By José Sarmiento-Hinojosa

A filmmaker devoted to a very particular interdisciplinary work in cinema, with a remarkable interest in the machinations of psychoanalysis and memory, of history and the role of outstanding women in it, Isabelle Prim has been developing a more than interesting career since her student years at Le Fresnoy. Her latest medium length film, Mens (2019), was premiered last year in Rotterdam and BAFICI, with diverse positive comments. We talked to Isabelle about her experience as a student and new filmmaker, her interests and approach to her very personal work.

Desistfilm: Let’s start with your beginnings: How did your start with cinema, what were your first experiences, your influences, etc.?

Isabelle Prim: Yes, I started studying in a fine arts school in the south of France. And at the same time I did this –the school for five years and I also studied in a conservatoire, a drama school. I did both programs at the same time; it was a weird experience, because I was not allowed to do these two things simultaneously: to be an art student and a theater school student.

So, before even making film or video I started with performance theater and by the same time,  little by little, I started watching films, – classic films, because my father is a collector of old famous films, so that allowed me to be able to watch those. Each month we would receive a new film at home, and I become surrounded with filmmakers like Fellini, Godard, Resnais. That’s basically how I started, because I didn’t have a cinephile family.

After my stay in these two schools, I went to UDK, in Berlin, and then back to Paris to pursue my degree and make a post-graduate course at the Art School of Lyon, with Jean-Pierre Rehm (who is the director of the FID Marseille, the most important film festival in France, I think. It is where I learnt films can be something else…), he was my teacher in this school in Lyon, and after that I was a student at Le Fresnoy in the north of France, where five months ago I became a Dr. I did this in a university, at Montreal.

Mens (2019)

Desistfilm: Watching your short films, you seem to have a particular interest in the story of female figures in cinema. Where this interest about these lives and stories came from?

Isabelle Prim: First there was the idea of me wanting to star in my films. When I made and Le Rouge et Le Noir (2011), I was still a student, and the had an interest to be in both sides of the camera, in front and behind. It was easier for me to work individually like that than to explain my ideas to other people in that time. My film Lunch with Gertrude Stein (2013) is the story about a young artist, editor, performer, who finds this figure of modernism, Gertrude Stein, and from this interest I followed the same direction in my next films, where I talk about the relationship of a young woman with authority. It is always the story of a young girl who, at the same time, dreads and desires a person. In Mademoiselle Else, Else is torn between her desire to be naked and to show a body which she finds beautiful, and the fear that this old man will touch her. In Lunch with Gertrude Stein, the young fairy (the young artist), wishes to show her work to this great figure of modern art that is Gertrude Stein and, at the same time, dreads this moment.

In Mens (2019), it is quite different, because the young girl became a very young boy. But I think it’s quite the same relation I had in my previous films. He’s passive in front of something bigger than him: the cinema and also the story itself.

Desistfilm: In that regard, beyond practical affairs, why did you think was important to work with yourself in from of the camera?

Isabelle Prim: It was easier for me, of course. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted at the beginning, and I wanted to deal with my incompetence. It’s the same thing with scripts –I can’t write normal scripts. At the time, it was difficult for me to explain things, to build a more democratic object for a team and to work in precise things and explain them. That became a “me before me” situation which was easier to handle.

The other reason is because my first films were a sort of “inner monologue”. This novel that I adapted, Fräulein Else in Madmoiselle Else, it’s written by Arthur Schnitzler in the end of the 19th century, it’s the first monologue written by a man about a young girl. It’s about sexuality. This monologue is located in these two levels: the first one is the retransmissions of external scenes and the second one is the restitution of internal thoughts. So you have a commentary of the scene, a expression of her contradiction. For me all these paradoxes and confrontations, allow me to express this impossibility, because when I’m playing I can’t watch what I’m doing in this “metaphysic” scenes that are non-objectical. I wanted to play with the projection which is a word that works in cinema and also in psychoanalysis. So I wanted to replay the technical operation in the cinema but also with what the projection says about the representation, the prospective and the interpretation. In this adaptation that I made, you have sequences shot outside in the mountains with an amateur device (16 mm camera). And this is literally projected in this black box in Le Fresnoy, in the main location of the shooting.  So you have this outside of the character which was taken by this inside, which methaphorically is what I did with myself.

For me this projection was also a pretext to play with archive or the idea of archive, because when you’re shooting something and projecting it in another place it is already something from the past. The materiality of the image is already imbued with a patina.

Desistfilm: That’s actually something quite interesting for me, because what I’ve seen in your short films is this merge of different disciplines inside the cinema: you see the strategies of performance, things that also belong to video-art, there’s literature, theater, and also, of course, cinema. They come together to form this creature that you put in the screen. Is this part, I assume, of what your formation led you to do? Work with different disciplines?

Isabelle Prim: I think –you see, now I’m also teaching in a fine arts school- so I can see that. I think my formation takes a good part in this way of mixing different methods and levels of productions. I’m trying to transport certain kind of experimental cinema in a non-narrative form. I’m trying to keep –I like working on the form, I’m an editor after all. The process that happen before the shooting is not something that I like, sort of speak, but I need to work with existing things, so I like working on the form.

Also, I don’t want to put the form against the story. For me both the story and the editing can be taken as a story, that’s why sometimes –I want to make films without less experimentation but I can’t. The experimentation and the manipulation are in my blood.

