Actor and director Jean-Marc Barr had his big breakthrough in Luc Besson’s The Big Blue in 1988, and in the decades since he has worked with some of the arthouse greats, including several times with Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier. At the Antalya Golden Orange Festival he is part of the jury for the International Competition, and at the festival he sat down with Cédric Succivalli for a rather controversial interview in which he talked about the death of the French film industry, cinema diminishing in the West due to the large American influence, and Titane being inferior to its reference point Crash.
CS: You are here as a juror for the international competition. What is your general impression of the festival, now that we are halfway through?
JMB: I had a wonderful experience here when I was shooting in Capadocia with Semih Kaplanoğlu back in 2015, so I love coming back here. Semih introduced me to a lot of Turkish cinema from the past, just like being with a Yugoslavian girl for 25 years made me discover that cinema. In the last 10 to 15 years I have discovered that the further East you go, the innocence reappears. Semih’s films or for instance some of Ceylan’s films accomplish the task of creating culture, whereas in the West we are totally enthralled to the market. As an artist and as an American, especially with this war going on and now that Europe has become Puerto Rico, I feel like I’m scandalized. Cinema is coming more from the East than from the West. If you look at the programme here at the festival you see films of good quality that deal with social problems, incorporating things that we don’t like to go into in our cinema and TV productions in America. It’s not about entertainment. I have nothing against entertainment, by the way. Films like E.T. are fine. But the most recent thing we had to swallow was Top Gun: Maverick. My friends were saying that it was just fun, people flying really fast in planes and such. But I see the subtext of, “We will blow the hell out of you if you don’t do what we say“. In my own country I sometimes feel as if I’m in the Soviet Union with how difficult it is to say what you think. Becoming an actor was a choice of the heart. When I did The Big Blue I asked myself, “What do you want to do?” And the heart said, “Retire.” (laughs) I don’t really give a shit about my career, because I want to stay true to myself, even if that means stepping on some toes and making myself be marginalized. Staying true to yourself is the most important thing when you’ve got a camera.
CS: Speaking of The Big Blue, how is your relationship with Luc Besson these days?
JMB: Non-existent, we haven’t talked in decades. He actually stopped talking to me instantly after I offered a possible interpretation (among many others, like suicide and whatnot) of the ending of The Big Blue on French television, suggesting it had a homosexual subtext. He even tried to block me from working in the industry afterward! Whenever there is a commemoration or birthday event of the film, I am never even invited.
CS: You had one of the most exciting, prolific, and intriguing careers that spans well over three decades. You worked with Jean-Claude Biette (Saltimbank) and Arnaud des Pallières (Parc), those are major achievements in proper arthouse cinema.
JMB: But that’s little known. Most people wonder if I’m still acting. I tell them that after The Big Blue I became a gigolo and found it quite enterprising (laughs).
CS: Well, you sort of were the male Brigitte Bardot of the ’80s.
JMB: I was the Harry Styles of the moment!
CS: With charisma though, that’s the difference (laughs). But you had a great career not only as an actor, but as a director too. You have worked with Pascal Arnold for 20 years, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you just finished your seventh film together.
JMB: Yes, we did. We found funding in Switzerland, and during the confinement shot in a popular hotel in the Marais in Paris, because they couldn’t make any money otherwise. The film was shot for very little money, and it’s actually quite good, but because we didn’t have pre-sales and there are 250 films to release in France still, we don’t stand much chance. Distributors no longer want to release films that they know are going to fail, even if it’s quality. The French film industry is dead. They are preserving the industry despite the product. Why don’t we have a Lars von Trier, a Pedro Almodóvar, a Kusturica? We are doing social, Catholic movies, and the same people make the decisions between themselves over and over again. That way, with committees, you never get those kinds of ‘crazy’ people. I love the French system, I’ve participated in it, but the Americans have dominated the distribution game for 20 years, and the game is over. When you have to pay 13 euro and you leave the theatre disappointed… I really believe we should start a new European market, with independent films. Cinemas might be sold now, and all of a sudden you do independent films and charge 6 euro for a ticket. But they are not going to let us do it, because it will take their market away. There are still some good movies out there; I saw The Sixth Child here and it was pretty good, but it is France 2. When I saw the film I thought, “I’m so happy I did Lars von Trier.” Europa, Breaking the Waves, he gave me a great role in Nymphomaniac. That moment is worth a career; if I have to do 20 shitty movies for just that moment, then it’s fine. He is taking the torch from Fassbinder, from Carl Dreyer. And I know that because he exists, somebody is going to follow him.
CS: You are about to do a film with the D’Innocenzo brothers? And you also did a film with Sophie Barthes?
JMB: Someone told me about D’Innocenzo, but I have no idea (laughs). No, actually I did a voice-over for their first film, but they are now going to finally release it properly. And Sophie gave me a small role in a film with a very interesting subject. She is a true artist. I’m playing Jeff Bezos, sort of (laughs). I don’t really work in France that much, but I do work all over Europe. After The Big Blue I had many options. I said no to Indochine, no to La Reine Margot. I mean, I don’t mind escorting actresses in costumes from one end to the other, but if you only do it once, that’s enough. The reason I started doing European films in English was that I was a symbol of American ‘occupation’ of Europe, and for the first time without class barriers the people of the continent could speak the same language. When we did Breaking the Waves Hollywood was fuming. All of a sudden Europeans were doing an intense love story, religious, dealing with a lot of things. Suddenly I realized what a privileged situation I was in. The film was a unique example of European cinema that was not Europudding. That’s why I did it. I was able to establish myself and keep my mystery because I didn’t sell out.
CS: You went from The Big Blue to Jean-Claude Biette and Arnaud des Pallières, and then on to do your decompartmentalization of sexual identity, blurring the formal identities that French cinema pretends it doesn’t have. I mean, I love Philippe Garrel, but he is the epitome of white, male straight cinema, full of beautiful girls.
JMB: Did you see Flesh? We shot three films in three years for the equivalent of a short film in France. We had new technology in handheld cameras and that gave us a certain freedom. We did tales that asked if we are free to love who we want, free to explore our sexuality and our thoughts. The answer was ‘no’, but at least we had the freedom to ask (laughs). I was shooting in Cape Town years after, and I received the best compliment of my life: I was doing my laundry in a laundrette, and a guy came up to me and said, “You are an actor, man“. I thought he was going to mention The Big Blue, but he said “I saw Too Much Flesh, and it changed my life“. And I thought, you know, I gave this guy the courage to assume his sexuality. That’s what it’s all about for me.
CS: With that trilogy you opened the door for a young generation of European directors that have been exploring this uncharted territory of identities, even beyond gender.
JMB: Did you see Chroniques sexuelles d’une famille d’aujourd’hui? We did a hard version for Canal+ in which all the actors were making love for real, and it was released for all ages over 12. That was mission accomplished again. You could see the erections in the eyes, you could see the penetrations in the eyes, even if we didn’t actually show them, but all of a sudden the real touching made it much more interesting.
CS: Not as a director but as a viewer, what is your opinion on Gaspar Noé’s cinema and how he represents sexuality?
JMB: He is a true explorer. Sometimes he is in it for the shock value, but he is consistent, and I think he is one of the most important directors in France right now. It’s his cinema, and he doesn’t compromise. I especially thought Enter the Void was beautiful. I also love Paul Vecchiali. He never compromised and at the age of 92 still makes challenging and beautiful films, even though he often struggles to find funding from the French film institutions. He is the very definition of the franc tireur (editor’s note: a maverick).
CS: I’d like to know your opinion on the uproar recently in France when on the cover of Le Film Français they presented a group of straight, white males as the saviours of French cinema.
JMB: France is a very patriarchal society. The whole #MeToo movement failed to take root there because male chauvinism is too strong. One of the things that saved me long ago was that I was facing this French superiority complex. The problem was that I came from California, and my superiority complex was much more advanced (laughs). That attitude didn’t make me popular. You know, in France those people get to make such middle-class films. Things like BAC Nord; we’ve been doing films like that in America since the ’90s. French males in search of their virility, that is all that the movie is about, there’s not much more to it. I hate to say it as an American, coming from an uncultured part of the world, but I have to say it when I see it.
CS: It’s discomforting to see. On the one hand you have a group of people trying to change things, but on the other side you have the old guard, and the problem is there are also some very young guys among them.
JMB: But do you know any young French directors of note? They are all about technique, they don’t sign their films. I don’t feel the person behind it. Titane was ridiculous. It worked against her, because it was not a Palme d’Or film. And the Crash references! Did you know what happened to Cronenberg’s film when it came to the States? Jane Fonda was with Ted Turner at the time. He bought the distribution company, released the film for two days, released no DVDs. Ridiculous, because it’s an unequivocal masterpiece. I saw the film in Cannes, and thought it was actually better than Breaking the Waves! And then five years later another film named Crash wins the Oscar… When Europa came out in America they changed the title to Zentropa. Cronenberg’s Crash was such a close interpretation of Ballard’s novel, all of a sudden modern man’s tragedy is the machine he made for himself, even Ted Turner understood that this could get people thinking. But with Titane and some of the other films in the selection, come on… Drive My Car and Memoria were probably the only ones that were true cinema. Fremaux is like Gilles Jacob, they’re mandarins. When I look at what is happening at the Lumière festival in Lyon, he is doing everything he can to neutralize Cannes and progressively destroying the festival in order to move it to Lyon. That is his strategy. Jérôme Seydoux in that Le Film Français article said that we should no longer make 200 films per year, which I agree with. But then he said we should make four or five for 50 million apiece, and that is going to destroy the industry. It’s a kamikaze ending to the French industry. Think of how the Renaissance found the classics again. Everything was destroyed in the Dark Ages, but some monks in a monastery in Ireland were transcribing the ancient texts, and one of those texts made it to Florence. If I have one mission it is to take what I’ve learned and preserve it until a period where it can grow again, because right now we are going into the Dark Ages. The dream has become the nightmare. I lived the dream in the ’60s and ’70s: Italian cinema, the Nouvelle Vague, seeing my first Godard. I thought it was illegal to watch stuff like that (laughs). I came to Europe for that kind of freedom. But I had an escape, because I could always go back to San Diego and skateboard.
CS: And you did not!
JMB: Not yet!