An Interview with Alexandre Larose
Connor Murphy • 02.09.2023
Among the remaining great cinematic alchemists, few filmmakers consistently offer new modes
of seeing as the French-Canadian Alexandre Larose. Two odd decades or so into his career, the
filmmaker has more than made a name for himself in the world of avant-garde film, crafting
confounding and transfixing moving images which bely exacting, exhaustive processes of
creation. I recently had the chance to sit down with Larose as he called in from his family home
in Quebec City. We discussed his influences, his practice, and the various roles of time,
perception, and unpredictability across his filmography and in reference to his latest work, the
first series of his scènes de ménage.
Connor Murphy: It’s convenient that you’re visiting your family right now, because I was curious about
their role in your work, but we can get to that later. You’re from Lebel-sur-Quévillon, is that correct?
Alexandre Larose: I was born there, but I grew up in Quebec City.
CM: And how was that, did you enjoy growing up there?
AL: Well yeah, I did. I had quite a happy childhood, we were three boys, and we played outside
all the time. My two brothers, for a while they had a career in skiing, but I was not as talented as
they were, so I had a different path. Quebec City was great for different things, and then I
moved out of there when I was eighteen to study mechanical engineering. And then Montreal,
CM: So how did you end up getting into art?
AL: Well, I was quite involved in music when I was younger. I learned drums when I was 10
years old and ended up in a couple of bands until my early twenties. When I was in Sherbrooke
studying mechanical engineering, there was a dark room club for photography, and I got
involved in that. One of my brothers was also instrumental in getting me into this, because he
was starting to do some still photography himself. Around that time we discovered my
grandfather’s 8mm archive, bought a projector at a pawn shop and went through all the rolls.
That was the first time I was closely exposed to moving images on film. In parallel, a good friend
of mine with whom I collaborated with on my first film projects later, Ludovic Boily, was a real
cinephile. We were roommates in Sherbrooke, both studying engineering. I got really into
cinema then, mostly fiction. And then on my own, gradually, I started to film things, to develop
my own kind of thing. I bought a Super 8mm camera, also at a pawn shop, and experimented
mostly with composition and rhythm.
CM: And did you and Boily make those contraptions together, like the rocket for Ville
Marie (2009)? What was the collaboration there like?
AL: Ludovic designed it, because I wanted a certain point of view—to be always facing upwards—but I didn’t want to use artifice. I really just wanted to throw the thing. He came up with the main idea for that contraption, designed and fabricated it . . . he’s a really good craftsperson, very good at making things from scratch. He made the contraption from cardboard initially, and it worked out. He also designed a dolly that I used for the first film I made, in a tunnel. He was key to making the vision possible, and then later on, when I was in Montreal—he remained in Quebec City—I ended up collaborating with another engineer, because I needed someone to convince the owners of the actual Ville Marie building that the project was safe. Idriss Ammara—a teacher at an engineering school nearby—was the next step. With Ludovic, it was always kind of under the radar, to make a long story short.
CM: [Laughing] Oh wow, that’s fascinating. It makes sense, in your earlier work, to see how mechanical engineering may have somewhat informed your practice—do you think that’s still the case, or have you since drifted from there?
AL: I feel like I’ve probably drifted in some ways from it; maybe the thing that remains for me is the persistence of wanting to achieve something I have in my head. At the time, I was really interested in first-person camera perspective, and trying to produce motion, some kind of motion that I had never seen before. After that, I think it was around brouillard (2009-2015)—a middle point between what I'm doing now and before—where I was also a little bit tired of relying on other people. I wanted to just rely on myself and be able to shoot any time. So, I guess the means changed but the persistence of wanting something, that always remained. I still do rely on other people’s expertise in different ways, but I also probably wanted to see what I could make just by myself. I often say I don’t think mechanical engineering is actually an influence, but I think it’s just that in those first few films, after going through these rigorous technical studies, I was able to imagine other ways of handling the camera. Had I not gone through that training, maybe I never would have thought it was possible to throw a camera off a building and retrieve images from it.
