An Interview with Frank Beauvais

by Tijana Perovic, edited by Maximilien Luc Proctor

Berlinale 2019 would have been a huge success for me as a viewer, had it only screened Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle (Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream). Leaving the screening felt revolutionary. This heart-breaking, visceral, intro to and retrospective of madness had consumed every soul in the theater – or at least surprised us into silence. I had to meet Frank Beauvais, if only to express the immense gratitude for what the movie had uncovered in me; a gratitude for having faced, wrestled with and metabolized his experiences in this wonderful ode to cinephilic vulnerability.

Tijana Perovic: Let´s start with the title. Does it have anything to do with the German movie Just don´t think I´ll cry (Denk bloß nicht, ich heule, 1965)?

Frank Beauvais: Sure. It is one of the four hundred movies that were used. I already had the idea of the movie when I was watching Just Don´t Think I´ll Cry and I do understand German, but not perfectly. My mother is half-German. So I can watch German movies without subtitles, but some subtleties are going over my head. The title of my movie is Just Don´t Think I´ll Scream. Actually, in German heule is either to cry or shout. In French, the title is Ne croyez surtout pas que je hurle. So since hurle is so close to heule, I thought it would be a nice title. The movie carries the idea of something you have inside that you would like to shout, but you can´t, together with the idea of being in anger. At the time I decided on the movie title, of course, I didn’t know it would end up in Berlin and I would need to translate it to German again. And we translated it as schreien, to keep them different. 

Denk bloß nicht, ich heule

Were you the narrator?

Yes. I lost my voice. 

How did you choose Just Don´t Think I´ll Cry to name your movie after? 

It was a very significant film. And it was a movie from the DDR. I wanted to stress out the movies from the DDR because – at least in France – they are not that popular. I know young critics whose knowledge of cinema starts with the New Hollywood, as if nothing before that existed, including Soviet silent movies. 

Where did this need to pay homage to both cinema and human vulnerability come from? This mix is becoming a rare kind lately. What would be your influences – both filmmaking and personal – that lead you to make this? 

I suffered from writing fiction that would never succeed in being made. Of course, fiction means a lot of financing. I have already made a few found footage shorts, but never using the first person singular, never speaking for myself. And I was so scared to do that, having encountered so many films that I am bored with, in which the author positions him/herself centrally. So I was asking myself: ‘Am I that important? How could people connect to my depression and to my small problems?’ But when I started talking about it with my friends and other people, they made me understand that there was something that could be more universal. A lot of people find this same kind of anger within themselves. So I said, let’s try it! To avoid this subjectivity I decided not to use the images I would shoot, but images in the films I watched in these six months, [which] were reminiscent of the images of my life. Even landscapes that I chose really look like the village. Or the people’s portraits, for example my mother, I have found 500 portraits that really looked like her. Another interesting coincidence was, when I speak about moving back to Paris, I am watching Conte d’automne (1998) by Eric Rohmer. This shot is exactly from the street where I was going to move. No way! There must be some playfulness because the subject is so sad. I had to find some happiness inside of this work process which saved me from where I was.  

As for my film influences, I would name people like Jonas Mekas, Chantal Akerman or the French director Joseph Morder. Their works always interested me. They go to and from between the state of the world and their own lives. In literature, what really helped me was re-reading books by French authors like Georges Perec, who wrote the book Je me souviens (1978), where all these memories are brought back by using titles of movies and slogans from advertisements from that time. I used partially that technique when I spoke about where my father is coming from, citing the broadcast he was watching on TV. This served to help the audience understand where I come from and where my father was coming from. 

What was primary to you, the narrative or the images? Or did they come together?

We selected all the images before I wrote the narrative, for me to know what I could use. And that took three months. Then my editor said to me that it was time to write the narrative, to finally ‘go there.’ I was really afraid of the process of writing, I really suffer from writer’s block. I never wake up saying: ‘oh, let’s go to the table and write something.’ I always think of something better to do. But then I had to do it. So once we had the text and once it was recorded, it determined the images we chose and the flow. We knew from the very beginning that we could not add a third layer like sound, like music, because it would be too disturbing. Even very discrete, ambient music would be dramatic, since we asked the viewer to concentrate on the words and the links between the words and the images. So, if we had [added] music, it would have made it impossible to follow. I thought of what people do when they perform slam poetry, the hip-hop language, so sometimes the text was very quick, no verbs, just a numeration. When I was evoking the death of my father, I thought we would need a black screen at some point, to help portray the flashes of memories that were coming back. When I wrote the text, I didn’t have these black screens in mind, but once we bound them to the images it seemed necessary to have them as ‘breathing points.’ The black screens help describe my memory of these events, which were very flashy, like a disconnected thread of small things that never form a continuity. I just remember small, painful details.

I really appreciated the role swap I experienced while watching your movie: back and forth from the spectator to the protagonist. How did you develop this?

I have set rules of the game. I like things to stay playful. But my rules were really clear from the beginning: we would use the clips without sound, we would never use two shots that were edited together next to each other, we would never use any face of any known actors. This last one has nothing to do with copyrights. I think that when you see Catherine Deneuve, you see Catherine Deneuve, you don’t see a woman. And I needed for the people to see people, not actors. So I said yes we can use bodies, parts of bodies and backs. When I speak about myself we usually see an image of a person from the back. And when faces do appear, it’s always extras, taken from Italian movies, when the camera pans and you have got this face of an old man who would not reappear in the movie afterwards. People can relate to that because it’s an unfamiliar face. This was sort of constructed against the images of actors. I personally cannot connect to fiction with star actors. I love Isabelle Huppert, but I cannot believe that she is working in a factory. No way.

