S."Sizzles": Interview with Natali Broods
Violence as a means of expression
S., by Belgium director Guido Hendericks, was one of the most emotionally compelling films at Fantasia 1999. Like other films featured at Fantasia, A Better Place, Massacre at Central High and Kichiku, S. deals with a young person who resorts to violence as a means of expression. The film begins by thrusting us into the core of the titular character’s psychological crisis. She catches her boyfriend sleeping with her girlfriend and marks the occasion by videorecording it (she maintains a first-person video diary throughout the film). Then she murders them both and leaves New York for Europe, where she takes a job at a peepshow and meets a fellow stripper named Marie, with whom she shares the only tender, loving moments of her life. By the state of her emotional and physical condition, we realize that S. is on the slippery slide of the slope heading toward emotional oblivion. But there is a certain moral clarity present in the downward slide, through her use of violence, the negative depiction of authorial (mainly male) figures, and director Hendericks’ stylistic foregrounding of cinema’s scopophilic and voyeuristic nature. The film implicates the viewer directly in the violence and moral morass by most strikingly, for example, the downward wipes that emulate the peepshow mechanism. Although S. is a murderer, we still sympathize with her because the world around her, partly conditioned by her subjectivity, merits what it receives. This is largely due to the film’s ironic style and the outstanding and charismatic performance by first-time actress Natali Broods. Offscreen spoke with Natali Broods before her introducing S. to a sold-out audience at the Ex-Centris theatre.
Natali Broods introducing S.
Offscreen: How did you meet director Guido Hendericks?
Natali Broods: Through a teacher in my acting school, also a director, who Guido Hendericks contacted. I read the script and at first decided not to do it.
Offscreen: Was the script the same as now?
NB: We changed a few things. I was concerned about some scenes that were rather tough to do for a first time film actress. It was with very good actors and a very good director, but I was afraid. We talked and talked and he asked, OK which scenes do you have trouble with? I told him and then he explained how he planned to film them. And then I was OK. But it was tough because, to me, being naked in a movie is also like exposing your deep emotions.
Offscreen: Yes, and the film really plays with voyeurism and spectatorship. It has that peepshow effect, which displays the body. Then there is the scene later in the confessional booth, where traditionally you bear your soul. I was wondering where you think cinema fits in here, the body or the soul? A peepshow or a confessional booth, or both?
NB: I think it is both. When S. talks to the camera, it is her diary, she shows what she is thinking and feeling. For the physical things it is better if the spectator makes his own story in his mind. You stop and at a certain moment the viewer fills it in.
Offscreen: How big was the crew.
NB: Rather small, about 15, because the budget was small. But I liked that because it made the nude scenes easier, I trusted them.
Offscreen: What gave you problems with the sex scenes, because they were lesbian?
NB: Well, not because they were lesbian, but the nudity and just the step of doing them for the first time.
O: Was it independently funded?
O: I was surprised to learn that the director is in his fifties. It feels like such a young film.
NB: Yes. I think he is one of the best in Belgium. He is kind and works with his actors more than with the technical matters.
O: How did he prepare you for your character.
NB: Well we watched other films, like Bound, Sister My Sister, and Tales of Ordinary Madness. But mostly to let me know how he wanted to film the love scenes, rather than for the character. I never had the feeling that I knew the character before I played her. It was by playing her that I came to know her. I think you never have the perfect vision of who you are. It grows with the other actors as you play it.
O: Did you shoot in sequence? Because the narrative is not linear. Or did he discuss the chronology with you, in terms of how your character was feeling in a particular scene?
NB: I think the movie is chronological, but it was not shot chronological of course. But he wanted to do the harder scenes at the end.
On stage with programmer Mitch Davis.
O: I found the music very effective, were you aware of the music being used?
NB: No only after. I think it fits together really well.
O: For the look of the film, you are always sweating, what I call ‘designer sweat’, there’s a certain attraction to the sweat. Was that intentional, to make you look sweaty, dirty yet attractive.
NB: No. I think everyone was sweating, which just adds a sense of claustrophobia.
O: How was that achieved on set?
NB: It was a special substance. And everything was shot in studio, so it was so hot under the lights, and then cold away from them. But I like the look of it on the screen.
O: I think you character is sexy in a charismatic way. And someone may say that it is bad to have such a violent character be charismatic and attractive, but in this case the film is playing with that dramatically. Did he discuss that with you, about your being a sympathetic murderer?
NB: I think that’s interesting. Not to just have a one-dimensional character. As a spectator it gets you thinking. You can not say she is kind or mean.
O: She says something in the beginning after your boyfriend has slept with the other woman: “why do I always go after these bastards.” Some studies have shown certain women as being drawn to these relationships. Is this something about your character, or has she just had bad luck!
NB: Well, she seems to need them. But I also think she is so down on herself that she begins to like the pain and the killing.
