I went to visit Vera Belmont in Montreal, where she’s cutting her film Milena or L’Amante. Since 1965, Vera Belmont has produced an extraordinary number of films, well over 20, including Maurice Pialat’s first. I was curious—how had she started?—Vera was shocked when I asked if she’d gone to college or University. For her parents, who had come to Paris from Poland just before the war, money for education was an unspeakable sum. She explained quite simply that she’d gone regularly to the Cinematech, become acquainted with Francois Truffaut and other members of the New Wave. Truffaut had asked whether she preferred to produce or direct. Knowing nothing about either, she said produce, thinking it promised some kind of job security. He promptly gave her her first opportunity. She laughs as she discusses her misconceptions about producing and talks about the mistakes—like running out of money on Quest for Fire, because they hadn’t realized that elephants eat so much. Rouge Baiser, her second directorial feature, won the Silver Bear in Berlin.
Kirsten Bates How did you make the transition from producing to directing?
Véra Belmont This is a strange story. Do you remember the change of government in Portugal? I was producing a documentary for television about the change, it was 1974. We went to Portugal, and the director never arrived. He fell in love, he goes with a girl and we never see him. I’m staying in Portugal with five or six crew people for the documentary. I say, “OK, we go, we do it.” That was the first time I directed. It won best documentary in Cannes. It’s called Les Oeillets Rouges d’Avril (The Red Carnations in April).
A few years later I read Prisoner of Mao, Jean Pasqualini’s story by Chelminski. I wanted to shoot it because I wanted people to know what happened in China. At this time in France, they didn’t want to know, because the French bourgeoisie loved Mao Tse Tung very much. So I left, with five or six people, and we went to start the shooting in Taiwan. For actors, I took the people from the street. I liked the faces.
KB Did you have a script?
VB I wrote the adaptation. It was difficult for me, I’d never seen a Chinese concentration camp. Jean Pasqualini’s father was Corsican, in the military in Peking, where he met Jean’s mother, a Chinese woman. Jean looked totally Chinese. His father sent him to an American school, and spoke with him in French. When Mao seized power, Jean was working in the American Embassy as an interpreter; he read the newspapers in Chinese and French. One day in 1955, the police arrived at Jean’s house. He’d had a feeling that something was about to happen, because his position at the American Embassy made things risky. The police took him to jail and he was sentenced 12 years. In the middle of his sentence, General de Gaulle recognized the People’s Republic of China. France was the first occidental country to recognize the Chinese, and Mao said, “OK, I’ll give you a few French prisoners as a present.” And Jean Pasqualini was in the present!
KB So how did he come to France, Pasqualini?
VB It was in 1964. The Red Guard took him to the border of Hong Kong and gave him to the French Consulate. The French Consul looked at him, said, “What is your name?” He said, “Pasqualini.” The Consul called in the French Ambassador. He said, “I can’t understand what’s happening. We have a guy in my office, his name is Italian, he looks totally Chinese, he comes in with the Red Guard, and says he’s French. What am I supposed to do with him?” They sent him by boat to Marseilles.
KB Which aspects of his story did you concentrate on?
VB The story is mainly in the concentration camp: the ordinary daily life in the jail, what happens between them, with the political education, with the group criticism and autocriticism. The reason I feel it’s true is because when I was young in the Communist Youth Party, it was exactly the same; it’s incredible.
KB You said it reminded you of when you were young, like Rouge Baiser.
VB China is very far away from France, but it’s the same problem. In Paris, it was a comedy; in China, the same became a tragedy. In Paris, it wasn’t dangerous because France is a democracy.
KB Your film Rouge Baiser is really your story, isn’t it? You wrote it.
VB Yes. Oh, not exactly. When I met the journalist in the demonstration against Ridgeway, the American General, I was with him one and a half weeks. [In Rouge Baiser the girl stays out overnight.] My father and mother were going crazy, because the demonstration was so strong, they wondered what had happened. My father was looking for me all over Paris, in the hospitals.
