An Interview with Pietro Marcello
by Anna Thorngate
Pietro Marcello is a filmmaker whose primary creative impulse is to transpose the texture of lived experience to the screen with as much fidelity as possible. Nearly two decades ago, he began making experimental, hybridized documentaries, including The Mouth of the Wolf (2009), which follows a romance that began in a Genoa prison, and The Silence of Pelešjan (2011), a biographical portrait of the Armenian essay filmmaker and montage innovator Artavazd Pelešjan. In 2019, his most straightforwardly fictional work to that point, the ravishing, monumental Martin Eden, transposed Jack London’s bildungsroman to the industrializing port city of Genoa, Italy, over several decades of the twentieth century. The following year, in the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns, Marcello was living in France, having moved there to be near his daughter, and that is how he came to make his latest fictional film, Scarlet.
Warmer and more intimate than Martin Eden, Scarlet is a loose adaptation of the Russian author Alexander Grin’s fantasy novel Scarlet Sails that incorporates elements of realism, fairy-tale romance, and the French movie musical tradition. It tells the story of Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry), a soldier who makes his way home from the frontlines of World War I to his village in Picardy and discovers that his wife has died and that he has an infant daughter. He and the baby, Juliette, are taken in by Adeline (the formidable filmmaker and actor Noémie Lvovsky), who has been running her farm outside the village since her husband left. Adeline is the matriarch presiding over a very small community of people she has convened there, members of a chosen family that also includes a blacksmith and his wife and child. The affection and the shared burdens and joys that bind this group of outsiders are in stark contrast with the violence and desolation that pervade the lives of some of the villagers. The film traces Juliette’s development as she grows into a dreamy, lonesome, whimsical, and beloved teenage girl, played by Juliette Jouan.
Scarlet is shot on luminous, delicately grained 16mm film; as in Marcello’s other work, the new material is painstakingly edited together with restored and colorized archival footage, in this case of French soldiers returning from the war by foot, the devastation of the countryside, the changing faces of towns and work during the madly generative decades between the wars, and more. The film is an exquisite continuation of the director’s sustained project of placing the activities and relations of individual life in the context of collective memory and experience, of showing the ways in which history and our most deeply personal conceptions of self continually intersect and inform each other. It’s an approach that actively rejects nostalgia; in Marcello’s work, the present and the past are two pieces cut from the same bolt of cloth.
In anticipation of Scarlet’s U.S. theatrical release, I sat down with Marcello and interpreter Michael Moore to talk about the director’s experience of making the film, from the close collaboration with his actors to his first time working with a composer to the discovery of a book of verse by Louise Michel, feminist hero of Paris Commune, in a building where Joan of Arc was once held captive.
Reverse Shot: How did you come to adapt the Soviet novel Scarlet Sails and set it in France?
Pietro Marcello: I found myself in France by chance, really, for a family matter, after I made Martin Eden. I was very tired, because I’d shot it myself, produced it myself. And so during the pandemic, I found myself in France for two years, and there I met the producer Charles Gillibert. He’s the one who proposed this book. He knew of my love of Russian literature, which is really great literature. Among the many things I liked about the book was the way that it dealt with the parental issue. I fell in love with it, because it’s a very simple story about the care, attention, and love of a father for his daughter.
This is not a film that was meant for competition or anything; it’s a very personal film. It was shot during COVID and very conditioned by that period; you could almost say that it was shot with a kind of wartime economy.
RS: Your 2019 film Martin Eden is about, among other things, the triumph of a kind of corrosive masculine idea of individualism over collectivism in Europe in the twentieth century. Scarlet presents a more positive and perhaps feminine vision, an ideal of feminine independence balanced with an ethos of mutual support. Can you talk about any different worldviews and gender archetypes you might have been exploring between the two films?
PM: I think Martin Eden has been greatly misunderstood, just as the novel by Jack London was. For me, Martin Eden was a very negative figure, and I think that many viewers saw him in a positive light. Both the novel and the film are dealing with this archetype and with the ambiguity of the character. Scarlet is a very different story. Martin Eden is someone who lives for himself, he fights for himself, he dies for himself. In Scarlet, we’re seeing a much more communitarian feeling, and this idea of a father who’s very positive, who cares for others. On the other hand, the character of the prince, the knight in shining armor, here represented by Louis Garrel, is shown as more fragile. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the Marco Ferreri film Bye Bye Monkey [starring Gérard Depardieu as a man who adopts and raises a baby chimpanzee as his child in a postapocalyptic New York City]. We changed the story of Scarlet from Grin because today this idea of a girl waiting for a knight in shining armor who is going to save her and replace her father is old-fashioned, no longer interesting. I think the model for today is that of the extended family.
Martin Eden and Scarlet are two very different films. Martin Eden is a much more complex story, taking place on many different levels, whereas Scarlet is a very linear story. I did follow the same method in making them, the same use of the camera, the same way that I dealt with the actors. And I don’t emulate others; I think that’s important to say. I think Scarlet is a film that’s feminine, and this is very much thanks to the extraordinary actresses who I found and what they offered. Martin Eden is less loving, less sweet.
