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Interview: Axelle Ropert

By Nicholas Elliott on March 07, 2014 in Film Comment Featured, Film Comment

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Axelle Ropert is something of an outlier in the world of French cinema. Originally known as a fierce critic associated with La Lettre du Cinéma—the short-lived Paris film journal that forged its own path and specialized in resurrecting Seventies French auteurs—Ropert has developed into a writer and director of gentle but profound films that achieved commercial success. Her second feature, Miss and the Doctors, is the ingenious tale of two brothers (played by Cédric Kahn and Laurent Stocker) who share a medical practice in Paris’s rarely filmed Chinese neighborhood in the 13th arrondissement. Making house calls as a duo, the brothers find their close relationship tested when they both fall for a delightful neighbor in a red coat (Louise Bourgoin, one of France’s most bankable young leading ladies).

Ropert's film (French title: Tirez la langue, mademoiselle) patiently accumulates enigmatic detail and builds through brief scenes to become a deeply moving story of love and solitude in a neon-lit Paris, yielding subtle surprises ranging from adolescent patients diagnosing their doctors to declarations of love in hospital waiting rooms. With its vivid nocturnal photography and Ropert’s wry, slightly heightened dialogue, the movie provides the basic but essential pleasure of a Hollywood classic from the Golden Age, erasing time while you watch but keeping its grip long after you have returned to the light of day.

FILM COMMENT discussed with Ropert the personal inspirations behind Miss and the Doctors, which screens in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, and her love of movie glamour and telling details.

What was the basis for the story of Miss and the Doctors?

Despite appearances, the basis of the story is very documentary. I come from a family of doctors, so I know their way of thinking. I really like the medical milieu, which is a great springboard for fiction. I also know Paris’s Chinatown, the film’s setting, because it’s where I live. You never see the neighborhood in French film, though it’s a great setting for a movie. So I was inspired by the conjunction of the world of medicine and a neighborhood I know like the back of my hand. On a more cinephile level, there is a category of film I like very much, but which I don’t quite know how to describe. The French critic Louis Skorecki refers to them as films that have a domestic charm, a neighborhood charm. The major reference for the genre is a minor movie for which I have a lot of affection: Garry Marshall’s Frankie and Johnny, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. It’s a little neighborhood film with a delightful love story between two adults, set in New York in two or three settings. It’s like a song you would find on a jukebox. That was another thing I wanted: to make a film that would be like a song you put on a jukebox and listen to every day while you’re having your coffee and that has a kind of deep charm. I was also inspired by the Tim Hardin song “How Can We Hang On To a Dream,” which plays over the film’s opening credits and has a laconic quality and contained pain that set the tone. I usually start off on a film with two or three songs in mind.

Do French doctors really operate as duos?

No, that’s too weird! Only in cinema do brothers work hand in hand.

Your films have changed a lot since your first film, the 45-minute Étoile violette (05), which felt quite intellectual and in some ways remote, while Miss and the Doctors evokes what can be most profound in Hollywood movies. How do you perceive this evolution?

Well, I haven’t made many films: three in nine years. But I think my films have gained in flexibility and humor. I love humor in films, but you don’t find much of it in French auteur cinema. French filmmakers don’t allow themselves much humor, lightness, irony, or fantasy. I developed my sense of humor by watching a lot of American movies and now little by little I’m daring to use my sense of humor in my films, which I didn’t express when I was young because I was very shy. The combination of humor and novelistic storytelling is an American formula, not at all a French one. The great novelistic French films by Truffaut or Téchiné are not at all funny.

The way you film your female lead, Louise Bourgoin, is also reminiscent of Hollywood, particularly the Technicolor films of the Fifties. She nearly bursts out of the frame in that red coat.

My director of photography, Céline Bozon, and I took a paradoxical approach to Louise Bourgoin. Personally, I think Louise is at the peak of her beauty in my film, she has never been as beautiful elsewhere, yet the way we worked was the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do when you want to show an actress’s beauty. Normally, you put her in magnificent clothes, beautiful makeup, fancy dresses, high heels, all that stuff. We did the opposite: we really studied Louise and realized that we needed to reduce her classiness to magnify her and come back to a simplicity she lacked in other films. The beauty of actresses was a formative aspect of my desire to make movies, in the most basic sense of Hollywood glamour, meaning you have an actress and you try to reveal her beauty. I would be very unhappy if I was sent an actress and told, don’t worry about her beauty, make her look ugly. Making an actress look beautiful is totally essential to me. So I’m always happy when people tell me Louise is dazzling in the movie.

Your casting is very mixed: Louise Bourgoin, a movie star who started in TV; Cédric Kahn, a movie director who acts occasionally; and Laurent Stocker, a theater actor with the Comédie Française. Did you want to have a mix or is that just how things fell into place?

No... People who don’t like my film often say it’s too classical, too calm, too sensible, a little old-fashioned. That makes me really angry because I constantly took risks on this film. One risk was to cast actors who were extremely heterogeneous, both in their acting styles and their looks. I did this on purpose because it’s a lot more fun and lively on set when you take chances on the casting. I wouldn’t have cast actors who came from the same category of cinema—that would have been too boring. I intentionally made it really dicey, even if it meant catastrophe—there are some rushes that I wouldn’t want anyone to see! But it was premeditated.

