A Complicated Dualism: An Interview with Patricia Rozema

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Image credit: Patricia Rozema

Patricia Rozema comes by her interest in dualism naturally. Raised in a Calvinist home in southern Ontario, religious fables — dealing in warring virtues and identities — formed the criterion of her childhood. Mindful of the efficacy of these tales, her directing career has stood in opposition to convenient symmetry. For Rozema, discord — between self and other or inner life and outer appearance — is not so easily quantified.

In her most recent feature, Mouthpiece, Rozema’s concern with bifurcation is particularly apparent. Based on a play of the same name by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava — with whom Rozema worked to adapt the script to the screen — the film revolves around Cassie, a Toronto-based writer confronted with her mother’s unexpected death and the complications of giving a eulogy for a matriarch with whom her tensions were unresolved. Cassie is portrayed by both Nostbakken and Sadava, who serve as corporeal manifestations of the character’s inner discourse. Still, they are not opposing halves of the same whole. Instead, the actresses take turns depicting a wide lexicon of emotion — pitching from sorrow to anger without encumbrance.

In the face of a sombre premise, the film is not wanting for Rozema’s characteristic whimsy. There are few images more indelible to the Canadian cinematic imaginary than Sheila McCarthy, flying hands outstretched over the frost-bitten streets of Toronto, in Rozema’s 1987 debut feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, which won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes. In Mouthpiece, fantasy musical numbers and impromptu snow fights illustrate those moments of uneasy levity often felt in times of grief.

This is not to reduce Rozema’s oeuvre to a set of cinematic techniques. Rather, her visual consideration of the intangible is what’s constant. At the core of Mouthpiece is a colloquy of feminist consciousness; the tensions women face inside ourselves and between one another as we labour under the fractious weight of cis-male hegemony. Here, Rozema’s work becomes concrete. (Pointedly, the crew for the film was made up of women — cinematographer, editor, production designer and costume designer). Pushing ever forward, cléo sat down with Patricia at her home in Toronto about where she’s been and what’s to come.

I wanted to start by asking about your collaborative process with Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken. How did you navigate everyone’s different visions across different mediums?

It was quite intuitive. We didn’t know where we were going when we started. I just knew that they were strong, interesting voices that I felt some camaraderie with, and that they made me laugh.

I was just deeply, deeply attracted to this [idea of] bifurcation. That was my primary interest. I knew that the tone was [already] strong, fierce and funny. But that split personality thing, I thought, “that is deeply human and has never been presented on film before. I want that. I want some form of that.”

Then as soon as we talked about a feature, I said, “Well, I’m a mom. I’ve had my mom die. I have something to contribute. Let’s add the mom and let’s add stories.” So we just riffed. It was just riffing for hours and hours, days and days on mom anecdotes: how we hurt each other; how we borrow pain from each other; how we amuse each other; how we are each other even when we think we’re working in opposition.

Cassie feels this intense anguish over what she sees as her mother’s unrealized potential. She’s both angry on behalf of and towards her mother for having had to self-censor. Do you think this theme of intergenerational dissonance is particularly compelling in our current moment, or is it somewhat timeless?

I think it’s very relevant in our current moment because the moment you say women need a voice, you’re saying women haven’t had a voice, and [this film] is an examination of that fact. And that’s generally an intellectual awareness, and I really wanted to make that an emotional awareness — of the loss and the self-doubt and the self-defeat and the inhalation of the world’s disrespect for you; the way generations of women have come to believe that they don’t have much to offer; that their self-doubt has not only been imposed on them from outside, but has taken root inside and is toxic and painful.

From this moment, we can look back throughout history and [see that] all these hundreds and thousands of years of art making have generally not been from women. The few women that did manage to speak generally didn’t have children. A handful of women who had children managed. Probably not until the pill were women really capable of limiting the number of children they had.

So the intergenerational anguish you speak of is specific to this moment when you’re talking about the loss of artistic expression or intellectual expression, non-domestic expression. But every relationship between humans is fraught. So my answer is both. It’s eternal, but it’s heightened at this moment.

At one point in the film, Cassie says that she’s never written a single line without imagining how a man would react to it. Many of the characters in your films come up against or are confronted by patriarchal standards and arbitration of taste. Has this theme in your work been intentional?

Oh yeah. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing was a desperate attempt to disengage myself from not only artistic, but also religious and emotional, sets of absolutes that I’d grown up with. In my family, I had a patriarch. In my religion, God’s the ultimate patriarch. Artistically, there’s this assumption that there is good art and bad art. By definition, as a woman, as a lesbian (which I wasn’t saying much about at the time) and as a Canadian I felt I would never live up to the absolute standards of good art.

