Q&A with Thomas Vernay, dir. Miss Chazelles - Clermont 2020
Friday 7 February 2020, by
Clara and Marie are rival competitors for the title of Miss Chazelles-sur-Lyon. As Marie is declared winner of a local beauty pageant, tension escalates between both girls’s families and supporters.
Miss Chazelles, Aesthetica 2019’s Best Drama award-winner, is a warm, irreverent and somewhat terrifying look at the word of regional pageants and the resulting drama. Despite the absurdity of the situation and its more ridiculously over-the-top behaviour, Thomas Vernay’s portrayal is never patronising; treating us to more complex dynamics between fully-fledged characters.
More on the film...
Tell us a little about how Miss Chazelles came to be.
I always have a hard time answering that question. There are so many reasons behind a film’s origins… The most important, I think, was me really wanting to shoot a film in the village where I grew up. It’s not a place I necessarily have fond memories of, and I’ve hardly ever gone back there since I was eighteen. I wanted to compare my childhood memories with the person I’ve become. I once read a story in the paper about a “war” between two beauty queens in a village in the South. That’s what got things rolling. The other reason was that I wanted to create a role for Megan. I really wanted to make a film with her.
It initially seems as though the film represents stereotyped gender roles (beauty pageants for girls, violence for boys), and then ends up – no spoilers ! – thwarting those stereotypes. Is that how you intended things in the script?
Yes, of course. The film plays on stereotypes, caricatures. Even though everything is also very true to life. I wrote the script with intentional references to fairytale princesses, especially the ones Disney has adapted, which are mostly very sexist. The motorcycles that recall chargers, the two rival families, the sword, the standard, the celebration room that represents the ball, the “evil” twins, the father who’s a dragon, the princess’ dress, and so on. But then I tried to distance myself from all that and overturn the codes. It’s a film about the social and emotional condition, dominated by men. Clara is surrounded by men who direct her constantly, who prevent her from becoming free. With each effort, she returns to her condition.
How did you work with the two lead actresses?
I’d worked with Megan on two previous videos. And I really wanted to work with her on a fiction film. With Alice, I was immediately taken with her during her casting call. I didn’t necessarily see the character Marie like that, so I ended up moulding Marie to fit Alice. The character became softer, more introverted. Actually, it’s a bit the same with Megan as well. I guess the character has a great deal of her essence. Working together was pretty regular. We met for rehearsals in order to get the tone and naturalness of the lines right. On the set, we rehearsed again before each scene. We made sure they owned their movements, the tempo and the lines. I think they both worked out wonderfully.
What works do you particularly admire?
I’m not being very adventurous given her filmography, but I love all of Andrea Arnolds’ films. I like her characters, the way she directs actors and actresses. I love her composition, her colors, her dialogue. Her films are full of enthusiasm. I also really enjoy Kelly Reichardt. Meek’s Cutoff is one of the most beautiful period films. Her female characters are strong and her films have something visceral about them. Then of course there’s Jane Campion. This isn’t very original, but The Piano Lesson is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Top of the Lake is still my favorite television series. But that’s cheating since I don’t really watch tv shows…
Have you discovered any advantages that the short film form provides?
Being able to make one, to start off. It’s an accessible format. It allows you to keep costs down and shoot quickly. I produced it myself (through my production company) without receiving any financial assistance. I don’t necessarily recommend doing that, it’s hard. But it was a decision I made in a hurry, a necessity. I was free from the beginning to the end of the project. It was also the result of a remarkable team who I’d really like to work with again one day. Each person involved in this project, without exception, was enormously helpful, and there is a little bit of each of them in the film.