I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A deftly crafted and mordant social drama set in Algeria during the last years of French Colonialism, Overseas (Outreamer), which actress Brigitte Rouan co-wrote and in which she co-stars with Nicole Garcia and Marianne Basler, marks a stunning debut for Rouan as a director.
A deftly crafted and mordant social drama set in Algeria during the last years of French Colonialism, Overseas (Outreamer), which actress Brigitte Rouan co-wrote and in which she co-stars with Nicole Garcia and Marianne Basler, marks a stunning debut for Rouan as a director. Using a triple perspective and with great satiric verve, the film tracks the shared experiences of three bourgeois sisters as they come to grips with conventional expectations of love and marriage against a backdrop of increasing political turmoil.
This interview took place during the New Directors’ screening of Overseas at the Museum of Modern Art last March. A 1990 Cannes’ Critics’ Week Award Winner and an Aries Film release, the film is now playing nationwide
Liza Béar How important was it for you, given that you have this background in acting, to not only direct, but star in your film?
Brigitte Roüan Quite frankly, Isabelle Adjani called me. She was on this panel that gives out advances on box office receipts. She said, “I adore your script, but give me some ammunition because there are 300 of you tomorrow, and we only back 30 projects. Who are your leads?” I didn’t know. “Who’s your producer?” I didn’t know either. “Where are you shooting?” I’d like to shoot in Algeria, but I’m not sure. Isabelle said, “How come? Every French actress is going to want to play these roles.”
LB What was it like working with three co-screenwriters?
BR Well, I hadn’t planned to, but I’d willingly do it again. I had written a play for three women and I wanted to make a film out of it but I didn’t have the nerve. Philippe LeGay said, it’s a great story; you have to do it. We got together and for a week I talked non-stop about my family and my education.
LB Your family being French-Algerian.
BR Algerian, French, Catholic, military, the lot. I talked my head off and Philippe took notes. Then we went to the country for three weeks to write. The first draft was chronological and there were way too many characters. Eventually, the three sisters emerged. Why did that happen? I think it was a completely unconscious decision.
LB Are there three sisters in your family?
BR Yes. But the film isn’t autobiographical in that sense. I think certain choices are symbolic and they impose themselves on the story. So anyway I thought, the script is too romanesque, it’s not cinematic enough, it’s tedious. It’s what Francois Truffaut used to call the “seventh reel syndrome.” The story takes off, but it doesn’t go anywhere. We paced up and down all night and in the morning we both came up with the same idea, that the story had to be told from the point of view of all three sisters. Philippe had to go shoot his own film so I had to find another writer. The screenwriting period was very brief but very intense. We’d work 12 hours a day. The second writer, Christian, was very intellectual. He especially helped me with the structure, which was better in the script than in the film, but I didn’t have the money to do everything I wanted. The dance scene is the only one that’s structured the way I really wanted …
LB There are three versions of that scene.
BR Right. Ideally, that is what I would have done more often. What if I said, remember that interview we did in the restaurant? And you say, oh yes, it was snowing outside. And I say, no, it wasn’t snowing, there was a full moon. Everyone remembers it differently. For one it was sad, the weather was bad, the music was too loud, she had a stomachache. For the other it was a fabulous day, she was wearing a new dress, she was in love. But it’s the same event. That’s the film I wanted to make.
LB The film opens with three very quick scenes of Zon, the eldest sister, on the quay waving good-bye to her husband, a navy officer—her change of costume and the number of children with her indicate time passing. On the soundtrack, there’s an aria from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which serves as a refrain throughout the film—l’amour est préférable a la liberté.
BR Which is a joke, of course.
LB Yeah, I think everyone in the audience got it.
BR They always get it. Everywhere. The audience is much smarter than money people, bankers and television producers seem to think. This isn’t an esoteric film.
LB The death throws of the French colonial milieu are savagely satirized—I guess that comes from close personal observation. Were you living in Algeria during the period just before independence?
BR No, because I left at the age of four. At first my family was furious that I was making this film. They saw it as washing dirty linen in public. They wanted to sue me. It was dreadful. Rumors were flying so high that an aunt of mine claimed she’d seen extracts from the film on TV, before we’d even shot a single frame! After the film won prizes everywhere, the family came around. They’re not all happy because the image I give of colonialism isn’t as rose-tinted as they would have liked. My aunts would say, you were so tiny, how could you remember all those things! A cousin my age told me stuff I’d completely forgotten. I’d only kept a general impression, certain very precise sensations and a few phrases. And out of those, I built a story.
