Question and Answer – Claire Denis L’Intrus – or how not to run a Q & A

May 7th, 2005 § 0

After a short introduction to her work in German from the moderator, Claire Denis came in and gave a lovely introduction to the the film to come in English. She told us about how she had carte blanche after Beau Travail from Arte Television and decided to take full advantage of it to make a visual poem she had been working on for four years. That film was L’Intrus. Her collaborator on the adventure was the French film producer Humbert Balsan.

He committed suicide shockingly enough just before the film was released. Claire Denis visibly moved said she felt that somehow Humbert’s spirit was captured in this film. Somewhat chaotic but very beautiful. So far so good.

L’Intrus (The Outsider) is a relatively long film at just over two hours.

A wonderfully visual film with a magnificent sequences on the Pacific ocean, looking up through Palm trees in Polynesia and Pine trees in Switzerland, Korean shipyards, sled dogs, blood in the snow, cityscapes, babies faces.

The story is somewhat difficult to follow. A puzzled but enriched audience.

We are just after eleven pm now.

Claire Denis returns with the moderator who admonishes us that the session will be conducted in English. Although Claire Denis stumbled a little through the introduction it was charming enough. When I saw her speak at the Toronto Film Festival, she was magnificent – charismatic, illuminating and fluent. At TIFF in 2002, she spoke in French with the moderator providing some translation to English.

L’Intrus would be a difficult enough film for a native speaker to discuss in English. Hopeless for a French film director in English. Moreover Claire Denis conceded that she’d had a bit too much to drink in Vienna. Normal, it is well after the supper hour. No doubt she was just coming in after dinner.

She started with a long monologue how the film was originally planned as a two part film with Claire Denis directing one half and another director the other half, mirroring the before and after a heart operation. In the end, her choice for second director did not take up the offer, feeling that it would not come enough from him. So Claire Denis decided to direct both halves herself which became one whole, as the divide of the operation in the end felt somewhat artificial. But there remain two stories. One of which is the Northern Hemisphere before the operation and the other which is the Southern Hemisphere after the operation.

Originally the shipyards were supposed to be Chinese but Claire Denis had such good contacts with the Koreans when she went there for a couple of film festivals that she decided that she preferred Korean shipyards. And in general, the Koreans were wonderful to work with – full of energy, enthusiasm and passion.

A few interesting questions and answer:

How much freedom the Agnès Godard have with the camera and the actors to improvise? [Indeed, much of the camera was handheld and moving so it did look quite freehand.]

Answer. None at all. L’Intrus is the most tightly choreographed films that I have ever made. It was the first time Agnès and I were working on Super 35mm for blowup to wide angle so we spent hours deciding on every lens, every shot in advance. Moreover, we were working on a television film budget and had no money or time to spare shooting things which were not going to go straight into the film.

How much of the film was reality and how much was dream sequence – was Gregoire Colin really murdered for his heart?

All of the film was reality and all of the film was dream sequence. For me to know and you to find out.

Apparently the film was reedited since the version presented at Cannes? How did the reedit go?

There was never a reedit. The distributor asked me to cut the film shorter. Reediting a film is a very, very expensive process and we had no money for a remix of the sound. So we just cut out two sequences. We cut about four minutes. One part was with the girl in the snow pursued by the hunters which we shortened. There was also a sequence of Gregoire Colin’s dead body floating across the Pacific ocean, washing up to the shore.

In general I don’t like reediting films. They are enough trouble to make in the first place that the time to get it right is the first time.

But quickly enough Claire Denis tired of speaking in English (it is very fatiguing trying to speak in a foreign language when you are tired). The answers stopped making a lot of sense. There were long pauses. The Q & A went on for nearly an hour. Austrian audiences are concentrated and patient, but people began to leave the auditorium.

Afterwards I managed to speak with her briefly in French and Claire Denis was her usual insightful and charming self.

We talked about dream and reality.

