I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother..., René Allio, 1976, digital projection, 130 mins
CAHIERS DU CINÉMA: May we begin by asking you what interested you about the publication of the dossier on Pierre Rivière and more especially what you see as interesting in the fact that it has now been made into a film, at least in part?
MICHEL FOUCAULT: For me the book was a trap. You know how nowadays people are forever talking about delinquents, their psychology, their unconscious, their drives, their desires, and so on. There's just no end to what psychiatrists, psychologists and criminologists have to say on the topic. Now this discourse on delinquency goes back about 150 years, to the 1830s. So here was a splendid case: a triple murder, dating from 1835, and on this murder we had not only all the documents relating to the trial but also an absolutely unique first-hand account, by the criminal himself, who left a memoir over a hundred pages long. And so, publishing this book was, for me, a way of saying to all those experts in psycho-whatever (psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry): you've been around for 150 years and here's a case that belongs to the period of your birth. What do you have to say about it? Are you any better equipped to talk about it than your nineteenth-century colleagues? [...]
CAHIERS: Are you in agreement then with the approach in René Allio's film, which tends to emphasize the idea of the peasant class taking language into its own hands? Or had you also thought of this before?
FOUCAULT: No, I hadn't. Allio must take the credit for this, but I'm completely in agreement, because if you reconstruct the crime from the outside, with actors, as if it were a criminal event and nothing else, I think you miss the point. On the one hand you have to situate yourself inside Rivière's discourse—the film had to be a film of the memoir and not a film of the crime—and on the other hand this discourse of a peasant lad living in Normandy in the 1830s had to be set against what the discourse of the peasantry might have been at that time. Now what could be closer to this than the speech, the voices of the present-day peasants living in the same place; and 150 years on it’s basically the same voices, the same accents, the same raw, clumsy words that relate the same thing only barely transposed. The fact that Allio has chosen to commemorate this act in the same places and with almost the same characters as 150 years ago means that the same peasants repeat the same gestures in the same locations. It was difficult to reduce all the apparatus of the cinema, all the apparatus of the film, to so little and to have done that is truly extraordinary, and quite unique, I think, in the history of the cinema. [...]
CAHlERS: What, in your view, might be the effect of present-day Norman peasants being able, thanks to the film, to remember this event, this period?
FOUCAULT: As you know, there's plenty of literature on the peasantry; but a peasant literature, some form of peasant expression, is harder to come by. Here we have a text written in 1835 by a peasant, in his own language—that of an only just literate peasant. And this gives present-day peasants the possibility of acting out, in their own way, this drama which represents their own coming into existence, not so very many years previously. And looking at the way in which Allio makes his actors work, you probably noticed that in one way he was very close to them, that he explained things at length and was tremendously supportive, but that in another way he gave them a lot of latitude, so that their language, their pronunciation and their gestures might be truly theirs. And if you like, I believe that it's politically important to give peasants the opportunity of playing this peasant text. [...]
CAHlERS: But isn't there a danger that they will find their voice only through such a monstrous story?
FOUCAULT: There was a potential danger, certainly; and Allio, when he began to talk to them about the possibility of doing the film, hesitated to tell them what it was really about. When he did tell them, he was very surprised to see that they took it all in their stride, and that the crime wasn't in any way a problem for them. On the contrary, instead of becoming an obstacle, it was a kind of space where they were able to meet, speak and get a whole lot of things off their chests—things that preoccupied them in their daily lives. In fact, instead of inhibiting them, the crime tended rather to liberate them. And had they been asked to play something that was closer to their daily lives, to their current concerns, they might perhaps have felt more fictional, more theatrical, than with this kind of distant and slightly mythical crime which provided the perfect cover for them to be themselves.
*Excerpts from an interview with Michel Foucault in the film À propos de Pierre Rivière, a short documentary by Pascal Kané on the production of René Allio’s I, Pierre Rivière..., as transcribed by Cahiers du cinéma and later translated by Annwyl Williams.
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