O: I love the opening scene when you kill they guy after he has sprinkled your father’s ashes and then the blood gets mixed with the ashes. Which one can see as symbolically implicating your father, the patriarch, with the murders. And it also works as black humor.
NB: Well I never thought of it that way!
O: You start to film yourself with the video camera. Why does she have this need to record things?
NB: It is a diary. She can talk to the camera, and look for some warmth. She is trying to figure out what it’s all about.
O: But she records her boyfriend having sex with the other woman, which seems like a masochistic thing to do. To further the pain and humiliation, and then watch it again.
NB: Well, she’s so on the edge of everything.
O: Her relationship with Marie seems beautiful, but the one with Angie less ideal. You mention that she starts to like what she is doing. At what point do you see her losing touch with reality?
NB: I think right from the first time we see her. She likes it. The she goes to her mother and grandmother and everything escalates.
O: In terms of chronology. We see her driving in the car, before she kills the boyfriend, and then we see this shot later. Where is she in the narrative at that point in the car, at the end?
NB: No, for me it is at the beginning. But it doesn’t matter. Those car scenes are there for the spectator to catch a rest in between all the hard scenes. And you can see her eyes changing, according to what she has done or is going to do.
O: Sometimes when you watch a film you are curious about where a character has come from. But you don’t get that in this film. It just begins with her already in a crisis. It’s an interesting way to represent one moment in a person’s life.
NB: Yes. Because sometimes when you explain everything it becomes too simplistic, yes that’s the reason. But it’s her past and things she takes in from outside, in the newspapers, media, that all play a part.
O: How has the film been received in other festivals.
NB: It has played in Rotterdam, in Karlovy Vary. Some people leave the room, and some people love it. There’s nothing in between it seems. Which I think is good.
O: So art should be confrontational.
NB: Yes. Though not shock for shock’s sake. The script must be saying something to you, not just that it is shocking.
O: The idea of violence is a strong part of the film and it plays with the opposition between real violence and fictional. There’s that scene where you are watching that cheap exploitation
movie with your boyfriend. He gets off on the violence and your character doesn’t. And then you kill him because he finds the fictional violence fun. There’s that wonderful irony there.
NB: She has her own meaning of violence. Because I think she thinks her boyfriend gets off on killing for no reason, that poor lady. But she has a reason, though it is crazy.
O: And it is interesting because as a spectator we hate that guy more than S., who is the real killer. He just gets off on TV violence. Your violence is real. But we sympathize with you.
NB: Because we know her more.
O: Yes. And what’s interesting is that because it does that, I mean I’ve watched films like that and laughed, most of us have, so I’m like, laughing at myself being killed. The Austrian film Funny Games also plays with that civilized perpetrator of violence and the conflict between the surface, the nice clean cut bourgeois façade of the killers, and what they do.
NB: Well violence is fascinating sometimes. Why do they show it on television so much? Why are we so interesting in trying to understand minds that go that far.
O: The film’s use of voyeurism made me think of another film, Paris, Texas, the scene where Nastassja Kinski confesses everything through the peepshow booth to Travis, her estranged husband. She reveals how she felt, why she left him, it goes on for about 6 minutes without a cut. I think there’s a lot of that type of confessing going on in S.
NB: Well it has been awhile, but I remember seeing it and really liking it.
O: What do you think about those downward wipes?
NB: I like that effect. It makes you as a spectator feel like a voyeur.
O: Did you realize that while you were filming?
NB: No, I don’t think I did.
O: So it was a surprise when you first saw the film?
NB: Yes. But I was there for some of the cutting. So I saw it there. It was nice to be there.
O: Did you give any suggestions?
NB: No, because I have difficulties with looking at myself anyway! I trusted them. And a few things changed in the cutting. There were more scene in New York but they didn’t go well, move fast enough.
O: What was your reaction when you first saw the completed film?
NB: I was sitting like this (covers her eyes). With the crew and cast.
O: I think you are in every single scene in the film.
NB: Yes, which is why I could never take a rest!
O: Was it a very demanding shoot?
NB: Yes. We did it in 13 days. The whole film. But we rehearsed. The director gave me a video camera to try and play the scenes to myself whenever I wanted. I talked with every actor and we
practically played it through every Saturday night in my apartment. It helps you grow into the character. Because it had to be there in 13 days…long days, but I liked it. It goes so fast and you get into this trip where it just soars, which is what the movie is about. You don’t have time to be nervous.
O: Since you rehearsed a lot were there few takes?
NB: Well there wasn’t a lot of money or time to take a lot of takes. Usually two, three.
O: Any scenes you found tough to do in particular?
NB: Not really. I do remember when we took a rest one day and I knew the next day would be hard because you have to start again. But we needed it. That was hard. There was a scene where
I had to cry but I was too relaxed.
O: The film looks visually amazing for a film shot in 13 days. And there are several locations, the subway, the car, her room, about six locations. Were there a lot of lighting setups?
