Cannes Film Festival 2023

Ann Sirot and Raphaël Balboni, directors, Jorge Piquer Rodriguez, director of photography, talk about their work together on "The (Ex)perience of Love"

First Jump Cut - first nipple!, by François Reumont pour l’AFC

[ English ] [ français ]

Comedies with a fantastical or eccentric statement are rare in European cinema. But The (Ex)perience of Love (Syndrome des amours passées), an exciting couples analysis by Ann Sirot and Raphaël Balboni, is one exception. The humour, tenderness and audacity of this Belgian film will do wonders during the Semaine de la Critique. Jorge Piquer Rodriguez, the director of photography, and the two directors, talk to us about rhythm, direction, and a giant inner tube. (FR)

Remy and Sandra can’t have children, suffering from the "Past Lovers Syndrome". To cure this, there is only one solution: they have to sleep with all of their exes (again).

How did you come up with such an idea for this film?

Ann Sirot : We started off with this experimental concept... To put a couple in this absurd situation: to choose between being exclusive, or reproduce .... a perfect contradiction to the basic rules of straight relationships. And then, to see what happens.

Raphaël Baboni : Since our short films, and our first feature Madly in Life (Une vie démente, 2021) we had already worked on this offbeat and metaphorical aspect in film. It’s how we tell stories through images. From this initial idea that Ann mentioned, we immediately confronted the question of how we could show all these reunions with ex-sex partners... by trying to place ourselves in the sensory and metaphorical realm. And putting the crudeness aside.

Raphael Balboni and Ann Sirot - Photo Maël G. Lagadec
Raphael Balboni and Ann Sirot
Photo Maël G. Lagadec

The film has a very particular genre, almost American, don’t you think?

AS : The script is written in the same spirit as those comedies which incorporate a fantastical element from the start. I’m thinking of films like Tom Shaydac’s Liar Liar, in which a lawyer (Jim Carrey), after being cast a spell upon, is forced to tell nothing but the truth for 24 hours... the whole concept of the film is built on this premise, and the plot unfolds based on this intrigue. In France, it’s less common. It is indeed a style not as widespread as in the United States. But as an example in French cinema, one could think of Hibernatus, by Edouard Molinaro (with Louis de Funès).

Your film is also made quite unique with its constant use of Jump Cuts.

RB : The Jump Cut is something we’re starting to know well, as we’ve been experimenting with it for a few years. At the time, we were deep in the writing of a feature film which was struggling to evolve. Some friends lent us a country house for the holidays, just for a change of scenery. We decided to seize the opportunity of this place to shoot a short film. Everything was organised in a few months, between spring and summer. But as the script was not completely finished, we decided to start rehearsals with our main couple of actors, taking advantage of their freedom. We decided to film five or six work sessions with them before the shoot, to keep a record. As I like editing a lot, I ended up putting these rehearsals - filmed very frontally - into Avid, without doing any rough cut. So we started to build the project from these backs and forth in writing and these edited rehearsals, which gradually became a model for the film. That’s when we used the Jump Cut technique and found that it worked pretty well. This became Lucha Libre, one of our first short films, shot with Jorge. It was really during this first experience that we laid the foundations for our work with jump cut, developing and perfecting them on our next films.

AS : When we were making the DVD bonus features for the film, we had the opportunity to see some scenes from Madly in Life (Une Vie Démente), our first feature film. I can tell you that we’ve progressed a lot since then!
Thanks to our extensive use of Jump Cut, our rough cutting and editing style has become more sophisticated, much less raw than the process would imply.

Jorge Piquer Rodriguez - Photo Alice Khol
Jorge Piquer Rodriguez
Photo Alice Khol

Jorge Piquer Rodriguez : Since we have been working together with Ann and Raphaël, the use of jump cut has been very important for their narrative. It allows them to rewrite the film during its making. Whether it’s on set, or during the editing process. As a result, I have to remain very attentive and open in all circumstances during filming. This starts with where we decide to place the camera, which takes on more and more freedom as the project progresses. For example, we don’t necessarily stay in a static frame. I can choose to get closer, and play with the shoulder framing to mark certain ellipsis effects to a greater or lesser extent. Each shot is a slightly different movement, certainly always in the same very frontal axis, but which induces a whole array of small variations. This framing work is very attentive to their direction of the actors, creating something singular each time, to which my team is forced to get used to. I think these technical constraints create an artistic diversity that is very useful for the film later on. It’s a bit like playing jazz, you are given the theme, and then you improvise as a soloist...

