Persecution may very well be Patrice Chéreau's most abrasive film. That's saying a lot. After the Cannes-ready provocations of Queen Margot, Chéreau directed Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, the film that introduced the stance he's held for the last decade: an abrasive humanism that abandons all pretensions of style or taste to unbendingly identify with unlikeable people. If we saint the Dardennes for their devotion to victims, we should saint Chéreau for his devotion to victimizers. Though his 2005 feature Gabrielle remains his masterpiece (if we apply that term to Chéreau, a director who makes "mastery" seem worthless), there's much to be said about Pesecution's story of an ordinary asshole (Romain Duris) who realizes he feels more comfortable around his pathetic stalker (Jean-Hugues Anglade) than his independent girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Besides directing, Chéreau has an enviable resume as an actor, having worked with Youssef Chahine, Andrzej Wajda, Michael Haneke, Raoul Ruiz and Michael Mann. A little over an hour before the North American premiere of Persecution, Chéreau met me in the lobby of his hotel. His lucid, calm way of speaking belies his origins as a theatre and opera director; he talks like a man who is used to months of discussions and rehearsals about minute elements.
NOTEBOOK: You started directing in theatre. There's a long tradition of that in cinema—even Griffith started in the theatre, and, as far as he believed, he never left it. There are countless others, and you can find many examples just in the American cinema. But what I wanted to ask you about is whether you think there such a thing as "directing." That is, is there just one activity by that name that applies to everything, or whether there is a "theatre directing," a "movie directing," an "opera directing"...
PATRICE CHÉREAU: I think it's like speaking two languages. You're still the same person; your thoughts are the same. I think, thank God, it's only one activity, because I would go crazy if it was three different activities—opera, theatre, cinema. It's only one. It's about directing, it's about telling stories, if it's about directing actors. Right now at the moment I'm rehearsing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and they are "singers" there, but they're also actors. I think we're doing the same job.
NOTEBOOK: What are you working on at the Met?
CHÉREAU: It's a beautiful opera called From the House of the Dead by Janáček. It's based on the book by Dostoevsky about prison...So, I think it's the same. With another language, with other rules, with other means, but essentially the same. You organize an image, or you organize a space. When it's an image—when it's a frame in the cinema—you're showing a face or a glance or people or bodies, it's still organized in the space. With all of this organization, you tell a story. You talk about the world, about fights, about friendship, but it's the same.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think of the image as being like a stage?
CHÉREAU: I don't. The stage is something very peculiar. The screen is something totally different. My job, directing, what I say to the actors, is the same. I use the same tools, working with actors, trying to help them with their job. But the means are totally different, because the stage is a strange space, totally strange. An auditorium can be the same sometimes, but a stage — totally not. The stage is a space, and it's a very strange and difficult space to occupy, to inhabit. The stage has volume, and the screen is flat. On a stage you have problems to solve, like how to enter or leave the stage. Such a problem you don't have in films, because we can cut. We also have problems with making "close-ups" on stage, for forcing all of the spectators to look in the same directions. In a film, we decide on the frame we want to show. I show you what is in the frame. Not showing you — that's the choice that comes with the screen. They're two different languages.
NOTEBOOK: I really admire your previous film, Gabrielle. It's my favorite of your films. What I feel really comes to the forefront in that film, and which to me is sort of the definition of your style, is a sort of crisis. You use very "jarring" editing. There are transitions from color to black & white and very strong images following each other in rapid succession. There's even a quality to your dialogue that's very jarring. People rarely support each other. When someone says "I love you," people rarely say "I love you" back and mean it.
CHÉREAU: Well, it doesn't happen even in real life. It's very rare. Maybe the first moment of a relationship you might say "I love you" and the other person says "I love you." And then you have to talk. The dialogue, for me, is something that hides the meaning of the people. It doesn't open them up. It's something to conceal what they want to say or explain. You try to defend yourself. To talk with somebody else is difficult; we know that, each and every one of us. It's a fight. You have to find a balance between what it said and what you want to say. It's difficult, and I try to describe the difficulty of talking—which is not, as we're often lead to believe, the easiest thing in the world. Particularly in a love relationship. At one point the moment where it's difficult to talk arrives, and then it becomes more difficult, and then arrives the moment, as in Gabrielle, where you don't talk at all.
