INTERVIEW: Canadian Léa Pool Tells Authentic Tale of Youth, Sex, and Anna Karina
by Aaron Krach
Karine Vanasse (L) as Hanna and Miki Manojlovic as her father
(indieWIRE/4.12.2000) — So many directors start their careers making a film about what they know: themselves. Thus the onslaught of coming-of-age films that followed the indie boom. Quebecois director Léa Pool waited until her 7th feature and her 49th year before mining the fertile territory of her youth. She grew up with a Jewish father and Catholic mother in Switzerland before immigrating to Canada when she was 25. The resulting film, “Set Me Free,” is a young girl’s awakening in Quebec, circa 1963. It is also a nuanced portrait of a family struggling to get along and pay the rent. Even more, “Set Me Free” is a romance between the young protagonist and the movies, specifically Jean-Luc Godard’s “Vivre sa Vie.” Hannah (the picture perfect Karine Vanasse), 14 years old and in love with her best friend and her brother, falls under the spell of Godard’s star, Anna Karina, to the point that she starts to see her in real life.
After successful screenings at many festivals (Berlin, Toronto, New York, Valladolid) and commercial releases around the world (except surprisingly in France: Pool explains, “Oh, they still have a prejudice against the Quebecois accent”), “Set Me Free” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday. Aaron Krach spoke to the director about Jean-Luc Godard, prepubescent sexuality and the lack of women directors in the world.
indieWIRE: “Set Me Free” is only your second film to find an American distributor. What do you think is attracting audiences?
Léa Pool: Perhaps it is the authenticity. There is no bullshit. It’s not fake. It’s a very personal film as well. Also the actress, Karine Vanasse, the way she played it is very authentic. Or maybe it is the poetic way that the story is told. There aren’t a lot of films made in this style. Everybody could relate because they have been an adolescent, not only young girls and women, but everyone.
iW: Film audiences can probably also relate to Hannah’s love affair with the movies, in this case, “Vivre sa Vie.”
Pool: Maybe. I don’t know who will like this part because a lot of people don’t know the movie. But it is funny and it gives a little lightness to the movie. Growing up is not an easy subject, but putting this in it gives the film a little more lift.
“Perhaps it is the authenticity. There is no bullshit. It’s not fake. It’s a very personal film as well. Or maybe it is the poetic way that the story is told. There aren’t a lot of films made in this style.”
iW: Was it difficult to get the rights to use so many clips from “Vivre sa Vie” in your film?
Pool: No, I wrote Godard a letter that said I wanted to use footage of his film in my film and he said yes. He never asked for the script even. He knew me a little bit because Switzerland is a small country. My sound editor is his sound editor too. So I went through him. He wrote me a note that said, “Dear Léa, Do what you want. — Godard.” (Smiling broadly) I kept that note.
iW: Why did you wait until your 7th film to make such a personal film?
Pool: I don’t think I could have made this film earlier. I was not confident enough. Who would be interested, I thought. Usually the personal film is the director’s first or second. Also, I didn’t want to fight against my parents in a film. I wanted to portray a period in my life. I adopted a girl, four years ago and that changed everything. I was no longer only a daughter of somebody, I was a mother. That helped.
iW: One of the most striking aspects of the film is the erotic undercurrent that runs through Hannah’s life. We see her kiss her brother, her best friend and at one point it seems she is about to kiss her teacher. She is almost omni-sexual.
Pool: I wanted it to be like this. Some people said she is completely confused. No, she’s not confused. Everything is of equal importance. Everything is so important. That’s the period of her life that she is in. The actress was able to be so close to the character, not in her real life, but on screen. The only part that was difficult for her was when she kisses the girl. She had difficulty telling the difference between herself and the role. She was afraid her friends and family would think she was a lesbian. She was only 14 at the time, the same age as the character.
iW: How did you make her feel comfortable doing that scene?
Pool: I remember before we shot that scene both girls came to me and said, “We don’t understand this scene.” And I said, “What don’t you understand,” because I knew they understood. They just didn’t want to do it. They had such a good relationship together and somehow we found a way. Now, they are so very proud of the scene.
iW: What about the best friend, who plays the young lesbian. How comfortable was she with the role?
Pool: She’s from Switzerland and never acted before. Before shooting, she had long hair and I asked her to cut it. She did and afterwards she was in a taxi with her mother and the taxi driver talked to her if she was a boy. It was a real crisis for her. It’s interesting, because it is still a big issue for a lot of people to play gay. It’s no problem to play a prostitute, but to play gay is scary.
“The only part that was difficult for her was when she kisses the girl. She had difficulty telling the difference between herself and the role. She was afraid her friends and family would think she was a lesbian.”
iW: Amazing because in this movie, they aren’t really gay. They’re like pre-gay.
Pool: I know. I know because I also had to talk to their parents. That’s what I told them, “Oh we don’t know what they are yet.” I’d say, “You know how it is at that age, you have to find your own way.” I acted very cool about it.
iW: When a film is so dependent on perfect casting, how do you make the decision on who will be perfect for the part?
Pool: I try and follow my instinct. It’s very difficult to explain what I’m looking for. When I was younger, I tried to find a girl I had in my mind. It wasn’t such a bad way; it worked in the other films. But now, if an actress doesn’t look how I thought she should look, it’s enough if she has the spirit of the character. More important is getting the whole cast together. They have to click as a group. It is so difficult and you just have to be confident.
iW: You’ve been making films for over 20 years. While a lot has changed, female directors are still so rare. Why do you think the industry has been so slow to change?
Pool: It’s true and terrible. I realize that when I began to be a filmmaker in the early 80s there was hope because there were a few women trying to be directors. There were four or five women in Quebec, four or five in Canada and the same in Germany. Now in Canada, it’s just Patricia Rozema (“Mansfield Park“) and I. There are some more in America, but internationally there are not a lot. For example in Berlin, there are 25 films in competition and only 2 or 3 of us are women. We’ll see this year in Cannes, but usually it’s 1-3 films by women.
I think what makes it difficult is that we have now 100 years of the history of cinema that was completely done my men. When we arrive with our scripts and our imaginations, they think we are weird. They don’t think it’s a script. It doesn’t look like a script or it’s too different or there isn’t enough action and they don’t know what to do.
[Aaron Krach is a regular contributor to indieWIRE.]