Interview with Philippe Grandrieux
Maverick French director Philippe Grandrieux’s penchant for de-centered narratives and disturbing subject matter (i.e., prostitution and sexual violence) has polarized audiences around the world, but his painterly, formally innovative approach to image-making has also won him a legion of admirers among adventurous filmgoers as well as prominent theorists and critics. Nicole Brenez has written that Grandrieux’s work constitutes “the most advanced point of cinematic research” being conducted today and Adrian Martin devotes five pages of Mise en Scène and Film Style to analyzing a single scene from Grandrieux’s second feature, La vie nouvelle (2002). I recently spoke to Grandrieux, a far warmer and more humorous man than his dark oeuvre might lead one to believe, when he presented three of his films – Un lac (2008), White Epilepsy (2012) and Malgré la nuit (2015) – at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center.
Michael G. Smith/Offscreen: Malgré la nuit is the first feature you’ve shot digitally. How did you like that experience compared to shooting on 35mm?
Philippe Grandrieux (l) with Michael G. Smith ®
Philippe Grandrieux: Well, you know, it makes not such a big difference for me, 35 or digital. Of course, there’s a difference — the nature of the picture — but I’m not at all in any kind of nostalgia (for celluloid). Because you are not paying with cash, you use a credit card; it’s plastic but it’s more or less the same, you know? So, it’s no more paper but it’s computers. Maybe digital cameras give you the opportunity also to be more inside of the light of the picture. When you shoot in 35 you are not in the light of the scene because all the contrast and the color, all of this is done later in the laboratory. But when you shoot in digital, in the viewfinder you have exactly the light that you are going to have on the screen. What you are seeing is what you are screening. For me it’s very important, the possibilities the digital camera gives me – to be more inside of the light of the film. Because I frame myself, and I am really inside of the movie when I shoot. It’s a very particular way to shoot and to direct. So I need to be inside of the sensation when it happens. And digital cameras give me very strong access to this sensation.
MGS: Each film you’ve made since Sombre  has become more experimental and more dreamlike, especially in terms of location. Malgré la nuit is set in Paris and represents a return to a stronger narrative backbone. Why did you decide to move in this direction?
PG: That’s a big difference when you make movies and when you look at movies or try to have a critic’s point-of-view. Because when you make movies you follow a path with yourself. You are not so much thinking in terms of getting back from somewhere. It’s a necessity, in fact. You make a movie and then the other movie arrives. Sometimes it doesn’t arrive. [Chuckles] When it arrives, it’s a huge necessity to do it. The narrative aspect is a big fight because cinema for me is also dealing with narration and story. I try to find a way to organize the narration and the story through the possibilities of cinema itself, through the possibilities of the sensation itself; less with mise-en-scène in which the story is organized by the mise-en-scène. My work is really on the edge of this relation between narration and emotion and sensation. I never feel myself like an experimental filmmaker. Because experimental filmmakers – it could be very strong, very beautiful also – but they are really not so much concerned by this question of the story; it’s something else. The story is very important for me. It’s strange to say that. [Laughs] But for Sombre it’s very important. And for La vie nouvelle, even if the story is difficult. There’s a beautiful book of [Samuel]Beckett called Mal vu mal dit Ill Seen Ill Said. You access to the reality with difficulties. Maybe that’s why you feel this dreamlike situation in the movies. When I film, I access to the reality but not in the sense that I want to give an image of the reality or a stable representation of the reality. It’s much more what I feel at the moment that I film. It’s very direct. It’s very intuitive.
MGS: I think that comes across very strongly in all of your work. I feel like your conception of mise-en-scène is to capture bodies in space and to create choreography between the performers, and between the camera and the performers. To what extent do you decide what’s going to happen when you’re on location with the actors?
PG: Well, it depends on the scene. Usually when I shoot, I shoot very quickly. I take time to prepare the movie, to cast, scout for the places and a lot of time the preparation for the light. So I take a lot of time in this moment of the production of the movie. But when I shoot, I shoot very quickly. Sometimes then with the actors, I take the camera and I’m beginning to shoot and they don’t even know exactly what I’m going to do. And I speak when I shoot, so I give indications, you know? But it’s not improvisation because it’s trying to be together with the actors and trying to find together the same way to walk. You know when you walk with somebody sometimes you haven’t the same rhythm? You are against the rhythm of the other. So you always have to do one foot more to be in the same line. Do you know what I mean? And this rhythm is very important. You have to be in the same tempo.
Malgré la nuit
MGS: That must be hard for some of the actors. How did Ariane Labed and Roxane Mesquida, for instance, react to this? Was it exciting for them or was it difficult? Because I imagine it’s very different to how they’re used to working.
PG: Yes, but we talk before and both Ariane and Roxane really want to work with me and me also with them. So we were very close, very confident, and there was never any kind of difficulties on the set. It was very easy, even if some scenes are very tough. But the difficulty wasn’t at this level, you know? Because we believe strongly in each other. There’s never judgment on the set. I never judge. I never ask an actor something that I don’t decide before. When I discuss with them for the casting, I say to them, “Okay, we are going to do this kind of thing. I’m going to go as far as I can on this level.“ It’s not only a question of nudity, it’s also a question of their own violence, their own psychic violence. So I say that I’m asking them to let me access to this. So when they agree, after that on the set I never ask them to do something with bad feeling or like a voyeur. I’m not voyeur at all. I’m inside of the scene. A lot of directors, I have a feeling that they are in the place of the power with all of these things. A lot of directors think that they know. Most of the time it’s not true. They don’t know anything. [Laughs] So, it’s better to say, “Okay, we are together. We try to make a scene in which it’s very strong violence. For instance, in the forest when (Hélène) wants to feel pain. So how to access this, you know? How can we do that? But it’s work, you know what I mean? And when it’s done, it’s done. We are very happy and we drink.
