Arieh Worthalter and Nadège Trebal in Twelve Thousand (Nadège Trebal, 2019)

When I first saw Nadège Trebal’s Twelve Thousand as a programmer for the Locarno International Film Festival, I was struck that I had rarely, if ever, believed in the physical connection between an on-screen couple the way I did in that established between the lead characters Frank and Maroussia in a sex scene early in the film. This is not a question of explicitness—one barely sees any skin—but of a specificity of behavior that avoids the clichés of sighing romance and blissful acrobatics to achieve something closer to real life, and real heat, allowing the embarrassed or aroused viewer to recognize that this coupling is a necessity. It is crucial for the audience to invest in this erotic bond, because the film’s entire premise is rooted in the extraordinary lengths the couple will go to preserve it. When Frank (Arieh Worthalter) loses his livelihood scamming customers from a local junkyard, he and Maroussia (played by the director) realize the only way for their couple to survive is for Frank to leave their economically depressed area in search of work that will allow him to earn exactly as much money as she does: twelve thousand euros a year, and not a penny more. What follows is an odyssey across industrial landscapes, in which Odysseus is this instantly lovable, endlessly resourceful con man whose enemies are not Cyclops and Gorgons but the lure of easy money. While one could be forgiven for initially mistaking Twelve Thousand for another foray into French social realism, Nadège Trebal’s dazzling fiction debut is far more than that: it is an achingly honest, radically imaginative take on love and sex under late capitalism, lifted to the level of modern-day myth. With the occasional dance number.

While I was honored to conduct a press conference and public discussion with Nadège and her team when Twelve Thousand had its world premiere at Locarno in August 2019, I was delighted that the film’s selection for New Directors New Films afforded an opportunity to continue our conversation without the pressure of a live audience beyond the friendly acquaintances eavesdropping when Nadège and I met at her local café in Paris. 

You studied screenwriting at La Fémis, then directed two documentaries before making your fiction debut with Twelve Thousand. Did that back and forth between fiction and documentary have a big influence on Twelve Thousand?

It’s quite a natural movement in terms of writing and the imagination. I often do research for my fiction projects, not to aim for extreme naturalism or the most refined realism, but because reality surpasses us. My thesis for La Fémis was a screenplay for a fiction film. In my travels to research that screenplay, I discovered an oil refinery; I started writing to shoot there. The project was totally fictional, but as I researched it I met union organizers whose activities and ways of thinking seemed far more interesting than anything I could make up. There was this young man getting involved in union activism: I told myself this was historic on the scale of a man, and really powerful, so I decided to follow him. My desire to film him far surpassed anything I could imagine doing by making things up. Once I started filming, he often evaded me, maybe because my desire to film him made him feel imprisoned, so I fell back on other men. I filmed them during their breaks, which led to my first documentary, Bleu Pétrole. The stories these men told on their cigarette breaks made me dream about their off-screen lives: their wives and families, the homes they left behind to come work there, and that started me on the path to Twelve Thousand. It’s all kneaded together, like dough: documentary makes fiction rise, and fiction puffs out documentary. It’s crazy how many stories there are in documentary, it’s a gold mine. You just have to listen to people. 

What was the first image that led to Twelve Thousand?

I met the ancestors of Twelve Thousand on Bleu Pétrole. It was really raw. It’s the image of a Filipino sailor disembarking from his ship onto a landing stage in the refinery. His boat had docked, he had a few hours’ shore leave, and I was filming him from a distance, without asking his permission. I was probably the only woman around and when he saw me, he unbuttoned his pants and started playing with his penis. We realized we had to stop filming. It was so shocking what the mere presence of a female did to a guy who hadn’t seen a woman or been on shore in nine months… It made me aware of this extreme loneliness, this emotional desert. But it was impossible for me to refine the impulse he displayed in a documentary. That really made a deep impression on me. As the only women at the refinery, I often encountered that. This incident was the most extreme, but many guys talked about it. There was this male-female tension when I met people for the film, in which this extremely intense sexual frustration often appeared, like a sign of the pain of leaving home to go work.

Did the impossibility of dealing with this subject in a documentary film lead you to turn back to fiction?

Exactly. I couldn’t film these things because I was unable to refine what I was after in the context of my meetings with these men, to go beyond the initial pain, and have them talk about it in an interesting way. What they said was extremely scabrous and seemed damaging to the individuals. There are a few snatches of it in Bleu Pétrole, but just barely. So, it stuck with me as something to deal with later. 

Allow me to insist: what was the first image or the first narrative inkling of Twelve Thousand? Because ultimately you didn’t make a film about a guy disembarking from a ship.

The first image was a man leaving. Yes, that was it. I see it as the story of a man who leaves and who puts leaving higher than his love. For me, that’s a real man. But it could also be a woman. It’s what makes him a person: loving yourself more. You can love someone madly, but there’s this power struggle that means that to continue to love that person madly, you have to be your own ally and give yourself the means to be yourself. To fulfill yourself. So, the man leaves though he loves this woman madly, and because he loves her madly, he leaves to fulfill himself. In this case, because of money.

