By Ali Moosavi.
It is not that Jean-Luc Godard is better than Xavier Dolan. That is impossible to say, but their idea of cinema is not the same. Maybe the world today doesn’t need cinema anymore.”
Christophe Honoré is a multi-talented French artist. He is a novelist, actor, director of film, theatre and opera. In French cinema he is considered an auteur and the heir to the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave cinema. Like most of the New Wave directors he started by writing in Cahiers du Cinéma. Honoré is openly gay and in many of his films he deals with LGBT issues. His latest film Winter Boy is based on his own experiences as a seventeen-year-old whose father has just died and he was in a chaotic and confusing situation dealing with his own sexuality and being gay. In the film Paul Kircher plays 17-year-old Lucas, Honoré’s alter ego, Vincent Lacoste his brother Quentin with whom he goes to stay in Paris, Juliette Binoche their mother and Honoré himself in a cameo as the father. Winter Boy deals frankly and sympathetically with a very sensitive subject. The performances are uniformly excellent, and Paul Kircher was awarded the Best Actor prize at San Sebastian International Film Festival, where I spoke with Christophe Honoré.
In Winter Boy how was your experience of directing a cast comprised of a well-known actress like Juliette Binoche and two young actors?
In my sets there is no ranking or preferential treatment given to the actors based on their fame. How I deal with them is to do with their characters in the film. I remember Juliette on the first day of the shooting when she announces the death of her character’s husband. I saw Juliette recognized the boys as good actors. Suddenly, she was so happy to be there and because she’s such a great actress, she knows that when you have a good actor in front of you, you can also be better, and I think then there is more equality. I never saw Juliette on the set saying, be careful or something like that. I understood very early on that I was very lucky to have Juliette and Vincent & Paul. They appreciated each other, they recognized “their reach”. It is true that from the very beginning they trusted each other. You could see that they had no pretense, they could share their emotions, they could share their sincerity, and that is a privilege for a film maker. At that point you just have to be with them and follow them with a camera.
It’s something very strange when you are a filmmaker and suddenly you have Juliette Binoche in your movie. You remember all the movies you have seen her in and you think how can I look at her differently?”
I interviewed Abbas Kiarostami after Certified Copy and he told me that since the actor in that film was an opera singer not a professional actor, Juliette Binoche told Kiarostami that acting is like playing ping pong; when I say my line, he has to return it with the same quality otherwise it will not be a good game and the film will suffer. Of course after rehearsals she was happy with him.
Juliette was marvelous in the Kiarostami movie.
She’s marvelous in everything!
Yes, it’s something very strange when you are a filmmaker and suddenly you have Juliette Binoche in your movie. You remember all the movies you have seen her in and you think how can I look at her differently? You can be a little bit apprehensive, but in this movie it was so simple with Juliette. She was so happy to be with these young guys, Paul and Vincent. It is not always the same the case. Sometimes shootings are very difficult, but it can turn out to be a good movie and sometimes shooting is a lot of fun and it becomes a bad movie. You don’t know it of course because you, the film maker, lose something during the process. But in this movie everything clicked from the beginning and it was not so obvious because having Paul, Vincent and Juliette as this family was Like a gamble and you are not sure.
When I was watching the film, it was like reading a classic novel like Proust and of course you are a novelist too. Did you think at any stage think to write it as a novel, rather than a screenplay to be filmed?
Yes, you are right, it could be a novel, but I am not sure that I am an appropriate writer for this story. I am not sure I am the proper film maker for this story too, but I try! It’s interesting that you mention Proust, because just before this movie in France I worked with Comédie-Française about an adaptation of Le Côté de Guermantes, so I had a lot of Proust in my mind when I wrote the script, so maybe there’s something of Proust in there, but hopefully not pretentious. Going back to literature, a book that influenced me and was very important in writing the script was The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky. It influenced me because it is told in first person by a young person and what I like there is that he also speaks about the chaos in his life at that point and that was something that I also wanted to introduce in my film. For me adolescence is the theme of the of the film, but more than that it is also the shape of the film, just like in that book.
In writing the script, did you draw from your own emotions when you were seventeen?
Interestingly, during the shooting we didn’t talk about the emotions that I went through as a 17-year-old and in the film the Lucas character experiences. With Juliette however she insisted on knowing and she asked me is this really your story? And I spoke about my emotions with Juliette, but not much with Paul Kircher. Yes, what you see in the film happened to me when I was seventeen years old and yes just in the same way as the Lucas character I also felt to be in such a chaotic situation. I think making this film for me had a dual purpose. Firstly, I wanted to go back to the past, to that chaos to try and give it some shape. But at the same time, I also wanted to tell it from the perspective of a young person today.
Nowadays people’s attitude towards LGBT community is very different than say 30 years ago. Now same sex marriage is legal in many countries, but I guess it would have been very different when you were seventeen.
