“Eyes come closer to the truth than other senses,” a doctor tells Maria Theresia von Paradis (Maria Dragus) at one point in Barbara Albert’s latest feature “Mademoiselle Paradis,” inspecting the blind young woman’s pupils at her family’s estate in Vienna. This may be widely accepted as true, but the harpsichord prodigy who plays by ear has made a habit of upending conventional thought and as it turns out, so to has the doctor in question Franz Mesmer (Devid Striesow), a physician who experiments with nontraditional therapies in order to gain a toehold in the upper echelons of Viennese society. Finding both in 1777, through an adaptation of Alissa Walser’s chronicle of Paradis’ teenage years, in which Mesmer attempts to restore the musician’s sight at her parents’ behest with surprisingly positive, if not necessarily lasting, results, gives Albert the opportunity to tell a story just as prescient about the past as it is today, only where the strictures of society were more exposed by the garish dresses and powdered wigs of the era and who showed up at social functions.
With an extraordinary performance at its center from Dragus, who has grown up in front of the camera in such films as Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” and Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation,” “Mademoiselle Paradis” brings the viewer so intimately into Maria Theresia’s struggle, not only to see, but to make her way through the world as a woman. Albert uses intricate sound design to replicate the way Resi, as she is referred as by those close to her, experiences the world, both channelling a keen sense of sound into investing every note she plays with deeply felt emotion while also catching snide remarks during her performances, often equating her appearance with her value as a person. Following the cues of the radical Dr. Mesmer, whose methodology is unorthodox but fueled by compassion first towards his patients, Albert and screenwriter Kathrin Resetarits approach their period setting by drawing out the life inside of it already, populating spare rooms with vivid, vibrant colors and training the camera on characters for the rare moments they mentally escape a rather solitary life, with the sparks of excitement or revelation lighting up the screen with simply an intense closeup.
Shortly after the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, en route to stops in San Sebastian and London next, Albert spoke about freeing herself with a rare directorial outing that she didn’t write herself, as well as the contemporary resonance of “Mademoiselle Paradis” and finding her remarkable lead actress.
How did you get interested in this?
I read this novel and at the very first beginning, I was really touched by the fact that there is so much inside of Maria Theresia that cannot go out. She cannot open like a blossom. She’s really pushed by others all the time, and treated like an object. I really felt pity for her and [felt] very close to this woman who doesn’t have a voice in the beginning, who doesn’t know who she is in a way, and then to see that she found a way to deal with who she is and what she’s able to do — to accept that she’s blind and has to be this musician and this composer — but it’s also sad. All the facts around her character really moved me. This was one reason I wanted to do this film, but what also interesting was the issue of how we see and what do we see — what is real? All these thoughts about perception. I read a lot of books by Oliver Sacks, who was such a great storyteller and brain specialist and wrote about music and the brain a lot. Reading this novel somehow matched together [with Sacks’ writing], so I thought, “Okay, I had to go for it.”
Did it immediately have modern resonance for you?
It’s interesting that if you think of this issue of women in the days [“Mademoiselle Paradis” takes place] and then now, it’s still a topic. All the time we talk about women in society and feminism. I wanted to make a film about a woman who gets a voice, but who loses this advantage because of society. I also wanted to make a film about the female body, and this pressure to be beautiful. How do I have to look so I am accepted? I realized during my work that these issues are still alive and this is something we deal with every day. But now it’s not only women. It’s also men more and more. People are under this pressure of being the perfect man. When you think of the pressure in the 18th century and compare it to the pressure we have now, [where] we have the Internet and the influencers who say how you should be, you have great pressure, especially for young people, to adapt. They want to be “in” and much afraid of being outside of it.
Maybe in a way, we live in [more] restrictive times. I grew up in the privileged time – and in western society – where I, as a woman, probably have had many more chances than in another parts of the world. And we are moving into a stronger [inequity] between rich and poor, [which] is a reason for backlash and also for this big pressure on young people that they have to adapt to exist in this world. It was interesting to have this view on society of Austria, my home country, a bit from a distance. I could see more than before, why society in my country is now like it is. You always learn from history. This is why I’m also so interested in this story. I realized that I’m very much inspired when I go into letters from other centuries and I get to know people who really lived there. I didn’t want to make a period piece because I wanted to show the beauty of the people and [have] beautiful costumes, but I wanted to get closer to how I think it was [to be] a woman of this time.
Did you know from the start how you’d present Mademoiselle Paradis’ point of view? You move in and out of her POV and consciousness.
