Between Tenderness and Brutality: An Interview with Axelle Ropert

Miss and the Doctors
March 24th 2023

Across four features, the French director Axelle Ropert has revealed a world marked by bittersweet strains of ’60s pop, by the rich color of red raincoats flitting through neon lights, by chance encounters that feel suspiciously like fate. There is something comforting about this world, because it is pleasurable, and one feels accompanied by Ropert in her enjoyment of it. But it is also a world of eerie, vertiginous instability, where beloved family members can become strangers, where strangers can become friends or lovers, where gangsters can become DJs, the blind can see again, lies become truths and truths lies. It is, in other words, a world of surprise, of change, of secrets.

This director has thus far been something of a secret herself in the U.S., though long spoken of in awed tones by a few lucky initiates. She is finally receiving her due with a North American retrospective to accompany the release of her most recent film, the coming of age story Petite Solange (2022). In anticipation, I interviewed Ropert over Zoom, with the help of Nicholas Elliott’s fluid, sensitive interpretation.

Bingham Bryant: Could you tell me about La Lettre du cinéma, the magazine you were associated with as a critic before you became a filmmaker?

Axelle Ropert: I came to direct through an approach that's common for male directors, but very uncommon for female directors: film criticism. Film criticism was my school of cinema. I had a big shock at the age of 20 when I started to read the yellow Cahiers du cinéma [the earliest phase of the journal, 1951–1964, so called for its yellow-bordered covers –Ed.], particularly the criticism of Jacques Rivette. A few years later I was contacted by someone who was founding this magazine La Lettre du cinéma, which was supposed to be a little brother of Trafic, the periodical founded by Serge Daney. For ten years I wrote criticism, and not at all in a professional way. I was a pure amateur. I never wanted to make criticism my career, but it's through criticism that I learned about mise en scène and about directing actors. I wrote a great deal about actors and actresses. It was kind of my specialty, at a time when writing about actors and actresses was not at all fashionable. This very intense period of ten years was when I got to meet all the big names of French film criticism, whether Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Jean Narboni, or Louis Skorecki. I'm the only young woman director who got to experience that, which is both very surprising and a great bit of good luck for me.

BB: Many of these critics were filmmakers as well. Did that seem the obvious development?

AR: I think that being a film critic you gain time, you get ahead when you move to mise en scène. A lot of critics know exactly what they don't like in cinema when they become directors. In that sense, you get ahead of other people who, when they start making films, don't know what they do and don't like. In my case, through writing, I knew when I became a director that I didn't like handheld camera, that I didn't like wide angles, that I didn't like hysterical films. I think that clarity came from the practice of criticism.

BB: I know that you like Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. It's such a down-to-earth, sympathetic, realistic account of the difficulties and pleasures of any kind of writing. I'm curious what you got out of it.

AR: I wouldn't say that Patricia Highsmith book is the most important or foundational text for me, in terms of my way of writing. But it is, in fact, an American book that's really key for me: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Notebooks. It's a book in which he writes down all of his projects and sketches for short stories and novels. That book is my secret bible for making films. It's a book I always recommend to my film students, that I'm constantly consulting. It's a real reservoir of ideas for films. And while I'm speaking of America, I'll just tip my hat to a great American film critic who's a real idol of mine, Manny Farber.

BB: I'm not surprised that you love Manny Farber, and I imagine that he would love your films; for their energy, for the gestures of the actors. And in a certain sense they're genre films, something he liked. I don't mean in today's sense of horror or action films, but quieter genres, where nowadays we don't expect auteur filmmaking so much. Things like the romantic comedy or the coming-of-age film. Do you ever think of yourself as a genre filmmaker?

AR: I don't think of myself as a genre director, but it is true that as a writer and as a spectator, I'm drawn to slightly secret auteurs. My favorite writers and directors are people like Jacques Tourneur and Samuel Fuller, who are not people who were part of the Hollywood majority. They're more secret, clandestine filmmakers, and I see my films in that tradition or that lineage.

BB: After I first saw Miss and the Doctors (2013), I visited a friend in Paris. He lived quite close to you, and pointed out various settings in the Chinatown area where that film was shot. The feeling of a neighborhood film is especially strong in that movie, but it's present to some degree in all of your films. This makes me think of filmmakers like Paul Vecchiali, and another secret auteur, Richard Quine, who made a few films set in Greenwich Village, like Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and My Sister Eileen (1955) that have a very similar feeling to your films.

AR: Yes, I like Richard Quine very much. I really have a taste for that whole secret part of American cinema. I think that fundamentally art is related to the secret, to secrecy. And that's true of mise en scène as well. Now that's an idea that's not at all fashionable at the moment, particularly in film festivals, where the awards tend to go to hysterical, demonstrative films. I like films that have a secret about them, that have a modesty in their representation. That's what touches me. It's my personal taste, but it's something that's very hard to put into practice from an economic point of view, because I hear often, "Your screenplay is very nice, but it's so small, it's so little." And I have this idea that the secret can be something else—but it's a very hard idea to impose.

