Mikhaël Hers talks about his approach to tragedy in Amanda, which follows a young girl and her uncle as they reckon with the consequences of a terrorist attack. The film is screening in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival at Lincoln Centre in NYC on March 9.
If terrorist attacks are becoming more frequent in Europe cities, they are no less shocking to the sense of safety shared by most people who build their lives there. Mikhaël Hers’ Amanda looks at this particular situation from a resolutely individual, human-sized perspective. Rather than dwell on foggy questions of cause or motive, the film centres on the survivors and the way tragedy forever changes their daily lives — and their identity.
David (Vincent Lacoste) begins the film as a rather aloof young man with few attachments or responsibilities weighing him down. This changes overnight when his older sister, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), is killed in a terrorist attack, and he finds himself responsible for his seven-year-old niece, Amanda (Isaure Multrier). The film focuses on the close relationship that develops out of necessity between the two of them, and the personal challenges that it represents — both are forced into a situation they never could have anticipated.
And yet, through its happiest and saddest moments, Amanda strikes a delicate balance between the heaviness of grief and the lightness of the everyday; the individual dimension of pain and the solace found with others; the responsibilities of adulthood and the freedom of youth.
Mikhaël Hers told us about the everyday Paris he shows in the film, the thorny ethical questions that the project entails, the vulnerability and strength of the characters, and more.
Seventh Row (7R): I was struck by the sense of place in the film. It is set in Paris, but it’s not the kind of Paris we see often. It’s almost deserted: there’s a lot of space; they’re specific places that are very sunny. One might expect a very sombre, grey-looking film because of the subject matter.
Mikhaël Hers (MH): I wanted to make a film which, despite this starting point [the attack], remained very luminous, and not make something that was devoid of hope or gloomy. Because I wanted light to get through, I needed to find ways to make that possible. That’s in the choice of actors, both the little girl and Vincent Lacoste, who both have a kind of lightness and grace: they’re quite solar. It’s in the choice of the season — it takes place during the summer. There’s also the choice of location; they’re quite airy places. At the same time, I wanted to film the most quotidian and trivial side of Paris — the film was shot in the 11th and 12th arrondissement, which are also where the 2015 attacks took place.
I really love the cohabitation of nature with the city, so it’s also out of personal preference that I chose these locations. I also shot on 16mm, so the colours, the grain of film… I think all of these things make the film luminous.
7R: The terrorist attack is central to the film’s plot, but it doesn’t occur for quite a long time in the film. How did you decide where in those characters’ lives you would start telling their story?
MH: I’ve always had this fear of a tragic event that cracks the everyday, that changes it completely. A lot in this film was about the editing. I had to establish a situation long enough for the viewers to get attached to the characters, to their everyday lives.
At the same time, I didn’t want to create something that was too long and which would create a queasy, uncomfortable wait. These days, when people go to the cinema, they know what’s going to happen in the film. I didn’t want to create something that was falsely long, or to create this sort of uncomfortable atmosphere where we just wonder, “When is the attack going to happen?” It had to be just long enough for the viewers to familiarise themselves with the everyday lives of the characters. That was done in the writing and in the editing.
7R: In films about tragedies, characters often close themselves off from the world afterwards. But here, the characters are in touch with their emotions. They keep communicating with each other after the incident. How did this play into the way you wrote the characters?
MH: I I think there are a few moments when some things are unspoken and held back, but there are other times when they speak more easily. It’s a matter of balance, like in life.
For me, cinema is also the place where we can speak to our own fragility and vulnerability. If that’s how it makes you you feel, I’m very happy with it. To me, making films is also allowing people a place where I hope they can feel less lonely — something that speaks to their loneliness, to their fragility. I totally accept the part of vulnerability that’s in my films and moves through the situations and characters.
7R: It’s almost surprising how brave the characters are. They make difficult decisions.
MH: They’re mistreated by life, but it’s also a film about a kind of fraternity. They make it out because they’re together. I wanted to make a film about the figure of a big child who accompanies a little child around a dramatic event, and ultimately, we don’t know which one is best able to help the other. Maybe the little girl helps him more. In any case, they make this journey together.
And the journey is far from over — it will be long and complicated — but at least there’s this possibility. They explore that possibility together, and with the other people around them, too.
7R: How did you work with the actors?
MH: We met before the shoot. It’s important for me to know the actors, to see them, to establish trust and benevolence. After that, I talk very little about the scenario. I don’t do rehearsals, so it’s more about creating that atmosphere of kindness — both for the little girl and for the adults — to create this climate that will allow them to deliver emotions which can be rather intense and extreme. It’s about this empathy and kindness that I try to infuse in the shoot, more than through big theoretical discussions about the story.
7R: The film’s time-frame is wider than we expect from a film about such a tragedy. It isn’t just about the direct consequences of the event or the first two weeks after it.
MH: It’s a film about time — about a beginning, because their journey will be very long. One needs time to really see the impact of such a tragedy on the survivors, so it’s a work about time.
I’m a very intuitive writer. I don’t remember how I got this idea of those final scenes in London. But it’s important for me that there is this escape at the end, between laughter and tears, and with a sense of hope.
7R: The scene where we see Vincent Lacoste arrive to the park just after the terrorist attack is, of course, shocking. How did you approach presenting that central event?
MH: I thought about this enormously. I didn’t want to start from one of the actual, real-life attacks from 2015, because I didn’t want to invent a fake victim to a real terrorist attack. That seemed completely indecent to me. So I had to create another terrorist attack for the story, which came with its own set of moral and ethical questions.
I told myself that this could partly be resolved by the choice of setting. The fact that it takes place in a park was powerfully real and sadly plausible — something like this could happen. At the same time, the forest and the park have a more abstract and dreamlike dimension. It would be very different if it took place in the lobby of a very famous hotel… I found this choice both powerfully raw — without avoidance or false modesty, because it was important for me that the film showed these images. And at the same time, this more abstract dimension rendered it more acceptable in a fiction film.
7R: There are all these characters around Amanda and David who stay on the periphery of the film. At no moment does one of them arrive and promise to do everything to help them, or say that everything will be fine. And yet, by the end, we feel like these people constitute a support system that is crucial to Amanda and David. How did you write these peripheral characters? How did you measure whether they were too present or not present enough?
MH: It’s one of the challenges at the writing and editing stages. For example, in the script, the friend who was injured during the incident was a bit more important, so we shot a few more scenes with him. At the editing stage, we realised that the film was really centred on these two main characters, and that the things around them needed to be more satellites to them. That it worked perfectly that way. It’s a balance to be found. Most of it is as it was initially written, but with a few adjustments.
7R: This nuance and balance makes me think a lot of the films of Ira Sachs. Do you have any sources of inspiration like that?
MH: I try, as much as possible, to start more from real life, rather than refer to cinema. I try not to be in this kind of mimicry. Rather, I ask myself, “what would concretely happen if someone had to announce something like this to a little girl?” How would that really happen? Otherwise, one can easily find themselves imitating cinema.
I have seen Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On, and I really like it. I haven’t seen the others, but I really liked that one.
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