AS : A good example of this are the sex scenes. We already had a whole bunch of them on the previous film, so Jorge had practice! In The (Ex)perience of Love, the sex scenes sometimes form important dramatic hinges in the story, and we already had a very nice array of ideas on camera. By moving the camera around our two actors, we then follow Jorge’s suggestions during the edit, finding the right rhythm for each small ellipsis.

What kinds of reactions have you noticed from viewers, to this somewhat radical narration style?

AS : I remember people on the previous film noticing that the beginning was indeed in Jump Cuts, but that afterwards the film returned to a more classic narrative. It was in fact edited like that all the way through. The brain quickly gets used to it, especially when you get into the film. This style is then completely assimilated.
In relation to this film style, the first jump cuts are the most important. You have to show them right away. In The (Ex)perience of Love, you can tell from the very first shots that the film doesn’t respect the classic cinematic rules. The usual narrative will not be used. We see our protagonists together naked in a bathtub, and we frontally display what has become for us the motto of this opening: "first Jump Cut - first nipple!"

RB : At the beginning, we almost thought of starting at the gynaecologist’s... using only a few opening shots that did not clearly establish the principle of Jump Cut. But we realised how risky it was to start these intentional continuity errors on a sequence as important as the doctor’s consultation. That’s why we developed this opening in selfie mode, and then with the sofa scene, which allows us to show that even ’with the real camera’ there will be a Jump Cut.

On that topic, tell me about this scene with the gynaecologist, which literally propels the film into the fantastical...

AS : The set design choice took some time... at the beginning we imagined that the consultation would take place via Skype, as the gynaecologist’s character was still at his medical conference in the United States. But from the moment we opened the film with a selfie shot, it became a bit of a ’screen party’.... we also tried filming only the actors with the practitioner off screen - but didn’t keep it. Our only certainty was that we didn’t want it to take place in a doctor’s office. When we thought about the importance of the scene, and the dramatic need to give the doctor enough authority, we thought it important not to make him seem like a lunatic or a crook. Luckily, we noticed this little lecture hall which happened to be near the production offices. The setting suddenly became obvious, because of its classy, modern feel – suddenly giving the character notoriety and social status.

The recurring locations in the film, such as the bedroom with the wall of exes are quite unique... We switch to a very fantasized universe, between science fiction setting and a criminal’s tracking wall.

JPR : Since our first films with Ann and Raphaël, we’ve had a strong desire to create something unreal, but paradoxically very close to everyday life. For example, all the elements that disrupt reality revolve around the characters who remain deeply rooted in reality. In this film, we pushed even further this principle of unity between the decors, the light and the costumes, as we can see in the exes’s bedroom.


On this set, we worked on the colours by using the tungsten bulbs integrated into the wall on which the couple is placing polaroids of their exes. This gives a warm base, evoking the intimacy of a bedroom, while setting a rather cold atmosphere at the same time, with the white walls and the costumes. A room in which I also used a little smoke to soften the contrasts, and give a dreamlike feel. The final result was built gradually, like the excellent DMX wiring of the bulbs my gaffer did which makes the room come to life. The space becomes a character in its own right, giving this fantastical feel. In the sequence after the break-up, when the two characters are as if fossilised in twin beds, a beam of light, like a headlight, sweeps through the space. A way of taking them to another world.

