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Faces: "L’Accademia delle muse" and José Luis Guerín

A discussion on and with the Spanish filmmaker of one of Locarno's most exhilarating new films.
The dust has settled on the Locarno Film Festival, and L’Accademia delle muse remains. Seen towards the start of the festival in the Signs of Life parallel sections, José Luis Guerín's latest film has already claimed a top spot in MUBI’s retrospective round-up of Locarno, which would make the task of praising it here redundant were it not for the need to explore in more detail the sheer exhilaration that thinking about the film continues to provoke.
Daniel Kasman has already touched upon the intricate game of cat-and-mouse that the film plays with documentary form. Starting out as a chronicle upon a philology workshop exploring the figure of the muse, the film quickly (but discreetly, the move only becoming obvious in retrospect) segues into a fiction exploring the network of desires and resentments underlying the teacher’s romantic involvement with his pupils. Debates surrounding literature and reading strategies slowly take on more personal undertones, literary analysis becomes a tool for making sense of relationships, and very soon the classroom gives way to the teacher’s car or home as the dominant setting. A discussion on traditional Italian shepherd songs gives rise to a field trip to record said songs in Sardinia (where a discussion with a shepherd provides that rarest of things, a true encounter) and before long, the teacher’s wife becomes a key figure, trying to reassert her position within a web of relations between the teacher and his female students over which she no longer has control.
Just as it quickly becomes clear that what started out as a documentary is not one at all (no literature teacher, however brilliant, can bed quite that many of his students), so it becomes evident that the focus of the conversations that make up the film is not so much in the theories the characters express but in the way that their interactions exceed all the theorizing they try and impose on them. Among the film’s greatest pleasures lies the sight of remarkably eloquent and charismatic (not to mention, in the case of the female students, strikingly beautiful) people not only engaging in intelligent conversation, but also listening to each other, giving each other the quietly intense consideration they demand for themselves. It is because the task of redefining their relations is always seen as a mutually emancipatory one, and not as a struggle for dominance, that we can take such joy in navigating their conflicting claims and their very obvious flaws without ever finding our affection for them diminished. And though many of the film’s greatest laughs come from the sight of these formidably erudite intellectuals hiding behind classical poetry to justify their sex drives, the laughter never comes at their expense, but as a laughter fostered by proximity. Guerín only lets us laugh because he also makes sure we are listening closely.
This sustained attention to both speech and the physical expression that exceeds it is part and parcel of Guerín's aesthetic strategy. More than perhaps any other recent film, L’Accademia delle muse is a drama of faces. And though such an expression inevitably calls to mind Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, Guerín (for whom the film’s immediate references lie with Lubitsch rather than Dreyer) tells the story not of a single woman tormented by multiple men, but of the patient attempt by multiple women to build relationships free from domination, both with the man at the center of their group and with each other. Mirroring this difference visually is the fact that the focus of the shot is in Guerín's film never the single human face reacting to off-screen space, but the presence within the frame of two characters entirely absorbed by each other. A virtual how-to manual on the different ways of visually organizing dialogue, with faces sometimes presented on the same plane and sometimes staggered through depth of field, the film thus becomes a succession of shared epiphanies (or conflicts), each scene presenting a couple immune to outside interference, dramatically self-sufficient until the dynamic set off by their encounter has fully played itself out. Not that off-screen space is completely absent: Guerín more often than not films his characters through window-panes and windshields, the reflection of the outside world, of the Barcelona skyline or the setting sun, being granted the same weight visually as the human faces behind it. But rather than a distancing device preventing our complete identification with the performers, or the intrusion of an outside world ready to impinge upon the storyline, the equal weight given to both elements enlarges the human face itself to the scale of a landscape, a site of aesthetic delight upon which to track the modulations of human passions. L’Accademia delle muse may be focused upon minute variations within tightly framed spaces, but make no mistake: Guerín has delivered one of the most expansive films of the year.
