Cannes 2019: an interview with Sibyl director Justine Triet

Before the last gala screening in the Cannes competition, Justine Triet’s Sibyl, Cédric Succivalli had a chat with the director about Stromboli, her approach to working with actors, and her collaboration with Arthur Harari, among other things.

Q: Just by accident I visited Stromboli right after you finished the shoot there, and talking to the locals they couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it had been. What specifically did you feel in Stromboli when you were there making the film?

A: It was a mystical, very special time to be there, with the island’s past, and also its cinematic past. And with a volcano being there and all that that represents. Also, many people had told me personal stories of going there at a certain time in their lives, like after a breakup or a death. It seemed to be an important place for many people. As to the shoot itself, because of the constraints and financing, and Sandra Hüller’s availability, we were forced to do the scenes on Stromboli at the beginning of the shoot. Which was not ideal, because that meant we had to take ourselves mentally to the place where the characters were at that point in the story, and imagine the whole first part. Plus we had some of the most complex scenes of the whole film to shoot on the island, so I was really in quite a state. But it was very powerful and made everything that much more intense. We had all these storms and waves, and people throwing up all over the boat. It was very memorable.

Q: Given the central character, Sibyl, and her profession as a psychotherapist, is cinema maybe a form of therapy for actors, for directors, for producers?

A: I don’t think it’s therapy, unfortunately maybe, but it’s definitely a way of helping you live, of helping you create fiction, even writing a book or making a film.

Q: Do you resemble the director played by Sandra Hüller?

A: I hope not! But she really touches me. I understand she really has to get this job done, she can’t digress in such an impossible situation. But for me it was also fun to have her be confronted with having to make this film, and at the same time shooting things that remind her of the pain she’s going through in a direct way. For me that was a way to explore how fiction and reality cross over.

Q: The actors said that at certain points you did a lot of takes, sometimes also contradictory in tone, and you would find the truth in editing. Can you tell me a bit about your approach?

A: I like to do that, shake it up, keep things fresh. Have them change directions even for the same scene. If you change directions then you don’t wear out that one note you’re trying for. For example with love scenes, even if they’re very choreographed, it’s nice to do it more comedic one time, more serious the next. I like when there is for instance a certain burst of laughter out of nowhere, I like the surprises. I push the actors emotionally very hard in the beginning of a series of takes, and they love that, to get really emotional and feeling they have done their best scene. But then in fact the next one, when they contain it a bit more but still have a trace of emotion in their face, that is often the best take. I need to really wear out my actors. For example Virginie at the end, when she is crying in the cinema, she was really in that state. Even when we said ‘cut’, she kept crying. I love to get them in that state, but of course only when the scene requires it.

Q: I’m a great fan of Arthur Harari’s Black Diamond, and all the different registers that he and you get into your writing together. Can you explain your collaboration?

A: Of course Arthur really influenced the writing of this a lot. Initially he didn’t want to collaborate with me because we know each other quite well, and sometimes when you know someone very well it can be difficult. It can get intense, the masks are off and you can be a bit mean. But I really insisted, because I’m also someone who likes to take things from others. He told me to free myself from the more programmed film, Victoria. I had brought the outline of these two women who were going through their own personal crises in an opposite parallel, and he helped develop the way their professions would nourish the story, in their way of acting, writing, in the psychotherapy. He also brought in the more baroque side. And then we had this constant conversation and sharing of references, we would show each other films. He showed me The Player by Robert Altman, which was incredible to me. I don’t know if my final film resembles it, although there is the ensemble aspect, the many characters. But then of course you have to get rid of your influences when you shoot your own film.

Q: Was it difficult for you as a female director to shoot the sex scenes in Sibyl?

A: I don’t know if it is harder or maybe in certain ways easier for a woman. But in any case it depends on your own personality, and the sex scenes in this film were very important and had to be very precise. I just had to plunge into them. Maybe as a woman you can ask more of another woman, but then Virginie has just shot a film with Paul Verhoeven, and I’m sure he asked her to do more than I did.

Justine Triet (Sibyl)