To the frenzied and talky world of French auteur cinema, the films of Eugène Green are a vital reminder of just how radical simplicity can feel. “I think we’re naturally inclined to have complicated thoughts,” says the 58-year-old director, “so I’ve tried to create something pure, because simplicity has the strongest impact.” Green’s movies (which are the subject of a complete retro at BAM) reduce cinematic aesthetics to an almost primordial level. Actors face the viewer, delivering the declarative dialogue in emotionless tones. Sometimes, the camera moves. By lowering our pulses, Green accomplishes what other directors usually work up a sweat trying to achieve: a direct window into the soul. As Green succinctly puts it, “I’m trying to take what is invisible in us and make it visible.”
Green’s influences are many and obvious—Bresson, Ozu, Eustache, Hou—but his main cultural touchstone isn’t cinematic at all. Having devoted two decades to studying and producing baroque theater, Green has set about translating this 17th-century sensibility for a modern screen audience. “My interest in the baroque isn’t historical, but rather as something living and contemporary,” the director explains. “Someone who is ‘baroque’ can accept a rational and machine-like view of the world, while retaining a spiritual intuition.” The cohabitation of the material and the intangible is a recurring motif in Green’s films, from his Flaubert update Toutes les Nuits to his modern-dress knight’s tale Le Monde Vivant. His recent Le Pont des Arts is a masterful study of art’s ability to transcend earthly constraints. Serious though they seem, Green’s films possess an oddball humor. “I have a tragic vision of the world, but tragic doesn’t mean sad,” the director insists. “Humor usually pours spontaneously from the most dramatic situations.”
Born and raised in the U.S., Green has lived in France since 1969 and identifies most strongly with French culture. (He even elected to conduct this interview in French.) “What’s peculiar about the language is that the deepest thoughts are usually the most hidden,” he says. “I think that notion is perhaps the key to my work.” Indeed, the mysterious power of the spoken word has been a lifelong obsession for Green. “When I was learning French, I felt like I was remembering a language I’d already spoken but had forgotten,” he says. “It was a truly strange experience.” For viewers, Green’s films will likely inspire a similar feeling of renewal, of discovering a long-dormant cinema brought to sudden, rapturous life.