A Rock Is a Hard Place: An Interview with Luc Moullet

We talked to the French New Wave critic and filmmaker in Cannes about his documentary "Land of Madness", King Vidor, murder and more.
Daniel Kasman, David Phelps

MUBI is showing Luc Moullet's Land of Madness (2009) from January 3 - February 1, 2017 in the United States.

Above: Luc Moullet.

Luc Moullet is one of the very best directors to come out of the French New Wave, but in America you would be hard pressed to know it. Although like fellow New Wavers, Moullet wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he started feature filmmaking much later, with Brigitte and Brigitte (1966), and never was able to ride the crest of visibility that Godard, Truffaut, and the others did. That hardly stopped Moullet though, who has remained prodigiously active in criticism and filmmaking to this day. A small but unbelievably rich handful of his films are available on DVD in the U.S., including his debut, along with his Jean-Pierre Léaud relationship-Western, A Girl is a Gun (1971), and slightly later works of considerable oddity and insight, Anatomy of a Relationship (1976, and starring Moullet as himself), and The Comedy of Work (1986). From what is available, you will never find craggier, funnier, more brilliantly lo-fi and completely idiosyncratic comedies. We caught a rare Stateside screening of a new Moullet last year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Le Litre de lait (The Milky Way), and at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival we covered his new documentary feature, Land of Madness. David Phelps and I were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Mr. Moullet for an interview during the festival.  Special thanks to Andy Rector and Doug Dibbern for assisting with the interview. —Daniel Kasman


NOTEBOOK: You mentioned in your introduction at Cannes that Land of Madness was initially suggested to you by Edgar Ulmer.

LUC MOULLET: Ulmer wanted to produce films by young people, and when I saw him he asked me to write something, but Ulmer had great difficulties getting his own movies produced, so this ended up not being made.

NOTEBOOK: Was it originally a documentary?

MOULLET: No, it was a fiction. It was too long and too expensive. Ulmer spoke a lot without really having the power to supervise this film made by young people. I took a little part of it—10% or 5%, all about madness, this little part—and came back to the documentary way of filming, which was easier and more interesting in this case. And less costly. That gave me the idea of the title.

NOTEBOOK: Did you know other directors from that era? I know you interviewed many, and Samuel Fuller you worked with.

MOULLET: Yes of course, because I was writing text for Cahiers du cinéma, and I was just beginning so I couldn’t write about great, great directors; Truffaut and Rivette spoke about them, wrote about them, so I had to concentrate on other directors who were a little forgotten or not yet known, such as Ulmer and Fuller.

NOTEBOOK: And now they are associated with the New Wave and Cahiers.

MOULLET: I remember when Truffaut came to New York there was a question, “who are the best American directors?” And he said Edgar Ulmer and Samuel Fuller! Which in ’59 was rather provocative since the critic who asked the question may not have known Ulmer and saw very little of Fuller. At the time, people said Kazan, or Stevens, or Zinnemann.

NOTEBOOK: That’s our cinema of quality. Now not very many people of our generation watch those films any more. They are under-appreciated, almost, because of their reputation for being overblown. I’m curious about the King Vidor story you mention as an inspiration for Land of Madness. He investigated a murder?

MOULLET: Yes. It was in ’67; he was looking for a film about the death of William Desmond Taylor, an American who died of murder in 1923. Taylor was the husband of Mary Miles Minter, who was a star at the time. It appears from the inquiry made by King Vidor that Taylor’s stepmother murdered him. I don’t remember exactly what happened; I don’t know why, if Taylor was a homosexual or brutal or addicted to drugs, but it was something like that. The killer was not discovered for forty years after the murder, and Vidor discovered the truth, he made an inquest in order to direct a film about this affair. But there were too many people involved who were still living, so Vidor quit the project. He was 70 years old, he was a little out of Hollywood, and it was difficult for him to make films. He made only one short after this; but someone called Kirkpatrick found the whole story in Vidor’s garage and wrote a book called A Cast of Killers, which is very interesting.

NOTEBOOK: So the book is like a detective story starring King Vidor investigating a murder?


NOTEBOOK: Did you have that sort of trouble, going around the countryside talking to people about crimes that involved people who were still alive?

MOULLET: Yes, of course. There is a kind of “omertà”—an idiom of Naples—a kind of code of silence of the Mafia. And it exists, or at least a similar thing, particularly in the Southern Alps. So at first it was difficult to find people who could speak. Usually I could find one; though in one case a witness didn’t want to talk so I replaced him in the film with myself.

NOTEBOOK: In the middle of the movie you say that there seems to be almost a “culture” of madness and crime in the area. I got the sense that a lot of the people you talked to enjoyed telling these horrible stories—that they seemed more like stories than local events people were personally involved in. It was almost like folklore they were relating to us.

