Le lexique subjectif d'Emir Kusturica

Title Le lexique subjectif d'Emir Kusturica
Author Matthieu Dhennin
Publisher L'Âge d'Homme
Language French
Release 9 juin 2006

This book deals more about the man than his work, and tries to draw a portrait made of contrasts, little and big stories, oppositions, fights and friendships, in short : a collection of anecdotes and selected interviews extracts that should allow everyone to better understand the man who hides behind his films. Written as an homage to Milorad Pavić's Khazar Lexicon the book is made of various entries, alphabetically sorted, allowing a linear or a transversal reading, at your choice. Complementary to the website, the book should still learn many things to anyone who has already read all the pages, and reciprocally.

4th of cover

Le lexique subjectif d'Emir Kusturica is a portrait with multiple entries of the director from Sarajevo. Even if his films are often very well known, the man remains a mystery, quickly judged, badly understood because of long silences, out of their context quotes, or systematic attacks from different personalities. The goal of this book is to put back the declarations into the context, and to draw, thanks to anecdotes, small or big stories, a frame in several dimensions, and to give on Emir Kusturica a multiple gaze, even if it's sometimes contradictory, yet finally coherent.

The blue book - French sources
Kusturica, Emir - Director, actor and musician of bosnian origin, mostly known for his baroque flms on the Gypsies or the war in Yugoslavia, with musics by Goran Bregović.

The red book - Balkanic sources
Kusturica, Emir - Serbian director and producer, mostly known for his intellectual commitment and his radical thoughts in his films.

The white book - other sources
Kusturica, Emir - Yugoslav director, mostly known for having won twice the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

Buy online : Amazon.fr, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.es, Amazon.it

Dossier de presse

Download the dossier de presse (in French) :


Conversation over the Balkans, Kusturica and yugoslav literature … with Babsi Jones

This interview-conversation was made by Italian journalist and writer Babsi Jones for the website Carmilla on line.

English translation by Pino.

Emir is beginning to feel distressed, November 9. Emir announces that he's willing to give up his salary, November 10. Emir wakes up later and later, he arrives on the set late in the evening and he extemporizes, November 17. The tension among the actors is peaking, Emir is doing nothing but sharpening it, November 19. Emir had promised he would cut the screenplay, but he keeps endlessly adding extra pages, November 24. Emir is nervous, he keeps saying he can't work faster than this, December 10. Emir is very depressed, the situation in Bosnia weighs on him, December 14. Emir is roaming the halls, mumbling that he has existential problems, January 11. Each time Emir goes out for a coffee we're afraid he'll never be back, January 26.

These are short excerpts from the hilarious journal that Pierre Spengler penned in 1993 during the shooting of what is still the greatest masterpiece in the history of Yugoslav cinema: Underground. Working with Kusturica, the genius born in 1954 in Sarajevo and brought up at Miloš Forman's school in Prague, is a nightmare for many people. I have met Kusturica three times. One of them was a press conference at the Anteo theater in Milan: the director, while forgetting to introduce the “Collateral Damage” tour of his No Smoking Orchestra, delighted his audience for more than an hour with long stories about swine feasting on old Trabants and tales of broken eggs. He was approaching the editing of his Super 8 Stories, a movie-documentary in Super 8 that didn't earn the success it deserved. Kusturica's thought often borders provocation; all the worst has been said about him, even that he worked for the KOS, the Yugoslav secret services; the foundation of his work, more unrealist than surrealist, is clearly epic but consistently worn away by sarcasm and farce; he remarks ironically that “it's like Shakespeare without Shakespeare”; the time-frame of each of his movies is non-existent, and in this counterfactual utopia the audience is forced to shift their attention from fiction to reality without understanding where dreams and illusion finish and where the documentary, as evidence, begins (low-brow evidence, as the director always recreates collective perspectives). Being the audience of Kusturica's mighty feature films entails entering a maze where the political gesture and symbolism melt into a tragic and picaresque carnival; mourning blends with farce in a pagan orgy; kitsch, used to brand the many seedy characters in the Yugoslav tangle, is a lifeboat as well: in contrast with cool(ness) and political correctness, kitsch is the token of the shady and the subversive. Kusturica is an unseizable director. A very useful book has been just published in France, for those willing to get closer to Kusturica's cinema while being sure to lose their way with fulfillment. Its title is “Le lexique subjectif d'Emir Kusturica” (L'Age D'Homme) and it was written by Matthieu Dhennin. “It's a multi-track biography of the Sarajevo-born director. His films are popular and widely awarded, but Emir Kusturica's personality is still considered a puzzle; he's judged too hastily, he's ill-understood on account of his extended periods of isolation or some strong statements, misrepresented and read out of context, often becoming a target of steady attacks by cultural celebrities with an anti-Serb itch to scratch (think of Bernard-Henri Lévy or Finkelkraut who acknowledge explicitly that they have never watched Underground, but accuse him of being “a new Céline lined up with the Nazis”), we know too little about Emir Kusturica.” So says the author. Dhennin has known the director for years and runs the kustu.com website. His idea was to assemble a book that portrays – by way of anecdotes, and narrations great and small – a three-dimensional picture of the ex-Yugoslav director, a definitely conflicting picture, but a thorough one. A successful undertaking, in my opinion, pushing on beyond Emir Kusturica's cinema and music: the book is a short but must-have guide to ”ex-Yugoslavia” and the Balkans, helping the reader piece together the difficult cultural and political mosaic of a country that was “once upon a time”, of a midland that never set free from colonization by the empires. From the issue of Kosovo and Peter Handke to the Yugoslav clutter that stirs Tito's nostalgics, “Lexique” offers the reader a range of possible paths and prospective further investigations.

  • BJ : As soon as I opened your book I thought: it was assembled with a geometry reminding me of your now acclaimed website; while the guide among the thousands of virtual pages is the map of a conjectural “underground” network, reading “Lexique” is made easier by the pattern dear to Milorad Pavić in his ”Dictionary of the Khazars”: white, blue, red; European, Balkan, other sources. Do we need patterns to understand Kusturica's and the Balkan universe's complexity? Do we have to simplify, to strip things to the bones? Isn't it a risk?
    • MD : I'm afraid that, in spite of all my attempts to lend a scientific arrangement to the website and the book, chaos rules: if you study the website carefully, hidden pages abound; so happens in the book, where the lexicon entries overlap, cross and mingle with each other. The geometry is only apparent: I extemporized a lot, also in order to surprise the reader with chance connections. I believe I've unconsciously attempted to work on the text following Kusturica's technique, which starts from a vast knowledge of the tricks of the trade and of cinema classics, then hands control over to emotion and improvisation.
  • BJ : The prologue is set up on your dreams, or nightmares, streaming out into a genuine medical diagnosis: Kusturica overdose. In a piece of writing published last December on the Internet, I discussed ironically “Balkanitis” as an “uncurable addiction to the Balkans”. It looks like it's impossible to get out of the Yugo-jungle, once you enter it.
    • MD : It's an all-encompassing culture. It assimilates you, if you draw close to it. I had an urge to write this book; writing it was a relief. It's intoxicating, and I'm aware of that by the response of those people who get in touch with me, take my reading or movie advice, and then they thank me: as though I had given them an opportunity they could not conceive before, the chance of a wonderful finding. I don't know why Slavic culture is addicting; to the particularly predisposed it's a drug. Not everybody is predisposed, though, that's well-known.
  • BJ : Definitely so. Both of us have first-hand experience of the cultural and political bias towards the Yugoslav universe. Italians have no idea of what happens in the Balkans; even the great events – I'm thinking of the 1999 bombing of Belgrade – and legendary characters, like Tito, are forgotten. In your book, irony is spent on the classical blunder of European cultural operators, who often mix up Emir Kusturica with Vojislav Koštunica (the current Serbian prime minister). How are things standing in France? How concerned are mass media with ex-Yugoslavia, and in what ways?
    • MD : More often than not, I'm bored: they churn out a ceaseless string of clichés. The situation in France is very simple, and I can sum it up in one line: mass media are not concerned with ex-Yugoslavia. Unless the Danube bursts its banks, or a prime minister is murdered, but the coverage lasts only a few hours. A visible present-day case in point: nobody's writing a line about the Montenegrin referendum set for the end of May. Nor about the geopolitical outcomes that such a referendum may bring onto the Balkans. I'm not amazed that, lacking so much knowledge and information, blunders and oversights are recurrent. The educational goal of my book stems from this: from the preposterous boredom seizing me when I realize that Slovenia, Slavonia and Slovakia are shuffled for the umpteenth time like cards in a deck.
  • BJ : This “Lexique”, in fact, is much more than a work on the cinema and the life of Emir Kusturica: it's almost a handbook enabling the reader to have a grasp of a jumbled and ambiguous country, it's a guide to its historical events, it's a geographical map. It's a book I've labeled as “essential”. I wonder what your Balkan paths have been, and what experiences you went through in order to come to compiling this narrative glossary…
    • MD : I've engaged in two journeys to the Balkans. More than actual travel experiences it was literature affecting me, though. Reading Yugoslav authors is like opening Pandora's box. Each time I do, I'm astounded by the amount of drama and beauty conveyed by some writers. It is needless to mention Ivo Andrić, of course, but it's worth naming Milorad Pavić, Miloš Crnjanski and Danilo Kiš. No book by Goran Petrović, an extraordinary writer, was translated into French other than “69 drawers” (unpublished in English). You know that our shared annoyance is having to wait for the translations; I'm thinking of Borislav Pekić's “Zlatno Runo”, a work in seven volumes: in France they've stopped at the third, it will take decades; but Pekić has nothing to envy Balzac, with regard to either style or complexity.
  • BJ : True. Pekić's widow, tired of waiting, has recently opened a blog on which she posts, day after day, her husband's unpublished works and notes, in English. European literature is incomplete, the Slav part is missing, and we're coming back to the centerpiece of your work: Emir Kusturica. He announced in full regalia a mighty work built upon Andrić's best known novel, ”The bridge on the Drina”; we've been living in wait for years, then the project dissolved. He'd have made a masterpiece out of it, and Yugoslav Literature, contemporary and not, would have drawn great benefit. What happened?
    • MD : I'm not so sure, after all, that a “Drina” by Kusturica would have been a masterpiece. Let's reflect on Kusturica's technique: he needs large amounts of interpretative freedom to shoot. ”The bridge on the Drina”'s construction is not pliable; moreover it's a mausoleum, it's the Yugoslav literature's national monument. It would have forced him inside a cage. Think of Underground: those familiar with playwright Kovačević's work, the source of Kusturica's inspiration, also know how and how much it was betrayed and reshuffled, and how far, in the end, the movie is from the theater piece. Everything happened in his head while shooting and editing. I believe he did not dare carry out such an undertaking with the masterpiece by the only Yugoslav Nobel prize…
  • BJ : I want to tease you. ”Underground” is the peak of Kusturica's work. Kusturica is considered a genius thanks to that colossal movie; the greatest majority of its audience – and of the critics too – have been waiting for an encore that didn't take place. Emir Kusturica, after ”Underground”, is an almost disappointing director. From time to time he seems to have been crushed by such an endeavor (the shooting lasted for years, brought along many wounded and a couple of dead, uncountable political and diplomatic incidents and quarrels), and to have sought shelter into a kind of hazy regionalism, akin to the one he started from with ”Dolly Bell”; he strung together a run of good comedies, a lot of Gypsy syncretism, some Yugoslav graffiti, with a seemingly scrambled language…
    • MD : I can't disagree with that. ”Underground” is the masterpiece. Maybe we should forget about it, we should move away from it and appraise the creations that followed it without continual references to that immense movie; I do not believe that the following works have lesser value, I believe that he simply wanted to tell other stories with a different, possibly understated language. Since I've had the opportunity to see how Kusturica works, hours and hours of film ending up unused, I can tell you that it's plain to see that shooting a movie, to Emir, is a true distress; he's harrowed, even when shooting a comedy. The movies that followed (”Black Cat, White Cat”, ”Life is a miracle”) are not weaker; they are less obscure, less involved than ”Underground”. My opinion is that they are anyway head and shoulders above the great majority of the movies we have the chance to watch at the theater.
  • BJ : And what's happening in the immediate future? There's a project on Diego Armando Maradona, and there's been talk of a punk opera in French theaters…
    • MD : Yes. ”Maradona” is not an easy project to be told: Emir has followed Diego for more than one year in different countries collecting material and shooting. What's coming out of this material is a secret. Shooting has been over for six months but, as typical, nobody has yet an inkling about what Kusturica is putting together. Maybe he doesn't know either, and he's waiting for the emotional flare, for the spark. The launch was to be on the occasion of the World Cup, but the producers may well start pouring tears: Kusturica does not close a movie if it isn't exactly as he wanted it to be. The punk opera, on the contrary, is a more determined project. It will be staged at the Opéra de Paris and we know it's freely inspired to his 1989 feature ”Time of the Gypsies”. Instead of Goran Bregović's music there will be the band with which Kusturica plays, the reformed Zabranjeno Pušenje / No Smoking Orchestra. If you want to know what will happen on stage, though, we're going back to mystery and surprise: I believe that not even Emir knows what's coming out of it, and this is the funny part. We'll see it in summer 2007.
  • BJ : And what about your “Lexique subjectif d'Emir Kusturica”?
    • MD : I've worked on Emir Kusturica's website for ten years, so I gathered a large amount of material, both published and unpublished, only waiting to be used and organised. To tell the truth, it took me just six months to write the book. At the start, I was pushed by the bias, the nastiness, the gossip, you know: “he's a gypsy, he's a friend of Milošević”, that kind of insane statements. In fact, while working I realised I was saving from oblivion a lot of tiny anecdotes, fragments related to Kusturica's work and life that would have been possibly lost. And I'm glad I found a publisher who loves Emir's work and took the risk of publishing such an odd piece of writing.


