Lea Seydoux follows in a long line of sulky, petted lip and iconic French actresses, of which there are quite a few – I would argue that she’s already up there with the likes of Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. Seydoux is a famed art-house actress (The Lobster, Blue is The Warmest Colour) with a penchant for staring in blockbusters (James Bond). Here, we discuss her new movie Deception, ‘a profession of faith’ based on the eponymous Philip Roth novel, and her latest collaboration with the brilliant and prolific director Arnaud Desplechin.
The softness of your voice in Deception is striking, almost hypnotic, from the opening scene where you are facing the camera. Was it a given from the start?
I have had few such a talkative roles in my career, moreover with such demanding text. Here the words had to be expressed incisively and quickly. We surely all have several voices according to different periods and situations in life. My voice in Oh Mercy! was clearly different from the one I have in Deception. In this film it is closer to mine in life.
You all seem to have an erotic relationship with the text in this film…
This comes from Arnaud, who has a very close relationship with literature. I think that words, language, literature are essentially erotic. I am convinced that creation in general has a close relationship with eros. It’s a libidinal transformation. And this is the case in Deception. Throughout his films Arnaud narrates feelings supported by the text.
It is also a sensual film, as close as possible to faces and bodies. Did you feel enveloped by the camera and the light?
I wasn’t exactly aware of the work the camera was doing while I was acting, but I loved working with the DP, Yorick Le Saux, who brought so much energy. There was such a special energy on this shoot. When you work with Arnaud, you want to espouse his cause. The actors he directs are thrilled on set. At his side, we feel transcended. He manages, with great youthfulness, to infuse a childlike excitement on set. His enthusiasm is contagious. He has fire in him and manages to communicate it to you. It’s as if he was handing us the torch. Then it’s up to us to seize it and make it blaze. Under his gaze we want to give the best. Arnaud inspires me enormously. In addition, he has the gift of choosing subjects that fascinate me.
Can you say more?
I like the way he talks about feelings. I especially like his viewpoint, his subjectivity. At his side, I feel I’m learning as much about cinema as about life, one not being distinct from the other. Thanks to him I have understood that one thing always goes with its opposite. That is why he doesn’t blame his characters, even those whose behaviour is reprehensible. He is always looking for their humanity. This was at the very heart of Oh Mercy! And it’s also the case in Deception. We can discuss the fact that adultery is immoral, but Arnaud films the love between my character and Philip. He always manages to make humanity triumph. His films never moralize; feelings always prevail, which gives dignity to the characters. I think that’s wonderful.
What was your feeling when you read Arnaud Desplechin and Julie Peyr’s screenplay?
I had the feeling of understanding the film immediately. And it was the same thing on set: when Arnaud gave me directions, I knew instantly what he wanted, it was evident… Sometimes it only takes one sentence in a screenplay for you to understand the whole film, a sentence around which the film revolves. In this case, it’s the final sentence, when my character says to Philip: “Because it was so tender…. unless I was mistaken.” He tells her no, she wasn’t mistaken. The whole film is in these two sentences, there’s no misunderstanding, tenderness did exist between the two of them. This sentence is related to the beginning of the film, where she asks him if he feels the same way she does. There are often misunderstandings in love. Here, both of them agree at the end: they did understand each other. By the end of the script, I was in tears! And I was in the same state when I played that scene. Our world cruelly lacks tenderness. Yet tenderness has to do with giving, with generosity. It’s overwhelming. And there are many such scenes in the film.
Were you familiar with Philip Roth’s world before shooting this adaptation?
I discovered it thanks to Arnaud. Roth is both vulgar and poetic. It seems to me that paradox runs through his oeuvre. This is probably why he is so fascinating to so many.
Did you work differently with Arnaud Desplechin on this film than on the one before?
I was almost more intimidated on Deception than on Oh Mercy! It seems to me that it was the opposite for Arnaud. I thought he was more confident on this one.
We perceive you as a tightrope walker in this film, constantly between two states, often overwhelmed by emotion…
I played this woman as if she was on the edge of a precipice and that’s how I felt on set. I was very shy during this shoot. I was so exposed… My character offers herself: this woman is in love. You feel very vulnerable when you’re in love. Because you want to be loved in return, you expect something. So I felt very fragile. My smiles are a way of masking my distress and emotion. Playing a lover is daunting.
What did you tell yourself about your character, who has no first name? Did you secretly give her a name?
In the screenplay she’s referred to as “The Lover”. It’s as if the characters were conscious of being characters… Because apart from Philip and Rosalie, no one is named in the story. Philip is like a sun around which everyone orbits. My character is neglected by her husband. We sense a great loneliness in her. She is a woman who doesn’t work, she’s financially dependent on her husband and therefore not free. “Without income you don’t have dignity,” she says. This sentence summarizes her situation, her state. I see her as an imprisoned woman. Her lover is her escape.
Did her sophisticated look, her meticulous outfits, her stylish hair help you find the core of her character?
I blended with this character quite naturally. I could dress like her in life. I wear some of my clothes in the film and bought some of the costumes after the shoot! The costume designer, Jürgen Doering, who has worked for Saint-Laurent, has beautiful taste. I loved wearing the clothes in the film, I felt very at ease in them. They are both chic and comfortable.
What kind of acting partner is Denis Podalydès?
He is firstly a man with whom I absolutely love to have conversations in between takes. We got on very well. He is as inspiring as Arnaud can be, and like him knows how to open up new perspectives. He’s also attentive, caring, strong. He is a theatre actor, his feet on the ground, he’s earthy. This was precious to me, as I was playing a febrile character.
Did Arnaud Desplechin direct you together?
