An antidote for cynicism that still upholds the truth of its characters’ struggles, Louise Archambault’s Gabrielle is a refreshingly heartwarming and peculiar love story.
The film’s title character is based on Gabrielle Marion Rivard, a real woman with Williams syndrome. Archimbault met Rivard through a local Quebecoise organization called Les Muses, where she was taking singing classes. With Archambault casting Rivard and other people with developmental disorders in the film, transitioning real humans into fictionalized counterparts was an organic process.
Infused with indelible honesty, Gabrielle portrays its characters as self-sufficient and intricate, living lives unaffected by society’s conventions of normalcy. The film follows Gabrielle’s quest for independence, as well as her blooming romantic relationship with Martin (Alexandre Landry), who she meets at a choir for developmentally disabled individuals.
Director Louise Archambault talked to us about the joys of choir music, the challenges of working with non-professional actors, and lessons he learned from making the film (Canada’s official Best Foreign Language Oscar submission in 2013).
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How difficult was it to portray your cast – most of them real-life adults with developmental disorders – as true-to-life individuals?
Louise Archambault (LA): While I was writing the film I did a lot of research, as if I was doing a documentary. It was an immersive experience – the people and their stories inspired me. The film is based on real, complex people with flaws and dreams and more challenges than most. I spent a lot of time with them and tried to really capture their nuances. I cannot speak for all people with disorders – only the characters in my film
MM: What were the challenges or benefits of directing Gabrielle herself, who lives a life very close to that of her character?
LA: It was a real challenge because Gabrielle is not an actress. She is a very good singer and she has that magical, natural light. She is very luminous and photogenic. Initially when I worked with her, she was too much on screen. She has what is called “theatrical behavior” as part of her syndrome. I thought “How can I show her natural happiness and luminosity while making her character believable?”
She understood if I asked her to do less, but sometimes toning down made her come across as dull – I had to find the right balance. I said, “I’ll try to find the right way to direct her to keep the magical moments, the truth, while still telling this story on the script.” You adapt, and every day, every hour, we had to change things. But it was never too difficult because Gabrielle was so determined to do it well, and that’s odd [laughs].
MM: Alternately, how was it to direct Alexandre Landry, who doesn’t have a development disorder, but plays someone who does? How did you get him to be in-sync with the non-professional cast?
LA: Alexandre is an actor, but he is not a singer. While rehearsing, especially while rehearsing the choir scenes, we had to practice and find the right way for him to sing the song. At the beginning, when Alexandre was working with the group he was the one who felt like an outcast, but the others took care of him and gave him confidence in his singing. It was interesting because it was contrary to what we usually see. Alexandre is a very special actor, but he is also very human and open to others. I sensed it during the audition. He was like that with Gabrielle. He never showed any sort of superiority. He learns from everyone – it could be a Prime Minister or a house cleaner; it would be the same thing. That was a very important quality needed for that role, to be open to whatever happens.
MM: At what point did you decide that music would be an important aspect of the film?
LA: I knew I wanted to talk about happiness and about outcasts, and music came immediately into the equation. When you sing, especially in a choir, it fills you with energy. While I was writing, I was listening to Gabrielle and others in their singing class. Sometimes I would have a not-so-happy day, and just listening to them brought me positive energy. Physiologically, singing in a group gives people something uplifting. We’ve had singing since the beginning of time. While I was writing, I saw the songs I used in the film as an extension of the characters’ emotions. The songs translate what each person lives in the story.
MM: What makes Gabrielle and Martin’s romance special?
LA: I think the love is the same; what’s different is that everybody involved in their lives affects it. Their parents intervene, so they are not alone in their love equation.
MM: Martin and Gabrielle’s relationship is so pure and natural, but the people around them have issues with it. Where does that fear come from?
LA: They want to protect Gabrielle and Martin. It is justified, because they fear the unknown. They see them as children because they are not fully autonomous. It is for sure a real concern: “What if Gabrielle get pregnant? Who is going to take care of the child?” I don’t have the answer, but it is a valid concern. There are also cases of people like Gabrielle and Martin being abused. I think the parents are afraid because they don’t have the tools to understand everything. We catalogue people and groups in society, so when we face something we don’t know we are more afraid. By opening up, talking, and learning we find solutions to create the best situation for everyone. I don’t want to be moralizing but the film is a bit about that as well.
MM: As a filmmaker, or a creative person, what was the most important lesson you learned from working with this incredible group of people?
LA: It’s important to open up to others, whoever they may be, and not take other people for granted or make assumptions about them. Be in the present. Sure, you can have goals and dreams, but make the best of what you’re experience now. It was an amazing human adventure.
MM: What was the reaction of the cast, and their families when they saw the challenges they deal with everyday translated on screen?
LA: The most exciting screening of Gabrielle was what the crew, cast, and families got to see it. Afterwards, parents came to me and said “Thank you, it feels like if you filmed in our living room,” and they hugged me. That was the best feedback I could’ve gotten.
MM: What did you learn from making Gabrielle that will help you in future projects?
LA: I knew Gabrielle dealt with a delicate subject. Sometimes I felt like the film might be too sweet. But I wanted to draw the audience into the singing world, to make the forget that the characters on screen were different. What I learned from making Gabrielle is everything is possible and believe in your gut feelings. MM
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