Living in the Present:
An Interview with Eugène Green
By Nick Pinkerton

In fall of last year, I met with Eugène Green at Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village shortly after his superlative fifth feature, La Sapienza, had played at the New York Film Festival. This was not far from the former site of the Bleecker Street Cinema, where Green, a native New Yorkaise, received his early cinematic education before emigrating in 1968 to France. In the course of our hour-long conversation, which follows, we discussed the old Village, the soixante-huitard legacy, and the Baroque paradox. I am happy to report that in conversation he maintains something very close to the frank, steady eye contact that will be familiar to viewers of his films, and leaves one with the same sense of nourishing intelligence.

Reverse Shot: Let’s talk about sapience, the word and the concept. It’s an idea that’s obviously resonated with you for a very long time—your theater troupe was called le Theatre de la Sapience, and so this is something that has been a part of your artistic practice for a long time. Could you expand on the concept?

Eugène Green: The reason that I gave the name to the theatre company, it was a homage to Borromini, to his church Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, but at the same time the word intrigued me. When I encountered it in the name of the church I started doing research and thinking about what it meant, because it’s a word which—in French I observed that it had been frequently used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and then afterwards it disappeared. Often you see it said that it means knowledge, or it means wisdom, but actually I think it corresponds to the meaning it had: the knowledge that leads to wisdom. In the film it has a double meaning, because it’s a reference to the Palace, La Sapienza, in Rome, Borromini’s greatest church, greatest masterpiece, but it’s also the meaning of the word because, as Alexandre realizes at the end of the film, most of the knowledge that he has is useless. For me the only knowledge that is not useless is the knowledge that leads to wisdom.

RS: As we encounter Alexandre in the beginning of the film, he’s somebody who has practiced architecture based on the precepts of extreme functionality, and then he arrives at an inversion of his idea of what functionality is.

Green: Exactly. That’s why he says that “Most of what I know is useless.” He thought his buildings were useful because they were functional, but then he senses that these buildings don’t lead to wisdom, because he says, “The source of beauty is love, the source of knowledge is light,” and since the buildings didn’t give light to people, and they didn’t create spaces which made love possible, and so his functionality was actually not functional at all, it was useless. And because of the experience of this journey he’s come to another idea of what is useful.

RS: A total realignment of that concept of functionality . . . You’re a published essayist, and you’ve written at some length about the Baroque. Do you think that La Sapienza could be viewed as an essay film?

Green: People who don’t like my films say that they’re intellectual and that they’re just treatises. There are ideas behind it, of course, but the basis of all my practices and the formal elements of my language is to produce emotion—but the emotion can lead to thought. If I had to speak of the thought, what the film expresses, it’s the idea, first of all, that the most important time is the present, but the present is an eternal present which contains all which has been and all which will be. In today’s world, people have no present, because they’re cut off from the past. I don’t believe the past is just something to be preserved, like in a museum, but the past can be an energy in the present which should help us to live our present and to work toward some sort of future. But people have no more past, so they have no more future either. That’s why there are so many signs of despair, people don’t believe in anything anymore, and the present itself—with what they call the digital revolution, people are never in their present, they’re always somewhere else, they’re always in a virtual world that doesn’t exist. When people walk in the street, they don’t see the street anymore, they don’t see the other people around them, they’re looking at their iPhone and they’re tapping away or speaking with someone who isn’t there, or they’re looking at images which don’t really exist. I think that’s the idea—there are lots of ideas, actually. There’s also the role of architecture—the role of architecture should be to create spaces where people can live in the present and feel their emotions, feel communion with other people, and know love. Also spaces which give them light, not just light in the technical, functional sense, but light in a spiritual sense—it’s physical light which enables them to feel the spiritual contents of light.

Another idea that was in the film is that transmission is very important. In my generation—I’m of the 1968 generation—there was a rupture in transmission. One of the slogans of the ’68 people was that transmission is a form of fascism, and that you should stop all transmission, and the relationship between older people and children should just be a relation of awakening what is in the children, that Rousseauist idea that everything is present and you just have to awaken it. I think that transmission is very important, that we have to reestablish the cord of transmission. And the idea is that transmission doesn’t just go in one way—in a certain way, the rejection of transmission by the ‘68-ers was because transmission had become a very rigid thing, with the idea that the adults had truth which they would transmit, and the young people had to receive it. To me transmission, it’s always an exchange. Because the more mature person has knowledge which he can transmit, but the younger person is closer to the source of things, what Alexandre finds as the source of beauty, which is love, and the source of knowledge, which is light. This happens intuitively, as in the coupling of Alexandre and Goffredo—Goffredo learns things from Alexandre about architecture, but he transmits to Alexandre his intuitive experience of what love is and what light is.

