NEW YORK — The Lincoln Center arts complex is vast enough to boast both the glamour of the Metropolitan Opera House and the windowless side room I find myself in, since all the usual meeting spaces are temporarily occupied. But all it takes to turn the dimly lit alcove into the most elegant spot in New York is for Franco-Jewish film director Rebecca Zlotowski to walk in.
“It is from Hermès and cost me a whole arm, so, yes, please regard it,” she chuckles when I compliment her on her scarf, which manages to exude grandeur, but is also a playful tweak on a cowboy’s bandana. It works well, in a way, with her new film “An Easy Girl,” which can be enjoyed on the surface as an aspirational ode to all that glitters, but has, for those who wish to look for it, a lot to say about class struggles and femininity in the current “post-#MeToo” environment.
The gorgeous and stately film stars Mina Farid as Naima, a 16-year-old girl living in Cannes, where her mother works in the service industry. Her older cousin, Sofia (Zahia Dehar), comes to stay during a holiday, and yanks her into the world of adult relationships.
Dehar, in her first film, is quite famous in France for being at the center of a prostitution scandal. When she was 16, her services were employed by two members of the French national soccer team, Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema. Ribéry had been celebrated for his wholesome image, if you were wondering why the notoriously libertine French would care about such a thing. (Also, while the age of consent is 15 and prostitution was basically legal until 2016, it was, in fact, illegal for people under the age of 18.)
When the story broke, Dehar was publicly humiliated, but leaned into it, shaking the tabloid moniker of “la scandaleuse” and becoming a model, a muse to Karl Lagerfeld successful lingerie designer and, basically, a lifestyle brand. France!
But you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy “An Easy Girl.” It is a much silkier film compared to Zlotowski’s pre-World War II dark fantasy “Planetarium,” which starred Natalie Portman. “An Easy Girl” was included in the annual Rendezvous With French Cinema festival in New York, and is due to debut on Netflix, with a precise date to be determined.
I watched this movie with my wife who, when it was over, said it was the most French thing she’d ever seen. Do you take that as a compliment?
Absolutely! Certainly it is a compliment for a cinephile. To me it means a sense of freedom; the landscape of the Riviera, the eroticism, the image of Brigitte Bardot’s prosaic way of talking, all of that mixed in with a perception of being French. Also, an examination of the post-#MeToo moment, but in a relaxed way.
There is a nuance and ambiguity to Zahia Dehar’s character, Sofia. Is she a role model, or are we meant to pity her? In the American version, this type of empowerment would mean she —
She would have to pay!
Yes, thank you for pointing this out, it is a cultural point. If you can’t add complexity to something, I feel you are better off shutting up. A lot of people can tackle the topic of female empowerment. We open with a Blaise Pascale quote [“The most important thing in life is choosing a profession. Chance holds the key.]
A university teacher would say one thing, a sociologist would say another, but as a filmmaker, I want to add humor. I tried to make a pleasant postcard and address it in a light way. If you are too solemn about this subject, you miss something that is human about the characters.
I am just an heiress of an ancient history, the history of the Riviera, the “Cannes moment.” In the 1960s — which feels like two centuries ago — women would be objectified as a starlet, which in France means a bimbo designed just for the pleasure of men in the film industry. Now, “centuries later,” in my era, you can re-appropriate certain aspects of this. You can, in French we have a nice phrase for it, but basically “clean the old topic” of its “dusty” moments, but still maintain it.
Women should not just be astronauts or university professors! They can also be whores if they want!
There’s a rich sociological aspect to the film, but it is also just a fantasy. I mean, I can only speak from my point of view, but to watch gorgeous young women zoom around on a boat with these handsome men in expensive clothes… it’s all a very nice fantasy. Or maybe it isn’t a fantasy, maybe this is what life is like in France all the time?
Yes, of course, you should come for holidays!
No, no, it is a fantasy. It’s a dialogue with older films, like Éric Rohmer’s “La Collectionneuse,” and others in the New Wave that made a statement about sexuality and emancipation. This is an echo of that, the postcard, where your wife is correct to call it “the Frenchest movie ever,” but there are layers. It’s a wink at the older films, but also a current class tale.
Listen, you have written about my film “Planetarium,” and you know that I can sometimes brag with somewhat arrogant movies, but this one is small and light.