Did you have a distinct way of working with each actor?

No. I don’t really believe in the principles of directing actors. I do it in the moment, based on the person and what he or she is like that day. Nonetheless, each actor had his or her specific way of working. Stocker is from the school of theater and loving work more than anything, so he’s absolutely autonomous in his work and constantly enjoying it. Louise comes from television, so she has terrible complexes and needs to always be reassured. She requires a lot of psychological coaching. Cédric Kahn is of a school which I thought would be easy but is actually very difficult, that of actor-directors. He’s very intuitive, which can be good and bad, but he has a hard time remaining an actor when he’s on set. He’s very difficult to contain, and on top of that, he comes from a type of cinema totally different from mine, a cinema obsessed with reality, documentary, etc. It was tough with him, but it made for a set that was very alive, explosive, and a little tense. I like that.

How did you conceive the film’s structure?

The edit of the film is extremely close to the original script. I have great admiration for films that feel like they were written, shot, and edited according to a single plan. When you see an Eric Rohmer film, you don’t feel like they turned everything upside down in the edit. I don’t really like the contemporary school of switching everything around at every stage of the process. I’m more enthralled with a Rohmer film, which appears to have an initial coherence and rolls along on a single track, than with Kechiche and company, where you feel like each stage is a revolution. I’m very sensitive to precision in cinema. Sometimes all you need is a precise detail for the whole scene to exist. Truffaut was obsessed with details. I think he was right: you just need a specific color or word or jewel in a scene for it to suddenly be like a little nail you drive into a wall and something very clear is expressed. I try to write with small details, while avoiding fetishes. Wes Anderson’s films seem like an accumulation of details bordering on fetishism. I don’t like fetishism, but I like small details that grab your attention.

Your dialogue isn’t heavy-handed or literary, but it calls attention to itself. How do you approach it?

That’s complicated. In the strategic context of French cinema, I’m very annoyed by people who say that the New Wave killed dialogue, that French cinema is lacking screenwriters. When I hear that, I want to say, who cares about dialogue and scripts, what matters is the direction! But on the other hand, when I see so many horribly written French films, I swing in the other direction and tell myself that it’s marvelous to write dialogue and I wonder why people don’t pay more attention to it. So I like dialogue that is precise and especially that has its own form. I have no interest in everyday common language. Both in life and on screen I like people who have a special way of talking, which doesn’t mean things need to be folksy or spectacular. All you need is for someone to have a somewhat peculiar accent or vocabulary and right away it’s like a story is beginning. When I write, I’m not looking to be natural—natural doesn’t come naturally to me. I try to lightly stylize the dialogue, which is a balancing act, of course.

Given the importance you place on dialogue, it makes sense that the French title of your film, Tirez la langue, Mademoiselle [Stick Out Your Tongue, Miss], comes from an expression which the two doctors repeat to their patients.

That was a provisional title we came up with at the start, which I found a bit cheesy. But we never found anything better, and once we saw the finished product, I thought it fit well. I don’t like it so much, though, because it sounds like the title of a romantic comedy, and the film is not a romantic comedy.

But it does make us laugh and is romantic. So what is it?

In any case, the romantic comedy in the film is between the two brothers, not between a man and a woman. I find the film too sad to be a real romantic comedy. Laurent Stocker’s character is quite heartbreaking. The end of the film isn’t exhilarating enough for a romantic comedy.

The sadness in the film also comes from your depiction of urban loneliness. You show the network of neighborhood connections, particularly through these two doctors who are known and appreciated by all, but people remain isolated.

I didn’t set out to show solitude in the big city. That’s such a cliché. Movies about that often have a shot of a character wandering alone in the crowd looking like a sad sack. I wanted to show something rather paradoxical, which is the pleasure of solitude in a big city. I love Paris and have no problem being alone here. People are alone in the film, but there is a kind of joy, or nobility, in it. I hope it’s not the conventional big-city loneliness.

The first time I met you, you mentioned that you would have preferred to shoot Miss and the Doctors on film stock. Yet your digital photography is beautiful. How would it have been better on film?

I’m still really unhappy with digital. Particularly since I just saw an extraordinary movie, Jean-Charles Fitoussi’s Je ne suis pas morte, one of the masterpieces of French cinema in 2014, and it was shot on film. It looks killer, which really poured salt on my wounds. The only positive about shooting my movie on digital was that I was able to capture life on the streets in a documentary style. All the street scenes are filmed without extras, it’s real life in the neighborhood, and we were able to do that because we had a small camera we could hide. Now it’s hard for me to imagine what my movie would be like on film, but I think I would have gained in the quality of flesh tones, which I’m very attentive to. You get a quality in the texture of the skin on film that you can’t get on digital. Ironically, I think we would also have a more natural look. My film’s photography is quite stylized, with saturated colors, sometimes over-saturated, but my DP and I had to stylize the color timing to make the picture more beautiful. On film, we wouldn’t have had to stylize to embellish the image. It remains a strong regret for me.