RS: Throughout your work, you seem to treat dialogues as a process of dicta and contradicta, wherein dichotomies—past and present, intellectualism and emotion—are in the process of discourse dissolved, and the oppositional forces are revealed to be not as oppositional as one might suppose.

Green: Yes, that’s perfect. Sometimes people talk about my cinema as Baroque cinema, but for me this has no meaning. The only relationship that I find between cinema in general and perhaps my cinema in general and the Baroque period is in relation to what I call the Baroque oxymoron. Up until the end of the Renaissance there was no contradiction between the exploration of the natural world in a scientific way and a feeling of sacredness or spirituality, because there was a belief that the world was the creation of God, and God was visible in his creation, but at the end of the Renaissance, the scientific research had gone so far that it had already come to construct a model of the universe which worked by itself according to natural laws, and it worked like a machine, which seemed to evacuate the necessity of God. But during all of the Baroque period, people lived an oxymoron, because at the same time they continued to explore the natural world in that way and to develop that mechanical vision of the world, they still believed that the absolute reality was God. For modern rationalistic thought, which begins in the 18th century, that seems to be a contradiction, the belief in two opposite things, but actually, those two opposite things coexisted, and they proved that there’s no absolute—in any case, human reason cannot arrive at an absolute truth. It has to accept the fact that there are apparently opposite and exclusive things that actually coexist, as you said, and in my dialogues that comes through.

RS: Talking of apparent oxymorons, I’d like to hear something about the performance style that you’ve arrived at. Because of the precision of gesture, economy of gesture, there’s a temptation to call it “Bressonian” and leave it at that, but your performers exude a warmth that is very at odds with that definition.

Green: It’s obvious that Bresson had an influence on me . . . I discovered him when I was still in New York, when I was nineteen. At the time my cinematheque was the Bleecker Street Cinema, which is now a drug store, I think, or some other horror. For one ticket you could see in the evening three films, and one night—I don’t remember what the first two films were, but the third, which came on towards midnight, was Journal d'un curé de champagne (Diary of a Country Priest). And I didn’t even know the name of Bresson, but it struck me—I was very moved by it, and I knew exactly what he was trying to do, and then afterwards I discovered all the rest, and I read through his Notes sur le cinématographe.

I only began to make films thirty years later, so it’s something which was assimilated, and I had gone my own path. Perhaps what is similar is that for me—but I think it’s the same for him—what interests me when I film a human being is his interiority, what is hidden in normal everyday life, and which the cinema has the possibility of making apparent and conceivable to the spectator. But I work with professional actors, whereas he used only nonprofessional non-actors, which he called “models.” I think he tried to capture that hidden interiority without the model being aware of it, whereas I do it with the collaboration of the actor, who’s completely aware of what I want to do. As to technique, I don’t want them to think what they’re acting because thinking always cuts off the flow into interior emotion, so I don’t want them to do psychological interpretations. That’s also something which Bresson used. I give perhaps more importance to the text because I write the text myself. And Bresson—even though it’s not completely naturalistic, I think he tried to get something which seemed more or less realistic, whereas in my dialogues, I use grammatical forms which are not used in everyday French, like the questions are always made with an inversion of the subject and the verb, and that’s a literary style that’s almost never used in spoken language.

The construction of the dialogues almost feels like a tennis match. Very rarely is there more than one sentence on either side of an exchange, and the sentence which follows another sentence rarely comes out of the blue, there’s always a bounce back. When I write the dialogues—I spend a great deal of time with the dialogues—I try to concentrate a maximum of strong feelings in a minimum of words, often simple words which can trigger off an emotion. That’s different. And my way of working with the actors, too: we do one or two readings of the script before the shoot begins. The only thing I say—I never make any psychological analysis, if they ask me questions about the psychological motivations I never answer them. When they’re reading, if ever they start getting psychological intonations—what are considered to be psychological intonations, because actually they’re completely false, they come from theater—I just tell them not to. And then when we shoot, just before the first take of each shot, we rehearse once or twice, and then we start filming, and once I get two good takes then I’m satisfied and we stop. I like direct sound, and I only use post in recording when there’s a sound problem, and it makes me suffer when I have to do that, but it’s usually just one or two sentences. Bresson post-recorded all of the sound because he didn’t want any parasite sounds; I also try to get a sound as pure as possible, but for me the direct sound is so important that I can’t imagine post-recording everything. Sometimes we have to do more takes than I would do normally just to get the good sound, and sometimes since the characters more or less always say the sentence in the same rhythm, it’s sometimes possible to remove the sound from one take and put it on the image of another take—but it’s indirect sound, still.

