Fabienne Berthaud: “I don’t think I’m an artist but an artisan”.
If someone would ask me who’s the filmmaker I consider to be the future of the French, and by extension the European poetic cinema, I’d answer flatly: Fabienne Berthaud. After the artistic success she met with her first movie Frankie, in 2005, the French actor, director, cinematographer and writer decided, in collaboration with Pascale Arnold, to transfer in cinema the adaptation of her novel Pieds nus sur les limaces as Lily Sometimes. An enterprise which vindicated her outrightly, given the fact that she won in 2010 Cannes Film Festival the Art Cinema Award, the most important prize of the section Director’s Fortnight, which is awarded by the International Committee of the Independent Filmmakers. The film was registered in the top-100 of the most prospective book adaptations for the Big Screen, while the Variety wrote that “with golden, impressionistic photography and fast montage enforces the dreamlike atmosphere of the movie”. And according to the poet of images Federico Fellini, “cinema must look like a dream”. But if we also recall the words of Pedro Calderon that “life is a dream”, in that case Lily Sometimes is a “dream’s dream!” Then, inside this multidimensional dreamlike landscape we see for the first time in picture the meeting of two bright stars of European cinema: Diane Kruger and Ludivine Sagnier, who under the instructions of Fabienne Berthaud gave an inimitable interpretation and they illuminated with their light the silver screen. In the early days of last April during the process of 12th Francophone Film Festival in Athens, we had the joy to meet the French director and discuss about her cinematic dream which finally won an extra prize of the Jury Committee presided by Theo Angelopoulos. Fabienne Berthaud made also the cinematography of her film with the collaboration of Nathalie Durand. They worked with two digital video cameras Sony PMQ EX-3, and in external shots they used natural and artificial light as well. The production’s cost came up to 2 million euros, while the great music wrote the known American composer and producer Michael Stevens, who lately has a close and harmonious collaboration with Clint Eastwood, but also with his younger son, Kyle Eastwood. The distribution of Lily Sometimes in Greek cinemas starts at 5th May by Feelgood Entertainment, and has specific interest for the professionals (directors and cinematographers) who must see it in order to have a taste of what picture can one achieve with the specific digital camera.
-When I had seen in 2004 the trailer of your first movie Frankie, I had been impressed by the fact how a Hollywood actress like Diane Kruger, who showed up that time as the beautiful Helen in Troy, played in a film that contained so much truth. Her image there was completely different in comparison with the stereotype of pretty woman in Troy.
This happened because the time I chose Diane Kruger starring in my film, she hadn’t go to Hollywood yet. In fact, Frankie is her first movie in cinema when she was still a model. So, I was the first who chose Diane, and I started to make my film with my own money. I was also the producer. The crew was just two persons. Me and my assistant. That’s all.
-This is great.
Yes, is a great story. An epical shooting (she laughs).
-Did you shoot it in film?
No. I bought a video camera and we start the shootings with Diane. But after ten days she told me that she had been chosen by the Hollywood to star in a big movie! In that case I prompted her by saying “You must go!” And I told her that I’ll be waiting her to return to Paris in order to continue the shootings. In fact, after this, the shooting of the two films took place at the same time with Diane coming in and out from one set to another. The shootings of my film namely, started before the Troy and its distribution in cinemas followed the one of American movie.
-How did you suggest to her the role? Did you know her personally?
Yes. There was someone in my family who worked in modeling and happened to be her booker. So, I met Diane since she was very young, just sixteen years old! Then I met her again and I decided to make with her this film.
-Are your films Frankie and Lily Sometimes experiential?
I hope (she laughs!)
-Does Frankie deal with an ex-model who suffers from depression, but finally revived and returned to life?
Yes. She finds a way out. I think that it is necessary and I try to speak for this subject, because all of us in our life are trying to find where the happiness stands and how we can pioneer the road of life that leads to it. Because always is posed this particular question and so I like to speak for it. The family stories are ecumenical and I think that everybody in every country can find and feel something familiar in this film. It is human. I hope.
-I have seen almost all the film of Diane Kruger and I dare say that in Lily Sometimes gave her best acting as an actress. I feel that she is very emotional character and when she plays in dramatic films her acting is brimming with sentiment. However, in this movie she was very esoteric, in no way sentimental. But also Ludivine Sagnier had been transformed into a sixteen year old girl! Did you give them specific instructions, and generally how do you work with the actors?
I think that I work with a particular way, as I don’t make any decoupage. But neither I tell them many things before the shooting. I always do the camera, and is a hand-held camera, indeed. And I work as there aren’t separate scenes in the shooting. When I start to shoot, I never say “action”. But just everybody must feel it when it starts. So, I don’t want to exist any difference between reality and fiction. Of course, the movie is fiction, but I’ don’t want to make any cut between in these two. At least I try. For me when I make a movie is something like a documentary about people.
-This is very special shooting technique, and I don’t know if there is anybody to work with it.
