Christopher Boe on Love and Personal Identity in “Reconstruction”
by Liza Bear
Inspired by a Jacques-Henri Lartigue photograph of a woman standing in a room with empty bookcases, Danish director Christoffer Boe‘s first feature “Reconstruction” fittingly won the prestigious Camera D’or at Cannes in 2003 and a Golden Plaque for Manuel Alberto Claro‘s luminous wide-screen cinematography. It brings closure to the exploration of themes of love and personal identity begun in three earlier shorts, “Obsession,” “Virginity” and “Anxiety.”
“They’re all about a young male being obsessed by a beautiful woman and then being trapped in his own logic of what love is,” says Boe, 30, a passionate still photographer as well as moviemaker. It’s that logic which Boe dissects in “Reconstruction.”
As its title suggests, Boe uses a fractured narrative and startling visuals to create a haunting rumination on the mysteries of desire (and the consequences of acting them out), rather than a romantic comedy. A kind of triangular square dance, “Reconstruction” sports excellent performances from its leads, with Nikolaj Lie Kaas playing Alex as a cypher and Maria Bonnevie doubling up as both Alex’s steady girl-friend Simone and his new flame Aimee. It doesn’t help Alex that Aimee is married to older man August (Krister Henriksson), who happens to be a writer. But it does give a few extra twists to the narrative. August is the film’s narrator. There are echoes of Francois Ozon‘s cryptic thriller “Swimming Pool” here, though style and sensibility are poles apart. Having an attractive live-in girl-friend doesn’t stop Alex from one day falling for Aimee, August’s wife. A narrator who’s also a character in the film naturally raises questions about what’s real and what’s imaginary. But then, so does being in love. The next day, Alex’s world has changed, literally. His apartment has disappeared and so have his friends. An existential conundrum? Maybe. Or rather an attempt to create a metaphor for the paradigm shift that love induces.
Liza Bear spoke with Christoffer Boe earlier this summer. “Reconstruction” opens in two theaters on today.
indieWIRE: Were you a student of Jorgen Leth at the National Danish Film School?
Christoffer Boe: No I wasn’t. He’s a teacher and consultant for TV documentary, not fiction. So I only recently met him since his and my movie are in the same festivals. When he’s in Denmark he goes to the same café as I do.
iW: What café is that?
CB: It’s called Mojo. There’s a growing interest in making good coffee in Denmark. It’s very close to where I live in Copenhagen. I’ve lived there for ten years but I was born and raised in a small rural town.
iW: Is there a conscious dig at Leth’s “The Perfect Human” in your film?
CB: Not conscious. I saw this film early on at university. But I definitely think there’s very few Danish directors who made a name for themselves. Within the fiction world there’s only von Trier and Dreyer; and on the art side, more experimental movies there’s Leth and a woman called Dieta Rex [sp?]. Jorgen Leth is very inspiring to watch.
iW: You’re the generation past Dogma, right?
iW: Your first three films, “Obsession,” “Virginity” and “Anxiety,” all explore aspects of love.
CB: Well, they were all film school shorts, 20 to 30 minutes long. The last two had Maria Bonnevie and Nikolaj Lie Kaas of “Reconstruction” playing the lead roles. They’re all basically about a young male being obsessed by a beautiful woman and then being trapped in his own logic of what love is… At that point I developed a style of moviemaking and playing with narrative structure. I really fell in love with those two actors-very talented and very beautiful-so I wrote “Reconstruction” specifically with them in mind. “Reconstruction” was designed to be the closure on that working relationship.
iW: The cinematography by Manuel AiWerto Claro is very striking in “Reconstruction.”
CB: Not having much money didn’t work against us because our inspiration was mostly from still photographers, who do style by having excellent taste in what they’re framing. It was very important that we shot on film, because you can’t really capture depth of focus on video. And [another inspiration] was the French New Wave, who also shot on location but had a very new fresh way of portraying light… Making a cinemascope movie is more than having a ratio of 1 to 2:35; it’s how you frame things and what kind of lenses you put on. Denmark has gotten into a way of cinema that to me is very uninteresting. Cinema and tv have merged in the way you portray a scene. Television has its own drive towards a medium shot. But I wanted to make a cinemascope movie.
iW: So your solution was to use Super 16?
CB: Yes, with Super 16 we got the depth of field of film. But it had the danger of becoming too glossy like a TV commercial, so we downgraded the image [in postproduction] to video resolution, so when you watch it on the big screen, you can see it has the qualities of film, but it’s still a grainy and gritty image. We shot with the Super 16 Arri rather than the Super 16 Aaton because the Arri has more film speeds. It’s less noisy.
iW: How long had you been out of film school when you produced “Reconstruction”?
CB: A week after graduation I received a phone call from two producers of Director’s Cut who were assembling a group of directors. You could make any movie that you wanted to, but you had to stick to a budget of one and a half million. So I accepted.
iW: In the film, there’s an interesting play between August the writer who creates something imaginary, and Alex the photographer who creates images-though we don’t see him at work. Could you comment on the contrast between those two worlds?
CB: To me both are ways of approaching love but from an artistic distance. But they both get into trouble because the love that they have created is an artistic illusion, which makes it difficult for them to connect with life. As a writer I made August older and more reflective…. In a way, the script was based on a French photographer I admire very much, Jacques Henri Lartigue.
iW: What photo specifically?
CB: A photo of his wife standing in a room. It’s cropped very horizontally — it’s like scope plus two. A woman in a very wide simple space with a lot of empty bookcases. Looking at that picture, I immediately felt I wanted to do a story about a man who comes home and his apartment has disappeared. And I knew it had to be a love story.
iW: Go on.
CB: Obviously there had to be a woman, and that woman had to be a key element of him having a new position in life — he’s coming from something, and going to a new place.
iW: Oh, metaphorically.
CB: Yes. That led to the two women aspect of the story. So the new woman had to be a decision-making point for him…. The idea that everybody is involved in the story and somebody seems to have more control than anybody else-that idea evolved with the script.
iW: Maria Bonnevie is Swedish?
CB: Actually Norwegian, but she speaks Swedish.
iW: That’s very significant for Scandinavian audiences, right.
CB: Definitely. The sound of Swedish is much more mellow, it’s warmer and more lyrical. Within Scandinavian, to me it’s much more the language of love. And then Swedish also has a tradition of authority, of [entitlement] that would be difficult to transpose into Danish. In Danish cinema everyone is questioning authority, questioning themselves too. But in Sweden you have people who can play Hamlet and also play the King. It’s taken for granted they have something to say.
iW: Now that you’ve thoroughly explored the subject in four films, do you want to move on?
CB: Definitely. The young males in my films create an identity through their own love obsessions. Because they have fallen in love, not so much with a girl as much as a picture they have created in themselves of a girl, the perfect woman. And falling in love with your own creation, to me is very much about my own love of the cinema and the cinema as a very voyeuristic medium. The next movie will be a science fiction movie.
iW: Maria Bonnevie [who plays both Aimee and Simone] is very subtle about creating the nuance between being the slightly neglected wife of a much more famous, older man, and being the object of desire or another younger man to whom she’s also attracted.
CB: We wanted to separate the two characters in as subtle a way as possible. She doesn’t wear wigs or make a big transformation though she changed her dress and make up. She had to differentiate the seductiveness of the mysterious unknown woman, from that of the more homely secure girlfriend… You know, up to this point I’ve been looking inwards [from the man’s point of view]. My next film is called “Allegro” and it’s about a pianist who returns to Denmark after being away for ten years. A couple of hours before the concert, suddenly he loses his ability to play. Somebody has kidnapped his past and taken his talent away.