Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Gorgeous!" - Director Lisa Azuelos on Women, Jews, France, and Paris

Director Lisa Azuelos' comedy "Gorgeous!" (or "Comme t'y es Belle") portrays the lives of women today in the Sephardic community of Paris. Azuelos explained after the sold-out screening that her film plays differently to French and American audiences. In France, she explained, it was almost bizarre to see everyday Jewish women as the subject of a film, and the fact that "Gorgeous!" was a comedy made it even more unique, perhaps singular.

I spoke with Lisa Azuelos at last night's Directors' Party.

What drove you to make “Gorgeous!”? Are you part of a Sephardic community in Paris?
I wanted to make a movie about women. And even though I’m not Jewish because my mother is not Jewish, I was raised by my father in this Jewish community. So I’m enough of an outsider to have witnessed it, and enough of an insider to talk about it. Being part of the community has really grounded me, even though I’m not a real Jew. In fact it would be a pain for me to have to marry a real Jew because then I would have to convert.

But this community gave me love and affection and food, and gave structure to my life with the dinners, high holidays and celebrations, like a perennial student on the semester system. Every year is structured in a special way. In the end, I really identify with the Jewish community I was raised in.

So that’s why this movie is both Jewish and non-Jewish: you see, I am very much Jewish but I’m not. So I’m talking about women in this film, I’m talking about Jewish women, especially, in tribute to my Jewish grandmother who did not speak of god, but who had god in her hands while she worked in the kitchen.

How does Jewish life fit into Parisian life?
Nothing that is not pure French Catholic is fully normal in France. It’s difficult for the French to absorb other communities and it’s the same for these communities to accept French culture. It’s not like here where you put your hand to your heart, say you’re an American, and then you are. In France you have to choose between one culture and the other, and in the end nobody really can choose anything. It’s odd, but I think it will soon change for the better.

Well maybe your film is in some sense a look in that direction, a hopeful look?
Yes, that’s why I made the movie. It is a hopeful look at the relations between men and women, Arabs and Jews. I was trying to bring joy.

Are your characters the type of women one could find in Paris today?
Yes, I know people like this. I’ve been like this, I have friends like this. I think I've stuck to real life in the film.

Then why, as you said at the screening, was “Gorgeous!” a challenge for French audiences?
Dramas about Jews are much easier for French audiences: You are a Jew and nobody understands you, you are a Jew and love an Arab; you know, drama. Or you can have a big, big comedy which is unrelated to real life. My movie, though it is a comedy, takes places in real life, which makes it unique.

You know, Woody Allen talks about Jewish people, but really about people more universally. And American audiences get that. But, when it comes to films in France, people think being Jewish should be the only thing, it should eat the other story.

But the French love Woody Allen! Because he’s exotic…?
No, because he’s great! Well, for us it’s exotic to see Manhattan. I wanted to do some of the same things, not to compare of course!, to make fun of certain aspects of Jewish life in Paris.

Is it common for Sephardic Jews to employ North African Muslims?
Yes. In the end, women are more bound by the fact that they come from Morocco than by religion, in a sense. They can speak Arabic together, they are part of the same community.

What sorts of responses did you get when you were first showing “Gorgeous!” in France?
People were really moved by the women’s stories, they could really relate. And I’d like to recount this one event: I took my film to a little town called Vannes at the end of Brittany. It has only cows and flowers. Nothing else. And they really don’t know what a Jew is. I showed this movie to an audience there, and these 65-year-old ladies were moved by my movie. And I was moved by that.

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