on filming women
interview by ANNA DUBOSC and JULIEN BOIVENT
photography by RAPHELE GODIN
We first learned about Jean-Claude Brisseau from his powerful early films. He reached a much larger audience with Noce Blanche, which introduced the young singer Vanessa Paradis to the cinema. Brisseau constructs his secret, lucid cinema with a core group of faithful acolytes who follow his special style of filmmaking, which is starkly separate from commercial cinema.
He is admired for the radiant, delicate, primal beauty of his films, their poetic brilliance, their awkward, naked power, and their evocation of the purity and lost grace of silent film. He is, in fact, an innocent, which is a rare trait that, for him, has become a cause for contempt. Typical of filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, Herzog, and Monteiro, who occasionally appear in their own films, his distinctive diction is unforgettable.
He’s hated for portraying the physical lovemaking of women, peering so close to the normally impenetrable circle of orgasm. For that, he’s become the Bluebeard of film, treated as a violent misogynist. With his great, lumbering body and innate fragility, he channels Rodin’s Balzac and a kind of haunting beast.
Brisseau has been exiled to his own devices, or perhaps he chose it himself. He is scorned by mainstream French cinema, whose directors sleep with the actresses they hire and are reassured by the press and public of their glory and status.
Yet his latest film won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Festival. In it, Brisseau films himself in his apartment sanctuary as if he were alone in the world. He invents a phantom girl, incestuous in spirit, like Victor Hugo’s Léopoldine. His Fille de Nulle Part (Girl from Nowhere) reminds us of all the others in his films. The eroticism has faded like a curse he’s warded off, but in a subtle if heartrending lover’s bond. And still lingering is an obsession with transmission that traverses all his films, here culminating when he faces death and the way he shows its approach.
He’s like the great classical Hollywood filmmakers who’ve disappeared from the screen: Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Michael Cimino, mysteries as dark as their decline.
ANNA DUBOSC — How did you come to cinema?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Like all children, I loved films. After I finished high school I wanted to go to something like the Fémis film school, but it wasn’t possible because you had to pay to go there and we were poor. My mother cleaned houses for a living. And as I needed to earn mine, I went to the École Normale and became a French teacher. I had more or less given up the idea of making films. Then in 1975, Super 8 sound cameras came out, and I made two films during my vacation with my future wife Lisa, who was 19 years old. We did it for fun — I didn’t believe anything would become of them, but they were shown at a festival. And Eric Rohmer liked them. He had a production company and asked me to make a film, which he ended up not producing, but which got me two commissions anyway.
ANNA DUBOSC — Was one of them La Vie Comme Ça (Life the Way It Is)?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Yes. It took me three years to finish it, because it was about delinquency, and no one wanted to talk about that at the time — it was taboo.
JULIEN BOIVENT — You shot your last film, La Fille de Nulle Part (The Girl from Nowhere), for almost no money in your own apartment. What was it like shooting a film all by yourself at home?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — It didn’t make much of a difference. I came to cinema thanks to my amateur Super 8 film in which I also did everything. The only thing that bothered me about having to act in my own film was that normally I pay careful attention to the acting. Even if it’s slightly different, I watch it carefully. I couldn’t watch myself, which made the ordeal that much harder.
JULIEN BOIVENT — How would you define the realism of your films?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — It’s more a psychological realism. The magazine Cahiers du Cinéma wrote that Choses Secrètes (Secret Things) was a Marxist film, implying a certain form of materialism and realism in the characters’ relationships. Well, of course, they’re the relationships I’ve had all my life. That said, there is no theory of film for mine. So many theories and trends go by, and what is left of these theories 10 years later? Nothing. I throw myself into each film, saying simply, “What emotion do you want to come out in the way these people think and act?”
JULIEN BOIVENT — And yet the theory of the Nouvelle Vague has never been invalidated. It’s still with us.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Maybe, but the origins of the Nouvelle Vague are gone. What made the Nouvelle Vague was the sexual freedom of the early ’60s. In À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), there is that scene where Jean Seberg and Belmondo are screwing under the sheets, with the radio tuned to Europe1. It was forbidden to show that stuff before then.
