The Stranger and the Margin. Interview with Roy Genty
May: In the last few years, we’ve identified filmmakers whose films seem to us to be closer to what can be currently experienced right now, in Paris. They are more direct, technique is being put on the back burner and they don’t seem to display any cinematographic relationship. These are fast, energetic, offbeat films, often made by young women, which we’ve immediately talked about among ourselves. I’m talking about the films of Justine Triet, Rebecca Zlotowski, and above all Sophie Letourneur, with her feature film Life on the Ranch (La Vie au ranch). Then, although he’s from another generation, there’s Alain Guiraudie’s latest film, which totally surprised us. You’ve worked with some of these filmmakers wearing different labels, and we wanted to ask you what, in your view, brings these directors together? Does it also have to do with deep-seated upheavals in the production system?
Roy Genty: What’s changing is that these film directors are in touch with young producers who are taking quite a few risks and who aren’t necessarily trying to make the “great film.” They are less ideological and, it seems to me, they are focusing rather on diversity and chance. A film’s success is something of a mystery, and they know it. We’re gradually seeing the “cinéma du milieu”running out of steam and, at the same time, we’re witnessing the appearance of a new type of filmmaker. It’s tempting to see this phenomenon as a sort of Nouvelle Vague, which is not necessarily the case. What’s more, the Nouvelle Vague is a myth, as we well know, an overwhelming myth especially for French and European cinema. Fassbinder was very critical in this respect, and he was quite right, I think, because the generations that followed have really had a hard time of it. But right now it’s undeniable that something’s on the move, something that has to do with the state of things, connected with a sort of crisis in French cinema that’s reached a point of no return. A whole generation of film directors—including Desplechin, who’s perhaps the most emblematic representative—coming from the IDHECand then the Fémis,like Pascale Ferran and François Ozon, have been trying to make ambitious, high quality auteur films, often with big budgets. They’re championing a model of French cinema that’s at once original and also preserves a certain comfort, which the institutions have greatly believed in, but it’s a model which can quickly become stultifying. It’s been a challenge to support this type of filmmaker, but the more unusual film experiments, outside this model, have been totally abandoned. Young producers have appeared, most of them in the last ten years or so, who, to get a foothold, have been interested in these other forms. They’ve started producing films by people who haven’t come from film school, but rather from art schools.
May: We come back to why it’s interesting to start a discussion about these films in the magazine. It’s obvious that we wanted to talk about cinema, but we couldn’t find a way to do this and we’ve also been subject to a sort of obstructing benevolent vigilance on the part of certain film buffs gravitating around the magazine. When we published essays about Rohmer and Straub—very interesting texts, incidentally—we knew that this gave us a very French image of the Nouvelle Vague and of a radical and engaged cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. We were associated with Godard in the first issuewhere we talked about his exhibition at Beaubourg. Right now we’d like to be interested in late 1980s experimental cinema in Paris, and a different way of making films and talking about them. I’m thinking for example of a group of young filmmakers being supported by Nicole Brenez, who studied with Claudine Eizykman at Paris VIII, and all those film screenings that took place in different moviehouses in Paris and which were quite important, in any event, when I arrived in Paris in 1995. And I get the impression that you’ve transposed this culture and this praxis to what is going on right now with film directors in a more commercial framework.
R.G.: I’ve had an atypical career because I studied philosophy and art at the same time. At the time, I already had eclectic tastes and I didn’t realize that there was such an important dividing line in France between experimental cinema and mainstream cinema, which was illustrated in faculties by the latent wars between teachers. I often found myself coming up against young film students, and, at almost the same time, I met opposing groups whose activities were overtly experimental. These two camps were fierce foes, even when they often came from the same faculty, Paris VIII. Claudine Eizykman’s students, for example, loathed the students of the old Cahiers people like Douchet and Narboni. They were very witty, very dandy-like, and responded with outrage to the bigoted aspect of hard-line film buffs. According to them, films shown in mainstream cinemas were focused on the predominant cinema, and they had a hallowed form of expression to indicate the extent of their contempt: “That’s really N.R.I. cinema,” standing for “Narrative Representative Industrial.” Applied to Rohmer, there was something creepy about it all the same…
May: So there was a split between, let’s say, films coming from the Nouvelle Vague and experimental cinema?