When filming L’Intrus I had a script in my hand which did have the story. We used it for the team readings. I had a story. Agnès Godard, the cinematographer wanted to film the dream sequences in a special way. I insisted that dream and reality be shot in exactly the same way. [poetic, imagistic but real]

In my opinion, this obsession with narrative story in cinema – fundamentally a visual medium like painting – came about because of television. Before television, directors had much more freedom to express an artistic vision of a story.

She likened her work to William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absalom, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Does Proust really see the girls going by in their summer dresses, or does he just remember that day. It is never exactly clear.

Claire Denis claims that liberty for herself. She is tired of the conventions.

Lessons for the organisation of Film Q & A.

Be careful with late night Q & A sessions.
Discourage the film maker from having any alcohol with dinner.
For heaven’s sake, let the film maker speak in his or her native language and have translation handy.

Lesson from other Q & A sessions in Toronto – be damn sure that the translators are fluent, accomplished and charming. They better be good.

In defense of the Film Museum moderator, he did have several good questions prepared to attempt to keep the Q & A on track and stimulate the film maker.

Claire Denis will be doing a long dedicated session at 21.30 with Michael Omasta and Isabella Reicher who have just finished the first book on her work in German.

I had regretted missing that session on account of my own trip to Prague tomorrow for The Golden Prague International Television Festival where Lapinthrope is in competition.

As the session will be in English, no doubt, tant pis. But if you are in Vienna tomorrow night, don’t miss it.

The Claire Denis retrospective carries on until May 19th at the Vienna Film Museum.

World’s Best Cinematheque – Claire Denis at the Vienna Film Museum

May 7th, 2005 § 0

The world’s best cinemathèque – although not the biggest – is found here in the Vienna Film Museum. The variety and quality of its programming is unparalleled. Their recent extended program of Film Noir was incredible mixing Orson Welle’s The Touch of Evil with François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

The physical premises are ideally located on the lower floor of the Albertina Museum with street level access, just across from the Staatsoper at the heart of Vienna at the end of Kärntner Strassse. The screen is large and new – neither too reflective or too matte. The seating goes up in a stark vertical saving you the backs of people’s heads from most rows. The seats are comfortable if not ideal. The decor is charcoal with nothing to distract from the screen when the lights go down. The sound is adequate if not earth-shaking (probably intentional).

Unlike other cinemathèque programmers, Alexander Horwoth the director of the Film Museum in Vienna does not wear out his themes. He sees film in a broader perspective and is capable of putting two totally different yet entirely complementary films on the same program. Vintage French cinema like Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine with David Lynch’s Mulhulland Drive for example or Blade Runner in the second Noir program for example. In contrast, I am thinking of the dogmatic Godard retrospective at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. Jean-Luc Godard’s films are mostly bad. Badly shot, poorly acted, lousy scripts, terrible production values.

No matter, you say, it is Godard. No, not really. Undergoing a month of incoherent scripts shot in a dark bathroom is very painful. On the other hand, some of his films – Le Petit Soldat, for example or Le Mépris are magnificent – not to mention the classic Breathless. But it goes downhill quickly from there passing by Prénom Carmen. A retrospective of Godard’s better films together with films heavily influenced by his work would have been much more interesting, Toronto.

As in Vienna, where we are granted a Claire Denis retrospective with her full oeuvre, with the odd Jean-Luc Godard film appropriately introduced into the program (in this case Le Petit Soldat, as it serves as introduction to Beau Travail, and to the actor Michel Sabor who is so important in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail and later her L’Intrus). Claire Denis herself was allowed to choose a certain number of films which had a strong influence on her own work, giving us the chance to see her further into her creative process.

Not only do we get the retrospective from May 2 to May 19, we get Claire Denis herself for about four or five days.

Some of Claire Denis’s films have been seminal. Beau Travail, although I saw it for the first time here. For me, Vendredi Soir, perhaps one of the most ethereal and loving portraits of interaction between a man and a woman. Vendredi Soir is a portrait of the city as well, Paris.

