As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
American-born French director applies the paradox of the Baroque worldview to the composition of his films, and most recently, to La Sapienza. Nicholas Elliott probes Green’s interest in the tension between spirit and reason.
Eugène Green was born an American in 1947 but has made his career and international reputation as a French filmmaker. Green left the US for Europe in the late sixties and eventually settled in France, where he founded the Théâtre de la Sapience, a theater company devoted to staging Baroque plays in their original form. In 1999, Green directed his first feature film, Toutes les nuits, drawing polarized, occasionally caricatural attention, both for his filmmaking—which was likened to Bresson’s for its highly enunciated French, “neutral” acting style, and formal rigor—and his vocal rejection of the country he was born in, which he refers to in French as “New Barbary.” He has since directed four features and several shorts and published four novels and a handful of book-length essays on cinema and on the Baroque. His latest feature, La Sapienza, which opened in the US at the 52nd New York Film Festival and will be released here this spring, is a culmination of his work in cinema, his long-delayed “voyage to Italy,” cut from Toutes les nuits due to budgetary restraints.
Like Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Green’s La Sapienza begins by taking stock of a flagging marriage. Alexandre, an acclaimed architect, and Aliénor, an urban sociologist, travel from Paris to the Swiss canton of Ticino to visit Stresa, the birthplace of the Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Here they develop a friendship with teenage brother and sister Goffredo and Lavinia. Alexandre continues to Rome with Goffredo to show him Borromini’s masterpiece: the Church of St. Yves at La Sapienza.
While La Sapienza expresses Green’s typically scathing vision of contemporary mores, it is also a profoundly hopeful film, which may explain why it has been enlarging the circle of Green aficionados at film festivals since its premiere at Locarno this summer. The film’s appeal lies not only in its undeniable beauty, but in the stark contrasts it reveals and occasionally revels in: lovingly filmed Baroque architecture versus a montage of grisly contemporary structures; the nearly translucent presence of the adolescent Lavinia versus the comic oafishness of an Australian tourist. La Sapienza is a film of paradoxes, a clash of cultures calling for a more luminous future.
I spoke with Eugène Green the morning La Sapienza screened at the New York Film Festival at the home of his US distributor Richard Lorber, who contributed a few questions.
— Nicholas Elliott
Nicholas Elliott I want to start by asking about your concept of time. In La Sapienza there is inspiration in the past, hope in the future, but the present seems to be dismaying.
Eugène Green The present is dismaying because there is an absence of the present. La Sapienza is a proposition to make the present real, because for me, the present is the only time that actually exists—it’s an eternal time that contains everything which has been and everything which will be. People today don’t live in the present. People are together in a social situation, but they’re not really together—everybody is on his mobile phone speaking to people who aren’t really there or else are looking at things that don’t exist, all virtual things. The digital world is a void and people live in a void. Even digital films are a void; they won’t exist in ten years. They’ll be erased.
For this film, the producers made me shoot in digital. I hope this is the last film I will shoot in digital, because what interests me in cinema is the possibility to capture the present, to film things of the material world, the spiritual energy which is captured in the material world and to make it perceivable to the spectator. Cinema should offer a specific present—that of the film—but which afterwards enters into the spectator’s present and changes it, opens it up. My films and, in a way, my novels are an attempt to make people realize that they can keep the past alive, not as a museum piece, but as something that inspires the present. The past is an energy that should help the present move toward a future. I don’t make an idealized vision of the past; I know there was a great deal of suffering and social injustice, but the art of the past was also an expression of the life of the past. We have inherited that and it can give us energy. If we live in the present with that energy, the future will contain hope.
I think that despite everything said about the progress of humanity and the necessity to follow the digital revolution, people are actually very unhappy because they have no present and they have no spiritual life. Ever since man has existed he has always had a spiritual life. The dominant way of thinking that began in the eighteenth century and which has destroyed spiritual life, has made people extremely unhappy, though they don’t realize it. They think that happiness is the possibility to buy the newest version of an iPhone or iPad or to take a plane ride to Thailand. In Thailand, they only see a beach and a discotheque, which they could find in America, but they don’t realize all that.
NE I share your misgivings, so I want to ask what gives you hope. One of the beautiful things about La Sapienza is that you have a mature character, Alexandre, who is successful, acclaimed, and knowledgeable, and yet you put the voice of wisdom in the extremely young—that, to me, is an act of hope. Are you blindly hoping or do you have an indication of hope?
