FQ contributing editor Joan Dupont continues her series on French women directors with a rare interview with Pascale Ferran, whose debut feature film, Petits arrangements avec la mort (Coming to Terms with the Dead, 1994), won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Dupont surveys the ups and downs of Ferran’s subsequent career, which includes the celebrated Lady Chatterley (2006) along with lesser-known films such as L’âge des possibles (The Age of Potential, 1996) and the more recent Bird People (2014).
Pascale Ferran belongs to a generation of gifted filmmakers who met in the 1980s at the premiere French film school, IDHEC (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques), which today is La Fémis. This group—Mathieu Amalric, Arnaud Desplechin, Éric Rochant, Pierre Trividic, and Ferran herself—have stayed in touch, lending their talents to each other’s projects. Ferran worked on the adaptation for Desplechin’s debut film, La sentinelle (The Sentinel, 1992), and Trividic was a vital collaborator on the script of Ferran’s first full-length film, Petits arrangements avec la mort (Coming to Terms with the Dead, 1994). Inspired by Ferran’s personal family tragedy, Petits arrangements follows four siblings who, reunited in Brittany for their summer holidays, are confronted with difficult scenes from their past and memories of a childhood abruptly transformed. The film, which featured Ferran’s older sister Catherine, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, where it won the Caméra d’Or in 1994.
This impressive debut marked Ferran as a fresh talent on the scene and the sole female director amid this group of prize-winning men. In the next two decades, Ferran’s creative journey has been one of transformation. The force of her cinema lies in her audacity and the fervor of her imagination: in Petits arrangements, grown children build sand castles, while in Lady Chatterley (2006), her adaptation of the second of D. H. Lawrence’s two earlier versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, naked lovers devour each other in the woods. From the wide beaches of that first film through Constance Chatterley’s secret gardens, Ferran infuses the screen with her passion for digging down to the roots, to where the wild things are buried—secrets, memories, desires, losses. She has fashioned a small, rare collection of films: Petits arrangements and Lady Chatterley won prizes and large audiences, while the film that she made in between the two, L’âge des possibles (The Age of Potential, 1996), shot with a theater troupe composed of young actors, was hailed by a new generation of cinephiles.
Yet in the rough-and-tumble world of French cinema today, Ferran has no new project in sight. She loves cinema still, works for and with others in her circle of gifted collaborators, and collaborated on the launch of a major new collaborative venture, LaCinetek, an online video-on-demand platform that has assumed increasing importance in France.1 Both a subscription service and a single-title rent/purchase plan, it is unique in that its international art-house selections have all been chosen by filmmakers. On the website, Ferran is listed as a cofounder and credited with “presiding over” the enterprise.
The following discussion took place in two parts: first at a café in the popular Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood of Paris, and then at Ferran’s apartment around the corner. The apartment is a fifth-floor walk-up. The good thing about its being on the fifth floor, of course, is the light and the view: we see rooftops; it’s the old Paris of Marcel Carné, whose legendary Hôtel du Nord (1938) was filmed nearby.
Ferran’s neighborhood, where she has lived for the past thirty-five years, wears its past carelessly today. Rue de Lancry, her street for the past twenty-five, is spattered with take-out joints and surprises like a Jack Russell named Mavis, who naps at the entrance of a grand chocolate shop. It’s Mavis’s shop, her quartier—home to artists, writers, publishers, pianists, and even plumbers. This route between the apartment and the café where Ferran goes to write is the filmmaker’s everyday landscape. The café, set on a corner, is open to traffic of all kinds and has a vertiginous spiral staircase leading (I hoped) up to a restroom—a setting that fits right in with the neighborhood’s movie past, perhaps a scene out of a Jean Cocteau film.