KB How old were you?
VB I was 16.
KB And you met this guy at a demonstration, you were beat up and you stayed with him for a week and a half?
VB Oh, I fell in love and I forgot everything! It’s normal when you are very young.
KB Still, to disappear from home for ten days at 16, that’s a pretty big deal. Even now.
VB Even now! Yes, one week and a half. And I lied! (laughter) When I came back home, I invented stories. The journalist left to go to Vietnam, and never came back. He died, in the tragedy of Dien Bien Phu, before the Americans were there.
KB Rouge Baiser, the girl’s story, has a lot to do with your own adolescence, what it was like to grow up with Marxist parents. Tell me a little more about that.
VB My father and mother were not stupid people, but they needed to believe that after the war things were going to change. The Communists said they were going to abolish anti-semitism, and a lot of Jews believed that. It was the same mentality as religion. What’s obvious to you, is never obvious to them. They had an argument for everything, an answer right away. Marxism, somewhere at its base, has a logic because it’s based in reality, the economic market philosophy. Marx was really brilliant, but Marxism is impossible on a practical level. He wrote in the last century, the techniques for everything change so fast.
KB You said you like stories of women. It’s really the girl’s story.
VB In this period, the ’50s, in France, I wasn’t alone. A lot of girls were similar; perhaps not exactly like that, but not so far away. The young girls were looking for a new life, idealistic, another way. I remember saying to my mother, “I never want to have children, because you look like a slob with children.” It was another time.
I wanted to tell how, in this period, young girls wanted to make the revolution in their head, in love. She was open to everything, everything was worth it, because after the tragedy in Europe, the war, of course, we needed life and we philosophized. I love this period. I remember. Now the young generation, they’re lost.
KB You must have learned a lot about directing when you were producing.
VB When I produce, I work closely with the director, because I am interested in everything. Day after day while you write, you tear it up and you start again, and you tear it up and start again and it’s coming. It depends, but I’m sure when you look for a story with character, with possibility, with conflict, it’s never finished. When you arrive with the script on the set you change it again, in editing you change it also; all the time it’s moving because the character is stronger than you.
KB What do you see as the difference between directing and producing?
VB Directing is more subtle. Directing is engagement, it’s personal. It’s more of yourself. When you see a film, you can analyze the director. You know if they’re emphatic, energetic, sensitive or not, empty or full. Everything. To direct you are naked, absolutely.
KB Rouge Baiser is your story, it’s putting it all out.
VB Yes, this is double naked, because I tried to remember the love story, the relationships between the family.
KB I think it works because the story is so gripping. As the director, you believed it, and one really feels that watching the film.
VB The same with this film, Milena. [Vera’s current film, in post-production in Montreal] Because Milena is me. Oh, she’s more beautiful, but she has the same way about her. She looks for the revolution, she looks for everything. She falls in love (laughter), we don’t know why. But she was unhappy in love, because her dream is so big, it’s not possible to practice what she thinks.
KB What are some of the elements of this project?
VB In this film, I have Stacy Keach, Valérie Kaprisky, Nick Mancuso, and Peter Gallagher. The director of photography is Dietrich Lohmann. I am very happy with him. He never, never doesn’t care. He’s always concerned with your problem, with what’s happening. He’s not an extroverted man, he’s very Prussian, but very honest.
KB How did you end up working with him?
VB For the German co-production I needed a German director of photography. I met him at a Bavarian studio, and sent him the script which he liked very much. I saw the pictures of Fassbinder, of course.
KB How did you come across the story?
VB I read about Milena Jesenská in Le Monde, because a woman, Margaret Buber-Neumann, published a book called Milena. The article described the character and I said, I’m sure if I met her we’d be good friends. She had met Milena in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. She fell in love with her because Milena was fun. In the book, she describes the roll call, and how Milena couldn’t stay in line. She couldn’t take the discipline. Milena wasn’t so intellectual; she was involved in life immediately and thought afterwards.
