Photo: Eleonore Hermier(c) (2017)

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

French auteur Yann Gonzalez is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. His unique blend of queer sensibility, vintage mise-en-scène, particular taste for surreal passages, and a unique eye for building a rich and stimulating ensemble of performers, runs the span of eight shorts and two feature films. After watching the remarkable Knife + Heart at the last Cannes, we met Yann online for a particularly entertaining conversation, in which he talks about his beginnings in cinema, his work as a curator and his particular interests as a filmmaker.

Desistfilm: Yann, how did you first discover cinema? What made you decide to embark in this career of being a filmmaker?

Yann Gonzalez: I think it was in the way my parents talked to me about films, especially horror films, the way they were keeping them a little bit secret, telling me that I was forbidden to watch them, and of course that kind of aroused me in an erotic way you know? Because all the secrecy of this forbidden cinema, I couldn’t see images so I was making up stories in my mind. My parents were just giving me glimpses of stories like The Exorcist, for instance, and of course I was very excited, I just wanted to know more and already I was making my own films, in my head.

I think everything (my cinema) started with a fantasy, a fantasy of watching films that I couldn’t’ watch, and just being aroused by this secrecy of cinema, nightmares that I would discover later, while in the meantime I was creating my own world of fantasies. This is how I started to write stories and after I just wanted to make films.

Desistfilm: So how did your formal training in cinema begun?

Yann Gonzalez: I think of myself as being a self-taught filmmaker but I did go to film university. Everything was theoretical, nothing practical; we were just studying films, with Nicole! (Brenez) mainly, she was my teacher and told me a lot about experimental films, we had classes about Brian de Palma, Abel Ferrara, Eisenstein, Godard, the whole bunch of geniuses. That was a big epiphany for me, it opened me so many windows to the world of cinema, to so many different universes. It was really something beyond my dreams, because thanks to Nicole I think I started to feel freer about my vision towards cinema, not creating any hierarchy between films. That was the best thing she taught us as students, not to make hierarchies between Godard or like, Dario Argento films or a b-movie. This were the basics for me, I discovered and love the basics thanks to her.

Before of course, I was really aware about experimental and underground films, but I was living in my hometown in the south of France and I didn’t have access to those films, but in Paris and with Nicole I got access to all of those films, I got to go to La Cinémathèque and to obscure film theaters, that opened a world of images for me.

Desistfilm: I think it really shows in your work, this kind of influence which comes from different sources of cinema, different genres, you can tell that a cinephile filmmaker is doing this. There’s a rich plateau of influences there, and that’s what I find most interesting about your work.

Yann Gonzalez: Yeah, I really consider myself as much as a cinephile as I am a filmmaker. I want to make the films that I don’t see anymore, on screen in French cinema today. That’s what has challenged me to nourish, to feed my own desires. Maybe it’s a bit self-centered, but…

Les rencontres d’après minuit (2013)

Desistfilm: maybe, but I guess cinema should be a little self-centered, especially if you have something interesting to say…

Yann Gonzales: Yeah, absolutely. But now I’m trying to make films in a more collaborative way. I’m trying to fix this narcissism (laughs) with the whole process of filmmaking, which is a very collective thing.

Desistfilm: Speaking about being a cinephile, you had a carte blanche at La Cinémathèque française last year, and I wanted to go through some of your selections and why are they important for you and how they influenced your work…

Yann Gonzalez:  Fred Parke’s Faces is part of the last part of the carte blanche, this was a program made in collaboration with two of my friends, and we would made after-parties with them in Paris, after the projections. This is part of a very free selection by my friends’ artists and filmmakers Pierre-Edouard Dumora and Alain García.

These are films that reflect the spirit of our bodies, from parties that are spacey, made out of love, with a lot of electronic music, strange atmospheres… We’ve been throwing those parties for almost four years now and this program in particular was really a tribute to our bodies, like another journey of our bodies. This film is a kind of a pioneer digital film made about the creation of a face, an electronic face made out of video. We were super moved by it because it’s like a creation itself, there’s something that is very naïve, the music is also very naïve, there’s something that is like the creation of something new, of a new language, new faces made out of computers. We are really very into this very computer-y and electroni-sh culture, so it was a good start for the program. It’s a very scientific film, it’s not supposed to be poetic, but at the same time it was poetic because it was like the first drawing of a kid, drawing a face for the first time but with a machine. This is a thing that made it very emotional for us.

Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus was a transitional film. I first heard of it because of a midnight screening of Lynch’s Eraserhead, in the seventies. It’s a fever dream of a film. I was reading an interview with Lucile Hadzihalilovic, the filmmaker…

Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus

Desistfilm: …yeah, wife of Gaspar Noé.

Yann Gonzalez: Yeah, of course, but I would say Gaspar Noé is her husband (laughs). To me she’s more interesting, a remarkable brave and poetic filmmaker. Her films are softer than Gaspar’s, but you can see they share the same obsessions. For me she’s more poetic, like a deep journey into a strange universe. Asparagus is the same, it’s really like a magical journey into a woman’s psyche, there’s something very eerie and theatrical about it, it’s a mixture of different atmospheres with mesmerizing music and images. It’s a perfect film for me to smoke a joint and just plunge inside it. It’s like a dream coming true.