Desistfilm: You’ve talked about adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else, this view of an inner monologue by a girl written by a man. How does your work you differ from the author’s intention with your own view as a woman? Did you find his interpretation rich enough? Were there parts you wanted to focus in, discourses you wanted to change? What do you think it’s Isabelle Prim’s idea of Madmoiselle Else in comparison to Shnitzler’s?

Isabelle Prim: If I decided to adapt Schnitzler, it is not because I red in the novel things missing that I wanted to make exist in images, but it is precisely because I found that everything was there. And that’s often the paradox when you want to adapt a book. We want to do it because everything that interests you is already there. I literally used this book as a score. So, I was like interpreter. How to interpret literary a sentence, a style too, in image. And interpretation always adds meaning. Especially since I am a woman, who lives in a very different time than that of Schnitzler. For example, when Schnitzler evokes Else’s fantasy projections, I stage them like cinematic projections: I project images onto other images. Cinema allows this, it makes it possible to account for the polyphony of a word, its different meanings.

Mademoiselle Else (2010)

Desistfilm: Do you think your experience as an editor has also influenced a lot on your work?

Isabelle Prim: Yes, because when I’m editing film, is also when the directors are more loose, and already have had their editorial ideas together. I arrive at the very end of the process, often. So, I always ask not to read the script, never. I want to reform, to reinvent the story with the images close to me and the director close to me. I want to see what happens between these images, their creator and without the script. I want to build things after the shooting, to make things with what I have in front of me, not with what I should have. My work method with my films is the same. I have scenes; I have actors and order them like in theater, like in a painting. The script is not present, is not all around.

Sometimes you see films, and you can imagine that the script is the starting and the finishing point. I don’t think that happens in my films. I don’t have enough faith in scripts to make films like that. But I should sometimes, I know.

Desistfilm: Psychoanalysis seems to play an important role through your career as a filmmaker. Can you talk a little about this wing of psychology and its relationship with your films?

Isabelle Prim: Indeed, psychoanalysis operates by associations, by “free associations”. And that’s how I work at all stages of the film which is none other than a “generalized montage”, like Vertov called his films. For example, when a patient tells a dream, the psychoanalyst is not so much interested in the dream itself but in the way the patient tell it, in the words he chooses to do it. Telling a dream (or a story) is always betraying it. And that’s also how I see my relationship to the scenario, as a betrayal. 

Desistfilm: You have performed and acted in your films. You have been directed by other filmmakers like Jean-Claude Brisseau, and you have also directed other actors in your films. Can you talk about those three different experiences in regard of a performance of an actor?

Isabelle Prim: I’ve been an actress in different short films but not features, I prefer it that way. It’s not what I want also, to become an actress. So when Jean-Claude Brisseau asked me to do this (for Que le diable nous emporte (2018)), it was a long process, because at the very beginning, he wanted –we are three girls in the film, and before having the idea of the film he had the idea of making a film about lovers, the three of us. So all the story about the erotic pictures you can send to another person, he didn’t know that could exist. So, in the shooting we spoke a lot, and that interested me.

The shooting itself was a little bit frustrating, because Jean-Claude, he didn’t use many shots –the shots were very, very short. He made the two sequences in just one page; he used the first take… I mean, when you are playing, you want to repeat the shots, to redo them, and it was impossible because he was tired and he was okay with the first take. After this experience, I wanted to make a film, to offer the actors the possibility, to direct them, that was born out of frustration.

But it was indeed interesting because Mens was my first experience with “real direction”. I was obsessed by the long process of shooting. I directed the actors and they wanted me to direct them, and I think I built this way of working, of building over what was my experience with Jean-Claude Brisseau. I like him a lot, but this shooting… if you’ve seen all the discussion we had before the shooting… after that the shooting just was too short, in comparison. I have picked things of my acting experience and put them in my director experience.

Desistfilm: In Mens, this idea of having two eras playing at the same time: having the historical setting but also coming from a place of memory. Past and present together in the same setting, where did that idea came from?

Isabelle Prim: For many years I’ve been interested in archives as a source of fiction, as a resource to be opened more than to be closed. For this film, I searched for criminal documents dating from the late nineteenth century – I wanted to make a film in this experience, because this time (the late nineteenth century) was a pivotal moment; the birth of psychoanalysis, the birth of cinema, the birth of judicial registry, all were born at the same time. So, I was installed at the table of consultation at the archive in Grenoble, a city near Mens, which is the name of the village where I shot the film. I was consulting these archives in Grenoble in order to prepare for the film and I came across this file, at random, from 1895, from the village in Mens, where my mother is still living. I sat through the pages and discovered that this record was one of the most provided of its time; it has nine hundred pages of old yellow paper covered by handwriting traces.

I spend all summer putting this handwriting in the computer; it was very long. This archive was very much like the script, actually, it was written like a script: with characters, with details about the characters.

I wanted to speak about the present using the past. How can I talk about the truth by producing fiction? That was my obsession, how to interpret the archive?

This also was a film which cost very little money. We made it with nothing.

Desistfilm: So what comes after Mens? What is next?

Isabelle Prim: I’m dreaming about a project in the Alps (I come from the mountains, this was my home). It’s about a fifth season (you already have summer, winter, etc.). It’s a detective film, with a man that speaks with a dog, but I can’t say more. It’s a very complex story situated in this season.