Interview: Jean Paul Civeyrac
In My Friend Victoria, French writer-director Jean Paul Civeyrac shifts the action of Doris Lessing’s short story “Victoria and the Staveneys” from London to contemporary Paris, but otherwise remains faithful to Lessing’s tale of a young black woman and her relationship with a wealthy white family. Victoria (Guslagie Malanda) becomes fascinated with the family as a little girl, then later has a daughter out of wedlock with one of the sons. As she struggles both with a sense that she is losing her daughter to this bourgeois family and the growing resentment of her own son, who has a black father and does not enjoy the family’s attention, Victoria provides an unusual and welcome insight into the situation of foreigners in France today. In Victoria and the subtle work of Guslagie Malanda, Civeyrac has found a character who escapes the clichés of socially conscious films, drawing instead on the mysterious tone of his previous features to create a person whose silences open a world of questions.
FILM COMMENT talked to Jean Paul Civeyrac about the riddles of his title character, the climate in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and an inspiring Richard Brooks film.
What was the starting point for My Friend Victoria?
A proposal from my producer, who had read Doris Lessing’s story “Victoria and the Staveneys.” When I read it, I told myself I could make a movie of it, first for narrative reasons, because I found the narrative very surprising in the way it unfolded from very simple initial elements, as if its subject were revealed little by little. The beginning of the story remains quite mysterious for a while, you don’t really know where it’s going. So I was sensitive to the story’s charms. And this story would also allow me to create a kind of photograph of what I see around me in Paris and France regarding the situation of foreigners. Let’s say I was interested in its political dimension. That’s really the starting point. After that, I got to work and naturally things changed. My general interest in all this allowed me to construct a character whom I found fascinating.
Initially I saw the film’s social dimension as a turning point in your work. But actually your films have featured other characters who did not quite fit into society. Do you view My Friend Victoria as a change in your body of work?
My first film Neither Eve nor Adam  was inspired by real events, and I remember that I had a political intention to show people who were excluded from society. That aspect may have gotten a little lost in my subsequent films. The feature before My Friend Victoria, Young Girls in Black  did have a political dimension, but My Friend Victoria is different in that this time both the narrative and the characters talk about politics. The subject is in the film, explicitly, though the film also has other layers. People in the film talk about socialism, racism, or schools. That didn’t happen in my other films, where the political aspect was implicit.
In more formal terms, my films can be divided into two categories. One tends toward more dreamlike, poetic, fantasy forms. There’s a series of films with ghosts. Then since my third feature Man’s Gentle Love , there’s also been a more novelistic, romantic trend. Man’s Gentle Love, All the Fine Promises , and Victoria belong to this somewhat melodramatic trend in my work, inspired by the American filmmakers of the Fifties I like. Victoria mixes the political aspect of some of my films, making it explicit, and this novelistic or melodramatic dimension. In a minor way, it also includes some fantastic elements, which I explored in some other films, like the return of the dead or sleepwalking. So I can’t really say the film is a turning point. I have a feeling it’s a continuation of what I’ve done before but perhaps in a way that appears clearer and simpler and less hidden than in my other films.
I was struck by Victoria’s presence. She is a character that communicates far more than she says. She has a kind of opacity behind which the viewer can imagine a lot of things. How did you cast Guslagie Malanda, the actress who plays Victoria, and how did you work with her?
Thank you for saying that. I’m always very happy when people see the movie that way because sometimes that escapes some viewers. The choice of the lead actress was decisive. The first version of the script, which was the version that allowed us to find financing and start the casting process, had a lead character closer to the one in Lessing’s story. She was less mysterious and more immediately touching. More of a “lost girl,” if you like, but one who was not particularly difficult to understand. I had a lot of trouble finding an actress. I found someone to play Victoria based on the first version, but ultimately the film led me to rewrite the script, and in rewriting I accentuated what you’ve just described about the character. I also accentuated the film’s intimate, less documentary side—a more novelistic aspect. In the initial version, there were quite a few events drawn from contemporary French history.
