Which came first, the plot or the poetic scenes connected to the imagination and/or to the wanderings?
When we started writing Cadavre exquis, we were hoping to set off on a more experimental film that gave a lot of space to sensations, smells and sounds. We were in the process of making Café froid [Cold Coffee], our previous short film, which is very dark and reflects a pretty tough social reality, and we wanted to do something lighter and more detached from reality. We got the idea of shooting from a dog’s perspective early on since animals feature heavily in our other films even though they only have supporting roles. We built the film around our desires about narrative and filmmaking, around a pretty simple plot and a bunch of details and ideas that we’d amassed over a long period of time. Like the dog in the film, we like to wander through cities… Though we always write a detailed script in advance, we often let our stories evolve as we make the films, adding new ideas that we glean through shooting and that gain in relevance as we go along.
How did you work on the relationship between hunger and the search for food in the film?
In Vietnam, food is everywhere, on the streets and in markets, it’s present in all its forms, from the most appetizing to the crudest. We very quickly came up with the idea of retranscribing smells since smell is a dog’s most developed sense. It was also sort of a challenge we wanted to take up – after all, smells are hardly represented in films. For us, what guides the character is curiosity rather than hunger.
It is common to see stray dogs in Hanoi? And what about grilled dog meat for sale?There aren’t many stray dogs in the old city, but you often see dogs walking around without their owners. We’ve always been astounded by the way Vietnamese dogs can cross the street with no difficulty, weaving through the chaotic traffic. A Vietnamese dog does not cross the street like a French dog. You clearly see different cultural behavior in dogs from different countries… Dog meat, on the other hand, is a touchy subject for foreigners because it’s taboo and sometimes causes violent reactions, ranging from disgust to fascination. Every culture has taboos tied to food and it’s really incredible to see just how strong they are even though they have no logical basis. For example, a Cambodian woman we know eats fried tarantulas but cannot understand how Australians can eat kangaroos… When we were doing research for the film, we found out that the French ate dog meat in the early 20th century and that there were even a good number of dog butchers in Paris at the time. The world is globalizing even with respect to eating habits. This year, the Vietnamese government asked people to stop eating dog meat in order not to offend tourists and to give the impression that the country is “civilized and modern”…
Where did you get the idea for the animal’s emotional bond?
The film started with this image: a dog with another dog’s carcass in its mouth, like an extension of itself. We’re not really sure how we came up with the image but we decided to keep it and tell the dog’s story. Dogs are animals that naturally develop very strong bonds, whether they’re wild and running with a pack, or domesticated living with an owner. So we used that characteristic to develop our character, who belongs to neither a pack nor an owner, and therefore naturally created an emotional bond with the carcass.
How did you work on the film’s music?
We chose the music, “hat xam”, which is kind of like Vietnamese blues, right from the beginning and it accompanied us throughout the film’s creation. The choice of main character – a one-eyed stray dog – is a nod to the often blind “xam” musicians who played in the streets and markets of Hanoi. Their songs told of the daily life of simple folk, mixing poetry and pragmatism and exactly reflecting the state of mind of Hanoians. Nowadays, the itinerant musicians who sing “xam” have completely disappeared, and since the death of Ha Thị Cauin 2013, it’s been very difficult to find musicians who carry on the rather crude, rugged style and still do justice to it. The documentary filmmakers Phuong Thao Tran et Swann Dubus, based in Hanoi, helped us get in touch with Dam Quang Minh, a specialist in traditional Vietnamese music and founder of the group Dong Kinh Co Nhac. Under Minh’s direction, and with the participation of the sound engineer Arnaud Soulier, we recorded the group performing classic “xam” themes and several improvisations around the film for an entire day. Denis Vautrin, the composer who’s been with us since our first film, then sorted through the material, rearranged it and gave it a more bluesy feel by adding an electric guitar.
Have you discovered any advantages that the short film form provides?
We particularly favor the short form because it is under less “formatting” pressure than features, even though that is unfortunately beginning to change… Although economic and “targeting” pressures hardly exist in the domain of short films, the script-writing dogmas that the film industry imposes are becoming really quite difficult to avoid… When looking for financing, it’s becoming more and more of a risk to propose a personal vision of cinema to film commissions. For some people, shorts are nothing more than a springboard to feature films… That is a very worrying trend and we hope short films continue to be a form where the freedom to experiment remains paramount.