The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène
By Mark Peranson
“It is not necessary for the public to know whether I am joking or whether I am serious, just as it is not necessary for me to know it myself.”—Salvador Dalí, Diary of a Genius (1964)
Cinema Scope: Let me repeat what I wrote about your film, namely that for me Story of My Death is a truly esoteric and unique work, something contemporary, yet totally free of constraints of time and space. The trappings might be historical and mythical, but your playground is cinematic language; the editing, acting, and photography, all of which are sui generis, contribute to a work of art that, as in an alchemic concoction, begins as waste, but eventually dazzles like gold. I would go so far as to say that this is a metaphor for your filmmaking as a whole, for reasons that we can get into later. But first some background about this film. You’ve made three feature-length films so far set in the past, featuring protagonists who are well-known historical/fictional characters: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Honor of the Knights (2006), and the Three Wise Men in Birdsong (2008). What attracts you to making films about historical subjects, and why in this case did you choose Casanova and Dracula?
Albert Serra: In the beginning it was because it was simply easier for me to work with historical and literary figures, as if you use subjects or characters who nobody knows, you need to take too much time telling something about the character. You know, you need some practical shots, some development, so people will understand who the person is, why, what’s happening…so in Honor of the Knights I decided to use Don Quixote so I could focus on atmosphere, on details, on things I love better than just showing the plot or trying to give information about the characters. With these characters you have more or less all the information and, well, then I can do whatever I want, I am free, and I don’t care about being more or less faithful to the original source or character that comes from literature or history. So in some sense I have the total freedom, but at the same time there’s the positive notion that the audience has the information about the characters, and perhaps I can be less than perfectly faithful and they will understand that…it’s useful. Also this idea of talking about the old Europe was very appealing to me, as I studied literature and art history and I was always interested in all of these subjects, these books, these characters.
Well, all the characters except Dracula—I wasn’t interested in him at all. In fact, I tried to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I couldn’t; I thought it was very bad and very boring. But I was in Romania showing Honor of the Knights, and there was a Romanian producer who told me that I should to do the same thing with Dracula as I did with Don Quixote. At the beginning I didn’t like the idea because I’d never seen any fantastic films, or almost any, I hate them—eventually I watched some to prepare for this film. This suggestion was like a joke to me, but slowly it built up in my mind, and eventually I thought it would be a challenge, a beautiful challenge. But obviously I couldn’t follow the whole Dracula mythology, nor could I only make a film about Dracula.
So I decided to mix it with some imaginary that is closer to my universe, that is closer to my imagination, and this was Casanova. At the same time I was reading Casanova’s memoirs, Story of My Life, and I realized that Casanova and Dracula share some themes, some thoughts about desire, perhaps pleasure, about the night, so I said, why not, we will have this typical 18th-century atmosphere, the light, the mundane…the rationalism, this open-minded desire of communication of everything, which you see with Casanova talking all throughout the film about Europe, women, food: possessing this desire of really being in contact with the world and trying to place rational thought on it. And it could be interesting to merge this with the other side of the coin, the beginning of Romanticism at the start of the 19th century, which is exactly the opposite, because in Romanticism there is no communication with the world. Dracula is closed in his metaphysical thinking, and is violent, not rationalistic, with a more sexual, not sensual, way of being. I thought this could be a beautiful question for the film: Where is the real pleasure, or where is the real desire? Where do the characters find the actual satisfaction for their desire? In the mundane side, in the light side of Casanova, or in the more dark side of Dracula? And in the end it looks like Dracula wins, and people feel more pleasure in the pain, or in the guilty things, and perhaps the film is ultimately about the dark side of our lives. I wanted to make a film about the night, and what happens in the night, when real desires appear.
Scope: Do you think the world has changed much since that time?
Serra: No, it’s an eternal dialectical fight, so it’s as contemporary as ever. Perhaps what has become more esoteric nowadays is the politics, but regarding sexuality or desire, it has always been a difficult subject. A friend of mine told me that this is a film about hypocrisy, and this is beautiful to me, because when you see the film, and even think about it afterwards, you never know where exactly the real desire of people begins or ends, what they really want, where the control of somebody over someone else ends, how or where this person can mask his or her real desire, where fatality arrives. You cannot avoid what happens, or you cannot avoid your own desire…perhaps it’s really a film about hypocrisy, all the time the characters are hiding, you never know what they think or what they feel.
