The new Quebec film Anna balances trauma and redemption

French actress Anna Mouglalis and Québécois director Charles-Olivier Michaud on the challenges of shooting in Thailand and hitting the right notes in their new film.

Anna Mouglalis in Anna

Charles-Olivier Michaud has had a career path like few others. His debut film Snow & Ashes was the rare Quebec film to be entirely privately funded. Even rarer, it debuted at Utah’s Slamdance festival, where it won the grand jury prize. From there, he made one of the only (if not the only, as far as I can tell) mainstream, youth-oriented Quebec dance films with Sur le rythme — he then detoured into directing for TV before making Exil, a Haiti-set drama. Finally, he went to the States to make the inspirational sports drama 4 Minute Mile starring Richard Jenkins and Kim Basinger.

Though it shares some thematic similarities with Snow & Ashes, nothing in Michaud’s oeuvre quite resembles his new film Anna. It’s a dark story of trauma and redemption that follows photojournalist Anna Michaux (played by French actress Anna Mouglalis) as she works on an extensive piece detailing the horrors of the sex trade in Asia. Quiet and unobtrusive, Anna nevertheless gets in too deep with the triads and finds herself kidnapped, beaten and raped. Saved at the last second by people who have reported her missing, she returns to Montreal bruised and battered but with the firm intention of getting to the bottom of it all.

Charles Olivier-Michaud
Charles Olivier-Michaud on the set of Snow & Ashes

Although most of the film happens in Montreal, the rest of it was shot in Thailand, which brought a whole lot of complications, including anonymity. “Thailand is the country with the biggest cinema industry in all of southeast Asia. Most of what they shoot are Bollywood productions — they shoot something like 400 Bollywood films a year. Their industry is huge, their infrastructure is great and the teams are extremely professional. What’s hard about Thailand is censorship. The military junta controls the industry. They did have a hand in the film — we had no choice but to change a few things in the script. At first they didn’t want us there at all. We made some compromises and we agreed never to say that it was Bangkok or Thailand. There’s one scene… I’ll say it, I’m not afraid to say it: There’s one scene I could not shoot — they would not budge. We could not have made the film if we decided to shoot the scene; we most likely would’ve gotten arrested. I don’t describe this scene, I don’t talk about it — it stays on paper — but that was the hardest part. Technically, they had some of the best teams I’ve ever worked with.”

The relationship between Mouglalis and Michaud involved a good amount of collaboration even though the two had never worked together before. “I met with Charles two days after reading the script — he just happened to be in Paris — and I immediately knew it would work,” says Mouglalis. “I was afraid of finding myself meeting with a director who had a fascination with the aesthetics of violence. In that case, I don’t know that I would’ve done the movie. (…) In the beginning, the film was more American. I did a lot more punching, but if I punch someone once, I’ll break my hand. So we worked on it together. At the beginning of the script, in the scenes in Thailand — which were very well-written and were sort of the reason we all wanted to work on this film — I was supposed to have a fight sequence where I broke down a door. Once we got there, we saw the reality of the situation and of the locations where we were filming. My character is kidnapped, tied up and held down for eight hours with a guy’s foot on the back of my head for the entire time. I was just kidnapped — I can’t break down the door!”

Mouglalis in Anna

“Before an actor is attached, the movie is never real,” says Michaud. “The day actors are associated to the characters and the story, it becomes tangible. The fact that Anna’s character is in every scene of the film meant that there were things that I had no choice but to keep rougher and more nebulous within the script until she was cast. The relationship between actor and director is a constant dialogue. The movie was there, but there were scenes that we had to change — or rather, deepen together. I owed it to myself because I couldn’t be the only master and commander of a film where the lead actress is in every shot. That’s pretty rare, and for me it felt like my responsibility as a director.”

“What first appealed to me about Anna when I saw her in Gainsbourg: vie héroique was her voice,” Michaud continues. “Someone could assume that because that’s what stood out, I would put her in a movie with a lot of dialogue. My idea was to have as little dialogue as possible because her voice needed to stand out when she understood what happened to her in the film. A lot of the work we did was to strip away most of the film’s dialogue and to pare it down to a very visual, very tactile internal exploration and hear her voice only at the end, once she knows what happened to her.”

Mouglalis, on the other hand, was instantly attracted to the challenge of the role, even if it required her to go to some extremely dark places. “As an actress, it’s the kind of role that you want because you immediately know you’re going to explore new things,” she explains. “You have a certain responsibility. The film is realistic — these kinds of things really do happen to people, so if I screw up… It did shake me up to think that I was only pretending to go through something that happens to people. On the other hand, you know you can deliver a performance that’s exciting on a work level and that pays off, as they say, since the film has a certain spectacular quality to it. I do need to find a reason to do it. I never stopped looking for one. I read sociology theses, I dug into the subject and I asked myself: why do I want to do this? Between each take, though, there’s a cut and it’s very important to laugh. You have to accept that you’re pretending, even if it is taxing. My scars were fake – someone took them off me at night.”

Anna opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 23. Watch the trailer here: