It’s a misty morning in the North of Greece and Albert Serra is nursing a cold. The enfant terrible filmmaker behind Birdsong, The Story of My Death, and The Death of Louis XIV has arrived at the Thessaloniki film festival as a guest of honor, here to present his 5 features to date–a growing oeuvre of uniquely provocative films that owe about as much to cruising flicks, perhaps, as they do to the Marquis De Sade.
Born in the small Catalonian city of Banyoles in Northern Spain, Serra directed his first feature in 2003 at the age of 23. More often than not set in the 17th & 18th centuries, with an eye for the hedonism of the time and painstakingly presented to look as if they were somehow candidly shot then, his work has both the punch of contemporary subversion and the feel of something that’s been around forever.
His latest, another hypnotic provocation titled Liberté, premiered at the Cannes film festival earlier this year to typically divisive reviews. (We were major fans of it when we caught it at TIFF.) It follows a group of aristocratic Libertines in the 18th Century who, having been cast out of France by Louis XVI for some untold lurid behavior, head to the woods across the border in Germany for a night of sexual deviancy. Were it not for the sniffles, I might never have gotten a word in.
The Film Stage: You once called The Story of My Death an “unfuckable” movie. When later asked about The Death of Louis XIV you said it was a “fuckable” movie. Which category does Liberté fall into?
Albert Serra: This film? Unfuckable. Well no… yeah, well maybe. Because, you know, Louis was done in a more academic way. In all my films, maybe except Louis, it’s very difficult watching the film to understand what was the idea behind it. What was the plot; what was the script? Where was the idea of how the film should be and then you can compare it with the reality of the film. You know, the way I shoot my films, the methodology, is basically… it’s a performance; it’s three cameras; there’s visual concepts; conceptual ideas; but there’s really no plot. I never do rehearsals. I never talk with the actors about the script. It’s really the performance; the vitality of something that happens there. The camera can maybe capture other things that our human eyes cannot because we are a little bit distracted. Because we have ideas, we hear the sound; but the cameras are cold, they never get tired. So it’s very difficult with this methodology to understand, “What was the film?” Because if there was a possible mistake you could imagine the idea of the film and you see the reality. So this would be fuckable. [Laughs] But unfuckable is: you take the whole thing or you don’t take it but you cannot apply a critical judgment in an easy way because it is what it is and it doesn’t look like any other film.
How much of it changed from the stage production?
Well, in the theater there was a lot of dialogue. What was great in the film was this all the time totally changing POV, this confusion, this distortion… you know the film is really about this. It’s a poem about the night, about the lack of logic of the night. So this distorted perception of space, time, of desire, it’s about this. For this reason, you get the light at the end, this logic. You go to a discotheque all this logic disappears and it’s another logic. And I like it because the idea that the logic of the night is sterile, unproductive… During the day you do productive things, something you do now is increasing or developing; there is a logic of improvement and memory that structures our way of living. The memory creates the possibility of development.
In the night it’s a little bit ugly this sensation, but at the same time when we’re there we are perceiving this logic as a pure, autonomous, and intense logic. But it’s deceiving somehow because it’s sterile, infertile–it doesn’t create anything. And for this reason a lot of businessmen of the night, the owners of discotheques or whatever, they are not people morally very you know, because they live in this lack of logic. And they make business in this logic. So every day for them starts from zero, so you cannot create moral behavior. So the film was to really go deep on this atmosphere then mix it with Libertinage, 18th century. It starts in a decorative way, a capricious way: some aristocrat wants to kidnap some young sisters or nuns or whatever but then it goes gradually towards the arbitrary, to the unfairness.
Your other titles have been so direct. Are we to take the Liberté of the title as totally sincere?
It’s a provocation. It is the only part of the film that is a provocation. There is nothing in the film that is a provocation. Everything corresponds with what the film needs from the formalist point of view. But the title, okay, it means: if you don’t do this you are not free. Liberté is this; it is freedom, not anything else. If you don’t arrive at this point, you are not free. You are just a bourgeois.
It’s your fourth film to focus around this time period. What is it about that moment?
It’s very interesting, no? Linked with this film, Liberté, the idea that for the first time they think about desire. So before you didn’t think about desire, you simply use it. If you are rich you use it in a more open way and if you are poor… maybe too, but differently. The idea of starting to think about something that was, until that point, just almost physical and to think about it in a perverted way. Then intimacy gets in somehow because you think about yourself and about your needs; that it’s not only a need physiologically to fuck or reproduce, it’s something that became more stylish, something to think about.
And okay this is the start of this and at the same time in parallel there is a start of thinking about society. People start to think: huh, maybe we have rights; maybe society can be organized in a different way. Before it was just strongest in different forms–the monarchy or whatever; the republic in Rome. The idea was the strongest one was the one who ruled the thing and the other ones simply obey. But then it was: well no, maybe it will not only be the strongest, maybe there are some rules apart from this idea. So they think about themselves again in organization, or in science, or philosophy also. It changed the perspective. And atheism starts the idea that this can be thought in a different way… and then it’s interesting because you’ve got the revolution.
