Renowned French actress Nathalie Richard gives a remarkable multi-character performance in the film “Works,” the story of an unusual friendship between two women—a butcher and a filmmaker—learning to overcome loss. Winner of the prestigious Groupama Gan Foundation screenplay award.
DIRECTOR BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, and raised in Paris, Judith Abitbol has had a camera in her hands since she received one as a gift for her 11th birthday. After studying cinema and literature at Paris University, she entered the movie industry as an editing intern and assistant. Soon after, in 1983, she made her debut as a filmmaker, with the short, “Le Navire” (“The Ship”), a seven and a half minute piece, which won a merit award from the Centre National du Cinéma and screened at numerous film festivals.
Continuing to make very short films, she began to attract big attention. Self-financed, these were daring, free-spirited, often wickedly funny, and filled with sharp observations of human frailty. Her film “KW 2 fois” (“KW Twice”), a 39-second commentary on Kurt Waldheim’s election to the presidency of Austria, almost sparked an international incident. It had been hand-picked by distributor Marin Karmitz to accompany Louis Malle’s “Au revoir les enfants” in theaters, but the French government, nervous about offending Vienna, refused to grant its customary “seal of quality,” and it was pulled at the last minute.
In 1990, the national newsweekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, devoted a two-page spread to the young cineaste, asserting that her films— all of which still ran under eight minutes—were “the newest thing to happen in French cinema since Jean-Luc Godard.” It then added, “[Abitbol] has that rare gift: originality.”
Now, twenty years later, whether she is making full-length features, shorts or one-hours for television, Abitbol remains one of the few independent filmmakers in France. Working in complete freedom and with mostly private funding, she is recognized for meticulously crafted, boundary-breaking works, based on stories that, quite literally, capture her imagination.
“I never have an idea for a screenplay, or a subject,” she says. “The characters come to me, and I write. I don’t even understand what my films are about until after they’re made.”
“Works” is Abitbol’s third feature film. While each is dramatically different in style, it is clear that the filmmaker is pre-occupied with digging at the very nature of artistic enterprise.
Her first is the documentary “La Spirale du pianiste” (2000), which follows world-renowned pianist Jean-Louis Haguenauer through the process of working on Claude Debussy’s 24 Preludes. At its theatrical release, critics marveled at Abitbol’s audacious undertaking. Shot over the course of six months, the film maintains a hyper-focus on the musician’s face, hands and keyboard as he deconstructs the compositions, note by note. While the daily La Croix called it a film of “rare finesse,” the alt-culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles praised it as “radical in its principle,” and explained: “Judith Abitbol shows that creativity (musical in this case, but the principle applies to any other art) is not just a matter of inspiration springing miraculously from a magical source. It is also a question of patient labor. It is this demanding process that the director--absolutely rigorous in her approach--wishes to lay bare.”
And, in the journal Études, New York University’s Global Distinguished Professor Philippe Roger wrote, “One might fear that too much attention on what can only be called the banality of effort would distract from the essential—the indescribable beating heart of any music worthy of the name. The documentarian manages to overcome this danger by the strength of love, a demure love she brings to what she films.”
Her second feature, “Avant le jour” (2007) stars Nathalie Richard as a photographer struggling with the end of a long relationship. She conceives of a project to shoot photos of people either sleeping or dead; she’s not sure which, or whether there’s a difference, but she tries to convince her friends to pose. The movie, shot in DV over the course of two years, weaves in and out of group conversations about love, death, sex, friendship, and the difference between the work one does for art and for money. “Avant le jour” is scripted, but it has the feel of a loosely structured documentary. The sense of realism is heightened by a supporting cast of non-actors who are known figures in the French art scene and whose dialogue incorporates intimate stories from their own lives.
Once again, the critics were impressed. The entertainment guide Télérama found the film “at once radical and convivial,” and the critic for Le Nouvel Observateur noted that the film “breaks free of all cinematic conventions…[and] casually radiates an undeniable charm.” Objectif Cinéma, a website dedicated to serious criticism, called it “an essential film,” and noted that “ Avant le jour seems, in a sense, to have put aside the exploration of the creative act in La Spirale du pianiste, in order to concentrate on the characters and their interiority. [But that question] reveals itself as the through-line, whether it’s about [Louise’s] creative search or that of the director herself, who conceives her film somewhere between reality and fiction…”
Now with “Works”, Abitbol once again explores the themes of mourning, friendship, and the life-giving force of creativity. She weaves documentary footage of a friend facing death from AIDS into a the fantastical tale of two women—a filmmaker and a young butcher—learning to overcome loss. The film, completed this year, features Nathalie Richard in a remarkable multi-character performance.