Cannes Interview: Alice Winocour
After showing her debut feature Augustine in Critics’ Week in 2012, French filmmaker Alice Winocour returned to Cannes this year with Disorder, a paranoid chamber thriller that screened in Un Certain Regard. Winocour has moved from the sensuous period drama of Augustine—the Lacanian chronicle of 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his guinea-pig-turned-object-of-desire Augustine—to Disorder, a nerve-racking huis-clos thriller about a war vet with post-traumatic stress disorder. The ex-soldier, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), is hired to protect the wife (Diane Kruger) and child of a corrupt businessman at their gated estate.
Beyond the adrenaline-spiking action sequences, what lies at the heart of Winocour’s formal exercise is the psychological reality of a man who lives with the constant burden of fear and anxiety. Hers is a cinema of perceptions that immerses the audience in a cathartic experience in which the boundaries between imagination and reality are continuously blurred in the most Lynchian way.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Winocour in Cannes about Antonioni’s influence on Disorder and her sensorial approach to cinema.
Disorder plunges the viewer into the obsession of its protagonist almost in the manner of a Hitchcockian thriller. We enter Vincent’s mind and never really leave, a bit like how we enter Scottie Ferguson’s mind in Vertigo. How did the desire to make this psychological study come about?
I’m glad you felt that because it was really my intent to be in a single point of view and to have a truly sensorial and physical relationship with the character—to understand only what he understands, to hear only what he hears, and to have the same vertiginous feeling as he does toward reality. We did a huge amount of work on the soundtrack to achieve this distortion of reality, and it was a sort of obsession for me to never ever leave his point of view. It was pretty constraining in the writing process because we were only supposed to get glimpses of the main storyline, but it was also very constraining in terms of the editing. Everything resulted from this overarching formal conceit, and it gave the film a radicalism that I found interesting.
But my essential concern was to capture this climate of fear and disarray in a world that is becoming more and more incomprehensible. I put all my fears in the film, my fear of the dark, of storms, etc., but also all the fears of contemporary life: the continuous flow of information, the fact that we have the impression of witnessing everything but at the same time of being completely powerless. Also a sort of sensation of collapse, of chaotic elements in chaotic times. Fear is central to the film, and I wanted the spectator to start telling himself stories like Vincent does. Because, for me, doubt is the principal ingredient of the paranoid thriller, and so I tried to put doubt into everything so that we never knew if we really hear what we hear or really see what we see. I wanted us to really feel the fragility of perceptions, and I think that gives the film a very carnal and physical quality. That’s why the soundtrack and the mixing process were very important to me, to capture the breathing and all those small sounds that put us under the skin of the character.
The music really intensifies this mental experience, and since the character doesn’t speak much and is more of an observer, the music becomes like his voice. This use of music to mirror or complement the character’s psychological state reminded me of The Conversation.
Yes, exactly. I thought about The Conversation a lot and also about the Jeff Nichols film, Take Shelter—all those films that are perception narratives.
There are also echoes of Blow-Up, like when Vincent zooms in on the security footage. The protagonists of both films have this need to look closer and decipher what lies under the surface of a seemingly impenetrable reality.
Yes, I thought about Antonioni’s films a lot in terms of atmosphere. For me, Zabriskie Point is really a “bedside film” [film de chevet]—it’s one of the films that have moved me the most. There are also characters in his movies who are like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, witnesses of a reality that is bigger than they are. They are more like observers. And that’s what makes his films atmospheric. Sofia Coppola, who is a filmmaker that I really like as well, also manages to capture something immaterial, this sort of contemporary angst.
I also thought about La notte a lot for the party sequence. I’m interested in this very sensorial side of cinema. I think that I have an obsession about physical dysfunctions. The subject of my first film, Augustine, was a group of women who expressed their rebellion through their bodies because their rebellion was impossible otherwise. And so I feel like this idea of physical dysfunctions, the fact that there are no words to express what one feels, opens up a whole new field for cinema. At least for me, it’s more with sensations that we say things rather than with words.
Godard once said: “A film is a form that thinks, not a thought that is formed.” You seem to embrace this idea in Disorder by transmitting thematic concerns mainly through formal devices. The party sequence is central to this approach because the camerawork really makes us feel Vincent’s growing anxiety and dizziness navigating that extravagant world. How did you imagine that sequence?
I thought about La notte a lot obviously, and the sort of decadent world you see in that villa. I also based it on something that I had seen at a party once, where people were eating caviar on their hands. But there was essentially this idea of a troubling and corrupt milieu with this kind of complicity between the political world and the world of money. In France there are all sorts of political scandals so I didn’t want to describe one in particular but more so a milieu of corruption. So there had to be something completely perverse and tacky about that world.
There is another film that I thought of, Lucrecia Martel’s La ciénaga, which also relied heavily on sensations. I thought it would be interesting to remain inside Vincent’s physical perceptions the whole time, as with the sounds that he hears through his earpiece. The movie had to be framed, formally, by two major moments: the party sequence and then the final action in the last part of the film, when the kidnappers enter the house and Vincent goes after them. Those moments had to work together and mirror each other. So in the party we’re only in Vincent’s mind when he fantasizes about everything that could happen, and then in the final action scene, we are truly part of the action, as if Vincent’s paranoiac fantasy was reality after all.
It gave me a rather strange feeling to watch the film here in Cannes because the party in the film takes place in a political milieu, but it could very well have been a Cannes party. So I think it speaks to us in a way. Because for me, these soldiers like Vincent go to the front and risk their lives so that the normal world, our world, can continue to live in peace. And so I found a sort of brutality in juxtaposing the party sequence and the hospital scene where we get a sense of Vincent’s disorder.
