Since 1984, Leos Carax has only made five features, and all but one of them have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, usually to feverish anticipation. This year, festivalgoers will be looking to see how the 60-year-old French maverick—aka Alex Christophe Dupont—will top his intoxicatingly strange 2012 competition entry Holy Motors, which featured talking limos, chimpanzees and Kylie Minogue. They’ll get their answer when Cannes raises the curtain tonight on this year’s opener Annette, a thematically dark, visually kaleidoscopic rock opera he co-wrote with U.S. pop duo Sparks, and which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
DEADLINE: What is your strongest memory of Cannes? Do you associate it with good times or bad times?
LEOS CARAX: What makes the Cannes experience special is the mix of good and bad— taste, faith, luck, etcetera.
The only time I stayed during the screening of one my films here was for Holy Motors—because I owed so much to the actors and crew, and they wanted me there.
A terrible experience. I had the feeling the film was seven hours long and that the sound was coming out from under a pillow. But then it was beautiful. None of the actors had seen the film yet, and I could see how proud they were, so I was too. But the day before had been very bad, arriving at Cannes by car with my friend under pouring rain, a huge heavy truck smashed into us full speed, and I saw us dying— which also seemed to last forever.
DEADLINE: How would you describe your Competition film Annette?
CARAX: A musical fantasy with some comedy, love and sex, a monster, a child, and a few corpses.
DEADLINE: When did you first become aware of Sparks and what appealed to you about them?
CARAX: When I was 13 or 14. I had never heard of them but I saw the cover of their Propaganda album in a department store. Liked it; stole it. Propaganda and Indiscreet are still two of my favorite pop albums today. Not many songs can offer such pure joy and be poignant too at times.
DEADLINE: How did the script take shape — was it a collaborative process?
CARAX: Very. We joked about that, because Sparks had just released a song called “Collaborations Don’t Work.” Most of the storyline was there already when they proposed the project to me. But a movie is not a story, and it took time and work to make it into something I could film.
DEADLINE: What were you looking for when you cast the film, and what did Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard deliver?
CARAX: Casting seems to me like a totally unnatural and absurd practice. Cineastes should imagine their films for the persons they want to film most: usually, their lover, plus one. There should only be one person imaginable for a part. But the fact that Annette did not originate from me made everything different.
Adam was there from the beginning, and it took us seven years and three different producers to get the film going. I had only seen him in the series Girls. I had immediately thought, Where does this creature come from? From what parallel dimension? And yet I felt I knew him and would know how to film him.
It was harder to find the actress: someone who could act, sing, be the part, and whom I would want to film. Marion was not an obvious choice, but she turned out to be a great one. She has the mystery and grace of a silent film actress.
DEADLINE: Music—and especially musicians—are an important part of your filmmaking. Do you always know what you want?
CARAX: Music is haunting, as cinema should be. I would’ve wanted a life in music. The vertigo of music. That is my biggest regret: not to be a musician, composer, singer. But music rejected me when I was a kid; I wasn’t good.
Cinema is the closest I could get to composing, creating rhythms and melodies. To direct is to conduct. When I film a scene, I’m pretty sure my hands unconsciously move the way a conductor’s hands do.
Cinema and music are the only places where I feel at home: I never doubt what I like or dislike, and I feel I know if what we’re doing is right or out of tune.
DEADLINE: Were you always intending to make a film in English?
CARAX: English was my native language, although I lost it quite a bit. And, yes, I knew I wanted to make a film in English someday. I read a lot, mostly in English. And many of the singers I’ve listened to my whole life are English or American. I like English—especially when spoken by people like James Mason or Gene Tierney.
But making an American film was never a strong desire. Annette did start as an American project. In Los Angeles, I kept getting emails from the producers, with the word “hyper-excited” all over them; but nothing was really happening. So, I brought the project back to France.
DEADLINE: Annette is a story exploring love. One could argue that love is the theme of all your earlier movies.
CARAX: Boy Meets Girl was the title of my first film. It could also have been the one of my next two films. It comes from that anecdote Hitchcock told Truffaut, to underline how unoriginal the theme is: a famous Hollywood scriptwriter wakes up in the middle of the night with a great idea for a film. Excited, he writes it down on a piece of paper and falls back to sleep. He wakes up in the morning with a sense of panic… he can’t remember what his great idea was. Then he remembers that he wrote it down. With relief, he picks up the paper. It says: “Boy meets girl.” In my three boy-meets-girl films, the lovers met in the course of the film. But in Annette, we understand they have just met, right before the start of the film. I liked the idea a lot, but it’s hard to do, to not show the encounter, and yet to make it perceivable that they’ve just met—to capture the shyness, the awkwardness and apprehension of new love.
DEADLINE: Annette promises “a tale of songs and fury with no taboo.” Is anything taboo in cinema?
CARAX: Taboo or not taboo? A very old story. Pornography isn’t taboo because of what it shows, but because of how it most often chooses to show it. Same thing with cinema in general. In some religions, it is taboo to represent the human face. I truly understand why. But cinema is all about taboo. That’s what every frame flirts with something deeply impossible, unspeakable, unthinkable.
DEADLINE: Looking back across your work, it’s easy to see certain rhymes, repetitions and recurring themes. Do you put them there, or is it subconscious?
CARAX: How does one imagine a film? Cinema is something I’ve done so seldom, just a few films in 40 years, I tend to completely forget how it’s done—and how I do it. But I do know it always involves an obscure mix of extreme precision and extreme chaos.
I have a limited imagination. So, some of these recurrences you mention might come from that.
Fortunately, you don’t need imagination to make films. All you need is to see things, to hear things; you need to be haunted.
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