INCONVERSATION

AGNÈS B. with Phong Bui

Independent, open-minded, approachable yet fiercely determined, focused, and driven by her passion for the arts and avant-garde films, agnès b. is more than just a formidable figure in the world of fashion. We first met when I curated an exhibition of the legendary artist, filmmaker, and poet Jonas Mekas at MoMA PS1 in 2007. (agnès was a board member of the institution at the time under the directorship of Alanna Heiss, and we happened to share a mutual admiration for Jonas’s life and work.) Though it was only after our long and pleasurable conversation about her new film My Name Is Hmmm…—she came to the Rail HQ, the day after the premier screening at MoMA, with several friends who brought French cigarettes and a medium-sized bottle of the classic Stolichnaya Red Label Vodka—that I realized that the Jonas Mekas exhibition’s title, The Beauty of Friends Being Together Quartet, may have hinted at a philosophy or attitude which Jonas, agnès, and I all seemed to share; about how we live and celebrate the things we love most in life in relation to the community of friends and the world at large. The following is an edited version, which, for clarity and concision, leaves out the clever and interesting remarks of some others around the table.

Portrait of the aritst. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photograph by Zack Garlitos.

Phong Bui (Rail): I thought that your directorial debut, My Name is Hmmm… was a very serious film.

agnès b.: It’s a serious story but I made it with the full freedom of an amateur. I wrote the story, and framed each shot with Jean-Philippe [Bouyer, the cinematographer]. I even designed the house where they live in the beginning in Studios de Joinville, which was built for Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont around 1910. It’s located just outside of Paris, very close to suburbs where many famous films have been shot, for example Les Enfants du Paradis, La Règle du Jeu, among others. I wanted the house to be a claustrophobic place, filled with a dark atmosphere. There were no windows. The big sofa and the TV were by the kitchen where most of the activity took place, as though they forgot about the dining room where they should be eating. Only when the grandmother came to visit did they eat in the dining room. Otherwise, the TV was always on.

Rail: Before the film was made, it was a story that you wrote 12 years ago. What inspired you to write the story to begin with?

b.: I was inspired by a little article, at the bottom of a page I had read in Le Monde, which I remember very clearly: Someone killed himself at a table in a judge’s office. He took a letter opener and stabbed it into his heart. And I was very moved by the story. I thought: Why did he do that? Yet I never attempted to learn anything about the real story. Instead I invented a story of my own. It came naturally and quickly. I wrote it in a small pad in only two days.

Rail: Did it go through many stages of revision?

b.: No revisions. The film is exactly like the novella I wrote, which was maybe 50 pages, something like that. It was in my mind for a long time. And I wanted to find the time to make it into a film but it wasn’t until 2000 that I started to make some movies with my little Sony camera, which I love. Every time I do a close-up with the lens I feel I can bring the moon near to me. It’s amazing!

Rail: About the main character Céline (played by Lou-Lélia Demerliac): As we know in general there are three stages of adolescence—the first stage is between 12 – 14, the middle stage 15 – 17, and the final stage 18 – 20. Was there a reason that Céline was chosen to be 11 years old?

b.: In the story Céline was in fact 9. And I actually wanted to film four years ago, but in France the law is very strict about children so I had to increase Céline to age 11 so that a 12-year-old Lou-Lélia could play the part in the film. The truck driver was supposed to be played by Terence Stamp, but when I met with Douglas Gordon, he said to me, “I want a role in your film, I just want to have a little piece to be part of it.” I said, “Why don’t you play the truck driver?”

Stills from My Name Is Hmmm...

Rail: Peter?

b.: Yes, Peter. He said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” So he took some truck driving lessons in Berlin because up to that point he didn’t even have a driver’s license. It took like 10 lessons in Berlin for Douglas to play that part: to be able to behave like a truck driver and be comfortable with the mechanics of the truck, even closing the door.

Rail: Douglas was quite good. It looks as though he has gained some weight, since I last saw him five years ago, for the role. [Laughs.]

b.: Actually, Douglas happens to have an uncle in Glasgow who was a truck driver so it was fun for him to play this role. I think he was very natural in the film as he is a great actor in life.

Rail: As he is an artist. I should mention that of all the profiles written about you, I thought the one by Laura Jacobs, published in September 2011 in Vanity Fair, was by far the most insightful, partly because she brought up the segment when you revealed your discovery, after reading Lolita, that looking younger may not always be a good thing.

b.: I was not alone, I’m sure. But when I read Lolita I was 17.

