Against the soundtrack.
His first film was entitled Désordre as a more than probable reference to Joy Division, and was starred by two young members of a music band. In L’eau froide he remembered how music was enjoyed in his youth, during the seventies by filming some kids dancing, getting drunk and role playing around a fire, while vinyls were played in an anarchic sequence. In Irma Vep, he drove Maggie Cheung mad through Sonic Youth at their most drilling, and after that, in Clean, he made the actress play a music star who has hit rock bottom. In Clouds of Sils Maria he made Kristen Stewart vomit to the grooves of Primal Scream’s Kowalski, and in his most recent work, Personal Shopper, he stripped her under the influence of Marlene Dietrich…
Music and musicians are essential to understand the cinema of Olivier Assayas (Paris, 1955), who has always resisted to pledge to the conventions of the symphonic soundtrack. Taking advantage of his visit to Seville’s European Cinema Festival, where he presented Personal Shopper within the official section, I sat down with the French director to ask him about his relationship with melomania and the influence it has had in his work. The perfectly articulate discourse of the author of Fin août, début septembre allows us to prove that, indeed, all his films can be read from what we can hear on them.
Tell me how you became interested in music.
I’m afraid the story is not too original… I was born in the French countryside, in a not particularly musical environment, in the sense that my parents weren’t particularly music-lovers. I had a stepbrother, older than me, who was obsessed with Wagner, and he tried to pass on his obsession to me, although it didn’t work. [Laughs]
One day, my father [screenwriter Raymond Assayas, aka Jacques Rémy] went to London on a work trip and when he came back he brought my younger brother [music critic Michka Assayas] and me one of the first EPs by the Rolling Stones. Compared to the French chanson one could hear on the radio, it was like opening a window to the world. After that came the Beatles, Dylan… I must have been around twelve and developed a very strong relationship towards music. To me it was… vital.
I was obsessed by the British underground scene, Pink Floyd, progressive rock… It was amazing, like seeing the creation of a new world. It went beyond music: a new society was emerging. And French TV never even talked about it! My only option was trying to tune Radio Luxembourg, which played the British Top Ten charts, and pray for the signal to reach my home on that day.
Do you remember the first time the use of a song in a film had an impact on you?
Well… I’d say it was Born to Be Wild in Easy Rider. I know is a very typical example, but it’s the first one I remember.
To you, what’s the function of music in film?
Throughout the years, I’ve thought about this a lot. Now I see it as what Guy Debord and the Situationists called a détournement: picking up an element that has its identity and internal logic and including it in your own work, where it resounds in a different way, and this combination manages to transcend what the two signify as separate pieces.
What I do is trying different tracks until, all of a sudden, one of them makes the image look better, and the scene gives the music another nuance. The result must be better than the sum of its parts.
Historically, the use of pop and rock in film has been criticised. Some theoreticians affirm that knowing a given song takes the audience out of fiction.
I totally disagree with that idea. In fact, I don’t like the classic notion of music for films too much. And as a director, one of my obsessions is for things not to be perceived as purely cinematographic. In my opinion, soundtracks are overused in a way that they eliminate reality from the scene.
I believe in a very austere use of music. It should appear at the right moment, and work as an aperture, elevating the film somehow, to later take it back to its place. Sometimes, cinema needs that air, that sonic breathing. But music cannot be an extension of the emotions already present in the film. It shouldn’t be redundant, but dialectical. That’s why when I write or shoot, I never think of the music that will be heard on each scene. Usually, songs end up appearing in places I hadn’t thought of. It’s a question of instinct, and I consider myself lucky to have a certain deal of intuition when it comes to that.
On the other hand, in my films I do not necessarily use the music I like the most, but the one it works better in the context of the sequence. Except in Après mai, where I included songs by Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, the Incredible String Band… that is the music I love. I thought its presence was justified because the story took place at the time those artists appeared and because the characters had the same age and were in the same context I was when I found them. In my other films I didn’t feel I was allowed to touch those songs, they were too important.
Do you think your way of introducing music in your images has evolved or changed in any way?
There’s an obvious aspect that’s different in my first films and my latest ones: right now I am very cautious when it comes to using indie rock songs, because everybody is doing it. It has become the muzak or our times. It’s a bit depressing to hear an interesting new song and then find it after a few weeks in a car advert.
