TIFF ’19 Interview: Chloé Robichaud on Finding Her Way Inside the Tale of an Outsider in “Delphine”

It is a banana, the most innocuous of all the fruits, that gives Chloé Robichaud’s “Delphine” such strong flavor. As described by Nicole (Ines Feghouli, then Wiam Mohktari), the young narrator of the film, the sight of her classmate Delphine (Daria Oliel Sabbagh) peeling back the skin of a banana fills her with despair as the two ride together on a bus to school in Ville Saint Laurent. The other kids wave their hands in front of their face as if to suggest Delphine, a recent addition to the class, smells and called “mushroom” and “banana breath,” and Nicole recalls how she’s come to distrust what adults have told her about the brown spots in the banana being “honey, but I knew they were sadness” upon seeing Delphine sitting alone and eating to give her some sort of activity while being mercilessly teased.

While an audience might feel an inherent remove to “Delphine” in being placed in Nicole’s shoes instead of the title character’s, Robichaud once again finds a way to get inside the thoughts of both in bringing an adaptation of Nathalie Doummar’s play to the screen, making a short in which you can feel an impression that’s been made will last forever. The director has been uncommonly gifted at going into her heroines’ psyches by first making visible the often abstract limitations that they find themselves rebelling against, whether it was in her ferocious feature debut “Sarah Prefers to Run,” in which a college sprinter is told a heart condition will keep her from pursuing her passion, her follow-up feature “Pays (Boundaries),” where a trio of women attempt to achieve their professional goals without compromising their personal instincts or values at a buttoned-up government conference, and “Féminin/Féminin,” the brilliant episodic series she created with Florence Gagnon that, in acting as a survey of lesbians of varying ages and circumstances in Montreal, offers a clever consideration of time, as those in their twenties feel the weight of the unknown and the pressure of establishing what they want their lives to look like as those approaching middle age worry if they’ve defined themselves too much over the years to have much of a life now.

Within the mere 13 minutes that “Delphine” unfolds in, Robichaud again toys with such a chronological parallel, visiting Nicole and Delphine first as 10-year-olds and then as teenagers to see how their early experience has given shape to who they become, with Delphine (Ambre Jabrane) still bullied at school, but growing into a physically imposing young woman who isn’t to be messed with, and Nicole’s ongoing fascination with her becoming a story in itself. Armed with Simon Bertrand’s playful score where a spry clarinet can quickly turn mournful and the sharp observations of how even well-intentioned suggestions – like a bus driver admonishing Delphine’s mother for not putting her in a warmer coat for the winter – are indicative of a certain conformist culture that instills a deep fear of deviating from, “Delphine” distinctively distinguishes itself in vividly evoking a moment in which one really can start to see the world for oneself.

Naturally, Robichaud is actually headed around the globe with the film, which will make its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and subsequently debut in her native Canada at the Toronto Film Festival later this week, and she graciously answered a few questions via e-mail about the inspiration to collaborate with her “Pays” star Doummar on the film, working with a young cast and welcoming a return to the film fest circuit.

How did this collaboration with Nathalie Doummar come about?

We met working on “Pays,” but I knew Nathalie was also a playwright. Interested in her work, I went to see a short play she did called “Delphine from Ville Saint Laurent.” It was such a funny and powerful monologue and I felt there was such a strong voice behind her words. My head was full of images. The themes in “Delphine” really stuck with me and I felt an urge to work on this story with her. Being told through a female point of view, I thought it would give an interesting perspective on how femininity and sexuality can be challenged, even repressed, in our childhood and teenage years.

Was it different making a film that you didn’t originate yourself as a writer?

There’s so much about her own childhood and memories, it was important to me to keep an authenticity in the film, so I wanted the approach to be a collaboration between the two of us, as much as possible, and it really served the film to have her close to the creative process. It really was interesting to immerse myself in someone [else’s] script and find my way through it. I was able to make it mine because I could relate to the characters and the story.

Given how much there’s been in the news lately about immigration, creating this feeling of the “other,” did it contribute to wanting to tell a story like this about a girl from another culture trying to assimilate now?

I suppose it did. Nathalie was born in Montreal, but her parents immigrated from Egypt. The story she tells is authentic, and I’m sure the images the film evokes give a sense of what it feels like to grow up as the “other.” At the same time, what the kids live in this story is quite universal. I certainly could relate to the feeling of being “different” and ostracized. The film is about how rage builds in any society.

Was it an exciting creative challenge to create a film set in two timeframes in the condensed time of a short? And could you shoot the two separate parts in order, so you knew what you were working off of in the second?

No, we had to mix up the parts because of locations issues. But I don’t think it became a problem. Before filming I had gathered all the kids and teenagers for rehearsals. We had previously worked on the characters together and I had a good idea of how I would play the evolution of the character from 6 to 16 years old. I [also] tried to create leitmotiv in my mise en scene to give a sense of fluidity between the two time frames. The use of a narrator was also a great help in moving the story fluidly.

What was it like working with a bus full of kids?

Terrifying, but fun! It was one of the hardest moment of my career. I really had to adapt to what the kids were giving me, and it wasn’t always what I had expected. And we were losing our light quite fast since we were filming in winter. At one point, I decided to let go of my fears and tried to go only with my intuition. We played around the script, moved lines, changed scenes and actions and in the end, it played well.

It feels like music is a real secret weapon of this film, particularly the use of the clarinet to express a wry sense of sadness. What was it like to work on the score?

Simon Bertrand is such a great and creative composer. We previously worked together on “Pays” and he knows my style and what I like. I was looking for an “out of time” score, something also very cinematic, and like music you would expect to have on a kids-centered film I loved it. The contrast is interesting.

What’s it like getting ready for another TIFF?

Pretty exciting! I missed it. I worked on TV series [“Féminin/Féminin”] for the last three years and I now realize how much I missed the festival circuit.

“Delphine” will screen at the Toronto Film Fest as part of the Short Cuts Programme 7 at the Scotiabank Theater on September 9th at 6:30 pm and September 15th at 6:15 pm. It will also screen at the Venice Film Festival on September 5th and 7th at the Sala Giardino.

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