Americano Out of Paris
The son of the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy (Lola, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and his formerly estranged wife Agnes Varda (Far from Vietnam, The Gleaners and I), Mathieu Demy sees his first directorial feature Americano as a riposte to his mother’s 1981 film Documenteur: An Emotion Picture. One of Varda’s many semiautobiographical/fictional conceits—the title translates “docu-liar“—enlisted Demy as a nine-year-old actor playing the son of a woman trying to start her life over in Los Angeles after a tumultuous breakup. Demy, who was in a sense that boy in reality, mixes the movie mythology of his father’s romantic Nouvelle Vague masterpieces with his own turbulent relationship with his vagabond mother and enigmatic father. It’s a journey worth following.
I expected to see the influence of your parents, but I saw Wenders.
Paris, Texas, was definitely an influence. It’s one of my favorite films ever and an inspiration for Americano, definitely. Obviously, I try to put in references, winks, inside jokes, and in that state of mind as an audience, you get caught up in that game and find stuff not intended by the director. I just wanted to put iconic imagery, connections to films that I loved as a child. They are not necessarily understandable to get the story, but it’s something else on top of the story you can have fun finding.
I’ve never heard that. At 105 minutes, I missed the point, I’m fucked! In a way I agree and don’t really agree. When it comes to time perception, what’s so fascinating about time and so fascinating about memory, is that it’s not equal. I didn’t get bored a second watching Titanic at 3 hours 20, and I recently watched a one-hour film that seemed to be a year. When it comes to traditional storytelling, I think this is pretty smart, it’s true. But then again, the perception of time is so different from one person to another.
But as a filmmaker it seems you applied a certain discipline to the construction of scenes.
When I was editing, my perspective was that I have to make it as short as possible without hurting the feel of the film. If I could have made it 85 minutes, I would have loved to, but it would have damaged, a little bit, that sort of mellow feel I wanted. I wanted people to dream about other films to get into those reference, escape a little bit, because that’s the sort of film it is.
Were you influenced by the Nouvelle Vague or the rive gauche group, or did you feel unconstrained about adopting American influence?
Unconstrained. I knew that I wanted to make a film that fit my influences, which are not only French, or new wave because of my parents. You mentioned Wenders, Jacques would show me Westerns—Rio Bravo, Shane, Johnny Guitar—and American musicals and his musicals…
Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Gene Kelly?
Yes. And Disney cartoons, lots of Disney cartoons. And I wanted to put all those influences of the films I love, have them there, because Americano is really a film about my childhood, and related to Documenteur—being an actor in my mom’s film, and also related to the films that Jacques would show me as a kid. A Belgian journalist said I was “avant premier film,” before your first film. That was pretty smart. Because if I hadn’t the ambition to talk about where I’m coming from, the style would probably have been different.
I’d like to hear more about the cinematheque run by your parents.
They felt that as parents, the best thing to do was to show what they like, and afterwards, let me see whatever I want. Those 16mm films they would show me at the family house on the West coast of France in the summer when I had a school vacation. It would include mostly Jacques’s films, but also Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Pickpocket (Bresson), Singin’ in the Rain, the Westerns I mentioned, Max Ophuls and Hitchcock, The Birds and Psycho.
As a cinephile, I was happy to discover that you referenced the myth of Lola without feeling the need to demystify it. In the end, Lola has to remain a mystery, don’t you agree?
Absolutely. She’s a fantasy. She doesn’t exist.
But the existence of the Café Americano in your film and the singer who calls herself Lola suggests the myth has traveled.
I didn’t want to solve the Lola case. It is more like a remembrance, the echo of something. This man is searching the memory of his mother. And of course it is a metaphor for me as a filmmaker, and it is a way for me to talk about the grief of my father. And in a way this character, who is me, is looking for this character called Lola, was a way for me to embrace that mythology. But my primal intention with the Salma Hayek character was very different. It was related to the road-movie thing, to getting lost, to the mother/prostitute dichotomy, that a prostitute was going to be the one to teach him about his mother. It wasn’t [originally] my primal [instinct]. It’s funny, but in an unconscious way, I guess it was.
What did you learn about your about your parents from their films?
I definitely learned a lot from Documenteur about how we were living at that point in the relationship with my father, but even that’s a little confusing because as the title says it is a fiction and it is not that autobiographical. And Jacques’ showing me his films was a way of his telling me something. I learned that he was both a little desperate and a joyful person at the same time. And I admire very much the way he could mix comedy and drama. Which is something interesting to me as filmmaker and audience.
Let’s talk about the ’66 Mustang. It showed that the myth of Bullitt had migrated to Mexico, but I also thought it represented a certain stasis.
It could be. There were a lot of aspects in the choice of that car. At first I was trying to find a Mercury, like in Model Shop, but that was a little too much. I had to find the right level. I thought a red ’66 Mustang would be iconic and representative of more things. It could be, as you said, or a reminder of other films, and wider than relating specifically Model Shop. It’s an icon itself.
I thought it not only suggested the characters dwelling in the past, but that it was important that your character not get to return to America in the car for that reason.
Definitely. It’s a transitional thing, and a car from the past. And it’s red, and the whole Mexican part is very red, and the Los Angeles part is very green, and the Paris part very blue. The whole film gets warmer and warmer and tighter and more and more agitated as the character himself abandons this coldness and stillness about what he’s feeling and gets more and more confused and emotional. It’s like a red spaceship from the ’60s that would lead to the ending, and he definitely had to abandon it at the end.
After your character has taken his “baggage” out of the car first.
It was always symbolically important that the Americano [strip club] would burn. I tried to play with a lot of symbols. The way the neon was not realistic, and the tattoo, the Rufus Wainwright song—the sound editing at those moments strongly suggests he’s putting in a lot of fantasy in what he’s seeing. He’s fantasizing this Lola.
Did your mother really paint in L.A.?
No, actually the paintings are Jacques Demy’s. He only painted at the end of his life. He was a very methodical man, so he went back to art school when he wanted to learn more about painting and perspective and it took a long time to learn.
I missed that in the credits.
It’s not in the credits, actually.
I’m intrigued by your decision to shoot on film, why was that important to you?
It’s still possible. Soon enough it won’t be possible at all, so it was interesting for that. And I wanted to find a form that that could dialog with Documenteur, and be distinct from Documenteur but also be the same organic thing. We match modern Super 16mm from 35mm in 1981. It’s the same thing but very different. The stock is much better now and much different. We wanted to shoot in CinemaScope for this change in format. We tried 35mm but it was too clean. It didn’t match Documenteur, and I wanted a dialog.