The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Lina Mannheimer talks about her relationship to French popular icon Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who is the subject of Mannheimer’s upcoming documentary, The Ceremony.
At the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) last year, I saw an exquisitely shot 13-minute film that takes place at a beautiful old chateau in the French countryside. It was entitled The Contract and was directed by a young Swedish filmmaker named Lina Mannheimer. The film depicts the relationship between an old woman and her much younger mistress. In 2005, Beverly Charpentier declared an oath of allegiance to Catherine Robbe-Grillet, thereby giving up her freedom for the rest of her life. Beverly is Catherine’s property—materially, mentally and physically. Although Beverly has never been attracted to women, she tells us that Catherine is her idealized, unattainable love. In part, the two women express their love for one another in choreographed, ritualized ceremonies directed by Robbe-Grillet. After seeing this short film, the images never quite left my consciousness.
This past November at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, a documentary project called The Ceremonywas presented at the Forum. The Ceremony is the feature film Mannheimer has been creating on the life and work of Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet has been part of France’s intellectual élite for most of her life. She was married to famous writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died in 2008. For over fifty years, the two had an open relationship. Throughout their married life, simultaneously, she played the role of the perfect muse and wife, while publishing several works under both a male and a female pseudonym, Jean and Jeanne de Berg. Her first novel, “The Image,” was first published in 1956, shocking the citizenry of Paris so profoundly that it was publicly burned. Her work is often of a highly erotic nature, mostly inspired by her own life. For decades, she has organized sadomasochistic ceremonies and her book, “Cérémonies de femmes” focuses entirely on this aspect of her life. As curious as I was to know more about the protagonists I met in Mannheimer’s short film, I found myself even more curious to know who Mannheimer was and how she came to make this film. Recently, I had a chance to talk with her about her fascinating relationship with Robbe-Grillet, and the project they embarked upon together three years ago.
Pamela Cohn Please talk a bit about the genesis of your relationship with Catherine Robbe-Grillet, your introduction to her. Where does the short film about Catherine and Beverly’s arrangement in The Contract fit into the trajectory of the feature project?
Lina Mannheimer I originally started this project with the idea of doing a feature-length documentary on Catherine Robbe-Grillet. However, Swedish National Television and the Swedish Film Institute were holding a competition looking to finance short films based around the theme, The Woman in My Life. And that was just too perfect in terms of my project not to pursue a submission. Basically, I chopped off part of the feature project and submitted this piece based around the story of Catherine’s relationship with Beverly, wanting to tell it from Beverly’s point of view. That became The Contract. It’s a very interesting relationship and Beverly is a big part of Catherine’s life, but it wasn’t my focus from the very beginning.
PC Was it challenging to establish a relationship with Catherine? She’s been in the public eye for a very long time and I’m assuming that she’s had at least a handful of filmmakers approach her about doing a story. Were you intimidated at all?
LM Yeah, absolutely. But, as in so many other things in life, it was my own idea of her before actually meeting her that was intimidating. I saw her on television in 2007. While I recognized her name, I didn’t know who she was, really. There was a studio program on and they were discussing taboos surrounding female pleasure. Thematically, they treated this very widely since the guest that preceded Catherine was a girl who had been molested as a child, which had, obviously, nothing to do with female pleasure. It was a heavy interview with this young girl. Then Catherine came on, this tiny elegant lady. And probably because of what she was wearing, which was basically the same outfit she wears in The Contract, I thought she was a representative from the church. (laughter) But then she started talking in a soft voice, describing a scene where a dominatrix is whipping a half-naked black man chained by the riverside, the scene lit up by the riverboats that pass by. I thought I had misunderstood something. (laughter) It had a great impact on me. I was just in awe. She’s a very efficient mirror on preconceived ideas. She incorporates all these contradictions—she’s such an elegant person, eloquent, strong and proud, has a strong voice. Female sexuality is so provocative to people, as it is, and she’s not only female, she’s old. And she talks about things that are very shocking to most people regarding certain kinds of sexual expression. Encountering this person made it clear to me that I had so many preconceived ideas. I hadn’t realized what they were, specifically, but I couldn’t fit her persona and what she was saying together and I thought that said a lot about me. Also on this television show, she spoke about this contract that she had with a younger woman who had given Catherine the right to decide everything in that woman’s life. French is not my first language and when I turned the television off, I was under the impression that I had misunderstood everything I had heard. I was caught up in other things that year. I went to business school in Stockholm and I worked in production in New York. Then I pursued a master’s degree thinking that I wanted to become a producer. It took me another two years before I sat down to write up this idea to do a film on Catherine. When I sat down to write about it, it became very clear that I wanted to direct it myself. A couple of weeks later, I met Catherine for the first time. I wrote her a letter and sent it to her publisher. I went to Paris but still didn’t hear anything from her. I’m not sure how my letter eventually got through to her, but one day, from an anonymous email address, I received a telephone number—that was it.
PC How mysterious.
LM It was very mysterious. I got her answering machine and left her a message saying that I was in Paris and two days later, she called me. Two days after that, we met in person. Once I made contact, things happened very quickly.