Ferran at age sixty-one does not look like a woman who has taken on tough subjects—death and sex—in her films. Her manner is open and forthright, but also private, reflective, exacting. She chooses her words with care, delivers them crisply, and does not delve into either nostalgia or regret when evoking her singular history as an auteur with critically acclaimed films that were box-office hits as well. A gifted woman who was raised to be discrete, Ferran favors action over self-promotion or self-pity. At the César Awards ceremony in 2007, she delivered a scathing attack on the French funding structure that favors popular entertainment over auteur films. And in 2008, she founded the Club des 13 to discuss these dramatic differences in funding. It strikes me that she thinks of herself as a militant, perhaps a radical.
What filmmakers counted for you when you started out?
Alain Resnais was important in my family! My mother was a fan of Providence  when I was teenager—I was too young to see it—it’s so rich and complex.
Mon oncle d’Amérique was the first Resnais I saw when it was released in 1980. I discovered the film at Cannes when I was twenty—a shock, so special! And it was hard to know how to take this film. I found it so original and exhilarating that cinema could treat such profound and vast matters, delve so deeply into human relationships.
It’s also a film that describes French society of the 1980s, the arrival of the media and the beginning of the end of French industry, a moment of change. The film tells this story, and with inventiveness and humor: it’s a film that seeks to make us more intelligent than we were before we saw it.
I found it fantastic that cinema could go there . . . and that’s my attachment to Kubrick, too: his films give confidence that cinema can deal with existential and metaphysical questions.
So then, I saw all of Resnais from Hiroshima mon amour  on.
And I read that you are a fan of Edward Yang’s films?
His Yi Yi , for me, was immense—it felt fraternal, so close. Few films provoke that in me: I would love to have made that film; I could have died happy if I had. Its narrative travels between four or five stories; the characters have parallel paths. They are from the same family, but there are only a few scenes between them, so the film has incredible novelistic depth, and his direction is simply amazing. It always looks easy, fluid; he has immense mastery. I love his mix of long sequence shots—six minutes—and how he cuts away . . . And the friendship between the father and his Japanese friend is simple, yet sublime and melancholy.
I am fascinated that your mother loved Resnais. What were your parents like?
My mother was born in Paris, where her father was a clockmaker in the Tenth Arrondissement, here where I have been living for the past decades . . . A few years before the war, my mother left Paris for Montpellier, where she rejoined her family and met my father, who was from there. They got married during the war and had two kids; after, my father came to Paris to find work as a journalist and was hired by L’Équipe, the sports newspaper. He became an important journalist specializing in soccer and then chief editor of France Football. My mother joined him in Paris, where I was born in 1960.
My mother had done pharmaceutical studies, but she had always been passionate about theater, all forms of theater. She would have loved to be a singer; she had a beautiful voice, and sang in chorales. And then, she had five children to take care of, so no more professional life! But she transmitted her passion for arts and particularly theater to us—one brother is a stage director and my sister Catherine an actress. The brother closest to me became a sound engineer, after his studies at Louis Lumière [École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière], and I feel I followed his lead. He was passionate about music and sound; I didn’t know if I wanted to do just camera or directing.2
And you became an artist who told the family story! I was completely surprised when I first saw Les petits arrangements avec la mort: I registered the beach, the underground, and the feeling that childhood itself is a country, but I got lost in a kind of subterranean fairy tale without the wicked witch—unless the wicked witch was death.
The film has a very sensorial atmosphere. Each child is cloaked in mourning.
I know you had a tragedy in your own family. How old were you when your sister died?
I told Pierre if I make only one film, I have to make it on my older sister, who was sixteen then and I was six . . . I said we have to write a film on how people who in infancy build themselves, like a tree that takes a strange shape, quite beautiful.
How did you come to make a film about it?
We loved J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. I told Pierre Trividic: we must make a film on a family marked forever by a loss in childhood. I told him that the problem was that I have such a secret relationship to what happened: we had kept quiet for years, so I felt it was indecent to speak about it . . . I told Pierre, “Perhaps if I tell you things and you try to transform them into fiction it could work.”