LB Did you go back to Algeria more recently?
BR Yes. Since I was planning to shoot there, I went back and forth six times to scout locations. But we ran into censorship problems. We were supposed to shoot in ’88, but they had those teenage riots in the streets …
LB That’s strange since the film is so anti-colonial and anti-conventional French.
BR The censorship committee had my script in front of them when they reviewed my application for a shooting permit and they said that the Arabs in the story were portrayed as rapists, treacherous and lazy. I was seated at the time, fortunately. I said, let’s start with the most serious charge. Where do you see a rapist? And they said, on page 78, he taps Gritte in the back. That gesture is known over there as “le sourire Kabyle” (Kabyle’s smile). It’s what the Kabyles do when they are going to cut someone’s throat. But in my film that’s not what the man does: they become lovers. Not that I wanted to do Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She’s in the garden after dark in her nightdress, I think that says it.
LB Okay. So Morocco would be out of the question too, that leaves Tunisia. How long was the shoot?
BR Very short. Initially we had 11 weeks. The production kept on being scaled back. At the last minute it was down to seven weeks. That was one of the hardest things to do, cut scenes from the script. Three weeks before we went into production my producer’s partner, who by the way did nothing for the film, walked into the office and said, that scene with Nicole in the bathroom, it’s not doing anything, we can cut it. He started to rip out the page. I said, but sir, there are sexual references. So he said, okay, put it back in.
LB What was the budget?
BR Twelve million francs. It should have been 20 million. By the time everyone gets paid off it’ll be closer to 14 million. We all worked for halfpay.
LB The film is a success so I take it everything went well during production?
BR Now that it’s done I have very good feelings about it but right after we’d finished shooting, I wanted to make a film called, I Hate Technicians. Because with the actors, directing was sublime, and with the crew it was incredibly difficult, except for sound and costumes. I had problems with my cameraman.
LB Did the DP say, “It’s my image?”
BR What he’d say was, “It can’t be done, we don’t have time, you won’t make the day. I don’t want to sound like a movie cop but I just want to make sure the entire film gets shot.” Let’s face it, it was my first feature, and I am a girl, after all … For the most part they were really sweet. But because I’m a theatre person they’d think, she doesn’t know about film, we’ll cover for her. Sometimes my shots would seem abstract to them. For instance, that scene when my character runs along the wine vats, and then I switch to a subjective camera. The camera takes my place in the back of the cave in the darkness. To have them do that shot, I spent all morning arguing. They just didn’t get it.
LB They didn’t understand the camera move.
BR Secondly, they didn’t want to shoot in complete darkness. They said, on TV you won’t see anything. I tried to explain, to me my grandfather’s caves were like the Pantheon in Paris, big black cathedrals. When you’re six years old, wine caves are really scary, full of ghosts.
LB Because of your experience in the theater, it must have been easier for you to direct actors.
BR I know what it is to be an actor, what an actor’s solitude feels like. A highly emotional scene, like Nicole’s scene when she cries and says, take my children, that’s really hard to do. At the crack of dawn, you’re asking someone to lay themselves out, to reopen old wounds, to summon the demons, and then you say, cut. Next scene. The actor’s stranded, with no emotional resources to fall back on. I tried never to let that happen. I didn’t want my actors to be in pain because I personally have suffered so much on the set. In the process of opening yourself up and releasing all that energy, all that adrenalin, the actor becomes emotionally vulnerable. As an actor, you have to be totally devoid of any hint of tension, of any defensiveness, you have to feel hyper—at ease. If a director is mean to you just before the first slate, it knocks you off balance, you lose your concentration. But it’s the actress who is nervous, not the character. It’s very important not to confuse what you’re feeling as a person with the emotions your character’s portraying.
LB What have you learnt about directing from other directors?
BR Nothing. Nothing at all. As an actress, I make no comments during a shoot. I observe. Before I got into directing, I was completely naive. Which is probably why the camera did not favor me greatly.
LB You weren’t conscious of camera placement?
