Interview: Marie Polo on her parcours and remarkable feature debut HUBRIS

@hubris_official @marie_polo_

We had a chat with Marie Polo, up-and-coming French filmmaker & actress you need to know about. Her first feature film HUBRIS, written, directed, and produced by herself, is dealing with female trauma, how to overcome it and heal through sophrology*. Presented as an immersive screening, the film premiered at the KINDL center for contemporary art in Berlin during the Berlinale / Transmediale, and will be followed by more projections around the world in 2020/2021. We highly recommend you watch the trailer of HUBRIS below, and read our interview with Marie to get to know more about this sensitive new voice of cinema.

*a combination of meditation, breathing and relaxation techniques with visualisations

Hi Marie. Where are you from and where do you live now?
Hi there! I’m french and live in between Berlin, Paris, and an atelier in the French countryside I am turning into an art farm / artist residency, together with 15 cats, a donkey, a 1-eye poney, a baby wolf dog & my partner in crime / lover (who I actually re-met while shooting HUBRIS in which he played the part of Tarek, psycho-killer). 

My artistic background is life, the encounters I had so far, my experiences & the hypersensitivity I have developed with my sensorial tools to be as much alive as possible, every day.

Tell us about your artistic background: How did you first get into cinema, and when did you realise it was the right path for you? 
I’ve been acting ever since I’m a kid (theater, then cinema). Growing up, I really wanted to be a spy and thought I could instead become an actress and wear a billion different identities. Putting myself in other people’s shoes & telling a thousand stories from different perspectives, sounded like the perfect life adventure (a lot less boring than the regular jobs parents & teachers tell you about). After high school I went into an intense preparatory cursus: hypokgâgne / khâgne with 0 time for any other activity, but that’s when I broadened my knowledge & capacity in writing, analysing, synthesising, overcoming what I thought were my mental & physical limits. And that was key for everything I’ve done ever since in my personal & professional life. I finished a degree in La Sorbonne in literature & communication but that was again super theoretical. I started doing internships at 16 years old just for fun, and to have a concrete feeling of what this field was like. Did so for fashion, advertising, event management, and ended up getting my first full time job at age 20 as a junior project manager in a Paris event agency specialised in fashion & luxury. Fascinating creative process! But the aim & format were quite redundant, and I was missing very much the emotional & sensorial explorations of myself as well as different characters.

So I got back into acting when meeting my 93 years old acting coach Jack Waltzer about 7 years ago. That’s also when I moved to Berlin and took part in a lot of very inspiring acting projects. The first one was MEAT (immersive theatre piece directed by Thomas Bo Nilson / shown at the Schaubühne & trailer by Matt Lambert) in which I played a post-operated transexual stripper called Chardonnay (because I was French). For 10 days non-stop we were living, day & night, inside the installation (inspired by the cannibal serial killer Luca Roco Magnota) & in direct interaction with the audience (60 actors // 40 visitors changing every 4h). That was quite something! I met some incredible people. Some of them I actually casted to play in HUBRIS years later. I never went to film school which I think is somehow a blessing since I did not format my brains & creativity to the rules/standards of what cinema should be.

When my parents got divorced (I was 11 years old back then), the only way I could see my dad was outside, since he did not really have a place to host my sisters & I, so we would meet every week in Montparnasse, Paris, to go to the restaurant & cinema. That’s how growing up I would be very often watching films on the BIG screen together with him and we would go to that tiny little DVD store of this beautiful bluesman collector & movie addict. I would spend hours just going through all of them and pick 1 or 2 I would eagerly watch back home. I guess that also shaped my visual & narrative references. But my influences really have a wide spectrum of inspirations beyond cinema itself, from automatic writing of the surrealist movement to nature landscapes, travels, people in general (there are mad characters walking around everywhere if you look closely). I think by diving into your senses & making yourself available to observe, capture & connect with whatever is going on around you, you can have a strong intuitive feeling of what touches you & what story you want to tell.

2 years ago I met Mila Jovovich at Sundance festival and asked her what advice she would give to a young actress & director like me. She took the time to think, focused & smiling, then stared back at me & said : “Embrace your story, whatever it is. That’s what will resonate with the world”. My heart was pounding because the person telling me this was that incredible actress and woman with such a raw aura I’ve been admiring ever since the 5th Element! But also because with HUBRIS that is exactly what I have been doing and this was to me like a sign that I was somehow on the right path.

