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“A Cinema of Deconstructed Painting”: Antoinetta Angelidi and Rea Walldén on the Rotterdam-Premiering Obsessive Hours at the Topos of Reality

Obsessive Hours at the Topos of Reality

Little known in the Anglophone film world (although a recent book in Edinburgh University Press’s ReFocus series might suggest an impending course correction), Antoinetta Angelidi is one of the most creative and distinct directors of the last half-century. Raised in and around Athens, Angelidi found solace in art in her adolescence after a traumatic childhood rape left her speechless. Though she initially took to painting, she was an avid moviegoer and, later, after a dream in which a Magritte-styled work exhibited a tiny movement, she turned to cinema. A student activist, she fled Greece for Paris with just the clothes on her back in 1973, during the seven-year junta. Though the films that would follow emerge from recognizable cinematic institutions—Paris’s IDHEC school, the second-wave feminist film scholars and psychoanalytic film theory, and the avant-garde—they remain, in their thoughtful incorporation of painting, their dazzling use of sound, and their visual beauty, one-of-a-kind.

Since 2001’s Thief or Reality, Angelidi has collaborated with her daughter, Rea Walldén, a film theorist in her own right, and Walldén directed Angelidi in her documentary Obsessive Hours at the Topos of Reality (a title incorporating the titles of Angelidi’s four features), which had its international premiere at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film is simple to describe—in a single room, Angelidi recites and interprets key events in her life and artistic career—but deceptively rich: its thoughtful use of light and color, the assuredness with which it reveals more and less of the filmed space, the understated but deliberate handling of sound and the gesticulations, repetitions and insight of Angelidi herself made for one of the festival’s highlights.

Over a long brunch, I had the pleasure of discussing Obsessive Hours and Angelidi’s life and work with Angelidi and Walldén. Walldén pulled double duty, serving as both an interview subject and a translator

Filmmaker: From the documentary, I get a great sense of the paintings that you like and the poetry that you like, but a little bit less about the cinema. I’m wondering if you see your work in conversation with Greek cinema, with avant-garde cinema, and with feminist cinema of the time.

Angelidi: I started watching films at the age of 13, initially with my father and then the rest of the family, when we returned to Athens. It was three years after the rape. I was very happy to be in the big city and had a kind of outburst of creativity. I started painting and watching films. It was a particularly fertile period for Greece, the beginning of the ’60s. It was very creative and a lot of things were happening. A lot of international films came to Athens. I went, of course, to the Russian avant-garde films, Eisenstein and Vertov; then Bergman; then the films of Nouvelle Vague. I really liked Resnais — Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad. I was not a big fan of Godard, not at that time, at least And I had a real obsession with Ugetsu and was enchanted generally by Japanese cinema. I would paint paintings inspired by it, obsessively, again and again. I got inspired by cinema to paint, and by paintings to make cinema.

But before I went to Paris, the most feminist film I had seen was Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. I still feel that it’s a very feminist film. but until Paris, I hadn’t seen any other feminist cinema. But the decision to make films came to me before going to France, toward the end of my studies in architecture. 

Filmmaker: In the film you discuss the dream you had involving the Magritte painting.

Angelidi: What is very important for the Magritte dream is not just the decision to make cinema, but that it gave a view of the kind of cinema I wanted to make, a kind of cinema that I hadn’t seen. It is a cinema of deconstructed painting and introducing timing into painting. Later on, I found affinities with other people, but at the time, it was just the dream that taught me how to do it. 

The other important thing that happened then was that I visited Documenta in Kassel. There were several things there which widened my horizon of what art can be. One was environments: it was the time where art became spatialized, environmental. There were references to architecture and spaces, and things like Stonehenge. I was studying Roman architecture, and it showed architecture that communicated with the universe. It also had a big retrospective of Art Brut, art made by people with schizophrenia and in institutions; it was a kind of obsessive art, which very much to me. 

