Standing on Earth

By Kieron Corless

monde-vivant-eugene-green-1.jpgLe Monde Vivant, 2003

Eugène Green’s films offer luminous visions of life and its fundamental priorities

Your first encounter with a Eugène Green film is always a memorable one. You’re stirred, possibly even shaken, but you’re not quite sure how, or why. What have you just seen, and where do you place it? It’s obviously the work of someone steeped in cinema history. Key formal strategies clearly reference Bresson and Ozu, possibly de Oliveira. You’re struck by the minimal means, by a captivating stillness, by the consistently rigorous focus on absolute essentials. But what’s unexpected, and utterly thrilling, is not only how Green melds his various influences and personal preoccupations into something wholly unique, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, but also the emotional spaces you’re given entry to, the cumulative quality of visceral and emotional engagement it elicits, and on a formal level the sense of aesthetic renewal and possibility it suggests. Green’s films seem (thankfully) so far removed from what’s considered the cinematic norm these days, the three-act, story-arc’d, market-researched fascism, yet with such stripped-down, sui generis means they achieve precisely the effects the big-budget boys labour so misguidedly towards.

There have been three features and two shorts so far. Green didn’t even start making films till he was fifty years old, after a lifetime’s toil in the Parisian theatre. You sense the distillation of hard-won maturity and long experience, the deep engagement with Baroque culture, all subsumed into a cinematic aesthetic which seemed to arrive fully-formed in his debut Toutes Les Nuits, a haunting, luminous masterpiece. In it, as in all Green’s films, the characters too can seem haunted by life’s mysteries, as if under a spell, partly an effect of the interiorized, uninflected acting style which Green encourages. They can seem like spectral presences, both of and not of our world. Strictly modulated speech patterns create a hushed intensity. Both characters and objects appear to emit a spooky phosphorescent light (has Paris and the natural world ever looked so ravishing?) One of a small but enormously talented ensemble with whom Green always works, director of photography Raphael O’Byrne deserves a tribute all to himself for working repeated miracles with such limited financial means.

It’s not fashionable nowadays to talk about the metaphysical and transcendent, but that numinous light is surely one means whereby Green evokes the inner spirit and hidden energy of things and people, which attempts to direct our attention to a concealed reality beyond the world of appearances, and which puts him in exalted company with the likes of Dreyer, Bresson and nowadays Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Anyone in Britain? Andrew Kotting and Sally Potter perhaps. Beyond that, you really struggle to come up with anyone here, post-Douglas, post-Davies and post-Jarman, who is striving at a similar level of philosophical and spiritual enquiry. If that makes Green’s films sound forbiddingly cerebral and po-faced, they’re anything but. Green traffics in universal themes we can all relate to - the pursuit of love, of friendship, of meaning, the search for a connection to the world, to another person, through art and through language (those latter two very big preoccupations for Green). There are lovely touches of playfulness and oddball humour too. Be warned though, Green’s films can rub people up the wrong way. High-profile champions include the considerable likes of Jean-Luc Godard, the Dardenne brothers and Don DeLillo. In his adopted France however, Green’s films are a love-or-hate-them affair – Liberation, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles v. Positif. Toe-to-toe in the Parisian boulevards. Initial denunciation in some quarters has occasionally given way to what Green jokingly calls ‘conversions’. The religious connotation is apposite. These are films which cut right to the heart of things, can dramatically alter your perceptions, which offer a refuge of beauty and sustenance, what Sally Potter recently referred to as ‘soul-food’; films which will constantly surprise and touch you, which you’ll be compelled to return to again and again.

Or you would if the films had actually been bought for screening here in Britain. Thankfully the internet is now available to the enterprising, slowly but surely helping to erode our cultural myopia and parochialism- the Toutes Les Nuits DVD (with English subtitles) can be bought via the net, at A two-film box set of Le Pont des Arts and Le Monde Vivant (both with English subtitles) will follow in autumn this year- again, watch this space. Don’t let the vagaries of British distribution deny you this experience. You simply have to see these films, build them into your cinematic image- repertoire, succumb to their oneiric spaces and addictive rhythms, their delicate, haunting mysteries.

monde-vivant-eugene-green-2.jpgLe Monde Vivant, 2003

Kieron Corless: You worked in theatre, and specifically baroque theatre, for a long time before you became a film director. Can you talk about that experience?

