Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Adam Nayman
Michelange Quay’s impressive debut feature Eat, for This Is My Body begins with a tracking shot that glides across the sea, passes over the shore and then moves ominously inland. What it eventually locates there is not an empire but the remnants of one. The film addresses the colonial legacy of Haiti, a country that, for obvious reasons, is not known for its filmic output, and rarely seen onscreen. It is also a place where the American-born, NYU-educated Quay—who currently resides in Paris—has deep roots.
The director’s cinematic lineage is less easily traced. Toronto’s program notes
name-checked Luis Buñuel, which is fair enough, but also not quite right (for one, this film isn’t especially funny). The tableaux vivant that comprise the main action have the wildly dislocating quality of Buñuel’s pseudo-heir David Lynch, but Quay isn’t just excavating his own hidden mind—he’s excavating the colonial subconscious.
As in his fine 2004 short The Gospel of the Creole Pig, a startling update of George Franju’s The Blood of the Beasts (1953), Quay’s symbolism is plangent and comprehensible. In fact, discussed in the abstract, its contents might actually sound a bit too calculated: Quay films the goings-on in a dilapidated colonial mansion owned by a wizened French matriarch (Catherine Samie) given to venomous sickbed meditations about the ungratefulness of the indigenous people, a house lately inhabited by a group of unruly local black boys, invited there under murky pretenses by her imperious adult daughter, Madame (Sylvie Testud).
It reads as blunt, and it occasionally plays that way, but Quay’s confident compositions and the actors’ fearlessness (both Testud and the 74-year old Samie are laid bare) ameliorates the schematism. The director reveals his film’s shape slowly, bridging the opening landscape footage and the domestic drama (the natural and the highly unnatural) with an observational passage capturing a raucous nighttime voodoo ceremony. The first of many rituals in the film, it’s notable for being “real”—which is to say filmed documentary-style—and also for the marked absence of white faces. The “games” that follow inside the house are controlled by Madame, whose first order of business is to have her young guests shorn of their hair and placed into identically natty black suits. A few scenes later, she hosts a dinner party where the kids are handed empty plates and then exhorted to say “Merci.”
So far, so obvious, but then Quay stages a one-shot sequence in which the kids (all non-professional actors) are left alone with a giant cake. Their sullen demeanour lifts and they attack the spongy mound with an almost frightening joy. “My children, they take and take,” Samie had whispered in an earlier monologue, and the combination of magnanimity and resentment in her voice hangs over the feeding frenzy (as do a certain French Queen’s famous words about letting the rabble have their dessert). It’s a powerful, cruel scene, and the onus of implication refuses to sit still. Quay sees the causes and effects of poverty very clearly, and doesn’t let his audience get too comfortable while considering them.
The confrontational aspect of Eat, for This is My Body clashes profitably with the seductiveness of the presentation. (Even the title is an enticement, however complicated.) That overused adjective “hypnotic” surely applies here, both to the long wordless stretches and to the dialogue, which is usually recited rather than acted. (It’s telling that the characters rarely speak “dialogue” as such—this is a portrait of impasse, of two colour-coded solitudes). One scene explicitly foregrounds this trance-like quality, as a group of older women gain access to the grounds and use high-end equipment to create musical loops, like a geriatric cutting crew. The film has a lulling quality overall, but it’s not without its rude interruptions; time and again, Quay’s rhetoric proves spiky and punctures the reverie.
The unhappy question is whether there’s an audience for this kind of cinema: boldly non-narrative, preoccupied with dialectics (racial, historical, sexual), palpably angry, yet utterly sincere. It’s “difficult” filmmaking in the sense that it demands engagement and provides few answers (easy or otherwise), but is articulate enough that advocacy need not bleed over into special pleading. Simply put, Quay’s film is too vivid—too lucidly oblique—to be classified as one of those cinematic Rorschach tests that say more about the looker than anything else. There’s definitely something to see here.
CINEMA SCOPE: Tell me about your background.
MICHELANGE QUAY: Well, I was born a sharecropper’s son…. [laughs]. My parents are from Haiti. I was born in New York in 1974. As a family stays in a country that they’ve emigrated to, they gradually assimilate, but my earliest childhood memories are completely in the New York Haitian community. I’ve been surrounded by Haitians my whole life. We’d go back home on vacations, and by the time I got out of film school, my parents had retired and moved back. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to make films there.
SCOPE: I imagine it’s not exactly easy to make films there anyway.
QUAY: There is a sort of local…well, “industry” is not quite the right word. There’s a network, akin to Nigeria or Bollywood, films made on video for mass consumption. They’re entertainments, like telenovelas. I normally don’t have commercial preoccupations, but when I think of films like The Harder They Come (1972) or Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971), I imagine that one could address the impoverished populace of Haiti using real cinema language. The film I’ve made now would not necessarily be understood by your average person in Haiti. In the future, I’d like to try to make something that’s as uncompromising but also, you know, funky.
