Cannes 2021 Notebook: THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION by Mark Cousins


The Cannes Film Festival, and its main screening rooms, are housed in the Palais des Festivals, but ask anyone who loves movies— well, anyone who loves a certain idea of what the movies are— and they will likely agree that the Palais is less a palace and something more akin to a temple for true believers, a place for cinephiles to congregate and engage in a complicated relationship with not only contemporary cinema, but with the history of film. No film festival embodies that history quite like Cannes, which has shaped the international conversation around filmmakers and filmmaking for decades; from its elevation of the art of film to a black-tie event to its veneration of a long list of boundary-pushing filmmakers from around the world, Cannes is a festival that not only has the power to enshrine an artist in the history of film, but one that is fully aware of that power, which brings with it the ability to program almost anything it wants, which has come with its own problems; it is incredibly selective and loyal to its past, and when you lean so heavily on your history, problems of inclusion become a whole different part of the story. 

The festival was born in a different social, economic, and historical moment, but so was almost every other institution of power, and so, as it continues to see curation as a part of a continuum, Cannes continues to navigate how to contextualize its relationship to the past in a contemporary moment of long-needed, seismic change, be it access for people who have too-long been excluded from the production and celebration of cinema, to the new battlefronts that are reshaping the future of theatrical moviegoing. This is not a festival about democratic social participation in the movies; it is more akin to evangelism than conversation.

On the other hand, we live in a moment when films need a champion more than ever, and it is hard to come to Cannes as a true believer in cinema and not be moved by the experience. In that sense, the festival’s first official screening— Mark Cousin’s new documentary THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION— was the perfect start, a heartfelt benediction for the global community of contemporary cinephiles. As an extension of his multi-part THE STORY OF FILM, the latest A NEW GENERATION follows Cousin’s generosity, curiosity, and passion for the medium in the 21st century, from images and sounds to performances and genres, to create a sort of “state of the art” for modern filmmaking, placing recent films in the context of the past, but also, as a way forward, as a vital and living form.

As a film programmer and someone who has watched and thought about films for decades, no illusions about my own objectivity; there is none. Cinema’s history remains dear to me not only from the perspective of the films themselves— which, I am sure we could all assemble a list of exclusions from this chapter of THE STORY OF FILM that we would have loved to see Cousins address (while retaining admiration for the images, ideas, and interpretations he brings to A NEW GENERATION)— but also on the level of personal and political identity, which Cousins rightly identifies as a sort of “borderless, stateless” globalism, tied together by filmmaking, that unites cinephiles as being, in a sense, a community of people who seek to understand one another through filmgoing and dialogue. Of which, I am 100% guilty as charged. 

In the wake of the pandemic and attending my first in-person film screening in over a year and a half, I was not prepared to be so moved by the experience. I felt fractured; on the one hand, I couldn’t quite believe I was back in a theater, that I was at Cannes again after twenty one years, that I was sitting in the dark next to a stranger from another part of the world, watching a film together, and on the other hand, here was the past twenty years of my filmgoing life, unfolding before me as a sort of acknowledgement of that experience as meaningful, relevant, to be celebrated. I was quietly on the verge of tears and, as the images, rhymes, and Cousins’ soothing narration and love of cinematic ideas unfolded before me, I felt as if we had collectively arrived at a moment of truth not only for the impact of the pandemic on that sacred thing we love, but for cinema culture as a whole. 

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about what was to come at the festival this week, about how A NEW GENERATION was screening in dialogue with Cannes and its legacy and its evangelism, about how this moment would be framing everything I had yet to see, and how those films would also be in dialogue with an unseen future, with the past, an eternal reframing not only movies, but of myself. That anticipation, delivered here in the form of a retrospective from our often cruel and difficult times, felt to me like a real gift, a signpost on the never-ending search to be connected in the dark, to find one another. To breathe together again. And so, maybe, this is just my own way of coming to terms with all of these complications, with my conflicted feelings about all of it, which feels like coming home again. 

BRM Interview: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

On the occasion of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new film Two Days, One Night premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with them from October 2011, when they came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of The Kid With A Bike.

