La Sapienza Lessons of the Baroque
Eugène Green has just made a new film, La Sapienza, named after his old theater company. The story revolves around an encounter between two couples, the architect Alexandre and his wife Aliénor, and two teenagers, the brother and sister Goffredo and Lavinia, who live in Stresa, on the shore of Lake Maggiore. Like a mystic journey, the film takes them from the grey of Paris to the light of Italy. Like many other works by Eugène Green, La
Sapienza is a journey towards wisdom, a mystic quest in which teaching—in this case, about Baroque architecture and the French language—plays a central role. We organized a conversation à trois with Green and an artist and filmmaker he knows well, Clément Cogitore,(1), who also happens to play the role of a resident at the Villa Medici in La Sapienza. With Green, as ever, the real is the medium for revealing what lies beyond visibility.
At the end of La Sapienza, Goffredo tells Lavinia that this is “the last day of our childhood.” Your characters always include young people who are in-between adolescence and adulthood, and you yourself have a real affinity with young artists like Benjamin Lazar and Clément Cogitore. Many of your films involve filial relations of an elective nature, and the transmission of knowledge.
EG I show that moment when people set out in life. It’s a quest. A great deal of my creativity comes from adolescence, and I needed maturity to express these intuitions that are very much alive inside me. When I showed this film at the New York Festival in Barbary,(2) journalists spoke of an incestuous relationship, but I don’t see it like that. Goffredo and Lavinia are leaving the relations of childhood behind them and exploring other possibilities, while the two adults, Aliénor and Alexandre, need to recapture their adolescence, alienation from which is the cause of their sterility. The transmission is therefore reciprocal: a mature person can share what they know with an adolescent, just as a young person can reawaken adolescence in an adult. That is the subject of my next film, which will be titled Le Fils de Joseph. Clément was the first person to read the script.
CC I was moved by the treatment of this question of transmission—although actually I would call it accompaniment— which is more frontal than in other films of Eugène’s. Benjamin Lazar was eleven years old when you met, Sébastien Betbeder was thirty and I was twenty-two. In fact, Sébastien explicitly pays tribute to Eugène’s work in his film Deux automnes.
Clément, you were Eugène’s assistant on
Correspondances but you were also involved as an actor. In La Sapienza you are Goffredo’s host at the Villa Medici. He wants to become an architect and you are in the position to impart knowledge.
CC My memories of the two films are very different. Working with Eugène on Corres
pondances was a real lesson in cinema, in how to think about the real. I only came in front of the camera in between other work. It was just a fleeting appearance. Whereas for
La Sapienza I came to Rome specially and I had three proper sequences. I had the feeling that I was a spectator again, like the first time I saw a film by Eugène, but I also crossed the threshold into another world, with its own rules. I was shaken up, drawn in and transported by that world, while being a part of the emotion that was being put in place, with a feeling of total confidence. With Eugène an actor simply can’t simply do their thing the way they do in traditional films. In the film, Clément’s character André quotes an Etruscan inscription which has just been deciphered: “The treasure of dawn is wisdom.” That’s almost a mise-en-abyme.
EG It’s all the more striking in that it’s only the first version of this sequence. There was censorship. The scene was inspired by a real-life lunch at the Villa Medici, with a former actress who had become a medium and a priest from San Luigi dei Francesi. For the film, I kept the actress-medium and the priest became a Jesuit psychoanalyst. One of the many difficulties was getting permission to shoot from the Diocese of Rome. At first they accepted our application, then they turned it down. In the original version, the medium told Alexandre that a spirit from the other world wanted to speak to him in Etruscan. The only person who could translate it was the psychoanalyst. The actress went into a trance. The whole rant boiled down to a single sentence: “The treasure of dawn is sapience.” The censor told me that I could not take a humorous approach to the subject because there are people who suffer from being possessed by demons. So I rewrote the scene. I put those words in Clément’s mouth and I’m very pleased now that he’s the one who says it. Yes, it is almost a mise-en-abyme. La Sapienza is also a precise satire on the contemporary world of culture. We see an absurd architecture competition, the madness of the administrators in Rome, and the comfortable little life of the Villa Medici, complete with its “plasticist” and “painter” who recalls the “authoress” of Toutes les nuits.
EG Humor is a way of broaching serious matters with a light touch. There is an element of caricature in these characters but they are often inspired by real people who live with the self-representation that they want to put out for the world.
Places are very important for you. In The Portuguese Nun Lisbon is a character in its own right, and in La Sapienza the churches are living presences. One has the feeling that the film itself is a piece of Baroque architecture, and that the architecture it talks about is a piece of mental architecture. EG Whether I’m filming an object or person, I always try to convey their inner energy— that’s why I film faces, hands and feet a lot. I wanted to make viewers aware of what you feel on the shore of Lake Maggiore, or when entering Baroque churches. As I wrote in my book Poétique du cinémato
graphe, the two arts that are closest to cinema are music and architecture. I didn’t really think through the relation between the composition of the shots and architecture in La Sapienza, but it’s something that’s very important in my cinema generally.
