ND/NF INTERVIEW: Stéphane Brizé Sings "Hometown" Blues
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/4.4.2000) -- When French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé set out to make his first feature "Le Bleu des Villes" ("Hometown Blue"), he only knew one thing: it would be about a meter maid who's married to a guy who works in a morgue. With this image cemented to his brain, he approached his writing partner Florence Vignon, and they got to work. After nine months of batting the script back and forth, Brizé and Vignon had created the story of Solange, a frustrated wife who doesn't know she's frustrated until her childhood friend, Mylène, now a famous TV weather woman, comes to town.
The appeal of Brizé's film lies in its attention to detail, the details of a mundane suburban existence, the details that make civil servitude unbearable, the details of an unknown world that beckons his protagonist. All these specifics make this somewhat classic tale both heartbreaking and hilarious. Solange -- played by Brizé's collaborator Ms. Vignon -- is something of an Everywoman, a normal thirty-year old who wakes up one day to realize that something is missing and only she has the power to find it. Andrea Meyer recently spoke with the French director about co-writing, female psychology, and Madame Bovary.
indieWIRE: Why a meter maid?
Stéphane Brizé: I think perhaps because I have a problem with authority. With a meter maid, the uniform represents authority, but it's bullshit. She has the uniform of authority, but it's not authority. If that picture is recurrent in my mind -- a meter maid and a guy who works in the morgue -- I have to believe in it. And then I have to go behind that picture in my mind.
iW: What was your process for creating a story from this image of two people with their boring jobs and messed up marriage?
Brizé: I told Florence exactly that, and then we tried to find the question behind it. The question is: why isn't she happy in her life. We decided that she had a dream and created the question, "what do we do with our childhood dreams?" After finding that question, we built the story. We spoke a lot at the very beginning. Once we had the story, we detailed the scenes. When we had the details of each scene, I started writing the dialogue. I gave it to Florence, and then she read. And then it starts like a ping-pong game.
iW: What fascinates you about the idea of fulfilling childhood dreams?
Brizé: The question of the dream -- are we going to realize our dream in life -- is a question that follows me every day. Every five minutes I ask myself, "is what I'm doing the right thing for my life? Is that the right thing for me?" I don't want to waste time. I hope each second is the right second for me. [Solange] is thirty, an age, which is very important for a woman. I think for men the question arrives at about forty. Life becomes very hard at the beginning of the film. She's tired of her life, but she doesn't know why. When she meets her childhood friend, she understands. I had a dream. I wanted to sing, and I am not living my dream. And suddenly she can put words to her dissatisfaction.
iW: There are so many great details in the film, like Solange reading recipes to her grandmother and her husband and father talking about floor tiles and wallpaper patterns. They are details that are extremely French, though. Do you think that they translate to an international audience?
Brizé: These things can happen everywhere in the world. I was very happy and surprised to see that my film touched people from all over the world. I saw a Japanese journalist in Cannes and she told me, "It's my life." Can you imagine? They are universal characters and universal questions. Because I'm French, it's completely integrated into French society, but this story can happen in the USA and everywhere.
iW: You have a knack for capturing the psychology of your female characters. I wonder if that's because you write with a woman.
Brizé: I don't think I am in the mind of my female characters, but I accept my female side. It's very important, not only for female characters. It's important for writing a sensitive script. I'm not sure if it's because I work with a woman, with Florence, that the woman characters are very precise. She's not on the female characters. I'm not on the male characters. It's not so simple. I love working with women, because they're not afraid of their feelings. They don't try to hide their feelings. My editor is a woman. But I don't sleep with the women I work with.
iW: And the principal male character, Solange's husband, is completely clueless.
Brizé: He's very far from these questions. What does he want in his life? A job, a house, a wife, a car. That's enough for him. It's not bad. I hope we don't think it's bad. It's not an opposition between the good person who is Solange and the bad person who is the husband. He has his questions, and she has her questions, and after five years of marriage, they're not the same questions. He's very practical. He doesn't dare to touch his wife, to speak of love. They never touch each other, just a small kiss, and they call each other names like sweetie pie. It's not like a wife and a husband. It's more a mother and child or something like that. That happens very often with couples after many years of marriage.
iW: One of the interesting questions posed in the film is what do you do when the person you love suddenly becomes unhappy with her life. Her husband is sweet. He's just unequipped to deal with her sudden dissatisfaction.
Brizé: He can't find the right words to ask her what's the matter with our relationship. Three or four times during the film, he has the space to find the right words, but he can't, It's too hard for him, so instead he talks about the paint and the carpet. It's because he has a big problem with his feelings, expressing his emotions. But he knows she's not well. At work, he speaks with his friend, "What would you do if your wife wasn't well?" We know that he sees the problem, but when he's in front of his wife, he can't speak about it with her.
iW: You've compared Solange to Flaubert's famous frustrated wife Madame Bovary. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two women?
Brizé: In the novel, Madame Bovary doesn't like her life and she would like to go away but she stays. She has a lover, but she stays. When I read the 19th century novel, there is a music like "Le Bleu des Villes." Or "Le Bleu des Villes" has a music like the novel. I don't compare, of course, but I like the nostalgia in that book. That's why I like the music of Steve Nieve [who composed our score]. He's Elvis Costello's pianist. He created the music by improvisation, and it's completely what I wanted. It's impressionistic music, and I think it's an impressionistic film. It doesn't tell us anything but rather gives us impressions that resonate with us. It works by impression. I like the music the film makes. The entire film works that way, as in the music, the rhythm, of the film.
[Andrea Meyer is a freelance writer and regular contributor to indieWIRE.]