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French Directors Go Back to School to Offer Unique Lessons to American Film Students

French Directors Go Back to School to Offer Unique Lessons to American Film Students

French Directors Go Back to School to Offer Unique Lessons to American Film Students

by Erica Abeel

Catherine Breillat talks to a student during her visit to New York for On Set with French Cinema. Photo courtesy of Unifrance.

Patrice Chereau stalks and circles his two actors like a camera, as they enact the painful end of an affair. Cedric Klapisch instructs a class in the fine points of tough-guy intimidation in Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Claude Miller details the advantages of shooting in DV. And Catherine Breillat screens the very raunchy “A Very Young Girl,” urging students to “allow their bad taste to come out.”

These are takes from master classes taught by four French filmmakers in a first-time program called On Set With French Cinema. During October and November in New York, American students in at MFA film programs at Columbia, New York University, the City College of New York, and the School of Visual Arts were treated to lessons in cinema. (A different foursome taught classes in L.A.) Created by Unifrance, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the American colleges, the project had a double goal: to expose students to a range of creative minds; and raise the profile of French films in the U.S.

There’s a striking discrepancy between the healthy appetite stateside for Gallic product and its relatively puny presence in American theaters. “French films, new and classic, are shown in sold-out festivals, museums, colleges, and art centers,” said Patrick Renault, audio-visual attache of the French Embassy. “But consider that foreign films account for barely three percent of films shown here; and French cinema accounts for only 25 percent of that – so we’re talking 0.6 percent.”

If “On Set” won’t instantly spike those numbers, it offered the students a windfall. The visitors proved to be master teachers, putting out prodigious amounts of energy dissecting their work, sometimes in unventilated, soporific spaces, showing remarkable patience even with uninspired questions. There was no shortage of humor, charm, and the expected Gallic candor about sex. Above all, these directors projected a passionate dedication to filmmaking, and generously shared with students many secrets of their craft. Considering the holiday pap filling theaters, it may just have been the best show in town.

The formats for each session ranged from large lectures, to screenings followed by Q&As, to fifteen-student directing workshops. Claude Miller (“Alias Betty” and the forthcoming Cannes hit “La Petite Lili”) devoted one class to a screening-with-commentary of “La Chambre des Magiciennes,” his 2000 film based on a novel by Siri Hustvedt. The session met in NYU’s gleamingly state-of-the-art underground film complex, which outclasses the institutional spaces of Columbia (the musty smell of which I remember from grad student days) and creaky quarters of SVA (though ironically, an NYU screening of “La Petite Lili” was halted when some equipment went on the fritz.) The first of the ARTE “petite camera” series, “Chambre” was shot with two mini DV DX100 Panasonic cameras — but when the film was presented in Berlin in a 35mm copy, the video origin went unnoticed.

Speaking in French with a translator, Miller periodically halted the screening of “Chambre” to point out the advantages that small, light, sensitive DV cams give to directors. The benefits of DV are scarcely “news” to those familiar with indie filmmaking here — yet Miller kept his audience riveted by tying specific examples to the scenes onscreen. He detailed how DV shortens the work: a long traveling would take hours with 35mm; but in a hospital scene in “Chambre,” he simply stuck a camera on the wheelchair. “DV also let me do things that would be very complicated and expensive in the lab with 35,” he said. “The DP created a spiraling dream flashback in ‘Chambre’ simply by swirling his wrist.”

Other advantages: “You can work right away now and make your mark thanks to the blessing of DV,” Miller told his audience. And work all day with actors, while 35 requires hours for tech set ups. DV is better for an intimate subject than “Lawrence of Arabia,” he said, drawing laughter. “It’s essentially actors filmed with a news camera style, a rougher technique. Goya and Francis Bacon would have used DV.” The only disadvantage was his actors’ fear that the camera could be placed anywhere, and they could be filmed without knowing it, especially with the second camera. Declaring that “90 percent of the director’s work is casting the right people,” Miller revealed his technique: “I interview the actor, asking him to respond like the character in the movie — and then I catch him off guard by asking indiscreet questions about his private life.”