If in my career I’ve mostly used songs instead of original music it’s because it was my own way of creating a soundtrack. The process of trying hundreds of tracks until finding the right one wouldn’t exist with a composer, it’s part of my way of making films. But it had also a lot to do with the fact that it was much cheaper to do this than to have someone compose a whole score. Today, though, it’s quite the opposite: it’s cheaper to record with a philharmonic orchestra than to pay the royalties for a song by a long-forgotten seventies band.
However, your first films did have an original soundtrack. And in Demonlover you asked Sonic Youth to write music for the film.
Yes, but Demonlover was a special case in which I wanted to experiment with a different kind of collaboration with musicians. Although they were songs created exclusively for the film, I was still against the idea of a soundtrack. So the deal consisted in me giving the band the script, and they started creating the sounds the story inspired them, even if they were only sounds, or a drone… While shooting, we initiated a second phase: at the end of each week, I sent them tapes with what we had shot, in rough, and at the same time they sent the pieces they were composing.
To me, that soundtrack is like the sound of the film itself, like listening to an organism in motion.
That was the idea: to have an organic connection, for music to be part of the process of creation of the film. The key moment was when we realised that both the musicians and we were using the same tools. Sonic Youth, as many other bands, recorded with Pro Tools, the same software we used to edit the sound of the film. So they would send separate files with the tracks and the sound editor and I could remix them adapting them to the shape the film was getting.
I’ve always conceived cinema as a conversation with other people. For instance, when I finish a film, I want to know what Claire Denis thinks of it, and I know she will somehow absorb some concepts, and respond by creating her own work. I apply this to musicians as well: all the process of creation of Demonlover was a dialogue with Sonic Youth. They’re friends with whom I think we can communicate in many different ways. For instance, through the way in which Thurston [Moore] approaches improvisation and the intellectualization of a visceral approach to sound. It somehow reminds me of my own relationship towards cinema.
Before Demonlover you had already used Sonic Youth songs. There’s actually a scene from Irma Vep in which their music is very prominent: Maggie Cheung’s alter ego is tumbling around in a hotel room, dressed as Irma Vep and listening to Tunic (Song for Karen) at full blast.
In fact, that is one of the few times in which the script already included the song that would be heard. As I was writing the scene, I could see the actress frustrated by how the production of the film she had gone to shoot was developing, and wanting to go on with the film on her own, dressed as the character. Up to then, the situation made sense, but I wanted to force Maggie into leaving the room, already turned into Irma Vep. And I didn’t have a clue what to do to make it convincing. Around that time I used to listen to Goo a lot and I noticed that particular song had a kind of circular energy that sort of piles up in a hypnotising way. So I thought it could be that feeling created by music what took the character to open the door and get out.
In your last film, Personal Shopper, there’s a scene in which the protagonist experiments a transformation that made me think about the moment of Irma Vep we just mentioned: Kristen Stewart is alone at her boss’ flat while there’s a Marlene Dietrich song playing, Das Hobellied, and at that moment she decides to break one of the norms imposed by her superior and tries the clothes that have been bought.
Hmmmmm…. yes, I can see what you mean. But the process we followed for that scene was very different, because the Dietrich song didn’t appear until a lot later. In fact, I first wanted no music whatsoever for that bit, because silence made it more disturbing, more indecent… But after watching it many times I realised it would work better with some music. At the beginning I included only a fragment, but it started to last more and more until finally I not only put the whole song, but I also repeated it! First we hear it very low and after that at full blast. I think the music and Dietrich’s voice grant the scene an internal dramaturgy; to the shot, in fact, because it’s a single shot. It might be less disturbing than what I had devised at the beginning, but it has a greater effect on the audience, and gives the sequence a specific weight: there you realise something essential is happening, because finally the protagonist looks in the eye all things to do with her own femininity. The song gives the image a resonance it otherwise wouldn’t have.
In Personal Shopper we also hear ancient music played by Jordi Savall. What made you listen to it?
A few years ago I became interested in medieval and baroque music, and I particularly liked Savall’s work. I think there’s something absolutely modern in his approach, due to the simplicity of the instrumentation… and the clarity of the line, to put it somehow. I have the feeling that these archaic pieces have a lot in common with certain contemporary electronic music.
When it comes to Personal Shopper, I knew exactly what I didn’t want for the film, but not so much what it could work for it. Indie rock, as I said earlier, was absolutely a no-no. At a given point I thought about working with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter: apart from him being a friend I really like what he’s done with Gaspar Noé. But as we talked about it, I realised using electronic music for a film that had a clear fantastic element would end up highlighting the genre component too much and make it more foreseeable.
