• First Film Competition



Michael Salerno

Ange Dargent plays an apathetic adolescent who seems to take no interest in anything – a typical teenager, you might say. The décor looks like something from an American suburb in a Larry Clark movie, boring and unbelievably depressing, indicating a dreary everyday life suspended between family meals and high-school scenes. But that’s where the similarity ends. This is France; a peri-urban France trapped between outdated flowery wallpaper and wooden furniture that’s gone out of fashion. The character has just tried out an online suicide game inspired by the case of the Blue Whale Challenge. Instructed by an administrator, the game consists of a series of 50 challenges over 50 days. At first relatively innocuous, they gradually shift towards increasingly self-destructive challenges, ending in the final test of the player’s suicide. In a succession of meticulous scenes that stretch the solitary, everyday languor away from youthful effusions, The Masturbator’s Heart accompanies this descent into the abyss. The minimalism of the stiflingly silent still shots is in no way offset by the insidious softness diffused by the 16mm film and the character’s indolent, inscrutable face. The tenderness it hides, like the schedule of the game on which the film’s script is based, might easily trick viewers: isn’t suicide an adolescent obsession, a friend of the melancholy vapours of that awkward phase? As the challenges unfold, behind the doubts about the seriousness of the endeavour there emerges a kind of dull panic for generations whose desires remain locked in their hearts and explode in the world’s face without it understanding a thing.

Paul Eudeline

You’ve already made a number of videos and short films. What was the starting point for your first full-length feature about online gaming, Le Cœur du masturbateur?

The idea for the film came to me after I discovered the Blue Whale Challenge, which is a suicide “game” that originated on Russia’s social networks. In this “game” the player is given fifty challenges in fifty days, and on the final day they must kill themselves to “win”. Immediately, the film came to life in my imagination, and I wrote the script very quickly, over just a few days. Sometimes ideas develop over many years, and sometimes they seem to show up unexpectedly and fully-formed. Le Coeur du masturbateur was like this. But the game was just the starting point. For me, the story of a film is almost like a coat-hanger – it’s something that you hang the “real” intention of the film upon. What I was really interested in was making a very intimate portrait of a person who is erasing himself, piece by piece. I wanted to make a film where we could be with the character in their most private and quietest moments.

Despite the seriousness of the themes, the film remains, gentle, dreamlike, delicate. How did you create this atmosphere?

Yes, there is definitely a softness and a calmness in the film. I wanted to make an emotional impact on the viewer, but I didn’t want to be obvious. I envisioned a calm surface with a raging ocean of feeling underneath. So, having this intention, along with a clear vision of the atmosphere I was after, I made sure that all of the elements in the film expressed and reflected this. We did a huge amount of work with the production designer, Claire Belin, to find the right house, with the right wallpaper and furniture. To find the right locations. Everything had to have a very consistent atmosphere. If I’m honest, I can see now that I was unconsciously recreating the moods and textures of my childhood. And with the cinematography, it was the same process.

Why did you choose to shoot Le Cœur du masturbateur in 16mm and adopt the four-thirds format for the image?

Paul-Anthony Mille, the cinematographer, is a real “film guy” so he was really pushing for us to shoot on 16mm, which I was thrilled about. There’s something so transformative about 16mm – the texture, the grain, the way it handles colours. On a practical side, we had 88 scenes to shoot in 11 days, so we had to move very quickly. The sensitivity of film allowed us to shoot with very little light. And the 4:3 ratio, just felt like a perfect fit for the film. I wanted the film to feel like a closed world, intensely focused on the main character, so having a wider screen wouldn’t support that intention. I also knew that shooting on film would bring a focus and intensity to the shoot that would be impossible with the unlimited resources of shooting digitally.

The music in the film is classical, sparse and lacking in lyricism. Why this choice?

The main music is a piece by Frederic Mompou and it just felt like a perfect fit for the film. I didn’t want anything contemporary. I wanted something that was emotive and simple. Like with every other element of the filmmaking process, everything has to fit together perfectly with the overall atmosphere. And it’s important to only include what’s essential. Having the repetition of that same piece of music added something to the film that was vital.

You are Australian, so why did you make your first feature in France with a French cast?

I’m Australian, but I have lived in Paris since 2009, so it’s been quite a long time. Maybe it’s a strange thing to make films in a language that is not your own, but it feels right for me. Maybe having a step of removal from the language just helps me focus less on the words and more on the things that are more important to me – the feeling, the emotion.

How did you cast and direct Ange Dargent, the leading role?

I had seen Ange in Michel Gondry’s film Microbe et Gasoil and I really loved his performance. Several months later, when we were casting Le Coeur du masturbateur, the casting director was sending me candidates for the lead role and Ange was one of them. Ange did an audition that blew everyone away, and more importantly, I could tell that he really wanted to make this film. He was super dedicated to it and he understood it deeply. After he was cast, Ange and I would meet once a week for a whole year and we would work on the film. We never rehearsed any of the scenes, but we spent a lot of time talking. I would interview him on camera and we became very close, sharing our deepest, darkest secrets and feelings about all aspects of our lives. I would also lead him in meditation exercises and stuff like that. By the time we started shooting, I didn’t really need to direct him at all. He was so immersed in this character that he was the character. He was not acting. It was all real. And during the shooting, it was very intense emotionally for both of us.

The psychological state of the main character is not shown to the viewer, he is depicted more by his behaviour. How did you come up with this character, “Him”?

This was something that was already present in the script, which was written in a very sparse language that only described the actions and not the interiority of the character. It was all very matter-of-fact – “He wakes up, he opens his computer, he types this.” I am not really interested in saying something. What I’m interested in is making people feel something. I wanted the feelings to be expressed through the images and the emotion in the images. I also wanted the film to very gently and slowly get deeper and deeper as it progresses.

The structure of Le Cœur du masturbateur seems to follow the chronology of the days and posts of the challenge. How did you go about editing it?

The script was different to anything I had written before, in that it had a very solid narrative structure. It was written in a way that was very precise, where A leads to B leads to C, and I kind of edited the film in the script before it was shot, so the actual editing was quite straight forward. It was written a bit like a house of cards, so very little could be moved around afterwards. My natural tendency leans towards the abstract, so I was trying to set up a situation where it was impossible to go in any other direction apart from the one I had written. I carried this through to the shooting as well. There was only one camera set-up for each scene, with no cutting or different angles. I was aiming for precision and simplicity.

Interview by Olivier Pierre


  • First Film Competition
18:306 July 2023Variétés 2TICKETS
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Technical sheet

France | 2022 | 70’

Rights holder
Local Films
Kevin Rousseau