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Harry Cleven • Director

The Dynamics of Trouble


- Meeting with Harry Cleven in Cinergie's editorial offices

Harry Cleven • Director

Cinergie: Is it coincidental if all your feature films are family stories focused on conflictual relationships between siblings ?
Harry Cleven (smiling) : I have a brother and a sister but we get along very well. Actually, when I started writing the script, I was interested in twins and what happens to them. I knew of some studies dealing with twins who had been separated after their birth and their evolution. It appeared that identical twins tend to be even more similar when raised in different families. This challenges the usual conceptions about what is instinctive and what is learnt. Twins’ identity problems are fascinating. A friend of mine once told me that when he looked at himself in a mirror, he saw his twin and not himself. Probably because in a mirror, the image is inverted, and twins are perfectly symmetric. Another friend told me that, raised an orphan, he had been revealed later by a solicitor that he had a brother and a sister. I put all these true stories together, andthe result was this strange script.

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Was there many changes between the original and the final script ? I see that four script-writers were involved.
I was in charge from the beginning to the end, but sometimes I needed someone else’s help, to widen perspectives. There were seven drafts and five versions of the script. Still, I kept working on it for another year, cutting and re-organising, proof-reading it this time as a director . You may think of this as overwork, but that is my method. For me, the making of a film takes several stages, and each one of them is as necessary to the next as the previous one was to it. Writing is creating the stuff I am going to shoot. Shooting is producing substance that needs editing. While editing, I start thinking about sound editing, and when this is done, it then needs mixing. The more stuff I have written and shot, the greater my possibilities are when editing, and the more I am able to refine the initial project. Mixing is a crucial stage, for that is when you put together pictures and sound. In real life, we have five senses to perceive the world around us ; in films, there are only images and sound to say it all. So you need to make clever use of both, sometimes suggesting what is out of the picture, for which sound helps greatly.

Twins and duality are the obvious themes of your film, but there seems to be something else at its core, doesn’t it ?
That’s right. The main theme is identity shifts. Identity is not built upon a single reality but upon several ones, each of which opens on to a more or less secret world. Between all these worlds, shifts occur incessantly, and the different realities surface one after the other and fade back into the background again. You think you know yourself, you think you made something with your life, and suddenly, you are confronted with a part of yourself you did not know and everything you thought you owned breaks and collapses. That is what happens to Mathyas, the main character, and his story conveys terrible anxiety. I wanted to reach the spectators’ souls, by using their deepest fears. The film was built like a thriller, but the fear I want the spectator to feel is a of more refined, more insidious, more sensual type than in a traditional thriller. I wanted to suggest it rather than show it. So I put the spectator in the same position as the hero who discovers gradually each element of a sordid process. My aim was to make the public feel as lost as Mathyas is, as disoriented and anxious to understand.

Using twins also allows to play with the character(s)’ schizophrenic sides.
Exactly. For that matter, I created them with schizophrenia in mind. From that angle, Mathyas’s development is interesting. During the film, he increasingly feels within himself the existence of a darker self, first embodied by his twin brother. This darkness is gradually revealed to him ; it eventually becomes what he is. I was also interested in his increasing paranoia. No sooner does his brother enter his life, than he thinks ‘He is better than me’. From that moment, he searches for proofs that his wife and son actually prefer his brother. And that is what happens eventually ; he brings it on himself by constantly doubting and therefore creating tension.

How about the casting ? Why Benoît Magimel ?
In the beginning, we considered making the movie with real twins, but there was a series of problems : one always plays better than the other, they don’t identify with the plot, and so on. So we dropped the idea and decided to use a single actor for both roles. Thisobliged us to find a famous actor, for having one actor for two roles implies special effects and therefore a big budget. If you want a producer to take that risk, you need a star actor to convince him. As far as the actor’s age is concerned, we did not have much choice. I needed someone with a fine and regular face, for reasons you must have understood when you saw the film. It became obvious that Magimel was the one.

And why Natacha Régnier?
She is extraordinary. Both soft and wild. She has a gentle face with shiny eyes and a bright skin, but there is something raw behind it which makes her very interesting. The way she interprets her character, Claire, is remarkable ; you can really feel her gradually changing. Natacha is really full on. She does not like cheating. If she is afraid she cannot make it, she prefers to say no ; but when she goes for a role, every inch of her is into it. Her inner strength and power to trigger emotions is rather incredible.

