Delphine Kreuter Interview with David Savage

Photo by David Savage

Last March I flew to Paris to attend photographer-filmmaker Delphine Kreuter’s first solo show in a decade at her home gallery in Paris, Galerie Alain Gutharc. The exhibition, titled “Libre et Son Contraire” (Freedom and its Opposite) was her homecoming after ten years spent in the Middle East.

It also marked ten years since we had last seen each other. We first met at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, where she was presenting her first feature-length film, 57000 KM Entre Nous, a story about a troubled teenage girl whose search for meaningful connection results in an online friendship with a boy her age dying of leukemia in a hospital many miles away. It won her the special jury prize at the Taipei Film Festival in 2008, among other awards. I was covering the festival as a journalist, and by far and away it was the best film I saw. I was so moved and troubled by it I was disoriented. It had a blasé chaos about it that made me want to meet the director. I just wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to her.

I saw her at a cocktail reception for the festival’s filmmakers. We started talking. She didn’t respond to my compliments about her film. She was wary and guarded, like a wild animal. She didn’t smile easily and already seemed streetwise to festival chicanery in general. But we started talking that night and saw each other a few times over the weeks that followed, as she stayed on in New York past the festival for a period to create some new work. I helped her make a video short.

She went back to France, and from there, to Dubai, on a prestigious, three-month residency fellowship called Hors les murs (“beyond the walls”), awarded by the Institut de France. She was gone ten years. The Emirates, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Oman, Lebanon – she journeyed nonstop, photographing seemingly everything in her field of vision. She also wrote and directed her second feature film, Dubai Flamingo (starring Vanessa Paradis, Sergi Lopez and Florence Thomassin), an oneiric puzzle of a film that she entirely re-edited on her own and retitled Burnout Story, after, she explained in an email just after its release, the original theatrical version had been ruined by an abysmal edit by its producer.

It might be too easy to postulate that her photography is a collection of “stills” of her films, made and unmade. But I see little connection between the two disciplines. Her photography – candy-colored, fragmentary and impatient, is both a catalogue of the banal and brutal of everyday life: found objects, text fragments, broken dolls, abandoned toys, wrecked cars. And then, startlingly, deeply human moments of people struggling to break free, either through sex, escape, bodily transformation or chemical abandon. Les Inrockuptibles, a leading French cultural magazine, crowned her “plasticienne trash”— “trash artist,” while one of Le Monde’s thought pieces on her photography also nodded to the trash element but also recognized “fragments of a tender and violent vision.” It makes us consider the possible double lives of the objects with which we surround ourselves, the words we take for granted and the bodies we hold to fixed identities.

Her filmmaking – perhaps premature to characterize, with just two released features and various video shorts – seems to be a cinema of long, unblinking takes on the unreal; the surrealism of the everyday. Technology is her recurrent theme, how people manage to connect because of, and despite its ubiquity.

Her latest project in development is the story of a woman with an artificial heart whose home-companion robot who becomes obsessed with her.

I spoke to her at her home in a Paris suburb on March 11, 2019.

Photo by David Savage

DAVID SAVAGE
I remember when I first met you ten years ago your telling me that you grew up in a movie theater? Am I imagining that?

DELPHINE KREUTER
In fact, yes, my parents had an art cinema in Lyon, Le Canu….my mother and stepfather…and I was born in 1973 so this was mid-to-late 1970s, and they were quite active as its owners, making [programming] decisions that were rather edgy, so yes in fact I found myself often in the cinema growing up. I liked pretending to sell ice cream, Eskimos, cake….and with my step-brother I liked getting up on the stage. But what I really adored was going up into the projectionist booth and standing next to the projector.

That was the cabine magique.

DAVID SAVAGE
Is that where your love of film began?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
I really don’t know, but it established a proximity between myself and film, meaning, the film was running and that was normal. And in fact, it did this thing to my way of thinking: A film was like its own world. And you could put on a film the same way you would put on a record. It distilled an ambiance.

I had no problem watching a film, stopping, putting it on again. It was like that. They were just like records to me. So yes, it developed an ambience that I enjoyed being in.

DAVID SAVAGE
When you’re a child –

DELPHINE KREUTER:
— Yes, one takes life as it comes, there is no question.

DAVID SAVAGE:
At what age did you move to Paris?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Yes, I was going to say, it didn’t last all that long because we moved to Paris when I was 8. My stepfather had to work in Paris.

DAVID SAVAGE:
In what part of Paris?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
In the 18th [arrondissement], we arrived in Pigalle.

DAVID SAVAGE:
Pigalle? Wow. Was it a rough neighborhood at the time?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Well, listen, every morning I walked along the Boulevard de Clichy…

DAVID SAVAGE:
Will all the prostitutes?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
With all the prostitutes, the sex shops, the neon signs, all the photos of bare asses all down the street. Every morning and afternoon, I basically grew up going up and down this boulevard. Junior high and high school. I didn’t even take the Métro. I walked.

Photo by David Savage

DAVID SAVAGE:
I’m tempted to link that with your photography. Sexuality. It’s a topic you focus on a lot.

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Maybe! To be sure, from the first the moment I started taking photos, it was of my Boulevard [Clichy]. My early work on film, it was trannies in furs on street corners, the neon signs…and I remember, being a girl who came from the countryside outside of Lyon, we parked on the boulevard during the day and I didn’t immediately realize what all these signs were about. But at night, when all the neon came on, I was like woooow….

DAVID SAVAGE:
Do you think that experience turned you streetwise from a young age?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Yes, early on, having big blue eyes and all, I learned – keep your eyes down. That was the golden rule. You walk, eyes down. If not, it was ‘Hey babe, you’ve got beautiful eyes…’. That was not fun. That was it.

DAVID SAVAGE:
So, let’s talk about your exhibition ‘Libre et son contraire’ [Freedom and its Opposite]. How would you say your conception of freedom changed during the ten years you were living around the Middle East?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Let’s say that, freedom, you’re not aware of it when you have it, but you become well aware when it starts missing. I went into places where I said to myself, I can’t do anything here.

DAVID SAVAGE:
Which countries, for example?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
The strongest one was in Afghanistan.

DAVID SAVAGE:
Did you have to wear the burqa?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Not at all. But really, I didn’t walk in the street. I was on a motorbike in fact. I had the veil. But you don’t wear the burqa, because if they find that you walk strangely, in fact that becomes trickery, you see. You can’t do that. A tourist in a burqa – it’s too dangerous.

DAVID SAVAGE:
I like that photo you took through the eye screen of the burqa, though.

DELPHINE KREUTER:
I took it in the courtyard of the house where I was living. Someone put it over my head, I slipped the camera up to my eyes and snapped the picture. That’s how [women] see over there.

DAVID SAVAGE:
How did you decide to go there?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
To make a long story short, I was in Dubai and I had this friend from Nicaragua who worked at the time at the UN, and he said, Afghanistan is just two hours by plane, come! It’s going to interest you. And I didn’t hesitate. I just went.

Photo by David Savage

DAVID SAVAGE:
Were people suspicious of a Western woman with a camera over there?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Well, in any event in muslim countries, the camera is never welcome. But after a while I was photographing spice stores, of a man guarding the tomb of Ahmed Massoud, he said nothing to me. But you don’t take photos in the street just like that. You get yourself into trouble.

DAVID SAVAGE:
Did you feel in danger?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
I put myself in danger going to ski in France when I hadn’t skied in fifteen years – that was putting myself in danger. In Kabul nothing happened to me. [laughs].

DAVID SAVAGE:
What is the opposite of freedom for you?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
The two concepts are so broad but…I would say any form of impediment.

DAVID SAVAGE:
You were supposed to be away in Dubai for three months after you received the Hors les murs grant, but you were gone 10 years. What made you want to stay so long in that part of the world? Was it to experience a place where your freedom was limited?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
It wasn’t for that reason, it was that in Dubai, which is very, very interesting. I was meeting people I never would have met here. I was going out with a Palestinian, my best friend was a gay man from Syria, you go out and talk to lots of Indians, it’s –

DAVID SAVAGE:
— cosmopolitan…

DELPHINE KREUTER:
— cosmopolitan and what’s more, Dubai is a sort of platform. Everyone is traveling. One gets to know people very quickly there. And I had things to discover, I don’t know.

DAVID SAVAGE:
That feeling comes across in your film Dubai Flamingo, this sense of fluidity, impermanence. It’s like a dream that changes constantly. As a filmmaker, do you perceive your photographs as an extension of making movies? Or the reverse?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
I took photos before filmmaking. But often people tell me they really see my photographs in my films. Yes, filming is an extension of taking photos.

DAVID SAVAGE:
To be honest with you, I don’t see your photography in your films. I think they inhabit two totally separate spheres.

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Ok. Well, you’re right in a sense, the two films that I made tell two different stories, they’re oriented on technology, the future, humanity, etcetera, which one is bound to find in my photos, but on the other hand, even if you say no, there are these things you keep seeing in movies, such as all these dolls and toys and thingys! [laughs]

Photo by David Savage

DAVID SAVAGE:
Sexuality is obviously a big part of your work.

DELPHINE KREUTER:
That is nowhere to be found in my film, on the other hand. [laughs heartily]

DAVID SAVAGE:
But in this exhibition, there was no sexuality!

DELPHINE KREUTER:
It’s a slightly complicated answer, but I didn’t do too many photos of my lovers.

DAVID SAVAGE:
That photo of the woman in the blue fur, it gave me the impression that it was taken in the ambience of making love?

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Oh really? Great! In fact, that woman came over at 9 in the morning because she had to be at work at 10, and we didn’t even drink a coffee. For 40 minutes I took photos of her like mad. And then she was gone. We didn’t make love at all.

DAVID SAVAGE:
But it really gave the impression of an atmosphere of intimacy.

DELPHINE KREUTER:
There’s this thing I have with women of whom who I take photos, if I’m taking photos of them I already love them. And I think they give me everything. And the two of us, yes, it is as if we had made love!

DAVID SAVAGE:
It’s all constructed.

DELPHINE KREUTER:
Completely.

Photo by David Savage