If José Luis Guerín’s L’Accademia delle Muse had been the only film I saw at LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL 2015, it would have been totally worth the hassle of getting there and surviving under the scorching Swiss sun!
L’Accademia delle Muse is the BEST FILM DISCOVERY I made on the festival circuit in 2015. Hopefully coming up on MUBI soon.
This interview with José Luis Guerín was taken in French during LOCARNO Film Festival in August 2015. This is my English translation.
Dana Knight: This is a very special film, a very unusual film. It’s very difficult to describe and impossible to label, how did you come up with such an original idea?
José Luis Guerín: Yes, I even had problems trying to write a synopsis! Because the main story belongs in a way to a stereotypical world: adultery, encounters in cars, things like that. But what is important in cinema is not what happens but how it happens. The way the film captures certain things, the way in which words are being spoken. This is a film that totally seduced me with the way it talks about things. The beauty of the dialogue, in the tradition of Lubitsch and Eustache, the mise-en-scène of the words, of the utterance. As a cineaste, you always want to show things in a different light, in a surprising light, as if we see them for the first time.
Knight: The film is shot documentary-style, especially the scenes in the classroom. This adds to the freshness of the POV.
Guerín: Exactly. This is something that I developed from one film to another, a sort of renovation of dramatic form. I started by doing fiction films but then I felt that fiction was in a sort of cul-de-sac, fiction is generally just stereotypes that we repeat. The work with the actors is always interesting and I love working with actors but it always leads to a cul-de-sac. So in order to evolve in the way of telling a story, I would alternate between documentary and fiction film. And it always happens that in documentaries I use the wisdom from fiction films: how to work with narrative, time and space. And in fiction films I use things that I learnt from documentaries: how to create a situation, the quality of interaction between characters in order to capture a moment of truth. Because the art of docu-fiction consists of capturing a moment of truth.
Knight: In this film,we have the impression that things are happening now and we are there with the characters.
Guerín: This was exactly my intention, yes. Even if I was the one who organised the situation, the fictive situation, I don’t know exactly how things are going to take place. I am as surprised by what I see happening in front of me as the spectators are. That’s why in my method of filmmaking I don’t shoot for 6-8 weeks continuously, I alternate between short periods of shooting and editing. I start with analysing what I just filmed on the editing table, then I’m thinking: wouldn’t it be interesting to develop these characters in a follow-up shoot? So it’s cinema that nurtures itself, it’s not made of predetermined ideas imposed on a story line, it’s not a closed scenario. The writing of the scenario takes place at every step of the filmmaking process.
I struggle with the idea of cinema seen as closed compartments: the creative stage that consists in writing a screenplay, then shooting, which is the execution of what we wrote, then editing what we filmed. No, I like to write a little, then go and shoot a few scenes, then I edit what I shot, then I rewrite, then I shoot more. It’s a process in which I’m the first spectator of my film, my film escapes my control, there is an interaction between me and cinema. I like this a lot because for me cinema is about revelation, about discovery. If I know in advance what is going to happen, I lose the desire to see that happening.
Knight: How did you work with the actors? What is their creative share in the film, how did they contribute to their character, their speeches?
Guerín: We talked about this a lot. They are not professional actors, the professor and his students exist for real, this academic community is not my creation.
Knight: How did you discover them?
Guerín: I met professor Rafael Pinto through his writings and seminars on Dante. His texts on Dante were very important for a previous film I made, In the City of Sylvia. He invited me to sit in on his class one day and in all narcissism he said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you filmed me talking to my class?”. And to be honest I did find him interesting, and also the characters who started appearing in the film. So I suggested they played a fictional version of themselves. And I loved their love for words. Sometimes in these philological contexts we utter words of love with the rhetoric of a troubadour. Other bits seem taken from a bolero. It’s impossible to write these lines and then give them to actors to recite, it’s pretty incredible what they come up with. And they say these words with such conviction.
Knight: Because this situation is natural to them, these words come naturally to them.
Guerín: Exactly. And this is what excited me, to build the narrative around the quality of the spoken words.
Knight: How do you see the professor, what is your perspective on him? We discover him gradually and what we discover is very conflicted!
Guerín: Yes, he’s a very conflicted character. And also an incorrect character!
Knight: That’s exactly what I wanted to say but didn’t quite dare finish my thought…
Guerín: Yes but I don’t like to judge my characters, I don’t like to moralise. That’s why I like Eric Rohmer a lot, he’s looking without judging. I want to give spectators the space to think for themselves.
Knight: That’s why I’m asking you this question, because I couldn’t detect any judgement on your part, I don’t have the slightest idea what your take on this character is.
Guerín: Exactly. Even if there is a sort of ironic distance, there is humour. It’s important to have humour in the film.
Knight: Without judging though, you must have an instinctive reaction towards him. So do you like the professor or are you hesitant about him? He’s a great charmer.
Guerín: Yes, he is. And there are several sides to him, he’s a little bit like Don Quixote, a crazy idealist, and I like that. I like his power of seduction, his faith in the power of words. But to have a moral perspective on a professor who sleeps with all his students, it’s tricky!
Knight: But you’re not actually showing that, maybe he is innocent!
Guerín: No, I didn’t but we imagine that he does! There is a possibility that he sleeps with them all. And it’s disproportionate, it’s incredible that he would. But it’s a valid hypothesis. And even this idea of an academy of muses that aims to save the world through involvement with poetry, is such a crazy, incredible idea. And this reminded me of Hitchcock who said: the more incredible the subject, the more realistic its execution should be. And the subject of this film is indeed incredible, but we believe it because they are so convincing. So the professor in this film is not related to me in any way, except maybe as demiurge. Sometimes I think that he is like a cineaste who is about to create a world, a film world with his students who are his actresses.
And that is what I also felt as cineaste. The characters are autonomous, they are completely independent of me. They escape my control and I like this idea a lot, to have no control over them. To create a process that goes beyond me.
Knight: I also wanted to ask you about the jealousy scene between the professor’s wife and one of his students at the end of the film. How did that come about?
Guerín: It’s a very good scene, no? There was real pain.
Knight: Yes but there is also the troubling idea that these women define themselves in relation to him. His wife says: “I am his editor, I decide on everything that goes into his books”. And the student says: “Yes but his sonnets are dedicated to me, so I’m more important than you”. This was a bit difficult for me to watch. I’m also thinking feminists will have a field day with those statements too. How was this scene born?
Guerín: It came from the women playing those parts. It’s true there are many contradictions. The girl who says that is also a feminist. I don’t like a cinema that preaches things (in original: “cinéma à thèse”), that propagates certain ideas. Because that simplifies reality, reality is full of contradictions, conflicts between reason and feelings. I was shocked by the pain that was born in this sequence, they went further than I expected. Even if it’s fiction, this story of adultery obviously doesn’t exist, but the scene gained such force. And maybe that’s the advantage of working with non-professionals. Professional actors know how to protect themselves, there is a technique that allows them to use their own feelings, their memory, but they put a distance between them and the role. But these poor women suffered for a week after this scene.
Knight: I have no doubt, we see the pain in their eyes, especially the young girl whose face twitches with grimaces throughout that scene.
Guerín: Yes. And this is an extreme: the scene is fictional but we managed to capture the truth. This is similar to jazz players doing a jam session, no scenario, they start with an instrument then respond to that and everything is the creation of the moment. So I tried to reproduce the conditions of a jam session, I wanted to see how things were going to unfold. It was a bit like fishing: I chose a place, a situation, and then I wait to see what happens.
Knight: Also the idea of filming them behind a window, or other transparent surface, how did that come about? There is usually a surface that mediates between them and us.
Guerín: At the the beginning I chose to do that because I felt they were a bit shy. I was filming the class which is a public space so that was natural. But how do you go from there to the interior of the house? So I found this solution which is also symbolical of the confrontation between the outer and inner life of a character. This juxtaposition of images and their reflection is a metaphor of cinema itself. And the movements of the traffic, of daily life gives birth to contrasts between the characters’ inner life and their outer existence in the same image.
It’s also a way to define the space, this is a film I made without moving, it’s made of close-ups, therefore you become aware of the space through its reflections. The reflections of the world. And this gives birth to a special emotion I think: the violence of the outer world contrasted with the words of inner life in the same image.
Knight: This also makes the film even more enigmatic. The story is in itself enigmatic but the way you film things, the fact that we can’t see clearly what is going on, amplifies this enigma. The relationship between the professor and his wife is full of enigmatic pauses and allusions.
Guerín: Yes, which makes it very amusing. I initially thought of the relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the great idealist and the pragmatic woman who doesn’t believe in love. But interestingly enough, at the end of the film, the woman who truly believes in love is revealed to be her. This was important, I wanted the characters to grow, to change. We discover the characters bit by bit, from one scene to another but also inside the same scene, it is important to have movement from one state to another, motion. Motion is emotion.