By Andreea Patru

All You Can Eat Buddha is a film alike its protagonist who spurs discomfort and captivation at the same time. The feature debut of Canadian cinematographer Ian Lagarde had its world premiere at TIFF and carried on with its European Premiere at the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam. The plot is wrapped around Mike, a taciturn and corpulent tourist visiting El Palacio, an all-inclusive resort in an anonymous Spanish-speaking country. As the title suggests, the film is about excess eating with a spiritual twist. Although the reserved protagonist doesn’t seem to enjoy his vacation apart from the generous buffets and doesn’t engage in group activities, staff and tourists alike seemed bewitched by his uncommon serenity. After performing some questionable miracles, Mike starts to morph into a living totem. Bringing an unusual approach to enlightenment, the Canadian director balances a few magical realism elements with the idyllic and grotesque alike. Remarkably balanced for a debut, All You Can Eat Buddha embraces its poignant filmic influences, like Jodorowsky’s hybrid mysticism, Ulrich Seidl’s dirty provocations in a non-judgmental illustration of societal excess. Desistfilm caught up with director Ian Lagarde who explained his preference for an unscrupulous micro-society, yet declined to completely demystify its Buddha.

Desistfilm: How did the film came to be?

Ian Lagarde: I was in a Mexican aquatic park and it was a sort of an all-inclusive formula, that you would go on a slide and eat and have everything nearby. I hate having a bracelet around my wrist and all this context of weird becoming a baby. So I was there reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and it just struck me very very hard the disconnection between the spiritual kitsch of the book and the profane kitsch of the aquatic park. I imagined having the story of Buddha’s path to enlightenment but in an all-inclusive resort, and I just liked the contrast between the trashiness of the retreat and the quote unquote nobility of the path to enlightenment.

Desistfilm: Did you have a key image as a starting point?

I: Well, him floating on his doughnut for sure, on the pink floater. I think that would be the first, I’m not sure, it was a while ago. It’s just like this whole surrendering yourself to the laziness of a place you’re actually cared for like a child, but like a turbulent one. It’s worse than being a child because nobody can tell you what to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an all-inclusive resort, I had to go to do some research. I hate going to these places, it’s an extremely sterile environment without any cultural exchange, and nobody there speaks the language or is even remotely interested in the local people. It’s just that when you’re there, it’s like a panopticon. Everybody is watching, basically everybody thinks that the staff is at their beckon call and they’re kings, but they’re actually under surveillance constantly. Especially in Cuba, the workers have more degrees than most of the people who are actually vacationing there. They’re super educated people so there’s a strange feeling of acting stupid as we’re being watched by people with way more education than us. For me it’s not a way to vacation. I like to go meet people and interact, not to transfer my own country in another country or my way of life into another country.

Desistfilm: And actually you are aware that the representation of Buddha as a really obese person belongs to another deity – called Budai – in fact Buddha is not represented as being fat.

I: My film is not a specific representation of the Buddha — to me, what’s interesting and subversive about it — it’s just the way that capitalism and consumption can recuperate everything and integrate it into its own. I really wanted to transpose this weird need for belief that people have into the kitschiest non lieur, like a non-space that I know, so to me that was the Caribbean. I mean, it’s a sort of syncretic way to see it; it’s not specifically tied to a Buddhist country, so I don’t feel I had any actual responsibility for representing the Buddha itself or the very tenants of Buddhism. And if you’re going to represent the excesses of consumption it could be anywhere, it could be any type of excess pushed to its limits. And combining it with a brewing political turmoil, or revolution, or change of administration fits better with the place that is closest to where I live basically. It was closest to what I know.

Desistfilm: What kind of challenges did you face while shooting your debut feature in a foreign country?

I: Well, Cuba has been under embargo for almost sixty years now so resources are very scarce, but the people are super resourceful. For example we had to bring around a hundred bulbs because there’s a shortage of incandescent light bulbs. And when we were done with the lights, the same thing happened with the octopus through customs by parts. Also I mean, I had to direct the film in French, English, and Spanish and at one point it became confusing.

