Beauty that lies in the detail

Date: June 1, 2013

Philippa Hawker

Film and arts writer

An elderly couple fight against local authorities in rural New Brunswick to build their final home.

”I have had many incarnations,” Genevieve Bujold says. In a career of more than half a century, she’s done Greek tragedy and disaster movies, period dramas and horror films. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her first Hollywood movie, but has often gravitated to small independent projects.

”I did not consciously choose variety,” she says, on the phone from California. ”I think I ended up doing the films I was supposed to do.” She’s happy enough to talk about the past, but without any obvious sense of nostalgia. ”I don’t look back much, period. I make a conscious effort to stay in the now.” And as an actor, she says, some things don’t change for her. ”Every time is like the first time: it’s a dive, it’s fresh and exciting.”

Now, at 71, she has found herself in a role that feels very different from anything she has done before. She has done more press for it, she says, than any other film she has made, and it’s a low-budget independent movie without the benefits of a big marketing budget. She’s done this gladly, she adds: ”I think it’s a beautiful film, and I’m proud of it. I lead a pretty solitary life, which I enjoy, but I want to do what I can to help this film, to honour it and to thank it.”

Still Mine, based on real events, is the story of an elderly rural couple in New Brunswick, Canada, who still make a living on their farm. The wife is losing her memory and becoming increasingly frail and the husband wants to build, with his own hands, a new house that will allow her to stay at home. But he runs up against the bureaucratic requirements of planning authorities, and his struggle to look after her and build the house also becomes a fight against these constraints.

It’s a film about a long-standing relationship and its small, quotidian details. Writer-director Michael McGowan has created a work that revolves around the qualities of its two leads and the relationship they create: James Cromwell as the husband, Craig, and Bujold as Irene, his wife.

We learn more about Craig in the course of the film, Bujold concedes, because ”it’s his story, although Irene is a huge part of it, of his life, his heart, his mind”.

Working with Cromwell, she says, ”there was a chemistry”. ”We fitted. And I can’t see anyone else doing that role. It was meant to be us.”

For Bujold the character of Irene was all on the page, though she says there were familiar aspects she could draw on. ”Both my grandparents, on my father’s and my mother’s side, they were farmers on the Gaspe coast in Quebec. I know what those people are: they’re tough, they’re practical, they’re hard-working, they have no time for nonsense.”

And even with a clearly drawn character, there is plenty she does to prepare herself for a role. She has a routine that she follows, whatever the work, particularly when it comes to small independent films.

”From the time I say yes, it’s like I’m a recluse in my room, and everything becomes a source of instruction for me. I love it and I need it. I arrive ready, even if it’s going to be all discarded, but I need to leave home being that character.”

For Irene, she raided her own wardrobe, bringing several items of clothing that she thought worked for the role. She brought a slip, sweater and pants – ”I saw her in pants” – and suggested that Irene would always wear a string of pearls her husband had given her. At the first meeting with McGowan and costume designer Sarah Millman, Bujold recalls, ”wonderful Sarah, so creative, had brought a skirt”. ”I looked at it on the bed; I said, ‘Mm, let me try it’. And the second I put it on, that was it.”

Similarly, there are small things she can bring to scenes with the director’s blessing. When Irene talks about her sister, for example, Bujold uses her own sister’s name. And in a scene in which Irene has wandered off to gaze at the sea, she was supposed to say, ”It’s lovely”. Bujold, who lives by the ocean, told McGowan it wasn’t a word she’d use. ”Say something in French,” he told her, and she used the word ”beau” instead.

There’s a scene in which Craig loses his patience with Irene, when she wants to stay outside at night and refuses to come inside. Her resistance is fierce and stubborn, and her voice becomes much deeper. The way Irene says ”Take your damn hands off me”, Bujold explains, was something she hadn’t anticipated. ”It was like my mother came through with that one. When my mother got really upset or angry she would have that kind of tight teeth that would scare the hell out of me. That came through in the moment; I had never thought of it.”

We speak about a film that inevitably comes up when she is talking about Still Mine: Michael Haneke’s Amour, the story of an elderly, bourgeois French couple forced to deal with the wife’s increasing frailty. It was nominated for five Academy Awards this year: it took out best foreign language film at the Oscars and the Golden Globes and picked up more than 40 prizes around the world.

It’s a far bleaker film made with a different sensibility, and Bujold can’t feel enthusiastic about it, she says: ”So dark, so depressing, such a bummer. I couldn’t sit through it. Once he slaps her on the face, my body got out of the seat and I left.” She’s quick to say how much she admires the actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and to say that she is not speaking as a critic. ”Maybe it’s wonderfully done, but I could not take it.” Her first thought, watching Riva’s character, was that ”I wanted to protect her”.

Bujold, born in Montreal, went to a convent school and studied drama. She was on tour in Russia and France with a theatre company when Alain Resnais’ mother saw her perform in Paris and told her director son about the young actor. ”I went and met him,” she says. ”He had a little camera, just the two of us, and he shot some stuff, I don’t remember what it was, maybe just talking to me. And at the end, he said something that to this day I remember: ‘Always go to the end of your movement.’ It’s like a mantra to me.”

Then she returned to Canada. ”I got home, and then one morning there was a telegram slipped under my door and it was them saying, we’ll send you a ticket, we start shooting on such and such a date. And I knew then – even telling you now, I get the goose bumps – that was an important moment.”

It was for a role in The War Is Over (1966) starring Yves Montand, a drama about a revolutionary struggling to maintain his hope and activism. Bujold made several more films in France before being cast in a big-budget Hollywood production, Anne of the Thousand Days. She was Anne Boleyn, and Richard Burton was Henry VIII. It was a lavish costume drama and it made Bujold an international star. She was nominated for an Oscar.

But she didn’t want to do the next film the studio expected her to do. She went on to play Cassandra in The Trojan Women, a powerful adaptation of Euripides’ play, starring alongside Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Irene Papas (who was Catherine of Aragon inAnne of the Thousand Days). She made some studio films, such as Earthquake and Coma, she starred in three features with Alan Rudolph in the 1980s, and she made a remarkable film with David Cronenberg, Dead Ringers, a brilliant combination of the cerebral and the visceral. It was a great experience, she says, but ”I don’t think I could watch it now”.

As an actor, she says, ”I don’t instigate anything. I have my life. I live in a little town called Malibu. I came here in 1974 to do a film for Universal Studios because I owed them a film afterAnne of the Thousand Days.”

After the snows of Montreal, she says, it felt like paradise. ”I came for three months and I’ve been here ever since. Life takes over.”

 Still Mine opens on June 6.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/movies/beauty-that-lies-in-the-detail-20130531-2nfxr.html#ixzz2V6IB8aSX