Eugène Green: I worked in the theatre for about 22 or 23 years professionally. Actually I was first interested in the theatre as a writer- I wrote a certain number of plays which were neither published nor directed. Since they were based on a conception of theatre which was completely different to that of the 1960s, I thought that one way of opening the door to other possibilities was through baroque theatre. I’d always been interested in theatre of the baroque period, like the great French theatre of the 17th century. When I arrived in France in 1969, they said it was being performed at the Comedie Francaise in “traditional” style, but it was a very recent “tradition”, that of psychological bourgeois theatre of the 1950s. Then in the 1970s they started doing it in the modern style, with the actors rolling on the ground and screaming. It was strange because when I read those plays they touched me, and when acted they were boring. The staging almost completely contradicted the play. Then I saw performances of forms of classical Asian theatre in Paris: Noh, Kabuki, Kathakali, and Kunqu, which were living exemples of my own conception of theatre, even for contemporary works. I finally discovered, through research, that this idea of theatre had actually existed in Europe in the 16th and 17th century, in the baroque period. So I created a company called Le Theatre de la Sapience in 1977. At first, in the 1980s, we just did experimental productions, plus a lot of things which I performed by myself, principally baroque, but some modern texts as well. I thought that if I managed to find acceptance for baroque theatre, afterwards I’d be able to do other things more easily. These first performances were more like workshop experiences, and then we tried to get funding to do real productions. In the 1990s I started doing stagings of baroque plays: several Corneille works, and Mithridate, a tragedy by Racine. But I never had any subsidy from the government, and I was never co-produced by any national structure. In France it is impossible to do non-commercial theatre without state support. I have a sort of character where once I start something, I keep on going until either the thing works out or I am defeated. With the theatre I was the one who was vanquished, at least in a certain way, but not entirely.

KC: So you turned to cinema?

EG: I always wanted to do cinema actually, but I never knew how to get into it, because I didn’t go to a film school. In the 1970s I thought about trying the entrance exam at the IDHEC- which is now the FÉMIS, the national film school- but I was just doing too many other things. And now I realize I would never have been admitted at that time. I was too out of the mainstream, even the revolutionary mainstream of the 1970s. I had a vague idea of trying to make a sort of short modern novel inspired by a youthful work of Flaubert, which he put into a drawer and never published. He thought of calling it L’éducation Sentimentale, so when it was published just before the First World War, they called it La Premiere Éducation Sentimentale. It has nothing to do actually with his mature novel L’éducation Sentimentale. I had this vague idea for about five or six years and then one evening I was in Poitiers, on a tour reciting texts with a musical group, and I just decided it couldn’t be a novel, it had to be a film. It was completely absurd because I had no way of getting into the professional cinema world, but since I am often not in the same sphere of reality as most people, the impossibility of doing it didn’t trouble me very much. Since I had never done anything in film- I’d never even been an assistant on a shoot- in writing the screenplay it seemed to me that I had to be able to see the film as it would be, shot by shot. I imagined everything and I described it. So I wrote, without realising it, a screenplay which didn’t resemble the normal form of screenplays. But since then I’ve kept on writing them like that.

KC: So how did it come to be made?

EG: It took two years to finish the script, and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Friends told me I should present it to the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie, but when I realised that the members of the commission who had to judge it were the same sort of people with whom I had been dealing with in the theatre, it seemed hopeless, and so I did nothing. But six months later the commission changed, and the Vice-President in charge of first films was Jacques Rozier. I liked his films, and he had seen one of my theatrical works and appreciated it: so I thought that at least he would read the project in an objective way. I presented it myself, without a producer. I wasn’t very young anymore, but for the first time in my professional life I was lucky: the screenplay was well received by the whole commission. Afterwards, for my other feature films, it was always very difficult to get the avance sur recettes, but for that one I got it on the first try. Thus I was able to contact producers proposing them at the same time a financial basis.

pont-des-arts-eugene-green-1.jpgLe Pont des Arts, 2004

KC: This was your debut Toutes Les Nuits. How was the experience of making it?

EG: I guess I was helped by a sort of naïvety, and also by the precision of the written script. Since I asked the crew to do things which, according to the “rules”, you’re not supposed to do - like putting the actors in the exact centre of the frame facing the camera- the first week they were a little sceptical. But when they realized it worked, that it was coherent, and that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I soon developed a very good relation with them. We actually became very close, and now I always work with the same people.

KC: Your aesthetic seems almost uncannily fully-formed in Toutes Les Nuits.

