Interview: Bertrand Bonello
“For me, films are born in the same way that poetry is born for poets; I don’t want to pose as a poet, but I would like to make an analogy. Some words, some images, some concepts come into the mind, and they all mix together and become poetry. I believe that the same thing happens with the cinema.”
—Michelangelo Antonioni, My Experience
Like his great Italian predecessor, French director Bertrand Bonello is a poet at heart. Constantly exploring the links between cinema and music, between cinema and painting, Bonello’s movies are delicately composed canvases of sensorial and bodily experiences, where images, like musical notes, resonate with one another.
Perhaps the formal liberty of Bonello’s mise en scène is echoed by his characters’ continual search for freedom or grace—they are struggling bodies that desire to break away from the confines of consuming relationships, corrupted mentalities, and capitalist institutions. “There is nothing more beautiful than the end of things, things which die to disappear forever,” Bonello says in his short film Où en êtes vous Bertrand Bonello?. He captures this disappearance in all his films—the dissolution of a couple in Something Organic (99), the fading ideals of an aging pornographer in The Pornographer (01), the end of an era embodied in a 19th-century Parisian brothel in the symphonic chamber drama House of Pleasures (11), or the disintegration of an artist, a genius of pure talent, swallowed up by his own ambitions and the society that deifies him, in his latest masterwork, the hypnotic and surreal Saint Laurent.
FILM COMMENT spoke with Bonello on the eve of a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the director in person that will be followed by the opening of Saint Laurent on May 8.
Où en êtes vous Bertrand Bonello?
In your short film Où en êtes vous Bertrand Bonello?, you recount the course of your cinematic journey to your daughter, and at one point there’s a line that moved me a lot: “Cinema harms men.” And in connection with that, I wanted to ask how you experienced the shooting of Antoine Barraud’s Portrait of the Artist—a film that deals a lot with the distress and solitude of the artist and that, to a certain extent, is also a portrait of you.
Portrait of the Artist is a particular kind of film because it was made over three years. Antoine wrote me a letter one day saying he was really in love with my films, and that he did portraits of artists: he had done films on Koji Wakamatsu and Kenneth Anger. And he said he wanted to make a documentary about me. I asked how long it would take, and he said a few days. Then we saw each other a couple of times, and he said that it would be interesting if while we’re doing the portrait, there is a sort of red mark that grows on my back. And from then on, the film became a fiction. It was a rather strange experience for me, because I didn’t know exactly where it was leading or when it would end. Every three months, Antoine would say: “We’re going to shoot for two more days.” But I think the fact that it was made over a long period of time gives it a very free feeling.
But did it also provide you with a space for personal expression?
I tried not to reflect on the film, because I think that’s the director’s job. I tried to be the actor that I like working with as a director. Someone who doesn’t ask questions, who lets go, and who tries to do the best he can at any given time. Someone who doesn’t have an overall vision of the film, because I think that’s the director’s work. So I tried to be as sincere as I could in every scene, I came in knowing my lines and I tried to do things the way I felt them, without having big ideas on the creation of the film. I tried to abandon myself as much as possible. Portrait of the Artist really belongs to Antoine, and that short film, the letter to my daughter, is really me at every word.
Your narratives are often elliptical, responding to poetic rather than causal or logical demands. How did you approach the question of time in Saint Laurent, in which you sculpt it a bit like Tarkovsky, blending past, present, future, reality, dream, and delirium?
It happened progressively. Early on, we structured the film into three parts, with a second time period for the third part. Then when we started getting into the details of the scenes, I realized that I wanted to enter Saint Laurent’s mind more and more as the movie progresses. And entering someone’s mind also means mixing everything up a little. I had this image, for instance, that the last hour would feel like entering a room with mirrors everywhere—each mirror reflects an image of Yves but it’s never the same. And that’s when we try to get into his brain a little with mental images like the snake or the Proust painting. But afterward it’s the question of how everything manages to resonate with one another, and that’s really not theoretical at all.
It’s something organic, to borrow the title of your first feature.
Yes, exactly, it’s about sensations. If for example we show Helmut Berger [as the older Saint Laurent] saying something, and then we go to Gaspard [Ulliel], suddenly that sentence echoes with him. So it’s more like painting.
In fact, you use the camera like a brush. You often favor long tracking shots that reveal the scenes as they are being constructed, creating an almost documentary-like immediacy. This idea of construction is at the heart of a scene like the meeting of Jacques de Bascher and Saint Laurent, in which the camera weaves the gaze like a thread. How did you conceive and execute that scene?
