Quebec filmmaker Monia Chokri challenged the unwavering affection for auteurs at Cannes while introducing her latest film, Simple comme Sylvain. She took the stage during a morning premiere at the Palais du Festival the other week, giving an unexpected speech about what defines a genius.
“I think a genius is creating masterpieces while being a good person,” Chokri told an audience that tends to venerate men who abuse their powers. “No work justifies breaking people.”
“We let a lot of things pass with someone who is supposed to be a big creative genius,” Chokri elaborated in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “There’s always this idea that he’s a master so he can be very degrading with people.”
We’re on a sunny terrace on top of the Palais an hour after the premiere. Chokri, an actor-turned-director who won a jury prize at Cannes a few years ago for her debut, A Brother’s Love, is here to discuss Simple comme Sylvain (which roughly translates to Simple Like Sylvain, a far cry from its generic English title, The Nature of Love). But first I ask Chokri what inspired her comments on stage. Her answer is not at all surprising: “A lot of people have been asking me about Johnny Depp and Adèle Haenel.”
This year’s Cannes Film Festival opened with Jeanne du Barry, a period piece starring Depp as a monarch who had a publicly scrutinized love affair with the titular sex worker, played by mononymous French filmmaker Maïwenn. The latter, a vocal opponent to #MeToo and feminist movements, is also the film’s director. Maïwenn casting Depp feels intentional, as does Jeanne du Barry’s opening night slot, which positioned the film as the actor’s comeback after the 2022 defamation trial where he challenged ex-wife Amber Heard’s claims that he was violent toward her. (The case ended in December when the jury ruled in favour of Depp.)
The movie itself was the most tiresome thing I saw at Cannes, which can only lead me to believe that its programming was little more than a provocation and a rebuke to a staunch #MeToo supporter and outspoken abuse survivor like Haenel. The Portrait of a Lady on Fire star recently announced that she is quitting acting because she was facing overt hostility in the French film industry for her advocacy. These are things that Chokri along with her Simple comme Sylvain star and real-life best friend, Magalie Lépine-Blondeau, have been experiencing up close and feeling deeply over the past few months while working in France.
“What I found profoundly disturbing is the way people received her,” Lépine-Blondeau said in a separate interview alongside her co-star Pierre-Yves Cardinal. “She said she’s angry. And women cannot be angry. There is nothing sexy about angry women. And she will be disqualified. Everything she says – as intelligent, brilliant, profoundly true as it is – if she says it with anger, it’s unacceptable, it’s radical and we shouldn’t listen to her.
“Angry people listen to angry men,” Lépine-Blondeau continues. “We elect angry men. We follow angry men. But we do not want to hear or see angry women.”
This conversation doesn’t feel like an aside for Chokri and Lépine-Blondeau. They explain that it’s in keeping with what Simple comme Sylvain is about: People with different belief systems learning not to shut out the voices they don’t agree with but to communicate and connect with tenderness.
The film, opening in Quebec on Sept. 22, stars Lépine-Blondeau as Sophia, a left-leaning professor having an affair, escaping her intellectual circles and the safety of her marriage in the arms of Cardinal’s sultry, right-wing-leaning country guy Sylvain. The romcom, loaded with sharp banter and fashioned with a warm 1970s Altman-inspired aesthetic, takes the whole opposites attract concept and makes it about our own politically divisive times.
It had the Cannes audience in stitches with its madcap comic energy enlivening the passionate love affair. It’s the rare treat that manages to be both hilarious and legit sexy at once, with non-gratuitous lovemaking scenes that focus on female pleasure and, as Chokri adds, tell a story.
“We always forget what we want to say with those scenes,” Lépine-Blondeau says. She describes her past experiences as limiting, where her only job was to be desirable. “We feel like the sex scenes are there to put a little bit of a sparkle or whatever on the film or the television series. But what do they want to say? How do they kiss? How do they touch each other? How much do they know each other? That evolves with the characters as well.”
“There’s also a very interesting reflection about the objectification of women in the past cinema,” Cardinal adds, referring to a clear visual reference in the film to this year’s Cannes poster girl Catherine Deneuve lying naked on her belly in Belle Du Jour. According to the stars, Chokri went out of her way to deconstruct how the patriarchy in cinema has shaped the way she would approach a sex scene as a director, actor and a woman.
Chokri’s female gaze also feels like the polar opposite to another controversial premiere at Cannes: The Idol. The HBO series co-created by Abel Tesfaye (the artist formerly known as the Weeknd) and Sam Levinson (the creator and director behind Euphoria) unveiled its first two episodes at Cannes after its original director, Amy Seimetz, exited the show reportedly for leaning too far into the female perspective. From what audiences saw, the series about a Britney Spears-like popstar preyed on by the industry is as grossly indulgent as you would expect for a show from Levinson, with lots of gawking at naked women and trauma.
“There’s friction between different visions,” Lépine-Blondeau says when I bring up The Idol. She talks about the progress made by women since #MeToo but also the backlash, which is especially felt at a festival that opens with a Johnny Depp flick.
“Right now at the festival, you feel that friction. There is a generation of filmmakers and actors that feel that we can do great cinema with kindness. And another that is I guess keeping up, and not able to do it.”
Special to The Globe and Mail