In “Gueule d’Ange” (Angel Face), the first film by French filmmaker Vanessa Filho, Marion Cotillard plays a single mother who leaves her eight-year-old daughter behind after an encounter at a night club.
This film was born out of a visceral need to express the want of love, feelings of insecurity, and emotional dependence. Filho wanted to show female characters in all their complexity: their strengths and their cracks, their resilience, the times when they fall, and that burning moment before they act and during the act itself.
Using a unique relationship, which unites this child and her mother, Filho expressed the feelings that unite and separate the two main characters: their unease; their way of being in the world without points of reference and without anything to hang on to; the weapons they do not have and clumsily invent for themselves, which leads to dependence and addiction. In one sense, “Angel Face” was described by critics in the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered as a “film about learning and about rebirth.”
During a meeting with the press, Filho elaborated on her film background and the journey to direct “Angel Face”. The transcript is below, lightly edited for clarity:
Where did you get idea behind this film?
This film was born out of a visceral need to express wanting love, feelings of insecurity, and emotional dependence. I wanted to show female characters in all their complexity: their strengths and their cracks, their resilience, the times when they fall, that burning moment before they act and during the act itself. In one sense, “Gueule d’Ange” is a film about learning and about rebirth.
How did you become a filmmaker?
I have a rather eclectic background, but I have always wanted to be a filmmaker. From childhood on, I constantly had a video camera or camera with me to take pictures and stage scenes. The first movie that really shook me to the core was Kieslowski’s “BLUE”, which I discovered when I was 13; this feminine heroine played by Juliette Binoche literally overwhelmed me with emotion. I stayed shut up in my bedroom for days on end, listening to Zbigniew Preisner’s “Requiem”, (which is integral to the film) because I was unable to shed the waves of emotions washing over me caused by this oeuvre. That is when I decided that I would write and become a director. I fell in love with cinema, and other films even more deeply anchored my desire to direct.
I got my high school Baccalaureate with a specialty in cinema, and then I gravitated towards theatre to learn staging and try to understand as much as possible about acting. When I was 19, I directed a medium-length film, “Primitifs” (Primitives). After this first film, I worked in the music business; I directed music videos, documentaries, and live shows, and I was a member of a music duo called Smoking Smoking. I am also a photographer, and, during the same time period, I worked with a number of artists. I have been practicing photography as a personal endeavour for twenty years now. But beyond these various creative achievements and artistic endeavours, the desire—the obsessionto make films never left me. This project was so essential that I had to keep on course despite the obstacles and difficulties I came up against, which were so extreme at times that they almost shattered me.
What was the starting point for “Angel Face”?
It was the pressing need I had to recount dependency, a lack of love, and feelings of insecurity. I wanted to depict and film Elli’s solitude, the fact that she has no points of reference whatsoever, and her encounter with alcohol much too early in her life. It is a film that speaks about love and all the feelings that affect it, make it absent, and make my heroine dependent. But it is also a film about renewal. Because, despite this terrible ordeal she is going through, which puts her in the greatest insecurity, she proves to be able to resist, be resourceful, and find resilience. What touches me with Elli is her ability to simultaneously reconcile her pain with her tremendous desire to live. And what moves me deeply about Marlène is her helplessness, her fragility, and her lack of bearings and hope.
She is a human being overcome with chaos and pain who cannot find her place in this world and does not love herself enough to be open to happiness and loving her daughter better. It was thus necessary to make these emotions palpable. As I already said, this story is above all fictitious, but the emotions are very real to me; I had to struggle against an irrational fear of being abandoned for a very long time.
Did you conduct research on alcoholic children?
The story does not come from a specific news item. Once I had written the first treatment for the movie, I wanted to flesh out my story with other experiences; I met people who worked in health care, psychologists, and former alcoholics and AA members, who told me fragments of their stories. And yet, I felt it was important not to make a film that would be a medico-social investigation. Above all, “Angel Face” is a fictitious story. Unfortunately, there are indeed true-life stories close to what is depicted in the film, but this is about Elli.
How were you able to keep the ‘right distance’ from characters, neither overly empathetic, nor distancing yourself too much?
I strived to be as much as possible in tune with my characters, whom I love deeply. What interested me was to translate their point of view. As a result, it is their perspective that guides mine, and the right distance came about naturally.
I wanted to be in “real time” with the emotions felt by my characters. It is their emotional rhythm that drove the film and established my initial intention in the staging and filming. The editor, Sophie Reine, who was completely invested in the film, and I always kept this notion, this intent in mind. We are constantly with Marlène or Elli—it seems as though the rest of the world has faded away.
What was it like to meet with Cotillard?
Marion is a tremendous actress whom I have always admired. Very honestly, I would have never dared hope that she read the project. I was lucky that she wanted to meet me as soon as she had read it. My first meeting with her was extremely moving for me. Time was suspended. She spoke to me about Marlène with such love and understanding with regard to the character—with such a deep empathy—that I was overwhelmed; she has an emotional intelligence, a humanity, a strength, and instinct that are very rare. She is a woman who goes straight to the truth, to what is most important—someone with whom you cannot help but be plainly honest and frank.
How did you choose Elli?
I had a very personal mental image of this character, and it was very difficult to describe this little girl I was looking for. Casting took several months. When Ayline appeared, I had the feeling that I recognised Elli in her. She put her very own mark on the character, and something more, including strength, independence, and a sense of liberty that came directly from her. This little “Angel Face”, which is what everyone on the set called her, was obviously “a miracle”. She played the role with a remarkably precocious sensitivity and intelligence. She was not even eight years old when we shot the film, and she knew how to interpret and embrace Elli’s feelings. In real life, she is a little girl who could not be further from her character—she has a loving family around her, and she is a joyful and very funny child—but she had a rare and brave generosity and was able to cultivate a true empathy with regard to Elli. She completely became her character.
What do you aim for in your staging approach?
All of the staging had the same goal: get as close as possible to my characters’ emotions, expressed through and on their bodies. This is the reasoning for the shots that are close up and carnal, or on the other hand the use of wide shots that isolate the characters in the scenery and in framing that underscores their loneliness, their fragility, and, for Marlène, her deluded behaviour and choices. It had to do with capturing the pivotal moment they are going through in the way we shot the scenes, as well as the staging, so the audience could feel and experience, physically as well, the deeply rooted impetus that drives the characters. You often opt for the little girl’s perspective.
What palette of colours did you want to emphasise?
In a way, I chose my colour palette very simply with my characters. On one hand, it is Marlène who lives in a universe whose colours form a harmony, in which she fits perfectly. It is a singular world on the margins of society that Marlène has fashioned herself, which does not resemble anything else. There is poetry that emanates from this universe—hers, theirs—that naturally defined the contrasts, the glow, and the colour accents that characterise the visual expression of their world.
And for choice of music?
Audrey Ismaël and Olivier Coursier composed all the original music for the film. They immediately grasped the direction they needed to take in order to combine intimacy and lyricism. The music is essentially written for the piano and cello, entirely composed for the image. I wanted them to aim for timelessness and contrast with the film’s very contemporary aspect. The music they created shrouds or mirrors the characters’ inner emotional swaying, without ever seeking to expound or precede it. The musical approach is also unique, tinged with melancholy and warmth.