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A Talk With Benoit Jacquot
- Peter Brunette and Gerald Peary

     Benoit Jacquot, born in 1947, an assistant director for Marguerite Duras and others before turning filmmaker, has quietly built a body of subtle, serious feature films in France which, added up, constitute an unarguably important career. Past fifty, Jacquot is still little known or publicized. Today’s Cahiers du Cinema endorses his movies, but the magazine misses its heady influence of olden days. Besides, his films — thoughtful, talky, literary — don’t have the cachet of other current Cahiers favorites, more youth-oriented, including techno-Hollywood. Though his first feature was made in 1975, Jacquot is slowly beginning to be distributed around the world. La fille seule/A Single Girl (1995) and Le Septieme Ciel/Seventh Heaven (1997) were admired by coterie critics in the USA but made little box-office dent. His tenth feature, the Isabelle Huppert-starring L’ecole de la chair/The School of Flesh, did only marginally better.

     And a step backwards: Pas de scandale/Keep It Quiet (1999), Jacquot’s eleventh feature, pleased few. It’s a Highsmith-like tale which never quite works emotionally about a crooked businessman who, upon his return from jail, has become transformed in a way that alienates him from his associates, his wife and family.

     Credit Toronto International Film Festival director, Piers Handling, for attempting to create a space at the top for Jacquot. He made the French filmmaker the surprise subject in 1997 of the very influential, and much-coveted, Spotlight series, which, with one filmmaker retrospective per year, had brought such international luminaries as Pedro Almodavar, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Ken Loach to the attention of North America.

     Handling noted of Jacquot’s ouevre: "Narrative assumes no great importance, although there is a story. . . The film is interested in much more than character. It is concerned with incident and situation, as much with the background as foreground. As these pieces fit together, Jacquot creates a tapestry or a puzzle that, when one stands back, depicts a vision of the modern world that may appear fragmented but which certainly is comprehensive. . . .The moral center of all the work I have seen is always a woman."

     It may be that the women in Jacquot’s films are no more "moral" than anyone else. But certainly, because the females are usually younger, poorer, less economically viable, men are the predators who take advantage. And female beauty, the kind without moneyed power such as Judith Godreche in La desenchantee, Virginie Ledoyen in Marianne and A Single Girl, is often a curse. Everyone (females too) is jealous of it, want to grab it, consume it, destroy it. It’s with the upper-middle-class wife Sandrine Kimberlaine in La Septieme Ciel/Seventh Heaven, that women start to fight back. It’s with the single and financially independent Isabelle Huppert of Jacquot’s l’Ecole de la chair/The School of Flesh, that women finally control the sex by controlling the purse-strings.

     Our career interview with Benoit Jacquot, the first in America, extended over two years, at the 1997 and 1998 Toronto Fests. (He wasn’t at Toronto in 1999 for the showing there of Pas de scandale.) We talked to the filmmaker at great length in 1997 at the time of the Spotlight retrospective. At Toronto 1998, we collaborated on an addendum, concerning The School of Flesh.

     It’s an old cliche to say that a filmmaker looks and feels "professorial," but Jacquot really does, even though he was an undergraduate dropout. He’s comfortably scholarly and intellectual in an appealingly mild-mannered way. In life, he reads books and goes to lots and lots of movies. He’s an unabashed film freak who, he says, has seen John Ford’s The Searchers about fifty times. He’s also unspoiled about talking about his movies and, without appearing self-absorbed the least, seemed to genuinely enjoy the exchange with a couple of American critics.

Q-Were you always a film person?
Yes. I was 12 or 13 when the Nouvelle Vague came out in Paris. I was very impressed by the movement, and started to go often to the movies. I decided at that time to become a filmmaker. I went to Henri Langois’ Cinematheque for retrospectives of American directors, and Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and especially Rivette, went there too, the whole Cahiers group. Truffaut came sometimes. Langois was conversing with everyone, and I had talks with Rivette. A man whom I knew who was very important to me from Cahiers du Cinema was the critic, Jean Douchet.

Q-Were there other children besides you who regularly attended the Cinematheque screenings?
When I was 13 or 14, I was the only one. But I learned very much: a small boy listening in on adults’ conversations, like the boy in Lang’s Moonfleet.

