An Image of Complicity. Films by Luis Donschen and Helena Wittmann is showing May 23, 2018 at Berlin's Volksbühne in collaboration with Acropolis Cinema.
Sex is a many-splendored thing, as the debut feature from German director Luise Donschen, Casanova Gene, makes abundantly clear. An unconventional narrative work assembled from interlocking pieces, Casanova Gene takes its title from scientific research into the mating patterns of finches, and how males birds are predisposed by their DNA to mate with as many different partners as possible. Donschen's intrepid film takes us from the bird research lab to a cultural fair in Venice; a distinctly Fassbinderian singles' bar; an S-M parlor (pictured above); and backstage at the theatre for a revealing interview with John Malkovich, in character as the great lover Casanova himself.
NOTEBOOK: There are so many different kinds of material in Casanova Gene. How was the film originally conceived? Did it come together in fragments, or did you have a total plan?
DONSCHEN: From the beginning I wanted to bring different places and protagonists together in one film. I was interested in how I could create connections between them without forcing them. That is why I started writing while spending time at the different places and looking for themes and objects that I could work with. On that basis I wrote a script which already contained all the strands that finally became part of the film.
NOTEBOOK: It seems that one of the primary themes of the film is reflected in its form, in that there are "dominant" strands and "recessive" strands throughout the Casanova Gene, much like in genetics. Was this intended?
DONSCHEN: No it was not. But I would be curious, which stands you consider "dominant" and which "recessive"?
NOTEBOOK: The question of genetic predisposition itself, and whether our behavior is hard-wired or socially formed, seems to me to be the dominant concern of the film. Other issues come up, in smaller ways, as satellites to that broader question. For example, the portion in the second half depicting Catholic mass doesn't seem to connect, but it does raise a question regarding devotion and supplication, which ties in with the S-M segments. And the nightclub sequences, which are about mating generally, also strike me as being rather queer (or at least androgynous) within what is a basically heterosexual film. So these concerns, while very much present, appear secondary (or "recessive") compared to the "dominant" elements in Casanova Gene. Am I way off base here?
DONSCHEN: When you describe the different parts of the film by what you see, the way you did it is very precise. But maybe we could start thinking about whether and how the different strands are connected, or what happens when you see one part after the other.
NOTEBOOK: You are correct, that the ways they are connected, and the fact that they all exist in the same film, really seems like the thing that makes Casanova Gene what it is. As I watched, I thought about calling it an "essay film," because of the way that various kinds of material seemed to hover around the various key topics. (And also because the laboratory sequences, and the way Wittmann shot them, seems to owe so much to Harun Farocki.) But I don't think "essay film" is exactly right.
DONSCHEN: It is complicated to bring several protagonists together in one film. While making the film I was very much concerned about finding the form for every protagonist that matches him/her and protects him/her at the same time. Within that form I was looking for and listening to things that seemed appealing to me. I trusted in my own interest and affection, and that this finally would bring everything together.
NOTEBOOK: So then your interest in some (if not all) of the segments seems as much textural or object-based as it is conceptual. A bird study lab surrounded by lush woods. Or the warm candlelight of the church and the S-M parlor. Or the frequent presence of mirrors and flowers. These visual rhymes are forming an intuitive system of connection?
DONSCHEN: In certain recurrent objects, movements, colors and motives I saw a way to connect the different strands without forcing them. Most of them I found, some I created.
NOTEBOOK: This does seem to generate a kind of internal system. But interestingly enough, when it comes time to end the film, you very clearly gesture outward, to another film. The final scene, with the dance in the club to Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights," appears to be a fairly clear reference to Claire Denis's Beau travail, and its final scene in which Denis Levant dances to "Rhythm of the Night." What prompted you to reference Denis in this way?
DONSCHEN: Well, there are other dances in the film, like the opening scene with the person dressed as a flamingo in Venice, or the finches displaying in their cage. But Beau travail is one of the most seductive films I know and it encouraged me to follow my own pleasure in watching people’s movements and framing places.
NOTEBOOK: It's interesting that you parallel the dance at the end with the birds. It seems obvious in retrospect, but I had not really considered it as a mating dance. The man is displaying, both for the benefit of potential female partners in the club and for other males, to show his superiority. This is also a framework for understanding the men's androgynous looks. They are following a more natural pattern in which males have the more colorful plumage.
In light of all this, how do you see Casanova Gene as an intervention into contemporary gender politics?
DONSCHEN: The space that is given to a woman or not given and the expectations on her in our society were important for the character of the trans man—the man sitting at the bar talking about missing his uterus—as it was part of his decision to do the transition. It was not so much a question of his body as one would expect. All that formed the background for the creation of the bar scene and the dance.
NOTEBOOK: So why Casanova? What was the fascination?
DONSCHEN: When reading his memoires he emerges as surprisingly feministic on the one hand and as quite economical in his love affairs on the other hand.
NOTEBOOK: I like this idea of being economical in love affairs. This makes sense with the birds and the Casanova gene. The gene is there to get something done—make mating happen, to make more birds. But then, when female birds get the Casanova gene, the scientists admit that it has no real function, other than to pass it off to male offspring. So here, we are dealing with something outside the economical. We have excess.
DONSCHEN: When I started working on the film I was interested in an actual discourse about female desire. I had doubts about the question the ornithologists were working on. When I came to that place and saw how people are working very seriously on something I do not understand, when I saw the birds and the beautiful woods around the laboratories, I wasn’t interested anymore in whether the Casanova gene exists or not. I was interested in watching and listening and creating a filmic space of what desire could be.