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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2020 Competition

Danielle Arbid • Director of Simple Passion

"The audience needed to understand why this woman falls in love with this man"

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- Danielle Arbid unscrambles Simple Passion, an adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s novel, awarded Cannes’ Official Selection label and unveiled in competition in San Sebastian

Danielle Arbid • Director of Simple Passion
(© Alex Abril/Festival de San Sebastián)

Revealed in competition at the 68th San Sebastián Film Festival, the movie Simple Passion [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Danielle Arbid
film profile
]
, which has also been awarded the Cannes 2020 Official Selection label, is the 4th fiction feature by Lebanese director Danielle Arbid following on from In the Battlefields [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, A Lost Man [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
(Directors’ Fortnight 2004 and 2007) and Parisienne [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
(2015).

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Cineuropa: Why did you choose to adapt Annie Ernaux’s novel Simple Passion?
Danielle Arbid: I discovered it but didn’t read it in 1992, when it was first released. I saw a poster with a photo of Annie Ernaux on it, her expression slightly sad, together with the hook: "in love with a Russian". It really grabbed my attention, but I only read the book years later in 2008, by chance. At which point I remembered that face and I understood why it reflected a mix of sadness and vulnerability, but also why it had something rather magical about it. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it would be easy enough to adapt: elusive material, no real narration, just a compilation of feelings… An open and friendly book which could speak to certain people who find themselves in a certain frame of mind.

In 2016, a producer (not Les Films Pelléas, who went on to see the project through to completion) suggested that I write a story about physical love, no doubt thinking that I had expertise in directing sex scenes. I had no particular desire to write that story, so he asked me to find a book I liked. I searched for a long time, until deciding that the book would be Simple Passion. Because I was looking for a pure love story, without any kind of adultery, or where the characters’ social situations don’t dominate the story. I wanted to explain what a love story is, how we can sink into a loving state, how we experience it, which is quite abstract. But I was also looking for a sexual story. Because, in literature, sex and love are very often disassociated, as if there can be no such thing as a pure, sexual, passionate love story. Or the sex is very Sadien and involves experimentation, or is along the lines of "I bumped into my butcher and then this happened", which I really didn’t want to do, because I don’t think like that and I don’t approach sexual scenes in this manner. I needed a grander feeling to carry the story forwards and I found it in Annie Ernaux’s novel.

You’ve made a few changes to the original story
Annie Ernaux gave me free rein. I departed substantially from the book, as if it were a grand and empty apartment which I totally refurnished. Most of all, I wanted to ensure the male character was present but also deified, like some sort of abstract being who could almost resemble God in the female character’s eyes, at that particular moment in time. He is both absent and present. In the book, the moments when he arrives are left out. My thinking was that the audience needed to feel some sort of connection with the moments they spend together so as to understand why this woman falls in love with this man. I also wanted to tell the story of a couple, not just a story about the powerful and magical feeling of being in love. In a certain sense, I sought to provide all the incriminating evidence of this affair.

Do you feel, with this portrait of a woman who spends her life waiting for a man, that you’re swimming against the tide of the Me-Too movement?
I think Annie Ernaux is a free woman. The first thing she said to me when I spoke to her about wanting to adapt her book was: "are you sure? The book was hugely criticised. If you like, I can send you the press review, that way you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into". Sure enough, in 1992, she was criticised, insulted, scorned by the press who accused her at the time of grovelling at a man’s feet, of spending her afternoons waiting for a man, of being a submissive woman. In response to these arguments, she explained: "I think that when we’re in love, we know no limits. I wait for a man in the same way that a man might wait for a woman. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m a woman, it’s the fact of being in love." I found it all more exciting than anything else, and I didn’t think twice about it.

The film details all the stages of love addiction.
I wanted to talk about the process of "falling in love". It’s a sexual story which becomes one of love. This woman falls little by little. To begin with, she spends her afternoons in bed with this man, they have quite a strong sexual connection, and then it turns into love and passion. I wanted to speak about this full spectrum of feelings, from detachment to obsession to the point of oblivion, and then her return to her senses and the fact that he no longer in any way resembles the person that he was for her at the beginning. They’re the various moments of her loved-up state.

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(Translated from French)

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