He gave each of us different indications. Arnaud is great actor’s director, the greatest perhaps. Being directed by him is an immense pleasure. He is as intelligent as he is sensitive.
Denis Podalydès says he had the feeling that you were always one step ahead of him…
Is it because I never know what I’m going to do before the camera starts rolling? It can be destabilizing for my partners. I can go through peaks and abysses, which no one is aware of but me. I feel like a wild animal, one that hasn’t allowed itself to be tamed and which, emotionally speaking, has no reference point. Like many actors, I have a lot of instinct, but I’m also scared, even if I often feel comfortable on a set… although sometimes not. So I too am one thing and it’s opposite!
Were you inspired by the sets, the 80s accessories?
The sets are sensual and vibrant. I liked their “French charm”, while the action is set in England. Arnaud embodies French elegance!
Did this experience trigger some inner change in you?
I feel as if this was my first role as a woman and that I am in synch with my age, with my own life. I wouldn’t have been able to play this part five years ago. My experience in life nourished me for this film.
Julia Ducournau first gained attention as writer/ director in 2011 when her short film ‘Junior’ was selected at the critics’ week in Cannes. The film would also win the Audience Award at the Festival Premiers Plans in Angers. She first came to my attention in 2016 with the release of ‘Raw’, a brilliantly witty yet horrifying (especially for vegetarians) twist on the flesh-eating horror genre which reportedly had some fainting in the cinema aisles. So it goes. The film would go on to win a host of awards at various international film festivals (Sundance, Sitges, Toronto) and her latest and second feature, ‘Titane’ recently won the Palm d’Or at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Here, in a shorter interview than I’d like, Ducournau discusses her latest film, it’s relationship with ‘Raw’, and divulges some insight into her methodology.
Ms Ducournau, can you tell me about the writing in Titane and how it took shape?
I sensed I was facing a very complex puzzle, with dense matter that I clearly needed to simplify. But I had to be careful or I’d risk losing the existential scope I was aiming for. It was a real balancing act. To give TITANE its definitive shape, I honed in on the character of Vincent [Vincent Lindon] and his fantasy: this idea that through a lie, you can bring love and humanity to life. I wanted to make a film that initially may seem unlovable because of its violence, but then we grow deeply attached to the characters, and ultimately we receive the film as a love story. Or rather, a story about the birth of love because here, everything is a question of election.
Can you talk about the post title sequence where we’re introduced to Agathe Rousselle (Alexia) as an adult?
That sequence is there to impose a certain vision – not my vision – of Alexia, or more accurately, who others want her to be. This vision idealizes her, forcefully iconizes and sexualizes her, makes her obey a whole series of clichés. I see it as a decoy: we’re exploring a surface layer that hints at the ocean we’re about to plunge into, where we’ll discover a femininity with very blurry contours. I wanted this sequence to be both extremely organic and totally disconnected from reality. The Alexia presented to us here does not align with the truth of the character.
What was the casting process like for the part of Alexia?
I knew right away she’d have to be an unknown face. As she goes through her mutations I didn’t want people thinking they’re watching the transformation of a physically familiar actress. I mention above a ‘femininity with blurry contours’. I needed an unknown to embody that. Someone the audience couldn’t project any expectations onto. Someone they could watch transform as the story plays out without being conscious of the artifice. So I went straight to non-professional young women. I had a certain androgynous physique in mind, one that could endure the various transformational states that playout for the camera. I wanted a face that would change with the angle of the shot. A face that could make us believe anything. So the casting was both vast and precise. I knew there’d be a lot of work for whoever I chose. Not so much rehearsing lines (Alexia is practically mute) but in the acting itself. I’d have to go digging for something inside her, push her to places she wasn’t used to going, and obviously that takes time. When I saw Agathe [Rousselle] for the first time at a casting session, she really stood out. She had the right physique and a fascinating face, but also a presence. She commanded the screen, and that’s exactly what I wanted.
What about Vincent Lindon’s character?
For the character of Vincent it was far simpler: I wrote the role for Vincent Lindon. We’ve known each other for a long time. I wanted to film him and show him to everyone the way I see him. His character required a range of emotions that, in my eyes, only he is capable of: at once scary and vulnerable, childlike and dark, deeply human yet monstrous… especially with that impressive hulk of a body. In preparation for the role he did serious weightlifting for a year. I wanted him beefy like an ox, reminding us of Harvey Keitel’s massiveness in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. We got along beautifully during the shoot and I’m very proud of that. Vincent trusted me. He accepted the idea of surrendering to the character without necessarily holding all the keys to my cinema. He was exceptionally generous in what he gave to the role and to me. I think I got something from him that he himself was looking for at this stage in his career. I came along at the right time, if you will.
Can you say how you achieved the many special effects in TITANE?
The biggest challenge by far were the prosthetics Agathe [Rousselle] had to wear. She spent long, laborious hours in makeup every day, which was exhausting for her and stressful for us, as every little touchup obviously takes time. The prosthetics were a central part of our daily schedules. It’s funny, because I’ve been using them since Junior and every time I say to myself, ‘Never again, too much hassle!’ Then I go right back and do it again on the next film! (laughter) But the thing is, for actors, prosthetics are true companions in the acting process. And they’re so organic on screen.
And you again teamed up with Rubens Impens who worked on RAW. What did brief did you provide for this film?
