Bright Lights Film Journal

Articulating Desire: Talking with José Luis Guerín about The Academy of the Muses (2015)

For me, the idea of having an academy of muses is an impossible, if not ridiculous, idea; but, the discussions and debates that occurred among them struck me as fascinating, interesting, and inspiring. These women are flesh-and-blood women and have very little in common with muses. The idea of the academy of muses is more like an excuse for what happens between these women.

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José Luis Guerín is a master at articulating desire. His films are as thematically driven by desire as they are informed and constructed by directorial desire. His 2007 film Dans la ville de Sylvia (In the City of Sylvia) was an ambulatory ode to a woman within all women, while his most recent effort, La academia de las musas (The Academy of the Muses, 2015), pursues his obsession further by questioning the active role of women as muses. Intellectually sensual, Guerín’s pursuit is constructed as an unerring evocation of the power of language to create poetry, beauty, and conceptions of love. The film’s language is as intricate as it is argumentative.

The Academy of the Muses recently had its Latin American premiere at the 56th edition of the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI)—the most prestigious film festival in Colombia and the longest-running in Latin America—where it won Best Director in FICCI’s Narrative Feature Competition. Muses screened in Cartagena’s palatial Teatro Adolfo Mejia (TAM), built in 1911 to celebrate the first centenary of the Colombian Republic. TAM was constructed by Luis Felipe Jaspe, the architect responsible for many key local landmarks, most notably Cartagena’s El Torre del Reloj (the Clock Tower).

On TAM’s ceiling, Cartagena’s renowned artist Enrique Grau has painted a glorious fresco depicting the dance of the nine muses of the arts. It didn’t escape my notice—nor Guerín’s—how appropriately this fit The Academy of the Muses’s Latin American premiere.

My thanks to Diana Bustamente and Blanca Granados for facilitating an interview with Guerín at FICCI, and to Geraldine Duran and Iván Darío for translative assistance.

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MICHAEL GUILLÉN: Desire is a recurring subject in your films, which leads me to wonder if cinema is your muse?

JOSÉ LUIS GUERÍN: Cinema is in fundamental relationship with desire. For my generation, getting out to see a movie was pretty tough. It was during the Franco era, so it was difficult. Before I gained the opportunity to actually see movies, they were only pictures in my mind, literally photographs I’d seen in a book I had on the history of cinema. I read about Samuel Fuller, René Clair, G. W. Pabst, William Wyler, but actual access to their movies was difficult. We didn’t have DVDs. We didn’t have computers. The fact that it was so tough to gain access to these films made them even more desirable.

Based on the photographs I saw in this book on the history of cinema, I had dreams about the movies I couldn’t see. When I finally got to see some of these movies, sometimes the movie I had dreamt about was more important than the real movie. Often what I’d read about and dreamt about had nothing in common with the movies I was actually seeing.

Cinema is now much more accessible. Young people can now access the entire history of cinema on their computer, but the paradox is that fewer young people have any interest in the history of cinema. The fact that it’s so easy to access films today makes them less desirable. Young people attend university to study cinema, but they don’t go see movies. When I visit film schools and university film departments, I notice that people who are studying movies and want to make movies aren’t really watching movies. It seems to me, generally speaking, that people are more interested in soccer, for example.

So, for me, movies were linked to desire in a truly physical sense, in that I would gain great pleasure in going to see, let’s say, a movie with an actress like Claudia Cardinale. Later, I became attracted to the directors of her films, let’s say Luchino Visconti, and even later began to watch their films whether or not they featured Claudia Cardinale. I began to look at earlier actresses like Lillian Gish and Gene Tierney.

It’s interesting you phrase it that way because, if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that you were first attracted to the “star” quality of these women; their faces projected large on the screen made them movie stars that you physically longed for? Which comports with the etymology of the word “desire”; i.e., under or of the stars. We long for stars on the screen as much as we look to the night sky with curious longing.

I’m grateful that you understand that. This sense of desire has to do with how I’ve used the actresses in my films. They don’t have any make-up. They’re not “properly” lit. They don’t have the glamour associated with actresses of the Hollywood era. But my sensibility is very interested in capturing gestures, certain attitudes, and I like to think of cinema as an art of portrayal.

You’re reminding me of Jean Epstein’s comments on photogénie, in that your actresses may not be the glamorous actresses of Hollywood’s heyday, but they possess a star quality, a photogénie, that you can see and that the camera loves. The camera can see what is beautiful in them and about them. As their director, you elicit this quality out of them.

Guerín: Thank you. I must say, this is very important to me. What I believe Jean Epstein is saying is that the photogénie that the camera captures has a moral value. In the relationship between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, for example, there is an aura about their films together. It is difficult to choose one over the other. Their films together compose a specific world; his world. I like this idea that—like a painter from the past—there is an art of the portrait, and in my movies this must be done with hardly any resources.

Which possibly accounts for why the women in your films might seem less glamorous but more thoughtful, begging the old adage that “cinema is thought.” In their faces I can see thought.

Ah, yes, because this is a narrative movie. For me it’s very important that there is motion. I work very hard to insure that every character in every scene has movement. A character starts off in a certain way in the movie and finishes in a different way. For example, at the start of The Academy of the Muses, the professor’s wife is so strong that she’s nearly castrating; but, by the end of the movie, she might possibly be the only woman left who really believes in love in a sincere way.

Guillén: Let’s approach your mise en scène. You utilize a lot of superimposition.

With the windows?

Yes, with the reflections on the car windows as additional visual layers softly obstructing the view of the people sitting within. These intimate conversations are juxtaposed with windshield reflections of veining tree branches overhead and an external world noisy with indifferent traffic. Can you speak to your decision of showing conversational intimacy in this superimpositional way?

This decision, this choice, was because the film starts in a somewhat documentary style in the public space of a classroom. When I shifted to the private intimate space of the car interior, I couldn’t shoot it from within the car because it would have broken or damaged the film’s cinematic truth of observation. I couldn’t directly transition from the public space of the classroom to the private space in the car without shooting that privacy from outside the car looking through the windows. The reflections bore a visual syntax and carried the idea of spatiality. If a movie is only filmed in close-ups, it’s not descriptive, it’s synthetic; but, by superimposing reflected shadows on the window, the viewer can imagine the city, and the environment. It is the psychological perception of the spectator.

I made Academy of the Muses almost entirely alone. I didn’t have any financial resources so I couldn’t hire an art director or a cinematographer who would require specific lighting. But that was okay because as a filmmaker I love to have control of the image. That’s why I limited myself to the small surfaces of faces. Or why I offered a conception of space to the audience by use of reflections.

It was the play between public and private. It was the play between a reflection on the glass and a reflection in the mind, which allowed the spectator to imagine intimacy. And it was a definite use of what Adrian Martin would term “social mise en scène,” particularly in the classroom sequences, where your visual syntax was of a face, the subject of the shot, surrounded by many faces.

That I have borrowed from the Italian painter Giotto, who invented this system of a collage of faces.

It’s a fascinating way of focusing on one face by placing it within many and—if I’m understanding Martin correctly—this social mise en scène emphasizes the individual, the personal, the private by the structural frame of a crowd.

This is important, as we have already discussed, because it allows you to feel the desire, through obstacle. If there is no obstacle, there is no desire. This is an idea written about by Dante. When Dante discovers Beatrice in church, the woman he loves, there is a woman between them.

Michael Guillén and José Luis Guerín

Where it is perhaps most pronounced is when the professor’s student is recording the Sardinian sheepherders singing in three-point harmony. I consider this encounter a brilliant portrait of her character, but it begs the question of who is actually the muse? The sheepherders—who have created their music without the inspiration of a female muse, listening only to the wind—seem to be inspiring the student more than she is inspiring them. Professor Pinto in the film has posed that women are muses, and yet it strikes me that he might actually be their muse, inspiring them to be muses? Indeed, does a muse have to be female? And what are the dangers of vanity when a woman believes herself to be a muse? When the professor’s wife is confronted by the young woman who asserts she is the professor’s muse, I felt her vanity had gotten the best of her and that if any woman was the professor’s muse, it was his wife.

[Grinning.] Of course. But I’m not a moralist. I’m more like Jean Renoir, who likes to be close to every character and understand all their reasons. I don’t play favorites with my characters. There’s not one single character who represents my way of thinking. I don’t take advantage of my characters and make them speak for me.

Which was shown in the film’s final still image of the entire cast of characters staring out at the audience, followed by Raphael’s painting of the muses. Did the painting inspire that ending? Did you see that painting and think, “Oh, I could make a movie about this?”

No. The idea was born in this literary community of Professor Raffaele Pinto and his students. For me, the idea of having an academy of muses is an impossible, if not ridiculous, idea; but, the discussions and debates that occurred among them struck me as fascinating, interesting, and inspiring. These women are flesh-and-blood women and have very little in common with muses. The idea of the academy of muses is more like an excuse for what happens between these women. So the visual allusion at film’s end to Raphael’s painting of the muses was to provide a mythological contrast to these flesh-and-blood women. Raphael’s painting, in fact, might just be the best mythological representation of the muses ever painted.

Thank you, Mr. Guerin.