By Gary M. Kramer.
French filmmaker Laurent Maria started his career as an actor—he appeared in several theatrical productions as well as in films such as Yves Saint Laurent (2014) for director Jalil Lespert. In 2014, he wrote, directed, and starred in his fifth short, Sunday (aka Dimanche), playing a “narcissistic pervert” who breaks up with a different lover every day of the week. Cleverly, each segment uses the same dialogue, but the tone changes slightly from day to day.
Two years later, Maria wrote and directed his 45-minutes featurette, Vinz (2016), which depicts the dynamics between a couple, Annabel (Fiamma Bennett), a photographer, and Louis (Maria) who works in commercials, and Vinz (Paolo Provenzano), the driver hired for a Barcelona excursion. Louis quickly becomes jealous of the attention Vinz gives Annabel causing friction. Annabel further stokes the sexual tension between the men by making them pose for photographs together. As emotions and desires bubble to the surface, Louis’ fears may not be unfounded. Vinz reveals all as Maria’s film investigates issues of truth and trust among the characters.
After two more shorts, Je suis sans Nouvelles (2016) and Anita (2018), Maria completed his full-length feature, Nina (2019). Rebecca Assor (Marie Chazaly) is an actress who meets with director Victor Nuñez (Maria) to rehearse the role of Nina in his new film. Victor’s methods are critical and exacting, which initially impress Rebecca, but soon cause her concern. As Victor becomes more controlling, Rebecca becomes more defiant.
Via Skype from London, Maria spoke with Film International about creating his various shorts and features. ( His films are available online here.)
Gary M. Kramer (GMK): In Vinz, how did you create the tensions between the characters, establishing their relationships, and portraying the dynamic between them?
Laurent Maria (LM): At the beginning, I wanted to create a couple-driver love triangle. I wanted an excellent actress and a beautiful woman, and Vinz to be a sexy, atypical man. In real life, he’s a dancer, and an actor. He can be feminine. People think because I am gay, the men will be together in the end. I developed the characters in a workshop, and the teacher helped me make the characters not be clichés. It’s natural to make Annabel a bitch, but I did not want to make the characters Manichean. I tried to use their contradictory qualities. And I wanted to work with the actors’ personality.
GMK: The film is a road trip of sorts; the character travel on journey, and encounter obstacles. Why did you choose this approach for the story?
LM: My family has a country house close to the border of Spain, and I wanted to show the beauty of the landscape. It’s not a famous part of France, and the best way to show it was a road trip. And it is hard to stay with people you don’t know more than one day, so it was about building and creating that tension between the characters.
GMK: Vinz unfolds in a very elliptical, episodic fashion. Can you talk about your visual approach to the material?
LM: I wanted to show “musical” moments, like a dream or a fantasy. I was inspired by the beach and sky and the depth and the beauty of the actors. I wanted to express the mind of Louis and have the audience think about his jealousy or is he paranoid, or is it true? Silence and music can help project what he thinks. I had a great DP. I used long shots and framing and edited or used angles to create the tone of the scene.
GMK: Louis does not trust Vinz almost instantly. He suspects him of being in the mafia or dealing drugs. Later, he is convinced Vinz is an escort. However, as the film progresses, he learns to trust Annabel less. What can you say about the ideas of truth and trust in Vinz?
LM: I think Louis is afraid of Vinz, because he’s different from him. Louis is from a posh family, so he is a bit snobbish—but maybe he has an attraction to him? He trusts Annabel less because he is deeply jealous—but he has reasons to be jealous.
I was kind of a jealous person because in my past, I had this kind of attitude. I wanted to express my deepest fears in my films. But I’ve changed, and I’m more mature now.
GMK: Can you talk about how you are positioning Vinz as hypermasculine, and a threat to Louis, who is insecure and often over-compensating with his affections for Annabel.
LM: For me, Louis has more vanity than Vinz. I wanted to make the Louis-Annabel relationship uncomfortable because their sex life is not what it once was. Louis fears Annabel will be attracted to other guys. Louis overacts because he is maladroit—clumsy and awkward. He’s not comfortable with himself. He lacks confidence, and that makes him paranoid and jealous. This attitude is not attractive to Annabel anymore.
GMK: There is a homoeroticism between the men with their macho egos. Can you talk about how you push up to the line without going over it? It really makes the film so strong.
