What a beautiful thing to see a film about a woman full of layers and dimensions in a way that I hadn’t seen onscreen before. In Justine Triet’s film “Sibyl” we start with a psychotherapist, Sibyl (Virginie Efira), who wants to leave her practice to be a writer. After dismissing most of her patients, Sibyl meets with an actress named Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), and Sibyl decides to take on as a patient. When Margot’s life opens up to Sibyl, Sibyl’s past opens back up to her, a past that is raw, full of passion and takes us on a ride worth watching. Through a French translator, director Justine Triet discussed with me the construction/editing style of her film, her casting process with Virginie Efira, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Sandra Hüller, her directing process with her raw and passionate intimate scenes, followed by her advice for emerging female filmmakers. “Sibyl” will be released on virtual cinemas throughout the US tomorrow, September 11th.

A sly, sultry character study from filmmaker Justine Triet, SIBYL follows a psychotherapist (Virginie Efira) who decides to quit her practice and return to writing instead. As Sibyl starts dropping patients, she begins to struggle with excess time and a lack of inspiration–until she gets a call from Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young actress wrapped up in a dramatic affair with her costar, Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), who happens to be married to the film’s director (Sandra Hüller). Becoming further enmeshed in Margot’s life, Sibyl starts to blur past and present, fiction with reality, and the personal with the professional as she begins to use Margot’s life as source material for her novel. (Music Box Films summary)

Director Justine Triet. Copyright Yann Rabanier.
Courtesy of Music Box Films.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

JUSTINE TRIET: The actual origin of the project was that I had an idea for a film that was really mental, which is different than my previous film, which is also a film about a woman. My previous film is actually quite contrary to what “Sibyl” is like. What I wanted to do was use my starting point to see what was going on in this woman’s mind, and from the internal of what was in her mind, how it progressed to the external. 

MARTIN: How did you go about the editing process to piece together this story?

TRIET: Originally the film had much longer flashbacks. The whole story of her relationship with Gabriel was really something that was going to be a much longer part of the film. When I actually saw it, it would have been close to about 3 hours long. When I finally realized there were tracks going on in this film, levels of story, and information that would be provided, it was almost as if there was enough to make a whole television series. 

What I decided then was to move away from this classic kind of flashback and do something that was a little more different, like sudden flashes of her past that keep coming back to her at various times throughout the film. She’s really someone who is disturbed somehow when she has these flashbacks. I thought this was a better way to handle that. And also by keeping it longer, it made the narration flow better.

Adèle Exarchopoulos in SIBYL. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

MARTIN: How did you end up casting these three amazing women for these leading roles?

TRIET: With casting, I had worked with Virginie Efira before, and she was somebody I wanted to work with again. Because I really had the desire to be able to explore her and to see what she was capable of doing as an actress. The role that she plays is written specifically for her. The role of the actress, Margot, on the contrary, is not written specifically for Adèle. In fact I did not have her in mind when I wrote it. I actually had another actress in mind, and she turned me down. So I opened up casting for the part, and despite the fact that she’s very well known, Adèle wanted to do a test with me. She was okay with doing that.

The original character, the way that I perceived it, was somebody who was older than Adèle was, somebody who was 38 or 39 years old. With a character like that, at that age, it made sense to question whether or not she should have the abortion. It’s a much different film now if you’re going to have an abortion around 40 than in your 20s. There were some changes that had to be made, but in the end, she was really incredible. At that point I realized there probably wasn’t any other actress in France who could play this part but Adèle. The character of the actress is a little antipathetical at times, but at the same time, you want to get her as the full person, not just the character. So her part had to be much more tailored to her, whereas with Virginie, it was already there.

Sandra Hüller in SIBYL. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

MARTIN: And Sandra?

TRIET: I actually thought of Sandra from the start when I was writing the role. What I thought of first for the character was to have a German filmmaker that was coming to Stromboli to film a movie. I immediately thought of her for the role. I had met Sandra 10 years ago, and then I saw her in “Toni Erdmann” and of course I loved her in it. Her character is someone who is really interesting. Out of the three women, she in a sense has the most difficult role, she has to be presented as severe, almost unpleasant at times. You also see the humanism as part of her as well. To show the different sides of her character was not easy, but she was able to elevate all of those parts of the character through her performance.

Virginie Efira in SIBYL. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

MARTIN: Talk to me about your intimacy scenes. They were intense, and well put-together. I was wondering how you approached directing those scenes, and did you work with an intimacy coordinator on set?

TRIET: First off, it’s important for you to know that the film was written before the #MeToo movement, it came to France a little bit later. Answering the second part of your question, having an intimacy coordinator on set was not something that was an issue at that point. 

In answer to your first question, to be able to film a scene like this one, I think it’s important that there is a real sense of trust. I believe you’re referring specifically to the scenes between Virginie and Niels [Schneider], when they are intimate. It was a delicate kind of scene to shoot. I really wanted to create a sense of trust while I was filming it, so they’d really be able to abandon themselves into the part with the trust and confidence in what was being done. I think it was really important for me in this case to have made a film with Virginie before, because it made it much easier for me to have someone to work with before. It might not have been as easy if I was working with someone for the first time.

Also, we had to work on the lighting. This is a very raw kind of scene, so we wanted to work with the lighting and not have that ultra flash type of lighting. We wanted to have a light that was a little more subdued, and had a certain level of intimacy. It’s not an easy kind of scene to shoot. I feel it came out simpler than I thought, because it was really carefully orchestrated, almost in a mechanical sense. Every body movement is choreographed. The actors already knew what body movement they would be performing next, there is virtually no improvisation in the scene.

In this particular case, Virginie wanted me to have fewer people on the set during the intimate scenes. I think what was important about the scene that Virginie understood and carried with her was that she was seeing her character from the perspective of the mind, somebody much more cerebral. Whereas in the case of this intimate scene, we’re seeing the raw emotion and desire, and she understood the importance of really showing that. But also, I think it was important to show desire with more of a focus on how the woman was experiencing it. And for me, her desire was something I wanted to show here, and Virginie agreed. Doing these intimate scenes was very important to this film.

Sandra Hüller, Virginie Efira and cast in SIBYL. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

TRIET: I think it’s most important to keep as much freedom in what you’re doing to retain that artisanal quality to the film that you’re making. A lot of films have very large crews  with a lot of people. I would consider working with a smaller crew because it does give you more freedom. Also, understand that big budgets don’t necessarily give you the most freedom. Sometimes a little more freedom goes hand in hand with a smaller budget. To be able to adapt to that and have the freedom to do your work is the most important. 

Also, and this is very important, don’t let yourself be influenced by everybody else’s opinion about the casting. Really stay true to your own ideas of what the casting should be, and keep yourself open, because by soliciting to others, you’re limiting your openness. 

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