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NYFF ’08 | Assayas Discusses His “Summer Hours,” Martel’s “Woman” Makes NYC Debut

NYFF '08 | Assayas Discusses His "Summer Hours," Martel's "Woman" Makes NYC Debut

As the 46th New York Film Festival winds down through its second and final week, indieWIRE had the chance to hear from two of its featured directors. Olivier Assayas, whose “Summer Hours” made its U.S. debut at the festival, sat down for an interview at The Park Lane Hotel last Thursday, while Lucrecia Martel, Argentine director of “The Headless Woman” spoke after the film’s Monday press screening at the Walter Reade Theater. The New York Film Festival runs through Sunday, October 12.

Assayas’ ‘Cherry Orchard’

“I must say it was a much easier process than most of my recent films,” Olivier Assayas said of his “Summer Hours,” screening in The New York Film Festival. “Ultimately, the producer who made the film happen – Martin Karmitz, a big independent producer in France – I got him the screenplay and he said, ‘Let’s do it.” Which never happens. It’s something that maybe happens in Never Never Land or something. It was just miraculous.”

Assayas talked with indieWIRE about the film, and how, intially, it was supposed to be short film, part of a series of short films to celebrate the Musee d’Orsay‘s 20th anniversary (another film involved in that commission was Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s “Flight of the Red Balloon“).

“That’s where I started scribbling down notes that turned into the skeleton of the film,” Assayas said of that project. “I started with a really simple storyline. This had more to do with the objects than the characters. To me, the arch of the film and the structure of the film has to do with the fate of the objects. The notes that I was scribbling intially was about how an artwork has a life cycle. It is born out of nature… It lives its life among individuals in households and at some point it ends up buried in a museum.”

But after a few months, the project was discontinued by the museum. “It was just not happening,” he said. “So I did a little bit on my own because for some reason [the work] struck a cord and I realized there was something really personal at work.”

What was at work was the story of three siblings – played by Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jeremie Renier – who, when their mother passes, are left in joint possession of their childhood summer home and an extensive collection of art and furniture. “If I wanted to tell that story,” he said. “I had to deal with a family. I had to deal with the place where those objects used to live. I kind of built it backwards.”

Assayas was cautious of where his so-called backward building might lead him. “Siblings selling the family home is a genre in itself,” he said. “There’s been like a million movies like that. It’s a classic subject. It’s the cherry orchard. Everybody one, once in a while pops up with their version of the cherry orchard. So this is mine.”

What Assayas did to ensure his version found its own voice was by resonating it within the conflicts and contradictions of today’s endlessly envolving society. “Hours”‘ three siblings, all France-born, are no dispersed in three different continents, making Assayas’ “cherry orchard” not about who gets the house, but how to get rid of it.

“If you deal with a classic theme,” he said. “The issue is how you make it relevant and modern by being in touch with actual individuals living in today’s world… What is basically tearing apart families and transforming ancient, traditional cultures is the forces at work in the economy,” he explained. “And what is transforming the economy is the fact that every single business has to go global. So all of a sudden, guys who used to work in some office in Paris and spend the weekend with their family. They learn that the business they are working for is buying a branch in Bulgaria and the next day they will be moving to Sofia… It’s not a minor phenomenon, its happening everywhere. And its something that changes the logic of the culture.”

Following its U.S. debut at NYFF, “Summer Hours” will be released by IFC Films next Spring. [Peter Knegt]

Martel, Memory, and Filmmaking

The Headless Woman,” Lucrecia Martel‘s follow up to her acclaimed 2004 film “The Holy Girl” follows Veronica (Maria Onetto), an affluent dentist living in a rural town in Argentina. One night, Veronica accidentally runs over something that may or may not have been a boy, and proceeds into a challenging narrative surrounding her guilt and uncertainty.

Onetto’s performance – her first in a feature film – has won significant praise, and Martel spoke to her relationship with actors – via a translator – at the New York Film Festival press conference for “Woman.”

“The Headless Woman” director Lucrecia Martel (left) with her translator at a New York Film Festival press conference. Photo by Peter Knegt.

“I believe that the secret in terms with dealing with actors – or anybody in your crew – is to be able to talk to them,” she said. “To be able to have open conversations and take in what they have to say. The only thing that I actually try to avoid is to use that kind of sadistic and masochistic attitude that can take place on a set. There’s so many horror stories about that in the film industry. I believe that such a small bourgeois attitude is not necessary in the least. My main point is to keep the conversation going in a very kind way. With the specific case of Maria, I could count on her incredible sensitivity and memory and that helped a lot.”

Martel referred often to memory as a central part of her filmmaking. “There’s something interesting in the grammar of cinema,” she said. “How close narrative elements are to the way actual memory works. Or at least the way my memory works.”

“I come from a generation of Argentine directors who started to produce stories after a long period of dictatorship [in the 1970s],” Martel said. “What a dictatorship does to a country is not only do over 30,000 people disappear. But creates a cut in the texture of society itself. Cinema in my experience actually allows to reconstruct all that had been destroyed before.”

Martel said that “in a way, [filmmaking is] all about a way to say no to forgetting things. It’s our way not to accept the black holes that were create in our history. This is what cinema and literature need to set out to do. They need to sew back, and create a suture, in what was all this disintegration in the social texture and allow us to rebuild a community which had been lost. In a way, cinema can be our collective memory.”

When asked what drew her to filmmaking, Martel admitted she had few specific influences. “I really did not have much of a cinematic culture,” she said. “I didn’t tend to go to the movies much.”

“What truly drew me to cinema and keeps me in it,” she said, “is probably the aural storytelling that I was exposed to a great deal. All the stories I was told by my grandmother. For example, sitting by the bed of someone that is sick and telling stories. That’s the type of storytelling that I’m familar with.”

“The Headless Woman” has its final NYFF public screening Wednesday, October 8 at 6:00pm at the Zeigfeld Theater in Midtown. [Peter Knegt]

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