RB : For us, this part of the shoot was a bit destabilising. It was during the start of studio filming, and as the set had just been delivered we suddenly discovered in real life what we had only been able to preview with a simple model. Honestly, we’re not used to this at all. On the contrary, we usually spend a lot of preparation time rehearsing, often on sets we’ve already chosen and even pre-installed these rehearsals. Of course, a lot of things are still approximate. We only use a small camera which has different angles and focus from the camera we use on the shoot. It’s a sort of rough draft that allows us to know right away the axis of the shot, and see how the actors look on set. Basically, very concrete references. On The (Ex)perience of Love, 25 days of rehearsals, distributed over the year before the shoot, were necessary to obtain this sort of model for our film.

AS : Yes, I remember the first day of the shoot in the room of the exes. We were on this white set, with boom shadows everywhere, and our two actors were completely different heights! They were supposed to move around quite freely, so it was impossible to cheat with cubes or anything... He had his little jumper tucked into his belt, and she had a big shirt... it became very difficult in certain angles not to make her look very short.
The only thing we were able to base ourselves on were the sex scenes we shot on the short film Lucha Libre in the house we were lent for the holidays. But that was in a completely different context from the studio and on a much lower budget. In the end, we are very happy with the result, and I think that Jorge’s work was decisive in moving away from the ’spaceship’ look that we had at the beginning, and bringing the couple’s intimacy back on screen.

RB : One more thing about this scene’s editing: because we worked in order, this sequence did not come until quite late. In fact, as the first cut was 2 hours and 40 minutes long, the exes’s room scene didn’t happen until half an hour into the film. When we suddenly loaded this sequence into the timeline, we suddenly broke out in a cold sweat and thought ’what the hell did we do! People will panic and won’t understand where the film is going!’ But, as we showed the different versions of the film, we were happy to realise that no one was bothered by this strange picture of the exes. It’s just like the Jump Cuts, better to show this scene earlier on!

The reunions and sex scenes you mentioned at the beginning must have been another challenge...

AS : We were naturally looking for metaphors that were linked to what was happening in the script, and to the characters of the exes. Here again, the idea of accepting this kind of style was central. Following workshops dedicated to these sequences, we decided quite precisely, after three or four sessions, the artistic direction and the visual stakes of each of them. For the first one, for example, we decided to deliberately go all in, in order to establish a very obvious link to the character. It was thanks to Julien Dubourg, the set designer that we found Simon Loiseau, an artist who had made a huge inner tube for an installation. We were able to borrow the object, do some choreography rehearsals (directed by Denis Robert), and then have one remade on set according to our exact needs in terms of frames and rubber texture.

And the lighting follows this idea with very colourful and moving atmospheres...

JPR : In these sequences, the movements with the light add to the dreamlike quality and go beyond reality. My key grip developed different machines to make the projectors move, based on elements used in the industry. Coordinated with DMX controllable sources such as the Astera, we developed these effects, some of which were inspired by the camera tests carried out by Henri-Georges Clouzot on his unfinished project L’Enfer. I also remember watching with great interest Kompromat’s music clip (with Adele Haenel) filmed by Julien Poupart, AFC, (French Society of Cinematographers), who had tried to imitate some of the shots in Clouzot’s film. For Ann and Raphaël’s film, it was probably a little too expressionistic, but the idea was there, and that’s the direction we took for most of the dreamlike sequences with the exes.


Is it easier for the director of photography to shoot a film that will be assembled in Jump Cut?

JPR : This shooting style might seem at first easier for the cinematographer, but that’s an illusion. For example, a sequence starting in full summer sun in Brussels, with the constraints of false tint that one can imagine, the splice is even more crucial when you are always filming in the same axis. In addition, Raphaël and Ann come from a small team background. So it’s out of the question for me to have recourse to too heavy gear. The challenge is to think out of the box as much as possible to avoid too many changes. For example, in the outdoor daytime sequence, in the one of the exes’s garden, I used White Scrim frames which have the particularity of both diffusing the sun a little and cutting 1 stop. By doubling them, I managed to place the actors partly in the shade. A technique I’d seen used by Greg Fraiser ACS, ASC, in Dune, with black diffusion, very difficult to find here in Europe. The other main tool is shooting in RAW. A method I’ve been using since our first films with Raphaël and Ann, and which allows me to make up for a lot of things in post. Especially as I colour grade myself when I work with them. It’s a sort of very balanced three-way relationship, which I think puts everyone on the same level, without any intermediaries to discuss the image.

