Laetitia Colombani got lucky. The 27-year-old French director wrote a screenplay as a thesis assignment at her university. Like any ambitious student, she entered the script in a contest and sent it to a famous producer, not expecting much.
The script went over better than she could have possibly imagined. Six months later, Colombani began shooting “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not” with Audrey Tautou, the pixie-faced charmer who starred in “Amélie.”
Colombani’s love-drunk thriller plays with Hollywood conventions. From its start, it seems like a sunny romance, centered on an affair between art student Angélique and Loïc, a married cardiologist who is expecting a baby with his wife. But halfway through, the movie flips and reverses, like “Rashomon” or “Run Lola Run,” going back in time and showing a much darker version of each event. Angélique, it seems, suffers from erotomania, or a delusional obsession with a man who doesn’t actually know she exists.
I met Colombani in the lobby of an over-designed New York hotel. She was cheery and excited on a rainy morning, eager to talk about the research that led to her script, why she likes manipulating an audience and the fine points of distinction between an erotomaniac and a stalker.
Actually, I was writing a thesis in my school about madness and movies, and I was supposed to write a screenplay about madness. And so I wondered what madness should I choose. And one night, on a TV show, I heard somebody talking about erotomania. And I didn’t know anything about this disease, but what this person told was amazing.
She was a woman, and she was in a wheelchair. She had been the victim of her neighbor, and he had fired her with two bullets. He was in love with her, and he was an erotomaniac. Her story was extraordinary, and so I decided to search in books: What exactly was erotomania? I discovered that it was fascinating and absolutely not famous. I didn’t see other films dealing with the same subject. And so I thought it would be great for my thesis and for my work and for my screenplay to deal with erotomania.
The difference is that in erotomania the mad person is convinced that she is loved in return. She is absolutely convinced. In erotomania there is nothing real. For example, in “Fatal Attraction,” Glenn Close and Michael Douglas had an affair, and when they broke up she could not bear it. But that is not erotomania, because there was something real. Naturally, in erotomania, there is absolutely nothing real, but the person is convinced that she is loved by somebody who is, in most cases, inaccessible. Loïc is a doctor, is married and is going to have a baby. It’s only in the person’s mind. But the person interprets every act as a loving act. The interpretation is the most important thing in erotomania.
You wrote the screenplay in school, and then you won a contest, right? Did they just say, “OK, now you get to make your movie”?
Yeah, well, actually it was a nice prize, but I had met my producer one month before. Everything went together. I met my producer in January, I won the prize in March and I started to shoot the movie in July. So everything was very fast.
Now, it usually doesn’t happen like that in the States. I’m assuming it’s not like that in Europe either.
I was very lucky. When I finished my screenplay I decided to send it to a famous producer [Dominique Brunner]. I was hoping he would give advice; I didn’t think he would produce it. But he read the script in one week and decided to produce it immediately. He called me and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s shoot it.” After that everything went very fast. Because he is very famous he could get the money fast. We cast it fast. Everything was very easy for me. It was like in a fairy tale. It was amazing.
I read that you originally wrote the lead for yourself.
Yeah, I am an actress too, and I really like acting, and when I was writing the script I thought I could be Angélique and act in my own movie. But when I started to prepare it I just realized it was so huge, the work of doing my first feature, that it would be better if I only direct because it’s too much work.
So I decided on Audrey Tautou. I was thinking that she would be perfect from the part because she was far away from the mad girl. You can’t imagine that she would be mad. I am still an actress, but I am sure that I do not want to act in my own movies.
Why is that?
It must be very hard to be in the same time in front of a camera and behind. I think that an actor is really better when he is being directed by someone else.
What directors would you like to work with?
As an actress?
Well, my three idols, you know. Roman Polanski, Jane Campion and Tim Burton are my three favorite directors. And I would die to work with them.
I keep reading these reviews of your film, and they say it’s “Fatal Attraction” meets “Amélie.” But I think that your movie goes deeper than that.
Actually, I didn’t see “Amélie” before I wrote my screenplay, or before I cast Audrey. I don’t think people would think of “Amélie” if Audrey Tautou was not in it. I don’t think there are many common points between the two movies.
“Fatal Attraction,” yeah, there are more common points. In the first draft of the screenplay the film was like “Fatal Attraction” because it was very linear. And then I decided to cut the film into two parts. So I think it’s a little bit different, with two points of view. It was very important for me to try a different structure, to try things in my first movie. It was kind of dangerous, but I was very excited to try it.
What about this story made you decide to use this structure?
Well, I first wrote the story very linear, but after that I said it would be more fun for me as a screenwriter to try to deal with a strange structure. It was like a game, you know, writing a thriller. To link the two parts with small details was like a game, and I really had a lot of pleasure to write it. But on top of that I thought that the structure would really help the subject. Because it is about madness, and I wanted to the spectator to identify with the mad character in the first part. A kind of manipulation.
You know the film “Psycho”? It’s one of my favorite movies, because you are manipulated all the time, and at the end there is a twist and you want to see everything again to see how you have been manipulated. It’s kind of a game between the director and the spectator. And I really enjoy that.
Why does Angélique go crazy?
It’s a huge question. I read a lot of books about erotomania, and the causes of the disease are very complicated to explain in a movie. It’s something that happens in the very early years of a child. I thought it would be too psychiatric, too complicated to explain in my movie. But for me, she’s very, very lonely all the time. She was lonely since she was a child. She finds in her fantasy what she cannot find in her reality. It’s my own version of the facts; a psychiatrist would say something more complicated. That’s why I wanted her to be an artist: She’s living in the world of art, of fantasy, of imagination. At one point, her imagination overtakes the place of everything in her mind and she has no contact with reality any more.
Talk to me about color and lighting. The first half of the film has bright, saturated colors. It’s a bright, ideal place.
I wanted the two parts of the movie to be very different. I wanted the first part to be very bright, very romantic, passionate, in even in a teenage way. Like in a very immature girl. She can imagine a wonderful love story with lots of hearts, lots of flowers. It reveals, for me, her own world. She’s living in a world of fantasy.
For the second part, it was important to have something more realistic, more scientific, more normal. It’s more usual life. Loïc is a doctor. For me Angélique is living in a fantasy and Loïc is living in reality. And so I wanted the second part to be in blue shades, with not so much camera movement. The light should not be so bright, but quieter, calmer, more normal.
And the music changes a lot. In the beginning, it’s loopy, with chimes, and it becomes darker.
It was also a part of the manipulation.
So you are really about manipulating an audience.
Yes, but not in a bad sense. It’s manipulating like in a game, playing. Not in, you know, a dark way, a perverse way. I really like Alfred Hitchcock’s movies because I have a feeling that he plays with us all the time. I enjoy this relationship, between me and this movie. And it was also the case with movies like “The Sixth Sense,” or “The Usual Suspects.” It’s really stimulating for me, as a spectator, to be manipulated like that. I really enjoy to be manipulated in a way where I think I have understood something, but actually it’s this other thing.