By José Sarmiento and Mónica Delgado
Jessica Hausner has proven herself over the years to be a movie aesthete. Her staging, art direction, her characters with a ghostly aura, as well as the use of a stylized photograph, have shown her mastery as if the films were ornamental pieces that require a detailed and perfectionist look. It seems that in her films, where the spaces and compositions of pictorial influence respond to a quasi-mathematical logic of perspectives and depths, prevails a desire to seek beauty, in an old sense, embodied in images of powerful value. With a product of more than twenty years of work, from Flora (1994) to Little Joe (2019), Hausner has become one of the most representative figures in European cinema.
As part of the recent edition of the Al Este de Lima festival, the Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner gave a masterclass, where she delved into her work before a Peruvian audience. In this framework, we were able to talk with her about her motivations, her staging and her female leading characters.
Desistfilm: Can you tell us how your interest in filmmaking started?
Jessica Hausner: I remember that I always had the plan to become a writer, so when I was, I don´t know, 12, 13 or 14, I was writing short stories and also my first novel, and then I started to make little video films out of those stories that I had written. A friend of mine owned a camera and it was… I mean, I was born in 1972, so that was in the late ’90s and this was back then, no one had iPhones, not everyone had a video camera. And this friend of mine, his father worked for the television, so they had a video camera at home. And I borrowed the camera, and I was the director and cinematographer and that friend of mine he was the actor, so he was in front of the camera, and I was so happy because I thought this difference between writing and filming was exactly what convinced me that I wanted to become a filmmaker, not a writer. I felt that, in creating images, I could be much more precise about what exactly it is that I want to say with words. I think words are, for me personally, much more ambiguous than images.
Desistfilm: Does the fact that some members of your family are artists influenced your decision to get into filmmaking?
Jessica Hausner: Yes, nowadays I can say yes. I think many years ago I did not see that connection at all, but sincerely I became more aware of the fact that my films are, they have a very arty look, so the specialty of my films is maybe exactly that, sort of very artificial stylized and specific original imagery. The films that I make had a very strong visual component, and the more that happens in my films, the more I think that that is a sort of influence that also comes from my family because when I grew up, we were always discussing art, how to interpret a picture or a piece of art was what we were talking about every infinite dinner. So, my parents used to talk about the artists or exhibitions, or curators or pieces of art mostly negatively, they thought everything was crap except for what they did. But listening to those conversations, of course, my sister and me picked up a lot of details and information.
Desistfilm: The evolution of humor in your films has taken a particular twist, from more subdued humor in your first films, inside many layers, to a darker, more explicit humor in Little Joe. How do you find this evolution through your career?
Jessica Hausner: For me, that humor is a way to cope with the uncertainty of life, and to me, if I made just a big crease, like, you never know what comes next, and that you have to face that sort of uncertainty and also the decay of life. The fact that nothing will last forever, and you think you’re so important and everything you do is so interesting and then sadly you think about the fact that one day you will be just gone and it’s not at all important. This is a very strange contradiction I feel in life, that every one of us takes himself or herself as the center of the world, which is normal because otherwise, you would kill yourself immediately, but then you have to understand that you’re not special at all because a lot of people think the same things, say the same things, you just imitate something that has been lived through before you and, this is something that is frightening in a way, and I think humor is a way to cope with it, is a sort of reaction. I think that it is a physical and emotional attempt to deal with that contradiction.
Desistfilm: The spaces you choose, be it a hotel, a laboratory, a pilgrimage center, or a house from the early 19th century, look perfect for your sense of composition, of the framing, of the location of the characters in them. How important are this selection of places and the art direction in the films, where everything looks in its respective place?
Jessica Hausner: Thank you for the question, I think it’s a good question because it’s really in the center of my filmmaking, the spaces and the locations, I don’t know if they can even call it locations, because the fact is that normally I don’t look for a location, I do it the other way round, I create a room in my head and my storyboard and then I go to the world and try to find that place, and that’s also why normally, we shoot in different locations and then the different places sum up to one surreal location which is finally on the film. So, in the film you shouldn’t feel that it’s a different location, that’s not the point, maybe it’s a building, for example, or an apartment or as you said, a hotel room or whatever; you feel that this geography is a bit weird, so subconsciously you feel that this place might not really exist because we add so many different places from reality. We make them work, like the edit and the movements of the actors and actresses. On the surface, you think it works, but subconsciously you feel that building has many stories, or corners, or corridors, no windows, I don’t know. Some details are a bit weird that but you don’t consciously think about it, so this is a way of irritating your normal sense of how you understand that room. I understand that apartment, you don’t. I create rooms that are, there are dark corners that are never shown, and you feel that, there are some parts of that building, that you will never find out where they are, or what is there.
Desistfilm: The camera work and movement seem to have played an increasingly important presence in your cinema. In Little Joe, for example, the fluidity of your travelling shots, both sideways and the travelling in, ending in empty spaces, is fundamental for your narrative. How was the process of finding this way of cinematography language changed through the years?
Jessica Hausner: I always tried to create a cinematography that sort of has its own voice and I think that is something I discuss with Martin Gschlacht, the cinematographer of all my films. We have that running gag when we do a film together, and he comes from another set, of another film, and he arrives on our set, he needs one or two days to sort of change his mindset because he says, normally, he’s asked to sort of following the best as he can what the actors are doing. When we work together, I ask him not to follow but to sort of be his own spectator. He has a separate pair of eyes, and he is watching what is happening but he’s not always there on time, and he sometimes missing something, and sometimes he just moves forward even if the actors are ready out the frame or he´s zooming in too hastily because he’s afraid to miss the important sentences. Sort of imperfections, imperfections of cinematography. I think our idea is to create a sort of, lack, to create a gap because this tells me as an audience that no one really knows what is happening, not even the filmmakers and even they miss the important point.
