“In going to live there one isn’t withdrawing from life, one is keeping to the side streets instead of the main squares of history. And I suspect that sometimes one learns more on these side streets, only seeing perhaps what is going on the main squares by peeping through cracks without standing in the middle of all that noise and confusion.
—Ermanno Olmi after moving away from Milan to the tranquility of the Dolomite foothills
There is a long and rich history of artists moving away from or avoiding city life to work in solitude and quiet in the countryside. It is among other things a history of resistance. One of this history’s most inspiring practitioners is French-speaking Swiss writer and photographer Gustave Roud. Living a solitary life on his family farm he published poetry, translated among others Hölderlin and Rilke into French, and has remained an important figure in French-speaking literature, for example for Philippe Jaccottet. Roud was a dedicated walker, spending at least one hour each day for strolls. During those walks he would find himself in thoughts, moving between a desire for the workers in the fields and sudden digressions into a new clarity concerning his life.
In their film Short Treatise on Walking in the Plains (2014) the filmmakers Pierre Creton and Vincent Barré pay a visit to Roud’s former house. Even if the visit was made following an invitation, it is no coincidence that Creton’s cinema meets this poet with his fondness for isolation, landscape, bodies, and flowers who published a book carrying the same name as the film. It’s an homage to a soulmate for Creton, who lives and works in Pay de Caux, Normandy. Living and working is not necessarily separated for Creton, who has been around for thirty years as a filmmaker. His first film was made in 1992 and is called Vicinal. It’s a film about a beekeeper Creton worked with as a student. It’s also, in Creton’s words, the moment he started to live, and started seeing bees as his sisters. By applying Kojève’s “multiplicity of Desire” to his life among the animals, Creton created the foundation for a cinema that aims for a different way of living. Through his presence at FID Marseille he is known in France but rarely has made a name for himself outside of his native country. It was a gift that the Viennale, together with the curators Jean-Pierre Rehm and Cyril Neyrat, tried to change that last autumn.
Even if a lot of contemporary cinema seems to be concerned with a sort of return to nature, resulting in thousands of animals running over the screens and aesthetic ideas focusing on a haptic and analogue richness of life, Creton’s films, while concerned with similar preferences, still felt like a foreign body inside the festival. Or let’s better compare them to an island, for they are wild, beautiful, different, and born from a necessity to survive. They have a different rhythm, a different point of interest. In most of his films Creton creates a seductive mixture of diary-like observations, uncanny happenings, eroticism, and a curiosity to document life. It’s the personal cinema of a man looking for sensuality in people, objects, images, landscapes, and words. We can discover his hands inside a swarm of bees, cats running over his back while he sits and stares into the emptiness of a camera eye or the hands of his partner Barré, who sculpts and touches life. In the work the two did together they sometimes travel, for example to the Himalayas where they went, in the words of Barré, to film flowers.
Mostly, Creton remains close to their home in Normandy. There he produces a work of care and tenderness. At the same time, he manages to document a life that surrounds him and to create a fantasy of a life that becomes possible through cinema. Like with Roud this fantasy is also a way to talk with and about the deceased, to be among shadows, to keep alive, to love. There are films that create a hunger for cinema or for being someone else but Creton’s films create a hunger for life. When film people use the word craft, they normally relate to a certain mastery of technical abilities, as if a film was something you can deliver like a piece of furniture. With Creton it is almost the opposite. There are technical flaws—they’re like the pencil marks of the worker are still visible on the finished chair. But those marks are love letters, secret messages, traces of a personality. Therefore, the word handicraft is suited better for Creton’s cinema as it is made visible with his own hands. The camera shakes in a moment of doubt, it gets blurry when he is ashamed.
Meeting Creton and Barré in Vienna to talk felt like a little cheat. It can only be the beginning of a conversation since to really know about their work, I’d probably have to meet them in Normandy. With us present over a cup of coffee, next to what looked like a very Freudian sofa, was programmer Cyril Neyrat, who I also want to thank for helping out with translations during the interview.
