Les amants de "Low Life": A Talk with Nicolas Klotz & Elisabeth Perceval

A discussion with the co-directors of _Low Life_, a poignant story of young people loving against the law in modern France.
Aaron Cutler

Above: Elisabeth Perceval and Nicolas Klotz. Photograph by Michael Ackerman.

“I am Ophelia. She who the river could not hold.” These words, taken from Heinrich Müller’s play Hamletmachine, are spoken by a girl playing an actress at the start of the beautiful new film Low Life, screening Sunday and Wednesday as part of Lincoln Center’s series Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. She is one of a group of young people who gather together in the streets and in their rooms at night, quoting and making plays, films, novels, and songs in an effort to choose their own identities, and to resist identities imposed on them by the State. The binaries of native/immigrant, legal/illegal, and natural/unnatural come into relief in particular through the love story of Carmen (Camille Rutherford), born in Lyon, and Hussain (Arash Naiman), an Afghan poet threatened with deportation. When together they’re quiet; when the law intrudes on their love, the film explodes.

“It’s not nostalgia. For me film is a fight,” says Nicolas Klotz, one of Low Life’s co-directors, in his daughter Héléna’s 2008 documentary Les amants cinéma. The other lover, also Héléna’s mother and Low Life’s co-director, is Elisabeth Perceval. (Their son Ulysse Klotz also composed the score for both films.) The pair has often collaborated before, with Perceval writing and Klotz photographing and directing, and here offer a joint protest against France’s harsh immigration laws.

They explained how they worked together at last fall’s São Paulo International Film Festival. Klotz spoke in English, Perceval in French with Klotz translating her answers. Thanks to Mariana Shellard for transcribing, and for inspiring.

NOTEBOOK: You gave your lead actors They Live by Night and You Only Live Once to watch. Why those two films?

NICOLAS KLOTZ: We won’t have the same answer, but that’s all right, because that’s how we work. We often say two different things to the actors—not two different things that are contradictory, but because we are searching for something that is not one thing, but how Elizabeth gets towards what she’s looking for, how I get toward what I’m looking for, and how we’re working with that together. Camille is just out of a theater school and Arash is just out of a cinema school. Young actresses and young directors today are mostly looking at what’s getting out in the cinema today. When we show them a Nick Ray, Fritz Lang, or Borzage film, it’s not for cinephilic reasons, it’s just for them to see how people were acting in those films, what’s on their faces, and it’s to give them quickly the feeling that we’re not going to do a film that is like how people are doing films today generally. That we are looking for something that is more purely seen in those films. The subjects of those two films and the sentiments going through them inspired us for things we were looking for in Low Life.

ELISABETH PERCEVAL: We give films to the actors, but also poems and books. I don’t like to explain the characters as if they were something finished. Defining a character through psychology doesn’t interest me at all, and I don’t want them or anyone to know everything about a character. I give them these films so that they can experience something intimate, as a person, which will echo from the inside with their character. The actors work their own paths with the character and I ask them to stay secret about it. In each person, different “forces” clash, or get together, or oppose themselves. Her work had more to do with these “champ de forces” than with constructing a character.

NOTEBOOK: When you say “her,” are you talking about—?

KLOTZ: Camille, the lead actress.

PERCEVAL: But it’s for each, a lot of the characters.

KLOTZ: At one point, when we were working in the apartment for the second part of the film, when we started getting into the more intimate scenes concerning her and Hussain, I showed Tourneur’s Cat People to Camille, because of metamorphoses happening in Simone Simon’s character, who could be a kind of sister to Carmen. Like when the woman in the restaurant in Tourneur’s film recognizes Simone Simon as a “sister.” It’s like listening to a record, or looking at a painting. I watch how these things change Camille’s face, how it deepens her own relation to acting.     

PERCEVAL: When an actor asks me questions about his character—does he feel this or this?  why does he do this?—I will tell him that I don’t have any answers, that he is the one who knows…

NOTEBOOK: It is a common theater practice to give the actor texts, or encourage them to find their own texts, to help build a character. But I also wonder if it is something that young people do naturally anyway—communicating with each other through texts, through works of art. Not because they lack experience, but because those texts are such key parts of their experience.

PERCEVAL: It is absolutely true. We just naturally developed the way young people always exchange signs of recognition between them; developing their own ways of meeting other people and putting things together. It creates a sort of community a year before we start shooting. A community in which the film will take place, with its own sensitivity, desires, enthusiasms, angers, despair… The discussions they have around the films, books, and music are nice ways for them to get closer to each other. We always work this way in our films, which comes from our experience in the theater.

KLOTZ: I think that this is a very important thing between generations, it is not about transmission. It is not about saying that our generation knows things that they don’t know and we are transmitting something so that they can learn something, because we are not at all in that kind of relation with them. Cinema is really a way of meeting other people. It is very intimate very quickly, and it creates some kind of very intimate relation with people, while having also the necessary distance to be intimate. That’s what’s great about cinephilia, how people are engaging themselves in defending this film or in speaking about this character in this film. It is very Romanesque in some way, like all of a sudden something’s happening between us that is also happening in film, and we’re knowing it, and we’re acknowledging it, and we’re knowing that that’s something art is really, really about.

PERCEVAL: The reason why They Live by Night and You Only Live Once seemed important for Carmen is because in both films the heroes are simple people. They are small people in life, but the sentiments that they are living during the film are like those of tragic heroes. Engaging themselves “à la vie, à la mort” in their love affairs. So you don’t have to act as Medea or as Antigone to express very strong sentiments that overwhelm you. I am thinking of Charlie Chaplin going through epic adventures. But also like Monika in Bergman’s film, who appeared as totally new in cinema.

NOTEBOOK: A problem that you often have with films about young people is that the distance is off—it either makes them out to be fools or takes them too seriously. I think that this film does a good job of taking these young people seriously while seeing them in context. For example, there is that moment towards the end when Carmen is with the police officer and she compares the French police to the Vichy police collaborating with Nazi Germany, and the police officer says, “Come on, this is a stupid comparison.” You respect both their positions. How important was striking this balance to you and how did you come up with how to show it?

KLOTZ: When I was filming that scene, I had the impression that Camille was just out of Murnau’s Sunrise and Hélène Fillières out of our 2007 film Heartbeat Detector. Two very different women. Most young women in France today would dream of being like Hélène, who is a police executive. A police executive who looks and acts like a private corporation executive: young, rich, powerful, and beautiful. A police executive who is like a hyper-capitalist icon. Facing her, Camille is like a silent movie icon, or even further back, like Antigone. The police officer is thinking like…“Girls like you really still exist? Haven’t you understood that modern capitalism doesn’t need people like you anymore?”

Along with the writing period, looking for actors is the most important moment of our work. I get into the film by filming actors as if it was documentary. I don’t film the way they act, but how I feel them as people. Charles (Luc Chessel) was the most difficult part to cast. We met a lot of actors. But he had to have naturally this dandy way of being. It was immediately apparent when we met him. I would say that the second I see someone walk into the office I know if it’s OK or not because it’s immediate presence that gives it. And I will be working with this presence on the set. When I met Camille, I knew I would find my way into the film by filming her. And it’s not something really that I can analyze, it has more to do with like when you have a painting and you know the colors for this or that and you want something in between or more radically this. It is the same way with actors—you work with three actors in a shot, each one is going to develop something and you’re gonna find what the whole thing is, what kind of sentiment everything is giving at the same time. And you know that these two actors together will bring something that won’t be the same at all as these other two actors together.

