Sexual Politics and "Dry Cleaning" with Directrice Anne
by Eve-Laure Moros
Anne Fontaine's "Nettoyage a Sec" (Dry Cleaning) was a surprise hit in
France last year, signaling not only the triumphant return of much-loved
actress Miou-Miou, but also the arrival of newcomer Stanislas Mehrar who
will next be seen opposite Gerard Depardieu in "The Count of Monte
Christo". Merhar, a handsome young cabinet-maker, was discovered on the
street after months of unsuccessful casting attempts for the pivotal
role of a cross-dressing drifter who disrupts the lives of a
middle-class couple (Miou-Miou and Charles Berling) who own a
dry-cleaning shop in the small, grey town of Belfort. "Dry Cleaning"
has the feeling of being taken from a news item, where the ordinary
suddenly becomes torn apart by a single, erratic event.
The film also marks the arrival of Fontaine as an important figure in
contemporary French cinema. Fontaine is a tenacious maverick who
prefers to focus on off-beat stories driven by minutely-observed
characters. While waiting for "Dry Cleaning" to come together, Fontaine
shot her second film "Augustin" (which screened at the New York Film
Festival), starring her brother as a neurotic office-worker with dreams
of becoming an actor. Made for almost nothing, "Augustin" earned
Fontaine the confidence of producers to make "Dry Cleaning". A
cinematic auto-didact, Fontaine talks passionately about the process of
making films, an activity which to her is inherently independent.
indieWIRE: At the beginning of the film, you have the feeling that this
is going to be a political film with the meeting of the little
business-owners but then the story goes off in another direction. It's
still political, but about sexual politics.
Anne Fontaine: The beginning of the film is very important. This is
not the story of a group of small business owners, but I wanted to show
from the outset the milieu and that this couple are part of a social
group that is very rarely filmed. They are anonymous, ordinary people.
Afterwards, even if this isn't the subject of the film, we find out what
this milieu thinks of what's going on. These little business owners are
a bit shocked by the intrusion of this young boy into this petite
bourgeois family. I've always done films that take place in a very
precise milieu. In "Augustin", it was the milieu of a little office
worker. This is what interests me in literature or in cinema - it's
sociology. The dry cleaners becomes a place of theater.
iW: Do you think the story in "Nettoyage a Sec" is very French, or
Fontaine: The treatment is very French - people have said that it has
the feel of literature. But at the same time, I don't think the story is
typically French - I think that this story could happen in Houston, or
in Japan as well. On the other hand, I don't think this would be
handled in the same way by an American or English director. There's a
long tradition in France to get inside the interior of what characters
are feeling. The French have done this for centuries, not just since
the beginning of cinema. Already, with Stendhal and Flaubert, you have
this dry psychological sharpness.
iW: Is it getting harder to make independent films in France? Is there
more pressure to make more commercial films?
Fontaine: I think it's the opposite. Today, you have films by auteurs
who write their own stories and have real popular success. Of course,
you always have the problem of worrying if something is going to work.
In France, no film star guarantees you anything. These films I'm
talking about are films which were not welcomed or loved for the
notoriety of their stars. It's the films themselves, which was not the
case 15-20 years ago. Today, I think producers are disturbed since they
no longer have formulas. Before, you had your actors and it was at
least more of a guarantee. Today, I think it's the films that count
and people are actually more open and curious than you'd think - they
come see these films with no well-known actors or well-known director.
So actually, I'm optimistic.
iW: But is there an advantage to being an independent filmmaker in
Fontaine: First, I refute the word "independent" because I think to be
a filmmaker is to be independent, already. I don't understand how one
can say "independent filmmaker". For a filmmaker to do what he wants,
already it's difficult to make a film, and each film presents a
different problem, and it depends on the success of your last film. If
you had a success, you're in a better position, that's universal. The
difficulty is with the television stations. For "Nettoyage a Sec", I
didn't have at the beginning the support of any official TV stations -
the subject frightened them. They're very obsessed by ratings. At the
same time, it's something reassuring when a TV station doesn't want it
because it means it's really not something for TV. But this is
reassuring for the directors. For the producers, it's not reassuring at
all. The problem today is that TV stations are more and more afraid and
we need television to make films, from an economic point of view.