SCOPE: Does that mean that Eat, for This is My Body has been geared towards Western audiences?
QUAY: I don’t think so, no. Maybe Gospel of the Creole Pig was to a greater degree. I don’t have a targeted spectator for this film. I wasn’t thinking about who was going to taste the meal, I just wanted to make sure it tasted good, or about what new tastes I could find.
SCOPE: But you have to admit it is bracing for a Western audience to see the way that Madame and the old woman are represented, or even just to see a film about Haiti.
QUAY: I would like to think that Western festivals that show a lot of art-house films are the perfect place for my movie, because those are the sort of movies I like by the sort of filmmakers I like.
SCOPE: I’d imagine one of those filmmakers is Claire Denis?
QUAY: I dig Claire Denis, especially some of the older films, like the one with the cockfighting. No Fear, No Die (1990). Or Beau travail (1999).
SCOPE: I thought of Beau travail during your film for several reasons: not only the addressing of colonial history, but also the prevalence of ritual and the sense of landscape as character,
QUAY: It’s a delicate thing for me, to be true to Haiti and use the country as a kind of archetype for the meeting between Haiti’s landscape and France’s, between North and South. Because it could be the meeting between China and some of its minority peoples—it’s the meeting between people who have a power relationship. Master and servant. Black and white. These are useful colours to use in opposition to each other, symbolically.
SCOPE: Before we get to black and white, though, there’s that long helicopter shot taking us inland. It’s like an elemental overture before we get to the human dynamics.
QUAY: There’s something going on in the opening that presents Haiti as a body, especially after you’ve seen that opening title card. Eat, for This is My Body, and here is a body…We go from the ocean to a populated place to barren mountains to tunnel-like mountains, and you hear these lamentations on the soundtrack that evolve into a real woman’s cries, real agony, and we find ourselves in the most basic and simple place where things begin—in the womb. And in the next shot, we have a woman giving birth. Now, some of that I found in the editing room. It’s fun to discover those resonances.
SCOPE: Was the water imagery in what follows—the progression from a drip to a trickle to a steady, overpowering flow—also something that was “discovered?”
QUAY: No, I’d also be lying to say that stuff wasn’t on the page.
SCOPE: Water is definitely a recurring motif in the film….
QUAY: The water is like blood flow. And at the end of Catherine Samie’s first monologue, the water just starts cascading. When it settles, we see the kids going up to the house to meet her. And when the kids leave Madame prostrate at the end of the film, it’s at the water’s edge.
SCOPE: The contrast between the black characters and the white characters is obvious, but there’s also a dichotomy between all that clear water and the big vat of cream sitting in the house…
QUAY: The further we go up the mountain, away from the ocean, the further we go into the bowels of what man can create. The basement where the cream is located is an industrial space.
SCOPE: Before we move the discussion into that house, so to speak, can you talk a little bit about the voodoo ceremony near the beginning of the film?
QUAY: When I go to Haiti, and someone tells me there’s a voodoo ceremony going on, I always check it out. These ceremonies have helped keep the Haitian people through isolation and apartheid more intense than Cuba or any blockaded country. Voodoo has kept the Haitians Haitian and kept them sane. So having contemplated the country’s topography and seeing how denuded and barren the landscape is, I wanted to show some life. It’s a shame—I really shouldn’t be explaining my intentions. But I don’t want to be playing striptease either, so if I felt like telling you, I guess I should finish. I wanted to juxtapose the real Haitian soul and survival instinct with Catherine Samie’s character’s total repudiation of it in the next scene.
SCOPE: But the reason that next scene is so powerful and disturbing is because Samie doesn’t play it as a caricature—you can locate empathy for this old woman in spite of the vicious things she’s saying.
QUAY: I don’t see her as a bad person. Nor do I see the black children wolfing down the cake of humanitarianism as bad.
SCOPE: That’s a difficult scene, because the sense of play and the joy of indulgence are tempered by some notion of capitulation, not to mention waste.
QUAY: Ain’t it the truth. It’s an agreeable challenge for me to talk broadly about certain things, but you know, we’re filming people. My scripts are 15 times more cruel than what ends up on the screen. When you film something, you have to try to respect it. At the end of my short film, there’s a log of shit, but with the way it’s framed and shot, I don’t try to treat it like shit. When we film something, it’s forever. So going back to that scene in Eat, I was there when the kids were eating the cake. There’s no take two. We gave few suggestions about what to do, and they just went buck wild. It was innocent. The crew enjoyed that with them in the moment. It’s in the context of the film, in the context of what Catherine’s character had said, that it means something else.
SCOPE: Context is obviously everything. When Madame finally leaves the house and sits down to eat her dinner in front of this big crowd of people, we remember the scene where she’d offered the kids imaginary food—and then insisted that they thank her for it!
QUAY: Yes. At the end of the movie, she has become, to some degree, the subject being looked at. She’s not looking at these black kids coming into her house anymore or deciding what to do with them.
