CANNES 2023 Special Screenings
Anna Novion • Director of Marguerite’s Theorem
“I didn’t want to fall into a cliché or a caricature of the autistic maths genius”
by Jan Lumholdt
- CANNES 2023: The director proves that the very special world of elite-level mathematics can be a laughing matter, and even a romantic comedy
Anna Novion’s third feature, Marguerite’s Theorem [+see also:
interview: Anna Novion
film profile], premiering in the Special Screenings section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, deals with quite an elite field – that of high-level mathematics. Our rather introverted protagonist, guiding us into this very special world, is the namesake of the film, expertly played by Ella Rumpf (Raw [+see also:
interview: Julia Ducournau
film profile]), who, together with the movie’s French-Swedish writer-director, had to do some serious studying in preparation for what ultimately became something of a romantic comedy.
Cineuropa: So here we have a romantic comedy-drama, or possibly a drama-comedy, with mathematics playing a major part. Was this a subject you wanted to deal with from the very start?
Anna Novion: Actually, the maths bit was not part of the story at all in the beginning. My starting point was rather an emotion. I was quite ill for a while at the age of 20 and had to spend six months in bed, in isolation. After re-entering the normal world, I suddenly felt a great gap between the other people of my own age – not least their light-hearted, carefree ways – and myself. I then started to think of other young people in closed worlds. Not sick ones, but those who attend elite schools, spending their entire days working and working, without really meeting anyone. I then met Ariane Mézard, one of the great female mathematicians in France. When she started to talk about her job, it reminded me so much of my own world: the passion, the obligations, the risks one takes when doing research, and not being certain of getting or proving what you’re looking for. As a filmmaker, one writes script after script that never become films. Anyway, little by little through our conversations, I envisioned a parallel between maths and the arts, so you will see a lot of myself in Marguerite. The reason why the film became a romantic comedy was that the writing took it in that direction. I wanted to show that Marguerite had other passions besides maths, not least interhuman romantic relationships.
Ella Rumpf certainly gets a couple of tough challenges in the part of Marguerite, who very energetically writes her elaborate equations on blackboards throughout the film. There’s also the part of the story where she becomes an ace mahjong player. There must have been plenty of days of preparation for this.
Again, Ariane Mézard came to our aid. For four hours per week, over four months, Ella was taught how to write these figures. At first, Ella also attempted to make sense of the equations themselves, but with good reason, we aborted that mission; this is very high-level mathematics. What she does, however, is make the viewer feel that she has been doing maths all her life, entirely naturally, so I could film her from any angle with no faking involved whatsoever. Ella enjoyed it greatly. She loves taking the ride towards a part, in this case learning maths and mahjong, and even learning the right kind of French. She is Swiss-German, which means her accent differs, so she also had to spend four additional hours per month getting her French right. She was a very good student.
Did you ever discuss giving her a kind of neurological disorder? There are some leanings towards this in her behaviour, or perhaps not...
We did consider a slight Asperger’s for a while, but decided against it. I didn’t want to fall into a cliché or a caricature of the autistic maths genius. Obviously, Marguerite has got a very exclusive relationship with maths; she is quite solitary and not that confident around other people, and does not pay much attention to her looks. When you invent such a character, of course she looks very different from the general picture of a typical young adult. I prefer to call her peculiar, and also quite funny in her deep seriousness about the things that matter to her.
Let’s also talk about Sweden, where your mother comes from – a connection you have cultivated through your shooting of both Grown Ups [+see also:
film profile] and Rendez-vous à Kiruna [+see also:
film profile] on Swedish soil and with Swedish dialogue. Do you have any plans to return?
I do, and I love shooting in Sweden. I will likely shoot my fourth film there. It has a bit of Bergman and lots of humour. In short, it will be quite like Woody Allen.
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