Arthouse and Introspection: An Interview with Jacqueline Lentzou
In just seven short films — including the recently lauded “Fox” (2016), “Hiwa” (2017), and “Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year (2018)” — Jacqueline Lentzou has already made her aesthetic concerns and immutable talent quite clear. She finds, with a curious and empathetic camera, moments of oft unwelcome change and transition, the moments that reveal a lot about us that we perhaps wish had more import. The banality of adolescent totems, the sadness that preempts maturity, the loss of what we’ve taken for granted; these are the moments that define the Greek filmmaker’s impressive work. During a week of screenings that were a part of the Museum of Modern Art and Film at Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival, I spoke with the filmmaker about how she coined her own language of discovery and tenderness.
Many of your movies make us feel like we’re eavesdropping on private moments no one else would think to share. Can you talk about developing the films’ language of intimacy?
Whenever I’m asked how I thought of something, I don’t have a good answer because it’s very instinctive in the short format, at least in the moment. I write visually; I think intimacy and the whole feel [of a film] are written out before they happen on set. My cinematographer is my best friend [Konstantinos Koukoulios], which is important; it correlates to the situations I try to depict in my films, the fact that I tend to work with people I know, with whom I’m intimate with myself. This comes out very, very naturally. It also comes from a decision I made early on, that I don’t like fixed cameras; I moved to handheld cinematography while still in school. All of our film exercises required fixed positions and tripods and I wasn’t feeling free at all. I learned then, around 2010, that I liked to have free movement. Camera movement reminds me of the way our eyes move. When I look at you, I don’t just look at you, I look behind you, and over there. I’m happy that you mentioned intimacy, it’s one of my aims to depict it, to have that be an organic aspect of the films. I want people to feel that they are there and that they share the moment, everything that happens.
It’s interesting to note the balance between your use of tripods and handheld movement. You don’t establish locations in the traditional way, you discover them in space after a chaotic moment. I’m thinking specifically of the scene in the church in “Hector Malot.”
I was thinking of the church as well! I like to create a relation that does the opposite of what establishing shots do. I’m not interested in telling the audience that now we are here. I’m interested in telling the audience that he or she is now like that in this mood; I’m more interested in the mood. I need wide shots as a breather. In [“Hector Malot”], I found it more interesting not to be aware of where she is exactly. In terms of blocking, when I have my wide shot, usually I move around a lot, back and forth, soft focus, hard focus — I feel I owe my audience something calmer, to somehow prepare them for what comes after. In “Hiwa,” the camera’s moving all the time. Even when I watch it now, I like aspects of it. It’s super shaky, and maybe if I added some more calm shots, it would be a more pacifying experience for the viewer, not so crazy.
“Hiwa” was the first film that I watched of yours, and I felt I was being primed for an avant-garde body of work. Certainly there’s a lot of experimentation in your other work, but it’s more that you use experimental ideas to tell linear, emotional stories, catching people right before adulthood sets in. How do you get films like this funded? I imagine trying to explain these in a treatment would be hard work.
I hate treatments. It’s not something I do well, it feels like housework; I have to do the dishes, I have to write a treatment. Thankfully for the most part in making short films, they don’t need a treatment, but I’m developing two features and it’s the first thing they ask for because they don’t have time to read the proper script. Treatments don’t convey what a filmmaker has in their mind; it’s just another document. For “Fox,” my only film to get funding from the Greek Film Centre officially, I wrote an application. They asked for the script, and they gave me 9000 euros. That’s nothing. Thank God I had a good producer who, out of nothing can do something. For “Hiwa,” which is a crazy film, I was commissioned by Athens Film Festival, along with six other directors, to show Athens in a different way. It was an open commission; they gave us 7000 euros for that. For “Hector Malot,” which happened out of our hearts, I had an urgent need to shoot last year because I could see there was going to be a delay with the feature film and I had to be on set doing something. Funding is hard. It’s cliché, but it’s a fact that you can be more creative and courageous with no money.
How much of the work is autobiographical, however obliquely? How much comes from other people’s experiences?
At least consciously, I never sponge up other people’s experiences. Unconsciously, I don’t know what happens. I’m really interested in human beings — my friends and family. But it always comes down to the creation of my own individual world view. Everything I write and try to transmit evolves from me. It’s not biographical, of course, but the source material is always personal. When I watch a film, no matter how nicely it’s made, what really makes me fall in love with a film is honesty. This is a whole topic unto itself, what is honesty? It has to do with people writing what they know. What I know best, for the moment, is how I experience things, how I feel, and all the moods I go through. I try not to make self-referential films but personal films, which is an important distinction.