I worry that in the eyes of some, the Dardennes suffer from being too good at their art; each of their films is probably among the greatest works of any given year, and yet, too often, the brothers’ style is considered against itself, and individual films suffer in contemporary thought as being alike, or of being various degrees of “Dardenne.” Sometimes, perhaps, it is hard to understand greatness in its living context, but for me, they are among the all-time greatest of filmmakers.

I hoped this conversation illuminates much of what makes all of their work so powerful, and while it was conducted in conjunction with The Kid With A Bike, I believe it has much to say about all of their work.

This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.

BRM: I want to start by asking you about one of the most striking techniques in your films, the way in you hew so closely to your characters with the camera and how their physical experiences drive your films; they way they move through the frame, the way your characters always seem to be in motion. Can you discuss this movement as a way of expressing interiority?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: The camera in this film (The Kid With A Bike) is a little further away, but we like to film our characters in movement– looking for something, moving toward something– because our characters are always obsessed with something. In this case, it is about finding his father and receiving his father’s love. So, in filming their movements, we hope it will be a catalyst for their interior movement and consequently, for how the viewer understands them. Even if I know that, in a movie, you can film someone who is sleeping for twenty four hours, that’s not our path.

BRM: Do you think this obsession leads your characters to depend on instinct? Your characters seem to spring into action.

Luc Dardenne: They don’t act without thinking, they just think fast. In this film, Cyril understands very quickly that if he wants to see his father and he can’t leave the orphanage, he has to flee the school to get what he wants. Our characters are people who are in dire circumstances and want to escape from something, so they are searching and they understand immediately that they need to escape from a situation; so, they just get to work on it. They are characters where there is no room, they’re looking for space; they’re suffocating and they’re looking for a space to breathe. When they find that breathing room, we leave them alone for a while and let them slow down.

BRM: Perhaps this is why the betrayal— which seems to happen in all of your films, maybe not in The Son, but in most, this great moment of betrayal— is so devastating to your characters? They finally find this moment to breathe and often, it is the moment when everything is destroyed.

Luc Dardenne: Precisely. In order to have space, they are forced into a position to experience betrayal. They are ready to risk almost anything to have space, and consequently, to betray others or to find themselves betrayed. It’s true that in The Son, the boy already has this space; he has already killed the other boy, but he wants to stay there in this space. He wants to stay there and he doesn’t want to move. But that’s not the case with Lorna or Rosetta, unfortunately.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne (photo by me)

BRM: Let’s talk about work in your films, labor. In many American films, work doesn’t really play a major role in the lives of the characters; the portrayal is usually vacuous or satirical. But in your films, labor plays a very important role in the lives of your characters. What drives you to depict work so carefully?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We didn’t really decide on this ourselves, but what you’re saying is true. I think it is because we grew up in this milieu; we’ve spent our lives in this environment where manual labor is very important. And even your schedule revolves around work. In film, you can’t film the inside of a person, so we gamble that by filming movement of our characters, that we’ll be able to understand them.

Luc Dardenne: At the same time, vacation or escaping work is important for fiction. Like in Hitchcock, when the character is rid of daily obligations like work or family or whatever, that is the moment when unexpected things begin to happen. We’re available for a thriller if anyone wants us to make one…(*laughs*). But no, our characters are available for these unexpected things. Like Rosetta, she loses her work at the beginning of the story and so she is forced to be on “vacation” and it opens up the film to what is possible.

BRM: You hinted at this, but how does Seraing specifically influence this perspective? The city itself seems to contribute to this feeling in your films.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It’s true that this region where we grew up and where we situate most of our films is an industrial area, so people’s lives are driven by industry. In the 1970’s, it started to fall apart, and that’s when we started to see young people pop up, like kids who have seen their father abandon them like Cyril, or like Rosetta, who is 16, 17 years old and feels she has no future. When the factories shut down, the structure of these people’s lives was altered and they crumbled.

BRM: On a personal level, did you feel the impact of this yourselves?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Not us, but our father’s life was impacted; he lost his job.

BRM: Another one of the major themes, as I see it, in your films, is this idea of transcendence. I don’t mean spiritually necessarily, but—

Luc Dardenne: It’s not transcending, it is immediate change. It is not spiritual, it’s human. When human beings help once another, you may call it transcendent, but hopefully it is a moment when people find their humanity again. It is a normal, primal behavior. And that’s what we try to film. It’s people who are locked in their solitude, who are alone, and at some point it becomes a question of when will they find a hand that will pull them out of their isolation and toward their humanity?

