At this year’s edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Gaëlle Rouard’s Darkness, Darkness Burning Bright premiered in a highly compromised form. Because the decision to move the festival’s offerings online was so last minute, Rouard, a French moving image artist based near Grenoble, did not have enough time to have the film scanned, and thus it was shown as a digital camera recording of the projection. Though difficult to watch in this form, it suggested the reward that would come from seeing the film properly.
Rouard’s process relies on chemical experimentation as a key element of her own cinematographic approach. Where earlier (and shorter) works employed found footage, others suggest found footage through found sound, though the images are originals—and sometimes heavily chemically processed ones. Likewise, Darkness, Darkness Burning Bright is composed entirely of original footage and is her first feature-length film, presented as a diptych with two subtitles: Prelude and Oraison, which means “prayer.” Opening on a black screen set to dramatic percussion, the film steps through movements of pastoral unreality. Still images of Darkness offer no hint of the film’s peculiar and varied tone. Rouard’s visual effects blend split screens of static images with moving ones, and grant an alien luminosity to the natural world. Flora and fauna are rendered as celestial objects resting in deep space. Oblique mattes and masks meld divergent organic clusters into single compositions while the found sound oscillates between supporting ambience, pronounced narrative emphasis, and near silence.
I sat down with Rouard for a conversation about Darkness the day after it screened on the only existing print for an audience at Fracto Experimental Film Encounter in Berlin. As information about Rouard’s filmography online is scattershot (several of her earlier films are available on Vimeo), and she had not yet been interviewed about her work, I began by clarifying a few details of her career. She was keen to discuss her process, while remaining careful to leave creative interpretation up to viewers.
NOTEBOOK: Is 2011’s Unter your first film?
GAËLLE ROUARD: Unter is the first film after the moment when I quit the MTK [film lab] collective. Before that, I used to work with other people, especially with [the performance-based filmmaker] Étienne Caire, a.k.a. Riojim.
NOTEBOOK: You co-founded MTK together?
ROUARD: Xavier Quérel and Christophe Auger from Metamkine founded MTK and I joined them a while after with Étienne Caire, among other people. Then we worked as a duo, running MTK and making performances for years. Lafoxe was the duo with Étienne Caire. Levox was a trio with Étienne and ErikM as musicians. During these years I only made images for performance, because it wasn’t films, it was just improvisation, with multiple projectors. Unter was the first film after the separation with Étienne.
NOTEBOOK: The first solo album.
ROUARD: Yes. The start of the solo career.
NOTEBOOK: When you stepped away from the MTK collective to work on your own films, did you leave the lab completely?
ROUARD: Yes. It has to do with a personal affair because I was running MTK with Étienne Caire, but we were also a couple. Then our relationship ended and after we realized we had to separate everything. So I quit MTK, and I started a personal lab in my house. I stopped the collective as well. Now it’s really my own personal lab. I don’t share it. It took me a while but now I’m fine with it. It’s like my artist atelier, not a collective place. I couldn’t share it anymore.
NOTEBOOK: With Unter, like your previous improvisations, were you again working with found footage?
ROUARD: I used to work a lot with found footage, yes. All that period was only found footage.
NOTEBOOK: But in Unter, for example, it’s a mix of found footage and original material?
ROUARD: Yes, it’s the fondu enchainé [dissolve] from found footage to my own images. It has both. M…H (2016) is only my images. In Les noces rompue (2014) [formerly known as Untitled], you still have a little bit of found footage, but very few parts. And then Zooscopie (2012) is only my images.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting because with all of the sampled Macbeth sounds used in M…H, I thought for sure that there must be some processed images from Macbeth films.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me something about the origin of the way you work with sound? It’s so different from a lot of what I see in experimental film, which is often silence or one sound effect. Your sound is so varied and plays with both music and silence alongside the general atmosphere…
ROUARD: Right, I think I’ve been fed by musique concrète. And some seances of cinéma pour l’oreille [cinema for the ear]. Those are only electro-acoustic pieces in the dark. I heard a lot of these pieces and was very much influenced by them. I agree with you, most of the time I think that sound is the “poor parent” of experimental films, or even films in general. It’s like the third wheel. But I think it’s as important as the image. Even more so, because the sound gives you intention, gives you the sense of lecture [reading] of the image. So I pay very close attention to sound. I like to work on the plastic of the image, but also the plastic of the sound itself.
NOTEBOOK: It almost feels like the soundtrack is guiding the film, as if the music is in “scenes” and the images just follow their lead.
ROUARD: Yes, in Darkness it’s sort of in “blocks.” I wanted the sound to last a long time without a change, for example with the bells. I didn’t want to edit in sync with the image. So the images can follow their own path—it’s like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
NOTEBOOK: Did you make the image first for Darkness?
NOTEBOOK: And you said you spent three years on the images of the film, and then nine months on the sound?
ROUARD: Yes, more or less…but during all that time, when I made the images, I knew what kind of sound I wanted, and started to record and started to collect, and made a library, but didn’t touch the editing for all that time. Then when I felt like I was ready to edit the film I started to edit the sound. At that moment I had a lot of footage. A lot.
