When Louise Archambault was in school, there was a time when a career in science was a possibility, though it was the mad alchemy of Leos Carax’s 1986 film “Mauvais Sang” that rearranged her brain cells.
“We can tell stories like that?” Archambault, who dabbled in photography beforehand, recalls thinking to herself after leaving the screening. “That was the ignition.”
And so it was that Archambault would go onto become a filmmaker, injecting a little of Carax’s punk rock spirit into films might have otherwise carried a different tune and as it turns out, it’s a particularly crucial element to hitting the right notes with her latest film “Gabrielle,” the story of a young woman (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) afflicted with Williams Syndrome who finds love with a fellow choir member named Martin (Alexandre Landry) yet struggles with pursuing a romantic relationship outside of the purview of her protective sister (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and his mother (Marie Gignac).
Taking a few of its cues from the mischievous lyrics of legendary Québécois crooner Robert Charlebois, who appears in the film to sing with the choir, Archambault doesn’t hold back on the sweetness of seeing Gabrielle and Martin falling in love for the first time. Nor does she shy away from the complications it presents for the couple’s immediate family who may believe it’s healthy for these twentysomethings to be having sex but worry about the consequences. While in Los Angeles recently for AFI Fest, Archambault spoke about the delicate dance required to get “Gabrielle” just right, working with a mix of a non-professional and professional cast and mixing a little bit of reality with the story she created.
I wanted to talk about happiness with people I call “invisibles,” who might be considered outcasts. There was a woman in my neighborhood I used to see, more mentally challenged than the people in the film, and we would swim at the same public swimming pool. In the changing room, she was always fighting with her assistant. She never wanted to put her bathing cap and she had a lot of personality. In the water, she would have floaters and just look at the ceiling and sing. She would sing super well, but people would feel uneasy around her. At the same time, I met with the organization Jeune Musicien du Monde, the Young Musicians of the World, [led by] two Québécois and one French woman who founded that school for deprived children in India, where I actually shot [in the film], so [I wanted to do something about] the music and the choir singing. Half of it [would’ve been] in India and half of it in Quebec, and the sister was already in India, but it was a huge and expensive [undertaking], so at some point, I decided to cut it in half and focus on Gabrielle’s story.
How did you find the actress who plays Gabrielle?
Throughout the writing, I met a few different characters who inspired me and for a while, I did follow another woman. But then I heard about Le Muse, a center for mentally challenged people where they have to pass auditions. Gabrielle specialized in singing there, so I went [to see her] and actually, the first time, I arrived in the singing class, and they were all singing, and I was like, “Well, they are too good for my film.” Nobody’s going to believe it, you know? Gabrielle was in that, and she inspired me, but for a year, I didn’t know if she had what it took to be the lead on a film. She’s not an actress. I did a lot of rehearsal, just work and improv and at some point, it was like no one can play [what I have in my head]. She had some magical presence, a light and an energy, and of course, she could sing, so [I thought], I’ll let go of perfection and the way I’m used to working, and I’ll try to find a way [with her] that she’s going to elevate and bring that character to life.
How much did reality make its way into the story you were telling? It appears that you shot at a real music festival for the film’s finale.
It really is a fiction film, but I was inspired by a lot of real things. I did shoot the festival at the end, which is a real festival, and the real founder of the festival introduces the choir, but then again, it’s all extras and we did hire the crew of the festival. But I wanted [to shoot] at the end of the day, when the sun is going down — magic hour —[where] you have three-quarters of an hour, so we had to go fast and it felt like a real show. The extras were so excited to see the real Robert Charlebois because he’s super known in Quebec, and Robert was stressed out because he wanted to do a big show, so it just happened. Also, the dance scene — that’s a real dance [that happens] every Friday night. We were asking ourselves, “Do we recreate it?” and we said, “No.” I just went with a very small crew, so yes, there’s a mixture, and all the non-professional actors, like Gabrielle, I decided to keep their real first names, so we could improvise. The way it’s done, there was a documentary approach to it, but they did work like a fiction film.
Audiences outside of Canada may not know who Robert Charlebois is, but how famous is he and how did you get him involved in the film?
Well, he’s in the dictionary. He’s an icon in the French-speaking countries, such as Quebec, France, Switzerland, and Belgium, but he’s very down to earth at the same time. When I was writing the film, I was looking for either a singer or a band that made sense, especially [who sang] a song that would resonate thematically with the film. At some point, I was at Le Muse and it was a rainy day in the spring and [a boy named] Anthony was in the choir. He has Aspergers syndrome. He’s a beautiful guy and he went to the front of the class to sing. Gabrielle and two other girls also went in front, and he decides to sing “Ordinary”, the song that’s in the film. He [comes across as] very cold because of his syndrome, but when he sings, all his emotions and all of what is stuck inside goes out. It was like hearing the song for the first time. The lyrics took on [another meaning]. He would sing, “I’m just an ordinary guy” and it was like, “Yeah, you’re just an ordinary guy, but I’m just an ordinary girl.” I thought, “This is the script I wrote. This is my story.”
Was it different working with non-actors?
Yeah, of course. It was different, and I didn’t know what would happen on set, but I did rehearse with them, and since I spent a lot of time with most of them, we trusted each other. My main goal was that I wanted everybody [to be] good, and to bring out their personality, so I focused on that and every day was a challenge. Every day, I’d find solutions, things that we’d work out and things you’d take for granted sometimes. Then again, I never stressed about it, because [the non-professional cast] gave so much, and they wanted so much to succeed. They’re so authentic that [it required] a lot of the professional actors just to be in the present moment and to listen to the other actor instead of [thinking] in their lines. I would do improvisation sometimes during the filming, just to get some spark sometimes.
That give-and-take between the professionals and the nonprofessionals speaks to the story of the film in a way.
Yeah, and at some point, you say, “I don’t know what’s going to [end up in the movie], but I know now things are very strong.” When the choir was singing, it was much stronger than what I thought, and because I was always next to the [cinematographer], I would see that [the nonprofessional actors] always wanted to look at the camera, so I had to move the camera so they don’t watch it, and just pick magical moments here and there. It was like a documentary where I would guide the [cinematographer] and sometimes I would turn around and I would have a big technician just crying there. It’s like, “Okay. That scene works.”
One of the interesting things you do visually is to occasionally shoot a character from the back of their head. Why is that an interesting perspective for you?
I’m very instinctive in the way I shoot. For the choir, you’re letting [the audience] into their minds, and since there’s a lot of characters to know, you get to feel closer to each of them. Sometimes [I would shoot] next to the neck, and just see the way they move their hands and I felt you would know a bit more about each of them, especially as they sang. You see the throat moving, and there’s something very intimate.
What’s it been like to travel with the film?
It’s overwhelming. We’ve traveled a lot and for Gabrielle, she dreamed to go to Paris, and we went to Paris [for the first time]. When she and her mother went to visit the opera of Paris, they cried. It’s like the film is one thing, but the experience still continues. She never takes anything for granted, but then again, she’s not into the future. It’s now, and sometimes, she’s tired, and she wants to go home, and see her dog. I really like that. What I feel is that every human, every culture, we all want the same things. I think what touches lots of people who like the film is that deep down we all want love and be loved.
“Gabrielle” will open in Los Angeles at the Music Hall and in New York at the Village East on July 4th.