Québécoise filmmaker Louise Archambault‘s sophomore feature Gabrielle is an incredibly touching film that radiates joy and presents a singularly honest take on the subject of mentally challenged individuals. Committed to portray these individuals in the most realistic manner she cast non-professional actors from the very center where the film takes place, by doing this she gave these talented, but often dismissed people a chance to be seen as self-sufficient and capable. Furthermore, Archambault’s film is definitely about love, a feeling often thought too complex for people born with certain syndromes or handicaps, but in her story, she exalts their ability to love and be loved in the purest way possible. The director talked to us about the challenges during the casting process, the chemistry between the protagonists Gabrielle Marion-Rivard
and Alexandre Landry, and the touchy issues surrounding her decision of showing her characters’ sensual desires for one another.
Carlos Aguilar: How did you develop this idea for the film? Did anyone in your life inspire you particularly to make a film about this subject
It would be a long answer but to make it short, because it’s a really long process, I guess I wanted to talk about happiness and outcast people, invisibles. The first woman who inspired me was in my neighborhood; she is more mentally challenged than what we see in the film. We used to swim in the
same public pool. In the changing room she always had someone assisting her. She had a strong personality, she never wanted to put on her bathing cap on. She yelled, and she made people uneasy. Once in the water she would just float and sing really well. It was so beautiful, but people
felt uneasy with it still. At the same time I became acquainted with that organization Young Musicians of the World, which I really shot in India. One French woman founded that school for deprived children, and it specializes in music. For a long time, half of my script happened in India, and
the sister was already there, but it was huge and very expensive for a second feature, so at some point I just cut it in half and focused on one thing.
Music and choir singing came instantly in the equation, then a lot of people inspired me.
Aguilar: Was the casting process trickier for this film in particular than for other projects you have worked on? How did you go about choosing the
members of the choir?
Yeah. For sure I had the wish of making a film with mentally challenged people, and not only on them. At some point I became acquainted with that center called Les Muses. That’s where Gabrielle has singing classes. They do theater, singing, and dance and they want for their students to work professionally ideally. A
lot of people in the film came from there. I created a choir for the film, some of them I chose because of their singing and some because they
have great personalities. For all the non-professional actors I knew I wanted to keep their real first name so I could improvise during the shoot. Like
Gabrielle, I didn’t know if she could do the par. She was not an actress, but she is a good singer, and she has a magical presence. For a year I worked with
her, in her syndrome she has a trait that is called theatrical behavior so she is very expressive. But in film, it could look false and not good,
and I didn’t want that, so I had to find a way to work with that. I had to forget perfection, let go, and know them well so their personality would
come out, and their strength would come out. The other professional actors, are also good, but above all they are very human, they are not into their ego.
Everyday was about finding solutions because things didn’t necessarily worked out, but everybody was so involved in the film and worked hard. Gabrielle worked hard, she wanted to. I just wanted to get the best out of them.
Aguilar: Speaking of acting, how difficult was it to portray the relationship between Gabrielle and Martin and finding
the right chemistry?
First, Martin (Alexandre Landry) he is a professional actor. He won three prizes in festivals already. I did audition some mentally challenged actors for the
part, super good actors, but the love chemistry didn’t work out. At some point one actor stopped and looked at me and said “I really want a part in your
film. I really want to be an actor, but I cannot fall in love with her, it doesn’t work” [Laughs]. Then Alexandre came and auditioned, and he is a
very gifted actor, but I also think he is a very special guy. He never judges, he is very curious of people and very
generous, and that helped a lot. When he met Gabrielle, they were giggling, and it was something else. He was intimidated because he is not a singer. Yes, these are mentally challenged people, but they are good singers. But eventually Alexandre felt part of them, he asked a lot of
questions and Gabrielle helped him. She gave him techniques. I think they developed like a brother/sister relationship, very strong. It was special
because Gabrielle had never made love in her life, so how do you act that if you don’t know? [Laughs] So it was special.
Aguilar: This is a very special coming-of-age story, you don’t portray these individuals in a patronizing way. They are presented as complex and
self-sufficient individuals. They have talents and dreams. Was this something you wanted to explore from the beginning?
Absolutely, I didn’t want to go into “miserablism”, it’s a feel-good, but I didn’t want to go too sugary either. If I would have taken only actors and all of it was
make-believe, I’m not sure the feeling would be the same. I knew I wanted to be in the frontier of fiction film, it’s scripted, but the way it’s done is
very documentary-oriented. When I shot the dance scene, it was a real dance, and they were real people who were there in their real world. The
combination of both reality and fiction adds – at least for those characters, I’m not saying all challenged people are like that – more realism. It is a delicate subject,
but I didn’t want to suck it down emotionally, so there is singing, and I think a lot of people can relate. It is a love story with challenges. It’s a film
about love. That’s it.
Aguilar: Most films about mentally challenged people never delve into their sexual desires. Did you ever feel that portraying that was a bit
risqué or touchy?
We talked a lot about that with the producer and investors, “To what extent can I go? Can I go that far or not?” I had Gabrielle as well, and I had to abide by her limits as well. I wanted to give it sensuality, like you mentioned, it is a coming-of-age story. At the beginning she is a child and at the end she
is a woman. That’s what I wanted to say, and I wanted something very sensual, it is like pure love, like the first time, but a beautiful first time.
Aguilar: How did you develop the other characters, the “normal” people who sometimes seem to have more issues with the mentally challenged people’s limitations
Archambault: Gabrielle’s sister Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), for examples, she wants to go to India, but she can’t because Gabrielle is trying to live out her independence and she rebels. They have to let go, because if they continue to be too connected they will not live their own lives. Maybe if they trust
each other and let go, it would help them have a better relationship later on between them.
The mothers are only in about 3 scenes, so I had to be very efficient. Martin’s mother, I think she forgot herself at some point because she wanted the best for her
son. She doesn’t know better, she would love for him to have a “normal” girlfriend. Hopefully at some point she will open her perception. I say to
myself “I hope that character falls in love after the film and has her own life.” The other one [Gabrielle’s mother], she couldn’t let go of her job. She
doesn’t have a husband, at some point Sophie left and she has Gabrielle, what can she do? Should she leave her job to take care of Gabrielle? It makes no
sense. Therefore, she chose the best place for Gabrielle, maybe she should visit her more, but then again we all have issues like that in our families. We are all
imperfect, but Gabrielle has to develop from that and be resilient, her mother loves her, not perfectly, but she still can have a great life.
Aguilar: Did your cast get to see the film after it was done? How did they react?
It was very touching. During the premier in Montreal in September the crew, the cast, and their families were there. They are the real inspiration for the film. The parents, and the people from the organizations, they were crying and saying, “Wow, you understood what we do”. That happened that time, but it happened in
other countries as well.
Aguilar: Overall, what would you like people to take from the film?
I want them to want to sing and hug the people they love when they come out of the theater [Laughs]. Be open to difference; don’t give in to judgment or
appearances. If you are on the bus and there is someone who talks to himself or herself and you feel uncomfortable, just give them a chance. You probably
have as much weirdness in you but it doesn’t show, because we are educated for it not to show in society. Be warm, we just want to love, and be loved.
Aguilar: How does it feel to represent Canada at the Academy Awards, is there any sort of pressure or too much attention on you because of this?
I don’t feel any pressure because it is already an honor. Specially with this subject and this type of film. I think it is great that Canada chose this one. It
makes me believe more in human beings, makes me less cynic. It is great to shine a light on these people, and specially people who work to help people like
Gabrielle, they never get the attention they deserve. They always struggle to get funding, they are not actors, just for that I think more people will see the
film. I hope.
Aguilar: Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on now?
I have a few projects. The scrip that is finished now it’s called After The End it’s in English. It’s an adaptation of a British play. It
is set mostly in a nuclear bunker [Laughs].
"Gabrielle" Opens in NYC and L.A on Friday July 4th.