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Virgil Vernier • Director

"Reality sometimes takes on very odd dimensions"


- Virgil Vernier talks about Sophia Antipolis, his captivating second feature unveiled at Locarno and released in France by Shellac

Virgil Vernier • Director
(© Thomas Smith)

Virgil Vernier had a very prominent debut with Mercuriales [+see also:
film profile
 (ACID selection at Cannes in 2014 and nominated for the Louis-Delluc prize for Best First Film), and the French director does more than confirm his talent with the spellbinding Sophia Antipolis [+see also:
film review
interview: Virgil Vernier
film profile
, unveiled at Locarno (in the Filmmakers of the Present section) and distributed in France on 31 October by Shellac.

Cineuropa: Sophia Antipolis evokes a specific place while invoking something broader. 
Virgil Vernier: It’s less the city and more the poetic echoes and the imaginary that attracts me. Sophia Antipolis evokes something archaic, like a kind of mythical Greek city that would have never existed, a lost civilisation, because the name is familiar to everyone, but no one has ever been there. Choosing that particular setting also allowed for word play on “anti polis” both in terms of the city and the police, because the film focuses on the story of two security guards.

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There were already security guards back in Mercuriales. 
It’s interesting to me because it’s what best represents the contemporary world. We come across them everywhere, in all capitalist and urban settings, but at the same time, they are like the furniture, nobody pays attention to them. Night security guards fascinate me the most, because they’re like sentinels who roam and reign over the city while we sleep, just like castle guardians once did.

So you’re interested in focusing on the anonymous? 
The idea was to give anonymous things that we might consider uninteresting, ugly, and on the city outskirts – people we don’t want to put in the spotlight – great value, ennobling them and transforming them into mythical and iconic characters. And it's the same for the landscape, we wanted to make sets that looked like they could belong to a Greek tragedy or a place where something symbolic or timeless might happen.

The film flirts with the non-narrative. 
It interests me more to show people’s charm and the strange mystery of certain places than to tell a story that people would read to lull their children to sleep, as if it were a distraction. I want to show real things, and how they are related to each other. In Sophia Antipolis, I wanted to demonstrate that people not only share a city, the place where they live, but are also all looking for a sense of community. People are so lonely and lost in today's world, which can be so confusing when you’re not educated properly and when you don’t have the means to escape. It can sometimes be mistaken for the idea of community or fighting. You can easily end up a fascist if you’re not well educated or don’t have a concrete moral grounding. And we can be fooled by sects and abusive people. I wanted to show that people are not ridiculous for being deceived, the tragic side of things, but also the more tragicomic side, because nothing is as dark or violent as it appears in the film.

The places clearly symbolise the contemporary void. 
I chose Sophia Antipolis because, as is the case in Los Angeles, it’s a city that’s not made for pedestrians. Everywhere is travelled by car, everything is too big, the architecture is fascist, just like all those massive cathedrals built to impress, and it can make people feel small and submissive. These are empty places where we’re unable to feel things on a human scale and are crying out for some human warmth, to meet each other. At the same time, it’s in the sun. I love the contradiction between the inhumanity and coldness and the fact that it is a sunny place, the picture-perfect cliché of the Côte d'Azur, which fools you into believing that everyone is going swimmingly, that it has an eternal youth and a playful idleness to it.

The film is both very realistic and sort of like a waking, floating dream. 
When a hypnotised man turns into a real iron bar in the film, it's downright crazy, unreal. But it’s all true, I asked a real hypnotist to do it. There is no need – as is often the case in American films – for special or stylistic effects. Reality can sometimes take on very odd dimensions. Encounters between unexpected images can also create surreal impressions. I try to draw out all the weird poetry that there can be in reality, in empty offices for example – which are boring and lack poeticism – in the film and by filming from a distance. But it's not the world of work that interests me, it’s more a question of: what would we do if we were to find a girl’s corpse in an empty office?

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(Translated from French)

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