PC Did she mention to you what it was about your letter that persuaded her to respond?
LM I think she was intrigued by the fact that I wasn’t French, that I had seen her on television. She was impressed by the way my letter was written. But most of all, I think she was just curious since she’s a naturally curious person and that’s why she agreed to see me. Neither she nor I had a clue that almost three years later, we would be on this journey where we’re making this significant project. It wasn’t like we met for the first time, and I asked her if I could do a film on her, and she said yes. She told me after that first meeting that she was willing to see me again, and that the idea of me making a film on her might be okay. I’m asking her to give me access to her life and to be able to interpret what I will out of that in a cinematic piece. We’ve spent a lot of time together, she and I, and have had many conversations. The more time we spend together, the more we trust one another, and the more access I get. It’s like building a brick wall—you put one brick on top of another and that’s what we’re doing and have been doing for the last three years. You asked me if I was intimidated. Yes, I was. At the time we met, she was 80, fifty years older than I. She’s been reading books for fifty more years than I have; she’s been meeting and seeing people for fifty more years than I have. She’s been looking at art and listening to music for fifty more years than I have. She’s been part of this cultural élite for more than 50 years. Conversely, this is my first film; therefore, it’s not like I had an extensive CV to show her containing all the things I’ve done, or to show her what I might be capable of doing since I haven’t directed a film before. I knew that I had to convince her to go with me, of all people, sort of blindly since I couldn’t show her anything. I was very nervous, of course I was. I knew I needed to get her attention. But I have to say, that if I had been in her position, I would have bombarded someone who came along like I did with questions. I would want to ask what, exactly, did they want to do and why, and who are you? But she was very relaxed. Of course, she asked me questions, but she can talk about herself quite eloquently, so it wasn’t really a problem.
PC She also appears to be someone who respects risk-taking in others very much, and when she saw you taking this big risk of making a film, I think you probably earned her respect fairly quickly. In your CPH:FORUM intro to the project, you mention something that’s so key to our existence now, but that no one is really addressing in any extensively thoughtful way. “The intimacy of the act of permanent exposure,” is the phrase you use. Catherine exposes herself in a very intimate and deep way and has done so most of her adult life. Going back to this idea of female pleasure and sexuality, she is a true revolutionary in so many ways.
LM In terms of what I see today, we are indulging in exposure we do not really manage at all. The way in which we expose ourselves is kind of this perpetual, hysterical kind of exposure. We watch people having sex on Big Brother or encounter people who become big stars for fifteen minutes, as they “share” the most shocking and intimate details of their lives. The people exposing themselves are not running the show. It’s the show that’s running them. I don’t think Catherine is the only one, but it is very rare to find somebody who is so aware of all this, and plays that game—to perfection. And that’s so much a part of her portraiture. I think the process would be similar in trying to do a portrait of any other artist, or politician, or someone who is used to being in control of what they communicate. There’s an acute awareness that is completely contrary to someone who is, say, eighteen years old and allows a camera to record her plastic surgery to be broadcast in front of a whole nation. I also think it’s very important to remember that you can’t compare the contract that Catherine and I have as filmmaker and subject to the one she has as a dominatrix with a subordinate. They’re two completely different things.
PC There is always negotiation in every relationship we have; the more intimate the relationship, the more complex the negotiations. Watching The Contract, this negotiation between you and Catherine is palpable. It’s there in the style in which you shoot, and the way in which you engage, and then step back and observe. The film has elegance, a word you use to describe Catherine, and it’s beautiful to look at. It’s very cinematic with its own distinct choreography, worlds apart from the type of reality-TV based portraits of the people we’ve been speaking about. But it seems to me what you’re doing is so much riskier and more difficult to pull off while still being able to maintain your personal intentions for this portrait. Do you find this to be true?
LM It’s accurate to say that I am very much the central person that is realizing this project. I developed it as both the director and the producer. I had producers in Paris and producers in Stockholm, the people that helped me make The Contract. But, I’ve continued to work on my own in developing the feature film and now have a new producer that is partnering with me. All of this is to say that I don’t have a big team of people around me. Even when we shoot, the team is very small. Someone who is incredibly important to me is my Director of Photography, Fredrik Wenzel. When we shot the section titled “The Five Senses,” the ceremonial parts of the piece, there were only a handful of us but all the rest of the footage shot around, and inside, the chateau was done by only Fredrik and me.
PC You’re presenting The Ceremony as a piece that “ranges from fiction, to art, to documentary.” Can you talk a bit about the creative process as you work on discovering how your film will ultimately take shape?
