After years of wandering, Mireille, the heroine of The Poet’s Fiancé, returns to her childhood home, near Charleville-Mézières. Haunted by a disappointed love, her soul is nothing more than “a song of ruins,” she says.
Mireille is a whimsical woman, in love with poetry and who, in her youth, fled a stifling environment. Penniless but resourceful, she tries to reinvent her life. Single without children, she experiences a form of late motherhood by welcoming tenants battered by life. They become the sons she never had.
“I’ve done a lot of stupid things… I feel so empty,” she says to Father Benoît (William Sheller), her first interlocutor in the film…
To which the priest responds: “The void, Mireille, is like a thirst, a hunger, a wait… We must reach out to others, Mireille. We only have what we give.” It’s a beautiful word.
Elements of your life are distilled into Mireille’s universe. Do you engage in a sort of self-portrait through her?
Quite! This character’s past has a lot to do with my own youth. At 18, I moved to the Belgian Ardennes, not far from where the film was shot. Idealistic, I lived in a plastic cabin, within a hippie community established in the woods. I dreamed of a better world and I was convinced it would come. I am 70 years old today. An age where we can look back on what we have experienced to analyze our failures and successes. I realize that I spent a large part of my life trying to realize my teenage desires. Certain elements of my existence are scattered throughout the film: the portrait of Rimbaud in Mireille’s dilapidated bedroom, the allusions to John Steinbeck and Jack London, paintings painted by friends. My grandchildren even acted in a few scenes.
The sequences between these two characters are designed like skits from a tale…
Yes, I imagined these dialogues as short lessons of wisdom. The priest is the most clairvoyant of the characters in the film, even if he also has his secrets and his flaws. I didn’t want him to give a formatted or conservative speech, but to deliver humanist and embodied words. He advises this very lonely woman to open up to others and have confidence in the future. I was educated in a Catholic establishment and I know Christian thought well. I even went through a mystical period around 14, where I wanted to become a nun.
Through your works, you share a unique artistic universe, inseparable from your personality.
From the Deschiens troupe to the character of Séraphine in the eponymous film, including When the sea mounted, I have always created by drawing on my intimate memories. This is how a work touches the viewer and becomes universal. An actor creates everything with his body and with what he knows about the bodies of others. We are ourselves and also others. Drama, literature, painting are exercises in rereading existence. Faced with a work of art, people smile, cry, feel emotions based on what is reflected back to them from their own lives.
At first, Mireille is afraid of welcoming these strangers and wonders who are these people looking for shelter and whose lives she doesn’t know? One word changes everything…
Yes, and it is again the priest who, with his exuberance, retorts: “If we start to doubt everything and everyone… Mireille… hell is in an empty heart.” This sentence touches me in view of what some migrants or homeless people experience. Through Mireille, I want to show a woman who accepts to let herself be disturbed. Disarmingly tender, she is gifted in her relationships with others.
Your film was almost called Even Among the Ruins. Why did you give it up?
It gave a tragic image of the film while it is rather joyful and open to the future. But I continue to like this first idea taken from one of the lines inspired by Desire to be a volcano, by Michel Onfray: “Art is what opposes barbarism. It is what opposes the deleterious reality to elegance and beauty. The inhuman to the human. Even in the midst of ruins. Especially in the middle of ruins.” These words remind me of the video that went around the world and showed a pianist playing among the ruins in Syria. Like love, art elevates and transforms us. It doesn’t matter what we make it with, as long as it becomes universal.