Agnes Jaoui knows what it feels like not to fit in.
“My parents were Jews from Tunisia,” she says, sitting on the edge of the bed in a Soho hotel suite. “I was born in a suburb of Paris, but when I was 7 we moved to Paris itself. We lived in a poor and ugly block, but in a very chic arondissement [neighborhood]. So I went to very, very good schools, but it was purely by chance, because we were in this arondissement. I never felt in my place, nowhere.”
Watching Jaoui in her latest film, “Let It Rain,” that is hard to believe. Co-author, director and female lead of the movie, which opens June 18, she is a commanding presence on camera, an ultra-efficient, coolly distant feminist author, Agathe, who has returned to her hometown to run for office. It’s a role not unlike the ones she played in her previous directorial efforts, “The Taste of Others” and “Look at Me,” and many of her other on-screen efforts as well.
In person, Jaoui projects a softer, warmer presence. She eschews the buttoned-down, business-suited look of her characters for a sort of hip mom look, altogether more relaxed and comfortable.
“My parents were Jewish, but not very traditional,” she says. “When they left Tunisia, they settled for a little while on a kibbutz in Israel, but my father is such an individualist that he couldn’t stand it.”
She laughs at the recollection. He sounds a bit like the kind of characters that her writing partner (and former life partner) Jean-Pierre Bacri plays in three films, a dreamer, intermittently competent but baffled by human interaction. In “Let It Rain” he is Michel, a freelance TV journalist who is working on a profile of Agathe; much of the film’s humor comes from his social and professional ineptitude.
But the real pivot on which the film turns is the earnest, bright Karim (Jamel Debbouze), a decent, caring person who desperately wants to escape his dead-end job as a hotel desk clerk. For him, making a success of the documentary will be a passport to Paris, perhaps to the sort of neighborhood in which Jaoui grew up. His previous experience has been quite limited; as he wryly observes when the two filmmakers arrive at Agathe’s impressive family home, “I usually come in the servants’ entrance.”
But Agathe, like Jaoui herself, is something of a displaced person, uneasy in the provinces, estranged from her depressed sister Florence (Pascale Arbillot) and as oblivious to other’s needs as Michel is to their feelings. In short, these are all damaged people.
“From my observation of human beings, that’s the way most of us are,” Jaoui says. “The victim needs to repeat the trauma. It’s hard not to repeat. Most of the people I meet are not conscious of themselves. And the strength of prejudice is underrated; it’s an unconscious legacy for many. Most of the people in bourgeois France are damaged.”
She says this with such a cheerful demeanor, tossing her bright red hair insouciantly, that it seems almost like an affirmation. But the sharp end lurks beneath the laughs in her films, particularly when it comes to families.
“Of course,” she asserts. “Your biggest sorrow is from your mother. The biggest, most violent fights happen in the family, the most crimes are committed there. It’s a microcosm of society, and the hate is as violent as the love.”
Her visual style is one that allows the fuse on these emotional powder kegs to burn slowly but visibly, a deft combination of long takes and a slightly withdrawn camera, perfect for actors who want time to build an emotion.
“That comes a lot from the theater, which is where [Jean-Pierre and I] began,” Jaoui says. “We are first theater actors and writers. Also, I like the feeling that an audience can choose where they want to look [in the frame]. And you see everyone in [the context of] their background. It gives you a different perspective, if you don’t see the background you have a different point of view on the characters.”
She rejects the more conventional cross-cutting between loosely framed close-ups or medium shots that characterizes most filmed conversation.
“I don’t like champ-contre-champ,” she says, using the French term for such editing. “It’s like telling the audience, ‘you have to look here, now look here.’ Of course, I’m manipulating them, too, but I think I’m asking them to discover for themselves who the characters are.”
Even when the characters themselves aren’t sure where they fit in. But that’s something Agnes Jaoui understands all too well.
“Let It Rain,” directed and co-written by Agnes Jaoui, opens on Friday, June 18 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (Broadway and 62nd Street) and the Angelika Film Center (Mercer and Houston streets). For information (Lincoln Plaza), call (212) 757-2280 or visit www.lincolnplazacinema.com; (Angelika), call (212) 995-2000 or visit www.angelikafilmcenter.com.
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.