EG: Because I had a very long time to think about it. Not having been able to start making films, I started reflecting in the 1970s about exactly what interested me in cinema, and what was its specificity. Of course I was very much influenced by Bresson, both by his films and by his book Notes on Cinematograph [not Cinematography]. But I think if I had managed to make films in the seventies I probably would have created neo-Bressonian films which would have been too derivative. Since I had the time to step back, it became an assimilated source. I saw all of Bresson’s films many times, but after seeing L’Argent, his last film, when it came out in 1983, I saw no other film of his before shooting Toutes Les Nuits, nearly 16 years later. Bresson died while I was doing the editing of Toutes les Nuits in Dec 1999. For me there are no coincidences. I finished the editing, and then in Feb 2000 there was a retrospective, and I went to see all his films again. I was very moved by them and I discovered things which I had never seen. I realized how much I owed him, but also how much I had followed my own way. So, when I wrote the screenplay for Toutes Les Nuits, though I didn’t even realize it when I started, I already had in me a cinematographical aesthetic.

pont-des-arts-eugene-green-2.jpgLe Pont des Arts, 2004

KC: What is your perception of the differences between cinema and theatre?

EG: Even though theatre and cinema can arrive at the same spiritual result, the means they use are completely different, and even opposite. That’s why I had problems in the theatre. For me the reality of theatre is always based on something completely false, and assumed as such; that is, for the theatre to be real, the actors and the audience have to be aware at all times that they are in the theatre, and that they are using and recognizing codes: it’s through the absolute falsity of these codes that they arrive at an absolute truth. Whereas in the cinema- which is of course also a representation- the basic raw material is always a reality, whether it’s that of a human being, an inanimate object, some sort of material, a tree, or an animal: in every case, the shot contains a real energy. The specificity of cinema is to capture fragments of reality, and to make the spectator see in them things that he wouldn’t have been aware of had he observed them in their natural context. That’s why for me cinema is always a spiritual expression: it can make you see things which are invisible in the material world.

KC: The way you write dialogue is very precise but quite unusual- can you talk a bit more about your screenwriting process and what you’re aiming to achieve there?

EG: When I write dialogues, they’re not at all in the style of my plays. My plays were always written in verse, with a great lyricism, but for the cinema at first I write the dialogues quickly, and then I work a lot trying to concentrate them, in order to obtain the greatest possible energy with the least amount of words. The sentences are constructed according to grammatical principles which aren’t observed in everyday speech: for example, questions are always made by the inversion of the verb and the subject, something very rarely done in spoken French today. But I do it specifically in a cinematographical context, with a cinematographical goal: to give the actor a text which is going to release a maximum of energy when he says it. The sentences are very simple, there’s nothing really literary about them, except for a few grammatical forms. I simply ask the actors, when speaking them, to make all the liaisons. That means that they say sentences in their native language with simple words (often also having a strong emotional connotation), but these words pass through a slight filter because the actors have to make all the liaisons, and thanks to that filter there’s no danger of a psychological interpretation. That’s what I want to avoid at all costs.

KC: Why’s that?

EG: A psychological interpretation is always false. If you manage to capture the inner truth of a human being, you always capture a mystery which resists analysis. But psychology is rational analysis, and psychological acting is a rationalization. An actor thinks: I’m supposed to be angry‚ and he’s going to do something with his voice or his body to show he’s angry, thinking at the same time that the audience mustn’t realise he’s thinking about it: that means there’s an intellectual process between his inner energy and what he shows. Whereas I want the words to hit him and release his emotions directly: I want the emotions to be absolutely real and authentic, coming from his inner life, with all its mystery, which is the thing that interests me the most. In that I resemble Bresson, I think.

KC: Bresson never used the same actors twice though, whereas you work with the same people repeatedly.

EG: That’s indeed a big difference. He also never used professional actors- although a few of them did become professional- because he wanted what he called his models to be unaware of what they were doing. Whereas I use professional actors, who understand what I’m trying to do, and I do it with their complicity. But I think I’m aiming at the same result.

KC: You’ve had problems recently finding funding for your next projects.

EG: In France, among the films which are presented as artistic projects, the ones which find funding the most easily are those about social problems, and they’re almost always made by people who have no problems of this sort at all. I have nothing against social films, when they’re artistically valid, but it is also possible to express things about the human condition in other ways. For example, I want to make a film inspired by Calderon’s La Vida Es Sueño (Life Is a Dream), whose central theme concerns every human being, anywhere and at any time. But since the outer plot concerns the succession in a kingdom, for obvious reasons I have to situate it in some sort of vague historical past. All of the French sources of funding we’ve approached up to now have refused the project, saying that it has no relationship to present life, and that I should adapt it to a modern situation, like a housing estate, with Sigismund chained up in the cellar.

KC: Would you ever make use of digital technology?

EG: Never. At least not as it exists presently. What interests me most in cinema is the possibility of capturing real energy, and I find that video can’t do that. For me it’s always an intellectual idea of what the shot was supposed to be, but never the reality of that shot.

Kieron Corless is Deputy Editor of Sight and Sound.