The Berlinale website describes the first half of your film as a collection of “captivatingly beautiful images of a flower market”. Isn’t that a partial misreading?
I understand how one could find those images captivatingly beautiful — in the way that watching a factory spewing out vast amounts of material and pollution can have a captivating aesthetic. I’m interested in the idea that there is beauty in a process that is also quite devastatingly industrial.
Is there any connection to Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire?
Although I’m always afraid of being crushed by the weight of the name – we are very distant cousins –, he’s one of the writers who accompanied me in the decision to become an artist. Perhaps there’s a wink at this idea that flowers can be both deadly and lovely to look at.
Your film counterpoints images of mass-produced flowers with an adaptation of a Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, in which one man talks to another about his terminal mouth cancer diagnosis in a bar. Are you riffing on emotional consumerism?
Pirandello’s original 1922 play is about emotional consumerism in the contrast between these two gentlemen. One is faced with the immensity of a medical diagnosis that will shorten his life. The other has missed his train. He’s preoccupied with the small troubles of consumption. It’s very contemporary. This man with the “flower in his mouth” is holding onto life by observing the reality of small activities, of people doing things that can be turned into stories.
How did you develop the flower market/ flower-in-the-mouth analogy as a metaphor for illness?
Most of these decisions are very intuitive. I encountered the play almost 30 years ago and had the idea that I wanted to make a short film adaptation. Three years ago, I was given funding to film something related to the environmental crisis. I read about this flower market in Aalsmeer in the Netherlands and I decided to film it with Claire Mathon. I put that material aside not knowing what I would do with it. It was a year later, in a discussion with British filmmaker John Akomfrah, that these two things came together.
What’s behind your choice of actors to reinterpret Pirandello? Mali-born Oxmo Puccino has lived in Paris since he was five and his foil, French-born Dali Benssalah is of mixed Algerian-French parentage…
It wasn’t an intellectual decision to cast a Black man and an Arab man together in this film, although I am interested in diversifying representations. Oxmo’s part was difficult to cast because the play’s adaptation for the screen remains written in quite sophisticated language, which is not particularly contemporary.
The idea to cast Oxmo Puccino came from [producer] Sylvie Pialat. He’s not an actor, but as a poet, singer and hip hop artist he’s used to working with text. I saw Dali Benssalah in a video clip years ago. He didn’t speak, but he had an extraordinary presence. His part in the film is difficult. He has few lines, but he has to exist. I needed somebody with presence.
The third person is a silent barman. He’s accused of “watching but not seeing”. Is that also the filmmakers brief?
It’s about watching and seeing. This is what I try to do. I try to see and let the audience see in ways that are complex and meaningful. It’s Charles Baudelaire again, observing modern life: this idea that the artist observes and translates their observations into something that we give back to the reader – or the viewer.
Puccino’s character has the most to say about observing the world from a finite perspective. He seems to have one foot in another world.
Well, so do we. I’m not talking about the pandemic. I’m talking about the generally deplorable state of the world and the planet. We are this man. The tumour is visible, the prognosis is not very good and we have to decide how we go forward.
Born in 1973 in Salt Lake City and currently residing in Paris, Eric Baudelaire (a distant cousin of Charles) is a visual artist and filmmaker. His 67-minute film A Flower in the Mouth, showing as part of the Berlinale Forum, brings together the dream team of cinematographer Claire Mathon (DoP on Céline Sciamma’s two most recent features) and Claire Atherton (Chantal Akerman’s editor of choice). It’s his first time at the Berlinale.