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Barbet Shroeder: Cold stuff

The director Barbet Shroeder deals in violence, but always from a distance. He works for Hollywood, but takes buzz saws along to his meetings. Matthew Tynani meets an enigma

Friday 21 June 2002 00:00 BST
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Barbet Schroeder has reason to be happy. The latest film by the maverick film-maker, Murder by Numbers, which opens here on 28 June, is doing better business in Taiwan than Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones. Yet he's still not satisfied. Schroeder's previous feature, Our Lady of the Assassins, a haunting investigation into sex, violence and poetry on the streets of Medellin, Colombia, has yet to be released by its UK distributor, Momentum films.

The director faced a similar obstacle in 1987, when Cannon films reneged on their promise and refused to surrender the rights to Schroeder's then unproduced film Barfly, which starred Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway and chronicled the drunken excesses of the film's writer Charles Bukowski. Sitting outside the corporate headquarters with placards wasn't getting the film released, so Schroeder charged into the president's office brandishing a cordless electric saw. "I don't have the time to go to a law firm," growled Schroeder, "so my law firm is Black & Decker and I'm going to cut off my little finger unless you respect your promise." Let history note that the film was finally made and was released to much critical acclaim.

There is no question in my mind that Barbet Schroeder would have parted with a finger to save his film. What isn't immediately obvious is how much fun he was having. I enquired whether he would be using the same "law firm" in his negotiations with Momentum. "You can't use the same trick twice," he says with mischief, "I'll have to find another strategy."

Born in Tehran, the son of a German geologist, the now 61-year-old director began his career as a critic, and by the age of 22 had set up his own production company Les Films du Losange (most notably, Schroeder has produced nearly all of Eric Rohmer's films). In 1990, Schroeder burst into the mainstream with Reversal of Fortune, his critically acclaimed account of the Claus von Bulow scandal. He received a Best Director nomination from the Academy and Jeremy Irons won the Best Actor prize for his icy portrayal of Claus von Bulow.

These days Schroeder commands hefty fees to direct Hollywood movies with big-name stars. But lest we forget, this is the same man who made ground-breaking documentaries such as General Idi Amin Dada, drug-fuelled orgiastic meditations such as the The Valley starring the French actress Bulle Ogier who is now his wife, and of course, Maîtresse, in which Gérard Depardieu falls in love with a dominatrix (also played by Ogier). While the commercial hit Single White Female (Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh) was Shroeder's first true studio production, he contends that he has been making American movies from the outset.

After the tepid response to 1998's action thriller Desperate Measures (starring Michael Keaton and Andy Garcia), Schroeder took a bold tack. Following the example set by Bunuel and Renoir, Schroeder saw that a director could "start over" by shooting a film in a foreign country. In this case the country was Colombia, a place not all that foreign to Schroeder since it is where he spent much of his youth.

The film, Our Lady of the Assassins, is Schroeder's most personal film to date. Based on the life and literature of Fernando Vallejo, it tells the story of a middle-aged writer who falls in love with a young man from the mean streets of Medellin. Schroeder is proud of the fact that he was the first director to make a feature using High Definition video. Despite one or two uncharacteristic cinematic flourishes (at one point the sky turns red and blood rains down), the film is gritty and unflinching in its presentation of gang violence and handles the homosexual content with brave insouciance. The film is intensely writerly and stubbornly philosophical. And if you live in the UK you won't be seeing it any time soon.

Nevertheless, the film seems to have had a positive effect on Schroeder's career. Hollywood welcomed him back, and Castle Rock Entertainment placed him at the helm of Murder By Numbers, which stars Sandra Bullock, our very own Ben Chaplin and two young neophytes, Michael Pitt and the fabulous Ryan Gosling.

The film is a modern reworking of the Leopold and Loeb murder case that Hitchcock also explored in Rope. Bullock plays an emotionally wounded detective given the unenviable task of tracking down two preternaturally cunning teenagers who have attempted to stage the perfect murder. Stateside, the reviews have been mixed. More often than not, critics jibed that the film was like its title "by the numbers". But were they missing the point: taking pot-shots at the independent director who sold-out?

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The film's editor, Lee Percy, has worked with Schroeder ever since Reversal of Fortune and sees real method behind Schroeder's choices. Percy contends that Schroeder "plays with expectations as he puts a spin on the genre". Schroeder assiduously scans shot selections to make sure there are no omniscient points of view. Camera movements are always purely functional. Lighting schemes, designed by long-time collaborator Luciano Tovoli, are meticulously planned out. Most notably, Schroeder insists on the deep focus that was pioneered by Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland. Schroeder explains that the depth of field "anchors the characters in their surroundings".

He let's the audience decide what is interesting within an individual frame without imposing a moral compass. "This is pretty risky territory when you're dealing with American movies," Schroeder explains, "If anyone has forgotten that every drama in America is the fight between good and evil, George Bush has come along to remind us."

Henry Bean, a celebrated screenwriter and now director (of The Believer, which also stars Ryan Gosling), has worked with Schroeder on two films, including Murder by Numbers. He points out that "Barbet has a psychological curiosity that strangely enough a lot of directors don't have. A whodunit would only be interesting to him if the whodunit-ness revealed character".

Schroeder's psychological curiosity rarely strays from the darker recesses of the human psyche. From Idi Amin, to Claus von Bulow to the psychotic flat-mate in Single White Female, his films are over-populated with villains. I mention this to him. "I consider myself the healthiest person I know," he says, "so I'm always surprised when I hear that." He does concede that "the dark side makes for better entertainment". One of Schroeder's chief interests in Murder by Numbers was what he describes as "the birth of evil". How is it that two friends, neither of them inherently evil, can come together and be capable of murder? Acknowledging the unconscious homo-erotic tension between the teenagers, Schroeder wistfully muses that if only the two boys had "gone to bed together, then maybe they would not have killed". This is followed by one of his trademarked baritone giggles. With regards to himself, he won't be drawn further on this issue. All he'll say is: "Everybody has homosexual tendencies within themselves."

The man remains morally ambiguous; an enigma. Henry Bean admits that he has never understood the "dark engine" that drives Schroeder. Bean sees him as a kind of philosopher, open to all experience and yet removed from it, like the flawed but brilliant hero of Our Lady of the Assassins. In 1948, in the midst of a violent uprising in Colombia, the seven-year-old Schroeder witnessed a man having his head cut off with a machete. He has admitted that "It was a scene that marked me, but it was not as horrible as it seems because there was no sound. Behind my window the scene was silent and, therefore, somewhat unreal". It's perhaps a crude analogy, but you can't help feeling that Schroeder has transformed that window into a camera lens and has been looking at the world through it ever since.

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