MGS: In the scene with Helene in the forest, the emotional violence is worse than the physical violence.
PG: Of course.
MGS: She’s grieving over her son’s death and she’s become a kind of masochist in a way, degrading herself in order to deal with the emotions . . .
PG: I think Hélène for me is less a masochist but she access with the pain to something else. The pain is not for her the possibility to access to pleasure. Masochist is this situation — they want pleasure with pain. This is a little bit different. She access through the pain to a part of herself opening at this moment. Just like when you make sport, you make very intense sport. At a certain moment, something else happens. You are no more tired. Something like a door opening, you know? In fact, Hélène is at this point, I think. Through the pain, a door is opening inside of her. I have more this feeling than a masochist organization, which is a social organization of sexuality. It’s less social. It’s deeper for her.
MGS: Well, she’s not doing it to experience pleasure but at the same time she’s there because she wants to be there.
PG: She wants. Totally. Definitely. She’s a very strong woman. She’s not at all a victim of anything.
MGS: That’s a good analogy with sports. In America, athletes talk about “getting into the zone.” It’s a mental space you arrive at when you’ve exerted yourself to the point where you no longer think about anything.
Malgré la nuit
PG: Yeah. It’s the same with the orgasm situation. When you cum, it’s something else, it’s an opening. It’s a zone, in a way. [Chuckles] Otherwise, it’s boring, no? [Laughs] So, this is where Helene is moving. She tries to access to this place in herself.
MGS: I read a review where a critic said he thought Hélène was Madeleine, that she had changed her name but they were the same character. That never occurred to me while watching it.
PG: No, no, no.
MGS: But then I realized all of the characters’ names are similar: Madeleine, Hélène, Lenz, Lena. Was that on purpose?
MGS: Are they different facets of the same personality?
PG: Absolutely. It’s exactly that. You perfectly understand the movie. [Chuckles]
MGS: So Hélène and Madeleine are doppelgangers?
PG: Yeah, because we work at the beginning with Bertrand Schefer, a friend of mine, on the script. And we work on a very theoretical aspect of the film. We work on this question of Leibniz, The Monadology. He says that all of us, we have inside of us the same infinite possibility of the universe. But each of us, we express some particularity of this infinite possibility of the universe. You express some particularity: maybe you can walk longer than me, you can sleep longer than me. Maybe you can eat more than me. Or maybe I can, I don’t know, drink more than you . . .
MGS: Probably. [Laughs]
PG: [Laughs] Probably. I don’t know, I’m not sure. So the movie is absolutely this: it’s the same universe, the same world, but each character expresses a different point of view on this universe. That’s what Leibniz says. We are different perspectives on the same city.
MGS: I feel that Malgré la nuit is simultaneously your darkest film and your lightest film. I read an interview you did with Nicole Brenez about La vie nouvelle where she said something extraordinary: that because you possess a knowledge of cruelty, that makes you the only director capable of re-integrating sentimentality into cinema.
PG: That’s great.
MGS: I think that’s more true of Malgré la nuit. The climax, the scene with the snuff film, is very difficult to watch but afterwards, when the characters wake up in the forest, it’s the closest thing to a happy ending in your work because it shows at least the possibility of redemption for these characters. Do you feel like because you go so far in exploring cruelty that that earns you the right to be sentimental?
PG: I don’t know in terms of “right” but in terms of forces. I remember this very beautiful quote. It’s a very beautiful consideration about paintings. Deleuze says that you can only paint forces. So when you film, you can film only forces. You film concrete things. And cruelty is a way of how the forces are expressed, and sentimentality also, in a way. So it’s a very concrete level. It’s not only a psychological level of cruelty or sentimentality. It’s also the nature of the movement of the hand. If I put my hand on your hand like this . . . Grandrieux slowly caresses my hand . . . it’s very soft. So this is a movement. It’s very concrete and it’s very sentimental but there is no psychology in it. It’s only the nature of the movement. And the cinema captures that very strongly. So you can move from the very, very soft movement of the hand and it’s very sentimental but you can also move with the camera very strongly to something else . . . Grandrieux mimes the act of whip-panning a camera . . . and you cut and it’s very brutal. So you have sentimentality and brutality.
MGS: But there’s a relationship between them because one defines the other.
PG: Of course. It’s the tension between two opposite forces. But through this opposition of the forces, there is a possibility of really being inside of the current. It’s just like electricity, you know? You have one pole and another pole and between these two, you have the power of the energy. So I need this contradiction to feel the energy of the film and to feel the movement, the current of the film.
MGS: Somebody asked me what this movie was about and I started describing it and realized that you can’t talk about it in terms of subject matter. It sounds too depressing. You have to talk about the form because that’s where the joy comes in. The best scene is the one where Roxane is singing because it’s so beautifully lit and the use of superimposition is very poetic and intense. It reminds me of the way superimposition was used in the silent era, like in Epstein’s Coeur Fidèle.
PG: Yes, of course. Epstein is an influence for sure: the relation with the cinema itself, the movement of camera and all of this, yes. But I am very happy that you say that, really. I am very happy that you say that cinema is not only the subject but it’s an object. Cinema is really this question of the tempo of the cut and the nature of the light and the movement of the camera and the movement of the actors. And through all these possibilities you access to the story or you access to the subject. But the question is a question of the object itself. When you see Cezanne painting an apple or painting faces or painting a landscape, the question is the same: it’s color, it’s the rhythm of the touch, and to access to the geological aspect of the face or the geological aspect of Mont Sainte-Victoire. That’s the object aspect of the cinema. I’m very happy that you say that because I’m really working with this question.