"What’s tricky is what you don’t show the audience"
by Fabien Lemercier
- VENICE 2016: French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé talks about A Woman’s Life, which was unveiled in competition at Venice
For his 7th feature film, A Woman’s Life [+see also:
Q&A: Stéphane Brizé
film profile], Stéphane Brizé adapted a novel by Guy de Maupassant to make a film starring Judith Chemla, Yolande Moreau and Jean-Pierre Darroussin, which was shown in competition at the 73rd Venice Film Festival.
What drew you to the extraordinary character of Jeanne?
Stéphane Brizé: The beauty in her outlook on the world, some might even say naivety, her ingenuousness and her intensity. Her huge faith in Man which is also her downfall. When I took my first steps into the age we refer to as adulthood, I shared the same outlook to some extent, and found it hard to mourn the loss of the paradise of childhood, in which everything is so simple and in which you believe, when someone smiles, that that person is kind and good. But life is a lot more nuanced, harsher, more violent, and you have to know how to develop coping mechanisms and keep your distance from certain people, without toppling over into cynicism, which is a form of defeat. I had to go through this experience, which ended up being rather painful and marked me forever. Jeanne doesn’t know how, or perhaps doesn’t want or can’t go down that path. She painfully hangs on, and it’s both beautiful and tragic. I found this paradox deeply moving.
How did you go about adapting the novel, in particular how did you go about building different temporal levels into the film?
I try to work out where I want to go – at any rate, you have to establish this very quickly. But then, I try not to let myself know exactly how I’m going to get there. Filming took place in three periods: September, autumn and winter. Between these periods, I started working on the editing. The first part of filming took five weeks and focused on the characters: on the beach, walking, sitting in front of the fire, etc. It was what was in the screenplay, so all I did was film what had already been decided, with the seeds for a few flashbacks starting to grow. At the same time, I knew that if I were to put all that together, it would be really boring. It was then that I got a strong feeling that the story would tell itself by violently bringing together sounds and images that had not necessarily been written to be put together initially, but which were begging to co-exist. It led to some extraordinary work with the editor, opening up some incredible avenues for the narrative. From then on, the film carried on writing itself, but the seeds for this very striking relationship with time were already there in the screenplay.
What about the format, and the way the protagonist is very often framed in profile?
In cinemascope, with my shoulder-mounted camera – because we made a clear-cut decision not to have any tripod-mounted shots – I felt like I was forcing nature, modernity, which I found slightly old-fashioned. With this 1.33 format, which is slightly square, almost obsolete and very particular, I felt comfortable. It makes for a very organic and emotional effect. And this frame also served to imprison Jeanne, putting her in a box. We also had to make the outside world match up with what’s going on inside of Jeanne, because nature is very present in the film; we see it but most of all we hear it, through its sounds which are often abnormally loud: the sound of the wind, the rain, etc. After all, the protagonist is a woman who believes in nature, in the earth, and all these elements affect what goes on in her mind. As for framing the characters in profile and the 4:3 format, often the right angle for me is the angle that doesn’t show you everything. It’s something I also tried to work into the screenplay. A story takes the viewer by the hand from point A to point B, but what’s trickier is what you don’t show the audience. These blank spaces help the viewer to project their own story onto the film so that, if they do feel any emotion, it’s not coming so much from what they see on the screen, but from their own personal experiences. You have to show enough to ensure that the viewer doesn’t feel lost, but allow them to have a certain extent of autonomy in the story too. And the same applies when you film the actors: filming someone head-on sometimes gives too much away.
(Translated from French)