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Desire

(Bill Mousoulis, Australia, 1999)


 

Homage No. 2

 

AM: You are a filmmaker who watches, knows and loves a lot films, a relatively rare thing in Australia: a true cinephile-filmmaker. That is easy to applaud, but how does it actually work in practice for you as a creative individual? Do you try to work with your influences, or do you sometimes have to work against them, even shut them out? Are other films inspirations to you, or sometimes hurdles, discouragements, intimidations? How do you reconcile the positions of cinephile and filmmaker?

 

Bill Mousoulis: Watching films and making films are part of the same thing for me – with both of them I’m partaking of the “stuff of cinema” (stories, emotions, questions). But I don’t try to recreate with my own work what I’ve seen in other works. It’s always a bit different – there’s always a filtering that takes place before something gets accepted by me as part of my individual make-up as a creator. Obviously, there are many films that mean nothing to me, that I indeed abhor, so I’m selecting what my influences are. I have yet to “work against my influences” – that to me seems a negative way of approaching things. I always accept the things I love, and work them into myself. And I think they remain there, within myself, as layers (I may not call upon the bottom few layers ever again, but that’s okay). New influences (like Wong Kar-wai) come in sometimes. But some old influences are still active – I am yet to make a film as horrible as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975), or one as full of innocence and love as Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927). (Ideally, I’d like to make these two films together, release them together).

 

In 1986 I wrote an essay subtitled “A Homage to Bill Mousoulis”. (1) Already, at that time, Bill had created what seemed to some of us an impressive and varied body of work. Beginning in 1982, Bill has always been a prolific filmmaker. The early years of his extremely artisanal career were devoted to Super 8 – he too “makes films on shoestrings and blows them up to 8 mm”, as Raymond Durgnat once wrote of Jeff Keen (2) – but in the years since he has also worked with 16mm, and in the course of the interview dotted throughout this text, he remarked to me: “Video’s gotta be good for something!” The obviously outstanding difference in the Mousoulis filmography between 1986 and 2001 is the presence, amidst the many shorts, of four features: Open City (1993), Ladykiller (1994), My Blessings (1997) and Desire (1999).

 

Mousoulis has worked through many different styles – sometimes in the same movie – in his first 19 years (to 2001) as a filmmaker. He has never wanted to stay in one groove. Yet the poetry of his vision has ceaslessly derived from a central and fundamental tension between an essentially realist or observational style and a set of metaphysical or spiritual concerns. Like so many of the Masters he reveres – Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini, Borzage – Mousoulis is drawn to showing the world as it is, in its materiality; as well as how we dream it or project it onto another plane of consciousness. Desire, like his Super 8 short Embrace (1988), is particularly fixed on the transformative role of emotion, and the emotional connections (always fraught and ephemeral) between people.

 

AM: Desire is a very direct title. Why did you choose it? Did you start with that title, or arrive at it?

 

BM: I had Next Wave (the Californian company that specialises in post-producing no-budget films) on the phone about my previous film, My Blessings, and the guy asked me what the title of my next film was, which I had said I was preparing. I quickly looked through one of my notebooks, saw some key words scribbled there, and said to the guy: “Desire”. Initially, I didn’t want it as bald as that – I was thinking, à la Hal Hartley’s Surviving Desire (1991), of adding a word or two to it. But as the months passed and the time came to write the script, Desire on its own seemed perfectly valid, especially considering the story I had in mind. (And, my cinephile mind was happy – here was a title that both Borzage and Rossellini had used.)

 

In Desire, Mousoulis uses a mode of characterisation that reminds me powerfully of Philippe Garrel’s distinctive method in La Vent de la nuit (1999). Garrel’s characters tend to be emblems in an essay-drama rather than fully three-dimensional beings. Thierry Jousse describes this method well: “Mythic and fragmented, assembled in some decisive phrases, the individual story and the collective story are no longer decipherable at the level of facts, but only at the level of a moral attitude, faced with time and the world”. (3) So too, in Desire, there are diverse characters who embody different moral attitudes to the world: a youthful, innocent exuberance on the part of Finola (Belinda O’Connor); the depressive disposition of Cindy (Fiona Latham); the, restless “burning desire” of Anna (Juliet Hone); the rationalist-scientific aphorisms of Paul (Paul Wilson).

