Invisible Worlds

Clément Cogitore on Thomas Bidegain, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, and the sound of the Northern Lights.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sâm Mirhosseini and Jérémie Renier in Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth (Ni Le Ciel Ni La Terre)
Sâm Mirhosseini and Jérémie Renier in Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth (Ni Le Ciel Ni La Terre)

Neither Heaven Nor Earth (Ni Le Ciel Ni La Terre) director Clément Cogitore spoke with me on the role his producer Jean-Christophe Reymond played in the collaboration with Les Cowboys director Thomas Bidegain, who also has screenwriter credits for Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, Jacques Audiard's Rust And Bone, A Prophet and Cannes Palme d'Or winner Dheepan, and Michaël R Roskam's Racer And The Jailbird (Matthias Schoenaerts, Adèle Exarchopoulos) which will have its world première at the Venice International Film Festival.

Bax's (Clément Bresson) tattooed back in Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Bax's (Clément Bresson) tattooed back in Neither Heaven Nor Earth

Clément went into the invisible worlds of his debut feature (starring Jérémie Renier with Kévin Azaïs, Swann Arlaud, Finnegan Oldfield, Clément Bresson, Marc Robert, Hamid Reza Javdan, Edouard Court, Steve Tientcheu, Aria Faghih Habib, Stéphane Boissel, and the voice of Chloé Astor), the "confrontation between the rational system of thinking and mythology" with the Northern Lights, and his exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris where he screened the video project about the sound of Aurora Borealis.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Finnegan Oldfield is of course also starring in Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys. What was the timing of the two films?

Clément Cogitore: We were filming in Morocco when Thomas was casting. I think he was interested in both Finnegan and Kévin [Azaïs]. So they both took a plane to Paris for a meeting with Thomas and made screen tests. And finally, Thomas chose Finnegan.

AKT: How did you work with Thomas?

CC: I was very very lucky that Thomas accepted to work on the script. With my producer, we were looking for a screenwriter to help me with the story because i come from the very visual part of cinema. So I'm not really comfortable with the dramaturgy. We met like ten scriptwriters and each time there was no real connection or sometimes they wanted too much money.

Clément Cogitore on Thomas Bidegain and Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy:
Clément Cogitore on Thomas Bidegain and Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy: "He is singing? I didn't know that." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Then Jean-Christophe [Reymond], my producer, said, "who is the screenwriter you would dream about?" And I said Thomas. But everybody, maybe not every single director in France, but a lot of directors in France would love to work with Thomas. He already made A Prophet.

I think that A Prophet is the best French screenplay of the last decade. He had also already made Rust And Bone. So Jean-Christophe managed to have a meeting with Thomas.

We just sat at a table and Thomas spoke for maybe four hours. I was just writing notes, notes, notes. I just had a first draft and it was weak and there was a problem of rhythm, of character. And I was realising with just four hours of discussion with Thomas, I can work alone for six more.

AKT: Do you remember one particular instant, something that he said then that made it into the film?

CC: I don't remember one detail particularly. It was like if I just came with all the material to build a house and Thomas was like the architect. I thought after these four hours Thomas would just say goodbye and good luck but he said we will continue together and he loved the project.

AKT: In the end of Les Cowboys, over the end credits, he [Thomas] is singing a song [Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy]...

CC: He is singing? I didn't know that.

Jérémie Renier as Captain Antarès Bonassieu
Jérémie Renier as Captain Antarès Bonassieu

AKT: Your end credits do the opposite. You have sudden, almost complete silence.

CC: I wanted to have an uncomfortable ending. For the spectator when the lights switch on, to not know exactly what to feel.

AKT: Was Sarah [Denis, voiced by Chloé Astor] always a part of the film? That he would be writing to the wife?

CC: It was there from the beginning. The idea was to find a way for Antarès [Jérémie Renier as Captain Antarès Bonassieu] to put his own words on this situation. To name something. He can't do it with a soldier, he can't do it with anybody. He can do it to this woman but in a way it's a lie.

AKT: Because it's not him.

CC: It's not him.

AKT: There are a few interesting lies structuring the film. Lies, or you could say, camouflage or trickery. A combination of those. One is the golden foil. Another is the cellphone of the Sultan. And of course the idea of the body bag.

CC: That's the central part for me. The film in a way is about invisible world.

Clément Cogitore's monograph Atelier Les Presse Du Réel
Clément Cogitore's monograph Atelier Les Presse Du Réel

AKT: Invisible worlds? Plural or one?

CC: Could be one or could be more. But invisible. From the first stage of invisibility, which is camouflage, especially as military device to the final stage of invisibility which could be the spiritual presence. The trajectory of the characters is to switch from one invisibility to another invisibility.

Of course, as a filmmaker, I enjoy this kind of play. There is also the chameleon which is about camouflage and invisibility. There are some important questions for me about perception and belief. So during the film with the soldiers we don't really know if what we saw is really what happened and if what happened is real or not.

All the things with the infrared camera are devices that want to take control of visibility and the real physical world. And each time, something more is happening. There is a lack of control.

AKT: Does that connect to your art work? These questions?

CC: Yes. In many different ways. I made a documentary called Bielutin [Dans Le Jardin Du Temps] that I shot in Moscow. It was in Cannes also in 2011 at the Quinzaine. It's about art collectors in Moscow who are my mythomaniacs. They are lying all the time.

It's a documentary about people lying. Maybe 90% of what they say to the camera is fiction. In Paris I had an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, a museum for emerging artists, where I was showing my last video project about the sound of Aurora Borealis.

It was considered a superstition from native peoples from the Polar Circle. In Alaska, Finland, Russia - the native people were convinced that they could hear the Northern Lights. In their rituals and beliefs the sound of that phenomenon was really important. All the scientists from NASA to European universities said this is a superstition, this doesn't exist.

Clément Cogitore:
Clément Cogitore: "In Alaska, Finland, Russia - the native people were convinced that they could hear the Northern Lights."

Until a scientist in Helsinki said, "It maybe irrational because Northern Lights can't make a sound because it's too high, but I can hear it too." So for five years he made a scientific protocol to try to record. And he managed to prove that actually the Northern Lights are creating a sound. We don't know how and why, but it's real.

AKT: Wow, that is fascinating.

CC: This confrontation between the rational system of thinking and mythology, the belief system of mystical thinking - this confrontation is really the heart of my work.

AKT: What's coming up? Another feature film?

CC: For now, it's more exhibitions and I have another script in progress.

AKT: With Thomas again?

CC: Yes, with Thomas again.

Read what Clément Cogitore had to say on war, myths, disappearances and Neither Heaven Nor Earth. The film is out on DVD in the UK now.

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