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Bastions of Love: A Conversation with Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel

After several acclaimed shorts, the French directors make a feature debut about a gang founded on the rehabilitating power of platonic love.
Kurt Walker
“Every poem against the police is also and always a guardian of love for the world.”
—Anne Boyer
In the first images of Jessica Forever we find the titular eternal hero on a rooftop under a tender pink sunrise, briefly followed by a startling shot of a young man jumping through a glass door. This swing in tonalities offers a most apt distillation to this special movie's many moods, textures, and the pulse of its constructed world. Yet this world may prove not be a construct in the least—Jessica, realized with calming warmth and secrecy by Aomi Muyock (Love), has taken it upon herself to rescue and rehabilitate "Orphans"—young men who have done horrible things, in many cases beyond their control. Jessica's methods? She showers them with measured yet rapturous platonic love. The Orphans are in turn hunted by the government ("Special Forces"), whom appear solely in a mass formation of drones akin to the sentinels from The Matrix. In the name of closing all distance between gaze and character, Jessica Forever is rich with this kind of intertextuality—not reference points—as its very fabric and identity is commingled with its vast ensemble. These men likely previously escaped into video games to flee from modernity, yet under Jessica's healing wing they are able to reconcile their avatars with their restored sense of self. Jessica and the Orphans eventually retreat to a domesticated island to set up their own outer heaven, wherein the diegesis of the film pleasantly morphs into a hang-out movie of friendship, play, love, and violence.
An admittedly risky treatise on redemption, directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel, avoiding any and all psychoanalytic reductions of their characters, instead opt to conjure an audio-visual space wherein we are beckoned with the highest of moral tasks: negotiating the borders of mental health and violence. To which the film provides no hand-holding, instead offering a profound, impelling trust in its viewer—and a doubtless patience in the Orphans. Within its gorgeous low budget science-fiction canvas, Jessica Forever valiantly offers a necessary polemic, or poem, to our lost world.
We spoke with the two directors at the Toronto International Film Festival at the world premiere of their feature debut.

NOTEBOOK: This is one of the first contemporary science fiction films I’ve seen that is seriously concerned with mental health. I’m wondering if that was an impetus for the project, or, in general, what the genesis of your film was.
JONATHAN VINEL: It’s surprising because this is the first time that we’ve seen our film called a sci-fi movie here in Toronto. We didn’t really think of that at the time; we were trying to create a movie that was set in present time but in a sort of parallel world. We wanted to create a sort of legend or a mythology, and so we weren't really thinking about sci-fi, which has its own set of rules that we didn't need to take into account when making the film. It's also the first time, right now, that we hear and are talking about mental health. With violence as a sort of disease, first of all, and also that these kids didn't have a desire to hurt anyone for the sake of it, it was something they couldn't help but do, and that’s the tragedy of the story… so the notion of treating it as a mental health issue is accurate.
NOTEBOOK: Would you rather the film not be deemed as science fiction then? Do you think it’s beyond genre conventions?
CAROLINE POGGI: The notion of calling it a sci-fi film creates an expectation, so many people who went to the movie hoping to see sci-fi were disappointed because they were expecting something that was of that fast pace, and had a lot of action—and this film is actually quite slow and atmospheric. So to call it sci-fi doesn’t bother me, but because it creates an expectation that isn’t accurate, especially with regards to the narrative arc or the script.
NOTEBOOK: It seems to me that video games are an important element within the fabric of your work—including this feature and many of your shorts preceding Jessica Forever. What are your personal and artistic relationships with this medium?
VINEL: So, we obviously played video games a ton while we were growing up, and sure, we went to film school, but it was playing video games that gave us a desire to tell stories through film. There's also the notion of wandering in a video game world that is something that feels somehow sacred, as there are fewer limitations—it's more accessible and gives us a lot of freedom in storytelling as we’re not bound by the rules of psychology or creating tension through jealousy, or even dialogue. So we were able to wander in our writing just like we do when we play video games, and it really allows us to explore the world that we created. And also, the way that we shot the film was very digital: we used many of the features of the cameras to lend a kind-of hyperreal feeling to everything so that it was not so dissimilar to the digital images of video games.
POGGI: We also wanted to look at our characters, if you think of someone as a fighter or a street gang, and we wanted to re-evaluate how this character in a video game thinks, beyond, for example, what are the other aspects of their personality, beyond the persona that they’ve been given. So, for example, if your character is a fighter, do they also write love letters in their free time? Will they go and pick flowers? It’s kind of a way for us to find these characters that we see in the television and see them as friends and go beyond the one archetype that they have.
NOTEBOOK: On that note, I have to ask, does your character Raiden derive from the character of Raiden in the game Metal Gear Solid 2?
VINEL: Yes.
Concept art for the landmark character of Raiden from Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, whose substitution of an iconic character upended many masculinist notions inherent in video games tenuous relationship with narrative storytelling.
NOTEBOOK: Your film, mirroring Jessica's own ambitions, also manifests a space to heal and cope with trauma. In the scene with the brother and sister, where they play video games and just cope with the past, video games seem to have a curative function in their lives...
POGGI: We didn't set out to make a film that was super violent, what we wanted to do was explore the beautiful side of the violence and also, the escape, which is what many of the characters are trying to do. So video games indeed become a kind of social function of healing, which when we play we forget, which isn’t like reading—when you read a book your mind can wander. I remember playing with my friends, and even though we’re not necessarily talking to each other, we were together and we were connecting through the video game, from us to the TV and back again. So there's still an exchange there, and maybe that was before online gaming. Even with online gaming, when you’re playing you find your friends in this virtual secret garden that you have together, and even when watching Twitch, for example, you feel like you’re seeing friends.
VINEL: We’ve noticed that there’s a trend in society that we condemn people as soon as they commit a horrible act, so we were trying to find a way to find an exit or find a place where there's hope where beauty can emerge even after a horrible event.
POGGI: So that’s what we were trying to do with our film, it’s a little bit ‘emo,’ but that’s the sentiment behind it.
NOTEBOOK: On that topic, I think this is also quietly a film about prisons and perhaps even proposes alternatives to the prison system. Do you believe Jessica’s political praxis of love can be, or is, applicable to the real world?
POGGI: Of course!
VINEL: We like to think of it more as something that comes before prison, you think that people who become violent… is it because they suffered from a lack of love, do you feel loved by your country or by your institutions? Do you feel rejected by the powers that be? By school, by your work? Does this rejection lead to gang violence, organized crime, etc.? It’s a remedy to this lack of love.
NOTEBOOK: Given that this is also becomes a kind of hangout movie, I can't help but wonder what the shoot was like...
POGGI: One thing that we try to do every time I make a film with Jonathan is that we’re trying to create a sense of family. And this notion of family is very important, both off-screen and on-screen, and with the people we work with, from actors to technicians, everybody becomes part of this chosen family that we built for ourselves, and it’s something that we’re exploring in film, in the worlds we create—how do you construct this family outside of the one you’re born with, but also in our lives?
NOTEBOOK: Given this, does your relationship with the cast and their personalities also perhaps inspire, embellish, or even reconfigure the film you had previously prepared prior to the shoot?
VINEL: Yes, of course. They have an impact… I’m thinking of Jean-Marie, who is a character you don’t see much on screen but he was a great connector on set. When you think of the relationships that existed between the boys and Jessica, in the story, it was also paralleled on-screen and off-screen. There were many equivalent scenes that took place at our hotel, for example, just hanging out in complete happiness.
POGGI: There are group scenes that you’ll see in the film that would have been exactly the same had you removed the camera. This connection that the boys had with Jessica was really the same on-screen and off. It could have failed, this was a stroke of luck with our casting because it could have gone in an entirely different direction… so I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s the interaction between the boys that affected the scenes, but it did impact the mood and maybe the emotions that came out while filming the scenes. That connection really did have an impact. For example, with the early assault scene in which a character dies, we really staged that live while shooting, so we had little pieces of paper with everyone’s name on it, and we were staging it because every character, or every actor, brought a different disposition—some of them had an military background, some of them were more enthusiastic about demonstrating that kind of scene. They all have a different set of experiences and the scene grew through the desire to embody these experiences.
NOTEBOOK: If we are to accept this as a science fiction film, I think science fiction typically personifies anxieties of the present and future. Is there something in your own home country that inspired this movie and its retreat from society?
VINEL: It’s not so much in France, but in the whole world there’s a standard lifestyle expectation that isn’t what everybody is looking for. So the violence in the world is not necessarily about violence with weapons, but this lifestyle—having to survive on low wages, having to work constantly, this endless cycle is not what people are looking for. That’s an anxiety that we think is felt by everyone.
POGGI: I think that people are becoming so individualized, or separate from one another. We have this disconnection from other people. As we become aware of this violence, and as we realize it, we can step away from that model and try and find ways to re-connect, and explore what it is to be a part of the world, and how can we create this family that allows us to be a part of the world we live in, and escape that feeling of disconnection. It's the most important thing.

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Caroline PoggiJonathan VinelInterviewsTIFFTIFF 2018Festival Coverage
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