Rotterdam 2018 Interview: Lisa Brűhlmann Talks Female Sexuality, Identity and Storytelling in BLUE MY MIND
Young Swiss filmmaker Lisa Brűhlmann accompanied her first feature lenght film Blue My Mind in Rotterdam. The coming-of-age drama combines the harsh reality of growing up and transforming with a fable-like storytelling. Blue My Mind diverges from giddy coming-of-age about female sexuality for more grim and crude experience in the vein of Clip by Maja Miloš. ScreenAnarchy had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker to talk more about her debut.
ScreenAnarchy: You started as an actress and later switched for a director. Why did you switch places from in the front of camera to behind?
Lisa Brűhlmann: Shortly after drama school, I had many engagements as an actress but I quickly felt a desire to tell stories myself. One of the reasons certainly was that the scripts I read did not really blow me away, and I thought - was that all? In addition, on set I often felt like a puppet. The more I was on set and saw different directors at work, the more I thought that I could do it too, and I thought about how I would stage it myself. After all, I just did it, I made a short film and I realized - that's what's fulfilling me. I like to be involved in the whole process, thus giving space to my voice as an artist.
How did your work experience as an actress formed your view on directing role?
I believe that my background as an actress has strong influence on how I direct. Of course, I use the craft, which I learned as an actress, also for the development of the script and the characters, as well as for preliminary talks with the actors. On the set, I always revert to my own experiences and ask myself - what would I need or what did I miss sometimes? I often had the impression that I do not „feel" the director at all, but at the same time I did not have the space to fail or to dare things. I wanted to do that differently. Above all, I want to give my actors a lot of space and give them the confidence that I highly appreciate their art. As a director you just have to watch and listen. That sounds simple, but it requires the highest concentration.
You said that you were more preoccupied with developing your own voice and language as a director during your studies. What was the starting point in developing your language and how did your approach evolved during your studies?
I like all kinds of movies and when I started directing, I also tried out a lot. I like films that look very real and so I worked on the authenticity. But then I realized that I also like movies that are "bigger than life". I wanted to make films that open up new worlds and also tell emotions through the sensuality of their images.
Can you a bit discuss a lead-in to your feature film Blue My Mind such as Hylas and die Nymphen and how your short works influenced Blue My Mind?
The English painter John William Waterhouse, who was very popular in the 19th and 20th century, painted a picture named "Hylas and the Nymphs". This picture has accompanied me since my childhood and in my short film I have brought the women in this picture to life. I was interested in who these women would be today, how they would speak today and why they would kill Hylas. At the same time I was very fascinated by Rashomon and different narrative perspectives. Finally, it has become a feminist postmodern fantasy mind-game movie. I just felt like trying it out. With Blue My Mind I examined more deeply with which topics I connect these mythical creatures. My main character, Mia, must free herself from the constraints of society and connect with her feminine elemental force - it's about freedom and loving oneself as one is, even if you do not fit into a certain pattern.
There is a strong sense of anarchy in Blue My Mind that is also present in Hylas and die Nymphen. Can this kind of subversion be one of the motifs or stylistic choices you might be interested in exploring?
Yes, I definitely wanted to tell these topics. It was meant to be a liberation film and even though the film is very rough and hard at certain points, it was important to me that the character finds peace and freedom in the end. I wanted the movie to be very real and realistic, despite the supernatural elements. I wanted to mix a very sensual, poetic narrative with a harsh reality. The movie should not just be a fairy tale, but I wanted to show what it would feel like if it really happened now, when the body changes and you can't help it. That's why I told the story from Mia's perspective, the main character in the film. This means that the audience only knows as much as she does.
Why did you choose a coming-of-age genre for your feature-lenght project?
Puberty is a very interesting time for filmmakers, because all feelings are boosted. Everything is extreme and exaggerated. Of course, that's very suitable for a story where much is at stake. It is the time of departure, the time of detachment from your parents. In addition, everyone has gone through this phase and can identify with it, even if you're older.
Hylas and die Nymphen has a lovely description „Lolita chooses anarchy". I cannot help myself but that is also applicable on Blue My Mind and very much true about young generation who tends to gravitate to the lawlesness. Do you find this combination defining for your film?
Hylas and the Nymphs was a very playful movie. Blue My Mind is more realistic and therefore harder and a bit darker. But of course, in both films, I wonder if our way of life is the only correct one. We think we are free but basically we are not free at all, we are rather subject to many constraints, especially as a young woman, even in the Western world. My main character, Mia, has to allow back her true nature, but she can not do it in our world, which is full of systems.
