Interview: Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo
Winner of the Golden Leopard for Best First Feature last year at Locarno and a selection of New Directors / New Films 2014, Marianne Pistone and Gilles Deroo’s Mouton has an idiosyncratic structure that eschews conventional narrative and flirts with documentary through an observational style of filming non-actors at work and at play. Mouton, whose name means “sheep,” is a wide-gummed teenager who works in a seaside restaurant in Normandy. The first half of the film follows the unprepossessing youth around the kitchen and on the beach with his friends, rarely allowing him out of our sight but providing few clues as to what is motivating the story.
Denied standard devices of identification and cinematic seduction, the viewer is left to deal with Mouton as a raw presence. Yet halfway through the film, fate—or narrative—catches up with Mouton when he is attacked and severely wounded during a seaside festival. The second half unfolds without its title character, bringing the faces that had previously surrounded him to the forefront and lingering over his world without him.
Mouton has the low skies and real faces of a Bruno Dumont film and the exacting, occasionally enigmatic framing of a Bresson, but it’s undoubtedly its own beast—or rather mutt. In an interview with FILM COMMENT, the Lille-based directing duo of Pistone and Deroo dissected the delicate interchange between reality and fiction, and what it means to film from the point of view of a dog.
Who is Mouton?
Gilles Deroo: Mouton is not a character we wanted to construct psychologically. We wanted a representative figure. That’s the reason for the opening scene of Mouton legally separating from his mother, which to a certain extent predestines him to what comes later. We wanted him to be one person among others but also branded by a specific fate—the one who was chosen.
During the first half of the film, Mouton is “one among others,” but once he is removed from the film, those others come to the forefront. Is the purpose of the second part to create a feeling of absence or to tell us more about Mouton through his absence?
GD: Do you mean that the second part implicitly portrays Mouton through his absence?
Yes. I felt I understood Mouton better once he was gone.
GD: The idea of a two-part structure and taking Mouton away was at the heart of the project. At the beginning, Marianne and I had decided to follow what happened to all of Mouton’s friends, who were not supporting characters but leads, and who all came to bad ends. One day we decided to focus on violence and to stick to the most violent fate, which was that of Mouton, who gets his arm cut off. Ultimately we were most interested in that violence, the caesura in the middle of the film. In a sense, we’re not so interested in his life, but in enduring his existence with him throughout the first part so that we can separate from him and experience the film’s second half without him.
Marianne Pistone: We would tell each other that we wanted to get rid of the protagonists to focus more on what was between beings and things. We wanted to deal with all of reality’s raw elements in the same way and pay more attention to their relationships. We were more interested in sensations than feelings—we wanted to get away from characters. We wanted to get rid of narration, suspense, any type of story, even characters and settings. We got rid of absolutely everything to get to what is specifically cinema, which is to say what is not immediately visible.
The equal treatment of people and things is particularly strong in the way you film animals. Mouton himself is named after an animal. What was your approach to animals and why did you choose the name “Mouton”?
GD: We thought about the dog in relationship to Mouton because in the first part we wanted everything to presage what was going to happen, to remain in this tragic perspective. We thought that the dog sniffing around everywhere could sense that something was going to happen. In fact, we wanted to film Mouton as if he were always being watched by a dog.
MP: That’s more of an analogy: we wanted to film like a dog would look at a human. But regarding animality, there’s something obvious in relation to cinema, which is that you can really get rid of language. Both the figure of the animal and that of the totem, the sacred, break away from language. Cinema can express its profound nature by filming living beings other than humans.
GD: We tend to film humans the same way. That’s why Mouton doesn’t say much. We didn’t audition him either. We just happened to see David Merabet, who plays Mouton, and decided to hire him. I had seen him first in a group of 30 people, then Marianne saw the same group and was struck by the same guy. That was enough for us. It’s like with an animal: we were simply interested in how he carries himself and his way of being in the world.
Who is David Merabet?
GD: Marianne and I do some film programming and sometimes we show films to a group of young people who are doing remedial French and math. That’s where I saw him. He’s not an actor at all.
Did you choose the name “Mouton” before or after you met the actor?
GD: We’d been carrying that name around for two shorts. It came from a friend of ours who told us about his gang of friends. One of the guys was nicknamed Mouton, because he had very curly hair. We started writing about them and kept the name, but we agreed that we weren’t going to specifically look for a curly-haired actor to play Mouton. We were satisfied with the enigma.
Yet Mouton’s job and what happens to him give his name a flagrant symbolic charge, despite the fact that you wanted to avoid symbolism.
GD: That’s true. We accepted it as such. There are coincidences we accept.
MP: Ultimately it worked out well: we didn’t name him “Mouton” on purpose, but then the ideas of sacrifice, of a scapegoat or a lamb, became obvious. In David, we found a man much like a child in his natural innocence.
We didn’t want to avoid symbols, but we may have wanted to avoid having symbols as auxiliaries to our narrative. We don’t want the symbols to help us have a point of view on our own narrative, to be a foundation or a crutch.