RS: One thing that also differentiates you is the sense of humor. Watching La Sapienza with an audience in Toronto, there was quite a bit laughter at the beginning—partly because of the unfamiliarity of the style, the incongruousness of someone introducing themselves and delineating their thoughts and feelings so directly . . . There’s a potentiality for deadpan humor that’s intrinsic in your style, and it seems to me that’s not something you’ve ever avoided.

Green: On the contrary, I develop it. Recently I saw again The Portuguese Nun, and I realized that half the time I was smiling. It’s not jokes that make you slap your thigh, but there’s a sort of irony or something, and that comes naturally to me. When audiences saw my first film, Toutes les nuits, sometimes in the Q&A afterwards, they’d ask me if they had the right to laugh, and I told them yes they did, it was intentional, the humor. That’s a difference with Bresson—I have from time-to-time a sort of irony, but there’s no real humor in his films. And for me it comes naturally.

RS: Yet running through Toutes les nuits, Le Pont des arts, The Portuguese Nun, and La Sapienza there is a deadly serious concern with depression, isolation, long dark nights of the soul, and the ability, through commiseration with others or with works of art—which are really one and the same thing—to lighten the load.

Green: Absolutely. In La Sapienza, it’s perhaps more explicit. I make a sort of parallel with an important element of the sacred, which is the sacrifice. All religious traditions contain the idea of a sacrifice, and in most religious traditions, at least in the earliest stages, it’s a literal sacrifice, a living thing—in certain cultures even a living being, in any case an animal, which is sacrificed, what could be called the bloody sacrifice. The originality of Christianity is the idea that God himself was incarnated and became the sacrificial victim, which put an end also to the bloody sacrifices, and through the Mass, which is a form of sacrifice, the faithful can have a spiritual experience without bloodshed, but with a direct contact with the sacred. And there is the idea in La Sapienza that in a certain way the real artist—like Borromini, as opposed to Bernini—who lives only for his art, becomes a sacrificial victim. That’s the idea when Alexandre sees a vision of the death of Borromini—I don’t specify if it’s a dream or if it’s the text that he’s writing—but when he sees this vision, he realizes that it’s a sacrifice, and that’s why he says afterwards “We’re saved, we’re saved.” The artist becomes a sacrificial victim, in the same way that the death of Christ enables afterward the faithful, through the ritual Mass, to experience the sacrifice without bloodshed. The artist leaves his work of art, which becomes a way for the people who enter in contact with it to know a spiritual experience, to be able to open up to others and experience commiseration and love for another through a work of art. It’s the same thing, actually, as in Le Pont des arts, though perhaps the spiritual aspect or religious aspect is more explicit.

RS: Borromini’s last night is almost a short film within the film, and it’s filmed in a way that’s quite distinct from the rest of the movie, as a string of fragmentary impressions.

Green: Actually, the idea of making a film about Borromini goes back, for me, to the 1970s, when I still dreamed of becoming a film director. Afterwards I gave up that dream, and then it came back as a reality. I had the idea of making a film after I discovered his work when I was studying art history in the 1970s, and at the time I imagined it as a historical film with costumes, using his architecture, but the architecture would have been placed in a historical context, as if we were in the 17th century, when he was building it. Then, when I started making films, I realized that I had no desire to make historical films because, for me, if you put an actor in a historical costume, his body has to move another way, he has to try to feel in a way which would correspond to the costume, and you begin doing theater, and I don’t want the actor to do theater, in the same way I don’t want him to do a psychological interpretation, to think about his character’s motivations and all that, I just want the spiritual energy to flow. That’s how I got the idea of this film, which is no longer a historical film, but about Borromini in relation to today’s world.

He’s someone whose life—what we know about it—can be encapsulated in one paragraph. The only two dramatic events in his life are the incident where a vandal was killed while he was working in San Giovanni Laterale, and then his death, which is very spectacularly dramatic. The first event is resumed by Alexandre, you hear his voice, and there are some dramatic elements; you see two of his workers who take tools to punish the vandal, and you see what’s supposed to be a 17th century floor and walls . . . actually it’s the Villa de Medici. His death I wanted to make even more dramatic, and I wanted to make explicit the identification that Alexandre makes between himself and Borromini, and also Borromini’s disciple, Francesco. It becomes a historical drama—you are brought back to the 17th century at the moment of the death of Borromini—but I didn’t want to film it in a total way, I wanted to do it just by fragments, by synecdoche, just to show hands and feet, the lamp’s flame, the floor, the bed. For me that’s the most dramatic way of filming it without going into the tradition of a historical film. It’s not a historical film in the traditional sense, but it becomes a fragment of a historical film which I think you can fit into my aesthetic.

RS: There’s an exchange in The Portuguese Nun: “We have to live here and now.” “But here and now, I have to be somewhere else.” This seems to me a defining characteristic of your films, which are so concerned with the European culture of the 16th and 17th century, but, other than the Borromini scenes, you’ve never done anything that could be described as a straight period film, even the fairy tale-like Le monde vivant.

Green: Le monde vivant—for me, it takes place today. That’s why the ogre has a freezer.

RS: In La Sapienza you continue a tendency that appeared in The Portuguese Nun, though I don’t remember it as much from the earlier films—where the camera detaches from the characters to explore their environment, in this case to caress architectural details.

Green: From the beginning there are pans sometimes that go from the character to the environment, but maybe it does become more pronounced with The Portuguese Nun. In The Portuguese Nun, it’s because Lisbon is one of the two main characters of the film, and so there are moments where the camera detaches from the characters and explores some aspect of the city in relation to the characters. In the church, in The Portuguese Nun, there are certain shots just of the statues, altars, things like that. In La Sapienza, Borromini is present mainly by his architecture, so there are times when, yes, Alexandre is explaining the architecture to Goffredo, and instead of just listening to him, the camera shows what he’s showing to Goffredo. When I first came to Europe, I had no eyes, I didn’t know how to look at things. It’s something that came to me rather quickly, like a miracle. I saw that there’s a way of looking at architecture where you could discover what the architect was doing, in certain cases by following the cornice, you can see the entire plan that’s on the ground. And so I wanted to permit the spectator to see the architecture as someone who was in the building and knew how to look at it would see it. And that’s what I tried to do, with Raphaël O'Byrne, the cinematographer.

RS: You appeared as a film director in The Portuguese Nun, which is not such a stretch. In La Sapienza you appear as a Chaldean immigrant from the ransacked fertile crescent. Why did you assume the part yourself? Sartorially, there’s no attempt at making the character realistic.

Green: The scarf I’m wearing was supposed to be more-or-less something from the near East, and a Western jacket with a somewhat used look. In both cases, my appearing in the film wasn’t planned on from the beginning. In The Portuguese Nun Denis Podalydès was supposed to play the director, and then there was a problem while we were already shooting: the administrator of the Comedie Francaise imposed unplanned on rehearsals at the theater and he had no choice. It was also a logical choice, because in the film the whole crew that you see is the real crew, so it would’ve been only the director who would’ve been an actor, whereas since I played it, it was the real director as well. In La Sapienza, at first I thought of having a real Chaldean—he’d have to be able to speak French, but there’s a diaspora, and many live near Paris. But we were shooting in Italy and—it’s the film I made with the smallest budget, and there was no way of getting a Chaldean, so I decided to do it myself. I didn’t try to do what would be a Chaldean accent, but I took two phonemes which are difficult for foreigners to pronounce in French and played with these. The rest was my normal accent.

This character is interesting because he represents a past which goes back thousands of years by his language, and where he comes from. He speaks a language that is disappearing. Before the war there were a million Chaldeans living in Iraq, and now there are less than 400,000. The others have either emigrated to Europe and the United States or they’ve been massacred. And also because it’s a language which has played a very important role in Western civilization because it’s the language of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, the language of the Jews at the time of Jesus, and probably the language of the first written Gospel, which wasn’t preserved after it was translated into Greek. It’s also the language of the Zohar, the text of the kabbalah—so this language has had an important role in the past, and it’s only living through this man who has no place; as he says, there’s no architect to give them a place and light. It’s also the idea that the ancient Chaldeans were great astronomers, but also astrologists, and so there’s the idea that he can read the destiny of someone in the stars, this man who comes from a very distant past whose present is going to disappear, but he gives Aliénor, in her present, hope, and therefore a future. And therefore the idea of transmission is sort of resumed by this character. He resumes a lot of themes of the film, and so the fact that it’s I who play the role . . . I’m expressing a lot of my thoughts through the character.

RS: You yourself are, in fact, an immigrant, though your circumstances are, of course, very different. How do you think that your particular relationship with the culture of the Old World is affected by the fact that it wasn’t your birthright?

Green: It was deepened in a Baroque fashion, because when I was here . . . I wasn’t able to conceive of it intellectually until later, but I had the impression as a child, from the age of five on, that man exists through language. Here, I had the impression that the world didn’t exist through language. What was around me seemed unreal, so I sought a reality in literature, later in other arts and music, cinema also, very much. For me reality was somewhere else, and I approached it through art, so when I came to Europe, where this culture was a physical reality, I had the idea that I had come to it in a dream, I had come to it through something which wasn’t physical, and there’s a certain balance between the ideal of the culture, which I got when I was here, in the States, and its physical reality, in Europe. I always kept the idea, like the Baroque man, that the supreme reality is hidden in the world, though it can be approached through art.

RS: You have a parallel career, as the author of five novels, none of which have yet been translated. How do the two practices, writing and filmmaking, inform one another?

Green: In both cases, I tell stories—that’s the main parallel. I’m not tempted to try to make adaptations of my novels as films, though. Once I decide in what form I want to tell a story, the story enters into the medium that I’m using. A novel is through words, but it’s not just words as description—I don’t like descriptions at all. I write a lot of poetry as well, and novels or poetry. Words have a physical existence. They also have secrets, they have several layers, they have mysteries, and they need to be incarnated. That’s why, in my novels, there’s a lot of dialogue. Some publishers, when they read them, they tell me they’re not novels, because a novel is not supposed to have so much dialogue, it has to have a lot of description. For me, the stories I tell are related—that is, some of the stories that I write as novels I could have conceived as films, but the expression would have been completely different because if it’s expressed through a film, it comes through images of real things that are captured by the camera and the microphone, real people, real places. In a novel, it’s through words, and the images that the words can create in the spirit of the reader.

RS: What do you have in the offing right now?

Green: I have a pile of novels, because I wasn’t able to shoot for five or six years, so I only wrote, and so I actually have several novels that I’ve written. I have a problem with finding a publisher . . . I was published by Gallimard, who’s prestigious, but the last novel that I published with them was Les atticistes, a satirical novel about French intellectual life from the 1960s into the present. It didn’t make me a lot of friends. I have an editor who’ll defend certain of my manuscripts, but he can only present them to the reader’s committee, and the reader’s committee contains people who aren’t very happy about the satire in Les atticistes, and so now my manuscripts are refused systematically. I have to find another publisher, which isn’t easy, because all these publishers have committes, and to get a majority in a reader’s committee is very difficult, and as for publishers where there’s one person who decides, they often have a very rigid doctrinal line about what they publish, so for the novels, I don’t know. But for the novels, there’s less anxiety, because a novel can be posthumous, at least, but a film can’t. For films, I shot in July a documentary about the Basque region and their language, and as soon as I get back to Paris, I will start editing it. And then I have a script that I like very much that I’m trying to do with new producers, and if they get the funding, I’ll shoot in June and July. The central character is an adolescent, so it has to be in summer to shoot, because otherwise there’ll be school. I hope to shoot that. But I have several other scripts written.

RS: You earlier made critical comments about the ’68 generation’s severance of the past, and you’ve just spoken about getting in hot water with this novel. Do you think that you’re perceived as a revanchist figure?

Green: Only in France, not in the other countries. I was just in Brazil, Sao Paulo, where they did a retrospective, and there I had a young audience, the sort of audience we had in Europe in the 1960s and 70s; they were all enthusiastic. But in France? France is the only country in Europe where there’s no separation between state and church, and the official religion of France is atheism. It’s almost a situation, like in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries with the Inquisition. And so yes, I’m perceived as someone who’s . . . not by everyone, of course. I have a lot of young followers also in France. But by the people who have power in France, I’m perceived as someone who’s reactionary and against progress, an obscurantist.

RS: And as a former New Yorker, upon returning, do you feel any stab of nostalgia whatsoever for the Old New World?

Green: Around here, in Greenwich Village, because I spent a lot of time here when I was an adolescent. Sometimes when I go places where I’ve lived important experiences I get the impression of finding my ghost . . . Around here, from time to time, there is something I can feel in this street, in MacDougal Street.

RS: I walked here through Washington Park and thought of Henry James, another expat New Yorker, who was always tortured by a sense that the city of his youth had been stolen, betrayed. But I suppose if you’re strictly pre-Enlightenment…

Green: No, there’s nothing. I do have a memory of the first time I was able to go by myself to Washington Square. I was thirteen years old, and it’s strange that my parents let me take the subway by myself. It was 1960, actually, and Washington Square was still very refined. I saw the row of houses that were left, and the young mothers and nannies. It was a very strange world for me, and it did impress me. I have memories of Greenwich Village in the snow. But otherwise, no, I feel no great nostalgia like I can feel for Lisbon when I go there.

A short version of this interview originally appeared on the Sight & Sound website.