PERCEVAL: When I’m writing a character I’m not trying to write that Charles is an intellectual, that Carmen is very passionate, Hussain is a sans-papiers [slang for person without immigration papers], or Djamel (Michaël Evans) is an activist… What interests me is that a character stays complex because of what is fighting within him. And the characters will appear more or less luminous, more or less melancholic or desperate…ultimately, there is a force of revolt inside of them that they cannot control, that’s stronger than them. When Carmen is with the policewoman, she becomes Antigone in front of the authority. To defend her love, she transgresses law and order. Condemned because of her love for an illegal immigrant, she compares her situation to those of people who were arrested by the Vichy police. She makes this excessive connection because of the violence of the situation. Her words are words of revolt. She accuses today’s system of being as violent as yesterday’s. It is not a premeditated thought, it wasn’t in her mind before she said it. She says it because it’s happening in her. So we see in live time how the relation with time works inside her. All of a sudden something of the 1930s connects with 2012. It is not an intellectual construction, it is a very deep feeling, it’s not something from a book she read, it’s something like a survivance. There is a word I think that is interesting about the questions you’ve been asking us. Survivance is a word that has the energy of something out of the past bursting gently into the present. 

KLOTZ: Carmen is Spanish. Her family came to France during the Spanish Civil War. And something interesting about Lyon, the city that we filmed in, is the history of the French Resistance. The Spanish revolutionaries helped the young French people to organize themselves as a Resistance. FTP-MOI was the name of the organization. Lyon is also the European capital of black magic—we found that when we were writing the film. So this guided our way of filming the city. Trying to get that very special atmosphere into the film.

NOTEBOOK: At times it seems like a horror film. What are the specific immigration laws that the film refers to?

PERCEVAL: I’d like to speak generally first. What these laws are saying are for me a complete horror because they are telling immigrants who are living in France that their physical presence is forbidden. That for you, being alive as a human being in France is forbidden. Even if you haven’t done anything wrong, even if you are not a criminal—just get out of my sight, you don’t exist. That’s the beginning of the horror…

KLOTZ: I can give a precise example for the character of Julio (Winson Calixte). We worked in Lyon with a lawyer who is helping immigrants without papers, and she said that since Sarkozy became president, with the politics that they have been doing, the laws, asking the police to get quotas, everything has been accelerated and it is getting much more difficult for immigrant families. And they discovered new sicknesses through the children of these families, and one of these sicknesses that arrived with Sarkozy is narcolepsy. Children falling asleep because of their fear. And that was something that she was very anguished about. It is not something that was in the books or newspapers, it was something she heard many times in the families she was helping. Something in today’s air in France provokes it. Julio was arrested. He is a minor, he is 15, and he was arrested in the Metro. The police ask him his papers, so he gives his paper that specify that he is a minor, but they don’t believe that. If they can prove that he is 17, they can expel him. So they bring him to the hospital and they make bone tests with X-rays, and they look at his teeth and at his genitals. Which are the same things they were doing in the 30s. And they said that he was 17 and not 15. So from this moment he starts falling asleep. And it’s like, he said, as if the machines in the hospital went into his body and put a spell on him. That’s one of the many reasons for the voodoo that moves around the film. Getting the spell out of his papers. Julio takes the spell out of his papers by burning his papers. This is to tell you how very concrete laws and police methods make very concrete things happen in the fiction, generating form.

PERCEVAL: Hussain arrives in France to get away from Afghanistan, but it’s also because he is very interested in French poetry, language and literature. He wants to study in France because he is a poet and it helps him develop his own poetry, like globalization should allow young people to meet other cultures and to work together. And everything’s OK between him and the young people he meets, they are the same kind of people and they can communicate and put a lot of things together. But for the French government, finally, he is not allowed to construct any future. If he was a businessman he could, but as a poet? No way. As if poetry, in some way, would be more dangerous than business.

KLOTZ: The thing about the horror is also in Heartbeat Detector. All the film is working around technical notes that German engineers wrote in 1942 on how to make progress on the gas chamber trucks in Poland. If you don’t know they are talking about people, you just think it is a very technical thing about anything—stocks, numbers, liquids, merchandise. It’s something that is in Shoah that constructs that film. So it’s already about how a state power can, through administrative documents that are supposed to be very rational, create horror. The papers going through voodoo are the same kind. In the Antilles, voodoo was an arm against colonization in the 18th century.  It had a strong influence on the democratic birth of Haiti.  

PERCEVAL: It’s something that goes through all our films.

