Interview with Virgil Vernier by Anne Vimeux, for Editions Lutanie, Paris, December 10, 2015
Anne Vimeux: Iron Maiden is a short, 24-minute film, composed of three fragments of videos found on the Internet. However, it evokes a certain kind of story. What was your process in making this film?
Virgil Vernier: I don’t know if you can really call it a “story” precisely because that word reminds me of the vocabulary surrounding fiction, narrative. I like the idea of the triptych, especially in relation to painting: three units that sometimes don’t have anything to do with each other but together, form unexpected connections. It’s like in Mercuriales, where there are three figures: the woman, the man, and the child. I can’t help it, but until now I have associated the figure of the woman with an idea of freedom, of carelessness, eroticism, and sorority. While I naturally feel like aligning men with weapons and the affirmation of virility. The third moment, that of childhood—even though I am trying to make this childhood present in the two other moments—I want it to be the affirmation of a state of innocence, I mean, one that is not yet too destroyed by societal norms, by social compartments, so that it can express an abrupt spontaneity.
Were the gun shots added at the end of the first sequence?
No, no, the strangest thing is that there were really gun shots in the first part, and this allowed me connect it to the second video.
Iron Maiden seems to take place in Eastern Europe. Where does your interest in this region of the world come from—it was already present in Mercuriales, where Lisa’s character comes from Moldavia?
I have Romanian origins on my mother’s side. As a child, my grandfather told me stories all the time from that place, medieval tales. It really impacted me. For me, it is replete with very strong themes. It is a bit like the extreme version of what we are experiencing in Western Europe. There is something more savage, franc, less policed, that speaks to me too. I recognize myself in it. Even if it is scary. I also love Russian literature, its passionate and franc way of dealing with things.
For a few years, you’ve undertaken an archival project based on images found on the internet, which you share on a Facebook account under the name of Karine Kahn. You signed the production of Iron Maiden under the same name. Is there a larger project here?
Since these films were self-produced, I needed to assign a name to them and so I just signed that. I haven’t founded a production company. This is not a parallel project. It’s more of a way to make studies, to look for things before formalizing them; keeping in mind that films are sometimes studies for features. Mercuriales is the most complete work I have made. Orléans, Andorre were both drafts, studies for the feature film to come. And the research I do on the Internet, whether I post it or not, is also a preparatory work. Every time I start to write a new feature, for those four or five years, I work on new themes. I try to make short films based on them, or publish books, or simply do research.
In almost all of your film titles, it is possible to decrypt a connection to chemical matter, to planets—gold, mercury, iron, Vega, Mercury. Why?
I try to make films that are as universal as possible, and the least referential to an era’s private jokes. I want them to be films that can be seen and understood anywhere. This is why these words naturally come to me. I also like the myth of alchemy. This project of transforming the most base, vile things into precious materials. This entire imaginary seems to me to be linked to the phantasm that drives me to make films. I am also sensitive to all the sort of low-level mysticism—like horoscopes, astrology—as if we were still attached, in the Occident, to these forms of irrationality to understand the chaos of the world. I wanted this to be experienced in the titles of the films. Finally, as in this name Mercuriales, it strikes me like capitalism; all these vulgar forms of merchandising, despite everything, still need to make use of archaic words, ancient ones, to establish authority, or a more noble vocation. There are a thousand companies called Vega that obviously have nothing to do with the planet. It’s the same thing with Mercuriales. Everyday, new brands are founded using esoteric words.
In the fall of 2015, you led two workshops which resulted in two short films you co-directed; one with the students of the Haute école d’art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva, and the other with the students of the Haute école des arts du Rhin (HEAR) in Strasbourg. The films were called, respectively, Europa 1 and Europa 2. In Europa 1, we follow a group of vigils in a seemingly empty building. This reminded me of the young vigil in Mercuriales, in the same way as the girls in Orléans correspond, to some extent, to the girls in Mercuriales. Is this a method in your writing?
I wouldn’t say there is a method. I was very inspired by Geneva. It is a city full of banks; you can just feel that on the eighth floor of these buildings, mysterious transactions are taking place. However, these places contain almost nothing: there is no concrete money in most of them, but they are guarded like fortified castles. We went off of a mini-scenario with the students. I told them: “Here, let’s imagine that a small group of people is trying to bring Europe down. Only the banks of Geneva have been able to protect themselves. And let’s imagine that it is the day when the group finally succeeds in penetrating Geneva, and in entering one of the banks. They are going to blow everything up, the building, the information systems.” The idea was to film from the point of view of the security guards who receive contradictory information on their walkie-talkies and are forced to run after an invisible enemy. At the end, the group has taken siege of the bank and succeeded in infiltrating it, and these are the last minutes before… I almost wanted it to feel like an American film ending, like Die Hard, but in hyper lo-fi.
Just two nights ago , you were speaking about this figure of the vigil as a knight protecting a fortified castle. Can you say a few words about this?
Today still, some trivial places are charged with a magic aura through the simple presence of motifs that refer to something sacred. For example, in Pandore, the simple fact of a night club having golden gates delimits a private space. Once the gate is crossed, you are chosen. But while you’re still on the sidewalk, you’re a failure, a loser. The passage of this gate is an entrance into a world. In front of the banks of Geneva, it’s the same thing. These are not banks with secret vaults full of jewelry, but empty rooms in which there is nothing but businessmen speaking amongst themselves. And yet, they are guarded by two vigils, armed or not, who seem to say: “Here are the temples. Today’s temples, this is it. You cannot enter here.” This is reserved to a kind of elite. As terrorism advances and society latches on to certain fears, security agents become the guardians of new temples.
Europa 2 was filmed over the course of the week that followed the attacks of November 13th. This had already moved me in Europa 1, produced right before, the threat pushed to its paroxysm. In it, the “anarchists” are disqualified by the “Islamists,”
That’s not exactly it. The two female cops say to each other “I’m sure that they are anarchists,” and the other one, she makes fun of her: “No, no, they are Islamists.” I just want to play with the the paranoias, the rumors.
…as if the former were the threat of the 20th century and the latter that of the 21st.
Was it difficult to react to such recent events?
Europa 1 wasn’t a reaction to a specific event other than the moment when Greece almost left the Euro. We could see that capitalism succeeded once again in deploying the greatest means possible to save its own skin. Europa 2 was, indeed, a direct reaction to the attacks. It was impossible to act as if nothing had happened. I had planned to film the scenes in the street in Strasbourg, to go to a few neighborhoods that interested me. I proposed to the students that we should split into three groups: the first would be in charge of registering the tense climate of the city center; the second group would film something lighter, like teenagers hanging out after school; and the third group would take interest in the police work along the German border. I asked them to film everything on foot, using only static shots, and in editing, to keep only one of the long takes. They were not instructed to provoke a discussion on the attacks; though naturally, people began to speak about them, but with a preoccupying distance, almost a kind of indifference.
In these three short films, anguish increases from one shot to the next. Europa 2 ends with a Youtube video from the night of November 13, 2015, in which we see a group of young people, in a night club, singing the Marseilles at the top of their lungs. It exacerbates a new fear, that of the extreme right.
For me, this extract means a lot of things. Without yet speaking of the extreme right, it is surprising that the most spontaneous reaction, in the face of the November 13th attacks, was a kind of neo-patriotism (taking out the flags, singing the Marseillaise). It seems so ludicrous. Indeed, this video was shot the night of November 13th, maybe an hour after: it’s Friday night, young people are in a night club, they must be getting text messages, and spontaneously, they start singing this, just as well as they could have been singing Donna Summer. They want to have fun and this really reflects the atmosphere I felt in Strasbourg.
In several of your films you address the phenomenon of the staging of the self, of reality shows. At the same time, in your Internet research, you adopt the codes of this generation (YouTube, YouPorn, Facebook, etc.). What is your feeling on this?
It’s a change. Not at all in moral terms, it’s just that it is another way or creating an imaginary community. What I like is that it is always still solitude. The timeline on Facebook, it looks like a history of boredom. Behind this appearance of glory, of win, of like, there is something moving about people who are alone and who create a little illusion of fame.
What about reality shows? This phenomenon underlies most your films. In one of the dialogues in Europa 2, it is clearly referenced.
I integrated these questions into my films rather late—starting with Orléans, and then with Mercuriales. Joanne’s character grew up in this milieu and she imagines, naively, that all you need to do is move to the capital, to do two or three things in dance to become famous. That’s really what I wanted to bring in—as a theme, not as a form. To be honest, in my two upcoming projects, I intend to speak directly about the rather morbid heritage of reality shows, of their failure.
We find this again in Iron Maiden when the two girls exchange a few words on being famous. They are aware that they will be seen, watched.
Absolutely. What’s crazy is that in the age of the sex tape, it’s not even a matter of being recognized because you have a certain kind of knowledge, an “incredible talent” as TF1 would call it, or even for your beauty. It can be for anything: you can try to be known just by posting something sexy or trashy. That can be enough to create an event. And there is no moral hierarchy. People equalize the fact of watching the finale of Star Academy and a catastrophic event, like the November attacks, because in any case, it is through the prism of television that it was seen. No one is dumb enough to believe that it is really the same thing, but it is as if these people had taken in the cynicism of television. For them, it is a spectacle like any other.
From December to March, you are programming one film a month in the Archipel theater. You’re screening Iron Maiden as an opening to another film of your choice. I wanted to ask you in particular about Clarisse Hahn’s film, Karima. I don’t know her work but read on her website that she is “pursuing documentary research on communities, behavioral codes, and the social role of the body.” In what way do you find your work close to hers?
In several of my films, I’ve been interested in micro groups. These communities—even those that don’t seem to be official—have their own codes, their own rites of induction, their own implicit behaviors. These aren’t really formulated but they act as informal laws. When I saw Clarisse Hahn’s films, my mind opened up. She works with raw documentary footage, without seeking to embellish it; she simply films with a mini dv camcorder, for instance, in geriatric hospitals, with her family, or within the porn industry, etc. I felt close to this very simple, very raw approach, because it is just reality built through montage, without voice-over, without music, without any dramatic effects.
How did you go from these kinds of raw images to a more scripted form?
I really got into this aesthetic with my two films on the police (co-produced with Ilan Klipper), then with Chroniques de 2005, Pandore, etc. and every time I stumbled over the moral responsibilities in relation to the people being filmed: the obligation to show them under a favorable light, to become dependent on their agreement to not be filmed at certain moments, etc. I felt limited, unable to go as far as I wanted to in the exploration of human beings. I had to switch over to writing, continuing to ask people to behave as naturally and as spontaneously as possible in front of the camera, but with another kind of agreement.
Do you have any interest in experimenting with other forms, mediums, and techniques?
I don’t want to limit myself to any one medium. What I’m particularly interested in at the moment are the books and the project I have going on with Editions Lutanie. We are working on a publication of Arcana 1, the first volume in a series of books. The first volume is concerned with the imagery of advertisements for watches. Through the prism of the watch, we dive into a universe of luxury, of phantasm of success through material happiness. The project consists in collecting still images, contemporary ones, found in the media, that relate to everything society produces as an archive of the present. I really believe in this sort of crazy project which consists in sifting through the chaos of the world of images and keeping only those that have the most power, those images that are emblematic of our moment and finally to transform them into signs of time.
Translated from the French by Rachel Valinsky
Picture: Virgil Vernier, Europa 1, still, 2015