This desire for reconciliation

Christophe Honoré on Alain Resnais, Catherine Breillat, Jacques Demy, Wim Wenders and Kenneth Lonergan

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Christophe Honoré selected Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette: “Her work is very important for French cinema.”
Christophe Honoré selected Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette: “Her work is very important for French cinema.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jacques Demy’s Lola (starring Anouk Aimée with Marc Michel), Wim WendersParis, Texas (Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Nastassja Kinski, Tom Farrell, co-written by Sam Shepard), Zhangke Jia and composer Yoshihiro Hanno, Yves Robert’s La Guerre des Boutons, Alain Resnais’ Providence (David Warner, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, Dirk Bogarde, score by Miklós Rózsa) and L'Année Dernière à Marienbad (Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, screenplay Alain Robbe-Grillet), Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea (Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Casey Affleck), Sophie's Misfortunes (Caroline Grant, Anaïs Demoustier, Golshifteh Farahani), and Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette (Delphine Zentout, Jean-Pierre Léaud) all came up in our discussion.

Christophe Honoré with Anne-Katrin Titze on why Alain Resnais is a king: “I’m interested in narrative play and people who have a ludic relationship to storytelling.”
Christophe Honoré with Anne-Katrin Titze on why Alain Resnais is a king: “I’m interested in narrative play and people who have a ludic relationship to storytelling.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Christophe Honoré was in New York to present Winter Boy, starring Paul Kircher, Vincent Lacoste, Juliette Binoche, and Erwan Kepoa Falé, shot by Rémy Chevrin (Guermantes, On A Magical Night, Sorry Angel, Beloved, Love Songs, Close to Leo, Seventeen Times Cécile Cassard) with costumes by the great Pascaline Chavanne (Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet, François Ozon’s Peter Von Kant, Leos Carax’s Annette) and to participate in a Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Free Talk: Queer Identities On Screen with Florent Gouëlou (Three Nights A Week), Vuk Lungulov-Klotz (Mutt), and Georden West (Playland).

He also selected Dans Paris and Sorry Angel, Alain Resnais’ Providence, Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette, and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea to screen in Autofiction at Work: An Intimate Portrait of Christophe Honoré at Metrograph this past weekend, curated by Uptown Flicks Adeline Monzier with the support of Unifrance and Villa Albertine.

At the WestHouse Hotel in midtown Manhattan Christophe Honoré met with me for an in-person conversation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let’s talk about the films you chose for the Metrograph program. I’m always very curious when filmmakers pick films by other filmmakers for a series. Who is it they pick? Why do they pick particular films? Your three I found very very interesting. Who came first, Resnais, Breillat, or Lonergan?

Christophe Honoré: It’s always when you’re given free reign quite a task and I always try to have a spontaneous curation, answering with films that either answer current considerations of mine or that I have recently mentioned and this was the case with these three films. The first film that came to mind was the one by Catherine Breillat.

David Warner, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde in Alain Resnais’ Providence
David Warner, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde in Alain Resnais’ Providence

I had just recently run into her and I hadn’t seen her in a while. I knew she was working on a new film for which she wanted to employ Paul Kircher, who is the actor of Winter Boy and because of financial reasons, her shooting was moved and Paul Kircher was no longer available. So instead she started working with Paul’s brother. And I’m very very eager to discover this new film.

AKT: Oh yes, me too!

CH: There’s a lot of talk these days, with good reason, about the emergence of a generation of female filmmakers in France. Good as that is, I think we sometimes forget how many important female filmmakers existed when I started. For me Catherine Breillat is a really important part of that. Her work is very important for French cinema.

AKT: I agree. She was a great discovery for me, too. After the first films of hers I saw I wondered who is this woman? Then meeting her later on, I understood more. I asked her once in a Q&A if she had a favorite fairy tale. And she was very happy to respond and said it was Bluebeard. And then - her next film was Bluebeard. And I feel a little bit responsible for sparking something in Catherine with my question. Let’s move on to Providence, which is such a tremendously interesting film still.

