An Orphan Chronicle in the Roots of French Cinema
In sessions dedicated to first features in film festivals, it is common to find films that show their condition of first adventure in new terrain, revealing, in the worst cases, the adaptation effort of directors accustomed to smaller scale projects. Watching David Depesseville’s first feature, Astrakan, in the Cinesti del Presente contest at the Locarno Film Festival, I had the opposite impression: it seemed more like the tenth great film by an already established director. Continuing the traditions of French cinema, the film is assiduous with the art of mise-en-scène, using it to film with simplicity, modesty and originality, and able to retain influences concisely in thought-provoking decoupages, while completely abandoning them when necessary in order to claim its own progress.
Throughout the screening, amid some inevitable tears for the rural chronicle of young Samuel, I was reminded of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s brutal portraits of youth and of the refined and rebellious tragedies of Gérard Blain – comparisons that were, of course, affirmed by the presence of Lisa Hérédia and Paul Blain in the cast. However, the most exciting thing was encountering an original voice which uses an economy of means in an inventive way to represent the most varied feelings, from tenderness to repulsion, in an impressionist portrait of an orphan and his violent daily life. The young boy, joining a new family, discovers first love with a young girl and the possibility of maternal love, while facing constant violence and implicit abuse.
If the names mentioned here refer to a tradition of a cinema of space and simplicity, under the elm of Éric Rohmer, or refer to the example of Bresson’s Cinematographer and its cadence, Depesseville extends his interest to the insubordinate potential of music, looking for its powerful use as a continuation of thought. In an idiosyncratic way, going from underground music to Bach, the director aspires to create music in editing even in moments of pure silence.
At the end of the screening I wondered: who is David Depesseville? Unfortunately, the director had already left Locarno when I watched the film at the end of the festival. However, I contacted him via email and we were able to talk virtually. I found answers to the first question and the many others that emerged naturally from his electrifying responses. I thank David for his kindness and excitement for the conversation. All his previous films are available on Martial Salomon’s Vimeo page.
Gabriel Linhares Falcão
Gabriel Linhares Falcão: This is your first feature film. Your previous short films and medium-length films, it seems to me, are more figurative in their representation of feelings while Astrakan (2022) cares more for the clarity of forms. The expression of feelings occurs through concrete means and the search for beauty. Could you talk about your trajectory leading up to your most recent film?
David Depesseville: Astrakan is part of both the continuity and the metamorphosis of my work. It deepens themes that are dear to me: childhood, rural chronicle, musical editing and, finally, the sensorial story.
But whereas before I worked with collages and fragments, a certain experimentation to which the short format lent itself well, I now wanted to dwell on emotion, the study of feelings, to work on the incarnation of the characters with the actors and fulfill my desire to create a dramatized and scripted story.
Also, if in my previous films I tended to dwell on the plasticity of places, now I wanted a very gentle staging, in no way ostentatious. I understood that only this simplicity made it possible to show powerful things in an implacable way. Sometimes that meant showing raw things, but always with sensitivity and with a strong belief in the means specific to cinema.
Ten years have passed between my last two shoots but my cinephilia, my reading and my reflection never ceased to be nourished, to grow, to teach me and it is obvious that Astrakan is also the result of these ten years.
GLF: The gentle staging and appreciation of simplicity you mentioned brings Astrakan close to a traditional French line of modest mise-en-scène. In what ways did you relate to the ideas of mise-en-scène?
DD: I went to a performing arts college, specializing in cinema, but I’ve never been to a school where you can learn direction. I learned the theory there and not necessarily the practice, but since then I’ve really started to like the theory of cinema; for me, it is not at all incompatible with emotion. There are great theoretical films that move me precisely because they are theoretical, but of course cinema cannot be just that. What interests me is to consider films apart from their role in the history of cinema and therefore I did not want to make a film “in the style of”. On the contrary, it interests me to start from this history of cinema and pursue a dialogue with it, to continue to write this story.
I like films that confess where they’re coming from and reflect on how they will continue this dialogue. If Astrakan is part of a certain tradition, it is not in a lifeless way, nor burdened with the weight of prefab references, but, once again, it works in a dialogue with this tradition. For example, I readily refer to “Mes petites amoureuses” (1974) by Jean Eustache, which is a film that fascinates me, in moments like the scene in which I film the penetration of the chisel into Hélène’s leg, whereas Eustache stopped the action in a similar scene and used a voice-over which specified that the protagonist was getting erect. This is what I mean by dialogue [with the tradition].
It is also, and we will surely come back to it, like when I use Lisa Hérédia or Paul Blain: they are not quotations or references, but the continuation of a story that began long before me. I hope not to sound presumptuous, but this continuity is very important to me, almost a sensation.
GLF: How do you deal with the relationship between the concrete and the abstract in the representation of the psychological?
DD: It’s something that begins in the writing and which is embodied little by little at all stages of production. I am thinking in particular of casting, location scouting and of course cutting and filming with the support of my chief operator Simon Beaufils.
This therefore involves the choice of certain bodies with their details (I am thinking of the voice of Bastien Bouillon or the weary gaze of Theo Costa Marini in the role of Luc), in the choice of ageless sets, the choice of shooting in film also, with its particular grain. When cutting, it was necessary to return to questions like “What do we see? What is to be seen? At what distance? What is hidden (the paper under the brick for example) or shown (a child getting into a van with an adult)?
Finally, what you call the representation of the psychological is also made during editing with Martial Salomon. I wanted the form of the film to approach the sensations of a traumatic memory, that is to say with a mixture of hypermnesia (enhanced focus on details) and amnesia (the use of ellipses). I think it’s all of that which allows us to approach this relationship between the concrete and the abstract in the film.
GLF: Music, especially from the underground scene, has a prominence in your previous films. Astrakan is almost entirely without music, but it still has a privileged status. How do you work with music (or its absence) in creation?
DD: Music is essential for me, it occupies a big place in my life, certainly equivalent to cinema. I’ve always been interested in how it was used in cinema and, indeed, it is very often “used” for the film as if it were inferior, subordinate. I’ve even come to believe that one day music will rebel against being used in this way and how terrible it will be! I have a lot of trouble, moreover, in editing or mixing, in tampering with the pre-existing music pieces of the film. I refuse to cut into them or to alter arrangements for the “good” of the film. The music does not have to be at the service of something else just as the music is not there to distract, but to continue to make people think.
My very first directing work was in theater, where I mixed fragments of Henri Michaux, which concerned music, and pieces of Aphex Twin, which seemed to extend Michaux’s thoughts. I’ve said all that to say that for me either the music becomes the subject of the film or I give it a real role, in its own right.
For Astrakan, the piece by Bach was there since the writing stage, in its entirety, and it was rather the film that served the music, a certain amount of images were needed for this duration. And I wanted from the start for it to be the only piece of music in the whole film, as a real directing principle. We had to use subterfuge because music can hide anywhere, that’s why at funerals they read a song rather than listen to it, for example. Also, during the editing, it was tempting to add music to the juggler’s number at the circus or the gym gala, but I held back [laughs].
GLF: Did the choice of Martial Solomon as editor have to do with the care for music you were looking for? In his work for the films of Pierre León and Emmanuel Mouret, in completely different ways, musicality and narrativity seem to intertwine at some points.
DD: Martial Salomon is above all a friend that I met a long time ago at the university. He has edited all my previous films and we have always exchanged a lot about cinema, but also about music. We like going to concerts together, for example. It was then evident that we would be working together on this film.
Obviously, I am interested in his various collaborations and I am very sensitive to his way of using music in editing, but what interests me even more is seeking a way of creating music from the editing together, and how the editing itself can generate a musical sensation. That would definitely be the real aspiration…
GLF: Throughout Astrakan you establish different significations that are dealt with in various ways. In the final sequence, these significations recur with overwhelming freedom. Could you comment on this final sequence?
DD: This chronicle of childhood on the margins of naturalism, whose archetypes keep slipping towards something else, is effectively followed by a more “mental” finale where everything ends up being interwoven without resolution.
A dreamlike shift is justified in the film by a session of magnetism applied to the young boy by a healer (a very common practice in the lands of Morvan where we shot) and, in my opinion, is highly cinegenic. The film releases all these last images with ambiguity, close to memory images or simple hallucinations with presumed symbolism.
These final sequences attempt to astonish the viewer by embracing a real emotional movement. They also allow the film and Samuel to take off definitively; first, by departing from naturalism, and then a cathartic, expiatory drowning, to finally be reborn.
