The Art of Impurity: An Interview with Emmanuel Bourdieu
Brian Price, Meghan Sutherland
Meghan Sutherland (MS): Your career has taken an unusual path: you earned a doctorate in philosophy while you were starting out in theater and cinema. How did you move from philosophy, from teaching and writing, to making films? How do you see those two practices in relation to one another?
Emmanuel Bourdieu (EB): The connection is not always so clear for me. The most evident connection is that Desplechin asked me to write a movie about a young teacher who was finishing his thesis in philosophy [Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle)], and I was myself writing a thesis at the same time. I was in the same position as the character, who was played by Matthieu Almaric. It was very strange. The film was about intellectual life and sexual life, but not mine. [laughs] In a way, the film is talking about this step, when you are growing up, professionally. That is very difficult. It’s very strange for me because the connection is always very anecdotal. The other connection most evident for me is the writing of Candidature, my short second movie, which is also about a university, a teacher, again, preparing to teach at a university. It was quite autobiographical for me, this one, because I never got this post at the university; I never became a teacher. This past year I’ve been at the university. It was almost funny because the people I was talking to were aware that I’d made this film about the university. From another point of view, I’d done some research about Stanley Cavell. Desplechin told me about him.
Brian Price (BP): What strikes you about Cavell’s work?
EB: I’ve been interested in Cavell’s writings on genre, but what’s interested me most about Cavell is his notion of cinema as an impure art—a collective art, a heteronomous art with so much money, so many commercial implications. This art is not the same as an autonomous art; its autonomization is very difficult. So it will never be comparable to other arts. I like the way Cavell talks about this. He’s not trying to say that film is like writing, like painting. There cannot be people like Flaubert, writing against everybody; it’s not possible. For instance, I’m preparing a film right now; it’s budget is quite poor, something like one-million euros, like my preceding film, but it’s enough to buy an apartment here! It’s a huge amount of money, but not really enough to make a feature. Film is the only art that needs so much money—it takes two or three times as much as to stage a play. So there is a question of limits, and when you cross this limit, it’s not the same thing.
MS: If we begin from the idea that cinema is an impure art, is there a way in which the impurity of the art form allows other kinds of things to be done? How can your reservations about the form, or critiques of the image and the lack of autonomy in mass art be used or made philosophical? How do these ideas go into what you think about in your work? Can you do philosophy through philosophy’s evil object?
EB: Yes, when you are making films you are making very concrete philosophical ideas about the world you live in. It’s like an obligation; you can’t do it another way. It’s very strange to consider how . . . how do you say l’equipe? Yes, a crew. It’s like a little factory. There are a lot of people working in different specialties with different competencies, and in a way very different socially also. Like in any real enterprise, any economic reality, not artistic reality, they are working for a very concrete economic project. It needs to be marketable; they need to make money. But the author of the film, the person who’s like the director of the factory, he’s not bound only to an economic conscience; he’s mainly bound to an artistic conscience, and that means in a sense a very singular consciousness, the way he sees reality. This contradiction is very interesting to me because when you are working alone, on a novel or something, you can be more outside the economic process. If you sell five-hundred books of poetry, it’s a miracle. When you’re working with a crew, in an economic reality, you have very concrete contradictions. In a sense the crew members are all real workers, but at the center of all that is someone reflecting in a very singular way, and everybody is asking him to be singular.
BP: That situation reminds me in a way of the figure of André in Les Amitiés maléfiques [Poison Friends]. There’s something interesting about the way in which he becomes a very problematic figure, but everybody circles around him, and he brings something good out of them even by lying to them and having to disappear. So much of your work seems to be about friendship and the power dynamics that come out of it, and I wonder if that interest moves for you from a personal level out to larger social and economic questions.
EB: When I wrote Les Amitiés with Marcia Romano, we were thinking about the way that people say lots of bad things about love, about sexuality, about labor, about their violence, things like that. But it’s not common to hear someone describe friendship . . . not to say bad things about it, but only to recognize its ambivalence. In friendships there are always elements of domination, they are not pure, and we wanted to describe this at the center of the film. You can have a very good influence on other people and at the same time you can ruin their lives. André loves his friends, and he makes them, in a sense; he invents a world and he shows them the right path for it, but at the same time he’s a very destructive person. I like this ambivalence; I don’t want to judge him.
BP: It’s interesting too that André is very driven by the work of Karl Kraus, who I think you’d have to say was full of ambivalence himself. He writes almost as if he’s a Nietzschean ubermensch. I wonder what interests you about Kraus. How did that come about?
