INTERVIEW: Night Lights; Patrice Chereau Probes "Intimacy"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 10.16.01) — French director Patrice Chereau (“Queen Margot,” “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train“) has found a perfect accomplice in Hanif Kureishi, the bawdy, intellectual British author and screenwriter famous for such tales as “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Samie and Rosie Get Laid,” and “My Son, the Fanatic.” “Intimacy,” their collaboration (along with scenarist Anne-Louise Trividic), is an intense, emotionally compelling story of two strangers, loosely based on Kureishi’s novella of the same name and his short story called “Night Light.” Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox) meet for sex every Wednesday, but their anonymous affair soon transforms into an all-encompassing relationship, sending them each on a roller coaster ride of emotional turmoil.
Winner of the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival, “Intimacy” is a devastating piece of work, with Rylance and Fox, not to mention supporting actor Timothy Spall, turning in piercing performances — as authentic and powerful as anything from Cassavetes‘ “Faces” (the videotape, says Chereau, was sitting in his place in London during the film’s development, but he never got around to watch it). After premiering at the New York Film Festival last week, “Intimacy” opens in New York on Friday through Empire Pictures. indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with Chereau about emotion, sex and dialogue, and working in English.
indieWIRE: Why did the film premiere at Sundance? It played very well in Berlin and that seemed to make more sense as a launching pad? Were you even in on that decision?
Patrice Chereau: We wanted to do both, Sundance and Berlin. The problem is, as soon as you finish a film, you’re immediately happy if somebody tells you they like the film. And Sundance was interested. I felt that Sundance was right to do, but I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Berlin was very helpful, of course, because we won the prize. You are not doing a film for prizes, of course, but immediately when you’re at a film festival, you need to get something, because if not, people ask you why you didn’t win a prize.
iW: Your film had an emotional weight that I found hard to find in many of the films at Sundance. And I wonder when you were setting out to make the film from the Kureishi story, was there this slowly mounting emotional tension already in the text?
Chereau: No. The script is a total invention. In the beginning, I decided I wanted to do “Intimacy.” But the novel is almost impossible to do. I stopped immediately and tried to find another way. And then I discovered a very short story called “Nightlight.” But after five pages, this story stops, so we had to invent what comes next. So this was all created, working with Hanif in London and working with my scriptwriter in Paris, who is a woman. This is a huge advantage, because it changed the point of view. In specific response to your question, I tried to feel it emotionally myself, and what I could relate to in the characters.
iW: In the beginning, it’s challenging. These two bodies, without dialogue, people that we don’t really get to know for a while. It’s difficult to enter the story. . .
Chereau: Because it’s difficult for them, too. Because they don’t know who they are, either.
iW: And that’s why you chose to start in that anonymous place.
Chereau: That’s how the story was: two unknown people. So we decided, “What can you learn about someone when making love to them?” That was really interesting to direct. The sex became a language — a dialogue and they are talking. And they’re saying a lot. Sometimes, people say, “They don’t talk.” But nobody talks that much when they’re making love. Nobody talks that much, in life.
iW: Did you ever consider doing the movie in French?
Chereau: It was a discussion with my producer. The first idea was to really expatriate: to try to contact another culture, with another country. When I was younger, I worked in Italy and I liked it immediately, working in another language and meeting people who have another way of acting or technique. I like the challenge. So the first idea was to go to London, because of the novel, because the world of Hanif Kureishi is consistent and logical, and it has to do with London and the British society, which is much more brutal than ours. France is a bit more like the U.S. — everyone has a chance, but in England, there is really upper class, middle class and lower class. We could have transposed it to Paris, but we would have missed something, but we wouldn’t know what.
iW: Had you worked with English actors before?
Chereau: Never. I wanted to meet English actors, because everyone knows the level of the British actors is really high. It was a dream to work with them.
iW: Being an outsider, do you think you gained a more unique perspective on the material?
Chereau: Being an outsider is always an advantage. In France, we have a critical eye about our cinema. I see our terrible abstractions, and I try to change it and I try to make a correction. In the British cinema, I like this extreme brutality and the social reality. And I want to catch something of this, to steal it.
iW: What were some of the challenges of working with the British crew?
Chereau: We were seven French people, among 50 English people. It was hard sometimes. Sometimes, I was quite rejected by the crew. It is not interesting to be always comfortable. I think it’s a good mixture between the two of them. It was a little like doing an implant. Sometimes, the body refused it totally, and sometimes, it was very nice and machine was working fluently. The actors were always with me, and I was always with the actors.
iW: In British cinema, I feel like there’s this tradition of repression, which I though your film continues. I think of Pinter’s work. There’s this sense of containment.
Chereau: I don’t feel “Intimacy” is repressed; it’s quite the opposite.
iW: But there’s so much the characters don’t express; they’re holding back constantly.
Chereau: I think it’s general, not just English. The people say to me, “This film shows how difficult it is to talk,” and I think it’s always been difficult to talk, in every country, about sex and relationships and feelings. It is not a modern difficulty.
iW: How do you feel “Intimacy” relates to your previous work?
Chereau: I’m always working with the same subject matter, in a way. My first challenge was to see if I can tell a story with only two or three people, not with 14 or 19 people [as in “Queen Margot” and “Those Who Love Me. . .“]. And I tried. And you’re touching more sensitive areas. You need to use more of yourself. For example, all the mistakes of the male character, I think I’ve personally done them, already, all of them. I know what it means to follow somebody or to deny you’re in love with somebody.
iW: Is it any closer to theater?
Chereau: No, I’m touching things that theater doesn’t allow me to talk about. In theater, you’re kilometers away from the actors. There’s really something here about the bodies, the faces, the eyes, that only film can give you.
iW: Do you think it’s going to be a difficult film for audiences in the U.S.? How have audiences reacted so far?
Chereau: Most of the time, people see their own lives. They recognize the people on screen, mostly the women. I can hope that the American reaction will be the same. The problem is, sometimes journalists are not helping as much as they could, because they are talking about the sex. It makes the film more difficult than it is. People in the audience have told me, “I didn’t want to see the film after reading the reviews, and then finally I went to watch it, and it’s not the film I was expecting. It’s not just about sex.”
iW: And what are you doing next?
Chereau: I’m preparing another English-language movie. I received a year ago a script about Napoleon, the last years of Napoleon.
iW: But Napoleon didn’t speak English. Is it in English for market reasons?
Chereau: Of course, it’s for market reasons, and the script came from America. But I’m not sure I would do a film about Napoleon in French. He was a prisoner of the British.