Veerle Baetens started her career as an actress in “Sara,” the Flemish version of the TV series “Ugly Betty.” In 2013, she received the Best Actress Award at The European Film Awards for her role in “The Broken Circle Breakdown” by Felix van Groeningen. Since then, she has starred in numerous French films.
Tara Karajica talks to Veerle Baetens about her debut feature as director, “When it Melts,” based on the book called “The Melting” by Lize Spit, that premiered in the World Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, feminism and film and what she is up to next.
Can you talk about making the shift from acting to directing?
Veerle Baetens: When I was eighteen, I had to choose what to study and I went to a school for directors. But I also did an exam for the Conservatory for acting in comedy musical and I passed it. At the other school, there was no exam, so I doubted the whole time: Do I want to be behind the camera or do I want to be in front of the camera? But because of this exam, I went into acting and I did it for twenty-five years. And, in 2013, I co-wrote a series, which I loved doing, not having to perform at the moment itself, being at a desk and talking and going home thinking about it and I loved the idea of just being more at ease, doing a more contemplative job. Then, in 2016, came the invitation from a producer to make a film from the book [The Melting by Lize Spit]. So, it was an offer, actually. And, when I read the book, I completely fell in love with the main character. I was just very happy to get this opportunity. I think it has always been inside of me wanting to be at the cradle of a story, wanting to be the mother of a movie and not the child. If you act, you’re always subjected to someone’s desire, you always need to perform at the moment and it needs to be good then and there. When you do an audition, when you play in front of the camera and on screen, you need to win over an audience and, as a director, it’s another feeling; it’s a feeling of responsibility and I know what it’s like to be an actor and in what place you can sometimes be, and that it is a fragile place. And so, I loved creating a safe haven for the actors and just not being there myself.
How did the offer to direct When it Melts come to you?
V.B.: I did a series for Dirk Impens, who’s the producer of The Broken Circle Breakdown and it was he who proposed the book to me and when I read it, I immediately felt drawn and attached to little Eva because I recognized myself as a young girl in her – being very sensitive to other people’s opinions, feeling ugly, feeling the lesser one, the less popular… The adult Eva is completely different from me, probably because I had tools given to me from home, too. And, also acting – you learn how to communicate, you know how to love yourself in a way. And so, I was fascinated by the adult Eva because this human mechanism of silencing yourself after being silenced is something that we don’t get access to a lot and I wanted to take a closer look at that. I wanted to examine that and let people look closer at a certain person that doesn’t talk about what has happened to them. Because there’s a lot of people who say: “Ha, get a grip! Stop whining!” or “ “She’s too awkward” or “He’s too angry the whole time” and “Stop using your past as an excuse not to get a grip.” I think that’s such a horrible sentence and that a lot of people do think that, but some people just aren’t able to come out and say things, to come out and tell their story because it’s too dangerous for them. Because if they do, it’s like opening Pandora’s box and all the monsters and ghosts of the past will come out and it’s just too frightening.
Exactly. The film deals with trauma at a very young age and it’s a very painful coming-of-age story because Eva’s essentially on her own, with an absent father, a mother who drinks… How did you go about showing this pain on screen?
V.B.: I think it’s very realistic. I think there are a lot of people like this, but we just don’t know. So, I wanted to give Eva an audience that sees her, but can’t help her. The book starts with a lot of hope, the future is bright and everything is possible and it just narrows and narrows and narrows down until there are no more possibilities. In-between the two timelines, she’s a frozen person and with the invitation of the past, something comes up that she wants to suppress, but it’s too late because it has started to melt. Eva’s loneliness in the present is in her eyes. For example, in the beginning of the past, Eva is in a wide shot, you see the environment, you see the people around her when she’s young; when you meet her in the present, it’s quite close already. She’s like in a box. We also never see her with her mom in the shot. It’s always shot – counter shot. And with Maria, who’s the mother figure, she’s always in the same shot. And, by using the language of the image, we also talk about her loneliness; we also see a lot of her on her own, trying to be more presentable just because she doesn’t have a female role model. What I wanted to do is make us understand the decision some of the characters make. I wanted people to understand – not agree with them and hate them for it – but understand why they make this decisions because if you look at Tim, he’s a lonely person. He lost his brother and his parents are divorcing and no one’s looking at him either. So, if you look at the parents, certainly at the base of their problem is also trauma. There are lots of traumas and lots of levels of trauma and how people deal with it is different, too. So, for me, the film talks about loneliness, but also about losing. I mean, Eva loses the whole time although she keeps on fighting. And, when she gets this invitation, it’s the last fight she will have with her capacities.