These things opened up the horizon of art. As you know from the documentary, at the end of my studies, I needed to flee Greece because my comrades were arrested, and I was in danger of being arrested. So I fled without anything and arrived in marvelous Paris. In the first year, I went to Vincennes, the free university after May ’68, where things happened. It was psychoanalysis, semiotics, feminism; everyone was there. But it was also a kind of estrangement. I didn’t speak the language, at least that well, for the moment. It recalled the period when I had lost the ability to speak. I couldn’t express the complexity of my mind. Then I realized after a year that there is a film school, IDHEC. I went there in the middle of the second wave of feminism, which I joined enthusiastically. I find the idea that the personal is political very important. Left-wing politics were missing feminism, and I wanted to address that with my films.

Filmmaker: I’ve also read that you were at the Paris premiere of Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale

Angelidi: Yes, I was there. This notion of how this movement of the camera incorporates real time, and the realization that fiction can include real time, was something that I also tried to do in my first feature film later on. This was the one experimental film that was most meaningful to me. The first shot of my first feature film is a very long shot, and although the composition of the frame is very strict, it is a very very long one precisely to incorporate real time and the changes that happen, incorporating the randomness of reality. It is the changes of the light you will see, the shadows changing, the movement of the leaves. All this randomness of reality was inspired by Michael Snow.

Filmmaker: I want to talk about the sound design in your films, which is extremely interesting. The breaths, the various other sound effects. There was a shot that caught my attention yesterday in Topos where music initially appears non-diegetic, but the camera eventually pans and we see a musician. Do you know how you want shots to sound when you’re shooting, or does that all come later?

Angelidi: I have sounds in my mind, but I am shooting silent. Nothing in my films, even the speech, is synchronously recorded. I always had a distance from speech; It is as if it is not part of the body, doesn’t belong to the body, but instead goes through the body and then gets out. And I don’t use realistic foley when, say, characters touch the objects. I never do that. I do not distinguish the three structures of sound heterogeneity—speech, music and noise. 

Sounds never represent reality, but they are selected from reality. For example, one night I was in the metro station, and on the opposite platform was a mother with a little kid that was doing [tongue clicking sounds]. I said, “I want that sound,” so I used it.  In Idées Fixes, I collaborated with Gilbert Artman, a minimalist musician—Urban Sax was his group. We decided even the sound of the cicadas would be from words. We put words together, sped them up, and created the cicadas. In Topos, sound needed to create an uncanny juxtaposition with the image. The images come from the early Renaissance—not exclusively, you can see modern art—and the choice of earlier Renaissance is significant because perspective was not yet fully achieved, so the images are fertile. But the sound needed to be uncanny. I met with Georges Aperghis before the shooting of the film, and Aperghis told me, which I was very accepting of, “we shall start from silence.” In the film, there is real silence—such silence that you actually hear the sound of the camera shooting. This is a very important part of the sound design. 

When I met with Aperghis he said the closest thing he has is recitations, so he gave me the score of recitations. So, in the final film, the recitations are used at the last part of the film for the singing. The rest is improvisations. Martine Viard and I were in front of the film, and she was making sounds. It is her voice that created even the sound of the objects. and most of the characters speak with the voice of Annita Santorinaiou, with some very specific exceptions. So two women’s voices are everything.

As an example, There is a moment where there is both an inside of the construction, and an inside and the outside in the shot. And you see what’s happening outside, and you have this very [tongue-popping] sound, then you see my tongue, very close up, making the sound, revealing the construction, but the next shot we have the same sound and the women say, “ahh, the rain, how it falls.” It becomes the rain. So the same sound has a different function inside and outside, and it’s wrapped up in this revelation that is self-referential. So the tongue is like the tongue of the film, the voice of the film. 

Filmmaker: I’m wondering if you studied John Cage and musique concrète as well?

Angelidi: I consider him very important. I had read about him before Idées Fixes but I hadn’t heard anything. We read about interesting things and ideas in the magazines, and we were inspired by the descriptions of interesting things. Between Idées Fixes and Topos, I heard him, but I really took to him during my teaching. I would always have my classes stop for three minutes of silence. Whatever they hear is the music.

Filmmaker: So what made you want to use words this time?

