Olivier Masset-Depasse • Director
"I'm the kind of filmmaker that tries to create a different style of film each time"
by Vassilis Economou
- TORONTO 2018: Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse returned to Toronto with his third feature Mothers' Instinct, and we talked to him about it
Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse returned to Toronto with his third feature, Mothers' Instinct [+see also:
interview: Olivier Masset-Depasse
film profile], an atmospheric, female-driven, nostalgic psychological thriller set in the sixties, based on the novel Behind the Hatred by Barbara Abel. We talked to him about his previous films, the challenges that come with working with two great Belgian actresses and the power of a mother’s instinct.
Cineuropa: You’re known for developing strong female characters, what sets Mothers' Instinct apart from your previous films?
Olivier Masset-Depasse: I'm the kind of filmmaker that tries to create a different style film each time, either due to a desire for change, or due to my playful spirit, but also because I know that I've spoken, am speaking and will continue to speak about the same thing: family relationships, couples and the "parent-child" relationship. Duelles belongs to this "continuing theme."
All of my feature films explore tension in enclosed spaces. Enclosed spaces are automatically symbolic. They introduce a “meta-psychological” dimension in the sense that everything we see on screen could equally be going on in the mind (or minds) of our character(s). So we’re immediately in a more psychic dimension. In all my films up until now, I’ve played with tone-on-tone: (approaching a dark subject with a dark form). With Duelles, I was determined to experiment with a contrasting aesthetic counterpoint. That’s why I totally revised my way of film-making: I wanted to approach this enclosed space in a sensual, aerial way, opting for long, moving shots and directing the actors’ movements a bit more. This called for a “multi-faceted” directorial approach: getting closer to the characters’ psychology and at the same time introducing glamour, with some sensitivity and beauty. So, this enclosed space needed breadth and scale. We had to see the “wonderful world of the sixties” crack, and then sink into darkness.
There is some quite profound nostalgic inspiration in Mothers' Instinct, with some obvious references. Why did you choose to follow this aesthetic?
Barbara Abel's novel has something very Hitchcockian about it. After a film and a TV film very much rooted in social reality, I needed to escape to another sort of cinema, to recreate myself in other worlds. I didn't want a contemporary story that might pull the film towards doom and gloom or police technology. I wanted to make it a black, "Hitchcockian" story, set in the flamboyant beauty of the '60s, playing on aesthetic counterpoint.
However, it wasn’t about making a film "in the style of ..." and risking falling into pastiche. It was more about trying out an exercise in style that would draw on "great references" to see what a modern result might be, with my contemporary vision, as a little Belgian filmmaker. I continued to watch films by Douglas Sirk, Hitchcock and Lynch before and during filming. They are filmmakers who create "desire," who don’t overwhelm you with their genius, but who "invite" you to "try": my crew and I tried ...
What was it like working with two acclaimed Belgian actresses?
The film is about a confrontation between two women, two mothers, two best friends. Alice is “hyper-active” mentally, whereas Céline has abnormally strong willpower. So, I needed two actresses with terrific depth. As a Belgian filmmaker, I’m extremely proud to have had the opportunity to work with two of my country’s best actors: Veerle Baetens and Anne Coesens. They threw themselves body and soul into their parts and I’m delighted with the result.
Is it harder to adapt a novel or do you find it more creative?
Is adapting a novel easier than writing an original screenplay? Yes and no. It’s true that you don’t start with a blank page when working on an adaptation. We already had an existing narrative frame, with well-developed characters. But adapting something well is about successfully transferring a story from one medium to another. In other words, to be successful, you have to be able to "betray" the book. And that's hard to do. "Duelles" was a "free adaptation," to use the jargon, because I took a lot of freedom compared to the novel. I had to learn Barbara Abel’s story, so I could make it mine. And I must thank the author again for possessing the intelligence to understand.
Do you feel that a mother’s instinct could be the most fearful of all?
For me, a mother’s instinct is like a "super-power." In my latest film, "Illegal" (which focuses on a mother's courage, an illegal immigrant, detained at a Belgian detention centre, fighting furiously to find her son, also a "prisoner," but on the outside). I tried to explore the positive side to this "super-power." Whereas in Duelles, I tried to explore the dark side.
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