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Marine Francen on ‘The Sower,’ an Ode to Freedom

Francen’s debut plays San Sebastian’s New Directors section

SAN SEBASTIAN — Inspired by a short story written by Violette Ailhaud entitled “L’homme semence,” “The Sower,” the first feature of France’s Marine Francen. begins with a stunning image of beauty and violence, of horses galloping over meadows at early dawn. That contrast plays out throughout the whole film. “The Sower” is a love story set in a hamlet in the hills of France in 1851 as Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops round up all its men, free-thinking Republicans, leaving the women. As the years wear on, finding a man to sire children becomes not just an emotional and physical but economic and political necessity.

“The Sower” captures the film’s idyllic setting, but also the physicality of the women’s harvesting, but also the delicacy of love story when a man does appear but also the near primal pact between the women that this man will be shared to ensure the future of the village and its legacy of freedom. Backed by prestige partners – producer Sylvie Pialat at Les Films du Worso, distributor ARP Selection in France, sales agent Celluloid Dreams – “The Sower” world premiered Wednesday at San Sebastián, going on to win its New Directors Award, one go the most prestigious for new talent in Europe. Francen fielded questions from Variety just before the event.

”The Sower’s” key focus is on the decision of the womenfolk in a village with no adult men that if one appears, they will all share him to sire children. The decision is presented as much as one of primal instinct as economic calculation, but also a delicate balance between respect for individual liberty and community responsibility which informs desire, love and relationships. Could you comment?

The decision was made necessary because of the gravity of the situation: these women decided to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, to protect themselves from its oppressive forces, but they live in a highly precarious situation. They understand they won’t survive for long unless the men come back. They decide to reinvent their way of life instead of giving up their lands, in other words surrender their freedom. They have to join forces to survive. The idea of sharing a man breaks a social, religious and personal taboo, but they are driven by their will to live. They hold on to the basics: to eat, love and have children.

One of the film’s essences, at least as a spectator, seems its contrasts: the beauty if the setting, the delicacy of the love story, but the physicality of harvesting, the brute need to have children, the political repression. Were these contests sought or grew organically as you wrote and shot, or maybe you don’t agree about their centrality to the film?

These contrasts existed in the original text, that inspired me to make this project. But with my co-authors, we reinforced them as soon as we began writing the screenplay. They are rooted at the heart of the subject since the story is essentially about a struggle between life and death. It has a strong mythological dimension. For me, these contrasts structure the film and help us feel empathy for the characters: the violence of the raid, the harshness of everyday life, the anguish of the unknown and also their inner desires and sensuality.

At this level, the choice of the location was a key challenge. I wanted somewhere that transmits such a telluric contrast – sometimes magnificent, other times deeply disturbing. And I asked my DOP to use the light to accentuate this idea of contrasts.

What were your guidelines when it came to directing “The Sower” your main and crucial decisions?

My main goal was to share the intimacy of these women, to sense their fears and desires. I wanted to avoid simply chronicling the events. I strove to convey the story at a sensorial level, to focus on the dreamlike aspects rather than being too realistic. This also influenced my decision to use the 4: 3 format and the hand-held camera close to the characters. Given the beauty of the landscapes and the need to film a group, suggested the need for a wide screen format. But I thought it was necessary to refrain from this obvious choice and take the opposite route. My DOP embraced this option. Then we broke down the shooting plan for each scene in function of this choice.

And in terms of directing the actresses? 

After casting this group of women, I went with them to the wardrobe tests and learning about the daily gestures that existed at that time. By following these stages, I explained to them that the essential part of the task involved working with their bodies, and their relations with each other. I always gave them the freedom to propose things, but I had a fairly precise idea of the music of the dialogues and the intentions I was looking for in their faces and gestures. I asked them to trust the tiniest, almost imperceptible details.

The love scenes are a lovely part of the film. Their catalyst and channel are Violette and Jean reading Voltaire and other authors together. To what extent did you research what people read at the time, and the circulation of these works?

After reading the book, I did some research into these unknown events. Few ordinary people knew how to read and write at that time. In the republican circles, called the Chambrées, people were discussing politics and helping each other. They exchanged books, and could also learn to read. Owning books was a luxury! I chose to focus on books by Victor Hugo and Voltaire because they seemed to me right in the context and also because I love their work!

I believe ARP Selection will be distributing in France. When will it release, and where else will the film be seen?

Yes, ARP is the French distributor, and the film is being released in theaters in France on Nov. 15. For the other countries, I know that we have distributors for Spain, Greece and some Baltic countries. We are waiting for the answer of the other countries!

Something I’m curious about. I believe the film was shot in the northern Cévennes. But a synopsis describes it as being set in the lower Alps. Is that correct?

That’s right! In the book the story takes place in the lower Alps but I didn’t find the atmosphere I wanted there. In Northern Cévennes, I found the feeling I was looking for. When I discovered that particular village, I was very emotional : it was as if somebody built it for the movie. It was exactly what I’ve imagined for months ! It is tough, windy, dramatic. All day long the light tells something.

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