Interview        JEAN-MARC BARR


Creative quest of an independent player
Fighting the capitalist authoritarian world with subversive attitude


Determined to work with international crews in various countries and in many languages, Jean-Marc Barr cherishes his highly international career, which began in 1988 with the huge world hit, Le grand bleu. After Luc Besson’s cult film orbited him to the world fame (Jacques Mayol, the character he plays, became a household name for the whole generation of European cinephiles), he steered his artistic choices, contrary to all mainstream expectations, towards independent films, to which he has remained faithful to this day. 1991 film Europa starts a long and fruitful collaboration between Lars von Trier and Jean-Marc Barr, who acts in most films directed by the controversial Dogma Dane: Breaking the waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Nymphomaniac etc. This strong film partnership has evolved, over years, into a devoted friendship, with Barr’s most prominent behind-the-scenes role as godfather to von Trier’s sons. Regarded by many as a European artist, but also as “enfant terrible” by some Hollywood’s film agents, he adheres to art/independent film not only as an actor, but as a director/producer too. He (co)directed and co-produced six films:  Lovers, Too much flesh, Being light, Chacun sa nuit, American Translation and Chroniques sexuelles d’une famille d’aujourd’hui, mainly working with Pascal Arnold as a co-director, and actresses Elodie Bouchez and Lizzie Brocheré.

WE met at the 45th FEST in Belgrade, where we were jury members, he for the national film competition and I in the FEDEORA jury for the Main international competition and national section awards. In spite of his busy schedule, he found time to talk to Camera Lucida again - his first interview with Camera Lucida was published in January 2013 issue, on the occasion of his receiving “Aleksandar Lifka” award at Palic Festival of European Film. He is busy: with French translation of Tolstoy’s play The Kreutzer’s sonata, the result of a collaboration with his former spouse, pianist Irina Dečermić, to be performed in France in October, with preparing for a new role in a film shot in Slovakia by a Russian director and with an international and multilingual cast and, most importantly, with taking care of his toddler son.

A true representative of multiculturalism, born to an American father and a French mother in Germany, after a nomadic life, Jean-Marc Barr now lives in France, but still keeps his close professional and personal ties with post-Yugoslav countries. We talk about independent and Dogma film, Hollywood industry and European cinema, the role of film festivals, his experience as an actor and director, his work with Lars von Trier and other filmmakers, Europe today, his attachments to and detachments from his homeland USA, and much more.

Camera Lucida: You are in the jury at this year’s FEST. What is it like to be the “judge” of films?

Jean-Marc Barr: I haven’t done that many juries, but I know how to make a stand for a film, when there is an overwhelming majority. Sometimes, it can become a dictatorship, if you are a president, because people take it seriously. In the context of FEST, at the level of films, I found them to be very good. I had a feeling that it’s impossible not to recognise them in their talent, in spite of the difficult situation around Europe, the Serbian culture is quite alive and has a very good level/quality.

Camera Lucida: Can we talk about “a new Serbian film wave”?

Jean-Marc Barr: Bearing in mind what was happening historically in Yugoslavia when Kusturica appeared, there was a rich tradition from which he and many fine Yugoslav films could emerge. I find his first films very emotional, but sometimes I question why I was so emotional for first films, and seeing his later works I have a different emotion/sentiment.

Films coming out from Serbia, Greece, Romania and Turkey had that innocence that was exhibited in these films as you are moving to the East, the emotion was with the world audience. Now I feel that innocence has burned up, maybe due to the devastating effects on the Serbian psyche.

My generation was built on ego. It was still the time when the director had a point of view, what happened with, for example, Scorcese in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the same epoch of Lars von Trier and Luc Besson, in a different category, but you could still do your own work, which is rare now. You could do your own film and your own production, be independent. That’s almost not possible today. What happened to Kazan during McCarthyism shows that no one can escape history.

He was trying to make cinema, but became part of the political discussion, and it was very difficult because it was dominated by the irresponsible  USA.

Camera Lucida: You have special and long-standing ties – professional and personal -  with Yugoslavia. Your first film Lovers is about a Yugoslav immigrant’s love story in Paris… How do you feel when you come here?

Jean-Marc Barr: I’ve spent time with my family, with Irina’s boys and I brought my boy down from France. It was a family-oriented FEST (laughs).

I had a chance, for an American, to see Yugoslavia, which was a refreshing experience and I remember the impression it made on me - the culture that comes with that kind of mentality, that was drastically trying to recuperate in USA. We had good 60’s and 70’s, but that spirit started to die when Reagan came, especially at the time of the 90’s when cinema was becoming political. I saw that aspect of Yugoslavia.

Camera Lucida: What does European film represent today, if anything, what is its position? Does “an independent film” still exist?

Jean-Marc Barr:  Each country is in a serious instinct to preserve its industry, at the default of having a lot of unemployment, especially in France. There is a system in place that allows creation to happen, - you work for 3 months, but you can be paid for the whole year, working for a certain amount of hours. As the tech industry is becoming important, the industry provides work, but the end product is not important. What’s important is to have 40 people working on a film, even if the film could have been made for 600,000, it’s made for 2 million. And when you start getting into 3/4/5 million dollar budget, you have no real editorial freedom – unless you are one of 10 directors who can do it.

So you are formatting your product for TV that’s investing in it. The system itself doesn’t provide any real outlet for crazy, innovative culturally-bound artists… it’s only there to fill a market, and that market is under 25, or over 60, and you get to the politics of cinema that’s completely industry sterile, culturally sterile.

When you don’t find money for pictures here in France, they want a feel-good movie or they want a film about social problems, immigrants or zombies. In France, Le monde has a chef-d’oeuvre coming out every week in their newspaper… but they are damn well paid to say that, otherwise there wouldn’t be a newspaper.

So you are in a situation where Soviet Russia becomes almost a shining example for us, where the capitalist system, in very authoritarian ways,  dictates the rules. So European cinema,  cinema we did with Lars, like Europa has a very difficult way of existing.  Because cinemas themselves are no longer forms of culture, they become markets. We are going back to the Middle Ages, where artists are going to be sacrificing themselves to preserve what there was, maybe virtual reality is going to take over and cinema is going to become like radio.

I’ve been lucky, growing up in a middle-class American society in the 70’s and I try to maintain some idea of freedom, I haven’t been completely clean, but I’ve been able, because of the success of Big Blue to steer my career, to do what I want to do and not be a product… I’ve got a reputation that’s not too soiled.

Camera Lucida: You have worked on a number of indie films in various countries. Was that experience more challenging than, say, working with well-known, highly acclaimed authors?

Jean-Marc Barr: I took myself out of the mainstream when I started working with Lars & other indie films. The only way you can maintain your niveau is by doing commercial films all the time and I am not French, but living in France I am a European, an American born in Germany, with an American father and French mother. I’ve been able to participate and that’s probably why I am very privileged to say that at a certain point after Big Blue, I realised after Europa, there was to advantage and for the first time, without any class barrier, there was a chance to be able to speak in the same language. In the Russian aristocracy, French used to be the language of Europe, but because of the American presence, it became English. So there are films like Europa and Breaking the waves, where you had Danes and Germans and English and Icelandic all doing something that was outside of the domestic instincts and traditions and how things are done in each country.- it was supranational. And in this context, it was true European cinema because it created a real alternative to what Hollywood was proposing, most of all Breaking the waves. When Americans saw Europeans making fucking great melodramatic love stories, a 1000 times better than what was coming out of Hollywood in the last 20 years, they are trying their best to refuse it, because they don’t want that to control their market

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