Sophie Dupuis on the Performance That Reveals Everything in “Solo”

There couldn’t be any more confident image than that of Simon (Theodore Pellerin) strutting across the stage in drag to ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous” to open up “Solo,” a sequence that explodes off the screen so ferociously that it almost can’t surprise when it ends almost instantly with him waking up the next morning, exhausted from all that transpired. Living for the night, the light of day can be harsh when for as many friends and family as he has, he wakes up alone in an empty apartment. This makes it a welcome development when those lives start to merge upon meeting Olivier (Felix Maritaud), a recent arrival in Montreal from a small town he felt was confining, at the club and finds that he’s not only willing to stay the morning after but even open to joining family brunch on the weekends.

However, when Olivier jokingly asking Simon’s sister Maude (Alice Moreault), “How do you feel about my stealing him?” it becomes an early red flag in Sophie Dupuis’ compelling drama in which Simon, who can be seen commanding and liberated as a drag performer, is ensnared in relationships where he can only feel diminished, not only having to contend with a boyfriend who starts to put his own interests ahead of his own when settling into the big city, but attempting to reconnect with his mother Claire (Anne-Marie Cadieux), a model whose career always came before him, leaving his father and sister to raise him.

After Pellerin and Dupuis initially worked together on the harrowing 2018 drama “Family First” about a pair of brothers whose tortured ties to their kin starts to look as dangerous as anything in the world of crime they inhabited, “Solo” is a plunge back into the deep end as Simon endures the pain of trying to figure out who he is to the other people in his life, but the writer/director posits this search against the rich irony that he’s already found a true identity, if only it requires heavy makeup, a wig and a stage to feel in full control. However, Dupuis proves as agile in sidestepping cliche as her lead character can move in heels, presenting Simon as fully confident in his sexuality and beloved by those around him yet unable to protect himself when all he wants to do is give himself over entirely to relationships with Olivier and Claire, who have made it clear they can’t do the same in return, and for all the exuberance of the live performances at the club, how much he ends up holding in can take one aback in an entirely different way.

Packing quite a punch, “Solo” first swept up audiences at the Toronto Film Festival last fall where it won Best Canadian Feature Film amidst fierce competition and is now making its way into theaters across North America and recently, Dupuis graciously took the time to talk about how bit of binge watching led to this singular film, the rewards of her ongoing collaboration with Pellerin and the moving experience of staging a production that could bring the queer community together.

How did this come about?

I was looking for things [to watch] on Netflix and I got into “RuPaul’s Drag Race” a long time ago before it was as popular as it is today. It was something that was very out of what I know in my life, and I was very impressed by the artistry of it, everything that the drag queens can do and all the skills they need to have to excel at their artistry. I was very interested in everything I learned from all those drag queens that are talking about their lives in the show and I discovered how drag is important in our society to deconstruct everything that’s binary, and do it with humor with a goal to entertain people.

A lot of drag [performers] talk about how this art saved their lives and I really believe in that, so I really started to be a real fan, and I was doing a lot of research about toxic relationships [in general]. At one point, I decided to [connect] those two subjects and while I was writing, I understood how it was a nice match because a lot of drag artists discover themselves through their character and they’re celebrating themselves on the stage and sometimes they get more power by having this character to get through life and to know themselves. So it was interesting to [develop] Simon, who is celebrated in the drag scene and being crushed in his real life with those two toxic relationships he’s navigating, and I wanted to talk about toxic relationships without giving the sense that it’s only weak people that can be victims of it.

The characters around Simon create a really interesting dynamic when both Olivier and his mother both clearly put themselves before anyone else and yet he desperately wants to share his life with others. Was that something there from the start?

Yeah, it was. I wanted to to put my character in in like a situation where he really doesn’t have a choice to understand what is happening to him, like those two people love him, but not in a good way, and it brings a lot [to the film] to have those two characters that are divas and stars on a stage and Simon looks up to them, but to [then] understand that they’re not treating you well. I think it’s really hard to understand that people are treating you badly [while being in love with you] and one of my goals to understand how you can still stay in that kind of relationship. I hope we can understand why Simon is there, even if it’s not going so well.

You clearly have this really special collaboration going with Theodore. Did he immediately come to mind for Simon?

Yeah, it’s our third film together and for this one, I thought about him right away. He knew I was writing this film and read some versions of it and started to do research and work on his dance moves. We really like to work together early in the process because now we know how [one another] work and we’re good friends in life. He knows how it’s important for me to give a big creative space to my actors, so we’re doing a lot of rehearsals and while we rehearse, we rewrite everything and sometimes there’s big changes. Theodore knows how I want him to give to the film to me — he’s said that he’s never been that free on a film set before — and I really think that my film is way better when I’m giving that creative space to my actors, so it’s the only way I shoot my films. I don’t know how to how to to shoot without rehearsing, without table work and [for this film], I choose only queer people to play the queer characters in my film, [which] brought a lot because my actors that are living the same life as my characters, they know this life and they really confronted me on some stuff that we changed for the better.

Theodore really took that that space and sometimes we confronted each other on certain things, and he would feel bad about it, but I would say, “No, that’s what I want because that’s that’s making the film better, so go for it.” And we love each other, so we know we know we’ll be fine at the end of the day.

It was moving to hear at the Toronto Film Festival one of the actors talk about how simply being around other queer actors put him in touch with his own identity. What was it like to be on the set of this film?

It was something I never felt like that before and it was so beautiful to see because we have a lot of we have queer people in front of the camera, but a lot on the other side [too] and all the extras and everybody felt free to express their queerness through the [production], so it created a safe space of just of celebrating who we are, how we are, and Jean Marchand, who [you’re referring to and] played Frida, was 71 when we shot the film and he’s from a time where we he couldn’t be that free as being queer, so being on that set with all those very free people and playing those kind of character unapologetically, he was so moved by this freedom. And what’s beautiful is that he’s playing the mother of this chosen family of the drag [performers] in the bar, but the younger actors — Theodore, Vlad [Alexis] and Felix [Maritaud] — took care of him when we were in shooting because he was so emotional about what he was discovering and how our generation can be free, so they were kind of his mother to help him go through that emotional chaos. He said that he was an actor and at one point, he [came out] as a gay actor, but now, since he did “Solo” at 72 years old, he’s now a queer actor, and that’s [before] the film wasn’t entirely shot and it was like we had already changed lives, so I’m very happy that the film is now being seen around the world because the comments I get from people seeing it have been very moving.

I can’t let you go without asking how you actually filmed in the club because you could move the camera wherever you wanted and you really feel the energy of the room. Was it difficult to achieve?

It was. It’s not that simple to create a bar like that and to shoot [musical] numbers and in Quebec, we don’t have a lot of money to shoot movies, so what we’re lacking always is time. When you have a drag queen that takes four to five hours to dress up and make up and time [is] running [on the production], you have to choose really well what you’re what you want to show and one of the most difficult things was for us was to not get the camera on the stage and play with the character. We wanted to have them to look [directly] into the camera because that was so powerful, but we couldn’t really do that because [it would take too much] out of the film if we were doing that, so we did it [only] two or three times at choice moments. But I’m really happy that we managed to to get that that fun, that festive side because for me, this film is a love story to drag art this film, so I wanted them to be so glamorous and so in control of their environment, and I think we managed to do it.

“Solo” opens on May 24th in New York at the IFC Center and May 31st in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale and Santa Fe at the CCA Cinematheque before expanding wide on June 7th. A full list of theaters is here.

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