The New York Film Festival’s Dennis Lim delivered director Albert Serra to me in the lobby of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center during the 57th edition of the festival last fall. Serra was traveling solo for the American debut of Liberté, which picked up a Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival when it premiered in the Un Certain Regard section.

We didn’t know where to record our conversation so we intruded on the festival staff’s lounge. Serra set up two U-shaped leather chairs facing each other. He grabbed us drinks from the bar and moved in close. Talking to the director is a lot like watching his movies; you listen and watch closely for long, unbroken amounts of time. You don’t analyze Serra’s film–they analyze you. Some directors refuse to speak about their own work—especially with the press—but Serra will gladly dissect his own, even if he objects to your questions, as you will see in our conversation. 

Liberté follows Madame de Dumeval, the Duke de Tesis, and the Duke de Wand–libertines expelled from the puritanical court of Louis XVI in 1774–who intend to spread libertinage from Paris to Berlin. To further their cause they need the help of Duc de Walchen (Helmut Berger), a German seducer and freethinker, who is “lonely in a country where hypocrisy and false virtue reign.” 

In our conversation, Serra discusses his artist’s sexual language, Liberté’s utopia of liberty, not knowing what’s real and what’s fake in his movies, upsetting uptight liberals, and what it means to create contemporary trash. 

The Film Stage: The group’s sexual language involves bondage and capture. Can you discuss the inspiration behind these elements?

Albert Serra: The film was inspired by Marquis de Sade. There’s complexity to this idea of freedom and desire how these two concepts can be matched if they can. If you think about sex, it’s always a relationship with somebody else or a lot of people or several people, whatever. I was talking yesterday about this friction and it is inevitable friction. Sometimes it can be very harmonious, but perfect harmony doesn’t exist. Friction in itself creates more possibilities. Maybe there are people that can be super happy to live without desire, but with time, things tend to change, and the proper nature of desire is to get tired of the same practice with the same people in the same body. If you have a harmonious moment, in general, it will not last. This is our psychological experience as human beings. The permanent non-satisfaction of desire. Give a man everything he desires and everything will immediately not be everything. It means that you always need something else. 

To create utopia you have to force things, it never happens naturally. There is some first moment where there is some resistance. Maybe forcing something, you will get yours and you realize the value of what you’re doing and maybe your desire and your body adapts to this idea of inevitable friction in a pleasant way. Sometimes pain and pleasure get confused because it’s the first moment of you don’t not knowing exactly what you are feeling. You don’t know exactly if you’re being forced to feel something or if you really like it. In this moment of confusion that is something nice.

It’s part of the utopia of liberty, because not everybody can feel the same things at the same time. So there is always somebody that is feeling less or feeling differently. 

Is that why you created an intimate environment and let improvisation happen?

I will not say improvisation. That sounds like we didn’t know what we are doing and, in fact, we know what we are doing and the name of what we are doing is performance. It’s really accepting the fatality as the characters of the film accept the fatality of their desire, the arbitrary weight of their desire. We accept the fatality even if it’s a film with a budget with some constraints. We accept the fatality of living unique moments. It’s not improvisation. It starts from the very beginning with accepting that what you do at that moment won’t happen again, we won’t be able to shoot in the same intensity so every new moment will be different. It’s totally acceptable as we don’t know what we are doing. As we don’t know what we are looking for, even.

It’s not about improvisation. We have a very close and conceptual setup. The people, the place, the aesthetics. It’s quite strong to think before the frame of where we will play this game. But then, everything gets forgotten and everything can happen. The non-communication aspect of my way of working, it’s fatality–it’s really a vision of fatality, but genuine fatality. It’s not how we are pretending to accept these as if it were real, but the fact we are controlling through the process of production. No, we really accept this, that’s all. These actors for me are not just actors representing somebody, but they are real artists themselves, working with their own fatality in front of the camera that is very subtle but it’s very precise. That’s all. This is a very different approach not common in cinema. 

The actress who was hung by her hands from the tree and the actor who was whipped and screaming, was that really happening? 

You never know until which point. I think this is the magic of the thing; because there is representation, it’s boring, since there is the real. It’s like a documentary, people here are enjoying what they are doing. So here we are at a strange point. But even if I don’t know myself, as I never asked anyone to do anything, people were enjoying it and somehow suffering. For me because of intimacy, again, this concept, it’s very personal to say, “How is somebody enjoying it?”

Obviously there are a lot of fake things, but there are also some real things. This idea corresponds with our idea of the night, the logic of the night. Sometimes we wake up the day up after and we say, “Fuck, I don’t remember what I did” or what was real or if I said something wrong. It was very confusing and it was nice because the film reflects this confusion and the confusion of the night. But I am not capable of saying how much of this is real. It looks real, no? 

Talking about the logic of the night, which has to do with the removal of the hierarchies, so on what basis are the characters choosing to sleep with each other? 

It’s arbitrary, because of this idea of giving, not receiving. This idea when you are in a place where it’s totally arbitrary, it means that you have not focused on what you are expecting, what you are feeling, what are your desires or what are your rights. You think about what other people feel, so you make a strange combination, and you simply act as a base. Add in the confusion of the points of view. This idea that you are a hunter but you are also the prey.

When it’s about giving, I think the arbitrary aspect is stronger. Okay, give to simply give. This gives the egalitarian aspect of the film. At the beginning, it looks like there is some hierarchy because there is some like some aristocrat. Gradually, slowly, this is totally destroyed and you see that there is no hierarchy at all.

What you’re wanting to give the audience in Liberté isn’t necessarily a pornographic type of pleasure or eroticism. Your average film festival audience is kind of uptight liberals…

I’m trying to provoke them. Also with the title, Liberté, it means if you don’t do this, you are not free. All of these people that have sex in the movie are free. So it’s pushing the mental borders on people, I have to admit that it’s a provocation. Why don’t you do this, why are you so boring? The confrontational aspect of this is important. I want them to be a little bit confronted. It’s always true with this subject of sex. When people talk about sex in film they are not talking about the film itself, but about themselves. The very personal way the film is dealing with its subject. It touches something, and I was happy with this because it opens, in a weird way, I think in a very healthy way. The film allows you to project your own things because of its confused points of views. 

In one of your interviews, you said with Liberté you’re creating contemporary trash. What does that mean?

It’s not just a decorative historical film. It’s more about the totally rotten way we relate to each other nowadays, physically. Harmony is lost. The possibility of harmony in the relation with bodies, I think it’s lost in general and I think it’s because of social media. It creates a lot of pain in people because they have such a strong control of their own image they are scared of everything. They are scared of everything you are not able to relate to give in a general or arbitrary way. It will not be nice anymore. Probably. 

It’s a very pessimistic approach. It’s totally insane to think like this because I like to be optimistic but I don’t see the way out of this problem of extreme difficulties of creating harmonies with bodies in the future. But maybe it’s my opinion, maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know, I’m not a prophet or a visionary, but from what I feel, people are so in control of their own image. Being in control of your own image is worse than being in control of your own body or yourself, in general.  

Liberté is now playing in Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema.

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