The rom-com has always appeared to be in safe hands with French-language cinema, but Quebecois director Monia Chokri wanted to push the boundaries of the genre even further with her new film “Simple comme Sylvain.”
“French people like to talk about love but they always do it in the same way of toxic relationships. And there aren’t so many [rom-coms] made by women,” says Chokri, who was last in Cannes in 2019 with her debut feature, “A Brother’s Love,” which won Un Certain Regard’s Jury Cup de Coeur.
“Simple comme Sylvain” centers on a posh French-Canadian woman in a sexless marriage who turns her life upside down when she has an affair with her contractor.
The Quebec-born actor broke out in meaty roles in Canadian auteur Denys Arcand’s “The Age of Darkness” and Xavier Dolan’s “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways.” She also acts in “Simple comme Sylvain,” playing her protagonist’s outspoken best friend, but describes directing while playing a substantial role as an “exhausting” process she’s not in any rush to repeat.
“My best friend [Magalie Lépine-Blondeau] plays Sofia, and she said we’ve been in this business for almost 20 years and have never acted together, so I said yes to her,” explains Chokri. “I had four to five days of shooting, and thought, ‘This is OK,’ but then I realized I have the biggest scenes with nine actors to direct.
“I feel a bit frustrated when I’m in both places on set. I’m not the one who’s going to play the main part — I’m not Jeanne du Barry,” says Chokri.
Has she, or will she, see Maïwenn’s controversial Cannes opener? “No,” says Chokri with a tight smile. “I’m Canadian. I have another perspective on celebrity.”
The Quebec-born director divides her time between Canada and France, which gives her a different perspective on life and also the industry, she says. “When I come to France, I always feel like I’ve time-traveled. I feel like I go back 20 or 30 years before our time in Canada. This concerns the relationship between men and women; the way we treat violence against women; rape; every subject in feminism!”
Chokri references “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Adèle Haenel’s recent letter to the French industry, in which she declared her retirement. “She did a very courageous thing. But she did it with a lot of violence, which is okay and normal in this country, where the relationships with people are very [aggressive].
“But I have another way of thinking,” offers Chokri. “I like when we can communicate with people. I want to listen to people and for them to listen to me, and have a respectful dialogue about values and how we can change the world. Sometimes it’s frustrating and I’m angry about what I hear here, but I come from a part of the world where we talk and we don’t fight.”
In her MK2 Films-sold Un Certain Regard selection, which has the English title “The Nature of Love,” Chokri masterfully delivers a whacky, sensual story about adultery, class and the philosophy of love.
Lépine-Blondeau plays philosophy professor Sofia, who finds herself, at 40, in a stable but stifling relationship. When she buys a chalet to refurbish, she meets the strapping Sylvain (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who arrives one day to provide a quote for the renovations. The pair jump headlong into a steamy relationship, but as their romance wears on, Sofia realizes that their backgrounds and interests make them far more different than she first thought.
“There are two obsessions in my work: the impossibility of love in many ways, and also the fight of social class. It’s something that’s always in my mind. I grew up with that because my parents were in the Communist party in France,” explains Chokri.
The film developed from the idea of “a study of a couple in love through the prism of social class,” says Chokri.
Yet despite the movie’s focus on the “social differences” between Sofia and Sylvain, Chokri insists that her film isn’t intended to be heavy-handed class commentary.
“In the class system in Canada, it’s not about richness or the working class,” says Chokri. “I know a lot of people who are very rich and very cultivated, as well as working-class people who are very interested in art. It’s just a portrait of two people from very different worlds … Sylvain is interested in Sofia and vice- versa. It’s what’s important in a relationship.”