Interviews

Overcoming Overemotion One Chocolate at a Time

No doubt that Romantics Anonymous is a very personal film for director Jean-Pierre Améris. He knows all too well the affliction that his film’s protagonists confront: social anxiety. The unlikely romantic comedy pairs two extraordinarily shy and, yes, emotional people. One is a gifted chocolate-maker (Isabelle Carré) who is terrified of displaying her talent, the other is her boss (Benoît Poelvoorde), who so happens to run a chocolate factory.

Romantics Anonymous certainly hit a nerve with filmgoers during the Tribeca Film Festival, where it had its US premiere earlier this year, and in France, where the film is a box office hit (over $9 million). Tribeca Film acquired US rights to the film and it is coming soon on nationwide VOD.

Améris started making films in 1994, and has had a prolific career in France which includes César nominated films such as Les Aveux de L’innocent, Bad Company, and C’est La Vie, amongst others. The Independent’s Katherine Brodsky had a chance to speak with him at Tribeca.

Katherine Brodsky: Usually, in romantic comedies, the obstacles couples face are external or circumstantial, but in your movie, the characters’ internal struggles keep them apart. Why did you decide to do it this way?

Jean-Pierre Améris: What was interesting and fun for me was actually to choose characters that are not typical of the characters that you find in romantic comedies. People [who] are not self-assured; people [who] have doubts and are not sure about their special power. I wanted to show people who usually have no success, who fail at everything they try. They have the right to a romantic comedy as well.

KB: Why was this important to you?

JA: It was the most biographical film I have ever made. I talk about things that are part of my personality and experiences that I have experienced directly. It’s the first time that I’ve allowed myself to actually explore this issue. Before, I would hide myself behind topics that were about social issues and those kinds of topics. But now, I just let myself tackle this issue.

KB: I have to ask: How hard is it for someone who has issues like this to direct?

JA: To be a director is hard no matter what, whether you are shy or not. But in my particular case, I don’t find it that hard because for me, cinema is my opportunity to overcome my being overly emotional and I find courage in it and I can find a way to express myself. Which is truly what happens to Angelique, the lead character, with chocolate. It’s the same type of relationship. So, I think it’s hard for people that have those emotional issues and don’t find true passion because they are all alone with their anxiety. Whereas when you find your own passion, and you find your own way to express yourself, then you can overcome your over-emotionality. For example, in therapy for teenagers with these emotional issues, what they are always told is to actually get out and do something. A lot of them are encouraged to peruse theater, and acting is very good for that. What is important is that it needs to be an activity because otherwise they remain stuck in their brains, whereas doing something physically gets them out of it. So it’s very important to use your hands to really get down to it, and also to do something for others.

KB: So you believe in doing what it is that really scares you?

JA: For me, these fears come out more in daily life and the little things you do day to day. For example, I hate walking into a restaurant all by myself. Or when I sat on the plane when I came here: the neighbor on the plane started chatting me up. At the same time it makes me happy, I’m flattered. I want to talk to people, but personally I also want her to stop, it puts you in a bad spot. You feel awkward. But in the morning when I am staying at a hotel – like I am now – to go down to breakfast by myself, this also causes apprehension for me. At film festivals, that’s a really hard situation. Of course I am happy to be here, it is a true pleasure. But, at festivals you have to go to cocktails and then there is a whole room full of people standing and you never know where you should stand and I never make it to the buffet. And, you know, that’s really awkward for me.

KB: I think secretly everyone feels that way.

JA: Actually you raise a very good point because what makes this anxiety manageable is to realize that everybody else, or most other people, really feel the same way. If you start talking to colleagues – even other filmmakers who from the outside look like they are having a really easy time – then you talk to them and you find out that they are not, so this sharing makes it bearable.

KB: Yes, I would often meet other people who look like they are having a great time and everything seems so easy for them. Whereas, for me, it is so difficult sometimes. Then I find out that they actually have the exact same feelings as me.

JA: Everyone has their own strategy how to go about this issue. The world in which we live is a big theater, and we all have to find our role and our part to play. Each one of us comes up with a different approach. A lot of people choose this approach of being very outward and being very loud. But that doesn’t mean that they actually are that way, it could be a way of hiding. For example, my lead actor, he is deep down a very overemotional person, but if he were here today, he would walk in and start joking around with everybody. He would cause a riot and it would be very fun, but that’s his own way of hiding. He always says the best way to hide is to make a lot of noise.

KB: Why do you call it “overemotional”?