R.G.: Yes, but it was a distinction which bothered me because the people I liked most in the Nouvelle Vague were really filmmakers who were at the cutting edge, like Straub and Godard, and Garrel and Akerman in the next generation.
May: This contrast possibly also explains our problem at May.
R.G.: I myself was experiencing a sort of restless wandering, crossing demarcation lines which I didn’t understand, in a sort of daze. I refused and I still refuse to choose between Kenneth Anger and Jacques Rozier, for example, who, for me, are people who are reinventing cinema, even if not at all in the same place. The filmmakers I most admire, Glauber Rocha, Carmelo Bene and Werner Schroeter, are the ones who upset genres. To give you an emblematic example of these absurd differences, during a screening at the Forum des Images of La Mort de Maria Malibran, which is one of Schroeter’s very great films, Claudine Eizykmandeclared, when Schroeter was still working full out: “There you have it, Werner Schroeter has stopped making films, it’s very sad.” That really shocked me because I had met Schroeter six months earlier, so I replied: “It’s not true, he’s just made a documentary called Die Königin about an actress in the Berliner Ensemble.” To which she answered: “That’s precisely what I’m saying, it’s a documentary, it’s not film.” She was making categories, whereas Schroeter is precisely the kind of filmmaker who has always resisted against the system of categories. He was very close to Fassbinder—who admired him and incidentally defended him more than anybody else—on the edge of narrative film and avant-garde film.
Okay, I was much attracted by that different cinema, and I spent a lot of time with members of the Molokino, David TV, Cécile Bortoletti and filmmakers like Bernard Cerf, who represented another movement, close to Marcel Mazé, founder of the very famous Hyères Festival in the 1970s, as well as one or two free electrons like Maria Koleva and Pierre Merejkovsky.
May: It was also at that particular time that the magazine 101was created, wasn’t it?
R.G.: Yes and 101 tried to describe that whole raft of films which were not “commercial” in the literal sense of the word, talking about films which were set in cafés, factories, museums, squats, and apartments, and which were made by a whole bunch of very different people whose film activity lay outside classic production. There were activists who made strictly political films, associated with the Fédération Anarchiste, and others who were involved in performance film like the Molokino, and then there were also new artists who were using film as a medium, but not an exclusive one.
May: Are you thinking of Philippe Parreno or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster?
R.G.: Yes, sure, and Ange Leccia. And then there were queer films, that whole cinema which laid claim to and presented a different sexuality with gay and lesbian militants, and all those particular people did not know one another even though their film activities were at times very similar in their production methods, because to start with they were using Super 8 or 16 mm, and then video. This was low-budget moviemaking, and 101 was trying to bring all those screens together or at the very least trying to map out that different cinema. It was very wonderful to see Lettrists, rivals of Maurice Lemaitre, confronting others who liked avant-garde cabaret. They used the same tools to produce things which had nothing to do with each other, and unexpected complicities were formed.
May: That was also a period of change. One just has to recall that rather violent discussion at the Cercle de Minuit which you transcribed in 101,between Jean-Marie Straub, Philippe Quéau, advocate of the new technologies, and Paul Virilio…
R.G.: That was a debate which clearly reflected the magazine’s ferment. 101 was trying to report on a diverse range of activities and ways of thinking about film which, at the time, was very confidential because of the almost impermeable separation between the traditional milieu and those transversal approaches. The pointligneplan collective created shortly thereafter by Christian Merlhiot shared some of these concerns to do with distribution and programming: film people flirting with contemporary art and artists who were making films, so Gonzalez-Foerster would rub shoulders with Jean-Charles Fitoussi. The meeting finally took place. All those attempts gave rise to a spirit of curiosity among future producers, who, at that time, were production assistants or directors. The idea was not to give up on Rohmer, Straub, and Godard, but to connect this history with another type of cinema.
May: With a more contemporary formal approach and more transversal questions?
