Interview: Sophie Letourneur
Shadowing three flighty femmes through the fêtes of the Locarno Film Festival, Sophie Letourneur’s Les Coquillettes has drawn critical comparisons to Lena Dunham’s HBO show, Girls. While somewhat accurate—like Dunham, Letourneur’s style and tone eschew likeability in favor of authenticity—the connection-by-default underscores the glaring rarity of the female voice on screen.
Now 35 and a mother of two, the French writer-director and actress has done work that can be sorted according to her own stages of development. Her first feature, La Vie au ranch (09), naturalistically observes four post-adolescent girls struggling to strike a balance between independence and co-dependence. Although they have matured into their early thirties, the characters of Les Coquillettes haven’t grown up all that much. Letourneur’s fictionalized version of herself is more interested in stalking Louis Garrel than she is in the screening of her own film. Her two gal pals—the capricious Camille and ultra-cool Carole—are similarly man-crazy, immersing themselves in a whirlwind of parties hoping to score.
Framed by the postmortem meeting of the girls back in a Parisian flat, the film derives its humor from the disjunction between the way they recount (and embellish) the events of the festival and the way we see them unfolding. The voiceover dialogue creates a natural bridge that allows for a seamless simultaneity between the two different times and places.
Whether talking about hemorrhoids while stuffing cupcakes into their faces, or stumbling home late at night to gorge themselves on their favorite snack—the macaroni-shaped pasta that gives the film its title—Letourneur’s characters purposefully de-glamorize the ostensible glamor of the festival world. Her acute attention to everyday detail makes Les Coquillettes a frank portrait of arrested development that refreshingly relegates romance to the sidelines in order to focus on female friendship. FILM COMMENT spoke with the filmmaker via phone from Paris during New Directors / New Films; Les Coquillettes will run for a week at the Museum of Modern Art.
What was the impetus behind making a film set at a festival?
It’s very important for me to be in the filming process and not just writing for four or five years at a time. I had the opportunity and a little bit of money—30,000 euros from a prize I won with Le Marin masqué . The movie was selected for the Locarno Film Festival, so I had the idea to use the money to make a movie there. I’ve had the idea to shoot a story at a festival for a long time. Originally I thought I wanted to shoot it at Cannes, but when I had the money and the prize and the Locarno selection, I had a flash and said: “OK, I’ll do it there.” It’s a smaller festival so it’s a little bit easier.
You, Carole Le Page, and Camille Genaud all play yourselves. Did you have to do much writing for the characters or could you just act naturally?
It’s all written. But I used little things from the real people. They’re caricatures and they’re supposed to be funny. But in terms of real life, Carole is a bit tough, Camille is a bit crazy, and I’m kind of always nonchalant. So the characters are not very far off how we are in real life.
Your first feature, La Vie au ranch, is also about young women struggling to grow up. Does directing women come naturally to you?
Yeah, every time I have an idea to shoot a movie or someone, it’s always a female. I think perhaps because it’s a way to speak about myself, and to speak about what I know very well. To describe the female way of being and all the funny things that we do with our female spirit. I try to always make it funny, I’m not afraid of ridiculousness.
What I liked most about Les Coquillettes is how you highlight the difference between what actually happens and the way we recount what happens. That’s where the comedy comes in. When the girls are telling each other what happened at the festival after the fact, it doesn’t always match what we see unfolding. Was the flashback structure the original idea or did that come later?
That was the original idea. The entire film is written word for word. So already in the script, the two senses of time were there. And the voiceover passages were already decided before shooting. It’s the same structure I used in Marin masqué. But in Marin masqué it’s only a voice that’s telling the story, there are no images that show the time where the story’s being told. This time I wanted to shoot that—the three girls in the flat. But the voices over the images of Locarno were very important for me. All the sound was done after shooting, and it was very exciting for me to create the mix between the dialogue at Locarno, the voice of the girls telling the story in the flat, and all the noises of reality. The story is about rhythm and time; it was like making music.