Luc Dardenne (photo by me)

BRM: How do you feel the viewer experiences this? Not the character, but the audience…

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Unfortunately, we are never going to be able to be viewers of our own films. When a film is finished, it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to the audience.

Luc Dardenne: In terms of The Kid With A Bike, we hope that the viewer will be moved by the story. It is amazing what happens, and we want the viewer to be touched by it. It’s incredible what Samantha (Cécile De France’s character) does. You walk out and you think “Wow, what this woman did… I can’t believe it, but she did it.” We had a writer who sent us a letter and he said “Samantha is a person that nearly doesn’t exist, but thing is to meet her…” So, the viewer can meet her through the film.

The Kid With A Bike

BRM: Do you hope to inspire the humanity of intervention in your films? I am sure they are not a call to action, per se, but perhaps an inspiration to help others?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I think that each films— well, maybe not each film, but many films— can affect the viewer, can change something in the viewer. The viewer can discover things that he thought he knew but actually did not know. Movies are like that. Cinema is a form of beauty, and it inspires a reaction because the viewer is confronted by that form of beauty. It can be a landscape, a gesture, a face. A little example: we saw a friend a few weeks ago who told us that he had met a young woman, and the woman told him her life had changed after she saw Rosetta. She said, “I saw the film by chance, but I was just like Rosetta.” In her real life, she was like the character. And when she saw the film, she realized she had to push herself out of this life she was living. That’s a good thing.


BRM: Can I ask how you work together, about the division of labor—

Luc Dardenne: No division.

BRM: What is you process for settling your own disagreements? Do you have them?

Luc Dardenne: We’ve been working so long together… thirty seven years. We talk so much about the film before we make the film, that we know that one of us won’t say “black” and the other says “No, white!” or vice versa. We’ll both say “black” and what’s good is, say we’re shooting a scene, and one of us says “Maybe we should try it this way” and the other says “Okay”, and then the other says “Let’s try it that way” and the other says “Okay” and then in the editing, we see what works. The world doesn’t end with the shoot, so it works out.

BRM: The issue of influences comes up all the time with your work— obviously, Bresson gets mentioned all the time— but in the case of The Kid With A Bike, De Sica or Truffaut… How do you feel about people bring up influences in your work?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Yeah. We don’t reject it, because we’re made up of the art we know— the films we’ve seen, the books we’ve read. But it is true that when I’m feeling a little bit lost and I’m thinking about how we should do a scene— this way or that way— that Rossellini’s films come back to me because there is always something—

Luc Dardenne:— as a spectator, when you’re seeing Rossellini’s films, you get the feeling that things are always clear and evident—

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: —and that comes back to me when I am feeling a little lost. And so, I say that’s what has to guide me. I have to give life to that clarity.

BRM: Last question… Cinema is changing rapidly here in the USA, especially with video on demand services. It is likely that more people will see this film on a television than will likely see it in a cinema. What are your thoughts on this change?

Luc Dardenne: It’s true that everything is changing really fast with satellite downloads of films into cinemas and video on demand, but I think that film remains linked to the theater and the big screen. And in fact, we’re going to open, with the support of the government, four new movie theaters in Brussels. You can be touched by films that are outside of the theater; just before coming to the US, I watched PIalat’s Loulou on DVD and I saw it on a nice sized HDTV and the following day, I watched it on the big screen and the experience was totally different. There’s a point in the movie when you Depardieu is walking down a dark street, and there’s very little light and you can’t really see him at all. Well, in the DVD, it all melted together, there are flickers here and there, but you really can’t see it. You need to see it on the big screen.

BRM Interview: Mathieu Amalric

On the occasion of Mathieu Amalric’s new film The Blue Room premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with him from October 2013, when he came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. While not specifically about The Blue Room, we discussed Amalric’s approach to acting and directing, which I hope might illuminate his process. This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.

Mathieu Amalric (photo by me)

BRM: Let’s start by discussing how you started the process of becoming an actor.

