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The past is never past: in conversation with Veerle Baetens
"I am an actor/filmmaker," says the gifted director When It Melts, the Sundance world premiere knockout
The remarkable Rosa Marchant, as the younger iteration Eva, in When It Melts. At the bottom, Charlotte De Bruyne as the sullen and withdrawn adult Eva. (Images courtesy of the PR Factory.)
PARK CITY, Utah—
A key figure in French and Belgian art cinema, the actor and filmmaker Veerle Baetens makes a striking and emotionally devastating debut feature with When It Melts.
Adapted from the novel by Lize Spit, the movie meditates on memory and grief, sharply oscillating between two very specific time frames bound in the tumult and fractured consciousness of its young female protagonist.
Baetens beautifully explores how the past is superimposed over the present, telling the story of the moody, socially estranged Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) coming to terms with her traumatized upbringing.
When It Melts floats and whirls in space, returning through a series of sharply etched flashbacks to a younger version of Eva (played as a 13-year old by the remarkable Rosa Marchant, winner of the special jury prize) during a momentous summer in her Flemish village.
The movie premiered in the World Dramatic competition at Sundance. I spoke with Veerle Baetens. “She employed a poetic nuance and complexity throughout her interpretation of the role, belying experience well beyond her years,” wrote the World Competition jury, in awarding a special acting prize for Rosa Marchant.
Shadows and Dreams: I’d love to talk about the formal construction, and about the weaving or contrasting of past and present?
Veerle Baetens: Let’s start with the book, which had three timelines, the far past, the summer, and the present where Eva returns to her village. We narrowed it down to two timelines, the child and the adult.
In the writing, it was much quicker. We went back and forth, and we stayed with each character a little less each time. We edited it, and everything worked in the scene, but not the whole.
We needed to reinvent the whole structure, which is normal for a movie like that because you need to tell the story. We wanted to stay longer with one character. It is a sort of search between both of them, a sort of dialogue. Every time the adult or young Eva looks up or at the camera, we see the other one looking down.
They are almost searching for each other. There is a reconciliation with herself, the older and younger Eva, because they are two different characters. It completely changed in the editing, and it became a question of how we were going to tell this story.
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Shadows and Dreams: In coming across the novel, did it resonate with you in a way that just felt this was the perfect material for my first feature?
Veerle Baetens: The novel came out, I believe, in 2015. There was a producer that I worked with on The Broken Circle Breakdown, and he asked me if I wanted to make it into a movie.
I read it, and I was immediately so attached to the younger Eva because of her struggle with self-acceptance, her urge to be seen by others. I recognized it in myself, at that age, of not feeling beautiful, of feeling I was the lesser. I’m not worth falling in love with. That really touched me, and that part of that myself that I really wanted to get out. I think that’s why I really wanted to become an actress, to be seen, to be loved.
I felt sorry and fascinated by the adult Eva. She is completely the opposite of little Eva, where everything is possible, completely shutting down and going inside.
I always want to help people who have this. If you do try to help them, it’s a dangerous undertaking, because you feel like you’re the elephant in the porcelain store. You can do harm.
Dreams and Shadows: At the start, in mapping out the emotional terrain of the older Eva, what was the most crucial part you wanted to express?
Veerle Baetens: There is a moment from the past when she receives the invitation to the memorial where she is lying in the bath, and she starts to wake up in the present. This frozen state, I really wanted this actor to incorporate it, with this Japanese style of almost being able to control, almost sliding, and showing as little emotion as possible, and still there is a lot to see in her eyes. The Eva from the past is much more expressive.
I don’t want to say how the movie ends, but in this frozen state, nothing is happening to her. I wanted to show what her life is like now, and how once this invitation comes in, how that changes her life. That was a long search, about how we present her life over these last 10 or 15 years.
Shadows and Dreams: One of the really interesting formal parts of the film is the water imagery, water as a connective thread, of past and present. Water is typically a psychological emblem of purity, rebirth, rejuvenation.
Veerle Baetens: And emotion.
Shadows and Dreams: Water is the dominant visual motif.