BR I didn’t have that particular sensory awareness. When I was younger, I would regularly fall in love, not with my acting partner, but with the cameraman. It’s a very sensual relationship. ’Cause they have their eyes on you eight hours a day. It’s almost an umbilical link. Now I’m better in front of the camera. It’s exactly the opposite of theater. On the stage you’re wide open. In film, it’s the reverse. It’s like a sponge, you’re kind of sucked up by the camera.
LB The film was edited by Yann Dedet, your husband, who also plays your husband in the film.
BR Was my husband. It’s really marvelous to work with someone you love, but also terribly difficult.
LB But you’re still friends.
BR We’re very, very good friends. He’s edited almost all of Truffaut’s and Pialet’s films. He’s a great guy. The problem during the editing was that he became a terrorist, just as my cameraman had been. If we had to work together again, I hope I would have the strength, the selfconfidence to just say, very calmly, No, not exactly. Let’s do it like this. It was very complicated because Yann is a workaholic. He’d want me to be there every minute. And I felt completely exhausted and emotionally drained by the production. Now he admits he shouldn’t have been so demanding, should have had me come to the editing room only every other day. But I have to admit, if I made this film, it’s because of him. He was the one who gave me the confidence to dare make a film.
LB It’s interesting how supportive men can be at times.
LB I love the particular blend of social satire and melodrama that you have in the film.
BR If you see an old man slip on a banana peel, it’s terribly sad. If you see a fabulously dressed woman slip on the banana, it’s comic. There was a line of dialogue in the film that everyone wanted to cut. It’s when my character dies. The scene is tragic, but her last words are not “Darling, I’m dying,” but “Phone the bank,” because they have money problems.
LB The story begins in ’46, but the Algerian revolution took place in 1962.
BR I didn’t want to deal with the return of the pied noirs to France when they were kicked out of Algeria. That wasn’t my theme. I didn’t experience that particular pain. The only reference to it is Marianne perched on her suitcases being insulted by members of the secret army who were preventing people from leaving.
LB The film shows how the politics of colonialism go hand in hand with conventional views of love and marriage imposed on women by Catholicism.
BR Yes, of course. It makes total hysterics out of them.
LB Is the film still too political for the French? Are they distanced enough from the events?
BR No. In the south of France, there’s an enormous number of pieds noirs. It was quite something when I showed the film there. They cried a lot more, they laughed a lot less. They applauded for a long time. For once, it wasn’t a portrait of us eating couscous and speaking French with an accent. But during the Q and A afterwards, people got mad because my point of view of the government is way too far left for those people. They would jump up and say, But we didn’t all have aeroplanes, we weren’t all rich, I’ve never killed an Arab.
LB Unfortunately the sentiments expressed in the film are all too accurate, even if the details change from one group to the next.
BR Right. But at one point, before Cannes, I was criticized because in the first part of the film there are practically no Arabs. I’d say, Arabs were servants and they weren’t allowed in the house. Only Spaniards were allowed to serve at the table. Arabs were only allowed to do housework. Unfortunately I had to cut those scenes. But in the second part, Malene is working with them. And in the third part, since Gritte the youngest sister has a real life job, she’s a nurse, she has some understanding of the social situation. But she doesn’t really have any political consciousness. She’s aware that something is wrong, that there’s a big chasm between the family discourse and reality, but she doesn’t have the means, the language with which to express it, so she throws up.
LB Still, you can see that there’s a progression in political awareness from one sister to the next, and as the most aware, Gritte becomes the denouement of the film.
BR Let’s say there’s a lot of me in Gritte. Rebelling against the family, understanding that the kind of language that was traded at the table or in offices or living rooms, was not reality. These women had a voice, but they didn’t have an idea in their heads. They spoke exactly like their husbands, in place of their husbands. No one ever analyzed anything, except for Algerian intellectuals. So obviously the film is a metaphor. I wasn’t old enough to participate in the revolutionary discourse. Even if I had been old enough I don’t know whether I would have. Once I said to my mother, if I’d been 18, I’m sure I would have done something. And she’d say, sure, hothead that you are, you would have joined the OAS (a right-wing organization) and fought against the Arabs.
LB The film’s dedication to your mother reads “who was pretty, but who could have been beautiful.”
BR Yes. I think she could have been a wonderful person but she didn’t have the opportunity.
Liza Béar is a filmmaker and a pied noir who lives in New York and teaches film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee