Veerle Baetens • Director of When it Melts
"I wanted to try to understand this silence, and to help people understand it too"
- The internationally renowned Flemish actress spoke to us about her first feature film, an uncompromising movie about a young woman haunted by her past
Veerle Baetens, a Flemish actress of international renown, notably thanks to her staggering performance in The Broken Circle Breakdown [+see also:
interview: Felix van Groeningen
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
film profile], is stepping behind the cameras for When it Melts [+see also:
interview: Veerle Baetens
film profile], an uncompromising debut feature film about a young woman haunted by her past who’s looking to settle scores in the present day, which is scheduled to screen in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition.
Cineuropa: Where does your passion for film come from, and how did you move from acting to directing?
Veerle Baetens: We had lots of DVDs at home, I was always watching films. When I was choosing what to study, I thought at one point about going to RITS, a film school in Brussels, but at the same time I sat the entrance exam for the Conservatoire’s musical section, and I passed. So I chose to step in front of the camera, rather than behind it. But the desire was already there, tucked away somewhere.
How did Lise Spit’s novel The Melting (Het Smelt) become your first film?
A few years ago, producer Dirk Impens suggested I adapt a book which he’d acquired the rights to. I read it and the story blew me away. I thought it was such a wonderful gift. Dirk Impens ended up leaving the world of production and I had to find myself a new producer (Bart Van Langendonck of Savage Film). So you might say that it’s a commissioned project at heart. But I no longer see it that way, having lived with it for 6 years.
What chords did this story strike with you?
That feeling that Eva sometime has that she’s not beautiful, feeling rejected by boys, is something that I myself experienced as a child. And her loneliness once she’s an adult opened a few of my own personal wounds. I’ve always wondered how people get by with such a lack of communication. I learned to express myself, thanks to my parents and my work, but I feel like I can identify with Eva’s sensitivity, her uncertainty. I wanted to try to understand this silence, and to help other people understand it. Some people think it’s too easy to continually "hide" behind the traumatic events of our past in order to explain our present situation, but I wanted to help people understand that some people just aren’t able to get back up and fight. It also talks about loving ourselves too. As a child, Eva does everything she can to get others to love her, before closing herself off and clinging on to her sister, who’s all she has left, but she never learns to love herself.
That said, in the book, the people surrounding Eva are all very cold. I didn’t want that. Obviously, we sense that a drama is about to unfold, but I wanted to show that people aren’t necessarily fundamentally bad. They might be wounded or weakened and losing themselves in silence too.
What has wounded Eva the most: the cruelty of children or the betrayal of adults?
When I read the book, the worst thing for me was the betrayal of the adults. Children do things which stem from a succession of acts which aren’t necessarily nasty. But all those absent parents caught up in their problems or overwhelmed by events is what destroys her. Eva leaves childhood behind her and realises she’s a woman (or not, as it happens) in boys’ eyes. She struggles because her two best friends, who are boys, don’t see her as a girl. At no point do they see her through the prism of seduction or desire.
It’s clear that, at that age, societal pressures pit boys and girls against one another. I felt like Eva does when I was small; I wanted people to like me, and other people’s opinions, especially boys’, were very important to me. It’s part of who I am, that desire to please. I think I wanted to distance myself from that submission to other people. Actresses are often objects of desire for filmmakers, and for audiences too sometimes. I was a bit sick of all that, I think. Moving into film direction was also a way of becoming a subject, and of becoming a custodian of that desire, to try to turn it into something fair and respectful.
What was the greatest challenge you faced with this first film?
The hardest thing was managing to arouse empathy for Eva as an adult. She’s a character who isolates herself, who we also needed to make more active. For my part, I wanted people to cry for her as an adult, not just a child. The film explores some very heavy-going subjects, but I didn’t want it to be heavy-going in its form. We had to find a certain fluidity and create a connection between the emotion that Eva exudes as a child and then as a closed off and lonely young woman.
(Translated from French)
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