Thème JeAlthough it is arguably the most vital genre in contemporary cinema, the one in which some of the most exciting work is being done around the world, there isn’t a commonly-used term for what filmmaker Françoise Romand has dubbed the “fictional documentary” and “documentary fiction”. The terms could be used to describe films listed under the inadequate heading of “experimental documentaries” or as part of the elastically-expanding “essay film” genre, films such as Albertina Carri’s Los Rubios (2003) or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), various works by directors like Abbas Kiarostami or even Peter Watkins, as well as several of Romand’s own films, most strikingly her début, Mix-Up ou Meli-Melo (1985). Although films like Mix-Up and Appelez-moi Madame (Call Me Madame) (1986) are non-fiction, featuring non-fictional people talking about their non-fictional lives, the films are largely staged or recreated, allowing Romand to shape the film, visually and narratively, exactly as she wants it. In Romand’s documentary fictions, the subjects are complicit in the proceedings, playing the role of themselves as the filmmaker poses them and, occasionally, feeds them lines. It requires the subjects to realise (and acknowledge) that they are not merely being recorded, but are becoming actors performing for the camera. Call Me Madame, a very sweet film about a small town transsexual (and rather prolific author) named Ovida Delecte, features an iconic image straight out of Ovida’s fantasies (and she was, indeed, the one who dreamed up the shot), in which she runs in slow motion across a beach, wearing a wedding dress.

Although mainstream documentaries have always surreptitiously employed varying degrees of manipulation – Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), after all, was an almost entirely staged affair – the documentary fiction is set apart by the structural and conceptual centrality of its fictional elements, which are often accompanied by a general openness with which the filmmaker exposes the film’s own manipulations. While mainstream documentaries get further and further from the recordings of unaltered, observed reality that they once supposedly strove for, more experimental documentarians like Romand flaunt the artificiality of their endeavour, while maintaining that this has no effect on its honesty or truthfulness. Indeed, Romand seems to conceive of her films as if she’s ashamed to be using a camera.

Romand, like many of this breed of fictional documentarians, is centrally concerned with the basic ideas behind documentary cinema – illuminating and exploring non-fictional subjects – but her filmmaking choices reveal a visually stylish, playful postmodernist who rejects the idea of the camera as impartial observer. By contrast, filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock and the most widely-consumed brand of documentary, primetime reality television, are content to adopt the formal and stylistic devices of documentary film (often alongside insistently-repeated reminders of their authenticity) in order to grant legitimacy to game show mindsets.

On first watching an Errol Morris film (which was probably Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., 1999, although this could apply to parts of all of his films), despite a great admiration for his work, there was something vaguely disturbing about his methods. The use of actual people as little more than pretences for whimsical visual explorations is, to say the least, troubling. Yet Morris has paved the way for more widespread acceptance of a documentary film’s perspective being expressed in visual and structural terms (much in the same way that Michael Moore has made it okay for directors to state an explicit point of view – not that either he or Morris were the first, of course). With careers that converged briefly in the mid-80s, Morris and Romand have proven to be strong influences on each other’s work, even though their paths have subsequently diverged into nearly opposite directions. The impact, in terms of both style and content, of Mix-Up on A Brief History of Time (1991) and The Thin Blue Line (1988) are immediately apparent.

Romand’s most recent work Thème Je (or, in a partial attempt to transfer the pun to English, The Camera I), is a video diary that traces the cinema through Romand’s biography, while dealing in its own meandering way with her love life, her family and with the traumatic decision to sell her apartment. Missing from much of the film is the pure and joyous infatuation with the cinema that made her earlier films so charming. Since so much of Mix-Up, Call Me Madame and Les miettes du purgatoire (1992) are actually chronicles of the (unseen) filmmaker’s developing relationship with her subjects, that very satisfying, if subtle, sense of meaningful and growing familiarity is paradoxically absent in this DV confessional.

Mix-Up ou Meli-Melo

This isn’t, by any means, a dismissal of the film. Romand has been ghetto-ised because of the unclassifiable nature of her films, but the ones that I’ve seen are enjoyable and easily accessible, and her films have been ecstatically received by critics around the world (with Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps her most vocal supporter, noting Mix-Up as one of his 100 favourite movies in his book, Essential Cinema). Thème Je, however, is a more difficult film, less jubilant but ultimately more reflective.

Romand’s work has always reflected a preoccupation with the singular nature of the camera, a presence that mutates everything it touches. That is, of course, evident from her basic approach to filmmaking, but has been a source of playfulness for her as well: Madame, for example, ends with Delecte embracing each and every member of the crew. Turning the camera on herself, and always keeping the apparatus front and centre, she alternates between outrageous expressions of vanity and raw confession – and because of Romand’s history as a “fictional documentarian”, the question of authenticity is never fully resolved. Romand has created a portrait of herself that not only expresses, but embodies, her personality.

The following interview is the result of several months’ correspondence over email. I am not fluent in French, nor Romand in English. We both can get by in each other’s languages, although not eloquently, so what follows was originally written in two languages, often employed within a single sentence. The final version was rewritten by both myself and by Romand, so, in a sense, this interview is a “documentary fiction”, with both of us rewriting each other’s words so as to make them (hopefully) more eloquent and more precise. And, as Romand would like me to point out, her films often employ at least two languages, so perhaps this is a fitting form for an interview. Mix-Up, which was her first film, was filmed entirely in English, even though the filmmaker’s comprehension was, at the time, very low. It might be inferred that her attempt to make a movie in a foreign language forced her to concentrate on the visual even more than she normally would, and that it helped to launch her very unique style.

Adam Hart: At what point did you decide to film yourself for Thème Je? Did you begin with any specific project in mind?

Françoise Romand: For 15 years I wanted to do a film about my family because, on my father’s side, my great-grandfather was one of the first actors for the Lumières’ cinematographs in L’arroseur arrosé. And then my mother’s mother survived the Armenian genocide with my uncle before they immigrated to Paris.

Ten years ago I was asked to give a project in order to get a grant – the first and last time in my life to be asked so far. I felt free to do a very intimate and personal essay. I composed a notebook with pictures, scratches, thoughts. I think that was my first step towards a dreamed film, but by itself it was already a piece of intimate art. I will include parts of this notebook with the DVD.

I began to film my family on video but suddenly became so sick I was sent to the emergency room in La Ciotat, where I was in surgery on me for six hours. My parents thought they lost me. When I woke up the first thing I asked my sister was to bring the camera because I wanted to tape the hospital … at least the sounds, because I couldn’t move.

Four years later, I was hired to teach at Harvard. I bought my DV cam (PD100) and began to shoot. Technically, I became more serious about the project.

My first tape was filming myself naked in a mirror, then asking questions to my mom while packing for the US. In Cambridge I met David Larcher, also arriving from Europe. He didn’t know where to stay for his four months teaching there. After some pressure from him, I had to offer to let him stay. Later he said he expected me to offer earlier … I was interested in him as a character and, at the same time, a little scared of his wildness. So we agreed to a one week stay. It went fine, so I offered to share the house, and then we shared the bed!

While I was away, he took my camera and finished a tape. When I watched it, I couldn’t believe that I was already seeing a short film from this very first cassette. So I began to edit it on iMovie. This short was shown at the Toronto Film Festival.

Meanwhile I was working on an internet project to connect, live, seven kitchens in the world to see people all over the world. As an experiment, I put the camera in my kitchen and began to talk to it as if it were a webcam. And I began to plan unusual scenes happening in a kitchen. This was the point at which I understood what kind of film I was making and I felt very excited because I could see the provocative flavour I wanted in it. I thought it was my turn to feel the pressure to be in front of the camera after many years filming people and asking them to look directly into the camera. When I film people, I respect them. I would never push them or show them in a bad light. I felt more freedom to film myself not paying attention to how I looked, not having to take the same care respecting the subject. I really had no limits when filming, but had to make the expected choices in the editing room.

AH: Films like Mix-Up and Call Me Madame seem to have the complicity of the subjects. How did you direct them? Did you give them dialogue as if they were actors? Did you rehearse with them?

FR: I listen to my subjects in the context of their lives. I fill myself with their story. Then I construct, on paper, a script with scenes that tell that story. During the filming, I film what’s essential to comprehend it. I let the everyday events of their lives carry the film wherever they will. I explain my method of working to them. No interviews. No traps. I film when they’re in agreement with me and I say, “You told me about this event. Will you retell this anecdote while doing this and that in front of the camera?” I refine what they tell me in every way I can. I introduce a method of fiction within the frame of a documentary. The subjects speak their own words, their own sentences. It’s important to keep their vocabulary because it reveals much of their personality. I ask them to repeat themselves several times if necessary when the scene needs something very precise. I help them to make their story as concise as possible because I want to avoid cutting whenever possible. I’ve refined my method, which I invented for Mix-Up and Call Me Madame, along the way.

AH: Your films often demonstrate an acute awareness of the camera’s inherent disruptiveness, and present quite a novel solution to it by relying largely on recreations and on performances by the subjects – essentially acknowledging, playfully, the filmmaking apparatus and putting it on display. Because you were filming yourself and using a much smaller, less intrusive digital camera for Thème Je, did you find yourself addressing similar concerns during that film’s production?

FR: There is a fundamental difference in the shooting of Thème Je and my other films. For the other films, I had a contract and dates to finish them. In a sense, the freedom I had in Thème Je was unusual and frightening. This freedom can be paralysing because I was the only one who could decide if the film was going to exist: there was no pressure to accomplish it. It had to come from inside me. I love working with a crew, and was missing that interaction – missing the complicity and the fun of it all. For my earlier films, I shot the staged scenes several times, directing the actors in these documentaries just like in fictional films. I asked them to do several takes. I utilised them as actors, and they have an intense reality in every take. These films are about their lives and everyone is filled with his own reality – that’s why their performances are so strong.

I did something else with Thème Je. I was at a turn in my life artistically and personally. I had already explored the documentary world at the limits of fiction, and, in fictional films, had explored comedies and thrillers. I had to film myself at this turning point, asking myself questions every one has to deal with, about having a baby or not, about why I was always in-between two men, in-between two ways of life: one settled and one adventurous. It was the time to think to organise a link through my work, to feel free to follow inspiration when it comes. My concerns with the filmmaking process were the same, and I did speak to the camera myself. Sometimes I was sending a video letter to a lover. There was a direct interactivity between my real life and the film I was shooting. It took me more than 4 years of shooting and editing.

Les miettes du purgatoire

AH: You tend to make films about the grey areas between supposedly rigid dichotomies, about liminal spaces – blurring the line between families, between genders, and, of course, between fact and fiction. Could the same observation be made in relation to Thème Je? Is this about the area between two seemingly contradictory, or opposite, choices? Do you see any similarities between yourself and the painter in Les miettes du purgatoire, or the families in Mix-Up?

FR: All my films revolve around identity – identity that’s genetic and/or social, identity that’s sexual and/or social, lives exchanged, amnesia. The shot in Mix-Up in which the girls walk down the train tracks is like a choice that has to be made between one kind of life and another. I filmed my equivocations for four years, with no real direction. I explored the nature of my relationships and how they evolved over time. Unsatisfied by this aspect of life and by that lover, I opened another story without have searched for it. During the filming, largely because I opened myself to all this introspection, I decided to sell my loft, which I had taken 15 years to build. A radical life change, I was swept away with a freedom in my actions with happiness and excitement. I lived in the energy of the shoot, fascinated by the level of narcissism and of shamelessness. The result was very discreet, because I exposed myself like that not for the sake of sensationalism, but because these were the questions that I overhear others asking. This is a film about myself as an other. I blurred the lines, balancing voyeuristic threads, grotesque threads. It’s in taking the risk of the mise en abîme, of searching and of doubt that one pushes the envelope to attend that in one’s sensibility, to disturb it.

So Thème Je, like my other films, settles into the grey areas, those that are revealed to us in our own complexity, in our contradictions. I showed myself without trying to make myself look pretty. I filmed myself just out of bed without any artifice, with my blunders, my incoherencies.

The similarity between the people that I film, including myself, is that lunacy forms the base of our everyday lives. Each one of us invents a routine to reassure ourselves, a space that allows us not to lose ourselves. We are all fragile to varying degrees.

AH: Two scenes stand out for me in Thème Je. In the first, you and a female friend are in bed, naked, while she shaves what we in America euphemistically refer to as your “bikini zone” – while the two of you discuss the necessity of taboos in society. The second comes near the end of the film, when your lover insists on your treating him as a slave while he prepares your breakfast. Can you talk about how these incidents came about, and why you decided to include them?

FR: The scene with the female friend was very intimate and we taped it several times within a year talking various subjects. I kept this take because talking about the need for taboos in this setting was outrageous.

Aldo Sperber, a friend who’s a painter and photographer, introduced me to Philou, a black tap dancer. I saw this seductive, beautiful man captivating several women at a party where he was serving drinks with spiced sugar from his mother in the Antilles. Aldo told me that Philou lived these slave fantasies with his mistresses. I’ve always admired people who enact their fantasies (between consenting adults).

AH: On your website, you describe several films as “documentary fictions”, or “fictional documentaries”. What is a “documentary fiction”?

Call Me Madame

FR: A documentary fiction is a film that presents a real story with real people, that injects elements of fiction into a true story. It’s the opposite of cinema verité. Call Me Madame is a good example. Ovida Delecte was very nervous about how she’d be portrayed; she was afraid that I would betray her trust. During the production, every morning, she would write something new for the film. So I told her: “I’m going to film you. You tell me what to shoot and you will be shot exactly the way you imagine it.” After that, she trusted me.

Some felt that I had lost control of the film by letting Ovida film a scene according to her own desires, but those desire fully revealed her personality, the inexpressible. The filming of the dreamlike scene on the beach, Ovida wearing a bridal gown running in slow motion, was epic. It was filmed with the disapproval of my crew, who found Ovida’s fantasy and her mise en scène a little ridiculous.

Watching Ovida’s fantasy, we’re confronted by our own unconscious, and uneasy laughter gets stuck in our throats. At each screening I hear the public hold its breath, seized by fright, by grace, and by emotion – the audience is confronted by its own troubles and is embarrassed by them.

In that sense, Thème Je results from this reflection. There’s a lot of this exploration of the margin. It poses more acutely the limits of the mirror, the director removing the intermediary, taking crudeness and modesty head on, using tragic fantasy, comical sadness, the human experience, brutal, everything, the base of all creation as prime material.

I’ve always avoided interview-traps: some journalists try to corner the person they’re interviewing with unexpected questions to make them react and to attack them. I work at the complete opposite end of that conception. Who am I to judge others or to place myself above them? I have the same questions, the same dilemmas as those that I film. I don’t make films to judge people, but rather to look at myself as a spectator, to relate to another story, to make myself reflect on my own.

I’m also criticised for the opposite reason! I’m told that I control the film too much, just through my mise en scène.

Ovida was thrilled with the film, as was her wife and her son. I’m proud to have succeeded with a story as delicate as Call me Madame, a film in which the people didn’t feel betrayed by the way you reflect them, and to do this without renouncing my authorial perspective. Their son was particularly moved by the film. It was soothing to him, as if he had discovered a new perspective on his parents, seen from the outside, allowed him to confront something he had not been able to previously.

AH: I’ve only been able to see your “documentary fictions”. Can you describe for me the films that I haven’t seen: Passé-Composé [1999] and Vice Vertu et Vice Versa [1966]?

FR: Passé-Composé is based on a novel by Frederic Dard. A thriller, it’s the story of a young woman who emerges from the Mediterranean dressed, with a sack containing millions, with total amnesia. A man fleeing his own past welcomes her and discovers, before her, her sordid past. She discovers that she plays the violin. Music and sound are very important in the film because memory is invaded by noise. I played quite a bit with the strange, the unconscious, visions. I worked the memories of the character like a puzzle made up of sounds and images.

Vice Vertu et Vice Versa is a comedy based on mistaken identity. A call girl places herself next to an out-of-work intellectual, and they get mixed up. They trade places and each one leaves enriched by the other’s experience.

Vice Vertu et Vice Versa

The formidable force of two women that escape everything: they carry us along in a fantastic sort of stampede. It’s like a moral fable that’s been shifted. There are unexpected turns and exhilarations in the awareness of two women, accomplices in adversity.

AH: Do those non-documentary films mix documentary elements with the more traditionally fictional stories?

FR: Both Passé-Composé and Vice Vertu are more traditional fictions. My work in documentaries does influence my fiction writing. I let strange events into my fiction without explanations because of that documentary experience, filming fantastic facts that are strange whether you invented or witnessed them. In that regard, Thème Je, fiction-essay-documentary, is at the exact cross between my films.

On location for Passé-Composé, I met a woman begging at the church. She is in the film as I saw her, in this church where M [Laurence Masliah] has visions. Her ex-lover Micheline – Anny Romand, my sister – appears to her.

Yes, here the life issued from reality is part of my fiction because the producer had a crush on my sister when we were discussing locations and suddenly he had an idea for an actress – my sister! I resisted, like in a game, making him bid for my agreement: “I’ll take her in exchange for one day of filming, one week of editing, etc.”

And so he “convinced” me to use my sister, which I was thrilled to do. We were both right: it’s the most intense role of Anny’s career.

Again in that scene, reality helped enriched the screenplay. A very important detail, that M, the amnesiac, wore a cross on a golden chain. On the second day of filming, I realised that we had forgotten the chain since the beginning. Panicked, confused, we looked for someone to blame (as if that would have made a difference). Quelle horreur!

Looking for a solution was the only thing to do. After considering it, I realised that I needed to transform this mistake into an asset for the film. A luminous idea: that day, we filmed the scene in the church, and it’s Anny’s character that returns the chain to M’s neck. This action lends a disturbing force and an ambiguity to the scene.

Another story about that shoot: one day, the producer calls me from Paris. “The actor for your scene tomorrow is too expensive, he is not coming.” I was shooting in Tunisia, the scene was a key scene for the thriller, too late to find another actor to play the investigator. What could I do? Again I had a luminous idea, even though I’m not sure it was the good timing for the film to introduce a level of unreal! I put the picture of this actor with a tiny beautiful tape recorder on it. The main character, Daniel [Féodor Atkine], answered the questions coming from the tape. It’s a strange scene and Feodor is fantastic in it.

AH: Similarly, how does Thème Je fit into your filmography? Do you find that, as a first-person video diary, it relates in any way to the rest of your films, or is it relatively unique?

FR: It’s the inescapable film that can be found in Mix-Up, my first film, and it will equally be in my next film. It’s the film of my cinematographic reflection, my maturation as a woman, but destined for unknown spectators, not to my family or my friends.

About The Author

Adam Hart is a critic and filmmaker based in Seattle, WA (USA). He has written for such publications as The Stranger, indieWire, Res and 24framespersecond.