This is how we found the structure: the characters all on the same beach at the same time. We chose Pierre’s beach in Brittany—our own [family] beach is actually in the South. Seventy percent of the script was written by Pierre. We had to find the plot from my story for each character and create dialogue to reach a third person—the spectator. So we worked on each character, building a complex structure: the script may look simple, but it’s actually constructed like clockwork.
And each character, each story, unfolds during this family reunion: there is the little sister who seems to have her feet in the ground, but keeps jumping up and down, and the big brother, a prince of the domain.
Un prince des plages! It was beautiful how from mere scraps of my family story, Pierre built a narrative. And he found Jumbo [Guillaume Charras], the boy who has nothing to do with the family . . .
Pierre had written a diary, Jumbo’s diary, and we adapted it for this young actor; it wasn’t easy. He was a kind of genius; he wasn’t like the other kids. After a few days, he was a bit fed up. I had to make him cry and that was terrible! He couldn’t do it . . . I had to leave him alone, say it didn’t matter . . . and he burst out crying!
Such a complex, layered film. That’s why I was surprised at its success!
Everybody was surprised! I can never watch my films again, but I’m surprised that I made a film with humor even though it’s such a dark film: there are happy moments, good times, despite it all.
When I first saw the film when it came out, I could just capture fragments—a family, a loss, meeting on a beach.
I feel, yes, that it’s a very subterranean film: the buried part is the most vital, and according to each viewer’s life experience, one can stay on the surface, or not. The film is a miracle, built on Pierre’s script. It was extremely hard to make: we spent three weeks on this beach in Brittany that was meant to have the same weather every day, but didn’t! The action was supposed to take place in the space of one day. The miracle was that the film was such a success, really loved by the critics and the public, and sold three hundred thousand tickets at the box office.
This is such a lonely family, each one alone with a different story.
The sister and brother are close . . . It was also strange for me because I am the little sister who tries to invent a fiction about how the others lived this story, but I think when it happened, I wasn’t able to tell any story . . . I think I feel like a survivor, with a kind of empathy mixed with revolt, as if this had been a kind of a genocide, like the Shoah.
Your family is Jewish?
No. But I’m in empathy with those things, ever since. I’m very close to my sister and brothers; we spend time together on holiday in a family home every year.
Do you think that this loss led you to become a creator?
I don’t know if I want to ask myself that question, but this mourning is the secret behind the family, a potent secret . . . It forced me to assemble things I had trouble expressing, through fiction, through creation. I became a storyteller more than a cineaste. I don’t feel completely comfortable about this . . .
Did you think of becoming a writer?
No—even though I took notes, kept a journal daily, wrote long letters to friends, notes on scripts and possible screenplays. This started after the lycée, the first year I was enrolled in film school and didn’t go much. I never thought of being a writer because it is a major art, whereas I think of cinema as a minor art. I never could have chosen a major art: I would have felt illegitimate.
Also, I liked the idea of working with others. Filmmaking is a dialogue between the different métiers, or functions, so I didn’t have to have a deep knowledge of one to have a discussion with several. To be a writer was too much for me. I felt more comfortable writing the dialogue, back then. There, I felt that I was at my most competent. And “competent” is a strong word, because at the time there was nothing that I felt I was competent at.
I had sat in on some classes by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana [editors of Cahiers du Cinéma] when they taught at Censier.3 I didn’t make it into IDHEC that year, so instead I made a short film, Souvenir de Juan-les-Pins , adapted from a Patricia Highsmith story.4
So it was crucial for your career that your first feature, Petits arrangements, be a success—and it was!
It [also] had a modest international career [and] we were selected for the New York Film Festival. But nobody bought it: I think it was too subtle, too complex. So I lived on a tight budget. And then, a week after Petits arrangements got the Caméra d’Or [at Cannes], Charles Berling, who played the brother François, asked if I would be interested in making a film about a theater company.
