Justine Triet: “Motherhood Is Barely Portrayed in Cinema”

French director Justine Triet’s third feature-length film, Sibyl, turned heads at Cannes in 2019 and will be inaugurating Lincoln Center's virtual cinema festival on September 11. Actress Virginie Efira plays Sibyl, an alcoholic psychoanalyst and mother who decides to become a novelist. However, her life is turned upside down after meeting Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a troubled actress about to have an abortion. Fascinated by her life, she uses Margot as a source of inspiration for her novel. This intimate relationship breaks all ethical codes, melding obsession with a desire to help while bringing Sibyl’s old demons back to the surface.
Virginie Efira in Sibyl by Justine Triet. © Courtesy of Music Box Films

France-Amérique: Sibyl and Margot’s duality is a classic trope from American cinema, seen in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and Woody Allen’s Another Woman. What interests you about these female head-to-heads?

Justine Triet: All About Eve was a revelation; Another Woman was the starting point for Sibyl. However, I did not want one woman to replace the other, nor to have any rivalry between them. Through meeting Margot, Sibyl’s past returns to the present. And even if there is cruelty, a certain pillaging of this young actress, I wanted a friendly aspect. In their mutual fascination, there is a desire to observe, imitate and learn from the other. The balance of power between the analyzer and the analyzed is turned on its head.

Your female characters are often on the verge of a nervous breakdown, reminiscent of Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ movies. How do you create these women “under the influence”?

When I watch Cassavetes, I feel that his actresses are totally liberated. You have to move past role analysis; just because I explain the concept of a character does not mean the acting will be better. My job is to create a particular atmosphere conducive to discovering and owning the character.

Artistic creation seems to be as problematic as maternity. Is the mother-artist duality something you have personally confronted?

I have two daughters and I work extremely long hours, so this is a concept close to my heart. I have been influenced by stories from women who had to make incredibly painful decisions regarding motherhood, either by having an abortion or by having children and not being able to look after them. The difficulties of experiencing motherhood are hidden and rarely talked about. It is an interesting subject but it is barely portrayed in cinema.

Sibyl uses writing as a tool for rationalization – unlike alcohol – and a way to reconnect with the world of sensations. What is your relationship with writing?

Writing is a moment of organization that I enjoy. It can also be used to enhance the otherwise mediocre side of arguments or certain love stories, as well as to repair faults through the understanding of experiences. I like the idea of transcending reality; telling a little autobiographical story is pointless.

Along with directors Rebecca Zlotowski and Céline Sciamma, you are part of the association Le Deuxième regard, which campaigns for gender equality in the French film industry. Is this environment changing?

Cinema is transforming both in France and abroad. We are currently going through a crisis which will lead to renewal. I want women to be more present in artistic creation and occupy more important roles. What happened for us to find ourselves in such a state of imbalance? Why has the Palme d’Or only been awarded to one woman in its 65 years of existence? These questions were not asked for a long time, but we can’t ignore them anymore.

The film Sibyl will be available to rent on the
Film at Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema platform from September 11, 2020, at 10 am EST.