Occasional Papers – An Interview with Olivier Assayas – 1997

October 2014

An Interview with Olivier Assayas — 1997

On the occasion of the Melbourne Cinematheque’s season titled The Spectacle of Society — The Films of Olivier Assayas (October 15 to October 29), Screening The Past’s Occasional Papers is republishing an interview with Olivier Assayas, which was conducted in 1997 when Assayas’ Irma Vep, starring Maggie Cheung, screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Although Irma Vep has not been included in the Melbourne Cinematheque’s season, the following interview offers candid insights into Assayas’ early career as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma, his cinematic influences, filmmaking techniques, and his preoccupations, even obsessions. Since the time of this interview Assayas has directed the feature films Fin Août, Début Septembre (1998), Les Destinées sentimentales (2000), demonlover (2002), Clean (2004), Noise (2006), Boarding Gate (2007), L’heure d’été (2008), Carlos (2010), and Aprés Mai (2012).

The interview was conducted by Raffaele Caputo, Rolando Caputo and Clare Stewart, and first appeared in Metro (nos 113/114) under the title “La femme d’Est”, a reference to Cheung’s role as an already-famous Asian actress cast to play the French legendary figure of Irma Vep, a role immortalized by Musidora in Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires (1915-16).

Raffaele Caputo was then Associate Editor of Metro. He is currently co-editor of Screening The Past (www.screeningthepast.com), Rolando Caputo continues to teach film at Latrobe University and is currently editor of Senses of Cinema (www.sensesofcinema.com), and Clare Stewart is currently Artistic Director of the BFI London Film Festival (www.bfi.org.uk/lff).

On Cahiers du cinéma

Cahiers du cinéma has an amazing legacy, so much so that one can almost always speak about a Cahierist taste in cinema. In your encounter with Cahiers, would you say you already had a Cahierist taste, or did the journal give you a taste for certain types of directors and cinemas?

I had a very special experience working with Cahiers du cinéma in that I started writing there at the best possible time. It’s really easy for me to remember because my first piece appeared in the issue of January 1980 — a new year and a new decade. It really was a moment when Cahiers, which previously had been mainly political and not really dealing with cinema, went very much into the problematic of opening up to different tastes and new ideas, and it was just beginning to listen to what younger writers had to say. Gradually, over the five years I had been writing for the magazine, the whole logistics was to reconstruct some kind of relationship with filmmaking.

Because Cahiers had not written about cinema for so long, all of a sudden they had to rethink their relationship to screenwriting, actors, to American cinema, Asian cinema and to French filmmakers. It was a period when it began again to do interviews with really important French filmmakers in order to catch up because Cahiers hadn’t been speaking with them for years and years. It was a moment when Cahiers was in a way more curious about what I liked in films rather than what I could learn from them.

I somehow got interested in the whole history and aesthetics of Cahiers anyway, but at that time the impetus for change came from Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, who were jointly the editors-in-chief. In fact, Toubiana was more on the business side, more into the technical problems of publishing the magazine, while the editorial line of the magazine was really the responsibility of Daney. This was the beginning of the 1980s, lots of things were changing and I believe the impetus was specifically because of Daney, who had a very open mind for anything that would break the kind of boring logic of the niche, closed-set thinking of the previous Cahiers.

What were some of the early ideas Cahiers had you write about?

I had started writing short reviews, often on bad American films just to fill in the space. [1] They liked what I was writing so they said I could go off and do more important things. I remember the first thing Daney asked me was, “Well, there are all of these American special-effects movies opening now and maybe something interesting will come out of trying to find our own way of dealing with the theme of science fiction.” Cahiers had never been interested in science fiction and maybe there was something to discover, so I said to Daney, “Oh yes, of course, I want to do it,” even though I didn’t have any idea about science fiction. But it was the first time they had asked to do something important.

In a way they were lucky because one of my first experiences in filmmaking was as a trainee in London in the editing rooms for Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980]. It was a very interesting experience because, although I was printing numbers on film stock, at least I was in the editing room and was receiving footage from seven different crews. The production had a miniature crew, an optical-effects crew, the main crew, the B crew, the underwater crew from the Bermuda Islands and so on, and the post-production people were putting all of these things together. Through this experience I began to understand that the new techniques of special-effects were in the process of transforming the whole texture of cinema. So, I thought about that for a while and then went back to Daney and basically said, “The issue is absolutely not science fiction!” Science fiction films have been made throughout the history of cinema; the more important issue was that special-effects was suddenly transforming the texture, structure and the tools of filmmaking. I said to Daney, “It is really something like a revolution, extremely important, and I think we should deal with special-effects rather than the themes of science fiction, which I don’t care about anyway, and if you want to deal with science fiction themes then ask somebody else because I’ve never read a science fiction novel in my life and I’m not interested in comic books.” Daney agreed with me because it was a very obvious idea once you had thought about it. I was then commissioned to write a series of long pieces on special-effects that were published in four consecutive issues of Cahiers du cinéma, [2] which is of no importance other than to say that things at Cahiers were suddenly very open.

For example, I liked very much the films of Jean-Pierre Mocky, [3] a minor B French author of comedy, but at the time nobody took him seriously. If I said to Daney, “I love the work of Mocky, I want to write on his films,” then I could write on his films. Or I would go up and say, “There is this guy who is doing these extraordinary films in the United States and nobody is interested. His name is Clint Eastwood.” They’d say, “Who? Clint Eastwood! You mean the guy who is in the Sergio Leone movies?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I think he is a very interesting filmmaker and he’s getting better and better.” Cahiers was becoming very open and I could write about Eastwood or John Carpenter or David Cronenberg — these were filmmakers Cahiers had not written about before.

Towards that period Cahiers is coming out of the obsession with theory and a certain type of cinema, that of Jean-Marie Straub for example. As in Irma Vep, there is a sense that Cahiers had lived out the historical moment of the post-68 period with a certain disorientation and perhaps disillusionment. Then Cahiers had to ask itself, “Where do we stand now?” Is what Cahiers rediscovers is an old form of cinéphilia as part of a return to looking at a different cinema that escapes the impasse of the ’68 generation?

Absolutely, that’s completely true, and I was not the only writer pushing in that direction. There was Charles Tesson [4] especially, and Léos Carax [5] also had started writing. Actually, Carax only wrote a few pieces and then left to make his first feature — he was very young; he started younger than me.

In retrospect, Cahiers relied a lot on Tesson and me in their new relationship with American cinema. At the beginning of 1982 we did two special issues on American cinema called “Made in USA”. The idea was just to do a special issue — it turned out to be two [6] — of Cahiers du cinéma in Los Angeles trying to get a grasp on what was happening in American cinema at the time. It turned out to be an interesting idea because it was really one of the worst moments in the history of Hollywood. When you look back at what was happening at the start of 1982, all the major studio movies were flopping, all of the new films by the directors who thought they would change Hollywood were disasters — Brian De Palma was nowhere, Martin Scorsese was almost nowhere, Francis Ford Coppola had just made One From the Heart [1982] and his Zoetrope Studios was in the process of sinking. It was a moment of complete disillusionment in Hollywood.

