A Filmmaker Cannot Be Docile: Catherine Corsini

The French film director discusses her evolution as a queer filmmaker, the rise of homophobia in France, her opposition to the right-wing and more.

French film director Catherine Corsini. Credit: Niladri Chatterjee

French film director Catherine Corsini. Credit: Niladri Chatterjee

This is a difficult time to be a filmmaker in India. With a censor board that is more concerned with upholding Indian values (read: patriarchy) than ensuring that cinema is preserved as one of the spaces where difficult and uncomfortable questions can be raised and answered, with political parties deciding which actors can be given roles in Indian films and with at least one director nervously declaring their patriotism in order to assuage rabble-rousing jingoism, India has now become a country that is being held for ransom by a kind of right-wing intolerance that is sweeping throughout the world.

It is in this global scenario that filmmakers like Catherine Corsini are continuing to assert their right to oppose the right-wing. Her brief visit to India – not her first – in November to attend the 22nd Kolkata International Film Festival gave her the chance to experience the country a little better than she had on her previous visit a few years ago.

Three of her films were screened at the festival – Three Worlds (2012), La Belle Saison (Summertime, 2015) and Les Ambitieux (The Ambitious Ones, 2006). The screening of the third one was arranged on November 14 in a small auditorium at Nandan, the watering hole of the non-commercial cineastes of Kolkata. Corsini was thrilled to find that not only had all the seats been taken, but even the aisles were filled with people sitting on the floor. Being a bit disturbed by some of the questions that had been thrown at her at the press conference following the screening of La Belle Saison, she was grateful for this packed to the rafters screening.

She sat down with those on the floor and had a photograph taken of the moment that she had clearly been moved by. Before entering the hall she had told me about the questions at the press conference and about how shaken she had been by them. We decided to meet for a longer chat on the morning of November 18.

After eating her breakfast she suggested we sit by the hotel swimming pool. Away from the muzak in the dining area and the constant noise of china and cutlery, our conversation was accompanied by the sound of gently lapping waters and the occasional birdsong.

I was intrigued by her choice of Maurice (1987) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) as the two films that had been the most influential ones in her evolution as a queer filmmaker. “I saw Maurice when I was all of 25. At that time I didn’t dare talk about sexuality. So it was encouraging to see this visual representation of homosexuality. I was particularly struck by the way in which the characters are struggling with repression. I wept,” she said. She also believes in the power of cinema in building a sense of community.

It is moving that a 25-year-old lesbian in France watching a quintessentially British film set in the 1910s about homosexual men would weep for gratitude. Gender, nationality, time and space seem to have dissolved to create a sense of community of the sexually marginalised.

Corsini would perhaps be interested to know that there is one thing that she has in common with the novelist E.M. Forster. Many have been critical of the happy ending that Forster determinedly gives to Maurice, but he was adamant that, if not in real life, homosexuals should at least have a happy ending in fiction.

When Priyadarshini Mukherjee asked Corsini “Why has the harsh discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community not been shown in Summertime?” she responded in an interview that was published in the daily newspaper of the film festival, “…I wanted to end the film on a happy note. I wanted people to get the message that there can be a positive ending to such stories, that [the] possibility of a silver lining exists.” It is disturbing, however, that this interview was not carried in the Bengali version of the festival newspaper. One wonders if this was a case of inadvertent omission or of Bengali homophobia.

And what did she like about Brokeback Mountain, I asked. “That it is more direct, clearer, more immediate, simpler, efficacious. More American.” When I asked her to explain what she meant by “more American,” she spoke about the simple directness with which the story of the film unfolds.

It is interesting that Cecile de France, one of two leads in Summertime, also refers to Ang Lee’s Oscar winner in her interviews. Corsini broke into a short laugh as she said that she thought of Summertime as her little Brokeback Mountain. “Do you know,” she added, “I was asked to make a film based on the novel Carol? Have you seen Todd Haynes’ film? It’s magnificent. It’s wonderful. But I couldn’t have done it. It’s too sophisticated for me.” One begins to sense that the queer cinema of Corsini functions as an unselfconscious counterpoint to the assumption that homosexuality is an urban, metronormative phenomenon.

I pointed out that the three films that she had mentioned so far had all been adapted from literature. What did she think about the literary content of cinema and about transferring literature to the screen? I asked.

“Funny you should ask” she responded, “because I am right now adapting a novel by Christine Angot – Un Amour Impossible (An Impossible Love, 2015).” She spoke of the necessity of more dialogue, changes in the narrative to sharpen a particular focus, greater condensation, but also drew into the discussion how various adaptations of the same narrative were interesting to watch, such as the ones made of The Diary of a Chambermaid.

Corsini believes that making a film is a political act. “The filmmaker cannot be docile,” she emphasised. When asked which aspect of her identity would she prioritise as the most important, she took a second to reply, “The rebel.” She believes that as a filmmaker it is almost incumbent on her to look at society from an angle that would reveal to her the injustices and the inequalities that may go unnoticed by others. It is worrying therefore that a filmmaker who is constantly looking for challenging material to make films on was greeted with questions that reek of deeply rotten patriarchy. After the screening of Summertime, the very first question from the audience in Kolkata was “Why so much nudity?”

She was baffled by the fact that even after centuries of female nudity being depicted in art and literature, people still had objections to it. The second question was also in the best tradition of homophobic patriarchy, “Please do not project such a negative image of France. Why are you showing homosexuality? If you are a feminist filmmaker why not tell us about Simone de Beauvoir? If you keep showing homosexuality like this then heterosexuality will come to an end.”

Corsini managed to smile while narrating the incident, but there was no hiding her bafflement at the line of questions that were asked by a group of people who clearly regarded themselves as intellectual. She also pointed out that the right-wing party Front National had carried out demonstrations in France where the posters of Summertime had been released. Hence, homophobia is clearly on the rise in the liberal West as well.

There is a growing popularity of homophobia across the country in tandem with the popularity of Marine Le Pen. “Which is odd,” added Corsini, “because the No. 2 in the party is himself gay.” Florian Phillippot was outed as being gay by the gossip magazine Closer in December 2014.

Corsini did not hesitate in blaming the Left for the rise of the Right. “The Left has not reformed itself. They are still prisoners of age-old ideas.”

What did she make of Emmanuel Macron? I asked. “An opportunist.”

Corsini is concerned by the anti-immigrant sentiment that is gaining wide popularity and has even made short films on migrants who have been landing in the French port of Calais. She is a part of the l’Appel de Calais initiative and has met the interior minister to demand humanitarian treatment of Syrian refugees, but is disappointed by the lack of government response.

In such times, Corsini is not just a filmmaker, not even a queer filmmaker, but a politically-conscious member of society who believes that one does not have the option of sitting back in these tumultuous times. One must agitate.

I asked her that being a queer filmmaker, what did she think about the queer culture in France today. She said that while she was happy that there was some very good queer cinema that was being made in France now (she picked out for special mention Stranger by the Lake (2013) and the most recent film Jours de France by Jérôme Reybaud – released across France on November 21 and screened at the Kolkata film festival), the queer magazine Têtu, that was started by the partner of Yves Saint Laurent – Pierre Berge – had shut shop after 20 years.

Our conversation winded down as the sun rose higher. I took a few photographs of Corsini and as I left the expensive quiet of the hotel to join the bustle of Kolkata streets with queues snaking out of open ATMS, I heard the expensive quiet of the artistes and filmmakers in India.

Niladri Chatterjee is a Professor of English at the University of Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal