Women’s World; Julie Bertucelli Talks About Her Accomplished Debut, “Since Otar Left”
by Erica Abeel
They just keep coming, these girlish French filmmakers who could double as ingenues, turning out remarkably assured first features. The recent crop includes Delphine Gleize with “Carnages,” Julie Lopes-Curval with “Seaside,” and Marina de Van with “In My Skin.” Now Julie Bertucelli, newest girl on the block, steps up to the plate with “Since Otar Left,” awarded the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes 2003 before its screening at the 2003 New York Film Festival. Zeitgeist Films opens “Otar” in theaters today. Set in post-Soviet Georgia and Paris, “Otar” is a finely calibrated film about exile, longing, and the lies we tell for love. Women of three generations — Eka, the wily grandmother, her embittered daughter Marina, and Ada, her educated granddaughter, who somehow mothers them all — bunk together in a dilapidated apartment, enduring the blackouts and skittish phone service of post-communist Georgia. Eka lives for letters and phone calls from her beloved son Otar, a medical student working in construction in Paris without a visa. When Otar is killed in an accident, Marina and Ada resolve to conceal the truth rather than break Eka’s heart — a lie that spawns a growing web of deception.
Focusing on telling gestures and never straining for effect, the film creates a moving triptych of women who cobble together a life out of odd bits and pieces, like the battered bric-a-brac Marina hawks at the bazaar to raise cash. A lesser director would have mounted a tear-fest in the sequence that shows Eka — portrayed by the charismatic 90-year-old Esther Gorontin hobbling through Paris in search of her son. But at every turn, Bertucelli balances pathos with humorous and surprising revelations about snatching hope from adversity.
Bertucelli studied philosophy and bypassed the standard film school route, preferring to learn the craft by working as assistant to the likes of Bertrand Tavernier, Kieslowski, and Otar Iosseliani. After a three-month course in how to use a camera, she launched a successful career making documentaries for TV. At 35, Bertucelli is reed-thin, lank-haired, and naked-faced like any Left Bank student. Married to noted French cinematographer Christophe Pollock — who served as the DP for “Otar” — she has a young daughter and a newborn son. indieWIRE sat down with Bertucelli in the office of her distributor Zeitgeist, when she was in New York for the NYFF screening of her film.
indieWIRE: Why the leap to feature films?
Julie Bertucelli: “Otar” is based on a story a friend told me. It was true, but it sounded so unlikely, I immediately wanted to appropriate it. But it couldn’t be told as a documentary — it was much too intimate. So I had to embark on a new kind of storytelling. Push my limits and find a different way of filming characters.
iW: You’ve said that you changed the original story a great deal. Which piece of it is true?
Bertucelli: The part about writing fake letters to pretend someone is alive.
iW: I was struck by the film’s near-absence of men. Were you making a statement about female self-sufficiency?
Bertucelli: It’s certainly a matriarchy — like my own family. I was able to project a great deal of myself into the mother-daughter theme. That relationship is what has made me, in a good sense and perhaps in a destructive one too.
Of course in a matriarchy, the problem becomes, Where do men fit in? In this film women either love men too much — they place Otar, the adored son, on a pedestal — or they diss men, like Marina does her devoted lover, and Ada her dopey boyfriend.
iW: It almost seems that the physical ties between the three women — foot massages, Marina shampooing Eka’s hair, etc — are more binding than their ties with men, who just satisfy physical needs.
Bertucelli: I worked a lot on the touching, caressing, massaging that goes on between the women. A foot being rubbed tells you a great deal about a character. I didn’t want to psychologize — or underline and subtitle everything. In my film a lot goes on between the lines; things are communicated through gesture, looks, silence. What gives the film richness is that so much is communicated without dialogue. I even cut out dialogue during the shooting and editing. You have to grant viewers the freedom to watch the film and form their own ideas.
iW: What governs the characters’ switches from French, to Russian, to Georgian?
Bertucelli: Like lots of Georgians, Eka admires France and French, the language of the intelligentsia and aristocrats in the 19th century. And lots of young Georgians today learn French because France is an immigration destination and important for work.
Of course, my characters love a fantasy France, rather than the actual place. And when they switch into French, it’s always for a reason — it often conveys a complicity between the grandmother and Ada — a way of keeping Marina out of the loop. And Otar writes to his mother in French, because she enjoys the language, and he wants to show his own command of French. It’s my experience that immigrant families are multi-lingual, switching from French, to Arabic, to English, to Spanish.
iW: The immigrant experience has become a hot topic for European filmmakers. There’s Stephen Frears‘s “Dirty Pretty Things” — where like Otar, the main character is a doctor; Michael Winterbottom‘s “In This World”; and before that the Dardenne brothers‘ “La Promesse.” Why did this subject attract you?
Bertucelli: Though I’ve always lived in France, my grandfather was Italian. A film about exile and absence has a lot of resonance for me. And I imagine it will here in America, where so many people have emigrated, and whose families back home wait for news and money.
iW: Why the Republic of Georgia?
Bertucelli: I learned Russian in school, and I’ve always been fascinated by this culture and language. I also spent six months in Georgia working on a film by Otar Ioseliani and fell in love with the place. It’s a crossroads between Europe and Asia. I felt very at home, perhaps because I come from the Mediterranean. I was particularly interested, too, in a country that’s gone through cataclysmic changes, because it takes great strength of character for people to negotiate them.
iW: Your film is also about lying and its repercussions. What drew you to this subject?
Bertucelli: I wanted to explore this theme in a country where historically lying was important. There are the family lies and then the greater historical ones under Stalin — though the grandmother is fond of saying conditions were better under Stalin. And in fact, it’s especially hard on old people, who feel abandoned by the State without their past security.
I also used the lie in order to explore the relationships between women of three generations. Everyone lies — Otar, too, in order to reassure his family, saying everything’s fine and he lives in Montmartre, when in fact he likes in a poor immigrant quarter. Everyone has something to gain from the central lie. But I’m not making a moral judgment. The lying springs from an excess of heart. It’s a slightly neurotic, mad way of inventing a life for oneself. Of making one’s life more bearable and also manipulating people.
iW: Your film also suggests that lying can lead in positive directions.
Bertucelli: Yes, one of the themes of the film is that whatever happens, you should use it to change and grow. I show lies as a path to self-transformation. Ada uses lies to become more selfish, say no to her family, and seize her own chance for happiness.
iW: You convey a chaotic, run-down society, yet the film is never a downer.
Bertucelli: I didn’t set out to make a miserabilist film. And I wanted to get away from social realist caricature which emigration stories often induce. I wanted to show that Georgians may live without our accustomed luxuries, but they have hope, joie de vire, lots of strength. They’ve been through civil war, poverty — and this has made them strong. In countries like ours, we bitch about minor inconveniences, but we haven’t a clue what deprivation really is.
iW: It was pretty daring to place Esther Gorontin, a 90-year-old actress, at the film’s center. How did you make her so captivating?
Bertucelli: You know, she started acting at 85! She has one eye out of focus, and could appear homely…
iW: Like in “Carnages.” Delphine Gleize made her almost monstrous.
Bertucelli: But I was gentle with her and let her generosity and power come out. The character is not immediately likeable, but she becomes more sympathetic. Double-edged characters interest me the most. And when Eka turns the tables on the other women with a lie of her own, she takes back her power.
iW: What was it like working with your husband, Christophe Pollock, the film’s DP?
Bertucelli: I felt extremely lucky that he was free to work with me at that particular time — he’s such a terrific DP [and has worked Godard and Rivette.] And it turned into a family trip. My daughter came with us to Georgia.
iW: France seems more receptive to female directors than the U.S.
Bertucelli: True — but the work is hard on women, especially if you have children and a family. Children are exhausting. The schedules are hard to coordinate. You have to live two lives. My husband helps out with our daughter, but it’s tough when he leaves on a shoot. And if have to also, well…
The life of a filmmaker is hard for men and women both. And now in France they’re trying to reduce unemployment benefits for people in the entertainment world. Filmmaking is all about waiting. You wait and wait for a film to begin. And try to do something else meanwhile — write, work in a café (though I don’t do that that any more!) When I’m not filming, I work in my head, which is always full of ideas. I’m not looking to make a pile of money — though you can, of course — but just enough to get by. So I can go on making small finely honed films to my taste.