Dialogue: Catherine Breillat

Novel adaptation 'An Old Mistress' screens In Competition

Breillat is back. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004, the French novelist and filmmaker, known for her daring, sexually and violently explicit films such as "Anatomy of Hell" (2004), "Fat Girl" (2001) and "Romance" (1999), has fought her way back to life and back to Cannes with her 12th film, "Une Vieille Maitresse" ("An Old Mistress"), a period drama based on Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 1865 novel. Returning to the Croisette after her unromantic, unabashed evocation of sexuality "Sex Is Comedy" opened the Director's Fortnight in 2002, the controversial cineaste talks about her journey from "A Real Young Girl" to "An Old Mistress."

The Hollywood Reporter:
What made you decide to adapt Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's novel "An Old Mistress"?

Breillat: First of all, the book is magnificent and not appreciated to its true worth. Barbey d'Aurevilly is a real dandy, which I've always considered myself to be. I've always positioned myself as a dandy. He's also been victim to censorship, so we have a lot in common. I think if I had lived during that time, I would have been Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly. His characters are both androgynous and very modern. There's a sort of opposition between the blonde and the brunette, good and evil -- the blonde is beautiful and cold, the fever under the ice, she has an extreme elegance that shows she's from an aristocratic milieu, while La Vellini represents raw sexuality, the modern woman. In this world of passions, everyone is sincere, everyone is pure, there's no perversity.

THR: As a writer yourself, did you feel a pressure to adapt the novel in a certain way?

Breillat: No. I made it my own. Like the time period, I made it mine. Like all filmmakers, I want to invent. What does it mean to invent? It means to make something visible that was invisible before but that was always there to begin with. People see nothing, people are blind, a filmmaker is someone who sees. I decided to make movies to re-create the world as it exists for me, to make the world visible and, thus, bearable.

THR: It's been said this is your most mainstream film to date -- would you agree?

Breillat: Barbey d'Aurevilly said the same thing. He said I'm going to write a literary work, but one made for the people. I said I'm going to make a film that doesn't abandon my demands as a filmmaker but that is made for the people. I never think about what the audience thinks. I always say that Van Gogh didn't cut off his ear to profit from it, but it was because he cut off his ear that he profited from it. I've always been like that. When you do something to please others, and it's a failure, you become ashamed, distressed. Of course I want people to like my film, I want the movie to be popular, but I made no concessions. I didn't do it for the public, I did it for the art. An artist doesn't make a product, he makes a work of art.

THR: It's your first time in the official selection at Cannes, but you've been making films for more than 30 years. How do you feel about finally being selected?

Breillat: I think people finally opened their eyes to something that was considered to be scandalous before. You can't be an artist without bothering someone. And we bother people the most in our own country. I think I was the little French girl who dared to do everything. I hope that with "An Old Mistress," I'll satisfy all those who defended me but that I'll also satisfy France. It's the continuation of a work of art, and I hope that my work of art is the best I've ever done.

THR: This is your biggest-budget film yet -- more than $10 million. Are you hoping for a more commercial success with this film?

Breillat: Ever since I was little, I always said that I was 10 years ahead of the times. It was uncomfortable. And that the future would prove me right. To live a quarter of a century ahead with ideas not recognized by anyone else was very painful. But I think that if it hadn't been so difficult, I might have lost my soul, I might have sold myself to the commercial world. Because success is a drug, because once you achieve it, you want it to last. I've always said that "Anatomy of Hell" would be the end of a cycle of smaller-budget films about sex. I wanted to start a new cycle, more accessible, bigger-budget films. With "An Old Mistress," I made my first film all over again. I didn't want to do what everyone expected, I said I need to do something else, and so what if it doesn't work? I think one should never be afraid to lose; when one is afraid to lose, one is dead.

THR: You've gone from "A Real Young Girl" (1976) to "An Old Mistress" (2006). Do you see a personal evolution and a shift in your work?

Breillat: This is the third time I'm directing Roxane Mesquida, who was after all a real young girl in "Fat Girl," then played a real young girl in "Sex Is Comedy" and again in "An Old Mistress." It's Roxane Mesquida, three times a virgin, but a different kind of virgin I'd say.

THR: Roxane Mesquida is a familiar face in your films, but why the choice of the previously unknown Fu'ad Ait Aattou to play Ryno de Marigny?

Breillat: I was eating lunch in a cafe with my casting director. There were two young boys sitting across from us, one was Fu'ad Ait Aattou. I saw him and I said, "That's Ryno de Marigny. You can do all of the casting you want, but that's him. That's my talisman." He left his card, but then I had the accident, he lost his cell phone, and we couldn't find him. We held a formal casting, we went through 200 actors -- a few who were good and I'd almost chosen one -- but knew I wouldn't be happy if we didn't find my talisman. We finally found him on the day of his birthday and also the day Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly was born. Now, I'm not superstitious, but you must admit, it was a coincidence. And he acted incredibly well. He'd never acted before; he's my invention. I made visible someone who hadn't been before.

THR: And Asia Argento as La Vellini?

Breillat: In the book, it says that she's a sort of Flamenco, that she dresses like nobody else, like a pirate, a gypsy. And what a pleasure it was to give her a look that was absolutely unlike anything from the 19th century, which was more from the 1940s, a hairstyle that had nothing to do with anything. But in the book, it says that she has nothing to do with anything, that's why the book is so wonderful because it allowed me to invent.

THR: Which character do you think drives the story?

Breillat: "An Old Mistress" is the title and of course she's a crucial character, but the real guiding force in the film is Ryno de Marigny because Barbey D'Aurevilly was Ryno de Marigny, and the author is always embodied by his most important character. I've always considered myself to be a painter, and I dreamed of Renaissance paintings where the boys were beautiful like girls. La Vellini has a masculine part to her despite her sensuality. Ryno de Marigny is completely masculine but has a part of him that's not effeminate, but tender.

THR: You suffered a cerebral hemorrhage just before shooting the film. How did this affect the production?

Breillat: I decided that I may be disabled, but my films won't be, even though many films are. People look at me as disabled, they have compassion for me. I admit, it's not so pleasant having your body cut in two, but when I make a film, what counts is the power of the spirit. We don't film what we are, we film what we see. The artistic spirit, I have it. I've made my greatest work.

VITAL STATS:

Nationality: French; born: July 13, 1948

Selected filmography: "A Real Young Girl" (1976), "Perfect Love" (1996), "Romance" (1999), "Fat Girl" (2000), "Sex is Comedy" (2002), "Anatomy of Hell" (2004)

Notable awards: France Culture Award for French Cineaste of the Year, "Fat Girl" (2001); Manfred Salzgeber Award Berlin Film Festival, "Fat Girl" (2001); Best Film Award, Chicago International Film Festival, "Fat Girl" (2001); Grand Prize French Fiction, Luchon International Film Festival, "Brief Crossing" (2002); Jury Award for Best Feature Film, Philadelphia Film Festival, "Anatomy of Hell" (2004)
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