PARK CITY, Utah—Writer Doris Lessing was 92 years old when French filmmaker Anne Fontaine met her last year, and she made quite an impression.
"She's wild," Fontaine says. "She has a look I'd never seen before: eyes that go into your head, like a fakir, so intense, not hiding anything."
The two women were speaking because Fontaine was going to turn Lessing's novella "The Grandmothers" into a film and the Nobel Prize-winning author had some unexpected advice for adapting her story of two women looking back on their lives.
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"She tells me, 'Don't take two old women, 60-year-olds. If you do, women will be against the story. The audience has to envy them in a way, even if it is almost a taboo.'"
Fontaine took Lessing's suggestion, casting Naomi Watts and Robin Wright in "Two Mothers," one of the Sundance Film Festival's more provocative entries. It's the story of what happens when two Australian women, best friends since childhood, take each other's sons as lovers.
"I know this is very provocative. People could be shocked, but I believe in this story," the director says. "This sex, it's like a drug, it's stronger than rationality. It's not normal sexuality, the desire is not classic, not conventional. It's something violent inside, something they can't explain. They don't know where it's going to end."
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"Two Mothers" is Fontaine's first film in English, but it didn't start out that way. A French producer gave her the novella, and though she "fell in love with this amazing story, so free, without moral judgment," she turned it down because she didn't feel the tale would convey well in French.
Then she began to wonder: Why not try it in English? And after a meeting with Lessing, everything fell into place.
"She told me it was a true story, told to her by a friend of the two boys, and that it had taken place in Australia. It has to be in that fantastical landscape," Fontaine says. "If the story is too naturalistic it will lose something of the novel."
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For a self-described "control freak," Fontaine says doing a film in a language not her own "could be a little difficult at times. My English is not very sophisticated. When I talked to the actors, I had to be short and specific."
On the positive side, Fontaine, well-known in France for films like "Dry Cleaning," "How I Killed My Father" and "Coco Before Chanel," felt it was "liberating to do a film in another language, another country. In France, everyone observes me. It was freeing not to be seen."
Watts, 44, and Wright, 46, the director feels, were essential to the success of "Two Mothers," which sold to Exclusive Releasing during the festival.
"It's very important that the actresses believe in that story and that I could direct it," Fontaine says. "They're very elegant, very sexy, beautiful together, and they helped me a lot, they made me confident.
"They're like Rolls-Royces, they are so subtle and so intelligent in the ways they express things. These characters have to exist, not be played."
Watts was the first star cast and Fontaine said she immediately "fell in love with the complexity of the story" — so much so that for a key scene in which her character looks closely at her face in the mirror and worries about the ravages of age, "she asked to play it without makeup. Her face was naked, she asked me not to protect her. I don't know if French actresses would ask me that."
Starting from her 1997 debut feature "Dry Cleaning," about a married couple whose emotional life is changed by a drag performer, Fontaine has been drawn to stories that deal with "what is underneath, what you don't know about yourself. I love stories where people lose something but find something deeper. When things get deranged, you are more alive."
Those transgressive elements, Fontaine feels, led to the sporadic laughter heard during the film's festival screenings. "People are shocked, 'Oh my god,' and they laugh to protect themselves," she says. "They laugh when they don't know how to react."
If Fontaine has one regret about "Two Mothers," it's that she hasn't been able to show the finished film to Lessing, now 93 and quite ill. "She told me, 'I stopped writing since I won this ... Nobel Prize' [in 2007]. I don't like pathos, but in front of her, I had tears.'"
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