“Unexpected Paths”; Delphine Gleize on her Imaginative Debut, “Carnages”
by Erica Abeel
“Carnages,” the first feature by 29-year-old French director Delphine Gleize (now in release from Wellspring), has garnered praise worldwide for its energy, imagination, and narrative force. A surprise discovery at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent Rendez-vous with French Cinema, it also struck a nerve at Cannes 2002; took a Cesar nomination for best first feature; and — relatively unusual for a French film — has so far been acquired for distribution in 20 countries, among them Mexico and Hungary.
Adopting an unlikely — and, to some, creepy — premise, “Carnages” follows the dismembered body of a bull, after its death in a corrida, into the lives of 10 characters: the gored toreador, a little girl, a taxidermist, an actress, and a scientist and his pregnant wife. Each wrestles with a personal crisis, and is linked to the others, often quite literally, through the disseminated fragments of taurine flesh and bone. The bull turns up in a character’s dinner, in the taxidermist’s workshop, and under the scientist’s microscope.
Displaying a command remarkable for a fledgling director, Gleize juggles a series of arresting tableaux, ranging from a suspenseful bullfight, to a pool of naked people working on their primal scream. Her diverse cast includes 5-year-old Raphaelle Molinier as Winnie, the little girl, veteran Jacques Gamblin, Portuguese singer Lio, and luscious Chiara Mastroianni as an actress literally moulting her skin in search of a new self. From the slightly off-kilter opening scene, we sense a fresh vision: a slender young toreador silently dresses for the bullfight, the amped-up cries of Carmen Amaya and clack of castanets exploding on the soundtrack.
Critics have seen “Carnages” as a statement about the interconnectedness of all in a seemingly random and chaotic world. But this is perhaps to impose an order Gleize never intended. One senses that the wildly disparate characters and scenes are bound by hidden ligatures — yet how to describe them? Moving through time/space with anti-linear logic, by visual associations and puns or the surreal; mixing burlesque, drama, and humor, “Carnages” resembles little we’ve seen before.
According to Gleize, whom I recently interviewed when she was in New York for Rendez-vous, one viewer who immediately “got” the film is dyslexic. Wearing jeans, red and silver sneakers, and a jacket (which, in true French fashion, she never took off) Gleize is almost self-effacing, and looks more like someone’s teen-age niece on the crew than the film’s director. Though my French is pretty decent, unscrambling the filmmaker’s take on her own work was at times like trying to penetrate Kalmuck.
indieWIRE: How did someone so young make such a big, ambitious film?
Delphine Gleize (laughing): After Jacques Gamblin read the screenplay, we arranged to meet in a café. He couldn’t believe the writer could be so young — we’d never met before — and thought there was some mistake.
iW: “Carnages” tells the stories of 10 characters. Yet Winnie, the little girl, seems to be at the center.
Gleize: Winnie is intuitive and has a distinct vision of the world. In the initial script she was just one among 10. But as we worked, I realized she was the main character. It came to me as I watched the rushes that all the action is essentially seen through Winnie’s eyes — which I hadn’t realized before we started filming. In fact, in the final scene, where she’s wearing bullhorns, there’s something monstrous about her smile. As if she’d swallowed and digested all the other stories. As if the entire film was nothing but Winnie’s invention.
iW: So is Winnie Delphine Gleize?
Gleize: I became very interwoven with Raphaelle’s performance, but she’s no simple stand-in for me. I’m not into self-exposure, though I must seem pretty naked in the film.
iW: Where did you get the idea for “Carnages”?
Gleize: It came from the first time I saw a bullfight, when I was 12 and a half. It was a powerful experience, though at the time I didn’t analyze why. I found the animal unbelievable. I thought, “I must make up a story about that bull’s destiny.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it. But then, after seeing other corridas, I thought, “Everyone needs to have a bull in his life. I’ll make up a story about a dead bull who enters peoples’ lives.”
iW: “Carnages” has been compared to choral or ensemble films, such as “Magnolia” and “Shortcuts.”
Gleize: There’s one big difference: in a choral film there’s usually an overarching theme. Like an earthquake that unites the characters, or some event or catastrophe. My film is not like that. I deal with interior earthquakes. My characters have internal fissures.
iW: Mothers and birth figure a lot in your film.