L’Accademia delle muse was screened to a full room as part of the Signs of Life section. Following the film, and before the screening of an unrelated short film by the director about the cathedral in La Rochelle, Guerín engaged in a lively Q&A session with the audience, to which my later interview makes a few references. The interview was held the next day at the Casorella, a late-16th century palazzo adorned with images of Dante and Machiavelli, all of which Guerín pointed to and commented upon immediately as he arrived. As we sat down, he answered all my questions in an accented, soft-spoken, and extremely precise French, taking his time to make sure his thoughts were being accurately transmitted.

NOTEBOOK: Let’s start with a classic question: how did the project begin? And how did it change from a documentary into something else?
JOSÉ LUIS GUERÍN: I knew Professor Rafael Pinto from his works on Dante; his books had been very important to me for my work on In the City of Sylvia, which is an adaptation of sorts of Dante’s Vita Nuova. One day he invited me to his Italian philology class and suggested that I film it. So for me, the project initially started out as an invitation to film this thing which I find completely crazy: an academy of muses, to save the world through involvement with poetry! But little by little, I worked on the dialogue with the students, with the professor, to figure out what could come out of this project. And the film was born as an experiment, without meaning to make it into a film.
This happens to me often. It’s precisely what these new technologies allow: to be like a writer who writes a few lines then puts them away in his desk somewhere, then takes them out a few months later and connects them to another idea… I made the film with a tiny camera, with no budget, without having to account for it to anyone: if something comes out of it, then I work on it, otherwise I forget about it and no one will resent me for it. This freedom to give it a try, to see if it’s possible at all to work on a character, drew me into making the film. But before reaching that conclusion, I thought that maybe the whole experience would yield a couple of shorts, or maybe an installation… The idea of making it into a film came very late, after I had already accumulated a lot of material. 
NOTEBOOK: With regards to working with actors on the characters: they more or less play themselves. During the Q&A session after the film, you mentioned Rouch; was it a similar experience, where you set a situation and they had to play themselves in that situation?
GUERÍN: I love Rouch’s films, but I don’t know exactly what his relationship to reality was, what distance there was between the characters in the film and the people who gave birth to those characters. I always call people in a film “characters.” They are not people, they are characters. Even when you’re working according to the logic of a documentary, the question is whether the characters you’ve created are adequate in relation to the people, but they are still a cinematic creation. Why show this person saying this sentence and not that one? Why film this given situation rather than that one? So many elements, choices that lead us to think about the creation of a cinematic character.
But in L’Accademia delle muse things are different: we created fictional characters from the outset. We staged a fiction, even though the emotions we were looking for were real. The emotions are real because they’re slices of life. They are real slices of life on camera, even though we’re working on fictional hypotheses. We create slices of life to capture real emotions on camera, but based on characters who do not reflect the filmed person’s real experience.
NOTEBOOK: So what happens in front of the camera is completely improvised? Or did the actors write their own dialogue? Did you first improvise and then develop scenes based on these improvisations?
GUERÍN: It wasn’t writing… It was another kind of writing. We would discuss the situation amongst ourselves. I like making a distinction between mise-en-scène and mise en situation, creating a situation. There are common elements with mise-en-scène, but it’s a different process. Sometimes I led, I initiated the situation, but in general it then became autonomous, took on a life of its own and I was the first astonished audience member to witness what was happening! I discover the film as I make it: that’s an idea that is very dear to me. I find the inspiration, or rather the need, for what I have to film in the process of filming it, and that process is always a conflict between control and chance. Patterns and characters appear, and at the editing table I notice that they have to be developed, or an idea has to be worked on further.
It all comes from alternating shooting and editing. They aren’t separate phases, they happen in turns: I shoot a little, work on the editing, maybe write a bit, shoot some more… And that way the film feeds off itself: what I got in one sequence is an inspiration for the next.
That’s why it’s a film that can only be made without a producer. I made the film on my own, with Professor Pinto and his community, and my sound person, and that’s it. No producer, no cinematographer. That’s why I could tell myself, if it becomes a film then great, but if not never mind, no one will suffer. 
