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Trains and cameras make a good match," says director Patrice Chéreau. "Films that are set on trains are always exciting to me, even when it's clear they were shot in studios. Maybe it's because the train window, with the permanently changing landscape, is exactly like a cinema screen." Nearly half of Chéreau's latest feature, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, is given over to a train journeyit follows an assortment of Parisians who are traveling to Limoges to bury a painter, whose deathbed injunction provides the film's suggestive title (its tone of emotional blackmail colors the entire movie).
The production was ensconced in a train at the start of shooting, and Chéreau says the enforced proximity "was how we really got to build an ensemble. We rented two carriages on the train between Paris and Mulhousea four-hour trip each way, which we took every day for 14 days." Shooting in cramped quarters "was actually very funny, almost like in an old Marx Brothers movie. We had up to 40 extras and all the crew in there, and it was often impossible to move. When the cinematographer, Eric Gauthier, had to make a 180-degree turn, we had to keep the crew on the floor or hide them behind the bar."
At first glance, Those Who Love Meseems a pronounced departure from the voluptuous bloodshed of Chéreau's last feature, the 16th-century epic Queen Margot. But both films are marked by a sense of perpetual motion; both see excess and confusion as stimuli. "It's just how I've always been," Chéreau says, by way of explanation. "I'm not attracted to simplicity." Those Who Love Me opens with a blur of characters assembling at the train station in Paris; an exquisite evocation of chaos, the precisely staged sequence sets the tone for the film's first hour. "I knew it was a risk," says Chéreau. "I decided during editing to cut out all the information at the beginning, and to have the relationships become clear through the situations that unfold."
Chéreau says he decided to shoot in handheld Cinema- Scope after he saw Breaking the Waves and "suddenly felt that kind of shooting was allowed." He adds: "I didn't use Cinema- Scope for Queen Margot because it would be a cliché for a period film. But Cinema-Scope was a perfect format for trains, and it's beautiful also for intimate scenes because you get such a strong sense of the surrounding space."
Chéreau came to prominence with his radical staging of Wagner's Niebelung, and his extensive opera and theater work tends to set the terms for discussion of his movies. "People always look for similarities," he says. "They say my films are theatrical only because they know I'm a theater director. Sometimes what I'm trying to do is something completely different." Chéreau says he has no plans to work in opera or theater in the near future. "I've spent all my life jumping between theater and film. Now I discover that I've done only seven films. I don't want to lose any more time. It's extremely difficult to switchin theater, it's about the rehearsal process, and in movies, it's about the reflex that you must have, being able to say no immediately."
Chéreau's next project, though perhaps thematically consistent, appears to signal a change of pace for this master conductor of outsize passions and unwieldy emotions. His first English-language movie, it will be a loose adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's recent novel, Intimacy, about "the pain of separation, the awful need for separation." Chéreau is counting on the change in scale for a fresh perspective. "There are about five or six characters in Intimacy. My films usually have at least 20 characters. I'm approaching it as a challenge."
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