CM: Would you mind if we got into some influences of yours? Because it feels as though your filmography to date could be divided into three or so periods: the early films from 930 (2006) to Ville Marie, those concerned more with the material apparatus or structuralist concerns, where there’s an emphasis on articulating a specific feeling or capturing an event; and then you moved on to these roving landscape studies, with the brouillard series, and aller/retour (2008/2012), and Sackville Marshwalk (2013), where there’s now an emphasis on camera movement as a means of delineating a given space with this truly amazing, spectral quality; and now, of course with this third period, one of the big changes is that the camera is static, and we’re onto these sort of movement and gesture studies where you hone in on these tiny motions. There’s a clarity, perhaps, that you seem to be striving for with these. And with all of these new films, they seem to point towards this lineage of impressionism, is that what you’re moving towards?
AL: It’s tough to answer this, because I often feel I have to go back [to that headspace], to ask myself why am I doing this or making that. But I think the first few films, like 930 and Ville Marie and Artifices (2007-2009) were the result of being introduced to experimental cinema, during and shortly after my undergrad studies at Concordia. I was really blown away by Martin Arnold’s work, for the way he reconfigures time, breaks up a motif and transforms existing footage, producing meaning just by reorganizing a few frames. Back then I also discovered Ivan Ladislav Galeta, a Croatian filmmaker, who manipulated time in fascinating ways. And Zbigniew Rybczyński, a Polish filmmaker. So yeah, I would say more the European avant-garde than the American, for instance. Of course, Michael Snow, I always loved his work as well, and I was exposed to it around the same time. So, I would say these first few films are all informed by this, reacting to what these artists made me feel in their work. And then with brouillard, I think I was really trying, almost unwittingly, to do my own thing, and now that I had been exposed to a lot of experimental cinema and had gone to a lot of screenings, I had a broader vision of what was out there. I also feel like in this series my interest in visual art starts to come out. Earlier you mentioned painting. My mother is a visual artist, and I grew up with paintings around the house. In my own interests, I was also fascinated by Futurist paintings. I remember seeing an exhibition of it fifteen years ago. The way they break up the frame and create this image of fragments, that left a big mark on me. There’s also a Hungarian artist, Simon Hantaï, that produced a series where he folds the canvas, puts paint in it and unfolds it, creating these really unpredictable images—it was really inspiring for me as well. Also Sol Lewitt: an instruction is carried out and that’s the artwork. It depends on the site, and so on. With brouillard for instance, the roll of film is the canvas, with a duration and resolution that is set. The instruction is then to expose this roll across a certain trajectory, with an exposure determined by how I want to dilute the image. The stuff I'm working with now extends from that. I still start with a roll—a canvas—but this time, like you said, I am not moving the camera. It’s the figure that moves.
CM: Right, the motion now arises from within the frame.
AL: Exactly. I’m also interested in rituals of every-day gesture. Also, back in 2013 I did a lot of
research into the early history of cinema; not so much along the Lumières’s axis but rather
through what came out of early motion studies, mostly by French scientists Étienne-Jules Marey
and Georges Demenÿ. It’s as though they used cinema as a microscope into time, and that
really struck me.
CM: I was curious about the structure of the films in this first series of scènes de ménage, because they all flow very naturally, and I’m wondering if there was any rhyme or reason why you might move between this or that shot of your parents, or move towards an interlude in the landscape. But maybe there doesn’t need to be a reason because so much of this series seems to be about conflating one image for another, consolidating exterior and interior spaces. There are so many shots where a figure fades into a window, or gives way to a landscape, and everything in the frame gets flattened into this one image.
AL: You’re articulating it very well. I’m really going with how it feels when I assemble it. In this series I’m framing a choreography of simple actions. And I’m also interested in the location in which the scenes are set, having it interact with the figures. The editing process was quite long, because I would just start with a sequence, sometimes randomly juxtaposing another angle, and then if that worked, I would take notes, put that aside and continue until I’d find a solution that felt right. It was a bit different with this series, I.-III. (2022) than with Saint Bathans Repetitions (2016), because with the latter, the rolls are almost as is. But in I.-III., I decided that I was going to cut, more or less, because I wanted to rearrange some connections between shots. But it's always really difficult for me to edit. After finishing Ville Marie I wanted to get as far away as possible from editing. I get very obsessed when confronted with editing and it becomes very difficult to stop.
CM: Do you feel as though you've kind of moved away from the unpredictability you were working with in the brouillard series? Because it seems like a big part of that series was that you were so beholden to the technical constraints, to having to walk this same path where sometimes the camera shuts off, etc. Does that unpredictability still inform the work?
