Born in 1974 in Paris, Margaux Bonhomme began taking pictures at the age of fourteen. She worked with Magnum and Rapho photographers who allowed her to discover the report, but it was through Cinema, at the London Film School, that she acquired the technical mastery of the image. When she returned to Paris in 1998, she worked as a director of photography in Film and advertising. Meanwhile, photography remained an intimate companion. She exhibited her personal photographic work in Paris and Arles, and participated in many international competitions. Since 2005, she has been making her own films. Her first short film, “Un certain dimanche,” a love story between two teenage girls, allowed her to tackle themes that particularly affect her: worry, rupture, and the end of childhood. The film was selected at numerous festivals across Europe. Then, she wrote and directed “Kate Moss’ voice,” a comedy that criticizes the image of women in advertising, where she now works as a director. It won the Audience Award at the Montpellier Film Festival. In 2011, she made a short documentary, “Bel Canto,” about a young disabled person who wants to join a choir and become a singer. The subject is particularly close to her heart because Margaux grew up with her multi-handicapped sister, Sylvie. She decided to approach this personal topic in her first feature film “Head Above Water” that had its international premiere at the Black Nights Film Festival where Tara Karajica caught up with her.
How did Head Above Water come about?
Margaux Bonhomme: It’s a very personal story. I was trying to write about something that wasn’t personal, but I couldn’t come up with any emotional scenes. I have been struggling for a couple of years to write something else and, in the end, I just thought: “I have to talk about something that I know.” This is not an autobiography, but we went through that experience with my family because I have a handicapped sister, and it happened exactly at the time when I was supposed to leave the house and go and study in London. My parents separated and that’s when I realized that I felt responsible for her. So the emotion and the hardship of abandoning her were very strong and still are very strong today. That’s why I leave the end of the film open to the audience to make up their minds as they wish because I still can’t answer the question whether or not you can find the balance in such a situation.
It’s about personal lives, family responsibilities, uncertain future, self-discovery, kind of a coming of age in a sense…
M.B.: Absolutely! Yes! I am very much interested in this moment of life and I have two new projects with characters who are the same age – between childhood and adulthood. I think it’s a very difficult moment because, for me, it meant to abandon the nicest things in life, which are your parents, games and innocence. I think that the main reason – the hidden reason – why I wanted to do this film was that when I was very young and I was going around the city with my sister who was handicapped, I was really hurt by all the looks, the gaze of the people who were either embarrassed or felt sorry for us, and I wanted to tell them: “Listen, we have an extraordinary life thanks to her, so stop looking at us like that” and maybe this little girl is hidden somewhere in the film for that reason.
This young woman – a very strong young female character – is at the center of your film. How much of it is you and how much is fiction?
M.B.: It’s my first film, so I learnt from myself and I discovered things and I liked very much the fact that I shared a lot with the actors before we started shooting. We had the script, which was pretty rigid, and I decided that we were going to rehearse a lot and leave it open to improvisation. We improvised on every subject that was told in each scene and I wanted to see how far they could go. It was a very good way of working because that allowed the actors to get their hands on the characters. We changed all the lines of the dialogues during these rehearsals and that was fantastic. They could feel the goal and what the character was thinking in each scene – it’s a kind of appropriation. The character belonged to them and, because it was a very personal story, it helped me a lot to put some distance between me and the character. During the rehearsal, we were a very tight, closed family and during filming I could let them go with the character, I trusted them and I knew the storyline was there anyway and they felt very free and really appreciated that.
You can actually see that it all comes from the gut, that some lines could not have been written by someone else – be it the director or the writer – because it’s too organic, too personal, too sincere.
M.B.: I know what you mean – especially in the case of Diane Rouxel and Cédric Kahn because that’s the way they work. They’re not comedians. Cédric Kahn is a director originally, and Diane has never taken any theater or acting classes. They work with their instinct. So, for them, it was essential to be able to feel what the character felt and to be able to speak with their own words. I think that’s what works really well with them.
It’s amazing because all three of them do such an amazing job. They’re so raw in their performances and they make the film what it is, actually – especially Jeanne Coendy who plays Manon. Can you talk about the casting process?