ANNA DUBOSC — Showing people making love?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Showing a couple making love in the morning, listening to the radio. In En Cas de Malheur (Love Is My Profession) by Claude Autant-Lara, shot around the same time, it wasn’t until maybe 10 years ago, when they showed it on television, that they reinstated the scene where Brigitte Bardot lifts her skirt to show her panties. What interested me in the Nouvelle Vague, as in Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player), is that they didn’t care about what was in the left and right corners of the screen. For example, in the long opening scene where the man is running, then walking in near-darkness; the only lights are the street lamps. We can’t see anything, but we don’t care; the thing that counts is the emotion. Unfortunately, it didn’t have that effect on the general public. But deliberately choosing meaning and emotion for the audience, as Pierre Kast has said in his review in Cahiers “put us in a state of grace.” Sadly, this kind of filmmaking has disappeared.
JULIEN BOIVENT — We recognize a filmmaker’s style by the light in their films, the air, which we feel irrespective of the locations or the director of photography. It’s evident in your films, too. How do you explain that?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — For all my films, I prepare a great deal in advance, because I shoot quickly. At the beginning of my career, sometimes I would do 30 or 35 setups in one day. I’m not talking about takes, but individual shot sequences. In Un Jeu Brutal (A Brutal Game), there’s a sequence shot around a bridge, which ends with a murder. We shot more than 35 setups in seven hours. All the delicate things are prepared in advance, especially the erotic sequences.
ANNA DUBOSC — How did you light your apartment in your most recent film?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — With almost nothing. The film was shot with a little amateur video camera. I said to the DP, “When you photograph someone, specifically a woman, the first thing you do is look at her. You see where she looks good and where she doesn’t.” It was complicated with this actress, because not many angles would work for her. I began the shots with the lighting focused on her. For me it didn’t matter, nobody else cared either. But she needed to be beautiful.
JULIEN BOIVENT — For you, what defines the photogenic quality of an actress?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — That she is able to touch people or another woman.
ANNA DUBOSC — What’s special in your films is your way of filming women on their own, in sexual scenes or in the initiation of moments of pleasure, where men are excluded. A certain light makes the women seem extremely sensual. Their arousal, their pleasure is so convincing, which is both rare and dangerous in film.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Mademoiselle, that is exactly what I look for. I make films that will touch women. Women are better than men at seeing a certain number of things, as long as the women are for real, doing what they don’t dare to do. My idea was to eliminate all the vulgar stuff. If my actresses are performing erotic or sexual things, I magnify them. I remember, when I had problems with the law, a fat policeman said to me, “You were making them drink beforehand,” which was completely idiotic. People don’t realize how difficult these kinds of scenes are to film. They’re tightly choreographed, laid out like a ballet. They require the most tension and concentration from the actresses, so the last thing I’d ever do is let them drink. In a shot that will run a minute and a half, at the beginning the girl is totally cold, but a minute later, as the camera passes, we need to feel that she’s had a real orgasm. In sequences involving three people, shot in sequence, a shot from Les Anges Exterminateurs (Exterminating Angels), I spent nine hours rehearsing, in three sessions of three hours.
JULIEN BOIVENT — In Choses Secrètes (Secret Things), there is the sequence in which Sabrine Seyvecou learns to masturbate while being directed by Coralie Revel, who is watching her.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — I had to loop Coralie Revel’s voice in later, using Rohmer’s technique. He could do it because he had, contrary to popular opinion, a lot of money. The mixer spent several days looking for the sound frequency at which the voices of the girls would be the most pleasant.
ANNA DUBOSC — What did you expect from these scenes?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — In general, I look for authenticity, the impression of it and the feeling of it. For that, I have to use certain tools, like the lighting or the acting. If an actor is playing a character that commits suicide, he doesn’t have to feel the need to kill himself. But we need to find that feeling, that moment. In my latest film, as I am not an actor, I decided to speak, move, and look the way I normally do.
ANNA DUBOSC — What is great in your latest film is that there is only Virginie Legeay and you. The two of you create a world, as if you were the last witnesses to humanity. There is something fragile and vulnerable. This awkwardness moves us in a way, as you said when you were talking about the Nouvelle Vague.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — I am definitely pushing the envelope. In Céline, I was scolded for being excessive, because I filmed four healings in 10 minutes.