KB Is she still alive?
VB She died in Ravensbruck. That’s where they sent all the Communists. Margaret Buber-Neumann and Milena Jesenská had a lot of solidarity between them. Everyone else excluded them, particularly Beuber Norman, because they thought she was a spy, and Milena Jesenská because she was a big journalist from Prague. Everybody knew her articles against the Communists.
KB Why then did they put Milena in the camp?
VB Because she helped the Jews. Her first man, played by Peter Gallagher, was a Jew; her second, Kafka, the writer, was also a Jew, and when the Nazis came, she wrote against them. She was incredible, never afraid.
KB What’s the story of the film?
VB Just Milena’s story. The story starts when she’s 21, it finishes when she’s 38. It starts when her father, played by Stacy Keach, wants her to become a doctor, and she refuses. She wants to write. And she leaves, goes to marry the first Jewish man. Her father hated Jewish people. He was a big bourgeoisie from Prague, a big doctor from generations of doctors. Milena’s father loved her, perhaps the only woman he loved in his life.
KB Why did she leave the first man?
VB The first man, was running around with a lot of women and he no longer cared about his life. He’d become dispirited. He was very clever, a music critic. That is where the Mahler comes in—where Milena is in the concert. I chose the first symphony of Mahler, because it is typically Judaic. She leaves him, because she can never accept, can never understand his infidelity.
With Kafka, it was another story. Kafka was impotent, he couldn’t make love. He went to the bordellos, but just to look. Milena was the first translator of Kafka. Kafka wrote in German, he never wrote in Czech. She fell in love with Metamorphosis.
After Buber-Neumann’s book, I read the book by Milena’s daughter, the little girl in my film. The book is called My Mother. Very small, 60 or 70 pages, but in the 70 pages you can feel Milena fall into drugs, feel the little girl’s anger.
KB Was that after or during her relationship with Kafka?
VB After Kafka. After Kafka, she married a Communist and he left to go to Moscow. He chose Moscow and she stayed alone. She tried to work with the Communists but couldn’t stay with them, because they had no sense of humor; they couldn’t understand her. Following that, the other newspapers closed the door to her and wouldn’t give her writing work. She got heavily involved in drugs until one day she saw the people beat an old Jewish man. The next day she went to see her father and said she wanted to go to the clinic, “It’s finished with the drugs, it’s finished for me. I cannot stay like this because the world is becoming crazy.”
KB What about the scene in the railway station where her father waits with a photograph of her?
VB No, that never happened to Milena. After the war, I was very young, I’ll never forget, when the people were returning on the trains, my mother showing the pictures of the family, and the people pushing, it was a big mess. The trains were coming from Ravensbruck, from Germany, from Poland. She had photographs of her sister, her father, the family, she hoped maybe somebody would be coming back. But six million, you take one chance, but really a small chance. Every day, for months at the station. Very boring for me, as a child.
I can’t know everything about Milena, but I can feel. I like her for her reactions to life. When I’m missing information, I put in my own. When my son saw a part of the picture, he said, you’ve made again Rouge Baiser. I know that, I talk about what I know, it’s more easy.
KB There’s a big difference between having an idea, a story, really loving your characters, and then being able to translate that to film. How did you learn that?
VB It takes a long time for that. Do you know this story about Matisse? One day, a student asked Matisse how he did his painting. Matisse says, “Oh, it’s only 20 years practice. It looks easy, but for me it’s not easy.”
KB When you set out to find your own way, your Rouge Baiser, what were you looking for?
VB I look to change the world. I look for big love. I look for money, I look for everything. I didn’t have anything to lose. It was easy, because I had nothing. The worst case is that you get nothing. I told Truffaut, “I come in naked, the worst case is I leave naked.”
—Kirsten Bates is currently associate producing a film called An Evening in Paris to be shot in Paris in May and June, with John Byrum as director.