I didn’t want this film at all to be a nostalgic film. That is why I refused from the beginning to do a historical reconstruction of the 1980s. That was the period when I was young, and it was a very hard period for me. I also had to deal with the death of my father and at that time homosexual people were afraid of AIDS. It was as though they were all going to die very quickly as a result of their sexuality. So I didn’t want to put all that burden into the film. I just wanted to tell the film from this other perspective of understanding young people today.
I thought you controlled the rhythm of the film very well by changing the camera from static to handheld in some scenes and also the music had a certain quality.
Yes, you are right; I think this is the first film where I use that much hand-held camera. When Lucas is telling his story, I wanted the camera to be very flowing. At the end of the film, when it is the mother, Juliette talking, at that point it was different; I wanted something much more stable and more travelling shots. So I wanted those two different shooting methods. For the music, I contacted the Japanese musician Yoshihiro Hanno who had been working for the Chinese filmmaker Zhangke-Jia. We never met in person, just by writing emails through the pandemic. I was in Paris and he was in Tokyo and he started composing and sending me some pieces and I liked what he did. I think that it adds a kind of strange quality to the film. You can feel that the music is not French and has some ghostly elements that enhances the film.
What are you views on Jean-Luc Godard?
It was a sad period when he died. For me it’s not only about what Jean-Luc Godard represented, but what he could do today. For me it was so sad to admit that I could never again see a new movie from Jean-Luc Godard. I liked so much his last movies, Film Socialisme (2010), Goodbye to Language (2014), The Image Book (2018). I felt real despair. I think the period killed off Jean-Luc Godard in a way. It was not because he was old. Cinema is in very bad moment today. It’s like now the audience, and sometimes press journalists, don’t know exactly what cinema is and I think we let Jean-Luc Godard die. I think we are responsible for something that now has been lost about cinema. It’s a very strange feeling for me because of course Godard is not only a totem, like a big cineaste for the filmmaker. I really think that we killed him in a way. I think we killed him when in Cannes we gave the same prize to Xavier Dolan and Jean-Luc Godard. It’s a form of killing. We can’t do that, it is not the same. It is not that Jean-Luc Godard is better than Xavier Dolan. That is impossible to say, but their idea of cinema is not the same. Maybe the world today doesn’t need cinema anymore. For me, it’s more than just a death of a filmmaker that I admire, it’s something very moving and disturbing. We let him die alone, very alone. I think Jean-Luc Godard has been alone for twenty years. Now some journalists say oh it’s marvelous what he did or some festival pays tribute to him but in the mainstream cinema Jean-Luc Godard was just this old man in his house by the lake and they didn’t want to know what he did. Maybe that’s because I’m French and because I am so close in my mind to the New Wave. I think that the golden age of French cinema was the New Wave and I think the golden age of world cinema was the New Wave. For me his death was not some news that we expected, like the dinosaurs that suddenly disappeared, and we say it’s normal, I think it’s more difficult to accept. For me as a filmmaker, it is difficult not to yell or complain. It’s impossible to make movies today. When you start to say to someone that you want to make a movie, it’s always bad news to them. People ask are you sure? There is something new now, and it is not just Netflix, even though I think Netflix is killing the cinema today and we let them. When Venice festival take a movie from Netflix, for me they are really mad, because when Jane Campion makes a movie, she’s of course a great filmmaker, but when she did the movie with Netflix (The Power of the Dog) suddenly it’s so dangerous, it’s a frontier we can’t cross.
It’s already been crossed.
Yes, and I can understand when you go to the United States and have this kind of discord, they say oh yes, you French in your village alone, you are so old fashioned in your reaction. No, it’s impossible not to talk about this and Godard in Histoire du Cinema said that the most important people in cinema are the producers. If your producers are Netflix, it is not the same even if you win Oscars. Because they don’t need movies, they need products to fill the time. In Netflix when you see the title of a film, never you see the name of the director. It’s why I say that we killed Godard. We were lazy, we were negligent. We tried to say that cinema is movies, no cinema is not movies, it’s something more than movies. It’s the way you make your movies. At this moment, the cinema exists only on the set and I am of course very sad and a little bit pessimistic.
Maybe you can carry on where Godard left.
No, because I am not strong enough. I am a small film maker and it’s too late even for me. We are post-modern film makers. We arrived after the cinema. I think for a lot of film makers when you are on your set and you know that somewhere near this lake Godard in his house made movies, you can work because you know that this guy really made films for the cinema. Now that he is not here anymore, I think it will be very difficult to continue. And you see that even in France the audience has disappeared completely from the theaters. And the youth are not at all in the audience and cinema is not their passion. When I was seventeen, Wednesday was the day for new movies. In my small village in Brittany, I would take the bus to go to the big town to watch movies and it was so important for me. But now no, so maybe something new will happen. Even here in this film festival it is like we are around a corpse but we have the vision that cinema is alive and well, but I am not sure anymore.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).