Axelle Ropert’s Locarno Film ‘Petite Solange’ Is a Tender Study of Adolescent Vulnerability

“I was very struck by a quote by Fritz Lang, who said that ‘every film should criticize something,’ ” Axelle Ropert says. For the French filmmaker’s latest work “Petite Solange,” a world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, it is the complicated aspects of familial life and interpersonal relationships that come under the microscope.

Ropert’s film follows young Solange as she witnesses the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and loses her sense of self in the process. Alone and neglected, her childlike spirit is broken by the realities of a toxic adult world. “I’m very much a cinephile and I always think of my films as starting from other films from the history of cinema that I’ve loved,” Ropert explains. “But this time I really started with the subject matter of divorce as seen from the child’s point of view. It’s a very important subject matter for my generation and is often unknown and misunderstood. How does a child understand that love doesn’t last forever in the family?”

The casting of first-time actor Jade Springer in the title role gives the film a sense of youthful naivety and aids the narrative’s authenticity. We experience life through Solange’s eyes, all the confusion and insecurity of being a 13-year-old girl. “The girl who acts in the film was 14 years old when she acted,” Ropert explains. “She’s never acted before and the whole film rests upon her shoulders and she carries it beautifully. The model was Natalie Wood in ‘Splendor in the Grass’ by Elia Kazan. I think whether you’re 10 years old or 60 years old, it’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s 13.”

The disappointment and loneliness of Solange’s coming-of-age is balanced with the light humor of the family dynamic. Their family surname, Maserati, has an extravagance to it that Ropert says is “a reference to the history of Italian cinema and Italian melodrama—the films of Luigi Comencini, whose films about childhood are magnificent.” But it was also about adding a touch of comedy in a tragic film. “The whole aspect with this sports car name, I couldn’t help putting it in,” Ropert says. “I wanted to create another mood and so I had to work on that with the actors too. Philippe Katerine is famous as a singer and musician, and he’s also famous for having acted in comedies. And so when he appears on screen, there’s something almost clown-like about him. It’s the same with Léa Drucker. She can act in a Chekhov play if she wants to but she also acts in a lot of comedies. Together, they’re able to create a comic distance that gives a counterpoint to the tragedy.”

Besides the great performances, the scenic yet melancholic location of Nantes brings an added charm. From the grand Passage Pommeraye to the rain-soaked cobblestone streets, every corner of the city—a favorite of French New Wave director Jacques Demy—is rich with film history. For Ropert, the decision to shoot “Petite Solange” here doubles as a tribute to the legacy of French movies. “I love films that tell their own story, of course, but I also love films that tell the story of cinema,” Ropert says. “Cinema is under intense threat, particularly with the advent of streaming platforms. And so, I wanted my film to not just tell some story but to connect to the general history of cinema and to give it its grandeur back.”

This sense of splendor is also apparent in the score, which recurs throughout key moments in the film. The classical quality of the music adds a degree of seriousness and solemnity to the oft-trivialized emotional plight of adolescent girls. Indeed, while “Petite Solange” might not seem like an obviously feminist film, these preoccupations were always on Ropert’s mind. In fact, the musical sumptuousness rails against assumptions about how a female-directed film should feel and look.

“I love music, I adore it,” Ropert explains. “And for me it’s very important to show that female artists can also work on a grand scale to give artistic depth to the film. For a variety of reasons, female artists are often reduced to feminine subject matters like breast cancer or menopause. And so, I always wanted to insist on artistic gestures. When I directed ‘Petite Solange,’ I wanted the direction to be imposing and the music to shine through.”

A self-described obsessive, Ropert’s artistic command is omnipresent and deeply intimate throughout “Petite Solange,” especially in the costumes. Though not a fashion-centric film, small sartorial touches lend an insight into the characters’ psyches. The sensitive Solange, for instance, often sports a white chemise dotted with tiny red hearts, a nod to her youthful vulnerability. “I like to take care of every little detail in the film,” says Ropert. “I like it very much when the costumes also tell their own story. And so, everything in my films is always premeditated.”

With this mix of a distinctive directorial style and a deep appreciation for cinema history, Ropert carves her own path on the landscape of contemporary French cinema. On this new release, Ropert says, “It was a way of showing that the female directors can also be cinephiles. They can be just as cinephilic as Quentin Tarantino and they can show it. They can use it to tell a story and show that they understand.”

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