Angelidi: My mentality, my psyche, for a long time, was nurtured by images, painting and a very strong bodily element. Despite the fact that I was a Marxist and a feminist and had read so much, I was very image-oriented and body-oriented. I had a kind of distance from reality, and I was trying to open up a space, and in this space was the possibility to make art. I gave myself completely to art, and when a work was finished, the space was closed up again. And when I wanted to make another artwork, I had to open it up again. I had to reinvent the smallest thing from the beginning. Nothing was going without saying everything. It was as if I hadn’t learned anything from my parents, because I had repressed, after the rape, the ability to deal with everyday life. 

My first step toward the outside world was when I decided to teach, after the age of 50, after the death of my mother. In teaching, I started to realize that I had unconsciously already incorporated all this theory into my films, so it was the moment where a kind of theory of my films became conscious, through teaching the students and discussing them with Rea, who by that time had become a theorist. Toward the end of this period, I started going blind. This was a gradual process; at the beginning I didn’t realize what was happening, but it became worse and worse, and by the end I had all this angst and anxiety and along came cancer. First was the cancer operation. It went well. And then the first transplant to the first eye, and then lockdown starts. 

So about the time that the first transplant starts being incorporated by my body and I start seeing again, a strange, internal silence and tranquility comes to me. It was then that I told Rea I want to speak. Through the generosity of the donors who gave me sight, the world, which until that moment was too narrow for me, expanded. It acquired a kindness and unity; humanity became something kind and unified. All of a sudden, I could speak with words. At that moment I needed to do something. Up to that point, in order to express myself, I had to do my own constructions with images, but at that moment the words came out. I had previously believed that speech was not as able to communicate as well as other kinds of communication. Verbal communication was a lower form of communication. It was my gratitude towards these people, the donors, that made her think of humanity as being one family, as if we are all related from the beginning of time. 

So at that point, I started a kind of preparation. I didn’t say in my mind that I was preparing, but I started preparing to speak for the film, something that altogether took about one-and-a-half years. It was a process of remembering but also finding what was most essential among the things I wanted to say. 

Filmmaker: How did you go about preparing for the shoot?

Walldén: The process of shooting was very much Antoinetta’s performance. We had decided together on the blackness of the background, because, if you have noticed, three of her feature films are like that, so it seemed very appropriate, especially given the notions of seeing, sight, blindness. And the notion of cinema, of course—cinema is light and darkness. So we made this very simple setting inside our flat, and all the shooting is in the same room. For the black shots, we have a big velvet cloth, and we covered our library—basically, our flat is just a library. Antoinetta spoke without a script, without any direction. We got the lighting right and then she started speaking. We have many hours of her just speaking. And the point is that you would never be able to repeat that, because she can’t learn anything by heart, not even a phrase. It was a one-off thing. 

At some point, you have the room and you see chairs, and that was not premeditated. We thought, “ah, that’s something that’s interesting, let’s work with this.” 

Angelidi: [Interjecting in Greek] 

Walldén: This is a fun one: Antoinetta wants to note that a lot of the objects you see in our flat come from the films. Some from Topos; the big table that we work on is the Thief or Reality table. And the chair is one she painted, while the drawing of the plant is one of the plants that she had kept from her childhood.  

Filmmaker: And some of those sequences are black-and-white and others are in color. When did you make these decisions?

Walldén: All that came after we had done all the shooting. The color is when she speaks about her own filmmaking career. So, we have black and white with childhood traumas of different kinds. When she speaks about how she made something, it is color.

Filmmaker: And the film seems to take place in very defined segments as the camera placement and the staging changes.

Walldén: Yes, there are groups of shots. The groups themselves were premeditated, but how they were composed was not. So, there is an entire group of shots that are face-to-face, where she comes out of the dark. There is another group of shots, which was initially her idea, where I sit over her shoulder and she opens up books of her work. She was opening it up for the world, but for me too. In this group, the way that she shows the material creates, in a sense, moving images out of static images. There are a lot of ways of creating film without film, even her performance. Think of the fact that she speaks about images all the time that you don’t see. She makes the shots with her words in the movement of her body, but she makes a non-existent film with her words, while the existing film is her performance. Initially, the idea was that we would have more material from the archives, but it turned out that her own performance was even more interesting. There is a lot of visual art that doesn’t appear at all; she doesn’t even speak about it. 

