Katharina Kastner's Villa Empain, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing in MUBI's Brief Encounters series.
When I first entered Villa Empain, a museum of contemporary art in Brussels, I had a particular sensation, as if I witnessed a folding of times, as if the house would communicate its elusive inner life to me. The feeling grew stronger as I stepped into a room with an installation of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who had re-invoked the bedroom of the Villa’s creator, Louis Empain. There was an almost tangible intimacy, which I had never before felt in a public space. As I started to learn about the life of Louis Empain, who built the house at only 22 years of age in 1934, I was truly touched—for one, how this very young man was even capable of creating such a marvelous blend of two distinct architectural styles, Bauhaus and Art Deco. However, even more fascinating was to learn that once the house was completed, Louis himself realized that he had created a piece of art. It could never be a home. He tried for three years to inhabit it, but could not find a home within a total art concept. The fact that you would build something so beautiful and never live in it, struck a nerve with me and became the vantage point of my filmic exploration. Louis Empain stayed connected with his first creation throughout his life. The film touches upon both, the life of its creator and the Villa.
As I was wondering about how to begin shooting, I was reminded of a book by Milan Kundera, Immortality, in which a small gesture sparks an entire novel. The author describes an elderly woman taking swimming classes and flirting with her younger swimming instructor, and as she walks away from the pool, she loses her self-restraint, her hand rises as she turns around and waives back at him—a young woman’s gesture in an aging body prompts the author to explore a story of generations. Out of place, out of time, but totally authentic—a universal gesture that can be easily recognized as such by anyone, anyplace. Similarly, for me, it was the details of Villa Empain, which I found most intriguing, and it was the scars of former upheavals that resonated most with me. I made the conscious decision of focusing my attention on the smaller patterns, the barely visible scratches, the hidden traumas, studying the imprints on the house’s surface with the same awareness as you would explore the spectrum of expressions, the idiosyncrasies, the depth of character of someone you are about to fall in love with. Moving reluctantly from close-ups to wide angles, I tried to keep the full view of the space from the audience as long as possible. In doing so, the viewer is allowed to approach the Villa from its more vulnerable angles and darker corners. Since Villa Empain is easily one of the most recognizable buildings in Belgium, an iconic landmark, it was a challenge to avoid its obvious allure as a beautiful building as much as a historic site—without denying the audience the facts of its history, I didn’t want these facts to take center stage, I did not want words to give meaning that might be misconstrued or simply wrong. It was crucial to me to omit language until the very end of the film. The sound and visuals tell the story, the text in the end was the only concession to fact-driven narration. My impulse was to draw a mental map of a space.
Villa Empain tells the story of a space, which has lost its innocence and perfection, but has gained something else instead: character. Villa Empain’s atmosphere is strange and full of wonders. The camera touches gently upon textures as if to glimpse the moments they witnessed, to read the inner meaning of time. There is a secret to unveil, but as with every good secret it evades us, it is elusive, we can never grasp it. The entire film is the attempt to find out about something that we cannot put our fingers on. So we put our fingers on wood, water, marble instead.
The relief of one of Brussel’s most emblematic buildings is observed as closely as the coastline of Étretat, Normandy, in the attempt to lay bare layers of time. I am interested in the interplay of two forces, one as soft as water, and the other as tough and rigid as stone. Over time, where water touches upon stone, a landscape is shaped.
From the first day of shooting onwards, I knew the very first image for the audience to see would be fragments of Pierre Huyghe’s Cambrian Explosion 14. This film’s first image was the beginning of all things I set out to say in the film, it was water and stone, two wild elements drifting in the domestic terrain, close to explode and yet in perfect harmony, and this image to me was so complete, that for a long time I thought the film would end exactly there—it should be the last thing the viewers would see, the first and last image should rhyme." However, once we were shooting the cliffs in Étretat, and we were walking that beach, the film set itself free. I could see water and stone, again, and even the outline of a door within the chalk cliffs, within and across the layers of time. The folding of times was right there. It was right to leave the house in the end, and never to return.
I made the choice of shooting in this part of Normandy long before learning that Louis Empain and his family had actually spent summer vacations at exactly this coastline. Intuitively, I had made that choice.
There is only one visible human presence in the house. I felt that Tamar Kasparian was a kindred spirit who was doing something akin to my approach in a different medium: by taking imprints from floors and walls, all kinds of surfaces, Tamar draws every minuscule detail and crack, thus preserving it and laying the ground work for her own flow of consciousness. On silk-thin Japanese paper, she aims to preserve the microscopic imprints, collecting the very essence of all moments leading up this ephemeral moment in time, which we call presence. The feeble and fragile tools of paper and pencil were also used by Louis Empain, whose notebooks overflowing with photographs and dried flowers have withstood the passing of time in spite of, or maybe even because of, their vulnerability. Materials we deem ephemeral may last, while others we consider unbreakable, wither. The stone and marble halls of Villa Empain had almost crumbled before renovation. The challenge was, how to reveal this invisible trauma on a visual medium. Enter Tamar.
The film attempts to lay bare the layers of time on the one hand (chalk cliffs of Étretat), and human attempts to preserve time on the other (Louis Empain's films, photographs, dried flowers and writings), to preserve certain moments that for one reason or another have gained meaning for us and build upon them in our imagination.
The choice of shooting in 16mm was born from the belief and direct comparison of both digital and analogue footage that resulted in the re-assumption of analogue footage being more truthful to the villa’s character and aesthetics; more importantly, however, only a physical and tangible texture could be imprinted and written upon. Only analogue film provided the possibility of simultaneously recording the action of recording an action.
Just as the film closely examines Villa Empain’s layers and surfaces, it will show the world through Louis Empain’s own eyes, including some of his Super 8 footage. My editor Olivia and I selected 3 different scenes from overall one hour of Louis Empain’s private archive. The first scene shows children playing in the woods, very idyllic and at the same we do not see their faces, only hear their voices and cracking of woods. The fact that we cannot see much in the dark space creates a tension while at the same time citing an archetypical, relatable childhood memory. The second scene shows the family in a small village in Switzerland, and depicts Louis Empain’s attempt to film the church tower. In his notes, he describes his two attempts to cover the belfry in a specific way. We wanted to capture this undertaking as an example for the difficulty of translating our vision onto celluloid. Finally, the last scene, in which we see the children of Louis Empain running in slow motion down a meadow, hints at commercial aesthetics, but ultimately undermines them by the fall of one of the children.
Villa Empain compares the life of Louis Empain and that of the villa. Both are linked. Creator-work. A work cannot remain perfect, because time comes into play.
The film questions this relationship to time. Ultimately, the 'monument' disappears in favor of a living architecture. The work is activated.