It was interesting for me personally because it was also the first time I had been to the United States, and instead of going in the direction of the studios or with successful filmmakers I was confronted with a different reality. I suppose I would have been attracted to the studios or recognized filmmakers if I had been there a few years before, or possibly a few years after. But at that specific moment, although there was so much talk about high-definition TV taking over the cinema, the big-budget, special-effects movies were not quite happening and so that void all of a sudden created an interest in the simple idea of looking at what Hollywood was becoming in the context of the rise of new technology and special-effects.

Before this moment, as much as I was embarrassed at having pushed in the direction of traditional American B-level filmmaking, when I was in the States I felt I was half-way between traditional Cahierist taste and regular filmmaking. I like genre and B-level filmmaking, but that is not the whole of my taste in cinema, and obviously I also have some kind of theoretical bent. Looking in retrospect, what is both interesting and disturbing is that I realize I had been involved in creating some kind of movement at Cahiers in the direction of it becoming interested in mainstream cinema. I was in this strange situation when I was with Serge Toubiana in the States: he was pushing in the direction of doing stuff with the studios and with successful filmmakers, but I was the one who was holding back because for me it was not creative, it wasn’t exciting. I think I am rationalizing it now, but that mainstream direction really gathered more and more strength in the years to come. Cahiers not only became interested in cinema again, but more and more interested in becoming part of the mainstream, the nomenclatura of French cinema. It has become so much more conventional and is again speaking in a very banal way about Hollywood and French mainstream films. Instead of being a radical, theoretical magazine, which it should have remained to a degree, Cahiers has become one more movie magazine, which is something I have witnessed with sadness over the years. I feel some kind of guilt because I feel I have contributed to creating that movement. It’s something like the scene in Irma Vep when I make fun of the character of the journalist who loves Hong Kong movies, but who loves them for the wrong reasons. I feel some guilt because Charles Tesson and I wrote the first approaches to Hong Kong cinema to be published in Europe. [7] For years our material remained the only comprehensive study of that cinema published in French, and so I feel we helped create some kind of monster.

On Irma Vep

The figure of the journalist (Antoine Basler) is obviously a comic target, though is he representative of a general malaise in film criticism?

Irma Vep reflects ideas about contemporary filmmaking and, in a certain way, I wanted to do something that could be like a Polaroid of the ideas circulating around French filmmaking. Obviously, when you are making a film, whether you are a director, an actor or a technician, you have an idea of what is going on and you have some theoretical idea of the artistic process. Quite simply, you are involved in a creative process and you have ideas about that. I think that perhaps 30 years ago, or maybe even 15 years ago, people had in common an ideology, some kind of political belief or faith. Now it’s completely fragmented, everybody believes in different things. People work together or make the same films together, but at the same time they are in deep conflict with one another with regard to ethics, morals, beliefs. With this film I just wanted to represent those types of contradictions, to show different angles to the ways of seeing today’s cinema that exist within French cinema culture.

The comic use of the journalist is easy because that kind of character comes to the film [the remake of Les Vampires [8] ] within Irma Vep with his own theory about its making and then goes away without having any connection to the whole thing. Yet he is saying something that a lot of movie-goers in France believe, a lot of filmmakers believe, a lot of movie producers believe, and a lot of other journalists believe. Obviously, the populist sense of considering cinema in a post-Tarantino way is something that is very present in French filmmaking today. From the way I’ve made this film, from the way I’ve worked with the actors, the way I’m trying to tell a story, it’s kind of obvious that, unlike the journalist, I do not consider Quentin Tarantino or John Woo to be the ultimate in modern filmmaking. Although I respect John Woo and Tarantino, I like their films, obviously what the journalist is saying is not what I am saying. It’s an aspect of cinema ‘theory’ that is very strange and I just wanted it present in the film.

In the same way, can it be said that the notion of the Nouvelle Vague, which figures quite forcibly in Irma Vep, is as a type of malaise within French film?

There is a tricky aspect to the fact of the Nouvelle Vague in France today, for which I am not sure where I stand. It’s that somehow independent cinema, art cinema in France has a kind of sclerosis around the idea of the Nouvelle Vague. The Nouvelle Vague was hugely important, perhaps the most important event in the modern history of filmmaking because it had incredible repercussions or consequences for filmmaking all over the world. Nevertheless, the Nouvelle Vague was years ago, a generation has passed, and so you cannot just put the idea of the Nouvelle Vague cinema — which involves the notion of the complete freedom of experimentation — to use as a dogma, or you cannot make it like a new academicism. At some point one has to question it. As a filmmaker you have to ask yourself whether the Nouvelle Vague is 100 per cent valid today, and you are supposed to be allowed to ask this question because I think there are real issues to be looked at when asking it.

I think a lot of what has been exported of French cinema is very conventional, mainstream filmmaking, but there are a lot of exciting, very interesting filmmakers who have been consistently productive these last few years. There is Maurice Pialat, who is a genius, Philippe Garrel, André Téchiné, Claire Denis, in all at least ten French filmmakers who have been making very exciting cinema. But their films have not been shown very much, except possibly within the festival circuit, very rarely in commercial situations.

The general impression of Irma Vep is of the French expression reculer pour mieux sauter [9] , in that metaphorical sense of a return to the past to start anew.

Yes, but then the question is: What kind of sauter? What will happen now? I think that idea or process is something I had achieved after Une nouvelle vie [A New Life, 1993]. Since Nouvelle vie, which was made within the ‘normal’ structure of French cinema, with a more or less normal budget, I’ve made three really low-budget films. One being L’eau froide [Cold Water, 1994], another being Irma Vep and the third one is the documentary on Hou Hsiao-hsein. [10] Of course, the Hou film is completely different because it is a documentary, and it’s a really minor film. But the three of them happen to have been shot on Super 16 and, yes, these three films, in my way of thinking, belong to the same process.

After doing Nouvelle vie I felt I had gone as far as I could within a certain system, with a certain form and structure. I had the feeling of having achieved what I was aiming for, but at the same time the film left me with a kind of bitter after-taste on many levels. Not only because the film was a box-office failure, I think also because I was not happy with the producer and with the way the film was misunderstood by the mainstream press. I was not happy with the whole process of making the film because I thought I had escaped the neurotics of filmmaking that were part of all my other films. Instead, the neurotics kind of caught up with me when making Nouvelle vie.

