A Conversation Between Anne Émond And Chloé Robichaud
The two accomplished Québécois directors go head-to-head
Anne Émond and Chloé Robichaud are two young, innovative filmmakers living in Montréal with equally boundary-pushing films at TIFF 16. In Anne Émond’s third-feature Nelly (premiering today at Hot Docs Cinema), the biopic gets completely reimagined with an innovative retelling of the life of controversial Quebec writer Nelly Arcan (played by Rising Star Mylène Mackay), best known for her semi-autobiographical novel Putain, based on her experiences doing sex work. Chloé Robichaud’s second-feature Pays (premiering Sept. 10 at Scotiabank) is a political satire set on a fictional island off the east coast of Canada, which becomes a hotbed for a mining resources debate amongst three women navigating their careers.
In this powerful discussion of work, criticism, ambition and a life in cinema, Émond and Robichaud find common ground in their mutual love of storytelling. This conversation was conducted at Café Club Social in Montreal, Quebec in French and translated into English for The Review.
Anne Émond: Here I go... What is most important in life?
Chloé Robichaud: If you had asked me the same question five years ago, I probably would have told you making films, except that I’m gaining maturity now and I realize how important my relationships are. Besides, relationships makes me want to write stories. And cinema puts me in touch with people.
Anne: Do you sometimes feel like having relationships so you can write stories?
Chloé: (Laughs) We should ask my subconscious... But it is true that I am always on the lookout. When I live out something intense, or interesting, I always wonder if it would be good in a film. You?
Anne: I'm a little older than you are and I think that 10 years ago, my whole life revolved around cinema… All my life experiences were related to it. The more it goes, the more things change. What’s important in my life are my friends, my loved ones.
Chloé: What brought you to cinema?
Anne: I come from a small town and there wasn’t a lot of access to art, even though my parents, who were artisans, were very open to culture. When I was 15 years old, I discovered films. I saw Trainspotting at Cine Club La Pocatière and there was a spark. I realized I wanted to tell stories and make films. From that moment, I watched a lot of movies, I went to CEGEP and university in Film Studies. I never doubted.
Chloé: I was always attracted to stories. I also think I needed to tell stories as a way to externalize my difference. My sexual orientation was an issue for me, even as a kid.
My father was a cinephile, so I had access to a lot of movies and equipment. I started experimenting around 12 years old. It was a revelation, I never had any doubts, just like you. I did everything to make it work because I never imagined I could do something else. I would be unhappy without cinema and stories.
Anne: My first doubts came much later, after Nuit # 1, my first feature film. I was afraid that filmmaking could never make me happy. I even enrolled in a BA in psychology, I really thought about reorienting myself.
Chloé: You felt pressure ?
Anne: It's a great job, but it exposes us to the risk of suffering. We give ourselves freely to the critics. I try not to take it as personally, now that I’ve made my third feature.
Chloé: Me too, it's a love-hate relationship. I live true moments of grace on a film set, when I'm in this great bubble of creation and I do not feel the pressure. With discussions around budgets, promotion… It’s harder.
Anne: What's your relationship to critics? Do you read your reviews?
Chloé: I read all the pieces on Sarah Prefers to Run and I hurt myself in the process. After the excitement of Cannes, I read some harsh criticism, some saying they couldn’t relate to my lead character. I felt that I wasn’t understood. I lost my bearings. Now I think that I should protect myself more and try not to read every piece.
Anne: I find that there are two levels of critics nowadays. You have the official critics and papers who can express themselves with lots of words and reflections about your film, but then you also have the other side, those who can express themselves on social media. We must find a way to survive. Nelly is not even released and some are already commenting on the trailer. I read some harsh comments. They critique Nelly, but underneath, they also critique me.
Chloe: We are also screenwriters and our cinema is one of intimacy. We write about ourselves and therefore, we expose ourselves even more. I would like critics to be careful. They do not have to like the film, and they can give interesting feedback, but they should not forget that someone has taken years of their life to tell this story. I'm sure we would be the first to say that our films are imperfect. That’s the beauty of the object.
Anne: I sometimes want to respond to critics on social media. Xavier Dolan does it. Sometimes I read how he responds and it comforts me!
Chloe: (Laughs) Yes, he responds for all of us!
Anne: Do you feel young or old?
Chloe: In each film, it seems I gained 10 years. I have a lot of gray hair for a girl my age. I gained maturity and experience through my films. I don’t think I have lived a normal 20s, I experienced strong emotions. I guess you could say I’m an old soul now…
Anne: I ask this because I feel old. It’s an observation that I made in my early 30s where I realized that the artists I love today were born in the ‘90s. When I made Nuit #1, I was young, it was a film about young people. I was always the youngest in the festivals. I feel a change. It's amazing because my job allows me to meet young, exceptional talents. I remained friends with some young actors from Les êtres chers… Except, I'm their big sister now!
Chloe: But in the eyes of many other directors and critics, you represent the younger generation of Quebec filmmakers.
Anne: Are you afraid to grow old and not generate much interest anymore?
Chloe: There’s the “Dolan phenomenon” right now, we can see the media’s interest in the younger generation. Still, I think that with age, if we want to pursue film, it will be to talk about how we live, what we know, and stay connected to who we are. We must also accept that we’ll grow old.