EG I don’t know if it’s blind or not, but it seems to be real. I am often extremely depressed when I go into a social situation. Last night I went into a hotel chosen by the New York Film Festival and it was like a vision of horror. (laughter) You had to take an elevator to get into what they called “the reception” and there were laser lights and very loud rock music and people shouting everywhere and all sorts of vulgar things. So when I live in that, it’s without hope. But it’s different when I’m in contact with young people. There are some young artists, mainly filmmakers, but also writers or visual artists around me who are on the same wavelength as I am. It’s sort of a relationship of transmission, but like in the film, I pass them my experience and what I know—I try to help them to go in the direction that they want to go—but at the same time I receive energy from them, because when you are young you’re closer to the source of things. As Alexandre says, “The source of beauty is love and the source of knowledge is light.” Young people are naturally closer to love and light and so they give that back to me and that permits me to have hope, which I think is well-founded. It has a real basis.
Sometimes it’s a little sad when I show my films in France, at least three quarters of the audience are people from my generation, the May ’68 people. It’s like showing a film to dinosaurs. I never got along very well with my generation, but the one thing that was very positive was that they were real cinephiles. The biggest problem with art cinema today is that we’ve lost the general audience we had in the 1960s and ’70s. Whereas I just came from showing my films in São Paulo and Rio and the majority of the audience there were very young people and real cinephiles with a lot of spontaneous enthusiasm.
NE And we should expect some very good films from young people in Brazil soon.
EG Yes, that’s also a sign of hope. Brazil has a lot of talent but the problem is the production system. There is money but I don’t think it’s well shared with young filmmakers. In France there is still a lot of money for cinema, although it’s not distributed in the same way that it was even fifteen years ago. It’s done in the logic of liberal capitalism—the more money you have and the more commercial the film is, the more money you get—even state money, which is not a very good idea. But that’s the triumph of Anglo-Saxon liberalism in the whole world.
NE Earlier you mentioned “energies” in the film. In your book Présences you discuss the photography of Nadar and Atget in terms of there being something else in the picture that isn’t materially there. I think your films aim for a similar effect. How do you achieve this? What is it that you’re seeking that goes beyond two people talking in a room in front of a camera?
EG It’s the spiritual energy which I consider present in all elements of the universe—in human beings, of course, but also in plants and immaterial things, and all these energies are in symbiosis with each other. It’s something that most great filmmakers have managed to capture and make perceivable. Every element of my formal language is intended to do that. For example, the way I film things: often, people are struck by my dialogue scenes because the actor looks straight at the camera. In a conversation between two people who are face to face, a great part of the energy and the effect come from le regard—I never knew how to translate that.
NE The gaze.
EG The gaze—it’s not quite the same thing.
NE The eyes looking into one another perhaps?
EG Yes, but in French the eyes are physical—but le regard is something immaterial. In the traditional way of filming, there is an academic idea that goes back to the origins of cinema: the scene is supposed to be real, so the camera can’t be seen by the characters. It is hidden on the side. So the spectator only sees one part of the gaze; you don’t see as you naturally would when speaking face to face. When the conversation begins, I usually put the camera behind the shoulder of the person who isn’t speaking and in that case it is a more or less normal look, because the other character looks at the one he is speaking to and you see that. But once it gets more intense, I put the camera between the two characters; and so technically the actor looks at the camera, but in the unfolding of the narrative he is not looking at the camera, he is looking at the other character as he would in life. So the spectator receives the full energy of someone speaking to another person. That’s one of the most important features of my personal language.
I also simplify the frame as much as possible in order to concentrate the energy on what is most important—I tend to compose consonant frames to create an impression of harmony. I also eliminate all things that do not directly participate in the subject. A third thing is, if a character or a part of a character leaves the frame, the shot continues so the spectator feels the presence of the character’s spiritual energy, which has entered into symbiosis with the inanimate elements in the frame. If I film someone’s feet and the feet leave the frame, the frame remains, and you feel the presence of the character in his or her absence, which is an application of the theological concept of the “negative way,” which is knowledge of God through his absence.