Q-When you made your own films, you show an obvious debt to the directors of the Nouvelle Vague. Marianne (1994) is a bit in tone like Rivette’s La Religieuse/The Nun (1966). Also, your very first feature, L’assassin musicien/ The Musician Killer (1975), starred Godard icon, Anna Karina.
I was thinking of La Religieuse when considering how to film the French 18th century for Marianne. At the same time, I hadn’t seen La Religieuse for twenty years. My using Anna Karina was a kind of homage to Godard; but, more, Karina was the actress who interested me the most from the period before I started making films. The appeal? Her very free way to be in a film, and a kind of charm and grace.

Q-Was Karina attracted to the role you offered her in L’assassin musicien, as a poor maid with a child who becomes involved with the petulant violinist-protagonist?
Yes, she liked the scenario and she liked the part.... I was 27 at the time, and I’d stopped very early going to college and I’d worked in the industry as an assistant director.

Q-Did you also write film criticism?
Two or three times for newspapers, but it wasn’t my way. It would seem that normally I should have been writing for Cahiers du Cinema, where, for the Nouvelle Vague, criticism was a step toward making films. But when I came of age, that way was finished. People who wrote in Cahiers by that time did not make films.

Q-Are you consciously part of a group?
Post-New Wave, of course, but not a group. We are a few: Techine, maybe Doillon. That’s all. What we make is quite difficult to describe. Maybe these are films where the directors are not afraid to film people talking. Yes: "talking films."

Q-Where would you place Beineix?
That’s the opposite kind of film! Somebody like Beineix hates it when his people aren’t moving, when there’s not something "to see," "to show," with beautiful, sophisticated locations.

Q-And Pialat?
Of course, Pialat! To me, he is the greatest director now in France. In his films, people are always talking!

Q-Is the source for "talking films" the cinema of Rohmer?
No, it’s what we like most also in classic French cinema: Renoir, Pagnol. Even Bresson: it’s a very singular, particular way to talk, but his are "talking films."

Q-Had you met Bresson?
Yes, because my first producer was his producer. Bresson saw my first films and said he liked them. But at the time, I was very disturbed by the commentary saying that I was a spiritual son of Bresson. I didn’t feel like that. Bresson is phobic about actors, and the very beginning of my thinking what to do with a film is casting actors.

Q-But starting with your decision to adapt a Dostoevsky story, you can understand why someone would connect L’assassin musicien with Bresson?
Naturally. Yet to me it’s nearer to Dreyer or even Fritz Lang, directors like that, than to Bresson.

Q-But it seems so Bressonian! This is asked politely: couldn’t you be a bit blind about your movie?
(Laughs) I am completely blind about my movies. But when I see them again, I can feel if they are "mine" or not. The first one is like the film of another director, even if I know I made it. I ask myself, "Why did you make this?" I know at the time I had to make it. But why? That film shows a world that I don’t know very well.

Q-When we talked before the interview, you said that you only like your recent films, starting with La Desenchantee (1990), your sixth feature. What did you do wrong before?
I don’t think it was wrong. They might be interesting films, just not what I really wanted to do. I’m sure that now, for the last three or four films, I’ve done what I always wanted to do. La fille seule is exactly the film I wanted to do at age 14 or 15. Exactly. From the first shot.

Q-How are the newer features different?
That I like them, that I’m very proud to have done them. The others? I’m a little ashamed. Why inflict films like those on people? (Laughs)

Q-After L’assassin musicien was screened at the Fest, two young men about 22 came out of the theatre. One said to the other: "Did you like that movie? God, it was so boring!"
So boring? (Laughs) I think my early films are kind of boring. And I don’t like the way the actors talk. It’s all too theoretical, too much an illustration of false principles about cinema: long shots, time passing, long takes. Now I’m more interested in the cinema to reach something human.

Q-It’s like, in your 20s, being interested most in form. But when you are 50, you are interested in human beings.
Exactly! Though I wanted all of that when I was in my 20s also. But at that time, I wanted to make trouble in the landscape. My first films were remarked about because of that. I wouldn’t like that now to be the reason to be remarked about.

Q-Your protoganist in L’assassin musicien is very spoiled, and thinks he runs the world. Was that like you at the time?
(Laughs) Probably!

Q-Let’s discuss La Desenchantee, which is about a 17-year-old Parisian girl named Beth (Judith Godreche). Why do you place so many men in her life, from her teen boyfriend to a young man she meets in a club to the strange older man whom she starts to see?
Those you mention are three different ages of malehood. Beth’s initiation is to pass through the three ages. She’s losing her childhood, becoming a woman, and becoming disenchanted. At the end, the older man is waiting for her decision by the Seine, whether she’s going off with him or not. She’s decided: she’s growing up, and with him it’s over.

Q-There’s a lovely scene at school where the girl quotes Rimbaud about enchantment/disenchantment.
The actress wrote that speech. In life, Rimbaud was like a religion for her, so I asked her to be in a college class in the movie and make an "expose" about him.

Q-In her room at home, Beth has a lot of books. Are books a chance for her? For a better life?
Maybe. I don’t know.

Q-What about the older man who pursues Beth? He’s quite hard to figure out.
He’s the kind of guy who had a life, including mourning, but he’s at the point of having another life. Maybe he thinks he could have an affair with her.

Q-But when he brings her to his room, he sits and writes and doesn’t touch her.
He’s a good guy! (Laughs)

Q-Nobody is allowed to tell such film stories today in America. In France, there’s still the possibility of an older man sleeping with a younger woman.
Oh, it’s very frequent.

Q-How did you find your lead, Judith Godreche?
For Les mendiants (1987), I’d made a casting and used her for a girl of 14. I recommended her to Doillon, who also made a film with her, la fille de quinze ans. Afterward, I wrote la desenchantee just for her. Maybe you saw her in Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule? She’s the main female character.

Q- If La desenchantee is typical, you don’t seem driven to find psychological or sociopolitical explanations for what happens in your movies.
It’s not my first interest. When I introduce people, they are enigmas, just like human beings in real life when you first see them and you don’t know anything. But by the end of the films, they have to have psychological verity. I like to show where the people live, what they eat, at what time they sleep. My characters have a world, and jobs.

Q-What kind of work do you do with your actors to situate them in their worlds?
There are no rehearsals and very few takes. But I live with them very much before and during the film shooting, and I try to provide a kind of documentation of their characters’ lives, even if it is fiction.

Q-But aren’t your scripts completed before the actors get there?
Yes, but I write a script knowing already who the actors are, and that they are not others. They can change anything they want while we are shooting. If they don’t feel comfortable, I tell them to change their lines, but very quickly. Don’t stop and go and think. We’ll do it now!

Q-Surely, those long, elaborate tracking and traveling shots in La fille seule/A Single Girl (1995) were photographed again and again?
No, no, maybe two or three times. But I had very good technicians, and the Steadicam person was the best in Europe.

Q-Some old-time purists disapprove of the Steadicam.
I like it very much. I could make a whole film just with the Steadicam.

Q-Could you tell of something about Caroline Champetier, the great cinematographer of La fille seule and other recent post-New Wave movies, such as Laetitia Masson’s En avoir (ou pas) (1995)?
She’s now past forty and I’ve known her since she was nineteen, a student at cinema school and an interviewer on radio for cinema programs. She was very radical. and she has a frightening reputation in the industry because she is very demanding. Everyone admires her talents but everyone is afraid, especially those who don’t know exactly what they wish to do with the camera. Rivette, for example, made one film with her, Jeanne la Pucelle, but he’s not hired her again, though her photography was very beautiful.

Q-And your relationship with her?
Maybe it’s a fault, but I know very well when I come in the morning where I’ll put my camera, what I’m going to shoot all day. Caroline likes to obey! That’s all. Like an actress! And for me, that’s very convenient. I need someone who can act a character, who is the camera. I direct her exactly as I direct my cast. I give her the same kinds of indications.

Q-So who, or what, is the camera in La fille seule?
It’s a kind of projection of me, I think, my shadow walking in back of the girl, or in front of the girl.

Q-A great moment of cinema occurs when, after the opening interior scene with the camera up close on the girl and her boyfriend in the coffee shop, there’s a cut to the street, and the camera begins a long track with the girl as she walks down the sidewalk. The feel of a different movie!
Yes, and real people on the street look at her and they look into the camera. It’s OK. I wanted that, I didn’t cut it out, because it’s completely paranoiac.