Mathieu Amalric: Nothing was expected, it was an accident. It was Arnaud Desplechin who invented me, as I always say. It’s true. I fell in love with movies and found my place in movies when I was young. I was 17 when I saw the work of Otar Iosseliani, who never picks actors; only friends or silhouettes. He directs with a whistle; one whistle you stop, two whistles you walk, and that’s it, then he does the sound in post, afterward. And I wanted to do what he was doing, which was to fabricate films. People say they are “Filmmakers”- yes, film “makers”, in English it is more beautiful. It is exactly that, you “make” films. Because it had to do with making with your hands, you head your heart— (gasps in revelation)— I could do anything with it. You never understand anything about life; the older you get, the less you understand and film is just a way to have the illusion that you grabbed something.

So, I was just working as an AD, an assistant editor, working behind the camera and directing my short films. And then Arnaud saw a short film in which I acted, because it was with my grandmother and my father, and he asked me to do some screen-tests for La Sentinelle but he didn’t pick me…

BRM: You had a small role…

Amalric: Yes, but I tested again for Comment je me suis disputé (My Sex Life… or how I got into an argument). Arnaud is an amazing director, especially with actors. The other directors thought that I was a good actor, and I am still living on that mistake. But like all phonies, you have to be very good to be a phony. Like people who do art forgeries; you have to be very, very good. So, I am getting better at false acting.

BRM: Can you describe the process of invention that you had with Arnaud? I am sure the relationship has changed over time, you must have developed a shorthand and trust by now, but at the start, how did he “invent” you as an actor?

Amalric: He told me 10 days before we started shooting that I had the role. For me, it was suddenly “Shit! I should have been better in school and learned my poems, so I had fewer problems with my memory… how am I going to learn all of this?” Because in this film, there was so much dialogue, and it was so precise, and you don’t want to change a word. It has nothing to do with naturalism; in Arnaud’s films, he is working on something else. So, ok- learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines— am I going to be able to say my lines not being conscious of what I’m doing?

And Arnaud, who is in love with actors and always wanting to help them, finds this way that you are occupied by tons of things to do at the same time, so that you don’t think that you’re acting, and if you don’t think you’re acting, maybe you grab some truth that belongs to you but that you’re not aware that you’re making. So, Arnaud says something like “Maybe on that line, you take the pen and then you take your cigarette there, and then you go over there.” Ok. And at the start, he would do a lot of takes, maybe twenty or so takes, and after each take he would say “I know what this scene is about, it is about that word, so we’re going to do something else.”

And so, after a moment, you cannot physically do everything he’s given you. And in that moment, something of you is grabbed by the camera. That’s how he works. And that as twenty years ago. Now, and its funny because it was specific to a film like Jimmy P., where something happens between those two men that is never named, but it has to do with friendship. Like he says at the beginning “Sympathy is sufficient… I didn’t help Jimmy because he was an Indian, but because it was in my power to help him.” That is how it is with Arnaud. Complicity, let’s say.

(photo by me)

BRM: I spoke to Arnaud about his use of masks, and often in his films, your characters are people who, underneath, are a swirl of contradictions which are always breaking through this mask they are presenting to the world. It has an almost spiritual component, where Arnaud is inventing, on the page, characters who present you with the opportunity to inhabit them and present this contradictory state to the world. Am I wrong about this?

Amalric: No no no… you’re right, and I was thinking when you were talking, that Jimmy P. is really two masks of Arnaud, one that is the Indian and one that is the Hungarian— not professor, because I think what Arnaud loves about Devereaux is that he’s a man who never presented himself as an expert— but there is something where Arnaud believes in humanity, and it is in all of his characters and its always like that. Even in his family films; he is the mother, the angry sister, the banished son. He is a great actor when he directs, he always has to get involved and demonstrate, and he plays the part to see how he would do as a girl, as an old man, as an adolescent. So, that’s why his films belong to everyone, he doesn’t tell people what to think. He wants you to take your own voyage inside all of those characters.

BRM: He also deals with outsiders, who are often set aside by society and convinced they are insane, but really, they are just alive; they’re not really insane. This is a thread throughout the work. Is this something that draws you to these characters?

