Diane Kurys by Bette Gordon

Filmmaker Diane Kurys, a French woman directing in English, discusses the unsexiness of onscreen sex, the possibility of loving two people at the same time, and other improbabilities.

BOMB 21 Fall 1987
021 Fall 1987
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Ingrid Scacchi in Diane Kurys’s A Man in Love.

Diane Kurys’s A Man In Love is a film within a film. A film that alternates between reality and artifice until we are no longer sure whose story we are being told. Isolated during the shooting of a film from their daily lives, actors are, in Kurys’s words, the first accomplices and also the first victims of storytelling. This fragile world, as temporary as it is intense, becomes the setting for a love which is just as intense and just as fragile.

Peter Coyote plays an American movie star, Steve Eliot, who comes to Italy to act in a film about the Italian writer, Pavese. During the shoot, the actor confuses his own identity with that of the character he inhabits and falls in love with his leading lady (played by Greta Scacchi). The reflections generated by Pavese’s life, which had its own measure of passion, and the lovers’ predicament, draw strange and endless allusions. Diane Kurys’s previous work includes Peppermint SodaCocktail Molotov, and Entre Nous, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. This interview took place in August in New York, just before A Man In Love was to open.

Bette Gordon I found it odd and then interesting that Greta Scacchi, who plays an actress in your film A Man in Love, becomes a writer at the end of the film. The transition seemed so abrupt. But it made me think about the similarities between acting and writing. When you write you become all of the characters.

Diane Kurys That is exactly what happened to me.

BG What about your background? If you are the Scacchi character, the actress turned writer, which may or may not be true—how did you make that transition?

DK I was an actress, mostly on stage in Paris with a bit of French television and cinema. I was not a happy person as an actress. I was very frustrated. Although I liked the environment surrounding it, I didn’t like actually doing it.

BG You didn’t like being under the control of a director?

DK It was that and also the fact that I couldn’t express myself. I was always very rebellious as an actress, always very against the director or any kind of authority or control. However, when I started to write, I realized that coming from acting was very helpful. A movie with dialogue is obviously something you have to act out yourself before the actors come into it. When I write a script, I’m always everybody at the same time.

BG You can be different people at the same time?

DK Yes, but it’s always me. I don’t believe in the rule which says when you write a character you have to write him as he speaks, that every character has a different way of speaking. I believe in one voice as much as one vision. So it’s me talking all of the time.

BG How do you, as an actress, direct your actors? It’s hard to answer that question, there’s not one way…

DK Exactly. It would be easier for the actors to tell you how I direct, because I don’t really know.

BG Your background is in theater. Do you tend to work through rehearsals before going on to the set?

DK For this one we had a week’s rehearsal before the shooting. It was the first time I had done that and I enjoyed it, just to make things clear. It was nice. On a day to day basis on the set I don’t rehearse or shoot that much. I try to make it very, “let’s not spoil it.” You know, we’re going to have it and then we’re going to loose it. I rehearse for the technique in general. I don’t like actors to give me everything beforehand. Having been an actress helps me to understand what it is like to be on the other side. I know how difficult it is and I know how scary it is, and how insecure you can feel, but I also know how you can play games when you’re an actor. I know the tricks.

BG How do you interact with those games?

DK I’m far away from the actors. I’m not so close to them during the shooting. I protect myself. I’m closer to the crew, the technicians.

BG Which is typical for most directors. There are very few directors who really understand actors. It’s a constant mystery to me.

DK I do respect them but I’m not overreacting with them. I’m not really friends with them on the set.

BG I would have thought the opposite, given your background.

DK: I’m surprised myself.

BG Would you ever act in a film again?

DK No.

BG You like being on this side of the camera, shaping and controlling.

DK I discovered what I like.

BG Autobiography is always an element in your work. However it’s not until the end of your films that you make clear whose story it is.

DK I don’t present A Man in Love as my story. It is true that the actress is going to write the story, eventually. So it is more or less a way of hiding myself. In other words, I’m not saying this is my story, because it is not. But it is obviously very close to me and very personal, and very much autobiographical although it is not my story.

BG Is Entre Nous more your story?

