by Fabien Lemercier
- Meeting with two film-making brothers deeply involved in the subtle exploration of human complexity
Just back from the Yokohama French Film Festival and now well into the Forum des Images festival in Paris, Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu made a short detour from the Champs-Elysées to share with Cineuropa memories of their latest opus, To Paint or Make Love. A frank discussion during which both brothers reveal a deep complementarity that finds fertile ground in their subtle quest for the retranscription of human complexity.
Cineuropa: How did you come to write To Paint or Make Love?
Arnaud Larrieu: From looking around us, at people whose professional lives had run their course but who otherwise were fit as fiddles. And what happens when your social life stops?
Jean-Marie Larrieu: We actually experienced this type of encounter for ourselves in the country. It’s what we call the film’s Japanese side. What do the places, the landscapes contribute? Keeping in mind that, at the end of the story, there be a "moving on" evoked by the Jacques Brel song, Les Marquises, and also by Gauguin. A "moving on" related to art, painting and desire, a different kind of eroticism, a more liberated kind. A moving on that can also mean passing on, the end of something.
Arnaud Larrieu: The sightless person (Sergi Lopez) is a kind of mirror. The characters are seen by no one and they find themselves opposite someone who cannot see them, an unforgettable moment of soul-searching which leaves you feeling really naked.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: The blind man restores the newcomers’ virginity. They are 55 years old and people of substance rather than style, but a person’s physical appearance means nothing to a sightless person. All of a sudden no holds are barred, they kind of get the chance to relive their youth.
With regard to production, you didn’t just shoot in the Pyrenees
Arnaud Larrieu: Not many people film in the Pyrenees. We’d like to have seen Auteuil and Azéma there in their wellington boots.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: The Alps are more familiar cinematic territory, that’s what worried us most. And also, we felt that, if there were any discoveries to be made, we were going to make them only in the strangest place we could find: a walnut tree orchard, right opposite the Vercors, a very special house with the walnut drier acting as a kind of exterior-interior. Because there are the landscapes, four characters, and a fifth: the house.
What did it feel like directing stars like Auteuil and Azema?
Arnaud Larrieu: We wanted well-known actors. But there was nothing of the prima donnas about them.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: As far as directing the actors is concerned, it was much easier, but you have to be careful as everything happens very quickly. What they can’t convey with just a look is nobody’s business.
What’s good about directing jointly (Arnaud for the frame and Jean-Marie for the actors)?
Arnaud Larrieu: Many films are directed by Heads of Ops. The directors only direct the actors when the actors aren’t directing themselves. But the directing can consequently suffer. For us, the frame is more than just a pretty picture, it’s a point of view, and therefore a distance.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: Alone, you are constantly caught between talking to the actors up close and then backing off with the eyepiece. For us, it’s simultaneous and it’s only right that the person who thinks of the image be the one to frame it. But we do have a Head of Ops for the lighting.
Arnaud Larrieu: The actors are, all the same, our starting point and we always begin with a rehearsal to see where we should position ourselves. There is no advance editing.
At which point do you start to play with the film’s symbols (darkness falling, the fire, ...).?
Jean-Marie Larrieu: We try to treat actual events in terms of the senses. Then there are symbolic forces that interject.
Arnaud Larrieu: When we were writing the screenplay, we liked the idea of the characters’ Freudian slips. For example, it’s William (Auteuil) and Madeleine (Azema) who light the fire as if they wanted to relive more primitive events.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: The film always highlights their point of view and that is where the seeds of doubt are sown: is this what we want, why are we guilty? We never know what actually happened. As in life, when serious events occur, you have to dig really deep to be able to uncover a meaning. In any case, we like mythology: gods and legends are anchored in reality, that’s what makes reality all the more different and all the richer, the fact that it’s not a news programme. We try to tell stories with multiple layers. It’s a film that shines a torch on what happens in the night. The story, the way in which it works, is based on signs and omens. Some people refuse to take this on board, as signs are always slightly ambiguous. I like stories where you’re never sure of anything as that’s what makes life so charming and profound.
Was To Paint... influenced by other filmmakers ?
Arnaud Larrieu: We’ve often thought that Renoir was ideal for actors.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: There’s also some Buñuel in there, in writing about the bourgeois’ secret, event-filled life. But the actor, the character, takes precedence with regard to the story. Watching Renoir’s La chienne again, you notice the originality of the framing, you appreciate his technical contribution as, up until then, the actor was the quicker of the two. Our approach to framing is almost Hitchcockian: the frame says something, it enables the transfer of emotions and that’s precisely the effect we seek with landscapes and places.
Arnaud Larrieu: There are various ways you can do it: use lots of special effects, blue light, wide angles, ... But being simple souls, we grow no taller than our characters. We don’t want to sacrifice substance to style. And as for the circular travelling shot around the table: please!
Jean-Marie Larrieu: It’s nice to look at but we’ve never figured out exactly who has a circular point of view. Directors often don’t know what to do next, they’re afraid audiences will get bored.
How does your craftsman’s approach fit in with the financial constraints of production?
Jean-Marie Larrieu: To make movies, you need money. Art-house films made with modest amounts that try to be commercial and accessible are the most difficult to make.
Arnaud Larrieu: We started off managing our own budgets and we do what we can with the money available. Other directors are less thrifty, demanding four days for such and such a sequence, but not us.
Jean-Marie Larrieu: Sometimes we wonder if we’re not being too respectful, or even if we shouldn’t give way on all points. But that helps you develop strategies for dealing with the constraints. Often, in the cinema, it’s only when you’re cornered that you find the appropriate shot.