And that was your film L’âge des possibles with the Strasbourg National Theater, which was known for being one of the most innovative theaters in France, with a company of young actors. That must have been an adventure, taking you to another realm, the world of theater—and a world outside Paris.
It’s not the same thing to film theater—staging actors live with a camera—and we had such a small budget! We found a producer, Gilles Sandoz, and threw ourselves into the adventure. There were so many obstacles. I had to work closely with the actors. I met them, all ten of them, in November, then wrote for three months, and we shot in the spring in a rush. It was the human, artistic adventure that mattered. I went to see Pierre Chevalier at Arte to ask for help.
He was the one! It was Arte’s heyday, and Pierre Chevalier was known for taking risks and for giving a helping hand to complex projects, with films by Claire Denis and André Téchiné. I remember that he helped find funding in particular for TV ventures that led to theatrical release. In fact, he was called “L’Homme des Possibles”—and your film was called L’âge des possibles, so yes, he was the one!
The only one! I thought there could perhaps be a way of showing the finished film as a TV program, if not as a feature film. Working with a screenwriter, I tried to write roles that suited each actor, yet were not too close to their character. It was crazy! We had barely any time with the company onstage. Cinema is dialogue, but with theater, it’s the troupe.
It was a marvelous experience because the film did not come from me, my desire, but from the theater’s director and actors. That was the miracle. A third of the company had never even been on a film set. Only five had ever had anything to do with film. And it worked! We loved each other; some of us are still in touch. By the time we finished, people were saying it was brilliant, and everybody wanted the film to have a theatrical release. First, it was shown on Arte, and then played in one theater, the Panthéon—audiences lined up!
Was the success a surprise?
Everybody was surprised! They brought the movie out in two theaters. Then we won the “7 d’Or” [the French Emmy], and audiences flocked! The film seemed to have a cathartic power . . . yet it’s very restrained . . . Everything I did worked back then. It was a film for that specific generation. People stopped me in the street, saying it was the film about their times. And it really was, because I had asked each actor to write a text. They were another generation from mine, and I was trying to tell their story. I captured the period with music—twenty different pieces—from France Gall to Michel Legrand’s score for Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne [Donkey Skin, 1970]. The music rights cost as much as the film rights! And today, the film is no longer available.
What did you do next? Although you had nothing but success, there was a lull.
I worked as a screenwriter for very little pay on a project on Isaac Newton. It was a folly, but it’s the film that taught me the most. Newton was Pierre Trividic’s idea. Newton had disappeared for two months before his death. We could imagine or invent whatever we wanted: depression, or worse. It was a period piece set at the end of feudalism, in the new world, at the end of alchemy, and the beginning of democracy, Cromwell’s revolution. “Newton’s Folly” was an incredible project, beautiful, crazy, expensive, complex. But though Pierre had won many prizes, he wasn’t known as a filmmaker so it was impossible to finance.
I disappeared for two or three years, doing other jobs—I dubbed the French version of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut —but I never could have made Lady Chatterley without that experience.
And how did Lady Chatterley happen to be made? I am a very old D. H. Lawrence fan.
Me too. But I read him late, and in France, there weren’t many of us . . .
The story of his love affair with Frieda, who left her husband and daughters for Lawrence, is at the core of Lady Chatterley, isn’t it? He must have pictured himself—the son of a miner—as the Gamekeeper and Frieda as his Lady. And you could say that Sons and Lovers, his first novel, was about a superior being, a Lady of sorts, his mother.
Such an incredible story: how Frieda von Richthofen, an aristocrat, left her husband and children for the son of a miner! Yes, Lady Chatterley is their story—and it was the last book he wrote in his life. And in those days, nobody had a partner before marriage, so if you met somebody when you were young who didn’t care about sex, you could find yourself at the age of thirty living a rather a sad life—especially in England!