AL: In brouillard I think that the long-take adds a tension, a suspense that makes the unpredictability very palpable, at the forefront. But in some ways I would say it’s even more unpredictable with this series, at least on my side when I shoot. Although it’s probably less in the forefront visually because of how they appear constructed. The mechanical vulnerability of the gear when working with multiple exposures is still very much present; and it’s still difficult to predict how light will add up. The stability of the composition might also hide how fragile the whole process still is. The studies for scènes de ménage—le vestibule and la cuisine (2015)—were uninterrupted takes taken from a wide and static point-of-view. Then with Saint Bathans Repetitions I wanted to zoom in on some details of the action and break its continuity. I’m cutting again, although mostly in-camera. I also started to mix in the space itself, the surroundings where scenes are set. I.-III. builds from that.
CM: To double back a little bit, you mentioned earlier that a lot of your interest in film stems from your relationship to time. I’ve seen you cite [Henri] Bergson before, whose influence is very much felt in your work. I’d love to hear you expand on that.
AL: Yeah, that was during the time where I was doing my MFA, around 2011, and being in the middle of brouillard. I stumbled upon Henri Bergson’s work, as he was describing habitual vs attentive recognition. The way I interpreted his ideas was that as you get older, the experiences you acquire gradually overwhelms how you perceive the present. Your memory ends up having a very strong pul —or inertia—on how you move into the world. Habitual recognition seems to correspond to the unconscious or automatic aspect of that inertia: without being aware of it, what you see and how you react to it is very much conditioned by what you’ve gone through before. In some ways you’re really controlled by how strong that pull is, unless you produce a conscious effort to see something for what it really is. Attentive recognition allows you to step out of the rut and perceive something new. I
feel like in my work I constantly try to see things differently, over and over again. The way I play with motif and repetition seems to point to a very strong desire to produce this effort. With brouillard and scènes de ménage, the accumulation of light builds up an average image on the filmstrip: an approximation of trajectories, gestures, movement. And in this image you’re seeing all the variations at once. Depending on the number of layers and the gauge of the film, individual traces tend to get absorbed into an overall impression. In this way multiple exposures on film un-hierarchize time, if that makes sense.
CM: Right, I think all of your films from the brouillard series onward shows you working with time, with these multiple exposures and the way that we see time unfold—it’s as though it’s constantly simultaneously expanding and contracting so that each superimposition feels like it’s both trying to catch up with something yet to come, but also trying to return to something already seen. Something I really appreciate with the brouillard series, that those films articulate so well, is how near the end of them, after it’s been this relatively slow-moving and tranquil and hypnotic thing, once we finally reach the pier, you see all of the frames from each take start to collapse onto one another, and it feels like you’re seeing time start to unfurl and then double back on itself. It’s really amazing.
AL: Thanks, yeah.
CM: So with brouillard, it seems like you had sort of an outline, or something that you’re very much setting out to do, you want to see this same passage in a new way. Or withVille Marie, where you set out to articulate this specific feeling of falling from the edifice. How do you usually arrive at ideas for your films these days?
AL: I got really interested in how my parents move around the house, performing their daily activities while shooting brouillard. I started to notice how consistently my father executes simple actions like opening a door, walking up stairs, sitting down to take his shoes off, etc. My mother also performs her day in a very structured way. Their everyday activities started to appear as rehearsed choreographies, much like how I was performing with the camera myself at the time. I was also longing for a figure, somehow. In Ville Marie, I wasn’t initially going to include the face that appears prior to the drops. But in the end it remained. In brouillard my nieces ran by me as I was shooting the 2nd iteration of the series. I found their presence in the image so beautiful that I started to stage more in later iterations. In scènes de ménage I’m really focusing on the figure. I’m trying to view them in new ways, extending their movement from shot to shot, creating a kind of perpetual cycle. The environment, which has moved from the family home to unfamiliar locations, provides part of the canvas. Another part is the medium—film—which I’m still trying to understand.
CM: I see, okay. It seems like medium-specificity is important to your work, the fact that these films couldn’t be made not on film. Is there anything which directs whether you’re choosing to shoot a particular image on 16mm, or Super 8mm, or 35mm? What are the different characters those formats have for you?
