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Albert Serra Interview (Liberté)

Albert Serra is a Catalan filmmaker whose films have explored themes of literary adaptation, formalism, history, and the combination of the artificial and the natural. His latest feature, Liberté (2019), premiered at Cannes where it won Un Certain Regard’s Special Jury Prize. The film explores the complex nature of desire and the power dynamics inherent in this friction, told through the lens of 18th Century French aristocrats who have constructed an ad hoc cruising spot in the woods to pursue the limits of pleasure over one night. The film had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where Christopher Heron talked once again to Albert about the project’s roots in an installation, the nature of acting, Utopia, Sade, Bataillie, and Houellebecq.

The Seventh Art: Where did the first idea for Liberté come from?

Albert Serra: I don’t know if you remember or know, but I did a play for this-

There was the play and also the installation.

The installation is another story, because I did the play and then they order the installation in the Reina Sofia [Museum in Madrid]. It was interesting because we didn’t have time to think about a new work for the installation. There was a lot of conceptual stuff we shot, because it was very chaotic, one single space, a lot of abstract themes, strange images that you can see in the feature film, too… some of them. There were even more abstract and crazy things that were more arty and we decided to simply make the installation with the same images from the film. We were very lucky, it was very interesting for us, because we found some kind of key point in editing the film: a confusion of being immersed. Because the installation is two screens [on either side of the room] and it’s even more shocking because there are four sound sources. So we had to mix it some more, because it’s not just what you have [on one screen] is where the sound is coming from.

You want to get the viewer to turn around.

Yeah, the idea of the total confusion of being in the middle of the action, you don’t know who is looking, who is the point of view of the images, the point of view of the people in the images… So we thought that this could also be the key point of the edit of the film in some sense. There are characters, plot, not just abstract, organic, immersive approach, but there is a bit of objective point of view of the story behind it. The key point of the confusion of point of view, the sensual… In fact, some people who are dismissing the film, saying it’s just an installation, it’s too art-y, they were right in some sense, you know? We simply use one screen to feel something that in our minds and in our conception was very nice in two screens, that we’ve fit into one screen. The approach is there, obviously it’s not the whole point of the feature film, there are a lot of interesting things [in it]. I think the people who were dismissing it as not cinema, that [I was] just playing with images, it’s the same people who criticize Leviathan (2012) — in this case it’s not Cahiers du cinéma, but a similar point of view — that “this is not cinema, it’s a great amount of images together that create some kind of expressive, strong sensation”… I don’t know why they think this cannot be cinema, this I don’t understand yet. But it’s true in this case, the idea of having two screens preparing for the installation gave us a key point and then we developed it in a more dark way, since there you have characters and a slow tempo, it’s not just visual fascination. It becomes more dark, because you feel the characters and there is a frustration and depression, you cannot have this in an installation because it’s just images, you’re just part of the cruising audience, you cannot feel the frustration.

Or the danger.

Yeah, the danger. Only the narrative can create this feeling of a dark mood of a distortion of a perception of the night. In the installation, you only have the funny side. The distortion of the perception of time and space, your own desire, how things go wrong in some sense, you cannot have this in the installation, but you have it in the film. For me it was obviously much more rich, but there is some sensual common point in the way we edit the film and that the off-screen is quite important and some people find this quite confusing or too art-y. I like it and you have concrete visual material with the time. All the close-ups, in the installation they are visual, but the real-time of one screen, they become something very rough for the perception, not funny.

The theatre piece was more about the text, it has nothing in common. It was the idea that I wanted to make something different, I felt that there was something missing in the theatre piece that we could exploit in a more cinematographic and deep way: feelings with real friction. Theatre is so convention, you have to do rehearsal otherwise everyone is lost. It’s paradoxical that you get more freedom in the cinema where the concept of performance is more possible because you don’t have to communicate with the audience, you don’t have to follow something that is established because of other artists so you don’t get lost with the actors. A real being on a stage, feeling that you’re there and the fatality of what you’re doing, it’s happening in real life with real connections with everyone around in real time, unity of space and time and action… you have more in my way of shooting than in theatre, it doesn’t matter which theatre these days because it is very conservative and boring. Then the edit makes it a little bit artificial and strange, okay, but the feeling of the actors is stronger there than in theatre.

