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The Man with the Video Camera: an interview with Alain Cavalier

By Santiago Rubín de Celis.

The films by Alain Cavalier (born in Vendôme, France, in 1931) are the result of a process of slow, soft erosion. For more than fifty years – from his Nouvelle Vague-style short film Un Américain (‘An American’, 1958) to his 2009 feature, Irène, which is a sort of ‘film-spell’, a kind of personal diary evoking the daily presence of his wife, who died in a car accident more than thirty years ago – his work has shaken off every tiny bit of affectation (big-scale budgets, star actors, international distribution deals) to come closer and closer, for every new picture, to the essence of filmmaking. That’s how Cavalier has become a ‘filmeur’, as he likes to call himself, which is precisely the title of one of his most recent and striking films (Le Filmeur, 2004).

From his early fiction films Cavalier has moved naturally to intimate and allusive film essays of a great simplicity on the margins of the filmmaking industry – what critics refer to as ‘autobiographical films’, as Cavalier trusts no longer in scripts and actors. That’s why his camera has turned to the people and things surrounding him, and it is, in a sense, also the reason why he now plays rather more the role of a medium than that of a director, as his camera allows people to express themselves freely in their own voices.

This ever-increasing austerity has earned Cavalier a place apart in contemporary French cinema. He’s no longer a second-rate Nouvelle Vague follower – Un Américain, Le Combat dans l’île (a.k.a. Fire and Ice, 1962) – nor a ‘quality’ director – The Unvanquished (L’Insoumis, 1964), Pillaged (Mise à sac, 1967), Heartbeat (La Chamade, 1968), Thérèse (1986) – or even an experimental filmmaker outside distribution circuits – more or less the case of every single film by him since This Answering Service Takes No Messages (Ce répondeur ne prend pas de messages, 1978), including Libera me (1993), La rencontre (‘The Meeting’, 1996), Vies (‘Lives’, 2000), and Le Filmeur.

‘The history of a film-maker is to be found in his films’, Cavalier states, and in his work an unstoppable wish to ‘shorten the distance between documentary and fiction films, the world in which we live and an imaginary one, the first-person and the third-person narratives, between living and filming’ is quite evident.[i] For more than fifteen years now, Alain Cavalier has worked alone, his hand-size video camera is his only crew, and it is thanks to this almost extreme divestment that his own private recurrent themes – such as love, the dead, and cinema as a sort of living memory – appears so distinctively right before our eyes. Of course, this is also the path that has led his films to become, one might say, identical to his life.

Thanks to a season of Cavalier’s films at the Filmoteca Española in Madrid in the spring of 2011 – during which he personally introduced This Answering Service Takes No Messages and Irène I had the long-awaited opportunity to meet the filmmaker. We shared a pleasant talk as the day grew dim in his unlit hotel room. Cavalier listened carefully to all of my questions, which he answered calmly, frequently pausing to choose the precise word. It was not at all uncommon that sometimes, after one of those breaks, he would return to an earlier subject as if he felt a pressing need to extend his reasoning on a particular issue. The visible result of that intense conversation is the following interview.[ii]

Your career in film seems to have changed a lot from your early films to the present. From being a metteur en scène to a cinéaste and now a filmeur, as you like to consider yourself. Could you explain to me the difference between all these three different ways of working in films?

It is very simple. Making movies, being a metteur en scène was to write a script, some dialogues, to cast some actors. You know, you have to visit them, talk a little with them trying to convince them to act in your movie, to sign a contract, and so on. Then, you had to shoot every scene, all the sequences, which is a great deal of work, trying to carry out the schedule, because making a movie is a very expensive matter. You worked with a big crew and you had to work fast as money is a serious affair. You know, I think all this comes from the theatre tradition. I mean, making such films you work a little bit as you would have done it in the theatre. It doesn’t matter if you’re not working on a stage, you’re working as if you were on one even if you’re shooting on location. Then, one day one becomes a cinéaste, which means that you don’t care about all those things anymore. You’re not longer focused on where you place the camera for example. Before, the camera, as I often say, is a third-person narrator. It follows somebody into a room, records a number of actions, but always keeping the distance. It is equivalent to the classic narration in literature: ‘He did whatever, he went to some place’ and so on. Still none of these things are coming from you. I mean, none of them are actually close to your personal emotions, your feelings. You’d like to say ‘I’ instead of ‘Him’ – ‘I enter into a room. I take a seat’, etcetera. The thing is that you have to shoot the story and there’s no space for yourself in it. So, you continue in the same way as before but now you’re not working with professional actors. You’re writing the dialogue with the people that are actually going to say it. Now you’re working on smaller budgets, with smaller crews. This was the case, more or less, of Fill ‘er Up with Super (Le plein de super, 1976) and Martin and Lea (Martin et Léa, 1978). By then, in the 70’s, the 35mm film cameras were also getting smaller and smaller all the time. So it became a little bit cheaper to make a film. However, working in films was more or less to work in the same way as I’ve just described. But one day, the video camera comes along and it becomes possible to shoot your own films. It is possible to make films that are completely yours, the ones you’ve always wanted to do. Since you can take your own video camera with you and shoot whatever you want, they are your own films. The spirit of the filmmaker becomes more and more independent. That’s being a filmeur. The filmeur makes films not thinking about the movie-theatres, the show-business, or about making a lot of money from them, or seducing women, or whatever, but for something else. Now one can record every day, like a painter that paints everyday or a novelist, writing every day a few pages of his book. But you’re not recording all that stuff thinking about using it immediately. And neither are you doing for an audience to watch it. You’re just recording for the pleasure of filming. And that kind of filming often leads you somewhere. It develops into a story, a film…