NB: The film was shot in two studios. Everything except the baseball bat scene was filmed in a studio. So they would shoot in one studio and setup the other one for art direction, lighting, etc.
O: The priest is an interesting figure. Is he just an authority figure or meant to represent more?
NB: Well, they are all men. But she’s trying to get answers, but even there the priest can not give her answers.
O: The first time we see him you are with your grandmother and he is standing in the background. Then we see him at the peepshow and then again there’s another shot back again with you and your grandmother in the restaurant when she begins to dance. Is that chronologically the same time or another time?
NB: The same, just misplaced in the linearity, I think.
O: That’s a powerful image of voyeurism when you go into the priest’s side of the booth to give him sex and he shuts the wood window to block our view, like in a peepshow, and then the gunshot!
O: Were all the actors professional?
NB: Yes. Though some of the young people were still in acting school.
O: The scene at the subway, the rape scene. Was that fantasy or real?
NB: For me it is real, but that’s a part of the movie we never talk about.
O: Again, if it would be a fantasy scene it would fit in with the masochism. And then toward the end she starts getting all those fantasies with the rifle, putting it in her vagina. I guess that’s where the masochism or self-hatred becomes stronger. And then you have that fantasy ending, where she has killed herself and then ends up in this idealized snowball world with Marie, untouched by reality.
NB: It’s funny that you see it like that. Like a fantasy. But that’s good that there are different interpretations.
O: It actually ends a lot like this Italian film Dellamorte Dellamore, where the two main characters end up ‘trapped’ in this make-believe snowball world.
NB: Really. I’m going to ask the director!
O: How do you think the film ends?
NB: I don’t think she dies. It has that romantic ending, but she is so restless that I don’t think it is the way it will end. It is just getting better. She’ll have a better life but not paradise.
O: Which is the way it is shot and supposed to make you feel, which is why I read it that way. Or it could be just the way the characters feel at that moment.
O: What’s nice in that final scene is that S. and Marie are together and men are looking at them but they are not aware of the men looking at them. The male look is not returned or invited. Have you received any criticism in the fact that all the male characters are so negative?
NB: Well, only from the perspective of the whole film, not just the representation of the men. Well, if I think of it, there are more women that seem to like it than men, so that may mean something!
O: Has it played at any Gay and Lesbian Festivals?
NB: Yes, it played in a Gay Festival at San Francisco.
O: Was it well received?
NB: I was not there but the producer was and said that they liked it a lot. Actually I never saw it as a lesbian movie.
O: No, but like Bound, it doesn’t have to be for it to play in that type of context or be appropriated by a gay crowd. Since there aren’t that many films with strong gay characters for
them to watch.
NB: Yes, that is true.
O: At one point your character goes on about the environment. Was that statistic actually true about there being 6 billion people on the planet earth and that the earth can only take 14 billion people? How does that whole environmental thing fit in with the character?
NB: Well I think she was concerned about it. It is another thing she takes in her head, the way nobody cares about it. All those stories apparently are true, like the one about the pornography film with a 6 month old baby. The director took them from newspapers.
O: And I guess are part of the whole that makes her crack?
NB: You have to be able to put things in perspective but she is not able to anymore.
(At this point in the interview one of the Devo-like Ex-Centris employees intervened to ask whether I had cleared this interview with security. Natali and I were both flabbergasted, and I tried to explain that she was an actress in a film about to play in their theatre in a festival supported by their theatre. He came close to confiscating my $60.00 Radio Shack tape recorder, but common sense prevailed. Just another reason why Ex-Centris and Fantasia do not mix.)
O: How much did the director talk to you about what he thinks your character is about?
NB: More about the emotions, what she is going through rather than what things mean.
O: So what are the principal emotions in the film. You mentioned loneliness. Are there others?
NB: Feeling powerless, frustrated about all those things happening around her that she can’t do anything about.
O: That’s interesting because cultural critics and theorists have looked at the younger generation, and things like scarification, tattooing as a way for them to express control, to control their body, the body as the last site of control. Twenty years ago it may have been wearing certain type of clothes, ten years ago a certain hair color, now it is the body. So in the film, the character just kills, that is the control she has. That’s scary. For a character to reach that point. Do you think there are any other paths the character could have taken which of course would have made it another film.
NB: Not for her. I guess she could have just killed herself at the beginning of the movie.
O: Which would have made it a really short film!
NB: Well she wants to do the extreme thing.
O: What sort of films do you like?
NB: I like different types of films. I don’t like horror films. I like something like Breaking the Waves. I just saw A Special Day, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, and just loved it.
O: Oh yea, that’s where Mastroianni plays a gay man, during the fascist period. I guess you like films that play with powerful emotions.
O: What are your future film plans?
NB I may make a feature with the directors of the film Brussels Midnight.
O: What is that about?
NB: Nobody knows yet. I haven’t seen the script.
O: Well, thanks for the interview and I hope the screening goes well.