NOTEBOOK: Earlier this month a retrospective of the films of Margaret Tait took place here in Vienna. I don’t know if you are familiar with her work. One of her films is called Land Makar. It’s Scottish and it refers to a “poet of the land.” It’s a portrait of a person, a crofter who works with the land and also carries inside her a poetics of the land. I wonder, Pierre, if you relate to this term in some way—a poet of the land?
PIERRE CRETON: Yes, that is something that speaks to me. However, there is the danger that it also narrows down a work…for example with an idea of regionalism or something like that.
NOTEBOOK: In what way does the land or the place you live relate to your perception of the world?
CRETON: Well, Fernando Pessoa said it very well: “My village is my world.” In my case you can see what that means with my latest film, A Beautiful Summer . When refugees from Africa arrive to where I live. It’s the world that enters my life, the place where I live. There is no need to move, the world moves around us. Eventually it’s not the same for all of us, we make films together, but Vincent is a traveler whereas I live sedentary and I like to travel without moving.
VINCENT BARRÉ: There is also something about the way you can reflect the world from a microcosm…
CRETON: Through television?
BARRÉ: No, no, also through your empathy towards the world through reading, literature, and very much through cinema. Also, the way those children in A Beautiful Summerarrive creates a shift. The world and its conflicts suddenly appear in Vattetot-sur-Mer. This allows you to share another perception than the one dictated by media. You can give a counterbalance. You take an isolated position which allows you to look at things differently and “against” the dominant discourse which is miserabilist, recriminating, and often accuses migrants. It’s your point of retreat that gives you a different perspective on things. Don’t you think?
CRETON: Yes, yes, I am thinking about the word “retreat.”
BARRÉ: Aren’t you retreating?
CRETON: No, that’s it… no. Or well, yes but no. I don’t know. We have to find another word because retreat is not very open…
CYRIL NEYRAT: Retreat that is also to trace (retrait and retracer). It has to do with a retreat also being a form of taking a position or taking opposition. It’s a withdrawal that allows to draw things in a different way, at least a little bit different. I think in A Beautiful Summer Pierre once again opens up a relation between the here and elsewhere. It’s very beautiful how Pierre works with the sea in the film. The small beach close to where you live and where you have been going to swim for twenty years becomes an image of otherness, a memory of the Mediterranean for the boys, and also of shipwrecks. It shows how cinema can make things oscillate and suddenly something that is very close can completely change its meaning. The sea is at the same time in the realm of sensuality and death.
CRETON: That is also the story of contemporary politics.
NOTEBOOK: If I understand correctly, there was a point in your life after studying when you decided that this is how you want to be with cinema. Have a life in the countryside, work there and make films. But this also creates a sort of invisibility for you. You are not where the film people normally are. I wonder, if that was always very easy for you or if it was or is a struggle?
CRETON: It’s not really a choice, it’s an incapacity. It’s also an incapacity at being in the world, or at least where it’s supposed to take place. Is it difficult? No, no, one can’t be someone else anyway.
BARRÉ: There is also a sort of solidarity that allowed you to work and remain rather isolated. Françoise Lebrun or the meeting with Jean-Pierre Rehm and Cyril… these meetings have helped to keep his work visible.
NOTEBOOK: Cyril, how did you discover Pierre’s and Vincent’s world?
NEYRAT: I first came across it at FID Marseille. Then I wrote about Pierre’s first feature film in Cahiers du cinéma. Then we met in Vattetot. I was in charge of the magazine Vertigo and with a friend of mine we came to Pierre’s and spend two days there. We basically made a report. We wanted to see the place where it happened and happens, the place where the films had been made. It was a beautiful experience to discover this place.
