Switzerland’s Blaise Harrison on Directors’ Fortnight Player ‘Particles’

Jamie Lang

Swiss filmmaker Blaise Harrison is bringing his fiction feature debut to this year’s Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Known for his documentary work, Harrison was selected for competition at the 2013 Locarno Festival for his film “Harmony,” about a marching band in the small French town of Pontarlier.

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“Particles” follows P.A., a teenager in his final year of high school in a small rural town on the French-Swiss border. Famous for little else, the town is home to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

P.A.’s coming of age story, and the monumental shifts that come with the throes of growing up, are mirrored by a series of seemingly fantastic phenomena the young man observes in the world around him.

The feature is co-produced by France’s Les Films du Poisson and Bande à Part Films, the Swiss company formed in 2009 by four of its most celebrated directors: Ursula Meier (“Sister”), Lionel Baier (“Longwave”), Jean-Stéphane Bron (“The Paris Opera”), and Frédéric Mermoud (“Moka”). International sales and distribution are handled by Les Films du Losange.

Harrison answered a few spoiler-free questions for Variety in the lead up to the film’s Cannes world premiere.

This was your first fiction feature. How did you find the experience, and where there any challenges you didn’t foresee?

I tried to forge it in continuity with my previous documentaries, to avoid a complete break from my previous work. For me this meant that I shot it in real locations, with natural light, non-professional actors from the region, that I re-enacted real situations, and that I occasionally pulled away from the screenplay. One of the greatest challenges of this project was preserving and implementing my working method I am so attached to in the new and more restrictive context of fiction. From writing the screenplay to editing the film I was always trying to find the delicate balance between the more naturalistic documentary approach I am familiar with and an approach more typical of fiction storytelling.

The film’s narrative is interspersed with recordings of scientists explaining pretty lofty physics. Why did you want to include those clips in the film?

The scientists in the film are physicists who work with the LHC, CERN’s particle accelerator that runs underground through the whole Pays de Gex region. That content is real, and “Particles” relies on the relationship between what happens on the surface, with the teen gang, and what goes on under the ground to tell a more “likely” fantasy story about P.A.’s anxiety in facing of a world changing in front of his eyes. Through their researches, physicists try to solve some of the biggest mysteries of the universe. They echo my character’s anxieties and speak, in a metaphorical way, about his difficulties.

I imagine you learned quite a bit making the film. Is particle physics something that has interested you for some time? Or was it just a narrative device when writing?

I was raised in the Pays de Gex but must confess that when I was a teenager, although I was aware that the particle accelerator existed, I wasn’t that interested. I started to dig into it when I began writing this project, really quite recently. At that point, I had the opportunity to visit CERN and LHC and meet engineers and physicists working there to try and understand what they do. I researched in order to have a complete overview and understanding of quantum physics, without ever feigning a specialist’s approach. It wouldn’t have served this project and I wouldn’t have been able to. I simply tried to put myself into the shoes of my protagonist, using the sources of information available to him, to try to feel and express the thrill that might overwhelm us when we discover this amazing world.

Music and sound seem as important to this film’s narrative as dialogue. How did you use these elements to enhance the strange phenomena that P.A. observes?

Sound, image and music contribute to the gradual shift of the film towards fantasy and a feeling of oddness. They allow me to talk about the progressive deregulation of daily life and how my character experiences it by relying more on feelings than his brain. The music is like his inner voice, it expresses the emotional states of this rather discreet and private character who has a hard time letting his emotions out. The sound allows me to give life to what is invisible, hidden, and concealed. We know the LHC exists, but we don’t see it. For P.A. it is a disturbing and threatening presence.

Do you know what you’d like to do next? Do you have anything specific planned?

I have no specific project in development, but I have quite a few germinating ideas. One thing I am quite sure about is my profound desire to keep on talking about adolescence. I find that age so beautiful to film and it touches me deep inside.

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