Cyril Mennegun: « A good adaptation must go through a great betrayal »
Your “Spirit of Winter” series is taken from the eponymous novel by Laura Kasischke. Why did you choose to adapt it as a series?
It’s quite simple, it started with a reading, then a desire. I liked the book a lot, so I thought of making it my next feature film. Then, very quickly, I wanted to give more scope to the characters who are portrayed there. So I launched what became my first series, three years ago. Before, I had mainly worked on social subjects, through documentaries, then with my film “Louise Wimmer”. I have always liked to do portraits of women. With « Spirit of Winter », I was able to work on a story that is both rooted in reality and in a form of fantasy stemming from the madness and psyche of the main character. In the story of « Spirit of Winter », there is a sort of grain of sand, very characteristic of the works of Laura Kasischke, which gradually deflects reality towards a form of everyday fantasy, without us know if it really comes from the fantastic or from the imagination of the characters.
How did you work from the original novel?
I took all the liberties. Unless you want to work on « Les Misérables » or « Madame Bovary », a good adaptation of a literary language to an audiovisual language must go through a great betrayal. The most difficult thing is to find what the story really and deeply tells. For « Spirit of Winter », it is the link between a woman who cannot have children and a little girl she adopted one day in Romania. And the conviction that she then develops, that the child entrusted to her is not the right one. It is extremely simple as a starting point. It questions motherhood, the need to have children, the mother-child bond, and also sisterhood… Once the heart of the story has been found, you have to appropriate it and choose what you want to tell. I wanted to paint a sensitive portrait of a woman caught in the trap of her imagination, her anguish and her guilt for having abandoned a child in Romania, in order to recover another. That’s what I prefer: to show a deep and constructed female character.
With « Spirit of Winter », I wanted to paint a sensitive portrait of a woman caught in the trap of her imagination, her anguish and her guilt at having abandoned a child in Romania.
The series depicts a form of motherhood far from the usual representations, evoking postpartum depression or mental issues and questions related to adoption…
Nathalie is neither a good nor a bad mother. No one is. It is a fusional relationship that is staged. Except that, this relationship, Nathalie built it with a child who is not the one she finally adopted. This aborted relationship drained this woman of her feelings, of her life desires, to take her to something infinitely more morbid: the haunting memory of abandonment and the guilt of having, in a certain way, bought a child. Faced with this guilt, the whole world tells her that she is a bad mother. But she is above all a fusional mother, worried and obsessive, who never stopped reinventing her ideal child. She wonders how she could, by adopting one child, abandon so many others. It’s a terrifying question.
The whole series takes place behind closed doors, in the family home…
I wanted to shoot behind closed doors to be able to make the most of this mother-daughter relationship in its most cinematic way. But behind closed doors is also a real challenge of staging. You have to succeed in maintaining a certain dynamism, a certain richness. Each shot must be different and call for something new, even though the decor does not change. A new lighting, a variation in the staging, in the dramaturgy, in the relationship between the characters, in the dialogues, the light, the sound or the use of music… This brings together the whole grammar of cinema. For the camera to be complete, I decided to shoot in the studio. The characters are trapped in this house like mice, the spectator with them. The meeting of the camera and the studio creates a very strong and interesting place of concentration, because once the technical questions are settled, it allows all the attention to be focused on the actors and their direction. Conversely, a real set forces the director to continually adapt to external factors, and therefore to partly abandon the actors.
Cinema is the language of dreams, nightmares and the psyche. It is made up of images and sounds that we can diffract, twist or straighten out.
You have chosen the actresses Audrey Fleurot and Lily Taïeb. Why this duo?
I always had the desire to work with Audrey. I’ve known her for a long time and she’s an excellent actress, whom I love immensely. I had to find him a guarantor. With her, I had found the fire. I just had to find the ice cream. So I chose Lily Taïeb. The role of Nathalie, which I offered to Audrey, flirts with expressionism. It is part of a very « Polanskian » conception of the heroine, with a game that relies heavily on attitude, gaze, body and occupation of space. In the series, the dialogues only intervene to bring or express elements that are essential to the story, but never to fill the space. I wanted to leave a lot of room for ambient sound and music, which are also two real cinematographic languages.
How to portray such a psychological story?
Obviously there is some work. But, when we watch, for example, the films of Polanski or Lynch, we realize that cinema is, in essence, the language of dreams, nightmares and the psyche. Cinema is made up of images and sounds that we can diffract, twist or put right side up in order to raise doubts, to enter that gray zone between the real and the unreal. That’s what I wanted to do with “Spirit of Winter”: to be between reality and fiction, between reality and dream and between reality and imagination.
The twists and turns of a mother’s soul
This morning of December 24, Nathalie (Audrey Fleurot) wakes up late and crumpled. Her daughter Alice (Lily Taïeb), who usually comes to wake up the couple she forms with Marc (Cédric Kahn), stayed in her room. Panic in the chalet: the husband has to leave in a hurry to find his parents for New Year’s Eve. Marc gone, mother and daughter are going to be stuck in a snowstorm. Then begins an agonizing camera for Nathalie.
Using incessant flashbacks of Christmas past, Nathalie is portrayed alternately hysterical or depressed, since the day she adopted this little girl in Romania: maybe it’s not the right one that she has chosen… Why does she imagine as the opening scene of her novel that a young girl identical to hers is defending herself from the window? She loves him, though, and maybe their fights just happen in her head, like those intimate calls and videos she receives…
By adapting this novel by Laura Kasischke, Florence Vignon and Cyril Mennegun have offered a perfect counter-use to Audrey Fleurot, who we are used to seeing in more mainstream roles as a strong woman, the whimsical Morgane from « HPI ». or the volunteer Marguerite in “Les Combattantes”. She flirts here admirably with the abyss of madness.