Gleize: That women give birth I find extraordinary. The mothers in my film carry secrets and lies. Lio, the pregnant wife, for example, harbors a secret. She’s been sterile for three years and is now pregnant with five babies. Her husband doesn’t learn any of this until the end. Lio is preparing for the moment when she’ll give birth, surrender what she has in her belly. The old taxidermist loves her son — they’ve created their own little world — but she’ll have to give him up. What’s moving is the difficulty we have in allowing the most cherished people in our lives to leave. All the characters have difficulty yielding up what they have in their gut.
iW: Aside from mothers and secrets, how would you describe the other links between the characters?
Gleize: Certainly, the women overshadow the men in this film. But all the characters are struggling to find their place in the world — which I picture as the arena at the corrida. They’re all in the process of searching for happiness and gradually getting up on their feet. They start as four-legged mammals, and finish standing on two feet. Initially they all invent a fiction or lie as a way of getting by. The only man who knows what he’s got in his gut is the toreador, who’s in a hospital bed.
iW: What exactly is the role of the bull?
Gleize: The bull is the piece of flesh that will witness in the most intimate fashion the characters’ transformation.
iW: Uh, could you run that by me again?
Gleize: The characters are all traveling toward their own truth, and the bull speeds them toward self-discovery. He serves to accelerate their destiny, forces them to deal with their issues. For instance, the bull’s eye promotes seeing clearly. When Jacques looks for the eye that’s rolled under the sofa, he finds the sonogram that reveals that his wife expects five babies. That’s the secret she’s been harboring. Each character finds himself facing his own bull, his bete noire, and has to fight it in order to exist.
iW: Is this film “understandable” in the usual sense?
Gleize: I had no wish to be provocative or obscure. But you could say I’m dealing with “dyslexic reasoning” — I get there by unexpected paths. I needed to be free. I let myself be carried along when I made the film. You should expect nothing. My background is that of a screenwriter [she studied at Femis]. But I’m not at all respectful of the screenplay. A script only serves to allow people on the same team to communicate over a 10-week shoot. I find being a director really weird. I mean, to turn a stack of paper into cinema. You should forget the screenplay as much as possible. I constantly tried to become more radical, push to the extreme, change scenes while shooting. The film evolves every day and that’s what interests me.
iW: At times “Carnages” is kind of nauseating.
Gleize: Really? Some viewers said it was very instructive to see how the bull’s remains were handled in the slaughterhouse. Shooting there was quite pleasant — [there was] no smell, it was cleaner than a hospital. But Americans are shocked by that. Others came out of the film saying, “Wow, that’s my story.”
iW: How, in your first feature, did you keep control over a large cast and scenes shot in different countries?
Gleize: First of all I chose actors of the same family: very carnal, with a powerful physical presence and rough skin — they all evoke each other. I’m interested in actors whose lives you can read on their skin. And you have to bring them into the same universe. I work through speaking gently. Directing isn’t just giving orders. I give, give, give — I was exhausted every night. The main secret of directing is to make every member of the crew, even the coffee girl, feel she’s making the same film as you. Above all, I don’t get hysterical, which is the reputation of French female directors.
iW: Hmm…[I mention the name of a French female director I recently encountered.]
Gleize (laughing): There you go, it’s her reputation, film crews talk. It’s different now with younger women directors. Julie Lopes Cural [director of “Bord de Mer,” another Rendez-vous hit] is also gentle and soft-spoken. Maybe the older female directors had to battle more to put themselves in the male role. For us it’s now easier to get our films made. But once the film is out, it’s harder with the press.
iW: Yet “Carnages” has been well received in France.
Gleize: The male critics are quite misogynist. Some of them weren’t into “Carnages” because it wasn’t a feminist film — you know, about desire and female sexuality, or the sex wars, or first love, etcetera. Some male journalists found it too mother-oriented. I think it’s a clearly a film made by a woman, with a maternal and feminine gaze. French critics like to be surprised. But then, when they are, they get all flustered and go, “What’s this all about?”
iW: Does “Carnages” contain a larger message?
Gleize: Yes, a message of optimism. The viewer watches characters slowly find their way and become reborn. There’s nothing religious here. People are constantly getting reborn. And the film is reassuring about death. It says you can withstand most anything. The toreador is reborn at the end. Life always wins.