Does it take more work to make things look so natural?
Yeah. Because I’m working with very small details of everyday life—microscopic things—it has to seem very natural to be interesting. You can only get to what’s natural by working very precisely. I did a little bit of documentary work after I finished school, and I realized that I wasn’t succeeding in showing what I really felt about reality. Construction is the only way to really show what I feel and what I see in it. The story is very subjective, but a lot of people can recognize these girls’ way of being. But to get it exact, I had to work with the script a lot to make the situation almost overly realistic.
What was it like for you to both play yourself and direct yourself?
It was a pleasure, because I like to act. Nobody in the movie is a real actor except Louis Garrel and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing. When I’m acting, I can direct the scene from the inside. Because I wasn’t taking the sound directly, I could speak when the camera couldn’t see my mouth and tell people what they had to do. Except for Carole and Camille, nobody had a script; I was telling them at the moment in the moment what to say and do. So it helped them to be natural because they couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen. They don’t act like actors.
The festival experience is portrayed in the film as being more about parties and connections than it is about movies. Does this reflect a reality of the festival scene for you?
It’s a comedy so I felt it was funny to make it very extreme. Everybody knows that festivals are not only about the movies, and I wanted the girls to arrive like a hair in the soup—it’s a French expression. They don’t care about any movies, especially her movie. I don’t care about my own movie in the film. When I say “What did we do that day?” Carole has to remind me: “It was the day of your screening.”
It’s also a little provocation. I make movies but I prefer life to [watching] movies. I don’t have a cinephilic background. I have two children. My friends are more painters [than filmmakers]. I already have this image in France as someone who doesn’t see a lot of movies, an autodidact rather than making movies in a cinematic tradition. So the film was a way to make fun of that: saying, yes, I’m a philistine.
A lot of critics and viewers have compared you to other directors like Hong Sang-soo and Rohmer. Do you consider them influences?
I say that I don’t watch movies, but in fact I’ve seen a lot of them. And those are my favorites: Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo. So when people say my films look like theirs, I’m very proud. Because I think Rohmer and Hong Sang-soo are not trying to make movies to please critics. When you look at the oeuvre of Rohmer it’s very coherent: it’s like one thing. For Hong Sang-soo it’s the same. Each film is not a chef d’oeuvre, but its honest research. They can’t help that each film is the same theme, the same obsession, even the same characters. I think it’s a need to make that kind of movie, it's not to please the critics and all that. So I admire them a lot. For me, it’s the same. I always work out of a desire to make movies. So all my movies have the same motif and follow the same pattern. It’s something I can’t help.
What are you working on next?
I’m planning on shooting in September. It’s an old project—it’s been four years now that I’ve been writing this film, and I think it’s a new [phase] of my work. It will be with real actors: a woman but also a man. Usually I use guys just as a topic of conversation between girls: love doesn’t exist in the films that I’ve made, only friendship. But now I want to make a movie about a girl who doesn’t like to be alone; she has to learn to be alone. She meets a man who gives her lessons in loneliness. It’s a romantic comedy and for me there are a lot of firsts in this movie. I’m going to shoot them making love—I’ve never shot that—and also there will be silence. I always film my movies with words and sounds. But this film is about emptiness, and it needs to be in the form as well. It’s a new thing for me and I need to take that step in my filmmaking.
Les Coquillettes was very well received at New Directors / New Films—it was a shame you couldn’t be here.
Yeah, I just had a baby and I have a 6-year-old daughter so it takes a lot to travel. But I was disappointed not to come especially because I feel close to American women, more than French women, actually. It would be interesting for me to see how the audience would react. I hope that this film will get distributed in the U.S. Because all the sound is done after shooting, it would be very easy to make an American version. That would be a great experience to make an American version of the dialogue. In France there are a lot of snobs, and this movie is not snobbish. I’d be happy to see the reaction of the American audience.