SCOPE: And you finally have her walking around in a “real” space, outside of the monstrously controlled interior environment.
QUAY: We shot the film in a kind of block order. We shot the opening stuff in Haiti four months before we shot anything in the house. Because there was a jackhammer working on the bridge in the village in France where the house was, we had to shoot at night. So we’re there, always under artificial light, leaving the set at dawn to sleep it off before the next day’s shooting started at 4:00pm. It put us in a bubble, the same kind of bubble that Madame and the old woman are in in the film. And then after being in that mindfuck space for so long, we returned to Haiti, and I felt like even a mosquito going by would carry the weight of reality. When Madame goes out of the house into Haiti, I understood that just walking down the street was something that had to happen for this character. She’d been in a space where she’d been playing a role with people. So in the way she’d treated black folks as “black folks,” she becomes “white folks.” We need to get out of our heads, and just see people as they are.
SCOPE: It’s telling that she’s as uncomfortable when she leaves the house as the children were when they entered it—there are no relaxed interactions in the film.
QUAY: All the scenes in the movie are ceremonies. Even when Madame leaves the house she’s part of a procession. She thinks she’s discovering the country, but she’s in a performative mode. The people around her in the market could care less about her. They didn’t care about us—they were too busy doing their laundry to notice us.
SCOPE: Another ritual would be haircuts the boys get before they head up to the house. It’s reminiscent of the beginning of Full Metal Jacket (1987).
QUAY: I thought you would quote Pasolini, to tell you the truth. But I am a big Kubrick fan. It’s part of my vocabulary. I’d hate to think I’m biting his style. If I could compare myself to him—to this great god—he’s always shooting people in performance mode. Hair-shearing is part of the performance, of transforming all these different individuals into one individual.
SCOPE: They’re also forced into these black suits…
QUAY: They are monkey suits, literally. Let’s be honest. I didn’t sit down with these kids on the couch and read the script with them. These kids are street children, from an orphanage, run by a friend of mine in Haiti. So, to some degree, I’m Madame to these kids. Yes, it’s wonderful for broadening their horizons and whatever other bullshit. But it’s real. We put them on an airplane from Haiti to Paris, we shuttled them onto a bus and took them down into the Loire Valley to this castle, where we shot their scenes. We did that with them, so maybe I’m guilty in some way. For the moment, I’m not interested in doing fiction as such. This is role-play. And Sylvie Testud and Catherine Samie are kind of playing who they are in relation to those kids.
SCOPE: How did you get Catherine Samie involved with the film?
QUAY: My producer had worked with her agents on another project. So I had an in to go meet her at the Comédie Française. I get there, it’s this big stately building in Paris, with cobwebs in the hallway, paintings of all these great thespians, this plaque with Molière’s dates on it…and then the final plaque has Catherine Samie’s name on it, except without the date of her death. So that spooked me a little bit, it was intimidating, it was imposing. And we go into this tiny little dressing room to pitch it to her. She was intrigued but doubtful. I couldn’t give her a straight answer about her role or her character, but she was more what I had written than what I had written. When I saw her in The Last Letter (2002), I said, “That’s her, that’s my lady.” Hell, when I saw a photo still from The Last Letter before even seeing the movie, I thought that. Finally, she said yes.
SCOPE: And Sylvie Testud?
QUAY: Sylvie and Catherine had worked together before, but we’d already cast Sylvie. She was one of the judges at the Cannes Cinéfondation, and George Guildenstern got a copy of Creole Pig and the script to her. I called her from Haiti from a payphone, and she was in Georgia having been sequestered there, or quasi-kidnapped—it was a difficult situation. But she liked the script and wanted to do it.
SCOPE: The Gospel of the Creole Pig was about the relationship between Haiti and the US. Do you think you might tackle some explicitly American concerns at some point in your career? Or do you not compartmentalize that way?
QUAY: I do compartmentalize. I wonder if I will be stereotyped for always working in dialectics like this. In Creole Pig, it was the US and Haiti. Eat, for This is My Body is less explicitly political, but it’s still a binary. It’s possible that I’ll make a film set in the US, but there will still probably be two different poles of reality. For the moment I seem preoccupied with white and black, but it could change. What interests me is playing dissonances against one another. In the bathroom mirror in this hotel room, I’ve got one of those cool mirrors where you see yourself reflected on and on. Once you have two, you have the multitude. We can talk about everything once we talk about self and the Other—about me and my shadow.
SCOPE: Are you worried about being stereotyped as a filmmaker who makes difficult films?
QUAY: This film may talk to some viewers about race, sex, power, or colonial legacy. I suppose I have a galaxy of preoccupations, but I never sit down and decide I’m going to write about anyone of them. There’s nothing mystical going on. I’m just looking for a new vein, like some junkie. I’m not trying to shock anyone, because there are a lot of films that people find shocking that I find boring.