Nicole Palo’s Emma Peeters, a unique rom-com with a twist, is a Canadian/Belgian co-production. We have the girl, Emma Peeters (Monia Chokri), who meets the boy, Alex (Fabrice Adde), but we also have a rather unpredictable setting! Emma is 34-year-old woman, whose greatest dream is to become an actress. Unable to cope with the reality that in a few days at the stroke of midnight on her 35th birthday, her fairy tale ending will have expired – Emma decides to end it all. As she plans her funeral, she meets Alex, a funeral home employee, with whom she decides to spend some time before she takes her last breath.
I had the opportunity to meet with Nicole Palo at the Edinburgh Film Festival in order to talk about her film on a not-so-sunny morning!
Ioanna Micha: What inspired you to tell the story of Emma Peeters?
Nicole Palo: Well, it took a while before I managed to have another project going on because although I had made a film, no one was answering my emails. So, I felt that I had made something, but I didn’t exist. Instead of just feeling depressed, however, I thought, ‘okay, I’m going to put this in a script and invent a character who decides she’s not going to take it anymore and she’s going to let it go for real.’ It’s a fantasy that many people share, but they don’t really do it. So, I decided I’ll have my character do what other people only fantasize about doing, and see what happens.
I knew I wanted to make people feel good about not being completely happy with their lives, so I used a lot of irony and sarcasm. After all, that’s the film’s overall message; it’s about taking life a little less seriously and learning how to live for today.
IM: Why did you decide on comedy for the film’s genre? Why not a drama, for instance?
NP: The truth is, I could have made a drama, but I don’t think that the film would have been as good. I think if I had made a drama it would have been pretentious. Also, I think I chose comedy for personal reasons. I mean when I go to the movies, I don’t like coming out feeling more depressed than when I got in. I like to give some hope; that’s what I expect from my goals and my films. The part that makes the film original, however, is that it is also a rom-com. We have combined the dark subject of suicide with a pinkish romance, and that’s something that hasn’t been done before. The audience’s reactions are good. People are very moved. Some of them told me yesterday ‘you dare to confront the subject of suicide right on.’ They think that suicide is something that should be talked about, and that people don’t dare to face it in such an upfront way.
IM: Throughout the film, it’s clear that the script has been worked on very elaborately. How do you feel that it finally came to fruition?
NP: Well first of all, it was a very long process because we were struggling with financing. This delay had its upside, however, since it forced me to constantly improve my script. I kept going back at it thinking about the film’s essence; I kept asking myself ‘what do I really want to say? Why do I want to say this?’ I think that you can feel the improvement in the details. But, even if you have 7 years to develop the script, you still only have 28 days to make it, so you still feel unprepared. That being said, the shooting was very stressful. After all, perfecting this atmosphere wasn’t easy. We made several takes; some were more emotional and others were funnier so that I would have something to play with in editing. And that’s when the really fun part came in – the post-production, because I had a lot of time to play with the film again. We started including all the effects like the black and white scenes during editing.
IM: So, what were you trying to say with those black and white scenes?
NC: Some of them were discovered in editing. Others, were on the script from the very beginning (like the musical and the Bergman scene). We thought that we could add some more of those because we could feel that Emma wants to be an actress, and since she can’t live that dream in reality, she’s doing it in her mind. In other words, she’s imagining in her fantasy world everything she can’t achieve as an actress, like, for instance, acting in these different kinds of films. But besides that, it also helps us convey this idea that Emma fantasizes both about life and about her suicide. So, these scenes demonstrate how she’s always in her mind; she’s always in an introspective kind of mood.
IM: I have to say although I really enjoy the character of Emma, I’m more taken with Alex. He’s so awesomely weird! Is this how you imagined him from the beginning?
NP: (laughs) Good! I like him too! And yes, I imagined him like that, but I didn’t know that someone like that could really exist. My first thought was an actor that we have in Belgium because I had seen him in Bouli Lanners’ film Eldorado, who eventually did bring Alex to life. When he first read the script he said, ‘Alex is me.’ He was exactly what I had imagined for the character, so it was love at first sight. I have to admit that he brought a lot to the character as well because he has a very quirky imagination and great ideas, so he brought his own quirkiness to the character. The reason most people love Alex is that he’s the real comic character. Emma is always too absorbed in her depression, and a bit harsh on people, but he makes people laugh; he’s a bit of a comic relief!
IM: So, do you have a new project in mind?
NP: Yeah, I’ve started writing my next film. I want to make it in a similar tone as this one. The truth is that I like writing about existential themes. My first film from 2008, Get Born, was about being 20, and Emma Peeters is about the crisis we go through in our 30s. Now, I’m going to write about a girl starting from the age of 5 toward her 20s. So, it will be a growing up/coming-of-age film that could be called Girlhood.
The main idea is characterized with a bit of a feminist point of view. To be more specific, I want to say that we are not born women; we become women. That’s a notion from Simone de Beauvoir’s main ideas, which I actually support. Basically, I want to show that femininity is a social construct; it’s an image that society imposes upon us. After all, if you took a child and placed him/her in a neutral environment, boys would be playing with dolls and girls with cars. That being said, I want to show what it really means to grow up and become a woman. I want to show how a woman discovers, as she grows up, that she has a lot of obstacles in her way because she is a woman. For that reason, the protagonist is a girl who’s composing music, and she’s trying to enter a music school. Of course, there are hardly any female composers in the world at that point, so she makes people believe that she’s a man in order to get inside the school. So, in order to become who she wants, she has to become the boy she never wanted to be when she was a kid; when people kept telling her they thought she was a boy. It’s still in the early stages, but I know that I want to name her Frédérique, so that she can shorten it to Fred, to trick people into believing she’s a man.
Perhaps this film will be a combination of comedy and drama rather than just comedy, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see! (laughs).
Emma Peeters is available to stream on VOD