ANNA DUBOSC — Also in La Vie Comme Ça (Life the Way It Is), where people in the projects keep killing each other and committing suicide.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — La Vie Comme Ça corresponds to what certain people went through in certain suburbs in the late ’70s, shown with a tragi-comic take, sometimes nearly crossing the line of good taste. I deal with real problems, with reality, but my films are unrealistic. In any case, in cinema you can’t be realistic for one simple reason: you’re forced to shorten, to simplify. My problem is to simplify correctly. This is why I’ve never wanted to work on things I have not experienced and with which I am not extremely familiar.
JULIEN BOIVENT — The epiphanic presence of women marks many of your films. Women seem to pass through like visitations, semi-presences; whereas men seem heavy, weighted to the place.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — You’re right. For example, at the end of Céline, Lisa turns around and sees Isabelle Pasco standing in the doorway. I wanted the audience to wonder if it was really Isabelle or an apparition. It’s something that obsesses me. In my films there’s always a fantasy of abandonment, in both senses of the word — losing something and letting go.
JULIEN BOIVENT — In Céline, a girl with supernatural powers appears from the beginning of the picture as an epiphanic presence. She ends up going into the spiritual world, the place where she should go. It also happens in Noce Blanche: Vanessa Paradis is a ghostly presence — and at the end she returns to a place somewhere out there in the sun.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — I would explain it differently, but it’s not far from your idea. The teacher, Cremer, feels like he’s living in a gilded cage, dreaming of something. By chance he meets his double, Vanessa Paradis, who terrifies him. He rejects a certain number of things, realizing in the end that he’s completely missed what he was looking for. I filmed Vanessa not as an apparition, but with a certain mystery. At the end of the film, when Cremer is alone on the beach, maybe it means she has gone where he had hoped to go. I worked with the lighting to create the impression that the characters were shut away inside, with a much more pleasant light coming from the outside. I wanted to re-establish a sense of freedom linked to the detachment that the character was seeking.
JULIEN BOIVENT — Your films remind me of Carl Dreyer’s films in the way he would go into a closed, flat space, then open it out to reveal the invisible dimensions of a world that exists beyond merely superficial appearances.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Film and art in general exist to reveal that which we do not see — what is there, but we don’t see. I think there is another world next to us, which we are not able to see but is nonetheless there.
ANNA DUBOSC — In your films, women seem to be aware of that world, sensually, whereas men want to know what women seem to know without their actually knowing it.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — In terms of mystical events, except for, say, Saint Teresa of Avila, it’s generally men who are featured.
JULIEN BOIVENT — You seem to be obsessed with the idea that women’s sexual pleasure is associated with grace. Is that so?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — I’ve often filmed women having orgasms, which is more complicated for them to achieve than for men because of the attachment, the suffering of a woman connected to a man, a child, or even a career. We’re happy for a time, then we suffer when what we are attached to disappears. Women’s sensuality is not at all self-evident. Some women have never even experienced a clitoral orgasm. These problems are symbolic of orgasm and attachment, and are visually and emotionally one of the most powerful elements in women. In À l’Aventure (The Adventure), they said that the raptures of Teresa of Avila had something to do with her psychiatric problems. It’s possible, but I don’t think she needed either a man or a finger to experience an orgasm or metaphorically go to heaven.
ANNA DUBOSC — What bothers me about the way you film female orgasm is that it’s still a mystery. Women hold the keys to the mystery, but it is never revealed. It’s very Proustian. You film the unattainable in women.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — What you say pleases me no end, because it is exactly what I wanted to do. With the corollary: how is it that I am so hated? I’ve been told, in France, that since I am a man, I do not have the right to talk about such things. When I was young, people felt free to think and say what they wanted, at least in the artistic domain. Is that no longer the case?
