Patrice Chereau Interview

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French writer/director Patrice Chereau has a wonderful new film out, Intimacy, that investigates the unique nature of relationships. Only, no one is talking about that. They’re only talking about the blowjob scene. Chris Neumer talks to Chereau to get the low down on the movie, its origins and, yes, its sexual content.

by Chris Neumer

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CHRIS NEUMER: The roles were so three-dimensional and deep, were you ever tempted to hop in and take on one of them yourself?

PATRICE CHEREAU: I never think to play it myself. I did it a very few times. Most of the time, you’ll see me when I’m replacing somebody, an understudy if you will. Or if somebody else has to work elsewhere, I’m a replacement, that’s it. Most of the time, it’s just pure chance. Sometimes it’s funny to do it, but I don’t feel myself as an actor. I really happy I’m a director because I’m happy behind the camera, not in front.

CHRIS NEUMER: Fair enough.

PATRICE CHEREAU: There’s also a lot of work as an actor.

CHRIS NEUMER: You co-wrote this film, so that’s got to be a lot more work there anyway. One of the things I liked about this was how you turned normal relationships on their ear. When Jay followed Clare home, you had this feeling that he was doing something bad and naughty when all he wanted to do was get to know her a little better. Was this part of the appeal of the project?

PATRICE CHEREAU: The beginning of the script starts exactly like the short story did. This women comes over on Wednesday afternoon and so on and they don’t know each other, they don’t speak. The first question, the reason to write this script was to ask and figure out how they would carry on, how will they continue? When love will arrive? If it arrives. Of course, love arrives very soon and, of course, what do you do when you start to become addicted to somebody? And we discover that we could describe it as being part of the usual mistakes that you can do in this case: follow in secrecy, to open the letters and look at the photos. You also ask the question: what do we know about the person you live with or you’re in love with? Do you need to do everything or not?  The answer is no.

CHRIS NEUMER: As we can see.

PATRICE CHEREAU: At the same time, how do you avoid the feeling of a sense of possession, you know? Because you don’t possess anybody. It’s interesting because it’s like a catalogue of all the mistakes we can do, you know? What a man can do, because a woman can do other things, not these. Also because Jay wants more than she can give him. She was very clear in the beginning–probably it was very clear in the beginning that she couldn’t give more. But of course he wants more and she can not give it. Then he decides not to want anything. He destroyed the beauty of the relationship.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m sure you’ve been getting a lot of questions by the media about the very sexual nature of the film. I could have cared less since it really worked well with the material, but do you think that this was a beautiful relationship they had at the beginning?

PATRICE CHEREAU: Of course. Yes. Maybe the best part would be the very beginning or the very end. The last scene is also in an agreement between the two people. They finally speak together, but it is beautiful to see that they have changed a lot during the film. They are not the same people. He, for example, is totally different at the end. More open. He suffered, but things happen.

CHRIS NEUMER: You do feel that masochism. He just inflicts pain on himself.

PATRICE CHEREAU: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: Another thing of particular interest to me was the casting. These are all English actors. I hadn’t seen them in much before, how did you go about casting these people? Was there a certain look or something you wanted to see in the leads?

PATRICE CHEREAU: The first idea was to do the film in England in English because I wanted to work with British actors.

CHRIS NEUMER: Why British actors?

PATRICE CHEREAU: Because they are very good. Because their level is very high. The level here is high too, but in the landscape of Europe, English actors are the best. Because of their education because of their schools, their commitment is very high and very deep. Probably deeper than I could expect from French actors. My first idea was that, if I do the film, I’ll do the film in London with English actors. Then I tried to understand what the landscape of the British actors was. I met many, many people, a hundred, a hundred-fifty. I watched films to understand who’s who. The first person I found, I made a real proposition to, was Timothy Spall. He was so smart. Talking with him I knew that he would be the best person. Sometimes you are looking for people, you don’t just want a face and a body, but you want an intelligence and a civility and sensitivity. Also, you need a very good partner when talking about the part. If you want to play with the actress he has to be a good player intellectually. I found Timothy Spall. It had to be good between Mark and Kerry. It was a big chance.

CHRIS NEUMER: Their chemistry was good, and at times their lack of chemistry worked well too.

PATRICE CHEREAU: The chemistry worked beautifully in this case, because Mark gives such a sadness. The part would be awful with a man who would contempt the woman. He gives such a grace to all that. It’s a tragedy and you love him. You are upset because he’s unhappy. You want to save him. That’s interesting. The face is always beautiful to watch because you always see everything happen in his face, in his eyes. Really good eyes. She’s incredible because she can be very beautiful and at the same time anonymous. You can walk across a street and meet her in the street and not even notice her. Then she becomes beautiful, mostly in the second half.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was a great shot when their roles reverse. The chaser becomes the pursued.

PATRICE CHEREAU: He’s so upset and she’s so happy. It was a good idea. It was something hidden in the script that was not of this place. The whole script changes. We put these two or three lines in the script at that moment and that moment is exactly an hour into the film, halfway through. It wasn’t foreseen or planned, but suddenly the whole film goes into her direction. It switches and goes in her direction.

CHRIS NEUMER: I guess this is different than most of the male/female relationships you see in films; the male isn’t in the position of power, she is. Even in this situation, the tables are turned again. I know you have an extensive background in theater and in opera even.

PATRICE CHEREAU: Correct.

CHRIS NEUMER: Do you think that your background in stage and opera furthered the performances of the actors?