M.B.: Yes. Regarding the casting process, finding Elisa ended up being really easy because there was a very strong meeting when I saw Diane Rouxel in a film and I thought: “This is Elisa.” I was so happy I found her! I sent her the script and she agreed and we met and it went really well. She already had a very sensitive and generous approach about the character.
When we found her, we started working on finding Manon and, for this, we took two different paths. I had the fantasy of working with a person with a disability and I was always saying: “Even if I have to change the script…” So we began meeting actresses with some disabilities. The other path we took was to ask actresses with no disabilities and see what they could bring to the character, but I wasn’t very convinced at the time that it could work. I was very scared of clichés and imitations… The more we looked and met people, the more I realized that I wasn’t sincere when I said that I could change the script. I didn’t want to change the script, so I was trying not to force these girls with a disability to make them play another disability because I knew it wasn’t going to work, that it wouldn’t make any sense. I would’ve been hurting them maybe and putting them in front of something they couldn’t do and that wasn’t a nice approach for them or for the story.
And along this way, we met Jeanne Cohendy and I have to say that the decision was made not because we couldn’t find a person, but because she arrived and smashed it all because she was extraordinary! She had this ability to transform and she had a special sensitivity; she understood the character very quickly. She had these very strong techniques that she based her work on and everything she did was very controlled. She takes these things very seriously. What we did first was to see if Jeanne and Diane could get along, so they met and we did a first test and it went beautifully. And then, Jeanne worked on her side for a year and a half and she took it bit by bit, starting with the physical disability. She walked and walked for hours to get the proper way of walking and then she worked with the arms and her hands and then on how to look and, step by step, she built the character. We had professionals looking at the reel we would shoot and I would give her my advice. The nice thing about it is that we really got the inspiration from my sister herself; Jeanne spent a lot of time with her and every time we were missing something, we would always go back and refer to Sylvie, my sister. In the end, I realized that if I could, I would’ve made the film with my sister. But the good thing was that Jeanne was generous and sensitive enough to give her a voice.
There are a lot of close-ups in the film which echo their sort of entrapment, but they’re still there because of the love they feel for Manon. Can you talk about these choices?
M.B.: We chose to shoot in a square aspect ratio and go back to the old TV screen size because I really wanted to be able to be very close to the characters and be in their intimacy without having to distort their faces and that was only possible if you narrowed the screen. I think it fits the story because it is so intimate and, of course, there’s this impression of: “Where do we go? What do we do?” all the time. That is, I think, enhanced by the fact that the screen is not as wide. I had this thing about where the film was set – the mountains – but the more it went on, the more I realized that what was important for me was the human fight that was going on in the story.
These close-ups actually pull you in the story and you want to know more because you get so attached to these characters because they are pulling you in their life, in their everyday struggle and you root for them, you feel for them and it’s extremely personal.
M.B.: I think it works and I don’t know if I’ll ever make a film with a wide screen because my second project is set in the same intimacy and it’s between two characters. But again, I want to set it in a very strong environment because I like the metaphor and its symbolic stands. Here, I chose the mountain, but next, it will be the sea and it appeals to me a lot to do that.
In a sense, the mountain is also a character in this film. It’s where they blow the steam off and where they go to retreat and think and be with and by themselves and it’s a calming character.
M.B.: Yes. It was very important for me that it took place in the mountain, especially because it tells a lot about who the father is and that this guy is not afraid of climbing. It’s not said in the film, but when he’s actually teaching his daughter to climb, it was very important for me to show that he really wants her to go as far as she can, further than her own limits. And the relationship between them started with that; that complicity as well as a very challenging attitude from the father. The climbing scene was telling it all in a very simple way.
Talking about the father, you wrote him in a way that doesn’t make him a cliché and he’s not the father who leaves and he’s also trying to figure out everything along the way, same as Eli. Can you elaborate on that?