LM At the beginning of this year, I started to film Catherine whenever we were together. We’ve spent a lot of time together; we’ve traveled together. We are very different—generationally speaking, obviously—and, in many other ways. There is much respect between us and the quality of our conversations is profound. I feel that whatever this film should be, I wanted to be able to film those conversations. This is when I decided that my main base would be Paris for a while so I could be more flexible in terms of being able to spend time with her and start to film a bit by myself. It was becoming tedious and expensive to always have to organize a crew and engage a group of people every single time I wanted to shoot. I invested in a small camera, a Panasonic HPX 171. So the footage will be a mixture of what I shoot on that, and, say, the ceremonial parts, as we did in The Contract using something like a Red or an Alexa shot by Fredrik. Right now, I’m in a period where I’m spending a lot of time alone again. During this time, I’m mostly writing and reading and spending a lot of time with Catherine, but not filming much. It’s a bit too early to talk about how this film is going to form since I’m still very much engaged in the process of making it. I have quite a strong feeling of what it should be and what I want it to be and that’s been falling into place. I’m in a good creative flow right now but it’s still too early to say. There are so many factors that need to come together, everything from money, production issues, filing applications to present the project at forums, etc.
PC Are you surprised at all about Catherine’s continued commitment to you?
LM I think it’s a good thing that I just naively felt that it would work fairly smoothly. Projects like these have this kind of addictive craziness of their own, otherwise you just don’t have the energy to go and go and go, and fight for it for so long. There are many film subjects I would be attracted to and be able to do, but this kind of project needs to have a dimension where it all clicks pretty tightly, where you just know: This is it. I knew when I started to write that this was right. There hasn’t been a lot of self-doubt about what I’m pursuing since I have so much confidence in the fact that this is exactly what I should be doing. I’m certainly not saying that it has been uncomplicated. At times, it’s been very complicated. I’m taking myself into the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. I spend a lot of time with them, their families and friends. They’re allowing me to tell their story, which is a huge deal. In the case of Catherine, she is, in a sense, the least complicated person I’m shooting—she doesn’t have children, she has chosen to live this way and chosen to expose herself to a certain extent to the public; she was married to a very famous person. She’s used to this. To me, she’s made her life into art and takes that responsibility seriously. But along with her come a lot of other people, and most of them have not chosen to live this way. Catherine and I have a very direct and trusting relationship. For me, she’s easy to deal with. She’s very rational and quite a good communicator. I feel like I can get closer to her because she is not very emotional or irrational, and this is comfortable to be around.
PC It’s rare to see female sexuality explored in any substantive way that doesn’t, somehow, end up demeaning women. Yet, here is a woman who has ritualized sexual relations to the extent that she has made her sexuality into something that can be expressed in subtle and provocative ways, the antithesis of pornography. The “work of art” that is her life is so nuanced in this way. A lot of us aspire, in some way, to incorporate the disparate elements of ourselves and present something fabulous and interesting to the world. It’s not an easy thing to do. But hopefully, you are discovering, and will allow other people to discover through your film, how that might be possible.
LM Somebody touches you and you don’t know why. It’s a very emotional and instinctive push. What is it that makes one embark on this kind of exploration? It took me two years to get around to contacting her and she was still very present. It’s not that I was thinking about her all the time, not at all. But by 2009, she was still very much on my mind and since embarking on making this, it’s been my job to understand what it is she touches inside of me, as well as getting to understand what she is all about, what drives her, her mechanisms, her strengths and weaknesses. Who is she? And who am I, the person looking at her? That evolves all the time. This circles back to our conversation earlier about this management of one’s own image and who manages that, you or someone else? Interestingly, Catherine has refused to become a part of Facebook. She feels like the Internet is a realm that she cannot manage.
PC She’s correct about that. To think we are in charge of our own “profile management” is, at best, naïve. It’s all a commodified, but very explicit relationship. You use our interface and then we get to use your personal information as fodder to sell you stuff. As willing participants in this, in some strange way, we are both validated and marginalized in equal measure. I can definitely see why she would not be interested in participating since there is this aspect of uncontrollable exposure.
LM Catherine’s father became very ill when she was a young girl attending boarding school run by nuns. It was kind of a fancy school for well-off people. When her father became ill, the family couldn’t pay the tuition, but the nuns still kept her and her sisters at the school. She was humiliated several times for being poor among rich people. She talks about this beautifully. She says that she decided, then and there, that she never wanted to be in that situation again. She’s made sure that would never happen. I asked her if the type of wound left inside someone who experiences this kind of profound humiliation can be resolved or healed by rearranging things on the surface? She told me that yes, it is possible, or at least it will carry you a long way towards addressing that wound. But, obviously, it’s not just on the surface. However, we don’t really know where the limit is, and for me, moving around the personal landscapes that surround that limit is very interesting. The intersections between the landscape of possibility and that of limitation are fascinating. How that manifests itself in the context of the image a person projects is also fascinating. All of this stuff may just go on in our heads, but it doesn’t make it any less “real.” Is it something that’s really physically happening? Probably not, for it is more of an internal exploration of our personal power. This story of her girlhood humiliation uncovered one of those moments of intense discovery for me in figuring out what makes Catherine who she is. She is telling me that someone can definitely decide who he or she wants to be. She means that anyone can do it. This tells me that this pursuit is a very conscious one and not really an innate ability, necessarily. She was, and still is, quite conscious in her efforts to create this image of who she wants to be, how she wants to be perceived. And through that creative process, she has become that person.
*To read more about The Contract, click here
To read more about The Ceremony, go here*
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.