A still from the film Liberte, where a long-shot of a painting-like clearing has two women reclining to the left of the frame and a carriage in the center.
Liberté (2019)

I read that the actors came to location just before shooting, so there was some confusion, their bodies were adjusting to the night shooting schedule, so there was a different energy.

Of course, this was essential, and it’s the cause of some of the dark mood of the actors or some actions in the film, more than the natural friction I always impose — the violence I like to create a little bit to give some energy to the images. This was more essential, they arrive and one day after they were shooting. The schedule was 8 or 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. When you are with friends and you are drunk this [time of the day] is funny, but every day it’s not funny and when you are not drunk, when you have to wait a lot… I like to have everybody ready, all actors, every day and then I decide, if it’s possible for production reasons. If somebody is dressed with the wig or whatever, they have to be paid, so it’s not funny for the producers and they don’t want it. Sometimes I use only three people, but have twelve prepared, or sometimes I use all twelve, there’s no rule. They try to save money by preparing the day before the number of people I need. It’s part of my style to feel things, observe actors even if they’re not playing, to observe who is in form that day and in what direction, who can do a scene with who. To observe is my job and to take from qualities that already exist, which we talked about in our last conversation. You need the actors to be ready, but actors being ready and not acting creates more tension. It’s anguish and combined with night waiting — you are tired and in a mood where you’re not comfortable — it’s a lot of dark process. There’s also the nudity that creates an increased pressure, on top of my usual pressure. There are a lot of elements and this is not funny for them. I try to create also the funny aspect of life, but here it was not so easy, the ludic approach to everything because as you say, the schedule, the nudity, it creates tension.

The dark mood is a frustration with the impossibility with living a proper, normal, satisfying life with your own desires, which has to connect with the desire of others. This frustration I think maybe is more typical of these days, our world, than maybe in the ’60s or the past… with social media, people get used to living a life linked with desire, but without being next to a real person, [where you’re] obliged to do something that doesn’t please you in its totality. In the past, they accepted more the things they didn’t like from the other people. The world was a cruising area, which people can’t imagine these days. In the ’60s, everybody was fucking with everybody, somebody different every day of the week, every body every day of the week. Maybe not in normal families, but it was in the cultural ambiance, which doesn’t happen nowadays, this natural freedom. Obviously AIDS killed everything, both in the gay world, but also in general. It creates fear and this fear transforms into a psychological fear of the other. The pressure becomes more of a menace than a funny partner. The border between a menace and funny partner is more confusing nowadays. All this creates an ambiance of frustration that is more typical of now than the 18th Century or other times. This could also be the class struggle, the domination, that existed more in the past where few privileged people were the owners of others, a symbolic slavery, and slavery exists in the U.S. until Lincoln. It’s not so clear when we have freedom, maybe there’s the liberation of the ’60s, but now we have other problems. The utopia, the cruising area, it’s hard to solve this problem.

From the moment that you don’t live in innocence, my next film is a little bit about this: it’s about a society where there is still some innocence because it’s not developed in the industrial sense, it’s more a melodrama and linked with love, but desire is always a part of love. It’s more clear a fight between if innocence is still possible and what it can give you, if it’s useful or if not being innocent is nowadays. At which point was innocence linked with love whereas now love and interest come together in a very clear way, especially with social media. Can innocence still give you something you cannot find anywhere else?

But this is for the next film, love plays a role. In this film, it’s just about desire and the night. Yesterday I said the film is a poem about the night, maybe one of the most beautiful… They Live by Night (1949) by Nicholas Ray is a poem about the night, so maybe this is in a different way the same type of poem, but a totally different context, totally different society, totally different way of living.

It’s close to Story of My Death (2013) in that way.

Well, for me Story of My Death is a total masterpiece. If it was not mine, I would venerate it in the same way or even more. I try to be humble because it’s mine, but I will venerate this film with all my heart. In this film, there are some parts that come from there obviously, the idea of the night, the idea of perversion — what is perversion? Does it exist or are there simply different desires? Is there a right way to desire? Or is it violence, is the idea of Dracula essentially wrong or is there a part of violence or friction in every moment of desire? You are always imposing something, it’s very difficult to find two that desire in the exact same perfect degree, and if that’s not there, there is friction or forcing. That is a strong subject and when mixed with vanity or power or even Utopia, finding this exact perfect match of desire fitting to everybody… just because we renounce a little bit our own desire and accept the desire of others to try to try and create Utopia. You have two: it’s everything in life.

Thinking about your other films, the search for this is a kind of faith, that you can achieve something higher if they pursue this ritual.

And faith means sacrifices. They sacrifice because they know it’s something bigger than you, you have to sacrifice part of your own human being, your own desire. The perfect world doesn’t exist and this is part of the attraction of living in a real world, but at the same time to create a utopia from this imperfection. You cannot pretend to create a Utopia of something that is already is perfect, pretending that conflict does not exist or that conflict is inherently wrong. Conflict can exist, maybe we should think of life as a sport, it’s a fight. Try to make it as fictional as possible, but it’s a fight and everybody wants to win, no one wants to lose, only stupid people. Maybe this artificial fight of desire made with some rules, that could work, everybody could enjoy — some will lose, some will win, but it will be a sport. You cannot believe that it’s so innocent, you have to believe that it’s for real, violence has to be for real, everything has to be for real. There is some fairness in sport.

In the film, there is a sense of kindness because everyone has to offer something, no one can get what they want on their own.

Of course. There are problems that have no solution other than the kindness of the people that are in the process of having this problem. [Slavoj] Žižek was talking about this a little bit, he said there are problems that no law, no right that can solve, it’s about the kindness of people. Žižek had an example, it’s interesting and linked to the film, where you desire somebody, you get naked with the person, you don’t like him, he’s not having an erection or is not useful, maybe because he’s fatter than you thought, whatever, but there is no law to solve this problem. How do two souls in an intimate but difficult situation find a solution that is not embarrassing for anyone that is nice. But there will still be a fight. [Marquis de] Sade is interesting, because he pushes this idea to the end that desire is something you cannot control. The kindness disappears at some sense and you are in the kingdom of total desire, it’s such an extreme contrast with our thinking, but it touches something deep in an intolerable way. At the same, the Utopia of Sade is that everybody finds a new pleasure, so there is no perversion. For Sade, there is no right way or wrong way to desire, there is a totality of desire. Every character in the books finds a new pleasure they didn’t know and that starts growing up and maybe it creates something in the character to start appreciating strange pleasures that they didn’t know before. They discover singular pleasures that without this would never be enjoyed. This is the ambivalence of Sade, we put the centrality of this problem in the film as also having nice consequences: everybody is able to find a place in this world of desire and any place is as legitimate as any other. It is not the logic of capitalism, it’s the logic of accepting, feeling your pleasure, perversion doesn’t exist. This consequence of finding the singularity of desire, it’s still there and it’s complex. You can live in a deep way this problem, but how do you interact with others? Live in it with them?

Liberté (2019)

Sade is obviously important to this, but were you also thinking of [Georges] Bataille?

Yes, Bataille is not so different from Sade. Sade is the main inspiration for all of them, but theorizes a bit more on the visual part of eroticism. With Sade it was linked with his own life, but Bataille was a relatively normal person.

There’s his mixture of religion.

The consciousness of transgression, the link to depression and transgression. For Sade, this transgression is a global proposal, but Bataille he analyzes it more in a deep way, how it works and visually, too. It’s more analytical and dialectic, Sade is brutal. It’s unfair, it’s about objection, it’s about the brutality of not accepting any rule when we deal with this subject. Bataille is more on the iconographic part, Sade creates it a little bit, but not consciously, some unforgettable images or details that are iconic forms of transgression. Bataille is someone who thinks this is the most precious treasure we have, comparing with religion. The only way to accept any organization of a form of faith, transgression is a part of it and rebellion, the drama of this, the failure of the human being. With Sade, it’s not so evident that he has this idea of the total failure.

