As far as Surrealist cinema goes, French Auteur Bertrand Mandico is single handedly keeping the lights on. Now with three masterworks under his belt, and I don’t say that lightly he’s established himself as not only having one of the most recognizable and original visual styles out there. But also priding himself in this digital world, on shooting on film, and making sure to make these gradious fantasy epics are made as practical as possible.
I first caught up with the director’s work in 2021, when I caught his queer space western After Blue (Dirty Paradise) at Fantastic Fest and it was a revelatory moment. His films with their primarily female protagonists tell these garrash and sweeping epic stories and do so while feeling like nothing that came before them. Visually his films are feasts for the eyes, but they are also equally dense with ideas. The director manages to infuse his surrealism with some rather hefty discourse on art, life and love. It’s no easy feat but with each film, I feel like he hones his craft as a filmmaker to tell bigger and more grandiose tales.
I got to speak to Bertrand via translator via Zoom in anticipation for the theatrical release of She is Conann, his latest, which is a feminist queer retelling of the Conan legend, which is screening this week in theaters via digital DCP and a freshly struck 35mm print. Along with those theatrical engagements, some hosted by the director, there is also a short program of 4 films also by Bertrand Mandico that I can’t recommend enough, since more that a few of those have connective tissue to She is Conann and together creates “The Barbarian Cycle’“
Dan T: Your films are filled with these lush and grotesque visuals, what comes first the script or the visual, and how much work goes then goes into prepping and realizing that vision?
Bertrand M: My process is I usually do start with a vision, that’s actually more of a concept of what the film is going to be.
But then I follow this by writing the script, and bringing this concept into the script stage. The script is done very precisely, very dry. It’s the dialogue and the descriptions. After that I start adding the visual elements almost the way you would add ornaments to a Christmas tree and that fills out the original script.
So that’s the whole process, the script, to the adding of the visuals, to the script for the final film.
Dan T: What drew you to the story Conan the Barbarian, and then gender swapping that character? I feel like a lesser director would have gotten lost in the more exploitative trappings, but I think you manage to craft some really compelling and moving characters here.
Bertrand M: There are actually a lot of reasons why I made those choices. Firstly, I was very interested in the idea of a of feminine, female barbarian, and to take this character across various epics, through time. So this was my idea and the concept behind this was the very idea that its age, that betrays youth. Once you get to the aged character, it betrays what it was as youth, what it was before. So this was the concept behind the character.
But the whole idea of the Barbarian and Conan the Barbarian, it’s the basis of the film and it’s really both a mythological character in cinema, but also it goes back one step to the novels by Robert E. Howard, on which the Conan films were based. Prior to that it’s actually based on a Celtic mythological creature, who may or may not have existed and this particular mythological creature was surrounded by these demons who have the heads of dogs.
AIso I just thought it was interesting to make the character of Conan female to turn it on its head.
I really try, when I’m creating a film and creating characters to make them non gender specific and to avoid any archetypes or stereotypes. This is really important for me because I want to be able to offer and to propose to the actresses characters that are not stereotypical, and not the kinds of things that they’re normally offered to play. So in a way, it’s my own kind of political combat to make this kind of work with actresses and to make these kinds of roles available.
Also what was very important for me was that in the case of all of the actresses who play Conann, with the exception of the 25 year old Conann, all of them are the actual age of the Conann that she is portraying. I think that this is very important for the actress to be the same age.
Dan T: When you have several actors playing the same role how did you keep the performances consistent as you did as we were moved from period to period?
Bertrand M: My overall view of this is, I really wanted to play on the idea of the break, the rupture between the different decades and the different actresses. So the consistency comes within the writing. It doesn’t come with any kinds of direction that I gave to the individual actresses, so that they would make themselves consistent with each other. In fact, this idea of the rupture is very important because each decade, each time I have this rupture. I also changed the style in which I’m filming it.
So it’s a very homogeneous overall view of the story.
But within it, each one of these ruptures represents something a little different. But for the actresses there was no obvious direction that I gave to them that they must be consistent with the actress that played it before.
Dan T: So, I was lucky enough to see not only Conann, but the short films that compose your Barbarian Cycle, and I love the meta commentary about your creative process that you tackle in the shorts. What drove you into that direction with Conann in particular to use the film to delve into this Faustian bargain creatives are forced to engage with?
Bertrand M: You mean, did I myself make a Faustian deal with the devil? (Laughs)
I’ve used this idea of making a pact with the devil, because for me, the devil is the system, the whole system that surrounds filmmaking and getting the money to be able to make films. So, in a way, my way of working with the system is, I was willing to make a deal in order to be able to make the films that I wanted to make.
I was offered the possibility of doing theater, I said yes of course I’ll do it. And from that I got what I had there and put it back into my filmmaking. Same thing with the possibility of doing virtual reality. I’ll do that, but I’ll manage to turn it around, so that in the end it’s something that contributes towards my own filmmaking. So in effect, that is my pact with the devil, which is the filmmaking system.
Dan T: After watching the shorts I became fascinated by Rainer the leather jacket clad, dog headed demon, who feels like the weird kid who’s only allowed to hang out with the cool kids because he/she has these powers. Will you continue to use he/she in your future films since the character has appeared in about three so far?
Bertrand M: I really love the character of Rainer and it would give me great pleasure to work with the character again and work with Elina (Löwensohn) who really gives flesh and blood to this character. But at the same time, you know, as appealing as the idea of future adventures of Rainer are concerned. Perhaps Elina doesn’t really want to be spending all that time wearing that prosthesis on her face.
But if she’s tired of the prosthesis, maybe the future films of Rainer could be Rainer without the prosthesis. So it will be a different Rainer, but Rainer still.
There’s actually one more short film you haven’t seen yet, because it’s not completed yet. But I was asked to do a piece for the Théâtre des Amandiers which is where Patrice Chéreau was the director and where he filmed Queen Margot. It was a piece that was supposed to be presented there, but then because of COVID, it wasn’t. So I in fact made a film of the theater piece that would have been performed had it not been for COVID.
It’s something that once again brings in the character of Rainer, and it really would be like the final stone in the building of this whole story of the trilogy plus one and this film is going to be called La Deviant Comedy, which is a play on Dante’s Divine Comedy, but it is the deviant comedy.
Dan T: So that would be the final film of the trilogy, because After blue was paradise – Conann is Purgatory and next is inferno? I’ve read this in various places in conflicting orders, some omitting Wild Boys as well.
Bertrand M: Wild Boys, After Blue and She is Conann is the trilogy.
But I think about each of these films as a separate planet. So wild Boys is a separate planet, After Blue is another planet, and She is Conann is the third planet. But this planet is different because it has satellites and these satellites are the shorter films that relate to that film specifically.
Dan T: So both after Blue and Conann have this interesting relationship with pop culture and their protagonists and stories. As a storyteller do you see pop culture as our new mythology and as possibly our new religion?
Bertrand M: Yes, I think for me my religion is both cinema, but also culture, pop culture, culture in general. I think what I’ve been trying to do is by revisiting various parts and aspects of culture, it’s my way of paying tribute to all of the artists who have given their work, given their creativity. I don’t in any way try to make a hierarchy of any of the types of culture, high culture, low culture, pop culture, no. But what I try to do is give these very sincere artists a tribute, almost as if I am lighting a candle to these dignitaries who really gave of themselves and their work.
In this respect I want to go back to Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie,City of Lost Children), because he did not believe in, in the hierarchy of culture, there was no subculture, no high culture, no pop culture, all culture for him was on the same level. And whether it was through comics, whether it was through avant-garde, all of them were on the same level. He was not making that kind of ranking and I have the same approach and he is someone who I greatly admired and my approach to culture is the same as what his was.