DK Entre Nous was the story of my parents, not their actual reality but similar events—how they got married and how they separated.

BG You emphasize the autobiographical, not at the beginning, but at the end of each film by adding your own voice as spoken through a character, saying, “So this is my story,”… It’s an odd twist, to deliver the first person address at the end.

DK I have no rational explanation. It’s exposing myself even more. I take a risk. I don’t know exactly what it means. Some people tell me not to do it. But it’s not finished if I don’t add my signature.

BG It doesn’t twist the whole story around, in the classic noir sense but there is a coda.

DK We call it a pirouette in France, a fermez le bouche. I don’t think I will do it again. Enough is enough.

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Diane Kurys. © 1987 by Kate Simon.

BG I had never heard of the Italian writer from the ’30s, Cesare Pavese, before seeing your film. A friend of mine who is a writer said that I had to read The Business of Living and Hard Labor.

DK Yes, absolutely.

BG I’m fascinated of course, the film makes him seem fascinating. How did you come across him? Was it just as he says in the film, “I was just looking in a book store and picked this book by chance.”

DK Maybe I read it like that, maybe yes. It has happened to me with other books. I was attracted to Pavese by his diaries. Diaries fascinate me. It’s the best of the writer, I think, because it’s intimate. It’s the closest to me. If you identify with someone else’s diary it’s a direct connection. What fascinates me most is the end, when they die. Flaubert’s letters for instance, you arrive at almost the last page and Flaubert says, “Oh, I have the flu, a little sickness.” He doesn’t know he’s going to die but you do. You want to cry because you have been traveling with him through the years, through time and then suddenly you say, “oh, no, no, no—be careful, you’re going to die!.” It’s terrible. I don’t know. You know something that the writer doesn’t—it’s a strange kind of distance, the opposite to fiction where the writer knows the end and you don’t. Plus the fact that sometimes they kill themselves. In Pavese’s case he not only ends the diary with “I’m sick tonight. I don’t know. I feel bad.” It’s like, I’m going to die. Stop. I won’t write. Period. And then he dies. I was struck by it—the fact that he couldn’t live and the fact that he had said enough. He was at the height of his glory, very famous, only 42, the biggest and most important writer of his time.

BG Why haven’t I heard of him?

DK He killed himself, which in Italy is something which is not allowed, and he was a Communist, like everybody at the time, the intellectuals, after the war, and during the war—and you know—I guess he didn’t travel well here. He was fascinated by America. He fell in love with an American actress, Constance Dowling, but she got married to another man. That is when he killed himself. I mean you can assume that she didn’t care or didn’t like him, that there was something really not working but the letters he writes her are the most beautiful ever.

BG Sensual.

DK It’s incredible. So the opportunity of talking about Pavese in the film occurred to me when I was thinking, okay, I’m going to do a love story. An incredible movie star, an American is going to come to Europe to make a film, and have a propitious meeting with someone on the set. Then I thought, well what film is he going to Italy to act in? Usually in a film within a film genre, like Truffaut’s Day for Night, you never know what the film they are filming is about. For me, it was important that the audience would know what my actor was going through. What is this part that he has to play. Using Pavese’s story, a biography, was ideal because you already have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It works on two levels. The fiction becomes a reality and the reality, the biography, becomes fiction.

BG Would you have thought of simply doing a film about Pavese without the film within a film structure?

DK No. At some point when I was watching the dailies I thought that would be such a lovely movie. It’s what I like best in my movie. But still, I don’t think it is my place to do a film about Pavese. I leave that to the Italians. Very often people say that a foreigner can see something in a country’s great artists that the country itself cannot recognize. That is possible. Maybe Kafka will be done by a French director, or an American. But I don’t know. I’m not Italian enough.

BG Day for NightBeware of the Holy Whore … the film within a film theme …

DK French Lieutenant’s Woman. There are many. It’s not unique. I mean it’s been done.

BG Do you like most of those films?

DK I do. It’s my world, it’s how I recognize things. The theater, childhood, love, those are the themes I prefer.

BG In all of these films people fall in love or become attracted to one another on a movie set. One sees the set as a place where seduction, obsession, love, can be explored. You have said that when you’re in a temporary situation such as a movie set, love is even more possible.

