Tribeca: You’ve said that your work is inspired by opera, but I also find it very literary. Why do these art forms inspire you so much? Is the process something conscious, or something subtler?
Benoît Jacquot: I don’t know that they inspire me as much as you think. It’s just that these past couple of years, I’ve directed several operas in London, Paris, and elsewhere. Staging these operas has certainly influenced my filmmaking method, I think, but I don’t think it’s a conscious choice. As far as the literary aspect you’ve picked up on, I think it’s because I’ve always been an avid reader, and reading and the act of reading have always influenced how I watch films and how I make them. Definitely. But it’s not voluntary, because of course films aren’t books or operas.
T: Even though it takes place today, there’s something very ephemeral and almost “outside time” about this film. Your most recent films have been costume dramas. Is there a link between these ideas?
BJ: Yeah, you’re right, because what interests me when I make a contemporary film is to try to show that even though we use texts, cell phones, technology, and other modern methods of communication, feelings, misunderstandings, drama, and chance are all just as they were before. That’s what really interests me. Whether it’s letters that take three days to arrive, or having direct access to someone with only a small device, the games remain the same.
T: That’s really quite interesting, because the film made me think of [18th Century French novel] Paul et Virginie.
BJ: Really? Oh, I can see that, actually.
T: At one point, I thought it would have a similar ending.
BJ: That’s a possibility, really. We could say that there’s a certain Romanesque aspect to fiction, but very precise. So with that little Paul et Virginie nod, we could definitely say that the film adopts the same sort of romanticism. Definitely. Because we’re talking about the fatality of sentiment, we think of Paul et Virginie and other novels of a similar type, where love is at stake but doomed. All these novels, films and songs are like this, really.
T: Why this film and why now?
BJ: It’s hard to say, but for me, like I said earlier, I made a lot of costume dramas, and period pieces in these recent years, and all these films had a female main character. I really just wanted to make a film with a male lead in our times. Just to make a change. Just to see. Just to try.
T: Even so, we couldn't say that the three hearts of this film are actually those of Sylvie, Sophie and their mother?
BJ: That’s true.
T: What does this mean about the female relationships in your film?
BJ: I think there’s just one connection, really. Men and women all eventually look for some sort of connection. They aren’t immediate. Men, amongst themselves, can invent connections, but they don’t necessarily want to. Women make connections—I think—immediately. It’s a completely different world. We’re all humans! Men and women are humans! But it’s like humanity is divided into these very different worlds: men and women. Then, we’ve just got to figure it all out. The film talks about this.
T: As you’ve said, a lot of your films feature women and their personal worlds. Why do you keep returning to these themes?
BJ: Probably because I’m a man, so I’m trying to understand those spaces where I’m not invited. Maybe one day I’ll become a woman, but until then I won’t know for sure. So, I try to use cinema to get closer to something that is foreign to me. It’s something that’s so different for me. Freud, at the end of his life, said that the only question that still escaped him was, “What is a woman? What does it mean?” Do you know?
T: It’s difficult because there isn’t just one definition.
BJ: Of course, but a man can quickly be defined; a woman can’t. Men are different, though. At least, that’s the way we see it.
T: That’s interesting because often when we talk about women, we use definition by negation.
BJ: Yeah, exactly. The only person who has said something definitive—maybe even too definitive—on the subject is Simone de Beauvoir, who said that one isn’t born a woman, but becomes one.
I don’t know if filmmakers in any other country are as free as we are.
T: I thought the narrations came at very strategic points in the film. Why did you pair these moments?
BJ: Which ones?
T: For example, I think the first narration occurs after Sophie and Marc’s first meeting.
BJ: Oh, the voice over! It’s because these are the moments with important time lapses. I was looking for—this came after I tried to find a way to film it so that the passing of time was tangible. For me, it wasn’t really working, so I decided to introduce that Romanesque aspect. [The narration] is rare. It comes maybe two or three times, and it’s always to show the passing of time. It’s a way to keep time visible on screen. The voice over, the voice of the un-filmed narrator, is me.
T: Once again, it gives the film another operatic or literary side.
BJ: Yes, because the voice over kind of plays the same role as the music. That is to say, all of a sudden, it introduces something in the order of the fatality of the destiny. A little like the music, which is always there, like a pulse.
T: Often when we talk about French film, we only talk about the Nouvelle Vague. What is French cinema? What does today’s French cinema look like?
BJ: Today’s French cinema features a variety of voices and perspectives with a liberty we haven’t seen before. I don’t know if filmmakers in any other country are as free as we are. It’s true that the Nouvelle Vague radicalized and changed film in an irreversible way, and it’s true that we can’t talk about French cinema without talking about the fact that the cinema was invented in France. Secondly, the Nouvelle Vague, thanks to directors like Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, and others, changed the world’s cinema in just a few years. Every important filmmaker was changed by their films. Those of us making films today are definitively the children of this film movement. We have the same relationship that a child has with their parent: we would like to get out from under it, but it’s difficult to deny a connection.