Composed predominantly of stillness with erratic musical outbursts, ‘Barrage’ focuses on a tri-generational rift in feminine identity building, in which each daughter fails to completely understand her own mother. Though ‘actress-of-the-moment’ Isabelle Huppert plays the grand matriarch wielding total control and the final word, her screen time is miniscule against a second act which sees Cathrine and her daughter Alba journey into the woods in an effort to re-connect an interrupted bond.
I interviewed Director Laura Schroeder at the Vilnius Film Festival, where she was surprised to see me that morning (I couldn’t blame her as I was early) and returned shortly with a modest breakfast plate and tea. Inquisitive eyes rounded out her steady voice.
MLP: How did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Laura Schroeder: I didn’t decide straight away to become a filmmaker but I knew when I was around 16-17 that I wanted to study cinema. I think I wasn’t quite sure at that point if I wanted to be a director. I was really interested in being a cinematographer as well. It started because I started seeing different films. At that age I started seeing the French New Wave and Italian films, I started developing my own photographs in black and white, I started to write…
Was there an autobiographical element to Barrage?
Yes and no. I did play tennis, so I took that from there. I didn’t go through what the characters Cathrine and Alba go through in the film. I don’t have a daughter but I do have a mother. In my eyes, if you write something, you always draw from your own life, and then afterwards you transform it to make it fictionally more interesting.
Since you don’t have a daughter, how did you decide to use 3 generations of women instead of 2?
It was important to me not only to have that mother-daughter relationship between Cathrine and Alba, but also the other generation before, with the grandmother because the film is also about the repetition from one generation to the other, so it could not only be one single generation and I think the way Cathrine deals with Alba has been influenced so much by what she has gone through with Elizabeth. So it was trying to build this mirror. I didn’t want to give all the psychological background of what has happened, why Cathrine is like this, and the triangle relationship, the double mother-daughter relationship allowed me to see how Elizabeth behaves with Alba, imagining that that could’ve already been the same with Cathrine in a way.
Do you relate this echo of behaviors through generations to maybe echoes of scenes in the film – the way music comes in? I felt some sort of echo in the way that the scene was set each time that a new song came in. Was there any kind of template?No, no there wasn’t. To me, the music comes in quite late in the film. Which was a choice and then also not a choice. The first time you hear music is when they leave Cathrine’s apartment and they finally depart, something else is starting. To me the music…How can I say… it’s a very important part already when I write, I think about the music at that point I put it in the script even though afterwards it changes, but the spots where there’s music didn’t change much from the writing through the final editing.
I think I use music to give a different texture. (SPOILERS) For instance, the scene where Charbon the dog dies, and then afterwards they drive off, we tried different music on that scene and I thought it was interesting how the music – of course it seems obvious, music always influences what you see – but in that specific scene how much it was about finding exactly the right tone, because Charbon has died and we don’t know where they’re [going], so it had to be a bit unsettling but at the same time I didn’t want to go into a thriller. Music is something very intuitive. It’s the same when I write. It can influence my writing. So no, to answer your question with a clear answer; no, to me the music is not with the generations, I didn’t see it that way, no.
In the scene where they’re in the woods dancing – matching choreographed with the music that we hear, but we don’t see an audio source in the frame, is it another realm that they’re entering out there [in the woods]?
Yeah. My initial idea for that was that you would actually perceive the music coming from the chalet. But then it just seemed so obvious that it had to be this way, because as you say, it allowed them to – or us as an audience – go somewhere beyond that specific moment and it’s the moment in the film where they are as close as they probably never will be, because just afterwards it all starts going bad. So it was giving something…well on the one side more intense but also take it to another level. Just at the beginning with the first shot when Cathrine is walking, there’s some direct sound, but for the rest of the scene you don’t hear them moving and I think it allows you to enter that scene in a different way.
How did you decide on the 4:3 aspect ratio?
Well we did tests with the DoP Hélène Louvart prior to the shooting. I’d shot all my previous films on 1.85:1, which was a format I’d always liked. Here it was really all about the major part of the film taking place around the lake, it was all about how to film that landscape. I didn’t want a ‘postcard’ effect, in that landscape. It was about the character in the landscape, so when we did the tests, it struck me immediately – we did some tests with Lolita just walking back to camera through the woods – just on the two formats how when you would look at the 1.33 it was a character in a landscape, with the 1.85 it was a landscape with a character in it. So it seemed obvious to me. There are a lot of scenes where you have only two characters or one character. There aren’t a lot of characters so it felt also – of course choosing the right lenses afterwards – but…it allowed me a lot of frames where there’s Cathrine and Alba in the frame, both really close to the edges. It gave their relationship a visual – the frame, to me, seemed right.
How did you come up with this dream sequence near the end?
That’s something that was in the script also from a very early stage on, and afterwards the details changed over the writing process but it was something that when I wrote that scene – Elizabeth’s coming back – this idea that the three of them, especially Elizabeth and Cathrine, reunited in that chalet. We don’t know up to that point, we know that there’s something with the Grandfather, we have very few elements of what has happened in the past.