So all in all, I would say my artistic background is life, the encounters I had so far, my experiences & the hypersensitivity I have developed with my sensorial tools to be as much alive as possible, every day. People who know me well think of me as a storyteller. I write A LOT, ever since I can write I have journals & notebooks to write down anecdotes, stories, ideas, draw sketches, collect small fragments of images I like or textures, colours. Cinema is 1 medium I am super interested to explore but also sound & music, dance, and performance. They are to me just different shapes & nuances of the same creative force, life instinct & artistic drive. 

I needed to tell that story absolutely independently, without any compromise, here & now. There was an urge like a boiling orgasm that cannot be held back any longer! It was physical.

Can you tell us about HUBRIS is your first full-length feature? How did the project come about ?
HUBRIS started as an idea, a seed that took 5 years to reach its final blooming. I had put it on the side for a little while, and decided to make it happen after being pre-casted as main part for a big film project by a director who had just won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. The shooting got postponed of 1 year due to a lack of production money (as it often happens) and I realised I might have just that 1 year to do all the things I wanted to do real bad before things get out of hand. I was 23 back then. And doing this big project would have meant 3 months of prep / rehearsal with an intense director and a heavy character to embody, 3 months of shooting, then the press tour & festivals, etc. So as much as it was exciting, it was also a bit overwhelming. That’s definitely what gave me the final push to make HUBRIS. I had this time limit in mind, so I did not even try to find fundings or a production. It was as if I needed to tell that story absolutely independently, without any compromise, here & now. There was an urge like a boiling orgasm that cannot be held back any longer! It was physical.

I wrote down the first script & built up each character’s backstory, features, connections with each other, vices & fantasies. I had almost all the cast in mind already. I actually had each character’s picture on my wall as the map of the film, with a thousand notes & details. Looked a bit creepy, like a psycho killer’s back office, when I think about it now.  Anyhow, I met with each of them (some were actors, others not) and I started coaching them, doing sensory exercises, real-life practice: like going to a bar in character & having my cast build real memories which would then later on be tangible & give depth to the characters when shooting. It was a beautiful process which lasted almost 3 months. I coordinated everything, even the catering ! Actually that was the relaxing part of the whole production process & when I could focus on Alice, the character I play in the film. It would be like : “Ok the rice will be ready in 10min, now you need to have a big panic attack for that scene before the rice is done, go!”.

I put all my (little) money in producing this mad project and forgot to pay the electricity bill that month so we would actually sleep a few hours in a freaking cold & old flat in Neukoln in the middle of February (coldest month) and go back to shoot until we could not shoot anymore. In this kind of process & mode, I am quite restless. Someone from the crew suggested once that I should have 2 teams : day shift & night shift to cover everything I wanted without stopping. If I had had the budget I think I might have done it. Anyhow, I was blessed to find the right people especially Mario Cordero my DOP who became like the visual extension of my vision, the guiding eye. We built this film thanks to our trust in each other & in the project itself. For example I would tell him “For that scene, the action is this or that. I want the viewer to feel clostrophobic or dizzy” and he would tell me “Ok come back in 10min to check & validate the light / frame”. Meanwhile I would take the time to really work hand in hand with my actors. You can have the most beautiful image on a screen with crazy good camera, effects, etc but if the person in front of the camera doesn’t feel shit, it will feel off & nothing will happen. I made sure the right human vibration was going on when the camera went on 🙂 Triggering what worked for each actor thanks to the training we had done before. And it was quite magical! Again, that was possible thanks to very talented actors but also very generous souls (both cast & crew) who did not count their hours & gave it all. We had some memorable scenes. The way I wanted to work was really from moment to moment, with impulses & actors working off each other, the situation, the real thoughts & whatever was going on at this time & place. I rewrote each scene of the film from each character’s perspective.

