Belle Epine is a strikingly intimate portrait of a seventeen year-old girl, Prudence (played by Léa Seydoux) that captures her transition from cocooned youth towards a premature adulthood following the death of her mother. Unable to articulate her emotions, Prudence retreats into a new world marked by speed and danger. It is the debut film for French director, Rebecca Zlotowski. She spoke with Kylie Boltin in New York where her film was included in the New Directors/New Films Festival.
There are two origins for Rebecca Zlotowski’s debut film, Belle Epine. As a student of the script-writing department at La Fémis in Paris she wrote the film as part of her assessment. But perhaps more tellingly, Zlotowski had something in her possession that sparked the idea. The diary of an unknown girl she had found on the street. The girl was a teenager in the Paris of the late 1970s and early 1980s and the diary was the starting point for the director’s research.
Chatting while her film screened for New Directors/ New Films, Zlotowski admits that she kept certain names from the diary to maintain a sense of reality about the story as well as using numerous locations that the girl traversed. “I worked a lot with maps of the area as well as pictures of boys on motorcycles that were in the diary. Those pictures plus the topography made me interested in the motorcycle world”. It was this world that enabled Zlotowski to mediate the motivating force of Prudence’s grief with what she describes as “the excitement and spectacle of the cinema. I needed the character to be free,” she says. “The topic of the bikes and bikers is something that is erotic to me. It is also something that is scary and allows the experience of speed and movement in the film. I wanted to talk about something very deep and sad using the tool of cinema that is exciting and spectacular. Even it’s only a small spectacle in the film because of the budget”.
Zlotowski has since searched for the girl but says now, “I think it’s another story, it could be another film, but I did not want to embarrass her. I’ve been so far from her diary and her story that I thought it could be embarrassing for her to think that she had been read; that I thought about her. And I did not find her, actually,” she says.
The diary also provided Zlotowski with title of the film. “The girl used to hang out in a mall called Belle Epine with her friends. When you live in Paris you know it by heart,” Zlotowski says now. “I also loved the name because in French it means beautiful thorn. I thought that it was totally baroque. I could imagine a beautiful flower with blood on the thorn. I could also imagine a thorn as something you have in your shoe that you have to remove in order walk again. In French it’s also close to a slang word, which means beautiful dick. Sometimes I feel that women dream of it,” she laughs. “Everything was so coherent to make it the title of the film”.
The multiple references that the title evokes are reflected in the layered experiences of intimacy, melancholia and danger that merge in the character of Prudence. Actress Léa Seydoux is present in every frame and it her complex yet understated approach to the role that creates a kaleidoscope of emotions that in turn effect her increasingly dangerous actions. “It is a difficult part for an actress,” says Zlotowski. “It requires her to be very secretive and very mysterious about the emotions she is going through. It also requires the actress to have a lot of readings and talks with me and then erase everything because the nature of the role is to be very shy about what she is doing. She doesn’t know what is happening. This is the biggest difficulty for the character”.
For Zlotowski both the character of Prudence and the film itself is an experiment in expression. In our conversation, she raises the question “How far you can express something that you are not putting in words?” She says, “I wanted to make something about another system of emotions. Everyone seems to encourage spontaneity as the most valuable quality. I don’t think it’s so. Emotions are sometimes delayed. You have time between the event and the impact of the emotion. I feel that way and I feel less lonely when I see it on screen”.
Zlotowski did not write the film with Seydoux in mind. At the time she didn’t know that she would eventually direct the film but once she took the helm, Seydoux was the only actress she approached. “Lea has cinematic presence that allows her to do very little and still be intense and deeply present on the screen,” Zlotowski says now. “It was a huge responsibility for her as an actress to say yes and for me to just imagine her in the role. I felt it was the beginning of the collaboration and a responsibility pact between us. We worked for one year and I re-wrote the script in parts when I knew it was her.”
Zlotowski’s direction evokes a sense of intimacy with the characters and for her this is pivotal. “I’m really happy that you perceived the intimacy between me and the actors and the actors themselves. In film I want to feel close to the characters and if you don’t it has failed. A very important part of the filmmaking was the casting. I feel that when you cast actors for a good reason, they know how you want to use them, and they give you exactly what you want. They don’t feel betrayed or used or manipulated by you. The story is about young women and I’m a woman. We trusted each other a lot. When it came to nudity, for instance, it was it was easier — even if I sometimes was like a man just wanting to see his actresses naked. But actresses would never suspect me, which is the luck, when you’re a female director. You can do it very simply. You have no suspicion”.
Kylie Boltin is a Brooklyn based writer and director. She most recently worked on the Bollywood feature film, Rockstar starring Ranbir Kapoor in New Delhi, India.