Nicolas Humbert

In May of 1982, the Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar and his wife, the Canadian photographer Carol Dunlop, undertook a last and very unusual road trip from Paris to Marseille, described in their collaborative novel, Los autonautas de la cosmopista (Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, 1983). Based on this novel, Simon Fürbringer, Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel made a film titled Lucie et maintenant – Journal nomade (2007), which was shown in several European film festivals and on the European television channel ARTE. The filmmakers are widely known for their films Step Across the Border (1990) and Middle of the Moment (1995).

At a festival in Munich, I had the opportunity to talk with Nicolas Humbert about the film and the motives behind adapting the work of Julio Cortázar to the screen.

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One of your former films was about the poet Robert Lax. There was also a film project about the poet Paul Celan. Now Julio Cortázar. Why?

NICOLAS HUMBERT: An interest in other arts, especially in literature, applies to all of our films. Cortázar was always important to me. I am strongly influenced by Surrealism and the texts by Cortázar were always like a bridge into the present time for me, because they have a lot to do with Surrealist art and, at the same time, they are borne by an elusive humanity. Thus, Cortázar became a constant companion.

In Lucie et maintenant, however, we worked for the first time using a text which was specially written for the film and became its major structural element. For our film, Three Windows (1999), about and with the poet Robert Lax, the text was also important, but there the text came from his side and already existed.

Cortázar’s short story “La autopista del sur” (“The Southern Thruway”, 1966) served as a model for Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End. At one point in Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, Cortázar speaks of “this parallel thruway we are looking for”. Like Week End, is Lucie et maintenant also an anti-road movie?

This “anti-road movie” is already arranged in the book. It is an experimental framework that attempts to take a space that is originally meant for acceleration – that is, the freeway – and to do the opposite with it – to decelerate and to reclaim your own time with it by creating frictions with the site. In this sense, Lucie et maintenant can be called a road movie, but a road movie in which ‘pausing’ is more important than ‘moving’.

How familiar were the two actor-protagonists of your film with the book Autonauts of the Cosmoroute?

In the beginning, we spent a lot of time transforming the novel into a screenplay. But, during the planning phase for a second research tour on the freeway Paris-Marseille, we suddenly had the feeling that we wouldn’t seize the essence of the book if we continued to try to convert it into a sort of literary ‘pre-form’ for a feature movie. So, we asked ourselves how it would be if we would bring two people, Océane Madelaine and Jocelyn Bonnerave – both are writers and a couple as well – into the situation of novel and make the tour together with them. We started from Paris in two Volkswagen buses and, already from the very moment of us arriving at our first highway rest area, there was this spark in the air that this journey would now become the film. This feeling continued until we arrived with them, and approximately 30 hours of filmed material, in Marseille.

The book is put together with very differing elements: by a logbook with detailed travelogues, but also more reflexive texts by Cortázar or by Dunlop, who also documented the voyage in photographs. How have her photos influenced your film images?

Lucie et maintenant – Journal nomade

There is a kinship between the æsthetics of these photographs and the film. Some objects were purposely quoted in the film image, such as the photo with the traffic cone on the top of Cortázar’s head. Other pictures are quoted in the sound. Larks can be heard and you can see caterpillars in the same way as they are described and photographed in the book. An additional æsthetic equivalence comes up by the extreme slowing down of things we create, which changes your perception. The turn towards the banal and simple, which one can see also in the photos by Carol Dunlop, you can also perceive in the film. In this turn towards the banal and simple, any hierarchy is dissolved. You don’t say anymore this moment is more important than the other. The image of the caterpillar creeping along the table is as important as the simultaneous philosophical digression. This suspension of hierarchies of perception finds its counterpart in the aesthetics of the film.

The voyage of Cortázar and Dunlop had a very personal reason, but was embedded in a more general context as well. Before they got to know that, they were seriously ill. They had engaged themselves with a big part of their work for a new Nicaragua, and the copyright of the book was transferred by Cortázar to the new Sandinista government. Did this political context also become an issue for your film?

The concreteness of the political situation, which was a fact for Cortázar and Dunlop at that time, doesn’t exist anymore, of course. However, the political context comes into the film in another way. By the presence of [Donald] Rumsfeld and the war in Iraq, by television images which could be seen at a highway rest area – or anywhere else in the world. But this act of situating yourself within a political context, which still was so present in the time of Dunlop and Cortázar, cannot be found anymore in our time.

I think this is painful, because as an artist you like to find yourself embedded in a larger context. The reality we’re situated in, the complex global structure, is making it much more difficult to involve and engage oneself. Where it could be most possible now is in Latin America, where a kind of concept of ‘humans-with-one-another’, liberated from ideology, is reappearing and making itself noticeable as a new force.

The original voyage of the book follows certain rules: for example, don’t approach more than two resting places per day. Which kind of rules happened during the shooting?

We stuck to the rules as far as Dunlop and Cortázar probably did. The rules are a structure of reality, but a metaphor as well. But the most important is that they were creating the game. The metamorphosis of the highway stream into Caribbean waves, as it is described by Cortázar, actually happens. You get quite quickly into a sort of trance. This is caused mostly by the sound-noise level and by the structure of the situation, which results again from the rules of the game. Both reminded me of my stays in a convent, because spiritual experiences depend a lot on structures. In this sense, the voyage also has been a wisely arranged pilgrimage.

When your film, your road trip, starts, it is accompanied by music. Later, the movement falters, delays and something emerges that is akin to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the time-image. In comparison with your former films, the use of music in Lucie et maintenant is quite sparing and selective. Instead, sounds and noises are pushed acoustically to the fore. Do you see a connection here?

Lucie et maintenant – Journal nomade

I think this sensation is associated with the basic experience this film is about: the experience of deceleration, by which your own perception is born. The music is put very delicately in reference to specific things. There is music that corresponds to the sound effects, because in that sense it represents a live event as well. For the black-and-white sequences, a leitmotiv by [Franz] Schubert is used, which works more like a window opening onto the book, in which Schubert also appears, but opening to the archetypical side of this voyage as well. After all, it is a love story and recalls other romantic couples like Orpheus and Eurydice or Tristan and Isolde. The treatment of sound, however, has to do primarily with the transformed perception of reality.

The sound of the film, the noises of the highway, are not original recordings, but were reconstructed in the studio. Were there any sounds that were spared and not used for the reconstruction or did you try to recreate the sound as naturally as possible?

We had a wonderful sound designer, Marc Parisotto, who on top of that had a very special relation to the sound material, because coincidentally he had grown up right beside this highway. As a child, he was already always fascinated by the different sounds of cars, the different engines. He searched in his sound archives, edited existing material and reconstructed the highway sound piece by sound piece.

Many sounds in Lucie et maintenant were made by a foley artist: the noise of the leaves; the picking of a raven, which you normally never would hear over the cars; the atmosphere of boule-players out of Marc’s archive merging with a group of French senior travellers; the buzzing and whirring of transmission lines which are normally inaudible. It is this sound universe that creates the actual narrative space.

At the rest areas, as it is described in the book, Dunlop and Cortázar also got to know other people. Once, they even felt persecuted by a truck driver. Did you have similar experiences on your movie trip?

Lucie et maintenant – Journal nomade

We have been asked already a few times, “Why do so few people appear in this film?” In the book, however, something similar happens. The essential point is not due to the field research of an ethnographer, who likes to explore the species “highway passengers”. The main experience, which Dunlop and Cortázar were also searching for, was to recreate as a couple once again a life situation in which nothing would distract them and thus allow them to visualize their own history. This experience we followed together with Océane and Jocelyn.

Cortázar has written another book about the highway, but also about night walks or the metro. He writes that as soon as you enter the metro you enter a system in which everything follows a different logic. Is there any distinct figure or route you have traced in your films?

It is always the challenge that, on one side, we are interested in the most open form and, on the other, this form needs structural elements to actually achieve this openness. Within a fluid movement like a voyage, the primary task is to point out the single moment but to make a gift of time as well. It is very much related to waiting. On the highway, we spent days and days in which we did nothing, no filming at all. Waiting. And the critical moments that arise out of waiting are mutually dependent. This is the actual source of friction.