CH: My relationship to Alain Resnais is quite strange and trying to be synthetical about it I can say that I’m interested in narrative play and people who have a ludic relationship to storytelling. And I believe that in that aspect Alain Resnais is a king.

Christophe Honoré on Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea: “It’s true that I chose it because the four main actors are for me in a way the dream team in terms of current American actors.”
Christophe Honoré on Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea: “It’s true that I chose it because the four main actors are for me in a way the dream team in terms of current American actors.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Resnais is often catalogued as quite an intellectual filmmaker, whereas I see him as quite a childish one. And Providence especially I think resembles child play. Despite the underlying adult themes I find there’s quite a joyful and childish relation to storytelling.

AKT: Very true. John Gielgud’s character says the following at one point in the film “It’s been said of my work that the search for style has often resulted in a lack of feeling.” But, he goes on: "Style is feeling in its most elegant and economic expression.” What do you think of that?

CH: Maybe there’s a translation issue, because I don’t associate feelings, sentiment with Resnais’ films. Perhaps there’s something that doesn’t carry over because in my opinion Resnais is not the filmmaker who brings us to sentimental places so much. On the contrary I think in this playful way he creates characters that are hard to believe because they are so archetypal. He is the opposite of a lyrical filmmaker.

AKT: I did see connections to Winter Boy, concerning the narrative play. “No”, says Gielgud’s author character in voiceover in Providence, “This scene has to be rewritten.” Three times in Winter Boy your protagonist says in a similar vein - “No, I don’t want to think about Oscar now,” or later “No, I don’t want to tell you about my first day alone in Paris.”

CH: You’re absolutely right in making the connection. I chose these three films because they are a reflexion of the mise en scène of Winter Boy. Resnais’ entire work revolves around the question of narrator. And in Winter Boy the narrator sheds doubt on the story that’s being told and becomes unreliable this way. I think Resnais’ work is also always one of suspicion of the story as it unfolds.

Christophe Honoré (Anne-Katrin Titze introduced Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road at the IFC Center): “I wrote my first critique, which was on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which I went to see three times …”
Christophe Honoré (Anne-Katrin Titze introduced Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road at the IFC Center): “I wrote my first critique, which was on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which I went to see three times …” Photo: Ed Bahlman

AKT: In Providence there is the fantastic Hollywood music by Miklós Rózsa enveloping us - which stands often in stark contrast to what we see. Is there a connection to how you use music - as a narrator too?

CH: I think you’re right and I can’t speak for Resnais, but what is interesting about his work is the impurity. I find a shared trait in my interest in impurity. I’m always looking to create a contrast between the different elements of a sequence and of course there’s always the mood of the sequence and the mood of the music that you can either work with harmoniously or through contrast.

It’s true that in Providence the music is far too grandiloquent for the scattered nature of the story that’s being told. Yoshihiro Hanno created the music for Winter Boy. I discovered him through the films of Zhangke Jia. His music incurs a sense of elsewhere in an otherwise very French story. I believe it is in the same way Resnais does it to create a kind of strange impurity within the film itself.

AKT: Strange impurity is a good segue to Kenneth Lonergan. I noticed how many things go wrong within his film. Objects are in disarray, the ambulance stretcher mis-functions and several other small everyday things go wrong. This is with the background of a funeral and people in pain and loss. I like very much about his film how he tackles questions like that. What interested you in Manchester by the Sea?

CH: You’re right it’s a film of disorder, which at first sight can appear academic. What you noted about the disarray is as much a physical condition as a narrative one. It’s him playing with and deconstructing the narration of the film, especially in the first part with relation to the flashbacks.

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Delphine Zentout in Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette
Jean-Pierre Léaud and Delphine Zentout in Catherine Breillat’s 36 Fillette

Well, American cinema has a real problem producing adult films, I mean mature films for grownups. It happens less and less and for me Manchester by the Sea is the ideal of what a European cinephile might be expecting from American cinema. It’s true that I chose it because the four main actors are for me in a way the dream team in terms of current American actors.