BARRÉ: It also helped that in the beginning of his chosen isolation Pierre was very much participating in social life. He continued to work and be with patrons, farmers, beekeepers or worked as communal councilor. It’s an active way to participate, to create a territory for living and working. But then in the films, I am thinking about Once Upon a Season , Life After Death[2002) or The Berger’s Hour ,he already worked inside the emptiness he created, an emptiness in which we can find objects, an emptiness inhabited by ghosts in which everything relates to each other. He created a space of visible and invisible energy. This energy carries his cinema, especially Go, Toto! and his latest two films. We can say there is a juxtaposition or a movement between two poles which is the community and solitude. It’s a work with a territory, friendships and solitude.
NEYRAT: I think this decision also has to do with a complete denial of a career, of achievement, success in the world of art. I try to think about it with the metaphor of the garden, an oeuvre that evolves like a garden over time. It’s the coincidence of meetings that fuels his cinema. It’s about life and friendships that help the oeuvre to develop and to mature slowly and carefully enough to not disturb a natural evolution. For me, that makes the profound quality of this oeuvre. There is no constrain, no artificial pressure, it’s all very natural.
NOTEBOOK: Connected with all of this are also the animals that play quite an essential role in your work. You are a filmmaker that waits until a cat enters the frame, then you cut. This should be taught at film schools. Just wait for the cat to cut. I wonder how you go on about filming animals and what fascinates you about them?
CRETON: For me the animal is connected to two things, maybe three. It is connected to childhood, to solitude, and to art. I remember very well being a child, being lonely and drawing because all children draw before they are told to stop. I remember how I drew and that there were always animals present in the room. I think this stayed with me; it comes from my childhood. Maybe we can call it innocence, I don’t know.
NOTEBOOK: And how do you film animals, for example a frog on an arm? Do these things just happen to you or is it a shot that you search for? In industrial cinema working with animals is supposed to be very tricky but with you it seems very natural.
CRETON: Both exist. There are things I want and things I just happen to capture. It works without a lot of difficulties and without employing these methods which wield authority to the animal. Most of the time the animal is just there and I wait, I prefer to wait patiently. To be a bit more precise, for capturing the monkeys in Go, Toto! or the goat which eats the pie in A Beautiful SummerI had very good help from my sound recordist who knows animals very well; he is a veterinarian. For filming those sequences, we told everybody to leave and just the two of us waited. For A Beautiful Summerwe knew already very well how to do it and we didn’t have to film more than one time. Otherwise we would have had to remake the pie which would have been very complicated. And there is something else. To film animals it is always much more beautiful when you love them, and it makes it much easier. Lastly, as Patrick just said: the cat, it enters the frame. With an actor you can ask him to come back into the frame. With an animal you can’t just say, “enter the frame.” It might not do it.
BARRÉ: But when you prepared Go, Toto! there was the idea of working with an animal trainer.
CRETON: That was a mistake. Sometimes one tries… those are bad ideas and this one, I quickly abandoned because I learned my lesson.
BARRÉ: It was horrible.
CRETON: Horrible. Expensive and horrible!
BARRÉ: It compelled you to make certain decisions. It was magic like the projection of cats on the body of the man. Sometimes the wrong ideas lead to beauty.
NOTEBOOK: I also wanted to talk about what we might call the eroticism of your work. Here I am talking about the desire that can be felt as well as bodies in sexual encounters and so on. This element is something that at least in a superficial approach to cinema might come as a surprise. A filmmaker working and filming the land, with animals, a sense for the everyday, the beauty but then this element is very urgent in your work. How do you work with it?
CRETON: I can say that actually everything is erotic. Actually, to be precise, in school I fell in love with a 14-year-old boy but then we changed a direction and we lost sight of each other. I even forgot where he was living because there was a time after school when I left the countryside and lived in the city. It was later that I came back in the village where this boy lived. And I found him again. He lived with his father and his father asked me to work as communal councilor and suddenly I found myself equipped with a certain social status despite being a vegetarian, without a car, living in a house without running water, without electricity, openly homosexual, maybe a communist. I was completely integrated in the village life, without difficulties. I think it’s because I worked. I think I had to prove myself in some way to get accepted. It came from this very old desire from my teenage years, a desire that never ceased to be renewed.
NEYRAT: …and this developed into an erotic affiliation with bucolic life in general, it extended. One can say that.
CRETON: Yes, but I also have these affiliations when I travel to India.
NOTEBOOK: But there is also a very interesting perception of the countryside nowadays. Here in Austria and almost everywhere in Europe we can see with election results that the countryside is more conservative, right-wing than most cities. The image your films give of the countryside, except for some cruelties that you do not shy away from, are a positive counterpoint. There is a sexual freedom, it’s very liberal, a utopia—and I do not know these things from where I live.
CRETON: Maybe it’s not really objective, maybe it is just my point-of-view on these things and my gaze that is drawn towards more sensitive people.
BARRÉ: Yet, it is also a choice of companions in life, that community that gives a frame to what you do for almost 30 years. The people with whom Pierre works and those he has sexual encounters with, they never talk about it.
CRETON: Yet, they have seen the films…
BARRÉ: They see the films but there is an element of surprise, like with A Beautiful Summer, in which Robert who more or less plays my character and who has appeared in the films for two decades always playing a violent, merciless patron suddenly appeared as the opposite. He said: “I am tired of playing those evil guys. Find me a kind role.” And he played it with such a great tenderness. He discovered a passion for touching wax and this passion he also expressed towards the boys and Simon, his partner in the film. That was more than what was expected from him. For accepting the role he said, “Ask my wife.” and afterwards he said: “I’ll do anything you want.” It’s with all of Pierre’s film when they are projected in the neighboring village in front of 100 or 200 people that they always know and it provokes certain reactions… it never doesn’t provoke. Yet, even the hunters from Go, Toto!…
NEYRAT: Who belong to the right, even the far right.
BARRÉ: They are machos.
CRETON: They all came to see the film and they all found themselves involved in sexual stories in a Parisian sauna. Voilà, they have seen it!
NEYRAT: It’s very mysterious because there is a certain confidence established between Pierre and those people no matter if they are right-wing, left-wing, cultivated or not. Actually, it’s a magic trust as if once they are part of a film everything falls, those things don’t matter anymore. There are secrets in those people. Those secrets emerge, they reveal them. That’s magnificent! It belongs to cinema and its capacity for revelation, but it’s also based on something very human which is a trust constructed on a shared territory.
NOTEBOOK: We have only time for one more question since you want to go to the cinema. I want to know a bit more about the role of fiction in your work. I very often find this moment in many of your films, a moment in which everything falls into a dream, a surreal landscape and nothing is as I thought it was any longer. Maybe we can talk a bit about that and also in how far it is related to literature, which is very important in your work.
CRETON: Yes, I prefer the term novelistic to fiction. It essentially comes from literature, even more than from cinema. It’s very obvious, for example, in Proust Maniquerville . I don’t think it’s very subtle.
NEYRAT: It’s also connected to dreams, like Patrick said.
BARRÉ: Sometimes Pierre also introduces fiction to get a bit of distance to the things that are very close.
NEYRAT: To experiences, yes.
BARRÉ: It is also a method to give space to the people, the characters in your work and to avoid falling into a certain violence with them. It started with Madeleine in Go, Toto!who refused for someone to tell her story, so there had to be more stories…
CRETON: Madeleine refused anyway on principle. We had to earn her.
BARRÉ: Yes, of course. A lady of that quality doesn’t give herself easily!
CRETON: It needs a lot of work with many of them. A lot of dinners, a lot of exchanges, visits to the garden. It’s the same with Joseph in Go, Toto!or Jean Lambert. They all like to talk a lot since they live very isolated. So you spend a lot of time with them until there is a film.
Thank you to Maël Mubalegh for helping with the translation