Catherine Breillat is no stranger to controversy. If the French novelist and director has spent a career confronting censorship and social taboos, that has not prevented her from developing a reputation as one of the world’s most iconoclastic and widely acclaimed authorial voices.
From her 1976 directorial debut, “A Real Young Girl,” through to 2013’s “Abuse of Weakness,” Breillat has continually sought to examine and reframe conventional depictions of femininity, more often than not twisting them towards provocative ends. This year she heads the Locarno Film Festival jury – which marks a fitting choice for both a festival finding new footing under the leadership of artistic director Lili Hinstin, and for a larger film culture still wrestling with many of the questions Breillat has regularly explored.
Variety spoke with this year’s jury president shortly before she packed her bags for Locarno. [Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.]
Do you have any history with Locarno?
Locarno was the first festival I ever attended. I brought my film “36 Fillette” [in 1988] and it was horribly received. I still remember some of the headlines tearing it apart. The film was savaged in France as well, but it managed to be selected at Toronto, New York, and London, and that’s what saved it. Without those international festivals I could have never made another film. In the end, “36 Fillette” did very well around the world, though it had a shaky start in Locarno. The festival director appreciated it, while the public sure did not. And in France, it was hated.
Why do you think that is?
I think people were shocked by something that I didn’t find shocking at all – adolescence. I didn’t invent the way adolescents acted and spoke; I simply copied what I saw and heard from the ones around me, but that shocked people; they hated it. I think it was ahead of its time, because [when Locarno re-played the film during a 2017 retrospective] the public really enjoyed it, and that made me very happy. To see a film that was savaged when it came out, celebrated 20 years later… that’s a great joy for a director.
Why didn’t it connect in France?
In France, people are extremely timid. They pretend otherwise, but the French are very conventional. It all goes back to Louis XIV, who demoted all the great lords of his day into courtiers. Still to this day the French have that courtier mentality – they don’t dare to offer an opinion that isn’t politically correct or mutually shared. I don’t like the French. I love France and I love the French language, but I dislike my fellow countrymen.
What, in your view, sets your cinema apart?
I would say rhythm and brutality. My screenplays have often been criticized, because in France people want one scene to anticipate the next, whereas I prefer surprise. French films are too linear and psychological; I’m more interested in exploring denial, in not knowing what’s going to happen next. That’s more Japanese in style. Japanese films never telegraph their brutality. They’re violent, without aiming for pathos or explanation. The brutality is unexpected.
I remember a “Fat Girl” screening in Toronto where an audience member reacted with shock to the last scene. They asked me, “Why such sudden violence?” I told them that ‘sudden violence’ is redundant. All violence is sudden; it is by definition the arrival of something that should not happen, but once it does, it becomes unavoidable and inescapable. I remember that screening well, because it was just before September 11th, 2001. I told that audience member, “The next violent news story will happen out of nowhere, and the images will be broadcast again and again and again. Just wait and see.”
What do you make of the calls for greater inclusivity in film festival selections? I know you’ve argued against quotas in the past.
For me, cinema is an art form, and we must defend it as such. Art need not be politically correct. We don’t need gender quotas; we need only ask, “Is a piece great, is it beautiful, or is it of no interest at all?” That’s what counts.
I’ve fought hard [as a female director] to make my films. Years ago there was a reverse-quota in France. The state funding body would fund one female director for every three males. My best friend was director Christine Pascal, and when we both presented our projects at the same time, we knew only one would get funding. Of course that makes you reflect on your gender and identity. Does being a man make you inherently smarter or better? Personally, I feel like I have a different kind of intelligence. I like men, I have nothing against them, and I even appreciate their brutality, but I think we need to be equal before the law. I’ve never asked for anything more.
The reverse-quota was abhorrent [because] the state has no business dealing with gender. In society, it has become another power play. I don’t even believe a baby should have its gender declared upon birth. What’s the point, if not to create another power imbalance? “You can do this but not that because of your sex.” No way! Gender should be anonymous in art. That’s why I’m against all quotas. I’m pro-cinema, pro-art. If I am a feminist, I’ve chosen to express my feminism through cinema, not politics.
Recently, director Abdellatif Kechiche came under fire when members of his crew complained that he pushed them against their limits on set. As someone who has also dealt with similarly charged situations, what do you make of those concerns?
Well, I do think Kechiche spent way too long shooting that [“Blue Is the Warmest Color”] sex scene. He shot it over two weeks, whereas I would have done it in a day. You can’t put actresses in that position for 15 days. I’ve always shot such scenes very quickly, because being in an exposed situation like that for 15 days can make an actress feel like a prostitute. So I understand why they were upset.
[I don’t know about the “Mektoub” story, but] as a one-time victim of the press, I know how malicious they can be. The press acts like they know every detail, however until there’s a legal case it’s all just gossip, affirmations of facts not yet proven.
In any case, a director is by definition a manipulator. Once you start shooting a film, you isolate yourself from everything else in the world. You burrow into something that becomes your whole world. In that instance, how can a director not manipulate? The art of direction is manipulation. Though the story might be fictional, the emotions must be real. Afterwards we can ask, what is real and what is false, what is due to perversity and what to necessity? No matter the case, I think people are too quick to use to term ‘manipulate’ when sometimes that is all a director can do. That’s the whole job.
In terms of your job as jury president, what are some of the films that marked your own taste and evolution as a filmgoer?
Ingmar Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel” made me decide to become a director. I was 12 years old, living in the countryside, and all of a sudden I recognized my entire existence in the figure of Harriet Andersson. The film depicted this rapport between desire, shame and masochism that dawned my directorial interests. That was a determinative film in my life, as was Elia Kazan’s “Baby Doll.”
It’s subjective, though. Some films you see and find perfectly good, while others leave you so inspired that you walk out of the theater feeling the need to go out and make your own. As jury president, I cannot impose something that may have a profound effect on me but not on my fellow members. I can certainly impose my belief that a film is very, very good, but not that it’s the absolute best!
In 2018 you gave a controversial interview on an American podcast. Did you expect that kind of fallout, and how did you experience it?
I wasn’t very happy about that whole situation. I felt ambushed – I expected my normal translator to be with me and I expected to just speak about my films. Then all of a sudden, the interviewer brings up Asia Argento, who is someone I never want to talk about. I greatly admire Asia as an actress and find her appalling as a person. […] Apart from making clear the personal disdain I felt working with her, I did not want to get into her [allegations against Weinstein.] Still, I think she’s a formidable and charismatic actress.
I hardly experienced the media fallout because I’m not in the U.S. and I don’t use social networks. I knew there was some commotion, only I did not wish to respond. I don’t like social media; I don’t like how people use it to put others on trial. I wish to take no part in that.