On the road with Javier Rebollo

The director on The Dead Man And Being Happy and the importance of dogs, accents, freedom and tenderness in film.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

José Sacristán as Santos in The Dead Man And Being Happy
José Sacristán as Santos in The Dead Man And Being Happy

Meeting up with Javier Rebollo at a westside bistro, the week following the 50th New York Film Festival, where The Dead Man And Being Happy - which tells the story of an ageing hitman (José Sacristán) on an absurdist road to nowhere - had its North American premiere, he quoted Jacques Rivette to me: "You can't show death, without being an imposter." We spoke about the difference between the classic city and the modern city. Towns that survive men, and men who survive towns.

I said to Javier, there is no perversion without innocence. He agreed, "in fairytales you have both, innocence and perversion. They are like silent cinema".

Javier Rebollo on the road with Anne-Katrin Titze in New York City <em>Photo: Eric Schnedecker</em>
Javier Rebollo on the road with Anne-Katrin Titze in New York City Photo: Eric Schnedecker

Anne-Katrin Titze: You said after the press screening that you had your reservations about New York. How was the festival experience for you? What did you think of the audience's reaction to your film at the public screenings?

Javier Rebollo: It was great! The audience in New York is great, they are like children. They have an innocence and a passion - the enthusiasts are the progenitors of life. What I meant with my earlier comment was that New York is so fast. Look at you, you were breezing in here [from a teeth-cleaning at my dentist's]. In New York, audiences don't hide themselves that much, they arrive open, with less pride. Compared to a public that goes to see movies and believes to be more intelligent, without giving anything back. When I film, I don't hide anything.

AKT: You also don't expose for exposure's sake. Sometimes I wonder, for example, why did Michael Haneke have to expose Emmanuelle Riva's breast in that way [in Amour]. The scene felt spiteful and totally unnecessary.

JR: I agree. The Austrian touch. Roberto Rossellini said, the only point of life is tenderness. He lacks that.

AKT: I felt a lot of tenderness in Leos Carax's Holy Motors.

JR: Leos Carax is a modern cinéaste, as opposed to a classic one. He does not hide that the film is a film. Stanley Donen is a modern filmmaker too, because the dispositif is not hidden. That is the honesty. Artifice is honesty. Raoul Walsh, William Wyler, John Ford, I like them, but they hide the construct.

AKT: You don't shy away from using animals in your films. In The Dead Man And Being Happy you use many dogs [and one sleepy cat]. How did you work with them?

All the dogs in my film are amateurs
All the dogs in my film are amateurs

JR: All the dogs in my film are amateurs. We came across them while travelling through Argentina. I doubled as animal trainer. I love dogs. My friend Aki Kaurismäki always says: "A film with a [well-treated] dog will be a lucky film."

AKT: On the road, Santos and Érika (Roxana Blanco), pick up the two hitchhiking girls, one is from South Africa, and drive them to the beach between paradise and apocalypse.

JR: I like having people with different languages. A lot of different accents give depth to a movie. Just think of Peter Lorre, or Marlene Dietrich, or Greta Garbo.

AKT: In Dead Man, the character of Érika does not want to return home to her family's estate. Once we see the place and the family, it does not look so bad.

JR: She is hiding her past. They arrive in Salta - the world she comes from is like the one shown by Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel who is from there. The family is like a sect. And the father is breeding dogs and gets rid of the undesirables.

AKT: There are some very funny, absurd moments on the estate, when Santos and Érika are given grandma's room during their visit. And then we see grandma, sitting around, very much alive and present, exiled from her room, as if this were the most natural thing to do.

JR: She is 102 years old. She is treated like a piece of furniture. They don't respect her.

AKT: Another great absurd exchange occurs in the mountain village, the German colony, when Érika asks Santos, how he recognises them as Nazis. And he responds, "by their walk", after we just saw a very frail old man hobbling around a mini-golf course with a truncated walker. Not exactly the triumph-of-the-will-stride one imagines.

JR: I like actors asking questions without getting answers. The history of cinema is a history of walks. From Chaplin to Gary Cooper to Rita Hayworth.

AKT: For someone as well-read and immersed in theory as you are, what are the starting points, the kernels of your movies, if you will?

JR: Flamenco and jazz. You can't be a slave to the technique. Free yourself. With insecure filmmakers you see the references. When you have too many references, you forget about life. The poet wants to be more important than the poem.

AKT: You told me that your next project will have elements of a musical.

José Sacristán and Roxana Blanco as Santos and Érika
José Sacristán and Roxana Blanco as Santos and Érika

JR: A Brechtian musical. Black and white and color and a change of format. The story is that of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, set in present-day Paris, Madrid, and Berlin. I want her to be like Lillian Gish. There will be a ballet.

AKT: Hearing you talk, I do imagine scenes out of Powell-Pressburger films.

JR: That's good. And you won't know exactly what city you are in. The poverty is universal. The poverty inside the homes is one of terrible loneliness. There will be a scene at the Longchamp Racecourse...

AKT: You brought up Jacques Lacan during the press conference. I was thinking about the difference of object of desire and object-cause of desire. The objet petit a [the reason why you desire someone] in your film is Érika's limping. That is why Santos desires her, he doesn't know it, but the voice-over does.

JR: Lacan said, things we cannot talk about, they don't exist. In my film Woman Without Piano (2009), the housewife doesn't exist. In Dead Man, the skin is very important. The needles for the morphine are constant penetrations, little deaths… Or death in reverse.

AKT: The greatest desire is for the desire to continue. The worst would be for it to end. The melancholic, who has lost all desire, is not a position you offer.

JR: The desire never stops. The words are caresses.

With The Dead Man And Being Happy, Rebollo reinvents the Road Movie, and takes us on a journey through a rapidly changing Argentina, archiving what is about to disappear. He creates a visual time capsule, where pistols are infected with tumors and history becomes a utopia, where Don Quixote will encounter Twin Peaks.

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