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Interview: Alice Winocour on Disorder and the Language of Trauma

Interview: Alice Winocour on Disorder and the Language of Trauma


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Director Alice Winocour’s Disorder stars Matthias Schoenaerts as Vincent, a PTSD-afflicted French soldier who gets roped into doing bodyguard work for Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a mysterious businessman, Whalid (Percy Kemp.) When Whalid goes to Switzerland on business, it’s revealed in short time that he’s an arms trafficker involved in a high-reaching conspiracy. Soon, ski-mask clad attackers try to kidnap Jessie and her son, Ali (Zaid Errougui-Demonsant). A kind of elongated psychodramatic cat-and-mouse routine ensues, sustained just within the realm of temporal-spatial plausibility that most star-laden thrillers abandon within their first 15 minutes.

In a trim 98 minutes, the French-born Winocour uses a fairly boilerplate narrative setup as a pretext to explore Vincent’s ravaged psyche with tactile imagery and ambient sound. With its drab pools of colored light, generic Euro house, and uneasy dance of bodies in uptight configuration, the haute-elite cool of Whalid’s party brings to mind Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad by way of a generation influenced by Michael Mann. If Disorder’s storyline encourages scrutiny for its relationship to America’s mass-exported War on Terror (the French title—and the moniker of Whalid’s estate—is Maryland), the film denies a clean political interpretation beyond its base concerns.

It was oddly appropriate, then, that my interview with Wincour was delayed 15 minutes by a glitch in the security system of a midtown skyscraper, as the perimeters of the film are lined with sparse yet unmissable evocations of a world whose systems are writhing in panic.

Let’s talk about the decision and the endeavor to depict psychosis. In a classical film you might have had hallucinations, voiceovers, flashbacks, montages of all the above. Disorder avoids them all.

I’m fascinated by traumatized bodies, when there’s no word to express your desire, your pain, your feelings, your PTSD—when you’ve been exposed to death. Sometimes there are no words to describe these things. To me, it’s interesting how cinema can express, with sound, with music, with emotions, things that are beyond language. Augustine deals with hysterics, violent fits that were a way, because the story takes place in the 19th century, for women to express their rebellion. They had no education, so the only way for them to rebel was to have physical fits—and these physical things are fascinating to me. When the body talks, it sometimes screams. We could say that Vincent is a hysteric himself. His PTSD expresses his averseness to violence, his nightmares. It’s really frightening, and it’s also what’s central to my work: the fear of the body, not having control over it, which is terrifying to me.

Even in the attempted kidnapping scene, the camera is always on Vincent, even as Jessie and her son are being dragged out of the other side of the car. Conventional wisdom would recommend cutting across the hood. Doesn’t that make it difficult to write a film like this? One little tweak pushes you into unreality, or runs the risk of it.

I had to write out the whole plot, and then see snatches of it—only what Vincent could see. And it had to remain mysterious to me, because that’s what’s scary: when you don’t understand things. And fear was central to the film. I had put all my fear into that scene: fears of my childhood, storms, the dark, of a contemporary world where this constant flow of information, violent on-screen images, and feelings of witnessing everything and, at the same time, understanding nothing about it. You start to enter this hypervigilant state that people suffering from PTSD have. In a way, I think we’re all in Vincent’s state. To me, the film is about the chaos of coming home, about the sense that war is far away, but that the war is now here. It’s about how we live in a state of paranoia. Chaos is at its center. It’s tattooed on Vincent’s arm, and you can see chaos in the weather, because it’s raining all the time. In a more classical thriller, you’d have scene after scene of beautiful weather, and here it’s storms and everything is fucked up. [laughs] But the film to me is also a love story, and I like the idea that Jessie is frightened by the man who’s supposed to protect her, and in love there’s always a bit of paranoia. What is the other person doing? Is it something you can rely on?

My feeling is that the film is, if not devoid of politics, wary of ideology. Although powerlessness is fast-becoming an apolitical reality. In developing your script, how explicit did you want the material to be?

The film had to remain a sensory experience of this world falling apart. It was really about feeling and physical sensations, about being lost in a world falling apart. That was my obsession. Also with the music and the sounds, I wanted to give you a distorted version of reality. I didn’t want to describe a political struggle in particular. Even if the story was inspired by Ziad Takieddine. But I didn’t use a name. It was not a specific inspiration, but a more general one—the atmosphere of a scary world. You can feel that Whalid’s party is really decadent, because people are in a swimming pool eating caviar. Even if you don’t understand how those people are connected, you can understand the story of arms dealing that brings them together. And then there are the soldiers you see in the hospital. Some of them have lost their legs. I found the coexistence of these two worlds to be very violent.

Well, and the cruel irony of serving in Afghanistan, coming home, and then doing security at a party thrown by an arms dealer. Those are subtle political comments.

Everything is a little off-camera, because we’re inside this house. I thought a lot about the home-invasion film, Carpenter’s movies, not knowing where the threat or the danger is going to come from. It’s also why I used really intense techno music by Gesaffelstein. You don’t even know when the sound is going to come in. Sometimes you expect a beat and it doesn’t come. Instead, it comes when you don’t expect it, and that idea inspired me in the writing.

For you, where does this obsession with fear/trauma come from?

I think I have a really personal relationship with PTSD. My grandfather was in Auschwitz, in a concentration camp, and it’s about all of the things you’d think at the end of the process. My grandparents were very important to me, and it’s amazing to think how I saw as a child the tattoo on my grandfather’s arm. I have also been exposed to death—not in Afghanistan, like Vincent, but I almost died five years ago, giving birth to my daughter, and she almost died herself. When I woke up in the hospital, I had been for in a white room for two hours, not knowing where I was, and I could only hear the sounds of the machines around me. My whole memory of that event is just those sounds, which is an intimacy I tried to put into Disorder. In the beginning, I didn’t understand why I felt so close to these soldiers or the things that they were describing. The feeling of being outside the world, going back and finding yourself in limbo, is something I’ve experienced in my own body.

When the film premiered at Cannes, more than a few journalists made a point of being shocked that this action-thriller had been directed by a woman. Are you getting worse questions here in the U.S. than in France?

I can tell you that in Cannes it was a little violent. I was quite surprised that people were telling me “it’s a very violent film for a woman,” or “it’s a well-made film for a woman.” I thought these were weird things to hear nowadays. But I think it’s important for this film to say that women can direct any type of film if they want to. I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a “feminine way” to tell this story. But, of course, being a woman is part of myself, and I’m proud of that. I just don’t want the film to be considered a “women’s thriller.”