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French Director-Actress Valerie Donzelli on Locarno’s ‘Notre Dame’

With her latest feature, Gallic filmmaker Valérie Donzelli proves that fiction might be stranger than truth – but only just. The “Declaration of War” director was putting the finishing touches on her latest whimsical exploration of Parisian life – about an architect tasked with redesigning the Notre Dame cathedral while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy – when she learned of the fire engulfing the very public monument this past April.

But no matter, as reality’s harsh incursions only added to the film’s storybook quality. Variety caught up with the director ahead of her film’s world premiere on Sunday in Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Where were you when you heard about the fire?

I was in Paris, still editing the film. I immediately biked down to witness it, because I don’t live far away, and I could see the pillars of smoke from home. It was devastating to see [that], and not only because I had just made this film. I had feared something like that would happen, because Notre Dame is such a symbol of Paris, and the city has gone through so much in recent years. I thought it possible that Notre Dame could be next, and I funneled those anxieties into the writing and development of this project. In the end there were very few injuries, no lives lost and the structure still stands, so thankfully it wasn’t a full-on tragedy.

Of course, you’re not just a resident of Paris. You’re also a filmmaker who just made the cathedral the centerpiece of her film. How did you experience the event from that perspective?

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I didn’t think about the film while the event was unfolding; I was too caught up in the moment. However in the days that followed, when the government launched a call for design proposals, I was struck because that’s the very premise of my film. Reality had caught up with fiction, and it was very strange! As it turns out, I was one of the few people to actually shoot in Notre Dame. When I requested a location permit for our shoot, I found out that very few productions had done so before. Perhaps they thought the city would say no, so they didn’t bother asking.

Watching the film after the fire, I was deeply moved to see the cathedral in its former state. It lent the film an extra bit of melancholy, or it amplified what was already there. The film focuses on both a place and a person, and it asks, “How do you rebuild your life when facing setbacks and failures? How do you move forward?” Those are the themes of the film, and those were the same questions people asking as the fire became a worldwide media event.

The film is very much marked by an anxiety about the current state of things, but you opt to play it for comedy. Could you talk about this approach?

We’re facing a planet with a violent ecology, in terms of global warming, hurricanes and heat waves, and we can’t ignore that fact. I chose to treat the subject with a burlesque touch in the film, showing a world where the seasons are all mixed up, where it’s -30C in April and 40C at Christmas. It’s absurdist, but we really don’t know how things will actually go. Ever since I arrived in Paris, I’ve seen the city change, and I wanted to explore how people might further adapt to such extremes, but in a comically exaggerated way.

The film is very fast paced, with many gags and punchlines that whiz on by. As a filmmaker, was it difficult to manage that up-tempo tone while simultaneously anchoring nearly every scene as the film’s lead actress?

Controlling that kind of tone is no more difficult than making something very tense or very languid. Of course, it’s always difficult to make a film, no matter its tone or pace. You always have to strike the right balance, but first you have to find that balance, and it can take time to figure that out. That being said, I always envisioned “Notre Dame” as a chaotic whirlwind of a film, something like a Tex Avery cartoon or a comic book.

I also always imagined myself at the center of it, directing it from the eye of the storm. Being both actor and director strengthens your rapport with your fellow performers because it puts you all on the same level. Speaking as an actor, that can be very rewarding, but as a director, it’s exhausting as well. You have to be ready to lose something in order to gain something different. You have to give up absolute control.

The film mixes poetic flights with elements from your own life, alongside several musical/fantastical interludes that often arrive at unexpected spots. How far in advance did you work out the film’s very unconventional structure?

I never want to be constrained by the screenplay. For me, a screenplay is a great starting point, but ideas must continue to evolve going forward. All the singing and dancing and fantastical interludes, those were ideas that came to us on set. It’s all very instinctual. While writing this screenplay, I knew I wanted to include some songs, but I had no idea how or where to include them. I figured that out in the process of shooting the film. Of course, I love cinema for its ability to transform what’s real. I make films because I want to twist and toy with reality, and confront things in an off-kilter way.

When I start on a project, I take stock of everything that’s going on in my life at that point in time, because I like to mix elements of my real life with more purely fictional and fantastical constructs. I always do start from some personal experience, and even if the final products are hardly autobiographical, the elements that constitute my life while making the film tend to work their way into the actual film as well.

As the story goes on, the lead character has to deal with the fallout when the public rejects her ambitious remodeling plan. Was that a response to the mixed reaction that greeted your previous film, “Marguerite & Julien?”

The reaction wasn’t mixed. It was booed [in Cannes]; people hated it! [Laughs]

The lessons that the main character learns are indeed things that myself believe – that it’s difficult to live through a failure, but the important thing is to bounce back. That’s true for the lives of directors, architects, and anyone else. We have to face our failures as much as our successes, because doing so allows us to move forward and build something new. I think that I wanted to treat such themes in the film because I myself had experienced theme. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have thought of that. In a way, this film is an act of resilience.

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