R.G.: The Fémis had been created a few years earlier, a highly prestigious school which was keen to be the spearhead of film in Europe, and less French than the IDHEC which it had replaced, so investors and television companies were duty bound to support that. Those were really cultural policy decisions. There was a moment when the film milieu rallied around that goal. But even if the Fémis supplies the profession with competent technicians, where directors are concerned, it must be admitted that it remains very conventional, by contrast, the people who were making peripheral experiments appeared like so much new and invigorating blood. You just have to look at the way the Festival Coté Court at Pantin developed since its creation. It’s very striking.
Bernard Cerf observed that the bulk of French auteur film doesn’t export well, and that it’s almost impossible to find any such films abroad. On the other hand, there are lots of experimental films which do travel, and circulate in small festivals. Even if they have a derisory budget, they are lively participants in French culture. So he asked the CNCand got their agreement that there should be a financial backer just for this different cinema. The creation of Le Fresnoy, markedly focused on films because of its founder Alain Fleischer, has also produced a kind of alternative centre from which quite a few interesting people are emerging.
May: We can see that the ideas of experimental cinema pass through several generations. How might you explain what you could define as experimental in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a way of making films which would be experimental in this new context? Or, otherwise put, is there another definition of what is now called experimental filmmaking among young directors, in which you are also taking part? And are we not becoming removed from a model which was more based on the aesthetic qualities of a film, or how are we to challenge and question the way in which a film is supposed to be made, and has this not extended to communication, diffusion, and the very way of making a film?
R.G.: This is a hard question, and I’m not sure I can answer it. The overt opposition in the end inherited from the political struggles resulting from May ’68 between a predominant cinema and a subversive cinema, has tended to disappear because of the effect of new technologies which introduce generalized image-making. This is a good thing insomuch as this dichotomy was somewhat sterile in itself. The term experimental is tending to disappear as such or tending to no longer describe an historical form among young filmmakers. There is cause for concern if we tell ourselves that this indicates the gradual disappear- ance of the different cinema, or we can tell ourselves that, on the contrary, this difference is in fact being expressed otherwise than in becoming crystallized in a clique. And if it is the nature of cinema itself that directors are questioning without projecting any a prioris into it, then so much the better. The term experimental film has always appeared to me as a sort of pleonasm. Is it possible to think of film without experimentation? There was a quotation by Kubelka which we highlighted in 101: “I’m not making experimental films, it’s the others who are making commercial films. I’m involved in cinema.”
May: It just so happens that we were discussing this with Nicole Brenez:“Experimental film regards the cinema on the basis not of its usages, but of its powers… Such an endeavor is undertaken first and foremost on the technical arrangement peculiar to the cinema.”And we were saying that that was not at all what we were in the process of observing. One gets the impression that it’s more a way of making films which is based on a relation to others. You talk about desire in the interview in the Cahiers,you say that it’s important to “let the director express his desires,” that it’s necessary for “desire to circulate,” so one has the impression that what we call experimental is also happening there, in those collectives.
R.G.: That’s funny because I was just saying to myself that Brenez would be more capable than I am of answering your previous question. I’m not sure that I properly understand the quote, but it seems to me that we should take the term usages in the sense that there are norms which are effectively decreed in a fairly powerful way, in the way film is taught, which once again raises the issue of the film school. Norms not only in terms of film vocabulary, but also in the way of making a film, handing out tasks, and the stages to be complied with… The crisis in film inevitably leads some people to question already existing methods. How are things to be done differently? How is the system to be rethought? What can be shifted? Can such and such a job be envisaged differently? There really is something ideological about the way of putting a crew together, a professional model. As long as things more or less work, nothing is called into question, and then, in effect, when things go wrong, it becomes crucial to find other solutions, and something is instantly invented. The young filmmakers I like, Sophie Letourneur, Justine Triet, Yann Gonzalès, and Benoît Forgeard, would probably have made experimental films in the 1980s and 1990s, because they would not have managed to find their footing in commercial cinema.