Would you say that that particular passionate way of filming has something to do with the Nouvelle Vague school of filmmaking and New Cinema that spread all around the world during the 60’s?

It’s got nothing to do with the Nouvelle Vague. You know, the Nouvelle Vague was just two films, nothing more. It is Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1959). They’re both very personal in style, but neither of them were a point of departure for subsequent films. Both films are milestones within the ‘History of Film’. But the Nouvelle Vague was a young generation taking the place of the older one. But, to be honest, those two films are really good; Hiroshima mon amour and Breathless, which is a film that stands against time.

It’s funny, you know, because you’re from the same generation as many of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers. In fact, your short film Un Américain (1958) and your first feature Le Combat dans l’île (1962) are contemporary with the Nouvelle Vague, and they are very similar in style to all those films.

Le Combat dans l’île

Yes, we are the same age (…) All those films were shot in black and white. We used to work with a dim light coming from the ceiling as we hated strong lighting. It was trendy. You know, we had some small technical and aesthetical customs in common as in a clan. And we were, politically speaking, very radical. I was a radical. The times were quite tough with the end of the Algerian war and all that. It was a very complex time in France. But, you know, nothing is as solitary as the trail of a filmmaker. He looks with envy to the work of other filmmakers trying to steal some things from here and there without people realizing it. Of course, during May 1968 all the filmmakers got together for three or four weeks. We all met and we talked about what to do – to end up with the IDHEC, the official film school, giving free tickets for everybody to go and watch the films. We wanted to fight against the government, against the cultural establishment… Then, de Gaulle decided that it was enough and all went back to what it was before. So the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, who had taken the place of older filmmakers, began doing exactly the same as they had done – big budget films, working with prestigious screenwriters, with big movie stars and so on. So suddenly it was the very same situation as it had been some years before them. The Nouvelle Vague lasted so little time. Very few members of my generation are now working on HD video. They keep shooting with 35 mm film cameras, using large crews, and so on. In fact, they think of film as if nothing has ever happened to it. They conceive being filmmakers as if they were priests – they held not just an absolute moral authority, but they think they can make amends to the government, say what to do to intellectuals. You know, now you can make a film with practically nothing, for peanuts. So for me, that vision of cinema is finished. It just doesn’t exist anymore. I’m not trying to say that right now everything is so much better, but the whole vision has changed so much.

What are the kind of things that have changed so much in filmmaking during the last decades?

Le Filmeur

Now you can take all the decisions personally, as you’ve got the power. Money is still something important, of course, but now I’m making a kind of films with such a small budget that I just can’t be bothered because of money. In fact, I’m free because my films cost very little money. I say to my producers: ‘Let’s make a film together. You’re not going to lose money. You’re not going to earn a lot of money either, but I promise you won’t lose much.’ So they let me do whatever I want. So I no longer have trouble with the money, nor with what to film or if I’m going to work with professional actors or non-pro, fiction or non-fiction, or both of them, or what kind of audience I’m intending the film for. You know, I began working for big audiences, but, to be honest, right now I cannot imagine myself thinking about what would be the audience expectations of my films.

That’s ironic because in opposition to that particular freedom developed from technical innovations that you have mentioned, like digital video and that kind of things, it is quite evident that every day more and more films are based on a Hollywood-like movie formula that represents precisely what you’ve called a metteur en scène film. Isn’t there a contradiction here?

