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Venice: ‘Miss Marx’ Director Susanna Nicchiarelli on Karl Marx’s Ill-Fated Feminist Daughter

Susanna Nicchiarelli
Courtesy of MATTEO VIEILLE/Susanna Nicchiarelli

Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988,” about the German singer who performed with the Velvet Underground, made a splash at the Venice Film Festival in 2017 when it took top honors in the cutting-edge Horizons section. She’s back on the Lido – now in the main competition – with another biopic, “Miss Marx,” about Karl Marx’s ill-fated younger daughter Eleanor, a fervent feminist pioneer played by Golden Globe nominee Romola Garai (“The Hour”).

The film, which world premieres Saturday, chronicles Eleanor Marx’s tragic relationship with political activist and playwright Edward Aveling, portrayed as sneaky and spineless.

In terms of tone it’s a fresh take on the period piece genre, as Nicchiarelli tells Variety. Excerpts from the conversation.

You seem to be drawn to biopics about conflicted women, am I right? 

Yes. I’ve been thinking lately that it will be very hard for me to make a movie that is not biographical from now on, because it’s incredibly stimulating and interesting to make a movie about a person who has really existed. And the challenge is that real characters are extremely complex and ambivalent. Sometimes they are also inconsistent. They do things that you have a problem understanding.

A lot of the work when you are writing about a person that really existed is trying to understand who that person really was. With Nico this was done with interviews. With Eleanor Marx it was through letters. Letters that she wrote to other people; letters about her, written by her friends. You try to understand the person through what they produced, both on a private and a public basis, and from the way others saw them. Because they have passed away, what you do is you try and stake out your own version of this person, of this character. But at the same time the person has really existed, so you can’t invent anything. You have to deal with reality. It’s a very interesting and very stimulating process.

And I imagine part of this work is done with your actor.

It was extremely interesting working with Romola Garai on approaching the real Eleanor Marx and trying to understand what her feelings were. Why she did what she did.

Why did she fall in love with this man? Why did she stay with him, when everybody around her was warning her and telling her that he was ruining her life? Also: why did she have that type of relationship with men? What kind of relationship had she had with her father?

So how was it, working with Romola?

When Romola read the script, she told me: ‘You know what they say: movies are written by professionals, but real life is written by amateurs.’

That’s exactly the feeling I had. And that’s why I thought it was the best comment she could give me about the script. I knew she understood what the challenge was: the greatest feminist of all time had a horrible relationship with her partner and let him treat her very badly.

So we started from this contradiction. Eleanor had her dark sides, of course. She had a self-destructive part of her personality, which put her in that situation. It’s extremely interesting to deal with the complexity of female characters because for decades female characters have been depicted – with some exceptions – in a very two-dimensional and superficial way.

How relevant is Eleanor Marx’s story now?

What’s also interesting is that this dichotomy – the ambivalence of this character – is extremely modern because Eleanor was an extremely modern woman. If you think about it: she didn’t get married; she decided not to have children; she was very dedicated to her political career. She was in control of her life. And if you read her letters and writing: her intelligence; her irony. It’s as if she lived today.

‘Miss Marx’ is a very fresh period piece. What were some choices you made to accomplish that?

I didn’t want that distance that usually the period piece creates. It was very important that they (the actors) be natural. When I started doing research the image that we were getting of the 19th century was based on pictures and the way these people looked.

Though there are exceptions, I think the 19th century is often told as if you are looking at an old picture. But instead I wanted the image to be very modern, very colorful. And I wanted them to wear the costumes in a very natural way…with their hair messed up.

So we worked from paintings. Impressionistic paintings, pre-Raphaelite paintings. We worked on those for the colors.

The actors were so natural, and the dialogues helped me a lot because they were from Eleanor and Edward’s real words. I built most of the dialogues with original material.

The punk rock music right at the start also helps.

Yes, the Downtown Boys are a great band. They are very young. One of their albums is called “Full Communism,” so they are very close to Eleanor’s ideas.