MEETING WITH GWENDAL SARTRE
about his more recent films
Thursday 24 March 2016 at 2 pm
ESAAT, 539 avenue des Nations Unies, Roubaix
Gwendal Sartre was part of the “La Ligne d’Ombre” project in 2012 and 2013, which associated La Saison Vidéo and L’Espace Croisé in defining four online programmes and an exhibition. The title, borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s novel (The Shadow Line), was meant as an approach to youth. So this event highlighted emerging young French artists just through with their artistic training, some of whom were already involved in a professional career. Gwendal Sartre studied at the School of Art and Design (ESAD) in Marseille, and saw his first films attract notice and awards at the Marseille FID. He attended Le Fresnoy in 2014, where he is currently in his second year. Through the presentation and preparation of his recent films, Gwendal Sartre emphasizes the links that he likes to set up between different art forms, such as painting, music and film. One film introduces us to a musician, the character in another film is a painter, and a third draws inspiration from a painting. The light, shots and choice of colours in his films are steeped in a pictorial dimension.
Mo Gourmelon: In a previous interview which dealt with your very first films made at the ESAD Marseille, you said that you film most of your projects on the basis of preparatory drawings, with ideas about colour shades and relations. What’s the situation today, for these last two films, Les énervés and A l’origine une forteresse? What is your point of departure, and how do you then proceed?
Gwendal Sartre: Right now I’m drawing a lot less. At the start of "A l’origine une forteresse", I was keen to be involved in a screenplay collaboration for a possible film which never got beyond the project stage. I went back to it later for a very simple reason. In fact I wanted to film Alain Rivière and Pauline Rivière, whom I knew very well. I bring them into "A l’origine une forteresse", in a father-daughter relationship, but they aren’t in fact related in any way. The reciprocal things I knew about them, and their incongruous sharing of the same surname, nevertheless backed up my hunch about getting them together and making them act together.
Since 2012, Alain Rivière has taken part in the editing of the films "Song, Song" and "Le fils qui dessine". In the latter film, he also provided the voice-over. He was also actively involved in the shooting of the following movie, Les énervés, as assistant cameraman. In that closeness which then developed from one project to the next, I always wanted to direct him like a picture, because I knew that, for me, he was going to be great. Pauline Rivière is an ESAD Marseille student in my year, and someone I’m close to. She has an illness (I myself have always had the impression of having an illness), a rare illness, which is expressed on her skin. Her artistic activity is focused around drawing. All those things about her touch me, and I wanted to film her.
The drawings in the film (we see her drawing a picture, line by line), which she spreads out, then puts in piles or in relation to sheets of a researcher’s calculations and equations, are thus her own. Alain and Pauline both have film-friendly bodies and voices. Alain understood the characters and I knew that, with them, I was going to be able to introduce an interplay of dialogues into my film.
I really wanted to take things further, by making a film with dialogue for the first time. Up until now, the musical sound track underpinned the atmosphere of my films, where there was a voice-over, as in Le fils qui dessine. I myself wrote a great deal of the screenplay, and I was helped for the parts with dialogues by Lucie Liénard and Brice Matthieussent. I surrounded myself with known people with whom I worked very much in cahoots, in Marseille, but it was important for me to film in the Nord Region, in those new landscapes that I was discovering, the North Sea and its dunes, city scenes of the end of a world which seems to have collapsed. Pauline takes a walk in the city, using a previously located itinerary; she walks along beside an endless factory that is abandoned and destroyed, and ends up in a courtyard with a virgin standing against a backdrop with an imposing windmill. It’s like a science-fiction movie after a catastrophe has taken place.
MG: What is the film’s plot?
GS: At the beginning of the film’s script, a scientist who has a dying daughter is trying to find the answer to a solution to save humanity, with a connotation that is again a bit sci-fi. The question, as he sees it, is: does humanity deserve to be saved? So he is trying to save humanity, but, on the other hand, he has no solution for his daughter’s illness, which has not been diagnosed, and which is showing signs on her skin that are degenerating. But I subsequently got rid of any ideas involving science-fiction, and steered his discovery towards a personal discovery, associated with his area of skills, and in his eyes important and even worrying. His daughter can’t be kept informed about all this, and at first glance it doesn’t interest her. In a major scene with dialogue, he says that he is “at a loss” – dépassé or exceeded; however, it’s not his daughter’s illness that he’s talking about, but his research,
In order to formalize the mathematician’s research, it was very important for me to make use of real science texts. I printed out a document several dozen pages long which describes and reports research carried out by Marie Curie. I’m very interested in the comparison between mathematicians’ research and drawings and those of musicians and writers, which seem to me to be, if not the same, then at the very least comparable. The display of the working notes, be it to do with the writing or the aesthetics, left in the shots, on the floor or on a desk, makes it possible, as time passes, to bring in hitherto unsuspected factors. The consultation of the data spread out for people to see seems to me to be more practical than storing and recording in a computer.
