Invisible Life Director Karim Aïnouz on the Power of Melodrama in a Time of Crisis

In the cold winter months, there’s few things more satisfying than a heart-tugging, emotionally overwhelming melodrama, and Karim Aïnouz has delivered just that with Invisible Life. The Brazilian director’s latest film, which won the top prize in its Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year, tells the story of two sisters in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s. It’s a story of love, loss, and fighting for independence in a patriarchal society.

Leonardo Goi said in our Cannes review, “Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life is a tale of resistance. It hones in on two inseparable sisters stranded in–and ultimately pulled apart by–an ossified patriarchal world. It is an engrossing melodrama where melancholia teems with rage, with a tear-jerking finale that feels so devastating because of the staggering mix of love and fury that precedes it. It is, far and above, an achingly beautiful story of sisterly love.”

Ahead of its U.S. release, I spoke with the director about being inspired by a generation of women, the Biblical themes of the film, the power of melodrama (including what he learned from Todd Haynes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder), the stunning cinematography and how Brazil is under attack.

In this film, you were at least partially inspired by your mother and the courageous generation of women in Brazil at that time. Can you talk about the inspiration?

Yes, this is only the second film that I’ve made which is about them, the women in my family. My first film was about my grandma. I was raised in this family which was my grandmother, she had four sisters, and then I had my mom. My first wish to make films, it was not really to make films, it was to make a portrait of her, like a private archive. So this film is like full circle because I only lost my mom about five years ago–just before I read the book actually–and then she passed away and I really wanted people to know what that generation has been through. Because it’s a generation where they were in their 20s in the 1950s and they went through all the struggles of independence, gender inequality, and divorce. So I thought it was important that when she passed away, people knew what she fought for. 

She was the first person in my family who went to university and she wanted to study, but there was no way a woman could go to medical school, so first she studied something to do with agriculture because she couldn’t go to medical school. All the stories I grew up with, and then when she passed away, I thought, wow, no one knows what this woman went through. And she couldn’t re-marry when my dad left. When I read the book I thought it was somehow her life. I need to make this, it is really important. And also because most of these women are alive and I thought this was a great way to do justice for these people who have resisted for so long. 

So when it started it was a way to make that first film I had made about my grandmother without having to make it about my mom. My mother always hated to be on camera. I remember all the photographs I have of her are [puts hand outward in front of his face]. So it just seemed a way to do it not directly. That’s how it started. Then there are all these coincidences. She had one sister, there were two girls. Then her best friend, who was named Guida, she was this woman who was with her all her life. So there were all these things that were the trigger for this. I had the ambition for it to be sort of a fresco of that generation.

See an exclusive clip from Invisible Life below.

There’s this idea of the prodigal son story, but from a female perspective and revising it.

It’s true!

There are themes of redemption and forgiveness throughout.

That’s very nice. Yeah, in some interviews say it’s about the myth of Eurydice and it’s there, but it’s not really there. I think this is so true. I never thought of it that way. It’s very personal. In the book, she goes away and she runs away with the boyfriend she has and lives in the neighborhood she has. So, when I was making the film, that didn’t make any sense because they would find her in two seconds. So I said we have to transform this into something believable. So she runs away with somebody who is from abroad. Again, it’s this thing where you infuse your own stories in the stories you are telling. It’s exactly the story of what happened to my mother. She sort of left and she came to school here, actually, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Then she met my dad and then she went back and they got married and I’m half-Algerian, so they were going to move to Algeria, it was after the revolution. But then she did a stop-over in Brazil because she wanted me to be born in Brazil. I remember her telling me that she didn’t go there to stay there. I was going to be born there and then she was going to keep traveling. And he never came, my dad never showed up. So she needed to stay there. I remember she tells the story she took a plane from New York to Manaus and then in Manaus she had to change planes and fly to my hometown and she’s seven months pregnant. She had left five years before and she can’t believe she’s back. When she tells me this story, she says she didn’t believe she’d be back to stay. So that obviously inspired me to tell the story of this woman and then with the Greek guy and she goes away to Greece. 

