Ursula Meier, born 1971 in Besançon (France) to French-Swiss parents, studied at the Institut des Arts de Diffusion, Belgium. Her graduation film there, Le songe d‘Isaac, was nominated for a short film Oscar in 1994. Her current feature film Home premiered in Cannes and received the Swiss Film Prize Quartz „Best Fiction Film“. Ursula Meier currently lives and works in Brussels.
Lionel Baier, born 1975, has been making films since the nineties and has been head of the film department at the Art Academy ECAL in Lausanne since 2002. Together with his director friends Ursula Meier, who plays minor roles in his films again and again, and Jean-Stéphane Bron (Mais im Budeshuus ), he is regarded as a proponent of a young Welsch-Swiss film scene. Lionel Baier lives in Paris.
Film Wonder Beyond the Röstigraben1
by Maya McKechneay
When one thinks of Switzerland, one usually thinks – at least German-speaking people do – first of Zurich, Basel, St. Gallen – in short of the geographically largest part of Switzerland where German is spoken. However, around a quarter of the Swiss call French their mother tongue – this part of the population lives in western Switzerland, the Suisse Romande, Romandy, also known as Welsch-Switzerland, in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura. Italian is spoken in the canton of Ticino and in four valleys in the south of Canton Graubünden. Although Romansh is no longer very widespread, it is still recognized as the fourth official language.
Thinking now of Switzerland as a film country, one’s attention should perhaps first be directed currently to the French-speaking part. There is a young film scene in this region, whose maverick feature films and documentaries are attracting attention. “The Welschen are coming”, was the headline in January 2009 of the newspaper Neue Züricher Zeitung2, celebrating that “in western Switzerland the film auteur is currently undergoing a minor boom”. In particular, the article referred to Lionel Baier, who “with friends like Ursula Meier (Home) and Jean-Stéphane Bron (Mais im Bund esh sh uus ) or Vincent Pluss (Du Bruit dans la Tête) represents a figurehead of the young French-speaking film scene.”
Of course, the regional classification of the young Swiss film wonder is not quite that simple because for many years both Lionel Baier and Ursula Meier have no longer been based in Switzerland. The country is too small for financing bigger film projects. It is a bit like the exodus of Austrian film makers to Germany (Hans Weingartner) or France (Michael Haneke) – other countries simply have larger markets.
“In Switzerland, it is absolutely normal to produce films, especially feature films, as co-productions with other countries,” explained a good-humoured Lionel Baier on the side at the Rotterdam Film Festival3, where his recent film Un autre h omme premiered. “Un autre h omme is an exception to this. It was made with a very small budget. If you draw from all the funding opportunities in Switzerland, you can get a maximum of two million Swiss francs (around 1.3 million Euro). My previous films Comme d es Voleurs and Garçon s tup id e were both co-productions. The same applies to Ursula’s films. Of course, there are other reasons for this than just the financing of the production. You might want technicians or actors from France, and the film has a better chance of getting a theatrical release in France. France is, of course, our largest market,” says Baier, and adds that in this respect he naturally has a better starting position in Paris.
For years, Lionel Baier has produced his films with Robert Boner, another Swiss Welsch, who also lives in Paris, but still continues to work as a producer not only in France but also in Switzerland (Ciné Manufacture France and Saga Production). Boner also produced one of the first full-length films by Ursula Meier, the documentary Pas les Flics , pas les Noirs , pas les Blancs in 2002, created as a commissioned work for Swiss television.
It was on this occasion that Baier and Meier first met one another: “We were both shooting at the same time, and Ursula and I decided to turn our television features into theatrical films.
Ihad already seen Autour d e Pinget, Ursula’s film about Robert Pinget (author’s note: the Swiss novelist), and her short films Tous à tab le and Le songe d‘Isaac, so I knew: that woman is interesting, and I want to meet her.”
Since then Baier and Meier (both accented on the last syllable in French) have been linked in friendship. They talk to each other about every two days on the phone, says Baier: “We discuss our projects and we can share ideas without mutually hampering our creativity. This is even more interesting, because we make very different films.”
Again and again Lionel Baier has cast Ursula Meier in small roles, as a kind of collegial signature: in his latest film Un autre homme, for instance, she makes a brief appearance as a participant in a radio discussion of film critics.
But it is true that Baier’s and Meier’s films are quite different. Indeed, as far as Meier is concerned, one could argue that as a film auteur she re-invents herself from one film to the next. Her first film, made in 1994 as part of her training at the Belgian Institut des Arts de Diffusion (IAD), the 13-minute Le Songe d’Isaac glides in floating, whispering camera pans through an arrangement of grand suites where fluttering curtains create light and shadows. It feels a little bit like walking through Tarkovsky’s image world. For this very first film Meier was immediately nominated for a short film Oscar.
The following short film, made four years later, Des Heures Sans Sommeil, is more naturalistic in tone: after years of estrangement brother and sister meet again in in their parents’ house. The father has died, memories rise up which make for a sleepless night. Interestingly, the nightly flashbacks are told from the perspective of the male main character, who felt neglected in light of the father’s love for the sister. Here there is a tie-in to Lionel Baier’s character portrayal: in his films it is conversely often the female main characters who are portrayed in a very lifelike and sympathetic way.
In 2003 Ursula Meier shot her third short film, Tous à Table, in long hand-held camera settings. It is a cheerfully boozy ensemble play with a documentary touch, following the movement of a family celebration for half an hour of real time, from inebriated, singing conviviality to quarreling. Whereas the celebration itself is shot in black and white, an animation clip suddenly starts at the end, which translates the riddle told at the table about three ants into colors and forms.
