Alice Winocour on Disorder and shooting trauma

We meet the co-writer of Mustang to discuss her new film Disorder, the electrifying atmosphere on set and why she doesn’t want to be labelled as a ‘female filmmaker’

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Alice Winocour’s second feature film Disorder tells the story of Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), an ex-soldier with PTSD hired to ensure the security of Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a rich Lebanese businessman at their luxurious villa in Maryland. As he starts experiencing a strange fascination for the woman he has to protect, Vincent senses a hidden danger and becomes increasingly paranoid. Amplified by an eerie musical score by French techno artist Gesaffelstein, Matthias Schoenaerts gives a very intense, very physical performance as a profoundly disturbed man. We caught up with Winocour immediately after the film’s world premiere at Cannes 2015.

Your previous film, Augustine, focuses on a female character trying to overcome a psychological trauma. In Disorder, you created a male character who is trying to overcome a differently-labelled, but in many respects similar, psychological trauma. What inspired this film?

Alice Winocour: I’m interested in the work of war photographers. They were telling me about the difficulty of coming back to the real world after being in the warzone and I was very impressed with their struggle. I also met some of the soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and they told me about their outburst of violence, their anxiety, all these physical things. I had an email correspondence with one of them for two years. And he was telling me intimate stories, how he can’t look at children in the same way because he saw children killing people with stones, he saw the violence of kids. It’s a violent world with different rules.

So coming back is very difficult for them because in their head they are still over there. And after having seen friends dying and all those atrocities, you are not human anymore, you’re closer to animals. So this is how the character of Vincent was born and that’s why I’m showing Vincent with the dog. I wanted to tell the story of a soldier who was recovering after being in the war zone.

Your camera is “looking” at the male character in a very probing way. How did gender impact on your narrative and visual strategies?

Alice Winocour: I wanted to film Matthias Schoenaerts in a way to arouse desire, the same way men have been doing with women traditionally. But I hope I did more than that, not just film him as an object of desire but as a character with his complexity. Also I thought it was important to show that a woman can direct any type of film, a genre film or horror movies, there are no boundaries for women now.

Talking of women filmmakers, it is obviously very important to highlight their work but I also think we shouldn’t refer to them separately, we should not create this “segregation”. What are your thoughts on that?

Alice Winocour: Of course, I couldn’t agree more. I was asked in an interview yesterday if I have any questions to ask a director. I said I would ask Kathryn Bigelow how she’s answering the questions concerning her cinema and the label of “female movies”. I hope my movie will be seen outside this prism, it’s boring to be in a category. We never ask a man, “What do you think about men movies?” This category doesn’t even make sense, what is a man movie, what is a women’s movie?

I don’t understand why it is so strange for a woman to direct an action movie because women are as violent as men and they are also very interested in thrillers. But if people are asking those questions, it means there is a lot of work to be done. I think there should be no boundaries now for women. Also on the set I don’t want to act as a man just because I direct an action film. I’m actually very proud of my femininity, I like to be a woman but I would also like to be able to direct the films I want to direct. Not just “intimacy” films or “family” films.

In Disorder, as in Augustine actually, you deal with the theme of the traumatised body, your work seems to place a great emphasis on physicality...

Alice Winocour: My previous film, Augustine, was about Charcot and the history of hysteria in the 19th century but what I was really interested in was to explore why men look at women with this mixture of fear and desire. And this mix of fear and desire that men have when looking at women has not disappeared. What I’m really obsessed by is dysfunctional bodies and the fact that there are no words to express how you feel. Words don’t exist. It’s the body that is speaking for you, the revolt of the body.

This is fascinating to me and you could say that the character of Vincent is a hysteric himself. He is male but Charcot was the first one to say that hysteria could be masculine as well as feminine. And there is always trauma at the source of hysteria. When you come back from war you have all these images in your head. And your body is trained for combat. You’re not in the real world anymore. You have those trainings where you’re used to seeing blood everywhere and it’s normal. Then you come back and you arrive in this garden, the Maryland garden.

He is male, but Charcot was the first one to say that hysteria could be masculine as well as feminine. And there is always trauma at the source of hysteria. When you come back from war you have all these images in your head and your body is trained for combat. You’re not in the real world anymore. You have those trainings where you’re used to see blood everywhere and it’s normal. Then you come back and you arrive in this garden, the Maryland garden.

“I hope my movie will be seen outside this prism, it’s boring to be in a category. We never ask a man, “What do you think about men movies?” This category doesn’t even make sense, what is a man movie, what is a women’s movie” – Alice Winocour

The French title of the film is Maryland. For foreigners it’s strange because there’s the state of Maryland. But it’s the name of the villa where the story takes place. Everything seems shady inside this house and the relationship between Vincent and Jesse seems very tense.

Alice Winocour: To me it was important to express this fear of this world that is scary, with the constant flow of information from TV, a world you don’t understand very well anymore. And the same goes for the characters, they don’t understand their world anymore. I wanted the film to be scary and show this tension.

Vincent is supposed to protect Jesse but she is afraid of him...

Alice Winocour: It’s exactly like that. I didn’t want to direct a classical love story. There is a lot of fear in the film, Vincent is afraid of his own body and reactions, Jesse is afraid of Vincent although there is some desire between them, strange desire, not like classical desire. There is also sexual attraction between them. To me the most important sequence was where they fall asleep together in the house, there is a small moment of intimacy between them, sleeping next to someone is the most intimate thing.

And they are peaceful for a moment in this house with the storm outside. We shot the film in Antibes which is very close to Cannes. The weather was so chaotic, so windy, it was in December. But this was written in the script. We were all together in this house, all the crew and the atmosphere was really electric on the set, we had this feeling of the end of the world.

The musical score has this tense, apocalyptic quality also...

Alice Winocour: The music was by a French techno artist called Gesaffelstein. To me his music was very important because it was one way to suggest the mental state of Vincent. The music is also shady and violent and it evokes the end of the world. I worked with this composer on my first movie and I knew I wanted to work with him again. I had a mood board with images that I was showing to the crew and when he saw it he said, “I can’t work from these images, I want to be on the set with you and with the crew”.

So he came to the set for a few days and experienced this electric atmosphere then he wrote the music. His previous album is very well-known and I was constantly listening to it while I was shooting, its rhythm is so strange, there are violent outbursts then it goes back. It put me in Vincent’s state of mind and it helped me a lot to find the rhythm of the film. The sound editing was very important also because we had to feel what the character of Vincent is feeling. We don’t understand really what are the sounds around him. At the beginning of the film he has this medical examination and he doesn’t know where the sounds come from.

How did you bring the actor into this violent world, how did you work with Matthias Schoenaerts?

Alice Winocour: I actually wrote the part for Matthias because I was impressed with him and his physical condition. I really think he is the only one who could have played this role. The film is the story of the body of this man, it’s very physical. Vincent had to carry the story on his body. He has scars, tattoos. And I have seen pictures of soldiers with tattoos with mysterious dates. These dates mark the deaths of people who were close to them. So Matthias had dates that were important to him, there’s also a prayer. All of this was very important for us.

His performance is very intense.

Alice Winocour: I agree, Matthias was really borderline on the shooting, he was not sleeping anymore, you could see it in his eyes, he was very violent but also electrifying, he really became Vincent. I remember while I was shooting Augustine, I was shooting a hysterical crisis and someone said, “ok, this fit is alright but something is not right about it. You can see in this girl’s eyes that she’s still here. And you can’t be in this shaky and convulsive state with eyes that are still in our world.

And with Vincent, you could see in his eyes that he was not there anymore, he was in another world. And you can’t act this, you have to be yourself in a mental state of “disorder”. I’m very impressed with Matthias because he went very far with his character, it was a huge investment for him. At the end of the shoot he was exhausted, it was painful for him. And I was so connected to him and felt like he was going to die of his own demons.

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