So yes, the whole enterprise of that first film was about defying the gods and a desperate plea for a relativistic worldview. Then each film after that touches on that. I’m constantly trying to let these standards by which we guide our lives be internal and self-defined, because you can’t trust the collective.

Has the use of the fantastical in your films been a means to show your characters’ inner lives and how they react to the world around them?

Yes, it’s making the invisible visible. When I was still in journalism, I remember thinking, “I’m not getting a real story from you people. As soon as we put a camera or a microphone on you, you’re all impressing and self-presenting. The real story isn’t happening anymore.” With fiction, you could actually tell greater truths than you could in a documentary situation. Documentary has evolved in a certain way that it’s much more expressionistic and truthful than it could be in a news environment, which is where I was.

Part of it was just creating pleasure for myself, because when [I] read a novel and there are all these delicious metaphors, I’d think, “But I can’t use that. I can’t just have my characters spout those in dialogue.” And then I thought, “what if I made them visual?” That’s where Mermaids came from. [The protagonist] felt like she was flying, so she was. She felt like she was conducting her life, so she’s conducting a symphony. She felt like she was walking on water, so she walks on water.

The fantastical element is an attempt to create [the] largeness of an interior life.

I use [fantasy] to give my characters some scope. I’m very moved by the idea that with my work, I can give people whose lives don’t have big scope some acknowledgement that inside they do; that I know that there are vast interior landscapes, that there are great aches. There is a line I wrote for Mouthpiece: “Her unassuming demeanour betrayed an internal landscape as vast and mournful as any ancient poet.” I thought, “that’s what everybody that walks down the street wants to have seen.”

The fantastical element is an attempt to create [the] largeness of an interior life. I think it’s partly from my religious background. I believed in people biting apples and becoming evil. I believed in snakes carrying the darker side of yourself. I believed in Jonah and the Whale. I believed in people turning into pillars of salt. I believed in all kinds of really hocus pocus nonsense, but [those] metaphors carry great meaning. I think religion is a series of metaphors that remind us to be good, remind us that there is value in loving. Although, it became very patriarchal and very exclusionary and mean towards women, gays, anything that wasn’t the power. It was used to wield control or wield power. But at its heart, there’s something that we shouldn’t throw out. The art, the music, the tenderness, the ritual, the forgiveness, the breaking of bread, the elevated language when you have a baby or you commit yourself to someone else in your life or someone dies that you love. There’s so much that we miss. In our day-to-day, going from the mall to the car, our lives lack a kind of a grandeur that we’re still hungry for. So I think as a species, we’re still in-between.

Image credit: Miramax/Norstar Releasing

Something I really love about your films is the loving depiction of embarrassment. Your characters often experience the awkward moments that arise in spaces and relationships that are new to them. Do you think embarrassment is particularly revealing of character?

I love that stuff. I love embarrassment. And I love that you call it a loving depiction, because it’s not cruel. I feel like shame, embarrassment, loss of dignity is one of the prime motivators in human lives. I think a lot of murders [happen] because people feel like they lost dignity. They were disrespected. And they were somehow humiliated.

Emotional violence, and even physical violence, is all about the loss of dignity. So if that can be presented with humour, and with love and with self-knowledge, somehow maybe through fiction, then you can handle anything.

Maybe it’s a way of arming myself, and maybe others, around such deep loss of dignity, so that we can continue to function. But embarrassment, yes. It’s funny. It makes you change colour. It makes your palms sweat. It’s very visceral. It’s a profound human faiblesse.

At the Q&A following one of the screenings of Mouthpiece at TIFF, you described the film as “aggressively Canadian.” It features many Toronto landmarks and rites of passage (mid-winter trips to the Eaton Centre, the difficulty of biking along the streetcar tracks). Are there specific challenges in depicting your home on screen?

No, depicting is fine. I did it with joy, and I relished putting in distinctly Canadian elements. I think it’s too Torontonian for lots of the world, which makes me see red. Makes me furious. Because no one has said, “oh, that’s too Parisian. It’s too New York, sorry, we can’t distribute this. Too LA.” I think we’re still not a big enough deal to actually celebrate. I really show the city. And I thought that in its specificity, it would increase its appeal and its universality. But we’ll see.

Throughout your career, you have had certain labels adjoined to your name: “woman filmmaker,” “Canadian filmmaker,” “lesbian filmmaker.” How has your relationship to these identifiers evolved over time?

