David Teboul’s Mon Amour is both a paean to love and grief and an odyssey across Siberia to try and make sense of the death of his lover Frédéric Luzy.
“I experienced Frédéric’s death as a collapse, the chaos of his life overwhelmed me, I could neither write nor direct this film,” he explains. “So I decided to go far, very far to Siberia. Why Siberia? Because it seemed infinite and intense to me. I could produce a film about mourning based on stories other than my own to remind me of our history, Frédéric and me.”
The film Teboul has made demands the expressive use of adjective when one attempts to describe it. It is lyrical, profound, personal and beautiful, and his journey is illustrated both by metaphor and the universal testimonies of the Siberian folk he encounters.
The film is also long, with a duration just shy of 3 hours. But such an investment on the part of an audience seems appropriate. Grieving is a protracted process, and Teboul’s invitation to witness his own suffering requires both our focus and concentration, for which we are rewarded at the film’s conclusion. As in In Memoriam, Tennyson’s magnificent ode to a departed friend, we are wrapped in a shroud of regret and loss, in which we are asked to reflect on life, mortality and the singular chaos that a death can leave in its wake.
“I hadn’t imagined a film of this length. I got lost in Siberia for long weeks not knowing why I was there, looking for characters without realizing what they could tell me and forgetting the subject of the film, love. That’s how I met my characters almost naively, having forgotten why I had gone so far to talk about love. I was confined and desperate for weeks in villages more than five days by train to Moscow. That’s how the film found its form,” says Teboul.
“Cinema allowed me to escape from my own chaos,” he adds. “By collecting testimonies on the life of Siberians, I remembered my own story and I was finally able, thanks to my characters, to build the fragmented story of my love with Frédéric. The Siberian cold and the raw and unfiltered narrative of my characters allowed me to escape the self-narcissistic ego of the filmmaker to approach the intimate history of Russia through the side of love, of the Soviet Union, of its collapse to the Russia of today. Their love stories then became universal.”
He meets people who talk about love, mainly the poor. They are folk who would be referred to as peasants in the works of Tolstoy or Pushkin. One character is shocked, and thankful, that his wife retained her devotion for him after he was imprisoned for killing another man. Another man tells of how he tried to love his mother, but she became cruel and tempestuous when drunk, eventually driving him away. A beautiful near-blind woman who must be nearly 100 years of age still takes pleasure in kissing the head of the man she fell in love with several lifetimes ago.
Meanwhile we are offered a panoply of metaphors, whether the lifeless boat frozen into the harbourside ice, or a swirling whisp of cloud delicately placed against a crepuscular sky. Two miniscule and isolated skaters glide on a frozen lake like cursors on a blank page.
“It’s the images and characters I film that allow me to write,” comments Teboul. “Unless I meet my characters, their geographies, I am paralyzed. The writing doesn’t come. I wanted to make a film about the condition of man and love, to make distant stories heard and seen, to film the present of a past in Siberia to tell my own story as others tell theirs.”
The director further explains the need to put distance between himself and the country where he lived with Frédéric. “I first imagined a film in France [but] the love story in France felt too narrow, too conventional. I couldn’t manage to unfold a cinematic universe. [So] I went to Siberia, in the remotest province of Russia, because the collapse of the Soviet Union, its wounds, disenchantment and chaos made me think of the violence of mourning in love and politics. How do you survive after all this? How do you reinvent and live love in a field of ruins?”