Interview with director Thomas Vernay – “I wanted to make a real impossible love story. I wanted to talk about buried desires.””

We had the pleasure of speaking with French director Thomas Vernay on his breathtaking short film Miss Chazelles, a film which addresses forbidden love. Miss Chazelles has gone on to win many awards such as Best Drama Award at the 2019 Aesthetica Short Film Festival, the Best Actress Award (Megan Northam) at the 2020 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and it screened at the Oscar-qualifying Odense International Film Festival in August. We were able to quiz Thomas on his film and the inspiration behind it.

This story is based heavily on the French village of your childhood, and the emotions and turbulence that comes with living in a small village. Has this always been a story you wanted to tell? 

Not really. I think it was necessary for me to go back. I needed to let my adult gaze confront my childhood gaze. I felt the need to reconcile with this place. So I thought of a short film that could take place there. It all started quite quickly, the meeting with Megan, the desire and urgency to make a film, the anecdote that inspired me, the team that was available, etc… 

What particularly about Clara and Marie resonated with you, that pushed you to make this film?

Above all, I wanted to make a real impossible love story. I wanted to talk about buried desires. What resonates in me is above all this social determinism, which also includes sentimental determinism. Our roots influence who we are, and depending on where we come from, the difficulties encountered in following our desires are more or less important. It is also this idea of injustice that resounds in me. I see myself a lot as Clara. She has dreams, desires, but we prevent her from feeling what she wants, constantly. Social barriers are part of our lives.

In some ways, we now live in a global village, thanks to the internet. A lot of what and who Clara is will resonate with a wide audience of youth throughout the world, who are all trying to find their place in it. What do you hope that audience will take away from this story? Do you have any advice you might have to give them, from your own experience?

The advice I could give is to always take care to be well surrounded. And arm yourself with courage and patience. At the end of the short film, Clara comes back to her friends and puts her head on her boyfriend’s shoulder, as if she accepts her condition. Maybe it’s easier for her. We could think that she gives up. You can blame her, but what’s the real outcome? What choice does she have?

I especially wanted to bring up to what point it is difficult for a girl to make her own choices, and to live differently without obstacles. During the film, Clara is constantly directed by men, every decision is made for her, she is dragged form one place to another, and the only choice she makes for herself, the true passion that inhabits her, creates a monumental quake.

It’s easy to tell others “live your dream, anything is possible”. But it’s not. We are not all equal when it comes to dreams.

The visuals of this film give me a very strong retro vibe, and there seems to be a quiet nostalgia that is set from the very start. What was the process behind building such a world, and is there any significance to its careful selection that you’d like to share about it?

I really wanted to make a timeless film that is hard to situate. It’s simply because when I went back there, nothing had really changed. 10 years later, the same places, the same people, the same events. These places are left abandoned by society. Not much happens, everything is in slow motion. And yet, they are great people, very welcoming, very human. But these people are also afraid of change. Mentalities take a very long time to evolve.

For the artistic direction, I was inspired by princess fairytales. Most of which are sexist. There’s the princess dress, the motorbikes as war horses, the knight’s sword that becomes a sabre, the two twins inspired by wicked Disney caricatures, the ball at the castle, the father that becomes a dragon, and the prince, who this time is a girl. All this unconsciously reinforces the idea of timelessness. The short is based on the colors Pink and Blue. Two colours that are endlessly used for gender stereotyping. If you look closely, whenever Clara is on screen as the pink dominant, the backdrop will often be a dominant blue. The opposite applies to Marie. This is quite telling in the ball scene. It is used to graphically illustrate that their thoughts are constantly directed towards one another.

Much of Clara’s, and even Marie’s, presence in this film is reactionary to the world as it happens around her. A lot of care is given to the micro expressions and meaningful glances she shares with others. What made you believe you had found your Clara in Megan? Was there any particular direction you had to give her, to best portray Clara’s silent determination?

I knew from the beginning of writing that Megan would be Clara. I obviously did a casting to make sure I was right. And everything was pretty clear when she came through. We worked together on several music videos, so I knew that she could convey a lot of things just with the expressions on her face. She’s magnetic. I like movies where the dialogue is not too written, where a moment of silence is most important than a speech. In life, it’s hard to express our feelings. We spend much more time saying nothing than the other way around. There’s a lot going on inside of us, indescribable, and Megan evokes it perfectly. In the script we could see that there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, we just talked about what was wrong with Clara, this idea of constant frustration, the impression that she is closed to the world around her. Then Megan appropriated the character and made her an authentic and fair Clara. She was awarded the prize for the best performance at the Clermont-Ferrand International Festival, and it was well deserved.

In this village, as in today’s world, the woman is often a spectator because the man does not leave her any space to express herself. We often hear young girls say, “I get along better with guys’. It’s sad to hear that, it just reflects a need for acceptance through the male gaze. Wanting to emancipate herself from this male validation is what Clara feels all the time. Marie, to me, is more in acceptance due to a particular family condition. She follows the path imposed by her family and seems to be happy. She is the “princess” of the family and the village. There are many women who refuse this desire for emancipation, and who live with this constant discrimination. These are the same women who often feel more comfortable with men or those who, when a woman succeeds, becomes very jealous and envious.

My next short is about the necessity of female solidarity in the face of this male domination. How do we deal with toxic masculinity? How do we live with it and how does it orient our choices? How do we change things? The idea of sisterhood is one of the solutions if you ask me. Women have to understand that’s enough. And it’s not normal.

These are the themes that I try to explore, they drive me. I am not a woman, so the question of legitimacy is constantly present, but I can’t go against it, I feel like it’s one of the greatest injustices in history, which is still going on. It fascinates me that we are still doubting this injustice, that we even find excuses for it.

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