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LOCARNO 2021 Competition

Aurélia Georges • Director of Secret Name

“As women, we have gained some space and some freedom, but corsets take different shapes”

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- In her Locarno competition entry, the Paris-born filmmaker focuses on women, and women only

Aurélia Georges • Director of Secret Name

Nelie’s (Lyna Khoudri) life hasn’t treated her well, but she just keeps on trying – also by becoming a frontline nurse in 1914. When another young woman, albeit from a more privileged background, dies right in front of her, she decides to steal her identity, becoming a reader for Madame de Lengwil (Sabine Azéma) and finally feeling at home. We spoke to Aurélia Georges about Secret Name [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Aurélia Georges
film profile
]
, screening in competition at the Locarno Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: The most important interactions in the film, or relationships for that matter, happen between women. Which is still rather unusual, isn’t it?
Aurélia Georges:
We could have added a love story, as there was one in the original novel [The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins], and I actually liked it very much. So there was this temptation, but then, with my co-writer, Maud Ameline, we realised that love, or a love affair with a man, is not something Nelie can afford. She needs to take care of so many other things. There are emotions in the film but no actual love story, and I liked the fact that these three female characters have to manage their lives without men. Even though at that time, 100 years ago, it was obviously much harder.

It’s very much a story about survival. Especially in Nelie’s case, as she is taking on all these roles, from streetwalker to nurse, without looking back.
She is very adaptable. She accepts her situation and tries to move forward, whether it’s by being a maid or a streetwalker, which we understand she has already been before. She just keeps on going, and at one point, she needs a place to stay. Some room in the world, just for her. When she finds it, it happens to be in a bourgeois house that she has nothing to do with – except for the fact that she can read. This is what grants her this almost magic access. I believe that was the idea when the novel was written, when education started to be democratised. People realised they could be together through books and stories; they would embark on all these imaginary travels.

Lyna Khoudri recently appeared in The French Dispatch [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, and she has quite a child-like face. Given what her character goes through, did you find this contrast interesting?
Exactly – it’s this very moving, child-like face and innocence, even though Nelie isn’t always acting that innocently. We understand why other characters believe her. Maybe that’s what makes it more painful. Life is harsh, and when all these things happen to someone like that, it’s even more heart-breaking.

When a maid is leaving the house in the film, her only wish is that her unborn child won’t be a girl. “We are born to suffer,” she says. This line could still be uttered today, in so many different places and countries.
I knew I couldn’t be completely realistic. How could I show the experience of streetwalking in a “realistic” way? I couldn’t bear to watch that. But the suffering was there, everywhere. Starting with corsets, which women would wear all the time, constraining their bodies. We have this long scene in the film with a singer, and she had to wear it as well – all of a sudden, she couldn’t breathe the way she is used to doing when singing. I feel we have gained some space and some freedom, but corsets take different shapes, you know? We can talk about power-corsets, mind-corsets, gaze-corsets. For many, they are still physical – they are told what they need to wear in order to survive. It seems crazy to think that we still have all these boundaries.

You show two women who are so different, be it because of their age or their background, and yet they find refuge in each other, even though they can’t really express it at first.
There is this pudor about them. They can’t even touch! Only when something unexpected happens does Sabine finally take Lyna in her arms, as she is so scared she could have lost her. There was this thing about keeping your distance and the inability to express what you feel. But these feelings are genuine. I wanted the viewers to notice this physical distance between them, to put them in a space we could identify, but I was also trying to show the presence of bodies, fabrics and colours. I thought about this pleasure of being taken somewhere else by the story, travelling through time.

This whole idea of identity theft is tricky because it could easily turn soapish and get over the top. Here, it makes you think about class, however.
The character who tells Nelie that she could never be “like them” is wrong. She mistakes what nobility is really all about – it’s something that has to do with the heart, not with class. I actually wanted some scenes to be over the top, though. There are theatrical moments and gestures here that I was eager to keep, as at the end of the day, a film is also a spectacle. I adore it when it gets a bit excessive, even though it’s a risky business and you can alienate your viewers. I wanted to bring in surprises like that.

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