[From Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Just as tales—which we’ll come back to later, since the genre isn’t foreign to your cinema—begin in French with “Il était une fois…” (once upon a time…), we’d like to begin with “Il était un Foix…,” In 1994, you made a short film that bears this name, a small town in the Pyrenees. Foix is a film representative of your work; it is built on a geographical principle that you are fond of: to sketch a nearly exhaustive portrait of a place, to wander across it and survey it in all directions until its spatial, comic, dramatic and aesthetic possibilities are exhausted. But in general, you film familiar places, places that you have known and loved for a long time. In Foix, it is the opposite, and that is also why we wanted to start there: you present a completely ugly city, its ugliness accentuated by the laconic irony of a tourist-style voice-over. Foix is therefore a film against something, a negative portrait. It is the exception to one of the rules of your work, a contradiction within a work that has no shortage of them. How did the film come to be?

It must have been 17 September 1973, shortly after Allende’s fall. I was walking in the Pyrenees with my wife. When we stayed the night in Foix, we both had the feeling that we had discovered the most backward town in France. For the next twenty years, I travelled around the country to gather several proofs of this stellar backwardness. I didn’t do just that for twenty years, but I did that. I could see that, yes, this town was the champion in this regard. The script had time to mature: more than twenty years of work for a thirteen-minute short film.

Invited by Toulouse for a conference, I made a detour to see Foix again. It was a painful experience. From Toulouse, I wanted to go up to the Montagne Noire, where I hadn’t been before. I had to leave early, at seven o’clock. At the station, I stumbled on the new pavements, which are a bit slanted. I hurt my foot very badly. I travelled for 30 kilometres with a huge abscess on my toe. The right, I think. I delivered my lecture and then I went to the hospital the next morning to have the abscess removed. In the afternoon, I went to Foix. Because of my foot, I could scout it only slowly. The town was almost in the same state that I had left it twenty years earlier. It was really typical, very impressive. I don’t think it’s possible to go this far into degeneration. It’s quite a nice town in itself: there’s a chateau, it’s well situated. But you can sense that there has been no real town planning. It’s a complete mess.

Based on the photos that I had taken, I submitted a project to the CNC [National Centre for Cinema] for support with the short film. In photos with cars, I scratched out the two digits pertaining to Ariège region. Worried about a leak, I rechristened the project Vesoul. I added that the film would not be shot there, without specifying where. I thought that the people at the CNC would be keen to know where I would shoot, and that they would give me the money to find out. That’s what happened. We got the grant. We did a combined shoot, which is very cost-effective: I shot Toujours plus, which ended in Toulouse, and in the evening, we went to Foix to shoot Foix. The shoot went on for about three days. There was only one minor problem: Toujours plus being a TV film, we shot at twenty-five frames; but my sound engineer continued to record at twenty-five frames for Foix, instead of twenty-four, the normal frame rate for a cinema film.

Many people and institutions are thanked in the credits. Did the production actually involve them, or was it out of caution?

Not out of caution. It was to make the viewer laugh. I asked the town hall and the police for some little things so that I could put them in the credits. “I thank the town of Foix very much…” That’s funny.

Did the city respond?

Not directly, except on the day the film was shown on TV. The town hall phoned the production manager, who acted as a buffer. They couldn’t say anything, I hadn’t asked them for money. The town hall had done only one thing: turn on the little geysers on the ground—these “watering limbs” that make the water come out thirty centimetres from the ground—which only work in summer, whereas the shooting took place in winter.

Was the idea of the fake tourist documentary there from the outset?

The idea was inspired by Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides, a film commissioned by the army that made everyone laugh. Well, almost everyone… As it was a short film, Foix was practically written down to the last detail. It’s tiring to draw up a complete découpage for a feature film. On the contrary, for a short documentary, it’s fun to do it, and it pleases the producer, who incidentally hadn’t invested a lot of money, since there was money from the Centre for Cinema. In these towns, everyone is happy when you come to shoot. No one comes to shoot in Foix. One day, I filmed in Toulouse, in the largest supermarket in the world. There were ninety-four counters. I was warmly received; at the end, we were even offered champagne. It’s rather in Paris that one can feel unwelcome. Everybody comes to shoot there; people are suspicious, they have had it up to here.

Did you go back to Foix?

I saw the city from the train. I’ve bought a Ray-Ban since then, so I might try to go back there. My face has changed a bit, I’ve lost hair. I should stop by the town someday.

In the introduction to Foix, available as a bonus on the “Luc Moullet in Shorts” DVD (Chalet Pointu), you describe an aerial shot that brings into play a certain relationship between what is visible and what is spoken. The town is filmed from an aeroplane, and you say: “The cultural centre is next to the prison.” But when the camera passes over the cemetery, itself adjacent to the cultural centre, there is silence. It’s quite refined.

The example is used a lot in schools. It was fun to shoot. There was indeed a cultural centre between the prison and the cemetery. From the ground, you can’t exactly see that the prison is a prison. How do you film it so that it is clearly visible? We rented a plane, which doesn’t cost that much. It was a bit complicated because we made it fly below the 200-metre limit. The plane flew over the city five or six times, which is technically prohibited. The police came to the airport and we were afraid that the pilot would lose his licence. What’s more, Le Pen had just left the airport, so everyone was a bit worried. But it turned out fine.

The trick was to show the prison first. It had to be identified by words, because the building could just as easily have housed an unlikeable school, a private school or whatever. So we inform the viewer. Then we see and name the cultural centre, the commentary is a bit funny. Then we see the cemetery: no need to say anything more. It’s an appeal to the viewer’s imagination, he has the impression of pulling the gag himself. It’s a good laugh. I couldn’t have shown the cemetery first and the prison at the end. I had to think a bit before I decided to do that. I was upset that I didn’t have the answer right away, but after ten minutes of working on paper, I got it.

There’s a flaw in Foix: people think I picked the worst places. I picked the avenue… I don’t remember what it’s called, I took the main street, the Champs-Élysées of Foix, various doors, various shops. I should have had a master shot showing that I wasn’t trying to nitpick, that I wasn’t creating an artificial horror out of elements picked here and there. It was the whole of it, in fact. It’s quite fascinating to see such an accumulation of ugliness inside such a small town.

Foix is a special case, because in general I’m the one who does voiceover in my films. But in this case, having my voice at the beginning of what is presented as a documentary would have ruined everything, because I don’t have a traditional voice. I needed a speaker. The one I found runs a sound-mixing studio, he has a very good voice. At the very beginning, you may get the impression that Foix is an educational documentary. This first impression is false, but it is necessary so that a shift can take place, relatively slowly, in fifteen or twenty seconds.

Foix (1994)

Do you, a native of the Alps, have a problem with the Pyrenees? Foix is in the Pyrenees. In Brigitte and Brigitte (1966), the Alpine Brigitte manages better than the Pyrenean one. In Terres noires (1961), the Alpine village is rather joyful, but the Pyrenean village is much darker.

The Alps is the land of one part of my family. So there is some snobbery involved for me to shoot in the Pyrenees. But I like the Pyrenees. That’s where my favourite pass is, the Orgambideska in the Basque Country (1,283 metres), the hardest one in France.

Is it not the Parpaillon, as it is said in the film of the same name?

That’s debatable. In any case, there is no Parpaillon anymore, since it is now prohibited to pass through the tunnel, which is in a bad state. It’s finished. The Parpaillon no longer acts as a pass. You have to go back down the side you climbed up. In terms of slope, it is actually less steep than the Orgambideska. But the road is paved now. So it’s a bit easier, if you like.

No animosity, then, towards the Pyrenees?

None. I also have a feature film project, No Pigeons in Sight, which would be shot around Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, Orgambideska and traditional Béarn. A few years ago, I climbed the four or five highest summits of the Pyrenees; I have very good memories of it. I have a short film project about the Mohammed Bridge, but it would be difficult to execute. It’s a small exposed passage below the Aneto peak (3,404 metres). The film would narrate the hesitations of certain characters in crossing the bridge.

In France? In Spain?

In Spain, but six kilometres from the border. I have travelled quite a bit in the Pyrenees. I don’t know if, after my latest film, Land of Madness (2009), I’ll still be able to return to the Alps… The film is perhaps going to provoke opposition. I will then let off steam with the Pyrenees.

Several of your short films are portraits of towns: Imphy, Capital of France (1995)—a non-place—The Belly of America (1996), about Des Moines, or Les Havres (1983), where you already showed, as in Foix, a certain architectural “mélangism,” Even Barres (1984) demarcates a territory, that of the metro turnstiles. Why do you attach such importance to filming places?

I have always been passionate about places. I was programmed to be a geography teacher. I went straight from the feeding bottle to the Michelin map. I was attracted by everything I saw; at three or four years old, I could already read maps. I try to sense a place by looking at the map. It’s quite important in cinema. All I have to do is look at a survey map to determine camera angles. You can’t see the power lines, but it’s a start. I can even determine people’s mentality by looking at a map. I can guess the population of a place, the mentality… I remember spotting a village called Guanasan, its position on the map was so eccentric that I was sure it would be worth going there to film. That’s also how I spotted an actress in Digne for Land of Madness.

When I was seven or eight years old, I made a scene before my parents because we took a train to the Alps, whereas we were supposed to go to the Massif Central. I wanted to make them stop on the way, I thought they had made a mistake. They had played a joke on me. I was already following the map. Since I asked a lot of questions and kept inquiring where we were, they decided to teach me to read. It wasn’t a bad idea. I helped me in writing criticism, for example…

I’ve always had this attraction for places: defining the place, showing it. That’s the main thing. Human beings come next, some human beings. My films are about women and places. Women in places. I started from there. For Les Havres, I received a proposal from the city to shoot a “Le Havre seen by…,” There were eight other directors. In the beginning, the film was supposed to be about the difficulty of eating whelks, but the subject was too close to another film of mine. Le Havre intrigued me because I liked Modeste Mignon, in which Balzac already shows the differences within Le Havre. The novel is from 1843 [1844ed.], if I am not mistaken. I travelled all across Le Havre and some details struck me. I don’t think it’s one of my best films. But maybe there are things there that hold up.

Do you scout? Do you walk, buy a map, go by car, by bike? Is knowing the town a prerequisite for the film?

My scouting is mostly mental. I have travelled to many countries; I have images in my head. When I scout, it is often in the manner of a reminiscence, to make sure that my memory has not distorted the place too much. Shipwrecked on Route D17 (2001), for example, was entirely surveyed before I even started writing.

For Les Havres, I cycled across the streets of the town in two days. I usually take notes and photos. In this case, this work didn’t do much good, I eliminated ninety-eight streets out of a hundred. But at least I had a clear starting point. In principle, you have to scout the streets both in the morning and in the evening, because the sun changes. In summer and winter too. I didn’t do it, but at least I had an idea.

I have one regret: I had filmed a housing complex with high-voltage power lines that made terrible noises. I was recording the sound on a magnetic tape and shooting in 16 mm, but the noise from the power lines couldn’t make it on to the optical film. This is a serious mistake, but I don’t think I could have foreseen it. So you have to listen to the film on the magnetic tape.

Did you have a complete découpage there too?

Yes, it was precise, with a small element of improvisation so that you could turn around in case of a surprise. I often say this: when you make a documentary, you always have to know how to turn around. Don’t just see what’s in front of you, but be ready to turn around 360 degrees yourself, because you never know what might occur behind your back. Wear supple shoes that allow you to turn around easily, and don’t forget to turn around. That is important for a filmmaker, don’t forget to turn around.

Do you make a distinction between documentary shoes and fiction shoes?

Of course. And editing shoes. I’ve always worn slippers for editing. No need for formal shoes, it’s more pleasant. Other directors often remain in shoes.

Imphy, Capital of France could sum up all your films, split between small towns, Paris and a deep affinity for the mountains and the countryside. It is also your biographical journey: you come from the Southern Alps…

I was born in Paris. When I was five years old, in 1942, I spent a month in the Southern Alps, and I returned there in 1945. I’m Parisian, but whether a filmmaker or a novelist, I believe that one always needs a habitat [1].

Imphy was born of a reflection on Ferdinand Lop’s (1891-1974) programme. Lop was a professor who was involved in politics a little. Everybody considered him a dreamer, except him. He had proposed moving the capital, which is currently too far from the centre. The decision would have helped bring about full employment in the chosen region. It would also have relieved the congestion in Paris. Government and official costs would have reduced; state buildings would have moved to cheaper locations. Paris would have been resold. I am thinking in particular of this poor Centre for Cinema, which was never bought; it has been rented out for a fortune for more than sixty years. This is not the only case. I had thought of the Aveyron region, or even the Hérault, where the last retained commune, Aumelas, is located. It was a hypothesis to be explored: new nations always do that; they put the capital outside the main city.

Imphy, the Capital of France (1995)

Isn’t your slightly drawling accent from the Alps?

Oh no, they don’t talk at all like me in the Alps. They talk like this [pinches his nose].

It’s difficult to know Paris in its entirety. The Southern Alps is a little easier, it’s less populated. The Baronies of the Alps and the surrounding terrains are fascinating, both in terms of the landscape and the people. I’ve read books, I’ve worked a lot on Raoul Blanchard’s work (1877-1965): a three-thousand-page encyclopaedia titled The French Alps (Armand Collin, 1925-1945). I’ve studied the thousand pages on Southern Pre-Alps, the least known part.

Is it arbitrarily that you have created a habitat for yourself?

I was passionate about it. At that time, sixty years ago, these places were not to be found in the guides. We were really heading into the unknown. Amazing things happen in these areas, not only the Baronies, where my family lived, but also the small pre-Alpine areas all around. And also the Great Alps. The choice of this habitat is partly linked to my family, but it isn’t just that. In 1954, I was awarded a Zellidja scholarship, in the same batch as Serge Klarsfeld. I wrote a report on the human aspects of the Southern Pre-Alps. I came to know the region quite well. When you know a place on earth, this microcosm becomes a macrocosm. Thirty square kilometres or a little more is enough to know the whole world, to have all its keys. You mustn’t spread yourself too thin. The principle is true for filmmakers and writers, but also for painters, Cézanne of course. All you need is a place to paint. Renoir had his favourite places.

Straub today…

Yes, but I take issue with his changes of habitat. Straub has gone from the biggest to the smallest. The small ravine where he shoots today seems excessive to me. Duras also had her habitats, Indochina and her houses in France, the ones in Neauphle and Deauville.

The notion of place is very important. For Shipwrecked on Route D17, the challenge was to make all the action unfold within an area of 900 square kilometres. So before shooting, I mentally went through all the places within this area that seemed interesting to me. The Litre of Milk (2006) takes place within an area of one square kilometre; Land of Madness within 6,000 square kilometres. It’s a way of going back to the unity of the classics.