In the protagonist of Mia, you are binding two narrative arcs, one of the peer pressure and attempt of fitting into a collective, the other one relates to her family life within a wealthy family and best prospects for future. Why did you choose this topical couple?
I grew up in Switzerland, one of the richest Western countries in the world. Mia's parents are probably like many parents here: they only want the best for their child, but this means that their child is exposed to the pressure to succeed, to develop according to their plan and to adapt to the needs of economy after school as good as possible. Mia has no voice of her own and has to suppress her real nature, she even feels ashamed of it. At the same time she - like many young people - has a great need to belong to something or someone. But even the kids only temporarily give her a new home and - here too - she has to bend over backwards and is not connected with her elemental force, with her nature. I wanted to expose her to various areas of conflict, but nowhere does she feel really at home and free. She has to fight, get strong and go her own way.
The female perspective on growing up and life of adolescent girl is the opposite of romantic. Why did you choose rawer angle with regard to the sexulity?
It was clear to me from the beginning that this was going to be a film about identity and that I did not want to give love - as a romantic love - too much weight in order not to lose focus. I think girls are just as curious about sexuality as boys are. For sure there is still the type of girls who prefer chastity and dream of romantic love. But the girls in my movie are not so naive. They want to make experiences but naturally there is much more at stake with girls than with boys. Men can't be raped by women, men can not get pregnant and men also have a lower risk of becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases.. In addition, there are still a lot of taboos, especially with the awakening of female sexuality. As a result, the first experiences are rather technical than romantic.
The sexuality, the female sexuality, has been tackled in coming-of-age genre for some time now, Jannicke Systad Jacobsen had fun with it in Turn Me On, Goddamit! (2001) however Serbian filmmaker Maja Miloš went for it very openly in Clip (2012) that the film got compared to even porn. Serbian filmmakers are known for extremities (e.g. A Serbian Film) ascribed to the history and situation in the country. What would be your choice for going for a darker angle in the coming-of-age genre and growing up as a female?
Equality is a modern myth. In my research with young people I have noticed two extremes: either it was still creditable that girls are cautious and have as few different sexual partners as possible, or the other extreme: the consumption of pornography, both with boys and girls. The girls want to find out what is expected from them. As a result, the adolescents want to match the images they have seen. I think both trends are problematic and especially women are under enormous pressure to meet these roles. Female sexual behaviour is not a private issue, Still, it is not the woman herself who determines her value, but the public. The oldest means of controlling women still works well: public humiliation. Female behavior has consequences to this day, male much less so.
When it comes to this topic, sexuality and and young adults, there is a precedent in Larry Clark´s Kids. However, lately, this topic has been mostly approached by female filmmakers. French filmmaker Eva Husson did stage it as a ongoing summer orgy in Bang Gang resulting into unwanted pregancies and STDs. Why do you think this has became the domain of female filmmakers?
Larry Clark's Kids was a dramatic movie experience. I was 14 when I saw the movie, even though it was rated 16. The film has left a lasting mark. For the first time cinema was so real to me, so realistic. At that time I had the feeling that Larry Clark had portrayed the youth really well, even though these kids were, of course, very extreme. The fact that also female filmmakers make such films by now is only natural. Fortunately, a lot is happening in the industry and more and more women-directors are able to realize their films.
According to Eva Husson, the take out from her film is a positive message that everything will be fine „Nothing in my film is life sentence even though they go quite far and it is as much far as kid could go but it is not the end of the world and you cannot pretend it is the end of the world. Eventually, they will be okay, they will be fine young adults." Blue My Mind has also a generational conflict between parents and kids. While Mia tries to fit in among her peers she ignores parents´ rules who still remain fairly benevolent. Why did you decide to approach their relationship as such?
The parents have had problems with their daughter for some time. They have lost contact with her. Her father tries to be strict, but is basically totally helpless. Her mother, however, is rather narcissistic and sees herself as a victim in the conflict with her daughter. But it was important to me that the parents were not very extreme in their character. Above all, they are occupied with themselves and Mia lives in a parallel world. The parents are no confidants for her, no contact persons, that's why they only occur marginally. Cinematically we have solved it in such a way that we often do not see the parents at all but only hear them from the outside.
You slightly empowers Mia over her parents or emasculates her father as a keeper of discipline. Why?
Mia is the only one who finally manages to break free and connect with her elemental force. She is one step ahead of her parents. Her parents are trapped in the system, but of course they realize that their daughter slowly slips away from them. Just because her father is so helpless, he's so severe.
Blue My Mind veers towards fable territory due to the introduced mythology aspect. Why water creature in your case?
