With Petite Maman you’re offering us a dream that’s very personal, a mother-daughter story that strays from the naturalist approach of your previous films. It’s a film that deals with memory, when it takes on a mechanic of its own. Can we trust our childhood memories?
Our memories are a part of our imaginations in a way. Some of my memories from childhood, for instance, are clearly things that I remember. And some of them are clearly expanded from photos. Some of them, I’m pretty sure I can see myself in the frame, and some of them I am the character. What if we were building this delicate machine that could make us work on our imagination regarding building our own memories, ones that are as valid as this picture? What if you put somebody else in the picture? What if you put next to you somebody who is dead that you want to have next to you at that moment?
We need those triggers for this beautiful machine that is our brain and our heart. And what if we would create this film that would create this tool and sensation? It’s like doing your first hypnosis session. So, Petite Maman might be my most ambitious experience.
In what way do you see it as your most ambitious film?
It’s ambitious regarding how collaborative the viewer is and regarding how the viewer is the viewer of the film rather than the character being the hero of the film. The ambition comes from that idea. I have ambitions for ideas, I don’t have ambitions for myself. This idea unfolded new possibilities for cinema, which is what I’m always looking for.
Petite Maman, like your first three films – Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood – could be described as a ‘coming-of-age’ film. What is it about this genre that attracts you?
The child’s perspective is a very deep one. When you look at a family, kids may be the ones giving you the deepest perspective. I’ve always considered the coming-of-age genre a true genre but I don’t know if it’s told very well as a genre, especially from a French or even American perspective. Teens are not at all portrayed in the same way in French and in US movies – it’s not the same rules or the same culture.
With my first three movies, I was trying to merge two kinds of tradition – the French one, which isn’t just about addressing yourself to kids or teenagers but is a cinematic genre that is putting big characters on screen, and the US teen movie, which is much more of a bubble. In France, since Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) by François Truffaut, it’s more about kids struggling with the world of adults, trying to escape that world or fit in. I was trying to do a fusion.
What about your artistic coming of age? What films or books shaped you into the screen-writer that you are today?
I’m a child of the television and VCR, but it all started with comic books, I must say, which is also a fusion between literature and image and a perspective that is also addressing adults and kids. From Tintin and Asterix – this French and Belgian tradition of the comic book which is called ligne claire (‘clear line’), which is a term that I really like to use when talking to my collaborators. I’m always trying to find a clear line, especially when it comes to editing. How would it be in a Tintin comic? And then there was my father, who was a sci-fi geek. I read sci-fi as an eight-year-old, Ray Bradbury… It’s a strong baptism! (Laughs).
As a teenager, I revolted against this sci-fi curation by embracing the French classics of literature, like Flaubert, Balzac and Zola.
Did these authors help you look at the world differently?
I don’t know, but it did help me figure out the world. I’m very happy that I was given the opportunity to be an early reader, especially of the novels of the 19th century, which I think are still feeding my work. They were nourishing for some parts of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And I could say that Petite Maman has a lot of links with Henry James, which is a recent read in my life. So, it wasn’t about reading literature and seeing the world differently – it was reading literature and understanding the world better. Also, from my perspective as a gay kid and knowing very early that I had other feelings, other perspectives, I was looking for literature that would help me fit in the world.
Were there any particular characters that emerged and moved you?
Queer readers are great readers, sometimes because they share a secret with an author or a book. Sometimes it’s just because we’re great at reinventing fiction and how it feels, because it’s not about what’s hidden in a fiction, it’s about how you feel about it. It’s not about “Is that character lesbian or is there a love story there?” – it’s about how you appropriate things and how it becomes yours somehow. But to answer the question, I never really identify with characters – I’m not a character driven person.
I know that it’s kind of disappointing – everyone is asking me about the characters! They don’t exist!
Mostly, the secret that I found in books is literature – it’s not about that character or that plot. And the fire that I found in cinema is cinema and the fact that it exists. The books that I like the most are the ones that celebrate literature, and the films I like the most are the films that celebrate cinema. You just love literature or cinema.
I look for the feeling of falling in love with art. And as a queer reader or viewer, I can’t really connect with the characters – they are not designed for me to connect with them, so we have to connect with something higher.
You’ve stated before that “cinema est un métier” (“cinema is a profession”). What made you want to make it your profession?
I say it’s a profession because I think it should be taken very seriously. But also because I had to make a living doing it. I see it as a profession because I couldn’t picture myself doing it if not as a job. I don’t know what’s in that sentence once I’ve said it. But I said it! (Laughs).
In the space of five films, the French writer-director has established herself as one of the most formidable and celebrated voices in French cinema. Exploring the female gaze and comment- ing on gender roles and sexuality, her films have won several major accolades including the Queer Palme and European Film Award for Best European Screen- writer for 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Petite Maman, which premiered in Competition at 2021’s online Berlinale, is a delicate meditation on childhood, grief and memory.