Caveh Zahedi (The Sheik and I) Talks Meeting Robert Bresson

In 1980s Paris, a young filmmaker meets one of the giants of world cinema (who asks him to please shut the door on his way out).

I started making films in college, even though I was technically a philosophy major (Yale didn’t have a film major at the time). My cinephilia followed the usual pattern: 1) European art cinema, 2) Godard, 3) experimental cinema. On a summer backpacking trip through France, I met a French film producer who happened to be producing Robert Bresson’s Largent. I was a huge Bresson fan and was excited to meet someone who actually knew him.

I stayed in touch with the film producer and, after graduating, I called her to ask if she would be interested in producing a film I had written about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. She said yes and encouraged me to come to France. As soon as I arrived, the producer informed me that she was no longer available as she had since decided to produce Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl instead. He and I were the same age and this producer used to go on and on to me about what a genius he was. Although I met him a few times at the producer’s office and he was always cordial, I was bitterly jealous that she was producing his film and not mine.

Alone in Paris without any friends, I ended up having a kind of nervous breakdown and returned to the United States with my tail between my legs. It was the first of many humiliations.

A year later, I had gotten married to a French woman (she needed a green card) and we decided to move to France together. We ended up housesitting for a woman I had met who ran a microcinema and whose boyfriend, a Mexican film director, had somehow gotten hold of Bresson’s phone number. When she saw how excited I was about this, she kindly gave the number to me and encouraged me to call him, which I immediately did.

I told Bresson I was an American filmmaker and a big fan of his work and asked if I could meet him in person. I have no idea why but he said yes. He invited me to come see him the next day at his apartment on the Île Saint-Louis.

When I arrived at his apartment building, he told me (via intercom) to make sure to shut the door behind me, which I did. As I was ascending the stairs, he called out from the top floor to ask if I had shut the door. I told him I had. He asked me to double check, so I did.

His apartment was surprisingly modest, its walls crammed from floor to ceiling with books. A pretty, youngish woman (his wife? the house cleaner?) darted in and out throughout our conversation. He told me he had begun pre-production on a film about gambling in Monte Carlo but that he had pulled the plug when he was denied permission to shut down the casino for the shoot. He also told me that he had tried to make a film version of Genesis in Aramaic, but that he wasn’t able to raise the millions of dollars he needed for “a real flood.”

When I asked him what other filmmakers he liked, he replied that he hated all of contemporary cinema. I was taken aback. He hated everyone? He said yes, but added that he hadn’t seen a film in 20 years. When I expressed incredulity, he admitted that he had in fact seen two films in the last 20 years, films that he had been dragged to by friends who insisted that he had to see the work of this particular director. “Which director?” I asked. He couldn’t remember the director’s name, but he described (with great aversion) both films to me. “You mean Rear Window?” I said. “Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock? And Rope?” “That’s his name, Hitchcock!” Bresson exclaimed. I was stunned. “You didn’t like Rear Window?” I asked. “I hated it,” he replied. “Everything in it was fake. Nothing was real.” “But it’s an allegory,” I retorted. “Exactly!” he answered triumphantly. “It’s an allegory. I hate allegories.”

I was thrown by this comment, as I had always thought of his films in allegorical terms. So I changed the topic to how much I loved Largent. He told me how hurt he was by the insinuations of certain film critics that the only reason he had cast the Minister of Culture’s daughter in Largent was in order to obtain financing from the Ministry of Culture. I, of course, had no idea that he had even cast the Minister of Culture’s daughter in the film, let alone that there had been any controversy. He insisted that he had cast the Minister of Culture’s daughter because she had been the best person for the part, and that it had absolutely nothing to do with her being the daughter of the Minister of Culture. It saddened me to hear Bresson defending himself to me, a neophyte filmmaker with no reason to question his sincerity.

When I left his apartment, he asked me to be sure to shut the door on my way out. I assured him that I would. As I walked down the stairs, he called out to make sure not to forget to shut the door. I assured him I would remember. As I reached the door and opened it, he called out to me again to make sure the door was shut before leaving. I reassured him one last time, then walked through the door and shut it behind me with a heavy heart.

Caveh Zahedi studied philosophy at Yale University and film production at the UCLA School of Film and Television. His feature-length films include A Little Stiff (1991), I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (1994), In The Bathtub of the World (2001), I Am A Sex Addict (2006), and The Sheik and I (2012). A 6-DVD box set of his films is being released by Factory 25 this summer.