Lady Chatterley has a history. I discovered Lawrence’s second version of Lady Chatterley and fell in love with this story, but I couldn’t imagine adapting the book. I thought I was crazy—I don’t even speak English—who am I to adapt a masterpiece of English literature? I’m a big reader, I had read Melville and Hardy, but I hadn’t read Lawrence. It took me ages to read . . .I thought about it every day and decided to talk to somebody to see if I dared take on a costume film. That’s expensive! I would have to make it with a small team.
And there was only one person I could consult: Pierre Chevalier! We met at 9 a.m. at Café de Flore. That’s how Pierre worked. I told him how this book obsessed me, how it would have to be a long film. And he said, “You’re crazy—I’ll never sell it—but it could be a two-part TV program.” Then, he put his hand on mine and said, “We’ll do it!”
And that’s how Lady Chatterley began, at Saint-Germain-des-Prés! It was written in nine months. A year later, we started shooting, very fast. It was not hard to write because I had a vision of the heart of the story, a love story, about how this story transforms each lover.
Your actors Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coulloc’h are just right as Constance the chatelaine and Parkin the gamekeeper.
She was easy, I had already spotted her onstage. He was harder to find. His body, like hers, had to erupt on-screen.
Do you mean the way Gérard Depardieu’s body does in Marguerite Duras’s Nathalie Granger ?
I didn’t see that, but I did see Depardieu in her Le camion (1977). What an incredible actor!
Physical love is portrayed badly on-screen. I felt this was the right time to show sex without voyeurism, raw yet restrained. I wanted to identify the senses, as if in a dialogue: to have each one’s side. This is what interested me, and I really wanted to film these long love scenes, fifty minutes of them!
Also, Lady Chatterley is focused on few characters and set in nature, the seasons, and the arrival of spring with the awakening of the senses: nature filmed as a reflection of the characters’ interior landscape . . . I wanted to have scenes in nature, and botany, because I’ve been fascinated by botany for the past thirty years. Lawrence, too, was a gardener, and a great botanist. I garden too: I planted daffodils in October to film them in bloom in May. We had an army of apprentices on the film that planted bulbs for a week. It was great. The idea was to work in as small a team as possible, with Super 16, one assistant, one cinematographer, really family style.
You had your own vision of the book, didn’t you?
It is a utopian story of how love can save the world. Something that I adore in the book is that, when Constance falls in love, she contaminates the whole household. And the circle gets bigger: everybody is infected—affected—by this love story.
In so many films, sex is stereotyped. I remember the films we saw when we were teenagers, we were always waiting for that kiss that clinched it all!
And that still goes on! [But] European filmmakers changed that. Something else happened in films by Patrice Chéreau and Catherine Breillat—raw sex without feeling, which annoys me: I find it sinister. In movies, physical love is either eclipsed or there’s that music taking us to another realm. In Lawrence’s book each love scene transforms the characters. Lady Chatterley was feasible with a reduced team: we were never more than ten or twelve on the set.
Your Lady Chatterley appears fresh-born. You see how she is prisoner of her life, of her times. You see her enter the woods, how she picks up speed in the scene where she ends up in a run to join him!
And loses her hat! A woman her age discovers sensations—not a teenager but a woman of thirty! Each time something happens to her, it’s for the first time. She makes discoveries that transform her, love transforms. He, too, is transformed. She’s been buried alive. New life stirs in her [and] she is transformed; there’s nothing more joyous than transformation.
Lady Chatterley, like your other films, had success. Was it also a success abroad?
In the United States, it did business the way a French film does. In France, it won the Prix Louis Delluc and then five César Awards . . . The film was rereleased and sold five hundred thousand tickets. The longer Arte TV version  did incredibly well and was sold to twenty-five countries. But then Pierre Chevalier left Arte, so it was his last film, along with one by Philippe Garrel.
What happened next? After such a huge success, did gates open?
After [it] sold in twenty-five countries, I thought, I could make Bird People , a film that’s a bit fantastical. And expensive, for it’s expensive to shoot sparrows for eight weeks and end up with fifteen minutes on film! We spent a year editing and doing the special effects; the airport [Roissy / Charles de Gaulle] and airport hotel cost a fortune. For a filmmaker of my category, it was an expensive venture. It wasn’t a flop but not a success either . . . I like it a lot.