The characters do effectively find themselves in the same physical and mental space.
The film bears the name of your former company, Le Théâtre de la Sapience, which you set up in 1977. A company with the same name also happens to be performing Le Malade imaginaire in Stresa. Do you think the current period is more conducive to the Baroque than the 1980s and 90s? EG When I created the company I was already doing research into Borromini. I was thinking about the meaning of this word, sapieneza, about the church of Sant’Ivo, the most emblematic example of Borromini’s art, and about the idea of a path leading to knowledge and wisdom. As for Baroque theatre, it was fashionable for a while after Benjamin Lazar’s production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 2004, but theater remains problematic because it touches on language, and therefore on politics. In the 1950s theater began to replace the national education system as the “religion” of the Republic. In the 1990s anything that broke with this orthodoxy aroused extremely violent “religious” reactions. Judging by the first reactions, people seem to find La Sapienza easier to accept than, for example, The Portuguese
Nun, which goes further, and which is the film of mine I like best. The Baroque has been accepted in music for some forty years whereas with cinema it’s more complicated. I’m not saying that my cinema is Baroque, but there is certainly a relation between my interest in the Baroque and my films. And it is clear that Baroque architecture is at the heart of La Sapienza. How did you conceive the use of music? EG I never put in music as a way of dictating emotions. I tend to put it at the beginning or the end of film, like an epigram. I chose excerpts from the Magnificat for six voices by Monteverdi, which people place alongside the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, but which is less well-known than the Magnificat for seven voices. The words express Borromini’s prayer. In the middle of the film there is a key moment when the music makes a lyrical irruption which corresponds to the meaning of the film: the two men enter the chapel of Sant’Ivo and see the cupola; later, we see Aliénor, who was also there on that mystic night when Borromini died. Then she gets a phone call from Lavinia who joins the scene. I was forced to shoot in digital, contrary to what was originally planned, but here for once I could take advantage of that. When scouting the locations, I was shocked to realize that the dove of the Holy Ghost is not at the top of the drum of Sant’Ivo. I was told that it had fallen a few years ago. So I inlaid the dove by San Carlino Alle Quattro Fontane, and also by Borromini, in the image. It’s a mystical digital gesture.
CC That reminds me that in Le Pont des arts there is a musical passage that immerses us in an autonomous world, as fado does in
The Portuguese Nun. And, in La Sapienza there is a traversal of architecture. In each one of Eugène’s films there is always a revelation that is conveyed through an artistic form
guese Nun— and the actors speak the language of Eugène Green’s cinema.
CC This eccentric language which is spoken in Eugène’s films is the language of his world. I remember, when I first heard it, thinking, do I follow this path, or do I hold back? The kind of emotion you get with this language is very different because it precludes psychology. It’s not the Stanislavsky method, nor is that of Hollywood, or of the French cinema of the 1990s. I didn’t do much preparation for acting in La Sapienza because I’m not an actor, because I know Eugène well, and because putting myself in the shoes of a resident at the Villa Medici is right up my street!(3) And yet at first I felt a physical block, as if there was a framework that went against the grain of the actor’s reflexes. Then came a feeling of freedom I could never have imagined. Speaking in a neutral voice and pronouncing the liaisons allows you to restrain your reflexes and speak a text rather than interpret it. As a filmmaker myself, I found the experience very rich. The only other example of this kind I can think of is Robert Bresson. EG Of course, I was influenced by Bresson. In the 1970s there were directors who did “Bressonism,” then they dropped it. Bresson died when I was editing my first film. When I film people I’m looking for the same thing as he was, but he got what he wanted without the “model” knowing it, whereas I work in a state of mutual agreement with my actors, even when they are not professionals. You appear in nearly all your films. Why this figure of the Chaldean who says: “We are going to build a place for you, because we love you,” and, “You have no reason to be sad”?
EG A short appearance is a kind of signature, as with the painters of the Renaissance or the seventeenth century. That is what I did in Toutes les nuits, Le Pont des Arts and Les Signes. I was going to do it in The
Portuguese Nun but at the last minute I had to replace the actors. For La Sapienza, I originally wanted a true Chaldean but it wasn’t possible. In 2007 the Barbarians fought the Second Iraq War. The language of Chaldea was spoken by millions of peopled and played an essential role in our civilization, but today there are only 300,000 Chaldeans in Iraq: they represent the disappearance of a civilization, because there is no place for it. CC The Baroque oxymoron, which is the heart of Eugène’s work, consists in the coexistence of two contradictory forces, like yin and yang. And the upshot of this narrative is not the destruction of one of these forces.
THE IMAGE AND THE SACRED
The way you film faces, in that very distinctive way you have with shot/reverse shot, creates a kind of remanence, so that the faces seem to fade into each other. As in your other films, these faces in close up are like icons.