NOTEBOOK: A lot of your films are set at that moment. Certainly Son frère.
CHÉREAU: At one point you reach the point where the relationship is finished. You can no longer talk. You need a lot of courage to admit it. The words become difficult. I don't know—it's something that's always interested me. About the editing—I don't know, because I think I try... Well, in my previous films—10, 20 years ago—I tried to follow the rules of "film language." Make a master shot, then a close-up. To learn the usual grammar of the cinema. But it wasn't me; it wasn't my style. Suddenly, with Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, I finally found my own way. I thought, "I don't care what people think. I'll make the images I want, and edit as I want." The only law is to follow the actors. The camera has to be with the actors, and it has to be my point of view. People ask, "What point of view is this shot from? Which character?" I say, "From mine." If I identify with someone, like Daniel in Persecution, I wish to explain the character.
NOTEBOOK: A sort of sympathy through the camera.
CHÉREAU: A director should love all of his characters. Even if the character is a murderer or a monster, you have to love them. You have to accept them, and try to understand how they managed to do what they've done. Try to understand. You should ask yourself: "Why is it like that? Why does this relationship seem so impossible? Why does he fuck up everything?"
NOTEBOOK: Is that the way you'd want actors to approach characters?
CHÉREAU: To play a role, you should love it. You should understand or you should find an echo in yourself of the problem the character has. Sometimes it's hidden; you will find it in the worst places of yourself, in the thing you hate about yourself.
NOTEBOOK: Sometimes your characters are difficult people. They're not instantly likeable, or, if they are, we're eventually shown something that's wrong with them. That might be true of people in general, that we all have our faults that others have to overcome. There might be a moral or human imperative in engaging with the world with that mindset.
CHÉREAU: The main character in Persecution is really difficult. You can find him totally unsympathetic. But then, at the end, you must save him. You must love him. But I could understand if people said that he was awful. I could understand that. I have to be open to a wide range of reactions.
NOTEBOOK: Your opera productions from the '70s were controversial at the time for their stagings...
CHÉREAU: Yes, but, in opera, when you make a chair differently from the way it's been in other productions, they start screaming. They say it's so controversial, so provocative, but really...
NOTEBOOK: Yes, they don't sound very provocative. Maybe at the time. You set some Wagners in the 19th century...
CHÉREAU: Yes, yes, and, it wasn't that provocative...
NOTEBOOK: ...now directors set Wagner in the future, in space, and it's no problem...
CHÉREAU: ...exactly. But now I'm used to having a lot of points of view about my films. A lot of people say they hate and find it totally irrelevant. I'm getting used to it. About this film, I've heard it already in Paris.
NOTEBOOK: If everyone had a consensus opinion on your work, would you feel differently about it?
CHÉREAU: Of course I'd love to make a career that way. I think it was Robert Altman who said that, every film he made, he would think, three days before the release, that it was the best film he'd ever made. That it was a real triumph. And often the triumph didn't happen. I am in that position. You finish a film, and you think, "this is the one!" But it's not the case. So, probably, a part of me wants to have a huge career with a lot of films and a lot of spectators, a big audience. But I'm happy making films. The thing I know, ten years later, people who didn't like my films love them suddenly. People still talk to me about Queen Margot or Intimacy or Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train.
NOTEBOOK: I have to admit that my feelings about your films have changed. I wasn't a fan at first.
CHÉREAU: It's good that people don't forget. I think it's better than having instant success and then being forgotten. And I'm happy with the audience I have—even here, where it's small. Apparently it's impossible for me to make films different from the ones I'm making. So what can I do? I must carry on.