Cannes 2019: an interview with Monia Chokri

Cédric Succivalli sat down with director Monia Chokri the day after her revelatory debut La femme de mon frère opened Un Certain Regard, to talk about her influences, comedy, hypochondria, Xavier Dolan, and brothers and sisters.

Q: You wore many hats in this film: as a filmmaker, editor, etcetera. What was the biggest challenge for you, and what came as the most natural?
A: I think that the biggest challenge for me is writing, because I take a long time to write: the structure is difficult in a script, especially when you start to write a first feature, because you learn to write while you write. I would say that the most difficult part is to make your idea very clear, and I think that you have to get a really solid structure to make a good film. I’m not about the idea of having an average screenplay and thinking that shooting will fix it. The happiest place for me is in the director’s chair: of course there is being with the people, and their acting is the reward of the writing, but like anything I play a lot with my film, and anything can happen. Right now I would say that directing is the most exciting part, when everything is created.

Q: Is directing something that you have had in mind for a long time?
A: No, actually. When I came here with Heartbeats ten years ago, in the same room – Debussy – I would have never expected that I would come back almost ten years later with my own movie to share as a filmmaker. It happened because I was interested in writing. I think it was two or three years after Heartbeats, I started to write a feature, but I didn’t want to direct this feature because I didn’t have the pretension of thinking that I was able to direct. It looked so difficult and complex that I didn’t think that I would have the nerve to direct. I was writing a feature and thinking that I would give it to someone, but the more that I kept writing, the more I began to see the images in my head, and the more I began to think it would be difficult to hand it over to someone else. Then I met my producer, Nancy Grant, and she said, “Maybe you should write a short, and then see if you like to direct.” So I made Extraordinary Person, and I discovered that I like this side of this job.

Q: When you wrote this film, did you write it for yourself? Did you ever think that you would play the lead part?
A: This is a question I get a lot. It’s normal, because I always write for characters my age, and it is an energy that maybe you would think that I could play. It’s a question that I ask myself each time, and each time I find that the answer is “no,” because if I were to play it, it would be Level One of the writing, and when I give it to someone else, the character becomes even more rich than if I were to play it. I really enjoy directing. I really like to be on the other side, not having to think of my own image for once: thinking of someone else’s image instead of my own face.

Q: What inspired your screenplay?
A: Writers are always inspired by life around them: in my case some phrases perhaps, but a lot of things I created myself. It isn’t really autobiographical. I would prefer to call it a ‘self-fiction.’ There are some elements of reality, but I put it into fiction.

Q: To follow up on that, what comedians inspire you? Who do you look to for inspiration?
A: Well, Kim Kardashian, for sure! I would say that the Coen Brothers are among the greatest: The Big Lebowski, for me, is maybe the best comedy written. As far as French influences, Le Splendid and Les visiteurs, Pierre Richard, but also Larry David, The Office, Tina Fey, SNL, Ab Fab, Woody Allen: those kind of things are part of my upbringing, so those people are my inspirations for comedy.

Q: It’s funny that you should mention Le Splendid, because throughout your film I had the impression of watching a maelstrom of Le Père Noël est une ordure and Hannah and Her Sisters.
A: Yeah, there’s a lot of comics here!

Q: In the end, what inspired the scene in the boat?
A: The skating in the beginning is in exactly the same place, and my inspiration came from the place from a picture that she sees when she is at the peak of her depression: she is in her room, and she sees this picture in front of her that she wishes were real, with ‘her’ and ‘her brother’ in the boat, so it was really the picture that I wanted to reproduce at the end.

Q: I’m still curious about the scene at the end, at the bar, and the siblings having the orchestra behind them: it’s like a crescendo behind them, and the movie is so much about rhythm.
A: That was funny because I really wanted something ‘Nouvelle vague’. It’s not a sound mix of the bar: I really wanted to get the sound in the bar, where the orchestra played while they were talking. They had to talk loud, they had to scream to get their points across to the other characters, so I liked the idea that they were in this massive noise. But something changed: before, they were in winter, in silence, and now there is so many people around them. And if I had more money I would put more people in the bar to be stuck there with all this noise, and this life around them.

Q: Did you do it more than once?
A: Yeah, I used about ten different takes.

