Reflections on a year of living frantically

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 2009, 12:00am

He didn't want to sightsee, shop or visit our local cinemas. Instead, the one thing that French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot wanted to do while visiting Hong Kong recently was to swim in the sea.

Maybe it's his way of winding down after a hectic year, in which he released two films - the psychological drama Villa Amalia and television-film adaptation of Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters - and finished the shooting of a third, a period romance set in a mental asylum called Hypnose.

Jacquot only wrapped the principal cinematography for the latter two weeks ago, after which he flew to Taiwan to appear at Taipei's Golden Horses Film Festival and then to Hong Kong's French Cinepanorama showcase.

His desire to take a dip in the ocean takes on more of a meaning, however, when seen through the context of Villa Amalia, which he was slated to promote during his whirlwind Asian tour.

In the film, swimming is made a symbol of the changes in the life of the film's leading protagonist, Ann Hidden (played by Isabelle Huppert). Seeking a personal rebirth far away from Paris, the musician gives up everything and relocates to Italy, where she can take to the waters of the Mediterranean - a much more liberating environment than the small lidos she frequented back home in the French capital.

Jacquot's film was inspired by Pascal Quignard's novel of the same name. According to the 62-year-old director, the writer, a friend of many years, sent him a copy of the book with an inscription saying, 'A film - when?'

At the time he was in discussions with Huppert, with whom he had already collaborated with on five films, about making another film together, and they then promptly decided to adapt Villa Amalia into a film. It's not the first time the actress has played a virtuoso musician. Huppert's last stab at a music-related role was as a pianist in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, which brought her awards galore, including the best actress prize at Cannes. But Jacquot says Ann's character provided a very different challenge for the thespian.

'Of course she's not Ann, but there are many, many things I know in Isabelle which are very near to the character,' he says. 'The way she never complains or explains, for example. Or when she decides [to do] something, even when it's very important in her life, she goes very radical about it.'

Villa Amalia is an intense character study of someone renouncing her past in order to find genuine personal emancipation.

After seeing her husband kissing another woman, Huppert's character decides to relinquish all - her thriving musical career, her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle - to start anew in a seaside village in Italy, where she eventually rediscovers her zest for life in the cottage that gives the film its name.

With Huppert's character revelling in her new, anonymous life, Jacquot's adaptation is very different in tone than Quignard's story, in which Ann's journey is plagued with ill-fated new relationships and death, ending with the character mired in sad solitude.

'In the book she's closing door after door to finish in a dark room; in the film, it's exactly the contrary, when she's opening one door after another to head out in a new world,' he says.

Villa Amalia is the latest in a long line of films in which Jacquot follows 'a woman at the moment of her life when everything is completely changed'. His previous film, 2006's The Untouchable, sees a young stage actor (played by another long-time collaborator, Isild De Besco) forfeiting her acting aspirations to look for her father in India; while not involving international travel, 1990's The Disenchanted - the film which established Jacquot's standing in French cinema after more than a decade of mixed-quality films - sees a teenager (Judith Godreche) rebelling against her chauvinistic boyfriend and needy mother by living with a middle-aged, middle-class writer.

Jacquot's interest in female characters might stem from his fascination with the work of French New Wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer.

Having had no formal filmmaking training, Jacquot recalls learning his trade through visits to the Cinematheque Francaise, starting at just 12. And it was with a New Wave icon that he made his film directorial debut, with Anna Karina in the lead in The Musician Killer in 1975, after a few years working as assistant director on Marguerite Duras' films. Since then, Jacquot has made over 30 movies, television films and documentaries - in fact, Jacquot first made his name in France with a two-part series on Jacques Lacan in 1974.

It's not hard to detect Lacan's influence on Jacquot as embodied in films such as The Untouchable and Villa Amalia, when characters go to extremes in order to look for what's missing in their existence.

Not that Jacquot would admit to this, however, as he insists he makes film based on his intuition rather than intellectual deliberation.

'You work by working, and not by thinking,' he says, laughing. And also by enjoying some swimming on the side, probably.

Villa Amalia screens mon, Dec 7, 7.50pm, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei