French director Eva Husson talks about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.
One of the great surprises of last year’s London Film Festival, Eva Husson’s bracing debut Bang Gang paints a frank, uninhibited and nuanced portrait of modern youth. Based on a real-life case, the film follows a group of teenage friends who engage in sex parties in a small French seaside town. Experimenting in this way will lead each of them to find their own limits and work out their own singular relationship to sex and love.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Eva Husson at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2015 about adolescence and excess, shooting sex scenes and creating cliché-free female characters.
Virginie Sélavy: Bang Gang goes against all the clichés about today’s youth and the panic about the internet. Although you integrate things such as posting photos online in the story you show that the characters’ exploration of sexuality is just part of growing up.
Eva Husson: I’m interested in the exploration of limits. I think that’s the job of teenagers, and the characters just do their job. Some are more confused than others, and some go further. A number of people asked if I thought the film represented youth. No, I don’t think that young people are constantly having intense group sex. But I think that it is very likely that similar excessive behaviour goes on, and it reveals archetypes and issues that are common to everyone. I think it’s much more interesting to choose an excessive type of story to approach that than a more traditional little love story that no one would have cared about.
It is based on a real event, is that right?
Yes, it was inspired by something that happened in 1996 when three hundred kids got syphilis in a small town. That’s what caught the attention of the hospital. They started to think it was a little strange, all these kids coming to them with that same problem. They questioned the kids and they realised there was something a little off. So it’s not something that is recent, and at the time you didn’t have all these issues of videos and photos. I included that in the film because I felt I couldn’t ignore it.
The way you portray the parents is very nuanced. They are quite sympathetic, they’re not repressive, they just don’t really understand what is going on.
I felt it was important that the parents shouldn’t be repressive caricatures because that’s often the way they are represented. I was touched by the fact that the parents try their best but fail, they’re a little clueless. They are quite open-minded and could understand their children if they talked but of course adolescents don’t talk. So I was looking back with sympathy at my parents and my friends’ parents, who were middle class and well-intentioned but got so much wrong. I was angry with them for a while and then I realised that they just did what they could.
You play an adult in the film, the maths teacher.
Yes, because even though in my head I was a teenager until I was 35 it was impossible to continue being a teenager. I love acting because I started as an actress, and I liked the idea of having a small role. Due to the intensity of the shooting I didn’t feel able to play a bigger role. And my husband plays the chemistry teacher, my mother plays the Spanish teacher, my brother is the disabled father and my cousin plays Alex’s mother. It’s a family affair.
What was the shooting like?
It was hard, because of the financial situation. We had limited means compared to our ambitions and so it was difficult to do all the things we wanted to do with the quality we wanted. Also we shot in some isolated places. All the scenes in the house were shot in the country and it was hard to be all crammed together in one place, day and night. The kids were fed up with each other, they were at each other’s throats. It was a bit like a holiday camp, it was drama after drama. To be honest I found it all quite funny. But there was also a lot of enthusiasm. The creative team was really close, there were many happy moments. I’d just had my baby and so I felt a little like a warrior: I’ve just given birth, I can do anything now, all problems have solutions. But I was scared, it’s not like I went in thinking, ‘great, I’ve just had a baby and now I’m making a film, that’s so cool’. I went in thinking, ‘oh shit…’ It actually gave me a strength I didn’t suspect I had.
Was it the first time you made something so explicitly sexual?
For a long time I was worried about the project for that reason. I found the story fascinating, I found the exploration of the extreme fascinating, but as for the sexual aspect of it… I’d shot one or two sex scenes before and I knew they weren’t the most pleasant scenes to film. Everyone is uncomfortable, watching people pretend to moan is not great to be honest… And so I wasn’t too happy about that, but at one point I said to my actors, ‘look, it’s very simple, your bodies are tools, you think of it as dancing, we’ll think about bodies in space, we’ll choreograph them, we’ll do it as a physical relationship to space. Don’t let yourselves get overwhelmed by your own emotions, it’s not about you, it’s about the characters’. And that’s the guiding principle that we all followed. When the actors talk about it they don’t seem traumatised. The other thing is that I kept the sex scenes to a minimum. I wanted it to be about the trajectories of the characters and for those scenes to exist only in relation to their emotions.
Those scenes feel very frank, very sensual, and never empty.
We spent a lot of time thinking about why we were filming each scene, what needed to be shown, in fact what was the minimum we could show, without overdoing it because others have done that, and I wasn’t really interested in that as a filmmaker. We thought a lot about what it meant for the character, which made a lot of decisions easier. When it came to nudity, I wanted it to be something simple. That’s why I had a couple of scenes where you see them naked early on so that afterwards you know that they can be naked, it doesn’t need to be all frontal. I didn’t want to focus on the genitals because people don’t really want to see that.
You’ve created great female characters that are very complex and different. They do what they want to do without compromising and they don’t get punished for it.
That was very important to me. As a woman I was thinking about how women and female sexuality are represented. I thought that a full-blown teenage female sexuality can be explored in a way that doesn’t necessarily end badly. Of course, if you shag lots of people, there is the risk of sexually transmissible diseases. For me that’s not punishment, that’s a fact. But at that age there is also that extreme malleability that means that you learn the lesson of what didn’t work, of what was a little too much, and you carry on, and you construct your identity. The construction of female sexual identity fascinated me, that’s something I really wanted to explore. I think there will be viewers who will find it hard going because it goes against the patriarchal view of things – even in films I love like Breaking the Waves, the female character really suffers, it’s punishment after punishment after punishment.
It’s interesting that syphilis is what happened in the real story because today the big STD threat is AIDS. That’s something that would change your life because there is no treatment, whereas now you can treat syphilis, which removes the potentially tragic element of STD.
Well, I did wonder if I should keep that in, so it was a real narrative choice, because a lot of people were saying to me, syphilis is over. It’s not common, that’s for sure, but it does happen. And it’s precisely no longer a lethal disease these days so the kids can move on, and that’s what’s interesting. I had a fairly wild youth, not in terms of orgies, but drugs, and people around me took lots too, and we all turned out OK. So it’s possible to explore your limits without it destroying your adult life. For me it’s a lie to say that if you mess up as a teenager you’ll ruin your life. It’s the only moment in life when you can go very far and make a full U-turn without any real consequences. I liked the idea of exploring that.
The film also dynamites all the clichés about girls, sex and love, the idea that girls are romantic and boys are not.
Yes, for instance, for Gabriel, a boy, and I know many boys like him, intimacy is something that is very strong and intense and he can’t do collective sex. However, he’s enough of a freak, in a good sense, to think that it doesn’t matter what this special girl who means so much to him does with her sexuality, because he’s someone who sees what really matters. George, on the other hand, is a romantic girl, but for her that’s not connected to sex. So she can sleep with boys without it being in contradiction with her sentimental side. And Alex may initially seem like a little bastard, but through him I was looking back with tenderness at teenage boys, realising that they were just a bit dazed, they didn’t understand everything. At the time I thought they were obnoxious, but in fact they were a little lost because learning about love and relationships is actually not easy – now, 20 years ago or 2000 years ago.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
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