BB: There's a paradox in American filmmaking, where a more expensive film is easier to finance.

AR: Yes, that's a very paradoxical, absurd thing, which is that money goes to money. I think it is related to capitalism, but indeed, the more expensive a film is, the more it gets funding. It's a very curious thing. Now I'm someone who is very inspired by the Nouvelle Vague and notably the ethics of the Nouvelle Vague, which was that, for one thing, there was no reason for a film to be expensive and that if money was spent on the film it should be visible on screen. So I'm very inspired by someone like Éric Rohmer who worked in a very reduced, specific economy. But that's an idea that's hard to get across and to champion today.

BB: What scale of film would you like to make? Do you feel you can pursue that, or that you have to adapt to fit the current system?

AR: That's a very pertinent question, which we French filmmakers have been thinking about for three years now, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cinema has suffered a great deal. And I'm personally rather pessimistic that the system will be able to continue to fund small films. I think that that's over, that it's our responsibility as filmmakers to think about things differently, that that is proof of practical intelligence. Personally, I hope to soon make my fifth feature film. It happens that I'm a woman and not a man, so I understand that if I were to continue to make the kind of films that I've made so far, it would be increasingly difficult for me to get normal budgets to make these films. Because it's difficult for women to be trusted with normal, significant budgets. I've come to think that we filmmakers need to show off our muscles a little bit more. That's something I'm sorry about, but I think it's true. So for instance, in real life, I'm an intellectual, but that's something you don't really see in my films. In fact, when people meet me and they know my films, they're often surprised to see what my brain is like, how I talk, which isn't necessarily reflected in the films that I make. Now, I've come to think that I need to be a little stronger, a little smarter than before, that perhaps, going forward, I need to make films with bigger subjects, more obvious casting. I need to rethink things.

BB: Regarding gender differences in filmmaking, where do you think there is still room for improvement?

AR: Well, first of all, I have to say that we're very lucky in France. We have many, many female directors here, more than in any other country. And yet, we still observe that the more a woman advances in her career, the more these women disappear. There are different reasons for that, but that's a place where something could be done. It's a rather complicated issue that has to do with the relationship to ambition and money. It's this question of why it is so hard to entrust a woman director with a €10 million budget, and not so hard to entrust that same budget to a male director. The second thing that could be worked on is something that frustrates me a great deal, which is that when people talk about women directors’ films, often they only talk about the subject of the film. Now, it's true that women directors, through the fact that they have a singular experience, which is not a man's experience, in recent years have found subjects for films that had never been treated in cinema before. Nonetheless, I find that we never talk about mise en scène when talking about women directors’ films, and that mise en scène remains in the realm of male directors’ films, and with women’s films, or women directors’ films, it's primarily the subject that's talked about. I would like it if we started to talk about the mise en scène of films directed by women. The only woman director where there's real questions asked about mise en scène is Chantal Akerman. She made truly radical films where the mise en scène was really striking, but other women directors don't have a right to that. I read a great deal of film criticism and, no, it's not mise en scène that's treated when writing about women directors. It's the subject, it's the energy of the film—which ultimately is not that interesting.

BB: As for showing muscle as a filmmaker: how can we resist mise en scène's slow death by television?

AR: On a personal level, I watch a lot of series, and I like the pleasure of narration, the pleasure of characters, the pleasure of writing in these series. But I am absolutely convinced that the series is not the place for mise en scène. A series, in the best cases, is only a “style guide”—but a style guide is not a mise en scène. For example, anybody can tell you about a camera movement or a particular frame that they were struck by in a film, but no one can tell you about a formal move in a series that they're going to remember for their whole life. And yet, we filmmakers are constantly being shown the series as a model of success. When you begin making a film, you don't have a whole grammar, it's something that you invent as you go along. Mise en scène is something much more mysterious. And yet the success of series is such that they become a scarecrow for directors. It's something that's very hard to fight.

BB: The mise en scène in Miss and the Doctors is so well attuned to spaces, to the way that different people inhabit and move through them; the way the brothers share but have different relationships with their office, or the wonderful passages of “dead time" of Judith's trips to and from work. These things are as moving as the more overt drama of the characters’ relationships with one another. I'm curious how you find and build that.

AR: My films look very modest from the industry's point of view, but in fact, the mise en scène is there and thought through from A to Z, from beginning to end. When I write scenes, I'm thinking about the mise en scène. Throughout the preparation of the film, I'm thinking about the mise en scène. And I only choose a location or a set if there is the possibility of a mise en scène in that space, for that mise en scène to deploy itself. It's something that I feel physically in a set or on a location, that starts to exist there.

BB: Your films are quite classical much of the time. I know that that's something that's important to you: a certain evenness and a directness, what you've talked about before as the “line” of the film. But I also feel that they resist this in subtle ways, especially in how you approach time. For example, Miss and the Doctors has many strange little ellipses, diversions of the narrative, the dead time of the walks, which is almost something out of Antonioni or Demy, and something that I really love: very, very short scenes, almost fragments. Or, in Petite Solange, the film came alive for me in the extended final sequence, where time seems to dilate, and you have a long moment that has a vertigo to it, that reaches deep into Solange's past and into her future. Is there a tension for you between a classical approach and something more radical and modern?