Desistfilm: In Little Joe, you seem to have structured the film according to color theory: green and red for the laboratory, specific colors for the specific geographies. There’s also a special use of the soundtrack: we have noise touches, other climates. Can you talk a little bit about these aspects of production? It seems to me that this film is more elaborated than your previous works in that aspect.
Jessica Hausner: The sound elements in Little Joe were something that was very important to me. I never really had a typical composing score for my films, I normally use existing music in the scenes to create certain atmospheres. But with Little Joe, I thought, since it’s a version of a genre film, I would have a score, a piece of composed music. But then, I don’t really know any composers, and the music in films, I found it too supportive; the music sometimes tries to pronounce emotions and increase emotions in the audience in a very direct and simple way.
I prefer the employment of music, where the music has a voice of its own and it also creates a gap. It’s similar to this idea that we talked about, the cinematography: I do create emotions with the music, but it’s also sometimes too weird, it’s also irritating, it’s not always supporting the scene, it’s sometimes destroying the scene because it’s too loud or suddenly ugly. I try to wake up the audience, “this is not perfect, and you’re here to reflect on it” (laughs). Let themselves be hypnotized.
Desistfilm: It’s funny because you chose this kind of Japanese music, which creates a rarified atmosphere in a completely different context. It’s a soundtrack that exists independently, it’s kind of its own being. That creates a dichotomy, that it’s sometimes uncomfortable. How did you come around this particular music that you use in Little Joe?
Jessica Hausner: Well, it did already exist, that’s really the trick behind it. I knew the composer, it’s a Japanese composer, Teiji Ito. He made music for Maya Deren’s films, and she was a filmmaker that I appreciate a lot. When I saw her films, I suddenly understood what filmmaking is about. I always really appreciated this sort of oriental music in her films, because she’s very American and everything she shows is not at all Japanese, and I always found that an interesting gap that she created in her films, so I thought maybe I could steal that from her. So, I looked up Teiji Ito’s other compositions, and I found a CD called Watermill. I don’t know when he composed it but it’s quite a while ago. We asked for the rights, and basically, the soundtrack is made from three tracks of that CD. All those strange sounds like the dog barking and the airplane, it’s all in his music, we didn’t add that.
Desistfilm: You seem to be drawn to particular female characters: Rita, in Lovely Rita (2001), Christine, in Lourdes (2009), Irene in Hotel (2004), Henriette in Amour Fou (2014), Alice in Little Joe, which share, maybe, a condition of awkwardness or uncertainty in their lives. Was it important for you to draw from these female protagonists to create a portrayal of the human condition?
Jessica Hausner: I think what is important for me is that the female characters in my films are human beings in a way. When I started with filmmaking it wasn’t too common to have women in films that think for themselves, they barely had names. Also in our society, women didn’t usually pursue a career, they would stay at home, cooking, then they got divorced and then they killed themselves, and people were wondering why women had these psychological problems, like hysteria or anorexia. That’s obvious in my mind.
Now, after a while, women are trying to take another step forward in freeing themselves and becoming respected. I think there were several waves of feminism and we’ve seen a new wave of feminism for a couple of years. Slowly, more and more females are able to lead more respected lives, lives that they choose. So, in my films, the women are trying to show a side of themselves that you wouldn’t usually show. Some of them are ugly, mean, stupid, shy, narrow-minded. They’re not heroines, they’re not even typical heroines. Because I don’t see myself making a “Rey out of Star Wars” kind of character. That’s okay, I mean, my eleven-year-old son is watching all these female warriors that are so brutal, he sees films where the woman make the killing, that’s very strange! And then I told him, when I was small, it was the other way around (laughs). It’s really interesting.
Desistfilm: In Lourdes, there is a decision about how the character is shown to us in some passages. For example, in one scene, we do not see the reflection of the protagonist in her mirror when she regains movement through the miracle (you could expect the typical face of her looking at herself in it). In another scene, when she is in the church, we see her on one side of the frame, there is a column that prevents us from seeing her as a whole or in relation to her surroundings. These decisions deepen how we should see the characters. Are they in the script or do they appear in the filming process?
Jessica Hausner: They appear in the process of drawing the storyboard. When I write the script there’s another similar element to be found. I create dialogues and scenes when you never entirely grasp a character. My characters are always like ghosts or stereotypes or people who escape the moment where you would really understand them. People who read my scripts always have the same comments, which is “why is she doing that?”, “What do you want to say with your film?” I can make up answers for that, no problem. I can give you ten thousand versions of what the film would tell you, but what I find much more interesting is to make a film that stays open to these interpretations that everyone of us have.
Also, when I draw the storyboard, like the scenes that you described, there are scenes where you would want to come close to the main character, you would like to see her face in the mirror and understand her faith, her joy, her fear, whatever. But then, unfortunately, the frame is blocked, and you see the back of her head while she’s insecurely combing her hair. I think what I try to do with that, is maybe to separate the audience from an immediate emotion, but what I do create is an emotion that comes from a certain understanding of the human condition. I think that’s the difference. Normally we identify with the female character, and when she’s sad, we cry. We can cry because she lives through the sadness and I’m safe in my living room drinking my Coca-Cola, I can easily cry. She has to live through the tragedy that she lives. In my films, we don’t have that security of our living room because we strangely are involved in the fact that the main character is not relieving us from our pain, she doesn’t take away from us. We stay stuck in that strange understanding that this is what she might feel, but she doesn’t relieve us from the sadness, the tension, the fear.