Part of why I rewrote the film was that the script was too long for the amount of money we had raised. Rather than cut it, I chose to rewrite. But the problem was that the actress I had chosen no longer fit the part. The initial actress was really Victoria in the social sense, she came from the same class as the character. The casting was accurate sociologically, but it no longer fit from a narrative perspective. My intuition told me that actress couldn’t be a heroine in a melodrama. In fact, she didn’t feel very comfortable with the new script. So we started casting again. I found Guslagie Malanda, who has a very different life from Victoria, but she seemed to me to be a real melodrama heroine. And on top of that she was something of a floating, drifting character, an aspect which became accentuated. The actress reinforced something already present but which was still germinating and wasn’t yet clear to me. By filming her as she was, I noticed that we needed to accentuate this very opaque, somewhat floating aspect. I started to organize the mise en scène around her. I designed all these constantly moving, gentle shots to be centered on her and that ultimately created this character who for me became the representation of the stranger, meaning a stranger to the world, in a social, racial sense of course, but also in a more metaphysical sense. She is nearly a stranger to herself, she doesn’t really know what she is in the universe. That comes from a combination of a version of the script that moved away from Lessing and became more melodramatic, and Guslagie herself, who created this character and allowed me to conceive the mise en scène.
Victoria’s silence and foreignness feel like drama, while the silence and foreignness of the young black males in the film feel more like social commentary. I was struck by the silence of Victoria’s adoptive brother and especially of her son. How did you conceive of these characters?
Another thing that interested me about Victoria, which relates to her opacity or silence, is that she is caught in a narrative told through a voiceover: a lot of things are said out loud but the essential is not. Some people complain that the voiceover tells you everything but actually I think there is a great deal of silence around the character, things that are not told. That creates an implicitly novelistic character. I was interested in how the heroine hangs back, in how she is quite mysterious while a lot of events take place around her. This really becomes visible with her son, who is constantly in the observer’s position. It’s as if Victoria’s silence was passed on to him. But the film also does something that I don’t remember finding in the book, which is that quite early on that little boy knows a lot. He understand things by watching what goes on around him. In the last part of the film the viewer’s gaze slips from Victoria to the little boy so that by the end the viewer is watching what goes on from the boy’s point of view. His point of view is like the last domino to fall. Every social or narrative process at work in the film ends with the little boy, who will not live in the Savinet family or have a father. He will live with Victoria. It’s as if they were pushed aside, which seemed right to me in relation to the rest of the film and also to what Doris Lessing was talking about. It’s a process of non-integration, by which the foreigner remains a foreigner. In France, it’s clear that though we say an individual with black skin is French, there is a general subconscious that holds that the individual is not French. Meaning that we still do not accept that a black person is French. It’s theoretically accepted but not truly. The final part of the film bears witness to this. It’s actually a paradoxical film, because it tells the story of an adoption. It’s the story of the integration of a mixed-race little girl into a white French family. The film is also about an exclusion and the status of the foreigner, told through the narrative of an adoption. That’s what I thought was great about Doris Lessing’s story, that paradoxical, contradictory way of showing things.
The end of the film caught me off guard. Because the film is told in flashback through Victoria’s adoptive sister’s concerned voiceover, one expects a particular event to drive her to start Victoria’s story. But the film ends on a state of being rather than an event. Is that how Lessing’s story ends? Did you intend to surprise the viewer?
Lessing’s story doesn’t end that way. In the story—which takes place in London—Victoria regularly goes to temple a [Protestant] church and by the end she has entered a relationship with the pastor, which suggests she will find a father for her son. That ending is a little more positive but also more ironic because Victoria does not love the pastor. I chose to cut it because while there are evangelical churches attended by people of African background in and around Paris, I don’t think it’s very significant here.
I thought it was good to end on a sustained note, which would be the film’s real note, a melancholy note, which allows one to gather one’s thoughts and feelings over that image of rain on the bus shelter. It’s interesting that you brought this up because yesterday I saw a rare Richard Brooks film, The Happy Ending [from 1969], which stars his wife Jean Simmons. It’s an astonishingly modern film about the couple, probably one of his best. Formally, it ends exactly like what you described: on a state of being. The film is about a woman who leaves her husband after 15 years. At the end she comes back and we see the couple talking. The film ends very abruptly after one of the characters asks a question. You’re expecting a dramatic event or a reconciliation, some kind of decision, but it ends on that state. I myself was surprised by the end of Brooks’s film, that’s why I’m telling you about it. I was expecting something more, but immediately after the ending, I realized that it was great.
Did it remind you of the end of My Friend Victoria?