Q: Why did you want to explore a brother and sister’s relationship?
A: When you start your first feature, it is better to write about what you know: Xavier Dolan did it with I Killed My Mother, obviously, and I have a brother. So that is a relationship that I know, and I can easily talk about. So that was my first idea. And the other one is when I had this idea that there were not so many films about it: Cassavetes’ movie Love Streams, with him and Gena Rowlands, and it is a wonderful movie about such a relationship. But there aren’t that many films about an adult relationship between a brother and his sister. And most of the time when we talk about that, we dive into incest, which is to me not accurate, because the specificity of this relationship is that there is no physical relation. So I thought, “I have this idea I can master, and I think that I can talk in a very precise way. And there are no films about this, so maybe I can try to make one.”

Q: You’ve mentioned Xavier Dolan, and since he gave you your big break as an actor, how much did you learn from him, since he was also someone who didn’t study film in school. Did you watch him closely and think, “Maybe I’ll learn from him?”
A: Of course we are very close, so we talk about cinema all the time and he is my real art brother, and we have the same influences. The most important thing I learned from him is that the sky is the limit: the only way to do it is by yourself and to not be afraid of being free as an artist, and believe that you have the capability to accomplish your goals. On a technical level I learned from his way of directing actors: we let the camera roll, and we direct the actor as the actor is acting. It gives the actor the sense of energy. They are in a state of emergency when they are in front of the camera. When you keep the camera rolling, and you give them directions, they just focus on what you say; they get free in a way, and they don’t think of acting.

Q: I’ve got a question for you about hypochondria, being that I am a hypochonder myself… In Emma Peters’ last film in Venice, you played the part of a suicidal hypochondriac woman, and there is also the element of panic attacks.
A: I just realized that everyone around me have this, so maybe it’s a generational problem. There are more and more people in society who take pills, including anti-depressants. It’s a true problem for society: since we have this value of performance, we have this big neurotic problem about it, and everyone can relate to that. I don’t have as many panic attacks as I did when I was younger. It’s also a problem about images too: when people don’t care about your mind, the only weapon you have is what you show, and the pressure of image is something you see with Instagram, as young girls often become depressed. I have a younger sister who is turning twenty-five, and she is very depressed with the pressure that we see: we are in a very solitary space, and people become more and more depressed.

Q: You made it so funny, when it is such a difficult and severe topic.
A: We see her having a panic attack at night and it was very difficult to get that to be precise, because it is a very personal thing: I could be in the middle of a panic attack and you wouldn’t know it. I was on stage, in the midst of my media premiere, and I was in the middle of a panic attack and no one could see it. I had to say one word at a time because I felt like I was about to die. That’s the big problem with panic attacks: it’s this interior monster that no one can see. It is not like the anxiety progresses as if you are having a physical problem, like having problems with digestion, or a headache, or breathing. It was difficult, but I wanted to be subtle about the panic attack, and that was the biggest challenge for the scenes that I directed.

Q: The antidote to panic and depression is colour: you went deep in the exploration of colour in your film.
A: I think it works to take the blue and the pink – it reminds us of a little boy and girl, of course – and I see the world in a very colourful way. It’s an instinct thing: a way that I process things literally. The rest of my colours come in a way where I wonder if it is working or not; if it is elegant or not.

Q: How did you choose what actors to cast? Did you know most of the actors personally?
A: Most of them, except the parents: Sasson Gabai is Israeli. It was kind of easy in a way: being an actress myself I know a lot of actors, and most of them are my friends, like my lead actress Anne-Élisabeth Bossé, and Magalie Lépine Blondeau. So these women are part of my close crew. I played Patrick Hivon’s sister in a series a few years ago, that’s how we met. Mani Souleymanlou is also one of my greatest friends.

Q: It’s interesting that Sophia has a lot of intellectual and cultural resources but not economical, and she belongs to a sort of middle class with a lot of education only to ultimately be… poor.
A: It’s a problem I address in my movie, and I have a lot of friends who are in this situation: they completed Ph.D.s and find no job. And there’s a loneliness in this knowledge, and I wanted to ask, “What do we do with all this knowledge?” No one wants all this knowledge anymore, and it is not the value of our society. It’s why I contrast her with Kim Kardashian at the same age: she made a fortune and she’s very successful and powerful, she’s one of the biggest influencers of my generation, and she just built her life from her image. Does she read? Does she love stuff? I don’t know. The only thing I know about Kim Kardashian is pictures. What are we doing? If we lose knowledge, what are we doing with our society?