The Southern Alps has become, for you, the equivalent of Ford’s Monument Valley. One might also think of Giono, Pagnol, Faulkner and his imaginary county, of current-day Godard with his lake: the idea of reaching the universal from a small place.

This is the opposite of Bernard-Henri Levy, the cosmopolitan who, in fact, shows nothing. My favourite novelists are local novelists, Faulkner for example. There are many Faulknerian aspects in the Baronies. The Majastres block, where I have filmed, reminds me of Erskine Caldwell. I understood my family better by reading Faulkner. There is a certain relationship to the land, to the property, to the management of the estate that can be found in both regions, his and mine, as well as equivalences from the point of view of mores.

I wanted to make a film based on a novel by Thomas Hardy, who is also a local novelist; that is why he is so good. There are other authors that I like very much. The habitat of David Lodge, one of my favourite writers, the University of Birmingham, is more modern, but it’s still a very defined territory. English cinema is the Golden Triangle comprising Liverpool, Manchester and perhaps Birmingham, which is the centre of cinema and culture, the problem area, which D.H. Lawrence and the Brontë sisters cling to. Even London is less interesting. There is also the Brazilian Northeast and, recently, the LAPD, Los Angeles Police Department, which James Ellroy has made the centre of the world, although he has broadened his scope a little in his latest books.

It has been said that your cinema evokes Jarry, Queneau, Vian, Brecht, Courteline. But you only quote Anglo-Saxon authors. We could add Chesterton to your list. You all share a certain type of paradox, a certain revolutionary conservatism, a certain anarchist reactionary attitude. In a film, you say, for example, that an economic crisis has been very favourable to the development of the region?

I consider myself more an English filmmaker of Arab origin than a French filmmaker. I studied English, so I am quite familiar with English and American literature. I have read a bit of Chesterton. But the author who most resembles me is probably Tom Sharpe. You have to read Tom Sharpe. Somebody pointed out this resemblance to me, and I read all of Tom Sharpe’s work. He must be seventy, seventy-five years old [eighty-one since March 30, 2009—Ed.]. He writes comedies bordering on thrillers. I was also greatly influenced by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). It’s eternal England.

Do you like the satirists of the 18th century?

Yes, I take great pleasure in Fielding (1707-1754): Tom Jones, but also Joseph Andrews.

So when you wrote in Cahiers, “It was after seeing Orson Welles’ Othello that I learned that there was a guy named Shakespeare,” it wasn’t entirely true?

No, but it was a nice remark. That said, it was when I saw that Ruiz was going to shoot Time Regained that I decided to take a look at the book. I read two pages of it; I can’t read Proust. I often operate that way. I remember the reaction of King Vidor—who is considered uneducated by many—when I interviewed him with Michel Delahaye. He was so astonished by the recurring features I had spotted in his work that he thought I was a Jungian medium. So it was thanks to King Vidor that I learned of Jung’s existence and decided to read him. I would like to take this opportunity to thank him. Jung was in his library; you can see his books in a tracking shot in Truth and Illusion (1965). Vidor was very much influenced by Jung.

What do you like about English literature?

It is a question of nature. I have a comic sense deriving from my natural quirkiness, which I have somehow reinforced. I feel perfectly at ease in English literature.

Do you share Truffaut’s negative opinion of English cinema?

His famous line is from 1956-1957; at the time, it was a completely accurate judgement. Things have changed since then. There have been great filmmakers like Bill Douglas, Terence Davies, Mike Leigh and a few others. I like Barney Platt-Mills, Guy Green, Peter Medak’s first film… I like Jack Gold’s The Medusa Touch (1978). England after 1958 is no longer the England Truffaut knew. I’m not saying this because of the Angry Young Men. There was some pretty average stuff in film, Anderson, Reisz, Richardson… but there was still a revival.

You talk about the absence of a centre in American cities, the long routes… Is the centre of a place important to you?

It is moral. The loss of the centre results in certain deprivations, from the point of view of life. There are some highly negative consequences: losing one’s mind, being off-centre… The tragedy in North America is that often there is no centre. In Latin America, it is very pleasant to go to the Plaza de Armas. You meet people, everything is nearby, the square is a landmark. There are American cities that I like. Flagstaff (Arizona) is my favourite; it’s famous because DeMille landed there before he ended up in Hollywood. A lot of people pass through there. A small town not far from the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s chapel in Sonora. There is a beautiful mountain above, a single-screen movie theatre, small houses… Very nice.

Are Moullet and Co. productions going to relocate there?

Moullet and Co. productions are microscopic and metaphysical; they must be everywhere.

The Belly of America (1996)

How did your American film, The Belly of America, come about?

I roamed around a little in small-town America after being invited to show Anatomy of a Relationship (1976) at the New York Festival. It gave me the urge to shoot in the monotonous, soulless, cold part of America. The odious America. I tried to find the place that was most suited for this. Jean Seberg had spoken to me about Des Moines (Iowa) in striking terms. I had also heard about Spokane (Washington), the typical city that is usually used for polls. But Des Moines seemed better. One of the testimonies I collected was from a local writer comparing the town to the antechamber of death.

I did a bit of research, Canal+ and Les Films d’Ici gave me some money to go on a scouting trip to Des Moines, where I’d never been before. On the first night, I was disappointed; I was even thinking of going back. What am I going to tell my producers? I’m going to pay them back… I checked the plane schedules, with the idea of going to Las Vegas. But on the second day, I found a lot of things I liked, especially that part of the city that only lives on the first floor. There are cities that only live underground, especially in Canada, or even Paris with the Forum des Halles. I saw some extraordinary things there, which made their way into the film. I drew up a list of shots, and it worked very well. In the end, many people liked the film. I wanted to show that 80% of the United States, which serves as a major reference for much of the world, can yield a damning assessment. It is this contrast that I was looking for.

Is it your only film shot entirely abroad?

I shot Origins of a Meal (1978) in South America and Africa. I filmed in Morocco for two days for La Valse des medias (1987). I shot Capito? (1962) and some shots of The Smugglers (1968) in Italy. Then La Cabale des oursins (1991) in Belgium. I think that’s it.

Is there a filmic correlative to the idea of an urban, geographical centre in your films?

Probably, but I’m not really aware of it. I try to have a centre of interest in a film. It may be a good idea, too, to be decentred when the character is decentred. Maybe I haven’t exploited that vein enough. There are other filmmakers who are quite good with decentring.

Antonioni, for example. Is that why you don’t like him?

There are two Antonionis. One that I don’t like very much, the Antonioni in black and white. And another that I like much more, the Antonioni in colour. I think Antonioni was not comfortable in black and white. Colour was indispensable to him in developing his world. Making a film in colour is very different from making it in black and white, especially in Italy where painting is extremely important. In my opinion, Antonioni’s first real film is Red Desert (1964). It was after that one that I started to like his films. Not all of them, but his cinema became much stronger. L’Avventura is not the worst thing he did. La Notte, in my opinion, is one of the ten worst films in the history of cinema.

Godard followed the same path: he really liked—or knew that he liked—Antonioni only after the screening of Red Desert in Venice.

Yes… Antonioni’s evolution began to interest me a little earlier, when I discovered the last eight minutes of L’Eclisse. It’s a rather provocative ending: the film suddenly abandons its stars, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti. It was striking to me that a two-hour film branches off into a completely different kind of cinema after an hour and fifty minutes. L’Eclisse was copied by Marguerite Duras in Nathalie Granger. There are also similar excursions in Rozier’s Adieu Philippine and Maine-Ocean Express. A sprawl at the end: the embarkment at the port of Bastia, characters lost on the infinite sand along the river. The same idea was taken up by Godard in Nouvelle Vague, again featuring Delon, the star of absence.