MOULLET: Yes, in the south of France when people accept to speak, they speak easily, you can see that here in Cannes, but it’s not the same in the north.

NOTEBOOK: When you interviewed the man who chased down his wife’s assailant, it sounded like a story the man was telling about his grandfather or that he was reading from the newspaper, even though it was his own story. That’s something I liked throughout the film, this distance between people telling the facts and the actual madness underneath.

MOULLET: They were witnesses, or maybe bad witnesses, or the story was something they heard about because it happened many years before—so every kind of witness may be a little treacherous, they are not perfect. But who is a perfect witness? It’s difficult to say.

NOTEBOOK: Who was that woman who you talk to throughout Land of Madness, almost as a commentary on your own film, about the people and their stories? She was my favorite part of the movie.

MOULLET: It was interesting to work with her, because she seems an odd woman out, a little out of life; we begin to look at her with some laughter, some irony, and we find that she is very cute! Many people who seem a little out of the way are very intelligent people.

NOTEBOOK: That seems like a subject in the film. A lot of people you interview seem crazy but are talking about how normal they are. And then we have normal people talking about how they are crazy.

MOULLET: Normal people are often a little crazy.

NOTEBOOK: I was very startled to see this area of France on film. The landscapes here look like many of the landscapes I see in your movies, and it occurs to me that A Girl is a Gun could have been shot in your backyard. It was interesting to see the land that exists in your fiction films take such a vivid place in your documentary.

MOULLET: There are certain landscapes for fantasies like a western film and for a true story for murder and madness, which we can see here.

NOTEBOOK: There’s something really romantic about your films, which I like. They have a reputation for being austere in a way, because they deliver facts, but there’s something really romantic about the landscapes.

MOULLET: It certainly is a romantic landscape, and these are ugly stories in a romantic landscape—it’s an interesting contradiction. You could say the same about Wuthering Heights, a very beautiful landscape and a certain kind of madness. I think it might be the same as in West Virginia!

NOTEBOOK: Do you look for inspiration in films that you love?

MOULLET: Yes, of course. I wrote many films about American movies, I made a book about Vidor’s The Fountainhead, and there are some influences, some borrowings from The Fountainhead in A Girl is a Gun, from Hitchcock in Brigitte and Brigitte. In Brigitte and Brigitte there’s a girl who has some difficulties finding a secret dictionary in her closet during an exam, and this was made after the end of Strangers on a Train, looking for his lighter—things like that. There’s a borrowing from The Whispering Chorus by DeMille in Le prestige de la mort; it’s a bit of a similar story. There are many things I borrow from American cinema, always in a different context because Brigitte and Brigitte is a comedy and Strangers on a Train is a suspense film. It’s always better to take things from other genres because then nobody sees them…unless I speak to you about them! There are some borrowings from Moonfleet in my short, The Milky Way.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a little about The Milky Way? I was lucky enough to see it at the Tribeca Film Festival. Was it the landscape that inspired the story for the short, or vice versa?

MOULLET: It is an autobiographical film: I was the young boy of the film. In my life, the landscape was more dull. In my film, I chose a landscape with mountains in the background. The splendor of nature beyond this thin story. And the right road—it is a road film. I made a little film showing the genesis of The Milky Way, called Some More Drops. The first thing in the film was not the landscape, but the action. I added to my story the little sister—I am sisterless—since I needed someone to speak to the boy—and I am a fan of the young Claire Bouanich, whom I directed in Le prestige de la mort, and who might become a new Katharine Hepburn. Another good principle was not to show the three main characters of the dramatic story—the man, his wife and his mistress—but only the children, who are not the essential characters of the dramatic story. The Addie Ross principle: in A Letter to Three Wives, we don’t see Addie Ross, the main character of the drama.

NOTEBOOK: The Milky Way seemed to be shot on 35mm, which is very rare for a short film nowadays. We know you're an admirer of some of Godard's video work, have you ever worked with video?

MOULLET: The Milky Way is not in 35mm. It is in Super 16 (which is automatically reproduced in 35mm if we want to have a print for the audience). I prefer argentic film, since it’s better for showing the landscape, which is often important in my films. I made 6 short films in video, as the producer said me: "make a film on this subject, but it will have to be in video, or bust..." Anyway, video is not truly cheaper, since I use very few meters of film. The true problem is: will the audience laugh more with film or with video? Maybe they will laugh a little more with a film (which is cleaner).

NOTEBOOK: There’s an aspect in which your documentaries are not just documentaries, there are also scripted elements.

