Christine Repond: “I use HIV as an metaphor of a peculiarity that sneaks into a long term relationship
The second film by Swiss director Christine Repond, Vacuum, opens with an unpleasant surprise for its main character while organizing the celebration her 35th of wedding anniversary, she realizes that she is HIV-positive. Her husband is the only one that could’ve infected her. “I’m interested in what happens behind the façade. Everyone has their own abyss. And that is what I am interested in. The things people would not suspect at a first glance. The crack in the idyll”, summarizes the director.
The main character of the film is portrayed by veteran German actress Barbara Auer, who responds firmly to the close-ups the director uses to display her emotions. Her acting was recognized at the Black Nights Festival in Tallinn.
Repond had a lot of experience in experimental films and photography work before debuting with a fiction film in 2010, the acclaimed Silver Forest. The Swiss director has needed seven years to complete Vacuum, where she portrays the strains caused by an illness which is still very present in society.
Why has it taken your seven years to direct your second feature film?
When I was writing the script, I started with a real-life story that ended tragically, but I wanted to write a film that offered some kind of hope. So, to write my story, I first had to forget about the real one. Another reason is that Vacuum is my second film. It is generally considered to be the most difficult one. You don’t take on the story with the naiveté you do in the first film, you want everything to be better. Funding also proved to be difficult and took many years. First, I wanted to produce the film in Germany, but I couldn’t find a TV channel with enough courage to feature this topic. In Germany, unfortunately, you always need the backing of a TV channel, even if you are making movies for theatres. Then we focused on Switzerland, and my Swiss producer, Karin Koch, was able to raise all the money needed to film.
Why did you use HIV as the trigger of a mid-life crisis?
We still believe HIV is only something that happens to the marginal classes, and people think that it doesn’t exist in middle or high classes. My characters live in a middle-class environment and they actually have what everyone dreams of. When she is diagnosed with HIV, the surface of her life suddenly cracks. My film also addresses shame. My main character is ashamed of her failed life and of what her husband has done. She can’t accept what her husband has done, the fact that he lives out his sexual fantasies. She doesn’t recognize him anymore. In my film, HIV is, in a way, the metaphor of a peculiarity that sneaks into a long-term relationship. And it is not something that can be do undone. The characters have a threatening illness, and their medicine reminds them of this every day.
With HIV becoming a chronic disease, people are using less contraceptive means. Has this film opened any debate in the festivals where it has been screened?
An HIV infection, as is featured in my movie, can be controlled for decades with treatment. But AIDS is not curable. At the festivals there was less talk about the illness than about the abuse of trust and its p[psychological consequences. Although the film is, in a way, a type of warning, the psychological effects of HIV were more interesting to me than the physical ones.
How did you develop the research with therapy groups?
I spoke with doctors and psychologists that work with HIV patients. The second doctor in my film, doctor Seidenberg, for example, is a real doctor that has treated HIV patients in Zurich for years. He is renown in this field. Through him, I’ve learned a lot about what the illness does to its patients and their close family, what problems the patients encounter in their professional and family lives. I deliberately didn’t speak to patients, because I didn’t want individual destinies to influence me too much.
The film is loosely inspired by the experience of a patient of a doctor who is a friend of yours. To what extent is it based on real facts?
I had to move away from the original story. In the real story, the woman almost died, because she already had AIDS. That is why she was in intensive therapy with an incurable pneumonia. The pneumonia was a result of AIDS. After that experience, the woman had to reevaluate all her life. After some time, she informed her family that her husband had cheated on her for years with prostitutes and that they both had AIDS. As a result, their children became distant towards him, but also towards her and she fell into depression and drunk herself to death.
Vakuum reminds me of Andrew Haigh’s film 45 years. Were you thinking about it when you wrote the script?
My script was already finished when 45 years was released. But I, of course, watched it; I am a great admirer of Charlotte Rampling.
What have you learned while exploring trust, betrayal and the ability to recuperate long-term love?
Feelings and dependence in long-term relationships are very complex. On the one hand, my character is terribly hurt and wants to leave everything behind, but she still loves her husband and longs for her past life. Probably because she never lived anything different. For me it was very important to tell the story of this feeling with precision. The fight for something long lost. It was also important for me to show some sort of forgiveness and grace in the film. One can only keep on living if one can forgive. The scene in which the couple tells their daughters about the HIV diagnostic, when she shields her husband, that is a love scene. She shields her husband and protects him like she protects herself.
Did you write the female role with the German theatre actress Barbara Auer in mind?
Barbara Auer was part of the project form the beginning because I was sure she was perfect for the role. She read different versions of the script for years. We always spoke about everything in detail, and she helped me address the problems that affect 60-year-olds. Barbara always believed in the project, even though it was delayed for years. That gave me strength.
Your actors offer very realistic performances. How did you work the spontaneity?
I wanted them to forget all of their performance techniques and that they didn’t “act”, that they “were”. It can sound easy, but for actors, the most difficult thing is not to act. I wanted them unpolished, physically and mentally. Some of the scenes in the movie are improvised. I have often worked with very long takes. This helped them loose their masks and deliver truth. The great trust that they showed was also important. Before the filming, we worked together for a week to get to know each other. I showed them films that work with very realistic story-telling. I explained exactly the point of view that I was interested in. They found it very exciting and agreed 100% with my vision.
How did you work the docudrama camera style with your director of Photography Aline Laszlo?
Aline Laszlo had filmed some documentaries previously. For me it was very important to work with a director of photography that could work with natural lighting and could react spontaneously. In my opinion, actors are the main focus and the camera has to be at their service, not the other way around. As we also improvised some scenes, the concept of the documentary filming was the right one. By the way, it is the first time I have worked with a female director of photography and it was perfect. Most of the heads of departments in Vacuum are women. I am convinced that it helped the actors’ performance, especially in the more intimate scene. I would like for it to be always like this: to work with a balanced team with a common objective, to make the best movie possible.