RS: For me, that communal model of the extended family in Scarlet is really centered in the character of Adeline, who extends grace to Raphaël at the beginning of the movie in the form of food, a home, work to do, and membership in a small community. Can you talk about what that character means to you, what went into the creation of it and the casting of the filmmaker and actor Noémie Lvovsky in the part?
PM: Noémie is someone I cast very carefully. As I did the character of Juliette—for her, even after I had auditioned basically all the actors of Paris, I did a search on the web, an open audition, and that’s how I found Juliette. Also, my search for the actor to play Raphaël: I wanted someone who was like him, who had the right kind of physicality. I have to say that I’m very happy with the choices that I made in the casting of the film. And the figure of Adeline, she is a mother figure within this commune, and she has to work together with a male figure, with a father figure, who is Raphaël.
RS: You’ve talked about your documentary filmmaking background affecting the way you make your fiction films, in the way you shoot and capture unexpected things. I wonder if you could talk about the process of working with your actors in those terms—was there improvisation, was there a rehearsal process, were there unexpected things that you captured?
PM: Yes, because the path that I followed into becoming a filmmaker was much more about investigative reportage, documentary films. So I arrived at fiction films from another direction. And I still do make documentaries; I’m making one now, for example, using a lot of archival footage, experimenting a bit. The privilege that I’ve had in making films like Martin Eden and Scarlet is that I’m also trained as a cameraman, and the relationship that I establish with the actors is primarily through the camera. The actors need that relationship with the camera operator. So this is the privilege, really, that has allowed me to make these fictional films.
I don’t find myself saying, Oh, I can’t do this, I can’t work this way, I can’t shoot this—I have no such frustrations, because I’m an archivist. And all that I’ve learned, I’ve learned through making documentary films. Even today, as I continue to do that, when I find myself making a fictional film I have to turn everything upside down, in the screenplay and in the way that I shoot, and adapt myself to what’s happening in front of me. In a way, I don’t entirely believe in the concept of writing, because a film isn’t just a transposition of a screenplay. As you make a film, there’s a lot of adapting that you need to make in order to create the mise-en-scène.
RS: Can you talk a bit about the way you incorporated the archival footage in this film and the process of finding, restoring, and colorizing it?
PM: That was a way of having different colors in the film. It was also a way of relating a part of history that is difficult to tell through fiction. Because I don’t think that a reconstruction could ever achieve the same level of authenticity as archival footage in the service of a film. And actually, there’s a great power to the archival footage. This was archival footage that I found myself and is from the area where the film takes place, Picardy, during the very last days of World War I. If you look at these images, you realize how difficult it would be to reconstruct them. I think the power of archival footage is the way it transposes reality. It’s so powerful that no fiction and no reconstruction could equal it. No amount of effort in Hollywood, Rome, Paris, or Bombay could reproduce what is expressed by archives, which for me tell the great story of our times.
RS: There’s also so much else that went into representing the period of Scarlet, which is set in northern France between the two World Wars. I’m thinking specifically of the handicrafts—the woodworking, the shipbuilding, the blacksmithing, that don’t exist today in the same way. How did you go about building that world and representing those skills, and who did you collaborate with on it?
PM: That’s really thanks to my production designer, Christian Marti, my dear friend. Since I was filming in France, I really had to adapt my methods to the methods of other people, and in the course of doing this I made many dear friends, and I’m thankful for how they helped me. In some ways, I had to become accustomed to a countryside, a landscape, that had been devastated by World War I and World War II, unlike in my own home in Southern Italy, where you still see some of the old ruins, there most of the old villages have been covered up with cement. Despite the contiguity between France and Italy and the closeness of our two film cultures, I still had to adapt my method to their method of making film.
RS: Can you talk about the music in the film?
PM: I haven’t had original music in any of my other films, so Scarlet is the first time I’ve actually worked with a composer—Gabriel Yared—and it was a great learning experience for me. It meant working with someone who has had a very different kind of training, and who was just right for the kind of film I was making. It was a growing experience, showing me a whole other way to make films, and I had the privilege of having Gabriel alongside me throughout the production.
It was also my first time not having total control. Because I do sort of have that tendency to want to follow everything all the way through, including in the editing, where I also learned a lot. So here I had to cede some control. Editing, that’s the real adrenaline part of the film. That’s where it all comes together.
RS: Was it you who chose the poetry of Louise Michel for the lyrics of the original songs?
PM: We found that book at the farm where we shot, which is also where Joan of Arc spent the last three days of her life before being taken away. Even the scene where we see the children playing in a grotto; that’s where Joan of Arc was actually locked up. So we just found the book there by chance; it ended up in our hands, and I said to Juliette, “Why don’t you set this to music?” And she worked with Gabriel to do that. It was by accident.
RS: Besides its communality, the way of life Scarlet represents is also very enriched by craft, music, books, and art. Is there a connection between that and the handcrafted, collaborative way you approach making your films?
PM: That’s definitely the case. I grew up in an area and a family of artisans, of craftspeople. I have a very close relationship with—I wouldn’t say with manual labor, but with craftsmanship. And I think that also explains my passion for archival work, how I sort of build something, assemble something. My grandfather, for example, was a carpenter. I think my films do have a kind of artisanal quality. There’s a very beautiful book by Leo Tolstoy called What Is Art? where he talks about the need of humans to create and to make art. Because art is never evil; it’s never malicious. It’s a way that humans do good for one another.