Should you choose to describe Albert Serra's oeuvre by using a long series of pronouns, you might find yourself writing down a string of words that start with a precise prefix: demystification, decadence, decay, depravity, debauchery, and desire. Serra is an auteur par Sarris: with a tight conceptual apparatus and cross-platform interests, recurrent motifs and specific work methods, the Catalan director is known for his innovative, independent slow-burning pieces set in pre-French Revolution Europe, his free narratives spun around the continent's aristocracy in a moment of political and bodily entropy, from Casanova to Louis XIV.
His newest feature, Liberté, a no-holds-barred depiction of sexual debauchery in a German forest over the course of a night in 1774, made waves at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered in the Un Certain Regard section and won the Special Jury Prize. I sat down with Serra few weeks after the festival over Skype and discussed the film's conception, his working methods, and his thoughts on the idea of freedom.
NOTEBOOK: I understand that two distinctive works preceded Liberté, that both led to the film: an installation at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, and a theater play. How did these two processes, which are quite different, come together in the film?
ALBERT SERRA: The main difference is that one is theater, and the other two are images, moving images. The images we used in the installation were shot at the same time as the ones we used in the film—some are the same, even. The play is something totally different, in Germany, with a text that I wrote. But, for the installation, it's more interesting, because in fact we used the same images, but, in general, not just for this project, but for all of them: there is no difference between shooting a work that will be used for an installation, or one that will be used for a film. The idea, the methodology, all the craziness and the chaotic approach to what we are doing is exactly the same. Maybe we feel a little bit less pressure when we work for installations, because then everything is possible, and you don't need to rely as much on a coherent narrative. So, to create the atmosphere, to push the actors, to put some tension inside the atmosphere of what is in front of the camera is exactly the same procedure.
I don't see any difference— okay, during editing, you have to think about the narrative, the space. In fact, the installation was made while we were editing the film. The way we edited the installation gave us a clue to how the film should be edited, in fact. Because, of course, as you have a lot of freedom with installation—the space, multiple screens—what you put on the screen, well, in a way nobody cares. So we really had to fight to find the strength of the images that we had already shot, the strong points of what was inside of these images in order to create an artwork for a museum, but without any sort of pressure brought on by narrative, coherence, drama, plastic composition, whatever. We chose the images that we really loved, with this idea in mind. We realized that the images for the installation, the reasons for choosing certain images over others, were the same for the film. Which is quite understandable: it should be shocking to find that shots used in an installation are not good for a film, or the other way around. You can create a structure, of course, but the strength of the image counts the most. So, the installation helped us shorten the time needed to discover the real, the best possible film that could result from the over 300 hours of rushes that we had.
NOTEBOOK: It's interesting that you talk about the freedom that an installation offers you as an artist, because I believe that freedom is an overarching theme in your work. Both as a thematic leitmotif and as a modus operandi.
SERRA: Yes, of course! This freedom will become more and more important in the future. As a subject—not only this work, that is about sexual emancipation and liberation, but it works nowadays! Feeling the pressure of success, or the pressure of auto-censorship because of subjects that are not very easy to deal with, so you choose not to... There are so many constraints nowadays, so when you're inside of your mind, you discover that you are afraid of annoying somebody, or doing things that cannot be accepted, or understood properly. This mental freedom, of starting a war without any kind of prejudice, doing things without the pressure of other people's point of view. And this includes any kind of point of view, really: moral, social, political, whatever. This will be a precious gift to have, in the future. A luxury, in fact! A lot of works will approach this subject, but sometimes when I'm facing my own work, there is some kind of shyness in the approach, and it's because of this.
I agree with what you said and, in fact, the film was thought of in this way. The film is about a utopia of sexual liberation, with no difference between people: no women or men, servants or masters, handsome or ugly people. A perfect, yet strange, dark utopia: a total fraternity of bodies. But, okay—there are some risks in subjects that touch intimacy in such a way: sexuality is still a controversial subject. I was surprised, in fact, at Cannes. When people talked to me about the film, I really felt they were talking to me about themselves, in fact, not about the objective content of the film. In some sense, already justifying their own life, their own sexual life. It's quite tricky, even funny, to understand that their point of view, in 99% of the cases (obviously, with some rare exceptions people concentrated on the formal aspects) they are talking about their own mental ghosts. Which is interesting, because of the implicit subject, this play of hiding/showing, of what is seen, dreamed or imagined, like an unconscious optic: what you have really seen and what you think you have. Between the concrete and the strange, psychological. It's like when you start to dream: you're not exactly asleep, but you start to feel that you are entering another world. You are suddenly part in reality, part in the reality of the dream. I feel the film is in this middle, but then again, it's violent, it's dark, it's about frustration and the impossibility of this utopia of sexual freedom, sexual fraternity.