Desistfilm: Could you talk a little bit about the cinematography? I noticed the image doesn’t shy away from camera movements like zooms.

I: I usually like to move the camera a lot. I’m not one of those who say that a movement is a moral choice; to me it’s a non-issue. There are these little bungalows in the middle of the jungle and it felt like we should zoom. And I felt like Barry Lyndon, I don’t wanna compare myself, but it felt like very luscious and this sort of description from like an old novel, like it came from another time. And I felt like the zooms were the appropriate movement to describe the landscape and the sort of flatness also, the absence of perspective. When you’re moving, your point of view changes and you see stuff appear behind trees and behind obstacles, but when you’re zooming you’re just going into something flat, and I do not know how to explain it rather than instinctively. And then obviously there are other moments where the steadycam helps and then some dollies that I really like. These are more chosen for accompaniment and involvement in the story or to simulate the subjectivity. So on one hand there’s this sort of peculiar objectivity of the zoom, and then there’s the subjectivity of the steadycam when we accompany Mike.

Desistfilm: I’m not sure if you’ve seen Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s film Evolution. It struck me that it also has an octopus at its core, more like tentacles than the entire animal, shot in a magical realism registry.

I: Well, there’s also the Mexican director…

Desistfilm: I suppose you’re talking about The Untamed, it’s directed by Amat Escalante. 

I: Right. Well, I started writing the script way before, but I can understand why so many people are fascinated by octopuses. On a first level they are super sensuous other-worldly animals that call to sexuality and strangeness at the same time. I needed an animal that could be a sort of an incarnation of a deity. You know all the religious myths of the Greek and the Roman implied that the Gods came down in the form of an animal to catalyze something, to trigger something. There are many animals that are very mystical, very noble, but this one to me it’s the most alien. Some people link it to Hentai; it’s not that, to me it’s a link with the sacred, even if you’re saying it’s not even a real one, it’s a fake representation of the Buddha. To me it fits with this idea of an archetype that’s recuperated by society in a sense. And it’s not a denunciation; it’s just an exploration of these things.

Desistfilm: The sound design is remarkable, it creates this unnerving feeling, yet it’s not thrilling over the top. Also the talking octopus has Esmeralda’s voice, could you please expand on this?

I: At first it was supposed to be a sort of a mixed voice of man and woman so that it would feel the most alien, but the fact that Esmeralda watches him all the time and to me, she is sort of the high priestess of the resort, prevailed. The fact that it’s her voice could be in his head, it could be real, and it could be her manifesting through the octopus because she doesn’t really talk to him in person. I like to keep things open. I don’t like people who preach and I don’t like being preached at and I don’t even want to know some of the motivations behind the characters. Because if I know too much about everything it becomes a bit of paint by numbers and I don’t want to do that. For example, when Lynch in the making off of Mulholland Drive says “Every time you look at this blue cube box” I’m like “I don’t wanna know”. I love this movie because I could get lost in it, and because I did not understand it. I like surrendering my normal need for understanding in life. Sound design is important on many levels; it helped with narration because we didn’t have the means to have a thousand extras at first and then to have no extras at the end when the hotel becomes dead in a sense. I also worked with Sylvain Bellemare, who’s an extremely talented sound designer, he just won an Oscar for Arrival and we had worked together before and we both like psychedelic stuff. Formally we tried to go back a bit to the 70s, in-between times to me; it feels like these years were kind of floating. So it’s a sort of a hypnosis, we tried to design it as waves. To me it’s a very hypnotic, very fundamental feeling to stand on the side of the water and watch it come. It doesn’t necessarily apply to anything, but I like the image, I just like transcendence and I like to represent fascination.

Desistfilm: To me Mike’s charisma has literary origins more than filmic ones. I couldn’t help but think about his unexplainable attraction like Patrick Suskind’s protagonist from The Perfume.

