Interview: agnès b.
When it comes to making movies, agnès b. is as fiercely independent as her fashion line. Rising from the Parisian flea market where her thrift-shop style first caught the attention of Elle magazine, she has managed to turn her own name into a world-renowned signature brand, or branded signature—familiar in its clean, lower-case, cursive type. At 73, agnès b. shows no signs of slowing down: she still maintains stringent control over her own designs and has just directed her first feature film, My Name Is Hmmm… (Je m’appelle Hmmm…).
Applying her DIY ethic to filmmaking, My Name Is Hmmm… is an emotionally dark if visually bright portrait of girlhood for which she wrote the script and designed the sets, and which she co-edited. The designer has been in a committed relationship with cinema for quite some time (see our Nov/Dec 2006 issue for Amy Taubin’s profile, “Off the Rack”). Frequenting Paris’s moviehouses as a teenager, she cultivated a taste for American and European films alike—j’aime le cinema reads one of her T-shirts. Her clothing designs have been immortalized on celluloid—perhaps most notably by the suits sported by Mr. Pink and company in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs—and she has been known to swoop in like a superhero (probably clad in a particularly well-tailored cape) to rescue financially troubled films by Claire Denis and Gaspar Noé, among others. It was in this manner that she discovered her knack for producing, eventually co-founding a company with Harmony Korine (appropriately named O’Salvation) as well as her own Love Streams, named after Cassavetes’ final film.
Deriving its title from the jeune fille at its center who refuses to give her real name, My Name Is Hmmm… unfolds primarily on the road. Desperately seeking an escape from her abusive father (Jacques Bonnaffé), Céline (Lou-Lélia Demerliac) runs away during a school trip to the seaside and hides in a parked truck. Revealing herself to the Scottish driver (played by video artist Douglas Gordon) only once the vehicle is in motion, she forms an unlikely bond with him while they encounter a host of characters as eclectic as the film’s restless diversity of styles. From a surreal sequence in which a pair of phantasmal Butoh dancers, painted all in white, rhythmically move their bodies in slow motion amidst the verdant silence of the forest, to a fireside philosophy lesson featuring a trench-coat-clad Antonio Negri, My Name Is Hmmm… puts the filmmaker’s plurality of interests and creative influences on eye-catching display.
FILM COMMENT caught up with agnès b. after her movie’s U.S. premiere this past fall in the 51st New York Film Festival. Dressed simply in black to set off her wispy platinum ringlets, she had a contagious twinkle in her eye as she spoke about her two greatest loves: fashion and film.
You’ve produced films for and supported other directors for so many years. What finally drove you to direct your own?
I’ve really been doing this for the last 10 years: I made some shorts and I did a video journal. I’ve filmed concerts and the people I meet. The people around me are great, I meet so many incredible people all the time, so I record that. And editing—half the work of making a film is the editing. So I learned how to do it. I took photographs for a long time; I love to frame. I wrote this story 10 years ago and I wrote it so that I could direct it. I wrote it like it was explaining everything—it’s written, but it’s visual. The movie is exactly what I wrote, it’s incredible.
The music in your film is particularly powerful. Can you talk a bit more about the soundtrack?
There are two great American people doing the music. David Daniels, the countertenor, [who is] so beautiful, and Sonic Youth. I heard them playing and I thought it was very dramatic and beautiful, and I thought: “This is for the beach scene.” I wasn’t even doing the film yet, but the story was already in my head. I put the music in my film—it wasn’t released, it’s a live recording they gave me. And then there’s Jean-Benoît Dunckel from Air, the French group—I asked him to work on the Vivaldi scene. It’s very light, I thought it should be like Vivaldi looking for his musical theme, so he went back to these musical phrases that Vivaldi used, back to the melody.
I’m a child of Godard: [the relationship between] sound and image, and image and sound is very important. His company was called sonimage. I’m so happy to see all these images by Godard on the big screen [referring to the trailer for the New York Film Festival’s Godard retrospective]. I’ve seen them all, I think: Weekend is incredible, and Tout va bien. I put a piece of Tout va bien in my movie. I was filming in the supermarket, and I thought, Maybe we can put a little piece in. So I asked Godard and he never answered me. I know the way he is, he can be really nonplussed and never answer.
What drew you to such a taboo subject?
It’s difficult for me to go too far in my explanation. Let’s just say I know what I’m talking about. But it’s not my story. That’s the only thing I can say.
It’s quite raw in its portrayal of sexual abuse. Most films tend to keep it at arm’s length, but yours confronts it head-on.
I had these great actors and they understood what I wanted very quickly. Jacques Bonnaffé and Sylvie Testud [who play Céline’s parents] had never acted together, and neither had Jacques and Marie-Christine Barrault [who plays Jacques’ mother]. I asked her: “Are you old enough to be Jacques’ mother?” She said: “Yes! I could have had him at 20.” It was funny; I think they fit together. The girl [Lou-Lélia Demerliac, who plays Céline] looks a little like Sylvie. She’s not a cute little Lolita, she’s tough and that’s what I wanted. She’s great. And Douglas Gordon has been a great friend of mine for 20 years: he’s a great actor.
You make a point of showing the father’s torment. Do you want him to be a sympathetic character?
I didn’t want to have clearly defined good and bad. I’d rather show his torment. People are surprised when he’s not punished, but it’s not my job to punish. He keeps his promise [not to abuse her anymore], which is important, and the girl doesn’t destroy the family. She knows he would go to jail. But she knows it’s not something right, even though sometimes she wonders if all fathers are like that.
Did you enjoy your experience directing as much as you do producing?
Oh yeah, it’s great. You have a big team, but it’s not so easy. It was quite complicated: we were on the road, it was March, it was cold. We moved around a lot, we opened hotels in the county that are normally closed for the winter, so it was quite chilly. But I was doing exactly what I wanted. I’m a perfectionist, you know. The lines of the clothes, the materials, it’s the same. The film is a collage. When I was traveling I was always filming with my little camera, and in the editing room I learned that I can mix different cameras, other film I had. Editing was [like] making a collage and I felt free; I had no rules, no school. I didn’t know what could be done and what couldn’t. As long as the technology allows it, you can do it.
And you did all the editing yourself?
I was always in the editing room with my great friend, Jeff Nicorosi, who I’ve been working with for 10 years, who died Monday night. I can’t imagine doing it with someone else.
What inspired the scene with Antonio Negri?
He’s a friend of mine. I was in demonstrations [political protests] with him, and Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, a long time ago. They were my friends—I spent a lot of time with Félix and Gilles, and Tony was there sometimes at demonstrations so that’s how we met. I always imagined him as a philosopher on the road. On the road you meet people; that’s why this is a road movie, because you don’t know what’s going to happen once you’re on your way. I like the way Antonio improvised, I like when he says: “Italian is the language for love, isn’t it?” I didn’t write the lines, just the character. I said there is a philosopher on the road and he comes by the fire, and I think he enjoyed it. It’s inspired by Westerns; there is always a scene by the fire.
And Douglas surprised me [in the scene with Negri] by starting to sing. I had the camera myself—I was framing the whole time with two cameras, one with Jean-Philippe Bouyer. I’ve filmed a lot of music, and you can’t edit when you film music—you can’t cut. It was funny because I had to film to the end of the song, I didn’t know how many verses there were. We did it in one shot. We did many things in one shot.
And the scene with the Butoh dancers all painted in white, what inspired that?
On the road you have surprises—it’s like that. And they are on the road too, this Japanese couple. In my story they’re on the road, and they like these pine trees—they remind them of Japan. Butoh dancing was traditionally performed in nature and not on stage. It came about after the war, and it was a way of expressing oneself against what was happening.
It’s very dreamlike. There’s so much happening visually in the film, but this really stands out as its own episode.
I was raised in Versailles, and there are these white statues—I think suddenly I could see the statues moving, white, like stone. I figured out after [shooting] that this scene came from this vision from when I was small. I was raised in the Parc de Versailles, and I went there everyday. In the winter there was nobody there.
You’re a stylist by trade. Did that help you with the filmmaking process?
Sure, because you can style everything. Clothes, the set. It’s my job to style. So I did the construction, I did all the drawings of where the family lives. It was filmed in a studio in Paris. And I could see my ideas: the room where they live, the little girl’s room, the corridor where the father is doing [the abuse], the parent’s room. I did all the décor, all the furniture. But there are no agnès b. clothes, except two pieces we found at the flea market: the red shirt with the zipper, that’s agnès b., and the coat worn by the guy who reports [Celine and the truck driver]. But I wanted to keep the two things completely separate. I didn’t want to be promoting my clothing in the film. I think I’m going bring back the red shirt when the film comes out in France. I haven’t had it for 10 years or so, and people really loved it.
Your film is so visually varied. When you were writing, did you have a clear vision of what it would look like?
It looks exactly the way I wanted it to. The sky-blue and red—I love this combination of colors, for instance, which happens quite often in the movie. In the stifling place where they live, I wanted it to be like a theater set, so that we would look at their life as if we’re watching theater. I’m a perfectionist and I love to do everything myself. It’s easier sometimes.
What draws you to the director’s whom you’ve supported over the years? You’ve worked a lot with Harmony Korine, Gaspar Noé, and Claire Denis.
I’ve known Gaspar Noé since the beginning, since [his 1991 short] Carne. I did a screening of Carne, and people were so surprised that I could like it because there is the death of the horse. He didn’t have his company then so I supported him. He needed money to finish I Stand Alone, which is a beautiful film—I love this film. And Claire Denis, too, we’ve been friends for a long time. I helped her with Trouble Every Day. But we are friends through our work. I didn’t have the [film] company then, so I used to “rescue” films. They needed money to finish editing and things like that, so I thought I should have a company to be involved from the start. That’s why I made Love Streams.
How did you become involved with Harmony Korine’s work?
Harmony? I went to Venice to see Julien Donkey-Boy because I really loved Gummo and I wanted to see Harmony’s new film. My plane was delayed, so I missed the film and I went to the hotel and I asked for Harmony’s room and went to that floor. I ran into him in the corridor and introduced myself. We talked for about 20 minutes in the corridor and we became friends that way. He remembered my poster from when he was 15, he saw it in New York in a shop on Prince Street. That’s how he knew my name. We have this company in Nashville called O’Salvation—we produce shorts together.
You grew up watching both French and American cinema. Are both national cinemas an influence on your work?
I love American Cinema, I love Italian Cinema, I love Almodóvar, and of course so many more. I love cinema. It’s very diverse and rich. I haven’t been to the cinema all year, because I’ve been working so much.
Do you have a future project in the works?
Yes, I have an idea, but I’m taking care of this film first.
Do you ever take breaks?
Breaks? No, I never take breaks, because I enjoy working and I enjoy what I’m doing. I love my friends, and I have a big family. My life is very rich.