Interview: Karim Aïnouz on Getting at the Tangible Emotion in “Invisible Life”

When Julia Stockler and Carol Duarte arrived on the set of “Invisible Life” to play sisters Guida and Euridice Gusmão, director Karim Aïnouz only addressed them by the names they would have in the film.

“It was important to me to only call them by their characters’ names [because] to create a sense of magic and to create a sense of elevation when you’re making a film is super important,” says Aïnouz, aware that he might sound pretentious in saying as much.

Any such fear should be allayed by the disarming drama he made out of Martha Batalha’s novel “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão” that spans decades in the lives of the pair of siblings living in Rio de Janeiro, albeit frustratingly separately after Guida (Stockler) runs off with a lover to Greece in the 1950s and is forbidden to return to her family home when she’s unwed and pregnant, though her father doesn’t inform Euridice (Duarte) that she’s come back to Brazil. Begrudgingly assuming the life that had been plotted out for her sister complete with an arranged marriage that ensures the continued prosperity of the family, Euridice puts her own dreams of becoming a classical pianist on hold and can only imagine what’s become of her sister, once her closest confidant, as Aïnouz sheds light on how neither let go of their bond even as their lives pull them apart.

Aïnouz’s insistence on calling his actresses by their characters’ names is indicative of how deep everything runs in “Invisible Life,” from the rich colors that cinematographer Hélène Louvart that summon the sultry climate of Rio and the vivid emotions that are felt throughout to the growing feeling of resentment that brews amongst the Gusmão sisters, who are denied the right to pursue their full potential by the small-minded decisions of the men in their lives. Still, it’s the women’s enormous ambition and capacity of love for one another that fills the screen to the point that it practically bursts and “Invisible Life” stands as one of the year’s great cinematic achievements, yet doesn’t intimidate with all the ways in which it transports you to another time and place, but instead pulls you in so tightly it should offer reminders to breathe.

With the film arriving on American shores this week after premiering earlier this year at Cannes, the director was recently in Los Angeles to talk about his latest film and how he went about immersing his cast as much as future audiences in its richness, and how he’s been drawn to telling stories that reflect his life and history in some way, even if indirectly.

How did you get interested in this?

I was interested in doing a melodrama for a long time, but beyond that, I was interested in making a portrait of the women from the generation of my mother. If she was alive, she’d be like 90 now, and when she passed away, I looked at her and I thought, “Wow, she’s been through so much and it would be great if people knew how many struggles she had and how did she get here.” She was never somebody that was complaining about life, but [while] the life of women now is hard, at the time, it was super-complicated. She was the first person in my family that went to university and the only woman in her class. So [these] were things that I lived with, but I never really thought of making a film out of it. And when I read the book [by Martha Batalha], it was the sensation that I could talk about all those things that had been haunting me after she was gone that I felt had not been really told in a beautiful way that the book did. It happened that the producer’s an old friend of mine and he knew me so well that when he read it, it reminded him very much of my family and we had wanted to work together again, so that’s how it started.

At Toronto, you said there were a few questions you had to answer for yourself in taking on a melodrama. What were they?

I was asking myself a few questions. [Melodrama is] a genre that’s normally treated like a subgenre, but for me it’s so sublime and politically so incredibly necessary these days, and [yet] the question was, “Is anybody going to see a melodrama these days?” It seems also like an old genre that a couple of people have made contemporary, but a lot of people have quoted it and for it to make sense today, it really needed to be full-on revisited because nothing’s more boring than a citation of a genre. So I was thinking, “Okay, how do I do this?” It couldn’t be generic. It needed to be local, so I was thinking of all these declarations of the genre in Egypt, in Mexico, in Argentina, in other countries that first made me want to do something that could only take place in that city at that moment. [For “Invisible Life”] that has to do with the question of the tropical, the question of heat, the question of excess and a sort of flamboyance in the city [of Rio de Janeiro] that’s full of jungle, so that was the first thing.

