“It is not enough for a painter like Cézanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create or express an idea,” writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The artist and philosopher, he continues, “must also awaken the experience which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others.” Why? Because “art is not imitation [– it is] an expressive act” that struggles “to make visible how the world touches us.”1 To be “touched” by cinema brings to attention theoretical musings not only by the likes of Merleau-Ponty but Hugo Münsterberg, Jean Epstein, Vivian Sobchack, and Laura Marks. To be “touched” by the cinema makes us feel, cinema moves us. And while all works of art give rise to emotions and visceral sensations, the most powerful of these works are those whose aesthetic is, in short, cinematic. Seen this way, “cinematic” works of art move. They move us to tears, to laughter, to anger, to political action. 

Thus, cinematic works of art touch us in ways often inexplicable, yet affectively and powerfully. Consider examples from a range of art forms: the fierce movement of bodies that fill the pictures frames of Jacques-Louis David, or the intensely strident remains of the brushstrokes Jackson Pollock splattered with conviction on the canvas; or, recall George Balanchine’s choreography in which dancers appear to effortlessly float across the stage; or, consider Marcel Proust’s deliciously precise turns-of-phrase that are nothing-less than cinematic renderings of memory (an author of some import in the following interview). 

Christophe Honoré is that remarkable cinematic artist whose work touches us, touches us deeply on many fronts, and through different mediums. An Honoré work – a novel, a children’s book, an opera, theatre, and of course, a film – aligns itself no differently than a painter’s brushstroke, a choreographer’s pas-de-deux, and a writer’s mark on the page. But if the aesthetic gestures realized by the likes of Honoré, et al. appear gracefully and delicately, they appear so through precision and concentrated effort. Not unlike the endless drafts and revisions David, Pollock, Balanchine, and Proust brought to their projects, Honoré’s labour is revealed in each detail attending image, sound, language, and performance. To be touched, then, is to be touched by artist’s labour, the work that brings to life the work of art.

In his most recent work – a trilogy less defined thematically than by the touch they leave in their wake – Honoré moves his audience to think, to laugh, to mourn, to tears. Guermantes (2021, film), Le ciel de Nantes (2021, theatre), and Le lycéen (Winter Boy, 2022, film) arrive at the intersection of several crucial historical moments: the COVID pandemic, war in Ukraine, and the passing of Jean-Luc Godard. At these crossroads, the collective experience is nothing-less than traumatic; for the individual, these losses can prove emotionally insurmountable. The violence experienced at this moment demands a reset in the way art touches us. It is precisely the questions, the task, Honoré sets out for himself in a transformed world that is once recognizable yet irretrievable. 

How does one touch on these matters of consequence without resorting to formulaic spectacle? To what extent do reflections on time and space, memory, and loss prompt a rethinking of aesthetic form? In what ways – aesthetically, intellectually – does the capacity of cinema open us to feeling the world?

With the recent release and wide-acclaim of Le lycéen, Christophe and I corresponded about the new film and the two other preceding works that make up his recent “trilogy” to explore these very questions.

– DG

Thank you, Christophe, for taking the time to speak about your recent work: the two films, Guermantes and Winter Boy, and the stage production, Le ciel de Nantes. These works are particularly noteworthy insofar as they were developed and produced as the COVID pandemic took hold of the world. At the same time, the works arrive on the heel of war in Ukraine and the passing of Jean-Luc Godard. I’d like to begin by discussing your work as it took place within these contexts. In Le Monde (1 May 2020), you offer a bleak assessment about the pandemic. You state: “I don’t want to create.” Any attempt to make a narrative about COVID is dangerous because it only leads to cliché. You then quote Proust: “To find something, it is necessary to admit we lost something.” 2 Nonetheless, one year later in Le Monde (16 May 2021), you emerge from life during the pandemic with three new works released or in production: Guermantes, Le ciel de Nantes, and Winter Boy.3

I don’t know if you experienced a similar impulse in the United States, but during the first period of containment, the press turned to artists a lot to express themselves on those endless days. It was as if artists were the best people to fill the void that had been created, which is ironic when you see the ever-shrinking space devoted to culture in “normal times.” It was as if contemporary works of art, those which are built at the same time as our present life, suddenly became worthy of interest, or at least saw their value increase. In short, like many artists, I felt like society was asking me to fill the void and to entertain. And personally, I could not answer this command.

