Accepting the other: Xavier Gens on his latest genre film, Cold Skin

Accepting the other: Xavier Gens on his latest genre film, Cold Skin – first published by SciFiNow

With the borderland butchery (and cutting-edge politics) of his feature debut Frontier(s) (2007), Xavier Gens was on the very crest of the ‘French Extreme’ New Wave. While he was a journeyman director on the studio VG adaptation Hitman (2007), the bunkered post-apocalyptic The Divide (2011) came with much more of his signature pessimism about humanity in extremis – and ‘X is for XXL’, his contribution to The ABCs of Death (2012), was a slice of confronting body horror whose special way of dealing with self-image and self-harm was enough to make any viewer feel uncomfortable in their skin.

Gens’ latest, Cold Skin, a creature feature set in the Antarctic Circle during the Great War, is a film of edges – between land and water, between human and beast, between wilderness and civilisation, between love and war – which comes with the troubling suggestion that these boundaries are being forever pushed and tested, making progress a mere illusion. SciFiNow caught up with Gens shortly after the European première of Cold Skin at the Glasgow FrightFest.

SciFiNow: When your career in features began with Frontier(s), you were very much associated with so-called ‘New French Extremity’ of the Noughties. It could be argued that Cold Skin is a departure from that, but would you accept that the one theme that runs through all your films is misanthropy? 

Xavier Gens: In a way I accept I was part of the first wave of French horror, because I’m completely born with this. I love Martyrs, I love Inside, I love all the movies attached to that first wave, starting in 2007, 2008, and I think we created – without knowing it – a kind of movement in France, and today we have movies like Revenge and Raw, which were the continuity of that French New Wave of Horror. So we have to keep pushing to do more French cinema, more French horror movies, and I will keep fighting to do French horror movies, so I have some projects more attached to French horror cinema, and I hope they will happen – but also I want to explore other territories. I love adventure-type movies, and for me Cold Skin is really exploring this, and one theme which is over all my films, I’m really interested in dehumanisation, in humanity and loss of humanity. I really like Rousseau and Voltaire – two philosophers – I really like Spinoza too. So for me it’s important to be able to communicate to the audience that all human beings can lose their humanity, and all can win their humanity, because in Cold Skin we show a creature getting more and more human, because we can see her as a human being, not anymore as a beast, and for me that is very important. I use genre to tell these things, like George A. Romero was doing it in the Seventies – he always has a sociopolitical context, and it’s what I really try to get in my movies, I really want to establish a strong political or social context to understand what is going to be the meaning behind the movies. You know, I did some action movies, like Hitman, which was for a studio, so as a technician I go to do my job. I cannot put some personal themes in a film like this one, whereas in Cold Skin or The Divide or Frontier(s), I can completely embrace the themes and be myself.  

SciFiNow: I understand that you had been interested for many years in adapting Albert Sánchez Piñol’s 2002 novel Cold Skin. What was it that first attracted you to this material?

Xavier Gens: First, Piñol’s anthropological and poetic approach was what attracted me to the novel, and then, it was the theme of dehumanisation, war and how human beings can accept each other. I think when I started working on the script, I understood there was some similarity with what’s actually going on in Europe, with the migrant problem and the war in Syria. It was very close to those themes, and I wanted to express something about our world, and the film is really saying through genre how we have to accept each other, how we can share the same land, how we can share the same universe together, but there are some people who just feel alive when they are fighting each other – and that is the case with Gruner [the character played by Ray Stevenson]. I felt Friend [the character played by David Oakes] is trying to build hope between the two populations.

SciFiNow: So your film is dealing in timeless, existential themes, yet set very specifically during the Great War.

Xavier Gens: The Great War is the first big European war we had in the Industrial Era. For me, at the start, there were still some uncharted areas when the First World War started, so it gave us the opportunity to tell something which was quite close to us, but it also shows that we haven’t yet discovered everything, we haven’t yet discovered all the human race, and we don’t know yet how to accept the other at this moment. And the film is talking about this. You know, in the 18th century, when the first people from Africa were brought to France, some of them were the Pygmies, they were in a zoo. They were not considered human beings, and white people – the French – were going to see the Pygmies in the zoo, because they thought they were another kind of ape. It was very terrible. I think in Cold Skin we were dealing with the same kind of things, we were talking about amphibian creatures – and these amphibians have not been discovered yet. And we see one character who is able to feel something towards them, who is able to understand they are human beings and not see them as monsters, or beasts. And I think it is important to people today to consider the other. 

SciFiNow: Cold Skin is also a very gendered film. When you placed the male Friend and Gruner in their tower, did you have the structures of patriarchy in mind? 

