by José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Christelle Lheureux has certainly earned her reputation as one of France’s most promising filmmakers. Her last venture into filmmaking “La Maladie Blanche” is a wonderful short film about the loss of innocence, humanity and civilisation. A film teacher in Geneva, she has organised several workshops with many of the best current filmmakers working today (Serra, Gomes, Green, Martin, Weerasethakul) as well as collaborating with them, as evidenced in Ghost of Asia (2005) a collaboration with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. A video artist for a long time, she’s now preparing for her feature film, “Le vent des ombres” to be released soon. We exchanged some emails regarding her wonderful “Maladie Blanche”. 

Desistfilm: Christelle, La Maladie Blanche works as a marvellous fairy tale, a fable in which a complex gallery of events takes place in a short running time. It is as if time has stopped in this small village with its celebrations, its hidden spaces, games, animals, ancient paintings… What references did you use to recreate such a complex shadow box?

I just used my automatic mental box J. Everything is here, in that village. It’s just a question of imagination and how to structure a film in order to enter into a tale from a real situation, step by step. In La maladie blanche, it comes through talking with villagers, like the hunter and the shepherd during the party, and meeting animals like fireflies, sheep, cats… And an important detail is that I know that village very well, as I have spent all my summer holidays there with a friend for almost ten years. It helps. 

Desistfilm: In your film, we are witnesses to a disruptive end in which Myrtille’s father shoots the talking wild boar inside the cavern. Myrtille then escapes into the woods. This finale seems to represent something deeper, a rupture between a magic imaginary world that is inside men but that is also killed by men. Did you want to reflect on how human coldness is wiping out the inner spirituality or “magic” in life, as we experience it as children? Or is it a fable about the loss of childhood innocence, where the inevitability of adulthood suppresses the child inside us? 

Yes. The film is built on the simple fact that when we become adult, it becomes difficult to keep in contact with irrationality. Also, when we live in cities, we lose our connection with nature, animals and with the deep darkness at night. During the shooting, Myrtille, the little girl, was 5 years old. She was at that age where imagination is still open to many possibilities, real or unreal, it doesn’t matter, they are here so they exist.  A few months later, she entered primary school and her mind totally changed, starting to structure ideas. At the end, the father shoots the talking wild boar just because he is afraid. He lost something that would help him understand and listen to this strange prehistoric animal. This wild boar is a spiritual being coming from “prehistoric time”, a “time before history”, before narrative, before rationality.

Desistfilm: Time recurrence also seems to be part of the tale you filmed. In the ancient paintings found by Myrtille’s father, La Maladie Blanche is the effect that slowly wears out the paintings, condemning them to oblivion. The painting seems to reflect a time where men lived in harmony with their surroundings, a fact that seems to be also disappearing in time. Is the white disease affecting us nowadays as a species?

Yes, the white disease is eating us everyday J. Time is changing everything, everything disappears and fades and it’s okay, that’s life… The question is more to be aware of what we are losing and what we are gaining. Our spirituality is changing super quickly, even in just one generation. I think cinema has a lot to do with that question of time, because this medium deals mostly with memory. What to record on film? What to keep for our memory and share with the audience? Why do we forget things?

Desistfilm: The language of light (fireworks, fireflies) and shadows are recreated with an amazing mastery in your film (beautiful digital cinematography). How effective was using the resource of the chiaroscuro and black and white to tell your story?

Thanks. I come from an art field. The nice thing we discovered during shooting was that the way I decided to shoot that film (just a few portative LEDs, a small crew and let’s go to the mountains at night to see what happens) was very related to what the film was looking for. We didn’t have any additional lights. We spent nights on the mountain, searching to build the images with the 3 little lights. It was crazy but beautiful because we started from total darkness. With light, the image comes, the film comes… With its shadows and chiaroscuro. It was an amazing experience to work like this. And when we cut, we found our way back home with the frontal lamps or the moon. I think it was the best way to be connected with natural elements. The choice of black & white was to help the film to be out of time.

Desistfilm: In your work, there are many small details to capture one’s imagination: For example, there’s an intrusion of colour in the film, where we see the recording of a party in one of the character’s cellphones. This is marvellous to me, as if the documentary register disrupted the fantasy of your imaginary tale using technological means. Was this a conscious resource?

Yes and no. I’m too intuitive… The aim of that shooting was to connect fantasy with documentary. It brings many different forms. At the beginning, the idea of these colour photos was to ask this question of recording I spoke about before, and the question of “reality”. The film juxtaposes different realities at the same time.

“Yes, the white disease is eating us everyday. Time is changing everything, everything disappears and fades and it’s okay, that’s life… The question is more to be aware of what we are losing and what we are gaining. Our spirituality is changing super quickly, even in just one generation. I think cinema has a lot to do with that question of time, because this medium deals mostly with memory”.

Desistfilm: When Myrtille escapes into the Woods, one is left with a sense of grief, as if something was lost. This ending leaves us with space for reflection. Was it useful to leave an open ending to let the spectator fill in the blanks of your film? Is this a resource you’re interested in, letting your audience enrich the interpretations or sensations that your film procures?

I always work like this. My films and video installations always ask the audience to be active. I would have no interest in making art if there was no dialogue with the audience and if everything was already said and locked. At the end, Myrtille just left the reality of his father, because that one is too scary for her. This end has different meanings; I prefer to leave them open.

Desistfilm: How has “Joe” Weerasethakul influenced the way you work and perceive cinema? You’ve worked together before. Does this chemistry influence your process of work? I can’t help to think there are a lot of common elements between La Maladie Blanche and Uncle Boonmee.

With Joe, we have just shared a strong artistic friendship for more than 10 years now. We are just growing close with each other, talking a lot, and sharing the simple funny things in life. We don’t talk so much about art or cinema, we just live, and keep this precious friendship going. We collaborated on 2 art films (Ghost of Asia, Second love in Hong Kong), we did a crazy “exploded cinema workshop” with 12 of my Swiss students in Chiang Mai last year. We often visit each other in Paris or Chiang Mai. He is the co-producer for my first feature “Le vent des ombres”, in which I will shoot a small part in Thailand.

Desistfilm: You’re working on your first feature film. How do things change when dealing with long running times? Do you feel your work was meant for smaller running times? Has this been challenging for you?

I think I have been quite comfortable for a few years with medium length durations. I tried many things and many kinds of narrative. But I feel my work needs more and more time. Time to develop the process deeper and time to share it with the audience. That’s one of the reasons why I’m moving away from the art field, even if I will never close the door of video installations because with this form, we can experiment with many things and with another kind of relation with the audience. My actual project “Le vent des ombres” just needs more time and a cinema theatre to be shared. The focus is different from art spaces, it’s not the same work. It feels super ready for this duration, and even if I already spent a year and a half  writing this film, I’m really happy with what I found…