Death by Death is indisputably an epitome of black humor. Hypochondriac Michel deals with his mother’s sickness while life passes him by. Hilarious tableau’s take shape in Xavier Seron’s static black-and-white frames.
Michel lies in a coffin, as if practicing for what’s to come. His mother Monique (Myriam Boyer) is undergoing chemotherapy to fight her breast cancer. Michel fears that he has the same illness. He lets his new love Aurélie (Fanny Touron) touch the imagined lumps around his nipples. Mother tells her future daughter-in-law that she breastfed Michel for quite some time, and his birth gets mentioned briefly as well. It’s as if the umbilical cord has never been cut and Michel still lives in his mother’s womb. The thirty-something who still lives with his mother thereby fears for the end of this symbiotic relationship – the end of his own life.
This fear has no actual foundation. Seron illustrates this in a scene in which Michel starts a fake firefight with a boy in the waiting-room of a hospital. Sound effects of guns have been added afterwards, just as Michel adds the diverse imagined ailments to his own restlessness. This hindrance is dissected completely by Seron, who deserves the title of doctor gloom. He knows how to deflect supremely painful moments with unusually funny responses.
Are a hypochondriac yourself?
“Of course. But that doesn’t prevent me from getting ill. I noticed that there are many of us. We could create a club. Unfortunately disease and death concern everybody. We are born to die, it’s inevitable and vertiginous. That’s why I wanted to make this film. To laugh about things that are not funny. To tame our fears.”
What about the relationship between Michel, his mother and her illness?
“Michel thinks that he caught the same disease as his mother. That is typical behavior for a hypochondriac. We can however inherit cancer. Your mother gives birth to you, but she can also give death.”
How do you explain Michel’s boyishness? He seems barely a grownup.
“Michel has remained a child. He continues to play like a child. He remains the small child of his mother. He needs her. But Michel also became the parent of his own mother. Often we become adults when we have children or when we lose our parents.”
How did you conceive of the editing? For instance, in one scene they are talking about breastfeeding, and then we see two baked eggs.
“It’s something playful, like free association. It’s an allusion to surrealist and psychoanalytical principles. There are visual analogies and sound analogies like the bleep of the scanner in the supermarket and the bleep of the hart machine in the hospital. There is also quite some wordplay, I use several homophones. ‘Sein’ means breast. ‘Saint’ means holy being. ‘Sain’ is healthy, the opposite of sick. These three words sound similar in French.”
Do the black-and-white camerawork and the static shots support the black humor?
“The form is adapted to the content. A certain abstraction arises. In black-and-white reality seems transformed and recomposed, creating the convenient distance that comedy needs. At the same time this estrangement strengthens the embodiment, as if you can smell and touch the characters. I favor static shots. I find the work of Roy Andersson very interesting. This is my first feature film and we did not have a lot of time. I rather focus on the actors, than on moving heavy equipment at every turn.”
At the end Michel is being portrayed as Madonna with child. Is that a religious or art historic reference?
“The Madonna and child intersect art history. I wanted to revisit this theme to speak about the mother-son relationship – about breast feeding. In the museum scene there is a painting of a man with a strange beard that looks like Michel. He breast-feeds a child. At the end of the film I refer to Alonso Cano’s The supernatural lactation of Saint Bernard.”
You named Roy Andersson as one of your inspirations. How about Luis Buñuel?
“I get the comparison with Buñuel because of his surrealism and religious symbolism. The films of Ingmar Bergman, like Cries and Whispers and Persona really touched me. I am also quite fond of Jacques Tati and especially his situational humor and sound design. And of course Woody Allen, who has portrayed so many hypochondriacs.”