Xavier Gens: In a way yes, because the character of Gruner is teaching Friend how to become a man. At some point he pushes him outside to oblige him to fight. It’s a very old-fashioned way to educate, given that in the beginning of the century it was very tough for kids, it was not as gentle as today. Today, we are taking care of the young, I have daughters, so I am very protective, but back in the day, it was a very violent era, and you have some pictures of the Great War where you have kids going to war in 1914, and I think it was important to show that brutality in their education. And there are some moments in Cold Skin where we can feel that feeling of superiority, but also with the distance we have today we can understand that it is very brutal to push someone to be educated by violence. It’s still happening in many countries in the world today, which is a shame.  

SciFiNow: In Cold Skin, the isolated, unforgiving location is the fourth character. Where, and how, did you find it?

Xavier Gens: It was quite tricky to find the location because I wanted to match exactly what there is in the book, and I really liked the book, so I really wanted to find out how we could make it, so we’ve been to Antarctica to see a real location where it could be close to reality. That was a fantastic trip. And I’ve been to Greenland, I’ve been to Canada and I’ve been to Iceland, and the most important thing for me was to feel that volcanic feeling, that very primitive feeling. You can find it as it is in Iceland, and we were thinking to shoot the film near Reykjavik, but we understand that it’s very cold, and we have a character who is mostly naked during all the film, and it’s clearly impossible for her character to be exposed to the cold more than 5 or 10 minutes, it’s impossible to stand that and stay in character, so we decided to change our minds, and to go to a warm country, and we looked at different places, and we finally found the Canary Islands, in the South of Spain, and one specific island called Lanzarote. In Lanzarote it was perfect, We have exactly the same kind of location as it is in Iceland, but with 30 degrees. It was perfect.

SciFiNow: Presumably you were using a lot of CGI to make the landscape look colder than it was?

Xavier Gens: Exactly. We did a lot of set extension, we did a lot of practical effects with snow and smoke to feel the rain and the cold, and we had a lot of work with an effects company to create that cold atmosphere, and it was quite challenging because, for the girl it was perfect, because it was a good condition, but for the guys it was tricky, because they have that big fur and they have to act as though they are cold, but they were sweating and their costumes were really hard for them.

SciFiNow: Aura Garrido is incredible as Aneris. How did you find her, and what were the particular challenges for her in this role?

Xavier Gens: The particular challenge was to have that evolution from beast to woman, you know. So we did a lot of work for two months before the shooting, and I wanted to have someone who was able to be a pantomime, she was able to create an express emotion just through her face and her body, without any words. She doesn’t say one word in the entire film, and we have to believe in who she is. We worked on the movements. She had a strict diet and training every day. She had to feel like that kind of amphibian, so she was looking at cat videos, she had two cats, so she was looking at those cats all day long, to catch the same kind of feeling – and also toads. You know, toads, they are moving all the time. When toads are walking, they move their legs first and then their arm, and we trained to match exactly that kind of movement, till where you feel she has another way of moving, she’s a real amphibian. So when she’s on the ground, and when she’s considered as a pet, she’s on all four legs, but when she’s more seen as a woman, she stands on two legs, she’s proud and she’s free, and she has shown her femininity at this moment, and – without spoiler – it’s the final scene on the beach with her and Friend. It’s the first time in the movie where she stands, and where she’s a woman leading the others.

SciFiNow: You have worked twice with the screenwriter Eron Sheean – on The Divide, and now on Cold Skin (which he co-wrote with Jesús Olmo). What is your working relationship? and how much, if any, do you contribute to the screenplays?

Xavier Gens: I have the image of a kangaroo, because Eron is Australian, so he’s like a kangaroo. It’s perfect. He’s an amazing guy, he’s one of my best friends, and also he’s very talented. I think he understands completely the themes I want to explore, so when we are working together – we worked together on The Divide first, and then on Cold Skin – we have some similarity on the themes. He always has a weird kind of humour, probably because he’s Australian, that he puts in the script, and I really like this, it’s fantastic, because when we exchange ideas it’s always from the same area, and we share a lot of similarity in the influences with which we grew up.

SciFiNow: What’s next?

Xavier Gens: I’m actually finishing a French film called Budapest, a film with Manu Payet and Jonathan Cohen. It’s a comedy, it’s a trashy French comedy. For me it was like a holiday to make this movie, because it’s the first time I am doing a comedy, and in France we are well known for comedy, but I wanted to correct the French comedy from inside. So you will see, it’s a very fucked-up French comedy. I am very happy because I enjoyed doing it a lot, and I think it’s very special.

© Anton Bitel