We screened the film in 35mm and wow… actually, the filmmaker Suzan Pitt, she runs her own films. If you want a 35mm print you just ask her and she would send you one.

Desistfilm: What about Limbo Visions 1? I don’t think I’ve seen this one…

Yann Gonzalez: Oh, this is part of our parties, our parties were called “I’ve seen the Future”, I organized them with my two friends. At some point, we were trying to throw some experiments, and one of our experiments was to ask some friend filmmakers to edit some of their lost footage, material that they haven’t showed anywhere else, between five and 20 minutes, and they would send the footage to us, so we could chose some music and sound effects for the footage. It was a collaboration between these filmmakers and us. The first four filmmakers we worked with were Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Mati Diop, and also Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel who are young French filmmakers, very talented, they’ve just finished their first feature film, it’s called Jessica Forever and I’m sure it’s going to be something amazing.

This was kind of ghost images from filmmakers we love, mixed with music we chose.

Electronic Listening Music for the Eyes was a choice made by my friend. It’s a video made by W.A.R.P., an electronic label from the nineties. It’s kind of a pioneering digital-computer-y-stylish images for junkies, you know? (laughs) It’s something like that. It’s kind of nonsense but a beautiful film nonetheless. It’s very hypnotic and the music is great.

Jordan Belson (Allures) was one of my recent personal greatest discoveries. This is like cosmic, helmet visions with a lot of incredible effects that I can’t really describe, it’s really an immersion on those spaces, between life and death, these spaces. This was really the most weed-prone program (laughs), because it was super psychedelic. This was one of his first films from the sixties I think? He made films until the early 2010’s, and it’s just a series of visions from outer space with magnificent music, a trippy film, something really magical. To discover his images was something really magical, like a shock to me. It was mind-blowing, I was crying and… I was travelling into another world. This is something you have to see in 35mm.

Les rencontres d’après minuit (2013)

Desistfilm: So this is it for the first program… how many were there?

Yann Gonzalez: Actually, there were like six screenings in total, two per night. Two of the screenings were curated by my friends and me, but the other four screenings were made by myself. One of my favorite gems in the screenings was a gay-porn film called Equation à un inconnu (Equation to an unknown) by Dietrich de Velsa aka Francis Savel. I heard about it three years ago while I was doing my research on Knife + Heart, I heard about this gay-French porn film thanks to a gay-porn film specialist called Hervé Joseph Lebrun, he knows everything about gay porn films, he’s amazing, like an encyclopedia of porn (laughs).

He specially told me about this film. This was made by the artistic director of Joseph Losey, he worked on Monsieur Klein and Don Giovanni. Francis Savel, the director, was also a painter, a quite famous artist at the time and he made this unique porn film with a pseudonym, It’s the most melancholic porn film I’ve ever seen. It’s something very sad, and aesthetically beautiful. Just a young man wondering through several depictions of love and choreographies of love-making, it’s like a ceremony, a ceremony of fantasies, especially the last sequence where the main character is calling back all his previous fantasies, which were coming one by one around his bed and making love to him. It’s something incredible. I think it’s one of the most beautiful film sequences of French cinema. For real! I’m not exaggerating (laughs). I was really proud because nobody knew the film besides Hervé and a few porn-nerds. We located a negative in a French lab and we made a fresh 16mm transfer in a Dutch lab, so this was the first time it was screened since the end of the seventies, when it was made and released for the first time. It was a special moment, because everybody, I mean, most of the people were straight in the cinema, and this was a proper porn film, it had intercourse scenes between men, but at the same time everybody was mesmerized and really hypnotized. I think it was a revelation for a lot of people; there were maybe 80 up to 100 people that night, so it was really magical.

Desistfilm: Any other film you want to talk about?

Yann Gonzalez: Yeah, some other films… there’s a great film by Alain Fleischer called Dehors Dedans. It’s a film from the seventies, in black and white. It’s a tribute to this great French actress Catherine Jourdan and it’s just her in a room going mad and masturbating and talking nonsense, talking about the French Revolution. It’s a delirium; it’s an incredible work of art, a political underground film from the seventies. It’s impossible to watch it outside of La Cinémathèque, where they have a 16mm print, so I was really happy for the people that were discovering it that night.

There’s also a great film from Daniel Schmid called Tonight or Never, his first feature film. It’s also a kind of ceremony between the bourgeoisie and the lower class. It’s talking about, one special night in the year where the working class is exchanging places with the upper class, and it’s like a ceremony on this special night with very small camera movements, everything it’s like in slow motion. It’s also a very rare film, it’s like people acting in limbo, because the upper class is kind of dead in the film, obviously there are atrocious people, but both the upper and lower class were dead in there, they look like zombies, enslaved for years, so it’s like slaves that don’t’ have the energy anymore to take revenge against the upper class. It’s really a film about ghosts, phantoms, really fascinating.