MOULLET: There is a mixture of pure documentary—small, personal—and some impressions. In Land of Madness, you can see the woman who speaks about the itinerary of the murderer who tried to drown himself but couldn’t because there was no water in the countryside, and suddenly we see a little river, ten feet of water, and everybody laughs.

NOTEBOOK: It’s also a beautiful shot.

MOULLET: Yes, it was lit effectively.

NOTEBOOK: Are you watching many recent films?

MOULLET: Yes, I have seen Inland, the Algerian film by Teguia which is interesting, and Solitary Fragments from Spain by Jaime Rosales. And of course Still Life by Jia Zhangke.

NOTEBOOK: Someone told me you think Jia is the greatest filmmaker working.

MOULLET: Yes, Still Life is a great film in many ways. It is a great subject, the dam, the tragedy of a dam.

NOTEBOOK: It’s actually quite a bit like your film.

MOULLET: Yes. You have great masterpieces about dams, such as Wild River by Kazan. I also liked very much Pineapple Express and films by Kevin Smith, Alan Rudolph, and Rose Troche: Go Fish.

NOTEBOOK: With your new book on The Fountainhead out and the recent retrospective in Paris, it seems like you're a bit of a celebrity.

MOULLET: It is a little dangerous to be famous, because many directors begin to get big heads. After, their films are less interesting because there is some infatuation. Anthony Mann, for example, at the end had films that made big business but were far less interesting than the B-films or medium budget films he made for Universal.

NOTEBOOK: But still, I’d like to see you direct a film on the scale of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Would you direct an epic if you could, with thousands of people?

MOULLET: No, it’s dangerous. I’ll say that the more expensive a film is, the worse off a film director can be—Cleopatra, or 55 Days of Peking, or Ten Commandments.

NOTEBOOK: You’re like Orson Welles—as the films get less expensive, they get even more interesting.

MOULLET: The more expensive, I think, the worse Welles is. Look at The Trial, it is difficult to film Kafka and his budget adds nothing to Kafka.

NOTEBOOK: You wrote a book in 1995 called Politique des acteurs—Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant, James Stewart, which unfortunately, like much of your criticism, has not yet been translated into English. Could you talk a little bit about why you wrote the book, and what you say in it?

MOULLET: Actors are very important to good authorship, especially in the comical field (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Raymond Griffith, Linder, Tati, Fields, Marx Brothers). Who remembers the official directors of their films, Clyde Bruckman, James Horne, Donald Crisp? I chose to write a book about actors because Truffaut always told me it was the most difficult thing to do, to write about actors. I liked this challenge. Before, almost nobody wrote seriously about actors.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of material unavailable in English, it is quite dismaying to see your work receive so little attention in the United States in terms of distribution. For someone unable to see most of your films, what have you been up to since the early 1970s?

MOULLET: I can tell you that I worked in many of the usual genres, comedy, western, erotic film, murder film, sociologic documentary, copying (or try to copy) the career of Hawks.

NOTEBOOK: How do you see your filmmaking changing over this period?

MOULLET: I don’t know what difference one can find between a film I made in 1960 and a film I directed in 2006. Maybe there are less puns.

NOTEBOOK: In the U.S. the French New Wave is almost exclusively associated with a very small group of Cahiers du cinéma critic-filmmakers—Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol. Again, due mostly to issues of distribution, access, and translation, we have seen little from other contemporaneous filmmakers and Cahiers writers such as yourself, Jacques Rozier, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Jean-Daniel Pollet.

MOULLET: My films have less success than those of Godard and Truffaut because I do not have their genius. I was a follower to them, a groupie, a fan. And all those who came after the Big Five of the New Wave had great difficulties during their—I mean Hanoun, Pollet, me, Eustache, Vecchiali, Straub, Rozier, Garrel. The audience had enough with the Big Five. We came too late, some months after, but it was too late.

NOTEBOOK: To my knowledge, unlike many of your Cahiers critic-filmmaker colleagues you still remain active as a critic. How do you see your criticism changing since your earlier days? Do you see a difference between the way you worked as a critic-filmmaker during the first years of your career as a moviemaker and now?

MOULLET: To write an article about a film and to do a documentary, that’s the same work—we show a reality that does exist, a film, a factory, a town. I took the same pleasure in writing the book about Vidor’s The Fountainhead and in shooting a film about Des Moiners, The Belly of America. What difference between my film criticism of 1956 and that of today? Difficult to say. I saw more films during those years. I am less interested in giving a shock to my audience. My analysis is more precise—I presume—and I am more fair with the films. Now I try to find the truth while writing my texts, and I no more try to impose a truth, a message before writing an article. The first years in criticism, we often to tried to impose aggressive judgments. After, all that is over.

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