There is one character in Bataille who is from Barcelona during the civil war, [Henri] Troppmann, in the short novel, Le bleu du ciel. This character is interesting, he’s linked with the male main character of my film, this permanent dissatisfaction, that desire is obsolete, there is no desire that can give him a minimum energy to keep on living. It’s not an existential desire, it’s a little bit connected to existential writing, but it’s more organic. It’s linked with functioning physically. One of the characters in my film says, “We all have the same organs and they all work in the same ways.” This consciousness of the physical functioning of desire and our organs, it’s completely destroyed, it doesn’t work any more for strange reasons — we don’t really understanding, it’s linked with alcohol and depression. It inspired me a little bit and in fact, it reminded me in some sense — it’s completely different, almost stupid what I’m about to say — of the Harvey Keitel main character from Bad Lieutenant (1992). This limit, there it is the drugs and there are the scenes of masturbation or whatever, but it’s the same physical collapse mixed with mental collapse. To be in a position of total power and have total failure, not functioning any more in thinking, in real life, in desire, in a practical way to have physical relationships and the physical space, night life, day life, all of it. In literature, you still have some kind of descriptions that can help, but in images, it’s difficult [to show], it’s such an internal process, but I think they got some of it.

For me, it was a dream to make a theatre piece about [Troppmann’s] character and develop in theatre what it is even more difficult, because with a camera you can catch something, because the camera can get something. Theatre is more difficult, it’s an open space, the audience is far, but I think the conflict of this character can be exaggerated as everything is done in theatre these days because it needs to be understood from afar by idiots. It is one of my dreams to put this character, Troppmann, on a stage and do it with theatre. It’s somehow connected with Casanova, as well, because in some places Story of My Death, it looks like he’s crying, but then he smiles and is loving, there’s a metaphysical, psychological collapse there, the confusion is total. There is connection with Story of My Death, it’s a clear side on the sexual side of Liberté and there is a connection with this dream project for me. I didn’t check if someone has already made a theatre adaptation of this Bataille novel. I will check it, I have an offer to do something with theatre in Paris.

A man in powdered make-up and wig looks at the camera in a forest.
Liberté (2019)

Did you find that how you make films parallels the story of Liberté? There is a tension where you and the actors both need something?

Yes, yes. It’s like with desire, it’s how far you go. Imagine I want to seduce you and fuck you, to put it simply, to seduce in a nice way, and you don’t know if you want it. It’s very difficult to find two people connecting in a super perfect with the exact same degree of desire at the same moment. Anything else, at the most normal, will be a friction, somebody has to do something first: somebody has to receive something, somebody has to impose something, somebody has to risk something. In cinema, it’s not desire, but it’s the idea of respect, being respectful and disrespectful morally with the people who work with you, the actors in general. From my personal point of view, that works with my system of three cameras with my background, my past, my crew, you cannot get anything interesting if you are not a little bit disrespectful with the actors. It doesn’t mean you do something wrong, but first of all you have to dismiss them a little bit, this is important. I don’t believe that it’s possible to create energy in the images with everybody in the same direction. I think rebellion is necessary and the images with this rebellion will have a richness that you cannot get with any other means from my point of view. You cannot create fake rebellion, just as you cannot fake innocence. These are things that are impossible, then it’s a game, it’s ridiculous. In Story of My Death there is one girl who is innocent and the other is the “pervert”. Perverted is artificial so it works with cinema, the idea of the femme fatale in cinema has a long and very well regarded examples, but the innocent girl? You don’t remember. We don’t remember because innocence doesn’t work with professional actors or cinema, it’s something that has to be real and to be innocent you are not in a film, you are not a professional actor. You cannot fake innocence, it’s very difficult or impossible, I would say. Rebellion is a little bit the same thing, you cannot create fake rebellion, fake rebels don’t exist. The femme fatale is an artifice, you are playing a game, but a rebellion is not a game.