Then there is this question of violence in melodrama, but not necessarily physical or explicit violence, but psychological violence. Here I thought it was important to have both and not to escape. One of the most important films in my upbringing as a filmmaker was “Imitation of Life, [which] is one of the most potent films about racism and it is very violent, but it’s a violence that is inscribed in a way of shooting and in a way working that’s from that period. I thought it was important that this not to be puritan because much of melodrama as we know it, especially in [the U.S.], were done under the auspices of censorship, so it was very important that this was a way of looking at that situation now. So for example, the way that the [characters] speak, they don’t speak period language. They did in the beginning [of preparing for the film], and then when I first started listening to it, I thought this sounds really distancing that this should be the opposite of distance.

And their bodies are not bodies from the 1950s — and that is something quite wrong sometimes in terms of period characterization — and this was really very much a film that talks about the violence against the female body by patriarchy, so the question of nudity [became] very important, and also the question of intimacy. Melodrama sometimes stays outside the bedroom, I was inspired by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder a lot obviously because there’s something very rough about the way he does it, and Joao Pedro Rodrigues, a Portuguese filmmaker who’s more camp, so it was getting at different angles. It’s funny because when I was writing the script, there was a dissertation from a Brazilian scholar where she talks about fluids — not only tears, but other kinds of fluids — that are very much the construction of melodrama if you look at it, so it was really not trying to make [a film that was] pristine and precise and super [authentic to] the period. It was looking at it from the standpoint from now.

This may be an editing question as much as a writing question, but how do you articulate the strength of the sisters’ bond throughout?

That was a big challenge because they only have very little screen time, and I realized if you don’t believe they love each other and they have a real tie, there would be no movie, so what I did was something quite basic – I wrote a lot of scenes that were not in the film and we rehearsed them a lot, so [the actresses] had memories of certain specific moments that could inform the moments that are in the film, and [the actresses] took embroidery classes together, [activities] that would entail a certain sense of intimacy between them. They spent a lot of time together before the shoot, but during the shoot, I think they had only four days of shooting together and I wouldn’t allow them to see each other outside of the set, so it was a question of how do you create these situations that bring them together and also situations where they miss each other after you’ve brought them together. That also has to do with [how we set up the] production. If this had been done in a country where you had to pay [the actors] per day, it would’ve been really hard, but because they were paid for months — it was 35 days of shooting and two months of preparation, that allowed us to create an environment between those two girls that when they start the film, they already have a memory of what they’ve been through.

I remember there was a huge search for these actresses and it was the first feature for them both. What sold you on them ultimately?

With Euridice, there was this capacity of being quiet and in her silence, you could imagine different things that she’s thinking. It’s a character that also very much expresses herself through music, so she’s not very vocal and quite shy, so what I really liked when I saw Carol [Duarte] is she has a bit of a hunch. She’s really tall and her body is a little awkward and that is very much what I had imagined for Euridice. She is also just an amazing actress. She could do things three times, four times with the same intention. And I cast [Julia Stockler for Guida] actually after [Carol], and I always imagined Guida as popcorn — she’s like full of energy, more than can fit in her body and always jumping. When she did the audition — my first audition is people looking at a camera and not doing anything [which is] why I ask them to do no makeup — [Julia] was the only actress who in the middle of it, she lit a cigarette. She disobeyed me a little bit and that’s the spirit of Guida, this spirit of irreverence and outrageousness, so that’s how I got to the final choice. They both had things that their character had, but it was not [immediately apparent]. It was more of a sensation.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is Euridice nervously approaching her mother to tell her that she’s pregnant and you can hear the broom sweeping in the background as if she’s scraping her mind trying to figure out what to say. Was there an entire sonic layer to the script for moments like that?

It was not in the script, but I have a collaborator [Waldir Xavier] that does sound on all my films and when we start sound designing, we think about what’s off-screen that can actually inform what’s happening in the scene. It’s funny because I was watching [Pedro Almodovar’s] “Pain and Glory” and it’s the opposite of this. It’s literally nothing and in the middle of the film, I was so shocked, like this is so beautiful.” But in the case of this film, I was really interested in excess, and the sound really has a lot to do with that and we did that in the editing. With Waldir, we go scene by scene and list sounds that could be pertinent for that scene that could make sense in reality during it and then we try. There’s something else in this film too, which is there’s a couple situations where the musician brought in some sounds because we talked a lot about music [since Euridice is a musician] and there’s a moment when she’s being examined by the doctor and there’s a sound like “zoom, zoom” and it’s like how do you translate what’s going on in her head. That’s not a sound effect. That was a composition. And we work a lot with Foley [artists] because it grounds the physical presence of the characters and their physical experience, so I love sound and it’s always something I dive into when I’m editing.