I often used the word ‘malfunction’ to evoke the film’s transformations. ‘Derailment’ too, because the story is peppered with machines and metal. Ruben and I worked hand in hand. We did the shot list together, the lighting chart together, we were practically joined at the hip on set… We started by figuring out what machinery we’d need on the film, because we shared frustration from not having played on that more in RAW. And we discussed how to do something graphic without losing the characters in the process. When it comes to lighting, I work a lot within a cold/hot dichotomy. TITANE is concerned with metal and fire, so the cold/ hot relationship had to be ever-present. Ruben and I wanted to take a deep dive into contrast. We were constantly flirting with the limit, the limit being the cartoon: one step further and we could fall into cartoonish. We had to stay in the reality of the film. Push the shadow/light envelope as far as we could, without getting lost in an ultra-stylization that would suck the blood out of the characters and the action. We focused more on pictorial references than film references, the paintings of Caravaggio in particular. I also showed Ruben Summer Night by Winslow Homer and THE EMPIRE OF LIGHT series by René Magritte to give him an idea of what I was looking for in the contrasts. I wanted light to spring from the shadows in the same way emotion gushes after an initial shock. I also wanted lots of colors, to break with the darkness of the story and avoid an impression of inescapable sordidness. For the many nude scenes, which I wanted as non-sexualized as possible, I tried to use lighting to reinvent the skin each time. Our work with color made it possible to bring new textures, meanings, and emotions to the skin itself.
Another thing which struck me is the music. Where you again work with Jim Williams, what spec did you give him?
I asked him to use percussions and bells. And I insisted on the bells. Why? Because I absolutely wanted to incorporate metal into the score. I wanted music that sounded metallic while still being melodic. As with RAW, I wanted a memorable recurring theme that would vary according to my characters’ trajectories. TITANE goes from animal to impulsive to sacred. To help us feel that progression, the music must also fluctuate, hybridize, transform. We go from percussion to bells to electric guitar and sometimes everything combined. Then voices come in, bringing a liturgical dimension to the film. I asked Jim [Williams] to work on creating a momentum towards the sacred. His music also needed to be like bursts of light in the shadows.
Felten Ink recently had the pleasure, the privilege of speaking with Rebecca Lucy Taylor, the former Slow Club musician and now ‘front’ for her own solo project, Self Esteem. Her first record as Self Esteem, ‘Compliments, Please’, was released in 2018 and now Taylor is back and gaining more huge and rightly deserved applause for ‘I Do This All The Time’, as well as her latest single, ‘Prioritise Pleasure’. Both tracks are a tremendous affirmation and example of Taylor’s own attitude to her own self-esteem and her rampant individuality. The former is also an uplifting ode to spoken word pop (and self-help analysis). But please, do keep your Baz Lurhman comparisons to yourself.
In our conversation we discuss her attitudes and career as a solo artist so far, multi-tasking to the extreme, dealing with the world online, Self Esteem as an art as well as therapeutic project, and how one deals with their own sexual desires for a muppet.
Rebecca, forgive me. When I first heard your solo material as Self Esteem I had no idea you used to be in the wonderful Slow Club?
Yeah, remember that slag from Slow Club? That’s the year’s tagline. A lot of people don’t realize that.
How is it for you, in terms of going from being part of a band to now working and thriving on your own solo project?
Self Esteem is a direct sort of solution to things I was unhappy about in a band. Obviously, I’m really proud of what we did, it’s 10 years of my life, I toured the world, really learned a lot, you know? I didn’t go to university, I went straight out of school into a band and had a really weird but amazing time. But I think creatively I found it very difficult to compromise. So that’s why Self Esteem is quite like… there’s the music but then also I’m hyper-focused on the aesthetic and the look and the direction of everything. And the show and just all these other parts that it, that is the art of making. Whereas in a band you’re having to sort of compromise and there are other people’s tastes and things like that. I don’t think I faired very well, mentally. Like I find it really difficult to not be, as a creative, ‘totally seen’. So Self Esteem is all about that really and that’s why I look like I’m having just the fucking time of my life all the time. I loved the band and I love the people I made music with but, fitting into someone else’s idea is, was pretty bad for me (laughs).
I tend to be more drawn towards artists who are perhaps egocentric but definitely like to have control. How do you feel about that in relation to being an artist?
Well, you see that’s the thing, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think like you’re almost told your whole life, especially as a woman, to be like ‘stay in your lane, don’t show off, don’t think your idea is the best one’. Whereas actually, it’s like sometimes it was and is, do you know what I mean? And it’s society’s structure that made me go, ‘Oh sorry, excuse me, do you mind if I…’ etc. And it stifled me creatively. And I’m not saying what I’m doing now is better, I feel much more realized. Yeah, I guess it’s egocentric but I don’t believe that’s as bad as we’ve been made to believe it is. I think if we all put ourselves first a bit more everyone would be a bit (laughs) happier.
Now it feels like you really own your own output. Does that make sense and how have you evolved?
I think like just the natural way, like when you’re like 16 and you love bands and you want to just copy it. It’s very different, like learning what your actual‘art practice’ is and what’s important to you. I mean, it was very much when I started making music I wanted to be like Tilly and the Wall or Bright Eyes or things like that. And over time I’ve learned what I like to do is fucking sing, rather than just being sweet. I like to perform. I like to move an audience, I like things that feel a little bit like there’s so much music. To my mind, if you’re going to bother making any more, it needs to either say or be something completely new or say something new, or at least take you on a journey. That’s what I’m into. A lot of people like to hear the same kind of thing over and over again and that’s fine as well. To keep myself entertained is the thing I focus on really.
I guess being in a band so young helps you learn these things?
What I learned from being in a band as well is like, you write all these songs and you make all these records and then you’re touring them for like two years and the tour is not as cool and fun as it sounds. It’s really boring and hard and uncomfortable, and you make piss all money for how much time it takes out of your life and how much it disrupts your life. For me, Self Esteem has been about making sure that when I’m doing all this work of touring, and as we all know making not much money, it’s got to be fulfilling. And all this is a bit more interesting for an audience, I believe.