You see, today there is a whole science of show-business. You can learn how a film script should be written, how to develop the supporting characters, the plot, and so on. I mean, there are techniques to dfollow. I’ve got a completely different way of working, and in mine there are no rules… You know, Aristotle wrote all about the drama – about how to begin a story, to develop the plot and so much more things. All this is studied today in the US, in France, everywhere, in film schools, drama schools, etcetera. Film schools teach somebody how to work properly on the set, to design a shooting plan, to work with the actors, the crew… And some of the people studying there are very good professionals, and some of them not so good, but (…) the system is exactly the same as in, let’s say, the Hollywood studio system. Probably that’s why most of the films are made, as you say, using a formula.

So if you want to work in a different way, all you need is financial independency, isn’t it?

Yes, I’m sure of it. The word ‘freedom’ means nothing. In filmmaking freedom means always an economical freedom. To be free, financially speaking, allows you to do things in your own way. You know, sometimes there’s people investing very little money in a film and wanting to take some big decisions about it, important decisions. Yeah, this is something that happens sometimes. But, of course, that’s not my case now.

How do you feel watching your early films as The Unvanquished, Pillaged, Heartbeat nowadays? It must be very strange for you.

Pillaged

For me, now, they are tiresome because, watching them, I always think that I’m going to find some new things and then, after four, five minutes of the film, the mechanism of my memory starts to work and then I know by heart which shot is following this one, and which one is the next one, and the next one. So there is not a single surprise! Now I’m making films coming out of my own daily life that are unpredictable, just as my life is, and I expect the audience to be able of feel this. If I try to predict what it’s going to happen tonight, there is no way! You know, how many people will be at the cinema to watch the film? [Cavalier refers to a screening of his film, Irène, at the Filmoteca Española.] Who am I going to meet..? Maybe I will break my leg just walking down the stairs of the hotel! I want my films to be the same way. So now I do not write a proper script with all the situations, twists, and so on, pre-planned. I want the audience watching my films to feel exactly the same as when they are just living their own lives. They’re shouldn’t know what is going to happen, what comes next… While I worked with the traditional method (a script, a shooting plan and so on), I knew what the end of all those films would be like. I knew the end right from the start even when I was just shooting the beginning film. Now it is like football on television. You know, I’m a football fan, and watching the games live on TV I founded it is pretty much the same thing: it’s not possible to know what is going to happen at the end. Nobody knows it, not even the football players! And that is precisely what makes it so entertaining. So when I began watching football matches on television and I realized this fact, I began questioning myself about my work and the way I was doing it. As a spectator I was so thrilled by this unpredictability that I wanted to use it in my work. You know, sometimes starting from something apparently quite different to film you can learn many things about your work as a filmmaker.

The movie that marked the beginning of that approach to filmmaking in a different way was Fill ‘er Up with Super in 1976. What do you recall from the making of that particular film?

Fill 'er Up with Super

Fill ‘er Up with Super is still a mixture of working under both different visions of filmmaking. Since my previous film [Heartbeat], I had stopped making films for almost eight years. I didn’t want to continue working in the conventional filmmaking method. So one night I met those four fellows and I immediately thought about making a film with them. The plot would be minimal, a simple road movie. And we, the five of us, wrote the film together. I wanted them to tell their own experiences on the film, using their own language, so that’s why I worked with them in order to write the dialogue. We shot the film with a small crew. We used a 35 mm Panavision camera that was very light and small. It was the only expensive thing about the whole movie, as the camera rent was very, very high. But, you know, the camera allowed us to shoot inside the cars. Instead of working under a shooting plan, we shot the film chronologically. Since then I always do this. Life happens chronologically, apart from when you remember something from the past reliving it once again. I mean, almost everything that happens in your life, it happens chronologically. I can even place my memories within an order of time. That’s why now I’m filming things chronologically, as they simply occur. But then, when I made Fill ‘er Up with Super, I was still far away from where I’m now – filming alone, with no crew, me alone in front of what I’m recording. No more technicians around me, nothing to disturb me or the things I’m filming. You see, here is my HD video camera and, while I’m talking to you, I can record whatever I want. I’m talking with somebody and I can film him or ask him to film me instead. And, at the same time we’re doing it, we are still talking, living. That’s what I do now. I’m mixing to live and to film.

This sensation, that your life and your films are but one thing, is the point from which your next movie, This Answering Service Takes No Messages, was entirely conceived, because you play yourself in it and the film deals with the actual death of your wife in a car accident.