Also, because the film was on a very intimate, personal subject — possibly the most personal film I’d ever made — it was kind disturbing for me to do. Because every single film I had made up to that point was like a step in my vision or idea of cinema, after Nouvelle vie I felt I needed a simpler, fresher, more spontaneous approach to filmmaking. I just wanted to break all the toys and not get trapped in my own know-how or mannerisms, not get trapped in my own tricks and just do something completely different. This is what I have been doing ever since. I may write a new film which possibly will go back to earlier themes, or will maybe follow on from the themes and techniques of Nouvelle vie. But right now I have a completely different approach and I feel I’ve understood how to escape the ‘heaviness’ and, again, the neurotics of filmmaking. I feel I can approach filmmaking in a much ‘lighter’ way, or let’s say a way that tries to be a little more graceful.

It’s very profound in Irma Vep when René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) says to Maggie (Maggie Cheung), “It is you, not the character. I had an image — you!” In essence the birth of Irma Vep is a woman.

Oh yes, of course.

But a particular iconographic woman?

She’s an iconographic woman, but then Irma Vep is very much saying that Vidal is more interested in the real person. The whole film is a mirror game between fantasy and reality and at one point Vidal is saying he is more interested in her than in his fantasy. It is a logical step because when he is alone in front of the page, writing and conceiving his film in an abstract way, the fantasy appears very strongly. But when Maggie, or any other actress for that matter, appears before him in front of the camera, he has to face the fact that this individual is much more interesting than whatever fantasy he had about the character, about what he has seen her do on screen before, or about what the figure of Irma Vep inspires in him.

When we see Maggie at her hotel as the contemporary installment of Irma Vep, and without the camera in front of her, has she left herself and actually become Irma Vep?

She is acting for herself. It’s very difficult for me to explain it in precise words, but the central question of the film is: ‘How can you go back to the original, virginal strength of cinema?’ There are two different answers in the film. One is the experimental film of René Vidal that we see at the end, and the other answer is Maggie’s, which is as valid. The issue for Maggie is how to feel something as strongly as Vidal’s desire for her as Irma Vep. Well, there is a very easy way and this is to live it or try to go through the same experience. How much further can you go than that? In a way she is using the same artistic theory of artists who staged Happenings in the ’70s — art as something you live for the moment, stopped in time. In that moment you experience something very strongly, whatever you keep are only traces or remnants, but the moment itself is actually artistically very valid and very strong.

Similarly Maggie has accumulated so many things around the character of Irma Vep, she has thought about the role and worked on it in the same way that all actors work on a part. When an actor is working there is some kind of mild schizophrenia going on because an actor is all the time thinking about what the character would do in this or that situation. An actor co-habits with the fictional character for a while and is two people during the whole shoot of a film. In Irma Vep Maggie is at one point confronted with the possibility that all her work is useless because the director, for reasons she can understand, is blocked. She has to face the fact that she may never play that part, will never go all the way, will never use the energy she has been accumulating. All of a sudden the energy is escaping from the film and so she uses it for herself.

Is her experiment to take performance into reality, whereas Vidal’s experiment is to take the image of her into abstraction?

It’s two conflicting possibilities opening up for cinema. To emphasise what I am saying, when I shot L’eau froide it was at the end of autumn, it was cold, we had 50 kids in the middle of nowhere, in the woods, dressed up like it was the ’70s, and we had trucks with huge lights on top pouring all this light onto the set. When I arrived on set I was struck by this very beautiful vision: it was evening, I saw those huge lights, rain was coming down, and I was looking at all those 15 year-old kids who were smoking grass, getting high, and really having the time of their lives. Just looking at that I thought to myself, “How can the film be as strong, moving and as beautiful as what I am experiencing now?” In other words, how can the end result of the process of making a film be as strong as the process itself? It is a very important question any filmmaker should ask.

The dramatics, the energy, the tension of making a film is something that is like a Happening. It is a valid form of art in itself and although you are creating a completely imaginary world with imaginary characters, they are there in flesh and blood, in real life. When you are on a shoot you are in the middle of a complete fantasy world and it’s a fantasy that applies to the 200 or so people working on or visiting this creative maelstrom. In terms of what art is, that experience is very strong and the reference against which you create something is that momentary feeling. A filmmaker has to be able to create a film that can at least carry a little bit of that beauty, poetry and energy. In that sense, what the character of Maggie is living is similar to the moment one goes through when making a film — and I like the idea of capturing that on film.

Isn’t there collision between Vidal and Maggie, because what comes through quite perversely in using the clip from a Chris Marker film is that cinema is not magic, it is a science and a technique?

They are colliding but in a strange and mysterious way they belong to the same poetic world. The piece of film you refer to — which is possibly by Chris Marker, it could be somebody else, I have no idea who did it — is for me completely beautiful and unreal. But it is not so much what Irma Vep is all about. That clip is about how all of a sudden the past is coming back in a very strong way. That’s really what struck me when I first saw this short film and that’s why I wanted to use a clip of it in Irma Vep. It’s a very rough, political film, but at the same time it deals with the eternal beauty of cinema in the same way as any abstract type of filmmaking would.

What of the figure of the other director, Jose Murano (Lou Castel), because if René Vidal and Maggie represent one particular take on Irma Vep and not another, what does Murano represent?

The character played by Jean-Pierre somehow embodies a Hegelian position, meaning that he has to undergo a process of total destruction and death to be reborn in a dialectical way, and history is happening again. Vidal’s short, experimental, ‘scratch’ film that we see at the end is some kind of Hegelian twist. He has gone through a process of complete decomposition, complete loss of faith and control, and has gone as low as he can in order to resurface. I am obviously dealing with the process of creation: at some point you go through a complete lack of trust in yourself and in what you are doing, and it’s only through the fact of complete doubt and risk, of not believing in yourself anymore, that you possibly will do something worthwhile. In this sense I think the character of René Vidal is more realistic or interesting as an artist.

On the other hand, the character of Jose Murano is one step backward because he believes things should remain as they are. He believes in certain eternal values of French cinema, which are extremely valid and which, of course, I value as well. Yet, in the same way as Vidal, Murano also believes that one makes films with desire. One person’s desire however is not another person’s desire, and if he has to step into the shoes of another director he has to find his own way into the film. Murano is in a sense a comic character, an exaggerated character, but there is some kind of sincerity to his whole process of creation and in his grasp of the figure of Irma Vep.

Both Vidal and Murano are directors in a crisis. Vidal wants to see if he can find an avenue through the impasse by looking outside of France and towards the future. That is, Asia as opposed to the old continent of Europe. For the second director, Murano, the question he seems most obsessed with is why Vidal would cast an Asian actress to play Irma Vep. His attempt to solve the crisis is by turning to the past, to tradition, by casting a French actress, Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu), thereby saying that the fantasy is French. Murano will replace the Asian actress with a French actress, one fantasy with another, and so there is a real tension for the audience over the question of which fantasy one will identify with in the long run.

Absolutely, it’s very much about the situation of the viewer. The viewer really has to be involved in the film in either seeing grace in the character of Maggie or in preferring Laure, the French girl.