Yet, all in all it took me about a year after shooting these images, to realise that the essence of what the film was about was somehow missing. I asked an actor & script writer friend to question me for as long as necessary in order to grasp what it was. It took 5 hours until that 1 question he asked and my throat tightened, I had tears up my eyes & could not make a sound. He looked at me and said “Now that’s what your film is about”. I went home, zoomed out & realised I had written the whole original script with my subcouscious, making giant detours to express a trauma so deep I could not verbalise it directly. The details of my characters & turns of the narration were like a puzzle of my mind. I had built this whole thing to somehow deal with this traumatic experience & unconsciously put aside as a protective reflex. This realisation gave birth to a whole new perspective on HUBRIS, a new character (the sophrologist), new scenes and I rewrote the whole thing to be as truthful as possible to the essence I needed to tell so bad. 

We only have one body, one vessel taking us through life & I think we tend to take it for granted until something BIG happens like an accident or a traumatic experience.

As you mentioned, HUBRIS deals with trauma and healing through sophrology, with a very intimate feel. How does your personal experience translate in the film?  
HUBRIS is indeed structured as a sophrology session during which the audience enters different layers of body memory of Alice. She is a young woman very much affected physically and mentally by a traumatic experience she does not have any visual memory of. I myself was abused sexually in my sleep on & off for 4 years between the age of 13 and 17. During these years I truly thought I was “crazy” and the one with issues for imagining such insane things happening to me. It was like a recurrent nightmare that is only perceivable without any visual memory since I was asleep and in darkness whenever I would start waking up. That is my personal story which I did not want to tell and simply could not tell in details as it is, out of respect & decency for the intimacy of the people who have been affected directly or indirectly by this story, including myself. But it seems like my subconscious needed to lift the veil from all these body memory & sensorial fragments in a way or another.

I did see a sophrologist when I was 16 years old because I had very strong panic attacks where sounds especially would go faster & faster, louder & louder. I would get dizzy, my heartbeat would race at full speed until I would be on the edge of passing out or vomiting. Sophrology helped me immensely to become aware of my sensations & emotions, feel the symptoms rise up and instead of freaking out, learn how to control them thanks to breathing techniques & visualisations. Projecting myself in places where I would feel safe & peaceful, that I could go back to in a snap thanks to my imagination, a small gesture of the hand that would connect my body & mind instantly and help me let go of the stress tsunami I would usually face. This in a way was my first “sense memory” (acting exercise I later learned with Jack Waltzer, my acting coach) and meditation (which I dived into through Vipassana meditation courses in Nepal & daily practice). By digging into all this, we managed to trace back some of the stress factors & sensitivity, anger management, fears, trauma I had been going through. This was a huge relief to name things, have people recognise what happened to me, realise I was not “crazy” & allow myself to also go to that dark side of my subconscious now that I had the tools to come back to light.

But the hardest after that was to not be defined only as a “victim” by my family & loved ones (who meant well), being sent to a bad “victim associaton” which seemed to be only interested in me going to court in order to have another case they collect that justifies new state fundings. The wound & scar that man had left on me was big enough. There was no way I was going to let him define me, who I would be now & become, as a young woman, a lover, a daughter, a mother one day. My biggest revenge was to free myself from all of these strings of the past and be able to face it without fear or anger instead of denying it or running away from it. Because these 2 emotions, fear & anger, are what would have ended up hurting me the most in the end, turning me into the bitter & dark version of myself that I did not want to become. It was not easy. Like everyone I have ups & downs, I’m not in a constant Nirvana! It’s an ongoing process which I am still confronted to today. I’ve had issues dealing with my own body, had major food disorders for a while, became a stripper & an escort to somehow take back the control over my body and maybe even play a more “honest” (sex) game (men come here for an obvious reason we all know) than the everyday lie we are being served. All these experiences were part of that same attempt of taming myself back. We only have one body, one vessel taking us through life & I think we tend to take it for granted until something BIG happens like an accident or a traumatic experience like this one or both. But it is always possible to wake up one day & firmly definitely stop that loop. No one will do it for you though and you better be ready to do it all the way if you want to reach a point where you can truly embrace yourself fully for who you are instead of pleasing whatever projections others map onto you. It’s far from being easy but it is well worth it ! So in that sense my personal experience can only sweat through the pores of a film like HUBRIS. Yet it remains a work of fiction with various fragments & puzzle pieces of my own life experiences criss-crossed with other stories I encountered or imagined.

There is no deadline to happiness. You can get up & fuck off from whatever trap you are stuck in anytime.

What message do you want to convey through the film? 
No matter how dark, twisted & traumatised is your past, you can still wake up today & find a way to heal your wounds no matter how deep or raw they are. There is a thousand ways to light and to the lightness of simply being. Sophrology is one of them. But acting, meditation, nature, dancing, making music, writing, creating through whatever medium or simply feeling whatever it is you feel, being connected to yourself thanks to the wonderful toolkit that are your senses is another way. There is no deadline to happiness. You can get up & fuck off from whatever trap you are stuck in anytime. You just need the right push, the right trigger to stand up for yourself and you have a right to do so. HUBRIS was a big push for me and I hope with all my heart that it can also be a wake up call for other souls out there. Even after a long apnea, inner peace & relief are just a breath away. 

You need to let go as a director. You disconnect from what is going on on set and just give yourself entirely without anything holding you back. It’s a stretch of your mind & body.

HUBRIS is written & directed by you, and you are the main protagonist. How important was it for you to control the process behind and in front of the camera ? And What have you learned through it? 
Since this film was such a personal & intimate process of creating & healing for me, I did not want anyone external to have a say in how to get there. A production company would have insisted on who to cast, how many days to shoot, which scenes to take out for the final edit, etc. I wanted to owe this to myself only. And after writing, directing, producing HUBRIS & playing the main part in it, I have to say that I have learned enormously and am proud of what I somehow managed to give birth to. Sweat, brews & tears were well worth it 🙂

Playing Alice, that young woman stuck in a rabbit hole with no way out and step by step, layer of perception by layer of perception, accessing the bright promise of finding herself back, was like a double mirror for me as an actress & director. I went places & took risks I would not have put other of my actors through because I needed to go all the way. For me, for her, for the film & what it conveys. I put myself under the same direction that I used when coaching my actors: to stick to the arc of each scene but to go with the flow, follow impulses with sometimes no idea where the scene is gonna go or how it’s gonna end. And when you dive into that way of acting (which is exactly about not acting but re-acting to what’s going on in the moment), you need to let go as a director. You disconnect from what is going on on set and just give yourself entirely without anything holding you back. It’s a stretch of your mind & body that is quite incredible once you learn how to do it.

Again, I was able to do so because each person on set – from the one making coffee to the guy holding the boom, the set-designer, the one behind the camera or the one arranging the light or the stuntman – Absolutely every one shared that vision & went with the flow of this unusual format / process of working. Without such an incredible team, I would have never been able to make HUBRIS happen in such a total uncompromised way and I will be forever grateful for that. I learned at each step of the way and if I ever make a film again there are of course things I would do totally differently. But I think there is not 1 way to make a film. HUBRIS was a convulsive creation that found its shape also because of this free-flow process.

The most intense & beautiful scene where I totally had to let go as a director and actor, turning to my instinct only, was the final scene with the wolves. Being surrounded by them, facing them and not having any control over the animal which does not give a shit about your light situation / battery level / camera frame & optics, you just really have to be there with them, embracing each movement and reaction. You turn into an animal yourself to somehow belong to this wolf pack, especially during the acceptance ritual of the human being by the wolf, inspired by the one Indian tribes in Colorado still do today. You shortcut your brain and try to feel absolutely everything around you. Each heart beat counts. Each breath echoes. And each movement vibrates a thousand times stronger inside, as you stay still. And cut! There is always an emotional residue after strong scenes like that, even after the camera is off and the crew is wrapping up. That wolf scene still gives me goose bumps & sensorial reminiscences every day. Actually I recently adopted a baby wolf dog from that pack which is a beautiful daily reminder of this raw, primitive and instinctive approach to life. 