M.B.: He has an everyday emergency attitude. He’s taking things by the hour. He has this belief and strong feelings that he can’t leave his daughter behind and he’s basically very human. He’s asking everybody to be hard on themselves and push the limits but, in the end, he himself is not capable of the bravery of giving up on taking care of his daughter. He’s a very interesting character because you never know whether he’s right or wrong. He’s very brave but, in a way, he has this coldness of not being able to consider another option that his wife and his daughter are asking for, so he has to transform along the film as well. And, in the end, he’s capable of hearing it from his daughter, but not his wife.
Can you talk about the mother and her leaving?
M.B.: This is from my own experience, so it’s not something that I made up. In my story, my mother said: “I’m not doing this anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore and I don’t think it’s good for anybody.” But because the character of the father is saying: “This is going to be the way and there won’t be any other way” and she has no other option than leave because he’s not listening to her. She’s leaving because she can’t find any other way, she can’t find anything else to do and she’s in too much pain. Then, the tricky thing about a character who leaves at the beginning of the film is to still have the audience have empathy for her because she’s never here and sometimes she comes and she fights with her daughter. That was a very interesting thing to do in the writing and then again with the actresses during the rehearsals.
What can you say about the title – especially the French one?
M.B.: The English one is closer to the story. “Head Above Water” describes the experience of the characters, but the French title which could be translated into English as “walk or die” is pretty strong and tells more about the world they are living in and gives my point of view about what’s outside of the story – why is this happening? Why are these people in so much pain? Why is it so difficult? Because we live in a world that does not give a chance to weakness and, somehow, when the film was finished we talked about it with the producer and we said this did not match the film. The film is much more tender, full of love, but then we decided it was good to keep it because it’s evocative and people can actually wonder… It’s pushy. I thought it was worth keeping it.
How hard was it to make it as sincere as it is, and as faithful as possible to your personal story?
M.B.: It was easier not to be faithful to the personal story. I wasn’t attached to it. From the point when I found what I wanted to talk about – and that was the hard part of the abandonment, of letting go of somebody you love and who needs you – then it wasn’t my story anymore. Then, I was able to really let go and not necessarily talk about my personal story. I took pieces of it and it made my life easier.
Did you show the film to your family?
M.B.: Yes. They read the script and we talked about it. We talked about my necessity to make the film and the characters and, for them, the hardest part was to really not think that it was their portrait. They had to do the same work as I did. They had to detach themselves from it and take some distance because these characters are not my parents. As I said earlier, I gave the characters away to the actors and they gave me something back, which was their own personalities and their own emotions towards the story.
There has been a lot of discussion about women in film in the past year. How do you feel about the situation? How is it in France?
M.B.: It’s pretty insidious in a way that it doesn’t show that it’s difficult for women. But then, you realize that they are nowhere. I never felt it because no one said: “Oh! You are a woman; I’m not going to work with you.” On the contrary, people were like: “Oh! It’s so nice to work with a female director.” When I was working as a director of photography, it was even worse because they were saying: “Oh! That would be a change” and then I was like: “Great. I’m the change.” But then, of course, work is work, so I take advantage of the situation. Then, you realize it’s effectively harder for women because as Jacques Audiard said at the Venice Film Festival, we’re nowhere in the end, especially when it comes to prizes and commissions where the decisions are made. So that needs to change.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and favorite film by a female filmmaker?
M.B.: I’m very much inspired by Jane Campion because in her first film, Sweetie, the story is pretty close to our story. They have a lot of common points and I love the way she uses symbols in her films and the way she talks about female emotions. You can really see it’s a different look than a man’s in her work. She did another work that inspires me which is There’s an Angel at my Table and it is really strong. There’s also Andrea Arnold. She really inspires me in the way she directs a film; in the way she tells a story with the camera. She was my guide because I really wanted to do like she does, which is always a unique point of view of the main character. She did that in a very straightforward way in American Honey, so that was always a reference. Then, another strong reference probably for future work because I want to make more political films is Katherine Bigelow, especially the film Detroit. A bit like Andrea Arnold, she has, I think, a way of making you go through the experience of the main character, but in a completely different style.
What are your next projects?
M.B.: They are about family and coming of age – both a film and a mini-series.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Black Nights Film Festival.