The general public only discovered Noémie Merlant in 2019 in Portrait of the girl on fire, where she played a painter in love with her model. Before that, her first ten years of career and her remarkable role as a candidate for jihad in Heaven will wait (2016) or his role as a pregnant trans man in A Good Man (2020) also testify to its non-conformism.
The same as the one found in Mi iubita my love, her first feature film as a director: a solar love story between a Frenchwoman and a Gypsy. This film will be released in theaters on July 27. The opportunity for Noémie Merlant to discuss subjects that are dear to her: the place of women, the power of love and the crisis in cinemas.
“Portrait of the young girl on fire”, the film by Céline Sciamma which revealed you to the general public, is one of the works which opened the dialogue on the place of women. Does this induce liability?
It’s a film that has changed a lot of people, including me! The discussions I was able to have and the meetings I was able to make thanks to him clearly changed my way of seeing things, especially in my position in relation to others. For a long time, I wanted to please at all costs. Like many women, I thought it was my duty. I changed. I no longer seek to be a model girl, nor a model at all. I want to take risks by going to the end of my questions. Céline Sciamma’s film put me on the right track. He also helped people who needed to see other representations of love on screen, other models.
Is that also what motivated you to make your own film?
Mi iubita my love talks about my story that I lived with Gimi but also about the love I have for my friends with whom I form a family. From childhood, we are hammered into our heads that happiness must take a certain form: marriage, parenthood, exclusivity. But this model is not suitable for everyone. It happens that people say to themselves “I have all that and yet I am not well”. This is why it is necessary to show other points of view. To inform, reassure, sweep away preconceived ideas like those that you can’t be happy if you don’t fuck a lot. The stories also have the mission of opening up horizons, of decomplexing.
Aren’t you afraid to shock by telling this love story with a 17-year-old boy?
I notice that, as was the case for Licorice Pizza by Paul Thomas Anderson, people get scandalized more easily when it comes to an older woman and a younger boy. I have the impression that you hear less protests when it comes to the reverse or a story of a man like Call Me By Your Name. This topic was also not raised for The Life of Adele despite the age difference between the protagonists! When making the film, Gimi found that we had to have the courage to evoke our history by transforming it into fiction. Differences exist in all love stories and power relations too. What seems important to me is to be aware of them and to anticipate them so as not to abuse them. There’s something about love that you can’t control. On the other hand, we can control the space we leave to the other and not crush it. I believe that women are more attentive to this sort of thing and yet they are the ones who are attacked the most.
How do you explain this difference in treatment?
Good question ! Perhaps it still bothers unfortunately that a woman leaves the framework that has long been imposed on her. Whether a woman can be troublesome or take the initiative… They are expected to be perfect in everything. The men stick together and I find that there is still not enough solidarity between the women, even though that is what will take us forward. Patterns of female rivalry have been embedded in our heads for so long. Women have been separated, pitted against each other for millennia. They are expected to be perfect in everything. Even when they are victims, we scrutinize their past to unearth the slightest fault. There is still a lot of work to be done – including among women – for things to improve. Art is a powerful lever to shake up received ideas.
How can art change mentalities?
Stories have enormous power to change things, I am convinced of that! Culture is an extremely powerful weapon. This is why it is often censored. I like the idea that telling stories can open up debates. Talking is key to getting things moving. It’s okay to talk with people who don’t share your point of view. Sometimes they reinforce your ideas and sometimes they make you evolve and it is the same for them. Not everyone has the same rhythm, nor the same background. I can also sometimes understand the anger of people who have not had their word and who have suffered too much for too long. All this is very complex but the opening of the dialogue is what counts.
Your film was shot completely independently, without a producer and with friends. Was this freedom important to you?
It’s a choice we made as a group. Initially, we wanted a more classic production structure by fictionalising our story. Then, we said to ourselves that we preferred to stay between us so as not to lose the spontaneity of these first times, those of the actors, mine as a director, those of the technicians that I recruited on the Internet. We took a car, rented a camera and we went to shoot with the real family of Gimi Covaci, actor and co-screenwriter of the film. The film was a bit like a sketch: a cinematic form worked on but not refined. It was great to keep this raw side, to show these discussions at the edge of the water, with a touch of documentary in the improvisation. This film is a joyful bubble with blunders which, in my opinion, also make it charming.
If it’s charming, but far from perfect, why release it theatrically?
It’s a collective adventure and a story about sharing, so it’s important to share it in the best possible way: the cinema. Afterwards, I am well aware that my film does not have the potential for a big public success, but it is essential to show that other stories and other representations can exist. I hope my example will encourage other filmmakers to get started. What matters is that the film exists. The fact that I am a well-known actress has certainly helped me to be distributed in theaters at a time when the cinema is going badly.
Precisely, how do you explain the disaffection of the spectators for the cinemas?
Many factors come into play. But, in my opinion, the fact that we are constantly in contact with images if only with our mobile phones has a lot to do with it. We are always out of place thanks to our personal screens so we feel less need to move. I am the first to have to make an effort to go to the cinema. For me, it’s a militant act of going to see more confidential works in theaters and not confining myself to spectacular films like Elvis. There is diversity in what is offered. We have no right to complain about always seeing the same thing if we don’t support what is different.
Do you intend to persevere on this “different” path?
Sure. I am preparing a comedy called The women on the balcony. It will be a dark, bloody and explosive story that I will shoot with my usual band. Feminist because it seems that all films that talk about women are automatically feminist, although I hate being put in a box. I also have another project, a bit crazy: Gimi and I would like to work on an adaptation of Notre Dame of Paris according to Victor Hugo. He would embody Quasimodo and Gypsies would play the inhabitants of the Court of Miracles. The idea would also be to show another face of Esmeralda who is, in my opinion, a real feminist heroine! Condemned from birth because she is beautiful, a woman and a gypsy. And immediately considered a witch! She is tossed between men who want to lose her or save her. Even the lyrics of the songs in the musical are edifying: she is accused of sending men to hell with her beauty!