"As women sometimes, we stay for the wrong reasons, and we stay until the thing cracks, and you know it's rotten but you just stay and stay. I think it's part of the relationships we build, because sometimes we enter the relationships with a lot of mental problems and issues with our ourselves and insecurities and all that shit, and then it accumulates and then you're there, and you start to be more submissive. It's not a pleasant thing to talk about... More than a victim, I wanted to portray that— when you're trapped until it cracks"
- FLMTQ Interview
Elisa Miller is a Mexican screenwriter, producer and director. Her first short film, Ver llover (2006), won the Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at Cannes, Best Short Film at Morelia and the Silver Ariel Award for Best Short Fiction Film. Her first feature film Vete más lejos Alicia premiered at Rotterdam in 2011, where her latest work El placer es mío also premiered in 2016.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Elisa Miller discusses nudity and the representation of intimacy onscreen, the impossibility of love, conversations between Wim Wenders and Godard, ghosts, and her latest project.
FLMTQ: El placer es mío premiered at Rotterdam in the Bright Futures section. What kind of reception did it have?
EM: It was strange. I was in Rotterdam with my first film, but with the Tiger Award. You get a lot of attention if you're in the Tiger. This time was very strange— it was in the top films, so it was well received, but people also felt it was so sad. For me it was so sad to watch again in Rotterdam because I try not to watch the films very much after I finish them, because it's kind of painful. And this one especially is very painful for me to watch because I was in a very bad moment when I wrote the script and now I am completely in another moment of my life so I see it and think 'Oh, I’m sorry I made such a strong and terrible film.'
FLMTQ: El placer es mío begins with a very enigmatic preface— empty tracking shots of a house, a forest, a long distance shot of two people entering the house. This preface seems to link with the film's coda— a very beautiful and enigmatic shot of a car being built or rebuilt, we don't know. These sequences strike the audience both aesthetically and emotionally. Were they part of the script at the beginning? How did you decide to give the story this particular structure?
EM: These are actually the only two moments where we used something other than handheld camera. The rest of the film is handheld or on a tripod, and always in the angle of the eyes of the character. But in this intro, or preface as you call it, for me it's very strange. I'll tell you what I think or how it works with me. It was the point of view of a ghost (she laughs). That was my idea.
Talking with the director of photography, Matías, we decided we wanted to have an introduction of this place by itself: an empty space. I also have to confess that the first and last scenes were scripted, but they weren't fixed. This ghost, or my idea of a ghost, going through the house— I didn't know when it would happen; it was in the script, but I always knew I had to decide that when editing. Whereas the car— at one point it was for me more like a dream, the image of the car all in its parts. It belongs more to a dream-like atmosphere than to real life. Some people read it as if the guy had put the entire car into pieces and organized it neurotically.
FLMTQ: The way in which all the pieces have been organized and very structured is perfect. But it doesn't seem like the life or the story of the character is as structured.
EM: For me it was how the brain of the character, of the guy, worked. So I had that in the script, the whole car put out into pieces, but I didn't really know where it was going to go. While editing I was playing with that scene. It was in the middle of the film, and it turned out to be the last thing I wanted the audience to see and for me it's also kind of an epilogue that makes the film lighter. Because where the fiction finishes, it was too rough. Like, you really went out of the cinema heartbroken. You still do, but at least you get this image of a more like dreamlike thing that helps to digest.
I edited with Yibran Asuad who is a great editor, I think the best editor here in Mexico, and at one point he said, 'Ok, that's it, I cannot edit any more.' We finished a cut and I went to post-production, and I thought it was really rough. So I took the material and worked with another editor, who's a girl, a friend of mine, and we ended up doing this loop kind of thing so the film starts where it ends, and you see the same faces of these two at the beginning and at the end, as if the whole thing was a flashback— like 'what happened?'
FLMTQ: The film depicts the daily life of the two protagonists in the property which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Rita is studying for her PhD; Mateo works with cars. They live a simple life on a small farm that they seem to want to slowly build for themselves. They have decided to move out of standard civilization; they want to set their own life standards. How did you conceive of a Utopian life, or at least a Utopian encounter between these two characters?
EM: I like to think of it as a portrait of my generation. Many people my age, around thirty, forty, that live in Mexico City which is a crazy big city are always saying 'No, let’s move out, let's go the countryside,' and not many people actually do it, because Mexico City is actually quite addictive. Like all big cities, you just can’t seem to get out. It traps you. So I wanted these two characters that come from an urban city. You can see that in how they manage, how they build their little farm— they are not very good at it. Because they lived in the city a month ago.