The whole carte blanche was super exciting, it took me a lot to make it but it was completely worth it, one of the most exciting things I’ve ever made. It was a tribute for Nicole and everything she taught me in the past. It was very emotional.

Desistfilm: I wanted to talk to you about your female characters, because they seem to be very important in your cinema. How do you decide this kind of point of view for your films, from this feminine sensitivity?

Yann Gonzalez: To me, it’s quite obvious that women in film are more interesting than men, and to me they are more glamorous, they are more mysterious, they’re more intense and they have a lot to fight for, more than men, so to me they’re more exciting to write a story about and just plunge into a woman’s psyche and her fantasies. I feel closer to them that most of my male characters.

Knife + Heart (2018)

Desistfilm: Knife + Heart is a Giallo, which picks up this style of knife crimes and black gloves. Was it your intention to make a queer Giallo?

Yann Gonzalez: (laughs) Well, it came in a very natural way, it was not intentional. Of course, now that I see it after having working on it for more than a year, yes, it’s kind of a “queer Giallo”, it is true. When we were writing it with my co-writer, Cristiano Mangione, who helped me to build this kind of a Giallo, we were just following this strange woman, Anne Parèze (played by Vanessa Paradis), following this heroine of ours, just trying to be as free as possible and just letting us be surprised by the way she was behaving, everything had to be unexpected in a way, we were following her lead you know?, and trying to be as faithful to our craziness.

Of course we were talking a bit more about Brian De Palma than about Giallo, because in the brain of our films there’s a mixture of humor, melodrama, horror. I love this change of tones, you know? It’s always going from one territory to another, and it’s always surprising, full of tears and joys at the same time. I love it, sometimes it’s labeled as horror films, take for example Carrie, it’s supposed to be a horror film but at the same time for me it’s a real melodrama. It’s a film that makes me cry, you know? Because it’s about a teenage girl harassed by her friends, it’s a teenage tragedy, very beautiful, and also a love story. It’s this mixture of sensitivities that I really like in his films and which we were trying to approach in a way, even though it’s unapproachable, because for me Brian De Palma is one of the most genius filmmakers alive.

Desistfilm: I’m wondering about your atmospheres, which are so particular, with neon lights, these nocturnal vibes… How was this process of finding your brand in the particular Mise-en-scène of your films?

Yann Gonzalez: Again, I don’t feel like I’m putting my seal or my style in every frame of mine, it depends of the shot, the sequences, what the character is going through. For every sequence we have different styles in mind, different backgrounds and different locations. Of course we have to find something cohesive, so everything can be coherent. The main thing was to find these kind of lights that we lost in Paris, that were really present in a lot of films from the seventies or the eighties, it was a kind of a green/blue light that was replaced later by some high hues yellow/white light that I really dislike… it’s horrible.

So we replaced all the orange lights and we put green neon from the seventies to find the lights of that era, especially from those films. It was a green light feel, a kind of fantasy from these films from the past. This was exciting because at the same time we really wanted to put some kind of anachronic characters, some queer characters of today into these very seventies’ lights, and I think this is a collision between the ancient and something more modern. To me this film is a tribute to the queer world of today, as well. The secondary characters on the film are people who I found in the streets or in clubs, kids from today. This collision from these lights from the past and this queer world of today was to me super exciting, it was something that I had to express through this film.

Desistfilm: Bertrand Mandico and you have films with elements in common. You have included him in a small role in Knife + Heart. How this friendship came to be?

Yann Gonzalez:  Just because of cinema. It’s a cinema friendship. We discovered our films a few years ago and then we became friends. We’re really good friends for two years now. I like to bring some creative friends to my films, it’s like inviting them to a party, you know? Because to me a film it’s like a party that you put to screen. So, inviting Bertrand to be one of those characters was kind of natural and exciting, because he has this strange and very strong figure, I think he’s a very good actor, because he has a lot of hair, big beard, and he’s a bit grumpy the whole time. He’s like a dandy from the seventies. He does it with a lot of flare, a distant attitude, it is super funny.

For me, again, it’s a matter of collision, having Bertrand Mandico with Vanessa Paradis, with Jacques Nolot, one of the great French directors alive, and great actor as well. These kinds of collisions, putting them together on screen, we create something special; it’s a kind of chemistry: putting different bodies from different backgrounds all together. It’s like a secret of cinema, a cinema soup (laughs).Like a secret recipe, you don’t know what it’s going to look like, but you really believe in it, you have faith and hope it’s going to work. It’s super exciting putting all these actors from all these backgrounds together. This is the most exciting thing when you’re making a film.

Knife + Heart (2018)

Desistfilm: So, are you already working in something new right now?

Yann Gonzalez: Well, actually I just finished my film ten days before Cannes, so now I’m promoting the film because it’s going to be released in three weeks in France, so there’s a lot of promotion around it. I’m obviously taking a little bit of rest as well, and starting to think about the next project. I might have a common film with Bertrand Mandico, which sounds exciting but it’s not a sure thing yet. I think I’m going to start writing my next feature film, as well, in the next two months. I just want to start writing, taking some new risk at writing.