Letourneur discusses her film La vie au ranch, a film that observes, in fine detail, the flowering and dissolution of a group of young women.
Released in her native France in 2010, La vie au ranch is the first feature-length film by 33-year-old Sophie Letourneur. Following a number of short and medium-length films that have garnered her awards from festivals across Europe, her debut feature continues her preoccupation with the theme of friendship among young women, frequently drawn from her own experiences.
In La vie au ranch, Letourneur turns her camera to a group of college girls living in a cramped apartment in Paris. A seemingly carefree and tight-knit life of parties and next-morning hangovers quickly reveals a deep-seated dissatisfaction in the protagonist Pam who, over the course of the film, grows increasingly detached from the friends she has had since high school, eventually escaping from Paris’ suffocating familiarity for the bohemian utopia of Berlin.
While the subject matter is hardly original, it is its treatment that makes La vie au ranch stand out. Demonstrating subtle tact and a keen sense of observation, Letourneur gradually constructs a compelling portrait of her characters through highly naturalistic dialogues and situations, which perfectly convey the characters’ emotional conflicts without resorting to sensationalism or ponderous sentimentality. Beyond successfully capturing a very defining transitional stage in a young person’s life, this deceptively simple film also addresses broader issues pertaining to the representation of femininity in cinema.
La vie au ranch is screening through Thursday, October 25 as part of BAMcinématek’s current series on the young French cinema group ACID. Although Letourneur was meant to be present for her film’s US premiere, the advanced stage of her pregnancy forced her to cancel her visit to New York. Fortunately, I was able to speak with her on the phone, learning about the extremely protracted and painstaking pre-production process that lent the script its striking authenticity and about the role gender politics play in her filmmaking.
Translated by Giovanni Marchini Camia.
Giovanni Marchini Camia At the end of the credits you included the message “with nostalgic recollection of the group that we were.” To what extent is La vie au ranch based on your personal experiences?
Sophie Letourneur The initial drive to tell this story is linked to events that really happened, that is, to my departure from a group of friends. As for the characters, they’re completely based on people from my life. I was living in a flatshare with my best friend, with whom I had a falling out; we all went on holiday, as they do in the film; and there’s even aspects of the film that I took directly from videos and recordings I had made at the time. The entire script was pretty much constructed around my memories, whether recalled or from these documents that I had made. I recorded a lot of things back then. There’s even whole sequences in the film that are reconstructions of dialogues that I had recorded.
GMC So far you have always worked with highly personal material. Is this crucial for you or could you imagine working on stories that completely depart from your personal experience in the future?
SL Actually, I’ve just finished co-writing a script, which took me three years to complete, and though I feel very close to the material, it isn’t at all inspired by my own experiences. Ultimately, it is always related to me in some way, I can always somehow identify with my characters, but I think that’s the case for a lot of directors. I couldn’t write something that is too detached from my own personality, about a subject completely external to myself.
GMC Though the film makes it difficult not to sympathize with the characters, at the outset they’re all quite easily dislikeable: they’re extremely privileged, very spoiled, and completely disrespectful of their families. How did you approach this balancing act?
SL Originally, that wasn’t part of the script, as our group of friends wasn’t bourgeois. What happened was that I went through an incredibly long casting. I wanted a real group of friends, but at the same time I also wanted to find people that were more or less like the characters I had written in the script. So it was a really lengthy process and finally I found this very privileged group—they went to a highly reputed private school in Paris and so forth—and I had to ask myself whether I would choose them despite that. I know that it’s not anodyne and it’s not the subject I wanted to treat, however, at the same time, I really liked them. First, their friendship was really strong, which had been difficult to find, and also, they had something really natural about them, a self-confidence, which was of course also linked to their social status. But, most importantly, they had time and they were talented—I could feel they were gifted for acting, so finally I told myself that I’d take them as they were and not focus the film on their social status. That’s why sometimes it’s felt, but it’s never completely pronounced, you know? For me, it’s not what the film is about.
GMC The actresses were all non-professionals? How did you find them?
SL It was a really long casting that lasted eight months. As I was looking for actors that would be somewhat similar to my former group of friends, I went looking in the same places. Like, since I went to art school, I looked in an art school, and then one thing lead to another. It was basically like an investigation and since I wasn’t looking for a specific girl or guy, but a whole group, a group composed of a specific number of people with very definite characteristics, it was a real ordeal. I ended up meeting many groups of friends. I’d go to their parties or meet them in bars and once I liked them as a group, I had to meet them individually to see if the relationships between them could be appropriated for the topics I wanted to broach in the film. In the group I ended up choosing, there were actually similarities to my group of friends of which I wasn’t even aware. For example Pam, the girl that plays the protagonist, had actually already left the group, but everyone had kept that from me. I had felt that there was something strange, maybe a similarity between the two of us, and in fact the story I was telling had already occurred in her life.
GMC To what extent did you have to rework the script once you found the right group?
SL The script was completely written in terms of expository scenes and dialogues; these scenes, this overall structure, didn’t change. I didn’t make use of their personal lives to modify the film’s dramaturgy at all. Then, for every scene, I’d put them in the situation of the given scene, for example preparing to go clubbing or at one of their birthday parties. Sometimes I’d take advantage of parties they were throwing or in the scenes where they went on vacation to the countryside, I actually took them on vacation to the countryside. So the basic structure of the story was already written before I met them. Where they helped me was in the improvisation of the dialogues.
GMC The dialogues all feel really authentic, I did wonder if there was a degree of improvisation.
SL Well, they were improvised during the improvisation sessions, which I audio recorded and then reworked. For example, a scene that is three minutes long in the film would be the result of a four or five-hour improvisation session. I would take the bits that interested me, or a particular expression the girls used, and from there I could rewrite my dialogues, which they had used as support to improvise in the first place. But at the point of shooting, they had to memorize the reworked dialogues—there was no improvisation during the shoot, that was very important, though it is true that they contributed their own words to the film.
GMC The girls’ energy, particularly in the first part of the film, is truly manic. How did you go about generating this energy on set?
SL That was one of the reasons why I chose this group of girls that can sometimes seem . . . Well, it’s true that they feel they can allow themselves anything and I think they pissed off a fair number of people. They were sometimes quite difficult to work with, because they’re so self-assured, but at the same time they’ve got this energy, this power, even violence almost—they’re no fragile little girls. When I first found them, it was at a club. They were all together, they were climbing on the sofas; basically, all eyes were on them and it was this energy that drew me to them.
As for the energy in the film, it’s also tied to the way the script was written, which is highly condensed. Since I recorded the rehearsals, there was something very accumulated. As in, since out of four or five hours of rehearsals I’d end up with some three minutes of audio recording, I could completely manipulate the rhythm of delivery, amplify it as I wanted, remove all the silences, and play with super impositions. All these were things that weren’t necessarily there at the time of rehearsal and that I purposely created to bring about a sort of feeling of suffocation, or of echo, which amounts to the impression of being in a bubble, in a very constricted space, and which can become quite aggravating over the course of the film.
GMC It’s definitely overwhelming at first, though the pace and noise do gradually relent, and by the end, it’s completely silent, which I felt was a nice way of representing Pam acquiring her peace of mind.
SL Yes, I find the relationship towards silence very important in this film. Whether it’s finding one’s place or one’s voice, I don’t know, but in any case, there is something to do with calm, which the group makes impossible. Part of my intention in making this film was also trying a new approach in terms of form, that is, figuring out how to make a film about a group and make this group the principal character—like a sort of animal with several heads, several voices—and show how it denies any one of them the possibility of existing individually: of talking, of being heard, or even of having one’s body isolated in the frame. So I really wanted to think about the mise-en-scène in terms of the problematic of the group as character: what is a group-character and how do you treat it cinematically?
In the beginning, it’s true that I wanted there to be a sort of brutality, to have the viewer confronted with the animal and unable to react. I purposely wanted it to be difficult to understand at first, to mix everything up and make it hard to distinguish who is who. That’s why the opening is so energetic even though it introduces all the characters: it’s dark, everyone’s talking simultaneously, there’s a terrible noise, they’re all drunk… And then, as the group gradually deteriorates, you start having scenes with two or three characters, things start to calm down and it becomes possible to begin telling things apart.
GMC There are certain scenes that could have been quite embarrassing for the actresses, as when Pam urinates in the street or when they talk about their experiences with cystitis. Were they ever hesitant about any of the material?
SL Regarding these scenes, not at all. I did have to have some discussions with them though, because I didn’t want them to be all made up, or for their hair to always be clean. I didn’t want them to look their best all the time, precisely because it was part of what was at stake in the film: to show girls without having to eroticize them and removed from a masculine fantasy, which wouldn’t have worked with my intent at all. Because ultimately my intent was also to consider these characters as people and not simply as projections of what a girl should be or of what one expects of them in cinema. In this respect, I had to fight with them at times about their appearance, so that they are really shown as they would be when they’re together. They don’t have to always look completely polished, wearing foundation and so forth.
