Cannes: 'An Easy Girl' Director on Tackling Hard Questions in Sensual Coming-of-Age Drama

Julian Torres/Les Films Velvet

Rebecca Zlotowski talks about tackling the difficult subject of escorts, the film's ingenious casting and seeing the other side of the French festival.

Back in Cannes with her fourth feature, Planetarium director Rebecca Zlotowski takes on a difficult subject with An Easy Girl. Conceived in the immediate aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Zlotowski looks at the life of an escort and her young cousin, who examines her own future.

"I understand how difficult it may be to understand that you can have a feminist project that is not literal in a way," she said. "A very subversive, sexually aggressive woman, that could be seen as empowerment as well."

Zlotowski tackles slut-shaming head-on with the ingenious casting of Zahia Dehar. When just 16, Dehar herself was caught up in an underage prostitution scandal with the French national football team. She then parlayed that into a modeling career and her own lingerie line, becoming the kind of famous only possible in the Instagram age.

Zlotowski, one of the co-founders of the 5050x2020 movement in France, said she wanted to create a simple film about a complex subject. An Easy Girl approaches the age-old questions of beauty and power through a summer in Cannes. She spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the film and why France approached the post-Weinstein moment differently.

You say it's a feminist film, yet Dehar's character seems to be very sexualized in a "male gaze" kind of way.

Is it a male way, or is it a historical, cultural way? The history of art that I belong to has been driven by men for a long time. My cinema comes from Italian movies of the '60s. My libido, my sensuality comes from that. I feel that it's time now to be able to look again to those images with fun, in pop culture, in a queer way or in a camp way, to play with those representations, not only on film. A woman deserves to be looked at even if she is an incarnation of a certain type of power, in a virile way.

I was born in a generation where I knew that if I wanted to have power I had to blur a little bit the feminine side of me. I had to put that aside in order to be taken seriously, and I feel like this time is over. I also wanted to explore it in a way that would take into account the modern Instagram culture that we belong to, that is very much about the physical aspiration and the sort of degraded dreams these women have.

How has the Instagram culture influenced this film?

Two things are strong in our lives: As a filmmaker we shifted from an analog world to a digital world, and it's the same in our love stories. We send text messages, we meet each other through Instagram. I met [Dehar] through Instagram. It brings a certain representation of women, and a certain representation of an easy life, and a representation of how we create ourselves in an image and what it means. It's not only about that though. I filmed a body that is not always looked at in French cinema because people fear those kind of aggressive, very sexual bodies.

You set the story in Cannes, and it seems to use the city to tell a parallel story of inequality that we don't see through the glamour of the festival.

There's a moment when the boat is entering the port and you see the Palais. I'd never seen it from that side. It has always been a metaphorical power place, but not just a building. I saw this building, and I thought about the building — and not just that it is an ugly one, by the way — to go beyond the stereotype. And in the same way I was looking at this city that everyone in the industry knows but has never gone to the other parts of the city. And other parts of the city look like Brazil! It's a total unequal city outside of the festival. The festival is an island.

It's a city that has a sheen of glamour, but much of the city is built upon a service culture to people that come and go on yachts and jets.

The image in the beginning of the film was the [two male leads] having dinner on the yacht in front of people passing on the street looking up at them. I felt it was the beginning of the sense of exhibitionism, in a way, and I wanted to question, Who is the most exhibitionist person in this film? Is it the woman who has the see-through dress and sexy appearance or the guys that have dinner on their yacht who are being stared at by people eating their ice cream? What is obscene and not obscene? Is it the girl that has the body and can be strongly desired, or is the guy at the end can just banish the girls because he has the money and doesn't want to be dirtied by her socially? It's an interesting circle. It was tackling an interesting question in a light way. You have to celebrate every choice if it is true, and the only unacceptable thing is to feel like a slave. And to me, in the film, Sofia is not a slave.

You've been a leader in the 5050 movement. What changes have you seen in the post-Weinstein world?

In France, it was the Middle Ages just a few years ago. But we felt the issue had to be handled in another way and adapted to France's culture. For instance, the shaming, the sexualization of the conflict could never happen in France. We decided to work on the numbers and to create transparency for the critics, for the festivals, and being very factual about it. Out of the facts, information would appear, not just "intuition" — look at these women directors, everything is fine. And then let's work on it without any sanctions or quotas because "positive discrimination" doesn't work in France.

What has changed is that I don't see people's eyes rolling when I speak about it. I think economically we represent something, we influence people and reach new people, and there is an economic emergency in film to understand that the industry needs to open to that. If not, it's done and Netflix and Amazon have won. They're the only ones that have opened their storytelling to LGBTQ [people] and different representations. If cinema doesn't understand that we need to be connected to these subjects in front of and behind the camera, we are lost. So it's not about being a moral person. It's not puritanism. It's that economically we need it.

Americans have a difficult time understanding the different approach in France. What are the differences between the two cultures?

We have a Latin culture that always feels a little bit threatened by American puritanism, and [the U.S.] is pretty specific with this. It has not only excess and sexualization of so many things and the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, but always sanctioned by a strong backlash. French people can be anti-American in a way sometimes — it's a love-hate relationship between us, but they can be threatened by that. They want to keep their wild sexuality.

[When it first happened] no one had the tools to understand the revolutionary moment we were living in. It's still a Latin country, and macho and patriarchal world that we belong to. But that's why we are here [with 5050], to go around the problem and to use a universal language of numbers and economics. And the second political tool is humor, and I feel like in this film I wanted to depict that with the bourgeois, the sexy girl, the Latin lover. It was a moment of, "Ahhh, can we chill a little bit with this? Can we look at each other with a little bit of derision?" It was Gloria Steinem that said that, by the way, that humor is the strongest tool, and it's true.