Grappling with genius

Emmanuel Bourdieu on literary brilliance, anti-Semitism and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Denis Lavant as Louis-Ferdinand Céline with Bébert
Denis Lavant as Louis-Ferdinand Céline with Bébert

Paolo Sorrentino begins his Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) with a quote about imaginary travel from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Journey To The End Of The Night. Céline's novels changed French literature forever and influenced writers all over the world since the early 1930s. Is it possible, Emmanuel Bourdieu's probing film asks, to reconcile the literary genius with his anti-Semitic pamphlets and statements?

Céline and Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) with Milton Hindus (Philip Desmeules)
Céline and Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) with Milton Hindus (Philip Desmeules)

In the green room at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, the director of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and I discussed the terror of a genius, the score by Grégoire Hetzel, casting Denis Lavant of Léos Carax's Holy Motors fame, creating a tune for a William Blake poem, how Géraldine Pailhas helped with the costumes, bird sounds, and Bébert, the cat.

In 1945, Céline fled to Denmark together with his wife, Lucette, and Bébert. In 1948, a young professor from America, Milton Hindus, came to visit them. Hindus was Jewish and a great admirer of Céline's writing. This encounter forms the plot of the film. Lavant is a ferocious Céline. Lucette (Géraldine Pailhas) warns him not to offend the visitor because their future is at stake. When Milton Hindus (Philip Desmeules) arrives by bus in the small Danish town, Céline introduces his wife by asking her to show him her legs. Besides coffee and tea, the care packages Hindus had sent, also included good American nylons.

Milton Hindus' book The Crippled Giant was used as foundation for an exploration that goes beyond the biographical. Separating the art from the artist and dealing with disappointment when you meet the man is only the beginning of the work that needs to be done.

Emmanuel Bourdieu with Anne-Katrin Titze at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Emmanuel Bourdieu with Anne-Katrin Titze at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did your reading of Céline change after making the film? Did this process change your perspective in a way?

Emmanuel Bourdieu: Before I made the film I had read only the first novels, Voyage Au Bout De La Nuit and Mort à Crédit and a little Casse-pipe. It's a little novel about war. I had to discover the whole work. I'm not sure if I'm responding to your question, but the interest for me in making this film was that I wasn't an absolute fan of Céline. I love his novels but he is not my favourite writer.

AKT: And it's also not the opposite? You didn't come with hatred for his persona?

EB: No. No. It's my way to consider art. I'm taking from everywhere I like but I don't have specific, absolute choices. I've learned to know better Céline during this film but I've discovered things. I knew about his anti-Semitism. I knew about it but when you read the pamphlets it's very shocking. The problem is very shocking - how the man who wrote Voyage au bout de la nuit could write that. It's very strange. Maybe what I've learned is that the most scandalous thing for us is not that a genius wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets, was evil, was bad. It's almost commonplace. It's ordinary to say that geniuses are sometimes bad persons.

But what's very scandalous for me is that the genius could be stupid. He said it himself. He said after the war: "It's not what I do. I'm not good for that." But he made the mistake to produce ideas and his ideas are bad. And at the same time are quite ordinary and stupid. It's the same ideas that all the rightist veterans from the war in France had at the time. 60% of the French population had those kinds of thing in their head at the same time. And that's very disappointing from a genius to be so ordinary in their thinking.

Céline with Lucette:
Céline with Lucette: "There was a scene when at night he is hearing noise and he finds Lucette dancing outside."

AKT: You think for Milton Hindus this was also the shocking part for him, how normal, how average how small he was?

EB: You know, he loved so much literature and Céline's novels. With the distance, he wasn't able to see the thing. He was blind, completely blind. It's very strange, he defended the internal theory of literature at this time. He had been a communist and a Marxist theoretician of literature at a time, I think. And later he became internalist. He felt you can separate the two things - the political idea and the work as an artist, the style - and that you can study an opus without knowing anything about the artist and what he had in mind.

You can think like that with distance. But when you meet somebody who has those kind of ideas in reality, when you are close to him, it explodes. It's not possible to deal with that. And I think the story in this is that you cannot separate the man and the opus when he is here with you.

AKT: What you did in the film that I thought was brilliant, was to put the cat and the bird in the same room with the two men. I know what it means to have a cat and a bird in the same room. In the film you keep the panic sounds of the bird going and the cat is there. His famous cat we know about.

Composer Grégoire Hetzel:
Composer Grégoire Hetzel: "I made all my movies with him, even documentaries." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

EB: Bébert.

AKT: Bébert! What about the bird? Did you make that up?

EB: No. He had a parrot, a lot of parrots. There is an interview on film where you see Céline after the war talking. There are dogs barking everywhere around the house in Meudon. And also there is a parrot who is shouting always, always. And he interrupts himself at a moment and he says: "What do you want, you stupid bird?" It's very funny. I cut in the film something I imagined, because I take very seriously the paranoia of Céline about communists in Denmark because I read about that.

It's possible that some Danish communists wanted to kill him. He was not mad about that. It was almost a war, it's not absurd. There was a scene when at night he is hearing noise and he finds Lucette dancing outside. Hindus says to him, It was nothing. When they come back to the house, the parrot is nailed to the door. But it was too much for the film.

AKT: I'm glad you didn't do that.

EB: It was not the real one.

AKT: Obviously. But still, you didn't need that.

"And I think the story in this is that you cannot separate the man and the opus when he is here with you."

EB: For Céline, animals were very important. I love very much animals. Cats especially. But those racist, anti-Semitic persons … You know that Himmler was very against hunting?

AKT: Himmler?

EB: Yes, he wrote about hunting and that it was awful to hunt. Very awful right-wing people they sometimes love animals more than humans. Céline was like that.

AKT: Hitler's vegetarianism and part veganism, only eating what the animal gives willingly. That's why he ate eggs. Things like that.

EB: It's very strange. In Céline's mind there was something like that. At the same time, I love Bébert and I use him. He is always like a chorus - there is Lucette and there is Bébert. When the master shouts, he goes away and when he tells jokes about Hindus and his arm and says to Hindus, "it was my wife who had this kind of effect," we use the cat - because the cat is like his master's humor. He finds it funny. It's a character in the story.

AKT: You found a great-looking cat to do that, too. That face!

Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Deux Clowns Pour Une Catastrophe) poster
Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Deux Clowns Pour Une Catastrophe) poster

EB: It's very difficult to shoot.

AKT: The magic of cat casting. You do something else with animal sounds. The first time, Denis Lavant [as Céline] has a fit and starts screaming and cackling by the river, you merge it into the coot sounds. The sound design moving onto the ducks is beautiful.

EB: You know, I did not add those sounds. Those coots made a lot of noise and the sound designer told me: "Is it not possible to go to another place? There's too much noise and it's difficult to hear the voice because of them." I think it was useful.

AKT: It's perfect. The score is by Grégoire Hetzel. Did he know about the coots before and then worked with the coot sounds?

EB: Yes. I think he uses them. Grégoire is a friend for a long time. I made all my movies with him, even documentaries.

AKT: He does great work. I interviewed him last year.

EB: I saw that. He is wonderful. He is the only composer for movies who comes to the mix of the film and he always says "It's too loud, it's too loud." He always wants his music quieter. He is not alright with the mix of the film. He thinks it's too much for him.

AKT: Too much of his music?

EB: Too much.

Coming up - Casting Denis Lavant, creating a tune for a William Blake poem, shooting in Belgium and how Géraldine Pailhas helped with the costumes.

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