Justine Triet’s Sibyl, a heady and rollicking rush of blood through the veins after the controlled acidic screwball In Bed with Victoria (2016), shows the French director raising her game substantially. Amid a flurry of festival publicity, the director took some time to talk me through the production of her new movie.
The film centers on Sibyl (Virginie Efira, giving the performance of a lifetime), an apparently settled and successful therapist, who is still devastated by the messy break-up of an early relationship with Gabriel (Niels Schneider). Sibyl decides to return to writing and embarks on a novel liberally based on the story of Margot Vasilis (Adele Exarchopoulos), an actor whom she takes on as a client. Margot is in the midst of a turbulent affair of her own, with the vain and self-involved actor Igor Maleski (Gaspard Ulliel), and asks Sibyl for help when she becomes stuck with him on a film shoot on Stromboli in a grotesque love triangle with his partner Mikaela (Sandra Huller), the director of the film. This sticky situation only serves to exacerbate whatever personal crisis Sibyl is going through, as she becomes dangerously involved in these people’s lives.
Triet sets up the premise of her film with a great deal of bravura, delivering a stunning amount of exposition in the first half hour—this is done in a dizzying, savagely edited series of vignettes that give a sense of character, backstory, and plot, and which distill the film’s themes, while always remaining oblique and suspenseful. This being done, Triet giddily proceeds to let her story and protagonist go off the rails in the film’s second half. Asked about the genesis of such a wild movie, Triet says, “I always ask myself what job my heroine will have and then the situation flows from there.” (It’s notable that she explicitly uses the word “heroine”: her three feature films to date have centered on a female protagonist.) Triet tells me that she was drawn to the idea of two women playing off one another—in this case, the characters played by Efira and Exarchopoulos. Initially the plan was for the character of Margot to be around the same age, and Triet was in talks with “a very famous French actress,” but she ended up passing, which led to Triet reconfiguring the character as a younger actress.
The film works brilliantly with this set-up because it leads to a disturbing power dynamic between the two women. In the film, we sense Margot as a sort of projected version of Sibyl’s younger self; and there’s something predatory and queasy in the way Sibyl appropriates the younger woman’s story. Triet agrees, adding that the younger woman also helps to flesh out Sibyl’s flashbacks.
The flashbacks in the movie, centering on the love affair between Sibyl and Gabriel, are crucial to the film, because they inform the terrible sense of loss that freights the whole movie. Triet was aided in this by Efira and Schneider, a couple in real life. Their intimacy in the film is erotic and brilliantly devised. One sex scene by the fireside (which Triet says was filmed at the height of summer) shows the two actors engaged in a perfectly choreographed progression from initiating sex to taking their clothes off to full nudity, in one long sequence; these shifts feel natural and organic, yet they don’t detract from the fierce eroticism of the scene, which is still impressively stylized. “Virginie and Niels had been seeing each other for about six months,” she tells me. They had met on the set of Un amour impossible (2018), and Triet sensed there was a great openness in them, a kind of blossoming such as you feel in the early stages of love. “And of course I wanted to use that intimacy, that understanding between them!” Triet practically shouts, half serious and half mocking her rapacious instincts as a director. Throughout our conversation, as you might expect from the director of this film, she is funny and engaging, full of zip, and self-analytical.
Triet explains that Efira and Schneider’s key sex scene was very tightly blocked—as it had to be, because of a later sex scene in Stromboli that recalls it. She speaks of directing actors with a great deal of affection and understanding for each one’s processes. Efira is a more studied actor, who needs to know the parameters of a scene before she can let loose, whereas Schneider is more spontaneous; this shows on camera, in their unusual dynamic. In these scenes, I was interested to see that Triet captures male sexual pleasure, unlike very many directors. She tells me this was intentional: “I don’t know if you’ve seen the TV series Sharp Objects? I don’t love the whole series, but there were one or two surprising sex scenes there that impressed me.” Triet talks intelligently about the way pornography (“straight pornography, I mean,” she adds, correctly intuiting that I tend the other way) centers female pleasure, in order to show the power and dominance of men.
Sibyl is unconventional in numerous ways, perhaps most notably in its curious tone, which flits wildly from sexual power-play to farce via Hitchcock-like suspense, culminating in a properly bleak finale. Triet is more naturally drawn towards dryness and irony—“left to my own devices I would write comedies”—and that she forced herself to push her film into the realm of melodrama, “which is about as far from me as possible.” She wanted to make something that was less easy to interpret than In Bed with Victoria, which this film certainly is. Nevertheless, her new film is very funny, and we laugh together for a while over a hilarious moment when Igor and Margot are filming a scene in which she slaps him. “Gaspard didn’t realize he would be actually slapped. We filmed it two or three times, and Gaspard said, ‘OK, I think we’ve got it’—but it took a lot of takes. A lot, a lot.”
This is Triet’s method. She tells me she often lets the camera roll, and that she pushes for her actors to be in an altered state, which delivers something altogether different by the end. You see this most expressively in a late scene where Sibyl has reached rock bottom, and Efira sits motionless, racked with tears. It’s a magnificent scene, similar to the famous shot of Nicole Kidman at the opera in Birth, but less sorrowful and more painful. The scene is a product of Triet continuing to roll on an awkwardly long take, during which Efira surprised everybody by unleashing this flood of emotion. Triet sounds almost taken aback by what she captured. She had worked with Efira on her previous film and now found herself writing for the actor she knew so well: “Going to dinner with her, hanging out with her, you realize that she has a wild side, and she is quite unusual. I wrote because I wanted to see this side or that side of her.” Sibyl is, among other things, an extraordinary showcase for the actor’s abilities, and she holds nothing back.
When asked about her future projects—she has just had an idea for an expensive and ambitious “European” film—and how they sit with President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed reforms for cinema, which could curb the kind of French arthouse films she makes by demanding that movies be focused on turning a profit, Triet sounds fed up, but bullish. “I could talk about this for hours!” she trills, saying that the strength of the French industry at the moment is its ability to discover new talent, and let people come up through the system without putting commercial pressure on them. She is too delicate to say so, but her career is a perfect example of this progression, showing early promise, going on to deliver a commercial hit, and then stepping up to a more ambitious project. Triet laments the commercialism of cinema now, particularly the way it has hindered directors from shooting in Paris. “But I’m done with Paris,” she tells me, merrily. She’s off to do something else now. “Filmmakers have always found a way!” she says sunnily, before bidding me good day.