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From I to J

Film director Isabel Coixet celebrates her love of John Berger in an installation featuring Tilda Swinton, Isabelle Huppert, Monica Bellucci and more.

Isabel Coixet's hero-worship of John Berger is an open secret. Mark Ruffalo reads from Berger's novel To The Wedding in Coixet's Goya-winning My Life Without Me. Just one of a string of instances where Coixet gives a nod to the Booker prize-winning author in her films. Now the Barcelona-based film director has gone all out, creating an audio-installation for which a stellar list of actresses – Tilda Swinton, Isabelle Huppert, Penélope Cruz, Monica Bellucci, Patricia Clarkson and Sarah Polley, to name a few – have recorded readings of the letters lifted from Berger´s book From A To X. Artist Sophie Calle is onboard too. The book is comprised of letters penned by A'ida to Xavier, a man in prison whom she is creating “bone by bone” through her words. Coixet's installation,From I to J comes to Madrid´s contemporary art space Casa Encendida this week.

Dazed Digital: Tell us a little about  From I to J...
Isabel Coixet: When John was in the middle of the process of writing From A To X, he sent me some letters. He said, 'I don't know if I can go on. I want you to tell me if you think you can do something with it.' It's different, because from the moment he was sending me parts of the novel, I never saw a film. I saw something else, another way to approach it.
It's a very dark installation, you don't see much. It's kind of a labyrinth that gives you this idea of being in prison, and the idea of getting letters when you're isolated... I was tempted to use film, and I filmed the actresses reading the letters. In the documentary, with John talking about the idea of the book, you can see some glimpses of the actresses... lately sound is really, really important to me. I'm trying to use sound, the human voice to take you to some place. You go room by room listening, each letter in each room slash cell!

DD: How did you choose the actresses?
Isabel Coixet: The moment John began to send me the letters, even if the structure of the book is one woman sending letters to this man who is in prison, I was always hearing all these words spoken by different voices. I have to say, I chose the voices. Tilda is a friend, and a friend of John's, and we were together in the last Berlin film festival together, on the jury, so it was very easy to ask her. She knew the book and was thrilled to do it. I chose the letter Tilda's reading because her family were members of the army, and I thought it makes sense that she's reading this letter about the army, about how soldiers used to die and what the difference is between their deaths then and now.
Isabelle Huppert is an actress that I deeply admire, and I think she has this kind of way of reading and talking that is very distant and at the same time very now and in the moment...
I love Sophie (Calle). I asked her because I met her years ago. And she´s always using other people in her art so I turned the tables on her... All these aspects of A'ida, this character of the book, are represented by actresses who have nothing in common. Well, the only thing they have in common is that I've worked with them... I thought it was going to be much richer, and at the same time, I thought John would love listening to his text read by these wonderful actresses.

DD: Have the actresses seen the work?
IC: Some of them. Maria de Medeiros has seen it. Isabelle Huppert and Penelope. They love it but they want to read all the letters by themselves. They say, 'Why am I not reading more? Why is mine shorter than yours?' Just kidding.

DD: You´re obviously a big fan of John Berger...
IC: I love him, even though sometimes I don't agree with him.

DD: Do you think his work and yours are similar?
IC: I wish. I think he is able to see the world with much more compassionate eyes than I. I think for me, talking to him and reading his books and seeing him behave is always a lesson. He is very humble. I'm not.

DD: John's To The Wedding and your film My Life Without Me are both about women facing death. So neither of you shy away from tackling these kinds of subjects...
IC:  To The Wedding is a novel I always wanted to make a film about, but I don't think I'm ready... It's a really perfect novel and you can't better it. My Life Without Me was based on a short story. It was a nice short story, but I wasn't keen on the language, the words... If I had thought it was a great short story, I would never have dared adapt it. In the case of To The Wedding, this is a really good novel, touching on things which are really impossible to... This man who loves this woman who is going to die, and how we see the world through her eyes and through his eyes.

DD: What drives you to make films?
IC: I don't know. I do films because I'm really, really sick! I have an illness, a virus I caught when I was a kid. It's because I really enjoy it. I hate the films when they're finished, but I love the process of making a film... Once a film is finished, I will burn all the negatives. The adventure is over, so what´s next? At the same time I'm proud of my films. I know I'm not the most accomplished or famous or perfect filmmaker in the world, but I know the people who connect with my films are really special. I can be in the most remote place in the planet... and coming from nowhere will be someone who one day, in an obscure video store in Oregon, took one of my films home and he or she loved it, and that story is with them forever. I think that's a blessing. It's then that I realise it's great to have the film finished and witness how this film is part of the lives of people. I think that's great.

From I to J is at Casa Encendida, Madrid from February 11 to April 12.
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