Then it’s also true that in the improvisations I included things that were rather crass in terms of the dialogues. I remember that once one of them was talking—it was while rehearsing the scene about the ‘striped pussies,’ where they’re talking about old people’s pubic hair—and she started talking about her grandmother, which I thought was hilarious and I included it in the script. But, in the end, they were paid very little, they gave so much of themselves, it was a true adventure for them, so I listened to her when she said, “No, I’m not going to say that. My grandmother will see the film, I can’t say that.” They did put certain limits on me, but it was mainly about things concerning their families, or if some material was truly too crass, but otherwise, things like peeing in the street, they thought it was funny. And besides, I don’t think I would have given in there, because it was precisely about this dimension of showing girls, perhaps not quite acting like guys, but certainly not behaving like ‘girls’.
GMC So gender politics played a big role for you in making this film?
SL Absolutely, it was very important for me. So far I’ve only made films about girls, about friendships between girls. I have a really hard time filming guys and actually, despite myself, I end up putting them in positions that certain men employ for women when they make films. I don’t really manage to make them exist as real people. But speaking about female friendships, I think that’s possible. By that I mean that female characters can exist without giving prominence to a male character, who would usually be there for the purpose of a love story or something of the sort. Ultimately, they’re individuals and their sexual identity isn’t going to orient the characters in terms of their life choices. Often in films by male directors, friendships, especially female friendships, are treated in a manner that shocks me. There’s always some sort of eroticization, of ambiguity—sexual ambiguity—in friendships between girls, which I find really offensive. I think that that’s motivated me to make films about this subject without the need to resort a masculine fantasy or of casting a masculine gaze on an actress.
GMC Despite the crass scenes, what I found surprising is that in the film the girls never talk about or engage in sex, though certainly that would have been part of their life.
SL It relates back to the previous question. I find it complicated to not take a position, at least in terms of my gaze, towards these girls; to avoid sexualizing them and falling into that which happens in most films: a systematic eroticization of the female character. It’s the question of filming sexuality without turning the female character into an erotic object in thrall to a male fantasy, because ultimately, cinema is very much about that. The actress is most often fantasized by the man and this fantasy then enters the collective imagery. So the question of eroticism in cinema, of sex in cinema, is a question that I have avoided up to now because it’s a question that I’m still working on and have yet to find a solution to. I think there’s something about it that disturbs me in films generally and since I’m trying to position myself in relation to it—that is, to what should be shown of a woman in cinema, to what I feel like showing of a woman—I think it will be very interesting when I will finally be able to speak of sexuality and of desire, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.
I really need to find my own way, as a woman, of representing these things on screen and find my own vocabulary in relation to them. I have the impression that in this regard, we’re still very dominated by a masculine vocabulary in cinema, by erotic images that are masculine. Maybe I’m wrong, but in any case I feel that it plays a big role and that it goes beyond cinema. It’s the image itself: the image of woman, the fantasy, which rejoins eroticism and is completely engrained in the collective subconscious. It’s true that these are issues that I pursue, but at this point they seem much bigger than me, so for the moment I’ve tackled female friendships and there I am able to say things, though perhaps it’s more infantile. I’ve written a new film that I think I will shoot next year, which includes sex scenes and I’m asking myself a lot of questions about it. About how I should film this actress, about how to avoid making her an object of masculine fantasy despite myself, because I’ve seen a lot of films and I too am in thrall to a certain vocabulary.
GMC What about films by female directors such as Catherine Breillat? You don’t find that they offer an alternative perspective?
SL Oh yes, absolutely. For me, Catherine Breillat is exactly about these questions. I admire her a lot and I believe that she has really tried new things. She truly manages to say things about feminine desire and with her, I don’t think it’s simply a pretext for exciting men.
GMC As La vie au ranch deals with a phenomenon so closely tied to a specific period in a person’s life, did you notice a difference in the reactions of the viewers depending on their age?
SL Actually, this touches upon one of my regrets regarding the film. In France, the film came out in an arthouse distribution network. I don’t know how it works in the United States, but in France it’s very separated. There are arthouse cinemas, which in the provinces are small theaters, cine-clubs, mostly attended by people over the age of sixty, whereas young people mainly go to the multiplexes. It really grieved me that there was so little diversity amongst the audience because I feel that young people would have taken to the film differently. They wouldn’t necessarily even have been conscious of the cinematographic dimension, but would have related to it more like reality television. Well, not quite reality television, but something closer to them that would have been more important than the film’s particular form. Unfortunately, the wide public didn’t have access to the film, so I found myself with a rather elderly audience, who regarded the film more as a curiosity but couldn’t really identify. I think that’s a pity. There was a bit more of a mix in Paris were there are cinemas that show a bit of everything, so I was able to have viewers between 20 and 35-years-old and there I did feel it worked much better.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic currently living in New York. For more of his writing visit his blog.