LM: There is an unconscious homosexuality in Louis, because when you are jealous sometimes it is because you are attracted to the person. And in a film, sometimes he sees Vinz with desire—for example, when Vinz changes his shirt; Louis looks at Vinz with jealousy and homoerotic attraction. I’m gay, and sometimes, part of you comes out naturally, or unconsciously in the movie. When we made it, I did not think about desire, but jealousy, but desire just comes out. It was beyond what I expected, and I’m happy for that. I didn’t want to do a gay movie, and you are right, the film is stronger because they don’t cross the line. To be honest, I think the actor is attractive. I knew he was straight, and I chose actors that could create a more erotic atmosphere. It’s funny, a guy who saw the film said if Louis was straight, and the filmmaker was straight, he would have written a punch scene, but I think you can find straight men who act as Louis.
GMK: Nina also percolates with an uneasiness that builds as Rebecca is wary but optimistic, and Victor wears her down as the film unfolds. Can you talk about creating this dynamic between the characters?
LM: I think she met him once in Paris before this rehearsal. He has a reputation as not an easy filmmaker. She’s optimistic because she has been chosen to star in this film, but he’s cold and weird and he doesn’t try to make her feel very comfortable. He has no problem with that. He has a big ego and feels she has to accept his temper. He isn’t friendly, but she is sensitive because she is an actress.
GMK: Victor is critical and exacting as a filmmaker. Rebecca describes him to someone as, “demanding but fair.” Is that how you are as a director?
LM: I am demanding but fair—but nice. As I am an actor, I understand actors. They are sensitive. I am very polite. I work in low budget, so we have to respect actors. I’m demanding with everyone, but I’m very diplomatic, and more diplomatic on a shoot than in real life. If I had more of a budget, maybe I would change [laughs].
GMK: How did you work with Marie Chazaly on the role of Rebecca and the character of Nina?
LM: As we are friends in real life, we spent holidays together. I wrote Nina over a year and a half. We met about the script and we changed lines if they didn’t sound natural. I was lucky that she was devoted to the project; it was her first real part. It was almost the same story as our relationship, but with two friends [not strangers]. I wrote it for her because she is Rebecca. I’m so inspired by Marie.
GMK: Whose side should the viewer be on? It is easy to empathize with Rebecca, but she resists Victor’s efforts, which makes him more sympathetic. Then he lies and gets possessive and even manipulative… How do you want viewers to react to the film?
LM: Again, I didn’t want Manichean characters. I wanted positive things in Victor—he’s very touched by something Rebecca does. We can have empathy for her, but the audience can also be annoyed by her passivity at first. Marie was scared by the fact that she always does what Victor wants her to do. We can think she’s a slave, but she’s not. She wants to have a day off and tries to rebel but it’s not easy for her. The nice part of Victor is the he’s devoted to this film. His exercises can be pointless, but he’s not the devil. Still, we like her more than him. He just doesn’t realize he goes too far. He’s not used to people rejecting his methods. He also can be totally egocentric—”this is my process. Get it or leave!” He acts like a robot, but he does have a heart. She acts devoted but then she takes power.
GMK: The film floats in and out of reality—it takes a moment to determine if the characters are acting a scene or being themselves in real life. There is a gorgeous scene of Rebecca and Victor dancing against a dramatic sky, but it’s dreamlike. There are other moments that may be imagined. What was your intention with this fluidity?
LM: I was inspired by Olivier Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria, where Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche are talking, but then you realize they are acting. I wanted to create the tension between reality and rehearsals. It’s easy to create that when there are only two characters, and I wanted there to be a fusion for the audience to make things ambiguous. The blue sky scene—is it true? Did it happen? There are a few clues in the movie. Did they have sex? People always ask that question. When they kiss each other, it’s the scene, but why do they do it? Normally, you kiss during the shoot, not the rehearsal. But the point of Victor is to create this ambiguity to make her lose her mind—like the character, Nina. It’s a kind of perversion. He wants to create reality and truth but it’s dangerous to play like that.
GMK: Nina includes several lines that are repeated with different inflections and emphasis. This harks back to your short, Sunday, where the same text is repeated seven times with different interpretations. Can you talk about the idea of repetition in your work, and extracting meaning from variation?
LM: The basis of both films—Nina and Sunday—is the actor. When I decided to write Sunday, I wanted to show how the same scene and lines with different actors could be totally different. At the end, no one says Sunday is about the actor, they say it’s about a narcissistic pervert. But it’s about the actors. In Nina, it’s the same. As they rehearse the movie, we see the different moments she acts. Sometimes she’s fragile, sometimes she’s stronger. He pushes her to be more. In Nina, I talk more about the way a physical quality can influence acting—the movement and the body, and how you treat it—something can be more authentic, stronger. To be uncomfortable can create real truth.
