In this series NYC film-journalist, Dana Knight speaks with filmmakers about their work in the context of the wider world
In this first edition of our new series, Filmmakers and their Global Lens, The Independent’s special contributor Dana Knight interviews the industries emerging and established filmmakers about their work, recent projects and their place in a global setting. Dana initially spoke with Eugene Green, about his latest work, at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
Dana Knight (DK): I found your film exquisite from so many points of view, a real masterpiece. I would like to ask you first about the title of the film, La Sapienza, this must be a special word for you since your theatre company that you set up in the 1970s was called the same.
Eugene Green: Yes and actually even the theatre company was in honour of Borromini because his greatest church and most beautiful work is Saint Yves at La Sapienza Palace in Rome. I was already fascinated by Borromini at that time, that’s why I gave that name to the theatre company. The word itself has a lot of meaning for me but it’s not used anymore in French. Sometimes people translate it as wisdom or knowledge but I think it’s neither wisdom or knowledge, it’s the knowledge that leads to wisdom. So it’s important in the modern world to think about that because a lot of people accumulate knowledge but it just becomes a good that they sell or a means of power. Whereas the only use for knowledge is knowledge that creates an interior opening, an interior renewal. So “la sapience” is something that is very important.
DK: Tell me about the writing of the script, how long did it take and how did it all come together?
Green: Actually, I had the idea of doing a film about Borromini as far back as the 1970s when I was studying art and I wanted to do film. But it was more like a dream, I did not know how to do it. At the time I imagined something like a biography, something historical, and using his architecture to capture his presence today. Finally I was able to make films very late in life and even if I’m very interested in the Baroque period, I can’t imagine making a historical film, trying to reconstitute another period. For me the essence of cinema is to try to capture elements of reality and then to use them to make visible what is hidden in reality.So the idea of making a biographical film didn’t interest me at all. But I kept the idea in my head and then I went several times to Locarno Film Festival with my films. And it’s very difficult to get there from Paris, you have to take a plane to Milano and then you drive to Locarno and you pass by Bissone which was the native village of Borromini. And it was very shocking when I first saw it because it’s completely surrounded by a highway and then there’s a crossway on the lake of Locarno that cuts it in half, which is like the worst intrusion in modern urbanism in a very beautiful natural setting. So that’s probably what sparked it all. In 2007 when I was in Locarno I first had the idea of this architect who is fascinated by Borromini. I write very quickly, especially a script. Once the idea came, I wrote the script in a few months. But it took a very long time for it to be produced because I wrote the script in 2007 and we only shot in 2013, now we’re in 2014 and the film will come out in France before the beginning of the next year.
DK: Whom do you admire and who are your influences in the film world?I know that Jean-Luc Godard took a great interest in your first film…
Green: Yes, it was very nice of him to say nice things about my first film, Toutes Les Nuits, because it was very difficult to make and that helped things because he said it in Cannes and immediately it had international repercussions. In any case I don’t belong to any group. There are a certain number of cineastes, very important to me, that had an influence on my work. And in the current cinema, I think the most important filmmaker in France is Bruno Dumont, in Portugal Miguel Gomes whom I like very much, in Asia also there are very interesting directors. But I’m more or less isolated, I don’t belong to any group or school.
DK: Your conception of cinema seems to be truly unique, that’s what makes the film such a great discovery. Could you elaborate more on that, you wrote a book on this topic. How do you see cinema?
Green:That’s a very big question!
DK: Let’s say cinema in comparison to theatre. You did theatre for so long and recently you felt the need to do cinema.
Green:Yes that’s true. For me cinema and theatre are absolutely opposed […]. In order to be true, theatre must be forced and the problem with current theatre is that they try to do cinema on a stage and it doesn’t work. That’s why when I was doing theatre, I did a lot of research in artistic applications of Baroque theatre, which I tried to do in the same way that musicians interpret Baroque music. That is, to come as close as possible to the way it was done when it was contemporary theatre, to find the same energy that it had. In Baroque theatre, everything is done through conventions and everything is artificial. It’s by being artificial that things become real, you can attain a certain reality of inner truths. But cinema is the only art, besides perhaps photography, that has* movement and time in it but the unique quality of cinema is to take its raw material from reality so every frame in a film is a fragment of reality which has been captured in a certain way, within a certain frame, with a certain disposition. And then the frames are put together and when the film really works it enables the spectator to see in these fragments of reality what is hidden, what he wouldn’t have seen if he had seen them in their natural context. That’s basically my conception of cinema. There are of course many things to develop, I wrote two books about cinema, it’s a rather big subject.
DK: Some film critics compared your film to Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy. Is this a film you had in mind when writing La Sapienza?
Green: I had no idea at all about Voyage in Italy. When I wrote the script, this was a Rossellini film which I only saw once and which I didn’t like at all. I saw it several times since and my judgement became more nuanced. What I liked in the film was the documentary aspect, Rossellini was great as a documentarian, all the real aspects of Southern Italy, of Naples are very well-filmed and have a great charge. What for me is less successful is the dramatic part with the two actors, with Ingrid Bergman who plays an English lady with a Swedish accent. Those two characters are not very interesting and I have no sympathy for them. The last few times I saw it, the scenes where she goes to the underground cemetery and the procession, those scenes are so strong that it gives something to the dramatic story, the last few frames are moving. But it’s not a film that I admire particularly. Even among Rossellini’s films, there are others that I admire much more.