And it’s absolutely true what you’re saying. It’s this female version of the prodigal son and it’s very opposite since she’s kicked out and it was not what I was thinking, but it’s exactly what it is. I think what you’re telling me also, makes me think of things in the film–some are intentional but some are not–of how when you shift positions of when are looking at something, it can be completely different. It has to do with the shifting standpoint of looking at it from a familiar perspective. The most obvious thing is the honeymoon. There’s no honey there. It’s the opposite. So I think for me, making this film was a constant exercise–and this is in the book–of looking at history and private history, because it’s a family saga within four walls, from a different perspective. I think the title is interesting because it’s invisibility for whom? The question of melodrama and how I deal with this; this is a melodrama without men, really. Of course, they are the antagonists but the main characters are two women. So it was very liberating, after reading the book, asking how you tell a story from that perspective and have it shift. Sometimes inside out, sometimes upside down. That was a great exercise.

Helene Louvart’s cinematography is beautiful. How did she come on board and what was your approach? There are these scenes where it seems like time almost stops. I think of the first dance scene with these really vivid colors. There’s a Wong Kar-wai-esque feeling where you are locked in this moment in time with them and it may never end.

When I wanted to make this film, within a heightened discussion about identity politics, I did ask myself: should I be making this? Am I entitled to make this? I thought, yes, it’s the story of my mother. I’m entitled to tell the story of my mother. I actually have to. But I think this debate is super interesting because it also makes you question constantly. So I thought, yes, but it’s not her but it’s someone else, but, yes, I could still do it, but how do I do it? I’ve always had very complicated relationships with my DoPs. I had a first DoP, who was a woman. She did all my shorts. She went to school in Cuba. Then I started to do features and she couldn’t do them, so I started to work with a lot of different DoPs and they were great, but I always had this memory, being queer. I get on the set and there’s this really macho thing with the ACs. I remember going to set on my second film and they were talking about a soccer game between takes. I thought it was so disrespectful. It’s not their fault, but there was always this energy… with this film I thought it was important to have a woman behind the camera and to have a crew of women behind the camera. Not only her, but thinking like a theater, to have the actors surrounded by women’s energy around them.

Hélène came about because I had seen Alice [Rohrwacher]’s first film Corpo Celeste and we connected with a mutual friend. We’re kind of from the same generation and it’s the first film I’ve done in digital. I really wanted someone who had been on a film set and had the discipline of celluloid and also that had a repertoire in which I could discuss how I wanted this film to be. She had never been to Brazil before. She didn’t speak any Portuguese. I’m thinking: how is this going to work? But it was great. She did amazing work. She was very respectful to the country and the way she looked at the place. She got along very well with the actresses. We both had this mistrust of digital from the outset. We both thought, why do we need so much resolution? So we did a lot of tests from the beginning. I actually said, I don’t want grain. I want noise. This is electronic. I thought it would be really interesting to have this vibration of noise in a movie that is from the 1950s. I think it’s very important that if you saw this movie in 2060, you would know it’s from the ‘50s but that it was shot in 2018. 

Melodrama is one of the few kinds of films that’s translatable in any culture, when you’re seeing this kind of pure emotion on screen. I’m curious about your experience in the past as a film lover watching melodramas, if there’s anything that has grabbed you early on and how you feel about the term itself? 

I grew up watching melodrama without knowing what a melodrama was. I grew up watching soap operas in the 1970s. It was the military years so a lot of stuff had to be done through metaphor. Basically feminine stories, always upper class. Politically they were not that interesting, but emotionally they were super well-crafted. I grew up watching three of them a day and in Brazil they last eight months. In the afternoon, there were also a lot of American films playing that were dubbed that I didn’t know what they were. In Brazil, we go to school in the morning, then I’d watch American films in the afternoon on TV then the soap operas at night.

