In her new film, Let it Rain, French writer/director/actress, Agnès Jaoui, tackles race, class, gender, and politics in a dramedic kind of way. Oh, and she explains why The West Wing wouldn't fly in France.
Agnès Jaoui directing Let it Rain
French talent Agnès Jaoui is a multi-hyphenate of the highest order: as a writer, director and actress, she is just as at home in the theatre as she is behind (and in front of) the camera. With her longtime writing partner, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui has developed a body of work (including The Taste of Others, Look at Me) that depict the daily lives of French citizens with wit, charm, and authenticity.
In her third effort as director, Jaoui presents Let it Rain (French title: Parlez-moi de la pluie, which translates to Talk to Me About the Rain). Jaoui plays Agathe, a feminist politician from Paris who’s visiting her married sister at their childhood home in the south of France. Local filmmakers Karim (Jamel Debbouze, who also starred in the French crossover hit Amelie) and Michel (Bacri) ask her to be a part of a video series on “successful women,” which leads all the characters to examine their values and evaluate their relationships. Karim also happens to be the son of the family’s Algerian housekeeper, Mimouna, played by a nonactor with a similar background. Jaoui is masterful with her cast — not an easy thing to do while one is also acting — and the result is a meandering (in a good way) dramedy that touches on all sorts of cultural touch-points: race and gender inequality, political ethics, prejudice, and more.
While Let it Rain is best described as a comedy of manners, it also evokes the ensemble sprawl and familial intimacy of Chekhov. We sat down with her on a recent trip to New York to discuss her writing process, how she feels about boys’ clubs, her affinity for The West Wing, and her definition of a “successful woman.”
Agnès Jaoui, Jamel Debbouze, Jean-Pierre Bacri
TribecaFilm.com: You explore so much in your films. For starters, this one touches on class, gender, inequality, prejudice, politics, education, marriage… Is this just “life” to you? Or do you choose an issue and decide to make a film?
Agnès Jaoui: Yes, I wanted to speak about what remains of feminism, and to describe different characters of women — one from an old generation from the Middle East, one more classical (my sister [in the film]), and myself, the more modern, let’s say, and the youngest one — to see what is the legacy of these different models of women, and how we deal with that.
We also wanted to speak about politicians, because in France they are very, very despised. There is a series I am very fond of—The West Wing — this would be unthinkable in France.
TribecaFilm.com: Because no one would want to watch?
AJ: No, because [in the show] people love politics. No, [French citizens] believe [politicians] are just all bullshit, rotten; there is not this sense of honor that there is in The West Wing. Even if I met some politicians very close to the characters in The West Wing — and I think they exist, even in France — the general opinion is definitely not that.
And also we wanted to speak about the legacy of colonialism, and what it is to be a Muslim nowadays &mdash the new generation, the second, or even the third generation. So it’s true there are a lot of things [covered in the film].
TribecaFilm.com: The characters feel like such real people. Do you start with building characters?
AJ: We start with both theme and characters, but it’s true that I am not able to invent a character. I need to know him in real life — to have some models, sometimes one, sometimes two or three — to be able to describe his behavior. But if I just work with the characters, if there is no theme or point of view...
TribecaFilm.com: So the story comes in as you see how they interact with each other?
Jean-Pierre Bacri, Pascale Arbillot / Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri
TribecaFilm.com: What is life like for women politicians in France? Do they have a tough time?
AJ: Yes, they definitely have a tough time. France is not the most macho country — and when people ask me if it’s difficult for me as a woman director, it’s really not at all. But when I went to [research] about politicians, we are behind Portugal and Turkey and Spain — we have very, very little representation of women in the Parliament.
And when Ségolène Royal was running for the French presidency [in 2007], you could not imagine how many terrible things you heard, and even from her own camp! Men saying, “But who is going to take charge of the children?” (who were already 18 years old, by the way) or “It’s not a beauty competition.” You know, very irrational things; [they] despised so deep… French Assembly is full of men from the same milieu — it’s something really hard to change. And of course they always [spoke] about what she wore, or how beautiful or not, or “you cannot be sexy and a politician” — you have to fight a lot, a lot, a lot.