Up-and-coming femme French filmmaker has storytelling gift
PARIS – One highlight of this year’s UniFrance Rendez-vous press junket, which kicks off Friday in Paris, is the presence and films of three young distaff filmmakers who have burst onto the French scene with intimate but bold pics that have scored festival berths, plaudits and sales. In a miniseries, Variety interviewed three of these women: Katell Quillevere, Rebecca Zlotowski and Anne Villaceque. They talk about their latest films, their concerns, and what it’s like to be a femme filmmaker in France. First off: Katell Quillevere.
“Katell has an amazing gift for storytelling. She’s not trying to show off, impress or confuse. Whatever your state of mind when you start her movies, she catches you and tells you the story she wants you to hear,” said Nicolas Brigaud-Robert, at Films Distribution, which has championed this generation selling the films of Celine Sciamma, Quillevere and Villaceque. “The best sign of that is the way she deals with time in ‘Suzanne,’ and tells the story not only onscreen but off-screen. Though she’s very young, she understands perfectly well the medium, and what is said.”
“Suzanne” is a daring film, particularly in its structure and its take on the forces driving the characters’ life arcs. What inspired both?
Things I read: Quite a few autobiographies of women who had lived with criminals, big criminals, real French heavies like Jacques Mesrine, Michel Vaujour, Charlie Bauer, all legendary modern-day crime figures. Much more than by the spectacular side of their stories, I was quite touched by the testimony of their female partners who talked about what it was like living on a daily basis with men on the run. These women always devoted a chapter to their childhood because, in general, there was nothing that seemed to make them destined for a life with criminals. They were always driven by love, often severing links with their families. They tried to understand what there was in their own intimate story, those first years of their lives that could have led them down that path. So I was driven by the notion of destiny, and it was those readings that nurtured the character of Suzanne and made me want to start the story in their childhood, and take it through till they reached adulthood. That 25-year journey with the characters enabled me to develop the question of destiny, something which really fascinates me: The fact, for example, that the most important encounters in life are usually those that come about completely by chance, which makes our life paths so fragile and hectic. At the same time, if such encounters in fact do take place it’s because there’s some kind of predisposition, likelihood even, of them happening. That mixture of necessity and chance, which can fashion an entire life, is at the heart of the story. Also, I’ve always liked the structure of biopics, especially in the American cinema, and I wanted to construct a biopic of someone unknown, a very ordinary girl whose life path turns out to be extraordinary.
Your cinematography swings between an unobtrusive intimately observant documentary style and moments of singular lyricism…
Here as well, one of the inspirations for the film – with my d.p Tom Harari – was the photography, especially American photography of the ‘60s and ‘70s, color masters like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Philip-Lorca diCorcia. What I like about them is their documentary approach, their interest in humdrum, day-to-day events, which they magnify so well. To show just how much of fantasy and lyricism one can unearth in simple, real day-to-day things. So there is a documentary approach as well as a very sophisticated way of composing frames, with particular attention paid to color. Such an aesthetic approach really appeals to me. There is definitely that double influence in the film. There’s also the influence of Hollywood melodrama, i.e., a story that strives for really strong emotions. What I like as a spectator when I go to the cinema is to have strong feelings and emotions, that the film is more than life. I wanted this film to have that dimension, while remaining close to the reality of the characters.
Could you talk about working with Adele Haenel and Sara Forestier?
For me, they’re definitely among the biggest and best of this generation of French actresses. It was really wonderful working with them, extremely rewarding. I directed them both in the same way; in fact all of the actors were directed in the very same way: contained, with restraint, because I was very conscious of the fact that the film really delved into highly charged emotional situations, really poignant, heart-wrenching stuff if I got it right. So I couldn’t afford to too heavily load the dice in one direction. I draw on what I want as a spectator: In films with very heavy emotional baggage, if actors go overboard in terms of pathos and the excessive outpouring of emotion, the spectator can be drained and the emotion easily diluted. So, to maintain the right blend of sobriety and generosity, they had to look within themselves for very strong emotions and keep them on the threshold of the scene, just on or beneath the surface; almost constantly on the edge of something, just holding back. Also because, in life, it’s always more moving to see someone with strength and dignity hold back their tears, rather than just let them go. So things were very much based on that precept.
In your debut, “Love Like Poison,” the father was absent; here the mother is absent. Is that a coincidence?
Certain links can be made. In “Love Like Poison,” there’s a divorce, in “Suzanne,” a death. Both deal with the issue of separation, loss, absence, themes close to me, dear to me. The question of abandonment, separation, the link is definitely there.
In “Suzanne,” the mother’s death could explain the sisters’ relationship.
They’re two sisters who grew up very closely knit to each other, no doubt due to the fact that they lost their mother when they were very young. So there’s a kind of maternal substitution, which makes them work like a duo. Separation, when it eventually comes, is very painful, but also necessary. We see, for instance, that in adolescence, when Maria takes the train and leaves her sister because they’re not going to do their studies in the same place, the scene after that is the one in which we learn that Suzanne is pregnant. A link is established. It’s as though Suzanne wanted that child to fill the void of that separation, that something that’s lacking, that sister who’s not there, after a mother who hadn’t been there.
Do you know Rebecca Zlotowski or Celine Sciamma? Is there an esprit de corps among the young women filmmakers in France?
Making a film is a solitary experience. One doesn’t start wondering what others are doing; otherwise one gets lost. One’s got to make a film with one’s heart, one’s guts, one’s need. If there is something that we’ve got in common, with Rebecca or Celine, it’s that. When I see their films I have a feeling of real need, that they make films, that they couldn’t do anything else, and that they put lots of sincerity and ambition into the subject as well as the form of their film. What we have in common is our relationship with our profession, a sincere and necessary relationship with what we do. But one never wonders what others are doing. There’s not much point in doing that. One just sees other people’s films and when I see a film by Celine or Rebecca, it stimulates me, because I have a great deal of admiration for what they do, and that gives me a real boost. But that’s as far as it goes.
And the challenges of being a woman director in France?
Today, in general, one faces more challenges as a woman. But in cinema, my generation, the generation of Rebecca and Celine, hasn’t suffered because we’re girls. It’s not been a problem for getting on in our profession, because we were lucky to inherit a form of feminism from our mothers’ generation that we’ve digested very well. So it’s now natural to want to embrace a profession such as this. There are no barriers, no hindrances, anywhere, at any time.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got an idea for a film but I haven’t started writing yet. So it’s still too soon to talk, but it’s certainly another love story: Love and family.