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NYFF Interview: Catherine Breillat

Love her or hate her, there’s no denying Catherine Breillat is a force to be reckoned with. Her oeuvre is filled with raw sexuality, mental illness and sibling rivalry.

Love her or hate her, there’s no denying Catherine Breillat is a force to be reckoned with. Her oeuvre is filled with raw sexuality, mental illness and sibling rivalry. Unflinching in her portrayal of these issues has polarized critics and audiences alike. Some say her films feel cold and lifeless or that she’s playing for shock value. 

Her films certainly don’t tie things up in a bow.  Whether it’s the multiple narratives in Sex is Comedy or the harsh mental world in Anatomy of Hell, her films aren’t easy to stomach, especially for audiences who consider Little Miss Sunshine to be innovative.  She demystifies sexuality while recognizing the primal need for it. 

She’s also an interesting interview. She speaks little English so forgive me if this is short, but she didn’t hold anything back. It’s refreshing to see such honesty in an industry full of secrets and lies.

Catherine Breillat

Benjamin Crossley-Marra:  Would you consider it insulting if I said I don’t like your films the first time I see them, but gradually fall in love with them over time?
Catherine Breillat: No, I love that! It’s a hundred times better to have a film make you think, then a film that induces a quick, fleeting sensation.

BCM: When did you first read the novel?
CB: It’s one of the last novel’s I’ve read recently. I’ve read actively all my life and I don’t know how this one escaped me. I think Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly chose a bad title. In French, the title implies an “old” mistress, when it’s supposed to mean “eternal” mistress. It sounded to me like a book about an aged woman or someone who had been a mistress for a very long time. But realizing it was metaphorical, (the mistress is actually quite young) the book took on a whole new level of meaning.  It certainly didn’t help book sales so I changed it to The Last Mistress as not to hurt the film. 

BCM: You stated that your last film, Anatomy of Hell, was an extremely difficult shoot, how did this go?
CB: This one was probably the best. Anatomy of Hell was hard because the subject matter that was hard to deal with. The cast and crew were upset by the dalies. In fact, it took me over a year to put that experience behind me. I was obsessed with tweaking the color; I made fourteen copies of the negative, which is very dangerous. That film is so pale, the colors needed to be nuanced, so we switched film stocks.  

BCM:  Was Asia Argento an easy actress to work with?

CB: No. I mean she’s fantastic, but she’s difficult because she has such a strong personality. She loves to scare, and at the same time hates people who are scared of her. She’s always testing people to see how they’ll react. But she wasn’t up to size for scaring me. On one hand, she’s impossible, but she also gives herself totally to the director. She understands dynamics, the process and what I want. She gives herself entirely to the camera. In that way she’s very easy. She’s a very good actress, contrary to what the Italians think. 

BCM: You depict sex in your films as very gritty and realistic. Is this a reaction to the over-romanticizing of sex in film?
CB: Not romantic, just the silly. In many films the sex goes nowhere. If you show sex, it should be raw, fiery and romantic. Like in life. 

BCM:  You’re career has spanned many years, how do you feel you’ve progressed from a film like Bilitis up to The Last Mistress?
CB: I didn’t make Bilitis. It was David Hamilton’s film, not mine. I would have made it a lot differently. I would want to cast a young girl, not some woman in her twenties with pig-tails. I also have technical issues with it. I don’t like the gauze-filtered, soft focus. I wanted to see darkness and grain. It’s not my film, it’s a big success, but not mine. If there’s one thing I hope to have done throughout my career, it’s to change people’s notions of sexuality.

BCM: You’ve been compared a lot to David Cronenberg, how do you feel about that?
CB: I can’t compare myself to David Cronenberg, whom I adore, that’s for you to do, although, I’m aware it’s done often. When Crash came out it was forbidden everywhere. When I fought the censors to distribute Romance, they finally allowed Crash to be shown. When Cronenberg shows something, he never shows it half way. He doesn’t think in terms of censorship, he thinks that censorship should not be used to censor adults. The censors have no scientific or psychological basis on which they try to forbid the public to see certain films. People need to have their own system of determination. In fact, he defended me a great deal in Ontario against the censorship board for Fat Girl

BCM: Do you think it’s hypocritical for American censors to censor sex yet not intense amounts of violence?
CB: It’s worse then hypocritical, it’s nonsensical. That being said, I also like violence a lot. I also like Cronenberg a lot because History of Violence is magnificent. I hate cartoon, stylized violence that doesn’t resemble real-life violence. I like the kind that Cronenberg and Lynch show. I think that real violence and real sexuality go hand in hand, that frightens the censors.  In America, the way films have copyright laws and automatic censoring it’s very hard to make a film with raw sexuality. If you want a film to make money, you have to completely censor yourself.

BCM: Did you see Irreversible?

CB: I did, and like your reaction to my films: at first I hated it, but I was with my daughter who hated it (and also hates my films), then I thought about it, saw it again and discovered I like the film a great deal. The title really makes the film.

BCM: Have you found it hard to secure financing for your films?

CB: It’s not difficult, just horribly complicated because I am not in the crowd that will get television distribution. I don’t make the kinds of films they can show during dinner time. My films are very intense and you can’t really chop them up with ads and commercials. 

BCM: What film directors have inspired you?

CB: Bergman. The film that made me want to become a director was Kvinnodröm (Dreams/Journey into Autumn, USA), Bergman films women better then anybody. Another film I like is Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, which was not really well-regarded well in France due to Kazan’s political decisions.  But I prefer a McCarthy director who makes a good film, than a politically-correct director who makes a bad one. 

BCM: Will you ever work outside of France?

CB: The problem is in France we have artistic copyright by which the film is actually the director’s film. Producers can’t go in and play around with it.  In France, a producer can stop the production but cannot replace the director or intercede on any artistic level. In America, the producers hold the copyright and can do whatever they want. I can’t have that. Not many American directors are considered auters which I consider myself. The shoot should be a constant dialogue between producer and director and I never leave my producers out to dry. Laws need to be thought out to promote collaboration between producers and directors, so it’s not an issue of power, but an issue of creating the best film.

BCM: Why do you think Hollywood has such a different philosophy?

CB: It’s an issue of money; commercial filmmaking’s sole purpose is to generate revenue, not artistic statements. For instance in France, if you purchase a painting, even if it costs millions of dollars, you have the right to hang it wherever, but if you intentionally damage it, the original painter can exact over four times what you paid for it. For film, it’s not so much a question of cutting for audience psychology, but purely for time. This film used to be three and a half hours long. We cut it and the producers asked if we could make it shorter and I thought we had cut too much from the wrong scenes. In fact, in this case, it was necessary to cut entire scenes, rather than cut parts of scenes. Cutting demands a cooperative, consistent dialogue between the editors, producers and the director. It shouldn’t be an argument based on test screenings. 

BCM: What’s your next film?

CB: It’s called Bad Love, but I’m not sure that’s what we’ll call it in English.  It’s not about love being “bad” but about the nature of love.       

Part of the 45th New York Film Festival,  IFC First Take opens The Last Mistress (Une Vieille Maîtresse) in Spring of 2008.

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