DK Everything is somehow made for you to feel love. The movie set itself which is closed to others is such a microcosm. If you visit a set you’re going to be a foreigner, an outsider, even if your best friend is the director.

BG It’s horrible. I hate being on other people’s sets.

DK Me too, because I don’t belong there. People become a kind of family which is gathered for the purpose of the film and it’s a very sensual family, a very passionate one. They scream a lot, when they love they really love; when they hate they really hate. The pace is fast and very special and very unique. And it doesn’t last. It’s going to be two, three months and then it’s over. You’re not going to see these people again. That’s the rule. Sometimes you get to work with the same people but it’s never going to be the same experience. The film is a unique catalyst.

BG And outside of everyday life.

DK Absolutely. Outside of your life but at the moment, your whole life. And so it’s this absolutely perfect set-up in which to fall in love. I’m not saying it happens all the time, but it happens very often. When you are an actor and you have to deal with love in your character, it’s very hard to resist. Don’t you think it’s difficult?

BG Oh absolutely.

DK Especially if the actress is beautiful.

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Ingrid Scacchi and Peter Coyote in A Man in Love.

BG If I lived with an actor who constantly had sex on the screen with somebody else I would just die. I think it’s a very hard thing. Let’s talk about seduction. There is the filmmaking experience but the film viewing experience is also very seductive, not only the characters but the image, the experience of being in a dark theater.

DK The one idea I had when I was writing the story was that I wanted the audience to feel that they wanted to live a story like that. That was one of my how do you say, drives. A key thing, I wanted people to feel, to say, “I want to be in love like that,” to have it. To think, “this is possible.” In early Hollywood movies, you do have that experience. When I was 12 years old they would kiss on the screen and I would go “ahh” like it was me. I wanted to find that again, because I haven’t found it, I haven’t gotten it in a long time. In a long, long time. Maybe it’s because I’m older and when I was a child … maybe it’s very naive.

BG And maybe movies have changed. They’ve become more graphic. Everything needs to be spelled out—there’s no mystery, especially with sex. Today movies are less romantic.

DK What was essential was that the audience be excited, share something, feel something. Not only am I bored with all those bad love scenes, but filmmakers have a duty. We make images, and people are going to imitate those images. They are going to live as they see on the screen. It’s a responsibility. So the love scenes have to be right. When I was talking at the beginning about the fact that I expose myself, this is what I give from me and I can’t lie with it. So I went to the real question which was how am I going to be honest with my vision of love and sex. How am I going to do those scenes? I wrote a list of films with love scenes that I remembered. Last TangoAn Officer and A GentlemanThe Postman Always Rings TwiceMan and a Woman … My assistant rented the cassettes and made a tape and one night this cassette was in my VCR when I got home. She had written “The Fucking Tape” on the thing. And I watched and that was the most horrible experience in my life. It was really horrible.

BG Why?

DK It’s an endless porno movie because it’s out of context. Imagine what it is. I wanted to see the angles, the light, what they do, everyone of them from Truffaut to Lalouche and there was nothing I could take. So I went, okay, forget about that. In my memory what I always like to see is the gist of the eyes and the faces more than the actual bodies. So I thought, okay, if I can just film a face and feel through the eyes or the smile what’s happening, people can share that. That’s what I tried for in the first love scene in the film.

BG Then you do see sex as a product of desire—having and not having—more than as a visualization of two people fucking on screen?

DK It’s a build-up. The first love scene happens almost an hour after the beginning. When it does happen, you see a face, the camera pulls in and then eventually a leg so you guess, oh God, they’re doing it, but that’s it.

BG I made a film about a woman who sells tickets at a pornographic movie house. There are almost no images of sex in the movie. She can hear the porn movies but she can’t see them.

DK I remember reading about that. It’s Godard’s idea of sex. It’s going to be so much more exciting if you hear it and don’t see it.

BG And the audience has to construct the image therefore your imagination is able to work with those of the characters.

DK In films that are too explicit I feel like a voyeur.

