Interview: Justine Triet
Familial drama lands smack dab in the middle of a political storm in Justine Triet’s debut feature, Age of Panic, screening in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. The French title, La Bataille de Solférino (“The Battle of Solferino”), is perhaps a more apt description of the dramedy, which unfolds entirely over the course of Election Day 2012 in France—the fateful day when the staunchly right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy was ousted by François Hollande, France’s first socialist president since Mitterrand.
It’s on that same day that we’re introduced to the quotidian struggles of Laetitia (Laetitia Dosch), a single workingwoman with two infants. Getting out the door every morning is a battle in and of itself, but on this particular day, the children’s unrelenting screams are compounded by a pestering boyfriend, a hapless first-time babysitter (Marc-Antoine Vaugeois), and an apparently dangerous ex-husband, Vincent (Vincent Macaigne), lurking outside the building. Leaving strict instructions with the babysitter not to allow her ex into the apartment, Laetitia sets off via moped for Rue de Solférino, where she’s covering the election for a TV news station.
Shooting on location during a frenzied political rally, Triet fuses documentary and narrative techniques to great impact, punctuating the drama with moments of comedic levity. The tensions of the election rise in tandem with the happenings at the flat, coming to a head when the kids are introduced into the chaos of Solférino, closely trailed by Vincent. FILM COMMENT caught up with Triet over the phone from Paris to discuss the role of politics in making the film and its distinctive in-the-moment energy.
Can you talk about the genesis of your project? Given that a large portion of the film was shot on location on Election Day, I would imagine conception and execution must come paired fairly close together.
On the contrary, it was quite a long process to prepare the film. I started one year before. We were planning to shoot 20 minutes on Election Day, but we had to shoot a lot of things so we had seven cameras. That part of the film was very, very prepared, because we had to be. It was also very complicated, because we didn’t have all the proper authorizations. So it was like organizing for a war.
You’ve described your filmmaking style as “an organized mess in staging.” This film feels both highly improvised and highly structured. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How much was planned in advance and how much happened on the fly?
What was very prepared was the narrative—the scenes were all precisely written. But since I come from documentary, I need to go against that, and the way I do that is to place professional actors next to people who are not actors at all to break that pattern in the shoot. What wasn’t written, for instance, was that the children would start crying, and also the project was written with the belief that Sarkozy would win the election. So the documentary element is all these things that weren’t planned for. When we were shooting in the crowd, there was always the risk that we could be kicked out of the area, which at one point did happen. The story is very dramatic, but the drama is always contradicted by the supporting characters who are more comedic actors, so there’s a mixture of tone—the happy accidents which I put in place through the style of my directing alters what is written.
That’s one of the things that works so well in the film—the highly tense drama is lightened by comedy. I’m curious about your method of working with your actors, particularly the challenges of working with such young children.
It was quite complicated to work with such young babies. Initially, I wrote the script for a 5-year-old, but I did a long casting process and didn’t find anyone who acted well. Ultimately, I cast my own daughter and my best friend’s daughter, which actually made things a lot simpler—working with a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old who couldn’t speak. I told the adults simply to adapt to them—the children are there, you must work with them—and I found that the actors were much better when they were around the children. I’ve rarely seen such young children in cinema really exist, where they’re not just decorative, and that led to a powerful tension. Of course, when they’re in Rue de Solférino in the crowd, it was dangerous at certain moments and we had to put the children aside and protect them and re-shoot certain parts on another day.
I don’t want to use the word manipulation, but at some points in the film we had to be very specific with the children. For instance, there’s one scene where we had to bring one of the children’s real fathers on set—the scene where Vincent Macaigne comes into the apartment—because the kids had to look like they were being reunited with their father. What I found very interesting was the effect the children had on the adult actors—it led to a raw and real tension. It was an accident that it worked out that way, but such young kids really served the film and this tension served the film.
The characters feel very real—they’re all extremely flawed and none of them is especially likeable. By the end, it’s hard to tell which of them is more irresponsible or more unfit to be a parent. Is the battle over the kids meant to parallel the battle for presidency, perhaps commenting that neither candidate is fit to be president?
Indeed, that’s something I talked a lot about during the promotion of the film: this duel between the parents, and the duel between the political left and right. It’s not something I theorized during the writing, but the idea of the duel did exist, and it was important to show that people are impure. I didn’t want the women to be just poor little victims and the men be their abusers, for example.
I did have a political vision for the film, which is that this is more of a depoliticized generation—politics is actually taking place elsewhere, in the family. It was important to set the film within something that is important for France, but ultimately maybe it’s anecdotal. There was a bit of a gesture of defiance in setting the film in that crowd. It reminded me of when I was in a similar crowd for the election of Ségolène Royal. When I was in that crowd, I thought to myself that everybody has a story and each of those stories is more important than the story that’s being told in the crowd about a political figure.
The film must have changed a lot if you were expecting Sarkozy to win. Did you have to re-write the end midway through shooting or did it still fit?
The only thing that changed was that there was supposed to be a major scene of revolt, and now it’s just a tiny scene in the film. I think if Sarkozy had won, the central character would have been in a crowd full of people crying, which is where I found myself in 2007 when I was in the crowd for Ségolène Royal.
Hollande’s unexpected victory ending is perhaps even fitting for the drama in your film. His campaign was based around change—just as the central characters try to change, though they never really do. Do you think France has seen any real change under Hollande’s leadership or have things remained stagnant?
No, nothing has changed. And I knew in writing the film that there would be cynicism a year after Hollande’s victory. Watching it now, you kind of laugh to yourself when you see these posters everywhere that say “change, now” because most people knew that there wouldn’t really be change. Most people, of course, were happy that Sarkozy was leaving power, but even on the night of Hollande’s victory there was a certain disillusion and ultimately this becomes a comedic aspect to the film. I don’t think that I could’ve made this film in 1981 when François Mitterand was elected, because politics were more important then. My film is really a film about today, when the separation of a couple is more important than the election of a president.
The idea was a film that shows more than one perspective, and really to shift the audience’s point of view so that the audience takes sides at one point for him, at one point for her. The editing was done with that in mind. But ultimately, nothing has changed for the characters either.
You’ve said that your work focuses on the place of the individual within a group. Was your first feature an opportunity to expand on this theme, or a chance to step out into a different direction?
I did expand on what I’ve done before. There are no accidents—you can’t help but continue from where you’ve been before. But there is something new I did in this film, and that was showing Paris in a way that I don’t see it shown very often. Not as a museum city, where everything is fossilized, but as a city where spectacular things do happen. It’s not necessarily a dead city.
You come from a documentary background. Were you influenced by other genres or filmmakers, French or otherwise?
There’s a ton. It’s a difficult question to answer. I watch a lot of TV series now, but in the past I was very influenced by cinema, by Cassavetes for example. Today I’m influenced a lot by U.S. comedies, like Girls, and I’ve just discovered Orange Is the New Black.
Any future projects we can look forward to?
I’m beginning a new project, but I’m not talking about it much at the moment. There will again be a female character, and there will be a back-and-forth between her personal life and her professional life, but it will be a totally different world.
Translated by Nicholas Elliott.