NOTEBOOK: You said during the Q&A that you hoped no one would think that he film is a documentary; at the beginning, I did! But if it isn’t, does that mean it wasn’t shot chronologically? Did you work backwards at any point?
GUERÍN: Maybe during the editing process I changed a few moments around, but in general it’s a very linear evolution. But maybe it’s not so bad that people think it’s a documentary at first. I mentioned movements, emotions. Catherine, the woman who led the Q&A session, said that sometimes we see the motion of the characters’ thoughts, and that’s an idea that is very dear to me. I think that the most cinematic motion of all is that one, the motion of thought. Including the audience’s thoughts: the film is changing from the inside and the audience has to reorient, has to find its position with regards to the film: that bit is documentary, this one is fiction… That’s the motion in the audience’s head as they watch the film.
NOTEBOOK: Precisely. I don’t know if that’s the reason you did it, but at the beginning you have a lot of shots of the students listening to the lecture. For me, those shots really gave the impression of a documentary. Were those real classes, as they were given by Professor Pinto?
GUERÍN: The students I film are mostly the ones who will becomes important characters, it’s a way of introducing them. And yes, there are documentary techniques, it is a real university class. But at the same time, I know that Professor Pinto would never say what he does if I weren’t there: he’s using his students, but he’s talking for me! People often think that the camera is an evil presence in documentaries, because it has this predatory power. But I think it’s almost the contrary. The camera’s presence can be an extraordinary trigger for all sorts of situations.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s get back to this idea of filming the motions of thought: your film is shot entirely in close-ups. Was that a choice you made from the outset?
GUERÍN: Yes. On the one hand, it was necessary for economic reasons. I had a small camera and very few means, so I had no control over space, lighting… I like defining spaces (so that you know whether you’re at the university, in a café…) but the space is mostly mental, built from these reflections, these almost abstract images of the city’s movements. I decided that was the appropriate grammar for the film. Large spaces are expensive if you want to control them. I like my images to focus on the essentials: everything that is in the frame must be useful. So I tightened the image a lot in order to control that small space.
On the other hand, because my film is based on the confrontation of two faces. I drastically reduced the editing to concentrate on this: the confrontation of two faces, the mise-en-scène of speech… Is a silence needed after an utterance, or a reaction, or a gaze? All the different equations that happen between two people change the meanings of the dialogues. And I want to reduce my options to serve the dialogue. 
NOTEBOOK: You said during the Q&A that when you don’t have the necessary image, you put in a black screen. But there is one moment, when one of the students is explaining Daphne’s story to a little girl –
GUERÍN: – and the camera moves. That was an accident, and normally, when such an accident happens, I take it out and leave a black screen. I like black screens, because they give a breathing space to the visual narrative. But at that moment, the mother is telling her daughter about Daphne’s frantic escape through the woods, with Apollo running after her… So I found this accident, which shifted the camera towards the trees, organic, and I left it in.
I like the idea of not hiding a film’s industrial fragility. Actually, I’m worried by a lot of film students in my country, who are obsessed with a wrong-headed idea of technical perfection that leads nowhere: to images that look like advertising! I don’t want to hide this frailness. Bronze is beautiful, as long as it doesn’t try and imitate gold; Adolf Loos said that, about architecture: there are no noble and ignoble materials, only noble and ignoble uses of those materials. There is a nouveau riche cinema, which tries to look rich… 
NOTEBOOK: One sequence stands out very strongly: the ethnographic sequence, when they go and tape the shepherds singing…
GUERÍN: That was not planned. I had a close-up of this woman discussing with incredible passion the Sardinian shepherds’ songs, songs that glorified the mythical world of Arcadia. She spoke with such joy at transmitting the existence of this mythical Arcadia that as a director, I told myself, “We have to go!” It wasn’t planned at all.
So this is a truly ethnological section, truly documentary. It’s incredible, the way in which these shepherds improvise those poems on a mythical Greek world. These things really exist!

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