NOTEBOOK: When you were making the soundtrack, were you also composing music or just sampling?
ROUARD: No, I’m sampling. But it’s a very complex edit, even if it’s not obvious.
NOTEBOOK: Is chemically processing the image a part of the editing process for you, or does it happen right after you film?
ROUARD: It’s a starting point, it comes very early in the process. I work [like] a painter, to me it’s the most important part of the fabrication of the image. So I spend a lot of time making tests—trying different developers in different temperatures, in order to get a specific kind of blue, and deep darkness and so on. This is the main work.
NOTEBOOK: But you don’t use an actual paintbrush on the filmstrip at all, right?
ROUARD: No, it’s all chemicals.
NOTEBOOK: How did you come to the ideas of having two floating planes of imagery side by side—when one image is used as a sort of background for a second, and each layer moves independently?
ROUARD: It’s a path. It started with Unter: I started to use some superimpositions, but in separate parts of the image, rather than overlapping images. And then with Les noces rompue, I also used that kind of trick with a little more complexity. In Darkness that was the thing I wanted to work on. I felt like that this kind of superimposition had a lot to offer as a technique.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a bit about your performance of the projection? Specifically for Darkness, since it’s the only one I’ve seen performed. I tried not to look back at the projector too much, so some things were more obvious—I could see that you were changing the focus?
NOTEBOOK: It was clear when the film stopped: you did a freeze frame on the horse, but aside from those, it’s a very subtle performance, not something I would usually associate with this word.
ROUARD: Yes, it’s not supposed to be announced as a performance at all. In this particular case, Fracto wanted to call it that but it’s not a performance. I stopped the image just to adapt, to wait for the soundtrack, because the sound is on a digital file. It depends on the venue, but sometimes the projector goes faster than the sound, so I need to wait. Otherwise I lose synchronicity. I had to change the focus because I had different types of film stock, so the focus was slightly different and changed during the film. But this is not a performance. With my previous movies, I act on the film: I stop the projector, but completely; I use different lenses in front of the lens, just to break the frame.
NOTEBOOK: Prisms as well?
ROUARD: Prisms, also anamorphic lenses, to make the image “scope,” but only the bottom half. These kinds of actions. But I felt like for Darkness I didn’t need to act in the projection process, the film was enough as itself.
NOTEBOOK: Still, I get the sense that if the film is being shown, you have to be the one to project it.
ROUARD: Yes, because the way I work is that the image you see is the original, I don’t use a negative. So it comes directly from the camera of the optical printer. And if it scratches, it’s scratched forever. So I’m the only one who takes the responsibility to project it. On my own projector. For the moment that’s how it is. Since I can’t make a spare print.
NOTEBOOK: How come? Because of the cost?
ROUARD: Because of the cost, but also because of the lack of quality.
NOTEBOOK: Quality of reproducing the effects?
ROUARD: Yes, because even if it’s a good reproduction, you will increase the contrast and the color will change slightly, which I don’t like. But for [Darkness], since I’m not acting on it, I made a scan, and I would like to make a 35mm print from that scan. If I can raise enough money, which I will try to do.
NOTEBOOK: Is the photochemical processing as important as the shooting for you or more important?
ROUARD: More important, because I have the idea of how I will process in mind while I’m shooting. It’s how I process. I call it the trinity: the quality of the light, the nature of the film stock, and the way of processing the film. The combination of these three things will make the image. I consider myself a plastician, a painter. It’s a palette. With the experience of these years, I am now capable of controlling the palette. For the first ten or fifteen years, I liked to follow the accidents. Because when you process you have a lot of accidents. Sometimes some strange thing appears that you like—“wow, what’s that?”—and you try to reproduce it, and you follow the path. It’s the material that commands the process. But now I wanted to inverse the situation. I wanted to be in control. Still, of course, I have a lot of disappointments, and also some good surprises, but I try to be the chief.
NOTEBOOK: I understand that you live a pretty remote life, is that right?
ROUARD: Yes, I’m very isolated. It’s just me, my boyfriend, and some cats. The house is isolated, and it helps me to have a deep concentration. Also to have a regular routine. It’s very helpful to me because nothing happens, so I can concentrate on my work.
NOTEBOOK: I know that often filmmakers don’t like to talk about influence, but are there any filmmakers that are close to your heart or important to your development?
ROUARD: Of course: Patrick Bokanowski.
NOTEBOOK: You also appear in one of his films, Battement Solaire.
ROUARD: Yes, a few images. But his early movies—I saw it when I was very young—changed my life. That’s when I decided I wanted to make experimental films. It was Déjeuner du matin or La Femme qui se poudre, his early shorts. And also L’ange, of course. It’s so intense. Another film very close to my heart is The Color of Pomegranates from Sergei Parajanov, which I think is very beautiful. And I can say another one that I really love is The Music Room by Satyajit Ray. My other influences over the last decade are mostly from painters, the old masters. I am deeply touched by Rembrandt, all the Dutch masters. There are so many, the names are slipping away. The whole history of art up to impressionism. Very classical taste.