A common passion for theater led Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond to stage little theater productions for their friends and family very early on. Later, these moved to the streets and finally made it to the stage with a professional crew. As actresses, they have performed in numerous theater productions and have also appeared as a stage duo. Their journey into filmmaking began years later, when they started incorporating videos into their shows. Fascinated by this new field of expression, they decided to write and direct short films and a first documentary, these experiences encouraging them in turn to write their first feature, “The Little Bedroom,” starring acclaimed French actors Michel Bouquet and Florence Loiret Caille. As far as their creative duo is concerned, they work as a twin engine. Since they’ve known each other for a long time, they use each other’s strengths and skills in order to improve their collaboration. It’s all about creativity and friendship for them. Together, they allow themselves to be free to imagine any new story, any new project, in a judgement-free environment. This freedom is essential for their creativity.
One of their first short films, “Berlin Backstage,” was shot at the Berlin Philharmonie and won the Berlin Today Award at the 2004 Berlinale. In 2005, they directed the first of several documentaries, which include “Evening Class for Adults” (2005), “Buffo, Buten & Howard” (2009) and “Ladies” (2018). Their debut feature “The Little Bedroom” screened at the 2010 Locarno Film Festival and was the Swiss candidate for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award in 2011. In 2014, they wrote and directed the TV series “Open Books,” starring Reymond – a role for which she received the Swissperform Award for Best Actress in a Series. She also played a leading role in Eric Rohmer’s “Romances of Astrea.”
Their latest film, “My Little Sister,” premiered in Competition at this year’s Berlinale and brings together two of Germany’s finest actors, Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger as inseparable twins in an intricate family drama set in Berlin’s elite theatrical circles.
How did My Little Sister come about?
Stéphanie Chuat: The film has several origins. We first wanted to broaden our horizons and work with non- French-speaking actors. There are some German, British and American actors we dream to work with. Among them, the German star Nina Hoss, who we thought of since the beginning of My Little Sister’s development. We then had the big chance to meet her casually in a boutique in Berlin. We approached her and asked her if she had time for a coffee with us. We gave her our number and thought she’d never call us back. But she did, and we had a very long and joyful first meeting with her some days later. Nina told us she was part of the famous Schaubühne theater company in Berlin. As we are both actresses, we’ve known this prestigious theater and its artistic director Thomas Ostermeier for a long time. This was the trigger for us to bring her together with Lars Eidinger, the lead actor of the Schaubühne, as twin siblings. About the other topics of My Little Sister, we wanted to explore a little-known aspect of Switzerland – the expats world and the boarding schools. Then, we had the idea to confront this closed environment with the Berlin theater milieu. About the core of the film – the twin siblings’ bond – we have been an artistic duo for years now and, more importantly, we have known each other since we were ten years old. There is a lot of our own relationship in this story about twins. We share a creative world that will cease to exist if one of us is gone.
The song that is playing at the beginning of the film is very evocative and suggestive. Could you elaborate on the choice?
Véronique Reymond: This Brahms lied gives its title to our film. “Schwesterlein” means “little sister” in English. Johannes Brahms adapted this popular song around 1860. It tells the story of siblings, one accompanying the other to death throughout a night of ball. We had this melody in our heads us during the whole writing process. Like this song, My Little Sister can be seen as a last dance between Lisa and Sven.
The idea that women are being forced to define themselves in relation to others while men are allowed and perhaps even encouraged to be themselves is very present in the film, as an underlying yet constant thread. This is definitely not the main plot, which is that a sister has to take care and deal with her very ill twin brother, but in the mere fact that Lisa obviously has no other choice but to help her sibling, your screenplay explores how women are forced to define themselves only in relation to others because circumstances and not people are responsible for her having to take care of him. Can you delve deeper in that?
