I met French filmmaker and novelist Catherine Breillat at her hotel on the edge of Central Park. She sat by the window in her room, framed by a spectacular view of the park. ‘I decided to give interviews here,’ she tells me, ‘it’s so much better than down in the restaurant.’ Breillat’s Une Vieille Maitresse (starring Asia Argento, Michael Lonsdale and Claude Sarraute) was shown in competition in Cannes this past May. Maitresse, which paints a languid tableau of two former lovers locked in a pas de deux, had detractors in France. The book on which it was based on, penned by Barbey D’aurevilly, was meant to lure and entice audiences whereas Breillat has been accused of creating a disconnect with her public. She’s used to this kind of reception, however, and seems nonplussed. It wasn’t until 1996 when Parfait Amour, her fifth feature film, was released that critics finally lauded her. The foundation for Breillat’s magnum opus seems to have sprung from her first novel, L’Homme Facile, written in the riled voice of a young woman subjugated by a man’s fantasies. In this and other stories, Breillat’s theory of the sexes treads along a narrative of defiance and challenge, but does not abnegate sexual taboos–at times, she even accepts them.
You started out writing novels; why the switch to filmmaking?
Novel writing is cheaper! When I was twelve I decided to become a filmmaker and book author. I lied to my parents. As soon as I got my baccalaureate (I got it at a young age) I told them I wanted to do Langues Orientales; since it was located in Paris. Because for me, cinema and writing had to be done in Paris, not in the suburbs. You can retire elsewhere later, but you have to have your struggles in Paris. I was not talented in languages and I had one year to do something before my parents took me back home. I didn’t know cinema and I was convinced that if you wrote books, you would be offered to turn them into movies. I bought a sheaf of paper, an architect’s fountain pen, with a lot of ink, since I loved all that ink (and got my fingers dirty), and I started to write my first book, L’homme Facile. When I brought it to the editor, he took it immediately. I had typed it, it was bound and I had one copy. I was sixteen and a half.
Such a young age to be published at!
Whether good or bad, the book would necessarily have to be published on account of my being young, since there’s such a voracity for youth. People think that youth belies talent.
You also write screenplays.Did this hinder your more creative writing endeavors? Screenwriting is not a pleasure, it’s very technical. At some point, I lost the gift for writing books, especially through writing screenplays for other filmmakers. As you write, you become more efficient, which is contrarian to art. It should not be efficient but necessary. At some point people want you to become skilled, and because of this I got more engaged into filmmaking. Everyone was saying that I was becoming more skilled, and specifically because of this I turned to filmmaking more, to preserve that savoir-faire; I had lost it, and with filmmaking it came back.
If you had to describe yourself or your style as a director, how would it go?
I never prepare anything, I’m very artisanal. But I meddle in everything.
Can you give an example?
I was obsessed with the lace in this shoot, everything had to be done by hand—at the time it cost a fortune—I had purchased entire rolls of it, in different styles. That I get very involved in. That’s what you will actually see. It’s my first approach to moviemaking. And it’s wonderful to be able to conceive costumes yourself, and to also take liberties, since not all costumes date to that period.
Yes, but Maitresse has several anachronisms. How far can artistic license extend?
I’m no historian. On the one hand, everything is real, there’s nothing fake in the wardrobe.
Certain costume elements did not exist in that period.
Yes, but they say that La Vellini in Barbes D’Aurevilly dressed herself like noone else in her time. She was someone so incongruous, so for the first scene I inspired myself with Goya, evidently, but also by a pencil drawing of the Duchess D’Albe shaking her hair, totally torrid and modern, so that was an inspiration, and also Marlene Dietrich, of course. The artist has the right to put his imprint, which is to create fantasy. To be merely a historian isn’t enough.
Vieille Maitresse, like many of your other works, places youth on a pedestal. In Maitresse either the characters are very old or very young.
I love icons. Look at the pharaohs, that’s the representation of something which is radiating. As a filmmaker, I like to show virgin faces on which you can project whatever you want. Look at Rhyno’s virginal face.
Fu’ad Ait Attou has an angelic face, yes. You only recently met Asia Argento?
Yes, we met in Canada. I saw her and thought right away, there’s my Vellini. In fact, I was sure about Fu’ad as well, right away.
Describe shooting the more graphic scene. How well did the actors take it?
Right before shooting the first lovemaking scene, Asia had a sudden change of heart. It was unexpected, of course. She just said she couldn’t do a sex scene and ran off, for a day. It put us in a very difficult position. But then, she came back and was wonderful, a real professional.
You choreographed a lot of these scenes yourself, right?
Yes, I would get into the scene, show the actors which position to be in, the angles. But I remained fully clothed, of course.
What’s next for Catherine Breillat?
Going back to Paris tomorrow to work on the DVD version of the film.