Q-How did you find Virginie Ledoyen? She has starred in two of your films,La fille seule and Marianne (1994), the latter about a young woman, an ex-foundling, who is passed from hand to hand in aristocratic 18th-century France.
I knew her through Olivier Assayas, who is the filmmaker in France that I’m closest to in friendship. I see him often and, when we’re making films, we talk about whom we are going to hire. When I was writing Marianne, I didn’t know what young girl of 16 or 17 I could use because the film is very heavy, and there’s not one shot without her. Olivier told me about Virginie, whom he was using for l’eau froide. I made two tests with her. I knew that she was a good actress, but I didn’t know if she could be quite natural in the French language of the 18th century, which is very special.
     She was 17, so I couldn’t ask a young actress like that to be a perfect technician, say like Sandrine Kimberlaine. I could see that she was gifted, and I tried to film that. And I didn’t want a French painting of the time: you know, blonde, with a pink carnation. I wanted a girl like a little gypsy from nowhere, but with something very aristocratic. I wanted a girl who could be a gypsy...and a princess.

Q-Is Virginie Ledoyen’s charisma that she is incredibly beautiful?
I’m not sure the appeal is the beauty. She has a kind of grace, and it’s not only physical. I mean, Virginie is a beautiful girl, but it’s not a beauty that makes her an exception among others her age. When she walks into a room where there are several other people, nobody notices her especially. But Olivier knew recommending her, and I soon knew, that she’s the kind of girl that I can look at with my camera and make her the only one.

Q-She’s like Sandrine Bonnaire in the ‘80s.
Maybe. I admire very much what Pialat did with Bonnaire. It’s the kind of thing I try to do.

Q-Pialat used Bonnaire twice in a row, with A Nos Amours (1983) and then Sous les soleil de satan/ Under Satan’s Sun (1987). You also cast Ledoyen in successive leads, with Marianne and then la fille seule.
I’d already written la fille seule before shooting Marianne. I thought then that, if it was possible, it would be fortunate to have the same actress in the two films.

Q-Because the characters they play get passed around the same way?
Yes, yes, to show a "line of life" of a young girl, one in the 18th century, one now. It’s not the same story in each film, but the same kind of position of a young girl in the world.

Q-Many of your films are chamber dramas, focused on personal relationships. Do you ever have a desire to make something large-scale, perhaps a Cyrano kind of movie?
I should very much like to make a big epic. Why not? I’d like to try. When I was an assistant director, I worked on a film like that and enjoyed it very much. But there’s an economic question. I like to print film, to print as many kilometers as I can, so I can’t wait four or five years to prepare a big film. I don’t have the strength for that, or the desire to get all that money needed by such a filmmaker.

Q-It’s not that you are saying that "man/woman/domestic relations" are the essence of life and of cinema?
No, but what I admire most in the great masterpieces is that, after the big battles, the big fights, the intimate scenes are fantastic. Like in the John Ford films, even his big westerns. That’s what I like. If it ever came to me to film this kind of movie, I’d focus on the domestic scenes.

Q-Your film la septieme ciel/Seventh Heaven (1997) is a little chamber drama in Cinemascope. Is that a contradiction?
For me, the definition of beauty is an actor or actress acting in a close shot in Cinemascope. This is my third film in Cinemascope, also les mendiants and les ailes de colombe in the early ‘80s, an adaptation of Henry James’s Wings of the Dove with Isabelle Huppert and Dominique Sanda.

Q- With Dominique Sanda, we are back to Bresson and Une Femme Douce. You both feature young girls in tough, minimalist films.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m in that family and can’t do anything about it, like being the son of somebody. Also, to me, mimimalism is an American art concept, more to do with people like Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch. Also, minimalists never film in Cinemascope.

Q-Maybe le septieme ciel is minimalist Cinemascope.
(Laughs). It’s true: I very much like paradox.

Q-In this film, it seems that characters say some very bizarre things upon meeting others, like, "Do you have orgasms?", what people might not normally say so quickly, and the audience laughs.
If you are very attentive, you can hear very strange things in life. Also, though it’s not a good answer: the dialogue occurred to me, so it could happen. But I do like familiar situations with strange things in them, like fairy tales, the German idea of "the uncanny." I like to film that. My narrative form is "the tale." I try to film bizarre tales.