In Les Sièges de l’Alcazar (1989), when we hear “Anna! Anna!” in the voice-over, everyone in the theatre is asleep.

That was in Brigitte and Brigitte. In Les Sièges de l’Alcazar, it wasn’t L’Avventura, it must have been another Antonioni, The Lady Without Camellias. All I’m saying here is perhaps just a personal feeling. I was quite in love with Lea Massari, and not at all with Monica Vitti. Massari’s disappearance had shocked me, I was waiting for her to be found, which never happens. It was very frustrating. It’s in fact a system that works well, making the character disappear in the middle of the film. L’Avventura was finished in November 1959, and two months later there was another film based on the same idea. Do you see which one?


Very good.

Did you prefer Vera Miles over Janet Leigh?

I was in love with Janet Leigh. Who is the son of a bitch who killed her? I wanted to avenge her… The case is very different anyway, the second half of Psycho doesn’t really revolve around Vera Miles. If Antonioni had killed Lea Massari, I think I would have accepted it better. I saw L’Avventura when it came out. Then I saw it again. I had a lot of courage, I approached it in stages. The film is easier to bear on home video. Especially the second part. The episode with the prostitute… there are some rather amusing scenes. The film is undoubtedly not as bad as I had initially thought, but it remains disappointing. L’Avventura has no value in itself, but it’s a useful film because it influenced a lot of people, who then went further. It set a starting point and gave ideas to others. It’s the “Antonioni starting block.” That is not nothing from the point of view of art history. What is a work of art? Nothing absolute. Even the most perfectly finished film is not the end of the world. It’s important to have allowed a discovery.

There is a brutal shock at the end of Origins of a Meal that might recall the one in L’Eclisse. Two hours into the film, the viewer witnesses a full striptease by your wife, Antonietta Pizzorno. She faces the camera and starts taking off all her clothes, stating that one is made with oil, the other with tungsten and so on. These two minutes are staggering, especially when compared to the two hours of the film as a whole.

I think the shock comes at an hour and thirty-seven minutes into the film. Yes, of course, it was meant to be staggering. Originally, it was André Bazin…

… who was supposed to undress?

No, not him. I was in the metro one day with Truffaut and Bazin. The latter began to talk about how Roger Vadim was an impossible character. He spoke of him as a pimp undressing his wife for the purpose of his film. I conceived of the scene in Origins of a Meal with this episode in mind, so that Bazin turns over in his grave. I asked my wife to get naked. If the scene indeed has a certain power, it’s because it’s outside of the genre. What I like is that the striptease doesn’t end with the panties, and that Antonietta goes on to remove her false eyelashes. I remember screenings at schools, with kids discovering the scene. It was quite funny. Another funny thing is that I hadn’t informed the cameraman.

He doesn’t tremble.

Indeed. He would have liked to have been informed. But that was part of the game. We shot a second take, this time he was warned.

Was being naked a problem for Antonietta?

She said she was used to playing naked, that she had often done it at the university, in Vincennes. So she was comfortable. I believe that there is a form of snobbery at work in this kind of situation, a snobbery one finds with women and even more so with men: the snobbery of shooting naked. I really liked this shock effect. I particularly liked the fact that it was a one-off effect and not a general change of direction for the film. I am thinking in particular of the ending of Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer (1959): the film is serene, indoors, until the rupture of the last sequence on the beach.

Origins of a Meal (1978)

Your films show places that we don’t see anywhere else on screen. And they don’t just show them, they also exalt their beauty. This is an aspect of your cinema which, unless we are mistaken, is hardly ever mentioned: its great visual beauty. There are incredible shots, with alternating colours, reliefs, rocks that seem straight out of King Vidor’s or Anthony Mann’s films. In Breathless, Belmondo says, “France is beautiful.” Did you set yourself the goal of demonstrating that with the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence?

In the same film, we hear him say, “If you don’t like the mountains… If you don’t like the sea…,” I like the mountains, but I don’t like the sea. Finding places where one has never filmed before is an interesting goal. We haven’t filmed much of the roubines: they are black lands, the equivalent of American Badlands. But beauty can be held against a film. I have often heard people say: there are beautiful landscapes, but there is nothing in the film. I am indeed quite sensitive to beauty, this beauty in any case, that of the roubines, which is quite deep, quite austere. This hard, harsh beauty is obviously not everyone’s idea of beauty. Moreover, the landscape is not the only thing at play. On A Girl Is a Gun (1971), for example, I carried a small flask to give the water a fluorescent green colour. It was a fake landscape. I also brought a tree into the middle of a roubine, where it couldn’t have grown.

The roubines are a fascinating terrain. There is an equivalent of them at the end of Nicholas Ray’s Run for Cover, in John Sturges’ The Law and Jack Wade, a little less in The Badlanders, which I believe is by Delmer Daves. They also appear in Cayatte’s An Eye for an Eye and at the beginning of Curzio Malaparte’s The Forbidden Christ. And, of course, in Sergio Leone’s films and in spaghetti westerns. This is a fairly new terrain, rich in dramatic possibilities. A form of outdoor theatre. You are constantly moving from one mini-valley to another. The roubine conveys a certain kind of desert, which ties in with our modern search for zero degree. There is something of Barthes in the roubines. He never went there; I would have loved to see him there! There is a relationship between the nakedness of the roubine and the desire to lay things bare. Keeping it simple is a quest that is visible in my work, right down to the découpage; filming frontally and not with a forty-degree shift.

As with Mizoguchi, for example… Without being familiar with the region, we end up recognising certain places from film to film. There is a rather risky spot, in particular, with a steep incline, which reappears many times. This is where the heroines flee to in The Smugglers. This is where the unemployed mountaineer from La Comédie du travail (1987) sleeps. This is also where …Au champ d’honneur (1998) and The Glamour of Death (2006) were shot.

It’s a ledge suspended above the void. There is a vertical wall, and in the middle, there is a small passage of one metre. You are forced to film from the ledge, unless you have a giant crane that even the Americans don’t have. In The Glamour of Death, I also filmed the sphagnum mosses [marshland moss, which decomposes to produce peat—Ed.]. I love sphagnum marshlands, also known as “fenlands” or “peatlands,” You can find them in Hardy’s work, or in Dartmoor, or in Spa in Belgium. There are some in the Massif Central, they are the ones I filmed in The Glamour of Death. The foot sinks into a soil that is half liquid and half muddy, making inelegant, slightly disturbing noises.

Sphagnum marshlands are my third favourite place. It reminds me of a variety of marshland found in the work of one of my favourite filmmakers, King Vidor. Sphagnum marsh is not the Vidor kind of marsh, but there are similarities. My fourth favourite place is obviously the bogaz, more exactly the lapiés, karstic landscapes. They are generally found on horizontal rocky plateaux made entirely of stone and crisscrossed by fine vertical faults. We see them in A Girl Is a Gun, The Smugglers, and perhaps in The Glamour of Death. There are many of them in Slovenia.

It is claimed that the roubines come from America. That is reversing the roles, because the roubines belong to the Oxfordo-Callovian era, which dates back one hundred and fifty million years, whereas comparable American landscapes are only one hundred and forty million years old. So France was ten million years ahead. America stole from it, not the other way round.

