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‘Sweetheart’ Director Lisa Azuelos on Technology, Memory, the Importance of Family

PARIS — Lisa Azuelos’ tender drama “Sweetheart” follows single mom Heloise (Sandrine Kiberlain) as she gets ready to bid adieu to her college age daughter, Jade (Thaïs Alessandrin).

Facing her soon-to-empty-nest with bittersweet apprehension, Heloise tries to capture every last moment on camera, with her trusty iPhone never too far from her side.

In that sense, the film, which is screening  on Friday, January 18 as part of UniFrance’s Rendez
Vous with French Cinema ahead of its domestic release on March 13, wrangles an appealing mix of text and subtext. Actress Alessandrin is Azuelos’ own daughter, and the director happily asserts that she made the film to work through her own feelings when confronted with a similar situation. Variety chatted to Azuelos in the run-up to the Rendez-Vous.

“Sweetheart” is something of a companion piece to your 2008 film “LOL (Laughing Out Loud),” which was also about a mother-daughter relationship and explored the effects of new media. What made you want to return to this subject?

Azuelos: There was a theme I had never treated, and it’s something that concerns very many people, which is the moment in a parent’s life when their youngest child leaves home. So that was my way to honor all the women and single parents, as is the case in the film. Today, many people slow down their careers to care for their children, and “Sweetheart” was my way to pay tribute to all the invisible daily work of parenting. Parents sometimes feel that what we’re doing isn’t noticed or isn’t having an effect, so I wanted to make a film about all those little things and small moments that reinforce the bonds of family.

The film is about a mother who dreads losing touch with her child, and you cast your own daughter as the child. Did you do so just to spend time with her?

Of course! I tore her from her university for the length of the shoot! [Laughs] Look, if I didn’t already know that she was a good actress, I would have never offered her the part. But it wasn’t the first film we’ve worked on together. I know her and I knew she could do it. Plus I like working in a family setting, working with people that I love, people with whom I’m close. It’s my Cassavetes way of working.   

Did you write the script with her already in mind?

Yes, absolutely. The story is quite close to my own, and [Sandrine Kiberlain’s lead character] looks a lot like me… At the outset, I was just filming my family with my iPhone in order to record the moment, and bit-by-bit the beginning of the film took shape. I saw that you could make a film about all this minutia, all these moments that don’t seem like much at the time but add up to something bigger, and I wanted to explore what they created.

The film takes a gentle view of the digital world – it’s not as technologically alarmist as other films tend to be.

That’s because I know we’ll eventually have to get rid of it, so I’m already nostalgic for the technology we have. [Laughs] No, more sincerely, I see technology as our new kind of memory. I do show some of its prettier sides, and at the same time, we see the depths of the mother’s despair when she loses her phone – it’s as if she lost all her memories. And that’s a way to ask: What would happen to a society that entrusts all of its memories to technology? There are some dangers in replacing human connection with technology; we have to remember that there’s a difference between love and ‘Likes.’

The film isn’t entirely linear; it will sometimes mix in flashbacks without calling too much attention to them, leaving the audience to question what is past and what is present. What was the appeal of such a method?

Human thought is like that too. I wanted to structure the film to feel like a memory – the progression isn’t entirely chronological because neither is memory. We might stumble onto a street and all of sudden our minds take us to when we were on that street last, maybe twenty years earlier. And that will make us think of something that happened two years ago, or five minutes ago. And then we’re back to the present. It was an exercise that wasn’t too difficult, because I explored this kind of storytelling before in my films “Quantum Love” and “Dalida.” This latest film is the most fluid of them all, the most clear. Most of the story is looking backwards, because we have more control over our own nostalgia. In this case, her nostalgia coexists with present day, with the life she’s trying to live. So we included it to show that even her present [living with her youngest daughter,] will soon be a part of her past.

Your previous film, “Dalida,” was a biopic, where “Sweetheart” takes more influences from your own life. Which approach is more challenging?

It’s harder to make a film about someone else, I think. When you borrow someone else’s story, you don’t have the right to betray them. Whereas in my own case, I already know just how far I can take things and what I can handle.

You also directed the American remake of your film “LOL,” though the experience proved frustrating. Is that something you’d ever wish to try again?

The last one was a challenge that I’d like to surmount. I love speaking and working in English, and I find that this subject is even more American than it is French, so I’d love to do an English-language remake with Kate Winslet or Nicole Kidman or Cate Blanchett.

[For 2012’s “LOL”] I learned that for certain American producers, the parents and the children need to stay well behaved, and that the characters need to be punished when they act up. For instance, I don’t think the scene where the mother helps her daughter cheat on her final exams would work if I was making “Sweetheart” for the U.S.

You once said that when you started out, you didn’t have many female director role models. Is that something you’re trying to change?

I don’t want to be a role model as a woman filmmaker, I just want to support other women. I’ve never been embraced by the cinephile world; I don’t make awards movies or travel to many festivals. I’ve come to understand that my style of movies, and the images they impart, doesn’t really attract cinephilia. On the other hand, I’ve had so many women come and tell me that they’ve seen my films sometimes twenty, thirty times; that they’ve found comfort in them. And that’s what interests me, to be a woman who gives others comfort and courage, and especially to empower other women to never feel guilty.

On that note, you are the president of an organization called Together Against Gynophobia. What can you tell us about that group?

It’s an association I created around four years ago. I viewed it as a good umbrella project to talk about all the violence and injustices that women face. But I must admit that since the #MeToo movement took hold, they’ve really succeeded in pushing those same subjects into the conversation. In a way, that association was my own way of contributing, born from my sense of conscience saying that things were not right. I think #MeToo raised a lot of awareness, that’s for sure, but somehow people are more powerless than before. More people file lawsuits, but those lawsuits don’t have the same success they once did. In France, it’s as if we heard the wake-up-call, but never looked for any solutions…

That’s one of the things I wanted to look at in my documentary [“YOLOVE”], to see how we could accompany today’s teens in their explorations of sexuality and male/female relations. I wanted to ask: What will become of this new generation? What are we leaving them, what cultural and familial tools will we impart? And in fact, that’s the same concern as in “Sweetheart.”

Lisa AzuelosKering Talks: Women in Motion, Portraits, 69th Cannes Film Festival, France - 11 May 2016
CREDIT: Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shut

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