Brazilian director Moara Passoni presents a dreamlike and autobiographical project about anorexia in her debut feature, Êxtase. The film is a coming-of-age between fiction and documentary recognized with, among others, the award from the Brazilian Association of Film Critics at the last São Paulo International Film Festival. The filmmaker, co-writer and associate producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, makes her debut with an elliptical portrait of a young woman who experiences both the outburst and torture of starving herself as a way to find her place in a brutal and uncertain world. With a haunting and electrifying soundtrack by David Lynch and Lykke Li, Êxtase is an immersive exploration of the paradoxical agony and pleasure associated with eating disorders in the context of Brazil’s chaotic political landscape in the 1990s.
The film seamlessly mixes fiction and documentary. Why did you choose this form?
I see two main tensions that structure the film: first, is the pulse between control and desire. It is when – for her luck – Clara cannot control her desire anymore, that she starts to overcome her anorexia. The second one is the tension between delirium and reality. That means the film only exists in this frontier: mixing fiction and documentary enabled me to put the reality of the anorexic body against the often delirious abstraction of anorexia. Anorexia “is” this frontier. ÊXTASE is a cinematic immersion in the story of a girl intensely struggling with her condition in the world. As we enter the world of Clara, the film pulses more and more in between her concrete reality and her delirious passion. Her madness, and an absent pain, that, nevertheless, haunts her.
Why talk about anorexia today?
ÊXTASE is a film that dives and reflects on anorexia far from stereotypes. The film penetrates the protagonist’s most protected intimacy to reveal a universe that is, on the one hand, unknown, and on the other, strangely familiar. Anorexia, here, is seen as a symptom of our time: thinking that you don’t need anyone or anything to survive. We live in a brutally anorexic world. People think they have to be content with loneliness. Politics in Brazil is complex. Politicians normally rail on and on against the community and in favor of privilege. The most common way of governing is by private interests, schism, isolation, exclusion. It is curious that Neoliberalism – so strong during the 90s, when I had anorexia – is making a brutal comeback now that we are releasing the film. I feel anorexia is a resistance to this pattern of consumerism and accumulation on the one hand, as well as a heightened version of the destruction, alienation and individualism that the system preaches. It is as if you reproduced the oppressive patterns of our contemporary world on your body.
How much of the film is an autobiography?
Like in an autobiography, the main character is both the subject and object of the discourse, and this film spans the trajectory of a question that has pervaded my entire existence, and it’s the story of a search, the diary of an investigation. In addition to presenting a character, it’s about presenting the question “who is this character?”, and how that question transforms over the course of a lifetime. I had originally conceived the film as stemming entirely from my own biography, but I soon came to see the need to understand the suffering of anorexia beyond myself and my experience – and beyond that of the spectacle of the anorexic body. For me, it was essential that the film comes from a prejudice-free encounter with other women with anorexia capable of conveying their experience, and of revealing something about our society today that is far more central than might at first appear. To this end, I started a research project with therapists and patients at the two largest anorexia treatment centers in Brazil. Some of the doctors introduced me to patients who wanted to tell their stories and a few women gave me access to their diaries – excerpts from which have become scenes in the film. One of these women, now 47, an anorexia sufferer since 17, actively participated in producing the script. Together, we decided that it was important to film her anorexic body; that it was necessary to contrast the abstract, aesthetic and delirious ecstasy of anorexia with the reality of a body whittled to the very edge of survival. It was also because of her that the idea of Clara being an architect arose. This encounter – with these women and also with my collaborators in the film – allowed me to have a necessary distance towards my own experience of anorexia. And this distance was crucial in order to allow me to make the film.
Where did this film begin for you?
In an interview I did with the Cuban author Edmundo Desnoes on cinematographic dramaturgy, he said that “everything is in the body”; that cinema, for him, is an investigation of the body. “You can see underdevelopment in the feet”, he said. The meanders of our dialogue took us to a very strange and special place in which he told me about one of his nieces who had anorexia. “Anorexia”, he said,”thrives on ecstasy, the ecstasy of stopping time through suffering”. Stopping time. Those words touched me deeply, and triggered a process that took me back to my own experience with anorexia, between the ages of 11 and 18, and which I’d never fully managed to understand.
Can you speak a little about the importance of the diaries in your process of writing the script for the film?
Looking back at my diaries brought all those sensations and feelings I thought had been lost forever simmering to the surface again. Anorexia was back, thrumming inside me down to the very bone. The same pain, the same despair. This physical sensation made me shiver, and I found myself reliving the memory of the places I had shut myself away in, where I’d isolated myself, severed, as far as possible, all material contact with the world. In this film I try to tap that incommunicable experience of being in the skin of someone who refuses to eat. Why had I done that? That’s what people asked me then and I ask myself today, though at the time the question made no sense whatsoever, so crystal clear it all seemed to me. There’s a certain incomprehension that seals the cloister the anorexic creates for herself. The film is a process of investigation of the body, of my memory of my body, an unveiling of the buried layers of subjectivity, a re-encounter with the experience of anorexia through my diaries and those of other women. This investigation of the inner worlds and scars of suffering is carried out in opposition to the grotesque spectacle our image-society tends to create around the skinny bodies of anorexic girls. What the viewer sees in the film is fruit of my own reconnection with these diaries and, at the same time, my re-encounter with the places in which I had lived that pain and submitted myself to a ritualized routine, an obsession with weighing and measuring myself and my food; in short, the scene of all that dearth and self-mutilation. Perhaps it was a bit like Alain Resnais in Night and Fog, which he shot in a place of extreme suffering, the concentration camps, and where he makes all the memory etched into those walls, objects and landscapes bleed back into view. I use diaries as a means of recovering memory inspired by what Chris Marker does in Sans Soleil and Letter from Siberia. The diaries I drew from are notebooks that contain intensely private notes-to-self, spanning the period in which I was living through anorexia. They contain writings, attempts at self-portraits, records tracking my changes in bodyweight. They are the most inner, intimate maps, and through them I was able to weave a narrative of Clara’s gradual emaciation. Like my anorexic’s ritualized daily routine, which subjects every act to the strictest diligences, images of the character’s delirious/imaginary world are constructed with mathematical rigor. As in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse and The Night, here, too, objective, statement-like images defined by a geometrical framing of elements and objects only admit relationships of measurement and distance (I’m talking about the images of the inanimate spaces and things). From Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, The Trial of Joan D’Arc and Marguerite Duras, I learned the possibilities of sound and voice over in cinema. From Carl Dreyer in Passion of Joan of Arc, I’ve learned the passion and intimacy with the main character. From Buñuel and David Lynch, I’ve learned about dream in films.