There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Anne Émond premiered her second film “Our Loved Ones” at the Locarno Film Festival a few weeks ago… well, except for the writer/director herself.
“Everybody was crying at the same time — a thousand people at the screening,” a beaming Émond exclaimed just after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. “I heard the Kleenex and everything, and I was [like], “Yes!”
Not that Émond was taking pleasure in others’ sadness, but to see people in tears all around her was a cathartic moment for the filmmaker who drew on personal experience for her ambitious drama about a father and daughter who deal with the specter of suicide, spanning over 20 years within just a two-hour time frame. Whereas Émond’s arresting feature debut “Nuit #1” laid bare a pair of night owls’ anxieties well after their clothes had come off for a one-night stand, her second is about emotions that are often withheld, sometimes to the point of becoming personally poisonous, as it relates to David (Maxim Gaudette), a sensitive, soulful young man who retreats to the woods to make marionettes in the wake of his father’s unexpected death. What he doesn’t find out until later is that his father took his own life for no apparent reason, a fact that begins to haunt him as he starts a family of his own, with his daughter Laurence (Karelle Tremblay) quickly becoming the apple of his eye.
Émond peeks in on David and, subsequently, Laurence at pivotal points in their lives that may seem inconsequential as they occur, but have profound consequences down the road, showing the fleeting moments of exuberant joy and the lasting marks of slight rejections that form who they are. It’s an extraordinarily powerful film – in fact, the most galvanizing I saw at Toronto, with a perfectly picked soundtrack of ‘90s songs to accompany its delicate yet incisive observations about what’s passed on between generations and what’s set aside to create a personal identity. Shortly after the film’s homecoming on writer/director’s native Canadian soil, Émond spoke about making a film that was so different than her first, filming in the natural environment of Lower St. Lawrence where she grew up and how she toyed with chronology and her choice musical selections.
Was it your intention to do something completely different from your first film “Nuit #1”?
It is completely different, but it was not my intention. I didn’t think about it. I admire a lot the director who has this clear line, and you see the first shot of the new film, and you know it cannot be someone else. To me, it’s quite intuitive, it’s like, this is the story I want to tell and that’s how I will tell it. I’m curious and I’m a little ADHD. I want to do everything. This is a family story about time passing by, children growing up, and life changing and the film became what it is.
How did this story come about?
It’s a very personal story. I don’t like to say exactly what happened in my own family, but it’s some characters that I knew and I had the feeling since 15 years old to tell this story. I want to make a film about it. It’s quite complex – suicide – and it’s a tricky subject. You have to be subtle. Because it happened in my family and it’s very near to me, I felt I had the legitimacy to write and to direct this movie. A lot of my childhood and teenage memories are in there and we shot in the place where I’m born, so we came back there.
How did the setting inform this? You seem to let nature come into it.
To me, it was impossible to shoot this film in the city – in Montreal – because for the character of David, this house [by] the river and the forest is a safe place for him. He’s quite a fragile and sensitive character, and he has this place where he can go in the forest, where he feels safe, but everything that’s good for him will eventually become hard for him because he’s too melancholic and too fragile for this world. He can’t accept that things change.
His two children make him so happy, he lives for them, but in a way, it’s cruel because they are growing up. It will not continue forever. And it’s important [for his daughter] Laurence who decides to be alive to get out of this little village. The world needs to open up a little bit, more than it opened to David.
In terms of the passage of time, did the structure of this come naturally or was that something that proved a logistical problem that you had to figure out?
Yeah, it’s a challenge to write this kind of film where 25 years go by. I tried a lot of things in writing it. At the beginning, we were in the present with Laurence, and I would tell [David’s] story with flashbacks. Finally, I said “No, that’s not interesting. I want to do a chronological things where we, as a viewer of the film, grow up with the characters. That’s how we will be sad if we follow the story of David chronologically.” I was happy to see after editing it that it worked. You say, “Oh, we’re ten years later,” but you understand that really fast because it’s a simple story. It’s two people falling in love, then having a baby, and then the baby grows up. The tricky thing was to be at the right time with the right person to show the evolution of David and his depression.
I was nervous that nobody would understand who was the father and who was the daughter because they are changing, but I trust the viewer. We have something like four big ellipses in the film [usually in increments of] five or ten years. Time is important in the film, but it’s all driven by characters and what they are going through.
Because of how simple it is, you let family members come and go and only give just enough background for the sake of the story. Did you ever have more and realize you should pull back?
The casting was very important in the film because [you needed to be able to tell] in one shot, “Okay, it’s a family.” It was a big challenge. We chose David first because I like him, and I think he’s very good. Once we chose David, we cast all the family around him. It took one year to find the girl, Karelle. I think we saw 45 young girls, then I chose well [for] the five brothers and sister, and put them together in one frame at the beginning, when they have [a meeting about the] inheritance of the father. Then it’s over, and it’s simple as that. They come back at the Christmas party and at the funerals, but that’s how life is. Family is there at the big moments.
Andre, the other brother, was the most important to me because he represents the opposite of David. He has nothing – he’s drinking, he has no girlfriend…well, he has a lot of girlfriends. He’s the bad boy who could kill himself and that was important because that’s what I wanted to tell is that suicide and depression and melancholy are not always explainable by concrete things. You can have everything, and you can still be sad.
Did this require a lot of editing or did you really know what you were going to shoot?
We didn’t shoot a lot, in fact. Every scene, I would do four shots, and two takes on every shot. When I’m happy with what I have, I stop. I just don’t have the feeling that we need to do it over and over. If I do 10 takes of a shot, it’s because something is wrong. But it was complicated because when working with David, every time he played something, I asked him to play different tones because if he’s too depressive, you want him to die. [laughs] In editing, the hard part was just to adjust the tone of the character.
The soundtrack choices hit me hard as someone who grew up during the 1990s. Blind Melon, Elliott Smith and Pulp – did they have any special significance to you?
It’s a very nostalgic film and Elliott Smith is quite [obvious] and it’s a nice song, but [Pulp’s] “Common People,” this scene was not in the movie at all in the beginning. I’m jogging and listening to “Common People” and I said, “Oh my god! [Laurence] should go back to see the friend.” Because she chose life, and now she’s grown up. It’s a symbol that even if you’re sick, you can stay [connected] in life. I [thought] “Oh, I’m going to write this scene!” I like it so much.
For Blind Melon, I knew there was a party in the film, and I wanted music that we were listening in those days like Smashing Pumpkins. I totally forgot about this song [“No Rain”] by Blind Melon. I liked it so much at the time, and I was with my friend at a party. We’ve been friends since we were teenagers and we were trying to find music for the film, and someone arrived with Blind Melon and we said, “Wow!” We were drinking wine and then singing Blind Melon. I was so happy, so we put this in the movie.
David claims to write a song of his own that’s in the film. What was the inspiration there?
It’s harder to understand if you’re not from Quebec because “J’ai planté un chêne” is a song by Gilles Vigneault, a very well-known singer in Quebec. David makes his wife believe that he recorded [the song] for her, but it’s not true at all. It’s just a joke – and quite a local joke – but it’s funny when you know the song because everyone knows that the wife is a little bit naïve to believe him.
Is it true your next film deals with suicide as well? Should we be concerned?
I know! My mother is worried about me. She’s like “Take care.” [laughs] But [this next film] is about Nelly Arcan, a writer who killed herself at 36 years old, but although there is suicide, it’s completely different. It’s like this crazy life. She was obsessive, and she has very big ups and downs and big success and excess, and love, and sex, and drugs, and everything. It’s a totally different film. After that, I will do a comedy.