Not only could I not respond to it because I found it inappropriate, almost indecent given the situation – the suffering, the deaths – but also, because as an artist, I did not experience this moment of “free” time as a moment of creation. Nothing is more foreign to my mind than to associate the sudden freedom of time with creation. I was like everyone else, inhibited and worried. I was waiting. This waiting was not a time to be used, it was time wasted, for nothing. A wasted time. What happened next, the works that came afterwards, were not conceived during the confinement, I do not associate them with this lost time.

First Guermantes. It was born out of anger. I was rehearsing with the Comédie Française troupe the adaptation I had written of Proust’s Le côté de Guermantes. And like everyone else, we were sent home when the virus emerged. When the deconfinement came, the situation in the theatres remained very chaotic. The Comédie Française told me that this play would certainly never see the light of day, but they told me that there was an opportunity for me to make a television production. It was said with the best of intentions, but I took it badly. It was a kindness that hurt me. I could see that it was being offered to me because I happen to be a filmmaker as well as a theatre director. And as if by some sleight of hand, a play could become a film. 

No. For me, to film this play was to bury it. To deny it. So I told them nicely to go to hell. They insisted. I was obstinate. Yet, in my stubbornness, my anger gave way to a challenge. I told them that I would never film this play. But if they were ready to entrust me with the small budget they had already allowed for the production, I was willing to make a film on the idea of being prevented from performing the work. The film instead would be in mourning of the play, a film that owed nothing to anyone, and for which I would not write a script.

And that’s how I found myself one morning with 20 actors, a theatre, and ten days to invent a film. The film industry rarely offers filmmakers the possibility of spontaneity. It rarely offers the space for improvisation. Usually in the cinema you spend more time explaining the film you would like to make than actually making it. Suddenly, I didn’t have free time to make a film; I had free time. Free from the constraints of money, expectation, formulated desires. The only link that united me to the actors was the common experience of a ghost play. And Marcel Proust.

What can I say about Proust. It’s difficult. It’s been five years since he moved in with me. It’s like having a roommate. When we staged Les idols in Paris at the Théâtre Odéon (2019), Éric Ruff [General Administrator of the Comédie Française] offered me the opportunity to direct at the Comédie Française theater. He told me that I could direct whatever I wanted. In a few days I decided on Proust. It was kind of a madness. The Comédie Française represents a kind of cultural aristocracy in France. It’s inherited from a certain past; it’s a space that carries the past within in. It seemed to me that when I was invited here, I would discover myself in the position of the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu, who sets foot in a salon of which he has dreamed, and whose rules he gradually understands. From the day I told Éric, “I’m coming to your theatre to stage Proust,” the new roommate took over my apartment. And we never left each other. I spent my most beautiful evenings with him!


The two films and the play explore memory and loss. Through these different media, sound and image are precisely constructed to create an experience to invoke memory and loss. In Le ciel…, in fact, image and sound are also permeated by the sense of smell (cooking food, cigarettes, and so on). Additionally, all three open with very specific sound/image relations. For instance, sounds and/or images of airplanes occur as Guermantes and Le ciel… begin, while, in Winter Boy, we see and hear rushing water juxtaposed with the sound and images of speeding cars. Nature and technology collide, suggesting an unsettled world. It’s as if, for example, the airplanes in Guermantes echo Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Are we in an Honoré world of annihilation? Would you discuss the approaches you take to these works in terms of cinematic technique? In other words, what formal elements did you use to portray memory and loss?

For the images you describe in Guermantes, I shot with my iPhone, during the military parades on Bastille Day. It was very grey that day in Paris. Those planes, the noise of the engines, the total absence of crowds to watch them due to COVID restrictions –there was indeed an image of threat there, an image that signalled absence. A noisy and silent image, flourishing yet funereal. And you’re right, Winter Boy opens with the same image in a sense, but this time on the side of a road, with this little cross that appears and disappears through the truck traffic, the flowers . . . and the sky, this time, is a lethal blue.

Given that this new “trilogy” allows us to feel, to experience the complexity of memory and loss, would you say more about your approach to these works as a whole?

Le ciel de Nantes and Winter Boy were in my mind more a diptych. And this unexpected film, Guermantes, became the antechamber to this diptych, a sort of laboratory, a workshop where I began to sketch the main lines of the play and the film. Now, I find that these three works answer each other; among them, they communicate in a flagrant and subterranean way. The flagrant side is autofiction, the self-portrait; the more subterranean concern is time, the friction between the past and the present.4 In Guermantes, we are between a lost time and ghostly rehearsals; in Le ciel…, between a ghost film and a theatre set; and, in Winter Boy, between adolescent memory and a portrait of a modern-day teenager. 

