La Sa­pien­za Les­sons of the Ba­roque

Art Press - - L’INTERVIEW -

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 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

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