Filmmaker: Can you elaborate a bit when you say the groups are premeditated but the compositions are not?

Walldén: So we have these groups, we have some fragments from her films, a very short shot of one of the visual artworks. All in the dark. Then this space appears. She climbs onto the table that she was behind before. She’s three dimensional, there is space, and we have sound in the background for the first because we had taken off the microphones. This is a formal decision, because at this point the world comes, because it is the moment in the film where she says “they gave me my new sight.” Cut. And then you also hear my voice for the first time. Before that moment I was only the camera; you could understand my existence by the editing, the jump cuts, and things like that, but at that moment you hear me asking her questions. So you hear me, you see the space, you hear sounds of the environment, you know there are cars–we actually made them louder. 

In this process, there are some significant moments. One is the moment where the camera moves and goes up and reveals what’s behind this event, the clock, and there we added one artificial sound, in the moment where it’s supposed to be the most natural. We put in the alarm. Then there is the moment, a series of shots where it was again her choice, where she sits in the rocking chair. There is a moment afterward, a very symmetrical frame, balanced between darkness and light, where she’s first in front then goes behind it. And then is the shot where she speaks about her mother, and that is the only shot where she stands. It was just her preference at that moment; there is nothing premeditated there. And the last shot of the eye, which is her saying thank you, you’ll notice that it’s the eye from Topos, as if in advance it knew that it would thank the world. That’s the only other place where we brought in sound; we put in the sound of the outside world, because the world had come to her.

Filmmaker: How much footage did you shoot? How many hours, and over how long?

Walldén: It was a lot, but everything that we use was taken in the last four or five days.

Filmmaker: And was there anything that you shot on those five days that had already been performed,  or stories that were told earlier in the shooting?

Walldén: No.   

Filmmaker: Before we go, I have to ask about the man in Topos cracking open the nuts, throwing out the nut and keeping the shells. Why cast [Greek avant-garde filmmaker] Stavros Tornes?

Angelidi: So, we have to look at what was in the script and how it evolved. Before arriving at this character, we need to discuss the kinds of men we have in this film, which is basically populated by women. So we have a completely silent agent, the man who is romantically sitting under the window of the woman and never speaks. Then we have the juggler, who is in love with the dead body of his wife and speaks with the voice of a woman. Then we have the group of men, the only place where men speak with their own voices. They say a lot of nonsense. They speak seriously and they think scientifically but they don’t know what they’re talking about, which is the idea of not really knowing much about women. The final male figure is the one that Tornes plays. The inspiration is from a Japanese film—I don’t remember which Japanese film—where there is an old man who is a Peeping Tom. The idea got stuck in my mind—film and voyeurism, that was interesting. That was the initial idea. I knew Stavros and liked him, so he ended up playing a kind of wizard or magician, a kind of ritualistic, magical figure. And he throws away the nut and keeps the shell, which is an inversion. 

Filmmaker: Like the musician playing without strings.

Angelidi: Yes, the other magician figure is the musician. You see her play the bass. These two are the personifications of art. Her instrument doesn’t have strings, but she plays music without strings. The musician is also both a man and a woman. It is a woman who wears the clothes of the male lover. The main character, the little girl from the De Chirico painting, when she’s an adult, the actress Jany Gastaldi, wears the same clothes as when she’s a girl. It’s as if childhood is to be regained. This is the actress Jany Gastaldi. She’s an adult who has regained control. She has a sphere that travels with her, and she doesn’t give it to a man, and she doesn’t give it to either mother figure. She gives the ball to the musician at the end. This ball that travels throughout the film comes from the Carpaccio painting “The Legend of Saint Ursula.” In the painting, it represents the choice of sainthood, but in the film it is the choice of art. She is positioned in the bed of Saint Ursula, and we have many shots in the room of Saint Ursula. Outside, the angel of the painting of Saint Ursula, who is the lover, and the clothes of the lover are now taken by the musician and the woman gives the ball to art. The same way that Saint Ursula chooses sainthood, she chooses art.

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