NOTEBOOK: Riffing on the subject of freedom, I'd like to ask you about this very specific period in European history that you have been interested in, especially in your latest films—a very specific post-Renaissance, pre-Revolutionary, baroque era. In fact, most of this freedom lies in the hands of nobles, which is a universe in itself. Where does your interest for this time period come from?
SERRA: It's a very strange moment, when it seems that everything is very sophisticated, like the thinking about sex, about science, even the thinking about society through ideas such as human rights. It makes you think. But, still, it's something that is affecting a minority, a total minority, something that is part of the old world. But, suddenly, this new trend in a lot of fields of human development became very important socially. And this can also kill this dream, the sophisticated approach. Because the French Revolution was a radical cut from the past, in social terms, meaning the end of an era that we will never return to. But, at the same time, there is a cut from a more sophisticated, super-cultural approach, that is probably not meant for everyone. And then, the contradictions—even political—with Napoleon, and so on, that became evident. How much of this improvement was meant for everybody or, even, against the idea of everybody? So, yes, the bourgeoisie is born in the post-Napoleonic era, but we can still observe this dream, socially and spiritually, but also it's an elitist movement. The bourgeois society collects all these contradictions—like the cultural approach is meant for everybody, but in fact it's difficult. And the tensions go through to contemporary society, even in cinema, between the commercial approach and the radical formalist one. It's a moral contradiction, between the social and the extremely cultural approach that makes it impossible in some sense. An impossibility that we still live in. And arthouse cinema is about this—in Liberté, the difficulties in understanding the film, is about how these two ideas cannot, probably, live together like this.
And it's the late 18th century—where it looks like this dream is possible, but in fact you feel that it isn't. You wish it could be possible, but it isn't— and you see the disaster. And you also see the disaster of the Revolution, of Napoleon. Even if they changed things forever, but not exactly in the way they had hoped.
NOTEBOOK: Freedom in your films also has to with decadence, decay, depravity. There is also a lot of excess. And especially bodily, corporeal—not just here, but also in Story of My Death (2013). How do you find this relationship between freedom and these concepts which are, in general, morally negative?
SERRA: Difficult to say. Because decadence can be a tonality—like an aesthetic or plastic one. It's very nice, very interesting, always. It's something that touches a sort of a broken dream. There is also the moral decadence, the desperation, when you realize that none of these dreams are actually possible and you give up, you become desperate, cynical. In this tension of this tonality that can be aesthetically seductive, that can be even a moving sight in some sense, can be confronted with a real dark side of desperation, of moral failure.
I like that you mentioned Story, because the two films are very complementary, they live in decadence the last days in the life of Casanova [in Story of My Death], and these libertines [in Liberté] realize that all this crazy world they were living in will not exist anymore, and that their ideals are actually impossible to spread. In this impotence, they create a smaller world that is at the beginning of the world, that becomes a metaphor, a game, a cult. In this sense, the game becomes perverted. Then the film goes into Freudian aspects, and the centrality of this problem in our perception, in our relationship with the others, the Other. This becomes a bigger, spiritual problem. A game of perversion that, with time, becomes an unsolvable problem and keeps on going—until when, for what? It's a bigger, unsatisfied part of our soul that is there, that becomes morally desperate. Visions of desire. The perverse side, that says that with transgression you may get to something, and the part where you realize that even with transgression, you cannot achieve a deep satisfaction, a solution to the challenge of desire.
NOTEBOOK: As far as I understand, you work very freely—the shooting itself seems similar to the technique of documentary filmmaking, in the sense that you work with a lot of raw material and several cameras on set, and a very fluid script that offers mostly just a fictional supra-structure to the event.
SERRA: Yeah, but the difference is that I put a lot of pressure on the actors. Because in general, in documentaries, you have a kind approach to the material—the human material that is in front of you, because as they are not actors, they are not paid, the relationship is positive in general. But I'm not looking for that sort of positive relationship. In fact, I hate actors, I hate their vanity. I don't feel very comfortable with them so I like to put pressure, and I think that with this tension what we get is more fictional, more interesting. But, to obtain material, action like the one we have in the film means you can't only use this aggression. Because it's simply not possible, especially not nowadays. Generally, you must go through this idea of accepting the unacceptable, and in fact put people into this exact point where you don't know what you are doing. And while you are doing this, of being an object that the film is using without any kind of moral consideration. A super beautiful, plastic element, with all your strengths as a human being, or a moving, decadent failure as an actor. In this situation, in these depths that are in fact totally difficult to establish when you are there—because you can't have an objective look at yourself when you are in this process—it relies on all the ambiguous qualities of the film, and so it becomes completely separate from the idea of a documentary. Maybe in the way we work, shooting with three cameras, with no storyboard, without a script, it's similar, but not at all in the relations with the human material.
NOTEBOOK: Since we're on the topic of camerawork, I'd like to ask you about the compositions—and here I find the lighting especially interesting, it adds to the picturesque composition, which reminds me of the works of painters like Rembrandt, especially due to lighting.
SERRA: No, no, here it was more inspired from the French painters, especially Fragonard, Boucher, the Rocco era painters, especially their portrayal of nature. The nature seems very artificial sometimes, forest and landscapes which don't seem wild, at the same time. A forest that is not dangerous, but that gradually, as you enter it, becomes such. In the beginning it's like a décor, but it becomes more and more real and close to the contemporary. I like this idea of a trash Fragonard, or a trash Boucher.
But it was also chance. I also wanted to shoot a film about the night, not just during the night. About the night, the inner logic of the night, that we attach to it—different perceptions, different morals, everything. The aesthetics, okay, beyond this idea of being a little more trashy and contemporary—I didn't really have these big ideas about how the film should look like, from a plastic point of view. So for the shooting we used a light balloon. I didn't want to replicate the light of candles, for example. The light is nice, but a little bit artificial and contemporary. Like the lights nowadays, in a dark city—but it's in the forest, and a little bit dark at the same time. It's a strange meeting point between naturalism, artificiality, rejecting a typical detailed approach. Still, the lights keep this heterogeneity, but it's coherent throughout the film. And then, of course, the idea of “waking up” at the end, with the light of the day. As if it was a dream, or a nightmare. During this night, I like it, it's in the face of the actors, the characters, when something changes in the light. And during it, the landscape becomes more trashy, due to human presence, maybe our team, the actors: the trees, the grass, they appear gradually destroyed throughout the film, reminding you less and less of a painting.
NOTEBOOK: I'd ask you about working with actors, especially since you professed your hate for professional actors. How do you approach them, especially the non-professional actors, with a subject (and a project) such as Liberté, that is obviously very difficult?
SERRA: I don't care. I don't see any difference. For me, all people are non-professional, and they quickly realize this once they face my system, their techniques become useless. But it's also liberating for them in a sense—they get rid of the pressure of delivering something, I do not expect anything complete from them, that they have the space to discover and underline the good things they already have. They feel liberated, free to do whatever they want to. It's also great pleasure, for me and for them, to forget technique, to let go of everything they know. And as they have to mix with non-professionals, from different backgrounds—there is no alternative than opening your mind, being present and forgetting your responsibilities, really. In order to abandon yourself in the mood, in this atmosphere that can be a little bit tricky, but also very interesting.
And in the screening of Liberté, I was looking at the actors and I realized that they didn't recognize themselves. This always happens, to a certain degree, but here it was... really huge. I like the idea of nudity, because it imposes something upon you, it obligates you to accept your own body in front of other people. Which is already difficult, even for people that are really beautiful and have a gorgeous body. But the eyes that look at you can be dangerous. So, in this tension you have the film: in showing something and somebody is looking at it, the tension between pleasure as giving or receiving.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe it's a very simple comparison due to the subject of sexual depravity, in terms of representation, the film is close to Pasolini's Salò. But Salò is about control, people being coerced into sexual acts, while in Liberté, with few exceptions, it's a consensual, mutual exploration. Do you feel yourself entering a dialogue with it?
SERRA: Maybe you're right, yes. But coercion... I think there are some moments of abjection, in some sense. Even if it's not clear if they accept it or not, or if this abjection can be desired, that goes against... but I think the coercion is there. Simply because it's the body, its nudity, sexuality. Coercion will always be there. The idea of free love is so difficult to accept. The film is shot in our days, the utopia of the sixties is no longer in the soul of the people, and there is a lot of vanity nowadays. And I wanted to kill this vanity.
There should be more tension. It’s part of the contemporary tension of how we feel like owners of our own bodies, while others people may believe otherwise, that you are not the owner of your own body, that it can be a natural source of pleasure to other bodies. I think there was more coercion in the making of my film than in Pasolini's. I don't know about the final images, what comes across from them. For Pasolini, I think the people there were conscious of what they were getting into, so everyone there knew what they were doing, they were devoted and aware they were taking part in the development of an important artwork. I relied on tension and, of course, the generosity of some of the actors.
It's a difficult problem to solve. How can you deal with abjection without being a little bit abject and unfair yourself? How can you be kind while you create representations of abjection? The methodology should hold some truth to what you're doing.