Yes, maybe, because I never went to a film academy. I’m just a self-educated. No one taught me the cinema.
-It looks like a ceaseless river of reality and fantasy without the intervention of any cut.
At least, this is what I try to succeed. And by this way the actor forgets the presence of the camera and can feel and act more naturally. That he isn’t pretending. This is the best for me. The more important element in a film is to make the viewer believe that what he sees is really happening. In no way I like seeing actors to play, to pretend. I just want them to believe absolutely in their role, which must not contain artificial elements.
-Do you want for your actors just to be, not playing?
-This is very interesting because it reminds me the ontological theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, where the actor must be present on the stage, not pretending a role.
Yes! I also enjoy a lot when I see actors like Gena Rowlands in the films of John Cassavetes, or the actors in Ken Loach’s movies. I like when this genuineness is printed on the film and I always try to find the truth.
-Exactly. The truth of the actors, the truth of the roles and of the reality?
-But your whole movie is a comment on the dead life we live inside the social conventions and the arid things we do out of habit. Finally, Lily is the catalyst for her sister Clara in order to change her cul-de-sac life. Is she?
Yes, of course, because Lily is very innocent, lambent and impulsive. The element I like a lot in Lily’s character is the fact that she is unable to exist in our society with the conventional way it is organized. But she isn’t lunatic as she appears. She is just very different from Clara, very spontaneous.
-She is just herself.
She is free.
-And she tells always the truth.
Yes. She tells what all we want always to tell but we fear of (she laughs).
-And this brings her a lot of troubles.
Besides she needs someone to protect her. This is also the point of the film. What we can do for the people who are not capable to exist by themselves in our society, who they don’t have family and who are so much different from us in thought and behavior.
-However, the death is also a catalyst in the movie. The death, the darkness…
But we start from the darkness and death… and we return to life.
-The darkness is a poetic form, a poetic matrix and womb. Do you aim for making a poetic cinema? I say this because there are plenty of poetic scenes in your film.
I see what you mean but I don’t make it consciously.
-Yes, but it happens, it works.
Yes, but I don’t know why I make some things. I just want to make something in this way. But I never know why. I namely can’t explain why I made it. If a film like this is poetic, is something I’m not thinking about it, or before the shooting of a film I never say that I want to make a poetic film.
-You just have an idea and say “let’s make a film”.
I know what I want, but I don’t know how…
-…to make it?
Exactly. And I don’t know if after that it is poetic or if it deserves to me somebody calls it poetic. But for me this creative process is normal (she laughs).
-That is to say you don’t start with the though “now I make poetry!”
No (she laughs)!
-However, there are some directors who believe that they are poets.
Yes. However, I don’t think I’m artist but an artisan. When people tell me that I’ am artist, I answer that I’m not sure for this. I make things, pieces of myself.
-But is the unknown the key in art? To start making something but not knowing how. You have a faint idea and you start to materialize it, and if you finally found the way, that’s your reward?
-If you want to do something and you know beforehand the way, then which is the reason to do it? Isn’t it too boring?
Exactly (she laughs)! When you work, you try to find, to discover something that it is unknown to you.
-I liked very much the existence of darkness in your film, because as Euripides says in Phinisses “Darkness gives the same to everybody, but more to the ones who dare!” And you dared!
Ok. But I don’t feel that I’m too far from these ancient gods (she smilingly points to Parthenon).
-But the modern Greece is awfully afar… Can we say that Lily is the alter ago of Clara? The other side of her soul? Her bright, real side?
I always think about it, as actually I make this question to myself. That is, if I am like Clara or like Lily. The question of where we are and what we choose in our life. And I think that these two characters are for me just one being, the ideal. They live in full harmony inside the same person.
-Two separate pieces of the human soul which when they united consist a wholeness as existence.
-At first the film is very dark but after the inner adventure of the two women, as we told, they come out again to light and life. In the final shot of the film especially, we see them lying in the field, in a place which has a heartlike shape. Did you put them there consciously?
Yes. Definitively! I made it on purpose.
-And you made this because the persons are now free to live inside this core of love, in the Land of Love. In the film there isn’t at all love in Clara’s family, but there isn’t also in society. Only Lily truly loves Clara. So, is the love the key in your movie?
What you say is truth, because for me the movie is a love story (she laughs). Ok, life is always full of darkness and light, but you must find a balance between these two elements. So, life is always like that.
-However, the modern cinema almost in totality deals with the darkness, the ugliness and the breakage of the soul.
Yes. You know, I have darkness inside me too, but I believe that it is important to find something else. If you know how to turn your regard to life, you can find the light. It depends basically on what way you see life. You must approach it with the right sentiment.
-Very nice to meet you.
Me too and I thank you very much.
-My best wishes for the future.
Me too, and a good life!
Interview by Mimis Tsakoniatis for magazine Professional Camera & Microphone, Number 36, March-April-May 2011.