You told us you studied geography.

I happened to come first in geography at school. I began pursuing a bachelor’s degree, which I then discontinued. It wasn’t working at all; I was accused of romanticizing geography, of fictionalizing it. I was anthropomorphizing things, like Walt Disney if you will. I was talking about the “nappes, disappointed about not being able to…,” It was frowned upon, and rightly so. When I was four, my first works of imagination were fake maps. But I was too attracted to fiction to continue in that direction.

Do you travel outside of films, for fun?

I travel a lot; I walk a lot. Pleasure can inspire a film project. And when I go trekking, I think about my scripts; I work without knowing it. Walking allows me to have a distance. When you have an intellectual activity, it’s in your interest to have a compensatory physical activity. This was so, in a somewhat ridiculous way, with Malraux, who was a writer and wanted to be a thief, a statesman… one needs to establish a duality, a more flexible duality. I’m in the same category as Rohmer, who did a lot of hiking until the age of eighty.

Have you ever walked together?

No, he was too fast for me; he is 6’ and I am 5’10,” Whenever we were in a hurry to get to the Cinematheque, he always left me behind in the last few metres.

It is said that he participated in the Figaro cross-country race every year.

Yes, I do that sometimes, but I prefer the 10,000 metres.

We could have titled the book “Morality is a question of trekking,”

Not bad… If I could no longer walk, something would be broken in the machine. Cinema is a hobby. Walking takes up more of my time than movies. My real profession is hiking.

Is this a domain where you are even more knowledgeable than in cinema?

Perhaps. Walking clothes me, sometimes. I recently won some clothes in 10,000 metres races. I was lucky enough to make it to the V4 category, i.e., for those more than seventy years of age. There aren’t many of us, I’ll be damned if I don’t finish in the top three. I win clothes, various gifts, very ugly trophies… I have a colleague in his eighties who protested, demanding that a V5 category be introduced. He would have come first every single time.

He might be beaten by Oliveira. He is also a great sportsman, a pole-vaulter…

Great sportsman, great vaulter…

Another possible title would have been “Roubine Gentry,” in tribute to a Vidor film that you love.

It’s a bit esoteric. “Roubine,” OK, but how do you fit “Gentry”?

Are there clans? A coterie of roubines? You have said that you have no friends…

There are painters of roubines. My cameraman took a serious interest in them while filming Land of Madness; he did twenty-eight takes. He wanted to come back the next day because the sun wasn’t ideal, but he was given other shots to film. That wasn’t really the subject of the film. After acting in the roubines of Draix in A Girl Is a Gun, Marie-Christine Questerbert made a short film set exclusively in the roubines, Octopus de Natura.

Is there a community, a network of cyclists or hikers? Annual meals?

I don’t care for meals. As for cycling, there isn’t so much: it’s a somewhat silly milieu, based on all-out competition. The running or hiking milieu is much more humane. Trekking in Nepal is very enjoyable; you meet the whole of humanity there. Everest being the roof of the world, people from all over the world go there. You can talk with Poles, Australians… You can tell the difference between people of each nation, spot the kindest, the cleverest, the dumbest… Fools rarely go trekking. Relationships are created, you recognise each other from one run to the next, you compare shoes. I was recently able to buy a new pair of running shoes, I think I have six of them now.

Do these acquaintances know that you make films?

No. And most of them are retired people.

Don’t you see them outside of competitions?

Sometimes there are coincidences. On the set of The Glamour of Death, the electrician had done the Cho Oyu (8,201 metres). I believe it’s the easiest of the fourteen 8,000-metre peaks, or one of the last to have been climbed.

Have you done any 8,000 metres?

I’m a bit scared, I’ve never gone over 6,000 metres.

Is there a particular danger in climbing above 6,000m?

The higher you go up, the more danger there is. There is a risk of oedema. There’s also the cold: I’m a bit sensitive to the cold, I don’t like to sleep too long in the cold. I prefer walking for fifteen hours a day and chill in the evening, rather than proceeding in small steps.

In a bonus, you talk about a very pleasant night you spent outdoors because you didn’t like the refuge.

At 5,000 metres. Well, I don’t know the exact altitude, because at the time there was no real map for this place. I slept there, very nicely, without a sleeping bag. I was in Peru because my Indonesian buyer returned the copies to me after seeing A Girl Is a Gun. I had two brand new prints in Paris, and I had to try and sell the film. So I went to Peru and took the opportunity to go for a walk.

Why Peru?

I am attracted to Peru. It is the most beautiful country in the world and the one with the best cuisine. I love ceviche, a special kind of shrimp that is well-seasoned. As soon as I arrive in Peru, I eat ceviche. There are Peruvian restaurants in Paris, but they are not as good as over there. I also love rocotos rellenos, small, very spicy potatoes. The only aperitif I drink is pisco sour. I even started making some, but it was too complicated. I was doing it wrong, I had to give up.

You were thinking of selling it?

No, no. But it’s an idea.

Do you cook?

Badly, and that is wrong. There are filmmakers who cook very well, like Pascal Bonitzer. I am jealous of Bonitzer.

How did you come to the conclusion that Peruvian cuisine is the best in the world?

It happened little by little. For my ideal meal, I generally start with ceviches. Then I have polenta with fried cheese as they make it in the Dolomites. I really like custard pie as they make it in Nepal; the English one is not as good in my opinion. There are also a lot of Italian dishes that I love.

You travel a lot, but this isn’t very visible in your films.

It’s expensive. I wrote the screenplay for a project, Marie’s Diary, which would have to be shot in France and Italy, a little in Germany and England. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to get such a budget. It’s a comedy that proposes a Gault & Millau of terrorism. Imagine that you wanted to carry out a revolutionary action. What would be best? What is the framework through which one can best express or realise oneself? It is no longer Cahiers du cinéma or Positif, but Direct Action, the Red Brigades or al-Qaeda. This is the problem the heroine faces. I prefer not to say any more for now. I will talk about it when the film is about to be edited.

Is the act that the heroine plans political in itself?

It is a political act of course, but politics is also linked to one’s personality. Closer home, we have the example of a critic who had engaged in revolutionary action and committed suicide just before being apprehended by the police in Costa Rica.

Michèle Firk. The heroine of Les Sièges de l’Alcazar is inspired by her.

Of course. One day, I arrived at the Tours Festival, where Michèle Firk was a press attaché. Louis Marcorelles, the famous concierge of critics, told me: if you want to sleep with Michèle Firk, you just have to say a word. At the time, there was something very banal about Michèle Firk and, at my own risk, I was very focused in my thoughts on a sublime creature. On two sublime creatures, to be exact. It wasn’t easy. Maybe I should have followed Marcorelles’ advice. I refused right away, all the more so as Michèle Firk was, in my opinion, a very bad critic. She used to talk a lot of nonsense.

Did your negative judgement of her critical work make her undesirable to you?

Physically, I wasn’t very attracted to her. I saw her again a few years later at a festival where I presented Brigitte and Brigitte. She had totally changed her look; she now had a rather irresistible Renoir-like quality to her. I did what I never do: I began by asking her what she thought of my film. “It’s the most ridiculous film I’ve ever seen.” Maybe I was wrong, but it made me cold. I later realised that this kind of answer is often a trick to start a discussion. I was a bit stupid; I didn’t insist; our relationship remained bittersweet. I met her last time in a small local cinema in Milan where we both rushed to see the latest Jacopetti. I didn’t try to get back at her, I felt it was of no use. Maybe I was wrong. It’s one of my life’s regrets. Maybe if I had been able to engage Michèle, I would have diverted her from her revolutionary activity and she would still be alive. All that is in the head, but that’s where the film came from.

