In Search of a New Land: An Interview with Anna Cazenave Cambet
“I wanted to write a portrait of a woman. That was clear,” Anna Cazenave Cambet tells me during our Zoom call halfway through the 2020 BFI London Film Festival. The young French filmmaker, at the festival with her debut feature Gold for Dogs, is succinct in her approach to her film which, in her own words, follows “a late teen who starts [the film by] being spat in the mouth and ends up in a nunnery.”
A very literal reading of protagonist Esther’s trajectory, but no less accurate. Gold for Dogs opens with a sex scene in the sand dunes of the south of France; loud, bold, center of frame. Esther, played with vigor by newcomer Tallulah Cassavetti, is a headstrong young adult caught in that late adolescent crossfire of bravado and naivety. She sleeps with Jean regularly, her colleague at a holiday resort where she works serving ice cream, and when he decides to leave and return to a life in Paris, Esther is bereft. Her own complicated family life, with a mother who has turned her attention to a new baby with her partner, makes it easy for the teenager to hitch rides and set north without looking back.
Following Jean to the city and attempting to insert herself into his life once more doesn’t quite work out. Esther’s hopes for love would lead her to believe it could, instead, it is the aforementioned nunnery that provides a particular kind of sanctuary for her on a lonely night in Paris. It is here that her awakening as a young woman plays out on her terms — a re-evaluation of her sense of self, her burgeoning adulthood, and her sexuality breaking through the repression of both the interior, pious space, and the demands of the exterior city.
Cazenave Cambet’s film is sensitive to both the whims of adolescence and the pressures of maturity in a modern world. Re-calibrating the tropes of the coming-of-age genre, the filmmaker grants a new kind of self-sufficiency to her teenage heroine that marks a refreshing, respectful approach to narratives about young women.
Why did you want to focus your first feature on this subject?
It was kind of instinctive for me. I’ve looked a lot at teenagehood and female sexuality since I started creating things. I think there are a lot of female directors feeling like this is the moment to talk about our sexuality and our teenagehood ourselves. For us, it’s the time to say, “no, we are not waiting for an old man to enlighten us to our sexuality, we are not waiting to be revealed to ourselves.”
It’s really interesting to see a woman retreat from the gaze of men and society in order to truly find herself.
Yeah, the main idea was that, at the beginning, the character has a certain sense of sexuality, but she doesn’t have a consciousness about her own desires; she’s able to really fight against life, but she doesn’t know a thing about herself and her sexuality. In France, we see a lot of films with young actresses having sex or relationships with older men. And it’s okay, it’s fun, we are la France, you know, but of course this influences the way we think about sexuality.
How did those ideas about French society then inform this story?
I think there is more awareness now about the idea that when you make movies you have a political impact, and we have to take care of this impact. I think in France there are now a lot of women, more than men sadly, who want to change that culture, the rape culture also. The main problem for me with French movies, and American movies even, is the way they look at women and their sexuality as passive all the time. I’m full of hope though because the conversations in France are happening now.
Do you think the coming-of-age narrative has reached a point of fatigue perhaps?
I’m kind of obsessed with the passage between teenagehood and adulthood, so I can’t be bored by coming-of-age narratives. But I think there is now a point of fatigue — it’s always the same story, a girl is lost, she’s beautiful, and an old, straight man appears in her life to make everything better. I hope this is the end of this kind of story. When I wrote this film, I wanted to say that you can come to yourself in another way. I wanted to play with the idea of the coming-of-age to say the opposite, to say we are not princesses waiting to be revealed by someone else.
You’re taking your first steps in the industry with this feature. What are your hopes for yourself as a young filmmaker?
It’s really hard to project yourself in the future as a director at this moment, but I’m writing another story. It’s a bit strange, but I am writing. We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with Gold for Dogs. Some people are not happy with the film, especially some older women we’ve spoken to. They’re not able to put the word “rape” on the rape scene. It’s really hard for them to accept it’s a rape. There’s a generation gap there, a vocabulary gap, but I’m really glad that the movie is helping us talk to each other. So, I’m hopeful that movies, my movies, can help change people’s perspectives.
Anna Cazenave Cambet’s debut feature Gold for Dogs premiered at Semaine de la Critique 2020.