intellectual who rediscovers his literary ambitions along with his romantic passion. This man, Ferdinand Griffon, begins to fulfill his vast artistic plans when he and the young woman, named Marianne Renoir, take to the road. Marianne has shady connections – to a shadowy and violent group of arms traffickers and political conspirators – but she proves nonetheless, at least for a time, to be Ferdinand’s helpmeet and soul mate in his great artistic project.

Although Godard’s woman uses and betrays the man no less than does White’s, the effect provoked by Godard is even more extreme: in Pierrot le Fou, Marianne not only breaks Ferdinand’s heart but also destroys what was to be his life’s work. The romantic exaltation that Godard thought the casting of Karina and Belmondo had substituted for the story of betrayal and depredation turned into an artistic manifesto and a cry of resentment and pain: by the time he shot the film, from May through July 1965, he and Karina had divorced...

Pierrot le Fou proved a tough ticket in Paris – but, more importantly, it inspired a generation, and most famously Chantal Akerman, who, when she saw it at age fifteen, decided at once to become a filmmaker. The self-destructive romanticism, the artistic self-consciousness, the frenetically unhinged form, the blend of emotional extravagance and cool self-mocking, the vanished boundaries between irony and sincerity and between symbol and reality, the overt cinematic breakdown and breakup, were all of their moment. Pierrot le Fou was the last of Godard’s first films, the herald of even more radical rejections and reconstructions to come – for Godard and for the world around him.

(Extract from ‘Pierrot le Fou: Self-Portrait in a Shattered Lens’ by Richard Brody. Originally published in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of Pierrot le Fou).

The following interview with Jean-Luc Godard on the making of Pierrot le Fou was first published by Cahiers du Cinema shortly after the film’s release:

Cahiers: What exactly was the starting-point for ‘Pierrot le Fou’?

Godard: A Lolita-style novel whose rights I had bought two years earlier. The film was to have been made with Sylvie Vartan. She refused. Instead I made Bande à part. Then I tried to set the film up again with Anna Karina and Richard Burton. Burton, alas, had become too Hollywood. In the end the whole thing was changed by the casting of Anna and Belmondo. I thought about You Only Live Once; and instead of the Lolita or La Chienne kind of couple, I wanted to tell the story of the last romantic couple, the last descendants of La Nouvelle Heloise, Werther and Hermann and Dorothea.

Cahiers: This sort of romanticism is disconcerting today, just as the romanti­cism of ‘La Regie du Jeu’ was at the time.

Godard: One is always disconcerted by something or other. One Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago I saw October again at the Cinematheque. The audience was composed entirely of children, going to the cinema for the first time, so they reacted as if it was the first film they had seen. They may have been disconcerted by the cinema, but not by the film. For instance, they were not at all put out by the rapid, synthetic montage. When they now see a Verneuil film they will be disconcerted because they will think, ‘But there are fewer shots than in October.’ Let’s take another example from America, where television is much more cut up and fragmented than it is in France. There one doesn’t just watch a film from beginning to end; one sees fifteen shows at the same time while doing something else, not to mention the commercials (if they were missing, that would disconcert). Hiroshima and Lola Montes went down much better on TV in America than in the cinemas.

Cahiers: ‘Pierrot’, in any case, will please children. They can dream while watching it.

Godard: The film, alas, is banned to children under eighteen. Reason? Intellectual and moral anarchy [sic].

Cahiers: There is a good deal of blood in ‘Pierrot’.

Godard: Not blood, red. At any rate, I find it difficult to talk about the film. I can’t say I didn’t work it out, but I didn’t pre-think it. Everything happened at once: it is a film in which there was no writing, editing or mixing – well, one day! Bonfanti knew nothing of the film and he mixed the soundtrack without preparation. He reacted with his knobs like a pilot faced by air­ pockets. This was very much in key with the spirit of the film. So the con­struction came at the same time as the detail. It was a series of structures which immediately dovetailed one with another.

Cahiers: Did ‘Bande à part’ and ‘Alphaville’ happen in the same way?

Godard: Ever since my first film, I have always said I am going to prepare the script more carefully, and each time I see yet another chance to improvise, to do it all in the shooting, without applying the cinema to something. My impression is that when someone like Demy or Bresson shoots a film, he has an idea of the world he is trying to apply to the cinema, or else – which comes to the same thing – an idea of cinema which he applies to the world. The cinema and the world are moulds for matter, but in Pierrot there is neither mould nor matter.

Cahiers: There seems at times to be an interaction between certain situations which existed at the moment of shooting and the film itself. For instance, when Anna Karina walks along the beach saying ‘What is there to do? I don’t know what to do’ . . . as if, at this moment, she hadn’t known what to do, had said so, and you had filmed her.

Godard: It didn’t happen that way, but maybe it comes to the same thing. If I had seen a girl walking along the shore saying ‘I don’t know what to do’... I might well have thought this was a good scene; and, starting from there, imagined what came before and after. Instead of speaking of the sky, speaking of the sea, which isn’t the same thing ; instead of being sad, being gay, instead of dancing, having a scene with people eating, which again isn’t the same thing; but the final effect would have been the same. In fact it happened like that not for this scene, but another in which Anna says to Belmondo ‘Hi ! old man.’ and he imitates Michel Simon. That came about the way you suggest.

Cahiers: One feels that the subject emerges only when the film is over. During the screening one thinks this is it, or that, but at the end one realizes there was a real subject.

Godard: But that’s cinema. Life arranges itself. One is never quite sure what one is going to do tomorrow, but at the end of the week one can say, after the event, ‘I have lived’ like Musset’s Camille. Then one realizes one cannot trifle with the cinema either. You see someone in the street; out of ten passers-by there is one you look at more closely for one reason or another. If it’s a girl, because she has eyes like so, a man because he has a particular air about him, and then you film their life. A subject will emerge which will be the person himself, his idea of the world, and the world created by this idea of it, the overall idea which this conjures. In the preface to one of his books, Antonioni says precisely this.

Cahiers: One feels that ‘Pierrot’ takes place in two periods. In the first, Karina and Belmondo make their way to the Cote d’Azur, no cinema, because this is their life; and then, on arrival, they met a director and told him their story, and he made them begin all over again.

Godard: To a certain extent, yes, because the whole last part was invented on the spot, unlike the beginning which was planned. It is a kind of happening, but one that was controlled and dominated. This said, it is a completely spontaneous film. I have never been so worried as I was two days before shooting began. I had nothing, nothing at all. Oh well, I had the book. And a certain number of locations. I knew it would take place by the sea. The whole thing was shot, let’s say, like in the days of Mack Sennett. Maybe I am growing more and more apart from one section of current film-making.

Watching old films, one never gets the impression that they were bored working, probably because the cinema was something new in those days, whereas today people tend to look on it as very old. They say ‘I saw an old Chaplin film, an old Griffith film,’ whereas no one says ‘I read an old Stendhal, an old Madame de La Fayette.’

Cahiers: Do you feel you work more like a painter than a novelist?

Godard: Jean Renoir explains this very well in the book he wrote about his father. Auguste would go away, feeling a need for the country. He went there. He walked in the forest. He slept in the nearest inn. After a couple of weeks he would come back, his painting finished.

Cahiers: Early films tell us a good deal about the period in which they were made. This is no longer true of 75 per cent of current productions. In ‘Pierrot le Fou’, do contemporary life and the fact that Belmondo is writing his journal give the film its real dimension?

Godard: Anna represents the active life and Belmondo the contemplative. This is by way of contrasting them. As they are never analysed, there are no analytical scenes or dialogue. I wanted, indirectly through the journal, to give the feeling of reflection.

Cahiers: Your characters allow themselves to be guided by events.

Godard: They are abandoned to their own devices. They are inside both their adventure and themselves.

Cahiers: The only real act Belmondo accomplishes is when he tries to extinguish the fuse.

Godard: If he had put it out, he would have become different afterwards. He is like Piccoli in Le Mepris.

Cahiers: The adventure is sufficiently total for one not to be able to know what comes next.

Godard: This is because it is a film about the adventure rather than about the adventurers. A film about adventurers is Anthony Mann’s The Far Country, where you think about the adventure because they are adventurers ; whereas in Pierrot le Fou, one thinks it is about adventurers because it describes an adventure. Anyway it is difficult to separate one from the other. We know from Sartre that the free choice which the individual himself makes is mingled with what is usually called his destiny.