I come to live in New York and I start to work in cinema, and I’m working primarily in documentaries in NYU Film Studies. My main field of interest was experimental documentaries. I started working with Todd Haynes and I remember that he told me that there’s this series playing at the Public Theater about Douglas Sirk and I thought who the fuck is Douglas Sirk? I thought he was talking about a circus! [Laughs.] I go and I remember sitting there and seeing this diamond and Lana Turner coming on the screen, thinking I know this! These are some of the films I had been watching I was growing up that I didn’t know what they were about but I kept a very strong memory. Since then I knew I wanted to do something like this but I didn’t think I was ready. I would watch a lot of them and I discovered Fassbinder which really made my life turn upside down because politically I thought: how could someone be so precise about post-war politics in Germany like he was and so outrageous as well? It was something that was always in my mind. It’s different than what Todd would go on to do later in Far From Heaven. There’s a sense of quotation and I was more interested in the sense of translation. When you talk about international melodrama, there’s declinations of the genre in different cultures. You can talk about Arabic melodrama, Egpytian melodrama, Indian melodrama, or Mexican melodrama. What I was really interested in when I started to make this project was: how can I make this local, contemporary, now? And a way which is disrespectful to the canon in a way, because the canon is sometimes queer, sometimes masculine, sometimes very conservative. I started to study making a melodrama theoretically, and I remembered [Thomas] Elsaesser, who said it’s one of the most productive genres in a moment of crisis because you can actually talk about highly relevant political things, but in an obvious way.

You have manuals for a lot of genres, but for melodrama, there’s not that many. So I was trying to search for it through interviews with other directors and people who explored the genre. I remember there was this interview with Fassbinder where he talks about framing the position of the camera. It really made me understand something, which is looking through something–not being in the scene. Being outside of the scene. It’s not easy to decipher the sensation you have when you are not in the scene. It’s very obscene. This for me is what was not interesting in the soap opera development, where it’s always a three-camera situation and the camera is inside the scene. As soon as you are out, there’s a sense of distancing but there’s also another feeling. This is something great that Hélène explored. It’s a genre that allows you to bend it which is more flexible than other genres.

There’s been this brilliant surge of Brazilian cinema in the last few years with Araby, Divine Love, Good Manners, Bacurau, your film, and more. How do you think this increased attention towards Brazilian cinema will help change the way culture is being treated in your country? 

A lot has been happening in the last three months, very brutal acts. We never got congratulations after Cannes, neither me nor Kleber [Mendonça Filho] or Juliano [Dornelles] and the films are winning prizes at every single festival. It’s been a really brilliant year. They started to dismantle the National Film Agency as part of his new project of destroying the country. Two weeks ago this person came into the National Film Agency and she ordered they take down all of the Brazilian posters off the walls and there was no answer, but I kind of know the answer. She is evangelical and the images are profane.

Then there was a screening of our film three days ago for the staff of the agency and it was canceled on Monday. I got this news that the seeing is canceled because a projector is broken and I thought this just can’t be possible. We are trying to get an answer. Yesterday she was fired by a guy who is a criminal lunatic on the grounds of corruption. There has been an uprise and today there is going to be a major public screening of the film by the staff of the film agency.

All of this is to tell you, we are under attack. It was really pathetic and painful, but we are under attack in the year that perhaps is the most exuberant year in Brazilian cinema of the last fifteen year. I don’t have much to say because there is not much to be said. We are trying to have a dialogue and there is no dialogue. I think if there is no dialogue, then we need to occupy. That is what I have been proposing in the last 24 hours. We do free screenings, not of my film, but I think Bacurau should and others too.

It’s proof that not only the film industry has been completely decentralized, but that there is an entire amazing generation making amazing films and they need to be celebrated and not assassinated. I’m more thinking in a pro-active manner because it’s very perverse the way it’s been done. The agency was going to be stopped and closed down, but now they decided not to stop and infiltrate and now there is this clear wish to make religious films and films about Brazilian heroes, which means white, rich Brazilian men. It’s a complicated moment to be here in New York, at Lincoln Center with this series. I think this is something that needs to be done. If the doors are being shut there, we need to open them somewhere else. It’s proof we’re alive and kicking. When you look at my generation of directors, it’s 100% white, all upper middle-class, male directors. What I think is great about the new generation is there is this real diversity. At the same time we are being attacked, there’s a sense of renovation. There’s an amazing sense of resistance.

Invisible Life opens in limited release on December 20 and expands in January.

Read more: Kleber Mendonça Filho on Bacurau and How the Brazilian Government is Destroying Culture

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