How about Olivier Gourmet ?
I already wanted to work with him when I made Pourquoi se marier... but it did not happen, and since I like him and wanted to work with him, I managed to have him accept a small part, Magimel’s father. The two scenes in which he is are two very strong scenes in the movie. He has such presence, such power, he is extraordinary. You can feel the man’s life weigh on his shoulders, the mix of anger, disgust, love, and guilt, which weighs on him and confuses him. He is outstanding.

The film was shot in Brussells in the winter. But pictures are really luminous. How did you manage ?
Together with the chief operator, I tried to maintain a constant combination of warm and cold tones. When the colours were bright, we compensated with cold light, and conversely. Our model in this respect was Eyes Wide Shut. We wanted to perturb the spectator visually and confuse him about where he is.

The film is based on an alternation of outdoor scenes, open, and indoor scenes, more claustrophobic.
True, it comes and goes between confined and open spaces. Each time Mathyas is tense, the film moves indoors, in a small space (a corridor, a small room...), and then we move outside again, for a breath of fresher air. In fact, I wanted some scenes to be recurrent, the ones where my character is walking on his own. It is a way to be alone with him and follow his emotional evolution. The idea was to show him each time with a different walk, to convey his changing inner state. Besides, note that the very clear cuts between indoor and outdoor scenes are only visual. It is quite the opposite for the sound. Sound is more here to express the character’s perception than to create the general atmosphere. If the character is in the same emotional state for three scenes in a row, then the sound must convey this. Backgroung sounds are fairly discrete, which makes the whole thing more fluid ; it balances the cuts in the image.

For the music, you chose George Van Dam again — he wrote the original music of your previous film, Pourquoi se marier….
I really enjoyed working with him at the time, and I like his music. We made rather daring choices. For a thriller, you would imagine an American music underlying intense moments with musical climaxes. What I wanted, however, was completely different ; I wanted glissandos to sinew into the general sound background and sink into it. I also worked with Dimitri Coppe, who composes acousmatic music, that is, music based on ordinary life sounds. It intermingles subtly with background sounds. So there are three levels soundwise — four if dialogues count. George and I really made unconventional choices. For instance for the fight, I chose something very ethereal, cello and piano. I actually follow the traditions of the genre, but I slightly pervert them. I do not make it obvious, but it works very well that way.

Can you tell us more about the script and how you cut and organised sequences, since you said it was crucial ?
I worked on that for more than a year, and came up with three different versions. I wanted sound and image to follow the character’s emotions, which is in fact the only possible point of view, since we don’t understand either what happens to him. So I tried to emphasize his perception of what happens. Each image depends on his point on view. For example, when he feels endangered, the camera is in his back, and if he turns around, so does it. Not only did this technique allow me to express how ill-at-ease and how far-gone he is, but if you work thoroughly, it also gives more options when editing. But you cannot improvise this on the set just before shooting, you have to have thought it through before so as to, for instance, organise the scenery accordingly. This is especially important with a 35mm camera, since it needs room and cannot be moved easily. To give you an example, it took a lot of time to find the childhood house where the plot reaches its climax. It had to be homely but at the same time we needed a big staircase for the fight scene, long yet wide enough corridors, and space to move the camera around.

You clearly embrace the point of view of one character, Mathyas, which is exactly the contrary of what you did in your previous film, Pourquoi se marier..., where you shifted points of view, from character to character.
These two films are very different. When I made Pourquoi se marier..., my intention was to explore the grammar of cinema and find my own style. I found it. So now my purpose was to use it not for its own sake but for the plot, to take the spectator exactly where I wanted. I wanted this movie to be a sensorial experience, not an intellectual one. One of the best examples of that is when Mathyas meets his father ; that’s my favourite scene. In less than three minutes, not a word is said, yet the spectator fully understands what goes on in their mind from the characters’ eyes. When a father meets his son again after 20 years, you would expect certain reactions, which is not at all what happens here. What happens is shocking and confusing, and works very well on the public. That’s the mechanics of a thriller : from scene to scene, the spectator, in utter confusion, thinks he is about to learn the truth and ends up even more disoriented. He starts hanging on every look, every gesture, and every behaviour, as a key to the truth, as gospel ; he builds his own interpretation of events, in some way he builds his own film. That’s the thrill.

Video-interview with Harry Cleven

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