Anne: Your film at TIFF, Pays, seems to be very political. Would you consider it an “activist film?"
Chloé: I want anyone to find their own conclusion. I do not say: "here's who you should vote for." In my research, I was, amongst other things, inspired by Quebec’s Plan Nord and our mining industry. Companies exploit Canadian mines for almost no royalties. I would not call it an activist film, but I’d be happy to see people come out of the theatre asking how they can get involved in their community.
What do you want people to remember from Nelly?
Anne: There’s a reason I chose to personify her by several characters because she was a multifaceted woman who had as many looks as hidden lives. I think she also represents many women and even men. Nelly's life was full of uneasiness, even if there were great moments of love and joy. Many people could understand her interior struggles. Her fate is perhaps not common, but what she felt inside is.
She also had a weird connection with the media, just like you and I. You can have a media personality and a whole other personality for your friends. That's also why I chose to split her into different characters because I felt she had as many personalities as she had contexts. In her case, I think that’s what pushed her to the extreme. And that's partly why she ended up dying so young, in absolute sadness.
Chloe: I heard you had a huge audition process for Nelly.
Anne: It’s interesting that you brought that up because your own casting process is one of the things that fascinates me. I once heard you say that you preferred having coffee with actors. Then, you would offer them the role.
Chloe: That's right, I almost never do auditions!
Anne: I always see lot of actors for all my films. It's like, I need to check my ideas, I need to see them play, I need to see how I get on with them. For Les êtres chers, I saw 45 young woman before choosing Karelle Tremblay. With Nelly, I saw almost 40.
Chloe: I must admit that auditions are a good place to work with actors. You won’t necessarily give them a role, but it’s a great opportunity for encounters.
Anne: With Nelly, from the start, I wasn’t looking to make a conventional biopic. So there was no attempt at all to imitate. Yes, there are physical features, like Nelly’s fake tits, the blonde hair dye. But I wasn’t looking for a physical resemblance. It was important to look for the right vibe, a girl at once, rebellious, fragile, capable of a touch of madness. You can be a five-feet-tall redhead and have it.
Chloe: I still offer roles after a meeting in a café. But I started doing more and more auditions and I’m enjoying the process. I watch a lot of demos. I try to see what is being made in Quebec to discover new talents. I discovered Nathalie Doummar, the lead role in Pays, in an audition. Nevertheless, it is still important for me to meet with the actors before confirming roles to ensure a chemistry, to ensure that we have a complementary vision for the film and the character.
Anne: I’m under the impression that you love working with actors and that you would not be the type to work with non-actors…
Chloe: True, I have not experimented much with non-actors. Though it would be good to try because it is always good to destabilize ourselves. But I deeply love the film actor.
Anne: Me too. I love actors, with all of their anxieties and their complexities.
Chloe: For Pays, I worked with Macha Grenon, Emily VanCamp, Yves Jacques, Rémy Girard, among others. And it was a privilege to see them at work, to see how they composed their characters. I was very moved.
Anne: Do you know what your next project will be?
Chloe: Hopefully, if everything goes as planned, I’ll be filming Season Two of Feminin/Feminin next spring. I’m in development for two features, one in English and one in French. I also want to enjoy what comes next with Pays. We work so hard for years to make our films and I want to enjoy the ride.
Anne: I have ideas for future movies, but I'm not yet convinced. In recent years, I’ve been so busy, doing two features in so little time. I knew what to expect in my schedule, there were no surprises. It did not leave much room for dreaming. I like not knowing what awaits me now.
Do the American careers of Jean-Marc Vallée and Denis Villeneuve make you dream?
Chloe: It tells me that if we want it, it’s possible. I’ve never had the Hollywood dream, but it's true that I want to expand my horizons. I have the desire to work in different environments with actors from different countries and backgrounds. I want to have as many filming experiences as I can. My home remains Montréal and it always will be. I would move for a few months, but it would have to be the right project, at the right time, with the right people.
Anne: Me too, that's exactly it. I'm not chasing it, but I remain open to various offers. The career of Jean-Marc Vallée, for example, makes me dream. He works with great actors, in great conditions and works with brilliant scripts. I find it very inspiring.
Chloé: Jean-Marc Vallée’s career shows that it is possible to keep your personality, your signature and your creative control. Denis Villeneuve’s recent films, despite pressure from the big American machine, seem to have remained true to himself and his kind of cinema.
I have one last question for you. The fact that we are female directors - do you think we talk about that too much, or not enough?
Anne: You see, I thought, what a good thing this interview between you and me will be... Because the first question won’t be about being a woman behind the camera!
Chloé: I know!
Anne: I find these questions always so difficult, there are no good answers. Are our films different because we are women? Are they less appreciated because we are women? It puts us in an uncomfortable position because there is no way to give a complete and intelligent response. And above all, a man never has to take up five minutes of his interview to talk about that.
Chloé: Exactly! I realize that there are very few women directors and we need to encourage others to follow. It is necessary that you and I can have some media exposure, so we can act as role models. So that’s why I always feel torn.
I’d like to have the final word to tell you a compliment… You really inspired me when I was in film production at Concordia. Your short films were traveling in many festivals, your name was everywhere. You gave me a lot of hope. You were my success story. Thank you for that.