NE Your distinctive shot/counter shots featuring characters looking directly into the camera create a rich visual language in La Sapienza, not only because the audience feels addressed, but because it underlines the drama of the emotional separation between Alexandre and Aliénor. They are literally separated by the shots. But there are also moments where the look to the audience seems to emphasize something that has been shown before. I’m thinking of the moment when Aliénor is standing in line and someone is having a loud, vulgar phone conversation. Aliénor’s look to the camera seems like it is designed to tell the audience, “This is the time that we’re living in, this is the vulgarity to which we’re subjected.” Am I reading too much into it?
EG No, it’s more or less accurate. I just want to correct the idea that the shot/counter shots are intended to separate them. They are for the spectator to feel what is taking place. In the case of Alexandre and Aliénor, at the beginning it works as you describe, because they have nothing to say to each other so the spectator feels the void between them more strongly. But later, for example, in the exchanges between Alexandre and Goffredo or Aliénor and Lavinia, it is the contrary. Since a lot is going on between them, the spectator feels it more strongly than if you saw them together in the frame. But there’s another use of the look at the camera, which is what you’re referring to. Sometimes when I want the audience to enter into the character’s interiority, I ask the actor to look at the camera. There’s no dialogue, no justification in the narration, but it’s a way of delivering his interiority directly to the spectator. That’s the case when Aliénor is in line in the bookshop and she’s horrified by the fact that all this person’s intimate business is being broadcast to everyone. She looks at the camera and the spectator can see everything.
NE You use different types of humor. There’s humor that’s nearly over the top, like the Australian that appears in Rome as the prototypical grotesque tourist, but some of your editing delivers a subtler humor. In the scenes when Alexandre and Aliénor have nothing to say to each other, something about the abruptness of the cuts showing the passage of time and the persistence of silence is both distressing and funny.
EG Yes, like when they are in the restaurant together and they have nothing to say, so they take two sips of wine without saying a word, and then the waiter appears. As soon as they take their knives and forks, it cuts abruptly and you find their hands on the empty table; so they’ve had dinner and then they withdraw their hands for the waiter to put two coffees on the table. I don’t expect the spectators to burst out laughing, slapping their thighs, but there is a sort of irony that can make you smile.
NE Your depiction of the Villa Medici in Rome, which is a government-funded French art colony, is high satire and seems to be an institutional critique of how art is funded and made.
EG Yes, that’s one of my specialties, which doesn’t make me a lot of new friends. (laughter) For example, my novels were published by Gallimard, which is the most prestigious French publishing house, but the last one they published, Les Atticistes, was a satirical novel about French intellectual life from the 1960s to today. Since then, Gallimard’s reading commission has refused all my manuscripts. I have to find another publisher. (laughter) But I won’t stop doing my satire!
With the Villa Medici, I don’t criticize the institution itself. The satire is of the general scene, because often you see people who are living a sort of snobbishness like that and they think they’re the center of the world. My film Le Pont des Arts also features a strong satire of the milieu of Baroque music and theater today. That probably didn’t make me a lot of friends. It’s a milieu I know very well and I invented nothing. The language used by the unnameable when he insults the singers, these are real expressions that I’ve heard. To me, all of that is documentary. People talk about caricatures, but they’re not caricatures. I even made them softer than the originals, like the feminist slogan in Toutes les nuits—“Cut off their balls”—that existed. I heard it, even with visual demonstrations of how to do it. (laughter)
NE Let’s turn away from the humor and get to the heart of the matter. I want to ask you about sapience which I have to admit was a term that I was unacquainted with until I saw your film. In French, it is the knowledge of someone who has wisdom, but also God and his word. Can you talk about your relationship to sapience?
EG In Latin, it was a very common word during the Middle Ages and to some extent the Renaissance. It’s not really used anymore except in Italy where it’s the name of this palace that is the historic seat of the Roman university. People either say it’s knowledge or wisdom, but it’s actually neither: it’s the knowledge which leads to wisdom. At the end of La Sapienza, Alexandre says that most of the knowledge he has is useless and that the only knowledge that is useful is the knowledge that leads to wisdom. That sort of knowledge is not what he learned all his life: it’s more what Goffredo has, which is an intuitive knowledge. Goffredo isn’t aware of it, so in order to conceptualize, Goffredo will need a kind of knowledge which Alexandre has and which he gives him.
