Interview – Le Horla

Interview with Pierre Creton

You often quote books in your films, but this is the first time you have adapted a short story. How did the idea of filming Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant originate?

The first time I met in Vattetot-sur-Mer Christian Borghino, Catherine Bizern’s assistant artistic director, to organise a retrospective of my films – during the 43rd (online) edition of the Festival Cinéma du Réel 2021 – I was instantly inspired to make it into a film. In the basement of the Centre Georges Pompidou, where the Canal Réel recording sessions were taking place for online streaming, I took a photo of Christian’s shadow on the set with my mobile. I sent it to him. He replied: “My Horla”. So that turned out to be the film I would make with him: an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story.

The book is a story about doubles and madness. Does the principle of doubling have anything to do with Jean-Daniel Pollet’s 1966 film of the same name, which was very explicitly adapted from the original text? How did the writing of Le Horla relate to the novella and to this film?

The backdrop of the Covid-19 virus and the pandemic seemed to me to be an appropriate mirror for Guy de Maupassant’s paranoia. For the nineteenth-century syphilitic author, it was the ships from Brazil that brought madness; for us nowadays, it is the container ships and planes from China. The principle of the double is found in the novel itself and in the journal Maupassant kept while he wrote it. In fact, it’s an extract from this journal quoted by Lauren Groff in her collection of short stories Florida that Christian Borghino reads in my film. There was no writing, strictly speaking. There was an idea of a specific place in Paris, some objects that refer to the story (the carafes, a gun) and some objects from my daily life (goose eggs, a mobile phone). Of course, I was familiar with Jean-Daniel Pollet’s film, a filmmaker I admire, without really referring to it.

Is the common thread of water a throwback to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s film?

No. The Seine is the main thread of the novel, between Normandy and Paris, and the reason for the madness. For me, it represents an autobiographical element, a childhood place as well as a contemporary one. It is the place where Marie Le Pallec, who often appears in my films (La Vie après la mort, Le Voyage à Vézelay, L’Heure du Berger), lives. The adaptation of Le Horla offered me a wonderful opportunity to make a film with her.

There are lots of mirrors and reflective glass surfaces, drawings, paintings and sculptures, and other types of doubles. Can the figure embodied by Christian Borghino also be considered a double?

As a double of myself? No. But absolutely, for the rest, paintings, sculptures (by Vincent Barré), drawings… everything can become a double under the influence of paranoia, even the goose egg, which becomes an eye. Everything is watching you.

You film in black and white and set the action in the present day, at a time when anti-vaxers and anti-mask protestors were demonstrating, echoing the frenetic dance in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939). How did you envisage these connections?

1939 is a sort of bridge between the nineteenth century and the present, between the war and Covid-19. I wanted to link all these periods together: Romanticism, Dandyism, Surrealism and the contemporary, through images, films (Vampyr by Dreyer, as well), objects and music etc…

In view of the almost mute figure of the character and the woman with the dog, can we consider your film as a snub to the turmoil in the world?

I like “the woman with the dog”, I wouldn’t have thought of calling her that. For me, she is the figurehead (friend) of a peaceful ship, indeed perhaps in contrast to the container ships of globalisation.

Can Le Horla also be seen as a portrait of Christian Borghino?

Christian Borghino was not insensitive to the idea of the double, Le Horla came from him. He read a lot of the text in preparation for the shoot, and I finally decided just to retain the sentences that came from him, spontaneously: “If I speak to you, do you answer me?”.

Interview by Olivier Pierre