This Answering Service Takes No Messages

Yeah, most interested me in this situation is that the spectator watches somebody doing something, which is not written in any script, it’s just his own life, and then he’s able to walk in that somebody’s shoes. What I find interesting about the audience is me being able to show them my point of view. I’d like him to enter inside my brain, to know why I make all those strange things [in the film], like painting the whole flat in black. The spectator is able to see things from my point of view. I know my idea is rather odd but I’d like to think that seeing with my eyes, understanding me, my actions, would be useful to the audience as an experience. So, for me, the whole film is just a conversation between me and the audience. And in it one can discover many things about oneself and about one’s own inner world. Some things that were unknown till that moment. That is precisely what’s important for me about the film. But maybe simply it can’t happen. It depends on the spectator. In Answering Service we were just three people working on the film – a sound engineer, the cameraman and me. We were a sort of small family. So to shoot the film wasn’t the solitary experience of my last movies. Answering Service is from 1978 and I just began filming in video, let’s say subjectively, in 1994 – 16 years later. It took all those 16 years for me to improve what I wanted to do. During that time we let go of celluloid and began working with video and then HD video came out. You know, I’ve been lucky, because being used to those huge 35 mm film cameras, video cameras have just changed my whole life. Before, you could not see what you had shot until the rushes, now I can watch it even in the camera. So I know if it’s good or not immediately. Another thing is that now you can record the sound directly trough a microphone connected to your camera. Somewhat the audience get the feeling that you’re talking directly to them, the whole thing seems more private. And the sound is so good that you can screen it in a movie-theatre if you want. Perhaps the quality of sound is even too pure… All these things meant an enormous revolution for me. And, what’s more, you can buy a nice video camera for, let’s say, €1,300.

During these last 16 years, what we may call your path towards freedom, what would you say has changed about your ideas concerning filmmaking?

Heartbeat

Well, instead of looking for stories related to other people, stories that somebody has told me, from novels, like Pillaged or Heartbeat, I’ve begun to find them around me. It just takes looking carefully at what’s happening around you, and you discover things that I believe to be surprising. Now I’m filming this kind of things. For me it’s a more practical point of view because, on one hand, this cinematic substance is more accessible, and, on the other, it’s got a sense of reality as you’re talking about things that you know of, things that you’ve experienced. I know this could be annoying sometimes to the people living around you, because you’re using your daily life, but that’s a completely different matter.

What about Thérèse? It is probably your most acclaimed film internationally. You know, it has been released here in Spain early this year, so 25 years later… I see the film as a sort of docu-fiction because there is an obvious intention of depicting her life very carefully. It’s a film in which every small detail counts.

Thérèse

I agree with you. For me Thérése is a documentary. The film deals with monastic life in Europe, in France, during the 19th century, and, of course, it is also about the role of women within that particular tradition. You know, as I had a Catholic education as a child, the film meant also researching myself and my feelings about religion. When I use the word ‘research’ I mean it in the sense of the biographer writing on some historical character – he needs to find all the facts, discover the documents to prove them, etcetera. In my case, these documents were used in the very same way. Perhaps a little bit more as a literary source, as a basis, but they were absolutely respected to the last detail. I mean, every time I needed to decide if Thérèse would have done such or such thing, I just found out what she probably had done. I got in contact with somebody I knew and I used to phone her every morning. Although she had been a nun, she was then out of the convent. But she was still living as a nun, I mean, following all their rules, routines, and so on. So every time I was asking her what Thérèse would have done when she woke up, how she would act in a particular situation and that kind of questions. She was a great deal of help. Later, in Le Filmeur or Irène, I’ve re-shaped some of the materials that I’ve recorded so they seem no longer to be documentaries. I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying… As I developed a film narrative, all those fragments achieved a fiction-like appearance. So, for me, Thérèse is my closest film to documentary.

In a sense your work in Thérèse seems to bring forward your Portraits (1987-1990) TV series about working women in France. They share many elements in common, would you say that is true?

Thérèse

I think so. It’s true. You know, in every convent of that time there were 24 nuns. 24 was the exact number. And, as they got but little money, all the nuns had to work. Some of them made clothes, embroideries, objects and things, some of them did the cooking, and so on. While I was filming Thérèse I needed to find real people doing these jobs appearing in the film. Well, some time before I finished the movie I decided to shoot all these portraits of women. Suddenly, while I was filming them, I developed a kind of sensibility towards a woman working alone. One day, I saw a woman, she was right behind the window of a shop, repairing a mattress and I was struck by the beauty of a woman working all alone. It was absolutely moving. I don’t know why, but it was. You know, my mother did not work during her life. Maybe it’s got something to do with it… I don’t know. So this feeling of esteem made me look for some women carrying their jobs all by themselves. And I offered the whole idea to a television channel and it was immediately accepted. I decided that every single portrait should be 13 minutes long. Why? Because if I made them longer, let’s say 26 minutes long, it would have been impossible to broadcast them without commercials. And it was very important for me to do so. Till now I’ve made a total of 24 portraits and I could have done a hundred because they work really well. Every time I turn on the television I see some of them being broadcast. And one of them is even used in public schools in France. It deals with a woman conjurer, she’s 93-years old now and she performs some amazing magic tricks. I’m very fond of the work I made with those portraits.

Irène is one of your films I like the most. It is a kind of film-spell. I mean, you use the film as an invocation of your late wife, her presence in your every day life, and, watching the film, the audience is able to see her, she does appear right before our eyes. Instead of a filmmaker, yours is more the position of a medium…

Let’s say that I looked for her among the dead and I managed to talk with her for a while. I was Orpheus but I just didn’t know it while I was making the film. Then it came a moment when she called for me. I wasn’t the one calling her, believe me, she was. Irène called me and it took me a lot of time to answer her. You know, it wasn’t easy for me. But, as I’m telling you, it came a moment when I could she Irène once again before she disappeared. So I played the role of an intermediary between the living and the dead, some kind of medium, as you say. I truly believe that this particular ability comes from growing old, the ability to talk with the dead. I planned to make the film as a way of getting rid of my obsession about my wife, Irène. I was wrong, now I know it – she’s not dead, she’ll be alive forever. It is the same thing with Thérèse, they both are alive. You know, I talk with Thérèse every day and Irène talks with me all the time. It’s the same thing. I’ve brought back the dead to me. In a sense I’ve done a kind of religious work that is natural to the essence of filmmaking – movies preserve us from a complete death, they capture a fragment of us that will live forever.

Jean Cocteau wrote a sentence that has become famous precisely related to all this. He said that watching a film, one could see Death at work…

Oh, sure, death, but it goes far beyond that. Movies are about how death destroys our bodies, of course, but at the same time they mean rescuing somebody from death – Irène will live forever, in the film. Her death is no longer absolute. When you record images of somebody, he or she gets stuck in those images. And it doesn’t matter if he or she gets older, uglier, in the real life. There is a sense of preservation about films that I love. So, movies once again challenge literature, since in a film, past, present and future are often all mixed up. I believe that the notion of time is a lot more complex in films than it is in literature. Cinema has developed its own private sense of time.

I haven’t seen yet Pater (2011), your latest film, which will be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. What can you tell me about it?

Pater

You see, as I’ve been doing films alone for the last 15 or 17 years, the people at Cannes Film Festival used to select them for the Un certain regard section, which was originally intended for young filmmakers. This year, Pater will be screened at Cannes in the competition section. This is not only important for me, of course it is, but also for the filmmakers working more or less in the same way I am. The film is about the relationship between an actor and a filmeur. At one time they both believe they’re politicians – one of them believes himself to be the President of the Republic of France and the other one the Prime Minister. They play those roles for a while and then they are once more themselves. I’ve worked with a professional actor, something I hadn’t done for a good number of years. The two of us were the entire crew – he acted, I filmed. It is a simple story with one actor and one guy, me, filming it. You know, so a special kind of relationship develops between an actor and a filmeur. The moment came when he asked me: ‘So what if we try this and that?’. It was a funny idea, a little bit crazy, and I accepted. So the whole film changed from one thing to something else instead, partly into a fiction film. Pater is, for me, an amusement, but behind it there is a tough reality… I see the film as a conversation between the actor and me. That was precisely what I was interested in right from the start. Look, if I had been interested in making a big spectacle, like filming the Jews crossing the Red Sea, I would have needed a large crew, special effects, set designers, costumes, a great deal of extras… But fortunately I’m not interested in all those things anymore. And what I want to do, I can do it with so little money. I’ve been lucky enough to survive and to be able to keep making movies in spite of the small audience of my films. I cannot ask for much more – an audience, screening my films in movie-theatres… That’s enough for not losing heart, enough for thinking about making new films.

This interview took place on April 14th, 2011, in Madrid.

Santiago Rubín de Celis is a Spanish freelance film critic with a PhD in film studies.

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[i] Moure, José, “Cavalier, seul…” in Les Lettres françaises nº 60 (New Series), June 20, 2009.

[ii] I would like to thank Marie-Nat Martineau and Luis Parés for their kind help in arranging this interview.

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