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Anna Odell • Director of X&Y

“I have decided that art is more important than fear”


- We sat down with Swedish director Anna Odell to talk about how she explores gender identity in a limitless world between fiction and reality in X&Y

Anna Odell  • Director of X&Y

Anna Odell is the Swedish art-school graduate who became a controversial celebrity in 2009, when she, as part of a student project, staged a psychological breakdown in public. In 2013, she emerged as a talented filmmaker with The Reunion [+see also:
film review
film profile
, a fictionalised, autobiographical case study on school bullying, which won the Critics’ Week Award at Venice.

X&Y [+see also:
film review
interview: Anna Odell
film profile
, Odell’s second feature, opened this year’s Stockholm Film Festival and has “Anna, the limitless artist” (Odell) and “Mikael, the limitless, alpha-male actor” (Mikael Persbrandt) participating in “a monitored examination of male and female identity in a medial world without boundaries”, according to her director’s statement. To make things interesting, two psychiatrists and six actors are called in, the latter portraying different alter egos of the two protagonists. As the fine line between fiction and reality gradually blurs, sexual tensions arise, specifically concerning a proposed “art baby” project. Cineuropa attempted to discuss a few of Odell’s methods with her.

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Cineuropa: Does X&Y have any predecessors, cinematically speaking?
Anna Odell:
Well, in the very beginning, I thought a bit about Charlie Kaufman and Synecdoche, New York. It’s exhausting to watch as a whole, but very funny when taken in parts, and also a bit depressing. I like it very much. For some reason, The Boss of It All [+see also:
film profile
 by Lars von Trier was also on my mind. It may not show in the film, though.

The lead actor from the Trier film, Jens Albinus, plays one of your three alter egos together with Sofie Gråbøl and Vera Vitali. The three sides of Mikael Persbrandt are played by Shanti Roney, Thure Lindhardt and Trine Dyrholm. You seem to have handpicked some of the top actors working in Northern Europe right now.
They are remarkable actors from some of the best films of this generation. It wasn’t planned that way; they just fell into place. I asked another director, Peter Grönlund, if there were any celebrities he thought looked like me, and he immediately suggested Sofie, who was perfect. Then Sofie suggested Trine as Mikael’s alter ego. Perfect again. All of a sudden, I found myself playing against all these top Nordic stars, which was quite frightening, really.

Because you are not an actress, you mean? How do you deal with that?
Initially with great horror – my inner self was mortified. But I have decided that art is more important than fear, so I look for the best methods to be able to cope. I’m okay when I can treat the script reasonably freely, throw a few sentences around and add something new here and there. Some actors are excellent at handling little sidesteps like that; it’s those who don’t who make it hard. But there are several moments where I think I work quite well.

You’re sometimes quite funny, as is the film. Deliberately, one hopes.
We think it’s funny, too. I was very pleased at the first screening, when people laughed quite loudly, and sometimes in unexpected places. This can, of course, be a little embarrassing, when things were actually supposed to be serious.

Which brings us to the business of the “art baby”… Is it a word – a concept, even – that you came up with yourself?
It is. At the moment, we say “art child” in English, but I don’t know if I like it. Let’s see. Anyway, it’s a relevant term, describing the plan to conceive a child between two artistic persons or personalities, which gives you an “art child”. And when you tend to it, it’s like cultivating a work of art, which makes it more endurable.

We now know that you yourself have recently given birth in your very real and personal life. Did you simply work your own pregnancy into the story?
Ah, what came first? That is the question. There are things you can speak of publicly and others you can’t, or won’t. Tricky, isn’t it?

Speaking of Lars von Trier, isn’t he actually something of an art child himself?
Yes, he is, isn’t he? His mother slept with a man from an artistic family with the explicit motive of conceiving an artistic child. This is great – I will need to introduce him to my own art child one day.

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