Originally titled Je suis une ville endormie (I Am a Sleeping City) in a previous incarnation, Nights with Theodore tells an entrancing tale of precarious romance between two young people in Paris’s mysterious and possibly magical Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. FILM COMMENT spoke with its Paris-based director Sébastien Betbeder (Yoshido, 10; La Vie lointaine, 09) about Nights with Theodore, part of Film Comment Selects.
How would you classify your film in terms of genre? The term “eco-thriller” comes to mind. What do you think?
Yes, I think I rather like that appellation. It’s a difficult film to classify. For me, it’s a hybrid film, because it has elements of romance just as much as those of the thriller, as you say. And also documentary elements. And it even, I would say, lays claim to the genre of experimental film.
There’s an absurdist streak too. For example, the man they encounter in the cave, who seems to be extracted from a Raúl Ruiz film.
Yes, exactly. The man in the cave comes from a different place, a place linked to the absurd. And he’s almost a literary character, I would say, who claims to be a writer, but who seems to come from a completely different fiction, one that is different from mine.
There is also something very serious about the film, something grave at its heart. For example, the psychologist who speaks of the extreme attachment a man has for the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont—an attachment between a man and this microclimate which is simultaneously separate from the city and an integral part of it. This is a key aspect of the film as well, no?
Yes, absolutely. I grew up in the countryside, and had to adapt to city life. I’ve been in Paris for about 13 years, and I’ve lived near the park throughout. It’s a place I’ve always found fascinating and one that I always thought would be a great setting for a film. Walking there—and I walked there often when I was writing earlier screenplays—I told myself I must write something for this place. There is a strangeness to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and what is amazing about it is that it was made by human beings. It’s absolutely not a place that comes from nature; it was constructed during a World’s Fair. For me, it’s so incredible that human beings could have created a place of such amazing fantasy.
Are there many films set in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont?
No, there have been very few. We were very lucky, because it’s very tough to get permission to film there. We had to really fight to be able to. We had several nights where we had the park for the entire night, which is very rare. There were a few films shot there at night but that was only for one night, whereas we had a much longer period of time to shoot. And, regarding the inspiration for the idea of a place having an effect on a character’s behavior, I had in my head several films that treated this subject, if indirectly. I often speak of a film that really affected me when I discovered it, a film by Peter Weir entitled Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is about the influence of a rock [formation] on schoolgirls. This film really made an impression on me. And then Charisma, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was also very influential, or in any event, really helped me to construct my own story.
Paris has many remarkable parks. For you, what differentiates the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont from others?
It’s what I was saying before: its mystery… When you walk there, you feel something very occupied, inhabited, about the park. I researched this rather heavily, about the esoteric aspects of the park, its magical powers, whether claimed or dreamt. In any event, there is a documented trail in this vein. Walking in the park, one feels this history, how charged the place is with ghosts.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is very Parisian without necessarily being very French. As we see in your film, the Chinese and Vietnamese do tai chi there every morning. Not so French.
Yes, I agree completely. The park isn’t in the most touristic part of Paris, but rather to the extreme east of the city. The 19th arrondissement. It contains many cultures, and that’s something I really wanted to show in the film. We shot at night, and it was very strange, the first arrivals every morning were the Chinese who came to the edges of the park to do tai chi. There is something very universal about the park, which pleases me enormously. Once Theodore and Anna finish their night, everyone else comes back into the park. These people, most of whom are foreign to France, are the first to pour in.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a bit like Central Park, in how it separates and brings together people from different backgrounds and places, don't you think? On one side of the park, you have the housing projects at La Place des Fêtes and on another side, the Chinatown of Paris in Belleville, for starters.
Yes. Until the end of the 1980s, I believe you could not walk across the park at night. It’s a place that had a special history at night, where it was dangerous to go because of drugs, and sinister or mysterious encounters, as I suggest in the film. It was a place that included many different people and their energies. It’s also true that I wished, with the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, for it to manifest a kind of universal aspect. The man in the cave speaks of having lived in Central Park, and other places. And now, he’s in this park.
