interview by ANNA DUBOSC
portrait by NICOLAS HIDIROGLOU
The extraordinary-looking 28-year-old Parisian actress Isild le Besco’s shy, almost cherubic face and fine blonde hair are a remarkable contrast to the unbridled violence of the films she directs. She began acting at 13, and in 2003 she directed her first feature, Demi-Tarif, which was acclaimed by both Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard. She published her first novel, Sang d’encre, in 2007. An icon of independence — as an actress, filmmaker, writer, and painter — Isild has steered clear of the celebrity path, engaging herself in her own artistic projects. Her provocative third feature film, Bas-fonds, was released at the end of 2010.
ANNA DUBOSC — Tell me about your childhood.
ISILD LE BESCO — I was born in Paris. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood. From the fifth grade on I attended L’Ecole des enfants du spectacle [a children’s performing arts school]. I first studied painting, then dance. When I was 13 I got a part in Emmanuelle Berçot’s Les Vacances. They contacted my mother’s production company, thinking it was a children’s casting agency. It was the beginning of a long collaboration with Emmanuelle Berçot. After high school I studied art and graphic design at the École Estienne.
ANNA DUBOSC — Your mother, Catherine Belkhodja, is an actress. Did she encourage you to go into film?
ISILD LE BESCO — She encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do. I didn’t like school, but my mother didn’t want me to completely bail out of my studies, even though I was already earning a living as an actress, so she guided me toward a more artistic direction. She didn’t want me to quit school and end up on the street, which was her nightmare scenario. We made a deal. I had to prove myself, show her that I could get work, and she gave me a deadline to do it. I dropped out of school in the 11th grade in order to write the script for my first film, Demi-tarif.
ANNA DUBOSC — Since Les Vacances, you’ve acted in more than 30 films. You wrote a novel and you paint. You’ve directed three features — the latest, Bas-fonds, was released on December 22. How do you define yourself?
ISILD LE BESCO — I define myself as an actress, because it’s the area in which I have the most experience, and it’s how I earn my living. I’ve been acting for 15 years and now I can play any kind of role. I’m much less sure of myself as a director because I’m just beginning. Each of my films is a new and very delicate step.
ANNA DUBOSC — You’ve already made three feature films.
ISILD LE BESCO — Yes, but I shot the first two without paying attention to technique. It was only on Bas-fonds that, with my associate Nicolas Hidiroglou, I really worked on the technique, the image, the framing, and so on.
ANNA DUBOSC — Do you ever make concessions? Have you taken roles just for the money?
ISILD LE BESCO — No, I’ve always chosen roles that interested me. In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure about certain choices I’ve made. But I’ve always loved acting, and I love film shoots. Last year I spent six weeks in Iceland and New York working on The Good Heart by Dagur Kari and it was great.
ANNA DUBOSC — Do you have any inhibitions about acting?
ISILD LE BESCO — Each of us puts his or her sense of modesty and inhibitions in different areas. I hide myself inside the characters I play.
ANNA DUBOSC — How do you relate to your own image?
ISILD LE BESCO — I don’t worry about it enough, unfortunately. I should be more rigorous. I sign autographs freely and allow myself to be photographed in the morning when I’ve just gotten out of bed, buying bread at the bakery. An hour later it’s all on the Internet. I don’t like that, at all.
ANNA DUBOSC — How does it feel to see yourself on-screen?
ISILD LE BESCO — That depends whether I like the film or not. There were only a couple of times when I couldn’t stand myself. Otherwise I neither admire nor detest myself. That’s not something I care about. I care about acting, not watching myself do it.
ANNA DUBOSC — Are you always working on a project, always inspired to do something?
ISILD LE BESCO — I don’t believe in inspiration. I think we’re vehicles, that things come through us. I always feel things moving through me, pushing me. I have no problem doing things. I’m not blocked in any way.
ANNA DUBOSC — Has working with good directors helped a lot?
ISILD LE BESCO — Well, I watch how they film, how they work. But, as I said, I don’t have a technique. My first two films were held together by the actors. As an actress, I build films using voices and dialogue as raw material. But I wouldn’t say that my films are inspired by the work of a particular director.
ANNA DUBOSC — Do you go to the cinema a lot?
ISILD LE BESCO — Now that I’m a mother I go less often. I used to be able to watch four or five films at a time. Now I can’t wait to show Bergman, Mizoguchi, and Pialat films to my son. And Walt Disney, of course.
ANNA DUBOSC — You’ve said that you’re wary of culture and of highly cultivated people.
ISILD LE BESCO — I said stuff like that when I was younger. It’s something you say at a certain age. I no longer say it and no longer think it. What I do think is that both culture and critical thinking are useless if they stay only in the mind — you also need instinct to make movies. Filming is using art to remember the void.
ANNA DUBOSC — Flannery O’Connor once said that to write a novel is to express oneself through action and character, but that it’s not really about the action and the characters. I think your work perfectly illustrates this. Your characters come to life in their way of speaking, their cries, their blood, and their tears.
ISILD LE BESCO — I write my films as an actress. I put myself inside the skin of my characters, and learn their language. I read a column in the newspaper about the crime which was the inspiration for my latest film, Bas-fonds. I hadn’t yet decided on the entire script, but the idea for the dialogue was already there in my head.
ANNA DUBOSC — You say you don’t have any heroes, but in the preface to your novel, Sang d’encre, you mentioned that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye inspired your writing.
ISILD LE BESCO — I wrote Sang d’encre when I was 16, after reading The Catcher in the Rye, and asking myself, “You’re actually allowed to write like that?” It opened so many doors for me. Among my group of friends there was a person who was really in distress. I understood this person’s despair and confusion, but somehow I couldn’t say anything or express my feelings about it in the group. Writing was my way of being supportive, and of telling this person that I shared their sadness and felt love.
ANNA DUBOSC — Do you make films to say things like that — that you support or love a person?
ISILD LE BESCO — Sure. With Bas-fonds I wanted to invent a language for people who are isolated from the world and to give them a voice. Which is what I did with the character in Charly and with Benjamin in Sang d’encre.
ANNA DUBOSC — There is a similarity between those characters. Their language is chaotic, brutal, and almost spit out, as they talk about a spiteful, childish world.
ISILD LE BESCO — Yes, my characters are depressed, damaged. Some people are born on the right side of the tracks, in a good family. Others aren’t so lucky. I put myself on the less fortunate side, with the ones who have nothing going for them, who are penniless, unloved, ugly, poor, uneducated — who are murderers, even, like those in Bas-fonds.
ANNA DUBOSC — Where did you get the idea for Bas-fonds?
ISILD LE BESCO — From a police report. Three women living together, outside of society, killed a baker with a shotgun. One of the women said it was an expedition against happy people. I felt really sad for these women. I imagined a sort of ménage à trois of two sisters and the lover of the oldest sister, the life they led, their friends, and their way of speaking.
ANNA DUBOSC — In spite of the abject nature of these characters — living in filth, excrement, and menstrual blood, and constantly yelling at each other — we feel empathy for them. It’s as if you took away their savagery and gave them humanity.
ISILD LE BESCO — I’m not morbidly obsessed with these women. But I do feel empathy for them. People who are broken from the start, who never know love, culture, tenderness, or even luck, move me. Their souls are already broken before they’re born. Their hearts are, too. No one chooses to be ugly, stupid, or uncultivated. In Bas-fonds, I wanted to film these women like meat, as they are, to show what it’s like when you’re nothing but a body.
ANNA DUBOSC — Are you saying that lack of love can make people inhumane?
ISILD LE BESCO — Yes. The lack of love makes people brutish. The screams of these women, up until they murder the baker, are like calls for the world to see them, to hear them. These women are invisible. They don’t have a place in society. One of them works as a cleaning lady for a big company. To the world she’s invisible. During a scene in which she’s scrubbing toilets, another lady is redoing her makeup, not even remotely concerned about her, not even seeing her.
ANNA DUBOSC — Their plan was to rob the bakery, and have a good time doing it, but they kill the baker by accident. In the period preceding their arrests, the women seem to sink deeply into themselves.