Rail: That’s when you got married!

b.: Yes. I loved the book and I loved Kubrick’s film version of it, too. I felt like I was not alone in this story. I had an uncle who was too fond of me when I was 12 and he was 45. My mother let him be with me all the time until I turned 16 when I became engaged to Christian Bourgois, the publisher, who was 11 years older than me. And when I had my twins [Etienne and Nicolas] I was 19. Then I left Christian when I was 20.

Rail: Unbelievable! What’s interesting about Lolita is that it was written by Nabokov, a Russian writer. The question is, could such a subject be written by an American? Humbert Humbert was a scholar of French literature, as there were references in the book to Rabelais, Balzac, Baudelaire, Proust, among other French writers. In modern French writing there has been more investment in the world of childhood and adolescence than in American and English literature. As one of my favorite writers, Guy Davenport, who died in 2005, wrote in his brilliant essay on Balthus:

The French see an innocent but an experienced mind in the child. Montherlant treats children as an endangered species heeding protection from parents. […] The child in Alain-Fournier, Proust, Colette, Cocteau inhabits a realm imaginatively animated with a genius very like that of the artists. Children live in their minds.

b.: Absolutely. We know children do live in their minds. And yes, I was thinking of Balthus’s paintings during the scene where Céline is lying in bed with the pink wall behind her, then gets up to get the pen and to write “Someday I will go.” I thought of those adolescent girls in Balthus’s paintings, especially those that evoke an isolated and disorienting atmosphere. Céline keeps everything to herself. She has no one to talk to, except for this doll, which makes you realize how young she is. Otherwise she has to function as an adult, looking after her younger brother and sister: making their meals, putting them to bed.

Rail: She is like the mother of the whole family.

b.: Yes. And she is very brave.

Rail: You have said that the subject of this film is not your own story necessarily but it’s an important story to you. I have had similar experiences where certain images in film stay forever in my mind. For example, the pillow fighting scene among the children in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite, or in the end where they walk on top of the roof. I can say the same about the scene of Jean swimming under the water looking for Juliette in Vigo’s other masterpiece, L’Atalante.

b.: I love that film. Jean and his boat going one way and Juliette going the other way. His life is on the boat and hers is on land. It’s beautiful.

Rail: Yes it is. My question is, which, among the films you have seen in the past, have haunted you?

b.: The Night of the Hunter for me is a great film. Even though it’s a thriller, horror film, it’s beautiful in all respects: the acting, the cinematography, and especially the music by Walter Schumann. The night scene of the two children on the boat going down on the river with the sounds of the animals and the music were all so beautiful. It was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. And it’s the only film I thought of as a film I would like to make in terms of quality, but I really had no references when I made my film. You could say that it was made from everything I’d seen, and everything I’d lived through up to that moment. But, essentially, I wanted the film to be exactly like the novella. 

Rail: It even has drawings superimposed on certain scenes, for example, when they’re sitting on the truck.

b.: Yes, the tractor unit. And when it leaves the trailer in the forest, it is a metaphor for freedom.

Rail: So the image emerged as you were writing that particular segment of the novella?

b.: Yes. It’s very visually written. I had the film in my mind, as though I was a réalisateur. All the images were all there in the novella. I worked very fast with Jean-Pol [Fargeau] to make it into a screenplay.

Rail: How long did it take to do all the filming?

b.: It took about three months.

Rail: What about post-production?

b.: Post-production took about eight months, partly because I was working during the day and editing in the night, in the editing room upstairs in the same building. I worked with a great man and a great friend, Jeff Nicorosi, the film editor, who died of cancer the day I was showing the film in New York. He was 42 and he died three months after his diagnosis. We had a great time working together. As soon as I got off from working on the collections for the company, I’d come upstairs and start working with Jeff. We ate, drank, and smoked joints while we were working until two or three o’clock in the morning. Then Jeff started to fall ill in July, and the film is exactly as we left it. I never touched it again after his death.

Rail: So you didn’t sleep much during those eight months? 

b.: I never sleep much anyway.

Rail: Would it be correct to assume that you don’t seem too concerned about perfection, which is probably one of your characteristic charms?

b.: Nothing is really perfect. Perfection does not exist, but moving things exist. Beautiful things exist, I believe, through natural and artistic creation. I live with artists, musicians, filmmakers. All my friends are artists. My life is artistic because of my artist friends whom I love and admire.

Rail: That’s what your son Etienne said. You seem to have two families: one that includes him [and his brother Nicolas], and another, the great family of the artistic world. Okay, let’s talk about the casting process. Douglas was a natural choice to play Peter. What about Lou-Lélia?

b.: We saw like 400 girls, and the mothers were always pushing the girls. I hated it. And we didn’t find Céline that way. Then I heard of a couple that made music for films. They had a studio outside Paris and a little girl who read a lot and wanted to be a publisher of science fiction when she grew up. She was an only child, and for some reason understood me, and I her. For example, in the scene where she is told, “You will never see him again,” and I said, “Lou, do hmmm,” she did it exactly right. It was a single take.