BG Right, why am I here? Can you think of other films with hot love scenes? You probably agree with me Last Tango …

DK Don’t Look Now. Remember it? With Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Venice in the hotel. It’s an intercut between the actual lovemaking and their getting dressed afterwards. It’s after, in and out, they remember and they look at each other like sheep. He puts his pants on and he looks at her in the bathroom and she puts her bra on and she just—it’s very beautifully shot—he puts his watch on and then they are making love and the watch cuts her. I tried to imitate Nicholas Roeg but I cut it, it was such a rip-off.

BG I wrote this down after seeing your film. “His obsession is an excuse to avoid passion.” He is very obsessed with her. Do you think that the more he is obsessed, the more distanced he is from his own passion?

DK I don’t know if he’s obsessed with her or the character Pavese that he plays drives him crazy and that Pavese’s the one who is obsessed. I realize now that throughout the shooting Coyote really had to be three people on the set. He was Peter Coyote playing the actor, Steve Eliot, playing a character, Pavese. So it was complicated. And sometimes you don’t know which is presented. If it’s the Pavese character coming through the actor Steve Eliot or if it’s Steve Eliot the actor raising the character of Pavese. I don’t know if it’s something that I intended—to imagine that he’s not going to be passionate.

BG Do you think he’s passionate?

DK I think he’s in love.

BG Yes.

DK And he’s passionate. But he doesn’t know if he’s passionately in love with Jane or her character Gabriela, or if he uses her as something to help him act.

BG And if that were true then at the end of the movie …

DK Not even at the end, before the end of the movie he gets caught at his own game. I’ve heard the story and I’ve witnessed the story—an actor has a part to play and he meets this girl on the set and she has a week of shooting and he’s going to use her. It’s not even something bad. It’s something almost natural. They’re going to have to play a love scene. It’s a game and they won’t hesitate. He doesn’t know if he loves her or if he loves the character. If he has to go through loving the character in order to love her, so what, it’s a motive. And then, he can fall in love.

BG Which he really did, you’re saying.

DK That’s what I’m saying. He does fall in love after he says, “I’m in love.” I’ve always felt that the fact that you say it makes it true. Before that you don’t know. But if you say it, it’s like, “Oh God. I say it so I am.”

BG Language.

DK If you say it, it’s too late to go back. His wife comes to visit him and he doesn’t really know her, he wants to leave. He wants to see Jane, he misses her and he calls her on the phone and tells her he loves her. He is being sincere, although the audience isn’t sure. When he returns to the set he’s in love. Then his wife comes to join him during the shoot and he’s wrapped.

BG And then at the end, in your mind, does he still love her?

DK When he comes back?

BG Yes.

DK And you know he’s going to leave her.

BG And then he comes to see her at her parents’ and he does leave. One imagines that that’s the end.

DK I think that’s the end. They might meet again and it’s going to be—whatever.

BG So one says why now? Is this the end of the film? I mean the film within the film, or is it the end of desire.

DK He has to go back to his life. He chooses.

BG But he doesn’t have to go back. I mean many people don’t go back to their lives.

DK I never understand why some people don’t and some people do. That’s the big question I ask myself all the time. I wonder why is it that sometimes …

BG You can leave your life.

DK And sometimes you cannot. Why do some people marry six times and have children everywhere and why do some people just stick together. I don’t understand. Is the passion not strong enough, the one that occurs in everyday life? Or is the other passion more strong. I think it’s different for everybody but I’ve never really understood the level of passion which is required …

BG To make one leave or stay.

DK In Entre Nous I dealt with something else. A friendship or a kind of love which was so strong and a desire of independence that was so strong that the women didn’t even ask themselves are we going to stay or are we going to leave. It was obvious that they had to leave.

BG This is so cliché, but the character Coyote played, I guess we all know real people like that, was weak. I don’t know if that’s fair to say but he’s someone who knows he wants to leave but he’s not going to. The only way he would ever make a change in his life is if the person he’s with left him because he had made it so impossible for her to stay. I mean she could no longer tolerate his behavior.

DK Don’t you know people like that?

BG That’s what I’m saying. I think of most of the men in your films as weak, the two men in Entre Nous as well. Maybe I think of men in general as weak.

DK Yes, we have to say that. It’s hard to admit …

BG … because we love them.

DK You deal with them.

BG In your film he says, “If you love one person only, you betray yourself.” And she says, “If you love two people, you betray them both.” Who do you agree with?

DK Well, I’m trying to convince myself that he’s right. That you can love two people at the same time.

BG Do you really think that?

DK That you can love two people at the same time, yes. I believe it—I’ve seen it.

BG And what he’s basically saying is that he does love …

DK He’s saying that he can love two people at the same time, probably not the same way, not with the same intensity. You’ve heard about those stories where people have double lives—it’s a struggle, it’s very difficult to have two women. But they do and there are more than you think, a lot of people have double lives. More men than women, obviously.

BG I want to be able to say well of course you can love two people. But then I think, if I’m in a relationship where there is another, I see it as an utter betrayal.

DK See.

BG Yes, okay, but it’s always like that. So yes, I think the issue of loving more than one person is an important one for our generation. We talk about it endlessly—is it possible?

DK Absolutely.

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Isabelle Huppert and Miou Miou in Entre Nous Peppermint Soda, courtesy Museum of Modern Art Film Still Archives.

BG Was Peter Coyote your first choice?

DK I didn’t know who I wanted. I knew Coyote from Jagged Edge and Strangers Kiss and I sawHeartbreakers one night in Paris and I thought, this is perfect. He has exactly the charisma I’m looking for. He’s very attractive without being attractive. He can be really handsome and ugly, he can be both. He’s wild, he can be very tender. He looks like an artist. I like his hands, I like his eyes, I like him. And he seems to be bright.

BG He looks a bit like Sam Shepard.

DK He’s some idealized guy of today that we like, a little bit feminine, he can be weak and fragile, vulnerable—he can cry. And he can also be strong and lovable and charming.

BG What’s the filmmaking situation in France?

DK There’s a big, big crisis in movies because the television is private now. It’s becoming really hard.

BG Hard to get the money to make films?

DK It’s going to be very hard because films don’t make money anymore in the theaters because of television. All those new programs and films on TV all of the time—seven films a day. Eric Rohmer just released a film on television before the theaters.

BG On the other hand, French television, as well as German and Italian television has always been really good about supporting the work of young people starting out. There are more options.

DK It’s going to be very difficult for a filmmaker who made one film to make a second one. You are going to be able to make very small budget films as usual but the budgets in between are going to be hard to make.

BG The films produced will have to be either very small or very large.

DK Only very large if there is a chance of selling outside of France. If you don’t have a chance of selling outside with a big budget you can forget it. That’s the big product—make it in English.

BG Is that why you made your film in English?

DK It’s not the reason, but it might happen to a lot of people.

BG Why did you?

DK My main character is a big movie star. He has to be American. It was also a challenge. Let’s see if I can deal with another language. It’s exciting. And also the commercial side of it. It’s true that if I had made the film in French it would have been a disaster. The audience in France is too small to reimburse the five or six million dollars it cost to make. You can’t make a film for more than two million in France and make a profit. Very few filmmakers are sold outside of the country. French movies used to sell. They don’t anymore.

BG There seems to be a lot of new, young directors.

DK Not enough writers though. You take this book of technicians, you find all the directors and you find script girls—but writers, you have one page. There’s nothing there.

BG Which American directors interest you?

DK I always like Woody Allen, whatever he does. I love the work of Miloš Forman and Arthur Penn.

BG Do you think you’ll make a film in Hollywood?

DK I don’t know. If I do, I’d be very scared. The problem of control—the lack of control, is very scary.

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Bette Gordon’s film, Variety (1984), marked her debut as a feature film director. She is currently preparing to direct a new film, Island of the Dead a bizarre tale of revenge set on Hart Island in New York. Her short, Greed for a german Television series, The Seven Deadly Sins will be released here this year.

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Lawrence Michael Levine by Gary M. Kramer
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The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

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Director Steven Shainberg and producer Andrew Fierberg share a successful partnership forged in projects like Secretary and their latest, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. The two sit down to compare notes.

Originally published in

BOMB 21, Fall 1987

James Rosenquist, Julian Barnes by Patrick McGrath, Diane Kurys, Richard Greenberg, and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe.

Read the issue
021 Fall 1987