For me, being disrespectful, even actors don’t understand it exactly, it can create misunderstandings. Obviously, I am being disrespectful because I do not respect them, it would be a fake rebellion from my side otherwise. To create the true rebellion from their side, I have to be a real rebel on my side as a filmmaker by dismissing them, being disrespectful in the sense that I do not appreciate what they do, I do not appreciate them when they get to set because they are full of vanity. I can tell you the truth: I’ve worked with unprofessional actors a lot in my life and the second they are shooting, they think they are fucking stars and they behave as if they are the stars — some more, some less, but in general you’d be shocked how quickly and easily this feeling grows in the mind of these people. They really love it and easily, you don’t need to push them. Maybe then it’s time to be disrespectful and it’s a good reason. Sometimes there is a strong answer, especially in this film with nudity, it creates a separate tension. My films are done this way because I think all other means will be boring and I don’t believe we can all go in the same direction. I don’t buy it. Otto Preminger thought the same way as me, I’m not the only one in film history — John Ford — other people thought that this was the only way. Sometimes this ambiance is very nice and everything, but what counts is the image. To have a great time, we can live our own lives and if we have money we can invite all of them to spend some holidays wherever and it will be very funny and nice, we don’t need to create friction, but if we’re talking about being artists and creating images, maybe this isn’t enough. It’s strange that anyone can [try to] convince me that even in normal films with real rebellion and being disrespectful, that aesthetically things will not be better. The actors will be more interesting, more complex, not just because of the rebellion that creates violence, but just because it makes them think a bit, makes it more rich. The psychological violence is just an aspect, it creates an instability, a disruption. Nowadays this word is used all the time, the “disruptive” element makes you improve in some sense, we use it with companies and business. It can also work for actors.

I am kind of an expert with this, I am writing a book now that will be published soon. It’s a book of conversations with a friend of mine, it’s about the role of acting. My friend, someone I’ve known for a long time, is a specialist in the art of acting. There is theory, Greek and Roman tragedy, but the real theory starts with the comedia dell’arte, then it develops in the 20th century with Michael Chekhov, [Konstantin] Stanislavski. [My friend] is a specialist of the theory of acting, focused on theatre. It is missing one conversation and then we will do comments about three films that are quite interesting: One-Eyed Jacks (1961) by Marlon Brando is quite interesting psychologically to talk about what is acting in cinema, Medea (1969) by [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, and the third one he wanted to talk about a film I disliked a bit — not dislike, but I don’t know at what point it’s interesting — Sergio Leone’s last film, Once Upon a Time in America (1984). I think it’s a bit more boring, I like the film. In fact, I prefer One Upon a Time in the West (1968), the character played by Jason Robards is very strange. We will have to find another, I think there are more interesting examples. Another totally different way is [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder himself, I wanted to make a chapter of directors acting. I propose some times to cinematheques to do [a retrospective].

Brando directs One-Eyed Jacks, right?

Of course, this is what is totally fascinating about the character in the film, because he himself is directing. There is a confusion that goes to a high level, we’ll discuss it. He knows what he knows as an actor, but he’s controlling everything as a director. It means that the Stanislavski method and Stella Adler, these two points of view inside of the same brain, it doesn’t happen often, especially as a director. This film is very interesting because of this. With some details of the character, there are interesting things to say about this total immersion that includes the objective outside point-of-view. There’s the novelist that writes the novel, but is also the character in the novel, you can’t have these two perspectives in the same body, the same consciousness.

It’s also interesting when a novelist directs their own adaptation.

[Norman] Mailer did.

Mailer did, Michel Houellebecq did with The Possibility of an Island (2008).

I haven’t seen it, but I heard it was bad. The book is very interesting, all of his books are interesting except The Map and the Territory. It’s horrible, it’s boring and only — as always — the description of the province in France and the changes in the last few years, because I know the region where the artist lives, but the plot is ridiculous. The description of the methodology of the police is not so bad, but fortunately he made two masterpieces afterwards: Submission and Serotonin. He’s a master, the most important writer under 60 and should get the Nobel Prize. Nobody has described the contemporary world, especially Europe, better than him. How he deals with capitalism, sociology, technology, feelings, how people relate. The last one is a masterpiece in a visionary way, predicting things that will happen soon. For example, there’s a small detail, I asked a lot of people who read the book a simple question: in the book, there are lots of things that are totally realistic in the way people behave, but there is one detail that is not realistic at all. No one answered the question, but it’s obvious: in the two protests, the farmers are armed. This has never happened anywhere in the civilized world, they are armed with guns. The police are there and the people are there and they’re both armed, because they’re hunters, farmers. There are 2000 people there that are armed. The first time, the police convince people to go home, the second time: people are dead. This is shocking, because he’s predicted things before and now one day, we can see poor people distraught by capitalism in Europe protesting with arms. In left-wing people dealing with images, especially documentaries, it’s more boring because it’s more predictable. If I had to make a documentary, I think it’s more interesting to make a documentary about the good things about the bad people or the bad things about the good people, if possible mix both aspects. With these people, we all agree with what they say. With Houellebecq, it’s more difficult to agree unless you are a free reader like me or like you, formalists. Content is important, but we appreciate it as a writer, an artist, a creative mind. When you are so focused on content, you lose a little bit the point and it’s typical what you can say. To keep the freedom, like he does, to deal with unfair moments, but not to create ridiculously moralist literature.