EB: Kraus is one of the figures most representative of the brilliant intellectual life of Vienna. Like Wittgenstein, he wants to think without any concessions and with a lot of self-critical reflection. I like this intellectual attitude. To be as much as possible in a position of auto-control, this is the most important intellectual value for me. But I think André is almost too self-reflective. He’s always trying to control the effects of his own narcissism and it’s destructive for him in a way. He writes one line and he stops because it’s not enough, and it’s never enough; it can always be more perfect.
BP: There’s also something about Kraus that must appeal to you too since you’re a philosopher who also writes for theater and directs films. Kraus very similarly worked in different media as well, in theater, journalism, philosophy, and so on. That mixture is also perhaps impure in the way that cinema is for you.
EB: I never thought about it that way. I like to find writers, say, William Faulkner, whose writing I like, and who also wrote Hollywood scripts, who can have an intellectual life and move through these impure fields and even take benefits from these fields. As I was saying at the beginning, I really like collective work, and that’s really interesting to me about filmmaking and theater-making. When you’re writing a long work alone it is very solitary, and then you enter into the second-phase of making it and the circumstance is totally different. I think this movement between collective and solitary work is very fruitful.
MS: That makes me think of two things. First, I wonder if the group necessary to make such a big project of this sort, or the collective, as you say, is perhaps one way in which the lack of autonomy in cinema and theater can actually be a productive sort of impurity for your work. Second, I was wondering about the ambivalence you see in André, particularly because he ties together two worlds that are often thought of as antithetical, the military and the university. Could you talk some about how he connects these two spaces conceptually?
EB: I never thought about it that way! As the center of the film, I needed André to fall very far, to be totally humiliated, almost annihilated by his uniform. I was in the army briefly for my military service, and it’s really only there that you can feel so much humiliation, that self-annihilation where you are just the same as everybody. In a strange way, André is well adapted to this kind of life. When he is working with his chief on projects he does quite well because you cannot be narcissistic when nobody has any kind of singularity. I thought he would be good pushing the big wheel-barrow, working with his hands; this labor was for him quite natural. But I don’t think I’ve responded to the first part of your question…
MS: I’ve forgotten, too, No worries!
BP: Well, I think the question was about collaboration, and the situation with André is an interesting problem here, too. The way you describe it, his ambivalence also seems to reflect that relation between the military removing his singularity and his group work at the university with his friends, where that group is in some ways defined by its singularities. I wonder if that suggests to you a mode of production in filmmaking, too, and what might interest you about that philosophically, as a mode of production. For instance, you have this idea, let’s say that in some sense, as a director, you have to occupy this space that André does, and yet, one wonders how working with other people changes what you think about. The other people on the set are perhaps really involved in the creation of this idea, and yet in some sense you have to choose.
EB: Yes, that’s one of the main problems of collective creation, and it has a history. I read a thesis about the Nouvelle Vague in France, and it was very interesting because there was, my father might say, a symbolic revolution during the Nouvelle Vague. The movies, in France, were previously dominated by writers and stars. The position of the director was not yet invented; he was just one part of the group. In this thesis the Nouvelle Vague is described as the conception of the position of the author. The filmmakers found a way, as Max Weber put it, to monopolize artistic violence. [laughs.] Because of the Nouvelle Vague, then, it’s very difficult for me because it’s not at all my character to be like that. People are waiting for you and asking you to take a position like André’s, to be a charismatic leader, and you have to wield a kind of violence. And it’s very strange because sometimes, if you don’t do that, it produces disillusionment. And sometimes you get a bit excessive, you say to somebody that what they’ve done is awful, and sometimes you’re not very fair. And the crew, not individually, but as a group, actually likes that because it’s a way of performing the monopolization of artistic violence, or locating the artistic center of the creation. So I think that’s the specificity of all collective arts. When you are writing alone you don’t have this problem. You have other artistic problems, but not this one. And the relation between André and his friends really is of the same kind.
BP: I wonder if we might shift gears a bit. Both Meghan and I were both struck, when we read the interview with you in The New York Times last month, that you were interested in American film theory. You obviously continue to read theory and philosophy. Do you write theory? What kind of theory do you like, and how do you perceive the existence of it right now?
EB: It’s a real source of frustration for me because I don’t really have enough time right now to read as much of it as I would like. I continue to read Cavell, not all of it of course, as it’s written in very difficult English. I’m trying to read more, though, and to learn where to look. I was just teaching at the Sorbonne and talking about cinema, collective creation, genre, and at the same time I was teaching theory and practice. I had the students make a small project, but each step along the way I had them stop to reflect on what they were doing. Sometimes we got into some very abstract discussions about Russian formalism, actually, the last book of film theory that I read was an American book on Russian formalism – I can’t remember the author’s name at the moment, but I liked it very much. For me, Russian formalism is one of the most important aesthetic theories of the century.