How did you work with the children?
V.B.: We first cast the kids and this casting process was done during workshops. So, they were together for a whole day and then we would narrow down the number of kids and work with the ones that were left for a very long time. We started working together on acting and doing workshops. Before we started, we went together on a weekend and talked about their characters and “THE” scene – because they called it “THE” scene. But there was a lot of fun about that scene in a way too, because you need to air it out. And, we talked about it a lot. We didn’t rehearse it until the day itself, but we prepared the fight. We prepared the game before and it was shot at the end of the shoot, so they had been together for a month in hotels, having fun, really trusting each other and I felt that that was the most important thing – that they were a group of friends that trusted each other. They were open and communicative, they trusted us and the crew was so warm and caring. And, it was all about them. They were there for them and they really felt they were cared for by the crew. Of course, there was a psychologist attached to the project, talking to them in advance, even going into several conversations privately, looking at their personal private situations, talking with their parents, going through the script. On the day itself, the same psychologist was there and she would take them out after every take and play games to get them out of the emotional brain into the analytical brain like playing Tetris or making up songs or playing Ninja games Also, after care. I really thought it was very important. What I mean is that we came together, they came to my place, we spent the evening playing board games, talking about who they are, where they’re at in their lives, cooking together… I am really aware of what they had to do and I did everything for it to be done safely.
Do you think that the film will have an impact on the way victims who are silenced cope and heal after a traumatizing experience?
V.B.: I think it can, but it’s not up to me. I know by reactions – parents are saying to me: “Oh my God! The only thing I wanted to do is go home and check in with my kids.” There’s one girl who said: “I felt understood by seeing Eva. I felt understood and seen. Even though she’s not coming out, I connected with her.” Another comment was a father who was separated from his wife said he thanked her for the job she had done in educating their daughter. So, there’s a lot of gratitude and love when people see the film. So, yes, I hope it could give people strength to deal with it or to come out. For a lot of people, it’s very difficult. We’re in the middle of #metoo and there’s still a lot that we don’t know.
Talking about #metoo, are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
V.B.: Yes, I’m a feminist, but life has been kind to me. But there’s still work to do, I think, by showing female characters that are human, realistic and have flaws. We need writers to write parts for women because men – not all of them – often just write: “Pretty, Na-na-na-na.” They think powerful women roles are heroines. They think Lara Croft is a strong female character. Well, for me, everything Frances McDormand does is a “strong female character.”
What is your take on the situation of women in film today?
V.B.: For a long time, I’ve been surrounded by men. Last year, we had the Flemish Film Awards and they wanted to make a gender neutral prize. And so, we had four women and four men nominated, but all four men won because their characters are far more interesting, far more exotic to see. They have flaws, they can be dirty, they can be everything while women still can’t and sometimes women are our worst enemy on that one because when you read a script, it’s like: “A woman, brown-haired, 45, still looking gorgeous.” It’s a lot about looks, but personally, I am very lucky that I didn’t have to deal with this a lot.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
V.B.: The first one that comes up in my head is, of course, Sofia Coppola because I think she really has a voice and I really think she has done some beautiful things. I’m going to say something that is not feminist: I have been raised in a patriarchal society. And so, I’ve been raised with the male gaze and I catch myself liking it sometimes and I’m horrified by it. For example, how Lars von Trier pictures women – they’re all victims and they’re all saints and I love his films, but it’s a very patriarchal look at women. But I’ve been raised in it and it’s sometimes hard for me to get it off my back.
What are your next projects? Will you still be acting?
V.B.: Yes, I will still be acting, but I cannot say in what yet. But what I can say is that I’m working on my next project as a director and it’s an adaptation of an English theater play. That’s all I can say.
Photo credits: Courtesy of the Sundance Institute. Photo by Anne Marie Vandeputte.
This interview was conducted remotely at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.