This was very difficult. It was not immediate because for a long time we thought, should we give her a point of view at all? First, we wanted to and we tried all these special cameras. There’s this hole camera, [where] really, there’s no objective – you have just a [small] hole. We did some tests with this and we were so impressed by it that we thought, “Okay. Maybe this could be her point of view.” But then for a very long time, we shot scenes, but didn’t know if we could use them at all. So it was very tricky to give her a point of view because how should I know how I would see the world when I’m half blind? I cannot imagine, and in a way, it’s very difficult and even arrogant for a seeing person to make a film about blind people and say, “Okay. I know how she will see.”
I had these images [in my head that] were a bit like a dream and [thought] that it doesn’t have to be her reality, but maybe it was – this is the [ambiguous] impression I wanted to give. Maybe it’s close to how she goes through the world and sees it, but it was very difficult to find the images in the beginning. There are some images, when we go with the camera very close to her and then the sound opens up – these were moments where I wanted to give this feeling of how she perceives the world. How does she hear and see, especially what is her inner world like? This we knew quite early, that we wanted to be close with her, but we also understood that in the beginning of the film, it cannot be so close because we had to [speak to her entire] situation and the whole system. This is why in the beginning, there are more wider and more objective shots, then we come closer and closer. So it was very intense work with the cinematographer [Christine A. Maier] and she also did “Nordrand.” I wanted to work with her because she’s so good in getting close to characters and her view on the characters is very empathetic.
How did you find Maria Dragus to play your lead?
She was in “The White Ribbon” by Michael Haneke and I got to know her there and my casting director also mentioned her. She was the first one we invited for the casting and we knew that she was perfect. She’s a musician and a ballet dancer. She does a lot with her body and she’s extremely smart, but also very intuitive. Then of course, she speaks lot of languages because she knows Romanian, German, English, and French. [For “Mademoiselle Paradis”], you cannot hear this if you’re not German-speaking, but she had to learn an Austrian accent, [which] she did because she’s so musical and I could see this in the very first casting. She’s very ambitious, she wants challenges, and she knew this is a difficult character, so she wanted to play it. She really [wanted] to be this lady and of course, it was not easy. She’s now shooting a very big film, “Mary Queen of Scots,” in Scotland.
This is the first feature you’ve directed that you didn’t write yourself, and I understand you actually felt that was liberating. What did you enjoy about it?
For me, it was a revelation actually because I realized how much I can be a director. I could work more freely and I started to think earlier about the concrete images and [be] more open to accepting [ideas] from the team and from the actors. Because I didn’t have my own images for three years during the writing process, I could start freshly, which I really liked. I love to write too, but it’s very difficult to find time. Writing is free play, but reading is time. If you’re a director and writer and a producer – and I work as a professor in film school – and then you cannot really go into that tunnel and I was very happy to see how creative it can be to have a writer.
Was there something that surprised you about what emerged in the final product?
Maybe it is more clear and more pure than I thought because first I thought, “Okay, [it’s] Rococo, like Marie Antoinette.” Then you’re reducing [stylistic flourishes] more and more, which I really [came] to appreciate, and getting rid of too much explanation. When working with [my] team, [for instance I told] the composer, “I want to have score. And he told me, “I don’t think you need score,” because she was playing the piano so often and [when] you reduce [the music], it’s more intense. He was so right, I think. Also, [there was] this concentration of this one character [when] before I very often told stories with a lot of beginnings, a lot of endings…a lot of stories [in general], which I like. It was interesting to have these limits. If you’re shooting a period piece and you don’t have millions and millions of dollars, you cannot show everything and you have to think about what can I show in one shot, in one room that tells the history, and [speaks to these] characters? You have to put so much into one frame and this is the work I love.
It’s one way of making movies, but on the other hand, I learned during this whole process, which was very intense, [that] I really enjoyed doing something differently to what I did before. It opens a space. So I really had this moment when I said, “Okay. A human being has to learn and to develop.” This is why with every film I want to do something new. [laughs]
What’s it like to be premiering at TIFF?
I was very excited because it was also a new experience making a movie like that, and afterwards, I very relieved because I really loved the reaction of the audience. They were laughing and they were really empathetic. This is very important to me, so I was very happy. I’m really interested in how people think about it and how Maria Theresia von Paradis is seen now — that maybe people see her more than before and that this film is one part of showing her, of giving her her voice back or her music back by pushing her more into the light. I’m happy now to travel with the film and to get in touch with the audience and see what they felt or what they saw because I hope that the film has more layers. It’s not only [about] the blind woman. There are also other things, and I think everyone will find out what issue is closest to them.