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  • Axiom director Jöns Jönsson on the stories we tell ourselves

Film interview

Axiom director Jöns Jönsson on the stories we tell ourselves

The Swedish director Jöns Jönsson on Axiom, his striking second feature about lies and identity.

Axiom. Photo: Bon Voyage Films GmbH

The script has a great sharpness and use of pace. As we follow the protagonist Julius, we’re intoxicated by his stories. Was this awkward pacing pre-planned or did these choices play themselves out as you began to work with Moritz von Treuenfels?

We talked a lot about it and we tried things out. I think the best way is to try things rather than to theorise too much with actors. I found Moritz through casting and thought he was great. He fitted the character, but it’s also always something else from what you imagined. For me, the choice of actors is the main decision that decides what the film will be like more than any other choice in film making. We followed the script exactly, the timing of what information was revealed and when to the audience was important.

What are the origins of Julius’s multiple personalities and the tales that belong to each persona?

I collected the different identities and stories over some years. Quite a lot are things that I’ve heard. When writing a character like this, in a way you have total freedom because he can come up with anything, anytime. But this freedom can also block you because there can be too much to choose from, so I blended them both. For example, he says he’s a ghostwriter for bands: I heard this once from someone known to not always tell the truth. I tried to put it in a way so that you might ask yourself, “Why does he decide who to tell what to? Why is this the story for the colleagues, why does he pick this background for the parents of his girlfriend?”

Some actors wanted to punch him in the face when reading the script. I felt nothing like that.

There’s a spiritual moment when we follow the tracking shot of the water in the woods. Questions of religion and God have just been discussed. Did any specific material influence you when writing this? Julius feels like a devil‘s advocate for deeper questions about ourselves…

With a character with his issues you can go in so many directions. It’s so much about the surface behaviour of him, what’s on the outside. I think with cinema, what is off screen is stronger than on screen. So, since it’s all about his ‘fake’ behaviour, or telling stories that aren’t true, the question will arise – who is he actually? What’s on the inside? The more you deal with the outside, there’s no stopping the question of what is on the inside. For me the film is also about what a human being is.

Music comes and goes in short bursts throughout the film. When it comes it relieves what is an overwhelming silence that amplifies the psychological tension of the unrelenting dialogue…

Julius moves around in different groups of society encountering people, whether it’s the opera or euro-techno at the party, the different music stands for something. And the different kinds of people are important as they affect him, how he acts and who he becomes in the situation. That’s something I felt connected to. When I came up with the idea I heard this anecdote of a friend who told me about a guy at work telling strange stories. At some point, he invited colleagues to this sailing trip, which ended
not like in the film but in a similar way, a bit less traumatic. But not well! At the end, he was revealed, which was terrible for him. But this always adapting, not necessarily imitating, it guides his choice of who he is in that very moment. And that is something I can relate to a lot.

It’s interesting, as a child we tell lies to fit in, we move into adulthood and abandon that innocence. It pulls that question into focus again…

I don’t think we abandon it.

This is true, we just put masks on as we age…

Yes, and since he’s so extreme in this sense, it goes against moral views of society I think. Which is provoking to some people, at least I’ve learnt from my screenings! And that’s fun.

The dinner scene after the theatre is a great breakdown of class expectations and assumptions, as is the shift in atmosphere from Julius’s mum’s house to the upscale architect’s office. Julius is a great avatar for a critical assessment of society, isn’t he?

Yes I think so too. When you get it, he becomes a little bit like a scalpel, like a tool to help you see structures, hierarchies and social behaviour. It all lies in Julius, he’s the centre of the film.

It’s great to see how the different types of people respond and reflect back on themselves through him… And he can read people quite well.

And he can read people quite well. But this is something that we do too. We adapt, from how to dress when you go to a party or pick your kids from school to what language we choose to use in order to get accepted.

We just adapt by habit…

Exactly. He’s really not a freak to me. I think everybody should be able to somehow see themselves in him. That’s at least what I hope.

The open ending convention is seen as something desirable in general within art house cinema, as something elegant.

The minimalist style is reminiscent of filmmakers such as Joanna Hogg, the performances sit surrounded by muted palettes with an essence of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Did you have many references in mind when working with Johannes Louis on the cinematography?

That’s nice. Joanna Hogg I like a lot. Chantal Akerman I haven’t seen so much, unfortunately. For some films I always wait for a retrospective, I don’t want to see them at home on a laptop. It’s a little mixed style wise, there were some Romanian directors who were important, like Cristi Puiu. As it became clear that the film was dialogue focused, we wanted to get closer to Julius but still maintain a distance. This effect with camerawork was important on how he’s perceived.

Because as I said before, his behaviour changes a lot depending on who’s around him. Because of this you need to not be too close and not cut too much. To be able to observe the situations when you see him and the group scenarios and the reactions. Then every now and then move closer to him, in a subjective style. We didn’t have one complete stylistic concept throughout the film and also those aspects are not so interesting for me. The Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is very interesting to me because he’s also not at all dogmatic in his style.

To have an open ending feels right, as Julius constantly layers more stories onto his life. Was it important to let the audience have agency when it comes to Julius and his world?

The open ending convention is seen as something desirable in general within art house cinema, as something elegant. I think all conventions should be looked upon critically. But in this case, I think it was important because the film is just a fragment of his life, not the whole story. That means to me that if it’s just a fragment, the main character shouldn’t end up in a totally different place than he was in the beginning.

Everything that we see might happen again. I think an openness keeps you more attentive, making it possible to see other layers within the film. And I like that maybe during the film, you’re not actually sure what it’s about. The religious aspect was important to me. Some people ignore this or don’t see it as such. Some people only see him, and the way he acts. But the content of the dialogue is a strong element of the film.

It poses the audience questions and on repeat viewing could become even more enriching…

Exactly, and that’s the fantastic thing when you have a character like this. You can just take something and put it into his mouth, you know. Of course the words he says take on a new meaning when we understand who he is. Some actors wanted to punch him in the face when reading the script. I felt nothing like that.

  • Axiom D: Jöns Jönsson (Sweden, 2022), with Moritz Von Treuenfels, Ricarda Seifried, Thomas Schubert. Starts: Jun 30