We got to the editing point without a concrete musical direction, and I decided to try Savall’s pieces in the sequences in which the protagonist crosses the city on her motorbike, trips I had always conceived as very musical. And it worked! The funniest thing is how well the music fitted in with the sound of the bike: the motor transmitted a sense of energy and the music floated on top, one unexpectedly fusing with the other. When Thomas and I saw the effect it produced, we knew for sure it had to be the film’s soundtrack.
You have mentioned the relationship between electronic music and genre films, and the truth is that it seems to be a current trend right now: there are even specialised labels, John Carpenter has embarked on a tour for the first time… What do you think of this?
Carpenter is a wonderful filmmaker who realised that music was essential for the kind of cinema he was making. He understood that synthetic and austere sound was part of the mise-en-scène, and wanted to do it himself. I think that’s admirable, really. When a filmmaker is able to compose his own soundtracks, that’s something… great. Carpenter, Chaplin, Eastwood… only the best artists are able to. And it’s something I really envy, I would love to have that musical ability, but if I pick up an instrument, I become absolutely paralysed.
Going back to your question, I have the feeling that people have finally realised that the roots of a lot of contemporary music are there. Probably Carpenter wasn’t conscious of being the creator of a sound, but without a doubt he’s one of the pioneers in the use of synthesisers. That’s a field I’m really interested in, because I was there when the scene first appeared in France. The protagonist of Copyright, my first short-film, was the singer Elli Medeiros, who back then was in a post-punk with her boyfriend, Jacno, one of the first people to become interested on electronic music in France. Through my friendship with him, I witnessed the transition from punk to post-punk and to electronics. It was an important moment in modern music, and it’s exciting to have been a witness to it.
In fact, Jacno and Elli Medeiros are the only people you have made a music video for. Given your interest in music, I’m surprised you haven’t used this format more than that time. Have you never been interested on it?To be honest, it doesn’t interest me, no. When I did that piece with Jacno, I didn’t even know it was a music video! What happened is that he had written some songs for my short-film, and they were commercialised as an EP. To everybody’s surprise, one of those songs, Rectangle, became a hit. All of a sudden, Jacno’s label was ready to grant him any wish, and since we had had fun making my short film, he wanted to do a visual illustration of the songs. Bare in mind we’re talking about the end of the seventies: there was no MTV, no channel in which to show or distribute that. We did it just for fun, thinking about projecting it only in some special occasion, because the commercial life of the song was already finished.
Could you talk a bit about Noise, the musical documentary you shot around ten years ago?
It’s a special film for me. In 2005, the Art Rock Festival in St. Briec gave me carte blanche to programme one of its dates. That opened two possibilities: either I selected bands I admired and dreamed of seeing live, or I called musicians I had worked and built a relationship with. I thought the second option was much more interesting, so I called up Sonic Youth to perform with their parallel projects: Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley with Text of Light, and Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore as Mirror/Dash… Jeanne Balibar, Marie Modiano and Joanna Preiss, who had appeared in my films, were there too. And Metric, who appeared at the beginning of Clean… I think it was right then when I realised I had more friends in music than in cinema!
The Noise project ended up being an excuse to film friends who belonged in my world. I like to see it as an annex to my works of fiction, as having a subterranean connection to my other films. Since we worked with small digital cameras, apart from inviting different operators and directors [among them, Michael Almereyda], it was also a good time to shoot things myself, because in films I usually prefer not to operate the camera, since that makes you focus on technical aspects and get away from the global perspective and the actors.
Apart from in Noise, in several of your fiction films you show musical performances, and in some there also appear musicians playing roles, like Kim Gordon in Boarding Gate or Benjamin Biolay in Personal Shopper. Why that desire to film musicians?
It’s something that has been there since my first short film, when instead of looking for an actress I preferred Elli to be the main character. As I was saying earlier, I always felt I had a greater affinity with musicians than filmmakers. Even when I worked as a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma in the eighties, my friends were musicians: that was the scene I was in. I had the feeling that the energy of the times was there, and cinema was always late. It’s an idea I’m obsessed with as a director: capturing the contemporary vibe, something that musicians seem to trap instinctively. So in one way or another, in my films I have always tried to find an equivalent to the excitement that music gives me. It’s a power that goes beyond the narrative.