Scope: The only character who doesn’t behave in this manner is Pompeu, Casanova’s manservant. In the first part of the film, he struggles with his debts, losing at cards; in the second half, he pines for one of the Romanian servant girls and is rebuffed. Lluís Serrat, aka Sancho, who plays Pompeu, is a non-professional actor from Banyoles you’ve used in all your films. Did you write the role specifically for him? And also, how do you see his character as different from the other characters in Story of My Death?
Serra: Yes, of course, I mean, I didn’t write the character, per se, but it was obvious from the beginning that he would play him. I don’t know anybody else who could shoot with me or work with me in this way. In some sense he’s a tragic figure—more than just an actor, because as a person he’s so pure. This film is a little bit more sophisticated and he’s self-conscious of how he has to act—it’s very calculated and controlled, but he remains a pure figure, and in some sense he’s out of place. What is tragic is that he has kept his innocence in a film that has no innocence at all. When you see the last scene where he’s bitten and he stumbles off before collapsing, you don’t know if it’s real, or if it’s a comic scene, what he’s doing exactly, because he never finds his place in the film. You lose a little bit of credibility in this moment—you don’t know exactly what the tone or atmosphere is—but it’s very beautiful, I really love it, because his innocence there, that exists all throughout the previous films, here comes to the highest point of contrast with the other characters, with the way I shoot, with my own life, with everything. Now, in real life, he’s not drinking anymore, he’s taking pills to help him stop, which is why he doesn’t want to come to festivals as he’s afraid he’ll start drinking again, so it’s another tragedy, of not finding his place in the film or in the world. They are the same.
Scope: You said you weren’t interested in fantasy films, but for me the film exists in a fantasy realm: it’s inhabited by people and characters who behave and act and are photographed and edited in a different way in the real world, but also other movies as well. It’s almost like an extended dream state.
Serra: Well, that was the idea. I wanted to make a real fantasy that has nothing to do with our lives, and with images that have nothing in common with what we have seen before. It’s a bit hard to explain, but the characters and the beauty of the film should exist only in the film. These characters are born only in the film—nothing is related to the original source. The idea was to put it in materiality, even if it’s a fantasy.
Scope: In your other films, your scripts mainly consisted of sketches for scenes and actions, without any written dialogue. It’s different in Story of My Death in that there is something resembling a typical script, with written dialogues, and many literary references, like Voltaire for example. Why did you want to write more dialogues, and was it more difficult to shoot than the previous films because of the dialogue?
Serra: No, I don’t think so. I’m quite proud of the dialogues, I think they are very beautiful. I am always looking for beauty, and I don’t care if it’s coherent or not…No, in fact it was easier shoot this film. I’ve been working in theatre the last few years also, so that helped. I didn’t use dialogues in earlier films maybe because it was boring to me, but here it is interesting, some of the Casanova speeches are quite okay. If not it would be too much fantasy, no? And the idea was to create this level with some interesting historical or philosophical dialogues, but always inside a strange, fantasy plot. This was the main goal, to mix important things inside another film that is not important at all, something that is very strange, that is not a serious thing, namely Dracula.
This film was created in the same spirit as my other films, but I’m trying to add new things each time. I use non-professional actors, and always will, as I hate professional actors. I like to put some absurdity inside the films, because I think it’s funny, and I also like improvisation, because it creates problems in the shooting. I keep the three or four rules that I had at the beginning, but here it’s in the context of a more complex film, with a more complex subject, with more dialogues, a little bit more plot. I’m only focused on the film, I don’t think about my career, and for this reason I don’t think about the audience either. The audience is not interesting: sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. But it’s by chance always. Sometimes they love the film for the wrong reasons; it happens very often. How can you be proud of achieving success if people love the film for the wrong reasons? And the opposite is also true. I don’t care about the audience.
Scope: The other day you said that your film is “unfuckable.” Can you clarify what you mean by that?
