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"An open door to a great narrative freedom"

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Léonor Serraille • Director

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- CANNES 2017: We sat down with French director Léonor Serraille, who has just unveiled her feature debut, Montparnasse Bienvenüe, in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard

Léonor Serraille  • Director
(© F. Silvestre de Sacy / Festival de Cannes)

Young French filmmaker Léonor Serraille has made a high-profile debut with her first feature, Montparnasse Bienvenüe [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Léonor Serraille
film profile
]
, as her film produced by Blue Monday Productions has just been world-premiered in the prestigious setting of the Un Certain Regard selection at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: Where did you get the idea for the film and this female protagonist who is slightly "borderline"?
Léonor Serraille: The events that the character experiences in the movie have a lot in common with the things that I’ve lived through: the casual work, the link to Paris, arriving in a big city where you can end up feeling lost. I wanted to revisit these elements with a character that would be as different to me as possible. I’m a real introvert, and I wanted to pay tribute to those people who “mouth off”, like the folks who immediately start talking to you on the underground, and whom I’ve always found a bit odd. I wanted a character who was completely off the wall, but whose reactions would be perfectly sane at the same time, completely normal in the face of the modest ordeals that you’re likely to experience when you arrive in a city and you haven’t got much money. Besides, I was also influenced by films that paint portraits of decent, single women, such as Claire Dolan by Lodge Kerrigan and Sue Lost in Manhattan by Amos Kollek.

How did you develop the storyline?
I wanted the viewer to gradually become more and more attached to the character; I didn’t want the character to be really endearing right away, with a linear chain of events following afterwards. There had to be a lot of oddities on her journey, and she had to reveal herself little by little, like layers that get peeled off one by one. And so the form of the film had to be similar to her mood, which is a bit "borderline". Given that she has nothing left, anything is possible! And a sense of humour, the power of words or talking to someone on the underground, all of that is very powerful and helpful in these situations when you have nothing, or very little, left. The possibilities for ingenuity and language connections when you’re skint were like an open door to a great narrative freedom and also a freedom to develop the character. Because there’s something slightly broken, but at the same time something gets built up from what she can glean from others, what she finds to take solace in. We had to move from a state of brokenness to something more solid that is built up in the film. The whole writing process was therefore planned out to include ellipses so that she would progress in a slightly erratic way, in terms of whether or not she got hired after her job interviews, her odd jobs and so on. It had to be the character that drove the film with all of her different moods and tones because she never settles down; she tries to find herself.

Could you tell us a little about your leading lady, Laetitia Dosch?
She literally carries the film. I didn’t write it for any actress in particular, because it was the screenplay with which I graduated from La Fémis. I saw her for the first time in Act of Panic [+see also:
film review
trailer
festival scope
film profile
]
, and I got the impression that I had never seen an actress quite like her in French cinema. Then I saw her in her one-woman shows. When I met her, I was captivated, and her personality had several very striking things in common with the one that I had written for the character. I had a hunch that she had all of the nuances necessary to step into her shoes, and that she was also going to suggest lots of things. She wanted to work on the lines and did a lot of improvisation. Personally, I needed someone very lively, very “in your face”, who would challenge the script. She brought a huge amount to the film. We needed several different temperaments so that Paula could pass through her string of different ones, and Laetitia has this ability: she can be very childlike, very adolescent and very femme fatale. I really don’t understand why we don’t see her in films more often, because she’s an incredible actress.

What about the pace of the film?
We homed in as much as we could on the main character when rewriting the screenplay, during the shoot and especially during the editing. We sometimes shook up the directorial rulebook. I had filmed a lot of sequence shots, so we had a lot of freedom in terms of the material we had. The original screenplay resembled a news column a lot more, and we avoided this pitfall by working a lot on the ellipses, on the various ways of ensuring that it was the character that set the pace.

Did you intend to paint a hollow portrait of urban solitude?
The idea was to paint a portrait, but to leave some breathing space inside it, through portraits within the portrait – showing other characters that contribute tiny things, like understated satirical or critical elements. We had to vary things but remain very tangible, like all the things Paula is going through and like when you’re alone in a big city like she is. But these elements of social criticism had to stay implicit. I didn’t intend to speak out against anything at all, but I wanted that aspect to be present.

(Translated from French)

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