AL: That’s a good question, because for a while I thought that brouillard would only exist on Super 8. When I started the project, I was really into the flatness of it, because with a certain number of layers from multiple exposures on Super 8, you lose all of the little traces. And then I was doing tests on 16mm as well, and I liked how the larger gauge made it possible to see a bit more. So, I say why not try it on 35mm, because I was experimenting with the amount of layers, trying to get a certain dissolution of contours, and every time with 16 or Super 8, I would quickly saturate the image, it just became flatter and flatter. But 35 usually remained very . . . well there’s so much information that can be put in a 35mm frame, so it's really because of the definition, basically. I didn’t want to lose the traces of individual layers while also being sort of overwhelmed by their accumulation and presence in the images. With Super 8, you lose that. So that’s why, let's say with scènes de ménage, when I shoot with Super 8, I'm going for grain ... you mentioned Sackville Marshwalk, that was an example where I was just going for grain, and unless you know where it comes from, it’s really impossible to know, so there’s that thing with Super 8—it’s more mysterious, more impressionistic, maybe. With 35, it’s more photographic.
CM: The first chapter of the scènes de ménage triptych, was that on Super 8, then?
AL: Yeah, that’s all Super 8.
CM: Those look incredible. And there’s a really nice rhythm you establish in the structure of this series, when you move from something that feels really abstracted or like pointillist painting, and then we get something with complete clarity, like—is that your mother descending the staircase, or is that Jacques [Larose, the filmmakers father]?
AL: That’s Jacques. My mother’s in the third one, she’s in the Super 8 section where it’s basically just grain . . . but it’s really mostly Jacques.
CM: Right, there’s an absolutely incredible moment when we’re first seeing that bannister [in III.], it almost looks like there’s liquid light itself pouring down it, until it finally congeals into a figure, and you can slowly make out a hand, a body, a head. Something else I’ve noticed in the new work, for the stuff that’s shot on 35mm, some of the textures have this sort of sheen to them. I remember being really caught by the top of the bannister in that image, it had this metallic flatness I’ve never seen in your work before.
AL: I think it comes from the way I hand-processed it. Of course the way that the layers accumulate on 35 is very different than on 16. Every time there’s a little detail, it will come up instead of merging with the other layers. And with the way I hand-processed the footage, I got the outlines to shine, somehow.
CM: How intensive is your processing work these days, has it changed throughout the years?
AL: It’s always a full time process for a few months, and then in between production phases, I’ll switch to editing and on-going experimentations. But the production process—the shooting—I need to be immersed in it without distractions. I’m fortunate in that my partner lets me go to residencies and be alone for a few months, which is amazing. I need that dedicated time, I crave it. Often, there's satisfaction just in shooting, I don’t even need to see the image. Film is such a unique medium in this way, you never get to see what you’re doing while you’re doing it.
CM: You always have unpredictability in that alone.
AL: Well, that’s exactly it. And that’s why I love film so much. Although I’m often scared to look at the footage. I love hand processing, hanging the film to dry and looking at the individual frames. I’ll often wait a while before actually scanning and projecting the material. If the result is below my expectation it’s really hard. So I’ll try again until the moving image is as satisfying as the entire process was.
CM: Do you find yourself having to scrap certain projects or rolls of film altogether?
AL: Oh yeah, for sure.
CM: I imagine that must’ve been tough for brouillard, where you realize you need to add more layers to create this sort of fluid motion, but if you add too many, it becomes too dense and you can’t make out anything. How exacting was that process?
AL: Well, that’s why I think it took so long. Because I would often need one summer to shoot maybe two tests with brouillard, two iterations, sometimes it took so long to just do whatever number of layers I had to do. And then I see it, and it’s like, Ah shit, that doesn’t work. Okay, we’ll do it again next year. It was like that for a long time. Of course when I started the project —and it’s the same thing with scènes de ménage—I keep having this naive belief that Oh now it’s gonna work, I’m sure it’s gonna work right away because I have this experience, but no, and it’s a good thing because it just makes me try harder and find new ways of doing what I’m doing. But yeah, brouillard, there were a lot of scraps, and it’s heartbreaking of course, when you work a few weeks on the same thing. I remember one time the camera had a problem I didn't know, and then the whole roll had this crazy flare. I could've given up then.
CM: Have you ever considered working with digital photography? Has that ever had a place in your cinema?