Prior to this interview, my wife saw me on my laptop watching you get intimate with Kermit. Can you clear this up?
(laughs) And she was like, “Not again. Not with the frog porn again!”
That was quite a while ago now I shot that. When I was a kid,when people asked me who I fancied, I would say a frog. I’m bisexual. It was obviously a way of me kind of hiding what I was feeling. But all the way through my life, all the greatest loves of my life have had long arms and legs. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence but yeah the idea was that I can’t put a label on what I am, I’m just attracted to Kermit (laughs). That’s the first thing I took my own initiative and wrote and directed something myself. And it’s weird as fuck, but I love it.
I’ve always had a thing for Miss Piggy so I totally identify.
I’ve been following you on social media for a while and you’re admirably very vocal about the amount of crap you get sent to you and call it out often. What’s it like having to put up with all the stupidity and garbage the internet (especially some men) can throw?
Well, the internet is just a faceless version of what life is like for me as a woman who performs I guess.I remember turning 14 and the world got weirder and scarier because men started looking at me in that way.It was a real shift, but I was still a child. So what I get, what gets said to me on the internet is often…. I actually don’t fare too badly. Like, it happens but I think it’s probably way worse if you’re Rita Ora or whatever. I’m not very famous so I think I get away with a lot but men love to sort of comment on my appearance.
My life has just been people commenting on my appearance. I don’t let it affect me because it sort of proves my point and what I’m trying to say all the time. I don’t hate men at all, I really love loads of them. But that is in the zeitgeist now, isn’t it? The way that I think a lot of men don’t understand the fear that you live in every single fucking day as a woman. You’ve got to make allowances for the fact that some people are just fucking sad. And this gets them really going, and I just think, ‘honey if you need to tell me I look like a slag on the internet, then go for it’. If that’s gonna make you feel better, go for it, because I want to be kind (laughs).
You do still seem to remain positive regardless when it would wear other people down.
I sometimes get angry and I try not to because you’ve just got to wait for these people to learn themselves and I do think like, you know, with my best mate’s kid, a little girl, I think the world will be a bit different by the time she hits a certain age. The conversations we’re having now and the kind of move, there’s a shift, you know, feminists, or just even fucking awareness of the inequality that’s been happening, you know shit that happens in the news… at least these things are finally being spoken about.
You only get so far with positivity on the internet, and you give so much of it and what you get back just makes you, or it makes many vindictive and hateful. But it also depends on where I’m at, like if I’m feeling a bit shit anyway or whatever like it sometimes can hit me a bit worse. It’ll be interesting because obviously with the new songs there’s a bit more buzz going on for me than usual. And you know, I’m getting a lot more followers, things are happening more than usual so I’m just gonna see how it goes. My mental health is something that I’ve absolutely devoted my life sorting out.
I’m no analyst or psychologist but the name in itself, Self Esteem, it does appear you’ve made a very conscious decision to focus on positivity, ’empowerment’, call it what you will, with this project?
Oh no. You’re totally right. When I was in Slow Club, we used to tour a lot and we spent a lot of time in LA. And I was friends with this band who were these like, real sort of authentic fucking psychedelic punks that made music for making music’s sake. Everyone had these cool names for their projects and I remember being like really wanted to do one myself and I was either gonna call it Sex Appeal or Self Esteem. So, I’ve carried that with me for like, nine years. I needed an outlet so I started just making art under the name Self Esteem and then it just carried on.
But yeah to answer your question, I had no fucking self-esteem at all and that was what was wrong in my life. But I called it that because I thought it was a cool project name. And it’s actually become really self-fulfilling. In the sort of beautiful way that will be great, you know, in the documentary. I would say three years ago I sort of started with a new therapist who was like, ‘you have no self-esteem, you really don’t love yourself’. And I was like, ‘oh, okay. I don’t know how I deal with that, but let’s try’. I have figured quite a lot of that out and it’s really revolutionized my life personally and also my work.So it’s hilarious, but yeah, it’s self-fulfilling. But I will still make some music under the name Sex Appeal and see what happens with that. In some format.
Along with the music for Self Esteem I understand you’re also in charge of the choreography and shooting in the videos? How do you manage to juggle all of those (‘I Do This All The Time’ and ‘Prioritize Pleasure’)?
I lose my shit, I find it very difficult. I do a lot of prep, I’ve sort of learned over the years. It’s often for very fucking little budget. I’m really used to sort of making something good out of not a lot but learned that if you’ve got no money, you need the prep and the time. But if you’ve got loads of money you can whip something together and it’ll have the same result.I pulled all the money that I got from the label to make videos into one and I shot three videos on that one day. So there’s two more videos to come that I shot that day. But I did just a ton of prep. I did not stop thinking about it. I planned it within an inch of its life. I’ve done a few videos that I directed for other people and really enjoyed that experience because I’d had fuck all to do with me on camera and I could like focus. But it’s another one of those things, I think Self Esteem is unfortunately this … I’ve worked with other people, I’ve tried to do other things, I tried to collaborate but think it all just has to come from me and have that really concentrated vision being communicated, really on the nose. And it makes you know, job a bit harder but I’m, I’m also like work’s more fun than fun. I don’t really like relaxing so I’m fine with it.
You sound like you have a million things you want to do at once and it must be tough?
I’ve always been like this. When I was in Slow Club, it was like I had to wait. My life was waiting to be in the studio, waiting to record, waiting to rehearse, waiting to tour. So all that downtime, I was misplaced in a way and became me just fucking about my twenties, basically. I like to structure my time, I like to have projects. Genuinely, there’s nothing more fun. Like, going to the pub and getting pissed up and coming home, eating a takeaway and falling asleep and feeling shit the next day is like, don’t get me wrong, something I do a lot of. But I don’t love that as much as I love working on something I’ll record or, or create. I guess I’m kind of lucky that at the moment everything I create has a small audience. I could just be shouting into the void and I don’t know what. I think I would still always do it though, do you know what I mean? I think that’s just my lot. And it’s frustrating, I can’t hold a relationship down and I’m a bad friend. I’m really shit, I’ll not remember your kid’s christening. But I can’t help it.
