Meet the Two Sisters Who Co-Directed a Brutal but Bloodless War Movie
The Stopover, winner of Best Screenplay in Cannes Un Certain Regard section, is an honest portrayal of veterans and their emotional landmines.
The Stopover (Voir du Pays) is a film of both literal and psychological projections. When female, French soldiers Aurore (Ariane Labed) and Marine (Soko) return from a tour in Afghanistan, their unit first stops over in Cyprus for a three-day "decompression" period. Cramped together in a dark conference room in an ostentatious resort, the soldiers are forced to relive their traumas through virtual reality projections. One by one, psychologists call the soldiers to the front of the room and ask them to describe their most harrowing memory from the war; a team of computer scientists then recreates it in real-time.
But memory is interpretation. As it turns out, some soldiers have different projections of the same key events. Crucial decisions are questioned, stirring up latent hostility. In between the sessions in the conference room, violence and rage spring up everywhere; physical fights break out, insults are hurled almost indiscriminately, and every soldier feels on the brink of implosion.
Seeking a reprieve, Aurore and Marine sneak out of the resort to spend a day exploring the island with Cypriots they met on the beach. Some fellow male soldiers get curious and set out to join them. Here, in the "real world," co-directors (and sisters) Delphine and Muriel Coulin perform some thriller-esque bait-and-switches, drilling deep into the fractured psychology of characters whose landmines are now their own emotions. The men turn against the women—"they just need an enemy," someone says by way of explanation—and the projection of equality between male and female soldiers crumbles. What's left is blatant misogyny and chaos.
No Film School caught up with the Coulin sisters at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival to discuss their raw depiction of life after war, told through the acute lens of female soldiers for whom defending France was only an afterthought in their reasons for having enlisted in the army.
No Film School: What interested you about the veteran experience?
Delphine Coulin: First, this idea was a book, 'cause I'm a novelist. I wanted to write about women and violence. There are more and more women becoming soldiers, especially [where Muriel and I were born]. Each time I would see women soldiers, I would think, "How did they become soldier?" I decided to do research on women soldiers, and then I discovered this three-day therapy in Cyprus, and I found it rich enough to write a novel. There are different layers of subjects: on Europe, on war, on violence.
Muriel Coulin: We decided to make the adaptation of the book. For me, at the beginning, it was not that easy it all came out of Delphine's imagination, [not mine]. But Delphine was very open to scenes I wanted to add. There are one or two scenes that are not in the book. She was very open, as long as it went with the characters or the story or the themes.
"The memories came back right while we were shooting. His tears are not fake. The guy is reliving those war scenes."
Delphine Coulin: This book, in particular, was combing our favorite themes, which [are present in] all of our films. All of our films deal with femininity. This one was intrinsically visual, especially with this 3-D therapy.
NFS: Did you conduct research specifically for this adaptation?
Delphine Coulin: Yeah, because in a book, if you don't know something, you avoid it, whereas in a film you cannot. Even for the actors, the gestures and the attitudes had to be really worked on. We had several weeks of rehearsals with a military coach.
Muriel Coulin: You can't invent military things. We had five real soldiers in the film. One of the biggest compliments that we had from one of the soliders who saw the film was: "Finally, a film about the French army that is not bullshitting me about anything." That was great because those guys spent ten years in the army and they know what's right and what's wrong.
NFS: How did the real soldiers you cast react to reliving some of their experiences?
Delphine Coulin: One of the main characters was traumatized from Afghanistan in real life. I met him at a radio interview. I was there for my book and he was there to talk about his experience. He had read my book, so we discussed it afterward. He's very good-looking guy, and very sensitive for a soldier. He said something that touched me. At one point, the journalist interviewing him said, "But now you're cured? Are you okay?" And he's like, "But you don't understand; I will never be cured." It was so heartbreaking to hear him say that. He's good-looking; he's quite bright; he's a good guy. And then you ask, "Why did you go there?"
In the taxi coming home, I called my sister. We were writing the script at the moment. I said, "This guy, there's one chance on a thousand that he knows how to act, but we've got to do an [audition] with him." He was great from the beginning. We're lucky he wanted to take his experience and [share it with us]. This really bad thing that's happened to him—
Muriel Coulin: —is positive in the end. When we shot the scene, the guy was totally immersed with the memories, which is exactly [what happens] in our film. The memories came back right while we were shooting. His tears are not fake. The guy is reliving those war scenes. For us, that was very moving: it was like a movie in the movie.
"We direct the actors together. We speak to the DP together. If I see Muriel go to talk to one of our actresses, I know why she's going to speak to her."
NFS: Did the soldiers say that reliving the experiences helped them?
Muriel Coulin: Some of them. In America, they do this therapy, too. Those days between war and home, they used to call those days "don't kill your wife coming home" days. I think, in a way, it must be useful. I think it's a good period while they try to slow down, calm down, and then they can see their wives and children again.
Delphine Coulin: But at the same time, it's like in the movie: for some of them it's positive, and for some it's totally the contrary. When you retell all your stories in front of the others, it's hard if [you're an internal person].
NFS: In America, rape in the military is a big issue. You touch on that in the film.
Muriel Coulin: I would say it's in most armies, and now we have a very big problem of sexual harassment in the political life in France at the moment. It's a very big issue. Some women in politics have decided to—
Delphine Coulin: —denounce politics. It's in all the armies and it's in almost all societies. Everything that is in our film is more obvious because it's in the army, but every woman can recognize some things. All the little jokes that men make... they are all jokes, but at the same time, they are sexually incorrect.
Muriel Coulin: There was even one book in France that was published about one girl in the Navy who said she was sexually harassed. She didn't tell anyone for years. Now women are coming out to say things. Finally! She said that when she began telling the superiors that she had been harassed, they made her guilty. "That's because you didn't wear your uniform." "That's because your trousers were too tight." Stupid things like that. She became shy again because they didn't believe her.
Delphine Coulin: We have gained some things in terms of equality for women. At the same time, you cannot be alone in feeling equal. These girls went in the army because they thought that they were equals with men and they could do the same jobs. But if the other people—the men—don't think you're equal, then it's pointless.
NFS: That's a really good point, and I think that's something that's hard for men to understand, because it's very specific to the subjective experience of being a woman.
Delphine Coulin: Exactly. The women in our family are very strong, and they always told us that we were equals, and we feel equal. But at one point in your life, something happens and you realize it's not that simple.
NFS: How do you two co-direct?
Delphine Coulin: We do everything together, from the writing to the editing.
Muriel Coulin: We end up sleeping in the editing room.
Delphine Coulin: On the set, for example, some co-directors say, "This shot, you're going to direct it, and I'll do the next." We don't do that. We direct the actors together. We speak to the DP together. If I see Muriel go to talk to one of our actresses, I know why she's going to speak to her.
"When you've got five of the crew that are true soldiers who came back from the war, it's your responsibility to act it well."
NFS: So you shared the same vision for the film?
Delphine Coulin: Yeah. We like the same films. We have the same references in cinema and in life because we were brought up together. When writing, it's quite convenient to say, "This character is like Mrs. Smith." We both know why we said that, and it goes quickly.
NFS: Do you have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other?
Delphine Coulin: Yeah. Muriel went to film school and was a DP before becoming a director, so she's got more technical skills. I'm a novelist, so I've got more writing experience. At the same time, sometimes experience refrains you from innovative things. For example, I would say, "Is it possible to do this shot?" She and our DP would say, "No, no, technically it's impossible." Then we try to do it, and we manage to do it. In the writing, it's the same thing: sometimes I've got reflexes that prevent me from getting ideas, and she's more inventive.
NFS: How did you start directing together?
Delphine Coulin: We did six shorts together.
Muriel Coulin: We didn't decide beforehand how we would share. We just brought the script and then gave our arguments—this is good, this is not good, all that. On the set, it's the same. It's, you know, "Do you think we should do that?" "Yeah, let's do that." "While I speak to the actor, can you check if the car is well-positioned?" It's very dynamic.
NFS: In a way, directing seems like a two-person job, because you're in charge of everything on set and so many things can be overlooked with just one person. With two directors, I'm sure you get to cover a lot of ground.
Delphine Coulin: Yeah, and you are stronger in front of the crew. Because sometimes you've got to fight, and you're stronger when there's two of you.
NFS: Were there any particular challenges that you had shooting this film?
Delphine Coulin: Oh yeah, many. The 3-D sequences were a challenge for us because we never did these sort of images before. We really wanted these scenes to be in the heart of the film because they are really in the heart of the subject. How can you distinguish reality from memory? What is different between fiction and memory, and how can an image speak to others? Also, in cinema, you never show the interior of the head of your actor. This was the first time we could go inside it and show it. The actor is talking and what he sees in his head you see behind him on a screen.
Muriel Coulin: Also, in terms of direction, it was a very big challenge to shoot in Greece with half the team that was Greek, part were Belgium but they spoke French, and a part of the crew was French. All the extras were Greek, so can you imagine directing 50 extras speaking Greek, when you don't speak five words of Greek?
"We had to make war exist through 3-D images and sound."
Delphine Coulin: In a hotel where people are supposed to be on holiday, and suddenly a film shoot is happening.
Muriel Coulin: The tourists were real! They were having their holidays there, and suddenly we put the 50 guys in the pool. Those scenes were huge to direct.
Delphine Coulin: At the same time, we both come from documentary, and we like this [style]. Our first short was like this: we put two actors in big strikes in Paris. All the streets were blocked, and we blocked another street just for the film and everybody hated us. It's very stimulating because you get to direct your actors in this reality. When our soldiers came in with their uniforms amidst these real tourists, we had strong reactions. It was hard, but it paid off onscreen.
NFS: Did you have conversations about the thematic material with everybody on set, not just the actors?
Delphine Coulin: Yeah, especially our DP. He's my companion, and he was Muriel's best friend before I knew him. We spoke together about the style of the movie. And the sound editor, a guy called Nicolas Baker. Because we didn't have true war scenes, like in a common war movie, we had to make war exist through 3-D images and sound. We had discussions about the sounds of war. How can we make war exist in this hotel? Maybe when you see it, you don't notice it, but in fact sound was a big challenge.
NFS: I definitely noticed. In the recreation simulation scenes, you would expect everything to be very loud and overwhelming. I thought it was interesting that you kept it low volume, kind of like in a video game, and then a soldier later says, "It doesn't even compare at all."
Delphine Coulin: I think, in reality, [psychologists] do this because they want to transform the experience into something [bearable]. For example, when Soko's character says, "There wasn't even blood in the recreation," [the audience] saw blood, and it was shocking for us. But compared to reality, when you've got someone losing his leg, there's much more blood. I think that the army knows it and does it on purpose. They want to replace dirty images with neat and bearable images.
NFS: It felt manipulative. Patronizing.
Delphine Coulin: Absolutely.
NFS: Did you talk to the veterans about those feelings?
Delphine Coulin: Yeah. They are not very articulate about things like this, but we met some psychologists in the army and that was our impression when we discussed it with them. You chose the right word: it's really patronizing. The psychologists really consider the soldiers as children. They are nearly children—some of them are 18 years old. They are not conscious of their experiences; in a way, these psychologists are like fathers. It's a patriarchal society, the army.
Muriel Coulin: Our actors felt that way. You could believe that those guys came from Afghanistan.
Delphine Coulin: Also, they were really implicated in the subject as well, because when you've got five of the crew that are true soldiers who came back from the war, it's your responsibility to act it well. You cannot do fantasy things. You cannot have an ego trip as an actor when you are in front of someone that lived this [reality]. There was something truthful on set, and nobody could bullshit it.