“It’s not a current topic in France. There are no quotas. Yes, in a lot of countries it’s hard for women to find their position in society and the film industry. But in France there are more and more women becoming directors. Because women started later to make film there is still an imbalance. But there are a lot more women directors today. It’s not really as big a fight in France as in other countries.”
That’s Emmanuelle Bercot, in Australia for only three days all the way from France, to promote her two films – Standing Tall and 150 Milligrams – that are playing at the popular Alliance Francais French Film Festival.
Touring 40+ films across Australia and New Zealand, almost half of this year’s program is made up of films made by female filmmakers.
The two films from Bercot represent the past 6 years of the filmmaker’s life, which started with On My Way, which played at a previous Alliance Francais French Film Festival. It also starts and ends with French icon Catherine Deneuve.
Deneuve starred in On My Way, features in a prominent supporting role in Standing Tall and suggested the lead actress in 150 Milligrams.
“She’s known in France for the TV show Borgen,” says Bercot about Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, who is phenomenally human in the film. “I cast her because I couldn’t project a French actress in this character. None inspired me and I was about to pull out of the film but then Catherine Deneuve told me to have a look at this actress. She thought it was the woman I was looking for. And she’d heard that she spoke good French. I watched Borgen and thought she was amazing.”
150 Milligrams is based on the true story of a doctor in Brest in Brittany identifying a connection between heart damage in her patients and a drug that has been prescribed to them for diabetes and obesity. Cue big battle with pharma in a story that is not often seen from French cinema.
“It’s true that the US are the best at making this kind of film – one against the system,” admits Bercot. “I didn’t copy them but I did watch what they do as a model.”
Standing Tall also hinged on finding the right person to portray its central part of a teenage delinquent who must go through France’s juvenile judicial system.
“He was found at a TAFE and was learning to be a carpenter,” Bercot says of the impressive Rod Paradot, who appears in virtually every scene in the film. “He had never been in front of a camera. He was very far from the character as written. I hesitated a lot in choosing him. I liked his look. It was really hard work to get him to do what he does in the film because he’s a very nice guy, very polite, he’s not at all the character.
“In each of my films I have worked with teenagers. I usually choose them because they’re close to the character. But this was different. He wasn’t an actor, so I had to teach him how to act. He was like a puppet. It was very special in that sense. The way his body moved is something that actors work on themselves but here I had to really mould him.”
The way her characters move through the world is something that is quite evident in both of Bercot’s films, adding a complex layer to the drama. “I have always been very obsessed with the physicality of the actors,” she admits. “I would never tell them how to psychologically work on the character, but I always help them with the body and physicality.”
Her interest in acting actually harks back to her beginnings, and it culminated when she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her heartbreaking performance in Mon Roi.
“At the beginning I wanted to be an actress, but more in the theatre,” she tells us. “I was interested by the theatre scene, but it was hard to get a job. I had to do lots of little jobs to pay the bills. I ended up being worried and scared about not having a job. So I entered La Femis, which is a big French film school, and passed the exam, which changed my life completely. Now I had a job and I never stopped working as a director. Besides that, I still like acting, but it was a succession of things. I became a director by accident. I never imagined I would be who I am today.
“I acted in my first film [2001’s Clement] but I never want to do it again,” she continues when we ask her why she does not perform in her own films. “It takes a lot of energy to do both jobs. But I love working with actors to discover them and the characters. I don’t take advantage of the position as it’s not beneficial.”
As the interview winds up, we ask Bercot whether the final shot of Standing Tall, featuring the French flag flying outside a courthouse was a deliberate choice for this filmmaker whose two films we are discussing here both deal with social issues affecting the rarely represented strata of French society? “That’s very important to me,” she answers. “My first short film treated social issues, and it’s the kind of cinema I like to watch. A bit later, I left social cinema and worked on something different, but now I’m back. And today I would find it difficult to make a film that didn’t have a social or political comment.
“Standing Tall is a bit special in that it’s a tribute to the French judicial system, which is particularly exceptional in France for minors. At the beginning, the flag was not deliberate, and we even considered deleting it in post-production, but then we decided to keep it because it’s a film about the French system, and a tribute to it, so it was appropriate to have it there.
“The last shot of 150 Milligrams also has a flag in it at the airport scene… but it’s not on purpose. One system is good and one is very bad.”