In French, I always make a distinction between reason—which for me is a horror that, since the eighteenth century, has become a substitute for God—and intelligence, which I even call “intelligence of the heart.” It is a sort of reason because it is logical thought, but its basis is intuitive knowledge, which comes from feeling, from love in fact, which is always inspired by light and that’s what the true sapienza is. In English, the adjective “sapient” is more or less pejorative, it means someone who has a sort of pedantic knowledge, but not a real knowledge. But it’s a very important word.
NE Before you began to make films, you had a long career as a theater director. The theater company you founded in 1977 was called the Théâtre de la Sapience. Why did you choose that name?
EG It was in homage to Borromini because I was already very interested in the Church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, but also because of the meaning of that word sapienza. It’s a double meaning and it’s a double meaning in the film. The idea of making a film about it is an old one. I always wanted to make films, actually. I decided when I was sixteen. I was still in New York, and when I watched Antonioni’s Red Desert, I knew I absolutely wanted to make films, but it took a long time to get there. In the 1970s I had the idea of making a film about the life of Borromini, using his surviving architecture. But I realized that I had no desire to make a period film in costumes because somehow—even though people say it’s not forced—my films seem to be timeless. They are timeless in order to enter into the real present. I always have a relationship to the present and a desire to film things that really exist and not to film theater. If you put an actor in a Baroque-era costume, he’s going to try, but the body in a seventeenth-century outfit doesn’t function the same way as it does in jeans. The actor is going to start representing something and that would become theater and not cinema. So I have no desire to make a period film, but I see the necessity of bringing the past into the present. So I got the idea; it started when I first went to the Locarno Film Festival to show one of my shorts. It’s very difficult to get to Locarno, I don’t know if you’ve been.
NE That’s where I saw La Sapienza.
EG So you came from the Milano Malpensa Airport and passed Bissone, Borromini’s birthplace. I had always dreamed about seeing Bissone, but when I saw it for the first time, it was a horror: it’s encircled by the highway, and the dike cuts Lake Lugano into two parts. I saw that every time I returned to Locarno and, in 2007, the idea of the architect who goes looking for Borromini came to me like a flash. That’s how I got to La Sapienza, so it’s the relationship to the word and to Borromini.
NE And I don’t know much about the Baroque, and certainly not much about its theater, but it seems to me that the word baroque is used loosely and excessively nowadays. Could you more rigorously define it? And is there such a thing as Baroque cinema?
EG I’ll try to. First of all, yes, I am always horrified by the use of baroque to talk about all sorts of things. Actually, in current speech, the word is used for things that are kitsch, things that are excessive—the antithesis of the term’s actual meaning. Historically, the Baroque is a period which goes from about 1580, with some antecedents, up until, in the larger sense, 1725. The word itself entered into European language through Voltaire, who is one of my great enemies. (laughter) The word is Portuguese, actually. It was a technical term for an irregular pearl, a pearl that didn’t have a perfectly round shape, and was worth more than a normal pearl. Voltaire, who first used the term in an artistic sense, founded a French ideology that is still in existence and determines a lot of things in France. Voltaire belongs to the completely rationalist culture of the eighteenth century, but he saw the prestige of the French Baroque culture of the seventeenth century. One of his books, Le siècle de Louis XIV, is a sort of glorification of his time; but more than of the king or of the period, it is the expression of an ideology which comes down to the fact that France is different from the rest of all of Europe and the essence of French genius is rationalism. First, there is a historical part in this book; the second part is a sort of definition of proper names. He gives a dictionary of all of the artists of the seventeenth century. Those whom he likes because he is able to formally assimilate them to eighteenth century rationalist culture qualify as “French.” Those whom he rejects because they have no correspondence to this, he calls “Baroque.” So there is an ideology that was instilled in the French, suggesting that in the seventeenth century Europe was “Baroque,” but that France was detached from all that. Voltaire doesn’t give a name to it—it’s just “French.” But in the nineteenth century, the term “classical” was borrowed from German aesthetic theory and assigned to what Voltaire liked while “Baroque” continued to be used for what Voltaire didn’t like. So in French schools—even in French universities—they say that the Baroque existed in the countries of “bad taste”: in Italy, Spain, and Portugal. They say France had nothing to do with that—that French art was classical, but it’s not true at all.