Yes, a little. But what’s really surprising is that while the film is a harsh, disenchanted critique of American society, it is very charming to watch. It’s aesthetically very beautiful, with photography by Conrad Hall and songs by Michel Legrand. There’s an extraordinary shot, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, of Jean Simmons, who has become an alcoholic. The camera slowly moves in to a close-up of her, not unlike some of the shots in My Friend Victoria. She describes what it is to drink, saying that it makes time float, that you need to drink just the right amount so you won’t notice time has passed. Since the shot is quite long, you see what she’s describing in the shot. It’s a magnificent shot about melancholy and what it means to be in the world. Though I’m a long way from Brooks’s brilliance, I think his film and My Friend Victoria share an ambition to show suffering and to include a critical dimension with a great deal of charm, nearly without seeming to, through beautiful sequences or amusing moments. I like that way of working.
Speaking of your own film’s charm, I was seduced by the way the camera seems to glide over what is filmed. Could you tell me more about your choices regarding camera movements?
This is the most difficult thing for me to talk about, because it’s very intuitive. So describing it after the fact is a little like hearing the sound of my own voice. But what I’ve noticed when I’m at work is that I’m looking for a kind of fluidity, a gentleness in the way of filming things, and also economy. Meaning that the fewer shots there are, the happier I am. I like things to be done as simply as possible, even if it requires a lot of work and ultimately that work isn’t visible. But there’s also a need to make shots that allow actors to flourish, both in their acting and as people. In other words, we need to see them well, to see what I like about them when I film them, both their faces and their bodies, their way of moving and walking. So I’m trying to compose shots that tell what the sequence needs to convey while retaining a fluidity, clarity, and gentleness and allowing the actors to appear the best they can as the characters in the film. That’s a difficult combination. I have a taste for relatively close shots—there are quite a few close-ups in the film—but my use of the close-up is not so much an attempt to capture the actors in certain emotions or push them to do something by being very close to them but a type of contemplation, which is achieved at a distance through the use of long lenses. Naturally all of that is organized around a narrative and characters that need to be constructed and especially the character of Victoria. I tried to film Guslagie’s way of moving and walking, her delivery, as best I could, while remaining at the right distance for it to be visible.
The film was released on December 30 in France. How was it received?
The critical reception was very good, with a couple of exceptions. And the public’s reception was also good, at least in comparison to my other films. Many more people have seen this one. I think we’re at 50,000 seats sold, which is huge for me given that my previous film Young Girls in Black sold 13,000 tickets. In terms of production and distribution, everything is going well, but for a French auteur film to be considered a success at the box office you have to sell at least 100,000 tickets. I’m not at that level, but in terms of my films, My Friend Victoria has been seen by many more people than usual. So I’m very pleased. Naturally, as you probably know, the attack on Charlie Hebdo on January 7 led to a precipitous drop in box office.
The one thing that’s a little disappointing is that the film was not selected by the major festivals, with the exception of London. I think it’s a film that would really have benefited from a festival like Cannes, Locarno, or Venice. That didn’t work out—I think it went a little unnoticed. It’s the kind of film you have to keep an eye out for. It can escape people who look too fast. I’m not judging, I know that it’s always a roll of the dice when you go before selection committees, commissions, and juries. But I’m very happy with its commercial release.
Though your characters have no direct relation to the issues surrounding the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the events that followed, I have the impression there’s currently an eagerness to hear more about the figure of the Other in France. Did that come up in audience responses to the film after the attacks?
Yes. People brought it up in post-screening Q&As. Look, things are tense in France regarding these issues. Granted, the film doesn’t talk about Islam or Islamic fundamentalism, but I think the problem is more general than that. The real question is not a religious one. In France, there are people who are totally against Islam, who say it’s incompatible with the French and Western ways of life. There’s another group of people who say the problem isn’t Islam, but rather that there are a lot of people who live in really poor ghettos and that at a certain point Islam is offered up as an ideology, but that’s not actually what Islam is. That’s not what the Koran conveys. In the Seventies, these young people who carried out the attacks could have done the same thing in the name of extreme-left or extreme-right ideologies. The debate is a little bogged down in this kind of dichotomy. But I think it actually goes beyond that. I think it has something to do with foreigners. This discussion is important and there are fights to be fought, but there’s something very powerful in France regarding foreigners, that goes beyond religion. That’s why I didn’t want to talk about religion in the film. I think religion is fundamental, but it’s not decisive, meaning that at a certain point things play out on a more general level. What does it mean to be a foreigner? What is a foreigner and how is he welcomed? What is hospitality? What is it like to be born and live in a place with a foreign background? These are unresolved questions, which we never talk about because we always get swept up in an activist discourse about religious questions.
Translated by Nicholas Elliott