Louise Narboni’s Sad Song (Chanson Triste) is a musical tale that brings together a Parisian baroque singer with a young refugee. Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to the French director to learn more about the film.
Q: What led you to this story between Parisian baroque singer Elodie Fonnard and young refugee Ahmad?
A: I met Elodie Fonnard a long time ago, when she started her career as a singer in a baroque choir of opera where I was assistant to the director. Then we met again at a concert I filmed in Versailles and when she was the soloist of les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie.
In the same time, I made an experimental short movie with her in the gardens of the beautiful house of William Christie. We became close friends and we had the desire to make another film together. Disgusted by the French political stance on refugees, she decided to engage herself in an association to help them [refugees]. She met Ahmad, and introduced him to me, and the film was born.
Q: Can you talk about the bond that is formed between the two with Elodie’s songs and Ahmad’s poems?
A: The incredible thing is that the association proposed she help one refugee, and when she met Ahmad, it was complete chance that he was a singer too, and a poet.
So, they learned to know each other by singing baroque or Pashtun songs, and reading poetry. It was fantastic for the movie because – although I knew there would be a lot of music thanks to Elodie – the touching poems of Ahmad added another layer of musicality to the movie.
Q: The FIDMarseille programme described this as an ‘at-home musical’. What was it like filming in the home setting and capturing these intimate moments?
A: The movie, except for two documentary sequences in the street, is spent at home with Ahmad and Elodie. It was my wish from the beginning to stage them in a closed setting, and particularly in this house, which is supposed to be the family house of Elodie, but is in fact my family house. I lived there when I was a kid, and when Ahmad is playing with the marbles, the smurfs, he is playing with my own childhood toys!
I thought it would be important for the movie to have an intimate atmosphere for the shoot; to make Elodie and Ahmad, who are not actors, feel comfortable. We were a very small team, all very close, and we were eating on the set, sleeping there, and I think it created a relaxed and comfortable environment.
Q: Can you tell us about the music that appears in the film?
A: There are two levels of music in the movie. The music the characters are playing and the music I added during the editing process.
Elodie and I chose the melodies she could sing. The first idea for the movie was that her character was preparing a program of melodies linked to war or exile. Then, when she met Ahmad, we selected songs and lullabies, which could resonate with him, with his story.
For example, with Alberto Ginastera’s Cancion al arbol del olvido, the narrator is telling us that all day he lies near a tree thinking of all the dead people he loves. Or the song of an infatuated Muezzin by Karol Szymanowski, which is an Arabic prayer that Elodie offers to Ahmad.
As for Henri Duparc’s Chanson Triste, it is one of my favourite French songs. I dreamt that Elodie sung it for me.
At the first, I wanted to make a musical where even the dialogue would be sung, but it was such an enterprise that I simplified it down to a chamber music movie. During the editing, I was listening to the Hagen Quartet play the last quartet of Beethoven and – miraculously – I noticed it worked perfectly with the film’s images, so I used it. After that, I added different Tchaikovsky pieces which supported the melancholy of the movie.
Q: What did you take away from your time spent with Elodie and Ahmad? And what do you feel people can learn from their interactions?
A: It was marvelous to observe their sensitive and respectful relationship. The abnegation of Elodie, helping him a lot, teaching him French and also trying to learn Pashto. Ahmad seemed happy during the shoot, he forgot his stomach pain and even told me that he wanted to become an actor. He was open enough to offer me the chance to share his beautiful poems with Elodie.
I think we all learned a lot and were happy to share these privileged moments, especially given that we did not know if Ahmad could stay in France or not. That is the reason why it was such a hurry to shoot and we started even though we had no money to do it all.
Q: I have seen clips of your work that make me yearn for more musical cinema. Why do you love creating with this blend of music and cinema?
A: I studied both cinema and music, I learned classical singing and I did not know exactly how I could bring both together. I had a lucky meeting with someone who was producing a film on Susan Graham, an American mezzo-soprano I liked a lot. I worked on the movie, and then the director gave me more opportunities for classical and baroque concerts recordings.
Then I became myself director, filming lots of operas and contemporary dance. It is fantastic for me to combine the two artistic domains I love, and film all the best musicians in the world.
Parallel to this, I have always made intimate and musical movies like this one.
Q: What does it mean to you for ‘Sad Song’ to premiere at the FIDMarseille?
A: Ever since I finished the Sad Song, I secretly hoped the film could be part of FIDMarseille. I am so happy it happened. I will be there with my two actors, and we are very excited to share this moment together.