GD: As we make more films, we try to be more accepting of reality, which can be difficult. For instance, I would have liked to have bad weather for the outdoor mass, in which the priest speaks of the deluge. We were shooting in winter, so I was hoping for something a little more apocalyptic. But it was beautiful out. Same thing with the dogs in the kennel. We had written that they were hellhounds, but they wound up being little Chihuahuas and old-lady dogs. That’s just how it is. We call this “the beautiful power of things” because ultimately it provides something different cinematically, which is not borne of the manipulation of an all-powerful director. Our acceptance serves the film.
MP: Reality is always either poorer or rawer than anything we could have imagined.
I experienced Mouton as an investigation of narration and the line between documentary and fiction. There’s an early sequence that shows the restaurant workers unloading a truck in a wide shot. We hear a woman pass by and say good morning. Then you have a reverse wide shot of the woman going by. That’s when I really understood I was watching a fiction film, because there’s no way you could have made such a composed reverse shot in documentary circumstances. Why was it important to have that reverse shot? And is it important to distinguish between documentary and fiction?
MP: That shot of the woman, like nearly all the other shots, comes from a desire to rigorously film the rolling along of days. She says good morning every day, they unload the truck every day. Days go by and are practically identical. In the first part of the film, we committed to faithfully filming that aspect of Mouton’s life, as if there were nothing else to see but the unceasing passage of days. So this woman passing by was really a sign of something unshakeable, or that we hoped the viewer would find never-ending.
GD: While nonetheless finding something beautiful in its smallness.
MP: Yes, there was also a surrender of language in the act of saying good morning. I’m deeply moved by people’s endurance for having codes and living within that narrowness. I don’t mean that pejoratively—it’s a beautiful narrowness. That’s another reason for the very composed frames in the first half, we wanted to be legitimate, to follow rules. For the second half, we wanted to be disobedient—I’m not sure we succeeded, but that’s what we wanted. The first part had regulations. We had to follow Mouton, to film his days one after the other in a very orderly film language.
That’s what struck me about the reverse shot of the woman: until that point the camera is nearly always pointed at Mouton and the syntax is not standard shot/counter-shot. That moment sticks out, yet you refer to it as routine. I understand that the woman’s action is routine, but your action of filming it surprised me.
GD: Was it as if we were giving away the fact that it was fiction at that point?
That’s the effect it had on me. I knew it wasn’t a purely documentary film, but from that point on I knew that things were being staged for the camera.
MP: Yet in the first shot of the film, Mouton is going in circles like a lion in a cage. The setup seems very fictional, doesn’t it?
One feels the mise en scène from the beginning of the film—for instance, the frames within the frame—yet that remains possible in the context of a documentary. But do you actually care about whether we think we’re watching a fiction film or a documentary?
MP: We weren’t really concerned with that. The idea was simply to welcome the real, which means to use the name Mouton because we wrote down Mouton, to choose David because we both saw him the same way, to choose this little seaside town because we know it and it’s practical, and to accept all the people who wanted to be in the film. When babies were born, we put them in the movie too. The fiction is in our acceptance of what comes along in life, even if we didn’t film it, and that’s what gives the impression of realism. When I say we aren’t concerned with it, I mean that we didn’t try to make David act well—or to make him act poorly. His voice is what it is, his ability to act is what it is. This lack of concern with whether our fiction is successful may be what gives the feeling of reality. Our decision to put in scenes that were completely independent from the narration may also add to that.
GD: Fiction always returns through the framing. The camera is never passive. We accept a lot from reality, but we’re radical when it comes to framing. Those are decisions which we think through extensively and which we stick to come hell or high water.
Is that rigorous framing part of your decision to shoot in 16 mm film? That represents a real investment, and I don’t mean in financial terms.
MP: But it is that too. We’re very aware when we shoot film that so many minutes cost so many Euros. Whereas with video, there’s something de-consecrated. You can film anything at all. Today people don’t take one photo, they take 10,000, choose the best, and throw the rest away.
GD: We film very little. We had a total of six hours of dailies for the film. That’s because we’re always very decisive regarding the frame and since we accept reality…
MP: If reality happens, we can’t say it’s no good. Of course we’re happy when it’s well-acted or something strong happens. But when there’s something flimsy I try to accept it, because in the long run I think it serves the film, though it may not serve our egos.
GD: Our short Vivat (qu’il vive) originally consisted of very powerful one-shot/one-scene sequences. We were pretty excited when we watched the dailies, but once we edited it, we realized that the accumulation of these powerful things didn’t work. The film collapsed because everything was powerful.
MP: It was like a new law of mathematics: plus + plus = minus. Two very powerful sequences cancel each other out.
GD: So finally we went looking for the least powerful things and managed to edit it.
What is the Fête de Sainte Anne that is shown in the film?
GD: We visited a few towns when we were scouting locations, but we always knew we would choose Courseulles-sur-Mer, which is where Marianne spent all her summers as a kid. Every year on August 15 they do a presentation of the Virgin Mary to the sea there. There’s an outdoor mass followed by a festival with balloons and ice cream and a fair and flowered boats. Very old-school French stuff. We were writing there at the time and we digested the festival and turned it into a more sacred outdoor mass. We needed the Fête de Sainte Anne, so we took the details from the Courseulles festival and introduced the figure of Saint Anne. We had a statue made and introduced this pagan element to lead us to the end of the night with Mouton.
Translated by Nicholas Elliott.