Q-Why did you use Sandrine Kimberlaine as your troubled married heroine, who has become a kleptomaniac?
It was a question of age, a woman in her 30s, and Sandrine is one of the most important actresses in France. You saw her in En avoir (au pas)? She was great in it.

Q-What does your title mean?
I don’t know if it has the same connotation in English and French. In French it has a sexual connotation. When a man and woman go to "seventh heaven," that’s a sexual accomplishment.

Q-Is this film autobiographical? The husband feels like a very strong man until his wife becomes strong, and then he is threatened.
It’s not autobiographical but something I feel in general about men and woman. In a way, I live in the opposite condition from these people. They are married people, I’ve never been married. Unlike me, they have a place they go to work every day at the same time. I wanted to film people very far from me but who are acted upon in a way that anyone can experience.

Q-Is the husband missing something?
He’s blind. That’s why I wanted him to be a surgeon, someone passing his days opening bodies. He believes everything can be cured or fixed, just like the motor of a car. He can’t see what she’s trying to show him, but I do think he loves his wife.

Q-The wife, Mathilde, seeks a cure through going to a hypnotist. And you?
I’ve never experienced it, though I’ve seen people hypnotized and I was very impressed. I chose hypnosis to be in the center of the film because to me there’s a very obvious analogy between cinema and hypnosis. When you pay your ticket to go into a dark room and be immobilized in a seat with a light behind you and a screen in front of you, and you have to forget the world outside, you are exactly in the position of hypnosis. You are asleep and awake at the same time.

Q-So is it a deficiency in the husband that he can’t be hypnotized?
At this time, he can’t do it. Maybe at a later time, he’ll be able. I think if the film was continuing, his wife would hypnotize him! (Laughs)

Q-A formal question: the way you cut away from significant situations, like when the wife faints at a party. Is it a question of rhythm?
It’s musical, like trying to find the right note. When I cut, I try to have my eye in my ear, like a composer writing music. As for movie music: I like it, but very often what I film refuses music.

Q-But your films never are without young women.
You are right. I am obsessed about young women. (Laughs) You can’t be a cinemaphile without loving young women. That’s Lubitsch’s definition of cinema: "Doing pretty things to pretty women."

Q-Feminists say that film has always been made by men for men to look at women.
Yes, that’s right. (Laughs)

Q-Would you ever make a film with an all-male cast?
No! In filmmaking, I don’t want to discover myself. I’m not interested in that. I make cinema to know something about women. I can’t envisage life without women. And to me, cinema is a way to live!

• • •   ONE YEAR LATER. . . Toronto Fest 1998

Q-Does it seem that The School of Flesh could be your breakthrough film internationally, with a big star, Isabelle Huppert, and a narrative pleasing a larger audience?
My friend, Olivier Assayas, saw it three days ago. He liked it, and said it’s not in the same "regime" as the earlier films. In the others, the story was always "destructing" itself, and it was difficult to know what the story was. This story is simply told. Maybe that’s why you think there will be a meeting with a large audience. About casting Huppert: I don’t realize at which point it’s important about having a great star. In France it doesn’t matter that much. There, Sandrine and Virginie in my previous films are also very popular and very great actresses.

Q-Once again, Caroline Champetier is your cinematographer.
The last time was la fille seule, and this was the same kind of "bete," the challenge to be as close as possible to the figure of a woman. Caroline wanted very much to photograph Isabelle, who is her favorite actor, and I thought maybe it was important to have a woman filming a woman. Caroline knew where I wanted to go with the camera better than anyone, and in both movies I had the big question: what does a woman want? Before, it was a young woman. Here, a less young woman.

Q-So where do you look with the camera on Huppert for this subtle investigation?
In the relationship between the situation and maybe her face?... (Changing his mind) No, it’s something between the actor and the character. With Huppert doing the role, I decided to do more with the actress than there is character. Filming that, I tried to know, to arrive at some little precis of an answer. Maybe I’ll know in four or five films. I’ve never filmed a mother. I’d like to film a mother, in relation to her children.

Q-This film is built on closeups of Isabelle Huppert.
Of ten shots of her, nine are closeups. Extreme closeups. This movie is about sex and sexuality. It’s about flesh, but it’s all on the face, a paradox for me. Godard said, talking about Hitchcock, "He filmed women’s faces like they were their asses." There’s something so specific in film. The closer you are to faces, the closer you are to the sexual nerve. There are also one or two scenes of my couple making love. I asked myself whether to do them. I finally decided it would be very mechanical just to see their faces.