Claude Miller gets animated during his lessons with students. Photo courtesy of Unifrance.

Students questioned Miller about his association with Robert Bresson as both actor and assistant director. Miller described Bresson’s unique beautiful cinema built on “le refus.” “If you want realistic or naturalistic, you wouldn’t like Bresson.” “How can I know that I can be a director?” a young woman asked. Miller: “You can’t know. But I’m sure you’re going to make films because you’re asking this question. Louis Jouvet said, ‘It’s a great privilege to make movies, but there’s a price: you’ll always agonize over whether it’s good or not.'”

In contrast to the professorial, self-effacing Miller, Chereau is Mr. Glamour. Wearing jeans, a black shirt, and black suede shoes, he speaks a French-inflected colloquial English, and at nearly 60, has chiseled, schoolboy good looks. Of the four filmmakers, he was the most naturally gifted teacher, beaming a laser-like attention on the business at hand, and demanding no less of the students. At Columbia he presented a workshop on shooting a scene from his film “Intimacy.” The students came prepared to map out camera placements for the excruciating goodbye of lovers Claire and Jay (indelibly portrayed in the film by Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox.) When one student proposed unconventional camera angles, he was gently cautioned, “Beware of ‘ideas’ in directing.” Chereau also dealt with a somnolent student directly in his line of vision by imitating him nodding off and jerking awake.

“The breakup scene really has to deliver,” Chereau said. “Either close everything or leave it open. There’s no fucking in this scene? What do you think.” No, said the student director. “Yes there is, you’ll see,” said Chereau. “It’s a beautiful way of leaving someone, to end up making love. It should always happen like that.” A girl in the front row said, “Then I’d be breaking up with everyone.”

As if unable to end the affair, Chereau revisited the same sequence on a muggy afternoon at SVA — but this time directing a pair of New York-based actors. In a town so given over to commerce, it was a privilege to watch this brilliant director teasing out the tiniest nuances of the scene; coaching the actors on “the strange way of speaking when everything is over”; gliding around them as if he were the camera’s eye — at one point, with tears in his eyes. “You were so close, and now you don’t even know how to talk to each other. Feel miserable. Feel like an asshole,” he coached.

“It’s really emotionally difficult for actors to get undressed and simulate sex,” Chereau said. His method? First he shot scenes where the actors were clothed; then they progressed to nudity, no sex; and only then, did he shoot the movie’s opening scene of lovemaking. After the final scene, “Kerry cried on Mark’s shoulder afterwards. And then all three of us cried for 10 minutes, liberating our tension. I’ve never cried so much in my life.” He added, “I’d do the film differently now.” Chereau also revealed a secret of narrative momentum, gleaned from directing the week-long, 14-hour “Ring Cycle” in Bayreuth. “The Wagner experience changed my life. Pierre Boulez told me, ‘You must always aim toward the end; continually ask yourself, What will be my next shot?'” And his next project? Something he’s cooking up with Al Pacino about Napoleon.

Balding, jovial Cedric Klapisch (“L’Auberge Espagnole”) comes across as a hamish longshoreman. Unlike the other filmmakers, he analyzed an American movie, rehearsing four rotating actors at SVA in a signature scene from Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” Like Chereau, he chose to work on what happens prior to filming. In the original, Joe Pesci gets majorly agitated when Ray Liotta calls him “funny,” and they spin out a hilarious riff on the lines “You’re funny” and “Whaddya mean, I’m funny,” as it morphs from benign to murderous and back.

