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A Slice Of The Everyday: An Interview With Valerie Mrejen

“I wouldn’t know whether I subscribe my work to a particular tradition, but I am interested in doing work about banality. I think it’s an ambiguous term which has taken on a negative connotation. It can be interpreted as something to do with squalor or something boring, but I find that, in what people call the everyday or banality, there are hundreds of details which make everything and nothing. It’s precisely these minute details which reveal everything that can be behind them.”

Steven Rogers interviews Valerie Mrejen

Filmmaker, photographer, plastician and author, Valerie Mrejen is an authentic jack-of-all-trades. Whether directing short films, penning novels or shooting documentaries, she consistently paints from the same palette, mixing memories, childhood and anecdotes with language, incommunicability and non-relationships.

Mrejen cut her teeth during the nineties at the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Cergy-Pontoise, just north of the French capital. She came to prominence on the Parisian art scene with her short films, including Maite et Philippe (1998), Huguette (1999) and, more recently, Portraits filmes (2002) and Chamonix (2003). Screened at many international exhibitions and festivals, all of these films employ the same format, that of a fixed camera capturing slightly rigid, talking faces. Every word, or silence, is carefully weighted, producing strained dialogues and anecdotal monologues which are just as banal as they are ironic.

Irony and banality are again on the menu in Mrejen’s first novel, Mon grand-pere (1999), a tender, autobiographical portrait of a sometimes plain ordinary, yet often dysfunctional, family comprising a French mother, a Moroccan Jewish father and slightly shady despot of a grandfather. If Mon grand-pere made some discreet ripples in the tub that is the French literary world, then Mrejen’s second novel L’Agrume (2001) got the bathroom floor considerably wet. In her own modest words, it is “the story of a girl who projects her desires on a guy who doesn’t really give a fuck.” Nothing new there, you might suggest, but this tale of a naive young woman being strung along struck a veritable chord with, among others, the very same trendy boho thirtysomethings that Mrejen is mocking, though never cruelly. In her latest release, Eau Sauvage (2003), Mrejen casts a wry eye on generational differences, retracing the father-daughter relationship previously depicted in Mon grand-pere. This time it is through a false dialogue, for we only hear the voice of the father — complaining, misapprehending, attempting to understand; out-of-touch with his progenies. All three novels, which were published last year under one title, Trois quartiers, are characterised as much by their terseness and Parisian setting as by their distinct literary style — short blocks of text, chronologically shuffled and fragmented in such a way that they could act as written mini-storyboards for one of Mrejen’s films.

In 2004, Mrejen returned to filmmaking, this time embarking on a dual cinematic project shot in Tel-Aviv: the documentary Pork and Milk looks at a handful of people from ultra-orthodox Jewish milieus who have chosen to renounce their religion. For most of them, their decision has meant a rupture with their family and community, as well as obliging them to get by on their own in a new society where they have everything to learn. The short film Dieu examines the same topic, but was filmed in two weeks with only a video camera, just before Pork and Milk. In both works, Mrejen makes deft use of the ‘talking heads’ technique which served her so effectively in her earlier films, as well as once again relying on anecdotal accounts which make for a very intriguing insight.

3:AM: You’re a filmmaker, an artist, a photographer and a writer. Why do you feel the need to use all these forms of expression?

VM: I went to the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Cergy-Pontoise, which is a fairly contemporary art school, more so than the Beaux Arts de Paris, which is still quite traditional. At Cergy, you could proclaim to be an ‘artist’ through writing short texts or creating a piece of audio work. In the end, this encouraged me to experiment with lots of mediums and decide on which one according to the content, to see which one works and try and adapt it. Working on several media allows me to change ideas when I’m writing, for instance. I like to feed off something else, generally something different, like work involving images or photos, because at the end of the day, going from one to the other helps me concentrate, even if it seems broken up. This means that when I’m doing photography, I’m also thinking of the written side, and vice versa, and so I come back to them with more enthusiasm.

3:AM: Do you think this multi-disciplinary nature is specific to your generation?

VM: I don’t really think so because I get the impression people have been working using different media for a long time. Yet, there’s no doubt that today there’s a greater tendency to do that and no one really questions it. I mean, in the 19th century, it was a lot more academic. Painting and sculpture truly were disciplines and would be carried out like a profession. But now the culture has changed, as well as the way of perceiving it, and so there are many artists who use different media.

3:AM: A common feature of all three of your novels seems to be the rich local colour that suffuses them. Do you think there’s there something specifically Parisian in them?

VM: In some parts, I think so, because, in the end, I think I’m slightly attached to an environment and try to capture something of this city where I live. On the other hand, I wouldn’t like it if the reader felt an atmosphere in my novels which was too ‘Parisian’, in the negative sense of the word.

3:AM: What do you mean by “the negative sense of the word”?