And them coming together in this place, as I already said I don’t like to explain things by dialogs or by just trying to put information where you can put it. So it was, again, just intuitive. I just felt like I wanted to show something about their relationship (Elizabeth-Cathrine) in a different way. So I just came up with this dream sequence, which to me is not only a dream; part of it could be a flashback. It could be a vision, you know? I think the most important was to give Cathrine’s life, or Cathrine’s suffering a different angle to perceive it. The scene has always, from the writing stage early on caused some producers to say, ‘Are you sure? This is like completely – I don’t get it, why does this come in here?’ To me it’s always been important. Taking out that scene would’ve taken so much out of the film because the last half-hour you watch it, you perceive it because you’ve seen that. And if you take that out, it would make it much more flat.
You’ve named Jeanne Dielmann as one of your favorite films, could you talk a bit about its influence on you as a filmmaker, especially in terms of shot duration?
Well it’s a film that I cannot remember when exactly I saw it but a long time ago, and yes it has the shot duration but I think it’s really about the bluntness of it – to make such a film. Anyway films like that, they don’t really get made anymore.
I read this – I think it was also a long time ago – I think it was Gus Van Sant and somebody else I don’t remember who were in an article in Cahiers du Cinema, like even before Chantal Akerman died. They said something about this film, and they were watching it I think – I might be completely mistaken in my memories – but they were watching it in New York and people were watching. Then towards the end when something finally happens, that’s when people started getting up in the cinema and left. This remark, Gus Van Sant telling it, has always struck me, because I think that’s what’s so fascinating with this film; you just sit in there, you follow all this, and…I don’t know why these people got up, because they thought like ‘this is what happens, okay so, then I’ll get up’. But how it takes you in…I think nowadays you have many more films that take that pass. I love Chantal Akerman’s work and when I saw that film, I thought it was very brave.
Was there any particular film on your mind during the filming of Barrage? Or the writing stage?
Yeah, I thought a lot about The Return by Zvyagintsev. There’s a father taking his two sons on a trip, in a remote area. Beautiful landscapes in Russia. There might be different films that I forget about now.
No, I don’t try to think about other films, actually. Maybe in an early research phase. During the writing it’s important to me to know what has been done on the subject and in similar ways, but once you have your own script you need to forget about it. Anyway everything you’ve ever seen and everything you’ve ever read is there, you cannot get rid of it.
I believe there are two brief moments where we hear German spoken in the film?Luxembourgish, you do hear Luxembourgish.
And the song in the dream sequence?
That’s German, yeah. It’s a tango by Rudi Schuricke and Juan Llossas, which is from the 40s, 50s it must be?
And how did you choose this piece for that sequence?
I don’t know where I know it from, but I knew the piece. You live in Germany, so you understand what they sing, Einmal ist Kein mal. [One time is no time.] You know, it’s not like between those words there’s a direct link. What I like about this song is that it’s cheerful, it makes you want to move, but at the same time it’s really melancholic. It has this – time passes, things don’t come back – that’s how I see it as well, but you know, it being in German, I’m not counting on people understanding it. So it’s just mood and I really like the fact that that was also…the idea of the tango came very early but at the same time, a long time before starting to work with the choreographer for that scene, I knew that I wanted them to move really slowly. It was also the contrast between the two. It wouldn’t have made sense to me to put some music that would fit the rhythm of the music.
Both of those together have this really ‘ghostly’ feeling.
Yeah, exactly. You have people that you have seen in a film before, you have to be really careful if you want to recognize them. It’s like ghosts from the past. It’s also like music coming from the cellar.
I understand you once created a fake identity to get accreditation to the Berlinale. I’d be really interested in hearing that story, if there’s a story to tell.
Yes, there is a story to tell. I didn’t really create a fake identity but I created a fake job. I became a …it was like ten years ago [laughing]… one of my producers helped me to become a distributor/sales agent/assistant/something, because me as a young director, they didn’t want to give me an accreditation, and I really wanted to go. So that was…maybe 2008. So I kept on getting emails for years and years about people wanting me to link them to some distributor. I think I did that for 2 or 3 years, but then it was tricky to do the change, all the sudden. Probably they didn’t know, didn’t realize, didn’t care. It’s a lot of people.
Do you feel a barrier in terms of age for filmmaking? Do you think someone should reach a certain age before making or trying a feature film?
No I don’t but I realize now I’m at the edge between: sometimes I still get called a ‘young’ filmmaker, but I think soon I will not anymore. I think if you can still get the denomination ‘young,’ it helps. God knows why, but in every domain, you know? ‘Young’ sounds better than ‘not young.’ You can always say ‘young,’ ‘first,’ ‘upcoming.’
Finally, how did it feel to return to the Berlinale now, as a director with a film screening?
It was beautiful. I love the festival, I always preferred Berlin to Cannes, whatever that means. Just because I have a lot of friends in Berlin, I’ve edited another film there, so I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Berlin. Also the choice of the films that I saw anyway, if there was one festival where I wanted Barrage to premiere, or where I could imagine it fitting in, it was Berlin. So that plus the factor that I had a tough time to even go there as a spectator long ago, I had been at the Berlinale Talents also back then, it was like a nice… boucle, that’s what I’m looking for. You say in French, boucler la boucle. You know when something starts, and you close it in a nice way? I don’t know if there’s an expression like that in English. Maybe the first time I was in Berlin, and now presenting Barrage there, was like one circle. So it was closing the circle before the new one begins.
It all came full circle?
Ah, right! That’s the expression, yeah.