Reworking Milena Agus’ novel Mal di pietre for the big screen was always going to be a daunting task. The setting of 1950s rural France demanded all the period trappings; the narrative unfolds as an extended flashback; the troubled heroine, Gabrielle, spends much of the film in a mental health sanatorium, where her free will and passion faces prejudice and ignorance. Yet in the hands of director Nicole Garcia and her leading lady, Marion Cotillard, the adaptation Mal de Pierres (From the Land of the Moon) becomes a soaring, moving melodrama; the film screened in Official Selection at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where Screen International lauded it as “an old-fashioned romantic weepie given class and conviction.”
Nicole Garcia is one of the grand doyennes of European cinema. A beloved actress (she has 13 César nominations to her name), Garcia turned to directing with the acclaimed 1986 short, 15 août, a personal slice-of-life drama that featured her husband Jean-Louis Tritignant. It has led to collaborations with Nathalie Baye (Un week-end sur deux, 1990), Jean-Marc Barr (Le fils préféré, 1994), Catherine Deneuve (Place Vendôme, 1998), Daniel Auteuil (The Adversary, 2002), Jean Dujardin (Un balcon sur lamer, 2010) and her son, Pierre Rochfort (Un beau dimanche, 2013). Following the Cannes Premiere of From the Land of the Moon at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, Garcia (pictured, above) sat with SCREEN-SPACE in the Alliance Française tents to talk about her latest film….
SCREEN-SPACE: How did you become aware of the novel? What aspects of Gabrielle most enthused you?
NICOLE GARCIA: A friend of mine told me, “You have to read this book.” So I read most of it travelling between Paris and Marseilles, and when I arrived I rang my producer and told him, “You have to find out if the rights are available.” Maybe I was waiting for this sort of character. Maybe she represents a part of me, or a maybe because she represents a fascinating part of all women. Maybe because the character foreshadows what is happening with the women of today. What I like is that she dared to express the desire that she has. It is not a dark desire; she is not a nymphomaniac or a sex addict, but it is live, real sexual drive. It is also something that is very mystical. But hers is a life in two parts and she doesn’t want to give up on either part. It is her dream to have both elements. (Pictured, above: Marion Cotillard and co-star Alex Brendemuhl).
SCREEN-SPACE: The setting provides an historical framework, but it is in many regards a very contemporary work…
NICOLE GARCIA: (Cannes artistic director) Thierry Frémaux believes that if you set a film in the past, you are foreshadowing what contemporary women will become. Gabrielle is in this very restrictive 1950s society, yet she has this wilful yearning for freedom, which was scandalous at the time. She was accused of being mad. But she represents movement towards the freedom and independence that women have today, sort of the ‘first step on the ladder,’ if you will. But above and beyond the modern interpretation of the text, is that there is something universal in the story, in Gabrielle, and that is the universal strength of feminine desire, which can be frightening. It is something that can overflow, can take over, that can wash away the very person from whom it generates. To this day, it is still viewed as very suspicious.
SCREEN-SPACE: I sensed that the soulfulness of her character comes from a yearning for a truthful connection, whether that is physically or intellectually…
NICOLE GARCIA: Gabrielle says something that is very important. At one point, she says, “I want somebody to talk to me, I want somebody to talk to.” She wants somebody that she can express herself to in meaningful words, which is what she most often wanted to do with this very taciturn, rough Spanish builder. The modern woman has so many outlets, so many opportunities to express and validate and explore her many desires. But Gabrielle does not.
SCREEN-SPACE: Did you immediately share an understanding and common goal with Marion about how Gabrielle should be played?
NICOLE GARCIA: During the shoot, there was very little need to explain things. She saw things in the script and in my discussions about the character and just pulled them out, when required. It was two communicating vessels. We didn’t rehearse; the only things we did before hand were costume and hair. So when we got to the set, I’d show her the scene and she’d say, “Ok, got it.” It was just she and I and, with very little need to speak, we formed this character. For me, Marion creates a Gabrielle who is the geography of the film. She is the lavender fields, the Mediterranean, the Alps. In my vision, she emerges from the backdrop of the film. I wrote the role, so it was always within me. She was always the first choice for the role. She is the best actress in Europe at the moment. (Pictured, above; l-r, Louis Garrel, Cotillard and Garcia at the Cannes press conference).
SCREEN-SPACE: The sex between Marion and Louis Garrel, as Andre, is physically raw but also one of the most deeply emotional depictions of lovemaking I can recall…
NICOLE GARCIA: Thank you, yes. I was very worried about this scene. We shot it just before we left The Swiss Alps, so I had to count on the actors just letting themselves go. In the script, it’s very easy; the actors lay down together and their bodies…engage (laughs). Marion knew (the passion) had to shown, had to be externalised. Personally, I find sex scenes in films rather boring, so I watched sex scenes in films from directors I admire, like Ang Lee. Then it dawned on me that the way into this scene is through her eyes. When you realise that she is seeing what she has always been looking for, and that she’s achieved it, is deeply moving. And when you realise it is a dream…well, the force, the power of the imagination is beautiful.
From the Land of the Moon will be screening at the 28th annual Alliance Française French Film Festival. Session and ticket information can be found at the official event website.