Writer-director Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet talks through her new film, Anaïs in Love – a warm, comedic study of feminine eroticism and desire
Anaïs is annoying. She talks without listening, she runs before looking, and she relies upon charm to avoid responsibilities: her unpaid rent, her unwritten thesis, her inability to turn up anywhere on time. That Anaïs in Love convinces you to stick with this whirlwind for 90 minutes is down to its electrifying star, Anaïs Demoustier (Bird People, The New Girlfriend), who embodies her namesake with warmth, emotional richness, and, to much comedic value, the aforementioned annoyingness.
Like Anaïs herself, Anaïs in Love reveals deeper, more complex layers over time. For the first half, the delightful French romcom opts for a more screwball, sitcom-y paced selection of scenes, many involving scattered interactions with men. You briefly mistake her for a Manic “Pick Me” Dream Girl. Everything changes, though, when Anaïs is having sex with a married man, Daniel (Denis Podalydès), and she spots the solution to her existential crisis on his bedside table: a photograph of his wife, Emilie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). From then on, Anaïs – and the film around her – turn more romantic, more mature, more willing to soak up the moment.
The three-dimensionality of Anaïs is unsurprising given that Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet, the 36-year-old writer-director, based the character on herself. It’s perhaps also unsurprising that the French filmmaker objects to my categorisation of Anaïs as annoying. “She’s possibly the best and worst of me, but some things are heightened for comedic purposes!” says Bourgeois-Tacquet over Zoom from Paris, where she listens to questions in English but replies via an interpreter. “She has an appetite and willingness to go after her desire. Her very imminent, instantaneous relationship to the world is a good quality! But some people do think she’s selfish and unbearable. I can see that.”
Anaïs in Love is Bourgeois-Tacquet’s first feature and was written as a starring vehicle for herself. “But I met Anaïs and felt a convergence between us. Like meeting an alter ego.” The director explains that despite the title, Anaïs wasn’t rewritten that much for Demoustier. “She sometimes had reservations about how far the character went into irritable zones. I had to push her. She’s such an irresistible actor, I knew we could go further than she understood.”
Before filmmaking, Bourgeois-Tacquet worked in publishing, although there was an overlap when she played a bookstore owner who runs after Isabelle Huppert in the streets in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come. “Isabelle has been my favourite actress since I was 14,” she says. “It was an important event for me. (Hansen-Løve and I) have a common godfather in Éric Rohmer, although I go in a more comedic direction.”
Anaïs in Love, too, has Anaïs chasing after an icon of French cinema on a busy pavement. After learning that Emilie is an acclaimed author, Anaïs watches YouTube interviews of her newfound crush and accosts Bruni Tedeschi’s character on the street like a fan. Anaïs, whose flat is decorated with paperbacks, is writing (well, she’s supposed to be writing) a thesis on passion in 17th-century literature, and is awed that Emilie can fill a bookshelf with her own published works. Conversely, Emilie, who’s suffering from writer’s block, finds herself re-energised by the companionship of a woman half her age.
“Their bond is first an intellectual relationship,” Bourgeois-Tacquet says of the role of literature in the film. “It then evolves into a sensual one.” The subsequent tonal shift was written into the script and honed through editing. “Because the second half is about exploring eroticism and desire, it inherently requires a change in rhythm.”
Before then, Anaïs runs from place to place, usually because she’s late, but also as a personality trait. Whereas a young, white, privileged woman in a delayed adolescence sprinting through a city is at risk of overkill (when done well, it’s Frances Ha or The Worst Person in the World; at its most nauseating, it’s Licorice Pizza), Anaïs’s public athleticism is an extension of her self-absorption: while some might be too embarrassed to chase after a bus, Anaïs will gallop past strangers to save time. At least, that was my assumption.
“Anaïs running everywhere is her identity,” Bourgeois-Tacquet says. “But she’s fleeing from adversity, like in the first part with her mother’s illness. In this incandescent carelessness, she’s very aware that her mother will die. The racing forward is a survival mechanism.”
In the second half, Anaïs learns to walk – as well as listen. Coincidentally, Anaïs’s maturation coincides with abandoning men for Emilie. Would Bourgeois-Tacquet call Anaïs in Love a bisexual romcom? Or would it defeat the film’s purpose to apply a definition, given the freedom it celebrates? “I wouldn’t call it a bisexual romcom. I was interested in writing a story of great desire. I think we’re at a point where we can move past narrow definitions. I’m not interested in knowing whether two women are discovering bisexuality or going into a lesbian relationship. These things aren’t thematically interesting.
“Of course, I’d be happy for the film to live its life, and if it were in a selection of LGBTQ+ cinema, that would make total sense to me.” In regards to the eventual article and headline that will accompany our conversation, she adds, “You can write what you want. Don’t feel censored in that way.”
At Cannes, Anaïs in Love was instantly compared by critics to Frances Ha and The Worst Person in the World. Besides their running sequences, neither reference is really accurate, especially as the film itself namedrops Alain Robbe-Grillet and John Cassavetes (Anaïs turns up late to Opening Night, much to cinemagoers’ annoyance). Bourgeois-Tacquet, to me, cites François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (“I wanted to understand the composition almost surgically”), Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument (“desire and language meet in this intellectual space”), Claude Sautet’s César and Rosalie (“the sentimentality is unironic”), Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Le Sauvage (“Catherine Deneuve’s character is, like Anaïs, irresistible and unbearable”), and the cinematography of Éric Gautier (“he was the DoP for Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, and Patrick Chéreau”). She adds, “These weren’t influences. I watched them before the writing process to nourish me.”
However, right now, she’s actively studying Cassavetes to help with her second feature. “I’m giving myself permission to go away from comedy. It’s going to centre around a woman in her 50s, so I’m watching Opening Night. It’s incredibly discouraging. Cassavetes is a genius. I watch 10 minutes and I want to drop what I’m doing.”
As well as not commenting on the characters’ sexuality, Anais in Love makes little reference to any age gap. Anaïs is 30; Emilie is played by an actor in her late 50s. When sleeping with David, Anaïs wonders aloud why she’s having an affair with a man old enough to be her father. The attraction to Emilie also overlaps with learning of her mother’s cancer. Is there a Freudian aspect to these romances?
“I’m not going to speak too much on a psychological front,” Bourgeois-Tacquet says. “But I would say that the film has autobiographical roots. It’s something I’ve been drawn to my entire life, whether in friendship or in romantic bonds. One of my best friends is 76. I naturally go towards being surrounded by people who are older. Also, erotically, there’s something at play.
“But in the same way I carved out an unlabelled freedom instead of a sexual orientation, I don’t want age to be a question at all. Anaïs sees a young man, then goes onto an older man, and then goes onto an older woman. Who knows who she’s going to next? She’s not in a perimeter she can’t leave.”
Anaïs in Love is out in UK cinemas and on digital from August 19