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Anne Fontaine interview: ‘Hearing it is stronger than seeing it’

November 11, 2016

FilmInterview | by Dominic Preston


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With the majority of director Anne Fontaine’s films having a contemporary setting, her latest offering, The Innocents, seems somewhat removed from her previous work. Despite the new period and location, however, her trademark intuitive depiction of women remains.

Based on real events, the film tells the story of a group of Polish nuns who find themselves pregnant after being raped by soviet soldiers towards the end of the Second World War. French Red Cross doctor Mathilde Beaulieu is alerted to their plight and does her best to help them, while a desperate Mother Superior remains determined that no one will discover the sisters have “sinned.” It is a touching portrayal of how faith in both oneself and in God can be tested – a story which, despite the historical setting, isn’t so far removed from the present day.

The Innocents is different in many ways from much of your previous work. How did you come across the story and what attracted you to it?

Two French producers told me they had an amazing story, and described the situation of this group of nuns raped at the end of the Second World War. I don’t know why they thought I should be the one to direct it, but they showed me a treatment done by two young French scriptwriters and said I should read it. I felt it was an emotional and intense situation and I think it’s very interesting what the story says about doubt, faith, maternity, transgression, and violence. I found myself very quickly moved, but also compelled to do a movie for these women.

How did you prepare for directing such a film?

I didn’t know this world at all as I’m not religious, but I saw that the meeting with Mathilde and the community of Benedictines could be very strong. I went on two retreats to a convent to understand this ritualistic world from the inside: the silence, the rhythm, the hierarchy, and the dramaturgy of a community. As within families, there are tensions – some are light, others are more complicated, some of the nuns even doubt their faith at times. This helped me to film, because you can’t speak about something like that without keeping it truthful. Nothing in the film is exaggerated; I didn’t want it to be satirical.

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You speak about the rhythm of convent life and although the film tackles very violent events, you keep this rhythm. Is that something you were keen to preserve?

Yes, the rhythm is very important, and the way you feel the violence within the nuns even when they pray and go about their daily routines. You know the situation and you can imagine all the time what happened and the complexity of the choices they have to make. It was for that reason I wasn’t compelled to show the rapes in flashback, it wasn’t necessary. It was more interesting to have Mathilde, who has a similar experience, one which gives her a certain proximity to the sisters. It also helps her imagine what it was like when she hears about the soldiers coming more than once in one day. Hearing it is stronger than seeing it.

Despite this being a different film for you, there are a lot of similarities with your other films, including humour, often from a female perspective. Did you deliberately keep a light-hearted layer?

Yes, of course, and about life, too, not necessarily just about women. The character of Samuel, Mathilde’s colleague, has a sense of humour and a certain irony that means people can laugh in a situation where it is difficult to laugh. I think in many of my movies we have strong female characters that transgress their rules of life, and maybe we can find that in this one too, despite it being a dark film. It’s like a period movie in a way, but because it is in the convent it is stylised, and it could take place today, more or less. Very little would change.

You mention it could take place nowadays and certain aspects of the film are very contemporary. Mathilde, too, is extremely modern. Was this deliberate?

It was modern to be a female doctor in this period. I deliberately chose an actress who has a very timeless look about her and I was aware of this because I didn’t want it to be the sort of period movie that feels removed from people. I wanted people to feel ‘this could be me’. Of course, the woman on whom Mathilde is based, Madeleine Pauliac, was a Catholic, not a communist. She was still a young woman, and very inspirational, but I took the decision to make her a bit more different, a young woman who believes in science and pragmatism.

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The Mother Abbess has an exceptionally hard decision to make and her actions don’t always paint her religion in the best light. How did the Church receive the film?

There were some shocked reactions, but only in Poland. I went to the Vatican and did a screening in front of monks, nuns and members of the clergy, including an archbishop very close to Pope Francis. I was a little afraid of how they would react, but the first thing this archbishop said was that we need this kind of movie, because it is therapeutic for the church. I saw that many audience members were crying – they said it was important for people to see something like this because today, too, we find this same situation in war-torn countries. If you are religious it is as if there are two rapes taking place – the woman and the religion. In France the Church was positive too, because the movie doesn’t satirise Catholicism.

Tell me about the ending. Did the events depicted actually happen, or was this your creation?

It is a mixture of two or three realities, but it is not the same as what actually happened in the story that inspired the film. In her telling of events, Madeleine doesn’t speak about what happened in the end, but I know my portrayal is something that happened in other convents. There were two or three similar stories in Poland, and I also know a very similar situation in Vietnam. My movie is an interpretation, of course, but all the events are real, they are all true.

Words by Imogen Robinson