Justine Triet on Sibyl

In Justine Triet’s Sibyl, a psychotherapist has to deal with her own demons and those of a new patient, a young actress. When the titular character ends up on a film set for an emergency consultation, things quickly spin out of control. Is Sibyl a matter of art imitating life? Reality can be even worse, Triet confesses.

As the saying goes, a film is born in the editing room. With Sibyl, that’s a bit of a double entendre, isn’t it?
“When I started editing Sibyl, I discovered that I was pregnant. That was a big shock. My boyfriend, who is also a filmmaker, was in Cambodia at that time, shooting a film. So there I was: pregnant, alone with my other daughter and with a film to finish. My mother came to help me. It was a strange period, and very, very busy. On top of that, I was longing for a cigarette. By the time Cannes arrived, I was in my last month of pregnancy. I was huge at the premiere, not exactly what you would call glamorous, haha.”

Sibyl sits somewhere between melodrama, comedy and thriller. The film is hard to label. 
“That’s a compliment. Victoria, my previous film, had a more traditional structure. When I was writing this one, I was very conscious of how ‘impure’ it was regarding genre. I discovered that the film is impossible to pitch. You can try to condense it into one sentence, but that doesn’t do it justice. On the other hand, most my all-time favourite films are like that. The first and second part of Sibyl almost feel like they belong in different films. The bit on the island of Stromboli feels totally different from the part that comes before. That’s because Stromboli is not a normal place. It is a place of cinema, and a place of fiction. That part serves as a mirror for all the characters and events – or as a mirror in a mirror.”

At the beginning of the film, I thought Sibyl was going to play as a MeToo-drama.
Laughing: “Ah yes. Merde! When I was writing the script, the MeToo movement had not yet emerged. By the time I was finished, I told my boyfriend that people would be convinced that I was inspired by it. But that’s OK – it’s not the theme of the film.

It did make me think about the sex scenes in the film. Since MeToo, actors work with intimacy coaches when there is nudity involved.
“Luckily for us Virginie Efira and Niels Schneider are lovers in real life. They met while making Un amour impossible, and were a couple during our production. That’s not to say the sex scenes were easy. Virginie told me to be very precise about every moment, to explain every detail. I had to write five pages, describing every movement, every gesture – almost how you would construct a chain collision in a car chase. Everything you see on the screen comes from the page, more or less.”

Is it more difficult to shoot sex scenes since MeToo?
“Not for me, but maybe that’s because I’m a woman. For a woman it’s easier, because she is less suspect. People think: ‘Well, she is a woman, she cannot be a psychopath.’ Which I very well could be, of course.”

At a certain point, your main character Sibyl finds herself on a film set. A really explosive one – not because of the volcano in the background, but because of the tensions between the director and her actors.
“I know what you want to ask, but: no, it didn’t reflect the atmosphere on our set. However, I admit that sometimes, when the whole team is there, with lots of people and lots of egos, things can get rather complicated on set. To be honest, maybe even worse than what you see in Sibyl. It’s like a micro-society. I don’t know why, but suddenly every little thing can become super important on a film set. Everything becomes a battle, a question of life and death. OK, I do know why: it’s issues of money and time that create this tension.”

Must be stressful. What’s to like about that?
“Oh, but I love it! In the past, my favourite part of making films was editing. Now I hate it, because it takes too much time. I love to be on the set. It feels like an acceleration of life. And I get to play God: everybody is there for me, to work on the same idea. On my idea. If I want to have a pink street, it’s OK, people will follow me. In a way, that’s beautiful. My role as a director is to convey to the crew that I know where we are headed – even when that might not necessarily be the case. It’s essential to keep transmitting that belief.”

written by Anton Damen

Photo in header: Justine Triet © Tomas Mustaers