Perrine Liévois’ most recent film showcased a Director with a deep knowledge of her craft, and who is unafraid to make uncompromising art which splits opinion. The Director of Saturation and Echos spoke to Indy Film Library about the challenges of making thought-provoking films which speak to audiences without depending on mainstream aesthetic or narrative codes.
As was mentioned in our review of Saturation, you clearly have an extensive knowledge of historical cinema styles. What are your earliest memories of a film or filmmaker whose style really impacted you?
Films where editing is very important have always marked me. In this sense the silent cinema of the 1920s is often a cinema that inspires me because the editing was very expressive, as well as the photography: It was necessary to tell a story only with visual means and this gave rise to a lot of imagination, freedom of form (viewing angles, camera movements, editing pace …). Expressionist cinema is indeed very inspiring, but also French Impressionism: Films like The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), by Jean Epstein, The Shell and the Clergyman (1928) by Germaine Dulac or Napoleon (1927) by Abel Gance.
I like it when cinema, through these aesthetic devices, takes its distance from reality, not to go towards abstraction, but to sublimate reality.
Sibylle Liévois puts in an amazing, wide-eyed performance as your lead character Emma. What is her relation to you – and did it make it easier or harder to direct her?
Sibylle is my sister. This allowed us not to lose time on polite interactions on the shoot. In our approach of the work, centered around research, it could have been an obstacle. Hadrien D. Fayel and I could focus on aesthetic research, because Sibylle was fairly independent in her work.
More generally, how do you deal with cast and crew as an independent Director? Is there a limit to what you can expect of them, and how do you go about pushing them toward your expectations then?
As I did not have a budget and yet wanted to have significant time to allow myself aesthetic and narrative research, I spread the shooting over six months (not full time). I couldn’t ask the actors to understand exactly what we were doing, because there was a lot of unknown for me too. So I asked them to be as independent as possible, to do what they had to do as if I wasn’t there, and to do it many times!
What were the biggest challenges you faced during this production, and how did you overcome them?
The hardest part was the editing phase, but it’s also the part I prefer. It took me several years (not full time) to “trim” or “smooth down” the film: I had the feeling of being like a sculptor who makes a shape appear from a block of rough stone. It was a lot about redirecting scenes which were sometimes scripturally demonstrative, in order to give a less frontal as well as a “closer to reality” impression of the character’s inner experience. For a long time I had to accept to work (or even grope) on a material that seemed very far from what I was trying to achieve, and my perfectionism sometimes took a hit. It was only in the last few months that the film approached its final form.
David Lynch famously said, “As soon as you finish a film, people want you to talking about it. And the film is the talking.” As an experimental filmmaker, does it bother you when people ask you to explain your work, or do you enjoy discussing it with them?
I don’t mind talking about my film, but I prefer to talk about aesthetic stances than the subject of the film. In fact, when I listen to or read interviews with directors, I am more interested in what they say about their staging than, for example, the motivations of their character. For me the subject is not an end in itself, but a starting point, even a pretext.
Once the film has been made, the spectator appropriates the subject from his own experience, and interprets it according to it. The spectator being a human being who does not have the same experiences as me, there is every chance that his conclusions diverge from my intentions, and that does not bother me. Talking with viewers about the subject of the film will then be a presentation of our different experiences or opinions, which may be interesting but ultimately has little to do with cinema.
Following on from that, there are several reviews of Saturation which differ in terms of what the critic thought it was about. Do you ever worry that your avant-garde style could mean your intentions are misunderstood by audiences?
On the contrary. As I said earlier, it seems natural to me that a film gives rise to different interpretations. On a very narrative film such as a thriller it would of course be annoying if the viewer did not understand the story. But here I have no objective intentions, let alone a message to convey to the spectator.
The only risk is that a spectator will say to me, “I have understood nothing, felt nothing, even worse: it’s as if I had seen nothing.” This is quite possible, by the way, because as there are no easily recognisable aesthetic or narrative codes, certain spectators do not find their mark and do not manage to enter the film.
What was it that drove you to make an immersive short film recreating how it feels to have insomnia?
When I started the film, I hadn’t decided to speak specifically about insomnia. I had ideas of staging, and I wanted to work again on the sound material of the “interior voices” resulting from the dialogue that each of us maintains more or less unconsciously with themselves (I had already developed the use of these voices on my first film Echos in 2008).
I have never suffered from real insomnia, but I had noticed that the moment when one falls asleep can give rise to a real anarchic “let go” of this internal dialogue, and this is what I was interested in staging. When building the scene during the editing, it effectively became an insomnia scene, which radiates over the rest of the film. But it was not planned at the start.
On the other hand, I intended to speak about an aspect of my personality, which is a self-centered procrastination tendency. My approach was to sublimate this quirk of my personality by creating an aesthetic experience.
One of the film’s greatest successes is that viewers will feel the distress insomnia causes, when they watch it. That is not an entirely pleasant experience though – were you concerned that replicating these feelings of anxiety and insomnia might make it hard to find an audience, or get screened at festivals?
I don’t think that any subject would be an obstacle for the public, even a scary one. The big successes of cinema are often horror films. On the other hand, the public is currently unaccustomed to the aesthetic approach I take, because they have easier access to “message” films. This implies that a film must be narrative, in order to reflect on a specific subject, and not distract the viewer too much from this subject by “aesthetic devices”; with an exception for films clearly stated in a cinematic genre (action, horror, etc.), for which the public is used to an aesthetic approach in a framework that remains narrative, which is not my case here.
My film would fit more in the psychological genre, but while it is trying to portray (and make people feel) an aspect of human nature, it does not offer a thesis, message, or specific narrative subject. However, it is not abstract, which distances it from purely experimental festivals. It is this crossover between aesthetic experimentation and the “serious” subject treated with an absence of an explicit narrative framework that could make the film potentially difficult to access for audiences and festivals.
Do you have any advice for first-time filmmakers looking to make avant-garde or experimental films?
I think that both in the desired result and in the shooting structure, we should not try to imitate productions that have a bigger budget. You have to do with what you have without waiting for better conditions, by reinventing a way of working compatible with your means. However, we must remain demanding, even intransigent on the quality of the final result. One shouldn’t hesitate to start something over if the first result isn’t good enough.
Finally, do you know what your next project will be, and how it will be different from Saturation?
I am currently finishing a 15-minute genre short film (a horror film), entitled Mr Spoon, co-directed with Hadrien D. Fayel, written by him on an idea that was not ours. We chose a “genre” subject, which allowed us to pursue the aesthetic research that we are passionate about, while remaining within the framework of a more narrative scenario… but the result will probably still be considered by many to be very experimental!