The emotionally-charged and intimate visuals Vendredi Soir has a strong influence on the camerawork in Lapinthrope, particularly the night sequence.

I had tried to see more of Claire Denis’s work afterwords but her films are visual poems which should be seen at the cinema on a large screen. In particular, I was never able to digest Trouble Every Day which I have on DVD.

Seeing a block of her oeuvre together, her rare talent defines itself – and also reveals its limits.

Her fundamental view of the world is stark. J’ai pas sommeil takes us through the underworld of Paris and into the lives of the human flotsam who smash up against the rock of a city which demands too much (money and energy) and gives too little to too many (tiny apartments, debts, terrible jobs). Ostensibly the story of a serial killer (the Granny Killer), J’ai pas sommeil makes the everyday dreadful through the lives of its ensemble cast of about ten.

Beau Travail is the story of a seargent in the French Foreign Legion who loves his work and loves his men, but out of envy sets up one of his soldiers to die in the desert. Afterwards, Galoup’s crime is revealed and he is sent back to France and returned to a civilian life for which he is not ready and without a pension. A life ruined.

Trouble Every Day is a bloodbath. I can’t watch it all the way through as Beatrice Dalle rolling in buckets of human blood next to Vincent Gallo is too brutal a shock for me after the exquisite opening love scene of 37 degrès le matin. In her rendition of Betty, a lifelong love for a certain France was created. In any case, Trouble Every Day is as dark as films come.

L’Intrus which showed tonight follows a man (Michel Subor) on the cusp of a heart transplant, arranged in Geneva. He has a lot of money which he keeps for himself, while his young son (Gregoire Colin) struggles with two children. He goes on to abandon his two dogs. Apparently his heart comes from refugees murdered along the Swiss border. The donar is arranged by a mysterious Russian woman (Katerina Golubeva). Subsequently, Louis Trebor leaves for Polynesia via South Korea, where he orders a ship for his second son. Unable to find his second son in Polynesia, his replacement heart starts to fail him and Trebor’s world collapses into visions of Golubeva haunting him, drunk Korean riff-raff and worst of all Gregoire Colin’s corpse with a gash all the way down the chest. Golubeva apparently offered him his own son’s heart for the money.

The short Keep it for Yourself was as close to uplifting as any of her work. A French girl comes to New York where she is abandoned by her boyfriend. She copes well with the situation in an empty apartment, eventually meeting another guy who is fleeing the police when he stumbles into her apartment. A fresh love is born while the American army rolls into Iraq (Gulf War 1, 1982).

All in all, perhaps the blackest body of work by a major director. I would never have thought so having seen only Vendredi Soir and encountering the lovely Claire Denis there at the Toronto premier.

But a riveting visual oeuvre. L’Intrus in particular – despite or perhaps because of its nonsensical plot. Just fabulous image after fabulous image. But much the same could be said of J’ai pas sommeil and certainly Beau Travail.

Claire Denis’s worldview is too dark to buy into – but her eyes are wonderful eyes to see through, even for a few hours.

Thank you, Alexander Horwath. Thank you, Claire Denis. Thank you, Agnès Godard and Nelly Quettier (camera and editor respectively for all of the above).

Lapinthrope à Paris

March 7th, 2005 § 1






Danseuse Anna Hein, chorégraphe Xavier Perrez and réalisateur Alec Kinnear sous la tour Eiffel dans les recherches d’un nouveau film chorégraphique. Deux tiers de l’équipe de lapinthrope. Il nous manque que la chorégraphe Torontoise Kathleen Rea.

Photographes Valérie Simphal.

Lapinthrope à Paris Continues »

Existential Moment in Dance Film | Videodanse Paris

January 26th, 2005 § 0

I was at the opening projection of Videodanse Paris at the Centre George Pompidou. Videodanse is one of the five or six largest dance film festivals in the world. One of the most important.