What really strikes me about Maggie, and the reason why I wanted to make the film, is that she carries with her a very unique type of cinematography. You just film her and there is beauty. She has everything that any filmmaker is basically looking for. She radiates it spontaneously. I wanted to make the film because I had the possibility of working with somebody who somehow embodies whatever I have been looking for in cinema. I always find it strange that whenever I discuss this film with people who don’t understand it, or who are ‘so so’ about it, the reason is always because they cannot see Maggie. If you understand Maggie then you understand the whole film; if you don’t understand Maggie, then the film makes little sense. Hence, the spectator-as-actor can either be Vidal-Léaud or Murano-Castel.

One realizes that Murano wants the fantasy too, but the difference is he wants the French fantasy and not the Asian fantasy, because there is no ambiguity about Murano’s relationship to the French actress. In the scene in the screening room when he pats her knee there is no doubt of a subtle sexual frisson between the two of them.

Somehow Murano has to be attracted to the girl who will be the leading ‘puppet’. I don’t think he wants to seduce her or to have sex with her. He is just saying that if he is going to step into another director’s shoes and finish the film, he has to believe in the central character and he must understand what the attraction to the central character is. Murano can understand that attraction when it is a French girl, whom he believes is an interesting actress: she has her own kind of beauty and she’s right for the part because she’s connected to whatever ideas he has of the part. She somehow belongs to the system or tradition that allows him to understand what the film is about. So, he doesn’t want Maggie because he doesn’t see her, he is blind to her, but then he is sincere to his own desire.

It seems inevitable that a French girl with the name Laure, a mythical name with so much resonance, will play Irma Vep. Laure, like Musidora, the original Irma Vep, is also a great Surrealist obsession. [11]

It is also the name of one of the characters in the Louis Feuillade, which is a coincidence, but it’s a beautiful coincidence. It’s the name of the maid, or some character like that, in Feuillade’s serial. I love the idea that Nathalie’s character is, by chance, Laure.

When Vidal is taken off the film and is supposedly in an asylum, there’s a brief scene where Maggie, talking to a crew member, says that she has seen him and he is okay about it all. There’s sense of calm amidst all of the chaos, a sense of resignation. Has Vidal found an answer to asking whether he, 80 years after her first appearance, can return to the original strength of Feuillade’s character?

To answer it is important to understand at least a little of the impact of the original character of Irma Vep. She is a very special character in the history of French filmmaking, and also in the history of world cinema because she is one of the first femme fatales. In 1915 Feuillade had really invented an archetype, a figure quite unique in cinema and in French filmmaking. When Feuillade filmed Musidora in that black cat suit it was as close as anybody had come to seeing a naked woman on screen.

This had an extremely important impact on the French Surrealist poets, who wrote about that character and about that film. The Feuillade serial was something very special because it was made during the First World War, and there is a very beautiful text written by Louis Aragon [12] about how that woman was the sexual obsession of hundreds or thousands of kids who died in the trenches in the First World War. When the soldiers were coming back to Paris on leave, they were crowding into the theatres wanting to watch the new episode of Les Vampires, which is to emphasise that the character of Irma Vep is very unique and the impact she had was incredibly powerful, possibly much more powerful than any other subsequent movie could be. Hence, to ask if it is possible to find again that same kind of strength and impact, with a similar character 80 years later, is the desperate search of René Vidal. As it happens in the film, it can be an absurd question because he will never make it. One never can. Ultimately, however, he finds some kind of answer by using completely new techniques, by doing something that’s shocking and weird and completely unlike the way stories are told today in cinema. Of course, he could never make a feature film in that way, but, in that short span of time, at least he has some vague grasp of an answer. By using abstract techniques to try to connect with realistic storytelling and with a realistic character, there is the hope that his short film will have an impact which is a little bit different to your usual films.

The final segment of Irma Vep, the screening of Vidal’s experimental film, reminds one of the piece you wrote on Andy Warhol, of Warhol’s discovering and reinventing the cinema again. [13]

Yes, the piece I did on Warhol was for me the start of a renewed interest in experimental filmmaking. After I did the Warhol piece I really got interested again in ’50s and ’60s experimental cinema, particularly on the French side with the Lettriste cinema of Isadore Isou. [14] The film Isou did in 1951 called Traité de bave et d’eternité [Venom and Eternity] has been a huge influence on Stan Brakhage. Isou really invented the use of scratching on live-action footage. Traité de bave et d’eternité is a very impressive film, it is one of the unknown masterpieces of French cinema and it inspired me to use the scratching in this film. Also, I started watching again the films of Kenneth Anger and he obviously had some influence in the conception of that segment.

Ever since the Warhol piece I’ve been concerned with the idea of the relationship between the avant-garde and mainstream filmmaking, in the way new ideas somehow end up in the mainstream. You can see that this has happened with Hong Kong filmmaking because in the mid-80s when I was interested in Hong Kong cinema, it had two things that were nowhere else in mainstream filmmaking — fast editing and abstract shots. Inside that cinema there are always these beautiful moments, five straight-forward frame shots, then all of a sudden people will start fighting, everybody will be flying around in the air and you just cannot understand what is happening — the film goes into abstraction!

Or there is the very fast cutting technique that Tsui Hark more or less invented during that period. These techniques are now in 95 per cent of Hollywood mainstream films and, ultimately, they have become completely accepted and boring. When you see a film like Batman and Robin [Joel Schumacher, 1997], a ridiculous movie, the opening scene is like a Tsui Hark movie of 10 years ago. Or Tsui Hark himself, in making the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Double Team [1997], which is even worse than Batman and Robin, has completely lost it and become irrelevant, which is really sad because he was once a great artist.

The same can be said of all the experimental techniques of Warhol, John Cassavetes and Kenneth Anger. For me, these three filmmakers are the inventors of modern American filmmaking. Warhol, Cassavetes and Anger were truly the radical, experimental, fringe filmmakers of the ’60s; their ideas and techniques are everywhere.

In the films of Garrel, to take one example, much of the pace and sense of time in a scene has to do with the actors’ body movements, it’s a body time. Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lou Castel are actors that move with a particular solemnity, in a slow and considered way, carrying with them all of the failed aspirations of a previous generation. Is one of the concerns of Irma Vep about the tempo and rhythm of French cinema tied to a post-Nouvelle Vague as opposed to a rhythm that comes from Hong Kong cinema? In Hong Kong cinema the actors are used more as acrobats rather than in the classical sense of dramaturgy. In coming from a tradition that includes Garrel and Jacques Rivette, but looking towards something with a different rhythm and also different cinematography, is this an eternal contradiction that you can never resolve?

In that respect the film is just full of the contradictions of life. It can be seen that Irma Vep is dealing with variations on the cinema of Jacques Rivette. Everything in this film in one way or another is in the films of Rivette: the same relationship to silent film, to mystery, to sexual desire.

