Interview: Louise Archambault on her film 'Gabrielle'

by Carlos Aguilar
November 21, 2013 11:00 AM
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Dir. Louise Archambault

Gabrielle, Canada's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Entertainment One Films U.S. International Sales Agent: Entertainment One Films International

Québécoise filmmaker Louise Archambault's sophomore feature Gabrielle is an incredibly touching film that radiates joy and presents a singularly honest take on the subject of mentally challenged individuals. Committed to portray these individuals in the most realist way she cast non-professional actors from the very center where the film takes places, by doing this she gave these talented, but often dismissed, people a chance to be seen as self-sufficient and capable. Furthermore, Archambault's film is definitely about love, a feeling often thought too complex for people born with certain syndromes or handicaps, but in her story, the she exalts their ability to love and be loved in the purest way possible. the director talked to us about the challenges during the casting process, the chemistry between the protagonists Gabrielle Marion-Rivard and Alexandre Landry, and the touchy issues surrounding her decision of showing her characters' sensual desires for one another.  

Read the Review for Gabrielle HERE

Carlos Aguilar: How did you develop this idea for the film? Did any person in your life inspire you particularly to make a film about this subject matter?

Louise Archambault: It would be a long answer but to make it short, because it’s a really long process, I guess I wanted to talk about happiness and outcast people, invisibles. The first woman who inspired me was in my neighborhood; she is more mentally challenged than what we see in the film.  We used to swim in the same public pool. In the changing room she always had someone assisting her; she had a strong personality, never wanting to put on her bathing cap, and yelling, and she made people uneasy. Once in the water she would have some floaters, and just float and sing super well, it was so beautiful, but people felt uneasy with it still. At the same time I became acquainted with that organization Young Musicians of the World, which I really shot in India, and there are to Quebeckers.  One  French woman founded that school for deprived children, and it specializes in music.  For a long time half of my script happened in India, and the sister was already there, but it was huge and very expensive for a second feature, so at some point I just cut it in half and focused on one thing. Music and choir singing came instantly in the equation, then a lot of people inspired me.

Aguilar: Was the casting process trickier for this film in particular than for other projects you have worked on? How did you go about choosing the members of the choir?

Gabrielle Marion-Rivard in 'Gabrielle'

Archambault: Yeah. For sure I had the wish of making a film with mentally challenged people, and not only on them. At some point I became acquainted with that center called Les Muses. That’s where Gabrielle has singing classes.  They do theater, singing, and dance and they want for their students to work professionally ideally. A lot of people in the film come from there.  After that I created a choir for the film, some of them I chose because of their singing and some because they have great personalities. For all the non-professional actors I knew I wanted to keep their real first name so I could improvise during the shoot. Like Gabrielle, I didn’t know if she could do the part, she was not an actress, she is a good singer, and she has a magical presence. For a year I worked with her and tried, in her syndrome she has a trait that is called theatrical behavior so she is very expressive. But in film, it could look false and not good, and I didn’t want that, so I found a way to work with them. And for me I had to forget perfection, let go, and know them well so their personality would come out, and their strength would come out. The other actors, whom I did hire are good but they are mostly very human, they are not into their ego. Everyday was about finding solutions because things didn’t necessarily worked out, but everybody was so involved in the film and worked hard, like Gabrielle worked hard, she wanted to. I just wanted to get the best out of them.

Aguilar: Speaking of acting, how difficult was it to portray the relationship between Gabrielle and Martin in terms of their relationships, and finding that chemistry?

Archambault: First, Martin (Alexandre Landry) he is a professional actor. He won three prizes in festivals already. I did audition some mentally challenged actors for the part, super good actors, but the love chemistry didn’t work out. At some point one actor stopped and looked at me and said “I really want a part in your film you know I really want to be an actor, but I cannot fall in love with her, it doesn’t work” [Laughs]. Then Alexandre came and auditioned, and he is a very gifted actor, but humanly I think he is a very special guy. Now I travel a lot with him, he never judges, he is very curious of people and very generous, so that helped a lot. When he met Gabrielle, they were giggling, and it was something else. He was intimidated because he is not a singer, so when we were rehearsing with the choir, yes they are mentally challenged, but they are good singers. But Alexandre felt part of them, he asked a lot of questions and Gabrielle helped him, she gave him techniques. I think they developed like a brother/sister relationship, very strong, but it was special because Gabrielle had never made love in her life, so how do you act that you know? [Laughs] So it was special.

