EXCLUSIVE: Happening writer-director Audrey Diwan has recalibrated her English-language debut Emmanuelle, which is a working title. She has set Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to star in a film that will begin production September in Hong Kong.
The Veterans and CAA Media Finance will be discussing the script with buyers at this week’s European Film Market.
Merlant gave her breakthrough performance in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and her recent work includes the Jacques Audiart-directed Paris, 13th District, the Louis Garrel-directed The Innocent, and she starred in her first English-speaking role opposite Cate Blanchett in the Oscar-nominated Todd Field-directed Tár.
The film is inspired by the character and world created by Emmanuelle Arsan. Diwan wrote the script with Rebecca Zlotowski (Other People’s Children). The new film will be produced by Chantelouve, Rectangle Productions (Happening) and Wild Bunch International.
Line Production in Hong Kong will be handled by Ivan Lam’s (007: Skyfall) through his newly created venture Infinite Fun Limited.
There is connective tissue between Diwan’s last breakout film Happening – based on the true story of a woman seeking an illegal abortion – and the new film. Happening won the Golden Lion at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and the 2022 Gotham Award for Best International Feature Film. It was also nominated four times at César Awards, at the BAFTAs and at DGA Awards among many others.
“I love stories told through the body,” Diwan told Deadline. “With Happening, I have spent the past few years exploring the idea of pain. Then, I would say ‘naturally,’ I wanted to explore pleasure. I would like to give it back its letters of nobility, I like to film the body by looking at it wholeheartedly but not provocative. And I want to embrace a grammar specific to the notion of eroticism. Eroticism is based as much on what we show as on what we hide. This is where the excitement comes from.”
Diwan said she constructed an Emmanuelle character who was relatable to herself.
“Initially, when I write, I always feel the need to seek an intimate connection with the story,” she said. “So my film will take place nowadays, Emmanuelle is a woman who is close to my age. I wanted to explore her quest for pleasure, what she represents when you have already made a way in your life. When we are not in discovery, but in research. With my co-writer Rebecca Zlotowski, we imagined a woman who has power, who has fought her way out, climbed her mountain, and built herself an armor too. She feels alone. But how do we get out of loneliness? Emmanuelle is the story of a woman trying to let go. The whole film is about drawing a path to the other.”
Diwan sparked to the chance to set this journey against a specific backdrop.
“The film will take place in Hong Kong, in the luxury hotel where she works,” Diwan said. “I like the idea of its corridors where my characters brush against each other, meet, seek each other. Beyond the question of bodies, I want to explore that of a world that formats any form of relationship, to seek how this system can go wrong, how we connect to others, how we touch our own vulnerability. What weave between them deeper and deeper bonds. With a stranger in particular, a client of the hotel. But I won’t say more for now. This is the principle, what we show and what we hide.”
The filmmaker found an ideal partner for the character’s romantic journeys in Merlant.
“She is a pure artistic choice, an obvious one, as was Anamaria Vartolomei for my previous movie,” Diwan said. “I love Léa Seydoux, I want to make a film with her one day. But to me, she was not the character I imagined. From Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Tár, I have never ceased to be seduced by the strength of Noémie’s acting. She embraces the idea of the character, able to play both authority and seduction. Noémie redefines the French woman. Her attitude, her smile, that hint of insolence that often surfaces. I am also sensitive to the idea of finding in my actress an intellectual partner, the one with whom I create the character. The film requires enormous involvement, mutual trust. And I know I found the one.”
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