And, of course, when making this film I was stuck with things connected to the specific acting ways of Léaud and Castel. For instance, I could not ask them to improvise. I let every single actor in the film improvise and encouraged them to, but with Jean-Pierre Léaud it was just impossible for him to improvise, and the same for Lou Castel. Lou and Jean-Pierre just read and memorise lines in a completely obsessive way and do not move anywhere else. It’s like they are reciting poetry.

Everyday on this film I did what I had never done before: breaking down the scenes into shots, changing the dialogue and adapting and inventing things as I went along. On the day I shot Lou’s scene in the café, I went up to him and said, “Well, I changed this line, changed the order here and you are going to say this line before that one.” He just couldn’t do it; he simply could not do it! Even one line, which doesn’t make sense in the film anymore because I had changed the way the scene was happening, I was stuck with. Lou had to say that ‘unnecessary’ line because he remembered the line before and the line after, but to connect those two he needed the one in the middle.

The same with Jean-Pierre. You give him the dialogue weeks before and he just repeats it and repeats it and repeats it to himself. It’s because he is scared of forgetting the lines. He just remembers them as sounds, they could be anything, and when he comes on set he tries to see if what is locked in his mind can adapt to whatever we are doing. For example, Jean-Pierre will get an idea in his mind like, “I’m working with very long takes,” and it’s the only thing that registers in his brain and so he remembers whole scenes because he thinks there is a risk he will play out a scene continuously in one take. So, sometimes when I was setting up shots I would say, “Okay, Jean-Pierre, the shot starts here and it ends there and after it’s another shot.” But he would never stop! He would go on and on and play the whole scene at every single shot even though the camera might not be rolling. It was difficult but also exciting and fun.

The thing with Jean-Pierre is that he has a completely stiff approach to acting, but then at some point, you don’t know why, all of a sudden he brings things out in the most graceful, beautiful way. It just happens, it’s done, it’s there and it’s finished. One take, he cannot do it a second or third time. Don’t even dream of it!

Bulle Olgier [15] — whose character is similar to Jean-Pierre’s in many ways because Bulle also has problems with memory — is also always in a situation of complete danger and risk. She is like an acrobat: she forgets lines, the lines come back, but then she is doing exactly what am I looking for. I think she is a genius, and because of her problem with remembering the lines she creates the kind of chaos I am looking for when directing action.

Jean-Pierre and Lou are also creating some kind of chaos because whoever plays opposite them never knows where they are going to be or what they are going to do. Like the scene between Castel and Nathalie in the café: he is saying the lines exactly as I had written them, but I didn’t have any idea of how he was going to say them and I didn’t give him any indication on how to say them. I did that scene with two cameras, which explains why I am very happy with that scene. I’ve always shot with one camera, but that was the first time I used two cameras and I got the best reaction shots I’ve ever got in a dialogue scene. When Lou starts to shout the lines, I was not expecting it at all, nor was Nathalie, yet I have that great spontaneous reaction of Nathalie’s on film.

On Balthus, Bacon, Bresson, Bergman

Given your interest in painterly ideas in film, do you have a particular interest in Balthus?

It’s kind of obvious I am interested in Balthus [16] in the sense that what intrigues me the most in contemporary art is the connection with figuration, the relationship to flesh, to the body. My love for the work of Balthus has been very important for me to somehow accept the idea of doing narrative films.

But one of my biggest turning points artistically was when I started liking Francis Bacon [17] more than Balthus. I think I had a complete obsession with Balthus when I was thinking about and writing my early films. Then at some point Bacon meant more. In Balthus there is some idea of the purity of art, of clarity and control, of beauty and flight. There is something very simple and very grand at the same time, very modern yet connected to an idealized notion of the past. Francis Bacon is interested in representing the human face or body in the same way, but he is also interested in representing suffering, moments of doubt. That is, not only is Bacon concerned with the classical part of the body, the representation of the body as it appears, but also the incredibly strange things that are happening inside it. Bacon has turned the body inside out. It was really a turning point when I understood that Bacon possibly meant more to me than Balthus. It was also a time when I was assessing my relationship to Robert Bresson.

Do you think it is possible now to make films in the tradition of Bresson? Is Bressionian cinema truly over?

No, I don’t think so. Alain Cavalier, [18] who is a filmmaker I am not especially fascinated by, but who is a very nice and interesting person, once said: “In the recent history of French filmmaking you have a mother and a father. Renoir is the mother and Bresson is the father.” Everyone of course prefers the mother because the mother is always nicer.

Bresson is interested in a notion of the purity of cinema. A lot of contemporary cinema — Quentin Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai — is about the impurity of cinema. There is sometimes great difficulty in accepting Bresson because it’s like he is asking one to join a religion. In that sense, to accept Bresson one cannot accept the cinema of Tarantino or Wong Kar-Wai, one cannot cherish another God.

Yes, but then no. I say that because there was a really strange piece in a French newspaper that drove me out of my mind. It was written by a woman who had been corresponding and seeing Bresson from time to time over a 10 year period. She’s a filmmaker who has made a first feature, and she was saying that Bresson basically betrayed his ideas on filmmaking. She gave an example of how they would discuss films and he would spend hours telling her about a ski chase in a James Bond movie, and she was saying how much of a fake he is. I was reading the piece and thinking to myself, “No, somehow it makes me like him more; I can accept him more and understand him more.”

I understand what you mean about the purity of Bresson’s cinema because he has been so incredibly important in my own formative years. When I was making my first films I was doing every single shot and every single scene with the idea that I wanted it to be something that could be accepted by Bresson. Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, on different levels and in different ways, are for me the filmmakers that have been personally, hugely important. Bresson possibly more than anybody else because I was acquainted and familiar with his work at an even earlier age than my acquaintance with Tarkovsky and Bergman. My admiration for Bresson’s work remains absolutely unshattered, but it’s very obvious that as I gradually grew in confidence in my own filmmaking I realized I just wanted to break the Bressionian rules, which did not mean I was betraying him.

When one thinks of Jean Eustache, it seems that for a filmmaker to become obsessed with Bressionian cinema leads to personal danger. Eustache seemed to have been so profoundly touched by Bresson’s purity of cinema that it almost drove him to madness to make films that tried to equal the sublimity of Bresson.

But then Eustache made one the greatest films of French cinema, La Maman et la putain [The Mother and the Whore, 1973].

At the cost of his life?