Your cinematographer Helene Louvart had mentioned in an interview that because of the intensity of other elements of the film, such as sound, she actually thought about pulling back on some of the vivid colors in her lighting during post-production. Was it a difficult balance to figure out?

It was and we did a color pass and a light pass, and then I asked to do a pre-mix and then in the middle, we did a pass with the sound and the image and this was really important. This is something I want to do on other films because it’s music. How do you balance Bach? On this film, in particular, and I think on “Madame Sata” as well, I was really interested in this lush use of cinema, so everything was too much. And with Helene, we did this screening [where] we went back to the color grading suite and she wanted to bring down the colors, and I thought, “No. I think it should be the opposite” [because] the experience of making this film was also an experience of taking certain risks that I’ve always wanted to take, but I never really had the guts to do.

The danger with doing something like this is that maybe the colors will come before the story or in front of the characters and maybe the sound is going to kidnap the story, but everything is so heightened in this film that things gel together in a way that I’m very happy I did it. [With] Helene, it was a balance, but it’s good we shot the movie that was in the color grade. The color grade was minor, so I was editing a movie that we shot. It wasn’t like we were figured out the way we’re using the image in post-production.

I know she’s just an extraordinary cinematographer…

She’s incredible.

What was it like collaborating with her?

It was funny because we met in Paris, and I was looking for a woman [cinematographer] and we had a great meeting, but Helene is quite austere. There’s something quite sober about her. And I thought, “Oh my God, I don’t know this is going to work. I need someone a little more crazy and outgoing.” But I love her work so much, especially what she did with Alice Rohrwacher’s “Happy as Lazzaro,” and I think the film has a gaze on Rio that [wouldn’t be there] if it wasn’t for Helene, because she was very careful of not making it so spectacular and so fetishized — it was really focusing on the body and on the characters and I think that helped us a lot, to escape this exoticized look of Rio.

There is something quite naturalist about traditional French cinema [that Helene comes from] and one of the first days we were shooting, there was an HMI [light] that was rigged from outside to bring the light into the room, and I thought, “What [would happen] if that light is not the color of the HMI light?” What about if we put a purple gelatin out and see what happens.” We didn’t [ultimately] put purple, we put orange,” but then the scene became much more artificial than it would’ve been, and Helene was great because she was really open to take these risks. It is [also] my first film in digital, so we were also questioning, “How are we going to do this, [because I find] this is so boring,” and she said, “No, no, this isn’t boring. Let’s see how we can actually break it apart in order to use it to tell the story we’re telling.” So that was a great adventure that she brought to the film.

You’ve said your next film, a documentary, is set in Algeria, which is where your father’s side of the family is from. Did your mother’s history inspire more investigation into your roots or is it a general interest in cultural idenity?

I think there’s an interest in cultural identity, and I think this has to do with my first film [that I made about my grandmother]. That’s how I entered cinema, and I feel like I don’t come from a descent. I come from a certain periphery and I think it’s very important to tell those stories that are not necessarily mainstream stories, so some of the choices have to do with autobiography as a way of doing almost an alternate ethnography, and it gives me a sense of empowerment. For example, [this next film] is about my dad, but it’s also about a moment in the life of my dad where there was an amazing revolution happening in Algeria, and it’s really about shedding light on characters that I feel like are in the shadow. So there is the question of identity and celebrating these multiple identities that I am and that I have, which I think is great, and then I think there’s another thing I’m interested in depicting places [that are generally unseen] – for example, my second film is about a young woman trying to flee her hometown in the countryside of Brazil and it is very personal, also but not. So when you talk about this — and it’s very funny when you talked about [my connection to] the book because I don’t know if it’s the sadness [or what I connected to], but it’s very important to me to connect with the material that I’m working on because of my personal experience. That’s how things spark.

“Invisible Life” opens on December 20th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at Film Forum.