• French Competition  
  • Renaud Victor Award


Claire Doyon

Eight years ago, during a trip to the Mongolian steppes, Claire Doyon composed a luminous portrait of her autistic daughter (Pénélope, FID 2012). A few of its scenes have found their way into this film which, from hundreds of hours of rushes accumulated over the years, recounts the story of life, of and with Pénélope. The narrative is a double movement. A forwards movement first, which recounts the battle of a mother who has dedicated her life to fighting against her daughter’s disease, against medical and social violence. To the extent, she says, that she gave up being a filmmaker. After Les Allées sombres (The dark alleys) (FID 2015), Pénélope, mon amour proves that this is far from being the case. For in this war, as she also says, the camera is both weapon and shield. The film never ceases to emphasise this truth: what keeps her going, is to continue filming what goes on, however painful it might be. This fixing of attention and the patience of images has allowed Claire Doyon to
express herself in words, to lay her voice bare as she thinks of her years of life with Pénélope. As the words flow, a second movement gradually rises beneath the first: A moving tale of learning, of a mother who gives up her battle to accompany her daughter on the path to peace. Beneath the Mongolian sun, among the reindeer, Penelope’s actions blossom like flowers. After which the image continues to widen until it reveals, in the clearing of a field of ancient ruins, the punk sovereignty of Penelope. It is the story of a young woman who will never fit in but whom the cinema, because it is able to appreciate her extraordinary existence, helps her to find her own special place in the world.

(Cyril Neyrat)

Interview with Claire Doyon

1. You filmed Pénélope with your friends and family very early on. Was the seed already germinating for a film that would set it apart from other home movies?
I think the seed for a film began to germinate very early on, but it was stifled and left unspoken. I left a suitcase full of tapes in a cupboard for fifteen years without touching them. When I looked at them again, it was obvious that part of me was thinking of a film. I realised that in the most personal rushes. I explained what I was feeling, how Pénélope was doing, and what I was looking for. It was like measuring time. In some images, I’m addressing an audience so that that they understand who’s who. I filmed because I couldn’t save my daughter. I filmed the dead-end I found myself in. It made me feel alive. But, I don’t see this film as a home movie. In fact, I wanted to trace the journey of a character who goes through these stages, like in a fictional film. When everything falls apart, what narrative will enable us to get back in the saddle?

2. “The camera is a shield that protects us from the gaze of others. It’s also a weapon that enables me to resist.” What has cinema offered you and Pénélope?
Cinema literally made it possible for me to keep going. When Pénélope wasn’t sleeping at night, I nearly lost my mind. Filming let me find a place of freedom where I could call on a presence for myself and connect with her. Part of our connection was woven through the camera. I had the feeling that filming her is a way of asking her questions and for her to respond. She often calls out to me with a camera gaze. I see a lot of things in this gaze, or rather, I project a lot. But they’re questions she asks by looking at me. The language isn’t there, there’s only the gaze. So when it’s filmed, it records the question with more intensity than in real life.

3. The film is essentially chronological, but it opens with the announcement of the separation from Pénélope. Why did you choose this structure?
It took a very long time to edit the film properly. But I knew from the start that I wanted to begin with a sequence shot in the present. I wanted to avoid the possibility of wondering if Pénélope would be cured or if her health would improve. The question isn’t will she get better but rather what paths should we take to accompany fragile people?

4. With photos, 16mm films and digital images, the material is miscellaneous and dense. How did you decide upon the editing with Raphaël Lefèvre?
I like the idea of pebbles, of memories like pebbles – crystals of subjectivity that had to be condensed with certain images. My memory had to be rooted in a specific image. Either the image existed in the rushes, or it had to be shot. I asked myself this question: what image can host this memory, this key, decisive moment? For example, one night, I woke up with the memory of this photo of Pénélope at three years’ old on the bonnet of the car. It wasn’t in the rushes we’d looked at. I dug through a box of photos. I had to find this picture because, for me, it crystallised a moment when things changed.

5. How did you write the voiceover text with regard to the images?
I kept a diary that was the initial basis for the voiceover. But really, the text was worked out during the editing. Often, I’d wake up in the morning with an idea for the text. I recorded it in the editing suite and Raphaël immediately set it to the images. It never worked out first time round. The text developed gradually like a stumbling child. The script was written day by day, step by step, like the knots in a web we spin little by little. There are also images in the film where I talk directly to the camera. We left those moments as they were.

6. What sound and music decisions did you take?
We decided to leave as much sound and image as possible in their original archive state. Sometimes we tried to reduce the noise of some of the shots when the sound quality was bad. But the shot became empty and lost its emotion; it had meaning because it was captured in the thickness of time, with low quality sound and defective pixels. The image and sound couldn’t be any other way. The choice of Mozart’s music comes from the Centre Tomatis. Pénélope and I used to listen to Mozart concertos with a treble filter. We used this leitmotiv again in the editing.

7. You set up the MAIA (centre for teaching and integrating children with autism) – how has it evolved?
MAIA now receives twenty-four children and has developed two nursery and elementary teaching units in local schools in Paris. There are still some unresolved tensions about meeting standardised institutional criteria, and initiating support and care practices that don’t fit into the globalising workings of the supervisory bodies that fund the institution.

8. You quote Fernand Deligny – did his work inspire you?
Fernand Deligny’s work is on my mind every day. I’m very impressed by both the humility and the extraordinary abundance of his writing. It’s an inexhaustible source. Deligny refused the very principle of institutions. He talked of “tentative”. I feel so close to this word “tentative”. As soon as care and support are institutionalised, they lose their meaning. Jacques Lin, who spent his whole life working alongside Deligny, uses the term “raft”. I think you can only sail on a “raft”. Can a raft withstand a storm?

Interview by Olivier Pierre

  • French Competition  
  • Renaud Victor Award

Technical sheet

France / 2021 / 88’

Original Version : French.
Subtitles : English.
Script : Claire Doyon.
Photography : Claire Doyon.
Editing : Raphaël Lefèvre.
Sound : Gilles Bernardeau.
Production : Carole Chassaing (Tamara Films).
Filmography : Chrishna/Ombwiri, 2019. Arsenic, 2017. Les Allées sombres, 2015. Kataï, 2010. Les Lionceaux, 2002. Le vent souffle où il veut, 2000.