Serra: I said that in a workshop for film critics. I said that my films are unfuckable in the context of film criticism, in that you have to take the whole thing or leave it. The films are so radical and special in themselves that there are no weak points: they are impossible to criticize. There are no mistakes inside, you simply cannot find bad things in the film. It’s not exactly that they’re flawless, what’s important is the concept, that it’s unfuckable…it’s the whole thing that’s good or bad. To put it in more extreme terms, it’s excellent or horrible. You cannot think about my cinema in subtle terms. And I always think that my films, and some other films, are unfuckable because they are beyond criticism.
Scope: How much of that is due to the editing? You had over 440 hours of material to work with, you disposed of dozens of specific scenes, and in the end I would say that Story of My Death is very strangely edited. I don’t think I’ve seen a film edited in this way: it’s of a piece, and it’s significantly different from your other films in terms of the pacing and also the cutting within the scenes. There’s an individual sensibility that comes through in the editing. This is the idea of turning shit into gold that I was mentioning earlier, and which we literally see in Story of My Death. And which I think is an impulse I think we all strive for both in art and in life.
Serra: Yes, this is very important. My objective when I shoot the film is just to shoot interesting things, to create something strange that, in the edit, will help to create a global coherence. In some sense it’s unfuckable because the whole shooting is a mistake…on the other hand the edit is so precise, using material that at the beginning is not perfect, with lots of small things that aren’t coherent. The original material is free, and I create coherence, and this coherence can only exist because I decide on it in the edit. So nobody can compare it to something that exists previously, or criticize it in comparison to the script, and say perhaps I could have done this or that in another way. When you see the film you cannot see the process. You just see the final product, and that’s the only thing that you imagine. But this is after the shooting. And this is why it’s unfuckable, because you don’t have the traces, you don’t know what the idea was in the beginning, what was happening in the shooting, so you cannot compare it.
This one I edited myself, as my friend, Àngel Martin, who was also one of the cameramen on Story of My Death, and who helped out editing the others, was very tired after editing the 100-hour documenta installation, The Three Little Pigs. It’s very interesting because sometimes in the edit the conversations are completely created out of nothing. For the first scene where Carmen talks with Dracula by the river in the day, I had two hours of mostly improvised dialogue, with different answers, different questions, and in the edit I put one question with another answer. But during all the shooting the answers were not for the specific questions, say 60 to 80 percent of time. They said the sentences in the course of the shooting, but not in that order. So they are beautiful dialogues because they are very natural, quotidian, and spontaneous, but they are more original than that because it was not “written,” nobody thought that the dialogue would end up in that way…it was done in the edit.
Scope: In that scene the actors aren’t facing the camera, and you don’t see the lips of the characters moving.
Serra: Yes, this kind of scene is easier to edit, but I used it in a lot in scenes where there is cutting between the characters as well. Psychologically when the actor knows that he has to say something, and knows what the other actor will answer, you can see it in his eyes, he announces that, and it’s a little bit boring. But if the answer breaks what the eyes of the questioner announces, this gets more ambiguous, and there is more life inside. This is something that I got used to in the previous films, shooting a lot, never repeating the same take, but never to this extent. But it’s very hard. If there are two hours worth of material, say, I have to write out all the dialogues just to know where I am. For example, the scene early on where Casanova is talking with the poet, which for me is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, the questions and the answers are interesting, all the subjects of the dialogue…I had five or six pages of dialogue, and I had to compose the order. It’s all created in the edit. All, absolutely all, they never answer in that order in that way. The spirit is the same, but not the content.
Scope: As someone who has to edit interviews, such as this one, I understand exactly what you mean. But this in a way is the key to your filmmaking: the mixture of the artificial and the natural working together in interesting ways. Among others, it reminds me of Bresson and Straub.
Serra: Yes, this is perfect. I spent a lot of time developing this technique. I think perhaps I am the person in the world who has gone furthest with this technique when it comes to dealing with dialogue scenes. Because I can tell you nobody has seven hours of different chaotic dialogue, writes it down, and pores over it for days, because it’s very difficult, you get lost, it takes a lot of time…you lose days trying to edit one scene. And it’s very boring to do this work; it’s really Chinese work. But you have to do it because in the end you get the artificial existing at the perfectly same level as the natural.
Scope: Over the last few years you took kind of a hiatus from features and worked in the art world, as you said, making a long installation film for documenta that recently screened as part of a retrospective in the Centre Pompidou, as well as two pieces for museums in Barcelona, The Names of Christ (2010) and The Lord Worked Wonders in Me (2010). To what extent has working in the art world changed your way of thinking and working?
Serra: Yes, it’s changed a little bit, because in the art world you have more freedom, and you can do whatever you want, and you are still unfuckable because there nobody knows anything and there is a great amount of confusion there as to what is good or bad, or what is important or not, so I realized that I feel at home there. In this confusion, or this chaos, which is similar to what I try to create in my shooting, there is a suspension of judgement. And this is beautiful, and I try to apply this to the films, but at the same time I try to keep the innocence in the films. Because more than in art, films are about innocence. When you start with a feature, you have to be a believer, and to be a believer is to have innocence. It’s like if you believe in God: you cannot ask questions, you cannot criticize God, you trust him. For me, in a feature film you have to be innocent, you have to trust in what you are doing. In the art world there is more calculation, it’s more speculative work, and it’s more about language. But I tried to be very, very speculative in the art world, because this speculation helps you to improve some details in the films; it makes you more clever. But then you have to keep the innocence and you have to be a believer.
Scope: Speaking of art, what made you cast Vicenç Altaió, who plays Casanova? In his daily life he is an art curator in Barcelona, not an actor.
Serra: Because he looks like Casanova! If you see his profile, and you see some paintings or drawings of Casanova, he looks like him. It was intuition. I wanted a guy who liked women, girls, and a guy with a big dick. And he has all these things. And at the end when you see him in the movie you realize it was a good selection. The other day at a party he immediately got naked just to show himself off to people. Because people who have these attributes, like Errol Flynn and Clint Eastwood, I think, love to do that just to humiliate other people.
But as you know I’ve never done any rehearsals before shooting. For all of my films, the first day of the shooting is the first day I work with the actors. So it is a matter of faith—I don’t know any more information, I just have my intuition. When I pick someone I have the heart, and an intense intuition that it will work. And up to now I have always been right, at least with the main characters. I always say something simple, but it’s a quote that has a lot of truth inside: “There are no good or bad actors, there are only good or bad filmmakers.” I can make anybody a good actor, it’s just a matter of time. If I choose the right one it’s easier and it’s faster, but I could do it with everybody…
Scope: Could you go into some detail about how you worked on the sound of the movie? It’s an important part, both in the use of silence and the louder parts, such as the strangely exaggerated sounds of Casanova eating, where consumption of food is obviously taking the place of sex. You’re also using music to a large extent for the first time.
Serra: What is important in the sound is how it relates to the multiple levels or layers of the film. In the scenes of daily life that are very quotidian, the actors play the roles in a very naturalistic way, and ideally there the sound should be very natural. But at the same time there are different degrees even within the same scenes. When you see, for example, the scene at the end where Pompeu is eating the apples with the servant girl, you have this one movie which is a genre movie, with Dracula, and the girl is trying to bite him, and you also have this other movie, which is closer to what I have done before, which is free improvisation, talking about…it doesn’t matter what. Anything. And you have also the metaphysical film, a literary film, with the spectre of death hanging over the action. So in the same scene you have three or four films or layers, and you don’t know which film is the one you are seeing because there is no hierarchy established between them.
With the sound this becomes difficult, as for the most part in the second half of the film there was this problematic, that the sound should be naturalistic when the actors are behaving naturalistically—in other words, it should correspond to one of these films, these layers. But sometimes I used very naturalistic sound mixed with very artificial dialogue or action, and sometimes the opposite. Sometimes I made extremely artificial what is natural. For example, when Casanova is eating, the sound that comes from his mouth is very loud and almost artificial-sounding, even though it’s recorded live—there was a microphone in his wig, behind his ear, recording things. It was a very difficult balance to find, but it was always in between these artificial or non-natural things, closer to the metaphysical film, or the more natural and quotidian thing related to the way the actors play the roles, and this freedom which is always inside every film. You must feel the naturalism.
The main characteristic of my previous style, even here where there is a more complex plot, with different layers of filmmaking, is that inside the scenes themselves there is always the same freedom. I tried to make it a bit more mannerist in some places, which I was not used to, but just to change it a little bit—the film is different, so the sound should be different. I decided to use music also, I don’t know…it’s all part of trying to keep what I liked in the previous films and trying to go farther.