The facilities are marvelous. The festival has the basement of the Pompidou Centre to itself for a month. There are a dozen external broadcast monitors, as well as a projection room with three good quality video projectors all projecting the same thing.

Total audience for the opening film d’Avant from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet, Luc Dunberry and Juan DKruz dian de Garaio Esnaola: fifteen people. Of course this is at 11:30 in the morning.

But Paris is a city of ten million people. And a total audience for the opening film of 15 people. Last night at the reception there were almost five hundred people. So there is a public for dance film parties, albeit small. But for the art itself, almost none.

It does tell me that I am right not to want most of my own dance film work to become stuck in the genre of dance film. The idea of reaching out to a broader audience makes sense.

On the other hand, why bother creating something for which there is no public?

The film d’Avant itself and more particularly the piece of garbage that followed partly explain why there is no public for dance film.

While the performances in d’Avant were strong – particularly the stocky bearded blonde fellow with a beautiful voice – and the setting remarkable (it seemed to be inside some kind of industrial tower at least fifty metres high), the filmmaking was much less so. Just a single DV camera zooming in and out, mostly out.

Some of the dancing was amazing – two men with their hands locked together twisting and turning and lifting and falling, never losing their grip, sometimes at high speed. Innovative stagecraft to two men sharing two sportjackets back to back (it works amazingly enough, each one wearing half of the other’s coat).

But the video was documentation and not filmmaking. Interesting to dancers. Interesting to professionals in choreography, theatre or dance film perhaps. Of almost no interest to anyone else. As long as we project dance documentation as dance film we are only going to narrow the public rather than widen it.

Worse was the pretentious and vapid and self-indulgent tripe from Olga Messa: Suite au dernier mot: au fond, tout est en surface. I believe the Pompidou Centre was somehow involved in the production of this cheap catastrophe or it wouldn’t have been shown. From the hideous red credits at the beginning of the film, to the badly tuned camera (image was smeary and bright and pallid all at the same time), every aspect revealed an absence of taste and skill.

First closeups of Olga Messa reciting navel-gazing reflections without interest. Later her parading naked around a badly lit stage with a small grimace of seduction. Not seduced by either her thoughts or her physique I was glad to have the programme to read through most of this tripe.

One or two such films viewed by someone new to the genre would be enough to put them off dance film for life.

Fifteen people. Fifteen people.

Self-censorship: the inner voice and the artist in society

December 7th, 2004 § 0

John Cassavetes on creativity:

you have to fight every day to stop censoring yourself. and you never have anyone else to blame when you do. what happens to artists is that it’s not that somebody’s standing in their way, it’s that their own selves are standing in their way. the compromise really isn’t how or what you do, the techniques you use, or even the content, but really the compromise is beginning to feel a lack of confidence in your innermost thoughts. and if you don’t put these innermost thoughts on the screen then you are looking down on not only your audience but the people you work with, and that’s what makes so many people working out there unhappy. these innermost thoughts become less and less a part of you and once you lose them then you don’t have anything else.

Internal censorship. The deadliest kind. I catch my self at it every day. Making the thing as we wish. In my case, it would probably be a lot more licentious and funny and a lot less serious. Decadent as it were.

Just be oneself, is the contemporary mantra. An impossibility. The civilised man or woman is never him or herself, but a projection of a conceptualised self. Ask someone about their sexual fantasies. Expect a real answer. Usually not.

The conceptualisation of self can happen at a higher or lower level depending on self-awareness and sense of society’s own filters and behavioural models.

So how much of that interior world do we share with others, how much of it do we allow to flow through ourselves? Ultimately, that may be the question that Cassavates may be asking. Something to note is the difficulty many great artists have with socialisation.

