“La Femme et le TGV” director Timo von Gunten is too young to feel starstruck by his film’s star, legendary model, actress, and singer Jane Birkin. “For me, it was just Jane: A wonderful, beautiful actress, and I handled her very similarly to anyone else,” said the director, who still lives with his parents when he is home in Switzerland.
Von Gunten’s whimsical film is nominated for an Oscar in the Live Action Short category, and features an inspired performance by Birkin as Elise, a woman who waves to the train that passes by her picturesque window every morning. That part of the story is based on something von Gunten read in the papers; the rest is pure imagination. In the film, Elise finds a note tied to a box of cheese from the train conductor, and the two begin a correspondence that reinvigorates her routine existence.
Icons aren’t usually easy to come by, but von Gunten and his producer, Giles Forman, wanted an older, French-speaking actress when they “stumbled over” Birkin. “We looked at each other and we thought: ‘Oh, we should definitely try to get her,'” he said, so they contacted her agent.
Birkin was drawn to the script’s true story. “It was this strange, real-life story that interested me,” she told IndieWire by email. “Maybe a lot about loneliness, not being a part of life anymore, or just for five minutes waving to a train driver.” Before she agreed, however, she insisted von Gunten meet her in Paris. “I had been very ill, and was afraid I’d changed a lot and wouldn’t be what he’d expected.”
The director was happy to work around Birkin’s health issues, including hiring a stunt double for scenes where Elise rides a bicycle into town. “We actually had a 20-year-old stunt double to do all the biking scenes,” he said. “And she had to run across the Zurich main station several times, and above that she had to do it in a night robe.”
“I had been in bed a lot for, what, six months, a year, so no muscles,” said Birkin. “On the last day, I had to run for the train in Zurich, what, 10 times, across a very big station, then couldn’t even walk and had to be carted on the train to Paris and couldn’t get out the other end!”
Luckily, her health did not affect her acting stamina. “After 12 hours of shooting, she was the one to say, ‘Oh, let’s do the scene again, I don’t feel comfortable with it,'” von Gunten said. “What’s really beautiful is the sensibility she has and how easily she could implement my directorial notes on her acting.”
The director’s eye-catching visual style and charming, semi-fantastical story is worthy of attention, but Birkin’s presence in the film certainly raised its profile. “I wanted to give Timo everything,” Birkin said. “I danced all afternoon, what fun. Then the legs started to move on their own. We filmed on train tracks till midnight. I was with the very, very young. I had my pride!”
Von Gunten is grateful the Academy still recognizes short films. “It can be a huge stepping stone, and I know they’ve discussed they might want to cancel the short film category, and it would be a such a pity for newcomers,” he said. “It’s such an important step for emerging filmmakers. They have to keep it for the young talent.”
As von Gunten’s film career is just beginning, Birkin’s is winding down, although she loves the movies and sees one or two a week. (“Helps get one through.”) She is currently touring Europe with her band, and has no plans to return to acting. “This will be my last one! Unless they make a film about a 70-year-old explorer, an adventure film. I’d always wanted to do a sort of ‘African Queen’!”
After his feature debut, “Eiffel,” perhaps von Gunten can get to work on that remake.
Learn more about the making of “La Femme et le TGV” in this exclusive behind the scenes video: