magical french director rebecca zlotowski is exploring beyond the wizard’s sleeve

Starring Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp, Planétarium might be 2016’s most mystical film. We spoke to the enigmatic director, Rebecca Zlotowski.

Rebecca Zlotowski’s body of work has continuously redefined the viewer’s perception of beauty – dangerous and disturbing sets make us defy our own fears. In 2010’s Belle Epine, she cast Léa Seydoux as an orphan teenager facing all kinds of dangers, proud to flirt with hordes of bikers in the Parisian suburbs. In 2013’s Grand Central she took a forbidden love story to a nuclear power station in the South of France – where an unskilled worker unwittingly exposes himself – and the girl he is having an affair with – radioactive contamination.  Planétarium, her latest film sees Lily-Rose Depp and Natalie Portman play a pair of sisters who believe they can speak with the dead, who are hired by a studio head to appear in a film about spiritualis, proving that ghosts exist. Despite the explosive territory she explores through her characters, the director gives an account of the turmoil of our times. She truly is the biggest magician of French cinema.

Belle Epine, Grand Central, and now Planétarium… The titles of your movies take us to abstract and allegorical territories. What do they mean to you?

They are part of the storyline. Being a fearful person, I love the idea that you can create yourself a new life through cinema. It’s a passport which enables you to travel in ways you might never have thought of before. There is a magical part in cinema which gives you access to an unknown territory. A nuclear power station is, in terms of representation, invention and responsibility, really exciting. A race circuit on which bikers can kill themselves in a general indifference (Belle Epine) – is  not bad. A film set in the 30s (Planétarium), that mixes together so many desires, so many drives and dangers that it becomes exciting. People facing death and danger always have a lot more to lose than people in their comfort zone.

Is there a part of autobiography in some of your characters? I think about Léa Seydoux, who is an orphan in Belle Épine…

Yes, obviously. Concerning Belle Épine, I became an orphan when I was very young and even though I was ashamed about doing a movie on the topic, it is important because it tells a lot about your state of mind you when you lose a parent at a young age. Grand Central was very close to a love story I have experienced. I am ashamed to speak about it because I think it’s not very interesting to critique the link between the director and his or her work. There is a strong tradition of auteur-director in France and I’m part of it since I’ve learned scriptwriting at school. But I don’t think my movies are ideals in terms of scenario. As a scriptwriter it is harder for me to write for others, but the storylines are usually great,  (laughs) You and the Night, for instance. In this case I have the opportunity to be able to write scripts that follow the usual functional specifications of emotions etc. In my movies I tend not to following these specifications. That’s kind of weird by the way…

In my movies there is a real sense of anarchy, improvisation, freedom and reactivity.

Do you have more freedom in the movies you write and produce yourself?

In Planétarium, Salvadori tells Laura (Natalie Portman): “Give up, let yourself go, stop being suspicious.” And that is exactly what I’m feeling. I’m doing movies because it relieves me of something. It is the most controlled art ever, but at the same time you can choose to let yourself go and give up. I have more and more faith in the actors, I can give them more freedom – I don’t need to control everything. But that does not prevent me from being fascinated by Kubrick’s movies, they are extraordinarily conceived and thought out. Whereas in my movies there is a real sense of anarchy, improvisation, freedom and reactivity.

Planétarium also tells the story of a French cinema struggling to reconcile with magic in film. Do you think French people have difficulties to accept magic in movies?

In the 30s we moved from silent films to talking films, then we started to have the possibility to add colours and to enter people’s living rooms through television. But in France a lot of societies stopped believing in cinema’s power. We left it to the US. Luckily, people like Bernard Natan, the producer who inspired me for Korben’s character, kept on making movies in France. In 2017, it’s easy to cheat – we shoot on digital. When people filmed on film, what you saw obviously existed, it was unquestionable. The digital era creates an opportunity to make ghost movies. That is the reason why I thought the subject was modern and it was essential to comment on the invisible, the ectoplasm, the pictures we mentally create rather than the ones fabricated by film roll.

Do you believe in ghosts?

That’s always extraordinarily deceiving when you say, “No, I don’t”. When you make a ghost movie, you have to ask yourself this question – even though you don’t believe in ghosts. My rational side makes me think we haven’t explored the totality of our cerebral potential. I have high hopes that in the following years we could move forward and learn about kinesthesia and telepathy and in 200 years we might say: “Do you realise at that time we couldn’t talk to our parents when they were dead!?” I don’t believe in reincarnation or the presence of dead people around us, however, I think we only exploit a small part of verbal and non-verbal communication and the question of invisibility in movies will be unveiled in the future. I believe in it.

How did you become a film buff?

Autonomously. It was a minor art for my family. I come from a middle class family, both of my parents were immigrants, I am part of the first generation to be born and raised in France. My family is very cultivated, from a Jewish tradition, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. I watched television a lot, American series such as My So-Called Life, and we watched Benny Hill at night. I’m part of a generation raised with pictures, video clips, MTV, television, but I think literature really brought me to it. I see movies through the prism of writing.

Have you ever thought about writing novels?

I don’t like to be alone and writing is a solitary activity. On a film set, I like to unite people, to gather. I don’t really want to be a leader, I like to have a total and absolute liberty. When you convince people that your vision of truth can prevail, then you do a movie that resembles you. And obviously it's really great to get help for this.

When you are casting a film what are you looking for?

I always cast actresses with a certain charm. I’m heterosexual but I am attracted to both men and women. That’s the reason why I try to find actors I feel excited watching such as Léa Seydoux, Natalie Portman or Lily Rose Depp. I really like when, besides being beautiful and coquettish, they use their intelligence as a seduction weapon. I really think Lily Rose is not just an innocent beginner, she is strong and masculine, she is against the duality between masculinity and femininity and she plays with this ambiguity with an activist instinct. Natalie Portman studied for years. She represents the Hollywood actress, but she went to Harvard. Léa Seydoux is like an ultra-sensual cowboy. These are girls I’m interested in because they renew something and they show other models to women.

I really like when, besides being beautiful and coquettish, the actresses use their intelligence as a seduction weapon.

Why is it important for you to renew these models?

Just because I feel and see it. Because I meet these men and women who show me how things changed.

You’re not scared of undressing and unveiling your women characters. They are both seductive and vulnerable.

I’ve been understandably insulted by feminists, because I’m not scared of playing with lecherous archetypes and stereotypes associated with girls and boys. As a filmmaker – whether I am a girl or a boy, lesbian or heterosexual – I get the chance to undress and unveil actors and actresses who have a strong seduction power on me. As women we are allowed to go a bit further – thanks to generous actresses such as Léa. In Planétarium, Natalie Portman even proposed to be naked –  I didn’t know how to film the scene, I almost didn’t dare! As a woman you have access to a deeper privacy because actresses are not suspicious, they are not afraid of being manipulated or anything else. The seduction is not the same. But I hope that despite these “archetypal” representations of both men and women in my movies, there is something more profound appearing through, a different representation. I think it is a political action. Is there something autobiographical in it? Yes, but in both feminine and masculine characters, for instance in Planétarium I can relate to Korben AND Laura.

Do you have something like Proust’s madeleine?

Each time I walk past the former location of the Pulp, in Boulevard Poissonnière (in Paris), it reminds me of all these parties we did there. It was a VERY nice place. I’ve had a lot of fun.

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