For me, the seventeenth century, France included, was Baroque. And I think the essence of this period was that the Baroque man lived in a constant paradox. Up until the Renaissance in Western culture, there was no conflict between scientific exploration of the world and faith and spirituality, because people believed that the world was God’s creation. Therefore God was visible in his creation, and every element of the universe was a microcosm in which you could see a small part of the macrocosm that was God himself. But by the end of the sixteenth century, scientific work had gone so far that Western man had arrived at a model of the universe which worked, according to natural laws, like a machine—that evacuated the necessity of God, because things worked by themselves. According to modern logic, that would have meant that at the end of the Renaissance, Western man would have become atheistic, with no spiritual life. But that wasn’t the case, because during the whole Baroque period, people continued to explore, in a scientific way, the natural world, while at the same time they believed that the supreme truth and supreme reality was God. God was merely no longer visible in his creation as before, but was the Deus absconditus—that term comes from Isaiah. Pascal also talks about it; he says, God is no longer visible—but it is the hidden God of whom Isaiah speaks. For modern logic, it would be a conflict, because it’s two truths that seem to exclude each other, but during the Baroque period, man was able to live that way. I think that problem was never really resolved, and so for modern man, the Baroque paradox is a sort of solution.
For me, the art of cinema corresponds exactly to this paradox, because cinema is the only art, along with photography, that takes material reality as its raw material. In the completed film, the spectator is able to see in that raw material a spiritual energy that was hidden in the natural world, in the material world. In that way, for me, all great cinema has a relationship to the Baroque period, but not in the way people use the word. When people see a transvestite they say she’s baroque. (laughter)
Richard Lorber I’m fascinated by the role of symmetry in your formal methodology—it seems that symmetry tends to ritualize the quotidian. That seems to play into the concept of the Baroque paradox. Can you talk about how you engage the idea of symmetry to advance the narrative?
EG Well, in Baroque art there’s always a harmony. This harmony is based on the opposition—unlike in Renaissance art, where harmony is based on a consonance. For example, in a Renaissance composition, the body is in a stable symmetry, whereas in Baroque art, it’s a symmetry based on tensions—in Italian known as contrapposto. So I make that sort of baroque composition by composing the image almost in a Renaissance way, symmetrically—so, if there are two characters, they are placed symmetrically; if there is one character, he or she is in the center. The tension arises between this apparent visual symmetry and the energy from within the frame, because often there is great violence in words or gestures. In that tension I express the paradox.
NE I wanted to ask you about your appearance as the Chaldean in La Sapienza. That character’s appearance brings in the news; he creates a consciousness of things that we haven’t been aware of in the rest of the film. This is a man displaced from Mesopotamia or Iraq. Is that intentional? Is it significant that you are playing that role and if so, that it is you, as an American, playing that role?
EG I don’t identify myself as an American.
NE Well, someone who was born in America—
EG No, that aspect, not at all. It wasn’t planned for me to play the role. If it had been possible financially, we would have had a real Chaldean from the Chaldean community outside Paris. I always play a little role in my films, so I decided to play this one. I wrote the script of La Sapienza in 2007. It was prophetic because the Chaldeans weren’t being massacred then, but there was already the war. There were one million Chaldeans in Iraq, now I think there are only 400,000—the rest of them are in France or they’ve been killed. What is interesting is—it’s something that is “news” as you say, it’s very current, and at the same time, the Chaldeans were there thousands of years ago. It’s an idea of the past disappearing, like all of the past. Their language was very important, it was the language of Mesopotamia, Syria; it was the quotidian language of Jesus. The first gospel was probably written in Aramaic before it was translated into Greek. This relates to the theme of the film—someone in a dramatic situation, related to current affairs, at the same time represents a tradition that goes back to the beginning of civilization. In ancient times, the Chaldeans were great astronomers and astrologers. So this person who is in a dramatic contemporary situation, who represents a dying language and culture, brings a future to Aliénor through this great historical past. He gives her hope by predicting the future, and also by talking about how everyone needs a space, a place where they can be themselves, and thanks to that they can be open to others—whereas if they haven’t got that, they disappear and they are hostile to others because they don’t know who they are.
Nicholas Elliott is a writer and translator living in Woodside, Queens, and raised in Luxembourg. He has been the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is a film contributing editor for BOMB. He has written text for performances in Luxembourg, France, Denmark, and Germany and, most recently, for New York City Players’ TheaterCon 13 at Abrons Arts Center in New York. He has directed three short films, which have screened at various festivals. His translation (with Alison Dundy) of Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s The Falling Sky was awarded the French-American Foundation’s 2014 Non-Fiction Translation Prize.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.