Knowing you’re a fan of Harmony Korine makes sense, especially when considering parts of “Fox,” set in a kind of crumbling, slightly grotesque suburban environment. You both capture a cluttered, melancholic feel of hermetic adolescence. The eccentric family unit, and the house that seems purposely dirty — it reminded me of pieces of my childhood as well as Korine. Where did the house come from?
The fact that I like Harmony Korine has to do with growing up in a similar way to his characters. I discovered him and was fascinated because I identified with what he was making films about. If you could see my house, it used to be very posh when my mother was young, but when we moved into it when I was a kid, it was a house in absolute decay. It’s different to be in a house that has always been one way, always been old, always been nice, but it’s a strange feeling to grow up somewhere and feel in your bones its decay. Decay and loss of time and change, the walls peel, the smell of humidity — I know that so well. The scene in Gummo (1997) when the boy moves the portrait and many flies come out from behind it, I felt like I was there. I didn’t grow up in a house quite like that, but… The reference point for the house in “Fox” was my house in Thessaloníki. It was a very conscience decision to find a house that, in the past, could have been happy, but that happiness is gone. You know something with Harmony Korine, Chantal Akerman, Jonas Mekas, and Claire Denis, all these filmmakers I love… for whom I feel an affinity, I feel like we’re in the same family. Not that I’m as talented, but I feel we have something in common. They enter my system and shape me like a song, but I don’t ever say, “Let’s shoot it like that.” I have seen so many shorts that are similar to each other in style, and it feels like fashion. They see something, they admire it, and they want to replicate it. When this happens consciously it doesn’t succeed, when it happens subliminally it has more depth.
Decay is an ancient literary conceit more than a specifically cinematic one. It’s in Dickens, obviously…
Yes! In your films, you use it as a kind of dramatically ironic counterpoint. As we see young people moving into new phases of their lives, all around them are the bones of what has been, the ghost of progress that never happened.
You know something? I believe that this is how life is. I don’t understand how there are books and films and people that say that when you grow up, things are fine, or that when someone dies, things are bad. This viewpoint of bad and good, light and dark, even as a kid it felt too easy a way to make sense of the world. The world is more complicated. Of course, things will move on. I’m not an optimistic person, but I do believe in change — and decay is a change in itself. It’s the same notion in a way.
I would think growing up surrounded by the evidence of one of our oldest cultures would compound this understanding. In America, we don’t have that. We’re a young culture, and we tell children they can be anything they want to be. We have to hide our dissatisfaction, whereas Europeans, certainly the French, they know that part of life is understanding the decay.
Some of my favorite writers are the ‘60s French writers — Camus, Sartre, and the rest of the existentialists. Part of why that all appealed to me was that I was reading things that I’d been feeling for such a long time but couldn’t properly phrase when I was 15 or 16. That’s why I’m always affected by the French.
That’s the perfect age, when we’re still forming our worldview. What were your teen years like?
I had a very early digestion of what happened in my childhood. What other people do when they’re 30, I did it alone in my teens. It was tougher to grow up because of family relationships. When I was in elementary school, I wasn’t conscious of everything, how bad it was. My teens were when it hit me. I’d been writing since I was a kid, and I thought I’d become an author. My writing got darker, and I met new friends. We started to watch films other than stuff by Scorsese and Coppola, who are amazing, of course. But this is when other windows opened. Wim Wenders, Gus Van Sant, who made me turn toward films. While watching Elephant (2003), I decided I could make films. It was the first arthouse film I saw; I was 14, and I thought, “I could do that!” It was so elliptical. These things shaped me. I still identify a lot with my decisions and who I was back then. Of course I grew up; I’m 29, but I don’t consider my teenage self different from my childhood or adult self, which is a bit chaotic for me and my friends and my relationships. The fact that there isn’t a pure distinction of time, I see people as units, and it’s weird to me that people look back and say, “I can’t believe I did that when I was 15.” They’re so far away from their souls back then. How can you not believe this? Who were you? I do have that remembrance. I can’t say that this incident fostered this or that, but definitely finding arthouse cinema did cause a lot of introspection.
Jacqueline Lentzou’s “Hector Malot: The Last Day of the Year” had its New York premiere at New Directors/New Films 2019. Her short, “Hiwa,” is available to stream on Kinoscope.