Aguilar: This is a very special coming-of-age story, you don’t portray these individuals in a patronizing way, and you show them as complex and self-sufficient individuals. They have talents and dreams. Was this something you wanted to explore from the beginning?

Archambault: Absolutely, I didn’t want to go into “miserablism”, it’s a feel-good, but I didn’t want to go sugary either. If I would have taken only actors and make-believe, I’m not sure the feeling would be the same. I knew I wanted to be in the frontier of fiction film, it’s scripted, but the way it’s done is very documentary-oriented. When I shot the dance scene, it was a real dance, and they were real people who were there in their real world, so the combination of both gives them, at least for those characters, I’m not saying all challenged people are like that, more realism. It is a delicate subject, but I didn’t want to suck it down emotionally, so there is singing, and I think a lot of people can relate. It is a love story with challenges; it’s a film about love. That’s it.

Aguilar: Most films about mentally challenged people they never delve into their sexual desires, did you ever feel that portraying that was a bit risqué or touchy?

Gabrielle Marion-Rivard and Alexandre Landry

Archambault: We talked a lot about that with the producer and investors, “To what extent can I go? Can I go that far or not?” I had Gabrielle as well, and I had to go with her limits as well. I wanted to give it sensuality, like you mentioned it is a coming-of-age story, at the beginning she is a child and at the end she is a woman. That’s what I wanted to say, and I wanted something very sensual, it is like pure love, like the first time, but a beautiful first time.

Aguilar: How did you develop the other characters, the “normal” people who sometimes seem to have more issues with the challenged people limitations than themselves?

Archambault: Let’s say Gabrielle’s sister Sophie (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), she wants to go to India, but she can’t because Gabrielle is trying to live out her independence and she rebels. The thing is that they live the same thing; they have to let go, because if they continue to be too connected they will not live their own lives. Maybe if they trust each other and let go it would help them to have a better relationship later on between them. Their mothers, it is very difficult to describe those because they are like in 3 scenes, so I had to be very efficient. Martin’s mother, I think she forgot herself at some point because she wanted the best for her son. She doesn’t know better but she would love for him to have a “normal” girlfriend but hopefully at some point she will open her perception. I say to myself “I hope that character falls in love after the film and have her own life.” The other one [Gabrielle’s mother], she couldn’t let go of her job, she doesn’t have a husband, at some point Sophie left and she has Gabrielle, what can she do? Should she leave her job to take care of Gabrielle? It makes no sense. So she chose the best place for Gabrielle, maybe she should visit her more, but then again we all have issues like that in our families. We are all imperfect, but Gabrielle has to develop from that and be resilient, her mother loves her, not perfectly, but she still can have a great life.

Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Gabrielle Marion-Rivard

Aguilar: Did your cast get to see the film after it was done? How did they react?

Archambault: It was very touching. During the premier in Montreal in September the crew, the cast, and their families were there. The real inspiration for the film, like the parents, and the people from the organizations, they were crying and saying, “Wow, you understood what we do”. That happened, but it happened in other countries as well.

Aguilar: Overall, what would you like people to take from the film?

Archambault: I want them to want to sing and hug the people they love when they come out of the theater [Laughs]. Be open to difference; don’t give in to judgment or appearances. If you are on the bus and there is someone who talks to himself or herself and you feel uncomfortable, just give them a chance. You probably have as much weirdness in you but it doesn’t show, because we are educated for it not to show in society. Be warm, we just want to love, and be loved.

Aguilar: How does it feel to represent Canada at the Academy Awards, is there any sort of pressure or too much attention on you because of this?

Archambault: I don’t feel any pressure because it is already an honor. Specially this subject and this type of film, I think it is great that Canada chose this one. It makes me believe more in human beings, makes me less cynic. It is great to shine light on these people, and specially people who work to help people like Gabrielle, they never get light shined on them. They always struggle to get funding, they are not actors, just for that I think more people will see the film, I hope.

Aguilar: Do you any upcoming projects you are working on now?

Archambault: I have a few projects. The scrip that is finished now it’s called After The End it’s in English; it’s an adaptation of a British play. It is set mostly in a nuclear bunker [Laughs].

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