"Seeing the world through the filter of unreality"
by Muriel Del Don
- We met up with Swiss director Lionel Baier, who recently showcased Vanity in the ACID section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Born in Lausanne in 1975 into a Swiss family with Polish roots, Lionel Baier founded the company Bande à part Films in 2009 with fellow filmmakers Ursula Meier, Frédéric Mermoud and Jean-Stéphane Bron. His feature films have been screened at a number of international film festivals. His most recent opus, Vanity [+see also:
interview: Lionel Baier
film profile], a striking portrait of three people overcome by an unexpected wave of passion and desire (for death), was unveiled in May at Cannes, as part of the ACID selection. It is due to be released in theatres on 2 September.
Cineuropa: In Vanity, you approach the delicate topic of assisted suicide with humour and sensuality. Where did the idea to do that come from?
Lionel Baier: First of all because the issue of assisted suicide is a topical issue that affects a lot of countries in the European Union and is something the Swiss passed laws over very quickly. I get the impression that it made sense for a generation born just after the war, a generation that saw the arrival of the pill and abortion and has always been able to choose. It’s normal for this generation to have a say in everything right till the end. The Swiss worked fast to pass legislation on this issue because it’s in their DNA, with direct democracy, to address societal issues at the political level. It amused me that in Switzerland things are so organised, that in a country where everything has its place, the issue of death has also been regulated. My angle of attack came out of a story someone told me, about a boy who prostituted himself to fund his studies and one night found himself in a hotel room next to one in which a man and a woman were to commit assisted suicide. This bowled me over, that you can be a partition wall away from someone who has decided to organise their death and, as is typical of the Swiss, has decided to so in a very methodical way.
In a lot of your films, you reclaim the Swiss landscape, giving it an almost magical and surreal dimension devoid of all cliché. Is this intentional?
Switzerland is like an island in the middle of Europe, it’s a sort of living postcard. I wanted the film, which was filmed in a studio, to have this chocolate box feel to it. It’s the perfect setting; I feel like I’m living on a huge film set, as if cities like Lausanne, Geneva and Zurich are mere sets. It’s so ordered that the inhabitants are like extras. My film is a bit like a fairy tale and Switzerland is practically a fairy tale country where everything is perfect, everything has its place.
In your films you demonstrate a very personal talent for portraying what is commonly referred to as “real life”. What’s your relationship with "real life"?
I don’t believe in real life in film at all. Film has nothing to do with reality and I think that deep down, it’s simply there to produce something that is neither more nor less real than real life. On the other hand, film operates with a code of human motion that differs slightly from what we experience in real life and sometimes this code, this type of artificiality, helps us to better understand the world around us. I believe that to be very sincere in a film, about the emotions and aims of the characters, you shouldn’t hesitate over stepping into a rather broad unreality, because surprisingly, that’s the best way to understand reality. I think that all artistic forms view the world through the filter of unreality. In my films, there are a lot of autobiographical elements but, like all modest people, I tend to say a lot of things that may seem very personal but are actually there to help me to better protect and hide myself and never show who I really am. There are also elements of reality that I feel very close to. The relationship with death is, for example, something that interests me because it’s completely unreal; it represents the most absolute form of the unknown. In Vanity, there’s a character that says, "I don’t think there’s anything natural about death," and I agree.