For me there were two images that had an immediate connection: the shot in the party when Vincent crushes the ice and the one in the final action sequence when he smashes the kidnapper’s head against the coffee table.
Yes, I did that on purpose. For that scene where Vincent smashes the man’s head, I was telling Matthias that it was almost as if his hands were doing the hitting and not him, as if his hands had their own freedom and he didn’t have any control over them. And that’s really what the character is about: it’s someone who doesn’t have any control over his body anymore.
The film is concerned with the reality of war and shows how the effects of war are felt or re-experienced in a daily context, which is the character’s biggest struggle. However, that reality—what Vincent has been through in Afghanistan—is only suggested in the film. It is never truly revealed. But I suppose Matthias Schoenaerts had to deeply comprehend and internalize it in order to play Vincent, because he becomes Vincent, body and soul. Could you talk a bit about how he prepared for the role?
I wrote two years for Matthias. So he was associated with the project very early on. But he had a very loaded schedule, so we only had a small slot to shoot the movie and he went into the shoot with very limited preparation, which was quite frightening for him. And he really went far to meet his own demons and totally entered the character’s state during the shoot, to the extent of not sleeping and doing things like that to really immerse himself in the part. In fact we can see in his eyes that he is truly somewhere else. Matthias had also worked on the physicality and the demeanor of the bodyguard, because he is very demanding about the work of the actor. But at the same time he knew that he would be stuck at some point. So that’s really what I admire in him, this mixture of control and abandonment. There is still preparation, but he is also very spontaneous.
We also watched a lot of films together, Hell and Back Again, Of Men and War, all of those films which speak of traumatized soldiers. But independently from that, he already had the physical condition of an elite soldier, so he was credible. But it’s just that at some point he let go and released control. And that’s what I admire the most in actors or artists in general, when they enter this kind of secondary zone. It’s the same with directing, we constantly have to find a balance between control and abandonment.
Perhaps we could talk a little about the passage from micro to macro that happens in the film. At the beginning we obviously have the impression that Vincent’s doubts are a product of his imagination and stem from his disorder, but in that car scene in which the masked men show up and precisely when the window pane is shattered, these doubts suddenly become reality—so the threat becomes real—and Vincent’s paranoia is justified. Why was it important for you to make this transition from irrational to rational fear?
But for me even if the threat becomes real, he still continues to doubt himself and to have his physical disorder. In fact it becomes even more tense for him because there’s nothing worse than being in a situation of real danger when you are yourself in a state of uncertainty. Soldiers are people who are in a state of complete mastery of their bodies, so a dysfunctional body is something vertiginous for them, because suddenly their bodies slip away from them and that’s something they are not used to at all. They are completely disconcerted by that. And so it was important for me to show that even if the threat becomes real, there is always a doubt about what he sees, what he feels: for example, when he enters the house after seeing the car, or when it rains and he realizes it’s only the roof. This sort of anxiety had to be present in every single frame.
I really like your short film Kitchen (05) which you made after graduating from La Fémis. You were already exploring this theme of a character’s sense of suffocation in a closed space, a sentiment that comes back in Disorder but in a much more serious and dark way, and in a completely different genre. Could you talk a bit about your cinematic journey from Kitchen to Disorder and what led you, as it were, from the huis-clos in Kitchen to the one in Disorder?
It’s funny because Kitchen is a film that I feel pretty detached from today. It was made 10 years ago, and I was here in Cannes with it. We were talking before about abandonment and control, and actually with that film, I was in a state of complete control—I had imagined all the frames and had really filmed everything the way I had imagined it. The mise en scène in that film almost feels frozen in place. So I experienced a total rejection of that film when making my second short, also because I feel like we always make one film against another. In my second film, Magic Paris , I tried to let some life in and to work within something much freer. I think it’s my obsession to arrive at a state of complete abandonment. For instance, in Disorder, one of my favorite scenes is when Vincent’s friend courts Jessie [the businessman’s wife] in the kitchen and they listen to the song, because I felt much freer with the actors. It was all scripted and nothing was improvised, but I suddenly felt very free in that scene, and for my next film, I would like to go even further toward that kind of freedom.
Maybe we could conclude by talking a little about your collaboration with Deniz Gamze Ergüven on the script of Mustang, which received the Europa Cinemas Label Prize in Directors’ Fortnight. I imagine it was quite a different project for you to take on. First of all, it’s set in Turkey…
No, it’s not completely different. It’s also a huis-clos, and an action film. There are a lot of connections between her film and my films, especially this idea of a group of girls and their rebellion. The idea came to us when we were at the Cinéfondation together, at the Cannes Atelier for the financing of our films. She had a hard time making her film Kings happen, and she told me about this episode from her childhood where she and her sisters had gone swimming and were playing games with boys, climbing on their shoulders and all that. And one summer they were suddenly told off by their grandmother, who said things like: “You excited the boys. You rubbed your genitals against them.” So even though there was a great innocence in these games, they had suddenly become something horrible in other people’s eyes. And I thought this was an incredible story. I myself have cousins and was raised with them, so I could immediately connect with her story. So I think the film was born from the meeting of Deniz’s childhood memories and mine, of our friendship, and of course from a form of reality grounded in today’s Turkey. And I think we both identified with the wild energy of those young girls to free themselves.
Translated by Yonca Talu.