Rail: And that’s where the title came from?

b.: The title was always the title, My Name is Hmmm….

Rail: Refusing to spell out identity.

b.: Exactly. So many bad memories are associated with her given name, Céline, that it doesn’t please her anymore, she is too broken. That’s why when people ask her her name she says, “My name is hmmm…”

Rail: I was thinking of the 12-year-old Brooke Shields who played an underage New Orleans prostitute in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, which was so controversial when it came out in 1978 because of the issues of child abuse and child pornography, and so on. Calvin Klein had just discovered her. All that was going on because she was posing as a pre-pubescent and then Pretty Baby came right after. But the difference in My Name is Hmmm… is that there is an overt redemption given to the father by Céline, which reveals her quiet strength and kindness.

b.: So many people asked: why is the father not punished? I’m not interested in the idea of punishment. You can see how bad the father feels by his actions. Céline felt bad about the whole situation but she had compassion, which is why, at the end, she says to the father that he will keep his promise. And he says, “I promise I will never bother you again.” The movie ends with Céline as a mother holding her baby in her hands, and she says, “I shall always protect you.” The promise she makes to her baby is very important for me.

Rail: Was that why the ending was shot in color, by a different camera, which brings out a different atmosphere, texture, and ultimately affects our understanding of how the story ends?

b.: Yes, I shot it with a small camera. “I wanted to have another matièreC’est trop simple.” I wanted to be less terre à terre, less pragmatic, especially when the father goes to get Céline out of the hospital. He says goodbye to this wife and there’s a little tender moment. So, in the editing room, while the sequence appears on the screen, I filmed it with the little camera to make it dirtier, to make it less literal. I thought it was too clean, and so I wanted to change it a little. As you said, a different atmosphere, temperature.

Rail: How about the cryptic segment of the Japanese couple dancing Butoh in the woods?

b.: A long time ago I was in Venice and I met a Japanese man who was living in an Armenian palace, and he invited me to a performance by two beautiful dancers. Ten o’clock in the morning, the next day, I came. And there they were: two dancers in a room with great columns; they were painted with black and white pigment, dancing without music, nothing but expression which was born after the Second World War. I put the dancers in the film because you never know who you will meet when you travel. 

Rail: So the same is applied with the street philosopher Antonio?

b.: Antonio Negri.

Rail: [Laughs.] Where did he come from?!

b.: I met Toni [Antonio] Negri in demonstrations with Gilles Deleuze and I thought that a philosopher on the road, like Toni, would be great to have in the film. We only spent two days together in the west of France. Jonas [Mekas] was there also, just for one night. For me it was like a scene in a Western movie, you know, with people sitting all around a campfire. At some point Peter started to sing, which was not in the script. It was beautiful, but it was completely improvised. But that’s why I say it’s a film I did with my friends, because they all give me something special and personal.

Rail: Who made the drawings of the crying face, which appear on the car’s front windshield as Céline told Peter her sad story?

b.: Julien Langendorff, who is a friend of ours. His vision, for me, is similar to Peter’s. That’s why I wanted to have double vision that overlaps two scenes: one is with the father, when Céline explains what happened to her in the truck, and the other is Peter’s vision.

Rail: Can you talk about the relationship between the music and the images?

b.: I am a Godard girl! Godard once said that film and music are like sound and images, which is exactly how I remember it when I was small. Playing with my friends in the back garden, I would hear different sounds from the movie soundtracks playing inside the house, mixing music on top of people having conversations, gunshots, and so on. So I asked the electronica band Air, especially Jean-Benoît Dunckel, to create variations of Stabat Mater like Vivaldi’s in F minor. I waited six months to get these variations. At the end he gave them to me, and I liked them very much. As for the music in the tractor-trailer, Douglas was a former musician, so he has his own music which was perfect. Everything worked out well in the end, the way I wanted. I don’t compromise myself.

Rail: Where does that uncompromising spirit come from, agnès? It must have some early roots somewhere. In fact I just saw a good friend of yours, Dominique Nabokov, who once said, “[you] won’t function if [you’re] not true to [yourself].” All I know is that we’ve gone to a few parties where we drank and danced until three or four a.m. So those who know you know you possess a serious energy and the love for life and art. Still, I suspect that your uncompromising spirit and self-determination were very strong from childhood onwards.

b.: My mother always felt I was a very good girl, but she thought I was a rebel. And she also knew I always did things that I wanted to. That’s the way I am, I can’t change it. Even today I feel I am the same as when I was a child.

