French director Bertrand Bonello – the poster boy of New French Extremity cinema – continues to split critics with his hyper-stylised, genre-defying, often violent films. Released this January, his latest film House of Tolerance is a lushly visual exploration of the lives of prostitutes in the backstreets of Paris during the Belle Epoque. As the film is launched on DVD. Bonello talks to movieScope about the film’s genesis…
House of Tolerance is an ensemble film with many actresses on screen at the same time throughout the film. How did you sustain that creative momentum and sense of naturalism, take on take?
That was perhaps the most difficult thing. We spent a long time on the script, even if the film does not look very written or mechanical. I’ve never spent so long on a script, trying to find the right words.
We had to do the same amount of work on editing. We were in the edit for six months trying to find those moments on the take that aren’t maybe the best moments but bring some distinct image to the sequence. I spent a long time working on the words and even longer working on the images.
Did the film change in the editing process?
The six months of editing weren’t there to change the film but to make it live. The first version of the film was very similar to the last one but nothing was working. You cannot say “It does not work because of this or that.” You have to search and search and try and try, and eventually something happens.
Is editing purely instinctive, or can it be taught?
It is very instinctive yes. And this film taught me one thing; that I know nothing. This film taught me more about cinema than all the others put together. When I started cinema I had a lot of theories. Now I have no theories at all.
What did you learn?
That you have to try everything. Sometimes things seem so obvious, but don’t work. And sometimes something will work that is really weird. It sounds stupid, but it’s very important to trust cinema, because it’s a very powerful tool. You have to trust the power of editing, the power of face and light.
How would you describe your creative process? Where do the ideas come from?
Usually I go into my room at night and I listen to music and I try to let the ideas come, and then next morning I look over what I’ve done. I usually write for about three weeks and then decide if it’s worth spending years on it.
You used to work as a conductor. Are the skills of a conductor and director very interchangeable?
I try to think of the films more like a big musical piece rather than filmed theatre for example. I think I’m more at ease with sound than image. With editing I always work in a rythmic way, and when I’m working with the actors on set sometimes I just close my eyes and if they sound good, I’m sure they are good.
If you were starting out in cinema now, what would you do differently?
It’s a crazy time to start because of the way technology has changed – it’s now very democratic. Which is good, but it has a price. I’m not very old, but when I started I was still working with film. Now it is obvious to use digital, and so there are lots of filmmakers. If I started now, I would just shoot. I wouldn’t even write a script, although that goes against my sensibilities in some senses; I’m very classic.
Jean-Luc Godard is planning on shooting a film in 3D. Is that something you might be interested in?
I don’t believe that much in 3D. Back in the seventies, France Ford Copolla said: “If we need glasses to go the theatre, it would not work.” Cinema is about watching something, not being inside the film.
What motivates you?
It’s to try to find grace, somewhere, sometime.
House of Tolerance is out on DVD now from Universal Pictures UK (Ltd)