Several producers tell me that that's what's more difficult these days
is that TV stations change their minds. With a comedy, it's easier,
there's always the idea that it will work better. But it's harder with
a psychological drama, where there's no guarantee.
iW: Did you feel the pressure of keeping a certain budget on "Nettoyage
Fontaine: I've made very inexpensive films thus far. "Nettoyage a Sec"
was the first that was more expensive because it took place outside of
Paris. We had to reconstruct a whole location, a dry cleaners that
didn't exist, an apartment, etc.. I did feel the pressure of making a
more expensive film, because before I worked in a way with nothing, and
now, it's true that you have a responsibility, the weight of others -
I'm talking about the money people who expect something of you. But at
the same time, you have to forget all that, you can't work like that.
I don't have any desire to make huge films. I tend to feel more
comfortable with lower budgets, because I feel like I'm more a master in
my home. That is, I don't have to ask permission from a TV station, who
might say we don't want you to use Charles Behrling or Stanislas
Merhar. I don't want to have these kinds of discussions - they don't
interest me at all. Instinctively, I write things that I can almost
finance myself. I know that it won't be years of waiting to make an
enormous film, where you have a kind of sword over your head: if it
works - great, but if it doesn't, you're set back for 5-6 years.
iW: You mean you can take more risks?
Fontaine: When money people give you money, they feel a sense of
ownership, so they tell you, for example, with "Nettoyage a Sec", don't
you think the end isn't quite commercial enough, don't you think you
could give a little more hope to people? That kind of thing. But I
don't find that interesting, because these aren't artistic arguments,
these are arguments about commercial
fears, and this is not stimulating for a filmmaker.
iW: Do you feel part of a movement, especially since you've been chosen
among a group of French filmmakers coming to the States?
Fontaine: In France, we're not organized between studio and independent
film. Independent film doesn't really mean anything in France.
Instead, you say auteur cinema, because since the New Wave, there was a
whole generation of directors who worked in a different way. But it's
already been a long time since the New Wave. The other day, I met a
journalist who said now they're saying that this is the New New Wave.
But I said, that doesn't mean anything, a New New Wave. You had the New
Wave, and now we are the heirs, each of us doing our own thing. The New
New Wave doesn't exist. Before there was a movement with a very
structured type of thought. Today, that's not true. There's a cinema
in France now that's quite free that co-exists with bigger films, but
there is not an antinomy between studio films and independent films.
There are films that are heavier or lighter from an economic point of
view, but this doesn't work in the same way as in America. I think
what's specific today is that everybody in their camp
makes independent films in the sense of not being part of this huge
machine with well-known actors and everything. It's true that this is
something quite new.
iW: Is it important for you to succeed in the United States?
Fontaine: The United States is always exciting because there's always
this idea that American cinema is very powerful. And we are little
flies. I've already had a film come out in America. There's a very
specific audience for French films, who really like European films. And
there is also a sort of Puritanism, so it will be very interesting to
see how the critics and audiences will react to "Nettoyage a Sec", which
is a politically incorrect film. I showed the film in Houston, and
Houston is not New York, but people took the film very literally.
iW: How was the reaction in France?
Fontaine: Very good. But one thing that was very interesting was that
the smaller the town, the less the film worked. And given that the film
takes place in a small town, it's as if the reflection and the mirror of
the film was more tolerable in big cities, but in little towns that
resembled the town in the film, it worked much less. And I was quite
surprised, people were really destabilized by the film.
iW: There have been more and more women directors in France of late -
what do you think of this phenomenon?