What I think cost him his life was not his relationship with Bresson but the fact of having made an absolute masterpiece. Eustache was a kind of ‘provincial’ cousin to the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers: he was from the South and much younger than every other Nouvelle Vague filmmaker, who did not take him seriously. Suddenly, Eustache makes a film that every single director of the Nouvelle Vague had dreamed of making. He made the film Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Truffaut would have died to make and every single one of them knew it — La Maman et la putain, of course. It’s the ultimate Nouvelle Vague film, except that it doesn’t come from a Nouvelle Vague filmmaker. I think that having made La Maman et la putain was very traumatic for Eustache because he felt he went beyond whatever he ever expected to do in filmmaking. In one film he said it all and felt he couldn’t go further and was scared of what he could do afterwards. He then made Mes petites amoureuses [My Little Loves, 1975], which is a really beautiful film, but the sad part is that after his work becomes all fragmented and scattered, and he was making short films and just couldn’t get his head together to concentrate on a feature again. [19]

But what is very interesting is that we have arrived at Bresson because I think he is very connected to the idea of a woman’s face as the face of cinema. Bresson basically conceived that idea and brought it into French filmmaking. I have trouble imagining who before him went as far as he did in that direction. Bresson made films for women, and every single one of his films is defined by a central female character. He created something that has struck such a deep, sensitive chord in French filmmaking you realize that after him every significant French filmmaker has been concerned with that theme in one way or another, whether realistically or perversely. Carax, for instance, has adopted a very post-Surrealist idealization of the loved woman. Of course, Robert Bresson is very far from that, but he was into the idea that the virginal beauty of a young girl’s face is the closest you can get to expressing spirituality on screen.

It’s intriguing the way Cahiers du cinéma always renews itself and also has this uncanny ability to maintain the legacy of the past. Your book on Ingmar Bergman [20] is a key book which represents for Cahiers a moment when something from the past has to be retrieved and updated — your essay on Bergman in the book seems to be an update of Jean-Luc Godard’s article “Bergmanorama”. [21] Now there’s a point in the book when Bergman puts you on the spot and says to you that he likes Marcel Carné and some of the other traditional, quality directors who were rejected by François Truffaut and others at Cahiers, and you say something like, “I shouldn’t make this confession, but yes, I do like some of their films, I can make exceptions.” It’s as if you are simultaneously caught within a Cahierist taste and also have to deny being completely there.

I know the moment in the book. Bergman loves Carné, who had a tremendous influence on him. But then Bergman was being kind of hypocritical because he knew very well that he had gone much further than Carné or Julien Duvivier. [22] These two filmmakers were huge influences in his youth: when you see Bergman’s films of the ’40s, like Musik i mörker [Music and Darkness, 1948] or Shepp till Indialand [A Ship Bound for India, 1947], you can see that as a young man, as a young screenwriter for the Swedish film industry, he was really influenced by the films of Carné and Duvivier. But then most of world cinema was influenced by the poetic realism of Carné and Duvivier.

Bergman was also a clever person. When he made that comment he knew his influence was more August Stringberg [23] than Julien Duvivier, so I only took him half-seriously. And I knew his comment was also a kind of provocation.

Was he trying to provoke Cahiers?

Of course, for Cahiers not reviewing his films for so many years. In his eyes I represented Cahiers, and I just kind of made an ‘escape’ or avoided the issue because I didn’t want to take the blame for a story that was not my story, that didn’t really concern me. He thought I was going to be shot because I’d said I liked Julien Duvivier. I’d seen a lot of Duvivier’s films on TV as a kid and I like them, I don’t have a particular hate for the work of Duvivier. I think Duvivier is an interesting filmmaker, but I was also sort of saying to Bergman, “Don’t make me laugh, don’t tell me you consider Duvivier a genius.” I didn’t want to be put in the situation of having to carry a stupid burden, and I would never write or say anything bad about Duvivier because there is no issue or reason to.

There is another moment in the book when Bergman says he doesn’t like Godard. Well, that’s okay with me. I think Bergman is a much more important filmmaker than Godard, but he would never have made me say I don’t like Godard. I love Godard! Why wouldn’t I?

Bergman pretended not to be concerned with that kind of dialectic but in reality he was. I think that was because he suffered a lot in the late ’60s when he was considered a boring, old, academic bourgeois filmmaker, which was completely unfair because it was really the time when he was doing his most daring and extraordinary work. It was so sad when he was teaching at the film school in Sweden because they disregarded his class on Strike [Sergei Eisenstein, 1925] and they were saying they should get rid of boring old farts like Ingmar Bergman. Yet, at that same time, he was directing Skammen [The Shame, 1968] and all of those other films that were so incredibly radical. He remained really bitter, and he would never have admitted it but he resented criticism. He was completely paranoid about criticism: he would remember who had written what about his films from 30 years ago. At one point, I don’t know if it’s in the book, he said to me, “There is this Swedish critic who has been writing horrible things about my films ever since I began filmmaking; I hope he dies soon so I can go dancing on his grave.” Can you imagine it? This guy is like the film equivalent of the Nobel Prize, one of the most significant filmmakers of the century, he is in every single dictionary of cinema, but there was this one guy who didn’t like Bergman’s films and Bergman had kept this amazing hate for him.

In the Bergman essay [in the book] you’ve written about this beautiful idea of a lost youthful paradise, the theme of a troubled rites-of-passage of teenagers into adulthood, and it’s in relation to films like Sommaren med Monika [Summer with Monica, 1953]. Did you seek Bergman out because of this theme, which is echoed in your film L’eau froide, also in André Téchiné’s films, especially Les roseaux sauvages [The Wild Reeds, 1994], and there are other French filmmakers — Maurice Pialat, even Truffaut — quite obsessed with this theme of youth?

Yes, because the films of Bergman had a tremendous impact on French cinema, on the generation of the Nouvelle Vague, and more so on the generation that comes after. I’ve been saying this for a long time: I deeply believe the generation that comes after is one that really had a lot of trouble connecting to the directors of the Nouvelle Vague. People like Godard, Alain Resnais and even Truffaut had no relationship with the younger directors; they considered themselves to be the last possible generation of French filmmakers and then one draws the curtain after them. So, the most interesting filmmakers of the generation that came after found themselves in need of — I hate to use the expression — a father figure, or at least some kind of inspiration. Ultimately what they all shared was having to go back to Bergman — Téchiné, Garrel, to some extent even Chantal Akerman, and Jacques Doillon of course. All these people were pretty much of the same generation, and a very coherent group of filmmakers, instead of being inspired by the Nouvelle Vague, have been inspired by Bergman. The core of their work comes from Bergman.

What Bergman defined was a very special relationship of working with actors, which is something that always completely escaped the Nouvelle Vague directors. It is a relationship to inner emotion. The Nouvelle Vague was either influenced by the radical movements of the 20th century in terms of the avant-garde, or by 18th century French prose in terms of its dry wit, precision and clarity. This is a Robert Bresson thing. Bergman, on the other hand, brought to bear the importance of the relationship with the actor as something deeply essential to filmmaking. I somehow come from that tradition, and my relationship with Bergman became clear to me when I was making my second feature, L’enfant de l’hiver [Winter Child, 1988]. I realized I had become more and more interested in women characters. I felt I wanted to get closer and closer, to use more close-ups and long takes, and subconsciously I was going in the direction of Bergman. When I had the opportunity of meeting him, of having to prepare an interview and see again most of his work, it came absolutely at the right time for me because Bergman just made sense for what I was aiming at or looking for.