A former student at NYU’s film school, Klapisch treated the actors with extreme delicacy, toning one down, punching up another portrayal, “bringing out” the scene like a magic rubbing. He conveyed a foreigner’s passion for Scorsese. Kapisch’s advised fledgling directors to give one piece of information at a time, because an actor can’t absorb too much at once. And in a scene, “it’s good to ask, Who’s got the power and who loses it? In a love scene, there’s always a struggle between who has the power and who doesn’t.” American students are more practical than the French, he commented after the class. “Here it’s, How do I make a movie?; There, it’s more about philosophy.”

After lunch at Columbia, Catherine Breillat and the students returned to class a half hour late, a lapse Breillat utilized to make a point about filmmaking etiquette: the assistant must keep track of the time and everyone on schedule; otherwise you have to pay overtime. That sounded pretty grounded — yet Breillat, France’s premier bad girl of cinema, comes off as a bit mad. She wore a ratty black sweater and white aviatrix scarf like Snoopy, dark bangs in her pale grey eyes, and rattled on in long paragraphs, as the translator breathlessly tried to keep pace.

Watching her first film, “A Very Young Girl,” it became clear that Breillat had found her abiding theme from Go: the erotic education of an adolescent girl. Banned for 25 years, the film looks unlike any other — “It’s one of my films that hasn’t aged,” said Breillat — and offers strange leering closeups, along with such images as a dude dangling a worm over the naked heroine’s spread-eagled form. “I was just pushing the envelope,” said Breillat, who claims to always use actors from porno films. “I’ve never been interested in realism. The film occurs almost entirely in the girl’s mind.”

Throughout the screening, Breillat laughingly described her ignorance when she shot the film. “I didn’t even know how to splice two scenes together. I didn’t have a continuity script, or even know what that was. I bought all the costumes myself in the fleamarket, and did all the makeup and hair. That film was shot with the energy of naivete.” She wove highlights from her life story into her commentary, including her ambition at age 12 to become a filmmaker, and early career as a writer of banned books. Key scenes from “36 Fillette” (a French bra size) were also screened, featuring a 14-year-old hottie baiting an aging playboy. Breillat often conducted her monologue over the onscreen dialogue, chuckling at her own comments, so you felt you’d entered a multimedia event.

Despite — or maybe because of — her unorthodox style, the class hung on her every word (one student later hustled her for a job as assistant, and got put off, but very nicely.) “Make something that doesn’t look like anything anyone else has created,” Breillat urged. “When you make a film you invent your own language.” She cautioned aspiring filmmakers to get comfortable with failure. “36 Fillette” was a critical disaster until Michel Ciment of Positif praised it in Cannes; then Richard Pena picked it up for the New York Film Festival and it became the best selling French film abroad of the period. “I made films that were ahead of their time. That’s a problem if you want success.” She credits good reviews in America and England with stoking her to desire to go on making films. “I’m French, but my films are better appreciated by Anglo Saxon audiences.”

On Set clearly made the grade with students. So what did the filmmakers get out of it? The temperamental Chereau offered, “I don’t know yet, I’ll tell you when I get back to Paris.” Klapisch found that teaching helped him clarify his own ideas. Breillat appeared to enjoy herself the most — in fact, she was reluctant to end the class after two hours (“I’m never jet-lagged and always have a lot of energy,” she said.) “My young viewers make me feel young,” she said. “I not only want to make films — I want to transmit the language of cinema. And students are ideal for that transmission. I love to see that they understand auteur cinema.”

Did she fear that students in puritanical America might balk at her explicit images? “Oh, I’m pretty puritanical myself,” she said. “I was raised in a puritanical culture that surrounds first love with guilt, and I want to show it as lovely. Society is organized for men to take advantage of women, it turns girls into prey and boys into predators,” she added, sounding like an American, vintage-’70s feminist. “Early on, I understood that the education of girls is political. A girl’s virginity belongs to society, but she should own her own virginity.” The moment is right, Breillat believes, for female filmmakers in France. “Women can do subjects that haven’t been treated. And cinema is ideal, in a sense, for women. It’s not the art of commanding — it’s the art of seduction.”

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