There are two things. It’s true that one of my obsessions was to do the club scenes successfully. First because I think they are essential to the film, and also because I am often disappointed when I watch club scenes in movies. I find that the sound is not done well—it looks like a music video or suddenly the music is lowered so we can hear people speak, and the extras keep dancing in the background but there is no music. So I really wanted to create an atmosphere or an ambience in those scenes. The second thing is that this was a club that Yves went to every night, and I thought that instead of doing four small scenes in there, we would do it in one step, so we would do a long scene that would last six or seven minutes. I thought that it was better to spend time with them in there, try to feel the world, the sweat. I have to say that I had brilliant extras. They gave everything they had and that helped a lot.
But then I thought to myself, how can I film a meeting without a word? And the idea came to me on the day of the shoot. I had certain shots in mind coming in, and one of them was just a tracking shot for something else. The club was like a square: there was Gaspard on one side and Louis on the other, and the crowd in-between. We had installed dolly tracks, and suddenly I thought to myself, what if we do a sequence shot rather than a montage, which would make the scene feel, not artificial, but a bit fabricated, and the sequence shot allows to isolate Gaspard, then suddenly we feel the ambiance, and we arrive on Louis isolated. So we can isolate the two by showing that they are separated by the crowd, and the sequence shot allows to really feel the scope of things, the duration and the distance, and I did it three times. It takes a bit of time, but I need that time to show how things develop in that scene. And when you have done that, you just need a shot-reverse-shot to make the scene work. But of course this doesn’t mean you arrive on set empty-handed. You have thought everything through in advance, but you can change your mind, because suddenly you see that something else might work.
And how do the actors experience a scene like that?
It’s extremely difficult because there are extras everywhere, and when the camera gets to a certain spot, I shout “Extras out!” and there is an assistant who gets behind them and pulls their sweater. It’s very technical because the shot is a very complex one to achieve, even if it doesn’t look like it. I rarely do this, but in that kind of a scene, the actors really have to be at the service of the mise en scène.
I read a phrase by Emmanuel Levinas that made me think of that scene: “To watch a look is to watch something that doesn’t surrender itself, doesn’t give itself over, but stares at you: it is to watch a face.” And I think the movie also ends a bit on this idea, with that shot of Saint Laurent staring at us. It’s as if the spell is broken, and we are brought back to reality, like at the end of House of Pleasures.
Oh, if I had departed from that Levinas phrase to construct that scene, it would have been petrifying! [Laughs] Actually, for Saint Laurent, I thought that the ending line “Move your arm to show that you are alive” was sublime. I thought that it was a line that was at once morbid and alive, that opened the movie rather than closed it. And there’s also something that Yves had, and Gaspard has it too, something very particular—that kind of immense smile that “crosses out” the face. The ending of the movie can be quite deadly in a sense. For me, ending on that smile combined with that line, it’s like taking simple elements and putting them together, and suddenly creating something that’s not simple anymore. House of Pleasures is the same. You have the jump to contemporary times, and suddenly we’re in another period but the actress is the same, we switch from 35mm to MiniDV, but there is still prostitution going on.
How do you manage the rhythm of that final shot in Saint Laurent? We see the smile only for a few seconds and then suddenly the music comes in and breaks it.
For me a shot is like a note, and I always ask myself when I need to hit the next note. And the thing is always to make it surprising, without it becoming ostentatious—to hit the note either too early or too late, so as not to fall into something metronomic.
House of Pleasures
One thing that strikes me in your early films—and that is absent in House of Pleasures and Saint Laurent, except in diegetic situations like the reading of letters or books—is the use of voiceover as a narrative tool, but especially as a way of penetrating the psychology of the characters. In a film like Tiresia (03), it has quite an unsettling effect because it feels like we’re inhabiting the thoughts of that obsessive esthete played by Laurent Lucas.
Voiceover has a bad reputation in cinema because people tend to think of it as a literary device. But for me it is in fact a very cinematic device, because it adds something to the image but also frees it from what is being said so that it can serve another purpose. So it creates a discrepancy or adds something complementary. I like that the image says something other than what is being spoken—it’s very enriching. Of course, I also use it as a kind of musical partition, which becomes something very intimate and personal for the characters.