ISILD LE BESCO — Yes. They’re not necessarily afraid, but they’re definitely shaken up. The sound of the shot was louder than their cries. The sound shut them up. But they keep on bellowing, as if to avoid their silence, their solitude, the solitude that enshrouded them after they murdered the baker.
ANNA DUBOSC — It’s quite striking when Magalie, the principal character in Bas-fonds, a fat, dirty, revolting girl, enters prison. She fights with a guard and is placed in an isolation cell. You filmed her screaming and weeping — without sound. What we seem to hear is her silence, the silence of her solitude, her confinement, which is more deafening than the screams. It’s a gut-wrenching scene. She’s like a hunted animal. We can’t help but feel sorry for her, be with her, and feel that we’re all her.
ISILD LE BESCO — Each character is alone, but they share a common solitude. At the end of Bas-fonds, Magalie’s lover says she will always love her. Off screen we hear her say, “I don’t care if I see her or not. When she gets out of prison, of course I’ll be there. I ain’t talking to anybody — all of this is in my head.” She loves Magalie, but she doesn’t need to see her or be with her to love her. She’s free to love. This feeling is always with her, satisfying her. As for Magalie, she turns to her faith, saying that God does not judge, that He could save her, as He saves many others. When the screaming stops we finally hear their voices — voices of love, of faith. This also happens in Charly — another film I directed — in which the main character is a young prostitute, and a complete maniac. The screaming of the girls in Bas-fonds hides what’s going on inside them. The sharp edges of Charly’s character are a cover, keeping her from feeling anything. She protects herself. And when her defenses fall, there is love there, a kind of tenderness.
ANNA DUBOSC — Love in your films seems asexual and brotherly, like the unconditional love of the children in your first feature, Demi-tarif. Is this autobiographical, and a statement about such love?
ISILD LE BESCO — Demi-tarif is the story of three young siblings who are abandoned by their parents but manage to hang on because they remain together. I wanted to make a film without a conscience — one just about life. In theory it could have been an animal picture. Personally, I never had to spend a year without my father or my mother.
ANNA DUBOSC — Abandonment and the alliance of the less fortunate are subjects of all your films, whether they’re about children, adolescents, or young women at odds with society and the adult world. Adulthood is the world of sex. Is that why your characters are always outside that world?
ISILD LE BESCO — Maybe. In Bas-fonds, the three girls pass their time bitching, yelling, and sniffing at each other, but it isn’t sexual. We don’t actually know if they sleep together. One of the girls meets a guy in a bar. They see each other again and the guy is interested in her. So they go for a walk one day, and when they come back she automatically offers him a blowjob. This is how she refuses his love. In Charly a young prostitute takes a runaway adolescent under her wing. Their relationship is rather childlike and fraternal, until she climbs on top of him and practically rapes him. Sex destroys their bond, and sends each character back to his and her solitude.
ANNA DUBOSC — Compared to pornography or the marketing of sex, by playing into the game of prostitution, the game of men and of the system, the women in these films remain impenetrable, in a sense.
ISILD LE BESCO — It’s more that they get to decide when they give it up or not. It could be for money or simply to do it, but never because they desire it.
ANNA DUBOSC — Tell me about the filming of Bas-fonds.
ISILD LE BESCO — It was short and very intense. The three actresses were all beginners and it was quite difficult for them. Their characters were so violent. Having to generate that kind of energy throughout the shoot was grueling for them, especially since they had not been previously informed about having to do it.
ANNA DUBOSC — How did you find the three women?
ISILD LE BESCO — It was quite complicated. It was hard to find actresses who could play these three young women, women who had such a specific relationship to the world and to each other. We auditioned 500 actresses. In casting sessions you run into many of the same kind of actresses: attractive women who want to be in films. They don’t have much darkness in their lives. So it was a long process. Besides that, the three women had to work well together, as sisters and as lovers. And each of them, in her madness, had to be unique, in the sense that each woman deals with things differently, and we needed to be able to read that on their faces.
ANNA DUBOSC — What’s it like when you’re shooting a film?
ISILD LE BESCO — When I’m acting it’s mostly about discipline, sleeping and eating right, being in shape, and being as rested as possible. You have to be able to deal with whatever comes down the pike. Each day is new little war.