AR: My films can appear very classical because there's something essential for me, which is to build unforgettable characters. I love characters in film, in literature, and to build these characters or to construct them, you have to follow them. That's classical linearity. In Petite Solange, for instance, we're with her every single scene. The danger when you make classical films is to fall into academicism, and that's something I hate. I like the Nouvelle Vague, who were very anti-academic. I like Jean-Luc Godard. So when I feel that things are becoming too classical, I have an urge to have ruptures, to make things a little more brutal. And that's a constant tension for me, between classicism and modernity, between tenderness and brutality, between empathy and distance. That's a struggle that exists for me and in my films.

BB: I'm curious about how that interacts with your films’ distinctively heterogeneous acting styles. I get the sense that instead of conforming actors to your universe, you encourage their idiosyncrasies. For example, in Petite Solange, Jade Springer is so quiet, tense, reflective, and then you have Philippe Katerine as her father, who gives a bizarre, playful, Renoirian performance with very peculiar timings.

AR: For me, actors and actresses are at the heart of cinema. I got interested in cinema not because of mise en scène, but because when I was ten years old I started to collect photographs of actors and actresses, notably American actors and actresses. My idols were Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall. I've always been fascinated by actors and actresses. It's for them that I make films; not for me, not for mise en scène, for actors and actresses. Personally, I like actors who are not like Play-Doh, who come with their personalities. In all my films, I've cast these strong personalities that seem a little strange. In my first film, it was François Damiens, in my latest film, it was Philippe Katerine. And I'm very interested in this capacity that a film has, where the actor is not a robot, where the film allows in this strangeness.

BB: It's something that you also find very strongly in Paul Vecchiali's films—and I know that for him it also began with collecting photographs of movie stars he adored. In light of his having recently passed, could you speak a little bit about him?

AR: Yes, I love Paul Vecchiali. This is someone who in the 1970s made three absolutely genius films: Femmes femmes [1974], Corps à coeur [1979], La Machine [1977]. These are films that should be shown in every country, in every film school. They're extraordinary films. I did know Vecchiali, and I must say I'm very pleased that he liked my films. I also should mention, in the Diagonale world [Vecchiali’s production company – Ed.], Marie-Claude Treilhou and her film Simone Barbès ou la Vertu (1980). You have filmmakers who help you through the image of art that they give; I'm very influenced, for instance, by American filmmakers like Otto Preminger. And then you have other filmmakers who help you because they make the practice of cinema seem accessible, something that is true of the Nouvelle Vague and the Diagonale filmmakers. When young people saw their films, they made it seem possible to make films. That's something very generous and very concrete, and Paul Vecchiali played that role.

BB: You share this enthusiasm with Serge Bozon, with whom you’ve co-written all of his features. And you’re also writing with other filmmakers now.

AR: This year I wrote with two directors. One was Blandine Lenoir, who I think is one of the few really feminist directors in French cinema. We worked on Annie colère (2022) together. It was really interesting to work on the subject of ’70s feminism, because we weren't starting from a cinephile place or dealing with film references, which is unusual for me: we were really dealing with political and social questions. The second film I worked on this year was Patric Chiha’s The Beast in the Jungle (2023). His cinema is really an aesthete's cinema. Together we worked on an adaptation of a Henry James novella. It was a lot of brainstorming, a lot of speculation, really exhausting. We laughed a lot because it was so hard, but it was really the opposite of the Blandine Lenoir project. It's a coincidence, but I think that in a way defines where I'm at, which is that on one hand, there's this formal work pushed to an extreme that's very intellectual, and on the other, a desire to deal with political hot topics. That's where I want to be at the moment.

BB: Will that inform a new project that I've heard about, an account of the Nouvelle Vague through a female lens?

AR: When I said earlier that we really have to show our muscles now and stop being so secretive, yes, the projects that I'm going to launch for the next two years are very different from my previous films, which one could say were very discreet and secret. I have two feature film projects that I'm working on now. One is an adaptation of an Edith Wharton short story, about sexual blackmail in high society. The other is a feature film about femicides, a subject that I studied and investigated for a year and a half, and which I'm now turning into a film. And the series about the Nouvelle Vague is something that I really care about, that I really want to do. I'm someone who knows the Nouvelle Vague by heart. I own the fact that I'm a mega-cinephile, and I want to show that women directors can have a discourse and something to say about cinephilia and the Nouvelle Vague, that it's not just Assayas and Desplechin. And so the project is to tell the story of the Nouvelle Vague through a female prism, that of Mag Bodard, who was a great woman producer who produced Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, and Maurice Pialat at the beginning of his career.

BB: One last question: You've said you go into shooting with a few songs in mind. What were these for Petite Solange?

AR: "Daddy Dear,” by Danny and Dena Kaye, and "I Started a Joke," by the Bee Gees.

Petite Solange + the Films of Axelle Ropert runs March 24–30 at BAM.