Light, yes, but still insightful about class distinctions. And weirdly there is a new edge to this conversation — at least in the United States. We have, for the maybe first time ever, a candidate who calls himself a Socialist. You don’t put the wealthy on a pedestal, but you also don’t deny that it can be nice to cruise to Italy to have a lunch on the side of a cliff. Were you worried that you were maybe —
I made the rich people too nice?!? Interesting!
We have an exchange. The cultural battle for feminism is something that you won, in the United States. We are just getting started in France, I sometimes feel. But the cultural battle of social welfare, we won it for a long time, and you are just discovering it here.
I feel we should all be humble about the social gains that we have. It is a strong moment, but I am also pessimistic. I mean, I am very Ashkenazi in that way. So you have to use humor. You have to try not to be angry.
It’s normal to be angry, to see rich people and think they are terrible, but things are complex. And among the rich there is the dominated and the dominant. Same with the poor. When you look at the class struggle, everything is much more heated among your own class. I do not want to stigmatize either of them.
I watched the film and loved it and only after, when I hit Google, did I realize that Zahia Dehar was a tremendously famous and controversial figure.
It is another layer for the current French audience, but I am making films I hope will last decades. In this very moment, yes, it is provocative, but it was genuine from the beginning; she inspired me.
Did you write it with her in mind?
Did you know her?
No, she contacted me through Instagram. She followed me and said, “Hey, I am existing!” And I saw her pictures. I never heard her voice before and I thought of Éric Rohmer. I thought, “My God, she speaks like a character from the 1960s! Is she making it up? Is she like this in real life?” It sparked my interest.
There are not that many actresses today that keep that kind of mystery. There’s a whole system now, a marketing system. I don’t blame them! I don’t blame actresses, especially, who do commercials, but in a way they rent their image. And Zahia was shamed out of this process because she had already rented her body.
I am not comparing acting to prostitution, though. I am not part of the 19th century. It’s just that I was taken with, and worried, about the violence that people attacked her with. I wanted to defend her.
So all of that is to say that to hire her and not someone else was deliberate from the start. But I am so happy to be abroad and see that the film holds up without audiences knowing about any of this.
She’s terrific. Since it was her first significant film, was there more hand-holding than with an experienced performer?
We met for one year. It was not a process where you write and then the actress comes in. I wrote for her, knowing how she spoke, how she holds herself, how she stands. Sometimes I watch her walk and say “Zahia, come on, this is not a catwalk. Be natural!” But what is natural? It is all a social creation. So I am fascinated by her. Maybe too much!
You think she’ll continue to act?
I hope so. Maybe she should come to the United States, because in France, still, there is so much anger against her. I hope my cultural credit, not to brag too much, but I hope working with me can help her. People at first were confused that someone like me — I used to be a university teacher, I make films that play at Lincoln Center in New York — would want to be associated with her.
While I am sure there are exaggerations, I take it much of it comes from something you experienced with an older cousin or friend growing up?
No. Are you kidding me? My childhood was quite boring. But the image I started from was autobiographical. When I was a child my mother’s side of the family, a Sephardic family, very typical from North Africa, we were happy to walk on the Croisette [main boulevard] in Cannes. It’s where middle class people can go and sit outside and eat a pizza in front of the people on the yachts. And it struck me, the indecency of the setup. Who are these people who take pleasure to sit on the yachts to watch me eating dinner? And they know that we are also looking at them. It is a strong juxtaposition, and it is a perfect mise-en-scene. But after that it is not autobiographical.
You call the character Naima, so I naturally wonder if we’ll hear the John Coltrane song by that name, then of course we do and it’s during the most dizzying, elegant party sequence.
This is one of my favorite songs ever, and I am a huge admirer of John Coltrane. I wanted to be generous with this film, not want to be hypercritical of the pleasures it tries to give. It is my first film that does not have a composed score. I wanted famous synchronizations; Coltrane, Chet Baker, Schubert, Debussy, Fauré. I needed that romanticism to juxtapose the triviality of the light summer tale on the Riviera with something more legendary.
Your last film, “Planetarium,” was more explicitly Jewish, but was also a few years ago. Do you find it harder or easier to be a Jewish woman in the film industry in France currently?
This is a long conversation. But maybe it’s just that I’m getting older. I may just be getting used to things. This is the tension I have; trying to know when to be more engaged with politics and more easygoing about things that are just part of the cultural thinking of my country. But I think we may have something of a… constant on anti-Semitism.