GMK: Let’s sidebar on Sunday for a minute. What was your intent with creating this short?
LM: I wanted to work with actors from different nationalities. I wanted to act a strong part and do a gay scene—there is one. I love diversity and the mix of languages and sexuality. We don’t have enough of that in France. I wanted to make a film about a narcissistic pervert. I wanted to create a good part for me.
GMK: How did you conceive of the different variations on the same theme?
LM: The flat where we shot in helped to create the atmosphere. I interacted differently with each actor. My character has one encounter with no kissing, and one with a kiss with a tongue. Some of the performers were actors, and some were not, so it depended on them. The Kazakh was shy, so I adapted to each personality, especially when they were not actors.
GMK: OK, back to Nina. Your style involves jump cuts, long takes, and almost documentary-like scenes. Can you discuss your visual approach to this film?
LM: In my past films, I used a lot of music, and I didn’t want to use too much music in Nina. I wanted it to be simple. I wanted to be in the moment. When I could do a long shot, I like to use them. The documentary style, also came about because we were together, and I am a filmmaker in real life, and she is an actress in real life. It’s mise-en-abyme, an endlessly repeating frame in a frame. But everything was written. There was no improvisation.
GMK: Your film also creates a sense of ambiguity—one is not sure how to read the ending. What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
LM: At the end, I wanted to show an actress who accepted the game, and her expressions reveal what she feels and the choice she makes and the price she pays.
GMK: One of the things I notice in Vinz and Nina is how you have the main character hiding behind a camera, taking photographs and manipulating people. Can you discuss that theme in your work?
LM: It’s probably an attitude I have deep within me. I was doing that all the times as a child—directing people playing games, and making/telling stories. It could be from that. These jobs, director, photographer, have power. You can manipulate people and create filters more easily than if you ask directly. It’s a perversion. Maybe they are shy characters? I never really thought about the parallel. It’s obviously true. In Nina, it’s because I wanted to talk about cinema, but in Vinz, it’s about Annabel, an artist who is not really successful. She is a woman who depends on a guy with money. She uses people to make her photographs and that may be unconscious, but maybe it is conscious? It’s what I do in a good way. I don’t use my camera all the time, and I live in the real world; I’m not manipulative in real life. But I want to talk about people who prefer a virtual, creative world. They are better in that world than they are in the real world.
GMK: The characters you play in Sunday, Vinz, and Nina are all controlling, suffocating. Can you discuss why you take on that persona in your work? You create these roles that don’t necessarily show your character in the best light.
LM: That’s true. It is because I find the most interesting characters are when you are not the hero. As a director, I act everything, and it is an excuse to play a thankless, bad guy character. I don’t want to be a boy next door. The roles give me a chance to explores my own fears and my own insecurities. These are people not like me. I’m not a narcissistic pervert. I’m nicer than Victor and less manipulative. It wouldn’t work for me to play the hero. I’m more Vincent Cassel than Brad Pitt. I prefer Javier Bardem or Sean Penn over Chris Pratt.
GMK: As a gay man, you tend to play straight characters in your films. Can you talk about that decision, which I assume is deliberate?
LM: When I started acting, I thought because I am gay, I’d only be able to act gay. People were seeing me often in gay roles. So, I thought if I played straight characters, I could show I can play straight. I have no problem playing gay. I’m not in the closet. But it’s to be more versatile. When I give myself a character, he is ambiguous, and I love acting with and kissing women. I have better relationships with women than with gay men. But my next movie will be LGBT, and I will act a gay role. There is a gay scene in Sunday, but in Nina Victor is straight—probably.
GMK: There is an idea in your films about the characters suffering for their art; feeling emotional pain that ultimately drives their work. Can you talk about that idea?
LM: Art is not easy. I think the good things I have done in my life as an actor and filmmaker—I didn’t do them easily. There was disappointment and frustration. I started to be a filmmaker because I wasn’t getting jobs as an actor. Now I have more work. With Nina, I lived the situation Rebecca does; I worked for a director who was difficult. I don’t agree with Victor’s methods. You can create a good movie with good vibes. But actors’ lives aren’t easy, which may be why my vision of art is not easy. When you are bored you are more creative than when you are happy. I was most creative when I was alone and bored.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.