Linking Liberté with this Troppmann character, don’t simplify it, don’t make it more understandable, don’t be scared. My favourite moment of the film is the fucking guy that’s always touching himself over the trousers, even people I respect and really love, they say, “Albert, why is that guy always touching himself?” I said, “Fuck, it’s what we really loved in the editing room, me and the editors, let’s do it again! For us, this was a very important, key point, some kind of ugly psychology, we like to push and repeat.” I think the film goes and it pushes at this point in an ugly aspect without fear of being boring or repetitive because to focus on these ugly things, it’s about life and not being a moralist — enjoying the ugly things in your own images. Not pretending anything, it’s a primitive thing, even if it’s sophisticated, it’s brutal in some sense. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but not calculating signification, meaning, communication or absolutely anything. Being brutal in what you really like, being spontaneous. I will explain my methodology of editing another day, but I created it myself and it’s linked with being very primitive, you put what you like and that’s all. No thinking about what will happen afterwards, just putting what you like.

Do you think the average audience member is like Lluís [Serrat]’s character, they’re present and watching but not participating? Maybe denying themselves the pleasure?

It’s the voyeuristic aspect of cinema, you can see everything. It’s a wild character, you cannot transform him, he’s one of the purest jewels of cinema we have nowadays. It’s like what [Salvador] Dali said about Harry Langdon, I translated a part of it. It’s very beautiful text about the silent actor, it’s about this purity, the innocence of an actor where his body always goes ahead. It’s much more interesting than the mechanics of [Buster] Keaton or [Charlie] Chaplin at the beginning because the body goes ahead of thinking or ahead of the sensation. It’s like a pure animal, like a flower. You cannot control this, it’s so nice, I don’t need to create any friction. It’s the purest, nicest concept of acting that you can ever have. We talk about this a little bit in the book. I was lucky, simply. It puts a context, my films will be more perfect in their methodology each time because I learn more things, but this presence that is impossible to pervert – it’s nice, the more pure it is the more nice it is. When he’s playing the role of a strange guy, in the next film he’s playing the role a pervert, a bad person, but he does it in the same way. There is no change, the way to face performance in front of the camera is exactly the same. It’s quite paradoxical because as I said, innocence and perversion require different means to define a character, it cannot be done the same way unless you are a stupid actor. I don’t know, he does it the same way and the purity is always ahead of everything, the body goes ahead of everything and the camera can capture this, you don’t have to do anything. This presence that is so pure, in the context of this film and the things that will arrive, in an extremely sophisticated and chaotic way of dealing with actors and subjects, it’s more interesting every time. It’s there, it’s still there, it’s a purity that plays a nice role from my point of view to create different sensations. It’s a great reward for the intelligent audience that can understand this. I like him very much, he’s unique. There in the last shot, you cannot pay with money for this. You have the best actor in the world, he won’t be able to do this. You can ask the actor to copy this, “Do this, copy this, we want this,” it’s impossible, it doesn’t matter how good they are or how long you do your casting. I was lucky and the audience is lucky, too, with me. I will write about him. ❏

Our interview with Albert Serra was conducted in September of 2019 and is part of our TIFF 2019 coverage, along with interviews with Pedro Costa, Thomas Heise, Eloy Enciso, and Ben Rivers.

By Christopher Heron

Christopher Heron is one of the co-founders of The Seventh Art. He's conducted over 60 long-form interviews for the publication, while also writing and cutting several numerous video essays that investigate formal traits in films and filmmakers. He received his MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, where his work explored cinematic representations of urban space with special attention paid to the films of Pedro Costa and Tsai Ming-liang.