Lisandro Alonso by Nicholas Elliott

Where the horse opera meets a fairy tale.

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Viilbjork Agger Malling & Viggo Mortensen in Jauja, directed by Lisandro Alonso, 2015. Images courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Nothing looks or feels quite like Jauja, Argentine writer-director Lisandro Alonso’s sixth feature, and a departure both from his previous work and most contemporary filmmaking. Shot in glorious, color-saturated, 35mm film and framed in the classic academy ratio, Jaujatakes a basic Western scenario—a man rides off into the desert looking for his kidnapped daughter—and follows it to a point that defies elucidation, where what felt archaic proves to be timeless and the horse opera becomes a fairy tale. By taking the role of Captain Dinesen, the 19th century Danish military engineer searching for his daughter Ingeborg in the Argentine wilderness, Viggo Mortensen has enabled one of the weirdest star vehicles in recent memory.

Alonso came to international attention in 2001 with the release of his first film La Libertad, which heralded a current of observational cinema featuring non-professionals, often living in humble circumstances and remote areas, going about their business in narratively minimal but formally rigorous films. While the viewer was always rewarded for sticking with Alonso’s leisurely shots, deliberate pace, and lack of dialogue, his imitators have been the curse of 21st century festival-goers, as will happen when an artist’s startling new contribution is mistaken for a universally applicable recipe. All the more reason to rejoice that Jauja finds the director persevering in the quest for an idiosyncratic, inimitable cinema.

I spoke to Lisandro Alonso by Skype on March 13, a week before Jauja opened in New York.

Nicholas Elliott Jauja is a mystical land referred to by some of the characters in the film. What does it represent to you as a place?

Lisandro Alonso Well, actually, it’s not even that important for me. The title just appeared like two weeks before the premiere at Cannes. But the place itself is a real city in Peru. The Spanish guys, when they arrived, named it that in order to create a legend: that place, that city, would be a place where everybody was happy, nobody was working, everybody had good food, good wine, and never even thought about feeling bad about anything. That’s how they tried to convince more Spaniards to cross the ocean.

For me, I think what I’m asking with the film is where that place should be for the main character Captain Dinesen, or for his daughter, because the film has two different timelines, two different settings. Dinesen probably feels guilty about being brought over to Latin America at that time, but, at the same time, they were looking for their own Jauja, I guess. It cost a lot of money just to cross the ocean, to appear here, and to try to create a home where it was not that easy to do. I think that raises some problems for him. And that’s one of the main questions of the film: What place is the one where we should be? Where can we find our own Jauja, in a way.

This is especially true for me, because the film itself appeared in my head after a bad incident with a friend—I don’t know if you heard about this, when a film critic was murdered in the Philippines? That’s how the film started in my mind. She was not from there and I tried to put myself in the place of her parents. They were probably thinking, “What the hell was she doing there?” But that’s the way it is. She was following the guy she loved.

NE It’s interesting to hear you ask about “the place where we should be.” From the very first frame of Jauja, I felt that the place was cinema, though I don’t know whether or not it’s a place we should be. Obviously, you have a frame that draws attention to itself, with the rounded corners, and what is now an old fashioned aspect ratio of 1:33. There’s also the boldness of the colors, all of which contributed to make it seem like I wasn’t in a real place, but in a world of cinema. Was that important to you?

LA Well, I think that’s a compliment. Thanks for saying that, man. And, it is important. It’s really important. I’m not really interested in the plot that the narrator starts telling in the film. What really interests me is an aesthetic point of view about things, images, this time and space in which to create cinema, and where those elements can take us as an audience. I think cinema is still too young to be forced to only exist in one form, in this more conventional way that everybody knows. As a viewer, I like to be surprised by a movie, so I start to start to ask different questions to which I have no answers.

I like when I find a film that has many different points of view, but comes from one theme. Someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul brings us to that place. Also, some Portuguese directors—there’re many of them. Actually, there aren’t really that many, if I have to be honest.

NE When I saw your film, I immediately thought of Raúl Ruiz and Manoel de Oliveira. It’s not as clear to me why I thought about Oliveira, but I think Ruiz came up because he loved the sea so much, and because I felt very quickly in your film that I was going to be dealing with myth and an abundance of stories that are not tied to my reality.

LA That’s good of you to say that. I’m actually not really a cinephile guy. I’ve just seen one or two films by Ruiz, but I do like Oliveira a lot. Actually, I met him during the New York Film Festival in 2001, and I think he was, I don’t know, ninety-six or something. He was already an old guy, but he was still making films. And he’s not an old guy in terms of filmmaking. He’s got new blood and new ideas. I was also really influenced by the people who surrounded me during the shooting. Viggo has his own influence and Timo Salminen, the director of photography, of course has all of these films that he created with Aki Kaurismäki. I learned a lot from both of them. Even if I’m the one who is stuck in the chair, there’s a lot of influence, which you see that I don’t have any idea about, because it didn’t come from me. It came from the sound director or the art director or the DP or the writer.

