"Who is Barbet Schroeder really? It would be a bit exaggerated to say that the question has haunted everyone for a long time and that hypotheses abound, but judging by the lack of comprehensive studies and publications about him, the absence of a detailed and precise biography, it's a question worth asking. The man has the elegance of revealing little about himself, rejects the notion of authorship for himself, and regularly manages to set records for brevity when receiving an award.
We know that Barbet Schroeder was born in Tehran, that German blood runs in his veins, that he grew up in Colombia, attended the Cinémathèque, frequented Les Cahiers du Cinéma, became friends with Rohmer and became his producer when he was just over twenty. He founded Les Films du Losange by using a painting by Emil Nolde belonging to his mother as collateral and created Paris vu par..., the testamentary film of the movement. In 1969, he directed More, his first film, inspired by a partially autobiographical subject, in a house in Ibiza where he would film again (Amnesia, 2015) and where he lives (when he's not in Paris or Switzerland). And from that moment, when he becomes a filmmaker, he becomes difficult to grasp.
Consider this: his first films with modernist and psychedelic themes (accompanied by Pink Floyd music, no less) shot in Spain and New Guinea, documentaries in Uganda and California (General Idi Amin Dada, Koko), seven years of preparation for Barfly interrupted by Cheaters in Portugal, where Paulo Branco manages to complete the production at the last minute and in real-time by playing the film's budget at the gaming tables where it is filmed. Then, a Hollywood career for more than fifteen years. But, as always, Barbet does things differently; he amuses himself by making a genre film (Single White Female) just after gaining international recognition with an "Oscar film" (Reversal of Fortune). It's as if Proust, winning the Goncourt with Within a Budding Grove, had announced to his publishers, "Well, now what I want to do is a little detective story called Muddle among the Scoundrels. But who does that? Barbet Schroeder. Who then returns to his childhood Colombia for the striking Our Lady of the Assassins, before pretending to settle back in Europe in the 2000s, all while making multiple stops here and there around the globe (Japan for Inju, Burma, Italy, etc.).
It's evident. The question is ultimately less: "Who is Barbet Schroeder?" than: "Where is Barbet Schroeder?" Or even: "But where has Barbet gone?" If he is physically and geographically unplaceable, his filmography is equally so. Where is the unity? In the post-New Wave production, the wandering variety of his cinema remains unique and unclassifiable. Pialat's films always seem to take place at the neighbors', Garrel intrinsically links the childhood of cinema with his own, Téchiné forcefully immerses his characters in the intensity of passing time, Doillon will be the best Czech filmmaker in France, etc. Only Eustache will combine short and feature films, documentaries and fictions with a similar freedom and without concern for "building a career." But here, how can one link films as diverse as Kiss of Death and The Venerable W.? Terror's Advocate with Jacques Vergès and Murder by Numbers with Sandra Bullock? Each new film is a cheeky response to the previous one, and it seems that the filmmaker, throwing himself into a new project, applies Napoleon's military formula to himself: "You commit and then you see."
What doesn't help answer the question, "Where is Barbet Schroeder?" is his approach to subjects. Without ego. By immersing himself. Knowing everything. Understanding the character he is going to film. And being as precise as possible. To obsession. This is the primary principle of his master Rohmer, who refused to film a scene at nine in the morning that was supposed to take place two hours earlier. Schroeder doesn't only apply this rule to his documentaries. How does a character dress? What is their language? What seat do they take at a gaming table? How much insulin do they give to their wife? What bone marrow transplant can save a little boy's life? How can a character escape from a place? What is another's gait after fighting in bars? The filmmaker explores his subjects like the unknown areas of the brain in More or the still-virgin territories of The Valley. It's not just about mastering the material but submitting completely to it and envisioning the film to be made as a prototype that resembles its subject as closely as possible, rather than, from film to film, worrying about the same things in the same way like so many others. What makes it fascinating is that Barbet Schroeder pushes the logic to its ultimate limit, pretending to leave the direction to his subject. To the character. "I'm here to direct," says Bulle Ogier in Maïtresse. It's evident in General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait (the title alone), where Uganda's Ubu reconstructs the taking of the Golan Heights in front of the camera with grand military maneuvers and orders the director, "Film the helicopters!" What he does. It's glaring in Terror's Advocate, where Vergès displays complete control over his character, his gestures (manipulating the Havana cigar), and his speech. In his closed-shuttered office, he directs the film. But it's also the case in fiction films where characters must take control of the direction if it's not already the case (Before and After), imprint their marks or erase traces, or often confront another's direction to decipher it and try to triumph over it (Reversal of Fortune, Desperate Measures, Murder by Numbers).
The question posed by each shot then is: who made it? Who decided on the angle? This inner direction gradually externalizes and becomes external, escapes or deliberately feigns to escape depending on the characters being filmed. The work is full of face-offs with venomous psychological architectures. In these confrontations, these sometimes closed-door interrogations, there's no traditional shot-reverse-shot. While framing one, then the other, then that one again, and this one again, it seems that the same frame never repeats. It's not necessarily true; one would have to carefully review all the shot-reverse-shots. But that's the impression one gets. As if, inside the enclosed space of the interview or confrontation, a journey, a quest, a pursuit is taking place, and that's what happens, explaining why we never swim twice in the same angle, seemingly without a care.
This pursuit is that of the truth and the limits that reveal it. Limit experiences of often excessive characters (drug addicts, masochists, dictators, alcoholics, gamblers, madmen...). Limits they dare or must cross. Limits of decency. Why does a character cross the line? And why is he fascinating because he did? And this is how Barbet manages to be there, everywhere, with one foot inside, one foot outside, observing these self-centered individuals who disturb and disturb. He is there, in the mastery of a direction that knows what it wants and wants what it does. Take Our Lady of the Assassins; it's not a film, it's a masterpiece of direction, realism, and fantasy, the circulation of elements in a shot, the organization of space.
Barbet's imagination naturally leads him to characters with a lack of positivity, even at his own risk pushing the absence of positive characters into a Buena Vista Disney production (Before and After). But just because they are like that, his characters are not without humor. On the contrary. There is a lot of humor in Barbet Schroeder's films. In the dialogues. In his gaze. Look at the endings, the final sequences: subtle nihilistic irony often expresses itself. The film must end, but it's like a kid being sent to bed and not wanting to go. Barbet has shown us without fanfare or fuss. No advice. No point of view. Not even things that could reasonably be called an analysis. The viewer is a grown-up. And then some.