Céline Devaux: Women, Love, Sex, Success & Death in “Everybody Loves Jeanne”
Can an unlikeable heroine make us root for her, and why do we find successful, independent women, unlikeable? These are two of many questions prompted by Céline Devaux’s slyly intelligent comedy: Everybody Loves Jeanne.
Jeanne (Blanche Gardin) is that intimidating woman that people love to hate – smart, well put together, heading up her own company – whose goal is to save the ocean. However, the image is shattered when she fails majorly, in a public way, after she dives in the water trying to salvage a sinking heavy piece of equipment meant to launch her company. After that fiasco, investors pull out, and her company cannot be saved. Facing bankruptcy, she heads to Lisbon to sell her recently deceased mother’s apartment.
Devaux deftly deals hilarious and poignant moments of a woman who has forgotten who she is, and is surprised to discover through a chance meeting with an old school friend, Jean, (Laurent Lafitte) that she was perceived as the ‘popular’ girl at school, whom everyone liked and wanted to befriend…
With brisk efficiency, the French director, who scripted and designed the animation for Everybody Loves Jeanne, addresses women’s taboos: women’s sexual drive, self-sabotage (depicted by a hairy animated version of ‘Thing’/The Addams Family – a scathing voice that critiques all of Jeanne’s actions), and how people break and heal.
Céline Devaux’s first feature film was selected in the Critic’s Week at the last Cannes Film festival. She spoke to us via zoom from France.
Is it still a challenge to work as a female director?
I have no problem breaking through. Firstly, I am lucky to come from a privileged background where family support left me free to pursue an artistic career. France has a 50-50 public and private system of finance. Secondly, I chose to tell stories that weren’t in direct competition with stories written by men. I wanted to tell stories that talk about the insecurity and secret thoughts of women so it was easier to find my place as men couldn’t do that. I wasn’t in direct competition with men.
You cover death, success, love, self-sabotage, sex, mental illness, rebirth. These are big topics. What is your inspiration?
Life is about those moments where you are going through something while having 10 different thoughts which cover shame, anxiety, fear, sadness thinking about the future, the past or that you smell, or have something in your teeth. The immense meeting of toxic feelings simultaneously.
How do you decide when to do animation and when to do live action?
For this project, I needed the reality of live action and everything that is absolutely uncontrollable while also addressing this inner emotion: shame. Because I started my career as an artist it’s a state where I am extremely free. I can shoot an entire movie and then I can change anything I want by drawing scenes. I can rewrite with new inspiration. So I knew that the interior part, the voice in our head, would be animated, and give me a refreshing way of editing myself and rewriting it.
She says incredibly mean things to herself. Is that a feminine trait? Are men as self-critical?
Women are more submissive to the exterior gaze than men. We are taught to look good, to present good, to look young or fresh. We have these things, and we can’t really control, that’s around us. We grew up with this idea that all exterior is part of who we are. We are not human without how we look. It’s a huge thing. It creates a separation between who we really are, and what we have to make every day, to present ourselves to the world.
So our secret thoughts are way more than men’s secret thoughts because we have more to control, so women’s secret thoughts are way funnier than men. Women are so irreverent. We go way further. I realize we missed out on so much in the way we tell stories in cinema because all the fun, gross, and disgusting, comes from men. So they can make jokes about masturbation. While women have these rules where they never do that, and if they do, it’s because they’re disgusting. That’s their character. But women are so funny; their history, their adventure of being a woman, including everything that is disgusting, is a mine for anecdotes. Women have so much to tell. It’s exciting actually.
Why did you include the mental health issue?
Mental illness is a very scary word for people, yet it was all around me – in various aspects of life. Anxiety is a real thing. We need to talk about it. For many people it is still shameful. It’s not cool to be sad in a way that cannot be cured. It cuts the connection with other people. It cuts the conversation and when conversation is cut it’s unbearable for other people. They want to find a solution so that you can be functional again. It’s very hard for people to accept that others are not functional.
What I liked about my character Jean, is that he admits to this history of mental illness. It is part of him. He says, “I used to be crazy.” He is okay with it. Most people who have suffered from it talk about it with a very harsh humor. It’s very unsettling for those around them because people are afraid of insanity so when somebody says, “I used to be insane.” It’s unbearable for people. It’s worse than cancer or breaking a bone. I don’t know why?
Another topic is a mother/daughter relationship and the death of a parent, and examining how you were formed.
Familial relationships are a passion of mine. When I graduated from school, I realized for the first time that I had to break the mold that made me who I was. Suddenly I was a grown-up amongst grown-ups. I realized my parents, my siblings, people I love very dearly by the way, were grown-ups also. They were individuals.
I realized family was the only place where I was so forgiving. We have conversations with people who don’t have the same political opinion. Sometimes we will overlook terrible things being said about social topics, about personalities. This is very loving but at the same time very painful because when you get home you go: What the fuck? Did I betray myself when I didn’t challenge something just for the sake of civility?
At the same time, it’s beautiful because it means you are capable of cohabitation. That’s very tricky for me. Jean has this terrible relationship with her mother. She will love her mother her entire life, she will try to be loved by her mother who doesn’t deserve her love; but she can’t help trying.
It’s interesting to see that you want to be loved in a certain way. Some people love you in another way and you cannot accept it. You just cannot. You want to be loved in a certain manner. You want them to say things in a certain way. But sometimes they love you merely by being there, and for them that is love. For you it is not enough. This need is what constitutes you; it’s what makes you. It’s what you will choose when you choose who to love and how to love and it makes you who you are.