VM: I mean something which is closed, which indulges in a sort of self-sufficiency. I think that Parisianism, when people speak about it pejoratively, is a way of thinking that you’re the centre of the world and you’re going to seem a bit too self-confident, a bit arrogant and unpleasant. Indeed, there’s always a local aspect in my books, but I try, at least I hope, to present it so that it’s not closed, so it can be read without necessarily having the codes or the tools.

3AM: In Mon grand-pere and L’Agrume the protagonist bears your name. So, why write fiction rather than an autobiography?

VM: I think you’ve got to remain a bit modest. If you write about your own experiences, you need to be vigilant and be careful about what you reveal or don’t reveal, and even while writing, ask yourself if that is just of interest to you or could it be interesting to the reader. On the other hand, it seems pointless changing the name because that’s transparent. I think my novels do present real-life stories, but these stories are subject to a further mise-en-scene and that’s important. What interested me most was writing something, and then that in itself would modify the elements and the events and make a literary work of them. Putting my name or a fictional name doesn’t make sense to me. They’re my first novels and so they’re inevitably connected to something fairly personal. I didn’t necessarily want to hide anything, but putting a distance in the content each time was important since it wasn’t a question of writing about my life. It’s more a way of arranging the real thanks to a time lag, and to transfer it into something that can be read as a novel.

3:AM: Is your writing, then, a way of fixing your memories on paper?

VM: I’d say that’s what constitutes the substance of the work. It’s what makes me feel like writing, but it’s not necessarily in order to fix them. It’s more to reflect on them, to make something of them, to use them as material. Memories on their own don’t necessarily interest me. It’s often the distorted memory which I have of something that inspires me, even if it’s untrue. I think it’s more the way in which we rearrange things in our minds which interests me. It isn’t actually very important to know who said what or if such and such a thing is true. In the end, it’s what we make of things, how we live with them or integrate them, with the distortions that this entails.

3:AM: As in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, your novels, and I’m especially talking about Mon grand-pere, seem to evoke the magic, the confusion and the curiosity that children may feel about language. Do you agree?

VM: Yes, of course, above all in Mon grand-pere. There are certainly lots of cases where I explore the confusion which arises regarding the meaning of words and, in the end, I think it’s these things which stay with you. Even if afterwards, when you learn the real meaning of expressions, you associate words in a particular way, as though we knew otherwise, or that there’s a primary sense that we’ve kept despite everything.

3:AM: Would you say that L’Agrume in particular subscribes to a long tradition of representing banality in French literature?

VM: I wouldn’t know whether I subscribe my work to a particular tradition, but I am interested in doing work about banality. I think it’s an ambiguous term which has taken on a negative connotation. It can be interpreted as something to do with squalor or something boring, but I find that, in what people call the everyday or banal, there are hundreds of details which make everything and nothing. It’s precisely these minute details which reveal everything that can be behind them. So, it isn’t anything which I’m consciously subscribing to or that I claim to subscribe to.

3:AM: In Eau Sauvage you revisit the father-daughter relationship that’s described in Mon grand-pere, but this time, instead of the daughter being the narrator, the father narrates. Why did you make this change?

VM: For a long time I’d felt like writing a text where the protagonist was a character inspired by my father. I was already thinking of doing this when I wrote Mon grand-pere. It’s as though I had started by Mon grand-pere. and the elements gradually established themselves on their own, the theme of the next book, in fact. So I quite naturally went in that direction and I concentrated my thoughts on this new project. At the same time, it seemed important not to adopt the same point of view. I examined the problem from different angles and thought about different forms. I considered a sort of false correspondence, as though they were writing letters to each other, but I wasn’t satisfied by this, not least because I wouldn’t have known what to put in these letters, since that’s not at all the type of relationship I have with my father. I quickly realised that the most faithful means to describe this relationship was a monologue, a monologue with repetitions, where similar things crop up over and over again, things which you don’t respond to anyway because, even if you do, they will crop up again weeks, even months, later.

3:AM: Do you think that your novels would be well-received in Anglophone countries?

VM: I don’t know, it’s difficult to say. I hope so, but at the same time I think there is definitely something very French in what I do. People have often commented on that to me when I’ve shown my videos in England, Scotland and the USA. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. So, I wouldn’t know exactly what to say.

3:AM: Which authors do you like to read?

VM: At the moment I’m reading Balzac, but it depends. I often cite Georges Perec because he’s someone who’s influenced me quite a lot. He isn’t an author I read regularly, but it’s more to do with his approach and his work on intimacy and fiction.

3:AM: Would you say he’s been an influence on your work in general?

VM: Yes, I think so. I feel rather close to him because he draws on his memories and his childhood.

3:AM: Are there any Anglophone writers you particularly like reading?

VM: Of course. They’re predominantly American writers. John Fante, for example. Also James Ellroy and Charles Bukowski.

3:AM: Let’s talk about your recent documentaries Pork and Milk and Dieu. You’ve been making short films for over nine years. Did you always want to make a documentary?

