It’s weird to see Matthias [Schoenaerts] now and how much he has changed. You just see this very healthy guy with a tan and he looks much younger than Vincent.
Parisian filmmaker Alice Winocour takes a surprising detour into genre territory with the home invasion thriller Maryland (Disorder), which made its world premiere at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar last week. Maryland couldn’t be more different from her debut film, the Cannes Critics’ Week hit Augustine. Maryland is about the haves and the have-nots, the physical and psychological effects of war, and the oft-inaccurate perception of the reality we think we’re living.
As in the films that made his name—Bullhead and Rust and Bone—Mattias Schoenaerts plays a troubled muscleman here. Upon his return from combat in Afghanistan to his native South of France, Vincent (Schoenaerts) works party security at an opulent estate called “Maryland” owned by Whalid, a wealthy businessman. Throughout, we learn that Vincent has acquired some psychological and physical problems that may see him invalided out of the army, least of which, he periodically hears imagined noises like a flock of birds in the dead of night. And Vincent’s eye is quickly caught by Whalid’s trophy wife Jessie (Diane Kruger) and shortly after, he’s hired to look after her and her young son. The final act, executed in the best paranoid thriller tradition, has Vincent fighting off intruders into Jessie’s palace-turned-prison.
Winocour’s sophomore feature only confirmed her needed, unique voice in cinema when we attended the premiere of Maryland in Cannes last week. (Our first five star at Cannes.) And it’s another command performance for Schoenaerts, a gifted method man, that shouldn’t go unnoticed. We joined Winocour on the JW Marriott Hotel rooftop for a conversation.
The 68th Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13 to May 24.
I promise I’m recording this conversation. You can talk right into the iPhone.
I can keep the phone, too?
As long as you write the article.
“Very good film. Impressive.” [Laughs]
You wouldn’t be wrong about that! So in the film, Vincent is clearly paranoid, but with his PTSD, drug use and hearing loss, he’s also an unreliable narrator. He had every reason to be paranoid, didn’t he?
Right. He had a reason to be paranoid. I really wanted to situate viewers in the viewpoint of this character. The point is to understand what he understands, feel what he feels, and imagine what he imagines. We surrender to his psyche and his body in that way. I wanted the film to be about the physical sensation, more than just a story. As we find him, Vincent is in a bad state. The beginning of the film plays out much more like a documentary about a bodyguard hired by this Lebanese man, prior to becoming a full movie in the house. I was really influenced by home invasion movies. You really don’t know where the danger is coming from and there’s an element of fear in all the scenes because of that. As for Vincent and Jessie’s relationship, I wanted to tell a strange love story. When they start to open up to one another over time, there’s this constant flow of news on the TV and you understand that the world is actually falling apart around them.
Could you describe in more detail Vincent’s mental and physical state?
Are you familiar with Don McCullin? At a certain point in his life, he stopped taking war photographs because it became too much for him. He decided to take peaceful landscape photographs and, as impressive as those landscapes are, they’re haunted by death and horror. My previous film, Augustine, was all about hysteria. Taking place in a 19th century psychiatric hospital, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot studies women like guinea pigs, “treating” them for their physical disorders like very violent sexual fits. These women expressed with their bodies revolt and rage in ways they couldn’t otherwise. With Maryland, I realized that Vincent is a hysteric himself. Charcot was the first one to theorize that hysteria can be both feminine and masculine. I’m also obsessed with dysfunctional bodies, or the language of the body. You can express through sensations and sounds what you feel on the inside.
The score by Gesaffelstein added so much texture, not only to the film’s overall atmosphere, but perhaps more importantly to convey Vincent’s deterioration.
He was very important to me. His music was with me every waking moment because I thought it captured the atmosphere I was going for so perfectly well. It’s violent music, but also very contemplative. There’s something very powerful about his music and it helped to inform Vincent’s constant state of war. The music also helped me find the rhythm and tempo of the film. Sometimes we use violent cuts and the music comes in waves, you know? I had this mood board of images—Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia—but Gesaffelstein had a hard time understanding where I was coming from. He needed to actually see the house and experience the set to fully grasp the atmosphere. We shot in Antibes not far from here in this incredible house. It was written into the script that it was raining all the time. We got lucky because the weather was really chaotic during the shoot. There were constant storms and we became prisoners of that house.
Was it very difficult to find the right house?
Very, very hard. Wealthy people don’t really care about film shoots and they obviously don’t need the money. [Laughs] We were very lucky to find this place. It was owned by this very wealthy Italian businessman. The property is huge and it’s a world in itself.
Why did you decide to call the villa in the film “Maryland”?
For French people, “Maryland” means the opposite of wonderland—something seedy. I like that you’re entering this very specific world of the house, which is shady.
The common theme with soldiers returning from war seems to be that so many of them suffer from PTSD, and so many of them want to go back. They come back inextricably changed.
Soldiers are meant to kill and their bodies become weapons. When they are in action, they have no problem. For them, it’s normal. The problem with coming back from the war zone is assimilating back into the real world. I met with so many soldiers coming back from Afghanistan, especially one from the Special Forces. He said he told me things he had never told anyone else. He was telling me how it was difficult for every soldier. In cinema, you always have this idea of the big trauma, the one really traumatic event that occurs. In reality, every soldier comes back scarred because they’ve been in a world with different rules. He saw children killing people with stones, for example. They become so used to these things that it’s part of their normal lives. They go through mental training for this as well. This man will come with a huge tub of pig blood and splatter it all over the floor, telling the soldiers, “With all this blood around you, your body is still functioning, so don’t worry. It’s normal.” They get used to that, even if they’re not in the war zone.
At Cannes, it’s like we’re at the kind of lavish party in the film. It’s caviar and champagne, while these soldiers are fighting for our freedom and in hospitals learning to walk all over again. I don’t know if it’s the same in your country, but French soldiers aren’t respected here.
Jessie is compelling because Diane Kruger is inherently so likeable, yet we don’t know much about her past. Was that intentional?
Jessie is the typical trophy wife who maybe comes from the same world as Vincent. She probably doesn’t come from wealth herself. You can see that she’s popular like typical trophy wives are, but she’s stuck in a prison made of gold—this house. She wound up in this world by chance, but she’s no less free than Vincent is. As we learn in the film, she has no life outside that house. She has no real friends. Worst of all, she doesn’t know how to escape this life. She’s a prisoner. The film is about the relationship between these two broken people. Even if the relationship is shady and violent at times, they share the same wall separating their two different worlds.
What was the intent behind having Jessie watch that news segment in the kitchen?
It’s meant to remind us of the chaos in the world. In life, this constant flow of information on TV is really frightening and we feel helpless to stop it. So it was to communicate the fear of the modern world, essentially. It’s this idea that the danger is around, but you don’t understand what it really is. The film is all about fear, even the fear of storms. I’m really afraid of storms.
What was your attraction to making a paranoid thriller as your sophomore feature?
We have seen so many films, so many thrillers, and so many horror movies that we know the rules. We know that when the dog is coming out of the house, maybe the dog will be killed. With this film, I wanted to present the beginning of the sentence and have the audience find the end. I wanted the audience to have as much paranoia as the main character. A lot of people have told me that, when we see Vincent’s friend Denis coming back to the house, they think he might be the bad guy. Paranoid thrillers are about not being sure of anything, but we don’t know anything about our contemporary world, either. You feel like you have all the information and no information at all.
Were you at all influenced by Michael Haneke’s Cache?
I would say Elia Kazan’s The Visitors, especially for the sequence between Denis and Vincent in the kitchen. In that scene, you don’t know if they’re going to rape Jessie or what. We already know about the danger in the house because you catch a glimpse of a figure behind Vincent but, you don’t know how that will play out. I also thought about Take Shelter by Jeff Nichols. In that particular film, you have a paranoid character who finally sees the apocalyptic storm he had been fearing at the end of the film. When his wife also sees it, you don’t know whether she has become just as mad as he is or if the storm is in fact real. With Maryland, I really did film the second half as a nightmare. It’s real, of course, but you’re inside Vincent’s head.
I understand Vincent was written specifically for Matthias Schoenaerts. How did that inform everything that followed in terms of building his character and the story?
We first met at a cafe and worked on this together for two years. I only had ten pages of the script written at the time. I told him, “I want to write it for you. No one can play this part. You are the one I want.” It was such a gamble because so many directors want to work with him. But it worked out because he was excited to play a main character and the action sequences appealed to him. Vincent also had to carry his story on his body with tattoos and scars. We also needed to see his borderline state in his eyes. He wasn’t sleeping on this shoot and became really violent. He went very far. The atmosphere on set was electric. There was some fighting between the two of us, but in a good way because it was always for the film. There was a mutual trust, but it was really violent. I think it was necessary for this film.
In the director’s statement, you wrote how it was difficult to direct Matthias as a female filmmaker. Was that a typo?
I was still mixing the film when I wrote that. It’s actually really difficult for me to talk about the film because it’s so fresh to me. I mean, I finished the film just two days ago. When I wrote that statement, it was also very late in the evening. It was difficult for Vincent to be directed by a woman. Everyone was like, “You made a mistake here.” It was a mistake, yet I didn’t think I was directing Matthias on this shoot—it was Vincent. It’s weird to see Matthias now and how much he has changed. You just see this very healthy guy with a tan and he looks much younger than Vincent. There’s no trace of Vincent anymore.