The mysteries of the subconscious
by Fabien Lemercier
02/05/2005 - At 28 and with two full-length feature films under his belt, Jérôme Bonnell’s stock is already high in the eyes of the French critics. Recognition that does not seem to deviate him from his chosen path as witnessed by his rejection of a big-bucks production with French stars aplenty in favour of Pale Eyes, starring his favourite actors, Nathalie Boutefeu and Marc Citti. Rendezvous in Paris with this up-and-coming young director.
Cineuropa : What attracted you to the "borderline" character of Fanny ?
Jérôme Bonnell: Don’t quite know, the subconscious always has a big influence on the writing. From the very beginning I wanted to work with Marc Citti and Nathalie Boutefeu. I’d written a short-length film for them just after Olga’s Chignon, wanting to start shooting asap. But Nathalie was pregnant, so I was going to have to wait a couple of years and I didn’t want any other actress to play the role. And it all worked out for the best. Gradually, and not purposefully, the story over time took on an added dimension. Basically, I didn’t want to mention Fanny’s illness outright but wanted to treat it as a scar and speak more of solitude than of illness and derangement. This is something universal which affects me on a personal level.
Why did you decide to film a slice of life with no beginning and no end, and without going into the background and behaviour of the characters ?
When I go to the movies, I always prefer to be left in the dark rather than to have everything explained to me. There didn’t seem to be a need for explanation. During the writing, the shooting and, especially, the editing, I really forced myself to concentrate as much as possible on feeling rather than explanation. I realise that, while that can create mystery, it can also create fragility – it’s a double-edged sword. But I prefer to embrace fragility at the risk of slightly baffling the audience rather than tying up all the loose ends. I’m not of the ‘beginning-middle-and-an-end’ school, where scripts have both an ending and a conclusion.
Did you set the second part of the film in another country to symbolise the crossing of a border by this "borderline" character? And why Germany ?
It’s funny, La Frontière was a title suggested to me by René Cleitman. That’s what I like about movies: you tell your stories but only later come to realise the meaning of certain elements, of symbols that weren’t there at the start. As for Germany, it’s to provide a link with the past, the Second World War and a phenomenon that still affects many families today: in the 1940s, between 100,000 and 200,000 children were born of a Franco-German relationship. Nonetheless, the Germany of the film remains completely disembodied, absolutely unrealistic, with only a single German. It’s more the Germany of Grimm’s fairy tales than the Germany of today. That wasn’t the initial intention but lots of elements in the film derive from fairy stories. I realised this gradually, in the course of the writing: an isolated character, a family at war, a flight, a journey, a forest, love at first sight, love changing everything.
Is the absence of dialogue in the second part a film-maker’s challenge or the natural consequence of the script, the fact that Fanny suffers from hearing voices?
I wanted above all to create a love story between a man and a woman who do not speak the same language, a silent movie. Cinematographically, I found that very interesting, a genuine avenue of exploration with lots of room for manoeuvre for the actors. On set, it turned out really strange. Especially for Lars Rudolph, who has at most two lines, it was sometimes slightly disorientating. I realised that a dialogue-free film is actually quite shameless, something very delicate as what are words if not a refuge.
You have been very loyal to Nathalie Boutefeu, who has starred in almost all your films.
She’s different from any other actress, she’s extremely timeless, and produces some real moments of genius. There may well be better actresses around, but they absolutely do not inspire me. With Nathalie, it’s an exchange, it’s complicity, it’s close friendship all at once. I like this loyalty, exploring with each film new land with the same actress. In the four films we’ve made together, she’s been extremely different each time
Why did you choose the actor Lars Rudolph?
Because of his singular nature, and the total dedication that I felt within him. I felt that we were on the same wavelength. I’d seen him in Belá Tarr’s brilliant film, Les Harmonies Werckmeister. At first glance, he bore no resemblance to the character I’d imagined but I like the idea of venturing down unexplored avenues.
There are two scenes in the film that have Charlie Chaplin written all over them. Which film-makers would you liken yourself to ?
He’s the first person in films that moved me, it was a subtle nod in his direction. Everyone knows that my favourite two young French film-makers are Alain Cavalier and Agnès Varda. In terms of daring, mischievousness and a wish to explore, there’s always a great deal of innocence in their work. And, in my opinion, the absence of innocence is incompatible with the desire to make films. Contemporary film-makers whose movies I wouldn’t miss range from Kiarostami to Clint Eastwood, not forgetting Cédric Kahn and loads of others. And with regard to the old school, Truffaut, Pialat, Bresson, Bergman...
You played the part of a male nurse in Les coquilles, one of Nathalie Boutefeu’s short films, and here, you make an appearance with your leg in plaster. Are we only going to see you in small ER-type roles ?
The carer or the patient ? (laughs). In Pale Eyes, I liked the idea of playing a character who can’t move and who only does thanks to the Nathalie Boutefeu character, who carries the whole thing.