Patric Chiha's If It Were Love is showing exclusively on MUBI in most countries starting February 11, 2021 in the series Festival Focus: Berlinale.
When you direct a documentary, the first question one usually asks is about the subject. What is the film about? Most of the time, I answer that it is about nothing or everything. It is obviously an overstatement but I think it can apply to all the films I love: they transcend their subject. Not because they have cleverly managed to bury it under some sophisticated form or some eccentricity but because most of all they trust faces, movements, places, light or sound… Then, the real subject appears. I feel that it is even more true when you capture dance on film: you cannot start from what it means, from the sense of it all, you start from movement—such as the Lumière brothers when they shot a train coming into a station—and then, you just wait patiently for the meaning to appear.
Crowd, Gisèle Vienne’s extraordinary play, is at the center of the film. It questions in a magnificent way the act of partying, love and how our emotions transform our perception of time. Nearly everything you see in the film is from the play. But why this film? Gisèle and how she works, particularly with the dancers, taught me a great deal about my relation towards my own craft: her way of making meaning emerge from the body when you decide to surrender yourself, to forget yourself, how it allows for the unexpected to appear but also for life to be seen. In movies, we “direct” actors but isn’t it the opposite? Don’t we make movies precisely because we are missing something? Something that cannot be translated into words? For that matter, isn’t it the same with the audience? Aren’t we all looking to lose ourselves rather than to feel confirmed into something?
At the premiere of Crowd (Paris, Festival d’Automne, 2017), I was sitting in the front row. I discovered the dancers, their fascinating presence, euphoric and tragic at the same time, fiction slowly appearing through dancing, stories and characters emerging...and those bodies in slow motion, so slow that we could have stood up and touched them - and be gone with them. I was sitting so close that I was not able to see everything. I gazed at the stage, fixated on some scenes and missing others, I adapted the play or should I say I split and edited it in my own way by doing close-ups. It is actually how the play works; you go from the group to individual stories. One very important scene really struck me: when Oskar, with his shaved head, gets up close to young Vincent. He touches him, hesitates, comes back, wants to kiss him. Vincent doesn’t move. Oskar tries to get inside him. But it is impossible, he is inaccessible, impenetrable. There is a sentence from Paul Valéry that I find beautiful, it helps me understand my actions when I am filming: "the most profound thing in a Man is his skin." In this gesture from Oskar to Vincent, lies something of the essence of love, of desire, but also of cinema itself, something words cannot express, but that I wanted to put into images, with the tools provided by cinema. The gesture, the act of love, as the act of cinema, is all about going toward the impenetrable. It’s accepting confusion, the risk of losing oneself, unrequited love...
When we decided to do this film with Gisèle and my producer, Charlotte Vincent, I understood very early on that I would not tackle this film as a documentary on a particular subject but as an adaptation, in the same way you would adapt (freely) a novel. During several months, with a small team, we followed Crowd’s tour. Even though I had written grant applications, I had no real idea of how we were actually going to proceed. The goal was not to disrupt people at work, nor to explain something that cannot be explained by doing classic interviews. I am always suspicious of predefined measures, which act as a sort of formal grid that we apply on anything and everything. At first I panicked—silently. But my producer managed to reassure me by reminding me of my own motto: it’s precisely when you are looking for something that you can’t find it, and it’s when you let go that perhaps something will appear. These sorts of films require a lot of patience. We first filmed warm-ups, rehearsals, dressing rooms... We filmed the play on stage, getting as close to the faces as we could. Gisèle completely trusted us, she knew I was going to deconstruct and rework a lot of elements and she was excited about it. I think she was not looking for any confirmation, she wanted to be surprised. At first, the dancers were a bit suspicious but step-by-step they learned to love working that way, with a camera following them so close. And then, they started to « play » with us, to open up... They had very long and full days on tour, so we had very little time to shoot, only in the mornings or late at night.
We would agree on a place to meet (a hotel room, the theater hall...) and spend one or two hours together. We would wait for something to happen, just floating. It was very gentle. Our cinematographer, Jordane Chouzenoux, would light the room with colors reminiscent of the 90s and little by little, a situation would arise, a dialogue begin, something would happen. Sometimes, it was more on the documentary side, dancers questioning their work, their feelings, and sometimes it was more fictional, in the continuity of the characters they played on stage. But the border between the two very quickly disappeared.
The freer we are during the shooting, the more difficult is the editing. With Anna Riche, the editor, we got lost on a regular basis. Between the documentary on Gisèle’s work, the hypnotic dance slow motions, the stories between fiction and documentary, the rave, the history of techno… One morning, I had an intuition: we put a working title in the opening credits, it is the question Cyd Charisse asks Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon directed by Vincente Minnelli: “Can you and I really dance together?” Suddenly, everything was clear. Here was the central question that would allow us to link all the levels of the films, to make them alive and make them resonate. Can we dance together?