Editor Thomas Marchand and Director Frank Beauvais at Berlinale.
Photo courtesy of Berlinale.

What´s also really incredible in Just Don´t Think I´ll Scream was the fine balance you struck between very sad and very lively, humorous things.

That was very important to me. I’m not sure I knew I was talking about depression when I started, I just  [knew I would be touching on it] somewhere along the line. I’m not sure that the ‘heavy stuff’ was only about depression, perhaps it’s also about the madness of seeing too many movies and about the ways the movies contaminate your life when you are a hardcore viewer. It’s also about isolation. I thought that if I started talking about depression and it is not saved by some kind of light, it would be unbearable for the viewer. I always try to place myself in the viewer’s seat, [being] especially [careful] not to fall into narcissism, complacency. That way I found space to introduce humor: for example, I thought we could laugh about the town of 300 inhabitants and three churches. In my own most depressed states, I never lost a sense of humor. That saved me, together with the love of the ones that count for you. So that had to become an integral part of the movie.

How did it feel to simultaneously experience this obsessive need to watch movies together with the need of detaching from your dearest belongings (giving them away, packing, selling, etc.)? Those seem to me like two opposing forces.

When you’re depressed, you’ve got to hang onto something very concrete. This packing, this selling… The place we were living in was huge for two, but especially for me alone. In this region, there were plenty of flea markets where I was constantly buying books, filling up this large apartment and the attic. And then, once you decide to move, you wonder what to do with all this. All those treasures become nightmares. I really gave away 10,000 records. Who wants to buy 10,000 records? Giving them away was such a relief. Of course, as soon as I arrived in Paris, the first thing I did was buy records, buy DVDs, falling in the same trap again.

I was lucky to have found another movie of yours, A genoux (On My Knees). Was this found footage or your own?

That was my first movie, shot almost 10 years ago. It is mostly my footage, but I used some excerpts from an old erotic French movie. My footage comes from the village I was living in, the forest around my mother’s place. The idea was to work really freely. I found a producer, asked for a camera and promised to come back with a movie. That´s what happened. So simple, exactly how I like to work. It was the first time I had a camera for myself. I had no technical abilities at all. I spent a really long time just shaking the camera in front of various flowers, until I got exactly what I wanted. This was very playful and happy. I gained confidence in directing through this small experiment of a movie.

A still from A genoux (2005)

Both of your movies we mentioned have a very specific flow. How did you choose the right songs to use during On My Knees and during the end credits of Just Don´t Think I´ll Scream?

In Just Don´t Think I´ll Scream, we didn’t want to use music during the narration. However, I felt like we owed the viewer some kind of relief. And due to the extensive list of movies in the end credits, I thought it could be accompanied by a song. After thinking for a long time and considering that I have already mentioned the song [in the film], I figured that Bonnie Prince Billy´s song [“I See a Darkness”] summarized my state best. It stresses the importance of friendship and love to compensate for the darkness of life. I prayed that they would be nice enough not to ask too much money for it. Johnny Cash covered the song and turned it into a very popular tune. However, Bonnie Prince Billy was very nice to us. I still listen to the song almost every day. It is very powerful and doesn’t get used up. What I wanted to share was not a diary, but rather a chronicle, a retrospective. It is not about the states I was in; it is me now looking back at those states. This difference is important, since it leaves room for the viewer. If you are only sharing your madness while you´re mad, I don’t see how the viewer can connect. That way, it would stay more experimental. I hope that my movie is not only an experimental one. I don’t like the stamps that movies are labeled with. I don’t know whether it’s a documentary or an experimental movie. I made a movie.

Taken that it was a chronicle, rather than a diary; did you have the need to rewrite things as you were writing them?

Maybe the anger. Sometimes I felt like I needed to reformulate and soften those angry parts, as well as my strong tendency toward misanthropy. I love people, but their political choices despair me.

How did you balance the personal and political in Just Don´t Think I´ll Scream?

I regained trust in people since the events that took place in November, in France. People of all classes are standing up for their rights. While writing the script, I really felt like the battle was lost. But now, I can even say I’m proud of being French. I never thought I could say that. And this brings in light in the future.

Poster for Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream

Would you like to share with me a bit of your background? How did you end up making movies?

Everything seems to stem from me being a movie freak, since I was a child. My mother would answer this question better than I. But pretty much from age 6, I would watch movies on TV. Never cartoons, never TV shows, just movies. At 12, I started going to the theatres, I bought a VCR. I knew I wanted to study cinema, but things were not developing fast enough for me. So at some point I left everything and started working in a restaurant. I call this my Hemingway period. Life decided for me. I had friends who started a film review [magazine] and I started writing for them. Arte came to Strasbourg; they were really looking for people. I had the opportunity to work with really nice people at Arte. A lot of encounters decided what I did next. Sometimes I was solicited to play a part in a movie, other times I was a selector for a film festival. The latter job lasted for four years. This experience was really important, because it was a festival focused on first movies. I was granted [access to] a whole generation of French and international directors. This was the place where I met João Pedro Rodrigues, who I shortly mention in the movie. He asked me to work on the music of his second film. If someone asked me to be a selector for a film festival again, I would go straight for it. There’s no other place where you get paid to watch movies. When people ask me what I do, it’s really hard for me to describe myself as a director. Usually I say, ‘I watch movies.’

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