There’s a sense that it’s the end of this decadence.
Yes, I like it. If you’ve read the memoirs of Casanova that I deal with in The Story of My Death. I don’t know, it’s this ambiance. You perceive a little bit this need of something. Something is moving. I like it, and it’s the beginning of our modernity and somehow we come back in a lot of aspects.
Do you see it mirrored today in some way?
Mirrored? Just to compare with nowadays, to see what’s going on and what happened… obviously the level of desire we developed since Freud and all this thinking of the 20th century, we have developed in a much more sophisticated way. Much more sophisticated but, for example, the film is a little bit inspired by Marquis De Sade. There is nothing that went farther than Marquis De Sade because the reason why it’s still so subversive, it’s the idea of the real unfairness–total unfairness in front of your eyes. And it’s not that they think about how to make a provocation, or that it’s a game, no no no. It’s powerful people taking profit from other people until all imaginable limits. Nothing else. So this total unfairness, this objection, it’s still nowadays subversive. It shocks us, it touches us [bends over clasping stomach] in a way that is difficult.
I like to think at the end of the film there is a little bit of this. With the accumulation of what’s going on in the film, you feel a little bit this frustration, this perspective that is more contemporary, that is more after Freud. There is really a friction. It’s very difficult to satisfy our desires with other people because in this friction there is always a problem, something that is unsolved inside. I think the film talks a little bit about this. MeToo and all these things are a little bit about: my rights, my desires, what I deserve, what I want. It’s not what you want in cruising areas, it’s about allowing yourself to be used by others. It’s a different perspective: I don’t want anything. I am here to serve you; to give my body; for me to sacrifice and for you to use me or to take pleasure with me, or whatever. But it’s not thinking about: what I think, what I feel, what I desire. I think it’s typical in cruising areas still nowadays. For example, there was some news in the newspaper, that AIDS is increasing a little bit. AIDs, in the gay community, in all the last years was going down down down but now in the last years it is a little bit going up because there are these kinds of parties and they are using some sort of drug where you are totally losing your consciousness and they don’t use protection.
But this idea that because of this drug, or whatever, the idea, conceptually, of allowing yourself to be used by others, I think it’s quite subversive still nowadays because it’s against the contemporary egoism. Sometimes I think about this aspect and I think: could you imagine the Second World War, all the people that sacrifice, just on the invasion, the D-Day. The Americans, Canadians, the U.K. people… I mean millions and millions. Sometimes because I read a lot about it, I think: nowadays, who will sacrifice? You are there disembarking on this beach–you’ve seen the Spielberg film?
Yes, I have–shot in Waterford.
Yes, and you think, 70% or 80% of the first people will die. Who will go now to save in Europe?! Americans and Canadians, to go to Europe to do what?! I mean, what are we doing here? 80% disembarking at the beginning will die! And people were going there. So the idea of contemporary heroism is also a little bit linked with this idea of desire–what I want, what I need.
You’re still living in Catalonia. Isn’t some sacrifice happening there right now?
Well, yes, it’s a new trend for the young people, especially in these riots. Four people lost one eye, another one was testicles. There’s nobody dead yet but I mean there are people that are suffering strong consequences. There is a lot of people in jail; 23 people–not the politicians, from these riots. So, I mean, it’s interesting because it’s about how you deal with things because in Spain it’s the laws says this, the constitution, whatever. But the laws said women couldn’t vote; the segregation of black people; but the law changes. If we followed the law we’d be following the law of the Roman empire and nothing will have changed. Because of the law, it’s the law and there is no law that can’t be broken. Because if not it would not be a law, it would be another thing.
So I don’t know, these are rights that you have to probably get with sacrifice. Only with the sacrifice, probably of a lot of people, will people get some things. It’s also linked with the evolution of the European Union. As I hate too much the European Union in general because I think it’s a totally failed concept nowadays. Because if you lose the English, which is very painful even if they were never in very deep with this idea, it’s important.
A domino falls.
Yes. I don’t like the European Union, how they behave. I’m quite against. Maybe the future will change a lot because now everything is about the economical union. They only made the Euro. First thing, the only obsession was to make the Euro and to make it easy for, you know, companies to make money. Have you read Thomas Piketty the economist? He made a book about inequality. It has increased a lot in the whole 20th century but especially in the last 30 years. So European Union, what are they doing? Just economical business. Even the fucking president, this Barroso, when he left he went to Goldman Sachs to work. And the other one, this Juncker, he was from Luxemburg, was the one helping Amazon and all these companies to not pay taxes in Europe. And these are the presidents.
We shared, in the past, cultural values. It’s a little bit a subject of the film and the other films I made about this (The Story of My Death, The Death of Louis XIV), this idea of Europe, of utopia–because Europe is the only society that really allows an extremely critical thinking about itself. This doesn’t exist in other cultures. Asia it’s very difficult, and in the U.S. it’s a patriotic thing. Europe was so sophisticated until perversion [laughs], but it was all the time evolving because of critical thinking, extremely critical thinking about itself. This doesn’t exist anywhere else. This idea, I think, is what made the richness of its culture. This was forgotten and it was only about economy.