There’s an uncertainty in their way of acting that is I think a strength, a trembling strength of incarnation, which again I find rare in recent US cinema where the idea of performance seems to have priority over this flutter which more resonates with Juliette Binoche or Vincent Lacoste’s acting style.

AKT: The program at Metrograph has the title Autofiction [at Work: An Intimate Portrait of Christophe Honoré]. The expression is used a lot these days for various things. What does it mean to you?

CH: It was a recurring question around the release of my film in France, wanting to identify what part was autobiographical. Of course because I dedicate the film to my father, because I play a role in it myself, it was difficult for me to avoid answering those questions. I would say that cinema is rarely the place of autobiography, I prefer to use the term self-portraiture.

AKT: We talked about it in the context of Sophie’s Misfortunes and you said how much Sophie’s mischief resembled your own. A fictional little girl from the 19th century can be just as close to the self. Apropos, what was the first film you ever saw in a cinema? Do you remember?

Christophe Honoré: “I have a fascination, call it obsession, with Lola by Jacques Demy.”
Christophe Honoré: “I have a fascination, call it obsession, with Lola by Jacques Demy.”

CH: It’s always delicate to retrieve from memory because we tend to transform or mythify. I remember going to see Yves Robert’s La Guerre des Boutons.

AKT: The War of the Buttons - I’m not sure if that was the English title.

CH: I saw it with my parents who thought it was a film that was absolutely for me. I was absolutely and utterly bored and I came out saying how great it was to please them. So I cannot say that one single screening had an effect like that. I would be able to name films that impacted me when I became interested in cinema myself.

AKT: Which are those?

CH: I have a fascination, call it obsession, with Lola by Jacques Demy. I remember very well the afternoon when I discovered the film. My grandmother had a small apartment in Nantes, which for me coming from the small town where I was from, felt for me like New York. I was left to roam freely by her and would go to the cinema very often.

Christophe Honoré on Paul Kircher, Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lacoste: “You notice in Winter Boy they are almost in a perpetual embrace and I cannot resist this desire of reconciliation between my characters! ”
Christophe Honoré on Paul Kircher, Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lacoste: “You notice in Winter Boy they are almost in a perpetual embrace and I cannot resist this desire of reconciliation between my characters! ”

The cinema itself was called Le Katorza. The afternoon I saw Lola must have been a retrospective and I remember speaking about it with my grandmother and with her trying to find in the city of Nantes the locations where it had been shot.

It became a kind of sentimental obsession for me and a form of pilgrimage also, which was absolutely foundational for me. To this day still I carry more than a desire to maybe one day make a film that has the grace and the fragility and the value of a film like Jacques Demy’s Lola.

AKT: Locations of films can have an immense effect, especially those you are familiar with. I used to have birthday picnics in the park surrounding the castle in Alain Resnais’ L'Année Dernière à Marienbad. That was my childhood park. And I remember seeing the film for the first time in a Resnais retrospective, being especially moved. For you is there another film besides Lola that had an early strong impact on you?

CH: Another memory might be around 13. In middle school I participated in the school newspaper and I wrote my first critique, which was on Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, which I went to see three times because in the town where I lived films were shown Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

And I remember my parents not understanding why I needed to return on Sunday after having seen it both days before and wondering about the seriousness with which I had watched this film which had just received the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Christophe Honoré: “Manchester By The Sea is the ideal of what a European cinephile might be expecting from American cinema.”
Christophe Honoré: “Manchester By The Sea is the ideal of what a European cinephile might be expecting from American cinema.”

AKT: I will send this to Wim and let him know! I want to end with one last point on Providence. The father in the end tells his family to leave without a hug and without a word, as he remains seated at the table in the garden. I for some reason expected you to copy that in Winter Boy and you didn’t. I was surprised when they were hugging and saying goodbye.

CH: As opposed to Alain Resnais, I’m an inextricable sentimental filmmaker and you notice in Winter Boy they are almost in a perpetual embrace and I cannot resist this desire of reconciliation between my characters!

AKT: Thank you.

CH: Merci beaucoup!

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