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Family Therapy at Cannes: Why 'Party Girl' Is Unlike Anything Playing at the Festival

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire May 18, 2014 at 9:36AM

It's often that a filmmaker will bring their mother to the world premiere of their film. What's not often the case: that the filmmaker's mother is the star of the show.
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Cannes Film Festival L to R: Samuel Theis, Angélique Litzenburger, Claire Burger and Marie Amachoukeli

It's common that a filmmaker will bring their mother to the world premiere of their film. What's not often the case: That the filmmaker's mother is the star of the show.

"Party Girl," which opened the Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, marks the feature directorial debut of Samuel Theis, Marie Amachoukeli and Claire Burger. Theis' mother, ex-cabaret performer Angelique Litzenburger, plays the heroine of the title, a semi-fictionalized version of her middle-aged self. Litzenburger's own children (Theis included) play her kids in the film.

The film recounts a recent period in Litzenburger's own life where she gave up her career in the nightclub industry in eastern France to settle down with a man she barely knew (played by fellow newcomer Joseph Bour, who the directors found at a bar three days before the shoot), and plan their wedding. Eric Kohn in his review for Indiewire said that "Party Girl" "delivers a gentle, somber portrait of the aging process that's consistently believable." No kidding.

Prior to embarking on their debut feature, the three filmmakers, who've known each other for 15 years ("We've done a lot of things together... all kinds of things," Burger joked to Indiewire), collaborated on a 35-minute film-school short "Forbach," which also starred members of Theis' family. The trio said it was a no brainer to reunite for a feature centered on Litzenburger's surprise engagement that rocked her family.

"Sam has had a longtime desire to make a movie about his mother because he loves her," Amachoukeli said. "Angelique was also a central figure in our own lives growing up."

Litzenburger recalled that initially her son wanted to profile her for a book. When he switched gears to write a screenplay with her as the lead, Litzenburger said she was in the dark for much of the process. "He'd telephone me all the time asking me questions about the past, and I didn't know why," she said. "I just thought he wanted to get to know me better."

In co-writing "Party Girl," Theis had to go somewhere where most sons would never dare to tread. One of the film's subplots involves Litzenburger's struggle to feel sexually attracted to her fiancé. For Theis, talking to his mother about her sex life wasn't a big deal. "But I'd never talk about my sexuality with her," he said. "In writing the film, of course I had to ask her a lot of questions and go deep on some uncomfortable subjects. But it was all for the movie."

Surprisingly for Litzenburger, a woman who used to make a living by taking her clothes off, the bedroom scenes proved to be the most difficult to shoot -- not the ones during which she had to relive difficult moments involving her children. Litzenburger cited her age as the reason, while Theis said she's always been a "very prude person" despite her past profession.

The emotionally charged scenes came easy to Litzenburger and her offspring. "Love is not difficult to recreate, because it's there," Amachoukeli said. "During the heated scenes, they were all sharing love. It was all very positive."

All of which begs the question: was making "Party Girl" a form of family therapy for Theis and his mother?

"Yes of course," Theis said in response. "Every artistic form is a form of therapy. Making the movie was a form of reconciliation for our family."

The entire clan was on hand for the film's unveiling at Cannes, and it made for an evening none of them will soon forget, for reasons you'd probably not expect.

"Angelique made one big mistake on the red carpet," Burger recalled. "She ran into Nicole Kidman and said 'I love your films and I love Tom Cruise.'"

Still, despite the snafu, Litzenburger is dead set on making it as an actress.

"I've been told my whole life that I'm a natural-born actress, but I never thought about it," she said. "I don't want my journey to end now. I feel ready to act with real actors. But in the end, it's not up to me."

This article is related to: Party Girl, Party Girl, 2014 Cannes Film Festival , Cannes 2014, Interviews, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals, Nicole Kidman