Fontaine: I think it's mostly in France that there are more and more
women directors, because I notice that abroad, it's still rare. I don't
know, in America, there are some, but proportionally, I think it's much
less than in France. In France, I think in 10 years, there will be as
many women as men. Before, there was a paternalistic feeling that
considered that certain films were "women's films" - that is, 15 years
ago, there were women's films, men's films, and gay films.
I think when women make films, they are less afraid to go all the way
with a subject, they're less cowardly. I've noticed in women filmmakers
a sort of energy, a lack of fear to explore taboos. After that, it's so
different, it's really a question of individuals. If people say that
"Nettoyage a Sec" is a woman's film, I'm very surprised, I don't know
what that means. I think that to be a filmmaker, as far as sexuality,
its something that is really de-sexualizing. That is, you become a
bizarre thing, when you're directing a film - during the shooting,
you're neither a man nor a woman, you're really something strange and
very ambivalent. But all the better if there are more women
filmmakers. It's also a political thing - it reflects society, really.
iW: Even certain words are not yet feminized in French.
Fontaine: Yes, like metteur-en-scene, for example - you don't say
metteuse-en-scene. You could say it but it's not really pretty. You do
say realisatrice, but it's true that it's quite new. But I don't think
it's going to stop. I have a pretty funny anecdote. Before, when a
woman director took her time during the shooting to think about
something, if she had a doubt, (since you often have doubts), the crew
would always say, "She doesn't know what she wants" whereas when a man
was in the same position, they would say, "He's thinking". But I think
that's over now. I don't feel any of that towards me. I think we are
judged equally, we have the same chances.
iW: You were an actress before becoming a director. How did that help
Fontaine: Yes, I was an actress, but almost by accident. I did it just
out of curiosity, to see what it was like, but even then, I was more
interested in observing other people. I think I became a director
because very early on, I felt my limits as an actress. So at 25, I
decided to stop. While I was acting, I started writing this script
thinking, who knows, maybe it will interest someone. When I finished
it, I showed it to people in the industry who encouraged me. I was also
quite headstrong, and I think this kind of unconscious stubbornness
allowed me to take this all the way to my first feature, "Les Histoires
d'Amour Finissisent Mal en General". The thing is, it was only after
making my first film that I felt that this was something I really wanted
to continue doing, and in fact, I realized that having been an actress
really did help me in the sense that I can really go inside a character,
to begin with when I write. And to direct the actors, I think they can
sense that I know their problems, the kinds of questions they ask of
iW: What was the method of developing the characters? Was everything
in the script or did you improvise during the shoot?
Fontaine: For this film, there is very little improvisation but on the
other hand, there is a very precise working method. In the script,
everything was pretty much written. But once I had the three actors -
which was very complicated, especially for the men - I worked with each
of the three of them in advance on the script, on very subtle things,
like if I had added one word too much. You have to be very careful that
you don't have "writer's" words, or metaphors. Often, writers are a bit
tempted to create these more brilliant sentences, but I wanted to use a
very economical language, since these are people who never analyze their
feelings. They might find themselves caught in a whirlwind but they're
never analytical. So first of all, I immersed myself in this milieu, the
life of Belfort, and also at the home of a couple of small business
owners, who were a bit of a model for me in terms of their type of
life. And then I actually prepared the actors two ways. The first was
for them to also undergo a sort of dry cleaning internship. Charles
Berling learned how to iron, because the physical part of a character is
very important. Miou-Miou was also in a dry cleaners in Paris and again
in Belfort where she watched how people said hello, how they served
people. She's very meticulous. Even Stanislas learned to iron. I
worked with each person separately, never with the three together,
except at the end when I brought the couple together and we went on a
trip to Belfort.
iW: How long did the preparation take?
Fontaine: What took so long was finding actors to play the two men. I
didn't think of Charles Berling at the beginning and the French actors
who were 40-45 years old who could do the role refused to do it out of
fear of the subject and the final scene and a form of homophobia that is
quite bizarre today. That's what took time. Until the moment that I met
Charles and I said, this could work, if I do this and this and this to
transform him. I transformed him physically, I made him look older,
made him look more ordinary than he is. I was hopeless for a while and
I said to myself, if I was in America or England, actors would be
passionate about doing a role like this, but here, it's very difficult.
As for Stanislas, I had seen all the actors in Paris and I said there's
no one, it's impossible, no one whom I'm really enthusiastic about. And
then Stanislas arrived a bit by chance because we found him in the
iW: What was the difference between working with Stanislas Merhar and
working with the other actors?
Fontaine: There wasn't a great difference, but it was a risk. He'd
never acted, never read a script, didn't know what a camera was - it was
a bit like Pygmalion. It's important to have trust, and to understand
how the character will evolve in the film, without falling into
something too scholarly - you really have to be careful. For instance I
told Stanislas, don't worry about the script - that's not important,
what's important is all that happens before you speak. He was very
surprised and was afraid of forgetting his lines. I really had to
insist, because with someone who's not used to this, they right away
want to know their lines, and this isn't good. It was an investment that
was very different at the beginning, but during the shooting, it was the
same. I would even say that I spent as much time working with Charles
Berling as Stanislas. It's also very stimulating for professional
actors - they feel destabilized by a non-professional, and since the
story is also about that, it was very interesting to see what went on
between the three.
iW: Do you always work with the same crew?
Fontaine: No, for instance, I used a different scriptwriter on this
latest one. Because each film has a particular tone, and the person you
just worked with on one subject is not always best for another subject.
I think each time, you have to question everything all over again. Each
film is an entity unto itself, so just because you've worked with people
in the past, even if you admire them, it doesn't mean it'll be good the
next time. I would prefer to have a family that I work with each time,
but for the moment, each time, it's different.
iW: Do you have a style that continues in the different films and that
you will use in future films?
Fontaine: I think style is something that comes after several films.
I'm not fully comfortable yet talking about style, but what I think is
that I have a specific point of view in terms of what interests me,
which is the idea of shifting, or skidding, because even in "Augustin",
I mixed actors with non-actors - that belongs to a certain particular
style. And also, with these two films, and even in my first, either
it's about characters who are disoriented in relation to reality, or
else, it's the opposite, it's something that happens that disorients
them. In "Nettoyage a Sec", it's these totally banal people, but the
thing that happens to them derails them completely. "Augustin" is
someone who is already biologically disoriented, and that gives a
certain type of perspective.
My style comes more from an observation of characters than from
aesthetic questions, I don't have an aesthetic vision of the world - I
don't like aestheticism very much. I like when there's a stylization,
but I don't start with an idea of painting or something like that.
Bizarrely, I'm not a very visual person. I hope to master this more,
but at the same time, I think it's interesting not to have too much. I
was not really formed by visual things, for example, here, I see more
your face than other things, I focus more on faces, emotions. I would
have trouble filming something at Versailles. I have a sense of space
that's a bit narrow, so it's really characters that drive me, that tell
me how to place my camera. But yet, I am paying more and more attention
to lighting. In "Nettoyage a Sec", there was a lot of work on that.
In "Augustin", the style was very simple. I think I have a way of
looking at people and I'm beginning to find the style that goes with
it. But I think I'm still at the beginning of that.
One thing I know is I hate images of advertising, I hate "clean" images,
I hate all that. So it's more what I'm against. I know what I don't
like. I like when the image comes from the interior. I don't like to
see the light sources in an imag., I don't like that. I also don't like
reportage for a film, when there's no work behind it. It's a bit like
dance. In dance, you can't show the effort, even if you're doing an
Arabesque that's taken 15 years. And with lighting, they work for hours
and what I want is that you absolutely don't see it, or very little.
[Eve-Laure Moros is a filmmaker who is currently producing/directing
"Made in Thailand", a documentary about women factory workers in
Thailand. She is also working on a series about the contemporary visual
arts for public television.]
["Dry Cleaning" plays March 20th and March 21st as part of Lincoln
Center's program "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today."]