“I start with story rather than character,” explains Amanda Sthers, sitting down to talk with FilmInk about her first English language feature film, Madame, which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival.
Born in Paris 39 years ago, Sthers is a formidable and accomplished novelist, playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker.
“The story leads me to the character,” she explains. “I wanted to explore two versions of femininity today. First, we have this woman who seems perfect (Anne, played by Toni Collette). She is beautiful, well married, looks happy, but the reality is that she has accepted the role that people have given her and you realise she is going to be replaced by someone younger and who fits more. As a woman, when you accept the role of being an object, you accept you will be replaced!
“On the other side is the character of Anne’s maid, Maria (played by Rossy de Palma). She is fighting for herself and her daughter and she is going to stand up for herself at the end and love herself which is not obvious at the beginning. It’s a happy ending but not in the stereotype way but in the modern way because she accepts who she is and says ‘No’ to what we expect her to become.”
Madame opens with a prosperous middle age American couple, Anne and Bob (played by Harvey Keitel), cycling in the streets of Paris. In that first few minutes the bike ride becomes a comedic metaphor for their ailing marriage and the gulf between them. They have used their wealth to set up a house in Paris to exhibit how cultured they are.
“I play with the idea of capitalism and use the Americans who think they can buy anything,” Stethrs says. “I made the film in English to reach a wider audience but also you can’t talk so openly about money in France, they hide it.”
This American idea that anything can be bought is a strong theme throughout the movie. When Madame sees her maid achieving a happiness that she can’t, it’s incomprehensible to her.
The Americans are holding a dinner party to show off their wealth and culture and to broker the sale of a Caravaggio painting. The guests are a wonderful array of rather horrible types including a gold digging young woman hired as a French teacher to Bob, a smug gay English couple, Bob’s parasitic and alcoholic son, a wealthy but desperate single mother and a warm and funny Irishman who may or may not be sincere in his passions.
The guests number an unlucky 13 so Anne orders her maid, a Spanish immigrant, to impersonate a mysterious aristocrat. The device is clever enough but when you cast Rossy de Palma as the guileless maid in a pool of sharks then you have a hilarious wild card indeed.
Best known for her unusual and striking appearance and roles in films by Pedro Almodovar, notably Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, de Palma has also been a muse for the fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
It is Maria’s innocence and naturalness set against the racist, bitter and elitist group around her that throws up wonderful contrasts and debates at explicit and implicit levels about morality and worth. And it’s her precipitous affair with one of the guests that confronts everyone about their own cynicism and beliefs about life and love.
“I had a maid myself and felt it was horrible that she called me ‘madame’ while I used her Christian name,” Stethrs says. “But she was uncomfortable with using my first name. I guess it’s an intimate relationship that needs some distance.”
FilmInk asked Stethrs how much say she had over casting, and reasons for choosing actors for roles that you don’t usually see them play.
“I had total power in casting, the constant fact in all cases is they are very good actors. I wrote the part for Rossy with her on my mind. Seven years ago, she saw one of my plays and she asked me to write a part for her. Toni and Harvey were my dream cast, it was like when you play lottery, I tried and I won!
“For Toni to play Anne, this woman is such a horrible person I still needed us to have empathy for her. Toni has this quality of being so warm, no matter how bad Anne is, you still feel for her that underneath she’s a good human being. I saw Toni as beautiful and that’s how I filmed her but Toni needed a bit of convincing, for example on the first day of filming she has to dress in a maid’s outfit, but she didn’t get how pretty she is. But as an actress I believe her capable of doing anything. Harvey is the sweetest person. I thought he had a real potential in comedy and I wanted to explore it. I think it’s fun to bring people with this level of fame to places they’ve never been to before.
“They liked the script, it wasn’t a money thing, we didn’t have a big budget so we were all there for good reasons, and we experimented and tried things, you can feel we had fun while doing the movie. I kept some of their improvisations. They surprised me all the time with what they brought to the performances.
“As a director, I work in a very gentle way. It’s like with children, if you shout there’s no impact, nowhere to take it. I make a point to get to know everyone, the team and actors, I know their lives, the names of their kids. To respect people is the way they can give their best. Rather than tell the actors what to do it’s more that I tell them what their character is like and where they are at this point in the story, and suggest a change of tone or whatever.”
The film looks gorgeous, with an opulence that suits its themes.
“I work a lot with colours,” Sthethrs agrees. “Rossy is in white because she’s the only pure thing in the room. For the dinner party, I wanted you to feel you were in a rich environment. It’s a small budget movie but you feel like there’s a lot of money because we were very attentive with details.”
FilmInk asked Stethrs about her next project, an adaptation of her own book Holy Lands, due to start shooting two weeks after we speak.
“It’s about a New Yorker who drops everything and goes to Israel to be a pig farmer. It’s in between a political movie and a story about a family, an allegory about what happens in the Middle East. I don’t always use allegory or myth or fairy tale but I really worked on Madame to make it a modern Cinderella, I took all the codes and twisted them.”
Sthethrs has written 10 novels, translated in more than 14 countries. She has also been awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
“I wanted to be a writer even before I really started to read,” she explains. “I remember telling people I wanted to write stories from when I was around 5 or 6. It was obvious to me. I loved reading very simple things, Agatha Christie, then into European literature like Kafka then I was eating books, reading one a day. I worked in a bookshop for a while and the owner was paying me in books!
Stehrs’ expansion into plays and films also happened early, and with Madame reaching a global market, her craft in all areas shows every sign of going from strength to strength.
“When I was 15 I sent my first book to a publisher and he sent me a beautiful letter telling me this would be my life, I would be a writer but I had a sense of dialogue that he had never seen anywhere else and I should write movies. I bought books to learn how to write a screenplay, won a prize when I was 19 and started to become a screenwriter, this is how I started to make money actually, writing TV series. At the beginning, it was something fun to do to make money while I was writing fiction books, then bit by bit it became more important.”
Madame is in cinemas August 17, 2017