To take some a surprising and Christian one, Soren Kierkegard – despite private fortune and connections – was a terrible social anomoly and unable to live a normal sentimental life. Lev Tolstoi was a total outrage until his great fame, running around mowing fields with peasants and running crackpot peasant literacy programs. And that’s not to discuss, individuals like French poet Rimbaud who stopped writing at 19 to adventure through Africa, followed later by the articulate and dangeourous prince of clouds, Céline. (At least unlike Rimbaud, Céline managed to come back on his own two feet and not in a box.)

On the other hand, there are men like Henri de Stendhal and Pierre de Ronsard who lived civilised and mondain lives as diplomats, while beginning the oeuvre which will live on forever.

These latter two are an argument to make the battleground internal. Not external.

Compromise with the forms and appearances of society and make war on its corruption and hypocrisy from within.

But how then not to mute the internal voice under the damping of convention?

Google assumes no responsibility for any pet: growling, barking, chasing, or biting

October 13th, 2004 § 0

I have a soft spot for our canine friends and all matters dog. My middle sister shares the interest and I couldn’t resist pointing out this fabulous description of a pet policy at Google. Read the whole thing. It jumps back and forth between passive and active voice, officiousness and friendliness. It’s as if a committee of six alternated at the keyboard as they wrote policy. It could serve as a parody if it weren’t deadly serious.

Google Investor Relations:
Aggressive behavior, such as growling, barking, chasing, or biting, is unacceptable….Employees are financially responsible for any damage or cleaning to Google facilities…. Owners must maintain adequate liability insurance against dog mishaps. Google assumes no responsibility for any pet. Following these guidelines mentioned above should allow dog owners to enjoy the company of their pets while allowing all Google employees to feel safe and secure in their work place.

One leaves the policy paper with visions of a third-rate horror film Attack of the Killer Dogs where the Google IPO is shredded in the end by a pack of fierce canines ganging up on the humans and computers and chasing them up and down the corridors, GROWLING, BARKING, CHASING and BITING.

Coffee and Cigarettes: some thoughts on Jim Jarmusch’s film

September 12th, 2004 § 0

Anna and Kati managed to persuade me to the cinema for the first time in a long time tonight. While editing lapinthrope I tried to keep myself as far from other people’s cinema as I could but the edit is done and it is time to look at the world from others’ perspective.

Normally I am boycotting American cinema as a whole both for aesthetic (damn are Hollywood films boring and risible for the most part) and political (bombing civilian cities in peacetime, supporting the prison camps of Gaza and the West Bank) but Jim Jarmusch is about as alternative as it goes. Moreover, for these young ladies Coffee and Cigarettes is definitely a step in the right direction. And both of them are charming, funny and pretty. So a definite exception to the rule.

When I headed out for the eight o’clock screening at the Stadtkino at Schwarzenbergplatz I wasn’t expecting much. Just another empty rundown cinema for an alternative film.

To my astonishment above the cinema there was a huge wooden plaque advertising Coffee and Cigarettes. And an enormous queue of people to see the film. An alternative film sell out, outside of Sundance. What a pleasant surprise!

Perhaps it is the theme. Coffee and cigarettes are very dear to the Viennese. They prefer café conversation to any other activity apart from sex. No greater city on earth for pointless chatter about the vagaries of one’s soul and the tremors of one’s internal life. One enormous therapist’s couch.

While the screen at Stadtkino is small, the seating (corduroy covered captain’s chairs) is the most comfortable I have ever enjoyed. The sound system is also quite good. Definitely an experience to repeat.

So Coffee and Cigarettes?

Apparently there are eleven vignettes which make up the film. All of the vignettes are set around a coffee table. Which makes for nice continuity.

Sadly, only three of the vignettes are memorable. Two for their brilliance. One for it’s incompetence.

Both of the brilliant ones are called Cousins. In Cousins 1, Cate Blanchett plays a rather prim version of herself on a publicity trip for a new film. In the café of a famous hotel, she is waiting for her wild cousin to show up for a quick coffee between interviews.