Amalric: I am never driven to a character, it’s more that I am lucky that these amazing directors pick me and make me their puppet. It’s great! Acting is only abandoning yourself to someone else’s vision of the world. And it’s only afterwards that you discover the change in your perspective, that you’ve been looking at the world one way and never thought it could be the other way. It’s fascinating, it’s passion, it makes life more interesting. And then, when I go back to directing my own films, it helps me a lot.

But it’s true with Arnaud, in all of his films, he is attracted by men and women who are capable of resisting what society expects of them. I don’t think he sees them as victims, but as heroes, as in Howard Hawks films, I don’t know… strong. The women in Howard Hawks films are incredible. They are not victims crying that society set them aside, they are in the center, and they invent their own methods for placing themselves there. It is an act of self-invention; the same as Devereaux in this film, not quite anthropologist, not quote psychoanalyst- he made this new psychoanthropology. But in the end, as an actor, you just try to know your lines, create a credible accent, and you try to be like an athlete, who can do all he wants because he can control his body and be precise. And this film is so much about listening to the other, working on what is being said between the lines.

BRM: Every time I see you in a film he is not directing, I feel like you’re having an affair with the other director. What do you take from working with Arnaud to, say, Julian Schnabel or to the set of a James Bond movie?

Amalric: Every director is very different; what would there be in common…? Hmmm. I try not to arrive with any principles. I am a virgin. It’s true. But then technically, I work hard, but my goal is to be as light as possible for the director, not ask questions, or very concrete and precise questions. It has to do with the state of stupidity, which is very important to have as an actor.

BRM: You’ve just solved American celebrity culture for me… (laughs)

Amalric: (Laughs) Yes, ok, but American actors come ready, and they are difficult to change, they don’t want to be stupid, it’s too frightening. They don’t want to belong to someone else. They did their work on their own, they constructed something else. But stupidity has to do with everything being possible, it’s important. It’s also maybe why directors like to work with other directors, because actors that are only actors can think they believe in the director as “god”— that he will know everything— and they want to be loved, they want to be accepted, so there’s a lot to do with psychological seduction and taming. When you’re a director, you know the solitude of the director and you know that he feels he is pretending to know everything when in fact he simply hopes the toilet is nearby because it is so scary. So, you try to be generous and listen to the music and rhythm of the performance. The reason movies are so fun to do is because they are a collaboration, you feel like it is an orchestra with a common tempo.

(photo by me)

BRM: You also direct… how do you work with other actors then? You’re entrenched in the filmmaking community in France, everyone seems to know everyone else…

Amalric: I’m part of them, so it’s natural. I know how it is. I know directors who have never acted who somehow think actors are miracles, you have to say the magic words to open them up, or like a romantic relationship. Directing goes through the body, a way to move on set. It’s not the words. Acting is another handcraft, which is why I love movies. That’s why I think it has nothing to do with being an artist; we’re not painters or writers or musicians. Movies are like a circus, more impure, you just try to do what you can, and it is never what you dreamt of. You have to manage reality. And I find that way more freeing than staring at a blank page and you have to invent the world everything is possible. in a movie? Nothing is possible. So, we struggle and you hope a little miracle happens.

BRM: Jimmy P. is Arnaud’s first film in America, and as a lover of cinema, can you talk about shooting this film here together, a period film that draws on the American landscape? It really draws on the history of American film.

Amalric: Not acting in your own language brings its own challenges, but then there is this way of making each word precious. Words, when you work in another language than your own, are precious. And it also has to do with exile; two men who are trying to become Americans. Yes, there is something about the history of the construction of this country, the dream, the acceptance of different cultures. For us in France, racism is a problem in this regard. We have this sickness everywhere else in the world; identity. For America, it’s not the same problem, everyone is from somewhere else. American cinema, too.

The 2013 New York Film Festival | INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Photographs

Photos from the Inside Llewyn Davis Press Conference
Thursday, September 26, 2013
The New York Film Festival
Walter Reade Theater
New York, NY

Ethan Coen

Joel Coen

Oscar Isaac

NYFF Director of Programming Kent Jones

John Goodman

How I Often Feel at NYFF Press Conferences, Manifested by John Goodman’s Face

Ethan Coen and Oscar Isaac

Joel and Ethan Cohen

Oscar Isaac