V.R.: This is a major topic in our film – the sense of self-blame that many women impose on themselves when their self-fulfilment might exist at the expense of the family. In My Little Sister, Lisa seems, at first, a little self-effacing; she has given up on her writing career, mostly focusing on her brother and her family. But her inner strength is growing as the film progresses, through the ordeals she has to face. In our modern society based on equality and task sharing, lots of women have excellent credentials and a high potential. But, many of them still decide to take care of the family and to put their career aspirations aside in order to allow their partners to thrive professionally. This is particularly true with expats, where often the spouse follows her husband and looks after the children whilst waiting for her turn to come. But when the time comes for her husband to return the favor, things fall flat! Family obligations lead women to make choices of which they are still too often prisoners.
Again, in the same direction, the title of the film, “My Little Sister,” suggests that it sees its main character only in relation to someone else. In that sense, the film opens and closes on Lisa doing things for her brother rather than for herself. Why is that? Does Lisa want to be her own person at all, although she is restless?
S.C.: It’s true that Lisa is the responsible character: she manages the family life, makes all the phone calls for her brother and helps him get back on stage. But looking at it from a different perspective, you can see that Lisa is deeply fragile because she lost herself in caring for others. And her whole journey is about getting back to her creative source. Her twin brother knows it, and as he declines, he gives everything to get her back to herself. At that moment, Sven becomes the big brother…
In that sense, how do you see her? And the mother, who is also an interesting figure here?
S.C.: Lisa has to grow, to get rid of her sense of self-blame. She has to learn how to be more selfish, to make things for herself, and not for the others only, which is a kind of escape route. She has to face the artist in her, and it is not easy when your own mother doesn’t believe in your talent. Lisa and Sven’s mother is an archetype of the mother ogress, a self-centered woman who considers her own daughter as a potential danger in terms of artistic rivalry. The mother is a frustrated woman who only lived in the shadow of her husband, a famous theater director. And she’s afraid that her daughter might “break with tradition” and explore a new way of freedom.
The film is a tender, mutually protective and collaborative brother-sister relationship study, that is rare in cinema today. In that regard, when they are trying their best not to think about the unthinkable, it is when their bond is the strongest and the film focuses best on them in the purest of ways, thus conveying that special sibling love. Would you agree with that assumption?
V.R.: The film’s challenge was to portray this invisible, indescribable bond between Lisa and Sven. So yes, these moments between the two of them represent the unicity of their relationship. Such a bond that can sometimes be even stronger than marital love and built on other values. The love for your husband/wife can whiter throughout the years because it’s more connected to physical love, to desire, to the daily life that wears out the couple sometimes. Somehow, it’s a more fragile love than the siblings love. And the specificity of Sven and Lisa’s connection is due to their common creativity. Together, they invent stories, they invent new worlds, like children concentrated on playing, fully in their present. This is a gift that puts death at distance.
Through that relationship you also portray family friction, midlife crisis and the anguish of terminal illness among other themes. Can you elaborate on that?
S.C.: For those who have already experienced being a caregiver, being around someone who is nearing the end of their life exacerbates things. Suddenly, only the essentials matter. You no longer tolerate compromises in your life, therefore underlying crisis appear on the surface. In My Little Sister, it’s the case with Lisa, who realizes she’s not satisfied with her current life. Until her brother gets sick, she has been accommodating herself with her reality. With the prospect of her brother’s death, Lisa realizes that she might lose her connection to theater that she’d kept alive through him. She starts writing again in order to offer Sven one last role. But, subconsciously, she does it as much for herself as for him. That way, she gets back in touch with her own creativity. And as the brother fades away, the sister comes to light. He dies and she’s reborn.
How was the shooting process like? And working with Nina Hoss and Marthe Keller?
S.C.: The shoot was very intense, because we didn’t have luxury conditions to make this film, a pretty short filming time and a very tight schedule. By chance, we had an incredible technical team around us, very involved and very efficient. And, of course, working with our amazing actors was part of the experience. With such a great cast, the text is already interiorized and you can quickly deal with the fine-tuning of inexpressible, non-verbal moves.