NOTEBOOK: And at the end of this film you show the paper burning.

KLOTZ: At the end of Low Life we show the paper burning and earth put on it. The whole film is about how to conjure this curse that is in today’s time. Instead of taking it in a politically frontal, very rational way, we wanted to find something else, because it’s something that is more than politics, or there is something in politics that is really more dangerous than just what you can formulate as politics. Because it has to do with History, with time, with ghosts, with death, with something that is repeating itself. Even if you know it, even if it is known as total danger, its nature is to repeat itself in other forms. Like what is said about vampires in Tod Browning’s Dracula: “The real power of vampires is that people don’t believe they exist.”

PERCEVAL: That scene where the immigrants are burning the papers is like bombs falling on cities or burning skin.

NOTEBOOK: I want to go back to the actors. How much was scripted and how much did you let the actors create?

PERCEVAL: At one point they know much more about the character then I do and they guide us through the film. I give them texts that I wrote, much more than what is in the film at the end. I give them a lot, and things fall out or disappear, and once we start working with them they develop their own thing. Like in real life, when you meet people and they nourish you with things that come from other people, and with the actors it’s the same thing. We give them texts and films, we meet and at one point they take over and develop their own things and they guide us to where we are going. For example, at one point in the work I realized that Camille was in love with Arash, that the actress was in love with the actor, and it was when I realized that that I wrote the scene on the balcony. And the dialogue is something that they said between each other. “If everything disappeared and there wouldn’t be any human being left on earth I’m sure that in little time nature would.” I wrote that precise line, and I just said to them that one is sleeping and the other is awake and each one is falling asleep as the other is awake and each is waking the other. And Carmen’s face is going closer to Hussain as if she wanted that in her memory, that his face would never disappear, and she speaks again about imprisoning him. And she just said,  “I’ll put an armoire in front of the room,” then “Furniture can hide a room but it cannot hide life.”

KLOTZ: We rehearsed one day a week for one and a half years with them, so it was in one of these moments that we worked with them that this happened and Elisabeth went back to the script to write the scene.

PERCEVAL: Working at this point I understood that Carmen was telling him, “I’ve fallen in love with you and I want to keep you.” And it was as if he, the actor, was saying, “No, no, you’ll never keep me, I’m free.” It happens when people are very intimate. And we have to be very attentive and have enough distance so that they feel free to do what they want to do.

NOTEBOOK: How did you find the look of the film?

KLOTZ: This film I prepared a lot photographing the actors. I photographed them with an old chamber camera. The first time when we were meeting the actors for casting, I had my old chamber camera with a Polaroid back on it. Black and white all the time, 5 x 7 size. And repeating every day, photographing them, asking them to come back just to speak, drink some wine, and then take pictures again and see how things get more intimate. Because in some ways when you are filming actors, you are living together, the characters are living together, so if you are not are living with them, it is really difficult to film them. You feel that there is a distance that means you are just pretending that you are making a movie. I would be photographing before and after the rehearsal to see the difference between the documentary presence and then how fiction goes through them in the end.

So it started out in black and white with Polaroid. We didn’t have much money, so I was thinking it would be better and easier to do the film in HD, and I could film more. If I would do it in Super-16 I wouldn’t have too much stock. Then I saw the first part of Film Socialisme at Cannes and said, “OK, this is it. Canon 1D.” So I started working with Canon 1D, we went to Mexico to do a sort of atelier with directors who were working on a film and I took this Canon 5D to Mexico and started making little films, photographing a lot and showing this to my DP. Then we made tests with the actors by the Seine, where Bresson shot The Devil, Probably. We went to different places and started filming with this Canon, editing a bit and seeing what was happening then. When we started rehearsing I looked for places in Lyon with a little Olympus HD still camera. I went from Polaroid black and white to HD, walking a lot and choosing the places for the light.

It was like painting. What is great about the Canon 1D is that it is not like filming in 35mm when you are lighting the colors, putting a red T-shirt here and lighting that way there and then yellow something there. I don’t believe in imitating painting with photographic means. But with the Canon 1D I really had the impression that it was like painting on the screen, like making the gesture of painting. A tracking shot would be like taking paint and smearing. It was the first time I had this feeling of the colors being in the air.