But she’s the one to push him to leave. She’s the one who insists that they need to earn the same amount of money.

Is she though? I see it as both of them. He says to her: “You miss me, because I’m not working anymore. I have to earn a real salary.” He even says he needs to make 15,000. He would leave for even longer if she didn’t say they need to earn the same thing. I think she understands that it’s a question of his virility, and even beyond his virility, of his pride, of what makes him himself. I think she resigns herself to the situation because she herself could have a vague desire to overprotect him, to change him. 

Why is it important for the two of them to make exactly the same amount of money?

I think that within the impulse of eroticism, or love, or what attracts you to someone, you need to constantly be able to feel both submissive and able to get the upper hand. This issue of the balance of power can be expressed through many different things, but I decided that here money would be the measure of it. It’s physical. It’s the weight you have in relation to the other person. I think this unstable balance is what leads to desire. Feeling obliged to someone or vice versa dilutes my desire. It pollutes it. To maintain the highest level of desire, you need to be not similar, but equivalent. 

Money has a real physical presence in the film.

I really wanted to show money, to turn it into a kind of body, a lead character that you see circulating or being passed from hand to hand. Like an exchange of fluids, as in the act of lovemaking. It’s like a foreign body that arouses a kind of lust but it also burns you. It’s dirty and at the same time there are moments when it’s totally desirable, because lacking money is horrible. My crew and I loved filming the money. We spent so much time staging it: how many bills do you want, what denomination? If you see a 5-euro bill, you imagine he must have done lots of small jobs, it’s next to nothing but it’s still 5 euros. It’s different if you see a 100-euro bill. Those were intense moments on the shoot, with all that cash around, even though it was fake… 

How did you approach filming the sex scene?

I imagined and wrote the scene exactly as it is. I completely choreographed it and tried to describe, just as in all the other scenes, what their relationship was at that specific moment, beyond the physical act. With her at the center and him circling around her, filling her from every end. It’s relatively frontal, and I imagined it as raw, but not just for the fact of being raw but to describe precisely how things could work between them and what they would do to each other. The fact that I’m in the scene doesn’t change anything, I really didn’t want to let the actors be responsible for imagining it. That would have deprived me of the joy of asking myself how this particular couple make love, what they are, how it continues to be a kind of power struggle between them. The idea was to show that they know each other well, that they’re not in the first encounter or seduction phase, that they’ve been doing this for a long time and that it’s really good. This ritual between them has not been exhausted. And that ritual implicitly tells us about the story that is going to take place: that he goes off, comes back, pulls away, reenters. The scene is really hot, but I was hoping for a thermal shock, not only in terms of heat, but for the two of them to be even more detached, more distant from what they’re doing to each other. The scene still lacks opacity, the sexual act is still too colonized by feelings. To really describe the emotion, you would nearly need to be absent from yourself in that moment. I think the fact that they love each other is still too visible, it’s still over-demonstrated.

For me, a key to the film’s power is that we believe in their passion for each other, which is rarer than one might think. It’s interesting to hear you say that it might have been even more intense if the scene was more distanced.

I don’t know. I’ve just noticed that they’re smiling a lot. We were concerned with the representation of pleasure. In the film, he doesn’t achieve the ultimate pleasure—he doesn’t finish. Neither of them do. In fact, we did a take during the shoot where they did finish, but it destroyed something. Because actually, the whole design of the film is like a huge erection that never softens, so it was important not to reach that climax. I don’t know if it’s really a question of finishing, but it is this thing of opacity. I often talked with the actors about what the face looks like during climax or desire. Is it something domestic like a smile? I don’t know. I find we smile too much. For me, it’s more mysterious than that. It’s more mysterious in real life, more counterintuitive. It’s like what you see in Lars von Trier, Verhoeven, and Cronenberg films. These are people who reveal the insane face that can occur then, like a kind of surrealist collage. It isn’t logical in the slightest: there’s no logic to the face of sexual pleasure. That’s something I’d like to explore down the line, in another film. It’s still too logical in Twelve Thousand.  

Why did you choose to play Maroussia yourself?

The actress I had chosen backed out. I was very busy with preproduction and my actor Arieh was starting to rehearse the dance. I had planned for the actor and actress to meet through the dancing. And suddenly I realized I didn’t have the time or desire to look elsewhere and that I really felt like doing it myself. I had started working with Arieh as a director and I saw that there was something about our working relationship that could inspire us to create this couple. My entire relationship with Arieh, which was focused on the character of this man whom I had imagined and whom I dreamed of meeting, or pretending to meet, really triggered my desire to play Maroussia. Even within our working relationship, we were already like a couple, with our power struggles, my great desire to film him, to frame him, to make him stay in place, and to see how he was going to take possession of this very confined space. There was an intense power struggle between us, with lots of questions around freedom, violence, aggressiveness, and at the same time a great tenderness. He had to enter into my story. I was interested in this form of sharing and resistance to one another. 

What purpose did you see dance serving in the film?