AL: It does, although I haven’t shown any of the results yet. I love the digital medium as well, that’s the thing. It’s such a different process. I’m looking for something else with it. Often what happens is after a while of working through intensive film work, I'll go to digital. I can take a step back on the film work and experiment on something totally new at the same time.
CM: I see. Did you have digital cameras involved with Ville Marie at some point?
AL: Yeah, I did. The film called Ville Marie refers to a building that I had not accessed yet, and so that building, when I got access to it, GoPro cameras had started to come out. So along with shooting Super 8 I had a few [GoPros] inserted inside the contraption, and they all got destroyed except for one. What that camera ended up capturing was so interesting. I tried a few things with that, and then three or four years later, I got access to the building again, and this time I only used digital cameras. Most of what I did with the recordings was a reconfiguration and spatialization of the various angles into a multi-screen installation.
CM: And Ville Marie has sound, yes?
AL: It does, but last year I had a screening, a work survey in Spain, and I decided five minutes ahead of it to cut the sound, partly because the projectors were in the room. I screened all of the earlier works without sound, and it was a bit of a revelation for me, because the soundtracks add a sentimental layer to them, which at the time made sense, but eventually brought me back to an emotional state I had left.
CM: Do you feel the same way about Saint Bathan Repetitions now?
AL: This one not so much, but I still love it without the soundtrack. If the projector’s in the room, I'll still screen it silent, but I don't mind the sound in that one. There’s no music in it, really.
CM: Right, the sound plays parallel to the images.
AL: Right, I have a conflicted relationship with sound . . . That will probably evolve, but for now I'm very happy with them just being moving images. Without sound the older works felt like new films for me. I don’t know how that would go on a digital screen, but projected, it really felt right, just the image.
CM: Since you’ve brought it up, I really appreciate your insistence upon having the projector in the room, if not just for the sound it produces. A crucial part of much silent avant-garde cinema. And I know you’ve done some other installation work, so I wonder, how important is it for you to curate or create a space before setting up your films there?
AL: I wish I could have more control on that, but I got very lucky at that screening in Spain: there was a 35mm projector in the room, which is usually very rare. The projector produces the soundtrack. When it’s totally silent, it’s a very different feeling. I love that hypnotic mechanical sound. With the installations I’ve done, I work with the specificities of the space to set up the scale of the image, the position of the projectors, etc. I’ve always favored the smaller spaces because of how intimate the relation of the spectator to the images can get. For instance I love how back-projection can allow a viewer to touch the image, to be so close.
CM: This is one thing I hadn’t known at all until I did some reading about you, is that you’ve also taught at Concordia University, is that right?
AL: I taught a montage class ten years ago, and I taught at Bishop’s [University] another semester. But at Concordia, I was a production coordinator, just staffed for a couple years after my undergrad before my MFA. I was a TA for a while as well, before and during my MFA. I really love teaching, and I got so involved in it. I realized that if I were to teach, I don’t know if I could have as much of a practice in the intensive way I approach it, because in my opinion teaching is a practice in itself. I get so interested in the topic, how to teach it, building relationships with the students, etc. I really enjoyed that. It makes me discover aspects of cinema outside my own practice. I was teaching editing at a time when I wasn’t editing at all, so it was interesting to look at montage with that mindset. I had a very analytical way of looking at it.
CM: Has there been any film that for you has been most rewarding, considering how much goes into them?
AL: I'm really happy with the last series. And then 930, Ville Marie, some of the brouillard and Saint Bathans, they are the result of a lot of sustained work. Whereas other, more punctual works like Artifices or aller/retour, they’re more like explorations, experiments. The ones I spend many years on are more rewarding for me. They encompass such a huge chunk of time and energy.
CM: So, I know you’re probably trying to keep some things under wraps, but do you feel as though your form will continue to change? Or do you feel pretty resolute where you are right now, settling into an idiom.
AL: I think so, who knows. It’s funny, because in a different scale of time, the projects like 930, Ville Marie, those projects, when doing them, I'd get people saying Ah, you’re still in that tunnel? or You’re still throwing those cameras? and it’s like, Well, yeah. For me, I'll leave that space, that form, when I feel like I'll have exhausted the possibilities that I see. And I can understand that for people outside, things may appear similar. But from the inside, the vision keeps unfolding and I feel a kind of urgency and duty to commit to it. I can't force myself out of it. I’ll stop when it’s clear to me that there’s nothing else to be mined.