With this outcome in which the dialogue gives way to the music, I wanted to achieve something of the order of a primitive, visual and musical emotion.
Also, this finale, I conceived it and wrote it very early. For a time, there was even talk of it lasting about twenty minutes. It is a question, by moving towards a sort of pure oneirism, of ensuring that the cinema allows, as I have already said, Samuel to escape his condition, that he suddenly attains a higher status, a kind of transcendence… The montage in Artavadz Pelechian’s films touch me a lot in that sense. The break is not total with the rest of the film, but the existence of two different imagetic concepts is important. This end where everything is mixed up invites the viewer to see the film again, to reread it to understand that he has seen more than he initially realized. The appearance of the lamb kind of asks the spectator to reclaim the film after the fact, and that’s something I generally like about cinema. Samuel has just seen the magnetic healer, suddenly everything jostles in his head. One would then expect images of his life before this foster family to arise, but no: everything that comes back has already been seen. There is a simple reason for this: the film and Samuel are for me one and the same entity.
GLF: How did the film’s interest in the orphan child theme come about?
DD: For many years the Morvan region has welcomed orphans from the Republic, where nannies raise them for money. Abandoned children and nannies meet and share their respective poverty and social vulnerability for the same purpose: to survive. This particular situation crystallizes the starting point of my film.
I wanted to depict one of these orphan children with the character of Samuel. One of those boys who are excluded from the world and therefore condemned to see the world around them with their senses. I want to show childhood as an experience, as material; hence the title Astrakan, from the name of this black wool taken from lambs – which are sacrificed from such an early age and turned into such a particular material – whose mere evocation inspires a sensory story, dark with shiny reflections, timeless, popular and elegant.
Whereas we are often content to make the child a simple sight, to see the film only through the gaze of the child, Astrakan is a film told by the whole body of Samuel, therefore the eyes, as well as the belly and its intestines, the skin and its epidermis and finally the brain and the subconscious. Samuel perceives impressions through the magnification of dread, but he is unable to make connections or draw conclusions about them. I place myself on his side, I try to follow his feelings and his special relationship with his nanny, Marie. There is immediately a melodramatic stake that I like.
I, myself, am originally from Morvan and know these families quite well. I still carry the imprint of this very special atmosphere, and these places where a hundred ward children could populate a single village.
But it does not claim to be a testimony either, it is the opposite of a film dossier or a thesis, reducible to a speech or relying on a pseudo-documentary realism. I first think of my subject cinematographically, through narrative ideas and formal choices, I seek to transcend reality through the possibilities of fiction.
GLF: Sometimes the protagonist looks like a child, other times he seems to have the posture of a grown man. How did you approach maturity in your film?
DD: Astrakan is seen as an impressionist chronicle of childhood; not of “innocent” early childhood, nor of the famous passage towards maturity, but the sensitive capture of this age of preadolescence where one is above all caught in a permanent bath of sensations and where maturity rubs shoulders with innocence. It is indeed the powers of evocation that matter to me.
I always wanted to film at the height of a man, or a child in this case, and never at the height of the law. There are therefore no appearances in the film of social services, the school or even the police (we prefer a magnetizer healer to resolve conflicts) in order to escape a simple social realism and to better concentrate on another realism, that of the description of the panorama in Samuel’s head. Getting rid of institutions allows us to equate ourselves with the child, and not condescend. Hence the youth of his adoptive parents who are also not very mature, and who therefore don’t have a hold on Samuel.
Also, Astrakan differs, in my opinion, from the usual childhood fictions because these generally present the heuristic view of this first period of life as a moment to be overcome in order to access the sexual fulfillment of adulthood. Astrakan wants to celebrate the return to a more innocent type of gaze, and to view it not as a stage towards a subsequent one but an end in itself. It presents Samuel’s journey as an experience; it translates daily life into experience. In that process, the strangeness ceases to be disturbing and ends up being familiar; the film conquers the familiar strangeness.
It is true that Samuel does not win immediate support. We have very little access to him. I started with an effort, more than a seduction, not to reduce Astrakan to a film archive or testimony. Many recent films about childhood seem to me to have been shot from the point of view of the law, therefore applying an adult point of view. I preferred to approach childhood from its own point of view, and for that it needed less a story than a bath of sensations.
If I relate to what I experienced at the age of Samuel, that is what remains: an impressionistic panorama of sensations, a set of experiences that are both striking and unclear. That’s why we don’t know much about this boy: we don’t know how long he has been in this family – even if there are signs that his arrival is recent – we don’t know what his life was like before, we only say more or less how his parents died… I like films that need a spectator to fill them up and I think all that contributes to not infantilizing the character of Samuel and, on the contrary, allowing you to celebrate his ability to get up, celebrate his beautiful autonomy.
GLF: There seems to be an influence of Bressonian ideas especially with the protagonist, who normally internalizes feelings and reacts as a model. On the other hand, it’s not an orthodox influence, the actors are often laid-back, especially the children’s sequences. How was your work with the actors?
DD: Beyond the fundamental Bressonian reflection on models, even though films like “L’argent” (1983) or “Mouchette” (1967) haunt me, it is indeed the discovery of Gérard Blain’s cinema and his direction of actors that was decisive in my approach with the actors.
As he works a lot with non-professionals, he doesn’t ask them for things they can’t do, he starts from them, from their abilities and that gives them a lot of responsibility, it’s very touching to see it. In fact, it installs freedom in the rigor, I have the impression that this is what suits non-professional actors best and therefore children too.
During the casting, with Laetitia Goffi, we were very sensitive to their way of moving and speaking, to both start from what they are and feel, so that I could take them where I wanted. For the professional actors, I think the script was written in such a way that it made them want to follow that exact voice. I was telling them that everything was already in the action they were doing or in the words they were saying, playing above that would only have been a flourish, would only have engendered an impression of fakery. What interested me in all of them was their voice, their body and not necessarily their ability to play well.
GLF: Your new film is shot in analogue after a sequence of films in digital. Why did you change format and what did this change imply?
DD: My first film was already on film and I liked it a lot. As soon as I could economically get back to it, I did, but I don’t have a particular fetish or mythology around analogue. I think about the support first according to each project. There is no doubt that the next one will be digital, it is the subject that is decisive. For Astrakan, after having sensed that in tackling this story, it could feel too defined, too raw and perhaps obscene if we were shooting in digital, very quickly my cinematographer Simon Beaufils and I decided that 16mm was the only choice; we were going to do it as if this was the only medium that existed.
Also, I know that some people were afraid because shooting film with children seemed to be an additional constraint, but since we were already constrained by the children’s regulated schedules and our budget, it seemed to me that, on the contrary, it was logical to impose the solemnity of an analogue shoot, to take advantage of it to capture a certain urgency.
Finally, the era of the film had to be that of childhood and no other. The choice of 16mm is also linked to this, it makes it possible to disturb this relationship to temporality. Not only are the films that have inspired me shot on film, but for me there is a strong relationship between childhood and film: the childhood of art, perhaps…
GLF: Your film reminded me of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s films. Lisa Hérédia even acts in it. What is your relationship with the two of them and what was it like working with her?
DD: For me, Brisseau is a very great French filmmaker. The discovery of “De bruit et de fureur” (1988) was a shock and “Céline” (1992) is also a film that never tires me. As for the dance of the veil of Hélène in Astrakan, it undoubtedly comes from the one in “L’Echangeur” (1982). I like the way this cinema presents the lyrical and the prosaic, the violent and the gentle, sentimental and impure elements in the same movement.
Obviously, Lisa Hérédia is closely associated with the cinema of Brisseau, just like Paul Blain with that of his father, Gérard Blain. Both are actors I adore and who do not get enough recognition. I was very moved that they liked the script and wanted to support a first feature film. It was truly overwhelming to hear Lisa’s unique voice again, carrying a whole “transversal” history of cinema. As with directing, employing very good actors like Lisa and Paul is not a simple matter of quotations but rather the pursuit of a dialogue with the cinema they represent.
The films of Gérard Blain with Paul as an actor were a later but very important discovery. Their universe is very familiar to me. I really liked being able to bring them both together to create another family, my own, which is a film family. It’s a way for me to declare where my film comes from, by evoking two filmmakers for whom childhood has a special place.
The editors would like to thank Michael Abrams for revising the text.