V.R.: Before the shoot, we both first play the scenes on the set to define the positions of the camera according to the stakes of the scene. We propose then a kind of choreography to the actors and it’s up to them to make it their own, to adjust it, integrate it. Simultaneously, we define the emotional scope of the scene, because movement and motivation are always connected. Working with Nina Hoss was a pure joy. She’s been involved in the process from the very beginning, so she had completely interiorized the character of Lisa when we started shooting. She’s such a sensitive, clever and radiant person that we can’t wait to make another film with her!
S.C.: Marthe Keller is also an incredible personality. She was attracted to the part of the mother because it was a departure from the usual bourgeois characters she’s usually being offered. And she brought a lot of her own freshness and humor to the character. Marthe Keller is such a funny woman! She definitely has a comic talent that has to be developed in the parts she’s being given!
Are you feminists? If so, how does this inform your filmmaking?
V.R.: We aren’t fans of labels and that’s why we wouldn’t characterize ourselves or our films directly as feminists. We intend to speak to the largest number, and as soon as you label something, you categorize it, you put it in a special place, almost ghettoizing it. But it’s also true that all our main characters are women, women of different ages who have to deal with inner issues, or with their place in society, in their jobs, towards men… For example, our documentary feature, Ladies, gives a forum to five women over 65. These women are either widows, divorced, or long-time single ladies. They don’t men in their lives anymore. How do they deal with themselves, feeling invisible to the rest of society, not feeling womanly anymore to men, who are often more interested in younger women? We learnt a lot while filming them over the course of a year. They are everyday life heroines to us, dealing with loneliness with an incredible hope. In our drama, The Little Bedroom, we tell the story of Rose, a shattered woman mourning the loss of her stillborn child, and her journey to reconnecting to herself thanks to a grumpy old man, himself suffering of feeling useless. And the series, Open Books, follows the journey of a woman who finds herself in a position of power and must learn to take the responsibility that comes with being a leader. She suffers from impostor syndrome and will have to learn and acknowledge that she’s legitimate in her new job.
S.C.: All these women do not spontaneously have a militant commitment, but they all struggle for their self-fulfilment in our society, for equal rights, equal attention and respect. If they don’t define themselves openly as feminists, their struggle is a part of their everyday lives. In our cinematic works, we are interested in following women’s inner paths to exist and flourish, whether for themselves or toward the world.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
S.C.: I’m very fond and admirative of Jane Campion – how she achieves wonderful films and series while staying faithful to who she is. She doesn’t play any games of seduction to do what she has to do. She just does it.
V.R.: I was blown away by Lazzaro Felice by Alice Rohrwacher. This film is a modern parable, talking about humanity, fragility, limitless goodness and sacrifice. A masterpiece.
There has been a lot of talk about the situation of women in the film industry these past two and a half years. What is your take on the matter? How is it in Switzerland?
V.R.: Nina Hoss said in an interview for Screen Daily in November 2019, “Why should female directors be immediately incredible? Men aren’t. Women should be offered the same ‘possibility to be bad’ that has always been afforded to their male counterparts » We think it’s an interesting way to see things, coming from an actress with such experience.
S.C.: We were in Los Angeles last year and had the opportunity to meet many women working in the series industry. Some of them said that women were now having “their moment” to exist in the business, but wondered how long this moment would last. They thought two years maximum, something pretty pessimistic about the long-lasting life of this “female empowerment.” Let’s hope they’re wrong, and that in the future women are treated equally as men in the film industry, not only as “a quota that has to be taken in consideration because of gender equality.” In Switzerland, lots of efforts have been made in terms of gender equality recently. But we look forward to the moment when women will receive funding for their projects not because they are women, but just because they have talent.
What are your next projects?
S.C.: We are currently writing Toxic, a series developed together with Swiss TV. It’s an ecological drama combined with a family story exploring the consequences of a mysterious contamination of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Toxic questions everyone about their relationship with the environment and more specifically with water, a vital element for mankind. When we started developing it, we saw it as a kind of anticipation series, but with the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems to be quite a topical subject.
Photo credit: Sophie Brasey.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: