On 3rd December 2014, as part of a collaboration between the Institut Francais and the Puttnam School of Film, French filmmaker Audrey Dana came to our school where she screened her debut feature French Women and engaged in an hour-long Q&A.
Her film was part of the selection of the 4th Rendezvous with French Cinema, an annual local French film festival, which also screened Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy, a documentary of Juliette Binoche, and other more mainstream titles.
Audrey Dana started out as a theatre and film actress. In 2009, she made her first and only short film, after which she continued acting. At a French comedy film festival, Dana expressed her frustration at the state of French movie industry, with the predominance of males and the lack of female representation in areas outside of acting. Several big-time French producers heard her and approached her to make a movie. They listened to her pitch and offered her the chance to direct it. After two months of hesitation and assurances, she agreed.
At almost two hours long, French Women explores the different lives of eleven women living in Paris and features an ensemble cast that includes Isabelle Adjani, Vanessa Paradis, and Dana herself. The purpose, Dana shared in the Q&A, was to try to portray the complexities of being a contemporary woman. Inspired by Robert Altman’s Short Cuts which features 22 main protagonists, Dana started out with almost as many characters, before finally cutting it down to 11.
The movie moves at a brisk pace, snapping to and fro, back and forth between character arcs. Disorienting at first, one slowly eases into the movie but never feel fully empathetic for more than one or two characters. The fundamental problem of French Women is the script. Many of the characters are weakly conceived and insufficiently fleshed out. They come across as impressions, archetypes, and cliches, instead of fully developed human beings.
Unfortunately though, the writing of this comedy is weak, based largely on crude humour and slapsticks such as the running gags of one character (Laetitia Casta) belching and farting whenever she encounters the guy she fancies and another character (Julie Ferrier) who deals with her Tourette’s syndrome by making love. Perhaps, 3 screenwriters (including Dana herself) working on the story did not seem to materialise.
In the end, the few better conceived and more interesting characters, such as the overworked mother-of-three (Géraldine Nakache) who rediscovers her vivacity in a lesbian babysitter and a gynaecologist (Sylvie Testud) who finds out she has breast cancer, are crowded out by a larger cast of weak characters and are not given their chance to develop and shine.
But one positive lesson we can learn from Dana is her actor-centric approach to filmmaking. An actress herself, she understands that every actor is different and require different treatment and direction. “It’s about feeling the actor,” Dana said, “and what this person specially needs.”
“Does she need to be left alone? Does she need to have the set empty before she does a difficult scene? Does she need me to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, and feel her subconscious? Does she need me to protect her a lot and give her lots of love or lots of space? It depends on the actor. Everyone is different.”
But, Dana continues, “one thing that is for sure is that you need to keep your heart open and listen to them. Because if you respect your actors, your movie is going to be great.”
Internationally, French Women was not well reviewed and did not receive much theatrical or festival release. (At the moment, Singapore is its only non-European release, and only a single-slot festival release.) Back in France, however, the film was a big hit and a commercial success, climbing to number two at the box office.
Sensitive to the “climate of stress and anxiety” currently in her country and in Europe generally, Dana wants to bring laughter to people and, at the same time, raise questions that they can think about. It comes without surprise that her next project will also be a comedy. Tentatively entitled If I Were a Man, Dana seeks to explore the difference between men and women, telling a story of a mother-of-two who wakes up one day with a penis. She is very aware that her material treads on the thin line between being funny and being crude. While French Women is unfortunately more crude than funny, judging from her critical awareness of the film’s flaws, we are hopeful that Dana’s next feature with her experience directing French Women, will be stronger.
Ho Say Peng is a Year One student at the Puttnam School of Film. He loves to watch films and aspires to be a feature filmmaker.