Rebecca Zlotowski: ‘Many Women Filmmakers Have Emerged in France’

Zlotowski's last film, "Grand Central," opened at Cannes' Un Certain Regard and screens at the UniFrance Rendez-Vous

Rebecca Zlotowski
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

PARIS — Variety caught up with Rebecca Zlotowski, a leading light of France’s new generation of auteurs.

Zlotowski made her feature debut with Lea Seydoux-starrer “Belle Epine,” which world-preemed at Critics’ Week. Although the film wasn’t a commercial success, it earned Seydoux a Cesar nomination for best newcomer and won a Louis Delluc award. The film also showcased the singularity of Zlotowski’s filmmaking style and storytelling and established her as one of the most promising directors coming out of France in recent years.

Zlotowski, who is repped by Gregory Weill at Adequat, followed up with “Grand Central,” a love-triangle drama exploring the lives of nuclear plant workers. The movie, sold by Elle Driver, opened at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.   Zlotowski graduated from France’s prestigious Femis school and started her career as a screenwriter of several short films and co-penned Teddy Lussi-Modeste’s “Jimmy Riviere.”

Adeline Fontan Tessaur, co-founder of Elle Driver, describes the 33-year old helmer as “terribly talented, modern and engaged.” “Her cinema breathes sensuality and poetry.”

VarietyWhat inspired you to tell a love story set against the backdrop of a nuclear plant?

Rebecca Zlotowski: My desire to tell this story was driven by a poetic and political endeavor. I’m fascinated by characters who are faced with death and danger every day. I find that it raises the stakes and add a spectacular dimension to the story which is necessary. A toxic romance set in a nuclear plant — I find that it’s a very simple but very rich metaphor. That’s for the poetic. Then, entering a world which is so secretive, closed off, forbidden, so little regarded: That was a political endeavor.

Was the idea for the film inspired by the Fukushima disaster? If that’s not the case,  did the Fukushima disaster have any impact on the script?

No, we started writing the script a few months before Fukushima. The disaster was a tragic coincidence which gave us a documentary material, testimonies that didn’t exist before, because people weren’t as interested in the fate of these sacrificed men. We modified some details in characters : At the beginning we had that little fantasy about their recklessness but in the aftermath of Fukushima we decided to make the characters appear more responsible. No plant employee ignores the risks he (or she) incurs. They’re not kamikazes. But the biggest influence Fukushima had on my movie was the curiosity from the international community for this subject, which facilitated the financing of the film.

Both “Belle Epine” and “Grand Central” depict a harsh reality, yet they boast a dream-like atmosphere. Where do you draw your inspiration from and who are your models?

I come from a generation of directors who doesn’t have a unique mentor but a multitude of inspirations in the realms of visual, graphic and sound — whether it belongs to highbrow or popular culture or even sub-culture, with a big interest for American culture. I’m the product of that generation. 

“Belle Epine” sheds light on the world of illegal motorcycle racing taking place outside of Paris, while “Grand Central” is set on a nuclear plant – these are two universes which we seldom see in films. Why do have this desire to distance yourself from familiar Parisian settings and stories?

I’m a middle-class Parisian girl, so it’s a world I know well. As a result, when I make a film, I’m drawn by the unknown, the otherness. I don’t see a better reason to write and direct movies than exploring what we’re not. My idea has always been to transpose very familiar and personal emotions into an unknown, secret and exciting world that’s foreign to me. Nevertheless, I don’t exclude the idea of making a Parisian movie with familiar characters.

How important is it for you to make films that find an audience and travel to foreign markets ?

It’s crucial. Cinema is for me an instrument to forge ties, on top of allowing us to travel for free ! More seriously, the perspective of tacking cinema as an art form and not as an industry or a commercial project doesn’t not interest me.  I feel that filmmaking is part of a tool that helps us connect with others. Even if we can’t reach unanimity.

Do you feel that you’re part of a new generation of French directors? If so, what characterizes this new breed of filmmakers and who’s part of it?

Yes. I sense a big dynamism in French cinema and within my generation these past two years. A lot of young women filmmakers have emerged : Celine Sciamma, Helena Klotz, Mia Hansen Love, Katell Quillevere, Justine Triet, Sophie Letourneur… We all know each other more or less, even if we don’t work together, they’re a real climate of emulation, exchange which is very beneficial. Men are, of course, not left over either. There are big differences within this generation with those who are inspired by documentary filmmaking and others who clearly refuse realism. It’s more a social link which brings us together since we mostly come from a similar social background and many of us attended the same schools, we’re almost all financed by the same companies and we all live in the same city. This homogeneity could be seen as suspect but in fact I find that it creates a strong climate of effervescence.

Very few female directors achieve a true critical success and get to present their films in big festivals. What is it due to?

The world in which we live is very unfair professionally-speaking for women. This reality applies to every industry and doesn’t spare the film world. It’s however important to precise that in France women filmmakers are represented in major festivals like Cannes. The issue still exist, nonetheless, because women directors do present their movies in Cannes, but they do so at Directors’ Fortnight, Critics’ Week, Acid, Un Certain Regard — not in the queen of all sections: the official competition. So this issue still deserves to be addressed.

What kind of offers are you getting from the U.S.? Would you like to direct a film in English?

I’ve received several proposal from the U.S. and the U.K. for novel adaptations. It’s the actors who can give me the desire to one day make an English-language movie. As a screenwriter, which is my background, I’ve had ideas for movies that I thought would only make sense if they were set in the U.S.. For instance I have an amazing project for Paul Thomas Anderson! He can call me whenever he wants! 

 What are you working on now? 
I’m working on my next film but we’re keeping the plot under wraps.