EG For Toutes les nuits we did it instinctively, and for my other films it was much more rigorous: we position the head of a character in the frame in exactly the same way as the actor who spoke before them. They merge in a “presence,” like icons, conveying the idea of “real presence.” I always try to capture the soul of the things I film, in contact with the spiritual forces surrounding them. You can also see that in Quattrocento painting. One of the paintings I love most of all is the Madonna of
Senigallia by Piero della Francesca: the Virgin is surrounded by angels and behind her, there is a lighted room which evokes a presence. In the Baroque period, light is always used to represent the sacred. And without light, there’s no cinema.
CC Like icon painting, Eugène’s cinema does not try to create the illusion of the real, but offers signs of a reality which are constructed by a philosophy of the fragment. And then, this shot/reverse shot also allows you to place the spectator between two characters. Whereas in the classic shot/reverse shot the spectator is behind one of them, to one side.
Might Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, which appears in Correspondances, and which shows no religious attributes, be an image of your vision of spirituality?
EG That painting, which I have seen in Palermo several times, corresponds to one of the key elements of my cinematographic language. It is the only Annunciation I know in which there is no angel. As with Ozu, there is a frame within the frame. And then the effect of the Virgin’s look to camera is that
the viewer becomes the angel. Throughout the iconography of the Annunciation, because the Virgin is human and the angel is divine, there is always some architectural element separating them, but here the separation is made by absence. That is how I try to make the divine exist in my films. During the shooting of La Sapienza I was reading a novel by Erri de Luca, In nome della madre (In the Name of the Mother), where the Virgin tells Joseph about her encounter with the angel. There is something natural in this account that reminded me of Antonello’s An
nunciate. In The Portuguese Nun I also inserted an Annunciation scene into the house of fado, to herald the miraculous motherhood at the end of the film.
CC The title of the painting is unusual: Annunziata is passive. The painting is a cinema manifesto, about the off-camera and the frame. In Palermo the painting is on the second floor. Below is a fresco by the Master of The Triumph of Death, with teeming representations of the supernatural world. Cine-matographically, this would translate as blockbusters with monsters and a rider on a skeletal horse killing the crowds! In contrast, lack is much more eloquent in the painting by Antonello da Messina, where we sense the coexistence of three contradictory feelings: fear, acceptance and peace. Sacrifice is one of a number of themes that run through several of your films. EG Sacrifice is at the heart of every religious tradition. In La Sapienza, Lavinia takes upon herself the unspecified danger that hangs over her brother. There is the idea that the death of Alexandre’s associate and that of his and Aliénor’s daughter allow them to go on living. They therefore have guilt feelings. Later, at the museum of the Holy Shroud, Alexandre explains that scientific experiments are said to have proved that the fabric actually dates from the sixteenth century, and Goffredo says that it must therefore be the shroud of another Christ. It is also suggested that the life of an artist dedicated to his work is, like the Christian Eucharist, a sacrifice. Finally, the episode of Borromini’s death frees Alexandre and Goffredo of their wrongs, like a new baptism, and this is also conveyed to the two women at the other end of Italy. I also think that spiritual truth exists outside any kind of cultural context, but that man can approach it only through the metaphors provided by religious traditions. Within the three monotheist religions there are dogmatic tendencies that lead to violence, just as there are also mystical tendencies that exclude violence and often connect with one another. CC In these mystical traditions there is a direct link between the individual and the holy, which has no need of political tools to exist. For that reason they cannot be used to drill groups. Eugène’s cinema is all about the feeling of holiness, but away from any political use it might be put to.
(1) See art press 386. Eugène Green first saw Clément Cogitore’s work at a screening of his film Chro
niques at the Pompidou Center in 2007. They met up again a few months later, at the Brive festival, where they were each presenting film. (2) Eugène Green speaks of the United States as “Barbary.” (3) Clément Cogitore was a resident at the Villa Medici en 2013.
Ci-dessus/ above: E. Green dans le rôle du Chaldéen. Eugène Green as the Chaldean Ci-dessous/ below: Fresque du Maître du triomphe de la mort, milieu du 15e siècle. Fresco by the Master of “The Triumph of Death” Page de gauche/ page left: Antonello de Messine. « Vierge de l’Annonciation ». 1476. (Ces 2 oeuvres : Galleria Regionale della Sicilia di Palazzo Abatellis, Palerme). “The Virgin Annunciate”
We hear a lot of Italian in La Sapienza— just as we hear a lot of Portuguese in The Portu-
À gauche/ left: « La Sapienza », Villa Médicis. Ci-dessus/ above: « La Sapienza ». Ci-dessous/below: Piero della Francesca. « Madonna di Senigallia ». Peinture à l’huile sur carton. 61 x 53 cm. (Galerie nationale des Marches, Urbino). “The Madonna of Senigallia.” Oil on board