JULIEN BOIVENT — After Noce Blanche, which was an enormous commercial success, you could have had a studio career, or like Rohmer, who you knew well, gone into an intermediate system, creating a parallel economy in film, in which they are financed by their own success and investors get their money back. But you chose to stay out there on the fringe. Was that something you wanted or was it forced upon you?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — It was both. I discovered that a tiny group of “deciders” like having people at their feet, literally. They especially like it when people make great moral declarations, and then are forced to crawl on their knees in front of them. In order to get ahead you have to bend over, and I categorically refused. People thought I would bow and scrape like everyone else. They were mistaken. The bourgeois do that, but not the working class.
JULIEN BOIVENT — Something’s always bothered me: the character played by Bruno Cremer in Un Jeu Brutal (A Brutal Game). In this, your second film, you introduce a paranoid character whose reasoning extends to the absurd. Is he a projection of yourself?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — No, I have never made a film in which I appear in that way. People believe that film is a mirror of projections. In Noce Blanche I understand that I could be associated with the character, a high school teacher, but it isn’t me. Noce Blanche was a commission. I was asked to make a film that would not cost a lot of money about an impossible love. And since I spent 20 years teaching in the French educational system before I became a filmmaker. I wrote it and was inspired by events I had witnessed. At the time, when these things were not entirely forbidden, a 19-year-old girl having an affair with a professor was not shocking. I couldn’t use a 13- or 14-year-old girl either, because then the teacher would be a pedophile. So I decided to make my protagonist a high school student. I worked with stories I’d been told by colleagues. That’s the only thing of mine in which I used: my experience as a teacher. However, as a screenwriter writing fiction, the first thing I do is to attempt to identify with all the characters, specifically those I do not like. This is the advice I give to my screenwriting students: try to write from the point of view of those you don’t like. That helps to change your own point of view — to question it. When you’re a writer, you must do this, otherwise you make Manichean films. I refuse to make that kind of film.
ANNA DUBOSC — In your most recent film, the character you play is writing a book on human illusions. Along with that, a quest for truth, there are, as in many of your films, elements of fantasy treated as if they are reality.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — What I showed in the film, I actually experienced. When I was 14, I escaped death when 12 or 13 other kids were killed — because of a premonition. I personally experienced the nine parapsychological phenomena that take place in Céline. I was doing a lecture on Céline, and I saw four women giggling in the back of the room. They were 65-year-old nuns. A guy started making fun of me, asking if I wasn’t pushing it a little with the levitation. And one of the nuns got up, saying, “Sir, one of my Sisters used to levitate regularly. Not as high as in Brisseau’s film, but she levitated. It went away as she grew older, like acne.”
ANNA DUBOSC — What is great in your films is that the fantasy elements are never explained, they just happen. We buy into this parallel world in the film with no problem.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — In my films, I never give answers. I leave a giant gray area. How can I be sure of anything? I’ve made tables spin. I’ve received some troubling messages, for which I have no explanations, and I have no interest in discovering them either.
ANNA DUBOSC — As said in Un Jeu Brutal: “You must remain a virgin when you are facing salvation.”
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Yes. I intuitively sense something else. I want to create the feeling of another universe, but I do not explain things because I cannot. I also refuse to make political films, which is why I have refused to join certain organizations, because I would have been accused of giving ready-made answers to things I don’t know. Nothing is for sure.
JULIEN BOIVENT — In your films, we can feel, as we sometimes do in the films of François Truffaut, a beauty in the language, something linked to poetry and literature, something you could have written in a book.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — When I write, it is to make a film. In current cinema, we film screenplays written in a strictly linear fashion. Most people don’t know how to film space, or how to depict space from a dramatic point of view.
JULIEN BOIVENT — What are you going to do now? Do you still want to make films?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — This most recent one has allowed me to find other ways to make films aside from the usual ones. They don’t want me making these little films any more. They want me to shoot bigger films, thrillers.
JULIEN BOIVENT — In your latest film, when you had to act out your own death, what did that feel like?
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — I was sure I was going to look ridiculous. It was the editing that brought the emotion.
JULIEN BOIVENT — We felt you were being very personal showing that feeling of closeness or calmness when approaching death.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — In which of my films do people not die? There aren’t very many.
JULIEN BOIVENT — Yes, but in the recent one you make that famous gesture, the one your characters make when they’ve gone to the other side.
JEAN-CLAUDE BRISSEAU — Perhaps to say, au revoir, ’til we meet again.
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