After a series of celebrated short films and his fiction debut Mercuriales (2014), French filmmaker Virgil Vernier has brought his sophomore feature Sophia Antipolis to Locarno’s wonderfully-titled “Filmmakers of the Present” section. A psycho-geographical, state-of-the-nation survey that centers solely on the eponymous, strange and tacky business park, Vernier’s film—shot on gorgeously grainy 16mm film—moves with the momentum and anxious ambiguity of a chain letter, from character to character and detour to detour. During this fourth week of August, some of Sophia Antipolis’s permanent residents seek spiritual salvation, and others seek vigilante justice. All remain desperate, and deeply dissatisfied. I spoke with Vernier to break down the irregular rapport of his beguiling and often elusive Sophia Antipolis—a film of speculative spontaneous combustions that at the same time feels highly modern and mythological, and, in its boucler la boucle, both begins and ends with the inexplicable.
NOTEBOOK: Sophia Antipolis is a technology park, not a town—what was your relationship with this area? Why did you decide to make this film, Sophia Antipolis?
VIRGIL VERNIER: I used to go there when I was a child, because my grandmother had a hotel next to Sophia Antipolis. So, every year, I’d go on holidays next to there, and it made me think, at the time, of an ancient Greek city, or perhaps a city of the future. And then, as an adult, I’d think again about this place—and I’d think to myself that it was a good place to set up some kind of a strange film.
NOTEBOOK: I'm interested in your film's structure— though it can be said that the film is divided into two, its first section introducing the audience to a local cult, and the second, to a militia, while the audience is watching the film it may more resemble a series of short stories, or vignettes. Characters enter the film, and leave, and for the most part do not return. Why was this your approach?
VERNIER: For me, in a way it’s divided into parts but it’s mostly a fragmentary approach—there is a first part that takes place in a plastic surgery clinic, then we go to a part with the Filipino-Vietnamese woman and then, you’re right, it goes a strange cult—but this part of the film is not really about this. It’s about two women meeting each other. So the film is not really separated into two parts. Even at the end of the film we spend a lot of time with the girl who is a friend of the girl who has disappeared, who gives the name for the film, Sophia.
NOTEBOOK: It strikes me that your film breaks away from traditional linear storytelling. Gratification is delayed, and often what the audience witnesses is only explained well after the fact. For the audience, it may be hard to know exactly what’s happening. Often it’s only told to us after it has already happened. For example, when we learn of the Filipino-Vietnamese woman who sometime takes care of her late husband’s son, and she takes him to laser tag—this is a scene the audience sees early on but we are only told about these people afterwards.
VERNIER: I like the fact that in the film you don’t understand everything in the moment. At first you perceive everything from an exterior point of view, from a distance, and you make your own fiction, your own narrative about that. And then you have new materials to create your own story. I’m interested in the film as a big puzzle, where there is something missing. Then you create your own story, there is no truth. There is not only one truth, there is different truths you can create with all the pieces of the puzzle.
NOTEBOOK: Some of the characters in the film, like a woman in the cult and the militia group that we see training and patrolling, seem to think that the end of the world is coming, they seem to be in need of help. Can you tell me why there is this tone in your film—that there may be an apocalypse?
VERNIER: It’s just a feeling I have. A lot of strange things are a sign of what the Bible might sometimes say, or some cult might say, or something you might read on the Internet. This sign, for me, is just a symbol of God, a symbol of something that’s usually very friendly, but can feel like a monster too. Like a dragon that would try and burn everything. So when you’re in a so-called friendly place—which is the French Riviera—and you’re not so happy in your life, everything seems unfriendly. It seems like the end of the world.
NOTEBOOK: I'd like to ask about the final question your film raises—about the mysterious death of a young girl for which no one is able to provide a concrete answer. Elsewhere in the film gratification may be delayed, but the ending here seems purposefully inconclusive. We learn her name is Sophia, and her death here seems to be something symbolic. What might her death be representative of?
VERNIER: I think of her death as something coming from the Middle Ages. It’s like things have not changed since the time of witches—where there are women we are afraid of, and we burn them to get rid of them. And it’s like Joan of Arc too. For me, this girl is a symbol of today. It’s a symbol that never changes.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think this is something symbolic of town of Sophia Antipolis, of the country of France, or maybe of absolutely everything? That there is no justice.
VERNIER: I’d like it to be “everything.” At the same time, she is all of the injustice, women who are oppressed by strong and rich men who rule the world. At the same time, we’re in the town of Sophia, they have the same name and it’s on purpose, of course. That place used to be just a forest by the sea, and then capitalism creates business, a Silicon Valley, to make so-called “progress” for the future. But it destroys everything. So, I would like to start fresh. We can burn everything so that we can start a new country after that. So, I want the apocalypse, in a way.
NOTEBOOK: Could you describe your process shooting the film, and working with this large cast of actors? It strikes me that your film deals with subject matter that is quite ugly—the characters here seem to be experiencing some kind of desperation, and they seek self-help, self-improvement, salvation. In spite of this, your film is visually beautiful.
VERNIER: I tried to create an alchemy, to transform something from the dirt to the Gods. I wanted to shoot the film in 16mm, to help me create this beauty from something very trivial, very sad and ugly. To create a mix, something magical, something bigger and with a beautiful light. Even with 16mm I can transform the sun into something very powerful, very mystic. And the sun can burn the frame, and the film, at its end.