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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001

Director Veysset knows her characters by heart


Sandrine Veysset has only made three films so far, but it would be no exaggeration to call her one of France's most talented directors. Her debut, "Will It Snow for Christmas?" took a Cesar (French Academy Award), her follow-up "Victor . . . pendant qu'il est trop tard," grabbed a Critics' Award at Rotterdam, and her latest (and best), "Martha . . . Martha," took the Critics' Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. All are compelling and brutally honest portraits of troubled young women, and their love-hate relationships with the men and children in their lives.

Filmmaker Sandrine Veysset

A former assistant to Leos Carax and self-taught filmmaker from Provence, the 34-year-old Veysset displays a precocious wisdom, fully bringing her characters to life on the screen and forcing the viewer to see life from a very different perspective for 90 minutes. Veysset is highly attuned to the underclass, people on the margins of society for whom existence is a daily struggle, both economically and spiritually.

In an interview, Veysset explained this is a natural course for her. "The characters who appear in my film, for the most part they're people who are somewhat alienated from society," she says. "I don't make films about what I don't know. I'm not part of the world of the bourgeoisie, so my characters don't drive expensive cars and live in gorgeous homes. I'm not interested in that -- there are plenty of people who aren't like that anyway."

While Veysset's strongest point is undoubtedly her sensitivity in capturing social and emotional realities, she says that "Victor" is set more in a dream world. "The 'issue,' if you will, is child abuse, where he's forced to watch his parents having sex and decides to run away. So I do have this heavy sort of theme, but I'm not interested in dealing with it in a documentary sort of way. Victor's journey to search for something better, despite the realistic look, is a kind of fairy tale."

This approach shaped the decision to have Victor flee to an amusement park. "I wanted something bright and glowing to attract him," the director says. "I wanted that sort of fairy-tale feel, like when Pinocchio goes to the carnival. For kids, amusement parks are magical places."

Veysset certainly shot it that way, contrasting Victor in his little red coat flying around amid glowing multicolored lights against a pitch- black sky.

Victor's retreat to the fantasy world of the amusement park certainly has a symbolic dimension, and Veysset agrees that viewers can interpret it in different ways. "For example, when he dozes off on the merry-go-round: You could say that everything that happens between then and the end of the movie -- where he's back on the ride -- was just a dream."

Certainly this feeling is reinforced by the several imaginative Freudian dream-sequences that occur in-between.

In all her films, Veysset has focused on family ties that are strained to breaking point. The director says that her deepest interest is at the psychoanalytical level.

"My films all extend into the social dimension to some extent, but it's really personal bonds that form the core of what I'm depicting. And where that really becomes clear is within the bonds of family. But it's not just love -- within the family there's also hate, there's discord, how children are confronted with reality. My interest is looking at all these things, the full spectrum."

With a mother who considers a mass suicide with her kids ("Will It Snow for Christmas?"), a child who finds a kind prostitute preferable to his own parents ("Victor") and a reluctant young mother who teeters on the brink of a breakdown ("Martha"), some may see Veysset's films as overly dark, but the director -- a self-described fatalist -- sees it differently.

"It seems that no matter what, I'm drawn to characters with some sort of tragic destiny," Veysset says. "Even if they experience moments of happiness, there's something hard in store for them. I guess I'm saying we all have times of happiness and of sadness, but for me, I could never make a film that's purely happy.

"I'm not a person who doesn't feel joy, and I'm certainly not depressed, but people with some sadness hidden inside are far more compelling. For me, there's no poetry in being happy all the time. Look at Baudelaire, Rimbaud . . . their works are full of sadness and pain."

Watching Veysset's films is certainly cathartic -- with elation and despair equally likely to overwhelm you by the last reel -- and it seems like an exorcism for the director as well.

"These are not 'message' movies. Nor are they entertainment. I'm just making the movies I can make," says Veysset. "For me, making a film involves being led by some sort of demand that arises within me. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to get a film made -- if you want to do it, it really has to come from the heart."



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