PATRICE CHEREAU: I’m the result of everything I did. I am the project of all my career, so probably. I didn’t think about it, so I don’t think about it. I don’t reflect what the weight is of the theater or opera in my movies. I have no idea. I know that the knowledge I have of the actors came from the theaters. I’m not scared in front of an actor, I love them, but I’m not scared. Sometimes you direct them badly because you are scared or frightened to speak with them. I’m not afraid or scared. Collaboration is good, I think. Then I’m always interested.  I did so much theater, for example, I’m always interested in being very close in on the faces because it’s something that wasn’t allowed in the theater. For that reason, the close up is very important to me. For that reason, to turn the camera around the bodies of the actors is important because something I usually do when I’m rehearsing in the theater. I think of my memories, I remember trying to remember because it was a long time ago, I think I was doing job of the camera when I was in theater. Walking around the actors trying to talk with them and trying to mold the faces and eyes and glances from as close as I could.

CHRIS NEUMER: I just mention this because a lot of times in American films, if you have an accomplished director of the stage, they often bring out more nuanced acting performances. Like Sam Mendes and American Beauty.

PATRICE CHEREAU: Theater is a good school for actors.

CHRIS NEUMER: If you’re doing drama. If you’re blowing up planes and shouting one liners, I don’t think you need much training.

PATRICE CHEREAU: Stage is a very good school. When you are going to school, everybody is out doing a scene from a play, but you’re all on the stage. Stage is the beginning of everything. Of course, it could be terrible if you’re only doing film. Stage is a basis.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you ever think about that? I don’t want filmed theater? Of course, I guess your moving camera prevented that. I’m just going to move on and try not to answer many more of my own questions. This was your English language debut, correct?

PATRICE CHEREAU: Yes.

CHRIS NEUMER: What was it like working with the cast and crew?

PATRICE CHEREAU: It was a problem sometimes with the crew. With their organization of the day, you touch something of the deep culture of the country. The crew are not working like they do in France. They are different. They are eating different. They are used to stopping at certain times and that is totally different. But the actors, we spoke the same language and were exactly together. I am used to working with fine actors. I worked in Italy a long, long time ago with an Italian actress and I did opera in German in Germany. I have always been interested in working with different cultures and languages, speaking other languages. I think it’s very easy to make–to find–a common language with actors. We know exactly what we’re talking about, where sometimes an English grip might have other habits than a French grip. French directors are different too. With actors, we know what we have to do together. I have to be careful with that and respectful of that. We know we have to.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you find that your own acting experiences helped you communicate better with them?

PATRICE CHEREAU: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It helps me, of course. It helps me for one reason. If I ask something and the actor doesn’t understand and I go for two minutes in his place and I’m doing what I’m asking, he knows immediately if he’s wrong or not. So I change what I ask him. My demands are different. It helps me. It doesn’t help me because I know how to do it. I don’t know how to. Mark Rylance is a better actor than I could ever be. But I know my job of director, I know what I have to do to make them better.

CHRIS NEUMER: Yelling at them and stomping around after them.

PATRICE CHEREAU: I’m as careful as possible. I observe them and where I can enter and where I can push to make them bigger and grow. You have to be careful. If you shout, nothing happens, you are blocking everyone. Sometimes it happens that you shout, some actors need a certain kind of violence to be witty. But you have to see if it’s really necessary or a good method. Most of the time it’s not.

CHRIS NEUMER: Different actors, different ways of dealing with them.

PATRICE CHEREAU: Exactly.

CHRIS NEUMER: Everything I read about Intimacy, for some reason the sexual nature of this always comes up.

PATRICE CHEREAU: I know it’s a tragedy.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m just interested to here your response to the critical nature of the American press. Why do people need to feel guilty about a film like this?

PATRICE CHEREAU: People are very sensitive about sex scenes or what everybody means about sex or sexual relationships. I think everybody has an intimate relationship, I heard a lot of opinions and every time I discover that there are as many opinions as there are spectators. Every spectator has his own point of view about these scenes. We are touching something very sensitive and very heated. Sometimes something often repressed and of course it’s easy when you see the film in a festival, like in Berlin, for example. It’s very easy to say, “Omigod there is a fellatio, there is a blowjob!” It’s easier to say that than to talk about the film. What can I do? It comes from the nature of the journalism now.
It’s a problem for the film because a lot of people said to me that they wanted to see the film but didn’t because of what they read. Then when they saw it they said, “It was totally different than I was expecting.” Much better or everything that they read was, in a way, totally wrong. Many people ask me about possible cuts. I think I was ingenuous showing exactly what I wanted to show. Because this scene of oral sex is very beautiful. People talk about it saying that it is terrible, but they forget that not every woman does that for a man. Is it her job? (laughs) No. But usually you are doing when you love this man. But the smile of her afterwards and the smile of him afterwards are beautiful. Where the people are seeing the most provocation, I see the most love in the film.

CHRIS NEUMER: Most American films don’t look at that act as loving. It’s merely a tool to pull college aged kids to the theaters. It’s just sex. Just the female body on display. And yet your loving film is being judged by the same standards.

PATRICE CHEREAU: I know.

CHRIS NEUMER: It seems, at least from your perspective, difficult to explain.

PATRICE CHEREAU: It is very difficult to explain. It is really difficult to explain or defend. I don’t even discover the right answer (laughs). Even now. After six months of talking and talking. I think time will help. In five years, if people want to see the film, they will be surprised to remember the reviews. At least that’s my hope.

CHRIS NEUMER: I haven’t read the short story that this was based upon, was there a lot of thought about the emotional or physical perspectives you put into this story?

PATRICE CHEREAU: The short story was just the beginning of this film. Of course I tried to remember all my experiences. I tried to take the material from myself. I invented it and had a great chances because the script was written with me and a woman. The point-of-view of a woman was very interesting and important. If I would have written the script only myself, it would only be about the man. I think it’s about the difference between the man and woman. To show how the man in the sexual relationship can be fragile. And the woman can be strong at the same time. They come from two total different planets.

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