Ariane Labed speaks about her background as a dancer and why she sees directing as a natural extension of her work as an actress. Olla is screening at the Sundance Film Festival.
At the beginning of Ariane Labed’s directorial debut, the short film Olla, the titular character (Romanna Lobach) emerges from a cloud of mist, dressed in a puffy purple coat, a mini-skirt, and loud high heels. While her name is Olla, she’ll soon be christened Lola by the man she moves in with in suburban France, Pierre (Grégoire Tachnakian), in his attempt to obscure her origins as an Eastern European immigrant. Because she enters and leaves the town lugging all her possessions in a suitcase, and because we learn hardly anything about her (we don’t even hear her speaking her native language), Olla feels like a mythical character who has emerged from nowhere.
Now a stranger in a town and a home she doesn’t know, Olla is surrounded by Pierre’s things, and she is expected to assimilate into his life, like a piece of furniture in his immaculately clean living room. But with Pierre away at work in the daytime, we observe Olla as she whiles away the hours: she explores the town and is catcalled by men in the street; she tries to navigate shopping even though she doesn’t speak the language; and she looks after Pierre’s mother (Jenny Bellay), who lives with Alzheimer’s. In one set piece, Olla strips down to her lingerie and dances around the living room, rubbing up on the doorways like they’re stripper poles. The scene is funny, but it also demonstrates that Olla has enormous physical stamina that makes her seem quite powerful, even though she must appear meek in front of Pierre to satisfy his desire to live with a subservient woman.
In advance of the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke to Ariane Labed about directing her first short after years of being an actor. Labed started out as a dancer and theatre actress before she moved into film, making her on screen debut in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg and later taking roles in films by Yorgos Lanthimos (she talked to us about her work in The Lobster here), Richard Linklater, and more. She spoke to me about how her background as a dancer greatly informs all her work, from acting to directing, and she explained why she sees directing as a natural extension of her work as an actress.
Seventh Row (7R): Did acting in The Souvenir last year inspire you to direct at all, since you play a director in that film?
Ariane Labed: No, it has no connection at all! I’ve been an actor in cinema for ten years now, and I’ve been a big fan of Joanna’s work. Her film is set in a film school, and it’s about filmmaking. It was very funny for me that it happened in a moment when I actually became a director, as well, so it was kind of sweet and funny.
7R: What was the genesis of Olla?
Ariane Labed: I’ve wanted to direct for many, many years actually, but I never really took the time for it because I was acting quite a lot. I was always saying, “One day I will.” And then I finally decided to take the time.
First of all, I was writing a feature film, but I realised I would have to do a short film first, for me to try things out. I thought of adapting a short story that I really love, and I started doing the adaptation, but I didn’t get the rights. I decided to take inspiration from the things that were really interesting for me in this short story, and I started writing Olla. It had nothing to do with the story in the end!
It was a long process of writing. I was trying to find a way for me to talk about relationships between men and women, but any relationship, really, that is about trying to play a role, and realising that it’s really not [in] your nature. I wanted to talk about domestic violence, as well. I wanted to talk about how men can project onto women. Many, many topics actually, and somehow in the end, it was Olla. I had many things in mind, but I knew I wanted to do a short film, and I wanted to do a proper character film, and create a character. When you have only half an hour to do so, it’s quite tricky.
7R: Olla is introduced in the first shot of the film, emerging from the fog in a wide shot, which is reminiscent of the fact that we don’t learn much about her background in the film. She seems to have emerged from nowhere; we never hear her speak in her own language. Why did you decide to present her that way?
Ariane Labed: Because I was not interested in building a psychological character. I wanted this actress to portray something that is in between an animal and an apparition. The fog in the field is something I wrote, but I was lucky enough to have fog that day. She could also be an extraterrestrial who has no past. Her past is not the topic. She appears on screen, and then she disappears out of the screen.
7R: I understand that you trained as a dancer before you entered acting. How has that informed how you choreograph actors?
Ariane Labed: That’s how I work as an actress, too. It depends on the project, but I like to work in a lot of precision and in relationship with the space and the other actors, in a physical way and not psychological. That’s something that drives me, as an actress, as a writer, and as a director, for sure.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have dancing in Olla. That’s maybe the scene that says the most about her, because it can actually give you an idea about a job she had or a past she had. The biggest detail I give about the character is when she dances. She has many facets: she’s an animal; she has something very down to earth and almost masculine about her; and there’s also something about her that suggests she was a professional dancer. I wanted to use dance to express more than words.
7R: How did you choreograph that dance?
Ariane Labed: I worked as a choreographer with my theatre group, as well, and I loved that. [In the dance in Olla], I used some animal movements, like the tiger and the spider. It’s the only scene we really rehearsed before, because we didn’t have the time [to rehearse other scenes]. But this one, I really wanted to arrive on set and know exactly what the choreography was. It was the most precise thing she had to do.
7R: Were her movements in the non-dance scenes of the film choreographed, too?