The bohemian Shelly turns up late – one already suspects to thumb her nose at her cousin. It is apparent that the two women were close once, perhaps as girls. When life took them apart, Cate’s life divorced her from Shelly’s reality. Shelly both despises and envies Cate’s life. The dialogue between the two women is razor sharp, each nuance laden with emotional meaning. The two talk over one another, interrupt one another’s sentences and stare each other down.

Particularly amazing is that Cate Blanchett actually plays both roles. And is totally convincing in both. At no point do you feel that you are watching anything other than a genuine dialogue between two separate characters. Jarmusch’s editing and shooting plan are exquisite, pulling the best from the masterful performances and making the scene play as if organically shot with two actresses. A master turn.

Eventually the divide between the two women becomes insurmountable. We regret both of their positions and are powerfully reminded of the pain of past closeness and present divide. All they are able to truly share is a cigarette.

In a beautifully delivered punchline worthy of a Maupassant or Fitzgerald story, when Shelly is left on her own and Cate ascends to her interviews, the waiter swoops in on Shelly as she is about to light another cigarette. “I’m sorry,” he says, “smoking is not permitted in the lounge.” Shelly scowls blackly.

This vignette is almost worth the price of admission and the time lost on the movie as a whole.

Cousins 2 between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan riffs on the same showbiz theme. Molina plays himself. In LA, he has arranged for a coffee with out-of-towner Coogan who is just coming off promoting a hit cult film 24 Hour Party People. Coogan’s assistant booked the meeting reluctantly and Coogan shows up reluctantly. Molina has many kind things to say about Coogan’s work. Coogan tries in a British way to hide his contempt for the little of Molina’s work that he has scene. Coogan becomes more condescending with the passing of time and finally demands what it is Molina wants from him.

Molina explains that he has done some geneological research and that via a great-great grandparent the two are cousins. Coogan is discomfitted by the news, makes to leave, refuses outright to give Molina any of his private numbers. Molina’s cell rings. It’s Spike Jonze the director. Apparently he and Molina are close friends. Coogan has been dying to hook up with Jonze but has not been able to do so.

“Would it be shabby of me to give you my number now?” Coogan asks Molina at the end of the piece.

“Yes,” Molina says and exits the frame, leaving Coogan on his own.

The scene is perfectly pitched. The entertainment business sparring for rank and seeking of personal advantage in every acquaintance is spot-on. One sees oneself and one sees others in both of these roles. At some point all of us act with vanity and self-importance to others out of turn and suffer for the hubris. At some point, we are treated cavalierly by those we would help. The piece skewers LA and the entertainment business, but tells a fundamental human truth.

The worst of the rest is a piece with two rappers and Bill Murray. For some reason Bill Murray is working as a short-order cook who drinks coffee straight from the pot he is carrying around to offer guests. I’m Bill Murray he acknowledges without blinking an eye. The explanation for his current role is never given. Hiding out is what the rappers suppose. The record is never set straight. Everyone leaves the scene finally and it comes to a merciful end.


I would recommend getting ahold of Coffee and Cigarettes on DVD and watching the two Cousins pieces a couple of times each with a quick glance at whichever celebrities particularly interest you (Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Roberto Benigni).

absence | dance film preview

June 4th, 2004 § 0

dear readers,

i have not vanished. i’ve been busy finishing the edit of the dance film i shot last year at the same time contending with more work in my other business. so i am on hiatus so to speak.

while the war criminals cling onto power in the United States, Britain and Israel, there is great hope to cast them from their perches later this year.

indeed there is already a faint chance that we may yet see some of them indicted for their murderous crimes against humanity.

i will rejoin you all in hastening this process later this summer.

in the meantime, i must tell and tell well my tale of urbanisation, alienation and civilisation.

A girl raised by rabbits. When she reaches the age of eighteen, the rabbits gather and tell her she must go to rejoin her people. And Anna-Lapin sets out bravely for the city. In the distance she can see the great white tower in its center and heads there in the hope of finding new companionship among humankind.

Anna Hein as Anna-Lapin in Lapinthrope