The film has a very particular aesthetic, with strong visuals, symbols and details. What is it inspired by?
I had some flashes & visions which turned into moodboards, shapes, textures, characters, landscapes, spaces, top-shots, close ups… But HUBRIS and I clearly owe the beautiful cinematography of the film to Mario Cordero, our director of photography / cinematographer / editor. After the first immersive screening of the film at Café Babette (KINDL – center for contemporary art) during Berlinale / Transmediale, some people came to me saying “Take David Lynch & Gaspar Noe, put them together in a plane on acid and you get HUBRIS”. I thought that was both an interesting & funny vision, as well as flattering of course. And I kind of see what they mean with the “Party going wrong” and “Live death show”. Others mentioned similarities to Terrence Malick for the nature shots on the rocks, the river, the abandoned church, in the forest. others Tarkovsky, which is an even more incredible comparaison. But I have to say that even though all of these wonderful directors definitely influenced me personally, they were not direct references we used since HUBRIS was not shot as an all-planed / story-board feature but much more as a momentum one. The work around the symbols was a deep dive into both the sophrology symbolics (the water element for exemple which clears & cleans) and what made sense for each character. The worms falling on Alice’s face as she is asleep before the drowning confettis wake her up, were a clear death reference you can find in paintings of the apocalypse. Also the term HUBRIS itself, refers to the belief from Ancient Greece that if humans disobey the plan of the gods, choosing a different path for their own life & destiny (because of ego, excess & greed), they will be destroyed along with their community.

With all of this in mind, we created a HUBRIS ritual with a dear witch friend who practices white magic. She was on set with us and doing the ritual before we shot with one of our main actor (who is not an actor at all originally) so the pressure would rise & reach its vibration peak during the shoot. We had some pretty scary things happen on set during these rituals actually, including 2 goldfishes dying within a few minutes for no reason or a knife randomly thrown on the wooden floor, planted inside so deep it was difficult to remove, or a big round white stone that was in the hands of the actor and suddenly broke in 2 out of nowhere. There was definitely something mystic on set and sometimes the crew would just stay silent for 5 or 10 minutes after shooting a scene. The “violent sex scene” for example or the “dinner between Alice & the cleaning boy” where I actually lost it at some point, hit the glass in my hand on the table and cut myself for real (which was not planned), bleeding quite a lot. That was a big surprise for the other actors, crew & myself but it somehow worked perfectly for the scene. The set-designer Miren Oller who is a very talented & sensitive being had to help me dress up for the next scenes. She is also the one who had a thousand ideas on how to physically translate the overall tension of the film through objects that were not just props but actual meaningful symbols of what Alice was going through, what her perception would focus on, what she would feel threatened or attracted by. I believe this charges the film with a symbolic depth & subconscious components which give predictions as the film goes and influences the interpretations of each viewer, depending on their personal experiences, references & sensitivity. 

The only way to reconnect to ourselves & others is by acknowledging that flesh and daring to embrace it for what it is, with the most respectful and sacred perspective on it. Your body is a temple.

HUBRIS is presented as an immersive screening, a unique format of screening that offers an actual experience of the healing process the protagonist is going through. Can you tell us about this concept, and what kind of reaction are you hoping from the viewers?
With a film as charged as HUBRIS and with such a strong sensory feel to it, it was quite an obvious choice to offer a physical experience of the overall project rather than just a 2D / flat screening of the film. With the format of immersive screening, we provoke interactions & reactions from the audience that are much more vivid than during traditional projections. It starts with an acousmatic performance with a sound immersive set-up that circles the audience and puts them into a connected & focus zone together with Alice, on this body memory exploration. This is how begins this collective catharsis before the film even starts. This was conceived together with Paul Behnam, who also composed the original music of the film & the whole sound design, which play such a key part in the film narrative. Each character had a range of sounds which come back through the film as a subconscious loop. We worked for a year and a half on finding the right notes, melodies, instruments, rhythms & vibrations which would convey the best compositions for each scene and provide the film with its own sound & musical language. It is with all of this precious material that Paul created the acousmatic piece that immerses the audience into HUBRIS soundscape prior to watching the film. During this auditory experience, I also perform & interact with the audience, going through an arc of Alice’s trauma & healing process. The character of the sophrologist is also present & navigates the crowd with whispers, notes, symbolic gestures. I believe this definitely participates in providing an even deeper dive into the film. As the screening goes, a contortionist starts stretching madly between the guests, another actor suddenly cums or crawls crying. It is a very dynamic cinematic experience that also questions the value of being present. Should you stay eyes glued to the past – the film shot years ago projected onto the cold screen – or the real life hot-blooded human-being also trying to breath near you? We really want such immersive screenings to be experienced by very different kinds of audience in very different locations. People who love cinema, performances, nature, alternative healing, thrillers, meditation, immersive theater, music, sound design, photography, rituals… In clubs, cinemas, museums, theatres, hotels, ancient monuments, abandoned spaces, galleries, deserts, forests and art spaces. The idea is to give the viewers a personal introspection & collective trigger, going through a lot of different emotions, embracing certain characters, hating others, connecting dots of perception with their own lives.. until finally finding relief & harmony. And this process starts with who welcomes you coldly at the door, lies down in the middle half naked, stares at you horny in the next seat, falls asleep on your lap or suddenly screams! There is flesh all around. We all are made of it, desire it with either greed or jealousy, loving or hating our own shape, what we are made of sometimes feels like a trap, even more so once someone else used & abused it. The only way to reconnect to ourselves & others is by acknowledging that flesh and daring to embrace it for what it is, with the most respectful and sacred perspective on it. Your body is a temple. I really believe so. And most of the answers you need are within. Once you have a rich inner life, you are at home anywhere & whatever happens outside cannot shake the balance of impermanent gratitude you feel at every breath. 

