A naturalistic, social tale, “Miss Chazelles” competes in the nine-title short film lineup at the MyFrenchFilmFestival, an entirely-online – even before COVID-19 – festival devoted to French productions launched by promotion board UniFrance, running Jan. 15 to Feb. 15.

“Miss Chazelles” turns on the rivalry between two young beauty queens in a rural village, and is the second film from director Thomas Vernay, who studied art direction at France’s ECV school. Vernay’s first short, “Dryad,” premiered at Sitges Fantastic Film Festival in 2016 and was selected by more than 70 international events. Among its recognitions, “Miss Chazelles” lead Megan Northam took the best actress award at the prestigious 2020 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.

Variety talked with the young director about his career and plans for a feature-length version of his short.

What are you exploring when telling the story of these two young rivals?

The film takes place in the village of my childhood. I had a visceral need to go back there to face my childhood from my adult gaze. The film tackles the themes of social and sentimental determinism as well as toxic masculinity. How we deal with life when traditions and conventions don’t provide the room we need to be who we want to be. Especially when you’re a woman.

As in your first short “Dryad” – about a knight escorting a maiden through the forest – you mix echoes of fairy tales with a naturalistic approach. Could you discuss this attraction to folklore elements?

I really like movies that mix genres. In “Miss Chazelles” I felt attracted by fantastic elements – the pronounced colors, the timeless imagery, the two twins acting in the same way at the same time for example. Everything is structured, surreal, almost as a caricature. For the artistic direction, I was inspired by fairy tales: princess dresses, knights, the ball, evil twins, etc. I wanted to anchor reality in these tales full of sexism. It was a way of tearing it down a little bit.

Could you give us more details about your visual approach to this fairy and dramatic tale? Why did you choose the 4:3 aspect ratio, for instance?

The visual approach is inspired by a fantasized universe, which gives the impression of timelessness, of an object that is difficult to identify. There is a real role for colors, for example. Pink and blue. First, I wanted to remove all gender correspondences to these colors, and I wanted us to understand that the presence of these colors is mainly a visual way to show the attraction they have for each other. With regard to the 4:3 ratio, it was really to show the confinement of Clara, this cage that we imposed on her. And it allows us to be as close as possible to the face of Megan Northam. To dive into her eyes, her doubts, her thoughts. There is an idea of suffocation. And this is something that she feels.

What are the cinema references you feel you have in your work and specifically in “Miss Chazelles”?

The most obvious reference when you watch “Miss Chazelles” I think is Andrea Arnold (2016 Cannes’ Jury Prize winner “American Honey”), because of her work with colors, characters and organic mise-en-scène. I am a true fan of Andrea Arnold. I also like Jane Campion, Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant… However, in terms of inspiration I think I find it not only in cinema fortunately but also in photography, painting, fashion or simply stuff I see on Pinterest.

Can you discuss what you’re working on now? 

I am currently developing a feature film inspired by “Miss Chazelles,” produced by Qui Vive! and co-written with Nour Ben Salem. We’re really at the beginning, so it’s hard to say more, but I really like the direction it’s taking. I almost finished writing my third short film, co-written with Marion Jhöaner. It’s about sorority. The need to accept alliance to protect ourselves against patriarchal pressure. How to translate this into words and agree to question everything.