These are people who have no hang ups about inventing a new way of doing things, and opposite them they have found young producers ready to accommodate this, and for whom that was probably the only way of escaping from the crushing batch of well-conceived, well-made, academic films. To take an example, Letourneur shoots in a way that is at once chaotic and highly organized, and this produces a kind of fascinating human symphony where the meaning is often misused. Even when her narratives are totally commonplace, they offer a sensitive experience which I find really most interesting. It doesn’t bother her to tell a story, to be thoroughly in a narrative terrain, and at the same time to leave it, and upset it in terms of pace.
May: Let’s go back to the hypothesis of the new production strategies: three of the directors you have mentioned have been produced by Ecce Films…
R.G.: I met Emmanuel Chaumet when Ecce Films was set up and I was intrigued by his curiosity about directors who did sidestep the conventional circuits. At the time I wanted to devote myself to production, but I gave up the idea when I saw that somebody was more or less doing what I wanted to do, and with more experience. I’m sometimes in disagreement with some of his choices, but I have to admit that he has an extraordinary flair and curiosity, and he’s introduced me to people who nowadays matter a lot to me.
May: Could we come back to Alain Guiraudie and his film Stranger by the Lake and at the same time talk about the way it was received by the American audience. What kinds of reception and discussions might emerge from screening these films, especially in the United States, in a context where there is also an interesting independent cinema?
R.G.: It just so happens that Sophie Letourneur’s film, Les Coquillettes, which wasn’t very successful in France, has gone down very well in the United States, or at least at the screenings that were held in New York.
But I was really struck by the acclaim with which the American press greeted Stanger by the Lake. Just as in France one might expect its reception to be enthusiastic, because Guiraudie has long been recognized as an important filmmaker, ever since Godard introduced him at Cannes, so what happened in the United States is much more surprising, because apart from a tiny New York milieu—and that’s pushing it—nobody had heard about him. Bret Easton Ellis tweeted: “It’s the best European film I’ve seen this year.” What I like is the fact that with this film, while remaining truly rooted in his own culture, Guiraudie also, in his own way, pays tribute to Hollywood, and to the formal simplicity of the great film noir, and I was not sure that Americans would pick that up. French criticism of the 1960s highly praised quite a few Hollywood filmmakers by revealing their off-screen genius, and there has been a nice reversal of fate in the fact that, fifty years later, the American press is recognizing the talent of this unconventional Frenchman who is rediscovering the essence of that.
May: It’s true that he’s also being talked about right now with references to Hitchcock, in the New York Times for example… There are a lot of things which come back to the notion of composition and rules. The idea that things are very constructed, that there are very few characters, and a unity of time and place.
R.G.: Yes, it’s true, there is a strict structure. What touches me with that film is that there’s a form of extreme simplification of the vocabulary, which leads both to modernity and classicism.
May: And then there’s the gay dimension, a type of film addressing a gay community. What was the intention of the filmmaker in terms of reception? Did he realize that the film could have been easily only categorize as a gay film?
R.G.: When I started to read the script, I was afraid of it being a film closed in on itself, and then, very quickly, the very fact of starting out from something extremely local but simplified in its geometry suddenly made it possible to have a metaphorical reading going beyond the question of realism.
May: The film has inevitably been compared with Blue Is The Warmest Color because they were screened at the same time in Cannes. But one also realizes that these are two ways of dealing with sexual identity and homosexuality, which are completely opposite with, on the one hand, a truly exaggerated and very demonstrative pathos, and, on the other, almost an absence of expressiveness, emotion and affect. It’s treated in a very minimal way. And because we are also in a somewhat particular period in France with demonstrations against marriage equality, an extremely tense situation, I had the impression that Alain Guiraudie’s film showed the relations between the characters in an infinitely more subtle way, blurring things instead of asserting expected identity-related positions, while at the same time showing those real areas of social emancipation, places where people cruise, like the beach in the film.
R.G.: The film was written three years ago and when it was shot, people were far from thinking that the situation would degenerate the way it has. There was a strange coincidence between its release and this business of marriage equality, but I think that the film is far removed from this particular controversy, because it makes no claims at all: In it, homosexuality is just one clue among many others.
May: Could we talk about the film’s poster, which is really unconventional and was conceived by an artist Tom de Pékin?