My admiration for Bergman and the reason I consider him one of the essential filmmakers to this day is because he was an extraordinary director in terms of aesthetics, visual invention, and at the same time a great writer. If Bergman had never made a film, he would still, possibly, be one of the greatest writers of this century. His writing is up there with whatever else is hailed as great writing in terms of theatre. And this is not to mention his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, [24] which is extraordinary. I think his combination of writing and visuals is what has always fascinated me about Bergman and the cinema. At the core of what interests me in cinema is the possibility film gives me to transform what I have written into flesh and blood. In that sense, an artist like Bergman, and also [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, has always been very close to me. It’s obvious, for instance, that the inspiration for L’eau froide is partly Summer with Monica. It’s really there. My central character is very different from the Harriet Andersson character, but they share similar traits. Monica has really been an obsession for me, and the character of Andersson in Monica is one that has struck a chord in me. [25]

When in the book Bergman talks about Harriet Andersson, it is as if the desire for Andersson, what she represented, has continued undiminished. It’s a desire that finds it’s way to Cahiers with the still of her on the cover, to Truffaut using the same photo of her which Jean-Pierre Léaud and Patrick Auffray have to steal, [26] on to yourself.

I don’t think it’s exactly the way I tell it to Bergman, but I told him that I really believe the performance of Harriet Andersson in Monica is one of the most extraordinary performances in the history of cinema. All he could say was something like, “Oh yes, oh yes.” I think he was still under the spell of Andersson.

For Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Pialat, Garrel, and yourself, is it ever possible to conceive of the cinema without women? Can you make a film without a woman?

No, I can’t. I could try.

[1] Cahiers du cinéma no. 307, January 1980. Assayas wrote short reviews of Robert Altman’s A Perfect Couple (1979) and Jean Marboeuf’s La Ville des silences (1979) for the section Notes Sur D’Autres Films.

[2] Cahiers du cinéma no. 316, October 1980; no. 317, November 1980; no. 318, December 1980; and no. 319, January 1981. Assayas and others at Cahiers variously continued the examination of special-effects, tackling issues related to 70mm film, special-effects companies and artists, and comics among other topics.

[3] Jean-Pierre Mocky (Jean Mokijewski) was born in 1929 in Nice, France. He was an actor in French and Italian films from the mid-40s until 1959, when he turned to scripting and directing with Les Dragueurs (The Chasers). From this point on he gained a reputation as an unpredictable and productive filmmaker. Apart from acting in, scripting and directing, Mocky was known to produce and often edit or co-edit his films. Assayas published two articles on Mocky’s films and an interview — “Jean-Pierre Mocky: Le malentendu”, Cahiers di cinéma nos. 323-324, May 1981; and “Mocky”, Cahiers du cinéma no 329, November 1981.

[4] Charles Tesson was a very prolific contributor to Cahiers du cinéma from the late ’70s onwards, who co-authored many articles and interviews with Assayas, particularly on Hong Kong cinema and its filmmakers.

[5] Léos Carax (Alexander Oscar Dupont) contributed to Cahiers du cinéma between issue no. 303, September 1979, and no. 308, February 1980, mostly critiques of films and film festivals. His most significant article was co-authored with Alain Bergala, “Jean-Luc Godard: Sauve qui peut (la vie): Une journée de tournage,” no. 306, December 1979. Carax’s debuted as a writer-director in 1984 at the age of 22 with, of course, Boy Meets Girl.

[6] Actually a double issue or numéro special, Cahiers du cinéma, nos 334-335, April 1982.

[7] Assayas and Tesson co-authored-edited a double issue of Cahier du cinéma (nos 362-363, September 1983) devoted to Hong Kong cinema titled “Made in Hong Kong”. This issue was subsequently reprinted as a book, Hong Kong Cinema (Editions d’etoile-Cahiers du cinéma, Paris 1990).

[8] Les Vampires is a 10-episode serial directed by Louis Feuillade and produced by Gaumont between 1915-1916. Feuillade was born in 1873 in Lunel, France and died in 1925. He began his filmmaking career in 1906 as a scriptwriter and very soon after took to directing. In 1907 he was appointed production chief of Gaumont where he was a proficient screenwriter, director and supervisor. In a film career spanning less than 20 years, he directed almost 800 films of various lengths and wrote most of the screenplays. He had also written an additional 100 screenplays for other directors and supervised countless other productions for Gaumont. Feuillade worked in a number of genres, but became famous for his fantasy serials, in particular Fantômas (1913-14), Judex (1916) and Les Vampires.

[9] Literal translation is ‘take a few steps back to make a running leap.’

[10] HHH – Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (1997). Hou studied film at the National Taiwan Arts Academy after his discharge from the military in 1969. He worked as a continuity director and/or assistant director from 1975 until 1980 when he made his directorial debut with Cute Girls. His best known films are The Time to Live and the Time to Die (1985), winner of the International Critics Award at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival, Daughter of the Nile (1987), winner of the Special Jury Award at Torino Film Festival, and A City of Sadness (1989). See also Assayas’ “Notre reporter en République de Chine”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 366, December 1984, which contains an interview with Hou among others.

[11] Laure (Collette Laure Lucienne Peignot), born 1903, was a legendary figure of the French intellectual scene of the pre-World War II years. She was a friend and lover of a number of dissident surrealists, namely Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris. A collection of her writing was published in English in 1995, Laure: The Collected Writing, translated from the French by Jeanine Herman, City Light Books, San Francisco. She died in 1938. Musidora (Jeanne Roques), born 1889, was a star of the French stage and music hall when Feuillade cast her as the arch-villianess Irma Vep. She died in 1957.

[12] Louis Aragon, Projet d’histoire littéraire contemporaine, Series Diagraphe, Gaullimard, Paris, c1922.

[13] Assayas’ choice when invited to write on an admired filmmaker for the 40th Anniversary issue of Positif, no. 400, June 1994. It is reprinted in English in John Boorman & Walter Donahue (eds), Projections 4 ½ , Faber & Faber, London, 1995.

[14] Isadore Isou led the Lettriste movement in Paris from 1947. The movement, was fuelled by an underground press of collage poetry, anagrammatic pamphlets and theoretical manifestoes, was hostile to France’s traditional culture industry. Their critiques involved a dislocation of meaning and value through techniques that recall the spirit of Dada and Surrealism. The Lettriste movement split into two factions by the end of 1952: one faction centred on Isou, the other on Guy Debord, who moved the faction to Brussels and called it the Lettriste International, which later evolved into the Situationist International. Filmmaking was not a central activity for the Lettristes, yet their techniques would later inform the American Underground and Structural Film movement. The anti-aesthetic/representational strategies of the Lettristes involved slicing, scratching, or painting directly on film, adding text and soundtrack to found footage, collage, reducing images to pure black or white, a marked use of off-screen dialogue and sound, and using images of less than one second. Vidal’s ‘scratch film’ aside, Irma Vep makes a further connection with the Lettristes: it shows a clip from Feuillade’s Les Vampires in which letters on a sandwich board are enigmatically rejuggled — the name Irma Vep being a cryptonym for vampire. Moreover, with Pascal Bonitzer and Thierry Jousse, Assayas contributed to a special dedication to the work of Guy Debord in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 487, January 1995.