JA: Actually the true subject of our movie is to talk about these hyper emotional people. They are volcanoes; they are overly full. They have all this pent up emotion that is overwhelming and it is ready to explode. Their desire is very strong. They are full of energy. But, because of this fear that holds them back, they are like a pressure cooker always on the verge of exploding. All the emotions are good things obviously, but not for people like that, who are actually kept imprisoned by these emotions. And for these reasons, they go to groups like Emotions Anonymous. They are almost like slaves to these emotions and it could be any emotion, it could be jealousy or rage, any of those that actually keep you hostage.

KB: Are there really meetings like this?

JA: Yes, there are. Actually, for me that’s how it started. Ten years ago I went myself and I was a member of one of those groups. I went for two years and back then, I didn’t know yet that I was going to make a movie out of that, but of course, the way I am, everything [eventually] becomes cinema in my life.

KB: You mentioned earlier that as a filmmaker, the other kinds of stories that you have told in the past were not as personal. What allowed you to tell this kind of story at this point in your life?

JA: Actually, the movies that I made before this were still personal, but I would talk about the subject itself or other people’s experiences. This time, I decided to talk about something that I know myself very deeply. The reason that I did it is definitely age…the fact that I am getting older and because of that I have a bit of distance from that experience. For example, 10 years [ago] I was too stuck and too close to those situations, and I would not have been able to talk about them. Whereas now, I have the self-irony to be able to actually describe them and also I wanted to show the viewers that you can actually overcome these fears and I wanted a movie that could give confidence to the spectators. I wanted the viewers to experience the same conditions as these characters. I wanted them to leave the theater thinking that this can be overcome and that a lot of people are like that and that this can actually be strength. Especially for directors, writers or anyone that is an artist, being overemotional is actually both a gift and a curse. That’s your tool.

KB: Why did you choose to do it as a romantic comedy. Even if you did it as a romance, it could have been more serious, but you did it in a very sweet and whimsical approach.

JA: I wanted to make a movie that could give pleasure to people and I wanted to share the joy and [yet show] that the situation is difficult. Also, on the other hand, I have always loved romantic comedies. In particular, American romantic comedies. When I was a teenager that was always my dream, to fall in love. I wanted to pay tribute to this kind of cinema that helped me when I was alone. I think that romantic comedies are good for people that are alone because they can see on the screen love stories that they don’t experience first-hand themselves.

KB: Also, you included two musical numbers; the movie is not a musical. Why did you do that?

JA: I wanted to show color in a sort of Mary Poppins style. I wanted to show the singing and the dancing because in the movie we are in Angelique’s head, and since she is terrified of the real world, she creates her own little world which means that she can be free to sing and dance. That is what creates the real poetry of her universe. I wanted to show this richness in this world and what she has in her head. Actually, I would say that the singing part was the actress’s idea. She does that in real life, whenever she has a situation that she find as a cause of anxiety, like a job interview or a film festival. She just sings that particular song, like the song from the Sound of Music. You know Julie Andrews sings that in the Sound of Music. When she brought that up to me, I loved the idea and we included it right away.

KB: I’ve tried to do that, too, but the problem is that every once in a while somebody would walk in on me…like a cop.

JA: What I wanted to show was that hyper emotional people are often very poetic and they shift reality a little bit. There is nothing plain in their life and that is what I wanted to show.

KB: I have to admit that I was thinking that Romantics Anonymous could be an English remake. Then I came across a review in Variety that said that it had good remake potential. So, I thought: ‘OK, I am not alone.’ What would you think about something like that?

JA: Yeah, actually there is a lot of influence from my love for American comedies. Maybe you could make an American remake with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. They are my favorite actors.

KB: Would you direct?

JA: No. I don’t think so. [laughs]

KB: Why did you base it around chocolate?

JA: When I was doing the Emotions Anonymous groups, I met a lot of people who in real life were teachers or bank managers or shopkeepers. They were people in jobs where you need to interact with the public. So they came to the groups and talked about how difficult that was. I knew that in my movie I wanted to have this poetic, very childlike universe that was sort of out of this world. I didn’t want to set it in a school or in a factory.

Then the scriptwriter, one day, came up with the idea: What if she was a chocolate-maker and worked in the chocolate industry. I thought that was great because it would allow us to have the sort of old fashioned, childlike vibe that we were looking for. It also fit the subject really well. Chocolate is an anti-depressant and a lot people eat it compulsively when they are nervous and it is very sensual. It also quickly became a metaphor of what cinema is for me. So [that’s] what chocolate is for Angelique: A way to overcome fears.

KB: How do you envision two or three years from now after the film has ended, what is their life like?

JA: They are going to make chocolate together and are going to be very happy. Just as a joke from time to time, I tell people that I feel sorry for their kids.

KB: What is your favorite chocolate?

JA: I love many kinds, but dark chocolate is the best.

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