Rail: There is a saying in Vietnam, “Parents may bring forth the child, but God gives him or her the personality.”

b.: I agree. I always wanted to stay pure. I even got married to stay pure because I didn’t want to deal with the boys and men who were around me, you know? And I hated that. I was a very naïve Christian, so I wanted to be pure. I thought being married, everything would be quiet, like in fairy tales, but it’s not like that! [Laughs.]

Rail: Your marriage lasted only two years.

b.: My twins were barely 1 year old, and I was 19.

Rail: And you didn’t have any money so you sold both your engagement ring and wedding ring to support your family. Even more intense, you were working as a junior editor for Elle magazine with a good salary, but you essentially left to work as an apprentice at Dorothée Bis with long hours and virtually no pay. What drove you to make those choices?

b.: First of all, I did not want to ask for anything from my family, because if I asked for anything they would tell me, “you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that.” I value my freedom and independence too much to ask for advice from my family even though I know they love me very much. Actually, I was so shy for a long time that I couldn’t hear my own voice. I only began to talk when I turned 30, I think.

Rail: Why do you think that was?

b.: Both of my parents had complicated relationships. They each had lovers, yet they were great parents at the same time. They gave us a great classical education. They took us to museums, to concerts, among other cultural events. My father was a lawyer, but he sang in the choir of the Paris Opera. My mother had four children in five years, which might have been too much for her. It contributed to her unhappiness. Whenever I was sad I would ride my bicycle around the pond at Versailles, which is very beautiful. Beauty has always been a consolation for me, the same with classical music. I remember multiple occasions when I came back from school and my father would put a record of Mozart’s Requiem or Beethoven’s Symphony on the turntable, and I would listen, and then I would feel better. I still remember the first time I listened to Mozart’s Requiem (D minor) on the radio alone when I was 12, and I said to myself that I wanted to die.

Original manuscript of My Name Is Hmmm.... Courtesy of agnès b.

Rail: I can relate to the feeling. Anyway, agnès, you seem to be able to do what you aspire to do in your life, which brings me to the next question: Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” You’ve said similar things in the past. “[You] don’t plan, because you’ve never planned.” How do you manage to get things done the way you have?

b.: I do things very naturally and instinctively. That’s the way I am. I hate schedules. [Laughs.] Unfortunately.

Rail: So you don’t quite fit into that model of what we call proper business conduct! I wonder what your colleagues, I mean other designers think of you?

b.: I don’t know what they think of me. Mostly because I don’t know them. I’ve never been in any clothing store, anywhere. I’ve never been to Sonia Rykiel, Isabel Marant, Kenzo, or others. I was wearing my sister’s clothes until I was 15.

Rail: Did you approach making clothes as a parallel to finding your own voice?

b.: You start to have your own expression when you start to have your own clothes. Because, before it was just what I had. It’s not that important, but even people who say, “I’ll wear anything,” they never wear anything. We express ourselves the way we can.

Rail: Just like what Coco Chanel says: “Fashion comes and goes, but style stays.”

b.: It’s true. I work on style. I don’t work on fashion. I hate fashion. [Laughs.] I am against commissionary society. I’ve never been into advertising. I’ve never advertised for agnés b. I’ve never advertised. Never. I’m lucky that the press has liked what I’ve done and written about my collection, I think partly because I was very sincere in my work.

Rail: You know Jean Cocteau was known to have dinner with a wax figure of himself who sat across from him at the dinner table. Whenever he was home, on the rare occasions, he’d always say to him, I am paraphrasing, “You go out and deal with social bullshit and leave me alone to work.” [Laughter.] My point is, do you have the same kind of divided self: agnès who goes out and deals with the bullshit of the business and agnès who stays home and works late at night on the things she really loves?

b.: I don’t know. I never thought of it that way. I just do my work.

Rail: Okay! So would it be fair to say sincerity in your case stems from being, as Laura Jacobs described you, a designer who is able to embrace the right balance of the two sides of Versailles: the classical propositions of aristocratic France on the one hand, and the rebellious spirit of 1789 on the other?

b.: All I know is that I have no rich friends. I just love people who do things for others. That touches me very much. I think rich people don’t share enough. Many of them even try not to pay taxes. They are rich and they will die someday, and what are they are going to do with the money when they die? It’s never enough to leave money with your own family, which can spoil them. They have to share. Essentially, we have to share everything. We even have to share water.

Rail: agnès, you sound just like Jonas.

b.: That’s why he’s my friend and your friend.

Rail: I love what he says: “Art is what you make for each other as friends.”

b.: That’s why I love and admire artists.

Contributor

Phong Bui

PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.

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