Interview: Rachel Lang, dir. Baden Baden

Strasbourg native Rachel Lang makes her feature debut with Baden Baden, a Franco-Belgian co-production that takes place in the director’s Alsatian borderlands hometown. A quest for meaning and sense of self as well as place, it is a beguiling, intriguing journey, confounding expectation at each meandering turn. The young French filmmaker sat down with CineVue’s Matt Anderson to chat character, heritage, imagination and identity.

Matthew Anderson: Baden Baden is your first feature but Ana appears as a character for the third time after two shorts. How has her character changed over time and how did you imagine the story overall?

Rachel Lang: In fact I wrote the pitches for the three films at the same time seven years ago, before doing the first. There were three lines [of ideas] for each and over time I wrote the first, the second, and the third it evolved and so did the character of Ana. It’s about a search for what fills this character with joy, and what doesn’t, what are the toxic relationships that she has. So, they are three autonomous parts, three ways of deciding how to grow up. At the same time, Salomé [Richard, as Ana] was growing up, I came to know her better and better and I knew she was going to embody the role very well. It evolves all the time, in fact. If I was to have to do a 4th film – which won’t be the case – it would continue to do so but I’ve finished now.

MA: Salomé is wonderful; how did you decide she was the actress you wanted to interpret this role in the beginning?

RL: For the first short we needed four girls of about 20 years of age. I saw more than 100 during the casting call; Salomé was the last and that’s how I met her! I didn’t choose her right away because she is the complete opposite of her character. she’s very at ease in her own skin and I wondered how a girl like that could play malaise. That was stupid because obviously she has proven that she can but she is very feminine, very sultry on the set. The hardest thing about each shoot was preventing the male members of the crew from falling in love with her! Each time there was a drama, everyone falls in love with her, the shoot stops because these guys are crying and have written her love letters…

MA: She is both ferocious and fragile; how did you navigate her emotional trajectory through the film?

RL: Given that Baden Baden was the third film we have become used to working with one another. Two years before beginning filming she and the character who helps her with the bath [Grégoire, played by Lazare Gousseau destroyed a real bath and we spent the day working on their characters. What was key for casting the film was that I built a character gallery based upon Ana, with her at the heart.

MA: Destroying something to create something else is a theme that runs through the film. Equally, do you think it’s necessary to return home to find oneself?

RL: What she had done elsewhere was a failure. She had nowhere else to go and had to return home to Strasbourg. It’s by no means an absolute that we have to return home to find ourselves. But I think that the relation between these two generations [a grandparents and grandchild] allows for something. Between children and parents it’s very complicated because there are always high stakes: “you have to be happy”, ” you have to have a job”. The generation above, where there is a gap between the two, there’s a different kind of companionship.

MA: Strasbourg is a town whose identity has changed quite a lot over the course of history. Was Baden Baden always going to be set in this region?

RL: It’s a borderlands area, yes. My ancestors, depending on the period, were either French, German or both! They changed identity completely. My great-grandparents were German. It’s a region that tries to be quite autonomous because it has changed hands from left to right so many times. At the same time they are on the border with Switzerland and Belgium as well as Germany. But in short, I wrote the films for the Alsace and it was always going to take place there.

MA: There is a kind of vicious circle of people taking advantage of one another and treating each other poorly in the film: why do people seem to be drawn to those who treat them badly?

RL: I didn’t want make just a nice, pretty girl. I needed to give her certain faults, you know… she isn’t necessarily doing the bathroom for her grandmother just for her grandmother but for her own reasons, too. Saying ‘thank you’ to Grégoire would have been too nice for her and she brushes him off. She doesn’t treat him in the way Boris does her but it’s the same principle. What really interest me in relationships – and this is all related to Spinoza – what brings you joy, power and what takes it away from personal relationships.

Boris is toxic; he doesn’t suit Ana. It’s not a question of being kind or nasty, just that they do not suit one another. When she comes to an understanding about Boris, she evolves. Either you are empowered and you are able to active and create something or you submit and are passive. This isn’t a ‘moral’ film. I’m interested in the good and the bad more than right and wrong.

MA: Ana has visions that exist on another plain, elsewhere – of the rainforest, the swimming pool, the helicopter: how did you visualise these scenes?

RL: Because Boris is an artist and creates things and Ana is a character who is seeking to find herself I wanted her to have these spaces of imagination. As rich as those created by Boris even if no one sees them. We all have a great capacity for imagination and do not use it enough and I wanted a viewer of the film to always be involved, be active in engaging their mind in line with Ana. As I said before it is not linear, there are things that surprise and destabilise and a viewer has a very important place in that.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens