Shall We Kiss?: Interview with writer-director-actor Emmanuel Mouret

Emmanuel Mouret is the writer-director-actor of SHALL WE KISS?, which is being released by Strand Releasing on March 27, 2009.

Less than a year had elapsed since your last film Change of Address, SHALL WE KISS was put together quickly.  Are you a filmmaker who works fast or is this an exception?

Above all, I was lucky to find the actors I wanted quickly, and the funding as well.  I’m rather impatient by nature, and I do indeed like working fast.  It actually helps me identify what seems essential to me.

The film industry is much more precarious than music or writing.  A film depends much more on being a hit …

Yes.  If Shall We Kiss? was made quickly, it was also because we were able to take advantage of Change of Address’s success.  Between Venus and Fleur and Change of Address, more than two years went by and the producer and I were both determined to no longer wait for all the funding we needed in order to make it.

Do you enjoy making one film right after the other?

Oh yes!  I really do!  This is what I had always hoped for.  That’s why, with my producer Frédéric Niedermayer, we always tried to find some kind of economic coherence. If we made a film that didn’t cost a lot, we had to show, in a way, that we could break-even, even if didn’t have that many admissions.  I believe you always have to adapt to what you have and to what you are offered.

Where did you get the idea for Shall We Kiss?

My passion in film, and I don’t think I am alone, are stories in which desires play with feelings.  To begin with, I had a certain number of situations, both comical and romantic, but above all, I wanted to make a film in which there would be a maximum number of scenes that deal with desire.  It’s a bit trivial, but that’s the way it is.  The initial idea here was to make a movie about the consequences of a kiss that shouldn’t have any consequences.  Or, in other words, do kisses without consequences exist?

I had in mind the story of a man who visits his best friend.  He hasn’t made love in a while and asks her if she can help him.  Although she is married and is in love with her husband, she accepts to do it.  I am particularly interested in stories about desire.  You often have two people who desire one another, and a third person somewhere who ends up cast aside.

The film’s topic is hence some kind of utopian reflection on “how to fulfill your desires while protecting the one who could suffer as a result”.  Hence the idea about the strategies the characters create not to make a third person suffer.  What interested me in this situation, is the dilemma it implies: how to be a good, civilized person who wants to be able to experience his or her desires, one of the more delightful things in life, and who at the same time does not want to hurt anyone, neither themselves nor others.  In the end, this is a topic for a moralist.

On some level, Nicolas and Judith’s story would have been enough to structure the film with.  But you got this idea for a tale within the tale.  Why?

The idea that a woman prevents herself from kissing a man she desires because of a story she was told, and which she in turn tells this man, was very appealing to me and for several reasons.  First of all because I believe that the stories we have heard, read, or seen at the movies, have a lot of impact.  They play a significant role in our moral judgments and hence influence our behaviors.  I found the idea of filming the influence of a story on a character very playful.  But what also interested me a lot was observing how the tale of a story told to another person can also modify its initial effects.  And then, these stories that are opened and closed like drawers during the account were very entertaining to me and helped give rhythm to the story while giving it an air of freedom.

We were under the impression that up until then, it was the script that developed that dimension, whereas this time around, and in a perhaps more pronounced manner than in your previous movies, the image, the framing or the choice of colors and of their counterparts, provide other clues, extends this idea of a game…

With Laurent Desmet, the director of photography, we paid a great deal of attention to the story’s rhythm before speaking about visual choices.  We talked a lot about variety, contrasts or repetitions, which could almost have a “musical” aspect.  We worked a lot on the character/ background relationships, as well as on the connection between the sets.  It’s based on this, I believe, that games of correspondence can be created.   But behind these correspondences, there is no hidden meaning; they are mainly trying to create resonances, to take our eyes, thoughts, pleasure and complicity on a stroll.

There is a constant in your filmmaking, and that is the idea of a perfect understanding.  Your characters are always connected through details, sometimes very discreet such as a profession, an object, the color of their clothes…

I believe that cinema helps give us an idea about the world, an idea about human beings.  But the world and human beings are such complex and infinite things for our human brains that they have to be simplified.  In my mind, to simplify is to create recognizable shapes.  Afterwards, the big challenge is to simplify while acknowledging the complexity.

If people were to say that you are a literary filmmaker, would that be a reductive statement that shocks you and is a misinterpretation?

Literary?  I would actually say a filmmaker who deals with language.  I believe that it is language that, for the most part, creates rhythm in the film.  In language there are voices, there is the rhythm of the things being said, and hence the film’s.  My love for classic Italian and American comedies in which people talk a lot also stems from that.  You don’t always remember the dialogues, but just the pleasure of having been swept away by speech.  The other aspect of language is that, for me, it helps desires unfold.

Your characters are indeed often searching for the proper word…

A man approaches a woman he desires with the help of speech for the most part.  That is how he will try to determine her desire and to express his.  And that’s very complicated!  In movies, a great amount of suspense comes from speech.  Unfortunately, in certain script writing books, people are taught that a character must say a maximum number things while using a minimum number of words.  I think that’s ridiculous.  The more you talk, the more you expose yourself to the other, to the gaze, to criticism, and th
e more you stage yourself, the more you try to figure our how to present yourself.  And that’s where a great number of stakes lie!

We always know what your characters do in life; they always have a social reality, even if it does not intervene directly in the story.  Why?

Strangely enough, finding my character’s jobs is what takes the greatest amount of time while I am writing the script.  Really, it’s the most difficult thing.  In my mind, it helps avoid a certain form of evanescence.  It’s about showing a little bit of it, but not too much.  And I also feel that knowing someone’s job tells us something about him or her.  It’s a door that opens.

Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert…Music is also extremely important…Do you have it in mind at the time you are writing the script?

No, because based on experience, it’s very difficult for me to anticipate.  On the other hand, once the editing has begun, with Martial Salomon, the editor, we begin putting down the music rather quickly.  We first tried some Schubert, because of his relationship with the script, and then came Tchaikovsky, and the tandem came together very quickly–despite a brief interlude with Mozart and an introduction with Dvorak.  I have no system regarding the use of music.  There is the one that is there, like the air the characters breathe.  An atmospheric music side, even if it’s a bit tarnished.  Afterwards, there is music that accompanies the action, and music that can comment it.  It is just about not making a mistake.

Your first two films had a rather summery feel to them.  In this one, we feel a more autumnal tonality, more melancholic…

My first two films were shot in Marseille; the last two were shot in Paris for the most part.  Laissons Lucie Faire and Venus and Fleur were exterior films and their tonality comes from the light, just as in this case, it comes from the seasons, from interior spaces.

In terms of directing, the grammar is very simple and very precise in appearance.  Was the shooting script planned in advance?

I had a certain concept for the shooting script ahead of time, but above all, an idea for the film’s tonality, in other words, the concern to be both simple and varied. The shooting script is not at all static since it really depends on actors and sets which you don’t necessarily know in advance.  The more films I make, the more I am convinced that mastering directing is not about planning everything that will be on the screen.  I actually think it’s the complete opposite.  It’s a work that’s based on listening and on availability. You need to see the actors, to see the set you are in and just try to feel how and where things can be told in the best possible way.

Slapstick is often present in your films—for example, in the scene in which you get rid of your underwear before doing the deed.  All the character’s clumsiness and emotions transpire at that moment.

I think clumsiness is what actually made me love movies.  It can say so many things.  I love these big awkward heroes like Pierre Richard.  The clumsy person is the one who tries to adapt to new situations and is at the same time overwhelmed by what he is experiencing. It’s a dimension which grabs me very deeply. For me, cinema’s greatest heroes are not Superman, but Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin or Jacques Tati… the ones who fall and get up without ever holding it against life or against others.  They don’t have any bitterness.  Awkward people have the beauty of great dramatic heroes, this capacity to resist and continue. For SHALL WE KISS? I tried to make a movie that would be at once comical and full of surprises, but also romantic.  Most of the actors have very different temperaments and facets to their acting

It feels as if each actor is directed in a specific way…

Absolutely, there are people to whom I will not say anything and others, on the other hand, with whom I will spend weeks doing readings. There is no established rule.  I actually tend to follow the actors’ wishes because I like actors who make suggestions. So I adapt to each person.  I was incredibly lucky to work with these actots.  In a way, they are the ones who brought their ideas and their characters.  I am there to listen and to choose what I am going to take, or not.

Do you act in your films a way to save a fee or to earn an additional one?

At the beginning, I began acting in my short films out of admiration for the burlesque.  Since then, the producers with whom I worked are the ones who pushed me continue.  And I also have to say I have fun doing it.  It’s a way of prolonging part of my intimacy.

Writing, directing, acting…those are many responsibilities to bear.  Isn’t that too exhausting?

When you direct, acting is easier, you are more familiar with the director’s intentions.  And when you perform in your own movie, you make the actors comfortable because they see you trying out things, making mistakes! This reassures them and creates a bond!