DK: How do you work with the actors?
Green: First of all I choose them, that’s very important. I choose them for their inferiority and a certain “sympathy” in the etymological sense, when I feel a deeper understanding in them. Then I simply have them read the script, we do that once or twice together, and if they start putting psychological intonations on the text I ask them to remove it. And that’s about all, actually.
DK: And why do you ask them to strip their speech of any psychological intonations?
Green: Because what interests me is the real inferiority. And psychological interpretations are always intellectual, the actor is always thinking about what he should be doing to express a certain emotion so it cuts off the natural flow of energy. And also all the intonations that they put on, people have got used to them, they think that they are natural but they are not natural. They come from theatre actually.
DK: At first glance it seems like a very stylized way of acting, almost like a de-naturalization of acting, but when you look closer it brings out certain elements that you wouldn’t notice otherwise and it also draws attention to language, which has great importance for you.
Green:Yes. And the goal of the language in the film is not the same as in theatre where language lives by itself. The goal of the language in film is to bring out emotions in the person who’s saying the sentences. It’s not like in Baroque theatre where nothing is natural, everything is codified. What I ask actors to do is to speak with natural intonations but to speak as if they were speaking to themselves. When you speak to yourself you make no rhetorical effects. So it’s really even. But the intonations are really the natural intonations, like when you speak naturally. For instance, when there is a comma you make a descending cadence on the syllable and when there’s a full stop you make a big descending cadence. And that’s what they do, except they are speaking in a very even way.
DK: There is a lot of humour in your film, a very deadpan, dry and very surprising humour, much closer to English humour than French humour, wouldn’t you say?
Green: Perhaps, I don’t ask myself the question, humour comes naturally to me, even in tragic or dramatic situations. But I don’t like humour that is like a hammer blow telling you that you have to laugh.
DK: Your humour is very subtle.
Green: Yes it’s very subtle. I like it that most often it just makes you smile, not laugh.
DK: And the dialogue sometimes veers off in very unexpected directions. For example, the comment about “L’academie Francaise”, that came completely out of the blue.
Green: Yes, that sort of humour comes naturally. But there’s often a sense of irony that’s very French but generally maybe it is closer to English humour, I don’t know. But in any case, when my films were shown in England, they were appreciated by the British public.
DK: You’re very attracted to satire as well.
Green: Yes. My deepest concerns are very serious things, especially spiritual things. But since I live in the world and a lot of things are wrong with the world, rather than moralising, (I hate works and art films that moralise) I try to show the absurdity of certain things through satire.
DK: Visually the film is striking, how did you come up with such a unique aesthetic and the innovative take on the shot-counter shot?
Green: It’s something that came naturally in my first film Toutes les nuits. It’s because a lot of high points in my films are around dialogue. And when I speak to a person I like to be facing the person because a great part of the expression comes through the gaze, the eyes, the facial expression. So I think it’s very important that the spectator receives that also in the dialogues. In the editing, every time […] there’s a change of speaker, there’s a change of shot, so it’s shots and counter-shots. Every time that the dialogue is very intense, I want the spectator to get all the energy that the person who’s in front of the person who’s speaking receives. So I put the camera between the two people and it becomes what in French is called “regard camera”, the actor looks directly into the objective, but it’s not really a look into the objective or a look at the spectator, it’s natural actually, they are looking at each other.
DK: You have a predilection for symmetry when composing the image and symmetry is an artistic gesture that belongs to classicism. Does that come from a contradictory love for both baroque and classicism in your work?Because they are almost opposites in their aesthetics, one is a reaction to the other.
Green: That’s a thing that I wrote a lot about. Classicism doesn’t exist except in the 18th century. But in French baroque there’s a lot of symmetry and even in the Italian baroque. And I think that you should choose frankly when composing a frame, and look either for consonance or dissonance. There are some frames where I look for dissonance but it’s more rare, it’s usually when there’s a negative character or it’s very dramatic. But otherwise, if there’s a certain peace, I look for consonance and the easiest way to create that is to look for symmetry.
DK: Symmetry is pleasing to the eye and in this case it enhances the story, it brings out the meaning of the story. And on this note, what is the meaning of the story for you?Is love the larger theme that brings together all others?
Green: Well, there’s several themes, it’s very complex. Yes of course it’s about love but there’s also the idea of sacrifice, it’s about the meaning of art in civilisation. For me art is not something superficial. For our politicians, culture and art are on the periphery of life, very negligible things. But on the contrary, I think art is central. And in a certain way, a real artist makes the sacrifice of his life, he becomes the sacrificial victim in all religious traditions. And the sacrificial victim always takes on himself the faults of the community, so he’s impure, but at the same time he becomes saint. And I think Borromini is an example, he consecrated his whole life to his art. You can make a parallel with the Eucharist and the Mass in the Christian tradition, it’s God himself who became the sacrificial victim and that ended the bloody sacrifices of animals or human sacrifices and it just became a peaceful sacrifice. And Borromini is almost a Christ-like figure, his art enables the characters in the film to have a personal spiritual experience which enables them to love and become positive members of society.
La Sapienza was shown at TIFF 2014. In the next interview for the Filmmakers with a Global Lens Series Dana Knight sits down with Hal Hartley.