Les Sièges de l’Alcazar (1989)

There is often physical exertion in your films, on your part and on the part of the actors. Does this involve risks?

Sometimes there are risks, I have to be careful. Being used to the mountain environment, I don’t see the danger. For me, there is no danger. I don’t risk anything, because I feel very comfortable there. But there have been a few accidents. Marie-Christine Questerbert had a 40-metre fall on the set of A Girl Is a Gun. But in my opinion, the fall was due to personal reasons rather than the terrain.

Did she slip?

There was also the influence of amphetamines. Well, there is debate on that matter. On the shoot of Shipwrecked on Route D17, Iliana Lolic had to come down a fairly mild slope, but the production wanted to bring in a specialist with ropes. Ropes are very dangerous when you don’t know how to handle them, which was the case with Iliana Lolic. She pulled at them too much and hurt herself a little. It would have been better to do it casually, it’s much less dangerous. Another example: the Parpaillon pass goes through a tunnel at 2,600 metres, but the real pass, above it, is not accessible by bicycle, so you have to carry the bike. I had Catherine Lecoq ride on the small path above and then I forgot to tell her—it’s so obvious — that you should never start with the front brakes. She had an accident and some problems with her vertebrae.

That’s about it. When I’m a producer, I don’t take pleasure in putting my actresses in danger. Even when I’m not, by the way.

In A Girl Is a Gun, Jean-Pierre Léaud walks on nettles, then on stones. He hops, crying out loud. Is it the character or the actor who cries out?

It was better if he cried out. He could walk a little to the side, because the viewer doesn’t see the difference anyway. With a good lens, you can ask the actor to walk 30 centimetres away from the danger; the viewer doesn’t notice anything. Léaud overdid it, he started eating prickly weeds. He only had to pretend; he went straight for it. I didn’t ask him to, but that’s fine. He went with the flow of the film. There is a moment where he is supposed to be in pain: he was faking it there because we didn’t have any real hot stones. It’s not too bad to put the actors in a difficult situation. Small physical difficulties improve the acting. For Shipwrecked on Route D17, I placed the actors on a small ravine which still had a 35% slope. You have to get used to it.

In La Cabale des oursins—where you film slag heaps, which may be considered the roubines of the Nord—you have your team climb a rather difficult slope.

I was climbing a difficult slope, but it was me. I always chose the easiest way to get my team to the top of the slag heap, even though some people claimed otherwise.

On the poster for Anatomy of a Relationship, bodies are cut out using dotted lines, like on a map. Sexual pleasure is indicated by a single catchphrase, “get your kicks” (“prendre son pied”). There is an emphasis on feet in your films: walking, cycling, sexuality…

It’s pure wordplay, the expression was common at the time. Prendre son pied refers to orgasm, it’s popular. I first heard the expression in 1966. The expression is more colloquial than “orgasm,” which has a slightly theoretical ring to it. Sexual pleasure is indeed an important problem for human beings.

You talk about shoes for editing, for fiction, for documentary. In Les Minutes d’un faiseur de film (1983), you choose a certain pair of sneakers to take a reel to the CNC… Yours is a foot soldier’s cinema, tied to walking, to the earth. Don’t you think we should delve deeper into the question of feet, literal and metaphorical?

No, we should delve elsewhere.

The bicycle is also, for you, a provisional substitute for sexual pleasure in Anatomy of a Relationship.

A bicycle is something you have between your legs. The substitute is even more obvious with a horse or a motorbike. Equating cycling with sexual pleasure is both positive and negative. At the end of a pass, for example, when you go up, there is a point when the slope starts to round off, then you go down again… We encounter the phenomenon of petite mort. There is even a famous passage, the Casse Déserte of the Izoard pass: the ascent is continuous with a descent in the middle; there is a petite morte just before the resumption. Forms of sexual compensation exist in many areas: food…

Apart from walking and cycling, means of transport are rare in your films.

There are those that are used for shooting, cars and planes—I really like filming from a plane—but these are indeed not very present in the stories. I would have liked to make a film—perhaps I will—based on a short story by Henry James, The Patagonia (1888), which takes place entirely aboard a ship like an ocean liner. An American girl goes to Europe to get married, if I’m not mistaken. I had to choose, so I went for Longstaff’s Marriage (1877)—which became a short film called Longstaff’s Ghost (1996)—which was much easier and cheaper to shoot. Both short stories are beautiful.

Your films always have an autobiographical aspect, even if they adopt an objective point of view, even if you sometimes disguise yourself through a female character. It seems that, in the last few films, you reveal yourself emotionally even more. The Litre of Milk brings up an episode of maternal adultery where, strangely, [Jean] Giono has his place. And the latest one, Land of Madness (2009), bluntly describes the madness of the Moullet family. Do you feel that you couldn’t have made these films before, that you had to have a certain amount of life experience and a certain number of films behind you?

I hadn’t thought of making films on these subjects per se, it just came to me. For Land of Madness, Les Films d’ici suggested that I make a feature-length documentary. I wrote a few lines, got the Advance on Receipts [2] and off I went. I was helped by another factor: twenty or thirty years after I made it, I went to Aubenas to show Origins of a Meal. I felt like going for a walk in the Diois region. In a holiday cottage, I came across an old newspaper in which I found details about my cousin, who had killed three people in 1900. My great-uncle had told me very little about it, a certain omerta reigned. Groping around, I was able to get all the information. It just clicked. This kind of thing happens. I rummage around everywhere I go. The Litre of Milk happened when I was rummaging through my mother’s mail.

There are often personal elements underlying a film, but you are not supposed to know that. It’s better if the filmmaker doesn’t say so. “This author has a lot of imagination…” In Cecil B. DeMille’s films, for example, there are many autobiographical elements, but few people know this. In Hawks’, too, but we don’t necessarily know that or do so only after a few years. In my case, people know it because they ask me. For The Litre of Milk, I was asked for an explanatory bonus clip. But I don’t put myself out there. I would have, had I shot this film in 1960, when the dispute was not quite over. Since then, it has evidently toned down. And I relocated the action 45 kilometres to the north. I think I put myself out there much more with Anatomy of a Relationship.

Is Land of Madness an old project that has resurfaced?

Yes, Edgar Ulmer had asked me to write a screenplay because he wanted to repeat the success of People on Sunday. I found this quite funny. In my opinion, he wasn’t really in charge of People on Sunday, but he was such a compulsive liar that he imagined he was. I wrote a project called The Saga of the Baronies, which was evidently too expensive. Ulmer didn’t have the means to produce it. That was in 1961. I took over the project in 1981, but it couldn’t be made for financial reasons. When Les Films d’ici and Richard Copans suggested a feature-length documentary, I decided to include elements of the Baronies, based on real-life incidents, in Land of Madness.

As I’m seventy-two years old, I’m probably a bit out of step, I decided to turn things around. The opposite of seventy-two is twenty-seven, so I hired a twenty-seven-year-old editor. What followed showed me that it was an inspired choice. Indeed, the first cut ran for an hour and forty-five minutes, and my testers thought it was a bit long. My editor then suggested another, very different cut, running for an hour and twenty-five minutes, which everyone liked.

Land of Madness (2009)

How is this new cut different from the first one?

