Venice Interview: Gastón Solnicki
Kékszakállú lingers with a series of adolescent women at leisure, perhaps adrift, but no easier to reduce to simplistic descriptions than the film itself. Argentine director Gastón Solnicki’s poised study rests on an intuitive feel for states of being in the most mundane circumstances, and a deeply textured sound design and use of music that folds one into its curious, barely feature-length span of reality. Shooting over two separate months in Uruguay and Buenos Aires with direct sound and a 40mm lens (“John Ford’s favorite lens for shooting a man on a horse!”), Solnicki moves from the unusual but recognizable nonfiction family study of Papirosen (2011) to something distinctive yet reminiscent of compatriots Lucrecia Martel and Martin Rejtman.
Immediately after the film’s premiere in Venice, Film Comment spoke with a ruminative Solnicki about the sensibility and sensitivity on display in Kékszakállú. It screens October 4 and 5 in the 54th New York Film Festival.
Viewers might be confused to hear that the film is inspired by Bartok’s opera—and then see a series of scenes often consisting of teenagers milling about.
The film is inspired by the opera, but in a Bartokian way. It’s not a representation of the opera, just as Bartok did not represent the legend or the tale of Bluebeard but completely changed the structure and the characters. He brought in Judith, who is one of the first feminists in history—she murdered Holofernes. There are many layers of interpretation. For Bartok, Bluebeard is not the monster but the victim.
Bartok has a beautiful quote about the different ways composers can transform peasant music into contemporary music. He was referring to the ways that Bach would do chorales, where he could open a few opening phrases or concluding phrases, and quote the melody or the theme, or imitate. This is of course very similar to what one thinks of film adaptations, right? One could imitate the story. But Bartok talks about this new idea—a third way of doing— which is not re-creating or imitating or adding initial or concluding phrases, but rather being immersed in the atmosphere of that music. And rather speaking that music in a new idiom and making the new music matter. So this is also the inspiration of Bartok for me: not only through the music I’m using, but through his own quest in musicology and his collecting all sorts of insects and butterflies and folk songs. And so in that sense, I am not aiming at melomaniac audiences, who know it by heart. The characters [in the opera and the film] don’t even match. It’s more about the cinematic materials. It’s Bluebeard, but for me in a certain way it’s even more related to Fritz Lang’s Bluebeard, which by the way is the soundtrack at some point when she’s watching that film in the beginning. It’s inspired by Bluebeard I would say in a spectral way.
Can you tell me a bit about the setting of the film?
Yes, this is kind of the Saint-Tropez of South America. It’s in Uruguay and it’s very deserted. It’s a ghost town during the year, but it started up in the ’20s or so, mostly by Argentines, and now recently has begun to be very international. And it’s super expensive and a very phony place. In the last 20 years they tried to open a big casino hotel and make it very Miami. But it’s a contradiction because at the same time the natural setting is so spectacular. I went there for so many years of my life, until I was twentysomething, and I started to see what was going on there. I’ve always been fascinated. I always felt cinematically indebted to the place.
The blond actress Laila, the protagonist, even though she’s not my family, we were born in very similar families. So I think I saw a lot of my own travels and traumas and conflicts, upon being 20 years old and being suffocated by all the possibilities of being able to always to do what I wanted to do. Which I think it’s ultimately one of the themes, one of the linear themes of the film. So I feel very close to the girls, I connect with them. Of course I’m not going to criticize them, I portray all of them with love.
I felt a couple of forces at work in the movie that elsewhere might be in conflict. There’s the architectural arranging, how you’re often framing people against these astringent, geometric outlines created by roofs, pools, etc. But at the same time the film’s very organic: everyone’s so expressive in very individual ways, and you always feel something personal at stake even in short scenes. The film is so idiosyncratic that I couldn’t help wondering, what made you feel like you could pull this off?
I didn’t really have a very definite idea of the movie I was doing. In that sense, it was very funny but also very stressful, but the film really started with a very simple assortment of elements: a new camera, the longing of wanting to make a film based on this opera. Keep in mind that this opera is from 1913 and was criticized by musicians and everybody denying the very possibility of its being played, technically. Bartok created his own orchestra to premiere the opera, which by the way was also a disaster. And then it was so bad that he retired for four years to just collect butterflies and folk songs, and he didn’t compose. And this is just before what happened to Europe and the world [in World War I]. So for me these very dark and mysterious elements of the opera, including the opera itself, were the very beginning of the film, and then it came in place with this context of wanting to go back to Punta del Este— this very pristine and bourgeois summer resort where I spent most of my summers and where I knew people, where I could see people suffering in a place that was designed for pleasure and for privilege. So I thought this was quite an interesting tension.
And at the beginning there was no story or characters, just this niece. For me also, this niece relates to my previous film and this intention of making a transition to fiction, but not in the sense of “Okay, so now I work with a script. How do you make a fiction?” but rather trying to find my own way.
Most of the film feels like documentary.
But they’re actors, right?
Yeah, but they’re not playing…
So you would feed them a line to say or put them in different situations?
Yeah, I would put them in different situations and the shots would take 18 minutes. The transition to fiction was not something I could do in a traditional way.
You get fragments of each character but it ends up being more elegant than an actual character arc. You just get glimpses of things, yet I felt like you immediately learned so much about each person in these moments. Did you cut down from a lot of original material?
I shot two months. First thing Uruguay, and second half in Buenos Aires, six months apart. And then I edited for like seven months or so. I find that a lot of directors and producers and people who are trying to make things that are challenging and engaging and original and so forth, but they try to do that by means of repeating exactly the same techniques as films have always been done. And I find that a bit strange. So in that sense, when I was filming things, I didn’t know how I was going to use it. The moment I realized that the people I was portraying were people I cared for and people I liked, and I was portraying them doing things they do or say or think in the places they do in a very rigorous, beautiful cinematic way, I thought: “Whatever comes out of this will be interesting and will be cinema for me.”
Given what you’re saying, it’s striking that the actors never really look lost.
That’s the editing and the 10-minute shots. Even if somebody’s lost and you’re filming them and they have no idea what you wanted to do or whether you’re shooting or not, there are moments in which they are thinking “Should I go to the bathroom?” or “I forgot to call this person.” So it’s made of these moments. You know there’s a very nice interview with Lucrecia Martel where she says…
I thought of her during the movie a bit.
Lucrecia is fantastic. I actually had a chance to talk with her. We became friends before I was shooting and we had pretty interesting conversations. She said that that even in a context where one has a lot of control and a script and everything very designed, what really makes it work is that you’re always expecting that spontaneous event to go wrong, which will happen, even though it never happens. And that’s ultimately the reason why one wants to go out again and make a film—to be exposed again to that possibility. So that’s really what I was going for. And people were like, “You’re crazy. What are you doing? What do you think?” Because it’s true, I wasn’t just going around with this small camera—it was my first ambitious film in that sense. It involved a technical crew and heavier and more sophisticated materials. So it was a quite a bet, and I asked myself all sorts of questions upon doing it, and of course I’m more than excited that finally there is a film that’s here. Whatever that means.