La revue du cinéma

Jean-Max Méjean's article : fullorangeprod.com


Article in French newspaper Ouest-France, 20 july 2006, by Loïc Tissot.

La Voix du Nord

Article in French newspaper La Voix du Nord (edition “Loos-Haubourdin-Les Weppes”), 14 october 2006, by Marie-Catherine Nicodème.

L'Hebdo de Charente-Maritime

Article in French newspaper L'Hebdo de Charente-Maritime, 5 october 2006, by Michel Teodosijević.

Le Courrier des Balkans

Article on the website Le courrier des Balkans, 6 december 2006, by Jean-Arnault Dérens.

Le lexique fait le tour, de manière intelligente, complète et posée, de l’univers kusturicien, depuis la musique, le monde rrom, le football (Diego Maradona) et les admirations cinéphiliques, pas toujours payées de retour, comme dans le cas de Francis-Ford Coppola.

Dans les références musicales, des entrées sont ainsi consacrées à Guca, au Kocanski Orkestar, ainsi, bien sûr, qu’au No Smoking Orchestra.

Le livre ne fait l’impasse sur aucun sujet qui fâche, évoquant les ennemis déclarés du cinéaste, d’Andrej Nikolaidis à Alain Finkielkraut (auteur d’un fameuse et virulente critique d’Underground dans Le Monde, alors qu’il n’avait pas vu le film), mais aussi les amitiés rompues, d’Abdulah Sidran à Goran Bregovic, en passant par Goran Paskaljevic.

Matthieu Dhennin trouve des mots fort justes pour évoquer la relation d’Emir Kusturica à Sarajevo et à la Bosnie. Aussi éloigné du dythirambe que du réquisitoire, ce livre constitue donc une des meilleures manières possibles de faire le point sur notre propre perception de l’oeuvre protéïforme de « l’émir du Costa Rica » (ainsi se présenta E.K. lors de sa première venue à Cannes, en 1985, quand il reçut la Palme d’or pour Papa est en voyage d’affaires).

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