I love celluloid as much as you do, but digital seems to fit your movie, largely because there are so many neon lights with flashy colors, which look good on digital.

We were lucky to have the right setting for digital, which is to say a real place with beautiful, bright colors and strong contrasts. We made the film with very little money, so we didn’t have a lot of lighting equipment. My DP had very little latitude to make the set look good. It was an ideal setting for digital, whereas shooting digital by daylight in a natural setting would be hideous.

You don’t realize the film is low-budget while watching it. Can you tell me where it falls economically in the current landscape of French production?

The budget is no secret: 1.2 million euros. That’s tiny. The average budget for an auteur film is 2 or 3 million euros. Noémie Lvovsky and Desplechin’s budgets are generally around 5 million euros. But I’m really proud that I made a film with very little money and that you can’t tell. Since we knew early on that we wouldn’t have much money, we thought a lot about how to do things economically: we worked on the sets, the lighting and the schedule. I even think that the film’s lack of means nourishes its dramatic qualities, makes them more bare and raw. I may regret that we didn’t shoot on film, but I have no regrets regarding our limited budget.

Your film has had an unusual career. It did not go to many major festivals and it received a mixed critical reception, yet it seems to have real staying power.

I myself have a strange status. I first became known as an alleged ayatollah of film criticism, like a super-harsh Cahiers du cinéma type. It’s true that when I didn’t like a film, I had no problem saying so. But the films I make don’t match my radical image as a critic. I’ve often been told: “You’re an ayatollah critic but you make very gentle and simple movies. We can’t situate you at all.” I think that does me harm. People don’t understand how such an uncompromising woman can make such gentle, classical films. The second thing that accounts for my unusual career is that fundamentally what I like is classic American cinema. I like fiction, characters, actors, and actresses. I like simple things. So some people might think I’m going against the flow of contemporary modernity. I make films without ellipses, without editing effects, without hysteria. On the contrary, I’m really looking for the narrative’s linearity and continuity, for something organic. I think these are the hardest things to pull off. Trying to find the secret of the kind of storytelling you can find in American cinema is not very trendy at the moment in auteur film. There is a misconception about me, which is that I make classical, old-fashioned cinema. It makes me sad because I don’t recognize myself in it at all. What’s strange about Miss and the Doctors is that it received good reviews from people who aren’t my “natural” film family, i.e., the right-wing press and mainstream magazines, while those I am closer to, like left-wing papers such as Libération didn’t like it at all. So it started off as an obscure movie, liked by people who aren’t naturally on my side, but little by little it is drawing other people’s affection.

But it was a box-office success.

Absolutely. That’s part of the paradox. The film did very well in the theaters and made money, which is really important to me. If I made movies that lost money, it would make me sick. But I have a weird status as a director that can’t quite be identified. 

Yet your direction is as uncompromising as your criticism was.

There’s no contradiction as far as I’m concerned. I’m not Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And on top of that, Miss and the Doctors has a kind of hidden uncompromising quality: though I’m not making the film against a particular kind of cinema, I am intentionally not doing many things that I hate to see in a particular kind of cinema. I often say that I don’t make my films as an artist. I don’t feel like an artist, I feel like a moviegoer, which means that I am making the films that I feel are not available to me as a moviegoer. For instance, we don’t see many films with relatively gentle, novelistic storytelling. If there were many films like that, I might make a different film. If there were a lack of radical, experimental films, maybe that’s what I would do. I always think of my films as a viewer: what do I want to see on screen right now? I’m trying to fill gaps.

Who do you feel close to in cinema?

Many people have mentioned François Truffaut in relation to Miss and the Doctors. I love Truffaut, but I never thought about him for the film. Fundamentally, the two schools that are most important to me are the French New Wave and classic American cinema. I’m very receptive to the French New Wave ethos by which the economy of means is appropriate to the economy of fiction, meaning that the money spent is visible on screen. There is a great artistic honesty in the way money is managed in a Truffaut or Rohmer film. That may seem like a detail, but I think the alliance of art and money is extremely important to making a good film. When I’m watching a film and I can feel that money is being wasted on screen, it drives me crazy. I like the New Wave’s aesthetic honesty, which is why it didn’t bother me that my film was made on a small budget. Otherwise, I love American cinema for the beauty of its actresses and its dreamlike quality. As for contemporary French cinema, I feel close to Fitoussi, Vincent Dietschy, who made a great comedy called Didine two or three years ago and an extraordinary film called Julie est amoureuse in 1998. He’s like Renoir’s illegitimate son—I’ve never seen a film that so easily carries on his legacy. I also like Sophie Fillières, Frédéric Videau, and Laurent Achard. Brilliant filmmakers, but outsiders.

Are you writing your next film?

I’ve decided to make full use of my sense of humor. My next film will be a romantic comedy mixed with Douglas Sirk. It has a dramatic and tragic narrative, since the lead character is a blind woman like in Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, but it’s also a contemporary romantic comedy. I’m trying to find a way to make something that is novelistic but treats contemporary vulgarity. It’s a hard mix to pull off. So far it’s been my hardest film to write.

Translated by Nicholas Elliott.

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