I’m fascinated by artists who treat their work like a normal job, like a discipline. Like I’ve heard Nick Cave say he goes to his office in the morning and just writes till whenever. Whatever works I suppose. I don’t suspect that’s how the process works for you?
I’ve worked with people that treat it like a day job. Sit with the guitar all day. I used to try and be like that, I think I thought that meant you were a real musician or whatever. But again, it’s just another thing, I am 34 now, it’s like I know what works, what doesn’t. I am open to trying new things, but for the most part, I get how I am. And Self Esteem, as a, I think of it as more than the music, it’s an art practice and that is what I hope you get as an audience member or a consumer. It’s like performance art. I think that constant sort of stream of consciousness, to me is interesting and helps you have a fully realized idea of me. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with making sure everyone sees me, but that’s what this is. I don’t sit and go write. But, you know, if, some company said I need a song like this, we’ll pay you this much, can you write it? I’d be like, “Yeah, fuck yeah I love that.” I am still just finding it all out.
You would appear to speak to the outsider, which I love, but is that a fair comment?
As soon as I hit like eight or something I was louder, weirder or my imagination got stranger. There are all these things, especially as a woman, that you’re like ‘oh’. I never had boyfriends. I’ve just felt like an alien the whole time but the difference now is I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I really, really celebrate that. I think there’s a fuck ton more people than you realize that feel like that. But, many go through the system, and especially as a woman if you’re sort of polite, quiet, pretty, clever, but not too clever, like all these things. I just can’t be asked to conform when it just doesn’t naturally happen. But if it does, nice one. After me trying to reform the system. (laughs)
Rebecca Lucy Taylor, thank you!
The new album by Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ will be available later this year.
You may want to have a pen and notepad ready for this one, such is the gargantuan level of artistic reference points cited by Italian lawyer and polarizing artist Elio Mascolo. Mascolo’s art brutally and brilliantly takes aim at such seemingly untouchable public figures that it makes one wonder how the Italian law system hasn’t already had him *gasp* cancelled. Mascolo is an interviewer’s wet dream and full of tremendous statements that make him instantly quotable. In this lengthy exchange, we cover modern-day threats to artistic freedom, his career as a painter-lawyer, cancel culture, the EU, public sector bureaucracy, Greta Thunberg, the Pope, Mascolo’s ‘vintage’ heterosexuality as well as a whole load of his own and well-known others’ philosophy that demands to be reread, noted and preserved.
Mr Mascolo, I’ve never spoken to nevermind interviewed a lawyer who is also creative. How do both vocations affect each other?
Yes, I’m a lawyer but I’m a teacher too – I teach the history of the Byzantine Empire and history of the Balkan countries in Sancti Cyrilli Universitas in Malta and in the public Universiti of Valona in Albania. Both of these commitments provide me with many hints and ideas, but they do not ‘technically’ affect what I paint. Hardly any one of my paintings was induced by the object of my profession. I have often (and happen) to meet good characters for a painting or colleagues who paid well for a portrait. Strangely, none of them wanted a portrait wearing a toga or discussing a trial. Sometimes I have a female subject, but then I almost always paint her naked or with clothes that inspired more agreeable instincts than those induced by a toga. You always have to dig to find something.
What kind of law do you practice?
I am an administrative lawyer. My opponent is always the public administration and I hate it with all my soul.
I’ve read you say you are a lawyer for ‘pleasure’. What kind of pleasure does that profession give you?
Like I say,I deeply despise the public administration, obtuse laws and bureaucrats. I began to be a lawyer for the pleasure of opposing all this and, often, to beat them. But I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years. After the first ten I thought that the public administration and the state bureaucracy are a relentless Moloch. You can win against him a thousand times, but the day after he will pass new laws against which what you have obtained up to then will no longer have any value. Over the following ten years I became more and more convinced that my clients are no better than the administration I despise. Most of them are just people who don’t want to pay taxes or cover up illegal activities; they are the two sides of the same coin. Now I don’t enjoy it anymore. So, at the end of this year, I decided to return the toga … another cycle is over.
How do you find time to be creative?
Every moment of one’s existence is a creative moment, you just need to have enough attentive eyes and enough rich, intense dreams but also a mind capable of creating infinite rhizomes. In fact, I think that the relationship that a painter has with reality has a thousand facets and presupposes a particular quality of the gaze. Faced with a gesture or a landscape, the painter must bring out the conscience details, fragments, reflections and sensations they are generally unaware of and that normally escape. The expression with the mechanism of the real becomes universal, pronounced on behalf of everyone and elaborated on an articulated cultural background: a network of references, unusual combinations, revealing symmetries. It feeds on relationships, cultivated for years or burned in a few meetings, and above all, born from the constant confrontation with the society of its time, in all its aspects, even the most superficial and ephemeral. My ‘inspiration’ is nourished by this reality, by producing ‘surrealist’ observations on human existence. The red thread of my paintings flow from the teeming movement of life itself.
Why or do you think it’s important for art to reflect the artist; authenticity is obviously essential?