Cahiers: Even more than in ‘Le Mepris’, the poetic presence of the sea . . .

Godard: This was deliberate, much more so than in Le Mepris. This is the theme.

Cahiers: Exactly as if the gods were in the sea.

Godard: No, nature; the presence of nature, which is neither romantic nor tragic.

Cahiers: Adventure seems to have vanished today, to be no longer welcome; hence the element of provocation now in adventure and in ‘Pierrot le Fou’.

Godard: People pigeon-hole adventure. ‘We’re off on holiday,’ they say,‘the adventure will begin as soon as we are at the seaside.’ They don’t think of themselves as living the adventure when they buy their train tickets, whereas in the film everything is on the same level: buying train tickets is as exciting as swimming in the sea.

Cahiers: Do you feel that all your films, irrespective of the way they are handled, are about the spirit of adventure?

Godard: Certainly. The important thing is to be aware one exists. For three­ quarters of the time during the day one forgets this truth, which surges up again as you look at houses or a red light, and you have the sensation of existing in that moment. This was how Sartre began writing his novels. La Nausee, of course, was written during the great period when Simenon was publishing Touristes de Bananes, Les Suicides. To me there is nothing very new about the idea, which is really a very classical one.

Cahiers: ‘Pierrot’ is both classical – no trickery with montage – and modern, by virtue of its narrative.

Godard: What is modern by virtue of its narrative? I prefer to say its greater freedom. By comparjson with my previous film, one gets an immediate response. Although I ask myself fewer and fewer questions now, one still remains: isn’t no longer asking questions a serious thing? The thing that reassures me is that the Russians, at the time of October and Enthusiasm didn’t ask themselves questions. They didn’t ask themselves what cinema should be. They didn’t wonder if they should take up where the German cinema left off or repudiate films like L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise. No, there was a more natural way of asking questions. This is what one feels with Picasso. Posing problems is not a critical attitude but a natural function. When a motorist deals with traffic problems, one simply says he is driving; and Picasso paints.

Cahiers: Don’t you think that most great films have been directed by men who had no taste for questions?

Godard: To think that would be a mistake. When one sees an early King Vidor film, for instance, one realizes how far in advance he was of Hollywood even today. Truffaut compared The Crowd to The Apartment. Well, Vidor had already used the famous office shot – which Wilder got from Lubitsch anyway. But great films like that could no longer be made today, or at least not in the same way. So the silent cinema was more revolutionary than the sound cinema, and people understood better, even though it was a more abstract way of talking. Today, if one imitated Chaplin’s method of direction, people wouldn’t understand so well. They would think it a peculiar way of telling a story. It’s even more true of Eisenstein’s films.

Cahiers: For the majority of spectators, cinema exists only in terms of the Hollywood structures which have become convention, whereas all the great films are free in their inspiration.

Godard: The great traditional cinema means Visconti as opposed to Fellini or Rossellini. It is a way of selecting certain scenes rather than others. The Bible is also a traditional book since it effects a choice in what it describes. If I were ever to film the life of Christ, I would film the scenes which are left out of the Bible. In Senso, which I quite like, it was the scenes which Visconti concealed that I wanted to see. Each time I wanted to know what Farley Granger said to Alida Valli, bang! – a fade out. Pierrot le Fou, from this standpoint, is the antithesis of Senso: the moments you do not see in Senso are shown in Pierrot.

Cahiers: Perhaps the beauty of the film springs from the fact that one senses this liberty more.

Godard: The trouble with the cinema is that it imposes a certain length of film. If my films reveal some feeling of freedom it is because I never think about length. I never know if what I am shooting will run twenty minutes or twice that, but it usually turns out that the result fits the commercial norm. I never have any time scheme. I shoot what I need, stopping when I think I have it all, continuing when I think there is more. This is full length dependent only on itself.

Cahiers: In a classical film, one would query the thriller framework.