[15] Bulle Ogier was a leading lady on the Paris stage and central to the café-theatre movement before appearing on screen in the late ’60s. She gained reputation as a very capable actress with unconventional directors. Her films include Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou (1968) and Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), Luis Buñuel’s La charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse (1976), Marguerite Duras’ Des Journées entières dans les Arbres (1976) and Le Naivre Night (1979). Ogier plays the character of Mireille in Irma Vep.

[16] Balthus (Balthasar Klossovski de Rola) was not formerly trained as a painter but was taken under wing by Pierre Bonnard and André Derain. His first solo exhibition was held in 1934 at the Gallerie Pierre, Paris. The works for which he is best known are interiors depicting adolescent girls painted in a naturalistic style and with subtle leanings to Surrealism.

[17] Francis Bacon began his career as a painter in 1930 after a brief period as an interior designer. Like Balthus, he had no formal training and the influence of Surrealism can also be discerned. He made a major impact in 1945 with Three Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion. Bacon is considered Britain’s most important post-war artist.

[18] Alain Cavalier (Alain Fraissé) was a graduate of the IDHEC film school in Paris when he started working as an assistant to Edouard Molinaro and Louis Malle in the ’50s. He made his directing debut with the short film Un Americain in 1952. He made his first feature in 1962, Le Combat dan l’ile, which he also co-wrote. In 1981 he the Prix Delluc for Une Etrange voyage.

[19] Jean Eustache was a film enthusiast from an early age and from the early ’60s was an occasional contributor to Cahiers di cinéma where his wife worked as a secretary. He assisted on shorts and then directed two personal, medium-length films, Du Côte de Robinson and La Pere Noël a les Yeux bleus, which he combined in 1967 to form his first feature, Les Mauvaises Préquentations. Having difficulty maintaining a living from filmmaking, Eustache seemed to exist on the fringes of the film scene, occasionally directing documentaries, editing films for others, even acting — he appeared in Godard’s Weekend (1967) and 10 years later in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. He stumbled about in this way until finally directing La Maman et la putain in 1973, which brought him international recognition — it won the Special Jury Prize and shared the International Critics Prize at Cannes. Eustache went on to direct two more feature films, Mes Petites amoureuses and Une Sale histoire (1977), and several short films before taking his own life in 1981.

[20] Conversation avec Ingmar Bergman (with Stig Björkman), Editions d’etoile-Cahiers du cinéma, Paris, 1990.

[21] Jean-Luc Godard, “Bergmanorama”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 85, July 1958. An English translation is appears in Godard on Godard, edited by Tom Milne, Secker & Warburg, London 1972.

[22] Marcel Carné entered film in 1938 as assistant cameraman on Jacques Feyder;s Les Nouveaux Messieurs, then assistant director on Rene Clair’s Les  Toits de Paris the following year. Between 1929 and 1935, he co-directed a short documentary, made a number two-minute publicity spots, write on film for various French magazines, while also assisting Feyder on Le Grand Jeu (1933), Pension Mimosa (1934) and La Kermesse héroique (1935). He made his directorial leap to features in 1935 with Jenny. Carné formed a close alliance with the poet-screenwriter Jacques Prévert, producing prime examples of the French school of ‘poetic realism’ — Drôle et Drame (1927), Quai des Brunes (1938) and Le Jour se léve (1939). Their collaboration continued during the German occupation with Les Visiteurs de soir (1942), and by the end of the war Carné’s most famous film was realized, Les enfants du paradis (1945). By 1948 the Carné-Prevert alliance had deteriorated, and Carné considerably fell out of favour with critics and public in the post-war years, most certainly with the advent of the Nouvelle Vague, yet continued to make films until 1976. Julien Duvivier started in 1918 as an assistant to Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier and directed his first film by 1919. His films gained little notice until the ’30s when he established international reputation for his ‘poetic realism’, in particular with such films as La bandera (1935), Le Golem and L’homme de jour (1936), Pépé le Moko and Un Carnet de Bal (1937). By 1938 he was lured to Hollywood to direct The Great Waltz, a bio-pic of Johann Strauss. During the German occupation of France, he returned to America where he directed a couple of notable episodic films, Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Flesh and Fantasy (1943). He returned to Europe in 1945 and continued to direct films — in France, Italy, Germany and England — right up until his death in 1967.

[23] [Johan] August Stringberg, well known as a playwright, had first achieved recognition with the novel Röda Rummet (The Red Room) in 1879, which he followed with several plays. Between 1884-86 he published the short story collections Giftas I and Giftas II. While travelling Europe, Giftas I led to his recall to Sweden to stand trial for alleged blasphemy. The plays Fadren (The Father, 1887) and Fröken Julie (Miss Julie, 1888) heralded his reputation as a prime exponent of realistic drama. He founded the Intimate Theatre in 1907 and his plays in this period turned more symbolic in form and religious in theme.

[24] First published in Sweden as Laterna Magica (Norstedts Förlag, Stockholm, 1987; English translation by Joan Tate and published by Hamish Hamilton-Penguin Books, London, 1988). Apart from The Magic Lantern, Bergman has authored a film memoir, Images: My Life in Film (translated by Marianne Riuth, Bloomsbury, London, 1994; originally published in Sweden by Norstedts Förlag, Stockholm, under the title Bilder in 1993), and the novels Den goda viljan (The Best Intentions, 1993) and Söndagsbarn (Sunday’s Children, 1992). The Best Intentions was originally a Bergman script based on his parents’ lives, which was filmed by Billie August in 1992; and Bergman also turned Sunday’s Children into a script which was filmed by Daniel Bergman.

[25] Harriett Andersson started in music hall before making her film debut in 1950 in a minor crime melodrama. Two more films followed before Bergman cast her she for Summer with Monica, and their collaboration continued through several films and as late as Fanny and Alexander in 1982. She won the Best Actress Award in 1962 at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in To Love. Ironically, Andersson’s husband-filmmaker, Jörn Donner, was a one-time critic who published, in 1962, a scathing study of Bergman’s films, claiming they were irrelevant to the problems of contemporary society. In addition to Assayas’ L’eau froide, a connection between Irma Vep and Bergman’s Monica would not be untoward. Indeed, it is perfectly uncanny for like Assayas’ writing of Irma Vep for Maggie Cheung, Bergman was so taken by Andersson that he wrote the script of Monica especially for her.

[26] The reference is to a scene from François Truffaut’s Les Quarte cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) in which the characters played by Leaud and Auffray steal the publicity still of Andersson from a movie theatre.