We got an empty police station in Lyon which was our base and when the actors were coming we made a lot of tests and I took pictures in color Polaroid, close-ups with the make-up and the costumes. Systematically, every time when we were working with Carmen, Charles and George in very low light (I wanted the low light), so I could show what I wanted the film to look like. Camille, in real life she was 19, and she doesn’t sleep. She has the black under her eyes and in the pictures I really liked that. I didn’t want them to disappear; I didn’t want them to be too strong, but I didn’t want it to disappear. So we were also trying to find things like that and since I’m filming her as she is in real life, I didn’t want to pretend. So what the film looks like is a process that took 2 years and a half to go from black and white to digital color.

PERCEVAL: The writing continues during the shooting of the film because we are working with the ruins of all we did during the previous year and a half. It continues in the editing room where it can happen that a close-up is of Carmen, and out of frame Hussain is speaking to her, but we cut out what he says, so it is just her and her gaze. In reality she is listening to him, but we cut out what he said, so it is just her gaze and her gaze was enough. We didn’t need to hear what he was saying. Or there is the sequence when they are going down the stairs in the city after the voodoo scene, they’re walking in the night like in The Devil, Probably. It was a dialogue between Carmen and Hussein but in the editing room we took out what Hussein said and kept only what Carmen said. Or, when all the bodies are on the bed, we hear Charles’s voice speaking gently.

KLOTZ: It was something that, I was saying, “Oh it is the end of the sequence, it would be nice to film everyone sleeping.” We didn’t have time, I couldn’t light another set, so we stayed in the place we did the scene before and I asked all the people who were there to lie down on the bed. Since I make very long shots, this one could have been maybe 4 or 5 minutes long, nothing happening. In the editing room we used what Charles was saying about Chernobyl that was in his close-up in the next scene. We used his voice and we put it in the scene where they are sleeping as if it was something floating in the air. It was a really important moment that Elisabeth proposed very early in the editing room and it became something we could try in other scenes.

NOTEBOOK: I’ve heard the distinction made between theatre and cinema, which is basically the distinction between the character and the person. There are a thousand Ophelias but only one Scarlett O’Hara. I’m wondering if this distinction is valid for you?

PERCEVAL: The difference is the position of the public, the audience. Because the audience is in real time in the theatre. The code of representation between the one who is looking and the one who is acting is completely different in the theatre and in the cinema. I don’t believe in things in the same way in the cinema and in the theatre. It is something that is very differently situated, the human being. In the theatre, when I see someone who is lying down dead, I know that in the end ultimately he will stand up and salute me. And in They Live by Night, when he dies at the end, he dies forever. For me this is the big difference.

KLOTZ: It is a very paradoxical thing. What I think is theatrical in cinema is when they’re just filming dialogues and not working on how you film people speaking. Usually they say that Straub or Bresson are theatrical because their people are not speaking like in real life, as if cinema has to be hostage to imitating real life. But I have the exact opposite impression. I think that actually each interesting filmmaker has a way of filming speech differently, and everything is constructed around that. He has to find his way of filming how people are speaking. It is easy not to make anyone speak in a film—filming mute people is the easiest way to film, because you are filming presence, you don’t take any risk with words or acting. If someone has a strong presence you can film for 30 minutes. With Garrel in Les hautes solitudes, which is a film I like a lot, something I learned very strongly is how to film people not doing anything, but then Garrel is not afraid of making them speak. The caricature of this is the way Sharunas Bartas filmed mute people, in a sort of “mute people are cool” way. Pedro Costa is complete opposite of this. My feeling is that it’s how people speak that attracts Costa to film them. His way of filming speech in In Vanda’s Room was incredible. It is the same thing with Bergman, Ford, Straub, Ozu. Godard completely modified fiction cinema (inspired by Rouch and Guy Debord) because he kicked out his characters’ words and spoke through them with his own words (stolen from books, films, poems—why invent dialogues since everything is already here?). So it’s really that place, and that has nothing to do with theatre, just with cinema.

PERCEVAL: If you want to speak like in real life on stage or in film it’s the same problem. People don’t speak in real life like in real life, because they don’t know what they’re going to say the next second. But the “stage” exists both in theatre and in cinema. The stage in theatre is mostly in theatres, but it can be anywhere else also. A lot of directors are working in warehouses. You can organize a theatre anywhere, as you can organize a stage of cinema anywhere. Vanda’s room becomes a stage.

NOTEBOOK: In Low Life you have, especially in the outdoor scenes, a lot of very flat shots. Shots where the camera is planted in front, the person is close to the camera and there is a wall behind them. The depth of field is very limited. But as we go inside, especially the scenes between Carmen and Hussain, the sense of space opens up drastically. How important was it for you to do that and how did you achieve it?

KLOTZ: There is a concrete reason and an aesthetic reason for it; maybe they join in one. What I like about silent movies is they often film a person against a wall. It can be a wall in an apartment or on the street. In Low Life, there are a lot of tracking shots against the wall. Like the confrontation between the police and the young people. There is only one shot where you see the whole street. The rest is just against walls and people running and then you hear a lot of things out of frame. I really like filming people like in portrait in front of a wall. Zombies (2010), the film we did in Toulouse, has a lot of that work.

Another thing is that I lost near-complete interest in filming Paris, which is now designed for tourism and offices. In Lyon we could find ways to keep the film in its own atmosphere and invent ways to film a city without seeing what is usually in a city. Taking a lot of things out. And then, when you get into Carmen’s apartment of course, there is a whole new world because everything opens up.

PERCEVAL: It has to do with war, with cities in war, people are walking against the walls. It’s a French expression.

NOTEBOOK: Against the wall.

KLOTZ: Yes, but it is like you don’t go to places with a lot of people, because they can see you. So, it’s true that the way we film the outdoor scenes in a way is like in a war. You have safe places, but in a lot of places you have to be careful.

PERCEVAL: In Carmen’s room the intimacy comes back, so you are safer. Intimacy itself being a perspective.

KLOTZ: I like the fact also of just being with the character. With this sort of flatness you are just with the character in the city. He is not one among a lot of people. I think you can structure a whole film on what you said about how you could go from flatness to perspective.

PERCEVAL: To explore this impression of perspective and intimacy the bed in Carmen’s room is changing places all the time. One time it’s in the middle, one time it’s near the window. Every time it changes.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said a lot about filmmaker references, literature and theater references. Are there specific painting references or other works of visual art?

KLOTZ: For painting, in the Low Life website there’s a little atlas with about 10 documents and writing a few words about each one. When talking about painting, there is a fresco by Giotto, but you have to see it on the website because it is difficult to explain. It’s like sculpture and painting at the same time. You don’t see their faces, the faces had disappeared and you only have the areolas. So Elisabeth had this nice expression that these were the traces on walls left by immigrants in squats when they left. It is like talking about survivance, which is something that continues to exist out of the past in present time. Another painter I like very much is Vilhelm Hammershoi, he is Norwegian and Dreyer was inspired by him. Hammershoi painted a lot inside his apartment with his wife, his daughter and his servant woman. He has a way of putting people in spaces. We were both inspired by Hammershoi; we worked a lot with the art director on this. And Quattrocento painting, like Piero Della Francesca. There was a book that was always on the set with us, by a French historian and philosopher called Jean-Christophe Bailly that is the whole history of painting through his eyes. It’s called The Infinite Workshop [L’atelier infini]. He goes from Lascaux to Manet to Gerhard Richter to Warhol. And each night I would be looking at what he was writing about. And he is always going around the 14th-century Italian painters. In 14th-century paintings the eyes are really important, the gaze is essential.

PERCEVAL: Do you think that the people in Low Life speak to young people today?

NOTEBOOK: I absolutely do.

KLOTZ: We were meeting with our daughter’s friends who were coming over to the house and inspired by them. We were not inventing people.


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