Godard: On the narrative level, classical films can no longer rival even Serie Noire thrillers, not to mention born storytellers like Giono who can hold you in suspense for days on end. The Americans are good at story­ telling, the French are not. Flaubert and Proust can’t tell stories. They do something else. So does the cinema, though starting from their point of arrival, from a totality. Any great modem film which is successful is so because of a misunderstanding. Audiences like Psycho because they think Hitchcock is telling them a story. Vertigo baffles them for the same reason.

Cahiers: So freedom has moved from the cinema to the ‘Serie Noire’. Do you remember ‘The Glass Key’? The end?

Godard: Not very clearly. I’d like to re-read it.

Cahiers: At the end a woman who has hardly featured in the story suddenly recounts a dream.

Godard: The Americans are marvellous like that.

Cahiers: In the dream, there is a glass key. Just that, and the novel is called ‘The Glass Key’. And the book ends with this dream. If one did something like this in the cinema, people would say it was provocation. This sort of reaction is typical of a public which has a cinematographic pseudo-culture but nevertheless indulges in terrorist tactics.

Godard: This is why the Cinematheque is so good, because there one sees films pell-mell, a 1939 Cukor alongside a 1918 documentary.

Cahiers: There is no clash between ancient and modern?

Godard: None at all. There may be technical progress, but no revolution in style, or at least not yet.

Cahiers: With ‘Pierrot le Fou’, one feels one is watching the birth of cinema.

Godard: I felt this with Rossellini’s film about steel, because it captured life at source. Television, in theory, should have the same effect. Thanks to the cultural alibi, there is no such thing as noble or plebeian subjects. Every­ thing is possible on television. Very different from the cinema, where it would be impossible to film the building of the Boulevard Haussmann because to a distributor this isn’t a noble subject.

Cahiers: Why do you think certain scenes are filmed rather than others? Does this choice define liberty or lead to convention?

Godard: The problem which has long preoccupied me, but which I don’t worry about while shooting, is: why do one shot rather than another? Take a story, for example. A character enters a room – one shot. He sits down – another shot. He lights a cigarette, etc. If, instead of treating it this way, one . . . would the film be better or less good?

What is it ultimately that makes one run a shot on or change to another? A director like Delbert Mann probably doesn’t think this way. He follows a pattern. Shot – the character speaks; reverse angle, someone answers. Maybe this is why Pierrot le Fou is not a film, but an attempt at film.

Cahiers: And what Fuller says at the beginning?

Godard: I had wanted to say it for a long time. I asked him to. But it was Fuller himself who found the word ‘emotion’. The comparison between film and a commando operation is from every point of view – financial, economic, artistic – a perfect image, a perfect symbol for a film in its totality.

Cahiers: Who is the enemy?

Godard: There are two things to consider. On the one hand the enemy who harries you; on the other, the goal to be reached, where the enemy may be. The goal to be reached is the film, but once it is finished one realizes it was only a passage, a path to the goal. What I mean is that when the war is won, life continues. And maybe the film really begins then.

Cahiers: Isn’t this sort of liberty in the cinema rather frightening?

Godard: No more than crossing a road either using a crossing or not. Pierrot seems to me both free and confined at the same time. What worries me most about this apparent liberty is something else. I read something by Borges where he spoke of a man who wanted to create a world. So he created houses, provinces, valleys, rivers, tools, fish, lovers, and then at the end of his life he notices that this ‘patient labyrinth is none other than his own portrait’. I had this same feeling in the middle of Pierrot.

Cahiers: Why the quotation about Velazquez?

Godard: This is the theme. Its definition. Velazquez at the end of his life no longer painted precise forms, he painted what lay between the precise forms, and this is restated by Belmondo when he imitates Michel Simon: one should not describe people, but what lies between them.

Cahiers: If ‘Pierrot le Fou’ is an instinctive film, one might wonder why there are connections with life and actuality.

Godard: It is inevitable, since making Pierrot le Fou consisted of living through an event. An event is made up of other events which one eventually discovers. In general, I repeat, making a film is an adventure comparable to that of an army advancing through a country and living off the inhabitants. So one is led to talk about those inhabitants. That is what actuality is: it is both what one calls actuality in the cinematographic and journalistic sense, and casual encounters, what one reads, conversations, the business of living in other words.

– ‘Let’s Talk About Pierrot’. Interview with Cahiers du Cinema. In Godard on GodardEdited by Tom Milne. p 215-224.