Q-Your lead actor, Vincent Martinez, who plays the young gigolo?
It’s his first movie. He’s 21, brother of the actor, Olivier Martinez, who is very famous in France. I chose him very quickly. Directors say, "I saw 100 people." I saw four or five boys. He was one of the first ones. I tested him with Isabelle. At once, she told me, "That’s him."

Q-Does the camera love certain actors?
Not the camera. It’s a mechanical eye, a go-between the director and light. The camera loves a face if it is loved by the director and light together.

Q-What if the director loves a face but light doesn’t?
(Laughs) There’s nothing on screen. A blank spot. But if the light loves a face and the director doesn’t, sometimes there is something. I think the light is stronger than the director!

Q-For this film, you are shooting in the homosexual milieu of Mishima. Was that a challenge?
I’ve never forgotten that it was a homosexual story. I had some special consultants who would tell me, "These kind of people are OK. These kinds of places are OK." I was very interested in the constant inversion of everything. The main female is a male character, Obviously, Mishima identified with that woman. I don’t know exactly who I identify with.

Q-Talk about working with Huppert.
She’s not acting for an audience. It’s not for the scenario, the script, the part. She’s acting for the director she decides to work with. As an actress, she needs only a few indications. She doesn’t ask more: something about costumes, one or two psychological cues, and that’s all. She wants to act as if she’s going on the set to sleep and dream. She has a day life and shooting a film is her night life.
     For The School of Flesh, we read the script together. She read it to me. That’s all. We talked about how her character, Dominique, would be dressed, how short her hair would be. That’s it. And Isabelle likes very much la fille seule. She asked me to do something like I’d done with Virginie Ledoyen. So the first energy of this film is similar to what I’d done before: a long shot on the face.

Q-But surely some actors want to know far more about their roles. Don’t they approach you to supply the backstory, since you wrote the script?
If they want to know something they don’t know, I ask them to answer for themselves. I ask them to answer by acting instead of thinking. But I’m very interested in what they have to say, and I always say "OK!... If it’s OK for you, it’s OK for me." It’s very rare when I say, "No, that’s not true." I also believe that it’s no use when we talk about the characters before filming. It always changes during shooting.

Q-The ending of this film, with a character going into the metro, echoes la fille seule . But it’s resonant of other people’s movies too, isn’t it?
There’s a "Mankiewicz touch," though I don’t know which film. But I never think of another movie, or of great masters, when I am shooting. Only when they’re done can I think of reminscences of other films. Generally, it’s someone like you who tells me. The paradox is that I love film, and I make films because people like you like them.

Q-The quick ellipse to the future, the poignant meeting of old lovers, recalls Renoir’s une partie de campagne/A Day in the Country.
My epilogue? Of course, it’s true! Yes, yes, why not? Renoir is so much the greatest one, a kind of father of French cinema, much more than Bresson or any other master.

Q-And the other movie ending it recalls: the sad encounter after a few years of Streisand and Redford in The Way We Were.
Of course! Yes, yes! But I didn’t know it when shooting. But I very much like epilogues: "Two years after."

Q-You are planning another film with Isabelle Huppert, about a captain of industry who gets out of jail and how he relates to his previous cohorts ?
Pas de scandale, which has four main characters. It’s very Dostoyevsky. . . It’s like Irish Murdoch...or Highsmith.

Q-Will you be shooting a film in America?
Yes, in English, with Catherine Deneuve. Edith Wharton’s Mother’s Recompense. It’s the story of a woman in France who was married twenty years to a man who has just died. She has a child whom she hasn’t seen for 18 years. She comes to New York and meets the child, now a young woman, who, later in the film, is going to marry in secret her mother’s new American lover.

Q-Who is playing the daughter?
I’m going to New York to find a girl who is 22-25, and to see films that I’ve missed with young girls. I didn’t see films of Drew Barrymore, Claire Danes. But Winona Ryder is too old!

PETER BRUNETTE and GERALD PEARY
(Cineaste, Vol.XXV, No.3, Summer 2000, pp.23-27)

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