Some people in Argentina started talking about the film in terms of Borges and I don’t even read Borges that much. He is not in my mind in any conscious way when I think about making films. But the co-writer Fabián Casas likes Borges a lot. And there are probably many different ways of explaining the film that came from his reading of Borges, or from someone else.

NE One explicit reference in the film is to Isak Dinesen. Viggo Mortensen’s character Captain Dinesen is named after her and the film eventually moves to her homeland of Denmark. I was curious to ask you about that, because I don’t know her work very well.

LA Actually, I don’t either. I just have a big book by her. But Viggo knows her work. We decided to use that last name because her life can be compared with Ingeborg’s in a way. Dinesen travelled to Africa, made some coffee, wrote, and had some adventures in a place that was totally different from where she came from. I think she was also looking for Jauja. She was in Africa, trying to be a different woman. I also thought the reference to Denmark could be useful in creating a sense of distance from Ingeborg’s homeland.

NE Something that really struck me about the film was the different ways that movement is felt, beyond the obvious fact of Captain Dinesen riding off into the wild. One is that the chromatic aspect of the image changes quite drastically. In the beginning, you have these brilliant blues and greens. Then, when you get close to the cave, it’s very gray. And then, at the end, when it shifts to Denmark, there’s a more nuanced light and color scheme. Was that something that you planned out? How did you realize these three different aesthetics?

LA We got lucky with that, especially with two of the different chromatics that you mention. When Dinesen starts to approach the cave, those shooting days were very cloudy, so the lighting was very different from the beginning of the film, when we were closer to the ocean. We took advantage of that, especially when we were doing the color correction with the digital intermediate. The good thing about that is that Timo Salminen is from Finland, and I think the way he sees the colors comes from that, from where he was born. Most of the year is absolutely cloudy there. When we were doing the color correction in Mexico at Carlos Reygadas’s place, Timo started to touch the machines, to get the right color temperature for every image—he was already used to seeing everything more blue. I told him, “Timo, don’t you think we should go more warm, because Latin America is warmer?” And he told me, “No, I think it’s already as it should be.” He doesn’t like to talk too much. Then I thought, okay, maybe it’s good because this Captain Dinesen is also from Scandinavia and also has a different sensitivity to color.

But I didn’t even think about that until some people mentioned it after the screening at Cannes. Only then did I realize that the colors change so extremely. It’s not a naturalistic film in terms of color or lighting, but that’s precisely what I like about it, because it creates a kind of artificial stage for the actors and nature. From that kind of perspective, you can feel that the film is something else, that it doesn’t want to be like an ordinary period movie, where you light the scenes and the characters with candles. Also the dialogue and the acting throughout the movie are quite different from what it would be like if it were an ordinary period film. It’s more theatrical. The way they pronounce the dialogue is more artificial and I think that creates its own world for the film. It takes you to some other particular kind of reality in terms of cinema.

Maybe I’m talking bullshit, but I don’t think I am. Even if they’re saying things like “cabeza de coco,”—or “coconut heads,” which is what they call the Indians in the films—there were no Indians who were really called that. Everybody knows that it’s an artificial name, but it works, you know? Or even if they talk about this dog called Jersey, they say things that would not appear in the history books. It’s like a fairy tale. That’s how I see it. I don’t know about your interpretation.

NE That’s very close to what I see, and I’m very happy to hear you talk about theater. When I re-watched the film, I had to stream it, which emphasized the 1:33 aspect ratio and made it look like a proscenium stage, because it had the black bars on the side, and you have the deep focus and long shots. There’s an intensity in the actor’s faces, particularly Viggo Mortensen’s, that you don’t find in cinema so much anymore. So I really see that theatrical aspect.

LA I think it works like that. You just said this is a period movie, but you don’t see any of that mise en scene. You don’t see any castles, or the whole city, or the Indians. You just see a couple of guys in the middle of nowhere dressed like they’re from the old days. And that’s it. It’s more like theater, when you go and get a ticket and see people dressed like, I don’t know, Nazis, and it seems like its the Nazi time. You just believe in that.

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Esteban Bigliardi & Viilbjork Malling Agger in Jauja, directed by Lisandro Alonso, 2015. Images courtesy of Cinema Guild.

NE Another thing that’s very powerful in establishing a period in Jauja is that your film has a very deliberate and unusual pace. Your shots often start before anyone comes into them and they stay long after the characters have left the frame. That creates a markedly different pace from the contemporary urban pace. It’s also interesting insofar as it is creating the sense of space in the journey. As the Captain moves through the wild, seeing landscape before and after him establishes the idea that it existed long before him and will continue to exist after him, and that he’s traversing these vast spaces.

LA I don’t know why, but I got used to shooting that way. In every film I’ve made, I start shooting with an empty frame, and I finish with an empty frame. I think that helps a lot when I’m editing, to create this kind of strange feeling, because we are taking something natural or realistic, but then forcing more information on the viewer. You think, “Okay, the character already passed through the frame, and now the frame is empty.” You’re forcing people to concentrate on what is happening in the frame. Probably, as an audience, you start to question the cinematic reasons for why that is happening. Something is getting strange in the film.