So, I wanted to live their idea of Utopia. They go and live out there and see what happens. Also I think that when you do that, you're betting that things will go better. But I think that there's no escape to your problems. Sometimes you think that everything in the city is the reason that we have all of our problems, but then you go out and live by yourself in the middle of nowhere and the problems are still there. I wanted to portray that also. Where they go to live is close to where I grew up, so I had this idea of taking them to Mateo's family house because I know that little town and that mountain area very well. It's where I live now.
FLMTQ: The positive aspects of Rita and Mateo's relationship pertain to human primal instincts— the need and enjoyment of food, and the need and enjoyment of sex. Sexual desire is at the core of the couple's connection and insofar as their first moment of intimacy takes place right after the title card, it seems the title refers to this second primal instinct.
But perhaps more to Rita’s pleasure, if we are to analyze this moment of intimacy. Rita and the other adult characters in the film do whatever they want, whenever they want, and often in a selfish way; the cousin Janice appears and disappears at her own pleasure, and at some point Mateo starts doing things that seem only to concern his own pleasure. El placer es mío thus takes on a negative connotation: people just do things regardless of whether they might hurt others. How did you conceive of the title?
EM: The film is a portrait of this selfishness that represents our generation in personal relationships, in the sense that relationships nowadays can end with 'Oh, I’m fed up with it— next!' I wanted to portray this very selfish kind of agreement. It's an honest portrait, so it kind of hurts. When you see the film and at some point relate to the characters, it's in a sense of being ashamed.
That's part of what I wanted to look at. These things that maybe you don't like that much about yourself, that you see onscreen in these characters. Selfishness was one of them. And of course, in the title there is a lot of this. 'The pleasure is mine' because there is a lot of selfishness in the relationship I wanted to portray. I mean, nowadays how we relate is kind of selfish. Relationships are more like a waste. Like, 'it’s over, whatever, next' and there's this sense of a lot of selfishness around. So yes, it's in the title.
Also, 'el placer es mío' is a line you say when you meet someone — 'hello, my name is Elisa, nice to meet you' — so, it was taken from there and then it started to grow all these layers and of course selfishness is one of them. Also, a sense of hedonism, like it's all about my well-being, my pleasure, and not caring about others. There's a lot of that, I think, in my generation.
FLMTQ: Something that seems to change as the story progresses is the way the moments of intimacy between Rita and Mateo are captured. Toward the end we have a very graphic depiction of Mateo’s genitals. As an audience, we are very exposed to the representation of intimacy onscreen, and the realistic representation of intimacy onscreen. Do you believe there is a need for this? Is there a need in this particular film? How do you relate to the idea of the representation of intimacy and its progression from the classical Hollywood era, versus today?
EM: I had to think about this a lot. Of how to shoot these intimate scenes. In the script there were a lot of sex scenes, so it was obvious that we had to do it somehow. Just before shooting there was this film that I liked very much, Blue is the Warmest Color, the French one, that was also very graphic, and Stranger by the Lake. All these films just before we started shooting were coming out, and I also thought that it's a film about intimacy, it's a film about relationships, and in these kind of situations there's a lot of nudity; in intimacy there's a lot of nudity. There's a lot of nudity that is not necessarily sexual.
I wanted to have that feeling. I really wanted to be inside this couple's intimacy. I didn't want to be shy about it, also because as you said, nowadays, the kind of intimacy that you see in films is not like Cary Grant, where you saw only the shadow. Which is beautiful also! I also appreciate that very much, but in this particular film I wanted to not be shy myself, as a director. I also find it very funny that there's so many films where you see girls naked, you see so many— so many films, so many TV shows— you always see the girls' boobs, or you always see a girl naked. But when you show a guy naked, then it is like 'woah – what happened?!' Especially now, when my film is screening in theaters in Mexico. It's such a scandal to have a guy's genitals. And I thought, well, in every single film you see a girl naked, why is it such a big deal that you see a guy? I'm also a girl, so of course I wanted to have a guy naked, not just the girl. It's only fair that we see a guy.
But especially because it was a portrait of their intimacy, for me it was basic to have them naked, like comfortable naked, in their intimacy. Otherwise you cannot make a portrait of intimacy as accurate. But it was the first time I shot a sexual scene, and there's like five in the film, so the most shy on set was me. I was terrified to ask my actors to get naked. It was really like a whole new world for me to shoot this kind of scene. But I really wanted to not be shy. My former films always have these girly things about them, girly in a way a young girl is girly, and now I wanted to take a step ahead and make more like a grown-up film.
So I had to get over all this shyness and think about it a lot and read about how they shoot these sexual scenes, and it turned out the couple, both the actor and actress became really good friends, also with me. The three of us were together all of the time and we made it fun, more of a choreography. We laughed a lot in those situations, and our idea was to have something very realistic. If we're going to do it, let's do it well sort of thing— and that's what happened.