VM: No, not really, but it’s an art form that has always interested me. When I was at the Cergy art school, I attended a documentary film festival in Ardeche four years in a row.

3:AM: What came first? The idea of doing a documentary or the theme?

VM: The theme. It’s something that’s always disturbed me, to see ultra-religious people, fanatics, in whichever religion, who still respect rules which are completely devoid of their original symbolism. It becomes completely absurd: not working on Shabbat, not turning on lights or electrical appliances. There are omnibus lifts, for example, in hotels which stop at every floor so you don’t have to press a button. So I said to myself, I know some people become religious and that, at the moment, there’s a return towards religion, but does the opposite also exist? When I was invited by a gallery in Tel-Aviv to do an exhibition, I immediately considered doing a project on this and so I tried to find some people who had taken a reverse step in relation to their ultra-orthodox upbringing.

3:AM: How did you go about finding these people?

VM: I went with a rough plan and an address book with some contacts over there and very quickly met more and more people. I wanted to arrange as many meetings in as little time as a possible because I was only there for a week each time I went over, which isn’t very long.

3:AM: That was for the making of your film Dieu?

VM: Yes, I started with Dieu. I went for a week to check out the location, to meet people, then I returned to shoot the video which took ten days, and then I went back a third time. After completing Dieu, I thought to myself that I wanted to go further because Dieu lasts just twelve minutes and the subject is so powerful and interesting that I thought it would be a pity to stop there. So then I started to write the project for the documentary called Pork and Milk.

3AM: What did you do for the making of this film?

VM: I asked some people whom I wanted to see in the film, people who had already appeared in Dieu if they would like to do a longer interview and most of them accepted. There are three people who appear in both films. Overall, I took a year to make Pork and Milk. Between the time that I wrote the project, sent it to my producer at Arte, and shot it, I took a year, so it was quite quick.

3:AM: So, it’s not by chance that the people we find in Pork and Milk are so candid?

VM: I did quite a lot of preparation with them. It’s a project that’s close to my heart and I found it important to really get to know the people. I understood very quickly, for example, that I didn’t want to use the same questionnaire with everyone. Every time I went over there before doing the film, in preparation, I saw each person again, at least two or three times. We’d meet in a cafe or at their house to chat and I would take notes while also explaining to them my way of working, which is quite particular when compared to your usual idea of a documentary. There was a considerable mise en scene and I signalled to them what interested me in their accounts. I didn’t just let them talk without any indications. I wanted to create a dramatic quality, to find a thread, a direction, between all the stories. So, it’s a mixture of something spontaneous but also something that has also been worked on quite a bit.

3:AM: Silences, like words, also seem to be of great importance in your work…

VM: Yes, definitely. Silence is an integral part of the texts I write, and the films, even more so in the documentary which really is a film of words since it centres round interviewing people and, from the very the beginning, I was also keen to film moments when nothing is said, when people are just doing their thing, their job. Two of the people we met were cooks, so there are some scenes shot in kitchens. We filmed one of the girls playing in a female rugby team.

3:AM: Would you say that it’s an anti-religious film?

VM: No, because I didn’t set out to make a film with a moral, I didn’t want people to feel a point of view. I do have an opinion on religion which is rather against, but I never made this film to denounce religion. Besides, there are lots of people in the film who say to what extent they remain attached to this culture, that for them it’s important to stay in contact with their families, that it is part of them. I wasn’t interested in meeting people who were too militant, who had a message to get across, either for or against. I don’t really like documentaries that are didactic, that tell you want to think. So, there’s no critical point of view, no admiration and no denigration. The stories suffice on their own.

3:AM: Which filmmakers have influenced you then?

VM: Jean Eustache. He’s the name that comes to mind when I think of filmmakers that I like. And then there’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, who made a beautiful trilogy about his childhood. As regards documentary makers, I really like the work of Raymond Depardon, who made a film about a police station in Paris, Delits Flagrants. He released a film not that long ago called 10eme Chambre, instants d’audience. He also made a fabulous film about a psychiatric hospital in Italy called San Clemente, a Venetian island. There’s Frederick Wiseman too. And when I was at the festival in Ardeche, I discovered some filmmakers whom I didn’t know at the time such as Nicolas Philibert and Robert Kramer.

3:AM: What are your new projects for this year?

VM: At the moment I’m preparing a feature-length film, a piece of fiction, but we’re only at the very beginning.

3:AM: And will we find typical ‘Mrejenian’ elements in it: language, incommunicability…?

VM: Yes, exactly. Also relationships, especially within the family, I think we’ll find all of that.

Interview conducted in French and translated into English by the interviewer. For technical reasons, all accents had to be deleted.

When he is not carrying out his duties as one of 3:AM‘s co-editors, Steven Rogers teaches modern languages and translates.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 10th, 2006.