You recently directed a season of the hit TV series Le bureau des légendes [The Bureau, Canal+, 2015–], a thriller that moves spies around the world—and has been a hit around the world—featuring star-crossed lovers and the kind of traitors an audience roots for. And with a terrific cast, including Mathieu Amalric as a bad boss and Mathieu Kassovitz as the spy who betrays his side for the love of a beautiful Syrian, ends up in Russia, and can’t come in from the cold. It strikes me that this, too, is a kind of family venture with old classmates from IDHEC, including director Eric Rochant. How did you come to work on the fourth season?
I’m a very old friend of Eric Rochant since IDHEC. I was a fan of the first three seasons of Le bureau, I bought the DVD, I wrote Eric. He had done everything, supervised the preparation, casting the main roles, he’s brilliant . . . Eric said that he might need to pass on the supervision of season 4 [and] might need somebody to supervise and direct some sequences because he had been called away on another project. I hesitated because it was an enormous job. Eric has the background, he’s imbued with the entire series. I had to take it all in, but it made me happy to work on the series. And with him: as it turned out, he didn’t have to leave and was there for season 4.
And so were you. What a job!
Gigantic. I prepared the scenes on set. I went to Ukraine for the scenes in Russia and to Morocco for those in the Middle East. I participated in all the preparation for season 4 as the main director in liaison with Eric . . . It was enormous, madly complex! We shot six minutes—minutes we could use—per day. Ukraine was really complicated . . . It was tough shooting abroad with lots of technicians . . . We had four different crews. The shoot was tough, militaristic. Cinema is like that, like war. TV series may be even more intense. There were constant challenges. On one’s own film, one has more pleasure, yet this, too, was, at times, sublime.
I know that you’ve had other projects you tried to get made, but is there nothing currently?
I have no desire right now to make a movie. [Instead], I work with LaCinetek, which takes a great deal of my time. I write, but not for [my] film; I work for others. I have no immediate plans.
How did LaCinetek happen?
LaCinetek is a real dream come true. We opened in 2015, thanks to a mix of talents.
After a Directors’ Assembly [Société des réalisateurs de films] in November 2013, I was having a smoke outside with filmmakers Laurent Cantet and Cédric Klapisch and we got together with Alain Rocca [eminent producer on the board of the Césars and La Fémis]. He had just spoken about VOD at the Assembly, and we told him that we were amazed there was no French VOD for twentieth-century films. Rocca said he, too, had wondered why, but that he also wondered who could choose the films. And we said, ‘‘We, the filmmakers!”
The point of the project was a site where filmmakers could talk about those who have counted the most for them, who inspired them to make movies—a kind of dialogue. Rocca said he would get back to us—and we thought we would never hear back, but he called a week later. We went to the CNC [Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée] to apply for financial support.
And you got it! And Rocca is now on your board. And now you also have support also from the Région Île de France and the Media Program of the European Commission.
We decided to ask film directors worldwide to list fifty of their favorite films. Now we have filmmakers from all over the world: Martin Scorsese, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Agnès Varda, Nanni Moretti, Abbas Kiarostami . . . We wanted to make it as varied as possible . . . We asked each filmmaker to make his/her list. We opened five years ago—and we are getting bigger, better and better. It’s a site where we can express our love of cinema from one filmmaker to another.
Ferran’s brother Jean-Jacques was the sound engineer on her student film, Souvenir de Juan-les-Pins.
The Centre Censier (known as Paris 3, or simply Censier), a part of the Sorbonne but in another neighborhood, had the famous “two Serges”—Daney and Toubiana—as cinema professors and numerous graduates who became famous filmmakers.
In 1990 Ferran made another short film, Le baiser, which features a series of assorted or contrasting couples, young and old, graceful and awkward, classic and gay.