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CANNES 2024 Un Certain Regard

Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel • Director of Armand

“Making people uncomfortable might be something I just know how to do”


- CANNES 2024: We caught up with the first Norwegian winner of the Caméra d’Or to discuss body language, discomfort and other aspects of his new film

Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel • Director of Armand
(© Fabrizio de Gennaro/Cineuropa)

In the Caméra d’Or-winning Armand [+see also:
film review
interview: Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel
film profile
(see the news), which screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel follows Elisabeth (Renate Reinsve), on her way to an impromptu parent-teacher meeting. Her son is accused of something serious, but she doesn’t know what it is. One thing is certain – everyone is very, very uncomfortable. And ready to point fingers.

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Cineuropa: When the film was still in progress, you showed some scenes at the Göteborg Film Festival, including that dancing scene with Elisabeth. Body language is so important in this movie.
Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel:
I love seeing dancing in films, and I wanted to have this moment. It’s just beautiful when the camera and actors are in sync like that. This particular dance was supposed to be shorter. Then the choreographer showed it to me, two days before we were planning to shoot, and I loved it. Kubrick used to say that film should be like music; it should be a progression of moods and feelings. I didn’t want to just follow a plot. I guess some people are surprised by it, and they need some logical explanation – maybe Elisabeth is preparing for a play? Maybe that’s why she is dancing? For me, it’s not that interesting to explain everything. I like it when I watch something and wonder why people do what they do.

The adults have to face something extremely uncomfortable here: children’s sexuality. Not only that – they actually have to talk about it.
I used to work in a primary school when I was in my early twenties, and now, I also have a small child. People get very uncomfortable when they need to have these discussions. I thought about this moment, when a teacher tells the parents about what happened between these two boys. You immediately think: where did they learn it? It’s odd because something that might feel natural in a kindergarten doesn’t feel natural in school any more, but kids don’t know that! They don’t know that line between what’s allowed and what’s not, and it was very interesting to work with that.

You don’t show the kids, and you don’t let them talk. Why?
This was never about the kids – it was about their parents. About how children mirror their behaviour, about how they see themselves in their kids. It felt like a stronger choice, never to reveal who Armand was – or his friend. You can imagine it only based on what their parents are saying.

People prefer to blame parents instead of their kids. But is that even fair?
It is tricky, I agree – it’s like we are removing this child’s autonomy. It’s troubling, but I also know how symbiotic these first years are: a child and its parent are affecting each other in every single way. The research shows that what happens at home matters. When there are problems there, we have to take action. Kids don’t have a language for everything, but they do repeat what they see.

You are certainly looking at them – you are looking at her. Elisabeth is beautiful and famous. Others already want her to fail.
Celebrities, actors – these are the people we have the most opinions about. Even though we never actually know anything [the director’s grandparents are Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman]! This film is about taking the little information you might have, and then making up the entire story. It made a lot of sense to make her a public figure.

When she breaks down, it lasts forever. Did you want to make people uncomfortable again?
I wanted to make people feel things, and making them uncomfortable might be something I just know how to do. Which sounds psychotic [laughs]. It’s intriguing because the viewers react in different ways. Some laugh, some cry, some just want to get out. I, for one, always behave terribly at funerals. I start to laugh, and I hate it. To make this scene work, I felt it had to last a long time. I hate watching films with the audience, but this made it enjoyable. I could hear the laughter spread all over that big room. I could hear the emotional journey they went on. I think it was stronger as a collective experience.

Your characters are stuck in a school, but it feels like something straight out of a horror movie sometimes. It’s scary, and there is no way out.
It was supposed to be claustrophobic and scary. I had a sleepover at my school when I was ten years old, and it just stuck with me. There were no grown-ups around, and this old building, so full of life and noise during the day, was quiet and empty. That contrast, that feeling, all this history and all the lives that went through it… I wanted it to be there.

It makes sense because you also suggest some dark things: abuse, violence. But never too openly.
We inflict so much pain on each other – even in loving relationships. Where does the line between love and abuse stop? With that married couple [the parents of Armand’s friend], we don’t know if it’s a game. Or is it more serious? There is this saying that trauma moves from one generation to another, and there is a hint of that, too. Everyone has their story. Who will we believe?

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