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Rainy Day Woman: Agnès Jaoui

In her new film, Let it Rain, French writer/director/actress Agnès Jaoui tackles race, class, gender, and politics in a dramedic kind of way. Oh, and she explains why The West Wing wouldn't fly in France.

Agnès Jaoui directing Let it Rain


French talent Agnès Jaoui is a multi-hyphenate of the highest order: as a writer, director and actress, she is just as at home in the theatre as she is behind (and in front of) the camera. With her longtime writing partner, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui has developed a body of work (including The Taste of Others, Look at Me) that depict the daily lives of French citizens with wit, charm, and authenticity.


In her third effort as director, Jaoui presents Let it Rain (French title: Parlez-moi de la pluie, which translates to Talk to Me About the Rain), Jaoui plays Agathe, a feminist politician from Paris who’s visiting her married sister at their childhood home in the south of France. Local filmmakers Karim (Jamel Debbouze, who also starred in the French crossover hit Amelie) and Michel (Bacri) ask her to be a part of a video series on “successful women,” which leads all the characters to examine their values and evaluate their relationships. Karim also happens to be the son of the family’s Algerian housekeeper, Mimouna, played by a nonactor with a similar background. Jaoui is masterful with her cast—not an easy thing to do while one is also acting—and the result is a meandering (in a good way) dramedy that touches on all sorts of cultural touchpoints: race and gender inequality, political ethics, prejudice, and more.


While Let it Rain is best described as a comedy of manners, it also evokes the ensemble sprawl and familial intimacy of Chekhov. We sat down with her on a recent trip to New York to discuss her writing process, how she feels about boys’ clubs, her affinity for The West Wing, and her definition of a “successful woman.”


Agnès Jaoui, Jamel Debbouze, Jean-Pierre Bacri You explore so much in your films. For starters, this one touches on class, gender, inequality, prejudice, politics, education, marriage…  Is this just “life” to you? Or do you choose an issue and decide to make a film?
Agnès Jaoui: Yes, I wanted to speak about what remains of feminism, and to describe different characters of women—one from an old generation from the Middle East, one more classical (my sister [in the film]), and myself, the more modern, let’s say, and the youngest one—to see what is the legacy of these different models of women, and how we deal with that.


We also wanted to speak about politicians, because in France they are very, very despised. There is a series I am very fond of—The West Wing—this would be unthinkable in France. Because no one would want to watch?


AJ: No, because [in the show] people love politics. No, [French citizens] believe [politicians] are just all bullshit, rotten; there is not this sense of honor that there is in The West Wing. Even if I met some politicians very close to the characters in The West Wing—and I think they exist, even in France—the general opinion is definitely not that.


And also we wanted to speak about the legacy of colonialism, and what it is to be a Muslim nowadays—the new generation, the second, or even the third generation. So it’s true there are a lot of things [covered in the film].

Agnès Jaoui The characters feel like such real people. Do you start with building characters?
AJ: We start with both theme and characters, but it’s true that I am not able to invent a character. I need to know him in real life—to have some models, sometimes one, sometimes two or three—to be able to describe his behavior. But if I just work with the characters, if there is no theme or point of view... So the story comes in as you see how they interact with each other?


AJ: Exactly. You also have a great deal of experience with theatre, and the film reminded me of Chekhov. What do you see as the differences and similarities between film and theatre? Which do you prefer?
AJ: For me, I see more similarities than differences, but also because I am not making cinema that is very visual. I am fond of David Lynch, for example, but I would be unable to do what he does. So I try to be invisible as a director, because what I love in theater is that the spectator makes his own direction—he chooses whether to look at him [points], or over there [points], you know? I just try to put the camera in the right place.


So in fact we write exactly the same for theatre or movies. Of course, I think sometimes we need fewer words in cinema, but still we use a lot. [laughs] I am aware of that. What is the significance of the title for you?


AJ: Rain is so cinematic for me, but to be honest, the French title comes from a beautiful song by George Brassens called The Storm—[which basically says,] “It’s because of the storm that I met my lover.” The cliché of the beautiful weather is happiness and success, but I think that rain is the real essence of a human being—maybe this is the part that you don’t want to show, but it exists.

Pascale Arbillot Can you talk a bit about your casting?
AJ: I am an actress first. I know a lot of actors, and it’s true that I have the little-girl dream of giving them the opportunity to be seen. In fact, I don’t like so much to work with already-famous actors, because I think they don’t need me to be happy, to have money… I know so many actors who are theatre actors—like Pascale Arbillot [who plays Agathe’s sister in the film]; she’s great, and she was never so well known in movies. I love theatre actors, and so when I can [cast them], it’s great, and this time not only was it possible, but they are wonderful human beings. I was very happy with [the cast] on this movie.
With Mimouna [Hadji, who plays the Algerian housekeeper], it’s a very special case. I met her 15 years ago when I was renting a house in the south of France where she was the housekeeper. She behaved strangely—she was hiding herself—and I spoke with her, and she said, “But the owner asked me not to show [myself].” I said, “WHAT?” And then we became friends, and I brought her to Paris, and she’d never left the little house [before].


So her character is very close to her real life, and when I wrote it with Jean-Pierre, the character’s name was Mimouna, and I was not seeing anyone else. I worked a lot with her—as she doesn’t read, we recorded a tape [of her lines] for her, and she listened. Then Jamel came, and very quickly she was like his mother, they were so close. She was there during the movie from the beginning: first she was there during one month without shooting, but she was really “the mommy” of everybody; everybody loved her. [With the acting,] at the beginning it was a little bit tense, and then she [became] the wonderful actress she is.

Jean-Pierre Bacri, Pascale Arbillot / Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri What is life like for women politicians in France? Do they have a tough time?


AJ: Yes, they definitely have a tough time. France is not the most macho country—and when people ask me if it’s difficult for me as a woman director, it’s really not at all. But when I went to [research] about politicians, we are behind Portugal and Turkey and Spain—we have very, very little representation of women in the Parliament.


And when Ségolène Royal was running for the French presidency [in 2007], you could not imagine how many terrible things you heard, and even from her own camp! Men saying, “But who is going to take charge of the children?” (who were already 18 years old, by the way) or “It’s not a beauty competition.” You know, very irrational things; [they] despised so deep… French Assembly is full of men from the same milieu—it’s something really hard to change. And of course they always [spoke] about what she wore, or how beautiful or not, or “you cannot be sexy and a politician”—you have to fight a lot, a lot, a lot. Do you know the term “boys club”?
AJ: [After some translation] Oh, yes, [French politics] is a huge one, and an old one. Exactly, exactly. This is a good expression, because there are boys clubs in every field.


Jean-Pierre Bacri, Agnès Jaoui What are your criteria for a successful woman?


AJ: To be happy. Happiness. And also to be free, liberated from what is supposed to be “a woman.” To be able to have your own sexuality, your own desire; to have children or not have children; to take care of the children in that way or that way; to have the beauty you have, the body you have. It’s hard to get rid of what is “supposed” to be a woman.


And also just to express your real point of view. I say that because I very quickly, as a teenager, had this feeling that if I expressed my point of view, I would lose the desire of a lot of men. That some men were waiting for me to be [coquettish]—to not say I disagree, or to say things like a little girl. I have a feeling that a lot of women until now [felt the same way]... it’s quite a job to be a woman.


Let it Rain opens in New York on Friday, June 18, at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.


Watch the trailer:



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