I don’t know when we decide that in the editing, and whether it should go in every scene. I think it’s a sensitivity. Do we need more time to think about what happened? Or to see? Sometimes it’s more like a painting, even if the character is gone, if I like what I see, I’m the one who decides when to stop or keep shooting. As a filmmaker, sometimes I’m like a painter. Once you’re in front of a painting, sometimes you stay two seconds, sometimes two minutes, sometimes you just go back again and again. It’s more about an aesthetic pleasure. If I like what I see, then I forget about the character for a moment. I just keep watching.

NE What’s very interesting about this film is what you don’t show. For instance, there’s a shot where Ingeborg and her lover make love and the camera stays above him. We see his head drop out of the frame and the camera stays on the wind moving through the plants above them. Or the fact that we don’t see the Indian except for his arm reaching into the frame. Or, most powerfully for me, when the Captain turns back as he is leaving the cave and clearly sees something very striking, but we never see it. We only see it in his face. How do you make these decisions?

LA I think that if we start to show everything, the film starts to lose some magic, because it’s not the kind of film in which you need to see everything. We talked a lot about that when we were shooting the love scene. Should we show how they make love or not? I thought it wasn’t going to fit the film, to have more skin and sex. It’s not about that. If you have the feeling that something happened between them, then I think that’s enough. The other example of the Indian’s hand appearing from the side of the frame—that was spontaneous; it wasn’t in the script. But we did it was in order to let the viewer take the sequence a little less seriously. I think it works at that level, you know? It’s a scene where you see blood and a guy dying and there’s some melodramatic feeling, there’s this sense that Viggo really lost the girl. He’s not going to see her any more. At that moment another movie starts. I thought that to feel the presence of the Indians—they are so close all the time, that we can’t even see them. I thought it was surprising for that moment, and I thought it worked as … I don’t know, a choppingscene, creating something else.

NE It’s also very funny. Suddenly, in the next scene the Indian is riding away on Dinesen’s horse. It’s a horrible situation to be stranded in the wild with no horse, but it’s very comedic scene.

LA Well, yeah. It is the way it is, you know? You start thinking, “okay, this guy is done.” He’s without a horse, a rifle, even a hat. Where’s he going to go? You might even think that the film should end this way. But suddenly, the film takes a new step, and the Captain discovers this strange dog. I mean, it is strange but, at the same time, it’s not strange. It’s just a dog. It could happen. Then, the film develops little by little into another movie within the same movie. I think I was lucky to discover that possibility in the film during the edit. That was in the script, but the script was only twenty pages long, so it wasn’t necessarily shot to be like that. I think we were very lucky in what we found in the end.

NE How did you come to the idea of the final part of the film being in Denmark? It sounds like there were co-production reasons, but did you always have the desire for the film to have such a radical shift?

LA Actually, the Danish sequence at the end of the film was at the very beginning of the script. The film started like that. But when we shot that, about a year before the rest of the shoot, I just thought, “I really need to start shooting, so I’ll just go there and we’ll shoot that.” Then, when we began to do the editing, I thought it was too obvious, and that the film lost a lot of surprise, so we decided to move it to the end, and it worked better.

I really wanted to have these two different times in the film. Otherwise, I could have just finished the film once Viggo disappears into the lava-earth. But I really wanted to see her, again, alive. It creates another level of interpretation within the film. I don’t know if she’s the same girl or not, but you have the feeling that someone who is very similar to the first girl is still living.

NE I want to ask you about the actors. Aside from Viggo Mortensen, who are the people in the film, and, particularly, who is the woman in the cave?

LA Well, that’s Ghita Nørby, one of the biggest actresses in Denmark. She worked with Bergman and other such talents of Scandinavia. She made more than 150 movies. Actually, I didn’t have any knowledge of her until Viggo mentioned her and said, “Okay, if we are going to shoot, I know someone that I really want to be with in this scene.” I told him to send me the name, and that I’d Google her and try to find her. She has a lot of theater work in Denmark, but finally we got her to travel to Argentina and put her in the cave, which is not the easiest place to get to. She was absolutely great, and did exactly what we needed for the film. She’s a great, great actress. I don’t know if you can see in the scene in the cave, but she’s just sitting, and her voice brings a lot of wonderful moments into the dialogue with Viggo.

NE This was your first time working with professional actors, right?

LA Yeah. Absolutely.

NE How was that for you?

LA I think I learned without even understanding what I was doing with them. I felt very comfortable with Viggo as a person. And, even if I wasn’t that experienced working with actors, I felt comfortable. I didn’t try to be an actor’s director. I made them feel that I was there to learn. I talked to Viggo, and he was already attempting to interpret this character, he was not waiting for my point of view, I guess. Once I found the actors, or the people, the natural actors, I understood that they were the ones who I needed for that role in the film. I didn’t ask any other questions. Whatever they did in front of the camera, I thought of them as the characters. So it can’t go wrong, even if they speak Danish, which I don’t understand a word of.

Jauja opens in New York City on March 20, 2015.

Nicholas Elliott is the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma and contributing editor for film at BOMB. His short film Icarus will screen as part of the 2015 edition of New Directors New Films.

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