I believe that the art expressed and produced by an artist (painter, musician, poet or scammer) can only be the reflection of his skills and ideas. If you don’t express yourself authentically, if you have to strive to be authentic, then you are just an imitator, and you don’t have much to say. So in art (but also in other fields), there are ‘talents’ and ‘geniuses’. The talented man paints, composes verses or music or novels and his works are welcomed by the public. The talented man knows how to please and is rewarded by success, he gets honours and money (the original meaning of the word talent) but his work will not be independent of public consent. He will be successful but he will not have created anything important. The man of genius, on the other hand, creates without caring about the public. Generally, his works are rejected or are imposed by their authority, not by their power of seduction. The future belongs to the man of genius, but the present usually rejects him, often with violence.
Jean-August Ingres stated, “…with talent you do what you want…with genius you do what you can…”
How did you become a lawyer and as a quick follow-up, is painting more of a hobby?
I became a lawyer because my father, who was a lawyer. My older brother is a lawyer, my younger brother is a lawyer, my uncles are lawyers or judges ….in exchange I asked him to be able to study something else as well. So, graduating in law in Bari, I also graduated in history in Rome and in the restoration of paintings on canvas, wood, and frescoes in Florence. After my studies, with a high school friend of mine, I opened a painting restoration company and for seven years I worked for the church and the superintendency of artistic heritage of my city (Bari), then due to a malignant carcinoma caused by organic solvents I had to leave this business. So I started being a lawyer. It was January 2000 (my father’s dream was fulfilled …) but the courts are sad, grey and boring. With my degree in history (obtained at the Pontifical Lateran University), I first obtained a professorship in a Catholic university in Tirana, after one year I was called to the St. Cyrilli University of Malta and two years ago they offered me a professorship in Valona.
I have been painting and drawing since I was three years old. My mother gave me a box of colors and a sketchbook. I never stopped. Now through painting, I focus and ‘live’ in the world, transforming it with the utmost freedom of spirit and with the most prolific and boundless imagination that the world itself inspires in me. Painting enabled me to completely abolish common logic in favor of an imaginative, surreal and subconscious expression. With painting, I can reproduce mental traces built on associative mechanisms and generated by unexpressed sublimated realities. So painting is not a hobby, painting is the air I breathe.
When looking at your works, it seems that you firmly believe in the need for free speech and the right to offend…
Pablo Picasso said: “Painting was not invented to decorate apartments, it is a weapon of offense and defense from the enemy”.
Art is a very powerful means of expression. Now, I don’t think art can kill like a weapon but I believe deeply in freedom of expression and thought. Only art can make you say what you want about what you see exactly as you would like, then, everyone is free to take offense as they see fit. Today, more and more, it is becoming difficult to express oneself without someone not feeling offended. It has become easier to feel offended than to be able to offend. An example: I have portrayed dozens of times the woman with whom I lived 16 years of my life, for me she was the most beautiful living being on this world. I often painted her little dressed, more often absolutely naked. When our story was wrecked, she took all the pictures of the paintings I had taken of her to court and accused me of being a sex maniac (given my status as a lawyer, it was a terrible problem). Then she destroyed them all. So, how many men every day are ‘destroyed’ or ‘brutalized’ even only psychologically by companions to whom they had completely trusted? I hate and despise the rampant concept for which any form of ‘approach’ to the other is now criminalized, of any sex. According to the dominant thought currently, art giants such as Picasso, Balthus, Schiele, Bacon, Freud and many others, would have been arrested immediately because of their ‘stormy’ relationships with their partners, models or muses.
In your work you appear to be making a mockery, satirizing, even insulting ‘important’ people – politicians, social activists, the Pope. I do tend to applaud those you pillory.
How do you choose who you paint or ‘take aim’ at?
I do not choose the subjects of my paintings. It is they who offer themselves to my observation, it is they who ‘knock’ at my studio crowding behind the door. The whole of Western society is the primary source of inspiration … its ever-lower level of cultural, ethical, aesthetic misery. The unstoppable decline into which our culture is precipitating without even bothering to die elegantly. In a society that is incredibly suffocating itself with the noose of his paucity. In reality, I don’t think I offend anyone; I oppose with all my strength the imposition of being ‘politically correct’, the most monumental form of sinister hypocrisy that is pulverizing freedom of expression and thought. It is reducing everything to a single thought that a sane person with a shred of cultural and mental dignity cannot possibly bear. Here, often the subjects of my paintings are characters whose ‘impositions’ offend my intellectual dignity.
Do you consider yourself a polemista?
I don’t think I’m a ‘polemicist’. Perhaps a cynic (of the school of Diogenes), at least in the way of seeing and facing the things of life. And a heretic in the way of thinking and expressing my ideas with painting. [I’m the] child crying: “THE KING IS NAKED!”
What kind of freedom does art give you?
I don’t know if being an artist makes you more free, I think there are more narrow-minded and obtuse artists than people who have never picked up a brush in their hand but have freedom in their eyes, in their minds, in their souls. I am sure however that a gifted artist knows how to give a more ‘acute’ voice to his libertarian essence. Slaves are born, free you die. The satirical cartoonist Stephan Charbonnier (the director of Charlie Hebdo), 48 hours before his death, published a book whose incipit was a quote from Emiliano Zapata: “It is much better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” I think exactly the same thing.
Do you consider yourself a ‘political’ artist?
I am not ‘very political’. I am absolutely anarchist, neither right nor left. My political reference is Buenaventura Durruti. Unfortunately, however, politics, directly or indirectly, alters and manipulates the daily existence of every human being. The total submission of politics to finance. The absolute detachment between politics and people’s real life is the thing I hate and fight most and it is the thing I fear the most; what really frightens me about politics is the silent but unstoppable destruction of social freedom. I wonder if ours is still a free society? By now it is evident that all the conditions for a new “different” dictatorship are being fulfilled. Freedom is being destroyed, language is being increasingly impoverished, truth is being abolished, history is being suppressed, nature is denied, while hatred spreads. Our age has lost all reference. What awaits us beyond the ‘nice’ media?
How does the media affect your creative or artistic work, social versions, or elsewhere?
I’m not (and I don’t care) the influence of the media. At most I get ideas. Basically, I think media is a giant steamroller that flattens everything in its path; a form of total democracy in which everyone can say everything regardless of the value of what they say and who says it. It is a huge cauldron into which millions and millions of ingredients are poured that gives an absolutely indefinable flavor and final shape. Like when mixing all the colors of the palette in one container, the result is a non-color. The media, however, frighteningly influence those who look at art, they ‘suffer’ it. The viewer is absolutely subservient to this neo-language which is now a system of power. Even though the spectator does not understand, he pretends to understand for fear of not being ‘admitted’ to the assembly of the ‘intelligent’, so he appears dramatically more idiotic than he is, and queues up, in silence, to cheer those who mock him …
Is it possible to judge art objectively?
I don’t know if art (except for some very evident cases) can be judged in another way that is not absolutely subjective. Certainly, for me, a good part (most of) contemporary art, the conceptual one, the hard one, the one we look at without absolutely understanding anything and inside us we say ‘I could have done it too and even better’, the one that needs thousands of abstruse words to be explained and eyes are no longer enough to admire it, well that art is just a huge hole with something (not much really) around it. And yet, this art of senselessness, of provocation, often of horror, has a history and causes that should be known both by those who adore it and by those who would like to protect themselves from the ugliness inherent in it.
I like your illustration of Greta Thunberg. What’s your personal opinion on her?
She is a little girl unaware of her role, a tiny wheel of a gigantic economic gear artfully built around her, good for any situation. After her performance on the environment, she also ventured into the sea of the Covid pandemic. [ She is] a not too cute puppet well trained. In Italy, if a child, even sick, does not go to school for weeks and remains, like Andersen’s little match girl, exposed to the elements with a sign hanging from her neck on a sidewalk, a judge would have the parents arrested and would order the intervention of social services… I prefer Severn Cullis Suzuky (the girl who silenced the world). Remember the UN Environment Summit in 1992? Little Severn, in absolute autonomy and without mega-organization behind her, said better and earlier the same things repeated by the Swedes.
And then there’s the painting of Pope Francis… which was also funny.
I am an atheist, but I also studied in a Christian and Catholic university, a true institution of the church of Rome. I have an education and a culture deeply imbued with the history of our Judeo-Christian society, with full knowledge of the facts I can therefore say that this Bergoglio is ‘a nice person’ and not much more. Theologically, he is an absolute nullity, he’s managed to do more damage to the church in 7 years than the secular world in 2000 years… perhaps because he looks a lot like Stan Laurel, he tells a lot of nonsense without substance and depth. With him, faith and doctrine have disappeared. He is so Jesuit that he took the name of the first of the Franciscans!
As you know now, I have a Greek wife, but regardless of that fact, it seems to me, quite a healthy thing to lampoon Turkish President Erdogan… a vile character. Your painting insults him brilliantly.
The painting depicting Erdogan humping the Von Der Leyen was painted almost 2 years ago. It is a hymn to the uselessness of the EU in the face of the incredible maneuvers and blackmail of an unscrupulous dictator like Erdogan and the needs dictated by the markets. Turkey is however an excellent economic and strategic partner of Germany and the EU is a foolish servant. It would be useless to list the monstrosities perpetrated by the ‘sultan’ against his own people and many others, ignoring (I don’t want to take a history lesson) the total manipulation of basic civil rights.
What do you see as the current biggest threat to artistic freedom?
I believe that a truly dangerous threat to art can only come from itself. Since Duchamp’s exhibition of his urinal 100 years ago changed the destiny of art forever, art has since begun to expand its competencies with excessive prodigality; it has lent its guarantees to an infinite number of ‘projects’ that have turned out to be totally unsuccessful, inconsistent, pretentious and all too often insignificant. For a long time now, art has to be seen with the ears and no longer just with the eyes; its existence is only assured if it is supported by a robust theory, i.e. by the most important, sophisticated and grandiloquent terms and adjectives possible that illustrate its meaning to a gullible and good-for-everything public.
Having completely lost sight of the primordial concept that was at the basis of art, that of beauty, which it has evidently long since renounced, and having lost the backbone of aesthetics, art has ended up by flattening itself on vacuous and increasingly disturbing concepts. However, the most insidious danger for the freedom to create and, in my opinion, always more serious, derives (as I have already mentioned) from the unstoppable spread of two monstrous phenomena; the ‘politically correct’ and ‘cancel culture’, two real abominable ogres, those who in my opinion are the armed wing of progressivism, which, find very fertile ground in our now completely anesthetized web society… A society in which freedom has been severely but inexorably restricted; a society in which progress means being constantly monitored and spied on; it means not having a private life, an intimate life, a personal life; it means having to ignore calm, silence, and solitude; it means being repertoire and filed in order to be able to satisfy the markets more effectively.
I enjoy listening to your overall outlook; you cite Emile Cioran for example and many others who I adore.
What inspires you the most, what gives you the strength to create, past living artists, filmmakers, musicians or present?
I certainly love various artists whose way of approaching things I have perhaps assimilated more than their way of painting. Of course, the paintings of Dali and Magritte fascinates me a great deal, the style and line of Schiele and Klimt are absolutely inimitable, as is the unsurpassed technique of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites, or the genius of Picasso, Caravaggio or Masaccio, but they already had intuitions and ideas that they realised wonderfully. It is in my reading, in my music, and in what surrounds me and crowds my daily life and, no less important, in the female body,that I find cues, images, ideas and topics that I then translate into frames of imagination. For example, when I’m in Albania for university and experience the chaotic and varied everyday life of the streets of Vlora or the markets of Tirana, I feel like I’m immersed in a screenplay by E. Kusturiza. But when I talk to the people who live and animate those places, I feel as if I were dipping my hands into the ink that flows from the pen of Milan Kundera, all set to music by Bregovic and Satie! So in my memory, images are indelibly printed that will come in handy, sooner or later, in some painting.
As for women’s bodies as inspiration and passion, apart from my now ‘vintage’ heterosexuality (I am white and heterosexual and this makes me an animal in extinction), I believe that only in them is it possible (not always, of course) to merge the beautiful and the sublime. But from Rimbaud, Baudelaire to Rilke, from Garcia Marquez, Orwell or Borges, to Tournier, Houellebecq, Calvino or Camus, from Cioran, Agamben to Onfray, it is among them that I look for emotions and the commotion capable of ‘moistening’ my soul so that it doesn’t dry up too much in contact with the ugliness or paucity that assails reality. Reading and listening to music are my drug. Knowing, feeling and wanting to know and see more and more is my incurable disease. Curiosity is my sea.
I associate with your take that music is a drug – can you talk more about its importance to you?
I believe that music is the breath of the world. I think life without music would be very miserable and I personally listen to music all the time. When I’m working in the studio and if I have a particularly challenging act to prepare, I listen to music appropriate to the difficulty of the moment; as well as when I’m preparing lectures for university or doing research or when I’m painting; and when I’m driving, all the time. I can whistle every note of an infinite number of tunes. One day in court, while walking down one of its huge corridors, I whistled ‘The Man I Love’. A judge looked at me with disgust and said, “Remember you are a lawyer!”
“I remind you that this is Ghershwin”, I replied, “…a little more than most lawyers”. He told me I was crazy and other things I didn’t understand. Every moment of my life clings to a note, a melody.
When my son was born I learnt by heart the notes of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ by Mozart. When the little one cried at night, in order not to wake up his mother and make him fall asleep again, I whistled ‘My Favourite Things’ – the version by D. Brubeck, or ‘Riders On The Storm’ by The Doors (maybe that’s why he hates me today). When his mother left with him, I sat on an armchair and played at full volume Chopin’s ‘Farewell Waltz’ and E.L.P.’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’.When I’m painting I listen to Bach played by G. Gould, the Goldberg Variations usually or the Concerto No.7 in G minor.… Anyway, I haven’t seen that wonderful child for years now, but every night before I go to sleep I still listen to “My Favourite Things”.
Can you tell me about any upcoming projects or works?
At the moment, apart from a couple of portraits that have been commissioned, I am working on several projects. The first is a small, short exhibition that I have been organising every summer for the last four years in the law firm of a friend and colleague of mine, who opens to art and people his beautiful studio in the centre of a beautiful old village in a small, characteristic town in the ‘Itria valley’, Cisternino. I am also working on three series of themed paintings.
The first one is entitled: “Al più peggio non c’è mai fine”. In the Italian language, to say “Al più peggio non c’è mai fine” is a frightening grammatical error, but these words came out of the mouth of our Minister of Education (F. Fedeli), who was later found to have lied about her qualifications and her entire curriculum. For a country whose Minister of Foreign Affairs (and almost all of its MPs and Senators) does not speak a word of English, it is absolutely normal to have a Minister of Education who does not know his own language. It, therefore, seemed to be a good title for an exhibition on the level of absolute incompetence and inadequacy of some individuals who, however, due to circumstances completely unrelated to their merits, find themselves tragically deciding the fate and lives of many other unfortunate and unwitting people. To each of these characters I have matched a person of completely opposite thickness and value or even worse, for example, to the former President of the Republic, Napolitano, an ambiguous, factious, and instrumentally opportunistic character, I have matched Vaclav Havel, a true Martian compared to ours; to a well-known and influential judge who believes that it is enough to enter a court to be guilty, I have matched R. Freisler, “the Hitler judge”, who thought like ours and condemned to death all the members of the White Rose (as well as thousands of other innocents), just by applying the law.
The second series is entitled “Me Tooooo”. Obviously, I am referring to the well-known Hollywood movement according to which a great many artists (I am obviously referring to painters) who have made the history of universal art, for what had been their relationships with the opposite sex or their partners, would certainly have been tried, arrested and ‘erased’, with the result that today we would not have Guernica or the Deemoiselle d’Avignon or Guitar Lessons or the Lovers or Three Studies for a Crucifixion or Standing by the rags or many others.
The third series is entitled ‘Red Shoes’.
Granted that for me all forms of murder are absolutely unacceptable, regardless of the gender and tendencies of the victims (except for the killing of children which is an even more inconceivable monstrosity), I am quite skeptical about the current emphasis and narrative that a man who kills a woman is worse than any other murderer and a woman killed by a man (regardless of the circumstances) is more of a victim than another murdered person. For me, every death is equally heinous without excuse.
As a male, however, I claim with all my might the right to dignity and truth for the thousands of men who, although not killed by their partners, have been reduced to human wrecks deprived of any presentability and honour, thrown into the most devastating misery and instability imaginable by the very woman to whom they had entrusted (given) their lives without asking for any guarantee. How many men have had everything taken away from them, but above all their lives as fathers? The courts are full of fathers ‘orphaned of their children’ (I know something about it). Living with the ghost of a living child is a daily death that cannot be described, but I have never seen men in red shoes or women condemned for having reduced their unfortunate ex-partner to a non-life. And this for the simple fact that, even under secular law, motherhood is a given while fatherhood is a privilege. I think I’m going to have a hard time finding a gallery owner willing to host and show these works… If you know one, suggest it to me.