In between, Meier made the author portrait Autour de Pinget (2000) and the aforementioned documentary Pas les Flics , pas les Noirs , pas les Blancs about the transnational initiative of a Bernese policeman.
Possibly schooled by her documentary experience, Meier’s first feature-length film Des Épaules Solides again has the effect of being “captured”: for the title role of a young athlete who pushes herself to the limit of her capacities, Meier cast an amateur actress, who seems just as defiantly introverted as the actors of the Belgian Dardenne brothers – whose films possibly served as inspiration here.
Again completely different: Meier‘s Home, which premiered in 2008 in Cannes, is a colorful filmic experimental arrangement about a family living beside an unfinished highway. Initially left to their own private anarcho-happiness, soon the construction equipment moves in and tips the family ecosystem. With a minimum of dialogue, Meier turns this surreal parable of progress entirely over to the tableau-like power of the imagery (it was filmed by Claire Denis‘ camerawoman Agnès Godard). And it works: wildly daring to be bizarre, Home is surprisingly gently touching.
Home is also the first feature-length film that Meier shot on 35mm. The main roles are played by Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, who regularly appears in Dardenne films, and Adélaïde Leroux, who debuted in Bruno Dumont’s Fland res . The scenery alone, the replica of the highway and the army of extras must have devoured vast sums. Consequently, the financing took a long time.
Lionel Baier, on the other hand, reduced his budget for his current film, as mentioned above. Besides making films, the 34-year-old is now also has a second leg to stand on: since 2002 he has been head of the film department of the Lausanne Art Academy and commutes for this job between Switzerland and Paris each week: “Unlike Ursula, I had never attended a film school myself. In this respect it was strange for me when I was offered this job and I entered a film school for the first time had to consider first time what one is likely to learn there, how the lesson plans must be. I then accepted the job because I wanted to try out an unconventional, non-academic teaching concept, a kind of workshop for film makers.” Baier himself studied French literature of the Middle Ages, then film history and film criticism. Through reading reviews he also moved closer to a film culture far away from Hollywood: “I grew up in the country, near Lake Neuchâtel, in the north of Switzerland.
In this region there was only one cinema, which showed only American blockbusters. No European films or auteur films. My first access to a “different” cinema came through the reviews I read in the newspaper. I learned a lot about making films from reading them. Some critics, such as Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Comolli, are at least as important an influence to me as directors. Some directors that I admire, on the other hand, formerly were film critics: Truffaut or Rohmer.” Baier’s current film Un autre h omme plays in the film critics milieu. François, a newcomer to the profession who writes for a provincial newspaper, starts going to press screenings in Lausanne. There he meets the sharp-tongued and savvy critic Rosa Rouge, who soon makes it a game to intellectually and erotically dominate her inexperienced colleague. It is a farce that treats different positions of film criticism: the eclectic, as embodied by Francois, the intellectual who understands a great deal about film, but does not love it, and the well-educated, old-school cineast. The latter does not appear in the film as a person at all. There are only recurrent quotations from a certain monthly magazine called Travelling, which can easily be recognised as a stand-in for the good old Cahiers du Cinéma. François copies his texts from that. Baier admits that he sympathizes most with the critics from Travelling.
The film movement that Lionel Baier has completed is in some ways exactly opposite of Ursula Meier’s: in contrast to Meier‘s poetic abstract first work, Baier‘s early works, such as the documentaries Celui au pas teur (2000) or Mon père, c‘es t un lion (2002), are very personal. In both films Baier works through his relationship with his father, a Protestant pastor. Celui au Pasteur roughly means “the pastor’s boy”, a nickname attributed to Baier during his childhood in Waad, which shows how dominant his own background was. After a radical break Baier, who also had his coming-out in the meantime, was able to approach his father again. Celui au Pas teur is a filmic test of strength between generations and attitudes, but most of all a rapprochement, an act of reconciliation in the recognition of things shared and dissimilarities.
The director’s three feature films are also semi-autobiographical, or, as Baier himself prefers to call them, “autofictional”. In Garçon s tup id e a certain Lionel, who can only be heard off-screen but is never seen, has conversations with the young prostitute Loïc. With Lionel’s help, Loïc, who has previously only known offensive eroticism but not love, who lives only for the day, gradually discovers the core of his own personality.
Loïc’s anchor of support is Marie, a slightly older friend, who sometimes cares for him or lets him spend the night at her place. She is played by Natacha Koutchoumov, who has so far played all the crucial women’s roles in Baier’s films. They aren‘t close friends, Baier says, but Natacha Koutchoumov embodies something very crucial for him It should not be overlooked that many autobiographical moments in his scripts flow specifically into female characters. They often are much closer too him than the men are.
1 The Röstigraben, literally “Rösti ditch” in English, from the name of the national Swiss-German potato dish Rösti that originated in the Canton of Bern, is a political expression in Switzerland referring to the difference in mentality between Swiss Germans and the French-speaking Romands and the latent conflicts between the German-speaking majority and the French minority. Its name comes from a play on the rift (or Graben) of the Saane river (in French Sarine) that to some degree separates the language populations in the Canton of Fribourg (Source: Wikipedia)
2 Die Welschen kommen, NZZ, Martin Walder, 18.1.2009 www.nzz.ch/nachrichten/kultur/aktuell/die_welschen_kommen_1.1718232.html
3 The quotations are excerpted from an interview that the author conducted with Lionel Baier on 26 and 27 January 2009. The full version is published in kolik.film Nr. 11.