And the events, the spectacles, that you show in Nights with Theodore that took place in the 19th century in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, did they take place in other parks in Paris? The documentary footage of the tightrope walker and the parachutist...
Really, only the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont allowed for these experiments, which are profoundly human. That’s what really appealed to me when I discovered this footage—people risking their lives in this place. It was more than entertainment: it’s almost as if the park’s power was to bring in these artists and lead them into risking their lives. The suspended bridge the parachutist throws himself off of is called the Bridge of Suicides, a name it got after many people sought it out to commit suicide. There is a whole history of bridges in this park.
How did Nights with Theodore evolve?
I always found the park to be an inspirational place. I would go there to think about other films. The idea of making the park its own character in a film, I really had to think about how to pay homage to it and how to transcribe what I felt walking in the park, the mystery I felt. I wanted—and this was for the first time, by the way—not to write too much, not to screenplay-ify too much, but rather, as if I was dreaming, have a film that was a hybrid fiction. Not just a fictional film, but I wanted to provide multiple paths that would contribute to the mystery of the park, in posing questions more than in responding to them. The main plot would be classical, a romantic storyline, but I wanted to confront this storyline with the brutality of the real.
What is the “brutality of the real” here? Is it the phenomenon the psychologist describes?
There are three aspects of the real in my film: the documentary, the almost pedagogical documentary in the beginning of the film; the interviews with the psychiatrist; and then the black-and-white archival footage. There you have it. These are the three real elements in the film.
How did you come to work with Pio Marmaï, who plays Theodore, and Agathe Bonitzer, who plays Anna?
Agathe is one of the first to have read the screenplay. She’s an actress I like very much and I absolutely needed her in the film. I never imagined anyone else playing Anna because she has something which was vital to the role—something romantic and timeless about her. She is a young actress with a long career in front of her. Pio Marmaï came to the project rather late, and it was a really beautiful collaboration. He brought something unexpected to the role—something very physical, very animalistic that really transformed the character of Theodore.
Theodore is asthmatic, is that right? Or is his condition more metaphysical?
I’ll answer “yes” to both propositions. He has a physical problem, asthma, but he also suffers from psychic troubles that are more metaphorical or poetic.
Anna is not nearly as sensitive as her boyfriend. But there must be other people like Theodore.
Yes. There are people for whom a psychological impact manifests as physical symptoms. Anna is, as you say, less hyper-sensitive than Theodore, and if she follows him into the park, it’s because her malady is the attraction she feels for Theodore. Theodore’s disease is a non-adaption to the world which can be caused by various things. I was struck, during my research, how the environment can have a psychological effect on people, by what is called Paris syndrome. It happens with Japanese people who fantasize all these things about Paris before they even arrive, and when they get there, they are so disappointed that they fall into a very deep depression that can even lead to suicide.
And what places, what cities do you fantasize about?
[Laughs] Well, I’m someone who travels rarely, who likes to travel but who always seems to be apprehensive about it, even if I’m really attracted to a place. I do fantasize about other places, though. My previous film treated the figure of a Japanese director who had come to work in France. I like exploring how individuals come to different places and adapt or perhaps don’t. Sometimes, a non-adaptation can create its own story.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a major character in the film, but you don’t stage any fantastical interventions with it. Rather, you let the park as a character express itself through Theodore and Anna.
When you asked me at the beginning of the interview what genres the film might belong to, I might say there is a fantasy, horror, or science-fiction aspect to it. There are no magic or monsters in the movie. None of that. And yet in the film there is an atmosphere, a mistiness that is totally related to science fiction, horror, or fantasy films.
How long did you end up shooting in the park?
We had a bit less than a week. It was during a part of the year when the nights are quite short, so we really made the most out of shooting between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. But we had only one week in the park. Afterwards, we also cheated a bunch and shot some park footage at night outside of Buttes-Chaumont.
Well, not to disappoint, but the scenes in the pavilion, and even the cave scenes, were not shot in the park. There was something very funny about fabricating a park which is itself, at least in part, fake.