To tell their story as a couple: their love story, which we arrive into when they’ve already been together for a certain time. The way they dance and deal with each other physically tells us the idea of their couple. It was also a way to make Frank totally competent, physically, while also filming his awkwardness and showing that he’s someone who exerts himself, physically and morally. It’s a way he has of investing himself. He’s an investor, he’s an entrepreneur in himself. That’s expressed through non-virtuosic dance. Little by little, Jean-Claude Gallotta, who choreographed those sequences, led me to accept our awkwardness and to turn it into something beautiful, rather than deceptive. The fundamental thing about the dance was this notion of exertion, this desire to be exultant and to be somewhere specific. 

Frank is quite an extraordinary character. You get the impression he can do anything: speak Tagalog, do magic tricks, sell cigarettes… I remember being struck by your description of him as “an ideal man” at Locarno. The film has a mythological aspect—did you go looking for this bigger-than-life character in mythology?

I really just fantasized about my dream man, my ideal man. It’s my mythology, which I put together very instinctively, but that ties in with many other mythologies, since I was born in Europe and am a human fed by literature, all the odysseys and the whole range of cinema, including Chaplin and Pasolini. But I did it unconsciously. Obviously, I recognize he’s a Ulysses. In fact, the parallels are wild. But at first it was really a question of libido in writing, dreaming about a man and using my taste for fantasy to build something… It’s like Don Quixote: after a while, he really exists.    

What about the Amazons, the young women who join Frank in robbing containers on the port?

The Amazons are young women who know they will never have any work because the society we live in creates mass unemployment. It’s also a response to Frank’s desert, the fact that he’s far away from his woman. He’s missing someone and suddenly his entire night is repopulated, it’s teeming with women. It’s as if they came to take over his path and his landscape in the absence of his love. I wanted him to be confronted with these women’s faces.

Your answer places these women in a harsh social context. Yet the first Amazon we encounter, Romane, is someone who has chosen her path—she is radically free.

Yes. But that freedom is built on a certain kind of societal construction. There’s adversity there. All the film’s characters are like that: there’s adversity, and within that adversity, they have to rediscover a pleasure in life, a reason to enjoy life again. Like Frank, Romane builds herself up—she doesn’t allow herself to get beaten down, she makes it her strength. Often my characters are people who take pleasure in difficulty and find their way within it.  

You’ve said that when you were looking for funding for Twelve Thousand, you were criticized by funders who couldn’t tell whether the film was supposed to be a social film or a love story. 

I did work tirelessly to constantly intertwine those two aspects. Because life is like that. You don’t have the social on one side and your private life on the other. These are two overlapping facets that question and respond to each other—that contaminate each other. When I realized I was going to be criticized for this, I resisted and tried to associate the two sides no matter what, to constantly look at money through intimacy, to show society through the couple and love, and to see the potential back-and-forth. That’s the basic condition for making a political movie. I’m not interested in writing a love story just as a love story. And it seems like a waste of time to consider society for what it is, from a distance. 

How do you see yourself in French cinema? 

There are people I admire, but I think we’re dealing with very different things, in very different ways. There are filmmakers I love, but I can’t say we’re in the same time zone. I love Patricia Mazuy, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Alain Guiraudie, people like that, who make a very political, embodied cinema, with strong characters, violence, and fantasy. But most often the filmmakers who inspire me and serve as my reservoir are from the past. I don’t feel alone or not alone, but maybe I’m too stuck in the past.

Your film doesn’t give that impression. It seems very contemporary. 

It’s contemporary, but at the same time these are questions that have always been around. If you look at Modern Times, there’s a universal invariant of how society is structured and the violence carried out against poor people seen through the magnificent, adorable figure of the tramp. Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station is another model. I love Chahine’s characters’ timeless resourcefulness. But sometimes I do wonder about my film: I can see that it has something archaic–and I like that about it—but I can also see that it’s going against the flow: I work with a tripod, I allow shots to take their time, which fascinates me but I can see it’s not what people like these days. Letting a shot last a long time is really intimidating, it makes me feel much more self-conscious than showing my butt on screen. 

I think what’s contemporary about the film is in the way these characters inhabit the world, though they’re facing questions that have always been around.

In any case, these are people who have an understanding of the situation they’re in. Maybe that’s contemporary. Dignity and humility are often words used to assign a position to people who don’t come from the upper classes. I don’t like that at all. I’ve even been told my characters speak above their condition!  

Your film seems to bring out the worst in some people. Your French distributors told me that some exhibitors reacted badly to the film because they didn’t like the fact that you were showing a woman’s desire. 

A woman expressing her desire is bad news, I know that as a director and as a woman. If you’re a woman about to express your desire, you better know what you’re in for. I’ve felt that really intensely. You’re supposed to let things come to you. I’m not the only one to say so: Claire Simon always told me it’s not good to express a woman’s desire. And not only for women directors: all women. It doesn’t even have to be a sexual desire, though that’s even worse. I can’t say I’m surprised about those exhibitors’ reactions. 

Interview conducted by Nicholas Elliott in Paris on March 1, 2020. Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott.              

Nicholas Elliott is a programmer for the Locarno Film Festival and the former New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma.