The French director and screenwriter Alice Winocour is not one to shy away from trauma. Her debut feature, 2012’s Augustine, plumbed the depths of female hysteria through the increasingly erotic and stifling relationship between a 19th century doctor and his housemaid patient. The 37-year old also penned the screenplay for last year’s Golden Globe-nominated Mustang, which explored the dire consequences of growing up female in contemporary Turkish society via five orphaned sisters quarantined at their grandparents’ home after a seemingly benign encounter with a group of young boys.
In Disorder, her second feature opening today in New York and Los Angeles, Winocour turns a hyper-focused and unflinching gaze on the fate of soldiers suffering from PTSD. Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) has recently come back from Afghanistan with a serious case of PTSD. While waiting for clearance to return to combat, he takes on a job as a bodyguard for the elegant wife of an arms dealer (Diane Kruger) and her young son, who are cooped up in a lavish French Riviera villa while her husband is traveling. Vincent’s visions and inability to deal with the lay world first seem an obvious symptom of his disorder, but as his paranoia becomes increasingly prophetic, the front line between war and civilian life becomes blurred in terrifying ways.
What made you want to tell a story about a soldier and one with PTSD? It came out because I listen to the radio and there’s a lot of films about PTSD in the U.S., but in France [they don’t] exist. And I heard on the radio that there were soldiers who were coming back from Afghanistan and I thought I would like to meet them and hear their stories. And so I went to the hospital where most of the PTSD soldiers were sent. They told me about their nightmares and their outbursts of violence and especially their difficulty in coping with reality after being in a combat zone. That’s how I came up with the character of Vincent.
Was he inspired by a specific person you met? Actually, there was [a soldier] who I met who became a friend; he came on the set. And I rehearsed some of the action scenes with him. And what was really interesting about this guy was that this story for the film was a kind of therapy for him. Because we were not talking about him. Of course soldiers are all different, but in general most of them are not that talkative and they don’t want to express their feelings. They don’t know how to do it. And they’re not supposed to talk about what they have done. But with him we were talking about the character. He felt like he didn’t have to talk about himself, it was Vincent, so he could talk about things very intimately.
The whole movie is seen from Vincent’s perspective. Why? It was my obsession. It got really annoying [for] the crew and stuff, but from the [start], I wanted the plot to be only what Vincent could understand of it. So it remains shady. You don’t understand anything. And that’s what is frightening to me — when you see through an open door, but you don’t have the whole picture of it. And also you can only understand what he can understand, you can only see what he can see, so it’s also direction from the camera not to see something that is not in his POV. And also for the editing and also for the mixing, but you can only hear what he can hear. We have played with this distortion of reality, this distorted sound, to express [his] difficulty to cope with reality. It’s a whole world we have tried to recreate of fragility of perception. Of course I was inspired by films like The Conversation, all of those perception narratives. The story is more like a sensory experience.
The film takes place in this very expansive French villa… You know Madonna rented it for a summer? That’s a strange thing because it’s so scary to me!
Before or after you shot the film? Before.
Maybe if she had seen your film she would have reconsidered! It’s so interesting because it’s a huge house and piece of land. But the film feels a bit claustrophobic because there’s this hermetic world that Vincent exists in. It feels like a panic room scenario. I was really inspired by all of those home invasion movies, playing with the rules. It’s true that the house to me — Maryland the French is the name of the villa — was like a world apart, and all the corridors are like Vincent’s head, he’s completely lost in the villa with all the cameras and stuff. For the shooting, we were stuck in the house for two months, all of us. And really, the film is about chaos: chaos of the body, chaos of the weather, of the politics … I had written in the script that the weather should be chaotic, that it should be raining all the time. Because I thought it was funny that in the French Riviera that you imagine is blue skies and palm trees, that it becomes a horror movie with very bad weather. And while we were shooting it was incredible weather: there were storms all the time, the beach was totally f—ed up by major storms, some cars were found toppled over. And so we were, all the crew, in the same state of mind as the characters, stuck in the house with all the rain, we couldn’t go out and we were becoming all a little crazy a bit. But it was good for the film, there’s something of a documentary to it. I like this idea of mixing a documentary and at the same time a horror movie.
The sound is so important to the film. It really sucks you into the paranoia of Vincent’s mind. As a sensory experience, music is so important. And [French techno artist and DJ] Gesaffelstein is really part of this movement; his techno music is very violent and at the same time very contemporary, and at the same time almost religious. And also it helped me a lot to find the rhythm of the film because in Gesaffelstein’s music, when you expect a sound, it doesn’t come and when you don’t expect it, it comes. And that’s really what I tried to do with the film. The collaboration with Gesaffelstein was really crucial in my work. Also, he came on the set. He was amazed by the atmosphere because Matthias [Schoenaerts] was in a very strange place. He was not sleeping on set, on purpose. He thought it was good for the character. He was not sleeping and really in a very violent mood. Because I wanted him to have those eyes that you can see in [people with] PTSD — their eyes are not there anymore, they’re in a different world. They’re in limbo. To me, it was really moving to have Matthias so connected, but sometimes he was going so far I was like, “Oh be careful not to hurt yourself or others.” For instance, he broke the nose of a stunt guy. But it was good, because there was no other way to do it because there is no dialogue. It had to come from the inside.
There are also so many tight shots of Vincent and his body. It almost felt like the female version of the “male gaze.” Exactly. That’s why it was cool to direct an action movie. I really felt there should be no boundaries for women there, that they can direct any type of film. So I thought it was cool to film the actor as a man would have filmed a woman: as an object of desire. But at the same time, I hope the character had complexity. We did a lot of work on Matthias’ body with all the scars and tattoos, of course none of them are real. Like those soldiers that carry their stories on their bodies. You see the dates on his arms, that’s something I had seen on a solider and I thought they were really mysterious, they were dates of traumas, people that he had lost. We didn’t talk much while preparing the film, but we talked only about physical details. And I think it’s really something I’m obsessed with, this physical dysfunction. When there are no words to express your traumas or your desires or your feelings, it’s the body which talks.
You brought up the point of female directors and action movies. You don’t see many female directors tackling the action genre. Why do you think that is? I really love to direct action scenes. I really wanted to have this rough violence, like in a documentary, not choreographed. And I really loved shooting those sequences. I think as a woman in France we’re really privileged. I know the situation here [in the US], there’s a very low rate of women despite the incredible talents. In France, we’re very privileged that there’s a lot of women filmmakers. And I’m always moved by the way we can all express our voices, and also women are very different one from another. There is no such thing as a feminine way of telling stories. And I think we know now that we all have a feminine part and a masculine part. But I think as a woman, I feel it’s important that we still fight. Women have fought for us, women have opened the roads. And I think it’s really important that we continue to fight to have this, to be able to do this. And I think women can do any type of film. They should do it.
The violence in this film is really unflinching and graphic. I was really amazed by the reaction when I was in Cannes [at the film festival]. Some people said, “It’s really violent for a woman,” or, “It’s well-directed for a woman.” And I was like, “Is this something you would ask a man?” I think it’s really weird that nowadays there are reactions like this. There’s still a long way to go if people react that way. Even in Cannes, there was someone who came up to me and looked at me and said, “I just wanted to be sure you were a real woman.” And I was like, “Come on!”