Well, I resisted “lesbian filmmaker” profoundly at first. I didn’t want that to be the first word that comes before everything else, even before filmmaker. Because I thought, “it’s a small part of my life.” But then it becomes the most important part; now, I’m kind of proud. But that’s because the world’s caught up. I always knew — this sounds arrogant — but I always knew that the world would catch up with me.

So you can call me anything. You can call me Dutch Canadian, too. You can call me Sarnia native or Kingston born. I’m not too fussed about what I’m called anymore. I used to be. It used to really terrify me to be called a lesbian filmmaker especially. And even when I made When Night is Falling, I didn’t claim the title. Now I love it. Love it all.

Okay, final question, and you’re going to have to allow me to go out on a limb a little bit. I read that the first film you ever watched was The Exorcist at the age of 16. Do you think there is a link to be drawn from that formative film-watching experience and Mouthpiece, in which a single character is played by two very different people? Could your interest in bifurcation all be linked back to The Exorcist?

Wow. Well, my immediate reaction is a big, fat no, because I rejected that [film] in every bone of my body, with every ounce of me. And how is The Exorcist about bifurcation? Because there’s the nice little girl and then the evil girl? Interesting. Wow.

You see, it’s funny. The other thing I saw [at a young age] was Snow White and that didn’t leave an impression on me, but The Exorcist certainly did, although it was a lot more pungent a movie. So maybe. I don’t think it set my whole artistic course. But wouldn’t that be something?

Maybe I was a late bloomer because I was so sheltered. I couldn’t sleep [after watching The Exorcist]; it was a deep rejection. And I’m not someone who makes film out of horror. But I think we’re all dealing with what we value. When you make a work of art, you’re saying, “this is beautiful.” Or you say, “this is beautiful. Watch what happens when it’s defiled:” pain, difficulty, [a] cautionary tale. Or you say, “this is beautiful. Watch what happens when it’s celebrated.” But you’re still saying this is not just beautiful, but of value, to be celebrated, sacred. We’re all pointing to our highest values, either in the positive or in the negative response to it.

I was just a deeply religious human being, and then there was this other side that was never going to be able to be fully acknowledged in that world, so I had that other self. I always imagined I would have apartments in two cities: one where I could be myself and one where I would live a life that could be seen. From a very young age I imagined two selves, so I don’t think you’re so far out on a limb. Maybe that was part of an attraction [to the film] and maybe I did at that age feel like the one who liked women, and [believed] that was in fact kind of a form of evil. I certainly believed it was evil for a long time. There was deep, deep shame and self-loathing involved, and I had to get over that. Man, I’ve come so far. So yes, my evil self has shouted down that past.

This is a terrible theory to come up with, Cathleen. I hate this theory. I hate it. Put it away. Take it away from me. Get it off me [laughing].

I think a viewer’s instinct when presented with two people playing one character is to assume that one is “good” and one is “bad” or that, at the very least, there is some polarity between the two.

Why do you think that is?

It’s the narrative we’re most used to?

Maybe. Or is it just the history of storytelling up until this point? There’s been Jekyll and Hyde. It was very strong in the development of Mouthpiece. Anyone would read [the script] and say, “I want you to know which one was which.” [Norah and Amy] didn’t want to do it and I didn’t want to do it because that is not the experience [we wanted to portray], and you have to go to the experience, not to other art you’ve seen.

I also reject the good guy/bad guy thing. I always told my kids when we’d watch TV shows or films: “There aren’t evil people. There are people who do evil things, there are people who do bad things, but you can’t kill them because they’ve done bad things. You have to educate them so they don’t do bad things anymore.” But that’s not very satisfying. They’d all go, “ah, shut up.”

Did you ever see Kirikou and the Sorceress? It was an African story where there’s a little boy who’s tiny but mighty, and he comes up against an evil witch. Finally when he confronts her, he finds out that her evil comes from this giant thorn she has stuck in her back, and she can’t get it out. And he dares to go take it out, and suddenly joy and warmth and water and flowers and everything come forward. That one I loved because it was wrongdoing as a result of pain, not of an innate, inherent badness.

So yeah, I resist that simplistic dialectic. There’s a million. There’s progress versus conserving the past. There’s fear versus fearlessness. There’s a thousand dialectics that we ricochet between all the time, [but this is a] more truthful presentation of these selves.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

Cathleen Evans is the web editor of cléo. 

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Cathleen Evans is the web editor of cléo.