Lisa Jespersen • Director of Persona Non Grata
“It's a humorous observation, not a degradation”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to the Danish director to get the low-down on her film, celebrating its world premiere at the Göteborg Film Festival
In Persona Non Grata [+see also:
interview: Lisa Jespersen
film profile], world-premiered at the Göteborg Film Festival, Laura (Rosalinde Mynster) might have a new name and a book published, but when she comes home for her brother's wedding, the past finally catches up with her – mostly thanks to her childhood bully turned bride-to-be. And the fact that once again, nobody cares, least of all about her complaints. We chatted to director Lisa Jespersen about the movie.
Cineuropa: Weddings are a perfect setting for airing childhood traumas and unresolved issues. Why did you want to come back to that?
Lisa Jespersen: At first, I worked with this idea about a woman coming home to prepare for a philosophy exam. Then I realised that it would be too dialogue-based, that the characters would just talk about their problems all the time. I needed a ritual that we all know, and with a wedding, there is some preparation, a party, speeches. It opens up space for humour, as people tend to act like nothing is wrong – a bomb could go off in the middle of a wedding, and everyone would pretend it's all fine. I like laughing at things that we generally regard as quite serious.
During similar ceremonies, an honest conversation is the last thing on everyone's mind. Which is what makes it so uncomfortable to watch, as Laura just keeps on pushing, desperate to address the past.
It's a ticking time bomb. She comes home and wants her parents to understand how difficult her childhood was, at least for her, and no one is listening! They all look differently at the past. Then the wedding starts, and we are so scared that she will fall over the edge at one point.
It was quite difficult to let her be the kind of character that you like, that you understand and have empathy for. Not only is she acting in a very childish manner, but she is also very beautiful – it's hard to work with actors whose characters are having some sort of existential crisis while they are also so gorgeous. “Why is it so tough for you? Come on!” But this loneliness in being the black sheep, growing up in a family where you are so different – I could feel it resonate. With Rosalinde, we talked about my own life, as it's all based on my own experience, and she understood it was important. She kept on hanging onto this loneliness and claiming it. Laura doesn't really feel she has found herself in this urban environment, either. She has no place to feel safe, and this makes her do all of these drastic things.
Why did you opt to show rural Denmark, which apparently “doesn't really exist”? In most stories, city girls come to the countryside to find themselves and embrace simple values, which doesn't really happen this time.
I mock her city life even more, but it all started because I grew up in the country, and I couldn't get away from it all fast enough. I moved out as a teen, discovered this whole other culture and felt so enlightened [laughs]. Every time I would go back to the farm, I wanted to show my parents everything they didn't know – I turned into such an annoying person. All of these questions that we ask ourselves in the city, all of these “inner reflections”, it's not even that healthy. Sometimes it can be good not to talk about everything and just let your life slide. That's the mentality that's out there; I still have it in me. It's all colliding inside.
Laura's relationship with her childhood bully, about to marry her brother, is something we don't get to see. And yet it takes precisely one second to realise there is baggage!
There is this political correctness that a person living in the city embraces so much – there are things that we can't say, things about climate or gender, but once you come to the countryside, it hasn't become a thing yet. Now, when I go back, I get annoyed with my parents just because of the way they talk. Catrine mentions that her hair is so short, it's “boyish”, and that shows this difference already. They just clash all the time. But also, her boyfriend thinks that Laura is making fun of the disabled at the party, even though it's a character she would take on as a child, trying to be playful!
There is something so funny about people who keep dwelling on things. Would you say it's also because of the indifference she encounters? The fact that nobody has read the book that she considers so controversial?
Once she comes to understand that she is not the centre of the world, it's a slap in the face. But people have their own problems. She believes this woman ruined her life as a child, only to realise that Catrine actually had it much worse. I was very inspired by Woody Allen in all this. I didn't want to put anyone down: it's a humorous observation, not a degradation, and most of the time, the joke is on me. The humour in the film is very much based on our Danish culture, so I’m glad to hear it still comes across. After all, this theme of coming home, back to your roots, is very universal.
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