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TIFF Interview: Barbara Albert discusses Mademoiselle Paradis

Mademoiselle Paradis opens with a gripping shot of Maria Paradis, a blind musician and composer. Rather than cut away, we are compelled to watch her play the harpsichord, her face filled with expressions as her passion comes alive within her. It’s a riveting shot and it’s a riveting film from director Barbara Albert who returns to the Toronto Film Festival with her latest film.

I caught up with Albert to talk about Mademoiselle Paradis following the premiere of the film to talk about the challenges of casting and to discuss that opening scene, as well as the juxtaposing of themes she covers in the film.

Congratulations on the premiere of the film, what was that like for you?

I was very excited as it’s been almost four years since my last premiere. I was feeling a bit nervous, but I was interested to see how the international audience would react. I loved hearing their reaction about how empathetic they were to the characters.

After the film, I had people coming up to me talking to me and asking about the characters and other things, so it was great.

The film is wonderful on so many levels, from the acting, the directing, and of course the visuals. One thing that really stood out for me was the opening sequence. You focus on her face without cutting away, thereby pulling us into the film that way. Can you talk about that?

I’m thrilled you noticed that. As you can imagine, this was very much a topic of conversation. The moment that you see on film is edited down. Originally, it was much longer.

I did what her parents did, and I put her in front of the audience and I show and present her in a way that some people didn’t feel comfortable with, watching her. I really wanted to evoke that feeling. Why shouldn’t I show her as she is? Am I allowed only to show the beautiful and perfect faces, the beautiful ones? She is very much into her music and you can see how she feels in that moment, and I loved that you can feel her in that scene.

I was also aware of how the audience watching the film, and the audience in the film, we’re all watching her. She is someone who is watched, and that’s what the film is about and of course, that’s not comfortable.

As I said, you pull us right in. Aside from that, you also draw us in with the costume and production value.

I’m a history lover and wish I could have studied it. I appreciate the period and I actually met a historian to talk about it. I told both the production designer and costume designer who happens to be my sister about the conversations. So, together with the make-up artist, they all knew that I wanted to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to ensure we saw the dirt. I wanted to make sure you could smell.

The more we researched, we also learned about colors. Men wore beautiful colors, they’d wear pink and violets. Women didn’t wear, we learned, as much pink or red. So that research led us to interesting ideas when creating the costumes.

The other factor was since we didn’t have the huge budget, we had to get creative in order to show the era without using too many rooms, without many exterior shots, we didn’t have the money to show a village or a city. We needed to use that Palais as much as we could.

As a team, we encouraged each other to try things and I really enjoyed working with these departments.

How do you cast your actress? The cast is challenging and extremely delicate in that you’re casting someone who has to play a blind character in the 18th Century.

When I read the book, I would have loved to have worked with a blind woman. I was talking with my casting director and we even met with blind actresses, it was interesting to learn from them and how they perceive the world, but it just didn’t work out. I also dare not ask a blind woman to act as if she were a seeing woman and that’s something I needed because that’s something that happens in the film.

It just wasn’t possible and fair and I couldn’t ask a blind woman to do that, there were lines, and that was unfair to ask of her.

Once we realized that, we changed our casting idea and Maria was the first person we thought of. We’d seen her in The White Ribbon, and my casting director knew her well.

We invited her to audition and it was like a fairytale, I knew she was right for the role. She’s a musician and she’s a ballet dancer and works with her body, so she was aware of how she moves her body. The only thing I told her was that forget about controlling your body because blind women don’t worry about doing that. This was the first step in getting the character right, and Maria loved challenges and she got it.

Her research was incredible, she really spent time with blind women, talking to them and learning from them. She used blackout glasses working with those. She personified this character and I was touched by her performance.

What was the main influence for the film?

The novel started it all for me. It focuses more on the relationship between Maria Paradis and Franz Anton Mesmer but it focuses more on the male character. For me, she was the far more interesting character. Mesmer is different and even though he is vain and filled with envy, we wanted to focus on the female character and her development.

I liked the idea of the girl who gradually has a voice and it really inspired me. What I loved about the novel was how the writer shows the hierarchy within the kitchen as a mirror as to what’s going on. What’s worse than being this blind character is this maid, Agnes, this girl who becomes pregnant and is thrown out.

There were other writers out there and there was also a film but they were focused on that father figure relationship and the victim. Often, it was implied there was a sexual relationship between them.

There is an erotic thing going on in the wider sense in how they make their music together. Music, of course, is very erotic, and also the way he touches her. I wanted to tell that story of touch when Resi touches these objects, and Mesmer is touching her.

That’s one thing I love in cinema, it’s a physical thing for me so I love when they relay that on film so that’s what I tried to do.

That’s something I loved about the film is how you show that transformation of her going from being an object to being an object.

That’s actually one of the things I wanted to show.

Talk about some of the juxtapositions of themes in the film. Seeing versus being seen. Money versus power.

You have the power when you see and when you have money. When her father tells her we’ll lose the pension. That’s the thing about the father, he knew he gets money from her so why does he go to the doctor? I think that in a way he wanted her to be perfect, but then he realized if she’s perfect, she’s not the perfect piano player anymore and it hurts him. I like him because he’s cruel. But if you understand the time period and the pressure that’s on him, the way he acts is almost understandable.

At the end of the film, that scene between the two of them tells you about the view of women as objects and her father thinks she’s his product. He deals with her as if he owns her. In the end, somehow he starts to understand that something quite doesn’t fit, but he looks out of the window and he doesn’t want to think about that.