So I don’t know, this concept that with the U.S., the European Union should have an army to protect our territory and our values, especially. Is this what you will think, if you want to create a community? You can think: no I’m not on the military side, and I respect that. But all the states have military so imagine, if you really want to create a European Union, the concept of creating a community, there needs an army defending our values or our territory. It’s a normal idea, you know the States… I think that will create the sensation that we are sharing something, for example. They didn’t do it, only money money money. So this is the idea: you started with money, you will DIE with money. And I will be there to be a witness. I won’t be happy because a lot of people will suffer and I imagine there will be a crisis worldwide, but there will be countries that will suffer less.
I don’t know what will happen but I’m very sad because of this because it was really old Europe and there is nothing similar. Because nobody has this memory of richness, of craziness, of these fights… there was a lot of violence to create the complexity of our sensibility.
You mentioned De Sade earlier. How much of an influence was his work on Liberté?
I mean obviously if you want to simply illustrate what Marquis de Sade wrote do a gore film. I don’t know, this spirit of the arbitrary… this idea of dehumanization. This is the paradox, because—I think the film deals with this—this possibility of satisfying our desire or having perfectly harmonious feeling with the other when we are in this process of… the possibility of establishing relations–physical relations with desire with the other–without friction; it looks very difficult nowadays because there is always friction; there is always higher and deeper things; unsatisfied things… it’s very difficult to find an harmonious relationship in the sexual aspect.
So maybe the only way was this idea of the cruising area where you are used. But it’s true that with this attitude of the cruising area—of allowing yourself to be used by others—there is some kind of dehumanization, maybe, because they really treat you as an object. So I don’t know, in Marquis de Sade this is very clear: that to satisfy your desire there is no friction because you use others as objects. This aspect is so subversive and so strong. I think that it’s an interesting approach but also it’s critical because if you look for this lost harmony of sexuality we have to become less human; we have to sacrifice ourselves. So this is the paradox, this tension. And what you see in the film is very cold. This is the darkest psychological aspect of the film because when you allow yourself it’s utopia, but at the same time your soul is somehow lost. The human aspect is somehow lost.
Do you think you will ever make a contemporarily set film?
Yes! Now I am preparing. It’s a little bit political. It’s not happening in Europe; it’s with European people but it’s far East. But it’s touching a little bit these subjects and especially how these subjects have also crossed with intimacy. It’s a melodrama. It’s about love and interest. What is very common nowadays [laughs] you know, the mix between love and interest and, maybe, this topic: if it’s still possible, romantic love; if it’s still possible in the context of nowadays or the context of our society or, a little bit, the context of the fucking Europe we were describing.
What stage are you at?
I already got a little bit of finance. Now we are waiting for finance because it’s a coproduction in some other countries but I already got some money in Spain so just waiting for some answers in France, Germany, and Portugal. It’s not an expensive film so should be done, I think quite soon.
Your last three have had this particular painterly style. Is this something you’ll continue with?
Yes, of course. It’s always–what I try to experiment with the DOP, the cinematographer–it’s always the same. I don’t take care of this during the shooting, almost nothing. But before the shooting, yes. We really talk about it; we choose the cameras; we really develop how the film will look like. But not during the shooting.
Does that help when shooting something with a period setting?
Especially when you deal with this historical subject. To really concentrate it on the performance, the organic approach, things can really be as strong as if we were there. It’s not a cliché; it’s not an image from the past; it really grows up in front of you. I don’t want to be focused on the light or other aspects. To really create this idea of present; to really observe the actors; to really go through the spaces, in their minds or in their bodies or whatever. That can really increase the sensation of organic. So I’m very very focused on this in the shooting. I think it’s what creates, a little bit, the quality of my films, or at least these ones that are period. It’s really intense and it’s never a cliché. It’s never an illustration of what we know or what we have read about the subject. And this was a little bit interesting with Louis XIV because, you know, it’s a very big subject. But then you take–for example with the portrait of the illness–a very cold and modern approach, non-dramatic.
The decay. There’s no heroism; there’s no epic; it’s nothing. It’s just going down down down. There’s no [laughs] last big sentence; no last thinking; no moving moment. It’s just degradation of body and mind. So the mix of those two things–this décor, that it’s baroque, it’s a story that’s very well known–traditionally they will put you on an ending that’s epic, just to make it more interesting. But then you see that the film is quiet; it’s quite cold and the description is quite clinical. The description of this illness is that he is moving less less less; he’s talking less less less; and then it’s over. And then they do the autopsy [and it’s] over.
This increases the organic approach. I don’t care how the king was. So I want Jean-Pierre Léaud to really play it in a way that it creates this organic feeling. So I don’t care what are the meanings that we’ll get out of this process. And this is the magic of my films, that the meanings will appear always in the very very last moment of the process of making the film. It’s my style.
Liberté will be released in the U.S. in 2020 by Cinema Guild.