BP: What appeals to you about it?
EB: It’s connected to what we were talking about before: the heteronomous character of cinema has made it possible that the cinema as an art will disappear. It’s so difficult to make a really creative movie, a radical movie, in France today; it’s very difficult to find the money because of television, because of commercial culture. I think we have to reflect on the pursuit of making really creative cinema today. It’s a little bit abstract, but I think this problem is very connected to the idea of form. What is important is form. A film is not important so much because of what it’s talking about, but because of some new style of description or point-of-view that it introduces. That’s the main idea of real formalism. I’m always telling my students: at each stage of your script or decoupage you have to be able to explain your specific way of doing this or that. I think everybody knows the formalist idea of making reality strange—defamiliarization—but I think it’s really important to keep this idea in mind always if you want to produce something of artistic interest, especially in collective art, where there is always somebody telling you that it’s not possible or professional to do one thing or another, or that people won’t understand it because you’re just an intellectual. I think Poison Friends is in some ways too much of a classical film. A lot of people in France see the film almost as a provocation because it’s about intellectuals, students, who often find books more interesting than romance. That was the challenge. So many people told me that it was not possible to make a film about the bourgeois, about intellectuals, about books, but that wasn’t my problem; my problem was that I didn’t have enough time or money to make a film that was more radical in form. That’s the real problem; all subjects are good. I know it’s sort of a tarte à la crème to say that, but today in France it sounds old-fashioned. It’s not an obligation to make films about workers; I would like to do it, but to do it well; not as a political obligation.
MS: You mentioned that your interest in formalism has to do with the value of creating new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. That reminds me of something that Pasolini, another filmmaker who was also an intellectual, said about film and language: that film could never be a language because every image would be a new word. I wonder how you see that productive dimension of making images, the constitutive, world-making power it holds; it’s almost Wittgensteinian. Is that of interest for you in your work? Is it something you think about when you make films that reconstitute the otherwise familiar terms of bourgeois sociality and experience?
EB: That’s a very formalist question! Viktor Chklovski talked about defamiliarization. From his point of view, the goal of art was to recreate reality. When your perception forms you become incorporated into what is usual; in a way you don’t perceive reality. One forgets reality. I think my duty as a filmmaker is to produce this shift of perception. Every great filmmaker does. I think of Nanni Moretti, for example. When you see two minutes of Moretti’s films you recognize his way of telling stories. You see somebody coming in the frame from very far and the intrigue lasts until the next shot. I know this is his way. If you see The Apartment, when the film begins you understand that Jack Lemmon is already in love with Shirley MacLaine and he’s going to loan his boss the apartment. Everything has already begun; that’s Wilder’s way of telling stories. In a way it’s a formal conquest. You have to work on form to produce it; that’s the most important thing for me.
The idea of a cinematic language also interests me a lot. When I’m working on a movie I would like to have a kind of dictionary. Right now I’m trying to edit a film and a dictionary or a cookbook would be great! When you try to speak another language you do have a dictionary and grammar, but it’s not possible for film. You have a kind of grammar for shooting television: use an establishing shots at the beginning, move closer and closer, and then finish on a close-up of the main character. Good television can be inventive. I’m watching The Wire and NYPD Blue right now; this kind of television doesn’t exist in France, and I actually think Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin have been influenced by their ways of shooting. The camera pans very quickly to a character but does not land quite exactly on him at first, and then corrects the framing at the end; I think NYPD Blue started this. But then there is no grammar, no dictionary. This really is Wittgensteinian: one produces, invents necessity. You don’t find it, all done. If I were shooting the three of us I would give a reason for shooting from over there, for example, that we need to shoot the scene from the point of view of that character [points to a guy across the room]. But in a way the necessity of the decision to put the camera there will be produced by that decision itself. Wittgenstein would say that, I think. We are creating necessity in a retrospective way; decisions become really necessary. We will see the film and say, yes that was the right place. In this sense, this is a good way to describe the situation. When you see a Billy Wilder or a John Ford film we feel like there would not have been any better or other way to position the camera, and he decided for some reason or maybe no reason to put the camera there. But now this position has become the right one. That’s reality in a sense, but that doesn’t mean creation is deceptive. I think the frame is really beautiful, and what you have inside is a real necessity now. We just shouldn’t forget that in the beginning it was not.