Interview – The Life of Infamous Men

Interview with Marianne Pistone & Gilles Deroo,

Where did your interest in this abandoned editorial project come from, for which Michel Foucault published the note of intent? What relationship do you have with his work?

MP: Michel Foucault published La vie des hommes infâmes (The Life of Infamous Men), a project that he abandoned but for which he published a note of intent in which he spoke of his discovery of the Bastille archives, the arrest orders, which he planned to study. I stumbled upon it. This short text condenses the specific form of his writing, which is at once very academic, rigorous, and yet (or at the same time) imbued with emotion and often very sensual. When I came across this passage from the Dits et Écrits, even more than his project, even more than the little text from the archives of the Bastille itself which became our synopsis, it was Foucault’s intense and, I would say, clear emotion which first and foremost moved me – his emotion in response to these small texts of condemnation that are totally cruel, absurd and “spirited”. The fates of these “infamous” men, that is to say, “non famous”, were contained in these few laconic, scathing lines, and Foucault was upset by them. I was upset that he was upset. Then, in Lille, as I was running along the esplanade, I was overwhelmed and gripped by the certainty that this was it, this was the key: these three lines were a synopsis. We had to film the lives of these “infamous” men.

Why did the life of the “whimsical loan shark” particularly catch your eye? Did you instantly see him as a cinematic character?

MP & GD: The first of these arrest orders was that of Mathurin Milan, committed to the Charenton Hospital on 31 August, 1707. It didn’t interest us more than the others. We simply chose the first of the published sentences, as if following an alphabetical order. There were others to follow and, as Foucault says, hundreds more in the archives. A bunch of dead guys. We could have gone to look at them and chosen a favorite among the host of infamous people, but our idea was that we should take the first on the list without any preference, as if to do otherwise, to choose, would be almost immoral. So we picked the first one, as if we would then have to film the life of each of the following men, filming as an endless task the life of each name on this enormous list of the infamous. More generally, as we came to feel that the function, the role of cinema was in this place: for filming the most insignificant and most expendable lives.

More broadly, how did Michel Foucault’s writing guide the narrative and the staging choices?

MP & GD: This small, raw and stark text, the arrest order, thus became our synopsis. We tried to follow the few sentences to the letter, quite academically and faithfully: to follow the two or three words that had been left to us from the life of this man condemned to incarceration. We first imagined a certain Mathurin Milan: above all, a huge man with ghoulish hands. In our writing, it’s powerful, “made of earth and water”. We just had images in our heads — of him, his hands, her, Magdeleine and her throat. Flemish and classical painting inspired us and helped us envisage them. We saw him from behind. He had to be massive, an ogre with a broad back. She should be graceful, a she-wolf.

Who are the actors, in particular the actor who plays the character of Mathurin Milan, and how did you work with them?

MP & GD: From there, we looked for a woman who worked with animals, and a man working with plants. To find her, we called an agricultural college with a dairy department. To find him, we went to the city’s gardening department. As we also wanted to work with someone – while we were at it – who would need the associated pay, we went to meet a group of gardeners on a social integration scheme. Because of the health situation with Covid 19, they were wearing masks. Five or six half-faces were looking at us. One of them said he could never act, that he was too shy, just getting his picture taken was far too awkward for him. But he was the one, Julien. We immediately wanted to work with him, because of his humility, his look and without further ado, driven by intuition and completely instinctive logic we chose him: it was just as inexplicable as falling in love. There was nothing special about him: he didn’t have big hands, his voice trembled with a very moving fragility. We were moved.

The rest was like a casting in reverse. They had to choose us. They also had to agree to give all they had: he had to show her his penis, she had to show her breasts and thighs. We warned them of these requirements, but also that in general they also had to commit to the venture without reading the script and to trust us, a somewhat blind and very instantaneous trust, as if on a whim. We were asking them for a “yes”, with all that entails in terms of giving – a strange, crazy faith and dedication. Here, writing it today, I was afraid to say “out of goodness”, but I need to say it: out of goodness. This is how the film came about: the writing, the cutting and editing were organized less around this character than around all the others who surround him, adore him, condemn him, track him down, lose him, despise him, arrest him and condemn him. The film had to focus on him. We started with this image: “like hands around a neck”. The cutting and framing flowed out from this image, as if we and the camera were stalkers, in the middle of a hunt, and as if he, Mathurin Milan, were the prey. In the forest, his back is what we see, running and disappearing into the undergrowth, behind the trees. Is it a doe? Is it a bird? He flies away just when you think you have caught him.

What was your approach to the editing process?

MP & GD: The editing followed these hunting movements, stalking and throttling. We had to get closer and therefore speed up the sequences, tighten the noose. The first part shows Mathurin surrounded by his family, crowned with success. After his brother accuses him, the film changes. In the second part, he is alone, caught, now treated like a rat. We were guided by this image: the bird is entangled in a net, the net of justice. Nowadays, the police operate in the same way: they surround demonstrators, pushing them back into dead-end streets. The editing was focused on this chase and fall. We realise that our films all have more or less the same structure, with a first part that is filmed as if it were in the past, which may seem like a childhood, and a second part in which Icarus has fallen back, his wings in tatters, shattered. This second part could be called winter. In this way “childhood” is followed by “winter”.

Why did you choose the 16mm format? What did it allow you to do?

MP & GD: We shot in 16mm film. Thomas Ordonneau, our producer at Shellac, instantly understood our need to do this. He supported us and we thank him for that. First of all, for the texture of the image, the grain of course, but also the depth. We find a sensuality and texture in it that we don’t think digital can provide yet. 16mm has issues other than cost compared to 35mm. Shooting on 16mm film allows us to be more lightweight, the camera weighs much less than a 35mm camera and is more discreet. But above all, 16mm allows for an even rougher grain, a thicker image, like impasto in painting. We wanted to be closer to oil and acrylic, or even chalk, than to watercolor or gouache. We wanted a carnal, organic image. Cinema is something that crumbles 24 times a second. Over and over again, the photogram tumbles into blackness, like a very intimate, never-ending drama. This drama is palpable in the image, which still wobbles a little, despite the DCP projection. Finally, shooting in film establishes an almost sacred order on set: you don’t shoot by snapping your fingers, without measuring the consequences, because you know that film is very expensive. So everything becomes very expensive, precious, in the wider sense of the word. Everything is cherished. Everything becomes priceless. The whole team knows the cost and the (non) actors quickly grasp this. Gilles and I need this silence, this focus that is almost akin to dismay. Magic happens every time the word “action” is uttered.

Interview by Claire Lasolle