 

BM: I am quite conscious of the various approaches to characterisation, and where I fit into that as a scriptwriter. A piece of literary criticism that I read many years ago confirmed my approach for me. Erich Auerbach in his 1946 book Mimesis talks about the polar ends of writing style of the Homeric (The Odyssey, The Iliad) and the Hebraic (The Old Testament) – the former is detailed with particulars, very descriptive, has long narrative threads, foregrounds its content, whilst the latter has short bursts of very general accounts of what’s going on, clearly relying much more on allegory and myth than concrete detail. (4)

 

I’m obviously closer to the Hebraic end of things here, and I agree with Jousse in that I think the individual stories on offer in a film (in this case Garrel’s, and mine) can be subsumed by the overall movement of the film, a movement that is very philosophical (or moral, to use Jousse’s phrase) in the way it expresses a worldview. It’s a matter of grasping the whole of a film, and then working inwards, fleshing it out. Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière would do a similar thing – look for a title, or a particular idea or scene, and then create the rest of the film around that.

 

And if it’s good enough for the entire film itself to have a particular “quality” (or emblematic thrust), then that goes for the characters, too. Yes, most of the characters in Desire have particular types of energies, or spiritual essences, to them (the exceptions are the young couple we see at intermittent stages, who function more like Everyman and Everywoman). This is because my cinema, ultimately, is a spiritual one – I attempt to express the souls of my characters. Characterisation always starts from these essences, and is then built up with details (mainly narrative ones, but also psychological ones).

 

One other thing needs to be pointed out here – the fact that we are dealing with the artform of cinema. Cinema relies on external figuration – meaning is generated by viewers looking and listening to outward motions, events, expressions. Three-dimensionality is always restricted by this (that’s why a lot of adaptations seem lesser than their sources). Even in real life, it takes a lot for us to “know” a person. I’m more interested in showing the effects of personality than personality itself. I’m nominally a “realist” in terms of my cinematic sensibility, but at this deeper level (of representation), I’m not a realist – I’m more in line with painters or musicians, who take personality (and emotion) and heighten and stylise it, creating a particular form.

 

With its emblematic characters, Desire marks out various, intersecting paths of desire – almost a philosophy of desire. It is a little like Gilles Deleuze’s reveries on the shapes of narrated lives conjured by Kenji Mizoguchi or Jacques Rivette (5): Anna’s desire goes in a circle (her appetite renews itself in the final moments, a new loved object emerges from nowhere); Paul’s line gets deflected in a new direction (from straight to gay); Finola holds a steady course; and Cindy’s line breaks off, violently, literally falling into the sea (as it seems) – the water she earlier contemplated and into which she hurled her notebook.

 

This play of shapes necessitates a new narrative structure. Bill has compared his film to Magnolia (1999), but the difference between what Desire does and what P. T. Anderson tends to do is that, here, the characters are not all racked up for us at the outset, and then scattered into their disparate plots. Desire’s structure is more in the vein of Atom Egoyan (Exotica, 1994) or the John Cassavetes of Love Streams (1984): we are introduced to the characters slowly, and each new entry into the loose narrative grid is capable of realigning the relations in the ensemble and our understanding of them (as when, for instance, Paul is introduced as a pining friend of Anna’s).

 

In both form and content, however, a film like Desire needs to guard against schematism, of the kind we see in Robert Lepage’s screen work (The Polygraph, 1996) or Todd Haynes’ early efforts (Poison, 1991) – where the movie registers as the point-by-point illustration of some pre-planned theorem. Of course, most films are indeed,  at least on a pragmatic level, pre-planned theorems (even Godard’s) – the challenge is to not make it look or feel that way, to bring the theorem alive. The entire art of cinema may be contained in that challenge.

 

BM: I chose a particular story (the main one, between Anna and Finola) and built the others around it. I did a couple of things to make the film looser than a rigid, schematic exposition. First, there is an interesting byplay in the film between sexual and existential desire. Maybe one can view this as simply an illustration of the varieties of desire, but I think the film clearly favours love and sex (and the variety of states within those) over the whole notion of the “desire to live”, which is what Cindy’s story is clearly about. Cindy’s story is introduced after the stories of Anna, Finola, and the young couple – and I’m sure some viewers are unnerved by its existence alongside the first stories.

 

Second, the film avoids being schematic because of its structure, which is uneven. Unusual for a multi-character piece, the characters all have different weights (time-wise). Also unusual for this type of film, Anna is still clearly the main character. And even the idea of the secondary characters being threaded off Anna is disrupted – the young couple are not connected to her at all.

 

There’s some talk in the film, between Paul and Anna, about “hypertext”, and how it’s like life – new directions taken, new trees, etc. Anna is clearly the central character, with the film beginning and ending with her and privileging her – but she’s like the “home page” (with links taking us to other sites on this journey of desire). For me, I find this uneven form interesting. It’s to do with using cinema to play. As far as I’m concerned, the rules are there to be broken – and that pumps life back onto the screen.

 

If the different characters in the film represent different emblems of desire, there is also a sense – as in much stylised drama – that all the characters comprise the different, separated parts of a whole personality; that if they could be merged, they would make one, complete person. From there, it’s not hard to speculate (Carl Jung-style) that this whole person would be the film’s own auteur, expressing and sub-dividing the various aspects of himself. There is the potential for an artistic short-circuit here: I have heard it said that everyone in Desire moves, pauses and speaks almost exactly like Bill Mousoulis! (I don’t quite agree with that.) Emblematic storytelling demands an even greater attention than in conventional storytelling to the sharp differentiation of characters – as Jean Eustache managed to do, for example, in La Maman et la putain (1973).

 

BM: Casting was important for me for Desire. Experience wasn’t important, and, in fact, I had more experienced people to choose from. The ones I cast were people with similar qualities to the characters, in terms of their energies.

 

As a director, I’m very open and thorough when it comes to the actors – I explain the broad vision to them, I then give them a crash-course in what I call the “parameters of understatement” that I require them to work within, and I then go into particular character traits with each of them (and, yes, body movements are pretty crucial). Obviously, particular psychologies and backstories can be quite loose with me – if an actor requires these, I flesh that out with them.

 

With this working method, I always get roughly what I want (and I know that it differs from convention, of course). Sometimes the whole thing of understatement petrifies some actors and, combined with a lack of experience, the results can sometimes be a little flat. Combine this with the very low shooting ratio (most shots are the one take, sometimes a second was done), and you get filmmaking where a lot of nerve is required. That said, I’m happy with the results, although the performances I like best are when the actors are relaxed enough to put particular nuances into the “understated emblemisations” I require.

 

I have come to associate Mousoulis’ work with a certain line of filmmakers – Michael Haneke (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994) in Austria, Darezhan Omirbaev (The Killer, 1998) in Kazakhstan, Sohrab Shahid Saless (Diary of a Lover, 1976) in ‘70s Iran, and Dimitris Athanitis (2000 + 1 Shots, 2000) in Greece. What, in my mind, draws these filmmakers together is a commitment to something resembling an unexpressionism. All participants in this tradition are minimalists, and each owes something to the magisterial example of Bresson. And yet they are all, in their diverse ways, untranscendent Bressonians. Their films court a deliberate flatness or evenness – in their images, rhythms and performances. Garrel might fit this line if his films were not so trembling, at every moment, with intense emotion; and Chantal Akerman also might if her work were not so thoroughly imbued, at times, with a colourful, fairy-tale-Hollywood ambience.

 

There is a heavier, darker presence of ordinary banality in the cinematic line I am conjuring here – marked, most often, by stark silences, frontal compositions and an attraction to themes of urban disconnection (not just the alienation of the affluent, but also the suffering of the homeless), and especially social violence (hired assassins, serial killing, mass murder, etc).

 

BM: My sensibility is definitely contemporary, yet also clearly attuned to viewing the stuff of life as universal and timeless. I set my films in contemporary reality, that of Melbourne, and I like doing that. But I use that reality as the basis for the expression of certain ideals, and not as an end in itself. So, within that operating structure, I can actually acknowledge some things (psychological traits, social habits, etc.) as specifically “modern” or “new” – it’s just that they will ultimately be incorporated into a vision which has a certain worldview that is wholly my own and unchanging (although developing).

 

But, clearly, I do favour using these modern qualities I see around me, over not using them. I’m a realist, and part of that urge is the urge to reflect not only what is real, but what is new. I’m interested in things like serial killing and the way relationships are all-over-the-place these days – maybe because they provide new ways of examining and expressing the age-old themes of existence, meaning, etc.

 

“Everything can be put into a film. Everything should be put into a film”. (6) This 1967 motto from Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the most lasting aspect of the entire Nouvelle Vague legacy in its international spread. Bill’s work has, increasingly over the 1990s, been marked by the kind of freedom in content and style associated with (yesterday) Jerzy Skolimowski, (today) Wong Kar-wai, or (for ever) Godard. This is where any tidy thesis about Bill’s general unexpressionism breaks down.

 

There are many moments and aspects in Desire that rupture the system of Bressonian minimalism or Rossellinian observation that I have been evoking. In one striking scene, Bill abandons his normally frontal filmmaking to shoot, from the side, Godard-like shots of faces glimpsed chaotically, aimed past fragments of the interlocutor. The musical stings sometimes have conventional bridging or expressive uses, but are at other times harsher and more disorienting.

 

Only third time around did I properly perceive the extraordinary soundscape (by Bruce Mowson) during the difficult, nocturnal parting of Anna and Finola post coitus – an unreal swirl of treated, atmospheric noises. The film’s many intertitles perform various functions and play at being different things throughout the movie – such as when (only once) they are Anna’s thought-track, or when (in a reminder of his earliest Super 8 work) they offer as commentary bald lyrics from Gloria Gaynor or Madonna songs. All these breakout elements flaunt their autonomy from the aesthetic whole – while also redefining it.

 

There is a temptation towards collage prominent in Mousoulis’ work of the 1990s and beyond. Collage is a double-edged sword, in that it courts complete incoherence and disunity, but also often aims for a higher-level coherence and unity, a composite form. Godard’s work has always struggled with that paradox – sometimes coming together, sometimes falling apart; as does, for example, the work of Leos Carax. Desire, at times, recalls for me Pier Paolo Pasolini’s appeal to the “irregular and provocative freedom” he saw born in the 1960s Cinema of Poetry – in fact, I recognise the outline of many of Bill’s films in this evocation by Pasolini of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964):

 

This insistence on particulars, especially on certain details of the digressions, is a deviation in relation to the method of the film: it is the temptation to make another film. It is, in short, the presence of the author, who transcends his film in an abnormal freedom and who constantly threatens to abandon it, detoured by a sudden inspiration which is, finally, the latent inspiration of the love for the poetic world of his own vital experiences. (7)

 

BM: I was definitely under the influence of Wong Kar-wai for Desire – I watched Happy Together (1997) six times in the weeks leading up to the shoot, and I made my cast and crew sit through it, too. I think, for a start, that Desire has the subtlest hand-held camera you will ever see. About two-thirds of my film is hand-held, but you wouldn’t know it unless you really looked out for it. I find the effect of this very curious: it creates just a slight tension. Other Wongian – i.e., quite expressionistic – elements are in there also: slow motion, music used in fragments, the story in fragments, nightscapes, multiple voiceovers, etc. These are very Godardian elements too, and there’s no doubt I allowed myself more types of shots in terms of the angles, compositions, etc.

 

The intertitles work in all kinds of ways. Sometimes they are purely descriptive (“Twelve months later ...”), sometimes they provide a glimpse into the characters (“At first I was afraid, I was petrified” when Paul is thinking of changing his sexuality), sometimes they provide a cheeky commentary (“To be able to love others, you must first love yourself”, as Anna masturbates). There is much irony in there – a quality people don’t normally associate with my films. For me, cinema is fun as well as serious. At times I indulge myself.

 

The use of composed incidental music in this film is actually one of the major new things for me as a filmmaker. I wanted to push myself to do this, to see what the results would be like. Most of the time the music is given prominence, and it combines with the images in an unusual way. It is a clever score (by Bill McDonald and Shane O’Mara), in that it is composed of sparse means (just like the film) – mainly a guitar or two, with some effects, creating various feels (soothing, jarring, questioning).

 

I clearly see Desire as the film of mine (in terms of major narrative works) where expressionism is introduced – and I went courting it, quite consciously. The thing is, I know I’m strong enough to handle it. And I was interested to check what the outcome would be. There are many impulses in me, and I am working my way through them, constantly developing my style. Obviously I have travelled over terrain in the past that could be referenced by Bresson, Éric Rohmer, Rossellini, Akerman – and Desire sees my Godard side coming out. Overall, I am influenced by certain directors, but I also know that what I’m doing is “me” – there is a clear line one can draw through all my work.

 

The wildest and least expected event in Desire occurs when Cindy mysteriously disappears. Quite literally, she disappears from the image of the pier, as the intertitles flash on and off, running together its words over two distinct, overlapping phrases: “That magic moment when you fall in / love never dies”. It’s like a Great Modernist Event, bringing together the mysterious plot absence puncturing the centre of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) with Rivette’s famous description of Dreyer’s figure of Gertrud, who “went in the splice”. The mystery of this, per se, counts for little in the rest of the movie: the disappearance is noted, puzzled over slightly, but never solved. I see it as casting an odd sort of moral tension over the story as it subsequently unfolds, reminiscent of Kieślowski’s ethical-conundrum plots: the people left behind get together, unaware it’s over someone’s dead body, someone whom they knew and whose presence affected them.

 

BM: It was important for me to never solve within the film the question of Cindy’s disappearance. It seems that she has suicided, but with leaving the country being a more plausible narrative turn (in real life), it’s unclear what’s happened. Her disappearance does hang over the film a bit (there’s a shot of the empty pier reprised near the end, and the ocean is a running motif), maybe spiritually more than physically. It’s a version of Finola’s disappearance from Anna’s life. In the last ten minutes of the film, all the strands of the film get a workover, every character gets noted – apart from Cindy. Sometimes in life, some people just disappear, and yet we continue leading our lives.

 

Seeing as you bring Antonioni up, it must be noted that, related to the act of people disappearing, the sense of people’s traces being left behind in the spaces they inhabited is another area that Desire canvasses. There is the shot of Cindy’s beloved pier near the end of the film, but this idea gets a major workout with the park (and especially its bench), where the young couple are found on several occasions. The young man walks through it several times (either conscious of or indifferent to it), and the film itself shows the park on another occasion (without anyone being in it). There also seems to be this kind of spiritual sense to some of the film’s other locations – the St Kilda esplanade/beach area, especially, seems to have a resonance to it beyond its function as setting.

 

Threaded throughout Desire is a couple, played by Rad Rudd and Monica Pereira. They seem even more emblematic than everyone else in the film, because they have a primal, mythicised aura. Their story is rendered entirely without dialogue, and mostly in black and white. Their reality status within the fiction is a little hard to nail down: they felt to me like a dream, an idealised projection of the state of being … well, happy together. Their initial bliss, however, gives way to a three-step allegory of love lost and love regained. This boy and girl hover above the film like the floating, embracing figures in a Marc Chagall painting; one cannot tell whether they are offered as a reproach to the ordinary world, or a model for it, or an emblem of love’s delusion.

 

BM: That this story is silent is quite significant. Words, especially ones in dialogue, are becoming less and less important for me – they are so intertwined with the mode of “conflict” in conventional screen drama that I’m trying to kill them off. With Desire, I managed to work more non-dialogue scenes into the film, and the story of this young couple is completely wordless. In effect, it’s like a self-contained silent film spliced into the rest of the goings-on. For me, it clearly harks back to silent cinema, especially the Borzage films of the late 1920s, especially in terms of representing love as a primal state (except that Borzage envisages love a bit differently from Desire).

 

The couple are also nameless, but in the credits (I love this – a meaning of the film lying solely in the credits, not in the body of the film) their names are listed as Evan and Skye. Yes, they are clearly an idealised projection of being happy together, then unhappy apart, then happily re-united. And their story is bookended by a particular shot of them (in a close embrace, looking at the camera) that is clearly emblematic. But note that their story is not entirely in black and white, nor entirely “primal”. Messy realistic details (she on the phone arguing with someone, he trudging home in a pair of work overalls) creep in toward the end, as well as colour film (for their re-union sequence). This is a way for me to suggest to the viewer that even the other stories in the film can be seen as being stories of primal essences.

 
MORE Mousoulis: A Sufi Valentine

NOTES

1. Adrian Martin, “In Memoriam Small Movies: A Homage To Bill Mousoulis”, Cantrills Filmnotes, no. 49/50 (April 1986), pp. 15-16. back

 

2. Raymond Durgnat, “Underground Subversion”, Films and Filming (December 1967), p. 8. back

 

3. Thierry Jousse, “Garrel: Là où la parole devient geste”, in Jacques Aumont (ed.), L’image et la parole (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1999), p. 201 (my translation). back

 

4. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974). back

 

5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 192-196; and “Rivette’s Three Circles” in Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995 (New York: Semoitext(e), 2007), pp. 359-362. back

 

6. Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 239. back

 

7. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empricism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 180. back

© Adrian Martin May 2001


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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