Ariane Labed: We would go through the scene once, and we would go step by step trying to find a precise focus for her, like where to look when. When she’s with the grandmother, I wanted them to be able to act and react to each other. There were moments between them that I knew would be playful, so I just asked them to play with that, and they did it almost without direction.
But then it becomes very precise when the [man] enters, and he slaps her when he sees his mother in the makeup. That was very precise because of where the camera was and where I wanted Olla to look after that. It really depends, but mostly, it’s where [the actor] puts their eyes. A bit in the logic of Bresson’s style.
7R: Why did you choose to shoot on 16mm film?
Ariane Labed: First, it’s because I shot on 16mm on my first film as an actress, [Attenberg], and I loved it. It has the danger of the theatre that I really love, and the sense of time that is completely different because time has another value. The moment between action and cut is outside of real time. I cannot say the same with digital, which is a great tool, as well. But I really wanted all the crew to have this perception of very precious time.
Of course I love the look of it. It’s something that’s really happening organically, on something physical, and I’m very moved by that. I also really wanted to avoid any aesthetics that could remind [the audience] of any social drama or documentary-type film. I think that film creates fiction by itself because it creates this painting quality. I was searching for this quality.
7R: How do you think your experience as an actor has affected the way you look at the casting process?
Ariane Labed: The only thing I know is that I would never judge an actor on their audition or casting, because I know how terrible that is! I wouldn’t really do proper casting, but I would meet people. It was true intuition, actually. It took me a long time to find Olla, and then in relation to her, to find Pierre. But I already had this intuition that I was searching for a woman with much presence and physicality. And I wanted him to be the opposite of what you would imagine his type of character is: not an alpha male.
I don’t see a big difference between me as a director and me as an actor. I never felt that it was my first film. For me, and that’s the way I want to do it, making this film was a continuation of my work as an actress.
7R: The costumes are so striking.
Ariane Labed: Ah! My costume designer, Marine Peyraud — she’s amazing!
7R: All of Olla’s outfits are so vivid. How did you work with Marine to develop how she’d look?
Ariane Labed: I wrote the idea that I wanted her to arrive wearing this purple jacket, this puffy thing. I had that in mind from the beginning. But then Marine arrived with all these amazing colours, and we created many colours based on the colour of Olla’s hair. The clothes and even the set are [devised] around the colour of her hair, which is orange. We spent quite a lot of time talking. I used references and pictures.
I had the idea of not really knowing when the clothes were from. The iPhone is the only thing that would give you the idea that it’s contemporary. I didn’t want anything that is fashionable, but not out of fashion either.
7R: What made you think of the puffy jacket for the first scene? It’s interesting that she’s wearing this big jacket but then her legs are totally bare.
Ariane Labed: It was a kind of vision. I saw her like that when I wrote it because I like the idea of someone a bit fragile wearing something that is like an armour. It’s like hiding and showing too much at the same time. It was a contradiction. I guess I wanted a costume that is already a contradiction, because she is full of contradictions.
7R: How did you and your production designer work out how the house Olla stays in would look?
Ariane Labed: We had bad and good luck. I found what I thought was a perfect house. We didn’t have any money so I wanted to find a house with all the furniture and all the objects already there, so we would just have to get rid of some things. I spent a long time finding a house like that, and I did. And then a week before shooting, the person who had this house changed their mind, of course!
My second option was a great house, but it was empty, so we had to find furniture. We had to paint the walls, and we had a week to find very cheap furniture. We went to charity shops and took all this old furniture, and because the costume designer, the set designer, the DP, and me worked very closely, we worked on it the day before shooting. We were there painting the walls until one a.m,! To collaborate in all these departments together makes one [unified] look in the film, which we were searching for. Everything that matches or doesn’t match is on purpose.
7R: How did you think about the sound design in the film? The sounds of her high heels clicking on the pavement are so distinctive throughout the film.
Ariane Labed: I had an amazing sound editor who I had on set, and then another amazing sound designer, he’s British, called Johnnie Burn. He had instructions to collect all the noises, all the different types of high heels noises. That was on the list of things that we wanted to make sure we had.
I would give a lot of time to capturing sound on set because it’s very important. We’d play with reverb sometimes: when she’s walking on the street, it’s almost like she’s on stage. It was a great tool. It became like the rhythm of the film.
7R: There’s that chorus of men in the film who catcall Olla, but they all speak in unison. Why did you choose to present them in this surreal way?
Ariane Labed: As a little idea about a Greek tragedy and the chorus in it. I thought it was kind of funny to have this very characteristic group of men. I grew up with those kinds of guys in the street, because I shot the film where I grew up. Somehow, the idea of them sounds like that to me. And it was also to fictionalise all of the things; the same idea with shooting on film.
For the whole film, I tried to do something along the line of realism with a tiny twist, like the way [Pierre makes Olla shuffle along the floor in his living room wearing fabric shoe covers, in order to keep his carpets clean]. It’s all these movements that are absurd but actually could exist. And these catcallers…I believe when you spend a lot of time with other people, you don’t even realise, but you are completely one body somehow.
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