The excitement, for me, in making these three works was what form to give to time. How do emotions circulate between memory and feeling? How, in a sense, to be loyal to chaos, to loss? How to accept that there is no truth? I’m perhaps answering you in a way that is a little too conceptual. So, let’s take for example what drives the narrative in Winter Boy. It appeared to me very quickly that the film should not be narrated but evoked. And, very quickly, I wanted the film to carry in an organic way the inability of the teenage narrator to give order to his story. The film would only be accurate about adolescence if it admitted that it was precisely this time of youth when we don’t know how to tell our story. And, to put into relief this concept, I decided that the last movement of the film would be narrated by the mother, an adult character who knows how to narrate what has come to pass. You will notice, then, that during the characters’ addresses to the camera, Lucas (Paul Kircher) never looks at the lens. He seems to be searching all the time for what he wants to say. And the more he searches, the less assured he is until, finally, he decides not to speak anymore. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), the mother, looks into the lens. She confesses. She expresses clearly what she feels. She takes back the reins of her story and thus of the family.

Winter Boy Theatrical Poster

As you mentioned, the “flagrancy” of these projects involves autoportraiture. It’s a consistent theme through your oeuvre, yet the recent works do something more: you insert your presence into the texts. In Guermantes you appear as the director of the play whose cancellation stirs you and the performers to rehearse it, to keep living, as the world comes to a stop during COVID. In Le ciel…, your family “narrative” is re-staged by a brilliant ensemble of performers where, in a video incorporated into the play, we enter your family home in Carhaix where none other than your mother greets us. You appear in the play, embodied by another actor, Youssouf Abi-Ayad. Then, in Winter Boy you appear as your father, the figure around which the cinematic autoportrait revolves. Why was it important, at this point in your career, to raise the stakes on the autoportrait? In works such as Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Sorry Angel, 2018) your presence is relevant to the extent that what we see the way AIDS resonated when a young man. There appears now an intensity to mark your presence, assertively, in this recent work. Why?

First of all, I think it’s fear. The fear of not having made the works, the films that I should have made – those that could only belong to me. After Chambre 212 (On a Magical Night, 2019), my life was shattered by a break-up with my lover. The period of intense grief that followed left me in ruins. I lost a lot. And I thought I had even lost the desire for cinema, the desire for theatre, the desire to reach out to the world with a film, a text…  In effect, I shot Guermantes in a state of great feverishness, letting myself be carried away by the apparatus that I had set up, trusting my cinematographer (Rémy Chevrin) to film in the direction he wanted… and, then, I entered the frame. Strangely – it was even more than strange – it was unexpected; this presence in the frame, close to the actors, drowned among them, gave me back the desire of a film. I started Guermantes without any energy, without any stake in it, like throwing dice without believing in the project, and finally, by abandoning my position of director, of observer, and by mingling with the actors, I found some joy again. Since I knew this joy to be very fragile, it became precious to me. It became a bit like a magical sesame, not an “open sesame,” but an encouragement to stand up. 

I edited the film at the end of the summer [of 2021]. Then, at the beginning of the school year, the Comédie Française told me that if I was ready to commit myself to re-writing the staging so as to leave more than one meter separating each actor on stage, my adaptation of Proust’s Le côté de Guermantes could be presented to the public. I finished the show. We presented about ten performances when a new wave of COVID came along and, again, cancellation. 

In January, I met my team for work on Le Ciel de Nantes at the Odéon theater in Paris. There was not a single line written, I was again in a state of great discouragement. And this team, this team of intimate partners, I slipped back in among them. I was one of them. This didn’t mean I was sitting and watching them from the 10th row. No. I was on stage; I was improvising with them, and that’s how this show came about. And as it was being written in this way, I managed to write Winter Boy

Well, I’m going to tell you a little bit about how things came together because I want to show you that the making of these works was not deliberate, nor did it have to do with aesthetic choices. No, I didn’t have a choice! I got involved in Winter Boy and Le ciel… because otherwise I couldn’t have done anything. I didn’t have the courage or the energy. I come back to the idea of fear, in that moment of great vulnerability. I faced all my failures, all the movies, books I never took the time to write. I faced my failure as a filmmaker, as a writer. And suddenly, out of fear that all this work would never result in important films, at least important to me, I decided to prioritize these works in the first person, an autoportraiture.

It is interesting to compare 17 fois Cécile Cassard (17 Times Cécile Cassard, 2001) with Winter Boy. There are many overlapping images. And while Cécile is dedicated “to my father; for my mother,” Winter Boy is dedicated to your father. Do you see a relationship between these two films? 

17 Times Cécile Cassard and Winter Boy share the same origin. That’s not the right word, “origin.” Let’s say they share the same beginning: the death of a man in a car accident. 17 Times… focuses on the grief experienced by the mother while Winter Boy on the grief experienced by the son. They have the similar narrative structures, fragmented and floating. But 17 Times… is more naive, more heavily staged. It was my first feature film. In a way, I hope I made some progress. In any case, where I see a lot of dross in 17 Times…, I am more comfortable with the form that Winter Boy took. Sometimes, when I dream a little on my couch about what the future holds for me, I say to myself that Winter Boy is perhaps like a new first film, which augurs a new period in cinema for me.  

Would you discuss your vision of the self-portrait as it differs from other contemporary French artists?

Ah, how to put it . . . It’s difficult for me to compare. In a way, it’s even forbidden. What is certain is that I have little interest in the work of Édouard Louis, for example. I read Louis’ work with mystification, the construction of an idol more than a serious commitment with truth. For me, his desire for self-fiction is a desire for self-celebration. I feel more loyal to reality. Yet, I know that truth is for me is to be deconstructed. I refuse to give “truth” a tragic meaning. There is no meaning as such. To me, there are only sensations, feelings. I distrust my memory, I treat it as an enemy, I try to contradict it, to trap it. I don’t roll out the royal carpet for it, which would lead me to a throne. 

Finally, as these three works came into existence, Jean-Luc Godard passed away. And, like the time during the pandemic, you took to the pages of Le Monde to remember Godard’s filmmaking and your relationship to your own. I was taken by this passage:

Jean-Luc Godard is not a filmmaker that marked me, he is not a filmmaker that built me; he is a filmmaker I believe in. I didn’t need to dream his films to believe him, it was enough for me to see them.5

The passage strikes me because I am reminded of what art historian Michael Baxandall states about whether or not Cézanne “influenced” Picasso. What matters is not what Cézanne “did for” Picasso; what is more important is what Picasso did to Cézanne, how Picasso acted on Cézanne. Seen this way, in what way have you acted on Godard?

It is impossible for me to say. I don’t want to evade your question, but to answer it would be a problem of both taste and insight! I can only tell you of the sorrow that Godard’s death gives me, the loss that he represents. Godard was never tender when speaking about today’s cinema; on the other hand, in his films, he is clearly an ally of today’s cinema and filmmakers. He is a fellow traveller. His activity as a filmmaker in the present was for me both a comfort and a “dose of vitamins.” People always want Godard to give the answer. Too many people saw him as the one who had the answer and who posed the enigma of cinema, a kind of sphinx. I have never seen him like that. Godard is much more Oedipus than the Sphinx. One could even say that he is Oedipus who does not know the answer; or, rather, he is the one who refuses to say to himself that the simple answer to the enigma of cinema would be: “Man.”


  1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” in Sense and Non-Sense, translated by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 19.
  2. Fabienne Darge, “Christophe Honoré: ‘Ce temps imposé est un temps empoisonné.’Le Monde, 1 May 2020.
  3. Sandrine Blanchard, “Christophe Honoré: ‘Je me sens encore très ado dans ma manière de travailler.’Le Monde, 16 May 2021.
  4. Honoré has spoken before on his turn to “autofiction” through the lens of writers from the nouveau roman, a style of novelistic writing in the mid- to late 1950s, claiming to personalize the author’s observations of the physical world by focusing more on objects than on plot and characters. Authors include, Alain-Robbe Grillet, Georges Perec, and Marguerite Duras. See further, David A. Gerstner’s and Julien Nahmias’s Christophe Honoré: A Critical Introduction (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015), pp. 174 & 186.
  5. Christophe Honoré, Jean-Luc Godard n’est pas un cinéaste qui m’a marqué, il n’est pas un cinéaste qui m’a construit ; il est le cinéaste auquel j’ai cru, ” Le Monde, 21 Septembre 2022. Translation, Gerstner.

About The Author

David A. Gerstner is Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Media Culture at the City University of New York. His most recent book is Queer Imaginings: On Writing and Cinematic Friendship (Wayne State University Press). He recently completed a short film, Between Men, A Historical Fantasy.

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