INTERVIEW: Anne-Sophie Birot Talks Adolescent Girls with "Girls Can't Swim"
by Gwinevere von Ludwig
(indieWIRE/ 03.04.02) — When it comes to foreign-language films, French films remain predominant in the minds of American moviegoers — despite the relatively recent inroads such films as “Life is Beautiful” and, even more notably, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” have made into mainstream cineplexes. Nonetheless, it still seems that a Catherine Deneuve vehicle (in the guise of an historical epic by an established director) has a better shot at finding American distribution than an intimate, non-star-driven portrait by a first-time filmmaker. Anne-Sophie Birot‘s “Les filles ne savent pas nager” (“Girls Can’t Swim”) certainly belongs in the latter category — but fortunately, it made such a positive impression at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival that it was subsequently picked up by Winstar Cinema.
A quietly powerful study of two adolescent girls’ struggle to maintain their friendship despite the growing differences in their personalities, “Girls Can’t Swim” first played to American audiences at the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series in March 2001. Set primarily on the windy, sunny coast of Brittany, the film initially focuses on Gwen (Isild Le Besco), a moody teen with an unstable home life. Her main refuges from this are her covert sexual liaisons with her “boyfriend” (as well as with other available boys), and her constant letter-writing to her best friend, Lise (Karen Alyx), who lives near Paris and comes every summer to Gwen’s resort town. This year Lise mysteriously claims she cannot come to Brittany — yet she turns up a week later on her own. However, it quickly becomes apparent that over the course of the past year, Gwen has turned down a different path towards maturity, and the two girls no longer have as much in common as they once did. Anne-Sophie Birot sat down to discuss the film during her trip to New York for its Lincoln Center presentation.
indieWIRE: It’s often difficult for foreign films to find a U.S. market. How did you feel about getting distribution here?
Birot: Well, nothing is ever predictable, especially with a first film. We never know if it’s going to be distributed — even within France. It was really the Toronto Film Festival that served as a springboard. I was lucky to go there, and I was surprised that the Americans liked the film. We often think we can figure out in advance who is going to be seduced by a film, but ultimately things turn out very differently. But I think what Americans might like about this film is that it’s very French, in the sense that it takes place in a very specific location and is a little story about the friendship of two girls.
iW: Also, it’s the kind of story that really pleases Americans: a coming-of-age film. I’m really surprised there isn’t a similar expression for “coming-of-age” in French, because there are lots of French films that typify this idea. You see this theme in American films too, but it almost never seems as personal. But one always has to ask this question for a first film: are there autobiographical elements in it?
Birot: It’s mostly a story I made up. For me, invention is one of the greatest pleasures of writing. Nevertheless, one’s imagination works off reality, either from things I observed, or from things I lived through. So while it’s not at all my story, there are still aspects that I took from my adolescence or from that of others.
iW: Gwen and Lise are very different characters. Did you “steal” more from your own experiences for Gwen or for Lise?
Birot: Equally for both, because the entire film is written from the point of view of both girls. That’s why when I introduced the film earlier, I said, “We’re going to the sea, and you are 15 years old.” One is either taking Lise’s point of view, or Gwen’s. For me to be able to put myself in the skin of each one, I really needed to feel both of them. I have both girls in me.
iW: Did you choose Brittany as the main setting for a specific reason?
Birot: It’s a region I know well. I wrote the film on location, because I couldn’t write this story apart from its setting. I needed to go drink with the fisherman in the bars, to meet the young kids in the schools, to speak to the parents who didn’t want their kids to take up fishing as they felt it had no future. So I spent a lot of time there — it was never a question of setting it elsewhere because when I wrote “Exterior, daytime, on the docks — Gwen arrives on her mobylette,” I already knew where this scene was to take place. When it came time for location scouting, the job was already done — there was no need to look for the house, the school, et cetera. We filmed in the same village in Brittany for all the seashore scenes, and Lise’s scenes were filmed in the same town outside Paris.
iW: How did you go about casting your two leads?
Birot: I saw 300 girls, and I worked with all of them. I called back every girl who was at all promising, then I eliminated more, had them come back again… I was left with 10 girls who were all capable of playing the part of Gwen or Lise — some of them were capable of doing both. Karen Alyx, who ended up playing Lise, was also very good at playing Gwen. It’s hard to see it, but it’s true. In actuality, Karen was 21 years old when we made the film, so she is clearly very adaptable.
iW: I noticed several moments in which the girls were wearing clothes they had worn in earlier scenes. This really struck me because in reality, young girls don’t have unlimited wardrobes, so this decision pointed up to a certain cinematic realism. Was this realism important for you in making the film?
Birot: Yes. The fact that we were working with a limited budget worked in our favor; we didn’t go out and buy new clothes. Instead we went to the flea market, into the personal wardrobes of the actresses — into my closet, even. Gwen really isn’t a coquette, like teenaged girls can sometimes be. In addition, the youth in Brittany aren’t very fashion-oriented because they are constantly fighting the elements, the wind and the rain, so they usually just have practical clothing. I remember when I was a kid, I had two pairs of jeans that I alternated.
iW: I found it interesting that neither girl seemed to have other close female friends.
Birot: For me, Lise is a very secretive and introverted girl. She’s not especially happy where she lives, and her family doesn’t help much. She’s only happy when at the seaside with Gwen — and when she can’t be there, she’s only happy thinking about being there. It’s her paradise.
iW: Gwen is an only child, and yet she passes all her time with boys…
Birot: There is a stage in adolescence where one is mainly interested in being noticed by boys. It doesn’t mean she has no girlfriends, but that she simply prefers to be the leader of a pack of boys.
iW: In fact, Gwen may not be a coquette in her personal style, but she does want everyone to look at her — which, of course, led to a few mistakes on her part. I also found it interesting the way you captured the selfishness of teenagers, like when Lise enters the room and her family is crying, and she automatically says “What did I do?”
Birot: Gwen is also like that; when her mother tells her that her father’s boat has broken down, she replies, “Well, I’m going out.” She doesn’t care at all.
iW: Both girls are very complicated: Gwen is moody and tempestuous, and not always certain of what she wants — her relationships always seem to be in flux. On the other hand, Lise has no self-confidence and clearly feels out of place in her own family, and therefore is happy to try to take Gwen’s place in what she perceives as a more stable household.
Birot: Gwen’s family isn’t actually more stable, but it’s more open. It’s a family where everything is said, albeit violently at times. In Lise’s family, nothing is said, everything is taboo — so Lise is totally suffocating. She sees Gwen’s family as healthier, since they express themselves.
iW: Are you currently working on a new film?
Birot: I’m in the middle of writing a new script that I will direct and that will star Karen Alyx, about a girl who has a borderline personality. Throughout the film we can’t tell if she is normal or not. I really want to keep directing — it’s really important for me. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.
iW: Are there directors you admire, either from your own generation or from previous ones?
Birot: Yes, many. Women like Catherine Breillat, Jane Campion, and Claire Denis… men like Manuel Poirier, Maurice Pialat… for me, the kind of cinema I most enjoy is one that is realist and naturalist, and that tells the stories of real people.