ANNA DUBOSC — Many of your characters are on the brink of madness, or at least of autism. Does this relate to the madness of the world?
ISILD LE BESCO — Like many people, my characters are close to madness, but they cling to the real world. It’s the little details that save them: their work, their schedules, and their obsessive-compulsive disorder trips.
ANNA DUBOSC — Your characters remain pure, in spite of their violence and brutality. They’re innocent, in the sense they don’t know how to deal with their feelings. It makes me think of those lines at the beginning of Sang d’encre: “I am sad. I am upset by the feelings of the world.”
ISILD LE BESCO— It’s true. My characters are upset by such feelings, by having a face they feel doesn’t suit them, by having to clean toilets eight hours a day. They’re angry at a world that doesn’t want them. At the same time, they’re resigned to this world. They’re like the character of Benjamin in Sang d’encre, who says, “In my head I’m convinced that happiness does not exist and that I was singled out to be unhappy. You might think that’s sad, but it isn’t. It’s a question of habit. A deaf person is born that way, and he doesn’t mind it.” It’s terrible that some people don’t know how to do anything right, and that they’re always unhappy.
ANNA DUBOSC — Can’t they put themselves back together?
ISILD LE BESCO — I don’t think so. When you’ve grown up with nothing, you can’t get out of it. You spend your life just surviving, often without experiencing joy, peace, serenity, or tenderness for anyone else — especially for yourself.
ANNA DUBOSC — Do you feel making films carries a moral responsibility?
ISILD LE BESCO — I don’t ask myself that question, but of course it exists. All gestures or decisions imply that a position is being taken, whether you like it or not.
ANNA DUBOSC — You shot Demi-tarif with the support and participation of your brothers and sisters. They’re also involved in your current projects. Nicolas Hidiroglou, your associate, is also the father of your son. Do you consider your life and work to be a single activity?
ISILD LE BESCO — Work always weaves its way into one’s life, especially when it requires creativity and personal commitment. Nicolas wanted the best for me and for my films. So he helped me during pre-production and with the decision to shoot in 35mm. Then he helped me with the images by choosing the director of photography. The assistant cameraman was my brother, Jowan Le Besco, who worked on my other films. During the casting we chose the three principal actresses together. At one point we thought of seeking out well-known actresses, because they would have helped us with the financing. But fortunately, we did it with unknowns, which is quite rare these days. During the shoot we hadn’t planned on Nicolas being present on set all the time, but he changed his schedule for me and came on, because there were just too many things to deal with, and I couldn’t do it all by myself. When I began to lose my way in the editing room he stepped in and basically re-invented the entire picture. He became the de facto producer of the film. But it is difficult to work with someone you live with, because when you’re tired and you want to shut the door on the work for the evening, you may be forced to open it again if the other person hasn’t shut it yet.
ANNA DUBOSC — Why did you set up your own production company?
ISILD LE BESCO — I had no choice. I was 17 years old when I decided to make my first film, Demi-Tarif. No producer was going to let a kid direct a film.
ANNA DUBOSC — How do you manage to work and take care of your 18-month-old son?
ISILD LE BESCO — We’re always together. I took him with me on the set of Au fond des bois when he was only three months old. It was a very pleasant shoot in southeastern France, and we were often near forests. I was still breast-feeding. Even though my role was very physical and very demanding, I stayed focused. I could go from my son to filming a scene with no problem. When I’m acting, I’m like a machine. I’m able to work in any context or situation.
ANNA DUBOSC — You said that now you’re a mother, you’d like to make more cheerful films. Is that true?
ISILD LE BESCO — Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t do Bas-fonds today. I wouldn’t make Charly or Demi-tarif, either. They related to specific moments in my life. Each film is a formulation of things we want to say, or that we experience at the moment we do them. Each film comes out of a particular state of mind.
ANNA DUBOSC — So you don’t have regrets about making these films?
ISILD LE BESCO — No, I never have regrets. I never go back on anything I have done. Otherwise it would never end. What interests me is what I’m doing right now and what I’m going to do. It’s something I entrust to time, instead of to myself. I believe that to be an artist is to trust in the passage of time.
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