What’s next for you and HUBRIS ?
Well Coronavirus changed the whole game quite a bit. All film festivals are being cancelled, cinemas are closed until further notice. So HUBRIS which is already not a traditional feature film will definitely not have a traditional film life & distribution. That’s for sure! And maybe for the better. Besides aiming for Sundance / Berlinale / SXSW / Cannes / Venise & all the other ones (which will most certainly happen only in 2021), we are also planning immersive screenings of HUBRIS in Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, London, Moscow, NYC, Montreal, L.A. & Tokyo in 2020/2021 – every time joint to an art / culture institute or event to encourage dialog between different art forms & have a chance to engage with the audience on the topic of the overall project : trauma & healing.

For now we are preparing with Rotary Lab the release of the original music of HUBRIS composed by Paul Behnam which will be out on vinyl & digital in a couple of months. A digital & printed booklet of HUBRIS is also in the making with photographs, textures, drawings, quotes from the film, behind the scene pics, testimonies, etc. If you want to know more about how this whole project unfolds, stay tuned on Facebook, on @hubris_official or on my website.

Full cast : Susana Abdulmajid / Taneshia Abt / Marc Philips / Nanghiti Aviankoi / Julia Milz / Hans Piesbergen / Joëlle Séchaud / Tikogo / Rodica Paléologue / San Proper  / Emiria morihata / John Wohlmacher / Marie rathscheck / Logan Charles / Olga Sonja Thorarensen / Charles Lemming / Andrea Monticciolo / Gregor Biermann / Kirsten Burger / Gianni Von Weitershausen / Leonor Von Salisch / Edouard Burgeat / Bruno Strecht / Marie Polo

And crew :  Cinematographer – Mario Cordero // Camera assistants – Guille Vazquez / Ellen Rothfuß / Ignacio Durruty / Nicolas Vargas / Adrien Le Lorier / Geoffrey Poussin // Director’s assistant : Hendrik Kintscher / Marsia V.Hausen / Fulgence Baland / Geoffroy Leray // Set design – Miren Oller // Light – Hendrik Kintscher / Felix Jakel / Alejandro Munoz Hernandez // On set photographer & HUBRIS ritual – Sol Costa // Sound recording – Paul Behnam & Benjamin Alix / Bastian Sanders / Geoffroy Leray / Alex Acevedo // Hair and make up – Cesar Plaza // Special effect make up – Helen Laitzsch // Stunt coordination – Volkram Zschiesche // Production Assistant – Lydia Schmitt / Linda Muller / Celia Charles / Malte Seidel / Alexandre Tanqueray // Wolves owners : Laetitia Clement & Bianca Josserand // Wolves coordinator : José Cabreira // Edit – Mario Cordero // Sound design & music : Paul Behnam // ADR, ambiants & mixing : Louis Mc Guire // ADR editing : Nils Vogel // Foley artist : André Fevre // Color grading : Delfina Mayer 

Locations which hosted the shoot : Fontainebleau Forest / Tempelhofer Feld / Cafe M / A (Neuköln) / Tarek’s flat (Berlin) / Agnes’s flat (Paris) / Rémi’s flat (Berlin) / Neu West Berlin (Yorkstr.) / La Noue (Sologne)

More Stories