The following Cineuropa interview is with filmmaker Anne Sewitsky. After studying directing at the Norwegian Film School, her feature-film debut came in 2010 with the comedy “Happy, Happy”, which was awarded the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Her additional credits also include three episodes of the excellent second season of Hulu’s “Castle Rock.” This conversation explores her Sundance 2019 film “Sonja: The White Swan.”
“Sonja has been the focus of such worship, and for so long, that she doesn’t understand her world is crumbling around her”
12/24/2018 – Norway’s Anne Sewitsky talks to us about her fourth feature film, Sonja: The White Swan, devoted to famous figure skater Sonja Henie, and scheduled for release across her homeland on Christmas day.
A prestigious, top-ranking and multi-talented Norwegian figure skater, Sonja Henje was also an acclaimed actress who made her name in the US by way of a dozen or so films, including a musical starring Glenn Miller, Sun Valley Serenade (1941), and a number of works directed by Sidney Lanfield, with Thin Ice (1937) starring Tyrone Power featuring among them. She was also known for her fine collection of modern art which she amassed with the help of her third husband, Niels Onstad, and which is now open to the public, nestled just a stone’s throw away from Oslo, on the banks of the fjord.
Henje will now form the focus of Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky’s fourth feature film, whose works such as Homesick [+] (2015) often explore unusual, if not transgressive, relationships. Sonja: The White Swan [+] is produced by Synnøve Hørsdal for Maipo Film and will be hitting the big screen in Norway on Christmas day, courtesy of Nordisk Film Distribusjon AS, before screening in the Sundance Festival this coming January.
Cineuropa: Did you decide it was time to pay tribute to a fellow Norwegian this time round?
Anne Sewitsky: I decided to focus on the decline and fall of a star who was at the height of her success, but something of the rise of this exceptional woman, played by Ine Marie Wilmann, also has its place in the film. Sonja is more modern than she first appears, she’s a pioneer in many regards and a fighter, bordering on reckless.
In one of the first scenes of the film we see her dressed as a matador…
She’s a go-getter, a ruthless business woman who’s impulsive too. She throws herself into her work, into the projects she takes on. But she didn’t know when to stop. I was struck above all by her solitude.
Is this biopic, this portrait of a woman, also a self-portrait of sorts?
Oh no, it’s not me (laughter)! My figure skating is shabby to say the least! But it’s clear that as a director, I have power, as does Sonja; I’m no stranger to stubbornness or stamina, or the solitude of those in the business of creating. Admittedly there are similarities, but I feel strong and secure.
Through a series of flashbacks, we get to live and relive some of Sonja’s childhood…
More often than not, these moments are inspired by a small black and white photo which Sonja holds close to her heart. She maintains a very strong bond with her family because she feels a deep need to be surrounded by people. She forced her father, her mother and her brother to follow her to Hollywood. She loves them, yet she rejects them because she feels misunderstood, persecuted even. These paranoid tendencies become ever more apparent as the film progresses.
Could we use the term “self-destructive”?
Not really. There is a form of destructiveness in her, especially towards the end of her life, but I don’t think she was ever really aware of it or that this was what she really wanted, either for herself or for others. She can’t pinpoint the fear that inhabits her, or subject it to analysis. Sonja has been the focus of such worship, and for so long, that she doesn’t understand her world is crumbling around her. Hence her distress.
Sonja reminds me of a line spoken by Hermione, a character in Racine’s Andromaque, “How can I know whether I love or hate?”
This ambivalence can be seen in her relationship with Selma, her mother, played by Anneke von der Lippe: she’s protective, but she’s both domineering and dominated.
These same actresses play the roles of mother and daughter in Homesick…
That’s right, and a similarly ambiguous relationship also exists between Sonja and her assistant, Connie, played by Irish actress Valene Kane.
There’s a real Busby Berkeley feel to the film at certain points, with its high-angle shots, its stunning visual imagery, its kaleidoscopic effects…
I am a great admirer of his. I love his precision. I was inspired by his great productions which were ambitious and onerous, and which showcased great numbers of dancers. We knew how to take risks back then, in the Golden Age of Hollywood… There was an artistic madness, a psychedelic excess which is too often lacking these days. Sonja’s idea to paint the ice black for example – it’s a little crazy, don’t you think?
Your film was shot in Spain?
Yes, in the Almeria region for the desert scenes and also in a studio in Romania for the big skating scenes. The winter shots were filmed in Norway. I should point out that it really is Ine Marie Wilmann who we see skating in the film, aside for a few short and very complicated sequences where we called upon a body-double. Ine is a perfectionist who committed herself to an intensive training schedule for years. In fact, she’ll be the Norwegian Shooting Star at the next Berlin Film Festival. The jury who selected her praised the subtlety of her acting just as much as her physical performance.
The screenplay was developed by Mette Marit Bølstad and Andreas Markusson…
It was rewritten numerous times, including when the film shoot was already underway. The structure of the film was there, that wasn’t a problem, but we wanted to pin down Sonja’s character, to convey as best we could the incredible energy she gives off which we emphasise through tunes reminiscent of the age and through the musical score composed by Ray Harman. I’ve gained experience, I have greater confidence in myself and this allowed me to follow my instinct, to trust my intuition more often, to dare to impose my way of seeing things upon the film crew. The most important thing for me is that I stay in constant contact with my film as it develops; I have to be able to feel it, to listen to it, to remain in dialogue with it, sometimes to the point of startling those around me.
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