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Les Arcs Preview: Interview with Julien Carpentier, director of "La vie de ma mère"

By Emilie Mahé

French director Julien Carpentier's first feature film, La vie de ma mère (lit. The life of my mother), tackles the theme of mental health through a mother-son relationship. We follow the magnetic Agnès Jaoui (Family Resemblances), both eccentric and endearing in her role as a mother suffering from bipolar disorder. She finds herself drawn into a road trip by her son Pierre (played against type by an unrecognizable William Lebghil), who attempts to take her back to the psychiatric hospital from which she has escaped. Moving between realism, hope and an exploration of human relationships,  this drama-comedy is touching in its sincerity.

Why were you so interested in talking about mental health and, more specifically, bipolar disorder?

It's a subject I know well as it is present in my family sphere, and which I continue to experience through a close relative, from the same point of view as Pierre’s character. For a very long time, it was, I would say, a taboo subject for me. I didn't necessarily want to share it with my family, my friends, or my very close circle. It wasn't something I wanted to talk about, because we're often caught up in shame, fear of judgment. But to the point of not wanting to talk about it, I ended up making a film (laughs). 

I had done some personal work on the subject so that I could deal with it in a  better way and approach the issue with more calmness. Once I was able to tackle it on a personal level, I thought it was worth talking about, to get people to think and start a conversation. As the screenings progressed, I realized that a huge number of people in the room were concerned with it. 

The complexity of the characters and their relationships creates a storyline rich in nuance. You first planned it as a medium-length film, then the project took a new turn after you met Jaoui. 

Ten years ago, with my script in hand, I approached Jaoui right when she came off stage after a theatre play. I was a bit nervous, it was quite a big thing for me. She replied positively, but not necessarily for a short or medium-length film. So we kept seeing each other, and gradually, over ten years, we built up this bond. We didn't really talk about the film, but we got to know each other. I'd see her in certain contexts, for example, in the evening, I'd see her dancing, doing flamenco, I'd go to concerts she gave, I'd hear her sing, and so on. It gave me ideas for adding scenes and shaping the character. Gradually, the script was fleshed out thanks to what I could see of her in private, and what I could observe of her different facets. We trusted each other, and in the end, the role was almost tailor-made for her.

It's a film imbued with tenderness and hope, which come through in the dialogue, the characters and also the lighting. How did you go about creating this visual language?

First of all, it involves a real collaboration with the film's cinematographer, Martin Chabaneix, with whom I'd already had the opportunity to work on a series (Couronnes, 2019) and a short film (Le bon rôle, 2020), both with actor Salif Cissé, who plays Pierre's friend Ibou in La vie de ma mère.

Martin and I spent a lot of time preparing for the shoot, discussing the atmosphere and what I wanted to achieve. This involved choosing the right camera and optics. I wanted to make a film that was luminous, but still realistic. I didn't want to create colours that you can't find in real life. 

We shot in winter, which means that night falls very quickly, but it made it possible to capture that "golden hour" light. Sometimes it was a bit risky, because it doesn't last long. It was particularly difficult for a sunset scene on the Pilat Dune [renowned French spot, featured in the movie's promotional materials and posters]. As the sun doesn't wait, you have to be ready at the right moment. We were also lucky enough to have great weather during that period.

And then there's all the work on the set design. I really wanted to make a film that was lively and luminous, with a sense of evolution. I had in mind Maïwenn's film My King (Mon Roi), which gradually becomes brighter and brighter. It's not something you necessarily see in the story, but if you stop at a moment towards the end, you realise that at the beginning, it had a completely different atmosphere. Unconsciously, you're pulled into the light in spite of yourself. 

I wanted to work on this aspect, particularly with colour grading in post-production. In the beginning, La vie de ma mère is a very urban world and gradually it gives way to nature. The landscapes open up more and more to reflect the evolution of the characters' relationship.

Now that the film has already been screened and will soon be released in cinemas, can you give us some feedback on what makes you proud of this film?

During the Q&A session after a screening, a lady asked me this very question, which completely baffled me. Really, what is it that makes me proud? That I didn't give up. If I look back and see what it took in terms of effort, there were many moments when I was really the only one who believed in it. Of course, I had the support of people close to me, but that's not the point. When you face rejection and hardship, you have to admit that dropping the project might be the only option. The fact that I didn't give up taught me a lesson. When you realise what you've been through, you've proved to yourself that it's possible, so you're not going to give up on that now! You feel capable of tackling other situations. So to have made it to the end is a real source of pride. And then, realising that the film opens doors and creates reflections in the audience, and the feedback I received, were priceless.

How did you get into writing and filmmaking?

[Jaoui] is someone I really adore, and she's inspired me ever since I first wanted to make films, when I was about ten, for very personal reasons. Basically, the fact that I think it's possible to make films in the environment I come from (from the suburbs and without a particular predisposition for cinema) is my mother's maiden name, which is Jaoui. I said to myself at the time: if there's someone called Jaoui who makes films, then it's possible! Ever since, I've dreamed of one day working with that person. So I became interested in her cinema very quickly, just by being made aware of the little common factor of the family name.

When you're in high school, with a difficult background, and you say you want to be a film director, they suggest you go into marketing. So I went into marketing. When, in marketing, I said I wanted to be a film director, I was redirected to communications. So I studied communications and then I was able to access internships. This way I joined various production companies. I started out as a trainee, when you start your day serving biscuits and coffee. That's how it happened, step by step, and then I was trusted to take on projects as a writer and director.

Do you have any upcoming feature film projects?

Yes, I'm actually starting to think about another subject, which will probably also be about family relationships. I think it's something I like at the moment. I still want to talk about that. I'll give myself some time to see. But I really don't want to wait ten years to start on the next thing, maybe it will be a series. 

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