In House of Pleasures, you seem to observe a world without intervening—abstractly speaking, of course, because you are in fact the creator of that world—but you simply show the life of these women, without romanticizing it, without a concern for plot, almost in the manner of a documentarian. What made you want to operate this way?
There was a lot of factual research involved in that project: private diaries, journalistic accounts, etc. So I had a lot to work with. And from brothels, we only knew what happened between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Many painters have depicted that setting, as well as several novellas, but mostly from the point of view of men, and therefore from a nocturnal point of view. I wanted to show what these women did between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. And inevitably, that becomes something like, I wouldn’t say documentary, but more like a chronicle. Because in fact what do they do? They wash, they eat, etc. Maybe these aren’t fascinating things script-wise, but I thought they were very beautiful to show.
So the script isn’t at the center of the film—it’s more about this idea of witnessing these women’s lives without them being watched by men. Because I quickly came to think of these women as actresses—they go onstage and then they return backstage. They are different at night and during the day, and the film was supposed to show the two. But in fact it’s the same for Saint Laurent. There’s Saint Laurent during the day and Saint Laurent at night. What’s not documentary-like about House of Pleasures is that there isn’t a single line that’s improvised—everything is very scripted. And I used the word “chronicle” because I think there is a sort of platitude in the movie that makes us live with these women.
Did you look at any paintings for House of Pleasures?
I was looking at paintings that were contemporary to the period of the film, but not so much actually. I was more interested in anything related to the representation of a group of girls, whether in 19th-century paintings, or even pictures in fashion magazines, just to get a sense of how to put all those girls together in the frame. But I examined 19th-century paintings also to understand how lighting worked back then. It’s quite a particular period because it’s during the arrival of electricity. So we had decided, arbitrarily, that we would only have electricity on the ground floor, and that the higher we went up, the less light there was, and in the end, there were only candles. These are sort of carnal or sensual ideas that come from looking at those pictures.
You’ve often talked about your desire to make the script “disappear,” to allow the film to be transmitted through the actors. How did you experience this idea on the shoot of The Pornographer, for instance, when you’re working with someone like Jean-Pierre Léaud?
When I watch a film, if I feel the script, if I feel the pages being turned, if I feel the plot or whatever, for me it’s not a film anymore. So it’s in that sense that I mean making the script disappear. But in order to achieve that, paradoxically you have to work on the script a lot. You have to see it as a path to the mise en scène. That’s why the script for me is something that’s somewhat badly written—it’s not meant to be read by itself, it’s meant to disappear, it’s a working document. And making the script disappear means not allowing it to show up in the image.
In terms of working with Jean-Pierre, he has such a particular connection with what’s real, what’s not real, with words. When he learns his lines and acts, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about anymore. It’s only a music in his head. That’s what I think makes his performances so distinctive. It’s not at all about psychology with him, about what the character does at a certain moment. He invents his own music. Afterward it’s up to us to know how to navigate his performance and integrate it in the movie. But he has already departed.
Your next film is called Paris est une fête. I know the title comes from Hemingway’s novel, A Moveable Feast, but maybe it’s also rooted in this line from The Pornographer: “We live in a time without feast, and we have contributed to it.” Is there a link between these two movies?
Yes, there is. It’s not a link that I looked for, but Paris est une fête tells the story of a group of young people who plant bombs in symbolic places in Paris. The Pornographer was about young people who already had revolutionary ideas, but they were more of a bourgeois youth and the kind of revolution they envisioned was more intellectual. In Paris est une fête, it’s much wilder because they actually take action. But it’s not only a banlieue youth. I don’t want the movie to stigmatize a religion or a geography in any way. The way the group comes together is told in the film, but there are people who come from the banlieue, others from the 7th arrondissement, some from Sciences Po [a preeminent research university]. I had written this movie after House of Pleasures, but the proposal for Saint Laurent came and I set it aside. But I feel like now is really the time to do it.
And to conclude, perhaps we can return to that phrase that I seem to have misinterpreted: “Cinema harms men.”
The answer would almost be in the character of Yves Saint Laurent. At a certain point we completely consume ourselves in doing things—it costs us a lot. At least it costs me a lot. That short film [Où en êtes vous Bertrand Bonello?] also speaks about the movies that I couldn’t make. And that’s a flame inside of me. When I say “cinema harms men” there is also this idea that it drives you mad. Because there is something megalomaniac in cinema—this mixture of art and industry—and it also harms the relationships that we have with other people.
Translated by Yonca Talu.