I: To me the image was sort of a beached Hemingway and that of Brando at the end of his life. When you see these guys, they had greatness, they had huge charisma, maybe a different kind of charisma than Mike has, Mike to me looks like an old Russian gangster or something like that. He’s more than just a lousy dude who’s going in a resort. He doesn’t feel the need to demonstrate that he’s lived much more or had many lives. If I agree to give him a goal or a quest — it’s just to affirm life to its most absurd. It’s also interesting to see the disconnect somebody projects — he projects nothing, he does not want to put himself out there, eventually starts acting on stuff that’s going on.

Desistfilm: I liked it that he cures a girl with an eating disorder — they are like the extremes, he’s eating a lot and she is not eating anything.

I: They’re kindred spirits; they are opposite sides of the same coin, so it makes total sense. But I just like infusing these things with a form of twisted religious feeling because I’m fascinated by people’s need to believe.

Desistfilm: The resort mirrored Mike’s transformation; it felt the story transcended the personal with the help of cyclic time and renewal. 

I: We’re all prone to decay, it’s just accelerated in the film, it’s a point of no return and it’s the same for societies in a sense. But I see it as a cycle and I thought a person’s rebirth or becoming could be transposed to society or systems. I see this resort as a being, as another character. The guy is a catalyst in a sense, like you were asking about Evolution and Amat Escalante, but for me, one of the references I got on to the quickest when I was writing was to Teorema and Visitor Q which is way trashier, but it’s the same, somebody comes somewhere and is a catalyst for everybody’s instincts and impulsions. The fact that meanwhile that guy becomes an idol, to me it talks about how people infuse belief in things that unnecessarily have meaning and that are just part of a larger scheme of a systems, organisms reproducing themselves to — I say capitalism, but it could very well be communism. People can endure a lot, sometimes it can be a defect, and resilience can be a problem. Of course, his overeating makes resources on the island eventually scarcer and people rise up. And it’s super contradictory because the caretaker says they’re changing administration and he stays polite with him, it’s sort of a hardcore dignified professionalism. It’s like the best client service in the world, completely insane. And then they are, things change for the better and this guy becomes an idol for them. It makes no sense, but that’s how I feel when I look at the world. Everything is absurd, you go to a shopping mall and you realize that this is what people are fighting for overseas. I want to be part of that way of filmmaking where sense or rationality is not the issue, it’s just a collection of impressions you put together and it ends up like a representation of how I see the world.

Desistfilm: You mentioned Pasolini, but did any Canadian filmmakers provide references?

I: I mean there are a lot of Canadian filmmakers that I respect, Jean-Claude Lauzon, the guy who directed Léolo. It’s not really the same idea of the film, but there’s this excess, but when I think about the film I think about Buñuel a lot and Jodorowsky, obviously. And in L’Avventura, there’s this image of the water always there in the background like a menace, so there’s also this constant feeling of sorrow. In Quebec or Canada I would say maybe Cronenberg, but I didn’t go as far, I really wanted to stay in a weird soft zone of moody ambiance. But as far as Canadian cinema goes, Gilles Groulx, Marc-André Forcier, who are very very interesting filmmakers; of course they influenced me, I just don’t know which one specifically.

Desistfilm: Did you intent for the eating to be subversive? Mike stoically eats everything that he’s offered with a pantagruelic appetite, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it, it almost feels like a duty. Is it a reaction to this kind of all-inclusive philosophy that you have to like it to be there, you have to be a ‘yes-man’? To me it felt he is fighting against this system with its own weapon, eating it up. 

I: That’s the modern dictatorship that we’re under. It’s the dictatorship of the happiness. I like that you saw it like that because most people think he goes there to die and to me it’s not this at all. Like I said, in a way it’s an affirmation of the absurdity of life to its most extreme. And if he has to die or become, I find it funny that he finds enlightenment through that, it’s a form of an almost rebellion. A weirdly active rebellion, because he seems very passive. I think that you’re the first one who actually noticed that it’s an active thing. There’s a lot of that in Nietzsche, I think, active and reactive values. He could be seen like the last man, but also beyond morality, as Ubermensch.

The interview took place during the 47th edition of IFFR in Rotterdam.