The actor Fausto is not an actor; he didn't study acting. He's more like a writer and a tattoo artist. He's very proud of himself also, so he wanted to show himself all the time. He encouraged me a lot and I was more shy. And the Director of Photography was also like 'oh my god!' Anyway, that was my idea about it. I think I answered your question!
FLMTQ: There are two moments of intimacy between Rita and Mateo where the sound goes off. The first is a moment where they are at the peak of their sentimental union. Towards the end, however, it's in a rather violent moment that signals the end the relationship, and here the sound is substituted by a very harsh, high-pitched sound. How did you conceive of this particular use of sound design?
EM: When we were in sound design, we started to play. I was experimenting with the sensation of when you kind of lose yourself, because it's 'the peak,' as you say. So we tried to take out the sound. Like when you are going to faint, or you disconnect from reality. We tried to make the sound in every scene where she reaches orgasm disappear. Like the world around you disappears. The attention of that.
Towards the end, which I find the most terrible scene of them all— it hurts, it really hurts to see it— when we were already in the sound mix, the very last process of post-production, and it's a very strange, or strong, moment for a director to see the film for the first time in the cinema. The atmosphere is big, and you hear it big— you hear the whole film. I saw that scene, and it had the direct sound of it, and it was really heartbreaking. For me, it was too much.
I was reading a book where there were some interviews of different directors, and Godard was explaining to Wim Wenders how he edited his films. He was saying that if the end doesn't work, take the sound away. And that was Godard's advice to Wim Wenders.
So I started to try to take out the sound, to hear more external sounds, also thinking that when something very terrible is happening you close yourself. I imagined that maybe the character, if she could, she would close her ears, like, 'I don’t want to live through this.' So that's why we took out the sound, and then other sounds came out, and that's why this sound that you described as very harsh comes in.
Also, I think pleasure and pain are the same— they are two sides of a coin. The first moments where we start losing the sound are when they are having sex. This is the other side of the coin. I wanted to make it more abrupt, like it was just for the pleasure itself, and not for pain.
FLMTQ: Mateo becomes uncaring in the film much earlier when Rita states that she wants to have a baby. At this point the relationship takes a new turn and he says, 'Are we going to continue with the lineage of the absent fathers?' What is the relevance of this line for you, in this story?
EM: It's very interesting that you point out that line because I think it's the only line from that scene that wasn't in the script. We shot the film chronologically, so at that point Fausto, the actor, was more sure of himself, so he started improvising.
When we worked with the actors we talked a lot about something that is not in the film, but was in the script and the characters: his relationship with his father, who is dead. Mateo's character didn’t have a good relationship with his father and his father was never there. So Fausto threw that line in the scene and it made total sense to leave it. There are a lot of absent dads in my generation. There are a lot of mothers that raise their children by themselves, so I think when a guy didn't have a father, he's very likely to repeat if he gets a girl pregnant. The idea was part of the subtext of the film.
FLMTQ: It suggests he was taking for granted that fact he'll never be a father, so he has given up on these things. Moreover that he's stating a lack of commitment to Rita because there are other options of what to say. For example: maybe this is not the right moment to think of a child; we have just started our new life; also the classic and often correct things to say if you want to give a proper life to your child, such as we should wait until we have the economic abilities to do so. But no, he just gives up, so it's particular.
EM: I think it's also when Rita realizes, as you said, that he's not committed to her. Because he's saying he will be absent. It changes completely for her. She's like 'Ok, now I know I'm with this guy who actually just wants to have fun. Why did he take me here?' That's where she starts her own journey realizing it's not going to work.
FLMTQ: The cousin of Mateo, Janice, offers an interesting counterpoint to Rita. There is a a stark cut between a high-angle shot of Janice and her daughter sun-bathing on the roof, and a shot of Rita laying in the dark before she gets up to call her mother to ask her to come visit them. One is depicted in sunshine and one in darkness: one laid-back and confident, the other agitated and insecure. How did you conceive of these two typologies of women for your story, and how do their paths illustrate or stand for women in the cultures that are close to you: Mexico and, perhaps more broadly, Latin America? Given the legacy of the violence and masculinity in Mexican culture, how did you decide to portray Rita ostensibly as a victim?
EM: Choosing Eduarda Gurrola as Rita was a decision questioned by many people— my producers, my director of photography— they were like 'But why? Why is Rita not this stereotype of the beautiful girl?' Although I think she's beautiful. I love her. I think she's beautiful and the most amazing human being, but deciding that she would be the protagonist of the film, and not the pretty girl that portrays the cousin, was a very— around me there was a lot of questioning.
For me it was very important to have Rita, a main character, that was a normal girl. We grew up with all these Hollywood films that show you that this is the type of body we need to have to be a beautiful woman. So it was very important for me to not have that as the main character, and then, yes, the cousin for me, she comes in and brings out all of Rita's insecurities. It's not that she's a bad girl or a bad person, it's just that she is simply herself, but by being herself, she is all that Rita is not. She's a mother, she's skinny— it brings out all the insecurities of Rita, all these things that Rita thinks she doesn't have, and the cousin arrives soon after they've had this conversation of having a child, it's— I just wanted to pump up the conflict. That was the idea of having the cousin as she is. Sorry, I don't know if I'm answering your question—
FLMTQ: In a way, yes. The question is whether it was a conscious choice to portray Rita as a victim, given the link between violence and masculinity in Mexican culture, and whether you wanted this to come through via the character of Rita. Mateo does what he does, Janice does what she does: she hurts Rita, and doesn't care about hurting her, as does her boyfriend— well, one of the fleeting boyfriends of Janice— who also abuses Rita, more or less.
EM: Yes, I don't know how to answer that. There's something in Rita's character, or in the situation, in which she becomes more of a victim. I think it's part of making the film honest. In my nature I would have done more of a feministic point of view, but there was something in portraying this vulnerability of being a girl, and being trapped in this situation in a relationship where things are not going well, but still you stay. I wanted to portray how you dig on your own grave when you don't seem able to get out of it. More than being a victim, it was portraying moments when you're a spectator in a situation.
I don't think it's only Mexican— there are moments where you get into relationships and trust, there are moments where you're just trapped and you can't seem to get out unless there's something really tough that happens, something really horrible. So you let things happen until you linger in that situation, and I wanted to portray that. Although there is this macho thing and macho culture in Mexico, it's worldwide, I don't think machos are only Latin.
As women sometimes, we stay for the wrong reasons, and we stay until the thing cracks, and you know it's rotten but you just stay and stay. I think it's part of the relationships we build, because sometimes we enter the relationships with a lot of mental problems and issues with our ourselves and insecurities and all that shit, and then it accumulates and then you're there, and you start to be more submissive. It's not a pleasant thing to talk about, but I think it's part of what I wanted to touch, or to talk about, because there are these things that we don't feel. I consider myself very independent and a feminist woman, but at the end I have been in situations where I'm like, 'why did I let this get to that point?' And I wanted that to be in the film.
At Rotterdam, actually, I had a girl who came to talk to me and said 'I'm exactly in that situation, I don't know how to get out of a relationship I am in. And I saw your film and now I am scared because I see how it can just explode in the worst way possible.' I think, especially when you're younger, you make some decisions and then you don't realize that you have to get to the limit of the situation, and sometimes that is not very nice to live, but it's a good experience to grow and become a better person. More than a victim, I wanted to portray that— when you're trapped until it cracks.
FLMTQ: Is there a connection or an evolution between this film and your previous works in terms of thematic preoccupations?
EM: My first short film, Ver llover, is on YouTube. I think it's the same story although with teenagers and much more girly as I was telling you, it's much more sweet. Actually, I had an interview last week, because El placer es mío is in theaters, and this guy from the radio asked me 'What happened to the girl who did Ver llover, your first short film? Who is this girl who did this very tough film?' Which is kind of the same film because it's about the impossibility to love, or the trouble to love each other, or to communicate, it's the same themes but taken to another level and to another age. But there is I guess a connection. Even my last documentary is about a British artist called Sarah Lucas who lives in the countryside with her boyfriend, and has similar preoccupations.
FLMTQ: How has your experience as a female filmmaker in Mexico been? Are there state funds or special initiatives for women to develop their voices in the industry?
EM: Not especially for women. I had quite a good experience, although it is a 'guys club' in the film world. I’ve had quite a good experience because I studied in a Mexican film school called CCC, and our group was half boys and half girls, so I don’t know— it hasn’t been very tough for me being a girl and a film director.
I’ve also been very lucky and since my first short films I’ve had a very good response from the audience and some festivals, so that has helped me fund projects. There is some money from the state, like the Mexican Institute of Film, but no, I don't think there is 'Women Make Film' or things like that. There are a lot of Mexican female directors and directors of photography. I think guys hate that we do feminist films, but, that's what we do!
FLMTQ: Are you actively working on the treatment of a new film now?
EM: Yes, I have a treatment of a new film, but I think it will take a little bit longer for me to go back to set. But yes— I'm working already on a script.
FLMTQ: Can you say a little bit about the story?
EM: No! (she laughs). But now I'm taking all these experiences I had with the birth of my first baby, and how it moves the grandparents, and what happens around a birth, that will be in the script— but it's not about that! I'm taking from the situation I'm living now.
*Interview conducted by guest curator Dr. Loreta Gandolfi.