R.G.: From the outset I wanted it to be a drawn poster, an illustration, but the distributor and the agency which had been commissioned found that that was complicated and we would be late for Cannes. Alain was not very happy with the posters that were initially proposed, based on photos, which were actually not that bad, and because he put me back to work on the design, I came up with a photo montage and a sketch, and I thought of Tom de Pékin to make the final design, because there’s something childlike about him, which is somewhat Guiraudian. He makes drawings with crayons and at the same time one clearly feels that there’s a kind of slightly fiendish perversity and ambiguity. The distributor was not happy with it, but Sylvie Pialat, the producer, made her decision in favor of it, and in the end everybody liked Tom’s project. We were very careful not to shock anybody: The fairly obvious fellatio in the original project was so simplified that it turned into a sort ideogram, which had to be deciphered. So there was no risk of any child thinking about it, if he didn’t already know what it was. But that did not prevent the scandal of Saint Cloud and Versailles, which, for foreign readers, are two slightly upper-crust and conservative suburbs of Paris, where there was an outcry even though we had the impression that we had taken huge precautions to be just mischievous, without any pointless provocation. It was very surprising but, as fate would have it, it created a lot of buzz about the film and produced an opposite effect: Most people were shocked that there could be a ban on such an innocent poster.
May: Can we talk about your role as production designer, which we haven’t gone into yet?
R.G.: Production designer, art director, I have trouble with these labels, even if, at a given moment, it’s obviously necessary to attach a name to the job. The idea I prefer is having the freedom to intervene and at the same time to intervene rather in order to get back to the essence than to bring in something extra. The director is totally absorbed in his project and there is per force a moment when there is a loss of desire. An outside viewpoint can help him to put his head above water from time to time, breathe in deep, and get a certain distance again. And not imposing on him a truth which would not be an integral part of him.
May: But in what you did, for example, when you designed the poster and worked with that kind of technician, you were doing more than contributing a viewpoint, you are also, in the end, altering the system with little touches.
R.G.: It’s true that disastrous things can happen because of choice which can seem obvious to start with. But refusing the obvious is often just defending the logic of the project. This sometimes involves de-compartmentalizing jobs because there is, all the same, something in French cinema which is very categorized and very corporate: Everyone defends their little bit of turf and this can produce inflexibilities which prevent the essence from emerging. I’ve often been surprised that the director can be made to feel that a decision does not result from his competence, even if nobody ever says as much to him directly. Theoretically, he is entitled to be involved in every aspect, but it is nevertheless important that he lets the “professionals” get on with it. I think that the strength of a true filmmaker, and his or her films, often involves questioning things, reality, and people, and it’s fine that this also contaminates the way of doing things, which means that it also contaminates the work and working relationships. The director is possibly more manipulated by his own crew in France because he is in theory a kind of absolute master, he is mythologized and sanctified by his auteur status. But it’s like the class struggle, as long as you don’t know that there’s a struggle, you’re not prepared to become involved in it, and I think that the strength of American cinema is that the auteur has to take the power, it’s not at all won in advance, and so he has to be terribly cunning for the film not to elude him completely in the end of the day. This, incidentally, is the original meaning of the phrase “the politics of the auteur.” That’s what the auteur politics for the Nouvelle Vague meant and not a at all that the director writes his own script. Fritz Lang and Hitchcock, produced by the major studios, were regarded as technicians, it was the producer who had the final cut, it was the producer who was all-powerful, the director was, in the end, just a cog, and a real auteur is one who manages to win power through the strength of his direction, despite these restrictions.
May: But to help the director go where he originally wanted to go, it takes an unbelievably subtle work of negotiation, discussion, recruitment, location, and choices. And we can see that what you have developed which is not really a method, which is perhaps still just a project for the time being, has been applied well on Guiraudie’s film.
R.G.: We mustn’t exaggerate either. Over several years, with Laurent Lunetta,we have developed a critical way of thinking about Alain’s films and about French cinema in general, which has subsequently been of much help to us. All we do is make up for certain defects in the system. It is important to have confidence in the initial momentum in order to really subscribe to it. This is why first films often have an elegance which is then lost. It’s silly to say as much, but it’s difficult to have confidence, on a shoot, everybody wants to add something because they lack confidence, so the director often says to himself: “Okay, hey, why not? It can’t do any harm.” And people format projects a little bit more projects which are often already too formatted. Incidentally, the obsession with the script and this imperative involving systematic rewriting among certain producers says a whole lot about this lack of confidence in film writing itself, which cannot be reduced to the writing of a “good script.”
May: Have there been any antecedents, for example with Sophie Letourneur?
R.G.: I met her through Emmanuel Chaumet and she’s become a friend; I’ve been closely following her work for a long time. Several times I’ve intervened in her screenplays, as it happens, rather with an eraser than a pen. She asks me for advice, often during editing. But she is wild enough not to need me when she’s filming. In any event, not for the time being.
May: How are things with the directors in this little group?
R.G.: These people know each other but I don’t think they really form a group in the strict sense.
May: There are movements, nonetheless. R.G.: It’s thanks to Sophie that I met Claire Mathon, who shot Stranger by the Lake, and Jean-Christophe Hym, who did the editing. These young filmmakers and the people around them really like Guiraudie’s films, and this amuses me because I can see here a parallel with Renoir and the Nouvelle Vague: Even before they made films, Godard, Truffaut, Rivette hugely admired Renoir, who was much older than them and whom they called the “Boss,” even though they hated the films made by Renoir’s generation and the so-called French quality filmmakers such as Delannoy and Allégret. Renoir had a freedom in his relation to realism and a richness in his experimentation which was very important for those directors.
May: If we come back to the Nouvelle Vague, there were also plenty of directors who started out as critics and, in the end, because of who they hung out with, and by going onto sets to understand how a film is made, as well as by meeting their idols, they became directors without necessarily having thought they ever would. This brings us back to the critical stance, in the end: You are an observer, you act on the cogs of the machine, you might also be a critic, somebody who writes about film—I don’t know if you’re doing this at the moment.
R.G.: I’ve written for 101, and I regularly get a desire to do so again. I helped Alain write the pitch for Stranger by the Lake, in order to get financing, and that was like a critical work from within. What interests me the most, when all is said and done, is being in this relationship of both complicity and observation, immersion and distance.
May: We’re finally bringing things full circle by talking again about the Nouvelle Vague at the end of this interview. Something surprising happened at the Césars ceremony a few days ago. Stanger by the Lake was nominated eight times, and people had the impression that something was shifting, and in the end it only got one César.
R.G.: In fact, that seems to me how things are. Very important films made in 2013 were completely absent from the selection: Serge Bozon’s Tip Top, Yann Gonzales’s Les Rencontres d’après minuit and Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915. But Stranger by the Lake had been talked about too much not to be on people’s minds. This reminds me of Godard’s famous answer, when a journalist said that he was a marginal filmmaker: “The margin is what holds the pages together.” I think the film milieu needs a margin, but that it is not prepared to recognize the full importance of this.
Translated from French by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods
-  Recent term used to refer to medium budget popular films with artistic ambitions. (Wikipedia) ↩
-  Institut Des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, ancestor cinema school of the Fémis. ↩
-  Fémis originally stood for Fondation européenne des métiers de l’image et du son. ↩
-  See Anne Marquez, “The Impossible on Display According to JLG,” May, no. 1 (June 2009), 80–91. ↩
-  One of the first experimental cinema teacher and filmmaker at the university Paris VIII. ↩
-  101 le mensuel des images écrans, founded in 1997 by Jean-Marc Manach (editorial comittee: Roy Genty, Jean-Marc Manach, Michèle Rollin, Mygnan Tatchev and David TV). ↩
-  101, no. 1 to 7, 1997–1998. ↩
-  CNC: Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (National Center of cinema and the moving image). ↩
-  See Jeune, dure et pure ! Une Histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France (ed. Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat) (Paris/Milan: Cinémathèque française/Mazzotta, 2001). ↩
-  Preface of the anthology Jeune, dure et pure, op. cit., 17. ↩
-  « Alain, connu du lac », Les Cahiers du cinéma, n° 695 (December 2013). ↩
-  Laurent Lunetta was the first director’s assistant, screenwriter and co–artistic director of Alain Guiraudie. ↩