Veerle Baetens: The title carries it. In the end, water is not a solution. It is something soft. It’s not as hard. What is also a symbol, the turtle behind the glass, the idea of being a box.
Shadows and Dreams: How did you conceive the film stylistically?
Veerle Baetens: I have to say, because of my background, I am so much into acting, script, story and character. For me, the world of image, and translating it into a language is new to me. I had my ideas. They were ideas I had to fight with my director of photography (Frederic Van Zandycke). I love him, but he is stubborn.
I am very grateful because he brought out a lot of things, like staying very close to Eva in the present, where she is already in a box, in an aquarium, while the smaller Eva still has the space to grow and has all the possibilities. The more you advance into the story, the more it narrows down, the frame becomes smaller.
She is never in the shot with her mother. In a way, I wanted a Lars von Trier feel in the past, and a Michael Haneke feel in the present. These movies represent characters, past and present.
Shadows and Dreams: The film depends on the casting, and the spiritual connection between these two different actors playing the same character. What was the search like finding them? Was it intuitive?
Veerle Baetens: The kids were traditional in a way. First they sent in a video, and then they came in for a casting moment. Then they would go to a workshop. I didn’t want them here for half an hour, and just said: “Thank you. Now you can go.” Even a professional actor is almost not capable of doing that.
I really wanted to create a safe place for them, where they could grow, and feel at ease with us and with people watching them. We would narrow it down every time, and go again into a workshop.
Even when it was down to 20 kids, we did work for three days. Out of that came the five kids. With these five kids, we’d always work together. They would become good friends, because what they had to do in the movie was very intense, and they needed to trust each other.
Once I had the younger Eva, I just thought to myself who in Belgium or Flanders can play the adult version, and looks like her because it was important. I came across Charlotte, because she had a resemblance. She’s a very good actress, and I asked her, could you come. I had the two of them do mirroring exercises, talking to each other, and we just filmed them.
Shadows and Dreams: What was it about Rosa Marchant that made you feel she was the one?
Veerle Baetens: I will tell you a beautiful story. Rosa came to the workshop originally to read for Tess, who is the younger sister. The character is eight to ten-years old. The way she was doing the audition in the group, I thought, “She’s not ten.” We approached her, and I asked her, “How old are you?” She said, “I’m 15, but because I am so little, I applied for the role of Tess.”
She is very shy, but the moment I saw her, the music started to play, and the moment she had to become the character, she was there. She is in the moment, and she takes it over. I told her, “If you want, you really have to do auditions in the groups for Eva.”
She captured my eyes, emotionally, or moved me, every time. The moment I really knew it was when I had this exercise of dancing with the camera. The camera is there, and you have to dance with music. She was the only one who understood what it was. She was the first one chosen.
We went on weekends together, getting to know each other. It was only about two weeks before shooting that I rehearsed the scenes, but just brushing over them. I told them, this is the scene, you can use whatever sentences you want. They couldn’t read the script. They read it once with their parents. They knew what it was about. They never got the script.
Shadows and Dreams: How do you feel your experience as an actor has now shaped you as a filmmaker?
Veerle Baetens: I think the most important part for an actor is to feel safe, respected and loved. That made me what I am as a director, to give all the space for the actors. There’s technique, and it’s very important, but it cannot limit the actor.
I’m an actor/director. It’s not possible otherwise. That is my job for 25 years.
Shadows and Dreams: Did becoming a filmmaker develop out of a need to take greater artistic control of your life?
Veerle Baetens: I think there are many reasons. Women are getting older, and our careers stop a lot faster than men. Few women get to become old on screen.
I always felt uneasy about always being the subject of the desire of somebody. At the audition, somebody needs to like you. They need to like what you’re doing. In the cinema, the people who are watching need to like you.
I was a little bit fed up with that, and also performing in the moment. I know what it feels like. I really wanted to create a safe place for actors, and also be behind the camera. This was a dream I had since I was 18. I decided to go in front of the camera because I passed the entry exam at a conservatory. They didn’t have one for directing.
Now I just feel, let me be and create from the beginning. I don’t want to just be an element. Let me be the creator.