The basic ideas for this story came - very subconsciously - from the gut. But once it was on paper, of course, I wanted to find out myself what this creature stands for. In my research, I found out that this creature appears in different cultures and at different times. This is why I thought that these beings must have a certain meaning for us humans, that they have a place in our collective subconscious. C.G. Jung ascribes the sea to the archetype of the mother. And according to Jung, the mother is our first home. For me, this creature is a symbol of the longing for freedom, for primeval feminine power, for a world without borders of any sort. Finding your way back to nature, and to your own nature, is my main interest.
Scary Mother by debuting female filmmaker Ana Urushadze has also a storyline about female empowerement against old gender structures and mythology however it is a vampire-like man-eating beast from Philipines. What is the appeal of introducing mythical creatures in such narratives?
Of course, figures from mythology are excellent material for metaphors. As a filmmaker you can treat a topic even more intensively, much more precisely and the story becomes universal and can thus touch people all over the world.
Despite the fairy-tale like element, you did not revise your style and kept with the bleaker style despite relatively positive message. Why?
I made this decision very early in the process and therefore wanted to work with Gabriel Lobos, my DOP. I wanted to challenge the viewers. It was important to me that the audience anticipate that they can not sit back for a while and think it's just a fairy tale but get involved with reality first, and then there's no turning back - everything that happens should be as realistic as possible. Nevertheless, there should also be images full of poetry and it was important to me that the film touches all the senses. Therefore, the music and the sound design were also very important. To me, the movie is not just gloomy, it also has humour and many light moments where you can breathe.
French filmmaker Julia Ducournau in her feature debut Raw renders female coming-of-age via cannibalism and stays true to the New French Extremity aesthetics. There is also a positive message in Raw, however Blue My Mind and Raw seem like parallel narratives using relatively violent way to convey a message about self-acceptance. Why is that in your case?
As a filmmaker, I find it exciting to let the characters go where it hurts. I did not want to spare Mia, her way is rocky and painful because I really felt it was right for this story. And if you think about the Bible, it is a very old tradition in storytelling that the way to salvation requires suffering.
The metamorphosis of the protagonist is rendered in a gruesome process and style reminiscing of body horror genre. Was that genre, maybe via David Croneneberg, of any influence?
No, David Cronenberg was of no influence, if at all Kafka. I just wanted to show as much as necessary and not exploit the horror with my pictures. It was more important to me to show how Mia is, how she feels.
How did you find your lead Luna Wedler and why did you decide cast her?
Luna Wedler had a supporting role in Amateur Teens. I saw her and I absolutely wanted to get to know her. Nevertheless, we have cast a lot of teenagers, about 300. But Luna stood out from the beginning and we soon realized that she has to play the role of Mia. Luna's personality was similar to Mia's, she also had the ability to completely throw herself into the scenes, as I had rarely seen with actors and especially not at that age.
She had similar experience already in Niklaus Hilber´s Amateur Teens. Does that have to do anything with the fact that you pick her for Blue My Mind?
I had seen Luna Wedler in Amateur Teens, but in that film she plays a character very similar to our character Gianna. Mia is different, much more withdrawn. Her fight is going on inside herself. Switzerland is a small country, there are only few actors and certainly few at this age who can or want to play. Luna Wedler was a stroke of luck, because she already knows that she wants to become an actress, this is very rare here in our country, because it is often advised by different institutions - the elementary school but even the drama school - to wait until you're 19 or 20. Personally, I think that's a pity. If someone has such a talent, then you should support it and not waste it. It takes a lot of courage to go this way nonetheless and I'm glad that this is possible now for Luna.
Your film Blue My Mind and Dominik Locher´s Goliath were among the talked about Swiss debuts in 2017. You also stared in Locher´s film. How did that happen and does the new generation of Swiss filmmakers have such strong ties among themselves?
Switzerland is a small country and many filmmakers know each other. I think Dominik Locher and I are part of a new generation that wants to be even more courageous with their films and tries less to please somebody. We just want to make films that have their origins in the feelings or experiences that we know well ourselves. For his role, I cast him just as everyone else - and he was the best.
As an emerging Swiss filmmaker, how do you see the near future of Swiss cinema?
I think things have changed a lot in the last few years. On the one hand, the films have become more personal, but thus also more universal, and that is why they get more international attention. Of course, that makes us happy. Many filmmakers here are friends of mine and we help and support each other. I know of some exciting upcoming debuts but also of interesting follow-up films, also by more established directors. I think there are many interesting filmmakers here, including for example Ursula Meier, who is a great inspiration.