Antoine Russbach • Director
"I try to give my characters a certain moral depth"
by Muriel Del Don
- LOCARNO 2018: We caught up with Antoine Russbach, director of the discomforting feature Those Who Work, screened in the Filmmakers of the Present section of the Locarno Film Festival
Antoine Russbach found time to field a few of our questions regarding the screening of his latest film, Those Who Work [+see also:
interview: Antoine Russbach
film profile], during this year’s Locarno Film Festival. He spoke to us passionately - and not without a refreshing dose of irony - about the world of white-collar workers, also shedding light on his own filmmaking approach.
Cineuropa: Your short film, Les bons garçons, also spoke of alienation in the world of work. What is it about this subject which interests you?
Antoine Russbach: There are certain aspects of society that fascinate me, questions for which I just can’t find the answers, niggling issues that play on my mind. I try to drill down into these grey zones, these moments in time where our ideologies fail us. The reality is that all our lives are characterised by compromise and by disorder, and these are the areas which should be explored by film – the grey zones where everything becomes uncertain and unknown. In Les bons garçons, I was fascinated by the idea of meritocracy and the motto “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. It’s such a cruel, brutal thing. It’s a brilliant motto - it means that anything is possible. But it’s also traumatic for those of us who fail. Our whole society is built around this ideology. I’m drawn to subjects which are highly charged from a moral perspective.
In my latest film, I was interested in the notion of alienation at work, but in a white-collar context. Here, we see something of an extreme form of self-alienation. In Those Who Work, an employee thinks he has to commit a crime for his firm, even though no-one has actually asked him to. How is it that work can contaminate our minds, our families, our psyches? Frank’s character successfully manages two separate worlds – work and family – with disconcerting ease.
The characters in your film have great credibility - they’re both strong and complex. How do you work with your actors?
I always try to give my characters a certain moral depth and complicated problems to contend with. As for the actors, I like to give them scope to develop the characters themselves. I don’t deal with these moral issues for them and I don’t give them any answers. To make a film is to question different realities, challenges and assumptions. I’m a big fan of improv, of flinging the doors open as wide as they’ll go. To some extent, the stories I tell are scenarios I create so as to better understand reality and the world around me. When you actually get started on making a film or acting, you see that everything is plausible. Everyone involved can provide something in the way of a response - I’m mostly referring to the actors here. Olivier Gourmet brought something very personal to the film. He really seemed to understand the character, better than I could, in many respects. He took ownership of the story. Stories which pose a moral challenge can be inhabited in very different ways.
Those Who Work is a film which is pared-down aesthetically speaking. It’s modern, graphic and cruel. How did the filmset contribute to this atmosphere?
Creating a realistic set was essential in my mind. I worked hard on the costumes and the sets. I wanted the audience to see an ideal world, badly executed. I wanted Frank’s house to reflect what the characters think and dream of, but a dream which isn’t as ideal and perfect as believed. It’s messy, there are children who undo the immaculacy of the home, a Porsche with a broken cup-holder, a suit stained with sweat marks, a wonky button – all these details burst the bubble of a perfect decor. With my sister’s help, I took photos of the businessmen I passed in town, using a telephoto lens so that they wouldn’t know it. We noticed all those details which stood out from the norm: a bag full of groceries, all-white, 70s-style glasses... When you start to look beyond the man in the suit, you notice that they’re all different from one another. I wanted disorder to reign supreme in the office too. There are a lot of films by French directors where businesses are portrayed as the den of all evil: sterile-white, worryingly symmetrical and strip-lit. But that’s all a fantasy. The problem is that we’re always telling ourselves that we’re not like them, that they’re different: an “evil empire”. I wanted to break with this idea by using a “common” décor, reminiscent of our own - one which wouldn’t sit comfortably with our assumptions. As for my filming approach, I wanted the focus to fall on Frank. It’s through his eyes that we see the world.
(Translated from French)
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