In most author cinema today, the idea is to empty things as much as possible, to just be left with the structure, to make the film more pure. But here it’s the opposite, I was always adding things, adding layers, with the historical, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the plot, the dialogues…still trying at the end to have the same purity, but by other means. And the sound, I think it’s great. It’s subtle, sometimes, some things are done on purpose, some times it sounds like a mistake, sometimes it is a mistake…it’s difficult. There is also a lot of foley work, which I never used before: in one scene the sound is completely constructed out of nothing. This balance of artificial and natural in some places is not so obvious, it keeps the ambiguity and it’s very beautiful.
Scope: Can you talk about the compositional aspects of the film, the look of the image, and why you decided to use the CinemaScope frame for the first time?
Serra: This is a very interesting question, but it takes a long time to explain. A very, very long story, but to make it short: in fact, all the cameramen shot the film for 4:3, and in the middle of the shooting I realized it was better in 2.35. But I didn’t tell them. So they composed the whole film for 4:3, which is exactly the opposite of 2.35. But then you get an image that is very strange, sometimes, because there is a lot of empty space, an absurd composition, because in editing I had to choose the upper part or the lower part, and this creates a completely new compositional style. So I think my main contribution was simply that, not telling the cinematographer during the shooting.
But I’m rarely focused on the composition of the shot, because I’m shooting with two or three cameras, depending on the scene, on the place, and I give the cinematographers a lot of freedom. I check the frame very rarely, only in a few cases. Here the idea was brilliant…it’s new. It never looks like it was composed because it was not composed! It was composed for 4:3, and it’s absolutely the opposite of 2.35. But it shares something with the way I work, which is based on the rejection of communication, even with actors. I know what I want—perhaps I don’t even know—but I don’t communicate this with actors or with technicians. I never say what they have to do. It’s a rule that I discovered was better from the very beginning—you know, like Andy Warhol, don’t judge your own work, don’t judge what you’re doing. But I do this in an even more radical way. I openly reject communication with people.
It’s complicated, because at the beginning we were shooting with the Alexa, which I didn’t like, then we changed to another one, and then another…Nobody has invented a camera that suits my purposes, that is mobile, that can shoot well in the dark, that can be close to the actors, that can record hours of improvisation without needing to stop to change cards…We were in Romania, in the middle of nowhere, we had two Alexas, two Sonys, two Panasonics. The producer in Romania said that even Ridley Scott never had 12 cameras on the set. In the end we used the same Panasonic camera that we used on Honor of the Knights, which is not pure HD. It was a little bit of a mess, but I like to create a mess, because what counts is inspiration, not technical things. Technical things are boring. And it’s a way I also can put irony in the work of technicians. Because if irony doesn’t enter into the equation, the shooting will be boring. When you work with non-professional actors, technique has to follow actors, not the other way around. If the actors are inspired, and you have to wait one hour to prepare lights, or the camera, then by the time you’re ready to shoot, they won’t be inspired. The moment is that moment. If the actors are not inspired, you lose 80 percent of the quality of the film. If the light is not perfect you lose one or two percent of the quality. For me it’s always about putting in some chaos…sometimes when I’m editing, sure, I regret it. But this chaos also gives me the chance to explore more variations in the editing, because there’s no possibility to play it safe: you have to work in a more subtle way. This was the first time I went so far in terms of the camera…I think nobody else in history has done it. I am almost sure I am the only one, the first and maybe the last. Related to cinematography what else can you do? How can you annoy a cinematographer any more?
Scope: Lastly, as we are in Locarno, and you’ve just won the Golden Leopard, I have to ask why you set the first part of the film in a castle in Switzerland?
Serra: Well, I needed to put something there, and I didn’t want to put France because it was boring—the word is boring, not the country. Switzerland is as boring as France. But I thought the graphic of the lettering was boring. But Switzerland in Catalan, “Suïzza” with the two points, it looked better…People think I did this because the film was sent to Locarno, but Suïzza was there from the beginning. We had to choose a place for the second part of the film, and we were thinking of Romania, but then chose “Sud del Carpats,” which is an area and not a specific country. But for the beginning I wanted to choose a state, having to do with this rationalist side of Casanova. I also thought of Spain, but that wouldn’t work because it’s horrible, and Italy I didn’t like because it was too typical for Casanova…it’s the solidity of a proper state. And Switzerland will be there forever.