I myself write by hand. This seems to me to create a time-frame that’s better adapted to thinking. I need time to let an idea become formalized. I also use a Dictaphone, for later transcriptions. When I was at the school of fine arts, I drew a lot and I liked to connect all the different art forms, painting, music… Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andreï Roublev, about a painter, which deals with poetry and something enigmatic, is a reference for me. In that order of ideas, my film Song Song presents a musician. Le fils qui dessine [The Son who Draws] is a painter. Les énervés is inspired by a painting.
In A l’origine une forteresse, I develop a hunch, that, nowadays, science and the way it is represented have taken the place of the cult. Science has taken the place of power, overtaken by an ideology, based on unknown fears about the future. So mathematicians talk about the invisible, about inaccessible worlds, and quantum physics. Tangible experience is no longer possible, and stems from ideas and beliefs.
In the film, the scientist has a cold, closed personality which has emptied out his body. His daughter, on the other hand, is involved with her body, she evolves in reality, while the man is removed from reality. The two characters have a divergent relationship with the future.
MG: One scene which has nothing naturalistic about it shows us the researcher walking along a beach when, all of a sudden, a shape comes down from the sky and then goes back up into it. To his daughter he says: “I’ve found something better than that. It’s really divine, believe me.”
GS: That shape appeared to me during a dream. I was on the point of abandoning the A l’origine une forteresse film project, and I was thinking about Le Fresnoy, and the project to be conceived. The idea of an unknown, architectured form occurring in a storm came to mind and became the beginning of something. To start with, the scene was meant to take place in a city or town. But the sight of that heavy grey sky, during the shooting, made it clear that the apparition had to happen by the sea, so evident was the way it contrasted with the elements roundabout. We might say that this is a pivotal scene, a catalyst, as far as the scripting and editing of the film are concerned.
MG: The film’s time-frames are deliberately not linear. Why is that?
GS: I wanted to introduce the notion of memory. Like these characters, a past life has to be recalled, and what they have been. Their relations are in smithereens, dissolved, and time seems long for the spectator. But the father and the daughter do not change with time, because there’s no revolution in the lives of people, just a natural repetition of things and goings-on. Last of all, I had always worked beforehand on the basis of a somewhat classical notion of time, and here I was trying to shatter it. I really needed to do that, because this is a film with dialogue, which I wanted to blur by introducing shadows into it. I don’t want people to grasp things, in an obvious way, rather I wanted there still to be a questioning process. I’ve tried to introduce some mystery around them, like the mystery of the world and of abstract mathematical thinking.
The scene I most enjoyed working on, both at the moment of writing it and while I was directing it, is a 7-minute sequence with dialogue. In this scene, it was important for me to reinstate the performances of actors which hold up over time, while at the same time making portraits. The father remembers: “We were at the beach and we decided to go to the Louvre”. That memory makes it possible to visualize past time and their earlier situation, which was happier and probably more glorious too. Their present isolation was not always this way. Light is shed on the past life of the mother and her remembrance. They were living in Egypt, and spending their holidays in France. It’s in this scene, which crystallizes the idea of memory, that the daughter says: “I have no age”. Memory is just an idea and has no more reality than our emotions.
MG: How did the previoius film, Les énervés, come into being?
GS: Les énervés is inspired by the picture Les Enervés de Jumièges, painted in 1880 by Evariste-Vital Luminais. It depicts the legend about a King’s sons who, after betraying their father, were punished by having the nerves in their legs cut. Abandoned to their fate on a raft, they were promised a slow death instead of being coldly executed. I wanted to transpose this punishment to a contemporary period. So, forced into exile, the sons are still alive, and don’t die. I wanted to play on the word “énervés”: the sons have no nerves in their legs, but this is not the usual current meaning of the word, which nowadays means “annoyed”. In my class at the ESAD in Marseille, the sculpture students were really into making things, and they liked that. They would be able to build the raft and, even more so, reproduce the raft in the picture, by working out a sculptural form.
With the spirit of a troupe in black, we filmed near the Lac d’Esparron, in a place where we had access to the water by a track. We always had the question in mind: would the raft float? The two sons with no nerves in their legs looked drowsy or drugged, sick, in a daze. That film had another symbolic value. It enabled me to bring together friends whom I wanted to film. It’s also a film about friendship, and a period in my life that was coming to an end. The raft worked and became the proposal of a new future for each one of us. The end, and the start of something else, a probable future. At the very beginning, Alain Rivière, the second cameraman, who was the only one of his generation, didn’t understand what he was doing on that shoot. But with his camera on a kayak, when he filmed the raft being launched, he had the impression of filming painting. At that particular moment things were very emotional, and there was a lot of rivalry in the shoot. I almost let all the people involved in it do what they wanted. They were all totally involved in that scene, in a kind of euphoria. That film is the planning of a picture, of its displacement in an urgent way, the document of a fantasy, of its probable success, and its confrontation with reality.
À l'origine une forteresse, 2015, 1h04
production Le Fresnoy, Studio national des arts contemporains