What equipment did you use to shoot?

JPR : The previous films were shot either with small digital sensors the same size as the 16mm, or with Alexa Classic (35mm format). For this film, I chose to go full format by shooting with the mini LF. Always with this goal of filming in a very frontal way, I told myself that taking advantage of full format would allow me to give more depth to the image. For example, in all the scenes where the characters are in bed, almost glued to the wall, the size of the large sensor would allow me to add a little of a third dimension. In addition to this, I went for a Leica R series, an old photo lens series, used on the Reflex camera of the same brand. These lenses have been redesigned for cinema, and have the particularity of detaching the plane of focus from the rest of the image, and this without necessarily being at full aperture. A soft, yet very sharp rendering, which gives a very three-dimensional look to the image.

Let’s also talk about the swinger’s party scene in the pool. A moment where reality and fantasy come together...

JPR : It’s a scene I’m very proud of, with a very beautiful continuous shot, which was not specifically filmed to be kept as it was in the edit. Ann and Raphaël really like to improvise and keep the first impressions that exists in the moment of a scene. It was in this spirit that the pool sequence was filmed. Originally, we were supposed to shoot in an outdoor pool, but it was no longer available. We therefore fell back on this set, having to improvise quite a bit despite the complexity of the set-up with all the extras and the nudity.
Talking about this scene, I would like to quote Harris Savides ASC who confided in an interview that he preferred to light the space rather than the actors. I must admit I agree with him entirely. It’s very important to bring a set to life first of all. Especially in this scene, where the location almost plays the main role. To achieve the result, I mixed the existing fluorescent tubes that were there already, by adding lighting gel, giving them a very retro look. In addition, the Tungsten Rubylight projectors from the 90s that I love, which hit the water and created moving reflections on the ceilings. The final touch was a series of Asteras tubes for the faces and some top lights. The intention to light the room before the characters allowed me to wander around almost everywhere following the actors’ inspiration. Four 15-minute takes were shot. I was so inspired by the set that I found myself filming with water up to my waist, simply following the actor as he played!
It felt like an extraordinarily intuitive shot, which gave me chills the next morning, as I was grading my dailies.

Billy Wilder said that cinema is all about rhythm. Going from 2h40 to 90 minutes is a challenge, isn’t it?

AS : Few scenes were deleted. We mostly tidied up, tightened up each sequence. We had to chisel the structure so that the film would remain dynamic. Comedy is the most demanding genre in terms of editing anyway. You can’t afford to be contemplative for too long. It’s the kind of film that requires the viewer to be involved in every moment, otherwise you might risk losing them. And this is why we have test screenings all along the editing process, as to validate our choices.

RB : It’s complicated, we had to let go of certain great things, as they were breaking the rhythm... to keep this thread, would be, for example, not favouring laughter every time. It’s the great paradox of comedy - to be able to sacrifice jokes to stay funny until the end. But rest assured, the Blu-ray extras will be filled with all these moments!

How do these test sessions work?

RB : The viewing protocol was quite well established: during the editing process, a screening of the version being edited was organised every Wednesday evening, for an audience of four people. Two women and two men, two of whom were film professionals and two of whom were strangers to the industry. All of them had absolutely no connection with the production and had no idea what they were going to see. After the screening, we would have a dinner and listen to their comments.

AS : It’s funny because sometimes we run into people who saw the first version, which was 2.5 hours. When we tell them that the film is now only 90 minutes long, they think we’re crazy!

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, and translated from French by Chloé Finch, for the AFC.)

The (Ex)perience of Love
Directors: Ann Sirot et Raphaël Balboni
Production: Julie Esparbes, Delphine Schmit, Guillaume Dreyfus
Screenplay: Ann Sirot et Raphaël Balboni
DoP : Jorge Piquer Rodriguez
Editing: Sophie Vercruysse et Raphaël Balboni
Sound: Aline Huber, Agathe Poche, Gilles Benardeau
Set Design: Julien Dubourg
Music: Julie Roué