It has a different structure. There are additional shots, scenes that I had shot to win the interviewees’ trust and which I didn’t think would be in the film. As we shot on video, I was lenient with the length of the footage. I chatted for more than half an hour with the interviewees, thinking that these opening exchanges would serve no purpose other than to put them at ease. In the end, these elements were useful. I’m thinking of someone particular, a young woman whom Sylvie Pierre had told me about. At first, she was disoriented. It was her first time in front of the camera, she felt out of step with us. So I adopted the following principle: to appear even more out of step with her, in order to put her at ease. Now that the discussion with her is part of the film, in the middle of a documentary about the Southern Alps, we can witness a digression about King Vidor that was not originally planned. It was a surprise. It’s good to have such surprises some from time to time. And it’s also good to have this kind of an oblique point of view within the film.

What does this young woman do?

I didn’t want to delve into that too much. That wasn’t my concern. She makes paintings, which we filmed, or photos of animals; she has won prizes in exhibitions. I have a whole explanation that could be used in the DVD bonus. I asked her why she took pictures of animals and not people. She replied that you had to ask people for permission, that it was complicated…

It she a typical, well-known figure in Digne?

She is a well-known figure. A colourful character. When you see her, you get the impression that she is a very maladjusted person, who can’t fit into everyday life, who stays away from or at the bottom of the society. Talking with her, you realise that she reflects a superior intelligence. It’s quite moving to find such intelligence in someone you think is destitute. She is much more perceptive than the average person. She restores faith in humanity.

The simpleton or the idiot who holds a truth is very prevalent in literature or cinema.

Yes, myself, my brother and many others. It is the positive face of madness—it is pretentious to say so—which is found in many filmmakers, Gance, Fuller and so many others, and writers, Hölderlin, Nerval, Poe, Walser, Althusser, and many more.

In Land of Madness and other films, the anxiety of being mad keeps surfacing, the idea that you work against your madness. You even say somewhere, “The day I die, I will at least be happy because I know I won’t have killed my wife or raped my daughter.”

I think it was in a documentary that was made about me, in my workplaces, L’Homme des roubines (Gérard Courant, 2000). There is always this threat, I need to be careful. I try to guide my life in order to stay within certain limits, to take advantage of the positive aspects of my internal madness and curtail those aspects that lead to nothing or bad results. It’s the same with drugs. In cinema as in literature, you have to know how to use drugs, to take them before shooting or before writing, but not during. There is a whole crescendo, a calendar of drug use to be respected.

Which you respect?

No, because the truth is that I don’t do a lot of drugs. I’m apraxic, I don’t really know how to smoke. I envy those who manage to shoot up. There’s a technique to it that I’ve rarely been able to grasp and which I’m very jealous of.

You just said that Anatomy of a Relationship is your most directly autobiographical film. It is a very important film. How did it come about?

Around 1971-1972, the MLF [Women’s Liberation Front] made relations between people a little more complicated. I didn’t put everything in the film, I could tell you a lot about it… The influence of the MLF on relations between individuals is rarely shown in cinema. Michel Spinosa has tried, with Enchanted Interlude.

Eustache too, with The Mother and the Whore.

Yes, which influenced me… Back then, I was having a hard time distributing A Girl Is a Gun, I was in debt. I had a sudden influx of money, 88,000 francs, which is about the same amount in Euros. This sum was not intended for Moullet & Co., but for the Moullet Bros. millers, located 18 kilometres away in Lazagne.

Did you keep the money?

Yes, it wasn’t a huge sum of money, but it was enough to shoot a film. The idea was this: there are two of us, we are going to narrate certain episodes from our lives, more or less. One film served as a reference for us, it was A Married Couple (1969), by the Canadian Allan King, and then to a lesser degree Sydney J. Furie’s film, During One Night (1961). We started from there. There were difficulties, because my wife got a bit scared. It’s hard to talk about it without her. She felt a certain repulsion towards a project that compromised her too much. She has another version, but I think she didn’t feel ready as an actress. I asked Maria Schneider, who refused. I asked Anne Wiazemsky; I think she saw me in a good light, but she was also a little afraid of the project. I asked yet another person, whom you don’t know. And then Marie-Christine Questerbert, who had also experienced complications as a result of her work at the MLF. She said yes. We simply waited for her for a little while, because she was pregnant with her daughter.

I think I was also influenced by Juleen Compton, in my view the first director—with Leni Riefenstahl, in another genre—to shoot nude. If Juleen Compton can shoot nude, why not me? I was a little upset about being behind the curve. A challenge is always interesting, and it was obviously a motivation to be able to work without limits on that front. At the same time, this desire for nudity revived a certain exhibitionism in my family. My crazy murderous cousin used to go stark naked to church—actually, he used to go with just a shirt on. In 1926, at the age of twelve, my father used to walk around stark naked in the neighbouring village. There is a certain vertigo of nudity, which again harks back to the search for the zero degree in writing. After Anatomy of a Relationship, I had an offer to play Karin Viard’s father in a film. She dreamt of her father naked. I got a phone call. It was only logical.

The film constantly plays on the ambivalence between documentary and fiction. Was there a script?

We wrote the screenplay together in three days in a hotel in Sancerre. We had fun submitting it for the Advance on Receipts; we almost got it… There was a vehement opposition from Pierre Billard, who then badmouthed the film when it was released, deeming it scandalous that it was not rated X, whereas at the same time there was Anthology of Vice, a montage of pornos from the 1930s, which he thought was very good. Our film was made without the Advance, perhaps they were right not to give it… We shot fast and edited it quickly. The distribution was relatively easy. I had planned to distribute Anatomy of a Relationship mainly in the United States. I felt that there was much in common with the situation in the United States; at the time, it was much easier for me to export my films than to be distributed in France. But strangely enough, Anatomy of a Relationship was not sold in the United States. It was shown at a festival. Then it began to be distributed in France and in other countries.

How did you and Antonietta divide up the roles?

I used to go to the toilet when she was shooting the scenes with Marie-Christine. She also shot outdoor scenes that I wasn’t involved in, the scene with Marie-Christine on the bench… Antonietta didn’t get too involved when it was me who was directing. Marie-Christine also added details of her own, for example the story of one of her abortions in England. There was a margin of chance, moments of improvisation, the discussion in bed about the film we’re going to see…

Anatomy of a Relationship (1975)

There are at least two elements here that go against the grain of porn films. The title, Anatomy of a Relationship, announces something cold, clinical, medical. And on the other hand, it is a film where sex is spoken about, which is rare and difficult.

Linking the two was the idea, indeed. There was a tendency at the time to show pure sex on screen, and to leave speech out of the picture. Whereas speech often intervenes in reality. We find this in Mikhaël Hers’s Primrose Hill. It has a long love scene of nine minutes, not with a lot of speech, but a little nonetheless.

Did the film’s sense of urgency come rather from a feminist who had knowledge and experience to pass on, or from a man who had had a somewhat hard time?

It came from me, but there was a common experience. That’s why Antonietta agreed to co-direct it.

Was it deliberate that the sex/love relationship was never broached? There is no discussion of the romantic kind.

It is always difficult to separate sex and love, in my view. There are moments when sex comes up more, that is indeed the main problem of the film. But there are also some rather courteous and familiar exchanges between the two characters. There too, there is a centre, like a place: it’s not a town or a roubine, it’s bodies. They constitute a habitat, the habitat of bodies.

Was anything off-limits?

No. It was a film about no limits. Marie-Christine didn’t like me fondling her breasts. I could caress her everywhere, except her breasts, because they had grown bigger during childbirth. She had a mental block; I took that into account. But the truth is that we were almost on the same wavelength. After a while, she even asked me to do a new take for difficult shots, almost hoping for it.

Did you and Antonietta think that this film could, in some way, advance or change your relationship?

Things had already been settled between us, because the film was written in 1973 and shot in 1975. In 1973, the production was not yet organised on the financial level. The tax department owed me a lot of money and didn’t want to pay because they said my headquarters was not in the Alps. I had to emigrate to find a region that paid its debts, in this case the Oise.

How was the film received? We remember Eustache’s quote on the poster: “This film will not be successful at all.”

With my films, there are always people who are very pro and others who are very much against. One critic asked that the film be rated X, others thought it was great. It’s quite common. Anatomy of a Relationship had a good run. Considering the fact that it didn’t cost much, it was a very profitable project. It cost 70,000 francs, which today must be around 50,000 euros. I think it brought in twice as much, so it’s a much better deal than Besson’s The Messenger. I had a good sale in Germany, thanks to Straub. It made the rounds in Canada. It was paid off by some quality awards in France. There was a DVD, as well as a first TV broadcast in France on CinéCinéma last year, thirty-three years later.

At the end of the 1970s, you made Anatomy of a Relationship, one of the rare films really in sync with the evolution of romantic and sexual mores, then Origins of a Meal, often rightly considered the analytical masterpiece about Global North/South economic relations, about the exploitation of the Third World. We also know that Straub considers La Comédie du travail to be a rigorously Marxist film, and he is not alone. Obviously, not everything is so simple. Your films mix a set of values that may seem contradictory: what you call the “search for zero degree” may be seen as a concern proper to modernity, but this search also takes you to the nakedness of landscapes—sometimes of bodies—to a certain refusal of progress, to an attachment to your habitat, to a certain ethic of frugality and scarcity. All this is highly contrasting. One could then compare you to those “anti-modernists” to whom Antoine Compagnon has devoted a book: far from being reactionaries, these are perhaps the true contemporaries, insofar as “they move forward by looking in the rear-view mirror,” as Sartre could write of Baudelaire. What is at stake here is not just a matter of political or aesthetic positioning, it is broader and likely more complicated. In short, how would you define, to speak emphatically, your “vision of the world”?

I am very wary of politics, because my father was pro-Nazi. He was sentenced to death in 1944, but acquitted in 1946. I knew very early on that you shouldn’t follow a definite political path, that many people go astray and then feel remorse. I have always considered this kind of thing from a distance. I’ve sometimes signed petitions, but the mistrust of politics has remained. The big problem in France in the middle of the century was the incursion of a dominant Maoism and Trotskyism in 1968. When The Gulag Archipelago came out around 1974, renunciation was quite difficult for many. Politics is perpetual reversal. That’s why I’m don’t get too carried away. Maybe I am too cautious. In any case, I know the relativity of commitments and opinions in political matters. I have a rather ironic view of all this, even if I support certain demands and even if certain doctrines appeal to me more than others.

I make my films like a shoemaker resoles his shoes or a baker bakes his bread. I don’t try to see where I stand, or analyse my evolution. People sometimes make comments that leave their mark on me. When I first started out, Truffaut advised me to shoot indoors; he thought I was doing better indoors than outdoors. So I was careful not to overemphasise the landscape over the actor when filming outdoors.

Generally speaking, I don’t try to define myself. I know that you can identify certain recurring elements, I notice some myself. But defining myself is a bit immaterial, very immaterial even. I probably have a certain ironic view of modernity and the evolution of civilization. Moreover, I believe, contrary to many people, that the 20th century is not a step towards progress, but a parenthesis, in the same way that the pomp of the Roman Empire was a parenthesis before the Middle Ages. I believe that we are a little like in the year 395, at the death of Theodosius. We are a bit like the cousins of Theodosius, who was a good guy, by the way. I didn’t know him, I regret it; maybe it’s for the better because I wouldn’t be here anymore had I known him.

I believe that everything is going to change. We can already sense that the oil age is going to disappear, just as there was the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. We will return to a sort of Middle Ages, probably of a less flamboyant kind. Just as the centre once moved from the Far East, India and China to the West, there will be a sort of return: United States will lose steam and the Far East will gain a lot. We already have a proof of this with the cinema of the West, which has fallen far behind the explosion of Asian cinema. It is not for nothing that there has been an explosion of Taiwanese cinema at the same time as an economic surge in Taiwan: economy and culture work together. The West is not going to be the fifth wheel of the car, but it will lag behind, not only in terms of cinema, but also economically. There is going to be a low period that will not be unpleasant, but different. There will be a lot of upheavals.

We are living in a transitional, intermediary period, which is not exemplary in terms of the evolution of humanity. We can already see this in certain signs. Everybody believed that the sound barrier was fundamental, but it was shattered by the Concorde. There were the chemical weapons, the atomic bomb, but it hasn’t been used for sixty-four years. So we’re back to a more primitive stage, we’ll have to recycle. A country like Cuba, which seems to be lagging behind, is going to be ahead of the USA, because the USA has staked everything on continuous progress, while Cuba is much better equipped to withstand counter-shocks. Our artistic productions will inevitably be a little limited, because they will look like the productions of a brief period.

You like cycles.

Yes, the notion of cycles is very important to me. There are cycles everywhere in existence, in the great currents of universal history. Cycles and bicycles…

This is a less pessimistic vision than that of Straub, for whom, without a revolution, ecological or otherwise, the destruction of the planet is inevitably underway. For him, there is no cycle, we are heading towards a catastrophe with no return.

That’s somewhat normal, because Straub is four years older than me. At our age, one is always more pessimistic when one is four years older. Straub lost Danièle. His health is a bit fragile. It’s normal for him to be pessimistic.

His attitude comes from further afield.

Yes, Godard too. It’s good to tell yourself: I’m going to disappear soon, so it’s all the better if the world disappears with me. Après moi, le déluge… That’s Godard’s sentiment. If the cinema ended with him, he would leave happy.

If we studied Sybaris, we would find a certain number of elements from our current life. Do you know the town of Sybaris? The Sybarites were people who had everything and let themselves go. They were completely eaten up. Wealth kills, it’s a risk that is an integral part of civilization. Today, we have children much later or we don’t have any. We devote more to the pleasures of life than to its reproduction. Women catch up with a child in their thirty-fifth year, which is the penultimate moment. We know that today western civilisation is maintained mainly thanks to the influx of external marriages. It is Africa that allows us to renew ourselves. In some countries less fortunate than France in this regard, we are witnessing the disappearance of civilization, and partly of races. The disappearance of races is a secondary issue; the more they mix the better. The French population is more and more mixed; that is France’s great luck. But it is less true for other countries, where mixing is still rather frowned upon.



[1] [Translator’s Note] The French word ‘terroir’ has a wider connotation than ‘habitat.’ A term perhaps somewhere between the German ‘Heimat’ than the English ‘home’, it encompasses not just the geographical area one is rooted in, and the spiritual and emotional connection one has with the place, but also its natural ecosystem. I’ve used ‘habitat’ here as a shorthand, hoping the reader will understand the broader implications in context.

[2] [Translator’s Note]: Advance sum given to filmmakers by the National Centre for Cinema (CNC) against the film’s prospective receipts. For more details on the CNC’s film funding, refer to Moullet’s essay “The Maoists of the Centre du cinéma.”